Thursday, August 23, 2007

Hairy situations

Cable catch-up time, with spoilers on, in order, "Californication," "Saving Grace," "My Boys," "The Bronx Is Burning" and, as promised long ago without fulfillment, "Top Chef," coming up just as soon as I get a plastic surgery consultation...

After last week's kerfuffle over my pan of the "Californication" pilot, I decided to give the show at least one more episode to prove me wrong. Sorry to say, Duchovny fans, but I'm out. This was a retread of all the things I disliked about the pilot (women throwing themselves at Hank with little provocation, Hank acting like a 12-year-old boy in a way we're obviously meant to find charming, an unexpected ongoing focus on pubic hair), and now we've added in the "Studio 60" Problem: we're told Hank's this brilliant writer, but his first blog entry (penned in an Apple product placement scene that makes all the Mac love on HBO seem tasteful and subdued) was a smarmy cliche-fest. I'm glad for showkiller Paula Marshall that she's kept herself in such good shape, but I don't think I need to see any more "Californication." I think it would be a badly-written show with any leading man, but maybe a different actor would be able to find the appealing side of Hank instead of playing him as a one-note, self-satisfied douche. I really like the actress who plays his daughter and look forward to her popping up in something else.

As a counterexample to Duchovny on "Californication," I give you Holly Hunter on "Saving Grace." Here's another self-destructive, substance-abusing, middle-aged person who sublimates her pain by having lots of sex with her many willing suitors, but I both like her and understand her appeal to the opposite sex (even though Holly Hunter herself needs to spend a few weeks following Dr. Nick's steady gorging process, combined with assal horizontology). That's a credit to Hunter's performance. There's a thin line between charming rogue and irritating jerk; she stays on the right side of it in a way that Duchovny can't or won't.

That said, I'm falling out of love with "Saving Grace" as a whole, thanks to the police stuff. There's a weird epidemic going on in TV right now -- both with current series and a lot of the fall pilots -- of cop shows with interesting, original leads and completely uninspired procedural stories. I understand that cop shows are more instantly commercial, which is why Grace or, say, that immortal guy from "New Amsterdam" carry a badge and gun, but the genre's so oversaturated right now that almost no one can find anything original to do with the cases. The Oklahoma setting provides a small amount of novelty -- not going to see a story about bull seed on "Cold Case," I don't think -- but not enough to keep me from zoning out until Grace heads to the bar or her love shack.

Good casting in the latest episode of Frances Fisher as the cool aunt Grace has modeled herself after, but did I miss a previous reference to her father having died in the Oklahoma City bombing? I know she lost her sister (or sister-in-law?), but this seemed like new info.

Speaking of potentially new info (or yet another example of how I need to pay closer attention), "My Boys" revealed for the first time (maybe) that Kenny runs a sports memorabilia shop, which answers the final question of how PJ knows all her boys. (Andy's her brother, Brendan and Stephanie went to school with her, Bobby's a rival beat writer and Mike used to work for the Cubs.) Mike and Kenny are funny as usual together, and the "negotiation" at the bar managed to work Gaffigan into their dynamic nicely. Didn't care much about the Jeremy Sisto romance subplot (though it did make me listen to a sample of "The Wrong Girl" just because it was on a mix tape between my beloved Fountains of Wayne and the Flaming Lips), and we the beginnings of the douchey Brendan storyline that's going to pay off nicely next week.

The writers of "The Bronx Is Burning" are lucky the cops caught Son of Sam as relatively early as they did, since it gave them an excuse to dump that subplot with a few episodes of the miniseries left. The show works much better as an all-baseball affair (like I said at the start, either they needed to cover all the stuff from Mahler's book or just the Bombers), even if the Reggie/Billy/George dynamic is feeling repetitive by this point. Two complaints about the first World Series episode: 1)I love "Blitzkrieg Bop" as much as the next guy, but it feels like they've already played it 57 times so far. The Ramones' catalog is consistent (simplistic?) enough that you can substitute a lot of other songs and get the same effect. 2)How in the world do you incorporate so much of the Howard Cosell/Keith Jackson telecast of game two and not include Cosell saying "Ladies and gentleman, the Bronx is Burning"?

Finally, I've been watching "Top Chef" all season, but often so many days late that a blog entry has seemed beside the point. (A big part of the problem: the show inevitably makes me very hungry, and I don't want to be snacking at 10:30 at night, so I have to wait until I can see each show close to a mealtime.) I've been enjoying it a lot and wish I had started with the franchise sooner. (Though I hear season two was very skippable.) All the "Bizarro Apprentice" stuff I admire about franchise sibling "Project Runway" (competent contestants, creative challenges, rational judges), only with a subject I care about.

