Friday, June 29, 2007

Freaks and Geeks Rewind: Kim Kelly Is My Friend

Spoilers for the "Freaks and Geeks" episode "Kim Kelly Is My Friend" coming up just as soon as I write an essay on why I should respect school property and why it should be respected...

Ahh, "Kim Kelly Is My Friend." The first sign that things were not going to end well at all between this show and the NBC executives.

Not that Garth Ancier and Scott Sassa, who were running NBC at the time, were big "Freaks" fans in general, but they hated hated hated this episode, hated it so much that they refused to air it, even though a rather major plot point -- why Kim stops being so awful to Lindsay and treats her like a pal in future episodes -- got lost when they stuck it on the shelf. I remember sitting at a lunch table with Ancier and some other reporters at midseason of that year, asking him how he could justify confusing viewers of the show like that. He trotted out that familiar statistic about how most viewers watch, on average, maybe half of the episodes of their favorite shows, and said that a lot of "Freaks and Geeks" viewers (or, at least, a large percentage of the small group watching the show) would have missed it, anyway.

Revisiting the episode all these years later, I can understand why they reacted so viscerally to it, even if I think they were complete numskulls for yanking it. The sequence at Kim's house, a beat-up shack where the living room walls have been yanked and replaced by plastic sheeting (no doubt awaiting a repair job that Kim's mom and stepdad won't be able to afford for a long time), was certainly scarier than anything the show had done before and almost anything it would do afterwards. As I recall, our visit to the Desario home in "Noshing and Moshing" was no treat, but that one didn't climax with two teenage girls screaming in terror as some royally pissed-off shady guy tried to get them out of a car that wouldn't start. Ancier and Sassa were operating under the (mistaken) assumption that this was in some way a kids show, or at least a show parents would watch with their kids, and they decided this was too intense and creepy for that audience.

Again, though, fixating on that one sequence caused fans to miss out on some major plot and character development. Years later, this is one of a handful of "Freaks and Geeks" episode that immediately comes to my mind whenever someone mentions the show, and it sucks that most of the audience had to wait months or even years to see it.

But let's go back to the beginning, since these reviews are turning into half-recap for the sake of you poor bastards who haven't watched the show yet. (And unless it's a legitimate financial reason, what the hell are you waiting for? These blog entries'll be waiting for you when you finish.)

"Kim Kelly Is My Friend" is an important episode because it humanizes Kim and explains both why she was treating Lindsay like crap (she knows Daniel has a wandering eye and Lindsay's cute) and why she starts treating her better (Lindsay's nice to her during a really bad stretch). But it's also important because of the way it builds on the "Tricks and Treats" theme of Lindsay's new lifestyle badly affecting Sam, and as the first real meeting between Lindsay's parents and the freaks.

Sam, dazed and confused by an inadvertent punch to the solar plexus, makes the mistake of trying to open the locker next to his own, which happens to belong to Karen Scarfolli, Kim's pal and a scarier version of Kim herself. With Kim -- who, remember, humiliated Sam back in the pilot -- egging her on, Karen writes "GEEK" in bright lipstick on Sam's locker, then threatens repeatedly to beat him up if he cleans it off.

Kim, meanwhile, reaches out to Lindsay to have dinner with her mom and stepdad. Lindsay's too happy to have Kim being friendly for a change to realize there's an ulterior motive at work: Kim's been invoking Lindsay as her alibi for all the nights she's been spending with Daniel, and now her mother Cookie wants to meet this alleged good girl who hosts sleepovers and takes Kim with her to her family's vacation house by the lake. Kim, naturally, doesn't explain this to Lindsay until five seconds before they go into the house, and Cookie cuts through this web of lies like Jack Bauer kneecapping a suspect, leading to the aforementioned creepy chase scene.

Then Kim catches Daniel flirting with Karen, nearly runs them both over, then seeks refuge at the Weir house, where Sam (whose victimization at the hands of Karen and Kim leads him to fight Neal over the question of who's a bigger geek) is resentful, Jean is confused and Harold is outright offended by her presence. (Not only does she talk openly about sex, but she complains about the prices at his store.)

In a great scene that illustrates how most teenagers live in their own worlds, oblivious to each other's concerns, Kim hides in Sam's room when Nick shows up to apologize on behalf of Daniel. Both she and Sam are pissed at Karen, but for completely different reasons, and they each vent with the other one barely being aware of it.

