There's a great seed of an idea in here. Take "X in Y" phrases, and find theme entries that mean Y, such that you can spread out the letters of X within? As much as I dislike the scattered appearance of random circles strewn through a grid, that would make up for it, in spades.
However, the theme entries ought to be solid in their own right, not made up. There are so many "X in Y" phrases out there, and so many solid themers meaning Y, that making up whatever you want is the easy way out. As a solver, it's not enjoyable to work so hard, just to uncover something as contrived as MARS FOR INSTANCE.
Let's take a look at the first theme clue, [Bird in the hand?]. There are dozens of birds that could have been used, a lot of them short, with friendly letters: OWL, DODO, DOVE, JAY, EMU, HEN, etc. There are also many meanings of "hand" that lend themselves to snazzy, or at least non-made-up-sounding phrases. APPRENTICE, ROUND OF APPLAUSE, UNIT OF MEASUREMENT, FULL HOUSE, etc.
It's possible that no combination of bird + snazzy phrase would work. If that's the case, you move onto the next "X in Y" phrase and start over.
Gridwise, I stopped my tally of gluey bits after ANAT STET SDS AMI SNERD, and it kept on going. Far from a polished product.
With several more rounds of rework, improvement, and finessing, this could have been a solid offering.
I was sure I won Guess That Theme, the game that keeps early-week puzzles interesting. PAY GRADE, PUB GAMES interlocked … has to be PG 13!
PANDG, the natural result of a PANDA's evolution (PANDA, PANDB, PANDC ...), serves as a dutiful revealer. It's not great in that P&G (Proctor and Gamble) is never written as PANDG except in crosswords, but it does serve to tie the themers together.
Initialism puzzles are so common that it takes a lot for one to stand out. One usual approach is to pack in as many as possible, trying to overwhelm solvers with sheer numbers. This one fits that bill, jam-packing in eight (!) phrases.
As a constructor, color me impressed with the execution. Ned did a top-notch job of executing on his concept, starting with interlocking two pairs of themers, and then overlapping or spacing out the rest. It's a mark of success that I didn't realize how many themers there were — there wasn't nearly as much AABA AGRI MDT stuff as I would have expected in the short fill. Although Ned had a ton of flexibility — there are dozens of PG phrases available — he made wise selections to facilitate ease of construction.
(I did wonder if PARTY GIRLS might offend some. I've rethought my stance on it, now that I have a daughter.)
The one knock: a lot of tough proper names. If you have ILIE in your grid, you ought to strive to reduce other entries that might similarly trip up newb solvers, like CAPP, NIN, ELLY, BAIUL.
Not the most exciting theme and the solver in me didn't get anything out of the ultra-high density. But this constructor gives a thumbs-up to the level of care and consideration Ned put into executing on a challenging grid.
Quick! How many of you out there can say the name of Big Bird's wooly friend? I thought so! And doubly quick, how many of you can spell it?
S N U F F … E? A? L?
Glad that Ned was careful with his crossing answers. I hitched on the -AGUS ending, wondering if it could be -IGUS crossing FLIM. But that seemed flimsy.
Thank goodness I know IGA from crosswords — I hope others weren't baffled, as IGA seems to be regional. Ultimately, if you're doing the NYT Saturday crossword, chances are you've run into IGA in the crossword before.
One crazily-spelled entry in a crossword, I can handle. Two? On top of each other? Hatchi matchi!
I remembered that LIPPI is a painter, but the guy's first name? FRAFILIPPO? It's as if his parents evilly tented their fingers and roared out a maniacal laugh as they imagined the gnashing of future solvers' teeth. Parsing that string seemed like it should be ___ LIPPO LIPPI. But FRAFI didn't seem right.
(Turns out that he did go by LIPPO LIPPI. A big time-saver when your full titled name is FRA' FILIPPO LIPPI!)
Devious clue for one of the answers running across those two long entries, [Innocent, e.g.]. I had the starting P and ending E, and struggled to figure out a synonym for innocent. Ah! That's POPE Innocent. Such a relief to figure that out and finally nail down those middle two letters.
Another wickedly clever clue in LETS. Think of "reserve" as "re-serve"!
