★ Neville! It's fun to be around incredibly sharp people, and Neville is right up there. We shared a cab to the ACPT one year; I enjoyed hearing about his math dissertation. Contrary to popular belief, mathematicians are some of the funniest people around. Who doesn't like derivative humor … about derivatives!
I should integrate more humor into my write-ups.
This is far from the first time we've seen this concept, the most recent about a year ago. I remembered a few from way back, too, one that cleverly used breaks and splits, and another that took "go big or go home" literally.
As with all mature theme types, though, there's room for a standout, and Neville executed this one well. I appreciated the consistency; that all the LONG themers were recognizable, two-word phrases starting with LONG.
I thought I had guessed the conceit right off the bat, so I appreciated that the dastardly first themer threw me for a loop. Having seen this theme type many times before, I was reasonably sure I should put only one letter in the elongated boxes, but [Oboe sound] had me wondering if this was something completely novel. Perhaps musical in some way? Nope, that's "oboe" as in O-BOE; two long O sounds. Great way to throw us veteran solvers off the trail.
I also appreciated how the presentation made my solve more challenging. I tended to print a normal-sized letter in the middle of the long boxes (similar to how it's shown in the grid here). That made it hard to catch those special letters as I was solving the down entries. I like a clever challenge on Thursdays, and trying to make the D and S of ENDORSES snake around in my head was a fun problem to tackle.
There were a few hiccups: DUMONT and NATANT didn't ring a bell. Shall we say they were on the tail of the bell curve? These were easy to forgive, though, since the solve was so much fun, and there were more than enough clever clues. I was sure [Gets behind] was a literal clue, not ENDORSES.
ADDED NOTE: reader Jesse Witt shared that the NYT app's displayed solution is cool. Fully agreed, they did a great job with that!
Years ago, my (identical twin) brother and I saw "The Waterboy" with my sister-in-law. Alex and I cackled our heads off the entire way through, making Adam Sandler's crazy noise for days afterward. On the other hand, Kate attempted to travel back in time so she could personally see to it that the director, producer, and every key grip was never born.
I like the basic concept today, celebs with last names doubling as BODIES OF WATER. Kicking things off with FIRTH did make it difficult for me to figure out, considering WTF is a "firth"?
Ah. The dictionary defines it as …
(When you have to use that intro …)
Then came ARTHUR LAKE. Talk about fishing for a themer!
A few weeks ago, Matt Gaffney, a top crossword maker, commented that central revealers felt odd, since he grew up on the traditional principle of always putting revealers at the end — that's Always, with a capital A. The theory is that if you put it anywhere but the end, you spoil the a-ha moment way too soon. I don't 100% agree with that, but I do think that if you reveal a theme halfway through, the a-ha moment has to have a delightful click. Otherwise, what's the point of finishing the puzzle?
BODIES OF WATER? It works, but it's not the most fun revealer I've ever encountered. More a dictionary definition than artful wordplay.
ADDED NOTE: I completely missed Neville's double-duty use of BODIES until I read his note. That does buoy the revealer.
Would WATERBOYS have been better? Maybe. It's not precise since these celebs aren't ten years old, but WATERBOYS could be clued "what these celebs were when they were young." It would have felt tighter, too, acknowledging that all the featured celebs are dudes.
Just like Alex vs. Kate re: "The Waterboy," I wonder if this puzzle will be polarizing. There is a BARBIE running for President in the puzzle, but she hardly represents feminism. It'd have been nice to change the scope, adopting a different approach to use a more interesting set, perhaps with folks like RUSSELL WESTBROOK / MINNIE DRIVER? Or give RICKI LAKE her due, orienting all themers vertically to pair her with WATER DOWN? Would have been fun to brainstorm.
What, you're all whiny because you didn't understand the theme? Get over it!
Get it? Get over it?
Sometimes people ask me how to become a better crossword solver, and I tell them to become a crossword constructor. Occasionally, the theme concept immediately becomes apparent to you because you've had the exact same idea. It's common in the crossworld for ideas to crop up (m)over and (s)over and (c)over and (g)over again.
(Will Shortz liked mine, back in 2015, but said it was a near miss, and that the concept was a bit too familiar. Shall we say, overdone?