Daniel enters the house, scaring Jean, and brilliantly puts all the blame for the scene with Karen onto Karen. When Kim accuses him of lying, he gives her his best Brando stare and says "I'm not lying" over and over until she breaks down and takes him back. (Between that scene and the way Kim takes advantage of Lindsay's generous spirit to guilt her into being friends -- "You're my only friend, and you're a total loser! No offense." -- I'm not sure which half of this couple is the better manipulator. Either way, they're made for each other.)

The freaks exit, with Harold and Jean not at all happy about their daughter's new pals, and the next morning at school, Karen finds "SLUT" emblazoned on her locker. As she's about to beat up Sam for the crime, Kim makes a grand entrance to take credit and threatens to "hit on" Karen for the way Karen hit on Daniel. Karen bolts, scared, and when Sam thanks Kim for helping him out, she smiles and says, "No problem, geek."

It's such a perfect ending. Kim's more human, but she's still Kim. She's friends with Lindsay because she doesn't have much of a choice, she doesn't so much help Sam as attack a common enemy they share, and she's still going to cause all kinds of trouble as the series moves along.

Some other thoughts on "Kim Kelly Is My Friend":
  • Until I popped in the DVD, I had completely forgotten that Karen was played by a young Rashida Jones (who was also on "Boston Public" around the same time as Chi McBride's gal Friday). She does a great job playing a slightly nastier version of Kim. Maybe she should always try to play characters named Karen.
  • After Bill and maybe Ken, Millie was the show's most reliable joke machine, here with a hilarious bit where she tries to warn Lindsay from hanging out with Kim because "She does it! She fornicates it, okay?"
  • The vagaries of having semi-famous relatives: Kim boasts that the aunt who gave her the Gremlin was an actress with two notable resume bumps: "She was on 'Kojak.' She doinked Ryan O'Neal once at a party!" Of course, I have a cousin who once played Luigi to Capt. Lou Albano's Mario on "The Super Mario Bros. Super Show," but I'm pretty sure he and Ryan O'Neal are just friends.
  • Mike White, who also wrote the episode, plays Kim's possibly brain-damaged brother.
  • I never get tired of hearing the geeks -- especially Neal -- present their completely ignorant views on women. Here, Bill suggests Karen might be a sex fiend out to jump Sam, and Neal replies that girls don't get horny. Uh-huh.
  • The episode of "Barney Miller" that Harold and Jean watch with Kim is season three's "Hash," one of the single funniest sitcom episodes ever produced. Too bad only the first season is on DVD, or I'd order you all to Netflix it.
  • Legend has it that at the start of filming for each scene in "The Big Lebowski," Jeff Bridges would ask the Coen brothers, "Did The Dude burn one on the way over?" and play the scene accordingly. One of the most entertaining aspects of rewatching this show is trying to figure out whether Nick burned one on the way over, especially since the writers were only occasionally allowed to even mention pot overtly, let alone show people using it. An episode like this makes the game almost too easy, though; is there any way Nick isn't baked when he cleans out the Weirs' entire supply of Fruit Roll-Ups?
Up next: "Tests and Breasts," featuring a Daniel Desario tour de force and the best Sex Ed class scene since "The Wonder Years."

What did everybody else think?
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Studio 60: We can do better

And so, "Studio 60" comes to an end. Really brief spoilers to follow, as I long ago exhausted everything original I had to say about this show...

So Sorkin correctly read the tea leaves and went with the Everybody Gets a Happy Ending approach, with Jordan waking up (looking like a million bucks and losing whatever shred of dignity she had left by claiming she wanted Danny to marry her from the moment they met), Matt and Harriet getting back together (whatever), and, in the episode's one really nice moment, Tom finding out that his brother and his comrades were rescued. (Who woulda guessed that the two best dramatic actors on this show would be Steven Weber and Corddry the younger?) For the people who liked the show -- which has to be the majority of the audience that stuck it through the ending -- I suppose it wasn't a bad way to go out. For people like me who kept watching out of morbid fascination, it largely confirmed all the reasons I disliked it.

What did everybody else think?
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Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Tape was on time!

The morning column link: a double-bill, starting with a review of USA's new "Burn Notice" (which I wish was better than it is, especially with the presence of Jeffrey Donovan and Bruce Campbell):

"Guns make you stupid," explains Michael Weston. "Better to fight your wars with duct tape. Duct tape makes you smart."

Michael, the ex-spy hero of USA's new series "Burn Notice" (which debuts tonight at 10), then attempts to prove his point by scaring off the homicidal drug dealer next door using items from the local hardware store, including a roll of MacGyver's and Tim Taylor's favorite all-purpose material. But somewhere in the middle of his eviction notice, Michael has to pull out his gun and fire a few rounds into the drug dealer's leg.

