"Idol" gets serious now

So now the silly part is over and "American Idol" gets serious. A dozen people sang tonight; only three will advance on Wednesday. Here are a few comments; also, I'll have an interview with the three survivors Thursday afternoon:

1) If you had one chance to show what a great basketball shot you were, would you choose a lay-up? Probably not, yet several people tried terribly simple songs, ones with little range and less passion. There was Brent Keith doing "Hick Town," Stevie Wright doing Taylor Swift, Casey Carlson doing something forgettable. They were OK, but your ambition should extend beyond drawing a shrug.

2) I will grant that Casey Carlson is really, really attractive. It was like Valerie Bertinelli, at 20, sort of being a pop star.

3) On the flip side is Alexis Grace. She's a 21-year-old mom with multi-colored hair and an ability to tackle a song. She was terrific.

4) If you're going to try something big, you have to do it right. Simon Cowell summed up Jackie Tohn perfectly: "I think you actually played the clown tonight."

5) Hey, the show had enough time to talk to moms and dads and not-quite cousins. Couldn't it have let the contestants sing for more than a minute-20-seconds each?

6) There are several guys who have the right combination -- good voice and great likability. They include Michael Sarver, Danny Gokey and Anoop Desai. Gokey, a widower, has the intriguing story; Desai gets extra credit for coining the nickname Anoop Dogg.

7) The judges keep telling people not to try to do songs linked with icons. Tonight, people did songs by Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley. What, did the Celine Dion and Stevie Wonder people back out?

8) Actually, I thought Ann Marie Boskovitch did a good job singing "Natural Woman." Still, it was a bit daring to do it while looking at Randy Jackson, one of Aretha's producers.

9) My preferences to advance: Alexis Grace, best female (and best overall); Danny Gokey, best male; Ann Marie Boskovitch, third-best.

10) My prediction to advance: Danny Gokey, top male (and best vote-getter overall); Alexis Grace, top female; Anoop Desai third. That third spot, however, could also go to Sarver or Ricky Braddy or (despite a bad night) Tatiana Del Toro. We'll see soon.

Homer Simpson is still a winning loser

Homer Simpson was just realizing the impact: In high school, he was cheated out of his chance to be student president. The winner went on to be rich and respected; the loser became, well, Homer Simpson.

"That could have been my life," Homer groans, in the episode that debuts at 8 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 15). "I could have a big house and a hot wife."

Marge takes offense at that. Women do, sometimes. "I'd still be married to you," he reassures her. "But you'd be hotter."

That starts an episode that reminds us of the basics: "The Simpsons" may not be as good as it once was -- but it's way better than almost anything else.

Sunday's episode just arrived today (Friday), too late for any TV columns. Still, it's a good one and I wanted to tell you about it. (Also, please read my previous blog, which bears an important moral about putting things on cars.)

"The Simpsons" is already the longest-lasting sitcom ever. Next season will be its 20th, matching "Gunsmoke" and Red Skelton.

The show keeps dabbling. Sunday will be its first episode in high-definition. It also introduces a new title scene -- longer and funnier than previous ones. And it has lots of wit.

Sure, some people advise Homer not to hold a grudge. Al Gore points out that he was cheated out of the presidency and he's doing fine.

Then again, Gore is drinking alone at Moe's Bar and is talking to his Nobel medal. Maybe we shouldn't believe him.

Homer doesn't and seethes. We see (thanks to magic spaghetti sauce) what his life would have been. Like all "Simpsons" episodes, this is inconsistent. Like many, it has moments that are wonderful.









Distributing good literature

One of the wisest observations I've heard on a cable movie went thusly: "Sometimes, even a bad parent is better than a good parent who leaves the baby on top of the car."

Always remembering (and agreeing with) this, I have never left a baby on top of a car. Today, however, I may have overcompensated.

After gathering many good books at the Lansing library, I was careful to put Kasia (age 4) and Lon (1) inside the car, in their car seats. I was less careful to move the books off the car roof and inside.

When I got home, I was dismayed to find no books. I called the library, which reported that several have been found on Capitol Avenue and returned. My thoughts:

1) My deep gratitude to the people who returned them.

2) I'm starting to think it's important to not leave anything on top of a car. Not babies or books or anything. Life is difficult.

Beware of TV time changes for Monday (Feb. 9)

If you're getting ready to watch TV tonight (Monday, Feb. 9), don't depend on schedules that were compiled in advance.

The complication came when President Obama set a press conference for 8 p.m. ET. To catch it, the networks are doing some quick scrambling.

On a different note, please read my previous blog about the Richard Thomsen memorial service in Lansing, Mich. Meanwhile, here are the expected changes tonight:

-- Two 8 p.m. shows -- "Chuck" on NBC, "House" on Fox -- are bumped.

-- Two others are nudged back. ABC's "The Bachelor" will now go from 9-11 p.m., dumping "True Beauty"; CBS' "Big Bang Theory" will slide to 9:30 p.m., dumping "Worst Week." 

A warm and quirky memorial

This may be one of the best lines ever uttered at a memorial service.

The subject was Richard Thomsen, the actor and director who linked with John Peakes to start BoarsHead Theater, near Lansing, Mich. His colleagues gathered, some calling it a sort of reunion. They recalled Thomsen's broad knowledge, his daring taste, his immense talent.

Then John Bowman talked about Thomsen's directing style. This man was terse, tough, demanding, precise. "This feels like a high school reunion," Bowman said, "only the bully is dead."

He said it fondly. Thomsen was a benevolent bully. He knew more than anyone else and wasted no time explaining it.

Once, a young actor found he could get laughs by scratching his back with a violin bow. Thomsen used only four sharp words: "Miller, eschew the impulse."

Yes, he could use the word "eschew" easily. He was sort of like John Houseman in "Paper Chase," only less cuddly.

Thomsen grew up as the son of a socialist druggist in small-town Iowa. He knew approximately everything, people agree. His daughter used to call him the smartest man in the world; she later lowered him to fourth-smartest (behind Albert Einstein and two others), but then raised him again after realizing the full scope of what he and Peakes had accomplished.

Consider David Dunckel, who was determined to run away from home at 10 or 11. He got on his bike and pedalled 10 miles or so, to the wilderness of Fitzgerald Park, in Grand Ledge.  There, he settled into the closest thing to a cave he could find -- and wept. Thomsen and Peakes heard him, took him to their Ledges Playhouse, gave him a blanket and called his dad.

Yes, it's amazing that those men would have heard the crying, far from their theater. Still, the most amazing thing was simply the fact that professional theater was being created in Grand Ledge.

It was often great theater. BoarsHead launched the professional careers of William Hurt, Anthony Heald, Bowman (the final new comic introduced by Johnny Carson), Mary Beth Hurt, Larry Joe Campbell and many more. Carmen Decker took a BoarsHead show to Chicago, promptly winning the Jefferson Award as that city's best professional actress; she promptly returned to Lansing and never did another Chicago show.

With Thomsen nudging it along, BoarsHead skipped all the easy routes. One year, a memorial speaker said, four of its eight shows were world premieres; the others were Michigan premieres.

There have been changes, of course. BoarsHead moved away from the wilderness and into a comfy, downtown theater. Thomsen moved to New York, Peakes to Philadelphia. Kristine Thatcher -- a former teen protege at BoarsHead and then an acclaimed Chicago writer-director -- is now in charge. This year, she had two straight near-premieres; now she's drawing good crowds with the logical combination of Decker in "Driving Miss Daisy."

Great theater has happened at BoarsHead; it's likely to keep happening there. That's the legacy of a benevolent bully.