Friday, December 29, 2006

Best of the Best '06

Last column of the year, which means it's Top 10 time. As discussed last week, I decided to spread the wealth with two lists, one for returning shows, one for 2006 rookies. The lists:
Returning Shows
  1. "The Wire"
  2. "The Shield"
  3. "The Office"
  4. "Battlestar Galactica"
  5. "Deadwood"
  6. "The Sopranos"
  7. "How I Met Your Mother"
  8. "The O.C." (season four only)
  9. "24"
  10. A tie between "Scrubs," "House" and "Grey's Anatomy"
New shows
  1. "Friday Night Lights"
  2. "Dexter"
  3. Stephen Colbert at the White House correspondents dinner
  4. "30 Rock"
  5. A tie between "Country Boys" and "When the Levees Broke"
  6. "Doctor Who"
  7. "Heroes"
  8. "Kidnapped"
  9. "Broken Trail"
  10. "The Loop"
To read the full column with elaboration on the choices (given the space limitations of writing capsules for 23 shows), click here. Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

At the Movies: Children of Men

I know this is a TV blog most of the time, but I did say in my very first post that it would feature "occasional comments on the books I'm reading or movies I've seen," and after watching "Children of Men" yesterday, I'm feeling the need to prostelytize. I don't get to the cinema as much as I did pre-fatherhood, but this is the best movie I've seen this year, if not in several years. I'm currently wrestling with my review of FX's "Dirt" (short version: mud), so I don't have the time or energy to explain why I love it so much. Thankfully, there's this series of tubes out there, so go read some of the reviews, and then after it's come to your local cinema and you've been lucky enough to see it, we can talk more in the comments.

I stumbled on this movie by virtue of Fienberg's capsule review, and it baffles me that it's not getting a major Oscar push, either by the studio itself or by the press, so I'm doing my small bit. Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, December 26, 2006


A few weeks ago, I finally took the HDTV plunge and bought a lovely plasma set. The thing is beautiful to behold, but I've already become so hooked on high-def that I've been almost exclusively watching the relative handful of HD channels Comcast offers and ignoring the other few hundred. I've been spending shameful amounts of time watching, say, "The Island," because I know a Michael Bay movie will look cool in 1080i.

I've heard this is SOP for HD virgins, and the fact that almost all the shows I follow have been in reruns has played a role. But for those of you who joined the high-def world long before I did, how long did this phase last for you? I have this irrational fear that I'm not going to want to watch "Scrubs" anymore because I won't get to see Turk's dancing with the maximum clarity. Click here to read the full post

Monday, December 25, 2006

Holiday pick 'em

Happy holidays to all, regardless of denomination. Here's a very tough question to answer at this time of year: "Lazy Sunday" or "D*ck in a Box"? Which is funnier, which is the better song, which is the better video, etc., etc.? Answer and elaborate. Click here to read the full post

Friday, December 22, 2006

The O.C.: If you're here for sex, there's, like, five guys ahead of you

Spoilers for "The O.C." coming up just as soon as I figure out whether Hercules could beat Seven of Nine in a fight...

I'll be frank: I've been so sleep-deprived the last few days that I was drifting in and out of consciousness for a lot of last night's episode. So feel free to disregard every opinion I'm about to express. If this wasn't the last original episode of a show I watch to air for the next two weeks, I might have taken a pass on commenting altogether.

I said a few weeks ago that, while Josh and company had gotten the kid stories back on track, they seemed to have run out of ideas for the grown-ups. Guess they only needed a little more time, because I was much more interested in the Julie/Sandy/Bullet/Hercules stuff than I was in Ryan and Seth's latest disastrous road trip. (Have these guys ever traveled anywhere without incident?) I liked Bullet playing surrogate Jimmy for Kaitlin, I liked Julie's continued panic at having joined the companionship industry, and I'm intrigued by the previews and Sandy literally fighting for position as Ryan's "real" father.

That said, on a 1 to 10 scale of cheesiness, where would you put the introduction of Ryan's suave, international traveler dad? I've got to go at least to 7, but I'll defer final judgment until the next episode airs. Now that Josh has returned the focus to the comedy, the challenge is finding dramatic stories that have some resonance without going to the laughable Marissa/Johnny/Volchok place. Ryan confronting his dad has the potential to work, but Sorbo's character seems to have wandered in from a daytime soap. We'll see.

Taylor continues to be awesome, but, again, I wasn't in love with the desert rave plot, which I feel like I've seen on, like, five different WB shows. Summer's instant buyer's remorse on getting engaged to Little Man Cohen could be good for both yuks and pathos, though.

What did everybody else think?
Click here to read the full post

This blog entry brought to you by The Human Fund

The Festivus column is up. Many, many grievances get aired, though never as many as I want. Click here to read the full post

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Office: The cutting room floor

Since it's a slow day with no new column and no TV from last night to comment on (thank God for "The O.C." tonight, or I'd have no new episodes to blog about for quite a while), I wanted to throw out a thought that's been rattling around in my head since my interview last week with Ricky Gervais.

We were talking about the documentary framing of "The Office" and how the camera crew no doubt brought out the worst in David Brent, and Gervais said that David was too naive and fame-hungry to realize the filmmakers would only include his bad moments.

"So, wait," I asked, stunned. "Does that mean David had good moments that didn't make final cut?"
"Absolutely," he said.
"Like, there were times when he successfully told jokes that other people found funny?"

This sent my mind spinning, to the point where I'm not sure what we talked about for the rest of the hour. (God bless digital recorders.) When I watch a real documentary or reality show, it's with the understanding that the filmmakers/producers are shaping events to tell the story they want to, but it never for a second occurred to me that what we were seeing with "The Office" was anything but an objective view of David's life. Now, I feel like I need to go back and watch the entire British series to reimagine what David -- or Gareth, or Tim, or even Keith -- must have been doing right in between the scenes that made final cut.

I haven't had a chance yet to ask Greg Daniels if he views his show the same way (UPDATE: check the comments for some Greg thoughts), but just as an exercise, what aspects of characters from either show could you imagine being dropped from the documentary episodes? Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Help me write my column, part 793

Thanks for all the Festivus suggestions, folks. That story's going to run on Friday (though Festivus doesn't officially begin until Saturday). Now I'm moving on to the flip side: my year-end Top 10 list, which will run late next week.

Because there were so many good new programs this year (series, miniseries, even movies), and because so many Top 10 perennials had their best seasons to date, I decided to do two lists to spread the wealth, one for returning shows, one for stuff that was new in '06.

I feel quite confident in the returning shows list, even though I had to cheat and include 12 shows on it (it'll seem less like cheating when you read it), but I can't shake the nagging feeling that I'm leaving something or somethings off the new list. I've talked to a few other critics, but we're all in that late December burn-out stage where we can barely remember what we wrote about for November sweeps, let alone going all the way back to January. (I definitely understand why so many Oscar nominees get released in late fall/early winter.)

So I want to open up the floor to see if anyone can jog my memory on something obviously deserving. What were some of your favorite newbies of 2006, be they show, mini, movie, special, what have you? I'm sure you can guess a few of my picks based on the contents of this blog, but I'll leave it vague beyond that for now. Click here to read the full post

Monday, December 18, 2006

Dexter: Literacy is now welcomed

"Dexter" finale spoilers coming up just as soon as I squeeze some fresh OJ...

"Dexter" has been an odd show for me, blog-wise. I've loved it all season and am trying to figure out where it's going to fit on my year-end Top 10 list (assuming I don't wimp out and do separate lists for new and returning shows, in which case it would be near the top of the new list), and yet I've only blogged about specific episodes three or four times. Part of that was because I was watching episodes in chunks as screeners from Showtime arrived, which made it hard for me to comment much on where the story might be going. Mostly, though, I didn't have much to say. The show was so consistent both in what was working (Michael C. Hall's performance, the flashbacks to Harry's lessons, Dexter's relationships with Deb and Rita, the advancement of the Ice Truck Killer mystery) and what wasn't (office politics in the Miami PD) that I would have been repeating myself week after week.

But I was very pleased with the finale, particularly the revelation that the ITK was Dexter's long-forgotten brother. In other contexts, that twist would've been cheesey, but it would almost be cheesey to have these two meticulous serial killers not have some kind of common bond. It explained not only why Rudy killed, but why he was so interested in Dexter's past and present.

At this point, I want to open the floor for two things: opinions on the finale and the season, but also comments from readers of the novel on what the show left out, what it added in, and whether you feel the changes improved the work. I know a few key differences, like the fact that the ITK's identity wasn't revealed until the very end (and that he never tried dating Deb), but not everything.

Fire away.
Click here to read the full post

SNL: Step one: cut a hole in the box

Okay, so that's now three "Saturday Night Live" episodes this season that made me happy. You expect it out of Hugh Laurie or Alec Baldwin, but Justin Timberlake? The guy's enthusiastic, game for anything, and he's done it enough times that he has multiple recurring characters (Robin Gibb, Omeletteville/Homelessville Guy).