Much like its main character, "Burn Notice" often talks -- and talks, and talks -- a better game than it's capable of playing. It wants to be a smart-aleck comedy/thriller hybrid in the spirit of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen, but the jokes are rarely clever enough and the thrills rarely exciting enough. If it weren't for the presence of an interesting cast, headed by Jeffrey Donovan as Michael, it would be completely skippable.

To read the full thing, click here. There's also some more thoughts on the events of last night's "Rescue Me," though most of it's similar to what I wrote in last night's post. (Also, if you missed the link there, you should really go read Matt Seitz's interview with the relevant castmember, who is not happy.) Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Rescue Me: Hail to the Chief

Spoilers -- big, big spoilers -- for the latest "Rescue Me" coming up just as soon as I schedule a man-date...

Well, dammit. No fooling around this time, no fake-outs like last year.

Chief Jerry Reilly is dead.

I confirmed it with people at FX after watching the episode, and Matt Seitz did an interview with Jack McGee (and Peter Tolan) for Television Without Pity.

I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, McGee was always an odd fit for this show. The part was written for Lenny Clarke, which suggests they had something much funnier in mind, and while McGee was good for the occasional crude rejoinder (in this episode, I liked his retort to the guys' suggestions of what he should wear to the wedding), Jerry as played by McGee was the least overtly funny "Rescue Me" character, someone who was often kept out of those famous kitchen scenes, part of the ensemble and yet apart from it.

But, dammit, he was an amazing dramatic actor, money in the bank on any storyline Leary and Tolan ever handed him. I still think back to that bit from the end of season two, after Mrs. Chief tried to kill herself with a straight razor, and Jerry's in the car with someone (either Franco, or Lou, I forget), talking about what an unbelievably raw deal this Alzheimer's thing is, and the entire scene is shot from the back seat, so all you can see is the back of McGee's head and, on occasion, his eyes in the rearview mirror -- and still he killed with the scene.

As I've been saying the last few weeks, I feel like Leary and Tolan have run out of interesting dramatic storylines for these characters, so maybe the death of the Chief should serve as some kind of clean break from the series' comedy/tragedy hybrid style. I'm not saying they should never do a heavy moment again, but that they should save those for when they have a good idea. Instead, I imagine that Jerry's death will be used as an excuse for the other characters in general and Tommy in particular to wallow.

In talking with Matt, he also complained that he didn't buy that Jerry would kill himself -- and that McGee agreed with him. I believe it a little more than they did -- again, he's always been isolated to an extent from the other characters, his wife is in a home and doesn't know who the hell he is, he'll never be completely comfortable around his son (though he made a good effort at saying goodbye with that toast), and now he's had his job as an active firefighter taken away. What else did he have to live for?

Some thoughts on the non-Chief portions of the episode:
  • I would like Nona a lot if it wasn't for her completely irrational romantic pursuit of Tommy, a much older, divorced, drunk who isn't interested and admittedly looks like a hag. Even if it's played as an emasculating joke, her physical and emotional toughness makes her seem like the character that I always wish Diane Farr had been playing. (One question: they shot the scene where Nona picks up Tommy in such a way that you could never see Jennifer Esposito's face. I know she's not a twig and Leary's pretty damn skinny, but does anybody think she could actually carry him like that?)
  • I dislike Tommy and Janet scenes in general, but the moment where he realized the baby calmed down whenever she criticized him was a nice bit.
  • Speaking of Lenny Clarke, they might as well put him and Lenny Venito into a spin-off, because the Teddy/prison guard stuff felt like part of a completely different show.
What did everybody else think? Will the show be the same without the Chief?
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No one dies harder than John McClane...

So today marks the release of "Live Free or Die Hard," the third sequel to my all-time favorite action movie. I probably won't get to see it for a few days, but in the meantime I thought I'd help get people in the mood with a few YouTube links.

First, Fox relented a few months back and allowed Guyz Nite to repost their brilliant "Die Hard" music video, sort of the song equivalent of "Sopranos in 7 Minutes." (There's also a new version including plugs for "Live Free or Die Hard," but I haven't watched it because I try to avoid trailers, commercials or videos for movies I already know I'm going to see. Also, if you're a hardcore McClane fanboy, you might be interested in seeing (if you haven't already) the original ending to "Die Hard With a Vengeance" (which is very different in tone from the one they used.) Finally, I'm apparently now legally required to post a link to Ben Stiller's "Die Hard 12: Die Hungry" at least once every six weeks ("Paper or plastic, you son of a bitch?"), and this seems as good a time as any.

