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#TBT: That Time I Sweated My Ass Off on Style Network


It was a sweltering day in August of 2011. And those hot indoor studio lights didn't help. But these awesome folks and I squeezed onto a couch and managed to get through a taping of The Look For Less to help a friend out. 

From left to right: actor-director (and former producing partner) Michael Medico, stylist Meg Titus, yours truly, S Factor manager (and fellow Cumberbitch) Stephanie Gradski, and Paul Mitchell events director Greg Bonhomme.

They're good people.


Why R.L. Stine's 'Party Games' is a Tricky Piece of Literary Nostalgia: 3 Ways to Read It


Plaid flannel and babydoll dresses may be making a comeback at the mall, and dance music appears to be returning to its house roots, but there's another reason why 2014 is feeling very 1994: author R.L. Stine has returned to Fear Street, the series of books that dominated the Young Adult section in bookstores during the Clinton era.

The latest entry, Party Games, is dedicated to Stine's Twitter followers, the thousands of twenty- and thirtysomethings who came of age during the author's literary heyday (yours truly proudly included). They're the ones who have longed for some 90s nostalgia in the form of good old-fashioned teenage bloodshed and have taken to social media, urging him to revisit the fictitious town of Shadyside and its infamous dead-end street.

Party Games is the story of 17-year-old Rachel Martin who gets invited to a birthday party hosted at a mansion on mysterious Fear Island, where the titular games turn deadly for guests. The birthday boy happens to be game-loving Brendan Fear, "pale and serious-looking" with "a shy smile," a descendant of the powerful Fear dynasty that practically ran the town back in the 1800s. (Hence everything being named after them -- see: the entire Fear Street Saga.)

R.L. Stine is celebrated because of the sheer amount of material he has been able to churn out over the past two-and-a-half decades. His books are easy-breezy paperbacks filled with numerous cliffhangers designed to keep young readers hooked on every word. Three years after debuting Fear Street, he dropped Goosebumps on the younger siblings of those readers, and from there, he became a household name and broke publishing records.

So it may be difficult to criticize a writer who is so loved by kids (and former kids) yet whose signature work is full of simple-to-follow plots and less-than-inspired dialogue.

I realize it's impossible to capture the same thrill and excitement I had whenever I picked up the latest Fear Street at Barnes & Noble during my pre-high school years. Reading the latest installment now is definitely not the same experience as it was back then.

Therefore I believe there are three ways to critique -- or three perspectives from which to approach -- Party Games:

1. As a 14-year-old living in 1994.

2. As a 14-year-old living in 2014.

3. As a present-day, grown-ass 34-year-old man attempting to relive his early adolescence.

Reading it as a teen living in the 90s, Party Games should really be subtitled as a "Super Chiller," simply because it's over 200 pages and has a lot of story to tell. But this being 2014, a time when publishers of young adult fiction can make more money with a hardcover title (higher prices), a first-print paperback is out of the question. Either way, the story is rapidly paced, just like previous Fear Street entries. Cliffhangers galore!

Hypothetically reading it as a 14-year-old in present day America, Party Games moves pretty quickly because of its short and swift chapters. But the characters seem a little blah, almost like cardboard cut-outs. And there are way too many fake-outs. (The previous chapter was all in her imagination! It was a prank!) Come on, is this what was considered scary 20 years ago?

Finally, as a 2014 thirtysomething who is well-versed in all YA fiction from the 90s and proudly owns every Fear Street title in existence, the obvious excuse to pan Party Games could stem from my arguably matured literary tastes. I assume a 14-year-old who reads this now would share the same views. After all, today's YA titles are light years away in sophistication when compared to the YA novels of the 90s. Vampire sex, dystopian bloodbaths, and brutally honest portrayals of teens-in-crisis is what dominates the shelves these days. (Again, in hardcovers, probably to make the adults who read them feel less guilty.)

But would it be fair to criticize Stine's latest work based on what's currently in the market? Yes and no.

After reading the twist-filled Party Games, I can see that R.L. Stine, "one of the bestselling authors of children's books in the world," (sorry J.K. Rowling) hasn't really lost his mojo. But his mojo doesn't quite fit in today's YA world. Now at the age of 71, it seems like Stine is writing for teens as if it were still 1989 (when the first Fear Street title, The New Girl, was published). And the world we live in now resembles nothing like the one from 25 years ago.

Stine, as crafty and swift as his writing is, appears to be stuck in a time warp in which characters insult each other with comments like "lousy creep" and "stupid jerk." And do today's teenage girls still call a hot guy "a hunk"? But I have to give him this: he can whip up a variety of ways to describe the moonlight while running from danger through a dark patch of woods.

