A Production Review of P90X2

In March of last year, after a couple years with little vigorous exercise, I decided it was time to whip myself into shape. Since I was somewhat familiar with P90X and had no interest in joining a gym, I opted to give the newer version, P90X2, a try. Hosted by the amiable Tony Horton, P90X2 is a home fitness regime with intense, hour-long workouts designed to make you stronger, faster, and generally more athletic. After completing each of the three 30-day phases (hence the 90)--and particularly if you follow the nutritional plan--you will have the rockin' bod typical of the California beach goer. I stuck it with it, and in the past year-and-a-half I've gone through the prescribed program three times (though I stretched it out to 120 days per), and am now mixing and matching workouts as I please. I've watched these videos for hundreds of hours and have often find myself admiring the production choices as I huff and puff through a workout. Reviews of X2 understandably focus on the fitness, but the fitness would be lost without a solid production behind it. Thus, my P90X2 production appreciation.

  •  Set Design

The P90X2 set is probably intended to look like part of a warehouse gym, but the lighting, colors, and size make it feel as much like a space in someone's urban loft. It's a comfortable place you don't mind hanging out in for an hour every day. I don't know about you, but it feels odd for an exercise video to be set on a white-hot beach if I'm working out in my pre-dawn apartment bedroom.

  • Staging

The small set is possible thanks to a wise decision to limit the cast for each workout to three people plus Tony, who introduces you to your workout partners during the warmup. Many videos instead have a phalanx of faceless extras, which means your only personal connection is through the instructor. While Tony's great, it's nice to see him bounce off other people, who are often his real-life friends (Shawna, who appears in X2 Yoga, also happens to be his girlfriend and every P90Xer knows sister Kit.) Though not everyone lets their light shine (I'm looking at you, Dan from "Balance + Power"), each cast member is allowed to have a personality.

Band Man

The four-person cast also allows for a savvy setup that gives the viewer multiple simultaneous angles of each move. In addition, one person in each workout is the "modifier," which means they do variations of each move that are easier or don't require special equipment. In the first few viewings especially this setup keeps frustration lower since you're more easily able to see what's going on.

  • Hosting/Instruction

The X stands for "eXtreme," but Tony Horton mostly motivates through humor rather than fear. Though he will snap into drill instructor mode when necessary, he's mostly content to josh, joke, and sing. Occasionally he lets his vanity peek through as he flexes, or out-competes one of the others, but hey, he's 52 (YEEHAW!).

Beyond personality and motivation, Tony provides good instruction. Each move generally involves multiple parts in order to fulfill the vaunted muscle confusion stratagem, and Tony ably takes you through the how and why of it all. That said, Tony often exhorts you to use the pause button because it usually takes a couple times through to get a handle on things. Because you can pause and rewind, X2 does not pander to beginners in terms of pace, which you hate at first but appreciate as you progress.

  • Camerawork and Editing

Tony Horton pulls up!P90X2 is filmed and edited much like a live sporting event. I’m good at seeing editing seams and X2 doesn’t have many. My guess is they record each workout twice, but I’ve never noticed intercutting, only some compression.  This staid editing almost extends to a fault, however, as the camera can feel unresponsive to Tony’s occasional special requests (“Come on in, Carter!”).  Dialogue is left alone, even when cutting a line would have made things clearer, like when Tony misstates the length of a break. Overwhelmingly each workout feels live and left alone, which both comforts and challenges you that no one on-camera is getting a post-production boost in performance.

Tony is also not afraid to break the fourth wall, and draws attention to the fact that you are a viewer looking at a screen and not some ripped voyeur stumbling into an enhanced reality fitness class. He often refers to the cameras, and talks about 'cueing' a move, getting 'deeper in the set' or repositioning himself for the jib. Occasionally someone will stumble, but it's all taken in stride: during the "Chest + Back + Balance" workout one of the guys is having trouble doing pushups on the stability ball because of sweaty hands. Tony grabs him a towel and declares, "So this is a real thing, we're not gonna cut just because his hands are slippery." A lesser program would smooth out these rough edges, but the result would be a less approachable feel.

Also see: You're holding up America, Wayne!

  • Music

X2's music is the average rock song from 1992 with a whiff of the blues (here's a taste). Electric guitar and snare aplenty. While the music is instantly forgettable, it does help in a couple ways. The percussion helps maintain the pace of the workout, and the music is often used as an audio cue for starting moves. That's a nice touch since you spend a lot of time looking at the thread of your carpet rather than the screen.

  • Graphics

In X2 the two key graphical elements are the "Tools" title card and what I'll call the progress bar. The Tools title card lists all the equipment you'll need and is the first thing you see when starting a workout. While I like the list on a conceptual level, in practice the preview montage (essentially a ten-second-long commercial version of what you're about to do), which immediately follows it is more helpful to remind me of what I'll need.