Finally, in the spirit of my Saved by DVD column, if you're looking for an old movie to watch to get you in the "Die Hard" frame of mind, I strongly recommend John Frankenheimer's "The Train," by far the most egregious omission from EW's recent list of the best action movies ever. As Matt Seitz forcefully argued back in '94, "Die Hard" and movies like it owe a deep debt to what Frankenheimer and Burt Lancaster did with that movie.

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Saved by DVD

Hey, remember when I used to write a column for a newspaper? Feels like a long time ago (last Monday, actually), but here's a new one:

Forigve me for not having more to say about this summer TV season, but I've been having trouble mustering en thusiasm for "Hell's Kitchen" season three, the Brandy-less version of "America's Got Talent," or even HBO's post-"Sopranos" lineup (save "Flight of the Conchords").

To get over my summertime TV blues, I hit the local multiplex to catch Judd Apatow's "Knocked Up," and was so in awe of most of it that I went home and immediately started rewatching my DVDs of Apatow's brilliant but canceled NBC series "Freaks and Geeks." And as I was reconnecting with these characters who hadn't been on my television since the year 2000, I had a moment of clarity:

Why sit through mediocre summer TV product when so many great old shows are out there on DVD to be discovered or rediscovered? Why set the DVR to record Paula Abdul's new reality show when "Cheers" episodes are only a few Netflix clicks away?

Since most of the best TV shows are currently on hiatus, I thought I would suggest some shows that will in some way remind people of their current favorites.
To read the full story, click here. Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Freaks and Geeks Rewind: Tricks and Treats

Spoilers for the "Freaks and Geeks" episode "Tricks and Treats" coming up just as soon as I figure out why Tom Selleck's looking back at me in the mirror...

Ahh, Halloween. An excuse to get free candy, raise hell, grab onto your lost youth, or, if it's your thing, cross-dress.

We'll start there, as "Tricks and Treats" features the funniest scene the show ever did: Bill, dressed as the Bionic Woman (old school version), standing in front of his mother's bedroom mirror and doing a little role-play. (Top lines include, "I'm sorry, Steve Austin. I can't marry you. I'm mad at you now." and Bill saying, indignantly, that his boobs "are not bionic. These are all me.") It's a bizarre sequence on so many levels, from the ugly beige pantsuit Bill chooses (I don't think either Lindsay Wagner or Bill's mom could pull that one off), to the Buffalo Bill in "Silence of the Lambs" quality to him getting dressed, to Martin Starr's typically odd line readings. (He had never seen an episode of "The Bionic Woman," but the lameness of the impression is what made it work.) Starr had some funny bits in the first couple of episodes, notably Bill getting blitzed in "Beers and Weirs," but this is the moment, I think, where Apatow and company realized they had a demented comic genius on their hands, and Bill solo scenes would become almost mandatory in later shows. (Of all the pleasures of rewatching the series, rediscovering the weird brilliance of Martin Starr may be my favorite; it's nice to see him in a small role in "Knocked Up," but I want Apatow to use him more down the road.)

The rest of "Tricks and Treats" is one of the sadder episodes, as Lindsay, Sam and mama Jean Weir all try and fail to fight off inevitable conclusions: that Lindsay's new friends can be dirtbags (and that she doesn't fit in with them at all), that Sam's childhood is essentially over (and that his sister is hanging out with dirtbags), and that Jean's kids are growing up too fast (and the world is getting angrier than she remembers).

Lindsay spends Halloween afternoon cruising around town in Daniel's borrowed Cadillac, annoying the hell out of the other freaks by constantly suggesting things they could do. Kim (in the last episode where she hates Lindsay unreservedly) tries to explain that riding around in the car is the point, but Lindsay doesn't get it. Eventually, she gets into the spirit of things, stomping a few pumpkins, smashing a mailbox, and even egging a kid -- only to be horrified when the kid turns out to be Sam. When she tries to apologize to him after, he tells her, "Nobody thinks you're cool, you know," and she replies, sadly, "Trust me, I know." She gave up her old friends and lifestyle to hang with the freaks, and now she doesn't belong in either world.

Sam's all set to blow off Halloween and spend the night seeing "The Nude Bomb," but when a cruel English teacher responds to the geeks' book report choices (including a "Star Wars" novelization for Sam, "Yes I Can" for Neal and "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions" for Bill) by forcing them to read "Crime & Punishment," he decides he's not yet ready to put away childish things. He ropes Neal and Bill (and, eventually, Harris) into one last "night" of trick-or-treating, only to have the rest of the world -- including Harld Weir, most of the neighborhood kids and parents and the cute Hot Dog on a Stick girls -- make it clear that they're too old for this. Then he suffers back-to-back humiliations: Alan and his buddies beat them up and steal all their candy, and then Lindsay and Kim pelt him with eggs. By episode's end, he's holed up in his room, struggling to make heads or tails of Dostoevsky. (Where another show might have tried for a less bleak ending by having Sam discover that he loves Russian literature, this one just has him complaining about all the weird names.)