The opening song was cute, especially Amy and Maya harmonizing on "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night," I have a soft spot for both Homelessville Guy and "The Barry Gibb Talk Show" (it's such a strange idea that I love it in spite of it being the show's eight millionth talk show parody, plus the reaction to Sandra Day O'Connor's joke this time was priceless), and the Digital Short was absolute genius, and perhaps proof that Andy Samberg and his buddies should stick to using them to make music videos. Much like "Lazy Sunday," this one's been rattling around in my head for the last 36 hours, only I can't really sing any of it in public. (If you haven't seen it, the NBC site has the uncensored version.)

So that's three good shows out of nine. In baseball, that's success. Click here to read the full post

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Survivor finale: Brains vs. brawn

"Survivor: Cook Islands" spoilers coming up just as soon as I figure out whether Sundra's use of "ignited" was the poorest word choice in "Survivor" history...

Hot-diggity! Yul wins, albeit in a very weird way, in that Adam's vote -- courtesy of the "get rid of Jonathan first" deal -- was the tie-breaker, and the Insider videos implied strongly that Yul didn't want to dump Jonathan at that point, but let the other Aitus talk him into it. Even if he was fully on board with that in the end, it shows how stupid Adam was to offer that deal when Yul alone didn't have complete decision-making power. But then, Adam -- and Parvati, and Candace, and Nate -- was so stupid in so many ways that I don't feel too bad about the outcome.

This was about the purest final two choice possible. (Becky had no shot, and I'm glad she didn't take a Katie from Palau-esque beating from the jury.) On the one hand, you have Yul the master strategist and leader (who, admittedly was quite the challenge player himself, albeit not on Ozzy's level), versus Ozzy the Jungle Boy, who was, if not the best challenge player ever, in the top three or four with Tom Westman, Terry Deitz and Boston Rob. Either was a valid choice, but Yul was a nicer guy, and he gave one of the best jury performances of all time, talking up his accomplishments without seeming arrogant or belittling of the other two, discussing his integrity while admitting that the game only allowed it to go so far, etc.

I expected the jury to be a bunch of whiny, petty rhymes-with-witches, and Nate and Adam thankfully didn't disappoint. (Jonathan and Candice came pretty close, too.) Thankfully, I have a DVR with a fast-forward button, so I was able to skip past the ugliest stuff.

Though the finale lacked the drama of, say, Palau, it was just so amazing to see the final four acting like rational, supportive adults about everything, even though it led to the most pathetic challenge of all time between Sundra and Becky. Seriously, instead of calling for the matches after an hour, Probst should have just said, "You know what? Even if either of you had a sliver of a chance against Yul and Ozzy 60 minutes ago, nobody's going to vote for you now, so why don't you both just move over to the jury?"

Nothing all that illuminating in the reunion, especially since Probst had to zip past the whole Ozzy/Yul/Adam/Jonathan vote-bargaining issue because he had to make time to talk to 19 different contestants. As I've said in the past, I appreciate Jeff's desire to give everyone at least a sound byte (as opposed to the dreaded Rosie O'Donnell, who talked to, like, five people during the entire Marquesas reunion), but I'd rather spend more time on the people and events that shaped the game instead of letting J.P. give us an update on his latest projects.

What did everybody else think? Happy with the winner? Think Ozzy got hosed?
Click here to read the full post

Battlestar Galactica: Nuke you!

"Battlestar Galactica" spoilers coming up just as soon as I figure out who I have to call to get the Sci-Fi promo monkeys fired...

Ron Moore said that he dreamed up the New Caprica arc because he was getting bored with fleet on the run stories, and worried that the audience was, too. He figured that by taking such a drastic departure from the formula, "Then by the time we get back into space, it'll have much greater impact."

Now, I consider the New Caprica episodes (from "Lay Down Your Burdens" to "Collaborators") to be by far the best sustained stretch this show has ever done, but the return to space hasn't had the impact that Moore was hoping. If anything, the extended stay planetside has made me less willing to indulge mediocre space opera, and we've gotten a little too much of that in the last month or so.

The New Caprica episodes felt like they had things to say, socially, politically and about the characters. The episodes since have had some strong moments, but overall they've felt aimless. Baltar is on the Cylon baseship. Why? Do we know significantly more about the Cylons than we did before? Are they more interesting now? Why bother having Tigh and Starbuck go so far off the deep end if you're going to resolve it (for the most part) so quickly? Was there any real point to "Hero"?

With "Eye of Jupiter," at least, a lot of the seemingly pointless strands began to come together: the Kara/Lee/Dee/Anders quadrangle, the D'Anna/Baltar/Six triangle, D'Anna's suicidal tendencies, the search for earth, etc. Plus, we got our first taste of Brother Cavil in quite a while, and Dean Stockwell continues to be all kinds of awesome. And the cliffhanger would've been pretty cool...

... if the eedjits in Sci-Fi marketing hadn't given away the entire damn resolution in the January promo. Way to not leave people on the edge of their seats, guys.

What did everybody else think? Am I being too hard on the most recent episodes?
Click here to read the full post

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Survivor: Here's mud in your hat

A day later than planned, "Survivor" spoilers coming right up...

When Probst spends the bulk of Tribal Council talking about Jonathan's hat, you know it's been a dull episode. The Pagonging of Raro hasn't been nearly as satisfying as I had hoped, both because the Jonathan boot came in the middle and because the Aitu people are too decent to treat the Raros as badly as the Raros treat everybody else.

And a couple of thoughts on Hatgate: 1)Yul went out of his way to return the hat in an anonymous way; it only became sucking-up when Probst himself told Jonathan who did it; and 2)Unlike Jonathan, Yul is definitely intimidated by Probst. Instead of just sticking to his guns and saying that he returned the hat because his friend asked him to, he has to cave and say some strategy was involved when, again, he did it in a way that he assumed would keep his identity secret.

Becky was right, by the way, to at least contemplate dumping Ozzy early. At this point, the million bucks is his to lose. He's so far ahead of everyone else in the challenges that, unless there's one without a single athletic element, he's a lock for the final three. And once there, he's all but a lock to win the vote from a predominantly-Raro jury, because they're petty and stupid and will blame Yul for his role in their ouster (and his friendship with Jonathan), while Ozzy will get credit for being an inoffensive challenge machine. In other seasons, challenge machines have actually gotten demerits for sticking around through athletic ability (see Colby vs. Tina), but these people are generally too stupid and immature to really respect strategy.

What did everybody else think?
Click here to read the full post

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Office: Let's all go to Asian Hooters!

Posted a bit early due to evening plans, spoilers for "The Office" just as soon as I find a black magic marker...

After a couple of uneven post-merger episodes, the show's nearly back to full strength. I'll still probably take "Christmas Party" over "A Benihana Christmas," but it's close. Lots in common: both do outstanding work at spotlighting the entire cast (hell, even Oscar returned for a half-second tonight), and both feature Michael Scott at his most cringe-inducing (last year by instigating Yankee Swap, this year in his immediate reactions to getting dumped), and both feature Michael having unique reactions to women (photographing naked Meredith, using the marker to identify which waitress liked him), etc..

While the sequence where Michael realized he couldn't tell the two girls apart -- followed by the marker solution -- was the episode's highlight, overall I found myself enjoying the Pam and Karen half of the episode more than the stuff with the guys at Benihana. (Though, as someone who's had to sit at the far end of the table now and again, I actually felt sorry for Dwight for once.)

Jim's Women make a formidable team, and after some nervousness over seeing the two of them hanging out, even Jim jumped in with his brilliant monologue about a committee to determine the validity of the other committees. (And I love that Dwight, for all his hatred of Jim, thinks of it as an actual committee that he has a chance of joining.) The sight of the entire office torn between two parties, and Stanley of all people breaking the tie, was brilliant.

Some other things I loved:
  • Michael lying down by Pam's desk and explaining that Carol wanted to do things in bed
    "that were foreign, and scary, and some wine might've helped."
  • Ryan pulling a Jerry Seinfeld in "The Secret Code" and providing 1000 different excuses for why he couldn't go to Benihana, leaving Jim with nothing. ("Look alive, Halpert!")
  • Kevin defiantly eating a second cupcake and getting back to his Scrantonicity roots with his karaoke rendition of "You Oughta Know."
  • Toby's pain at having his gift bag stolen, including him trying to feel up the other robes to see what he had lost.

And some other thoughts, since I'm in a list-y frame of mind:

  • Is there any way that it wasn't Jan on the other end of Michael's phone call about the Sandals trip?
  • Am I reading too much into Jim's explanation of rebound girls, or does he consider Karen to be just a rebound from Pam? And, much as I liked the Jim/Pam thing, why? Karen's awesome, as this episode showed.

Some lines of the week:

  • Jim on Michael: "It's a bold move to Photoshop yourself into a photo with your girlfriend and her kids and her ex-husband on a ski trip, but then, Michael's a bold guy. Is 'bold' the right word?"
  • Michael: "Jim, take New Year's away from Stanley!"
  • Kevin: "I think I'll go to Angela's party, because that's the party I know."
  • Kevin: "Double fudge... Angela... double fudge... Angela..."
  • Karen and Pam: "Are we taking this too far? I say we're not taking this far enough." "I got goosebumps."
  • Angela to Waitress #1: "I don't walk into your apartment and steal your Hello Kitty backpack!" (And question: is this the rudest thing Angela has ever said?)
  • Oscar: "Too soon."