 

The progress bar, on the other hand, is graphical gold. Though perhaps leaning too much on the skeuomorphism of the Monday Night Football variety, the progress bar is essential for keeping you on track. At a glance you'll see the name of the current move, the number of reps or time until the move is completed, and the master clock which counts down, second by agonizing second, to the end. Many a time I would've washed out of a workout early had that clock not been there.

  • Format

What happens when you don't foam roll or do enough inch worms? Why you get the Achilles heel of P90X2, of course: DVDs--are you kidding me? Encrypted, so the average person can't create soft copies? No bueno, Beachbody, particularly for a program that spends a lot of time talking about how easy X2 is to do on the road.

I'm hopeful the upcoming P90X3 has a digital download option, for it is sorely needed and makes business sense. For the love of fitness, Beachbody, do not force people to flip through a DVD wallet to find their workout. And for the love of business, Beachbody, offer a digital download (preferably DRM-free). You can even charge the same price as long as you waive the ridiculous $20 shipping charge (And why wouldn't you?). You can offer compressed versions suitable for tablets and smart phones for an additional charge, or even charge for access to secure streaming versions which would display always-current ads before each workout. The possibilities are as exciting as they are commonsensical.

A Year in Cities, 2011

The new year is here, which means it’s time for me to list the stops I made this past year. Smaller places are excluded save for those in which I spent a longer amount of time. Asterisks indicate a city of residency, while bold type indicates a new-to-me place.
  1. Frankfurt, DE
  2. Keene/Walpole, NH*
  3. Washington, DC
  4. Atlanta, GA*
  5. San Fransisco, CA
  6. Daytona Beach, FL
  7. Greenville/Simpsonville, SC (where I am at the moment)

My time in Frankfurt was on the tail end of a 2010 Christmas trip, so 2011 is the first time in seven years that I haven't taken a trip abroad (or was living there already). This year was also one where I was mostly in familiar places, and Daytona Beach wasn't exactly novel.

Looking ahead, Thelma and I will be flying to New Mexico in February to celebrate her birthday. There will also probably be another trip to California to visit her family. We haven't done much exploring around Georgia and the near neighbors yet, but are planning to attempt more weekend trips. And maybe, just maybe, we'll find the money to return to Rwanda this summer.

 

The Nile Anniversary

 

Two years ago today Thelma and I were rafting in Uganda when we tipped in a torrent and were plunged into the Nile's chaos. I surfaced quickly, calm and collected thanks to my extensive experience kayaking on streams and man-made lakes in South Carolina's golden corner. Thelma, on the other hand, had grown up in Chicago and like most mid-westerners had no idea how to acquit herself in water. While her life jacket had returned her to air, it was too big for her slender frame and was threatening to abandon her. Knowing me as I knew me (and sometimes know me still), I should have met her plight with gentle indifference; instead I swam over and granted her a portion of my buoyancy. It was then I realized I loved her.

Later while pondering this on a calm stretch of the river, Thelma sensed my conflicted thoughts and tried to engage me with some playful foot tickling. I told her I wasn't in the mood and to stop touching me.

 

My Radio Piece on Bensonwood

To listen to my half-hour radio piece about Bensonwood, click here or listen at the player below: [jwplayer mediaid="1990"]

The background...

I spent the first eight years of my life in Fountain Inn, South Carolina, a small town now numbering around 6,700 people. When I prepared to move near Walpole, New Hampshire about a year ago to start at Florentine Films, I used my birth town as a model to imagine what Walpole might be like. This turned out to be unhelpful, as Walpole is practically star-studded even with 3,000 fewer folks: where Walpole has Ken Burns, Fountain Inn has Peg Leg Bates.

Though it sounds odd to American ears, Walpole is probably best described as a village, considering the 'central settlement' only has about 600 people. Yet in this village you can dine at the posh flagship cafe of LA Burdick, whose high quality chocolates are produced nearby and shipped hither and yon. If you sit long enough, you're sure to see some of the Florentine Family grabbing a coffee or a bite to eat, seeing as the edit house is a five-minute walk away.  And you might meet there, as I did, Gary Smith, record producer most famously for the Pixies.

I'm terrible at the thing businesspeople call networking, so the first time I met Gary I really had no idea who he was or what he did, even though the night ended with him, another guy, and me sitting on his porch swapping stories for a couple of hours. I didn't see him for a several months until we met again at a birthday gathering for one of the Florentines. During the chitchat, he mentioned he was trying to find content for the small community radio station he ran across the river in Bellows Falls, Vermont. The opportunity was perfect for me--except that I was moving to Atlanta in about a month. D'oh, I thought.