But really, this is a Jean Weir episode more than anyone else's. Her daughter blows her off, breaking a long tradition of handing out candy together. She gets chewed out by all the neighborhood moms for daring to hand out homemade cookies (1980 was near the dawn of the "apples with razorblades" panic) and later discovers that all the kids are just dumping the cookies on her lawn. Halloween used to be one of her favorite days of the year, but by the time she's forced to send Harold to the store to buy some generic candy (another blow against individuality, dammit!), she's on the verge of tears and muttering, "Stupid kids holiday." When Sam comes home covered in egg (but refusing to rat out his sister), Jean suggests that the world has gotten so much meaner. Lindsay points out that kids threw eggs back in the day, too, and Jean replies, "I guess so. I just know I never did." She's a fundamentally nice person -- which explains why Sam and Lindsay are such good kids, overall -- but that goodness makes it hard for her to comprehend the people who aren't so nice. It's why she's always encouraging the kids to do things with a high potential for humiliation, and why she's so hurt at the suggestion that she might be lacing her cookies with poison. She wants her kids to stay kids forever, and has trouble facing the fact that they're getting close to adulthood. At least her story ends on something of an up note, as Lindsay finally gets into costume (Linda Cardellini looking very goofy in a little prince outfit) so they can hand out candy together before the night ends. But those innocent mother-daughter moments are going to become fewer and farther between, and Jean doesn't want to admit that.

Some other thoughts on "Tricks and Treats":
  • Harold dresses up as Count Dracula, in a not-too-subtle tribute to Count Floyd, one of Joe Flaherty's best characters from "SCTV." (And if you're not familiar with "SCTV," then, dammit, what are you sitting around reading this blog for? Get to know Count Floyd, Earl Camembert and company, ASAP!)
  • When Lindsay makes one of her earliest activity suggestions, Daniel says they're just going to drive around and "See where the night takes us." Unfortunately, the entire episode seems to take place around 3 o'clock in the afternoon. I haven't listened to the full commentary for this one, but as I recall, Feig once said they couldn't afford to do an extended night shoot.
  • Love that, after Nick smashes Mr. Rosso's pumpkin, Rossso instantly pulls out a backup pumpkin.
  • Another great Bill moment: the cold open, where he offers to eat anything for 10 bucks, and Sam and Neal blend up a cocktail containing cayenne pepper, mustard, pickle juice, salt, sardines, vinegar, soy sauce, chili, jelly, dairy creamer and after dinner mints. It was actually the second cold open shot (the original is a brief bit where Lindsay experiments with opening extra buttons on her shirt), as for once, an episode came in short.
  • Later, Bill mentions his peanut allergy, which will become important in "Choking and Toking."
  • Harris -- dressed as a guy with a knife through his head -- makes a fine first impression on the Weirs, telling Jean her cowgirl costume makes her look "like Richard Benjamin in 'Westworld,'" then asking if they have any fake blood to freshen his wound.
Up next: "Kim Kelly Is My Friend," notable both for being the first episode to ditch the "This and That" title format, as well as for NBC's complete hatred of it.

What did everybody else think?
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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Live or on tape?

Quick spoilers for, in order, "Entourage," "Flight of the Conchords," "Meadowlands" and "The Loop" coming up just as soon as I check the Urban Dictionary definition of "ungumly"...

After last week's Colombian hijinks, "Entourage" returns to America for some half-predictable, half-not adventures. On the predictable side, we have Drama going to absurdly anal lengths to keep his new condo pristine while throwing Vince a welcome-home bash. On the not-so-predictable, we have the very real possibility that "Medellin" sucks, and that Vince's career could go the way of the Affleck if Walsh can't salvage it. I expect everything to turn out well in the end, simply because that's how this show always works, but I've always thought it would be an interesting diversion to spend a period with Vince's career on the skids and the other guys having to survive without their meal ticket. Not really wild about the Ari subplot, which reminded me of that episode from earlier this year where his old college buddy came to visit. It was just filler, something for Piven to do early in a season that doesn't seem to have much room for Ari.