So what did everybody else think?

Click here to read the full post

Merry Chrismukkah to all

Been out of the office most of today, including a stop by HBO to interview Ricky Gervais about season two of "Extras" (and, after being lukewarm on season one, I loved season two), so I'll get to the column link quick: a look at the improvement of "The O.C." and how hard it is for long-running dramas to reverse a creative slide.

As the column says, I wasn't wild about tonight's Chrismukkah episode. I feel like the "It's a Wonderful Life" riff has been done better too many other places, and it wasn't nearly as funny as the last several episodes have been. Since I'll be otherwise occupied this evening, feel free to use this post to comment on the episode after it airs. Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Who has an alumium pole?

Instead of a year-end Worst Of list, Matt and I have always done a Festivus list in which we rattle off the people and shows who disappointed us in the previous year. So, for example, no point putting Paris Hilton on the list, as I have nothing but bad expectations for her, but I can complain about E! president Ted Harbert for renewing "The Simple Life" and continuing her unfortunate time in the spotlight.

I'm obviously going to have a lot to say about "Studio 60," and HBO nickel-and-diming "Deadwood" to death, and "The Nine" for going in the tank so quickly, but I wanted to take some outside input this year. Who or what would you put on your own TV Festivus list for The Airing of the Grievances? Click here to read the full post

Friday Night Lights: Hi, Mrs. Coach

Not a whole lot to say about the latest "Friday Night Lights," save that Minka Kelly's line delivery drives me nuts, and that Kyle Chandler is comedy gold in his disgusted reactions to Julie and Matt. (Who told they could get a blanket? How dare they?)

Any guesses on what Waverly was really doing when she was allegedly in Africa? The obvious answer is that she was sent away to have a baby someplace discreet, but I'll leave the floor open for other options. Click here to read the full post

Monday, December 11, 2006

HIMYM: Ted goes seaward (aka Ouchie in my mouth!)

"How I Met Your Mother" spoilers coming up just as soon as I figure out whether my nose is overflowing with awesome or influenza...

Like "Single Stamina," "How Lily Stole Christmas" wasn't quite up to the level of "Slap Bet" (few things are, admittedly), but it was still pretty damn good. The scene with Robin playing mom to Barney was especially funny, as was the "Ted Evelyn Mosby!" payoff to the "Ted Vivien Mosby" setup.

In case anyone was uncertain, I checked with a friend at CBS, and in case there was any confusion whatsoever, "Grinch" was code for the C-word, not the B-word. (In the rough cut I saw, Future Ted went on for quite a while about how it was a word that no woman ever wants to hear under any circumstances.)

The plot logic behind Lily being able to move all the Winter Wonderland supplies from Brooklyn to the Bronx by herself seemed written by someone who'd had a toke off whatever Flashback Lily, Flashback Ted and Flashback Marshall were smoking. And Jason Segel playing stoned? Old-home week! On the other hand, Flashback Ted's blatant Jewfro clashed with present Ted's whacko Christian cousins.

Aside from Marshall's UPS subplot falling flat, another strong episode in a season packed with them. What did everybody else think?
Click here to read the full post

Keys, pens and combs: The Lost Room

Today's column was a coin flip between the "HIMYM" Super Bowl rant and reviewing Sci-Fi's new miniseries "The Lost Room," which is quite a lot of weird fun. The short version, as I don't have much time even now: Peter Krause is a cop who stumbles upon a key that can open any door and transport him into a strange motel room, and the key in turn leads him to a series of other "objects" (a microwave-blasting pen, a comb that can freeze time, a teleporting bus ticket) that a variety of whackos and do-gooders (including Kevin Pollak, Dennis Christopher, Roger Bart and Julianna Margulies) are trying to collect.

I haven't seen the third and final installment (and EW says it falls apart there), but for the first two-thirds, at least, it's a very clever, involving bit of skiffy. Check it out if you're so inclined. Click here to read the full post

Rise of the little people

Spoilers for "Doctor Who" and "Battlestar Galactica" coming up just as soon as I munch on some algae bars...

I don't usually review Sci-Fi's two Friday shows together (and have been painfully remiss in commenting on "Who" altogether of late, even as I've been unable to stop saying "Ood" at random moments throughout my day), but an accident of scheduling made for a thematic double feature: episodes of both shows in which the stars were reduced to supporting characters at best.

"Doctor Who" was more blatant in this, keeping The Doctor and Rose off-screen for all but a handful of minutes, and using the members of LINDA as an odd (not Ood), affectionate tribute to the show's own fans. Ross Ruediger (whose exhaustive analysis over on Matt's site leave me feeling better about not writing about the show weekly), suggests in his latest that LINDA is a fan message board come to life, and that Victor Kennedy is a troll:
The guy who bitches and attempts to moderate those veering away from a group's charter issue(s). He shouts "Off Topic!" at the expression of individuality, controlling cyber forums by preying on feelings of insecurity. He's the sort of dude who takes all the fun out of it by trying to absorb everyone into his way of doing things.
I've marveled in the past over this show's ability to service its guest characters in minimal amounts of time so that I care when, say, a Mrs. Moore gets zapped. Obviously, Russell T. Davies had more room than usual to work this particular brand of magic, and Marc Warren and Shirley Henderson made for a nice geek-love couple. (On the other hand, I get very uncomfortable imagining the realities of their relationship going forward, and not just the sex stuff. What happens if Elton meets a girl who isn't two-thirds concrete slab? What does Ursula do to fill her days when Elton's not around? Is she immortal? What if she gets sick of ELO?)

But the character done the biggest favor, I thought, was Jackie Tyler. Though she only had a few scenes, this was her version of "The Zeppo," the first time we've seen The Doctor's universe entirely from her viewpoint. Jackie's always been a bit of a cartoon, in both this incarnation and her Age of Steel counterpart, and this really humanized her. Like Mickey before her, she now seems too real to be just stranded in present-day London while The Doctor and Rose have their adventures. Be nice to see her go for a ride in the TARDIS, even if just the once.

The regulars had slightly more to do over on "Galactica," as Moore and company (including "Buffy" vet and celebrity blogger Jane Espenson handling freelance script duties) did one of their occasional forays into the harsh realities of life in the rag-tag fleet. The last time they tried to hit this note, we got the universally-panned "Black Market," but the parts of "The Passage" devoted to the food shortage itself worked much better. If nothing else, the actors can sell the effects of famine much more easily than they can explain why black marketeering is an essential economic force in a military/civilian/pro-am/democratic space fleet. Two moments in particular stood out: Apollo trying to boost his pilots' failing morale after they lost another ship, and Adama and Tigh laughing just a little too hard at Saul's "paper shortage" joke.

This was also a sterling episode for the visual effects department. I think Espenson (and Moore, and whoever else had a hand in the rewrite process) didn't do the best job conveying the reasons for the food shortage or for the method of traveling through the cluster, but the VFX damn sure conveyed what a difficult task this was. (Even Moore, in the podcast, has to admit that the lack of tinted cockpit windows and/or sun visors on the pilots' helmets is a contrivance so we can see the actors' faces during flight scenes.)

Where I think "The Passage" stumbled -- and even here, not nearly as far as "Black Market" did with Apollo's single mama hooker friend -- it was with the expanded spotlight on Kat. I'm usually all for the kind of episodes that spotlight the Reg Barclays and Greg Medavoys of the world. I just didn't love the execution, both Luciana Carro's performance and the amount of backstory dumped on us in the space of an hour. (As others have pointed out before me, there was also a "Lost" quality to how much we were asked to care for a previously minor/unlikable character right before she got killed off.) But Edward James Olmos saved the whole affair with the sickbay scene. I knew the whole story felt contrived, but when Adama sat down at Kat's bedside and started to talk, I forgot all about that and started to wonder when my TV room got so dusty.

The Cylon scenes continue to leave me a bit cold, and turns out I'm not the only one. I'm only 30 or so minutes into the epic, three-hour drunken roundtable podcast that got posted late last week, but Jamie Bamber very bluntly (but respectfully) tells Moore that he wishes the Cylons were more mysterious, and Moore barely hesitates before admitting that Bamber's probably right. This season (both next week's episode and the ones that will begin airing in January) obviously hinges a lot on the Cylon mythology, and if Moore, who's a lot further along in seeing episodes than we are, doesn't feel like it's working as well as he had hoped, I'm afraid of where we're going from here.

What did everybody else think? In particular, I'm still sorting through my feelings about Kara's role in Kat's death, and about her behavior in general since they left New Caprica. Complicated is good, but I start to worry that, like Veronica Mars, her writers don't realize how she's starting to come across.
Click here to read the full post

How CBS missed its big chance

Today's column, expanding on my love of "How I Met Your Mother" and my feeling that CBS should have given it, and not "Criminal Minds," the post-Super Bowl slot:
A week ago, CBS announced that an episode of "Criminal Minds" would get the primo post-Super Bowl time period. And why not? "Criminal Minds," in spite of reviews that compare it (sometimes unfavorably) to a snuff film, has been the season's biggest growth story, edging perilously close to timeslot rival "Lost" in the 18-49 demographic and occasionally passing it in total viewers. It's become such a force that ABC will actually move "Lost" back an hour to 10 o'clock Wednesdays when it returns in February.