That said, this show tends to telegraph its exits even more blatantly than latter-day "Survivor." Anytime two contestants declare their undying friendship (in this case, Casey and Tre), you know one of them's out. Tre compounded the sledgehammer foreshadowing with all his overconfidence, and by the time we were halfway through the judges' visit to Restaurant April, I knew he was done. He had been the obvious frontrunner early on, but he'd been through a lot of ups and downs and was clearly the main reason for this loss. If, as the judges have said elsewhere, the judging isn't supposed to be cumulative, he was the right choice. (If not, CJ should have been tossed.) It's interesting, though, that the remaining field includes a few people who have consistently been either brilliant or awful (Hung, to a lesser extent Howie) and then a bunch of people who have had some good moments and some bad ones, but nothing really remarkable on either end. Usually in this kind of show, there's a more obvious pecking order by this stage, and I honestly can't tell who's going to win, or who should.

What did everybody else think?

32 comments:

Jon Delfin said...

Another reason to give some hate to "Californication" -- Hey, I'm very fond of naked women. And naked Paula Marshall? Much obliged. But the way that scene was set up, with Duchovny in the foreground, just happening to hold his arm up so his hand should block Marshall's vagina from the camera? No, it's not that I needed to see her vagina, but the artifice was so self-conscious that I was thrown completely out of the scene.

And the show just isn't that funny.

Adam said...

Indeed, Alan, how do you title a show "The Bronx Is Burning" and not show Cosell saying the title line when, clearly, they had the archival footage?

The show is what it is (the book is better), and I enjoy it mostly for Turturro's performance and the little details, like the Dimaggio screw-up before Game One and anything having to do with Mickey Rivers.

Anonymous said...

Funny that you found the smarmy, immature, inexplicable chick magnet instantly unlikeable on Californication when it took 4 years for the same effect to happen with Rescue Me.

Anonymous said...

I have given up "Rescue Me" and "Damages."

mp said...

On "Rescue Me" the inexplicable chick-magnet thing didn't bother me until it claimed Diane Farr as a victim. I think that was in the middle of season 2.

Anonymous said...

I am fully enthralled by Saving Grace. I'm wowed by the full-on commitment of Holly Hunter to her performance. I didn't get the feeling that the dad died in the bombing, but did you catch the gist that Earl did? When Grace was in her brother's basement and made him go upstairs, we then saw Earl standing there, looking very mournfully and tragically at all the paraphernalia the brother had about the bombing and he seemed shaken as if he was seeing his own grave. Oh, and I'm pretty sure Grace's sister, not sister-in-law, died.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I didn't get the feeling that the dad died in the bombing, but did you catch the gist that Earl did?

Earl's an angel. Angels don't die. (I'm not that up on Christian theology, but at the press tour session for the show, someone asked if Earl used to be human, and Leon Rippy and the creator explained that angels are always angels; humans don't become angels along the way. I think Earl was just crying because it's such a sad event.

dez said...

On "Rescue Me" the inexplicable chick-magnet thing didn't bother me until it claimed Diane Farr as a victim. I think that was in the middle of season 2.

She was with Franco, though, and his chick-magnet-ness isn't inexplicable :-)

I've found enough funny in "Californication" so far to give it at least one more viewing. I also appreciated them showing a grown man preferring his women not shave themselves bald "down there." Viva la bush!

Matt said...

Hunter and Glenn Close are the only reasons to watch their respective shows. Fortunately, both of them are dynamic enough performers that they make the shows work almost through sheer willpower.

(Hunter does have some decent supporting cast to work with though--Tom Irwin and Laura San Giacomo both still have residual goodwill.)

Maura said...

There's a weird epidemic going on in TV right now -- both with current series and a lot of the fall pilots -- of cop shows with interesting, original leads and completely uninspired procedural stories.

Are they interesting and original, though? Honestly, I'm fed up with fucked-up, temperamental, petulant, stubborn, humorless female characters, no matter what their profession. They might have different quirks, weaknesses and faults (Brenda Leigh Johnson has a thing for sweets; Grace smokes and drinks and sleeps with a married man), but they're still cut from the same cloth. In fact, several years ago, Nancy McKeon played the exact same role Hunter is playing now, in a cop show on Lifetime. Don't laugh. McKeon was just as good.