While "Entourage" has become a diversion, at best, "Flight of the Conchords" keeps rattling around in my head, making me smile or laugh at random (and sometimes inopportune) moments. Where I thought the pilot was stronger on the songs than the action, this one has the opposite appeal. Bret's "Boom King" song was amusing (and reminded me, oddly, of "Here Comes the Hotstepper," though I'm sure there's a more contemporary inspiration), but the real fun came from the way he began to treat the sign-holding gig as a major career (I particularly liked him getting a Bluetooth and not knowing what it was for) or Jemaine and Murray's love of The Tape. (And loved the deadpan exchange, after The Tape broke: "Does this mean I'm not in a band anymore?" "I'm afraid not, Jemaine.") We're only in episode two and already there are good running gags, like New Zealand's inferiority complex towards Australia, or Bret's hair-helmet (seen here on the mannequin Jemaine was trying to turn into his new bandmate). I'm really very fond of these guys and this show.

My thoughts on "Meadowlands" are going to be extremely brief. Where "Conchords" has taken up residence in my brain (the catchy songs help), I find that I've forgotten nearly everything about "Meadowlands" only a couple of weeks after I first watched this episode. All that really remains is the cross-dressing almost-rape and its aftermath. I guess weirdness for weirdness' sake can be interesting in the moment, but it has no shelf life.

Finally, Fox just can't wait to get "The Loop" off its airwaves, dumping three episodes onto its Sunday lineup, with the final three coming next week. (Last week's Entertainment Weekly had a full-page ad for the show, tied to the Stride Gum product integration plot from the third episode; clearly, the whole deal was money well-spent by the Stride people. I think Fienberg is still going around saying "ungumly," but I didn't even know it was a real brand until I saw that ad.) While I'm not going to miss the show overall, season two has given me a newfound appreciation for Joy Osmanski as Darcy -- her "Music Man"-style song 'bout the alley out back in the first episode was brilliant. I hear there may be some minor retooling happening on "Reaper" -- maybe it's not too late to find a part for her there.

What did everybody else think?
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John From Cincy: He is risen

Spoilers for "John From Cincinnati" coming up just as soon as I find a good pea soup restaurant...

First things first: I think we can scratch "extraterrestrial" from the list of possible John origin stories after tonight. Whether he's actually Jesus or just a herald, we're clearly being pointed in a Heavenly direction, first with the "See God, Kai" scene, and especially with the bit at the end where Linc says "Jesus Christ" and the shot immediately refocuses onto John and Kai. I may not understand a lot of what's going on in this show, but it doesn't take a genius to decipher that clue.
That's not the only part of the show that's providing me with more clarity. Three episodes in, I'm starting to sniff out a unifying theme, in the way that all these characters respond -- or, more often, don't -- to the miracles happening around them.

Mitch levitates and thinks it's brain cancer. Butchie shakes his addiction and is puzzled at best, annoyed at worst by it. John gives Kai some kind of psychic vision ability and she rejects it. Zippy's kiss brings Shaun back to life, and the only person (other than maybe Bill, who I believe is supposed to have mental health problems) who seems amazed by it is Dr. Smith (wonderfully played by Garret Dillahunt, who as far as I'm concerned can play 50 different roles on this show, maybe even in the same episode).

There's some larger purpose to John's presence, to Mitch's flying and Zippy and Shaun swapping resurrections and the like, and I hope Milch intends to get around to explaining his grand design in the not-too-distant future, but this episode at least felt cohesive in a way the first two didn't. Maybe that's because Milch borrowed much of the template from "The Whores Can Come," the "Deadwood" season 2 episode set in the aftermath of William Bullock's death. Again, we have our central family confined largely to their home as various friends, enemies and acquaintances gather outside, wondering how they can help (or how they can use the tragedy to their advantage). The only major differences: the boy here is mystically brought back from the dead, and the media level has exploded from just A.W. Merrick and his hand-cranked printing press to a wall of faceless TV and newspaper reporters.

The show still has a number of problems, not least of which are that I really dislike both Mitch and Cissy, who are in theory our main characters -- though with Mitch and Butchie's role reversal meeting at the fences, that may not be the case for much longer -- but I'm feeling much more patient and generous now than I was an episode or two ago.