Here's why not: Because "How I Met Your Mother" -- the best traditional sitcom left on TV, and the first true heir to "Friends" -- is also on the CBS schedule, just waiting for this kind of showcase.

What's the upside on "Criminal Minds," especially when "American Idol" will be moving into the time period just as "Lost" is moving out? True, nobody expected it to do as well as it already has this year. And there's a chance it could follow the pattern of last year's post-pigskin show, "Grey's Anatomy," which was already rising up the charts before the game and is now the most popular show on television.

But at the end of the day, as people in the TV business like to say, how much higher can "Criminal Minds" go on a network that's in the double figures on crime dramas? If you want to watch a procedural police show, chances are you're more than familiar with CBS' line-up, even if you haven't checked them all out. Maybe the Super Bowl exposure nudges this show ahead a little, but a "Grey's"-like explosion? Nah.

"How I Met Your Mother," on the other hand, is the exact kind of show that can take advantage of the borrowed Super Bowl audience. The story of five New York friends in their late 20s looking for love and having silly adventures, it's not remotely what people expect to find on CBS. If it were airing on NBC Thursdays at 8:30 four or five years ago, it would be a sensation; on CBS in 2006, it's a solidly-performing afterthought.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Wire, "Final Grades": End of term

Spoilers for "The Wire" just as soon as I figure out who wrote the telltale graffiti in the Homicide men's room...

My God, where to start? So much happened to so many people, both in this extra-length episode and this magnificent season, that I feel the only way to do the finale justice is to go character-by-character and look at where everyone of significance wound up, followed by some other finale thoughts.

The boys: Look at that picture. Hard to believe that was from only eleven weeks ago, how happy and full of hope our four boys were. (Well, maybe Dukie wasn't so hopeful, but he also didn't know what Mr. Prezbo was about to do for him.) Now the season's over, and where are they? Michael's a murderer twice over, once as an accessory and once directly, running a corner and seemingly lost to the streets forever. (Or until he has a Cutty-like rebirth decades from now.) Dukie's a drop-out and low-level member of Michael's crew, not to mention Bug's new caretaker now that Michael doesn't seem to have much interest in his own brother. Randy's been swallowed up by the system, put in a position where, even if Carver follows through and gets certified as a foster dad in four or five months, that smile of Randy's is never going to shine quite as bright.

Only Namond gets out, completes the transformation from corner kid to stoop kid that Bunny and Dr. Parenti envisioned when they began their study. And that salvation only comes through Bunny going far beyond the call of duty, not to mention the availability and wisdom of Wee-Bey, who deep down knows his son could never be a soldier.

At the start of the season, or the mid-point, or even the end, if you were to ask me which of the boys I'd most like to see saved, Namond would have been my last choice. Randy had the smile, the generosity of spirit and the work ethic. (Like Gary McCullough from "The Corner," he's also the most relatable to this suburban white guy.) Michael had the loyalty and courage, not to mention that intangible leadership quality that brought out the inner mentor of every man he met And Dukie had the brains, not to mention the lousiest hand of cards possibly dealt any character in the history of this show. Namond? Namond was a spoiled brat at best, a bullying wannabe gangster at worst. Even after he fell under Bunny's guidance and started revealing his sweeter, more genuine side, I still had a softer spot for the other three, especially Randy and Dukie.

But I think that's the point. To quote William Munny in "Unforgiven," deserve's got nothing to do with it. In the world of "The Wire" -- and the real world it so eerily models -- good things, when they happen, come not to those who've earned them, but those who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Like Namond, Randy had a responsible adult trying to take him in; the only difference is that Carver had to wade through too much red tape and the inflexible child services system, where Bunny was able to go directly to Wee-Bey. Randy could have owned his own store, Dukie could have gone into computers (or, hell, policework like Prez), Michael could have become a fighter or something else, but it's probably too late for all three. And in the end, Namond's probably going to turn out okay so long as he has Bunny to kick him in the ass thrice-daily.

Is there a certain level of feel-good sentimentality to Namond's rescue? Yes, but it was important for two reasons. First, Simon and Burns had to illustrate the extraordinary efforts, not to mention good fortune, that can be required to get an at-risk boy into a stable environment. Second, it's one thing to tell a story of adults (say, the port guys) where everyone has an unhappy ending, but when you're dealing with 13-year-old boys, bleak endings across the board would have been too much to bear.

We're obviously going to see Michael and Dukie again next season (Michael even made his way onto the MCU cork board as "Unknown"), and the whole thing on the HBO website about Cheese maybe being Randy's father has me hoping that he'll turn up again, but I have a feeling we've said goodbye to both Namond and Bunny. They got their happy ending, or as close as a disgraced ex-cop and an unofficially orphaned corner kid can get, and better to imagine them enjoying that than to bring them back in for potential doom and gloom.

Tommy & Norman: Tommy, Tommy, Tommy. Morning in Baltimore lasted, what, two weeks? We can argue all day and all night about Tommy's motives going into the election, and even after he won -- I still say Tommy's good intentions narrowly outweighed his selfish ones -- but the woman from the DNC talking up the governorship is the worst thing that could have happened to Tommy, and to Baltimore. His weak-ass "in two years, I can do so much more from Annapolis" rings so false when we see how much terrible change can come to boys like Randy and Dukie in the space of only a few months, let alone two years. How long before he starts blindly chasing stats and getting deep into bed with Clay Davis?

As for Norman, this season's best addition, Non-Juvenile Division, I would have more trouble with his disbelief at Tommy's feet of clay if the show hadn't established that he usually runs campaigns, not administrations. Easy to only see the good in a candidate when you get to walk away before he has to make any real decisions.

The MCU: The need to fold the election story into the show proper instead of doing a separate miniseries gave short shrift to a number of regular characters, none moreso than the Major Crimes Unit itself. It was gutted in episode three, populated by dimwits and petty bureaucrats for most of the season, and only started returning to its former glory in the last three episodes. While the boys' stories all received some form of closure, the MCU's pursuit of Marlo has barely begun. The amount of danglers from this story put the lie to any attempt on Chris Albrecht's part to suggest fans wouldn't be upset if the show ended without a fifth season.

Fortunately, we'll get to see Lester and company (including, despite last week's "Are you happy here?" scene, Kima) try to put the wood to Marlo and his people. They have more juice with command than ever before, thanks to Daniels' ascension and the headlines generated by all the bodies. But as I asked last week, how the hell do you get a crew as cautious as Marlo's? They kill anyone who even might be snitching, they don't use phones, meet only in public places with guards who can spot anyone trying to plant another camera like Herc's, and now they're in the practice of disposing of every weapon used in any murder. This seems an even taller task than closing the murder of the dead girls in the can from season two.

Ah, well, at least they again have access to the powerful mind of...

McNulty: If you've watched this show long enough, you know that a character's about to be in a whole lot of trouble right around the time they give a big speech looking ahead to their future. Kima did it while out drinking with her friends and got shot. D'Angelo found a parallel to his life in "The Great Gatsby," then got strangled. When Jimmy began telling Beadie about how things would be different this time, how the love of his good woman would keep him straight even as he went back to the job that made him into an alcoholic bastard, I wanted to tell Beadie to politely ask him to leave and immediately change the locks. Does anyone here honestly believe Jimmy can have his cake and eat it, too? At least he has a nobler motive this time than his usual "Let me prove how much smarter I am than the rest of the world" approach, because of what he owes to...

Bodie: Son of a bitch. That's how a soldier dies, for good and for ill. He wouldn't live on his knees, wouldn't die on them, either, the first man all season to not roll over and let Chris and Snoop walk him to his death inside a vacant. I used to look at Bodie without much affection. He was the hot-head always in need of a lecture from D'Angelo or Stringer, not to mention the killer of Wallace. But while he wasn't as mistake-free as he tried to suggest in his speech at the arboretum, he did learn from all those lectures -- he was the only victim of Hamsterdam to recognize entrapment when he saw it -- and if Stringer had lived and stayed on the street, Bodie had a chance to move on up and become, if not a king, then a knight like Slim Charles. Instead, he goes down, guns blazing, on the pathetic piece of real estate he turned into a thriving concern, and leaves Poot, of all people, as the last free and surviving member of the Barksdale empire. (I don't count Slim, who was a mercenary.) RIP, Preston Broadus.

And for the record: Michael did not -- I repeat, did not -- kill Bodie. I know it's a dark scene, and there's some resemblance between Bodie's killer and Michael, but it wasn't him. Per David Simon, "Michael does the murder in the montage. One of the other kids who was training with Chris and Snoop is the shooter of Bodie." When Marlo suggests that Michael be the one to take out Bodie, don't forget, Chris says it would be better for Michael's first kill to be a stranger, and Marlo agrees.