I enjoyed the pairing of NOT A BAD IDEA … BUT WILL IT WORK? I wasn't hot on the latter by itself, but there's something cool about two adjacent long entries, connected. The first time I saw something like that, I was blown away.
All in all, some great feature entries, but this type of grid doesn't allow for much juice outside of the big north and south stacks. For instance, NUTS ABOUT, TWIN PAC, ALATEEN … they're fine, but I wasn't nuts about them.
My a-ha moment was one of relief today. DROP THE THE is such a great phrase, uttered so well by Justin Timberlake (playing Sean Parker in "The Social Network"). Suddenly, my growing annoyance that most of the theme phrases were missing the THE made sense! Hooray, it was just me being the idiot!
What, you're wondering why I said "most of the theme phrases"? Well, POP QUESTION seemed like a real thing at the time, just kookily defined. Why, you're wondering? I don't know. Maybe it sounds a bit like "pop quiz"?
And then WHATS MATTER felt like a different type of themer, perhaps playing on James Watt? Okay, he's technically not a physicist. So sue me.
Made for a confused Jeff. Not a bad thing, especially when it's just a temporary state.
Some nice bonuses worked in, SANTA HAT and ICE SKATES so pleasant. Baby Doc DUVALIER, not so much. Also not so much: SRTA ESTAB EOE SERIO ETO. I would have preferred fewer bonuses in exchange for more smoothiosity — along with DUVALIER, LATE LATIN didn't do a lot for me. ISNT IT TIME also felt weaker than SANTA HAT.
My general philosophy is that two strong bonuses in the fill are better than six that range from ho-hum to strong. Quality over quantity.
I love riffing on such a memorable phrase, DROP THE THE, so ripe for wordplay. Given that there are so many three-word phrases where the middle word is THE, I was hoping for funnier themers. And perhaps POP QUESTION seeming too much like a real thing was my fault, but I would have liked for every one of them to feel "wrong" in exactly the same way.
SMACKDOWN above RHINEGOLD — talk about something for everyone! Love the variety.
A 72-word puzzle has to be jazzy, with every single long slot used to its max. I used to watch a ton of WWE as a kid (sad, I know), so SMACKDOWN made me smile. I'm not an opera fan, but I appreciate Wagner. And RHINEGOLD is an interesting word.
BEACH COMB, yes! CACAO TREE yes! (Have you ever seen cacao fruit? Disgusting, hard to imagine how it transforms into chocolate.)
CRAWDADDY … mostly yes? Seems like this is a term in use, although it didn't ring true to my ear at first.
STANDEE ... not so much. DONATE TO is fine, but it's not going to win any awards.
AM I TO BLAME … I'm not sure on this one. I like it just fine, but is it a standout? NOT SPAM is the same. I see this phrase all the time with Gmail, but there's something about it that makes it seem slightly iffy as a crossword entry.
And HEADCOUNTS … occasionally people ask me how many plurals is too many in one puzzle, and I scratch my head. Why does it matter, if they're all normal words / entries? HEADCOUNTS does feel more sparkly in the singular, though. Totally subjective, since the plural HEADCOUNTS is dictionary supported.
Short fill. A 72-word puzzle must be ultra-clean. A bit of NEOS, GRAS, ROTOS, ACRO wouldn't be terrible in a tougher construction. But a 72-word themeless is not much of a challenge (unless you're working in a lot of rare letters, grid-spanning entries, etc.). So it's way too much in this puzzle.
That SW corner was particularly problematic for me, with ACRO / ROTOS jammed in. (I think NGAIO Marsh is crossworthy.) Maybe a cheater square at the S of HEADCOUNTS would have solved the problem.
Some nice feature entries — love me some SMACKDOWN! — but not quite enough sparkle or cleanliness to make the puzzle stand out.
Three literal HEADs OVER HEELS. Fun finds, NUMERO UNO, BIG WHEEL, TOP BANANA all snazzy synonyms for HEAD, and SCOUNDREL, DIRTY RAT, and NOGOODNIK juicy equivalents for HEEL. I'd happily use any of those six as fill in another crossword!