One can't help but think that his sweeping success with the more juvenile Goosebumps has somewhat allowed his finger to slip off the pulse of the fickle, hard-to-market teen audience. He can't turn to his son Matt, who once modeled for the cover of The Perfect Date, for inspiration and the scoop on what's trending among adolescents (The junior Stine is now in his early 30s). Therefore Stine's current crop of "teen" books still come off as PG (PG-13 at best) horror tales while his competition continues to tiptoe along the border of R-rated territory (perhaps because most YA fiction has never had a wider, more adult audience until now, which is another discussion for another day).

If Goosebumps exists in a safe, Disney Channel-like realm, then Fear Street falls somewhere within the confines of an ABC Family universe -- risque antics neutered by slight sugar coating.

Sure, you could argue that this reader has merely outgrown these kinds of books, that I am too old to appreciate and enjoy literature aimed at readers less than half my age. But a closer look at bookstore shelves will show you that not all YA authors of yesteryear are trapped in (or relegated to) the past. Christopher Pike, the other bestselling author of 90s teen fiction, has been pumping out sequels to some of his classics (The Last Vampire has now been rebooted as the Thirst saga), and he has even kicked off a new trilogy called Witch World. Having read his latest offerings, I can see that his writing is sharper than ever and has successfully adapted to a 21st century marketplace. Loyal readers and fans will tell you that Pike has always dealt with more mature subject matter when compared to Stine, but his current novels show an expanded grasp on his readership. The edge he had in the 90s (one that my 14-year-old self noticed back then) hasn't dulled whatsoever. Now in his 50s, Pike has demonstrated a depth and richness in his writing that was only teased two decades ago.

If R.L. Stine's idea of keeping up with today's generation and updating his stories is to include blatant, throwaway references to Skype and Netflix, then a non-fan (a hard-to-please 14-year-old) might advise him to respectfully close his laptop, retire, and enjoy the rest of his life -- at the risk of sounding ageist.

And let's talk about the heroine at the center of Party Games: Rachel is a girl who works part-time as a waitress at the local hangout (how quaintly Saved by the Bell) where she observes all the other "kids" from her school. Yes, she repeatedly refers to her peers as "kids" throughout the book -- has she been inhabited by the spirit of an elderly curmudgeon? No, she's just written that way -- by a 71-year-old man in a teenager's first-person POV.

She's also in what appears to be a potentially abusive relationship with her boyfriend Mac, a dude who warns her to stay away from the birthday festivities on Fear Island. She (Stine) describes Mac as follows:

"I knew he had a bad reputation. I heard he'd been suspended from his old school for fighting. I'd seen his violent temper. But I also thought he was a good guy at heart. He was kind at times and very soft-spoken, even shy. He had a tender side he didn't let many people see. Yes, he was very possessive, even though we'd only been seeing each other for a few weeks. And he resented the time I spent with Amy and my other friends. But I kind of thought that meant he cared. Stupid me..."

Yes, stupid indeed. She clearly doesn't show any signs of self-respect, and that may be a bit of a problem. File this under: #WhyIStayed

But Stine, in the end, somewhat redeems her (and himself) by placing Rachel in some nightmarish situations during which she demonstrates some resolve and backbone (in one chapter she must claw her way out of a "death pit" by creating a ladder from a pile of skeleton bones). Like most of Stine's heroines, she thankfully manages to stand up for herself and fight back.

The book is divided into four parts, and once you get to the intense second denouement (it's like Return of the King, there's more than one ending), you realize that Stine is having fun with the reader, jumping back and forth between horror themes. Some may be disappointed by the Big Twist while others will just be happy to enjoy the rest of the ride.

I'm torn. While a part of me treats this as enjoyable trash, the other appreciates the opportunity Party Games offers to a new generation of readers, a chance to visit the town of Shadyside and discover the horrors that lurk in the shadows.

Will I buy the next Fear Street entry, Don't Stay Up Late, when it comes out in time for my birthday next spring?

You bet your nostalgic bookworm ass I will.

@TheFirstEcho


SURRENDER: The 2014 Fall Playlist, Vol. 1


Raise your pumpkin lattes!

Fall is not only a great time for more cerebral entertainment. (Hello, award contenders and award-winning novels!) It's also a season for harvesting new music. And I've got a bounty of tunes to keep you cozy while that autumn chill rolls in...