After mine was published, I got a lot of questions, asking WHAT THE &@#$! IS YOUR PROBLEM, WHY DO YOU MAKE SUCH NONSENSICAL PUZZLES THAT MAKE ME WANT TO DISEMBOWEL YOU? Those gentle queries made me wonder; maybe I should have put a revealer in? Perhaps OVER as the final across answer to make things crystal-clear?
I also wondered, maybe I should start directing all emails straight to spam.
Having the benefit of a long time to ponder this question, today's puzzle would be better served with an OVERt revealer. That might have taken away some of the a-ha for top-notch genius solvers, but it would have been better for the general solving population, many of whom won't figure out the trick, even after completing the grid.
Great overall construction, Neville doing everything right. ANNABEL LEE and WIN BY A NOSE are colorful choices for the marquee bonus answers, and some RENOIR UNKEMPT RANDOM might make you say ILL BE. Or even HOT DAMN! I appreciate that he didn't try to do anything crazy, like going down to a 72-word grid in an attempt to spice things up.
Beautiful gridwork, but I'm curious to see how high the frustration level is for John Q. Solver. If I were Will, I'd be regularly polling the NYT's solvers to make sure they're happy, and this is one puzzle I'd focus on.
Brilliant a-ha moment when I figured out how Neville had crossed-up the crossword cross-referencing convention [See ___-Across]. That's not [See 17-Across] — it's [SEE PAGE] ... or SEEPAGE!
I remembered a similar puzzle from years ago that used SEE (RED), SEE (STARS); something like that. But it was long enough ago that I couldn't find it. Plus, I like how Neville used all full words. SEE/KING was particularly dastardly.
I also liked how Neville strove to use colorful themers. I'd absolutely use DO A SLOW BURN, GO UP AND DOWN, IN SEARCH OF in another puzzle as fill.
LOST LIQUID, not so much. But hey, three out of four ain't bad.
The theme alone was strong enough to warrant POW! consideration. I also thought Neville laid out his themers (and faux themers) perfectly, minimizing the annoying jumping around that cross-referencing requires. Putting the two x-reffed answers right next to each other is the way to go.
So why didn't I give this the POW!? I struggled with the inelegance of the fill. For every ROULETTE there were HAR AERO. SNORKELS yes! MEER, no. Is SCREAMED / SNARFED worth CRO / SEN, with AGITA nearby? Not to me.
It's not to say that Neville made the wrong decision to push his grid so hard — I bet others will be perfectly fine with these trade-offs. For me though, I got bogged down with enough glueiness that my rigid constructor's brain couldn't let the puzzle as a whole get into POW! territory.
Overall though, a strong Thursday idea, forcing us to work hard for an a-ha moment that was well worth the effort.
★ It's incredibly rare that I enjoy a Sunday puzzle so much that I don't want it to end. A great majority of the time, I get bored halfway through and finish just for the sake of finishing. I was tickled by how funny RUBBER MATCH, ORGANIC CHEMISTRY, and OPEN FLAMES were as names for dating sites. Awesome theme, and so many great finds!
Along with a solid grid — lovely bonuses like NBAJAM, COCONUT as a person's head, EVIL GRIN, Picard's MAKE IT SO, etc., and just a bit of ignorable ASI, NEB, IN LA — an easy POW! pick. Very strong gridwork.
My favorite Sunday of the year so far, from two of my favorite people in the crossworld.
I wasn't familiar with the term NIGHTMARE FUEL, but that's a good phrase to learn. Sounds like something straight out of "Monsters, Inc."! Maybe I'm not familiar with the term because researching what it meant crEEEEPED ME OUT SPIDERS AND BEDBUGS AND ICK!
All shuddering aside, the phrase-that-shall-remain-unspoken crossing ONE DAY AT A TIME made for a solid spine to the puzzle. Love KABLOOEY too, although I confidently plunked in KABLOOIE. Either makes for a happy Jeff — such a funny word.
Themelesses built off of interlocking central spines can be tough, because each of the usual stacks of long entries now has to work with those spines. I thought Neville and Doug did a nice job with the NW, getting RAT PACK, EURASIAN, and ABU DHABI intersecting with KABLOOEY / NIGHTMARE FUEL. Solid result.