Bunny: If I'm right that we've seen the last of the ex-Major, then at least he went out well. He couldn't bring some sanity to the War on Drugs, or to No Child Left Behind, but he was able to save one child -- and as we learned over and over this season, that's no easy feat. And, in a way, Hamsterdam Jr. made its mark. Zenobia and Darnell joined Namond as kids who seem capable of being students again, and the dead silent response to Albert's "your worst nightmare" joke in Prez's class suggested that the kids not only have gotten used to life without the troublemakers, but may not be as willing to tolerate their disruptions in the future. Not the worst legacy for the show's resident unpopular truth-teller.

Wee-Bey & De'Londa: Bunny knew the right way to frame his argument for Wee-Bey, but I credit Wee-Bey for having the wisdom and lack of foolish pride to see the truth in Bunny's words. At the end of season one, he happily confessed to several murders he didn't commit, partly out of self-preservation (it likely spared him the death penalty), but mainly out of loyalty to Avon. Five years gone, and the reality of life in prison has made itself very apparent to him. He's tough enough to handle that weight, but he now sees that the family business is nothing worth pushing his son into.

De'Londa, on the other hand, continues to Not Get It on a massive scale, even assuming that Wee-Bey's interest in her would vanish the second her child did. Sure, some players in the game are like that (D'Angelo never had much time for Donnette outside her being his baby mama), but she clearly understands her man about as well as she understood her son. Feh. I understand why she is the way she is, but that woman can't be off my TV fast enough.

Cutty: He began the season having a fun, sexy time with every mother who wandered into the gym, not realizing the effect this was having on boys like Spider and Michael. He ends it with a bum leg but a less controversial love interest, courtesy of a character reference from Bunny. Is his story done, too, do you think, or will he play some kind of role in whatever's coming for Michael next season?

The Bunk: He bookended the season with the Lex case, and in between saved Omar from Marlo's clutches. The man continues to have a gift for taking people on a guilt trip, in this case getting probable cause out of Lex's mom by pointing out that it's her own fault her son's remains went undiscovered for so long. If I'm right that Jimmy's flying back to drunken bimbohood, then I'm sure Bunk will be happy to play wingman.

Carver & Herc: Carver's growth over the course of the series -- hell, even from the start of season three to now -- is amazing, but that maturity brings with it the price of a conscience. Herc has no idea what he did to Randy and Bubbs, nor would he care, while Carver is crushed by having failed Randy and Miss Anna, even if his only failure was in trusting Herc. (Randy trying to absolve him of any guilt as they entered the group home only made things worse, of course.) I wonder if he'll have the perserverance to actually get qualified to be Randy's guardian, or if he'll let himself be talked out of it with the passage of time and a whole lot of beers.

Herc, meanwhile, becomes that rare "Wire" character to get something close to the fate he deserves -- assuming that I read the disciplinary board scene right and that "conduct unbecoming" is a firing offense -- even though he's being punished for an entirely different crime. Those sergeant's stripes transformed him from lunkheaded comic relief into a very dangerous person, and the only thing I feel bad about is that he'll never really understand what he did.

Bubbles: Andre Royo breaks my heart on a regular basis, never moreso than in this episode. His confession to Landsman, and especially his breakdown at the mental hospital (in front of his AA sponsor from season one, in case you didn't recognize the shaggy biker guy), were just devastating. They say an addict can't quit until they hit rock bottom, and I can't fathom a rock lower than the one Bubbs is trapped under at the moment. We saw that he had a very fragile support system in place when he tried to get clean in season one; maybe Sherrod's death will be enough to keep him going forward this time, even if he suffers a setback like he did when Kima got shot. God, I hope so.

(And why am I sitting around expressing so much hope about the future of fictional characters? Why does this show do this to me?)

Omar: As a poster in last week's thread put it, "Omar and Renaldo are the real Major Crimes Unit this season." With some old-fashioned surveillance techniques, they acquired high-level intel and put the kind of hurt on the Baltimore drug trade that Lester can only dream about. But as Butchie said (shortly after flashing a Randy-level smile while contemplating what his adopted son pulled off), "This ain't over." Just as Bubbs' life has nowhere to go but up from here, I can't see Omar's fifth season arc traveling anywhere but in a downward direction.

Prez: As Ms. Samson says, he'll be fine. He's always going to have his awkward moments because that's just who Prez is, but he connected to his kids -- not just Dukie, but everyone -- much faster than he had any right to. He looked devastated at seeing Dukie on the corner (maybe also feeling guilty for taking Ms. Donnelly's advice too far and essentially blowing off Dukie when he came by?), so perhaps he'll find some tangential way to get involved in Lester's work next year.

Burrell & Rawls:
Now that they're back in their relative positions of power, can I start calling them Beavis & Hack-Boy, or is it an insult to this show to drop any kind of "Studio 60" reference in the middle of it? As I said a couple of weeks ago, Burrell being Tommy's political operative isn't the worst thing in the world, but I worry that he's going to start sabotaging Daniels and the MCU to hang onto the throne. How long before Ronnie and Cedric get replaced with Burrell and Clay Davis at Tommy's lunchtable?

And, as I said at the top, any theories on who wrote the Rawls graffiti? I imagine whoever wrote it has no idea how true it was, but after all the wild-eyed speculation when we saw Rawls in the gay bar last season, I'm amused that this was the only follow-up of any kind this year.

Marlo, Chris & Snoop: Whenever an interviewer suggests that Marlo is a sociopath, Simon always points to his loyalty to his people. And so far, all of the murders we know Marlo arranged have been of people either on the fringes of his organization (Old-Face Andre, Little Kevin, Bodie) or outside it altogether (Lex, the security guard). But the simultaneous discovery of two dozen bodies is enough heat to melt even someone as ice-cold as Marlo; if faced with a choice between giving up Chris and losing his empire, what would he do?

Like everyone else, I had more empathy for Avon and, especially, Stringer than I have for Marlo. But as with De'Londa, I understand why he is who he is, and he's a worthier adversary for Lester and the MCU than I think any of us were imagining last year.

Prop Joe & Vondas: Well, here's a sight I never thought I'd see again on this show: The Greek's right-hand man, back in Baltimore. During my pre-season interview with Simon and Ed Burns, I expressed surprise that Vondas would be willing to come back to a city where the cops had paper on him, not to mention a photo I.D. Ed laughed, pointing out that paper doesn't matter much when the case is so many years removed, and when the subject of that paper is such a slippery character to begin with. That said, they told me this wasn't just a gratuitous call-back to season two, and that they brought Spiros back for a reason. It's not this show's style to tie everything up with neat bow, even with a series finale in mind, but I'm hopeful that Spiros isn't going to slip in and out of Baltimore without crossing paths with Lester or one of the other MCU cops from the port case...

...that is, if Marlo doesn't go all season three Avon and try to wage a war against a foe he can't beat. The Greek and his people are, if anything, even colder and more efficient than Marlo's crew, though the expansiveness of their operation gives them vulnerabilities that Marlo doesn't have. Could be an interesting irresistible force vs. immovable object battle, if that's where they're headed.

Either way, having The Greek in his corner is basically the only thing Prop Joe has going for him right now. Omar cost him a lot of money, but worse, he may have cost him the relative peace of the empire he and Stringer created with the co-op. The co-op is built on trust, and on the other members' respect for Joe; without that, how long before the east side gets very bloody? And yet Joe's still enough of a hustler to con Marlo and the others into paying 30 on the dollar when Omar sold it to him for only 20. Gotta admire that.

Landsman: I've compared him and Ms. Donnelly before as the two quasi-sympathetic guardians of a terribly flawed institution. Jay's not a bad guy, but in the past he's always chosen to protect The Board above all else, so it was stunning and more than a little heart-warming to see him throw away a gift-wrapped clearance because he recognized the pointlessness of it. Could this be a turning point for our favorite hardcore connoisseur? Nah; I just think, like the rest of us, Bubbs gave a stronger tug at his heartstrings than he could handle. Jay was back to his usual self by the time he saw that column on The Board so long it had to be extended with paper. (Who's primary on all these, by the way? Lester's technically not part of Homicide anymore, so Bunk?)