It's a shame the NYT hasn't caught the Wall Street Journal's meta contest madness. This would have made for a nice one: "What phrase is hinted at three times within this puzzle?" As much as I liked HEAD OVER HEELS in the center of the puzzle, it did make for a very easy Thursday solve. Would have been a neat a-ha moment, staring at the grid, wondering, wondering, wondering ... and then finally, ba-bam! HEAD OVER HEELS! Love those great moments of discovery.
Seven long themers? In one 15x15 puzzle? Man oh man, that's usually asking for serious trouble. And stacked pairs of answers as well? Along with three themers slammed up against each other in the center? Zoinks! I'd usually not even consider trying something like this.
Not a surprise to get so much crossword glue needed to hold everything together. I stopped keeping track after EUR, DIR, OLA, MTNS, STA, but then couldn't stop my OCD constructor's brain from pointing out OTYPE ("type O," yeah?), ETAT, IND, TOD, TSR, aaugh, stop it, you stupid brain and just enjoy the puzzle!
Luckily, that same annoying brain pointed out the fact that the slew of crossword glue was almost a necessary result if seven themers were to be used. And for the most part, I thought it was a reasonable trade-off, considering the fun pairs along with the revealer. The only part I didn't like much was that BIG WHEEL wasn't over DIRTY RAT like the others. But you'd need an off-size grid (maybe 16x15) to put that pair in the center (and you'd have to move HEAD OVER HEELS somewhere else — another reason to make it a meta puzzle!).
Overall, I thought it was a neat concept, even with the necessary flaws. I would have given it POW! consideration if it had been cleaner — maybe two pairs of longer answers and two pairs of shorter ones? — or if I'd had to work for my Thursday a-ha moment more.
ADDED NOTE: Astute reader Brian Greer pointed out that BIG WHEEL is over HEEL, and HEAD is over DIRTY RAT. Nice catch! It doesn't follow the same pattern of the other pairs, but it's pretty cool.
Fun and creative concept, players hitting a shuttlecock back and forth over a BADMINTON NET. Or is that a BIRDIE? I dug that repeating pattern of four-letter birds ping-ponging from one side to the other. And getting the finale of ITS OUT was a fun ending. Amusing to visualize the BIRDIE finally landing out of bounds (if you think of the sideline as AREAMAN / ALIENS).
Some good bonus entries, too. As a die-hard sci-fi guy, I love me some ION BEAMS. POLITICO and Kim BASINGER were nice as well. SENSE ORGAN felt a bit too dictionary-definitionish for my taste (pun intended), but it is valid. And although UNACCENTED is a bit dull as an entry on its own, getting a misdirecting clue in [Not stressed], as in "laid back," made for fun wordplay.
Puzzles featuring a whole bunch of short themers can be tough to fill cleanly. Ned did a pretty good job of separating all his themers with black squares, and some of the places I thought would suffer turned out quite well. For example, it's usually tough to fill a corner bounded on its top and bottom, like with the upper left bounded by RACKET / DUCK. RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) will be tough for some, but the acronym is in use. And working in one of my favorite baseball players of all-time, ICHIRO = much appreciated.
But there were many places that suffered. It started off with an OSS / ONA — not too bad, considering having to work around not just RACKET, DUCK, and LOON, but BADMINTON NET. But ... thankfully Ned pointed most of them out.
None of these is a "puzzle-killer" to me (Will's term for an entry that automatically forces a rejection), although PES is close. But so many of them in a single puzzle = no bueno; makes a grid feel wonky. Just four BIRDIEs would have accomplished the same effect for me and would have made for a smoother puzzle.
Overall though, a clever idea with a smile-inducing set of revealers.
LETTER DROP parsed into LET TER DROP. PORTRAIT PAIN made me chuckle-cringe, imagining a model developing a cramp, and the painter pleading for him/her to hold the pose just a few more minutes. (I have a weird phobia of being asked to sit for a portrait, in a fixed position for a long period of time. There's probably a term for it — fixaphobia?)