Some other thoughts on "His Visit: Day Two, Continued":
  • One area where the episode fell down was in giving us a good establishing shot to make clear the geography of the Yost home, and the various onlookers, so it would be more apparent how everyone could see Shaun's miraculous return to the half-pipe.
  • I usually pride myself on my ability to decipher Milchspeak, but I'm struggling with all the scenes between Steady Freddy and his new "monkey in a tree" assistant (played by Paul Ben-Victor, who played one of my least favorite "NYPD Blue" characters, the overly-mannered Steve the Snitch, but who also was amazing as Spiros on "The Wire" season 2). Specifically, is Freddy supposed to be a drug dealer with a heart of gold, who gave Butchie the burn bag just to save Butchie's life, or is he working an angle, and spared Butchie merely so he wouldn't lose a steady customer?
  • I still have absolutely zero interest in the contents or lack thereof of Room 24, but the motel guys are starting to become amusing comic relief in the E.B. Farnum style. I especially liked the "Animate or inanimate?" "Inanimate" exchange.
What did everybody else think?
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Friday, June 22, 2007

Freaks and Geeks Rewind: Beers and Weirs

Spoilers for "Beers and Weirs," the only "Freaks and Geeks" episode I helped write (but not really) coming up just as soon as I do some anti-drunk driving improv...

Having done such a brilliant job of establishing their huge cast of characters and the different worlds they inhabit in the pilot episode, Team Freaks and Geeks (this time with Judd Apatow and J. Elvis Weinstein on writing duties and Jake Kasdan again behind the camera) spends episode two making those worlds collide early and often.

Using one of the oldest cliches of movies and TV shows about teenagers -- while mom and dad are out of town, a party rages out of control -- Apatow and Weinstein, who came up with the brilliant idea of having the geeks replace the beer keg with a non-alcoholic keg, put nearly all of the high school characters inside the Weir house to bounce off each other in unexpected, often hilarious combinations.

Millie (out to prove she can have more fun sober than anyone else can drunk) and Nick perform an impromptu, half-sincere, half-ironic, all-loud duet of "Jesus Is Just Alright" on the Weir family piano. Harris awkwardly tries to dance with Lindsay in the hallway. Sam and Ken have two different conversations (which may be the only time the two speak to each other in the entire series), as Ken takes advantage of Sam's near beer stunt to win a lot of money at Quarters from kids who think they're drunk. Neal confesses his crush on Lindsay, first to Bill, then to Lindsay herself. Daniel makes lewd comments about what he'd like to do with (or to) Cindy Sanders. There's just one scene after another of characters interacting with people you never expected them to ever meet, and nearly all of it is hysterical.

(The funniest part of the episode, though, is done completely solo, with Bill getting drunk on the keg of actual beer while "guarding" it in Sam's bedroom. As the series would go along, Martin Starr being strange on his own became money in the bank, comedically.)

While the geeks don't get shafted on screen time, this is very much Lindsay's episode, as she deals with the consequences of her troublemaking new friends while dealing with advances from nearly every guy at the party. In addition to Neal and Harris, Daniel gets flirty with her -- though his attentions aren't unwelcome -- and when Lindsay runs crying to Nick for some solace after catching Daniel and Kim making out in her bed, Nick considers it an invitation to go to second base.

Though I always identified more with the geeks, that scene -- both the look of dawning horror on Lindsay's face and Nick's lame twin defense of "I'm really wasted!" and "John Bonham died!" -- may have been the one that really made me fall in love with the show. It's such a mortifying moment, and it's shocking because Nick has been set up over these first two episodes as the nice guy alternative to Daniel's charming con man, yet Nick's action and Lindsay's reaction ring truer than any moment that had happened on the show to date. I'd never been in that exact situation before, yet as soon as it happened, I nodded my head and thought, "Yup, that's exactly how that would have gone."

And that scene in turn leads to Neal's spectacular failure at winning Lindsay's heart. Not that he ever had a prayer of getting her to go out with him (he's her little brother's weird little friend, after all), but that moment is exactly the wrong time to confess his love -- and yet I can completely understand the thought process that would make Neal think it was exactly the right time. ("All these other jerks have been treating her badly, and I'll show her how awesome a nice guy can be!") After inspiring Lindsay to burst into sobs with his declaration of love, I like that Neal's allowed to win back some of his dignity by the end of the scene, as he saves the day by calling the cops to shut down the party (using a semi-convincing old man voice), leading Lindsay to give him a hug and a platonic peck on the cheek in thanks and admiration. (Neal, of course, doesn't view it as platonic at all, but that's a matter for later episodes involving the awesomeness that is Krumholtz.)

Another lovely moment: Daniel admires the trophy collection in Lindsay's bedroom, and when Lindsay tries to play it off as some stupid stuff she doesn't care about anymore, he asks, "Why's it so stupid? You look pretty happy there. If I ever won a blue ribbon, I'd be so pumped." In the pilot and the early parts of this episode, we're led to believe that Daniel welcomed Lindsay into his group because he was hot for her and considered her a good Plan B for the next time he and Kim broke up. This scene is the first sign that he sees something more in her than a hot piece of ass. Daniel's often self-centered and will cause Lindsay and his friends no end of grief, but he definitely envies the successful, happy, "normal" existence that Lindsay ran from when she became a freak; having a girl so obviously smart hanging around makes him feel better about himself.