Some other random thoughts:
  • You make the call: was the giddiness of Cutty's neighbor over hearing Al Swearengen say "cocksucker" a dig or a wink at HBO's other profane drama? I have to say that I got a bit of a dig vibe, especially over the way the guy seemed so excited just at hearing "cocksucker," regardless of usage. (Also, can anyone tell whether Cutty was watching "Soap" or "Benson" later on? I'm not that much of a Guillaume obsessive.)
  • "Kids don't vote." Fuck you very much, nameless budget guy.
  • Always interesting when we have more information than the cops. For instance, we know that the bodies found on the east side were the handful of New Yorkers that Chris and Snoop killed as a favor to Prop Joe, but the MCU is now going to waste time expanding the search to the rest of the city when all the other bodies are on the west side.
  • Snoop and Chris cuffed at curbside was the first time all season that we've seen those two look even the slightest bit afraid of anything. A very weird sight.
  • Another unexpected sight: the complete surprise on Marlo's face at seeing The Ring -- which, as far as he knows, Omar last had -- around Michael's neck. Michael wouldn't even take it off while losing his virginity. (And poor Dukie, having to listen to the headboard banging.)
  • The season's final lesson: Chris arranges Michael's first kill, then tells him he can look anyone in the eye from now on. I know the two of them have suffered terribly in the past, but damn.
  • It would be funny if it wasn't so damn sad: Randy offering to pay $235 for a foster placement. Interesting that Randy, who had always seemed softer than even Namond, was able to throw the first punch against his wonderful new roommates. Continuing to search for a silver lining: if these kinds of beatings continue, can't Carver get Randy out of there for his own safety?
Lines of the week:
  • Landsman on Lester: "He is a vandal. He is vandalizing the board, he is vandalizing this unit. He is a Hun, a Visigoth, a barbarian at the gate clamoring for human blood and what's left of our clearance rate."
  • Mello explaining the nail problem at roll call: "Listen up, you mutts, this is complicated. I mean it isn't complicated if you went to college or, I don't know, your mothers actually stopped drinking while they were pregnant, but for Baltimore city police, this is complicated.
  • Bunk on hearing what Herc's in trouble over: "Son, they gonna beat on your white ass like it's a rented mule."
  • Bunk & Snoop: "I'm thinking 'bout some pussy." "Yeah, me too."
  • Kima on whether Bubbs' suicide attempt was a cry for attention: "Bubbs got some problems, but insincerity ain't one of them."
  • Royce's ex-chief of staff, Coleman Parker, to Norman: "They always disappoint. Closer you get, the more you look. All of them."
Well, that's clearly enough outta me. What did everybody else think?
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Friday, December 08, 2006

The O.C.: Tawny Kitaen time

Better late than never, spoilers for "The O.C." coming right up...

Still more comedy goodness from this resurgent season, centering once again on the unbridled wackiness (and kinkyness) of Ms. Taylor Townsend. Bribing gay men with Asian cinema collectibles, doing her best '80s music video babe impression, trying to get the Harbor kids to play board games... I'm trying to think of the last scene she was in that wasn't funny. Hell, she's even managed to make Ryan funny -- or, at least, to reveal that Ben McKenzie has a gift for deadpan.

Seth and Summer's pact to go back to Rhode Island in the fall felt oddly poignant, since we all know the chances of season five are all but non-existent, but I liked Seth's aborted attempt to play Ryan Atwood, Summer's utter disdain for Che, Summer taking responsibility for her own actions, of course, Summer introducing Pancakes to Seth.

At the moment, I feel like every "O.C." episode review just turns into a list of things I liked, so to those I'll add Kaitlin briefly seeming like a real teenager, Kirsten and Sandy auditioning to be Replacement Seth, Julie's reaction at discovering she had inadvertently made herself eligible to attend that one bitchy girl's Pimps 'N Ho's party, the confusion over ownership of Dr. Roberts' house and its various rooms, and the revelation of where "Che" comes from.

Am I wrong? Is there something to complain about right now that I'm missing?
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Dark days ahead

Today's column previews the finale of "The Wire" and the "Tsunami: The Aftermath" miniseries that will precede it:
The season finale of "The Wire" includes an on-camera suicide attempt, the murder of a familiar character, and the fates of several 13-year-old boys being utterly destroyed. The new HBO miniseries "Tsunami: The Aftermath" features parents losing children, children losing parents, and corporate and government wrongdoing on a massive, deadly scale.

This is bleak territory, two stories filled with despair and institutional indifference and no obvious solutions to any of the problems being depicted. But where "Tsunami" has no problem wallowing in that despair, "The Wire" transcends it.

In fairness, this is less a condemnation of "Tsunami," which is a reasonably effective bit of agit-prop with a moving central performance by Chiwetel Ejoifor, than it is a celebration of "The Wire," which continues to make grand entertainment out of thoroughly depressing material.

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Scrubs: Who wants an abortion?

That's two very meh "Scrubs" episodes to start the season. At what point should I start getting concerned? Spoilers coming up just as soon as I figure out how the baby got out of the NICU so fast...

I give them major points for being so blunt in JD and Kim's discussion of abortion, even though I knew there was little to no chance of them having the guts (or, more importantly, the juice within NBC) to have Kim go through with it. I also liked Scolding Statue Jesus' take on the subject and the entire subplot about Cox being too candid with Jack. (Christa Miller also played the hell out of that little moment when Jordan said, "I sure did, sweetie" after Jack kept saying that she had an abortion, as you could see her imagining what that first kid might have been like, even as she knew she made the right choice for her.)

As for the rest of the show, I liked JD and Turk's drumline dance, Turk using his frozen hand to cool/calm Carla, Todd complimenting Carla on her vagina, but this one had the same problem as the premiere: too much happening, and too many jarring tone shifts between pathos and pure unadulterated wackiness.

Is it just me?
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30 Rock: Hey, Dr. Spacemen, won't you please take me along for a ride?

"30 Rock" spoilers coming up just as soon as I figure out whether I have a toupee coming in my future...

Very girl-with-the-curl episode. What was good (everything not involving Tracy) was very good, but what was bad (everything involving Tracy) was awful. And Rachel Dratch must have been sobbing in hair and makeup every time she had to get dressed up as Blue Man. She left "SNL" for this?

As Dratch's replacement, Jane Krakowski hasn't exactly dazzled, but the whole "Rural Juror" joke was so good that anyone could have sold it. (That and Dr. Spuh-che-men were reminders that a silly name is its own comedy reward.) Jack's contempt for Liz keeps coming out in very specific ways (the Bryn Mawr put-down, "What am I, a farmer?"), and I even liked Pete having to wear the stupid wig.

But the Tracy scenes were just painful, and I say that after having been pleasantly surprised by Tracy for most of this season. I appreciated the use of the classical music and Liz's low blood sugar to go for a more farcical tone, but the stupid over-the-topness (is that even a word? no, I don't think so) of the Tracy stuff derailed it.

What did everybody else think?
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Survivor: The case of the missing coconuts (and hat)

"Survivor" spoilers coming up just as soon as I decide whether it's ethical to hide food from my family if I was the one who went to the grocery store...

Well, that was disappointing. And not very interesting, to boot. The first out and out dud episode since the mutiny.

I can't believe Yul allowed himself to be bullied by Adam and Parvati (and, I'm guessing, Sundra) into letting Jonathan get voted off ahead of those two self-righteous, lazy idiots. First of all, this whole notion that Parvati and Adam behave so much better when Jonathan's not around shouldn't be an indictment of Jonathan, but of Adam and Parvati. They have made things personal in a way that they shouldn't be, especially since it's their own damn fault that Jonathan was still around while they voted out so many other members of their alliance. It's like, they can't admit that they screwed up, so they turn into the worst kind of bitter, moralizing name-callers. I get that Jonathan had a forceful personality, but those two (and Candice before she left) spent the last two episodes conducting one of the nastiest, most effective smear campaigns I've seen since Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

(Parvati also got lucky sending Jonathan to Exile Island when she did, or else I imagine her dad, with no insider knowledge, would've picked the lone husband-and-wife team to join in on the reward.)

More to the point, Adam and Parvati hated Jonathan so much that there was no way the remaining member of that duo would ever try to ally with him (unlike Yul, who until this episode had proven the ability to put personal feelings aside in favor of smart game play. Now you have a solid duo left, and all they need is to flip one person (the previews hinted at Ozzy) to force a tie. Why risk that? Why risk a Raro slipping all the way to final two (or, as we've since learned, final three) when the jury is going to be dominated by Raro members?

I'm of two minds on Operation: Vanishing Coconut. Ozzy makes a good point about feeding the competition, especially when the competition does next to nothing to help acquire or prepare the food (though Parvati did chop her thumb off while trying to open a coconut). On the other hand, why give ammunition to what's already going to be the most obnoxious, juvenile jury since All-Stars? I'm surprised Yul the diplomat was on board with both that and Fishgate last week; regardless of the moral high ground, you can't afford to alienate too many of the people who control whether you get a million bucks.

Sigh... Jonathan had zero chance of winning, and even he knew that, but I hate that his early boot allows Adam and Parvati to feel justified in their nasty, nasty behavior. Every time I see Adam's neanderthal smirk, I want to smack him with a coconut -- assuming I could find one without having to climb a tree.

What did everybody else think?
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Thursday, December 07, 2006

'Sleeper' time again

Today's column previews "Sleeper Cell" season two:

A year ago, FBI agent Darwyn Al-Sayeed went undercover in a Muslim extremist cell, and working both with and against charismatic mastermind Farik (Oded Fehr), saved Los Angeles from a devastating terror attack.

And now he has to do it all over again.

The first "Sleeper Cell" was such a triumph -- a riveting popcorn thriller that actually had some thoughtful things to say about the War on Terror and the philosophical civil war within Islam -- that you can't blame Showtime for commissioning a sequel.

Unavoidable spoilers for the sequel, subtitled "American Terror," are coming in a minute. Before those, I'll say the new edition delivers many of the same thrills and intelligent debate that made the original so exceptional. But the mere act of bringing it back creates problems the original never had to deal with.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

On the Lost move to 10 o'clock...