1. "Runaways" by Betty Who
2. "Love Me Harder" by Ariana Grande feat. The Weeknd
3. "Real Love" by Clean Bandit feat. Jess Glynne:


4. "Blame" by Calvin Harris feat. John Newman
5. "Surrender" by Cash Cash
6. "Jealous" by Nick Jonas - *Yes, it's true. This doesn't suck.
7. "Modern Hearts" by The Knocks feat. St. Lucia:


8. "Go All Night" by Gorgon City feat. Jennifer Hudson
9. "Habits (Stay High)" by Tove Lo - *From what is quickly becoming one of the best pop albums of 2014, Queen of the Clouds.
10. "Burnin Up" by Jessie J feat. 2 Chainz
11. "Drive My Car" by Nick & Knight
12. "Love Who Loves You Back" by Tokio Hotel:


13. "Heroes" by Alesso feat. Tove Lo
14. "Cheap Sunglasses" by RAC feat. Matthew Koma
15. "The Days" by Avicii feat. Robbie Williams
16. "Nobody But You" by Mary J. Blige feat. Sam Smith
17. "Rude (Zedd Remix)" by MAGIC!
18. "Never Gonna Leave You" by Adele - *The lost track that will hold you over until her 2015 album hits us.
19. "Animals" by Maroon 5
20. "Don't Be Gone Too Long" by Chris Brown feat. Ariana Grande

@TheFirstEcho


Song of the Month: October 2014


Tove Lo, the Swedish import who's currently making an impact on American radio with her single, "Habits (Stay High)," recently released her debut album, Queen of the Clouds, and I have to say it's one of the most refreshingly dynamic and original pop albums I've heard in a while (don't be surprised if it appears on my Best of 2014 list in December).

"Moments" is one those brilliant tracks from Clouds, an unapologetic manifesto with a soaring chorus that will have you embracing whatever flaws you think you may have.

It also includes what is possibly my favorite lyric of 2014:

"I can get a little drunk, I get into all the don'ts, but on good days I am charming as fuck."

Listen and love:


@TheFirstEcho


'Desperate Housewives' 10 Years Later: Remembering A Primetime Soap Benchmark


A seemingly happy wife and mother named Mary Alice puts a gun to her head and pulls the trigger...and a seemingly idyllic neighborhood is never the same.

Not since Knots Landing have television viewers been so enraptured by the weekly dramas of a bunch of cul-de-sac-dwelling suburbanites. For eight seasons Wisteria Lane on ABC's Desperate Housewives was a ground zero for soapy fun. It quickly became a place where secrets -- along with several criminals -- were harbored, where a wealthy a former model slept with her gardener, where a neglected wife went off her rocker and shot up a supermarket, where an accident-prone single mom got kidnapped by a vengeful ex-con, where an on-the-lam family hid from an eco-terrorist, where a shady politician got skewered by a picket fence during a tornado, where an airplane crash landed into a Christmas block party, where a serial killer once held a pregnant woman hostage, where a bitchy real estate agent got electrocuted by a telephone pole, where...

You get the idea.


Debuting on October 3, 2004, Desperate Housewives arrived at just the right time, filling a void left by four sexy women who used to chat and gossip over lunch and see each other through some juicy trials and tribulations. If Sex and the City, which ended eight months before, celebrated the comedic dramas of urban female singles, then DH went further and celebrated the comedic dramas of suburban female marrieds (and divorcees).

Instead of sitting around a table and supporting each other while sipping cosmos at a trendy Manhattan hotspot, Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher), Lynette Scavo (Felictity Huffman), Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longora), and Bree Van de Kamp (Marcia Cross) sat around a kitchen counter supporting each other over cups of coffee. And they did more than just cry on each other's shoulders and lend a sympathetic ear. Like the title of the show suggests, every episode consistently featured these women going out of their way to maintain order around the neighborhood -- and in their homes. Whether it was lying to cover up for a husband's crime, sabotaging a bake sale to get back at a rival, stealing other people's identities to save a life, or corrupting a carpool to avoid walking an extra block in heels, each housewife did whatever it took in order to protect their loved ones and get what they wanted.

While brushing up on the history of femme-centric television, one might discover that gathering around a table to dish about love, lies, and life in general was originally an art perfected by four Miami seniors named Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia. The Golden Girls essentially invented the TV Girl-Talk Forum the moment they broke out the cheesecake and sat down to vent their problems. So it may come as no surprise that Marc Cherry, Desperate's creator, had been a writer on the classic sitcom during its last three seasons. The Golden influence on Housewives is evident.

