Mike Shenk’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “Showtime” — Conrad’s writeup.
This week we’re looking for a movie term. I liked Eric H’s comment last week: …the Fiend reviewer’s explanation of how they solved the meta always makes sense, but I often don’t how they made some crucial determination of what to look at to solve the meta.
I strive to write concisely and clearly when I describe a meta, but realize that I may be too concise at times. So I thought I’d stretch out a bit this week and describe my thought process as I solved this one. This meta followed a classic pattern often used by Mike. Step one: find the theme entries. Mike made it easy this week: the five long across entries were all movies:
- [1988 horror film with a homicidal doll]: CHILDSPLAY
- [1981 comedy film directed by John Waters]: POLYESTER
- [1984 mockumentary film about a heavy metal band]: THISISSPINALTAP
- [1983 erotic horror film about vampire lovers]: THEHUNGER
- [1961 drama film in which Fast Eddie Felson beats Minnesota Fats]: THEHUSTLER
Step two: find something to connect the themers. I didn’t see anything in the entries themselves. I looked for substrings (like YES in POLYESTER and PIN in THISISSPINALTAP), and that went nowhere.
Step three: when the entries yield no signal: check the clues. This is where I felt I had found the trail: every clue started with a year. You could clue those five movies a lot of ways, but starting each clue with a year was probably not a coincidence.
Step four: apply the years. Yuri Gagarin (mentioned in the clue for CCCP) was the first person to travel to outer space in 1961 (same year as THEHUSTLER), but that rabbit hole died quickly. Then I spotted 13d (YEAR, clued as “Four-digit number, usually”). Mike often hides an additional hint in the final horizontal entry; he used 13d this time but made it clear that it was thematic. There are a lot of ways to describe a year and mentioning “digits” stood out. This was Mike’s way of saying that YEAR was the right rabbit hole and also: treat the years as four digits. For example: THISISSPINALTAP was 1,9,8,4.
Step five: apply 1,9,8,4 to THISISSPINALTAP. The 1st letter was “T”, the 9th was “I”, the 8th was “P”, and the 4th was “S”, spelling TIPS. The clue for 71a (ONES) was “Tips in a tip jar, often”.
The rest of the theme entries followed the same pattern:
- CHILDSPLAY (1,9,8,8): CALL -> Call for aid: SOS
- POLYESTER (1,9,8,1): PREP -> Prep cook’s boss: CHEF
- THISISSPINALTAP (1,9,8,4): TIPS -> Tips in a tip jar, often: ONES
- THEHUNGER (1,9,8,3): TREE -> Tree anchor: ROOT
- THEHUSTLER (1,9,6,1): TEST -> Test by a neurologist, for short: EEG
The mapped clues spell SCORE, our contest solution. Readers: let me know how you made out, and please let me know if this style of writeup was helpful for some of you. I’m happy to dive deeper now and again (time willing).
Thanks for the great write up – very helpful!
Our approach was as you described, though we missed the extra hint at 13d. It is always a thrill to find the correct rabbit hole and solve the meta! Another terrific puzzle by Mike.
Gosh darn it, I didn’t recall the hint at 13D and only tried the last two digits of each year *bigoof*
Helpful write up, thank you. I like long and I like concise. You are my go to on a Monday morning. We got to step 4 quickly but only spotted step 5 at the 11th hour. Nice feeling as the penny slowly but clearly dropped.
Thank you for this very clear and helpful explanation. I noticed the repeat use of the years and also 13 D. But I was not able to connect the year numbers with the letters in each answer. I kept looking at clue numbers. Then I got sidetracked by thinking Doll, Waters, Band, Lovers and Fats had something to do with it. I also over thought the theme title Showtime. That led me to submit flashback as an answer since I couldn’t think of any other term that meant showing Time in a movie. Very clever contest! This was especially frustrating for me since I have seen all of the films and enjoyed them all and struggled to figure out the catch but just couldn’t swing it.
old American saying: when you go out hunting bears do not get distracted by the rabbits. “rabbitholes” are by definition a distraction and NOT a goal. The correct thread to pull to get the meta is patently not a rabbithole .. it is the goal of the hunt.
many thanks for the weekly explanations … i come here to learn what i missed
Well, I was hunting rabbits! ;-)
The theme was clear? Not for my tiny brain, would never ever have occurred to me. I convinced myself that [test for a neurologist] was spinal tap and [miss having a meal] was hunger, and struggled to place the rest… back to the bottom of the class for this dunce I guess.
Great write up, very useful for future metas. Thanks.
I was trying to find words in the grid that matched all the letters in a themer except one. As two examples:
THEHUNGER has all the letters in EIGHTH except I.
THISISSPINALTAP has all the letters in MANTAS except M
The YEAR clue did not ring any bells for me. I’ll remember to look more carefully at what the clues have in common in the future.
My rabbit hole was seeing a reference to Atlantic City, a film starring Susan Sarandon, who was also in The Hunger. But finding no similar connections, I went to the title SHOWTIME, and made the same realization as Conrad, all the theme entries specified the year, and I almost immediately applied the meta correctly. Felt great. I also love the extra “chef’s kiss” of having the solution, SCORE, be both a movie term and a word mean twenty years. Beautiful!
Thanks for the write-up.
Because of holiday travel, I didn’t do the WSJ puzzle on Friday. I wish I had; I know movies pretty well and recognized all the titles. I might’ve even had a chance with the meta (or not).