The move isn't a huge shock to me for several reasons. In no particular order:
  1. ABC has struggled to find the right companion show to air after it. An argument can be made that there is no compatible show, because "Lost" is both so intense and so complicated that the fans need to decompress and start analyzing when it's over. Unless a huge percentage of the fans stick around at 10, the lead-out is considered a failure. But a much smaller number needs to stick around to boost the affiliates' 11 o'clock newscasts into successful territory.
  2. "Criminal Minds" has been building, and while I don't think the shows' audiences overlap that much, there's always the chance that the Super Bowl exposure could push it over "Lost" in demos as well as viewers, which is bad for both ABC's image and bottom line.
  3. The "Lost" viewership decline began when "American Idol" came back at mid-season. (Season one aired at 8, so "Idol" was only briefly an issue during the audition episodes.) The people who gave up on "Lost" to watch "Idol" didn't come back in the fall. At its current numbers, "Lost" is still a success for ABC even at its current budget, but how many more viewers can they afford to lose to "Idol" this time?

Since I don't watch "CSI:NY" or "Medium," I don't mind following "Lost" to 10 (assuming I want to keep continuing after the first few February episodes). I just feel bad for "Knights of Prosperity," which was likely going to be doomed no matter what (bad title, hard concept to explain, very quirky) but now has zero shot opposite Simon, Randy and Pauler (plus Mandy and Howie Mandel).

Been a bad season for ABC comedy altogether. "Big Day" and "Help Me Help You" are tanking on Tuesdays. (And am I nuts, or did "Big Day" skip an episode? When they sent me "The World According to Garf," I just assumed the bit about the photographer being run over meant that ABC hadn't sent me consecutive episodes, but apparently not.) "Notes from the Underbelly" probably won't air until summer, if at all, and I'm hard-pressed to find a scenario that has "Knights" and "In Case of Emergency" doing any kind of business.

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Friday Night Lights: Can you say "Members Only"?

Today's column looks at the beginning of the end for "King of Queens." Spoilers for "Friday Night Lights" just as soon as I go looking for my piano key necktie...

Who would have thought when this show debuted that one of its strongest elements would be a fumbling romantic comedy subplot? And yet Saracen's awkward pursuit of Julie Taylor is always a weekly highlight, never moreso than last night. This was the funniest "FNL" has ever been, what with Coach's "At least she's not interested in a serial killer -- or one of the Rigggins," Landry playing personal shopper, Taylor's horrified response to the Members Only jacket and Julie's hoochie dress, the worthlessness of the QB One thing at the movie theater, Landry explaining why the grandma singing was the only thing he did right on the date, "Lance," etc. Is something going very wrong or very right when Taylor has as many funny lines as Landry?

And yet the "Mr. Sandman" scene separated the whole story from, say, what "One Tree Hill" would have tried. There's so much genuine pain in Matt's situation with his grandmother, the way he's been left to play both son, father, and, occasionally, grandfather, and to have his best friend and potential girlfriend witness that recurring role play made it even worse for him.

As for the rest of the episode, I liked Street and Tyra bonding over being cuckolded -- and the fact that, paralysis or no, Tyra didn't have anything in mind beyond getting drunk and making fun of their exes. Buddy finally got to show a human side in the way he comforted Lyla, we discovered that the Panthers' offensive linemen are capable of speech and independent thought, and Smash continued to get some belated character development.

My one negative: the Panthers need to have an easy win soon, or at least a game that they don't have to win on the very final play. Even as a hardcore underdog sports movie junkie who pumped his fist after Saracen's touchdown pass in the pilot, I'm getting tired of all the stirring comebacks and miracle passes/runs/laterals/etc.

What did everybody else think?
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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Studio 60: Let's get rid of demented Santa Claus!!!!!

Spoilers for "Studio 60" just as soon as I find out why nobody told me it was Opposite Day...

... because that? That did not suck. There were a couple of the requisite cringe-inducing moments, mostly involving the two leading men and their unconvincing romances, and the FCC subplot set up such a strawman villain that I was longing for the subtle nuances or Bob "Crime, boy I don't know" Ritchie, but overall, I didn't hate it. For this show, that's huge progress.

Let's take the good stuff first. I laughed several times, mostly at Cal's antics (see the subject line) and the Christmas debunking going on in the writers' room. (Though even I know that the virgin birth was Mary, not Jesus, and I'm the idiot responsible for the "figgy pudding"/"won't go until we get some" fiasco from the other night.) While the News 60 jokes were as lame and overly-wordy as ever, I at least admired the premise of the "To Catch a Predator" spoof with Santa. (Would have been funnier if Conan hadn't dipped a toe in these waters back at the Emmys, but c'est la vie.) And shameless as the New Orleans thing was, it was still beautiful. Sometimes you've gotta be shameless to provide good schmaltz.

Now, the bad. Matt and Harriet continue to have zero chemistry together, and him planting a kiss on her during a commercial break to mark his territory was a dick move, as both a guy and as a boss. But he's got nothing on Danny, who, aside from looking old enough to be the unborn baby's grandfather, came across like the kind of guy who should be the victim of a "Dateline NBC" sting operation with his obsessive stalking of Jordan. "I'm coming for you" isn't romantic; it's the sort of thing T-Bag from "Prison Break" would say.

Also, there is No. Way. In Hell. that the FCC would issue a $73 million fine in a situation involving live news and an American soldier in the middle of combat. No way. This is totally different from Janet Jackson or even the silly "Saving Private Ryan" thing, and no political administration of either stripe would allow this to happen. If Aaron wants to go after the FCC for the post-Nipplegate atmosphere, go right ahead, but pick a better target.

But, still, didn't hate it. I don't know that this is going to win anybody an Emmy the way the first three "West Wing" Christmas shows did, but it was by far the least objectionable episode of the series in weeks, if not going all the way back to the pilot.

What did everybody else think?
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Heroes: He's my Hiro

"Studio 60" coming late this morning, most likely, as I chose sleep over Sorkin last night. Spoilers for "Heroes" just as soon as I binge on some aspirin...

Whole lotta plot in the latest episode: Niki regains control of her body long enough to turn herself into the law (not that I expect a jail cell to hold Jessica for very long), Claire's dad sics The Haitian on her brother and best friend (and despite what HRG told her about things he did that he wasn't proud of, Claire doesn't connect the dots until The Haitian visits her, speaks for the first time, and disobeys HRG for the sake of the world), Isaac meets Hiro and discovers he can draw the future without shooting up, Eden tries to kill Sylar and instead has to blow her own brains out to keep him from stealing her power as he escapes from his lame prison, Peter and Matt have dueling telepathy (Ding-a-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding), and Peter's dream power shows him that he's the one who's going to blow up New York.

And yet what I found myself discussing with Marian when the show ended was how important Hiro is to my enjoyment of the show. So let me turn that around to the rest of you. It's obvious that, to most viewers, Hiro is their favorite character, but how watchable would "Heroes" as a whole be without the guy? How much does his enthusiasm and humor counterbalance the pretentious characters like Peter and Mohinder?

Some more specific questions:
  • At what point is it going to occur to D.L. to just stay phased through a fight except for when he wants to throw a punch?
  • Is the show's FX budget high enough to show Hiro's prophesied battle with the dinosaur/dragon, or will this take place off-screen?
  • If Isaac wrote and drew the 9th Wonder comic book -- even while high -- why is he so surprised when Hiro tells him about events that appear in the book?
  • Does HRG know that The Haitian can talk? And, outside of mind-wiping and power-dampening, can he do anything else?
  • Does it seem to anyone else like more than two weeks have passed since the pilot? I suppose that makes sense given the length of Hiro and Ando's road trip and all the cliffhangers, but I've never felt like this was happening over such a compressed period.
  • Getting back to the issue of how much Hiro adds to the show, is there any regular character who adds less than Simone?
Take it away, folks.
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Monday, December 04, 2006

Once again, CBS goes the crime route

So CBS has decided to hand the post-Super Bowl timeslot to "Criminal Minds" instead of "How I Met Your Mother." Sigh... The timeslot's not what it used to be in the '80s and early '90s, but if there's a show on CBS' schedule that could really benefit from being introduced to viewers who don't usually watch CBS, it's "HIMYM," which is basically the best sitcom NBC never aired.

I don't know that "Criminal Minds" has a ceiling much higher than what it's doing now, where "HIMYM" could do much, much better if its target audience knew it existed.

Clearly, I think CBS made the wrong call. Make no mistake. Click here to read the full post

Wire week 13 talk for the On Demand'ers

And so we've come to the end of our week-ahead discussions of "The Wire." Comment on the finale here if you have the gift of On Demand (or time travel). Click here to read the full post

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Wire, "That's Got His Own": Out in the cold

Spoilers for "The Wire" episode 12 just as soon as I hit Costco for a few thousand tissues...

"You gonna help, huh? You gonna look out for me? You gonna look out for me, Sgt. Carver? You mean it? You gonna look out for me? You promise? You got my back, huh?"

Fuckin' George Pelecanos.