I had a good laugh at PRAIRIE OYS, people in wagon trains kvetching about the rough rides. I didn't know what a PRAIRIE OYSTER was, though, which took away from the amusement. Apparently, it's a hangover "cure" consisting of raw egg, Worcestershire, hot sauce, salt, and pepper.
I'd rather have the hangover.
LETTER DROP does have dictionary support, but is the term used these days? Hard for me to say since I rarely go to the post office. I think I've seen slots before, but I always thought they were "mail drops."
No long bonuses in the grid, but CHIMERA, ERNESTO, POISONS, and PLODDED are all pretty good. I especially liked CHIMERA, as it has so many interesting definitions: the Greek fire-breathing monster, a wished-for thing impossible to achieve, and a biological organism with a mixture of genetic tissues. Great word.
Some crossword glue holding everything together. But considering there are six themers, to keep it to the minor evils of LAN (local area network), UPSY (can only clue it one way), HST, TSP, DES, and AM SO isn't bad at all. PREXY isn't something I've ever heard in real life, but it does have dictionary support. Perhaps it's a term used more by a different generation?
None of the themers made me out-and-out laugh, so I might have liked fewer examples. That would have allowed for more sizzling bonus fill like CHIMERA worked in for good measure, plus fewer short, gluey bits.
ADDED NOTE: Reader Deb Gordon points out that PRAIRIE OYSTERS are also slang for ... ahem ... bull testicles. OYS indeed!
You know that kids' song "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes"? No? Be glad you don't. As a parent to two youngsters, my head is nearing explosive detonation what with the unfortunate earworms. Someone help me!
Ah right, the puzzle. Ned does a nice job keeping an ordered progression, from HEAD to NECK to CHEST to KNEE to TOES. (I'm SO thankful "shoulders" wasn't in there!) Paints an organized picture of the human body. Very consistent in his themers, too, the second word always ending in -ER.
I liked KNEE SLAPPER and ANKLE BITER a lot. The former is a bit old-timey, but I like quaint terms. (Thankfully I haven't gotten bitten on the ankle yet. Several fingers, yes, ankle, no.)
I wasn't sure about HAIR RAISER (I tried to put in HAIR RAISING first). And NECK SNAPPER felt odd — HEAD TURNER is better, but obviously doesn't fit with this theme. I tried to put in CHEST THUMPER for CHEST BEATER. Hmm. So although I appreciated the consistency of the -ER endings, it forced some unfortunate phrases that didn't quite hit for me.
Five longish themers are tough to work with, and here, Ned doesn't have any flexibility to swap pairs because of the ordering. There are some unfortunate gluey bits here and there, starting with OTRA and OTIC in the north, the outdated STENS (so crossword-friendly, so novice solver-unfriendly), a tough D'ANGELO / AGA crossing, LDS (Latter Day Saints) …
… and the realization that I finished with an error at OTRA. My fault — I probably should know that TARINO is not a city — but yikes, that's going to be tough for novices. I'd say it's borderline unfair, with high potential for dissatisfaction.
Overall though, I did appreciate the consistency of the theme and the proper order from HEAD to TOES. Thank goodness there's no such thing as a SHOULDER BUMPER. (If there is, please don't tell me.)
Given my short attention span, I like having an easy-peasy Sunday puzzle every once in a while — today's fit that bill. I enjoyed the "bed" visual formed by black squares in the middle of the grid, and the MONSTER / DUST BUNNY hiding underneath gave me a grin. Something so playful about that! The rest of the theme was a bit straightforward for my taste — phrases containing the words PILLOW, BLANKET, SHEETS, PAD — but it was nice that they came in the correct order of making one's bed. (If you waste your time on such nonsense as making your bed, folding your clothes, etc.)
Some long fill forced by the bed visual. Any time you work with such a long line of black squares, you have to surround it with entries of equal length or longer — otherwise, you'd create a two-letter word. It's very difficult to stack long entries like this, but SLEEPOVER / ADD TO THE MIX / SAW LOGS is sure a nice result.
Stacking entries in this way comes at a price. Not a surprise that it's the rockiest place in the grid, with OLDS / GET A / PTL / URI working hard to hold everything in place. Each one of those is minor, but as a whole, that's a lot of glue. The other side came out much smoother, with just a WDS as the cost. Very nice work on the underside of the bed.