A bit of wastage in the other long slots though, in ORDER OUT and DETECTS (not super interesting), ADO ANNIE (from … "Oklahoma!"?), and even MONTANA. As much as I love #16 — tons of great memories watching the Niners as a kid — just a last name isn't nearly as great as working in the full JOE MONTANA. It's pretty common to have some LUKEWARM long entries in themelesses built off intersecting spines.
I appreciated that the short fill did its job, mostly staying out of the way (ARE WE, I see you). And even chipping in, with a great clue for EDSEL — "The thrill starts with the grille" is an awesome way to add color to a puzzle.
And finally, the mid-length stuff helped raise the puzzle's impact for me, NBA JAM a favorite of my youth. Along with GROMIT (cheese!), EXOTICA, a TRUISM, and some PROZAC, the mid-length fill was in many ways the star of the show.
A lot to enjoy out of this one. If more of the longer slots had sizzled, this would have been in POW! contention.
GRAY MATTER played on today … wait, what? GREY MATTER? Ah, a riff on "gray matter," featuring famous(ish) people with the last name GREY. I knew EARL and ZANE Grey off the top, and MEREDITH seemed fair enough, given that the show was titled "GREY's Anatomy." "AGNES Grey" may not be as famous as other of the Bronte sisters' work, but hey, a Bronte is a Bronte.
What a fantastic find in MEREDITH across HAMMERED IT HOME! I love those sorts of discoveries — it's seemingly impossible to hide an eight-letter entry across three words ... or is it! Beautiful.
EARL in REARLIT was decent, although REARLIT didn't jump out and scream I'M JUICY ENOUGH TO BE A CROSSWORD THEME ANSWER! to me.
I'm not as big a fan of words entirely hidden inside other words, i.e. AGNES in MAGNESIA or ZANE in LIPIZZANER. Granted, Neville needed AGNES and ZANE to bulk up the puzzle, and what kind of phrase can you stretch these names across? (If only PIZZA NEMESIS and/or CHAMPAGNE SWIGGER were real things.)
As usual, Neville delivers a strong grid. Not easy to work around that middle section especially, what with MILK OF MAGNESIA / REARLIT / HAMMERED IT HOME compacted in there. Beautiful work, only ADLAI slightly iffy (no one remembers the losers …).
With just ATAB of crossword glue, Neville's grid easily passes muster for a silky-smooth early-week product. Even with the high theme density, Neville tosses in a bit of GORETEX and BASE TEN (he has his Ph.D. in math!) for spice too.
Would have been nice to get a little more long fill, though — I'm curious what Neville could have come up with by removing the black square between USED and SERUM. That would have been tough, given all those pesky themers to work around, but a guy can wish …
The theme lost me a bit since AGNES and MEREDITH Grey didn't mean much to me (fans of "Grey's Anatomy," don't kill me!), but neat concept and fun wordplay in the GREY MATTER revealer.
Bed sizes ranging from TWIN PEAKS to FULL HOUSE to QUEEN ANNE to KING COBRA, all tied together with BED HEAD as a revealer. Tidy little theme! (Unlike our bed when I'm the last to get up, much to my wife's chagrin.)
Perfect consistency — each themer has two words, none hyphenated — and an excellent selection of strong phrases. A few years ago, I went out to where they filmed "Twin Peaks," out in the Middle of Nowhere, WA. Eerily creepy place.
Some great bonuses, too. THEY SAY … is awfully fun, as in a conspiratorial whisper. RAIN DELAY and BORN FREE are welcome as well, especially that soaring feeling I get when I belt out BORN FREEEEEEEE! (People in this coffee shop are staring at me, but I don't care.)
Smooth, too. AKIRA and KYRIE are both interesting to me — Kurosawa is someone every educated solver ought to know. KYRIE Irving might not have been crossworthy a few years ago, but after his performance in the NBA Finals last year — helping the Cavs bring home their first championship in forever — heck yeah, he's crossworthy. Still important to make all the crossings fair, and Neville does just that.