Every damn season, the man writes the penultimate episode, and every time he absolutely destroys me. Bodie and Poot killing Wallace. Sobotka driving to his death. Omar and Mouzone taking out Stringer Bell. But none of that was a patch on the four punches to the gut administered in "That's Got His Own." There was another death tonight, poor Sherrod, but it's the fate of the living that really stung.

Randy? His trusted foster mom badly burned and himself bound for a return to the social services system that emotionally scarred him. Dukie? Exiled from the first real home he's ever known, and abandoned by his real family on top of that. Namond? Forced to confront his absolute unsuitability for the corner lifestyle, and kicked out of his mom's house as punishment. And Michael? Already lost, a willing pupil of Chris and Snoop's, a one-time protector who now has no qualms about savagely beating on a little boy not much older than his kid brother.

I say again: Fuckin' George Pelecanos. I know that it's Simon and Burns who come up with the arc of the season and Pelecanos who only serves as their hatchet man each year, but my connection to these characters is so strong that I start talking myself into a grudge against George for not standing up to his bosses and trying to protect these innocents. Maybe "The Wire" is an unchangeable institution like the ones it tries to dissect, one where bad things happen because no one can stop them even if they want to.

But if I can divorce myself from this unhealthy attachment to four fictional kids, I can marvel at the artistry that was used to depict each of them being cast out by the society that promises to nurture and protect them.

Since I first watched this season back in June, the scene that haunted me, not surprisingly, was Carver's endless walk down that Stanley Kubrick-looking white corridor as Randy's taunts echo behind him. (A nice parallel to the "Where the fuck is Wallace?" scene from the similar point in season one. Where the boy at, String?) But just as awful was Dukie's wistful last glimpse back at Prez's classroom (and also the look on his face when he realized his family left him behind -- again), Namond telling Michael he didn't want the package and, later, breaking down in tears at the realization that he's not capable of living his father's life.

But the one that stuck out at me on second and third viewing this week was Cutty turning down Michael's offer to wait for the ambulance. For all that Michael seems lost, taking shooting lessons from Chris, beating on Kenard, shoving Namond, etc., there was still enough humanity left in him that he was willing to wait with Cutty, the man he had feared and loathed from the moment Cutty took an interest in him. In that moment, Michael seemed to finally recognize that Cutty never wanted to hurt him, that if he hadn't been so afraid he could have gotten Cutty's help in dealing with Bug's father and avoided his new career path...

...and Cutty sends him away.

He does it in part because he's furious and in pain, but also because he thinks he's looking out for the kid. And what I saw on Michael's face when I watched this scene again and again is that he doesn't want to go. Again, he finally recognizes what Cutty was trying to do for him, and in this moment, his mentor is sending him away, just like Namond's mom kicked him out, Dukie's family left, etc. Cutty's intentions don't matter, not any more than Ms. Donnelly's good intentions when it comes to promoting Dukie. Michael's finally found an adult man he can trust to protect him, and Cutty doesn't want him there anymore. In that moment, I think, Michael still could have been saved, and Cutty didn't realize it.

And what I love about this show, why I watch it even as scenes like Carver's long walk bash me in the face, are the nuances like that, the fact that I could write pages and pages and pages about what happens to every character in every episode, particularly this late in the season. But since I'm going to write an awful lot about the fate of each boy in the finale, let's move on.

Lester's argument with Landsman, and then the ultimate decision made by Daniels, then Rawls, then Carcetti, represented the clash between the old way of doing business in the Baltimore PD and what Tommy wants to be the new way. Landsman is so terrified of the stats that he won't even run the idea up the chain of command, while Daniels and Rawls recognize a way to make the stats work for them, and Tommy declares that he wants the bodies out just because it's the right thing to do.

Tommy's still enough of a politician, though, to demand that all of them get removed by end of December. But the possibility of a few dozen corpses being pulled out of vacant houses is just a blip on Tommy's radar this episode, thanks to the $54 million shit sandwich the governor is asking him to eat over the school budget. As with so many things on this show, there's no one individual at fault for the missing money; it's just the broken system at work. I'm with Norman: Tommy has no choice but to take the governor's hand-out, 2008 be damned. Is he really that self-sacrificing?

A whole lot of other random thoughts:
  • Because it's a Pelecanos episode, an innocent person has to die, and the short straw goes to Sherrod. Poor Sherrod, and poor, poor Bubbs.
  • And did you catch the mention of Junior Bunk by the arabers? Their description didn't really track with the "Homicide" character; my guess is that there was a real Junior Bunk once upon a time, and Simon liked the name enough to use it twice.
  • The return of Omar's nursery rhyme whistling! Proving once again that he's more than just the man with the biggest gun and biggest guts, Omar outthinks Prop Joe and takes off his entire shipment from The Greek. (Nice little callback to season two.)
  • To repeat a point I made in my review of "Unto Others," it's just staggering the number of inadvertent things that had to happen to put Randy in his current predicament: He had to be out in the hallway when the two boys needed a lookout for their blow job party. The boys had to be so cold to the girl the next day that she called the cops. Prez had to take Randy's problem to Daniels instead of Lester. Carver had to feel guilty for having outgrown Herc, instead of just calling Bunk directly. Omar had to call in his chit with Bunk and Bunk had to piss Crutchfield off enough that Crutch threw out Carver's eventual phone message. Prop Joe had to tell Marlo to steal Herc's camera. Herc had to frustrate Sydnor so much that Sydnor walked out of the Little Kevin interrogation before Herc gave away Randy's identity. Bodie had to convince Little Kevin to come clean to Marlo. And Snoop had to speak up to convince Marlo to reverse his decision about letting Randy off clean. And, on the bitter irony scale, Randy had to be so terrified of losing Miss Anna that he turned snitch, which set off this whole Woody Woodpecker chain of events that led to him losing Misss Anna.
  • Great little moment: Prez fighting back a smile over "Tickle my nuts!"
  • Is Norman the political equivalent of The Bunk? Stylish, suave, funny and he knows how to get the job done more than his boss often does. Given his work on "The Corner," kind of amazing it took Simon and company four seasons to find a part for Reg E. Cathey, but it was worth the wait.
  • Inside joke: the security guard who tells Tommy and Norman that the governor is finally ready to see them was played by Bob Ehrlich, the real-life Maryland governor who was recently defeated by Martin O'Malley (who many view, despite Simon's protests, as the inspiration for Carcetti).
  • Of course DeLonda considers herself a great mom because she always made sure Namond got his Nikes. I quote Mr. McCartney: I don't care too much for money, money can't buy me love.
  • Ms. D has a point about the endless supply of Duquans, but Prez has an equally valid point about this Duquan. Abstracts are nice, but here's a kid who's not equipped to be on his own; what does it hurt the school to keep him in the same grade as his friends for an extra semester?
  • Nice moment seeing an indignant Marimow get his. And for all of Herc's complete inability to Get It (see his whole bit about pretending the orders come from him), he at least was stand-up enough to not drag Sydnor and Dozerman down with him when IID showed up.
  • How do you wiretap a crew that doesn't use phones at all and only meets in well-guarded public places? Laser mics?
Lines of the week:
  • Lester, on the return of the old MCU lieutenant: "That, Sgt. Hauc, is one of the most effective supervisors in our police department."
  • Norman, inventing new lyrics to 'We wish you a merry christmas': "We won't go until we get some, we won't go until we get some..." (EDITOR'S NOTE: Okay, so he wasn't making up new lyrics. Where are you Gentiles to proofread when I need you?)
  • Daniels to Rawls: "Lester Freamon is not in the habit of selling woof tickets."
  • Bunk on Landsman: "That John Goodman off his diet motherfucker was clear."
  • Cheese on Omar and his crew: "He had this one ho pulling guns out her pussy. This shit is unseemly!"

Don't forget: the finale runs 90 minutes, so if you're recording with a VCR (I know, I know), program it accordingly.

What did everybody else think?

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S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y, Night!

Today's column, inspired by a viewing of the bulk of the new "Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Season" DVD set:

This is not going to be another one of those columns complaining about how "Saturday Night Live" isn't as good as it used to be. Everyone's written that one. I've written it. You've written it (or said it, or thought it). Declaring that the new "SNL" can't compete with the vintage stuff is about as insightful as a treatise on how the Earth revolves around the sun or why Paris Hilton is a blot on civilization.

And, to be honest, I'm starting to wonder if we're being too hard on the current show.

Every few years, I'll run into Lorne Michaels at a press event and badger him about various flaws in the show's operating system. Why does all the material need to be produced in the week of the show when only a small portion is ever topical? Why does almost all of it have to be performed live when some of the most memorable sketches ever were elaborately-produced short films? Hasn't "The Daily Show" made "Weekend Update" irrelevant?

And Lorne, in that implacable Dr. Evil way he has, will calmly explain that this is the way they've always done it, and that the show always has been and always will be uneven. He'll politely excuse himself to be badgered by someone else who wants a "More Cowbell" movie to be produced, and I'll stand around wondering how he can be so smug and oblivious to the show's problems.

Then I watched the bulk of the new DVD set, "SNL: The Complete First Season," and Michael's stubborn reliance on history began to make sense. Because the dawn of the "SNL" golden age was ... not so great.

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