I met with Gary a few days later to discuss what I might produce for WOOL FM, and he suggested a series of ten-minute vignettes on local companies. Not the podunk ones*, mind you, but regionally or nationally-known ones of the Florentine Films and LA Burdick flavor. He gave me a list, and I was again amazed at the caliber and variety of companies in and around Walpole. The idea was to cover one company per week in the three or four few weeks I had left.

*Though as a Florentine assistant editor notes, Walpole does somehow summon the economic might to support two dentists.

The one I eventually decided to start the series with was Bensonwood, whose facility I had driven past dozens of times without really noticing it. Bensonwood designs and builds homes and commercial buildings all around the country using a pretty ingenious method, and Tedd Benson, the founder, was chiefly responsible for the national revival in timber-frame construction starting about thirty years ago. I interviewed Tedd, took a tour of the facility, and interviewed a few other people over the course of two days.

As I began putting the piece(s) together, it became clear that I wasn't going to meet Gary's output goal. The pace of my creative process is slow to begin with, and nearly glacial when haunted by the specter of possibly ruinous technical challenges**. Instead of doing three or four ten-minute pieces on different companies, I would tell one half-hour version of the Bensonwood story. In the end I finished it several weeks after moving to Atlanta.

** BLOG EXCLUSIVE: I recorded all my voice-overs in my car, as it was the most convenient and acoustically-suitable environment I had.

My goal was to achieve professional-level quality despite my limited resources, and it wasn't until the final few hours of work I put into the piece that I felt I was getting anywhere close. I'm proud of the final product, even if it still sounds a bit amateurish to my ears. Gary and the folks at Bensonwood enjoyed it at any rate, and I hope you do too.

Television - A Personal History

I spent hours drooling in front of the TV as a kid, but mostly I channel-surfed and didn't follow any particular show. It wasn't until I was close to graduating college that I began watching TV with purpose. Speedy web browsing had largely replaced TV viewing by that point, but the internet had also exposed me to loads of info and critical opinion about good stuff on TV. Eventually enough of this info entered my brain that a synapse fired, causing a thought to occur that went something like this: "Hey, I might want to check some of this stuff out." And so I did, and quickly discovered I was missing some great stuff.

First there was Rome, which had already ended its brief two-season run. Then came Arrested Development, whose three majestic seasons helped me get through my hastily written thesis. I stayed away away from new shows at first, instead focusing on successful shows that had aired for at least a season and often more. I watched the first three seasons of LOST, a show that quickly took hold of my heart, the summer before I left for Germany. While abroad I hit my stride, watching shows like Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, and Weeds in season-sized chunks

Young expats are wont to pack media-filled hard drives along with extra deodorant and favorite snacks, and I was no exception. When I left for my year in Rwanda, I had dozens of movies and several seasons of shows like Deadwood. There I realized that I'd much prefer watching two hours of a good TV show than most any movie. I binned my movie collection when I got home, never having watched most of it.

For a lot of people television is about reality shows, but for me it's all about scripted hour-long drama: Fringe, Mad Men, Dexter, Justified, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, and the best show I've seen, The WireThis is not to say I don't enjoy the more digestible half-hour stuff like Parks and Recreation, Archer, or the genre-dodging Louie, but they lack complex serialized storytelling, which is what TV does best. Long, skillful plotting takes viewers to deeper and unexpected places and gives characters time to fully fleshen. Payoffs can take years to realize, making them that much more delectable.

Not every show catches me, of course. Treme is usually well-done but often boring. Friday Night Lights was I'm sure good, but for some reason I stopped watching near the end of the first season and haven't missed it. Sadder to me are the shows I quite liked but were canceled after one season. Terriers had a decent resolution at least, but Rubicon's de facto series finale was unfortunately pretty awful.

For all the shows I've listed and love (and there's more),  I don't spend anywhere close to the American average of five hours a day watching TV. I don't watch sports, and I almost never watch live TV.  As the Nielsen data indicate (pdf), TV is the preferred timesuck for older folk, with teens watching half as much as retirees. I'm even worse than a Nielsen teen. I watch my few shows a week and I'm done, leaving my time be hoovered away by the internet. And honestly many shows don't require a huge time commitment. If I adopted the 7-hour-a-day habit of African-Americans, I could clear out the first seasons of shows like Sherlock Holmes, Downton Abbey, and The Walking Dead at a rate of one per day, and most premium-channel shows would take less than two days per season. It doesn't take long to see a lot of good shows.

Being abroad also gave me the habit of watching shows on my laptop, which I continue. Alan Sepinwall has written about being something of a TV-less TV critic. The internet has made sampling and following shows very easy, all while avoiding most commercials.  For me, it's a great time to be watching television, even when it's usually not on a television set.

Up Next: My favorite TV opening credits sequences, for which all of this was merely background.