And with so much theme material — along with the bed visual — there are just so many places where themers must interact with each other. The lower left exemplifies this. CAME DOWN IN SHEETS is atop MESSAGE PAD, and the black squares try so hard to give good separation, but there's just so much overlap to deal with. SANDIA crossing SCARNE might be a killer for some, and ISSO / PREF / INE / APACE / LST is not an unusual price for such an arrangement of themers.
Although there were a few glue-laden regions throughout the grid, most everything was gettable and came easy. And the visual of that bed, with the MONSTER underneath, brought forth some really fun "Monsters Inc." type imagery.
Plenty of crossword puzzles are based on letter addition, and not all of them absolutely need a "revealer" to tie the idea together. But I think the best "add some letters" puzzles are those with some rationale; some raison d'etre. So I really liked MAKE IT LAST, interpreted as "add IT to the ends of normal phrases."
My favorite was SWING BAND to SWING BANDIT, as the meaning of that last word changed so dramatically. Generally amusing results overall, with some funny imagery of a Hormel spokesperson saying YES, WE CAN IT! SHORT STOP IT interpreted as a terse command to cease and desist also gave me a chuckle.
Some fun changes of meaning, i.e. CAN going from "able to" to "put into a can." I did wish there were more like SWING BANDIT, where the last word became a new word, though. CAN IT, STOP IT, POST IT … BANDIT. Would have been nice to have two of each, rather than BANDIT sticking out as different.
I didn't know LEGS DIAMOND off the top of my head, but what a cool name! Along with the clue referencing Dutch Schultz, I felt compelled to go read up on those two. IRS AUDITORS made for another nice piece of long fill. Along with SOAKS IN a HOT TUB, some nice bonuses. And it's not often that I notice a five-letter entry — in a good way, that is — but I liked the colloquial MERCH(andise).
The 11-letter central themer is so tough to work with. Ned uses one of the three main methods of gridworking around it, leaving himself big corners in the upper right and lower left. The former came out so well — beautifully smooth, if not snazzy. The latter demonstrates the trade-offs seen more often in these types of corners, with the esoteric ELOI, the APA, and BE A HERO sounding a little off without DON'T preceding it. But without much else in the grid standing out — just a bit of ANO / INT — it's generally well-executed.
It might strike some as odd that such a little 3x3 section would require both ANO and INT, but those little chunks can be devious. 4x3s or even 4x4s can often be easier to fill, what with more "good" four-letter words than three-letter ones.
Finally, really nice to get a clever clue right at the start: [One may bug you] isn't a pest, but someone might place a listening device — a SPY. The clue looks so innocent … just like a SPY!
I'm gaining an appreciation for themelesses featuring 7-letter entries. I usually want long answers (8+ letters) in a themeless, since with 7s it's more common to see neutral answers like AGOUTIS and REDUCED than colorful ones like NBA LOGO and PIEHOLE. But something this puzzle has going for it is a level of difficulty I haven't seen in a while. Puzzles featuring long entries tend to be easier to break into, since once you uncover a long answer, it gives you a bunch of toeholds.
Today's was an absolute bear for me. Even though the puzzle has a nice open flow to it, I kept on getting stuck. Those 7-letter words can be so opaque. [Turns in] could have easily been RETIRES or a few other things, and SCHLITZ took forever to uncover, with just the T in place. Good to get a dose of humility with my Did Not Finish today, a reminder that I still have work to do if I want to be able to solve all Saturday puzzles. I don't mind being defeated, if a puzzle does so fairly.
I appreciated Ned's ability to work in quite a bit of nice stuff, something I'm not used to in themelesses heavy on 7s. EYE OF RA, VOTER ID, SAZERAC, CHIN WAG are all assets in my book. There weren't as many of them as I would have liked, the puzzle also containing its fair share of neutral SEE NOTE, AERATOR, CALLS UP, AGES AGO, SATIRIC (satirical, yeah?) kind of stuff, but it was free enough from gluey bits that I didn't mind that much. UNI and ROTO along with some OHS and an ESS = minor stuff.