One notable blip, though. AIT … I took five years of high school French, but given 100 guesses, I doubt I would have come up with this verb form of AVOIR. (I barely remember what AVOIR means, so maybe it's me that's the problem.) Not sure I'd ever allow AIT into one of my puzzles, even if the crossings were perfectly fair (they are). It did allow for the nice GOATHERD, but I'LL PASS on AIT, especially when it might rankle novice solvers in a Monday puzzle.
Solid Monday fare, with a generally well-executed theme and grid.
Literalisms today, using song titles. As Neville mentioned, I've seen this sort of concept enough times to recognize immediately what was going on, so I really appreciated that he went above and beyond with his consistency and tightness. During my solve, I noticed every level of self-imposed constraints he pointed out. Very nice touch.
Even though I wasn't familiar with all the songs — I didn't totally recognize ROLLING in the DEEP and DANCING in the DARK — I did like Neville's thinking about "something for everyone," trying to broaden the spectrum of solvers that will appreciate the puzzle. He's a strong enough constructor that I had a feeling this was part of his thought process. Nice to hear from him that it indeed was.
Some excellent bonuses too, FOUND MONEY the standout. Who doesn't like reaching into a pair of shorts you haven't washed in eight months to find a $20 bill?
What, you wash your shorts more than every eight months? Me too. Ahem.
Neville is recent math Ph.D. graduate (congrats!), so it was fun to see the clue for AUNT. At first, I couldn't remember what PEMDAS was a mnemonic for but it came back quickly: parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction. Good to remember in case you have to solve some math formulas involving a mix of multiplication, subtraction, exponents, natural logs, factorials, second-order derivatives … (I just felt a bunch of you shudder)
AL OERTER is an interesting piece of fill. I learned him from crosswords, as that TER ending and those juicy vowels makes OERTER very useful for six-letter slots. But what a cool piece of trivia — amazing feat to win four consecutive gold medals!
I had to look up AXE and [Chopper], as I just couldn't believe they were synonymous. Were they new slang I'm not cool enough to know? (An AXE is slang for a guitar, and a chopper is slang for a certain type of motorcycle.) I felt pretty silly when I realized [Chopper] just meant "thing that chops." (groan)
Nice clean grid, really just the arbitrary time ONE PM and a MULTI prefix. Well-executed puzzle overall.
After a two year hiatus from the NYT puzzle, Neville's back! Standard theme type today, BREAKFAST interpreted as BREAK FAST, i.e. phrases starting with FA and ending with ST. I liked the consistency of always doing it FA/ST, as well as the strong choice of themers — FAIRY DUST, FAMILY CREST, and FALSE ARREST are colorful answers. I'm not familiar with FATHER KNOWS BEST, but the clue made me want to go look it up. Kids named Princess, Bud, and Kitten = weirdly hilarious.
Great job of working in those Xs so smoothly. SEX TAPES is a nice answer as is IDEE FIXE, and the short stuff is all solid: XOXO, EXTRA, XENON, UNIX. I like seeing rare letters (JQXZ), but only if they're worked in fluidly, without resorting to ugly gluey answers. Neville does a great job of this.
Very nice long fill, too. Fun to get BLUE STATES and REDSHIRTS in symmetrical spots — Neville uses all four of his long slots so well. Even I CONCUR and LAB FEE are nice additions.
Pretty good short fill. NET WT is on many cereal boxes exactly like that, so that's not bad. DARER … okay, that's to be avoided. I also liked the clue echo with ABE and RAO prime ministers.
Ah, but that brings us to what I saw as the weak spot in the puzzle, the crossing of RAO and ROBB which Neville acknowledged to be troublesome. I think RAO is fair game — NYT solvers really ought to be able to piece together world leaders given fair crossings — but intersecting it with Charles ROBB is awfully rough. Just like Neville, Will, and Joel, I unfortunately can't see an easy fix. I'm really particular about this sort of thing in early-week puzzles, so I might have rebooted with a different grid skeleton if I had been forced into that RAO/ROBB crossing.
Love the ELF clue, referencing the "Sparklejollytwinklejingley" song. I loved the movie, and it's neat to see a musical made of it.
This standard theme type is getting a bit past its prime, but it's nice to see an example executed generally well.