That's not to say that Hunter and Sedgwick don't bring something special to their roles. I mostly love Brenda Leigh, but that's because Sedgwick is great as a sweet-addicted, badly dressed, messy purse carrying control freak. But I can't say that either she or Hunter is playing an original role. Amy Breneman did it with Amy Grey (not to good effect though. I was never able to find one redeeming quality in that character.) Joyce Davenport was just as cranky and pushy on Hill Street Blues. Also completely fabulous. That was 25 years ago.

To me, the most original, realistic, interesting female character I've seen on television in years (and I'm totally jumping genres here) is Lorelai Gilmore. She was a first.

I agree, though, that the cases on most cop shows are uninspired. I don't know if that's because the show runners want to focus on the characters, or if it's because they can't find decent writers. If I want an interesting case, I watch Law&Order. Good cases and good characters.

Slightly off topic rant over.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Are they interesting and original, though?

Maybe "original" was the wrong word. My point is, I like the characters, couldn't care less about the stories.

notjon said...

The second episode of Californication was more soulless than a dozen Entourages. The worst part (for me) however, were all the scenes with Bill, the new boyfriend.
We're supposed to hate him, but he comes off infinitely more likable than Hank who just acts like a d**k for no reason.
Am I really supposed to find it endearing that Hank ruins this poor guy's painting? And then laughs about it?!?
And of course, since this is retard male-fantasy land, they have to hint that this guy is incompetent sexually.

It sure doesn't help that they cast an actor I like to play this supposed "villain".

Dani in NC said...

The cop stuff on "Saving Grace" is so boring that I don't even understand what is happening half the time. The angel part is compelling, though. My husband keeps saying that he is going to ditch the show, but we still tune in each week :-).

Mase said...

Grace mentioned how she has 4 brothers and 2 sisters (one of which died in the OK City bombing). As for her father, it was clear that he assisted with the rescue/recovery (e.g. interview with reporter and photograph of the two of them together during the rescue) and died sometime later.

Dan Coyle said...

I love Dr. Nick's process. Since I traded gum for Bacon chewing I've never been better. Sure, my arm tingles a lot, but...

anon said...

Re: Californication

I was on the fence after the first episode, but this was ridiculously contrived: Not one, but two convenient expository speeches, plus a pompous blog that asks where all the "real women" have gone. I think Duchovny could have pulled off this role, but not with this kind of writing.

Re: Saving Grace

The procedural stuff is very very clunky -- clunky when it is religion oriented (like the last two weeks) and when it is not (this week). Don't know how they can get around that.

At the moment I still find Hunter's performance compelling enough to stick with it -- In fact, this week's episode of "Californication" made me appreciate her performance even more.

And while I'd disagree with Maura about the overall quality of The Division, I think her larger point about female characters on these shows is valid and can be extended to the stereotypical "brilliant but broken" men on procedurals as well. Derek Powazek had a funny piece on this a few years ago, available here. (It also contains the best description of NCIS I've ever seen, though I only ever watched a few episodes of that show.)

Re: Top Chef

If you're enjoying the show, you might also want to check out the blogs maintained by Anthony Bourdain and Rocco DiSpirito on the Bravo site.

Anon

Lindy said...

Glad you're enjoying Top Chef, Alan! I only get the limited basic cable package (just the broadcast channels, Bravo, and for some reason VH1 -- no FX, TNT or TBS for us) and so it's pretty much the only show I watch in the summer.

With Tre gone I have no idea who will win the title, which in some ways makes the show more interesting. Dale is my favorite remaining contestant, personality-wise; Howie, on the other hand, can't get off my screen fast enough.

Season 2 was very skippable (the cast is filled with jerks) but I'm hoping Season 1 makes it to DVD soon. It's definitely worth checking out.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the epidemic of procedural stuff. I can't remember if it was you or Matt Roush who said he used to Tivo through all the police stories on Joan of Arcadia. It also bugs me that Pushing Daisies, easily this fall's best new show, added a procedural element to it at the request of the network. Do they really think people will be tuning in for the cases?

Lyle said...

Re: Top Chef

The second season was very skippable, it was more personality over talent and some of the challenges really sucked (the first one completely missed the 'play along at home as a competitor and judge' aspect that makes the show compelling). This season they recruited people based on talent (though final casting probably was about personality) and it really shows.

Michaela said...

Bourdain's Top Chef blog is definitely cool. DiSpirito, meh.

Here's the link to his blog about last night's episode, which I agree with on multiple levels.