Ah. There was HIE. Any time you need "quaintly" to define a word, it's probably best to be avoided. (It's an old way of saying "hasten.")
I have a feeling some will complain about GARO Yepremian — his career was mostly in the 60s and 70s — but he was an incredible kicker who has two Super Bowl titles. I think the fair crossings make him a reasonable short grid entry.
Very tough crossword which made me appreciate how much 7-letter entries can bring to the table.
Fun sound change puzzle today, the starting S morphed into a TH. THIGHS OF RELIEF gave me a good laugh, and THEMES OKAY TO ME felt appropriate for a crossword. All the base phrases are strong too, so much of the theme worked well for me.
I wasn't a huge fan of the two split-up themers, though. One like this is not uncommon, and I can look past having to jump around the grid for one set. But two of them felt excessive to me, making my solve feel choppy. I really liked THICK / PUPPY, maybe my favorite themer, but having to piece it together from two corners detracted from my enjoyment a little.
This arrangement also makes filling a challenge. Instead of being able to fill your four corners with great freedom, making them nice and clean, you fix constraints in all of them. The lower left came out really well — silky smooth — but each of the others has some compromise. And to start out with three compromised areas and the entire rest of the puzzle to go is not where I'd personally like to begin.
Funny how a single clue can make the puzzle sing. For me, NILE being clued with respect to Abu Simbel triggered memories of when Jill and I went to Egypt. Seeing (the relocated!) Abu Simbel was more breathtaking than the Great Pyramid by far.
And TENT as [Something that has low stakes?] is awesome. Worth the price of admission right there.
Amusing puzzle, with so many funny transformations of solid base phrase into funny result. I might have liked just four of the five themers (resulting in a smoother grid), but I did appreciate the laugh-inducing phrases.
Nice mini-theme, BACKSLAPS echoing CHEST BUMP. Back when I co-captained an Ultimate frisbee team, I asked the guys on my team not to CHEST BUMP, as it felt too show-off-y to me; against the Spirit of the Game. (The women on the team weren't as interested in CHEST BUMPing.) But it's a super-common practice in the NFL and other sports, and it was a fun way to end the puzzle. Makes me want to devise my own crossword-finishing touchdown dance.
Not a huge number of long answers today, just 12 with eight letters or more, but Ned makes great use of two marquee entries: KISS MY GRITS and PLAY FOOTSIE. The former probably won't be familiar to the younger generations of solvers, but it sure took me back to the days when I was watching every single episode of Alice instead of doing my homework.
I often talk about how multi-word entries are prized, and SCHEDULE A helps me emphasize that point. By itself, it's not going to wow a whole lot of people (except those of us curiously fascinated by tax preparation), but trying to parse the crazy -DULEA ending gave me a great moment of discovery.
Same goes for AMDIAL (adjective describing AMD chips?) and KOPUNCH (Keystone uppercut?). Nice way of snazzing up a shorter entry; taking advantage of crossword entries eliminating spaces by nature.
And although there aren't a huge number of A+ entries, there aren't many gluey bits either. By my count, about 12 assets and 2 liabilities (OLIOS and A VIEW) easily puts this puzzle into my thumbs-up criteria.
Finally, fun to learn a few things. Sikkim is an Indian state, who knew? And I enjoy learning a little Russian. Spasibo and good night!
This one's bound to be divisive, some people loving these definitional puzzles, some people hating them. I appreciate Ned's extra layer here — DOWN WARDs oriented downward — a fun play on word WARD.
This type of definitional puzzle used to be prevalent, most often four definitions of a common word like BROWN. I personally enjoy them immensely when the grid entries read as in-the-language phrases, which adds such an elegance to the theme. For instance, PRISON WING is an entry I wouldn't hesitate to use in filling one of my own puzzles. It's hard to find enough in-the-language phrases that fit a theme like this!
The knock on these types of puzzles is that often the theme entries read as stilted, a dictionary definition. Entering ACTRESS SELA can be sort of like homework, a bit like summarizing an Wikipedia entry in an loosey-goosey way. The fact that it could be a number of things like AUTHOR WARD or CSI:NY STAR or TV STAR SELA makes it less elegant in my book.