Lesson: When women gather together, spectacular things happen.

DH also filled another void in prime-time television. It brought back the Nighttime Soap to small screens, tweaking the genre in way that made it more easily digestible for the savvy, sophisticated audiences of the post-Aaron Spelling aughts. It reminded networks that American audiences still had an appetite for serialized plots, especially those that took the "guilty" out of "guilty pleasure." Premiering just one week after another groundbreaking ABC drama, Lost, the Desperate pilot was a shining example of sharp character development and provocative storytelling that treated viewers with respect.

Much like the aforementioned Knots Landing, the show introduced three-dimensional characters general audiences grew to love, placed them in sudsy situations in a believable way, and recognized the absurdity of some of them through delicious one-liners and tongue-in-cheek dialogue that remained consistent throughout the years.

Speaking of consistency...

While many complain that the show never regained its mojo after that stellar first season - especially after sitting through the much-maligned second season (Alfre Woodard's got her son locked up in the basement!) - I pity those who were quick to give up and tune out. Having learned their lesson, producers delivered a third and fourth season that reminded loyal followers why they kept coming back to The Lane (new gay neighbors, back-from-the-dead spouses, and Dana Delany, oh my!). Then came the high-profiled stunt for the show's fifth season, that five-year jump into the future. Partners swapped, children grew up, and a new villain moved in (Neal McDonough's bent-on-revenge Dave). As for Season 6, fans were given a double dose of mystery when the Bolen family arrived in town -- see Torchwood's John Barrowman get blown up in a Prius -- and the Fairview Strangler terrorized the neighborhood. (Poor Eddie!) And the writers must have been getting a little nostalgic when they brought back first-season Man of Mystery Paul Young for the seventh season (More revenge! This time with a switched-at-birth twist!) and placed all four leading ladies in their own cover-up scandal in their final year, a storyline reminiscent of Mary-Alice's season 1 predicament (the ladies implicated themselves in the murder of Gaby's abusive stepfather).

Clearly the show was a liberal dressed in a conservative's clothing. The fictional and picturesque town of Fairview is located in the conveniently ambiguous "Eagle State" (Anywhere, USA). It's neither red nor blue but a bold shade of purple, maintaining its appeal to moms in Missouri as well as party boys in West Hollywood. This couldn't be personified any more than in Marcia Cross's Bree Van de Kamp, who was modeled after Marc Cherry's very own mother. Bree may be an uptight, church-going, gun-toting Republican with a penchant for pie-making, but she had a gay son and a less-than-perfect daughter she loved with all her heart.

Like many suburban satires before it, most of which have found success on the big screen (American BeautyThe Ice Storm), the Housewives made their case: Small-town life can be just as scandalous (and dangerous) as any crime-ridden metropolis. Rapists, drug dealers, and murderers aren't downtown -- they're residing in that nice 3-bedroom behind your hedges.

But ultimately, Housewives heralded a new soapy era at ABC, helping to build a home for similarly plotted shows like Brothers & Sisters and Revenge, and most recently, Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder, which are, simply put, rapidly paced soaps disguised as political and legal dramas, respectively. (Shonda Rhimes -- the new Aaron Spelling? Discuss.)

Happy 10th, ladies.

@TheFirstEcho


R.L. Stine Says 'Fear Street' TV Series "Might Be Pretty Close" to Happening


One of my literary idols, R.L. Stine, was recently interviewed on HuffPost Live to answer questions from fans, wax nostalgic on the recording-breaking Goosebumps series, and promote the new season of The Haunting Hour premiering on the HUB in October.

That's all fine and dandy, but what really perked up my ears was the mention of Fear Street the YA horror series that practically defined the 90s for me. A new title, Party Games, is being released next week (I pre-ordered my copy back in July -- I don't play), and this prompted a fan, @Blair_Hoyle, to ask about Fear Street being adapted for TV, an idea I've supported since the birth of The CW, a natural home for the series if there ever was one...and since I started writing my own pilot based on the scary goings-on in the town of Shadyside.

See where the discussion leads to, starting at the 9:00 mark:


Stine's answer is a tricky one. Yes, a movie studio owns the rights to Fear Street -- which turns 25 this year -- and yes, it's probably stuck in development hell, but if one were to read between the lines, the message is clear: Hollywood (and the writer himself) is going to wait and see how Jack Black's Goosebumps movie will do in 2015 before they invest in other properties.

Right now I'll take his promise-that's-not-really-a-promise with a grain of salt and absorb myself in Party Games for the time being.

@TheFirstEcho