Men who can write are hott. *coff*

Sleepyhead said...

Wow, they did that to Pushing Daisies? What a terrible idea. (I already have a "it'll be cancelled" bet with a friend).

Californication - notjon, who's the actor that plays Bill? I certainly recognised him, though I mostly just kept trying to figure out what was up with his hair.

OK, the blog bit was shit, but I guess I'm the rare one who finds this show funny and engaging. Paula Marshall was inspired. Evan Handler and Pamela Adlon couple are funny in their disgust with Hank and their grudging support/enabling of his lifestyle. The 16-year-old Mia is dangerous and irresistible, a great foil for Hank. The daughter is great and her struggle with "do I love my dad or do I believe Mom who's figured out that he's a total douche?" should fuel the show for quite a while.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Wow, they did that to Pushing Daisies? What a terrible idea.

I think our anonymous poster was referring to something that's already there in the pilot: Lee Pace and Chi McBride using Pace's resurrection abilities to solve murders and collect rewards.

anon said...

sleepyhead,

The actor playing Bill is Damian Young, whom you've seen on all sorts of things.

michaela,

Bourdain's the best writer, by far, but any of chefs writing about what it takes to run a restaurant is interesting to me. (We're talking about pretty short blog posts, after all.) Also, I thought DiSpirito's response to some of Bourdain's blogging was thoughtful.

Anon

notjon said...

Yeah, when I wrote that comment I was too lazy to look up his name. Not to sound like Troy McClure here, but you might recognise Young from such TV shows as The Comeback or a recent tiny role on Damages.
Or you could be like me and always know him as Bus Driver Stu from the Adventures of Pete and Pete.

Sleepyhead said...

It's probably sad that I mostly recognise Young as the Unbribeable Comptroller who fell for Dee from "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia".

I can't decide if greasy network fingerprints on "Daisies" are a good thing or a bad thing, because it's from a creator who makes artful, quirky stuff (i.e. Wonderfalls), but the suits may have been right to tamper, because not enough people actually watch artful, quirky stuff (i.e Wonderfalls).

Anonymous said...

"I can't decide if greasy network fingerprints on "Daisies" are a good thing or a bad thing.."
In this case I'd say it may be a very good thing because, if you take out the procedural element, what else'd be left over but boring pining between the so-called star-crossed lovers. I'm not a fan of this romance storyline because everything has been essentially spelled out in the pilot and there is nothing to keep me guessing there. I can't imagine having to tune in just for that for let's say 20 episodes or so, Lee Pace or no Lee Pace. So I am very happy to hear about about strengthening the procedural aspect in "Daisies" because that way they can bring in and out a lot of quirky characters doing wacky things, mix up the stories, get some dynamics between the characters going.
Tina

ooda said...

Californication I'm still really liking, but that said, it probably has one of the worst opening credit sequences of any show on television.

Matt said...

A question--does Paula Marshall being naked negate her showkiller ability, or enhance it?

Kristen said...

Great review. I like Californication, but agree with most of the problems you pointed out as well. One thing's for sure, the Californication writers may not be doing a great job, but they're doing a better job than Hank with his blog...

Maura said...

And while I'd disagree with Maura about the overall quality of The Division, I think her larger point about female characters on these shows is valid and can be extended to the stereotypical "brilliant but broken" men on procedurals as well. Derek Powazek had a funny piece on this a few years ago, available here. (It also contains the best description of NCIS I've ever seen, though I only ever watched a few episodes of that show.)
I'll give you your point about The Division. I just happen to inexplicably be a Nancy McKeon fan.

Ah yes, the brilliant but broken man. I was going to mention that to, but had already gone on too long.
At any rate, I'm over it. Now that Jerry Orbach is gone, it never has to be done again. Why does everyone have to be so damned miserable?

@Alan:
Maybe "original" was the wrong word. My point is, I like the characters, couldn't care less about the stories.
I'm completely with you there. Is there a way for any fictional character to be original anymore? It's all been done.

jdj said...

Saving Grace reminds me of the movie "Ray" - A fantastic performance by the star surrounded by a whole lotta mediocrity. I agree with all who have criticized the police plots. I don't know why so many cop shows feel the need to follow the Law & Order/CSI formula of having a case neatly wrapped up 58 minutes in.

Californication: The only thing going for this show is the fact that it has more gratuitous nudity than any "serious" show since the heyday of "Dream On".

SJ said...

Yep, Californication is awful.

But I'll keep tuning in for the women.