I have a lot of admiration for constructors still working in graph paper (or Excel). On one hand it strikes me as Luddite behavior — if you use a computer, why not use software? — but how many constructors would have come up with BRA SALE if it hadn't already been in their word list? On the other hand, a software-assisted approach would have allowed evaluating many more grid patterns and black square positions, in order to eliminate the E FOR and RECUE kind of stuff Ned mentioned. Not a clear answer for me which is better; I appreciate the variety of approaches.
Themeless puzzles typically don't incorporate a lot of 11's 12's, 13's, or 14's, because they cause problems. 10's are fairly easy to triple-stack, and 15's can get placed without wasting a black square, but those in-between lengths can be murder. This particular arrangement is one of the few more common ones that allows constructors to take advantage of those great 11's and 13's waiting to be debuted. (singing) DOO BE DOO BE debut...
Hey, no throwing eggs!
This type of stack is very similar to a triple-stack, but with a slightly smaller degree of difficulty given that the corners are easier to fill than a full triple-stack. In the outer edges you only have one letter constraining you — much easier in that regard. Not surprisingly, most of the crunchier crossings come in places where three letters are fixed: MDI, EHLE, and TYE. Perhaps Jennifer EHLE will become a superstar one day, which would be awesome for us constructors given the friendly letters. (shaking fist at Craig EHLO for not becoming an NBA superstar)
There seems to be a sort of mini-theme, which I typically like. It's pretty fun to have a subtle nod to the solver a bit of a "You see what I did there?" The replication within phrases was kind of neat, but the fact that there wasn't one of these in the south half left me feeling a bit unsatisfied. It was nice to read Ned's note and see that's exactly what he tried. I'm glad he didn't jam it in there and live with icky crossings. Good choice!
I'll finish off with an interesting word and a great clue. VIRAGOS: I didn't know it, so looked it up. One definition described it as a woman with a violent temperament, another as a woman with exemplary and heroic qualities. A word with two definitions that somewhat contradict each other — I can see why Ned placed it in there; very cool, bizarre and fun! And OMERTA (which describes the code of silence often referring to the mob), had a brilliant clue, using "singers" as in "one who spill their guts". Spilling their guts when they sing... and again later when they get offed!
I really enjoyed corresponding with Ned. He declined to write a Constructor Note for this particular puzzle, but we had some enlightening conversations. What I appreciated the most about him was that he seemed unusually self-aware, musing on what he could do better and how he could improve the solver's experience for future puzzles. Much, much appreciated; an attitude I hope all constructors strive for.
I loved the mini-theme of PUDDY TAT and MEL BLANC. It's fun to get a change of pace, a themeless that does something a little different. It doesn't hurt that my twin brother and I still watch Looney Tunes. Er, with my nephew. Yeah, that's why.
As Will mentioned, there's a lot of snazzy stuff in here. I was stuck on the ridiculous looking JRE???? until something tore itself from the deepest recesses of my memories. Great clue on that one, I was thinking originally about famous cliffhanging movies, then Cliffhanger the Stallone movie, and back around to my original thought. Amusing that MR BURNS came to mind before JR EWING. I wonder if younger solvers today will think "Who's this JR EWING and what nerve he has to copy the Simpsons!"
I had a bear-wrestling match in the NE corner. I really like the dual cluing of "One with a game collection", but absolutely nothing opened up in that region. ACTA sure didn't help (yikes!), nor did the opaque clues for PLURALS and SHED. I like a good workout on Fridays, but having so many killer clues in one corner did me in. I would have love to have had more a mixture in that region, perhaps a tricky wordplay clue to balance out all the esoterica.
As with most themeless puzzles, trade-offs are necessary. I really liked the triplet of HERCULES with its awesome wordplay clue, ONE OR TWO, and the mini-themed MEL BLANC, but ASU/USOC crossing feels a bit inelegant, and we see our old friend the TERN in that region. Not knowing Geoffrey BEENE, I thanked my lucky stars that BAR carried an easy clue.
Good Friday workout with an unusual grid. Ned mentioned he has another one in the hopper — looking forward to it!