Plot-wise, "Beers and Weirs" is a simpler episode than the pilot, with every scene being about either party set-up or the party itself. But in terms of execution, it was a clear sign that Apatow, Kasdan, Paul Feig and company hadn't produced a brilliant pilot that couldn't be equaled week to week.

Some other thoughts on "Beers and Weirs":
  • I never got my "Scheisse" moment on "The Shield," but dammit I made a contribution (however small) to this episode. I spent most of NBC's summer '99 press tour party clinging to Feig and Apatow, and at one point I complained, "The pilot takes place at Homecoming of 1980, which would be sometime in October or November, but John Bonham died at the end of September that year, so why is Nick talking about Bonham like he's still alive?" Feig got this "One of us!" grin on his face, while Apatow looked annoyed at not having caught this in the pilot stage. Then Judd said, "You know, that would make a funny bit in episode two or three. We'll have Nick wandering around depressed because John Bonham just died." (Feig then rationalized that Bonham wasn't dead in the pilot because McKinley High was so lame that it had to have its Homecoming game near the start of the school year.)
  • "Freaks and Geeks" came on the air during one of those seasons where the broadcast networks were taking a lot of crap for having too many all-white casts. When a critic complained about this during this show's press tour session, Paul Feig defended it by saying that he had a master plan to do a storyline based on the very real, very ugly racial integration of his high school around this period. Cut to episode two, and suddenly McKinley High has a single black student, who gets into an argument with Neal over whose people have been opressed more. When I asked Feig about it months later, he shook his head and sighed that NBC scotched his plan and insisted he add a black character, even a background character, post-haste.
  • Busy Philipps gets her first "Also starring" credit in this one. Apatow says in one of the commentaries that they legally weren't allowed to film her for the opening title yearbook sequence because she wasn't under contract as a regular at the time -- but, oddly, there are commercial bumpers featuring evidence of other non-regular characters (like Harris) who got the yearbook treatment.
  • Sometimes, deleted scenes are useful for what gets omitted. In a cut scene from the pilot, Mr. Kowchevsky teaches chemistry, but here he's established as a math teacher, which makes him handy for various Mathlete storylines.
  • I love the little details, like the way that Mille, during the brilliantly awful anti-drunk driving assembly, insists on freezing in very hard-to-maintain positions (say, standing on one foot) at the end of each improv. She's a true artist, that girl.
  • We get our first real glimpse of Lizzy Caplan as Sara, who helps Nick rescue Lindsay from Kowchevsky's class, and will be important down the road. I have to say that I prefer Caplan's Kate Jackson wannabe look here to the heroin chic thing she was working on "The Class."
  • The teaser, with Papa Weir complaining about punk rock, is one of my favorite Weir family arguments because both kids get in good digs at the old man: Lindsay points out that every generation is afraid of the music listened to by the generation that follows them, and when Harold retorts that Elvis never spat on his fans, Sam notes, "Yeah, but he died on the toilet."

Back early next week (maybe even over the weekend, depending on how things go) with the Halloween episode, "Tricks and Treats."

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Studio 60: The neverending story

Spoilers for the next-to-last episode of "Studio 60" coming up just as soon as I find a comfy t-shirt to sleep in...

I didn't review the last two episodes, in part because it felt like piling on, in part because I was busy and figured it would be easier to just write about all three parts of "K&R" at the end. So, of course, "K&R" winds up not being an actual three-parter, but a five-parter in disguise. (You have to count not only next week's show, but the show from a month ago where we found out that Tom's brother had been kidnapped.)

And unfortunately, there isn't five episodes worth of story here, not even with Jordan (off-screen) suffering every pregnancy-related mishap imaginable, not even with the flashbacks to how Matt and Danny lost their jobs (which, unless someone utters the phrase "Crazy Christians" next week, doesn't seem to jibe with what we were told in the pilot). Basically, Sorkin's padding things out by having Character A find out a piece of information, then tell Character B, who tells Character C, who tells Character D, etc. David Milch used to do this sometimes on "NYPD Blue" or "Deadwood," so I have to assume this is some kind of last refuge of the past-deadline showrunner, but it's not remotely interesting enough to justify stretching out these two stories over this length. (Neither was Harriet's awards dinner, though at least that one only dragged over three episodes instead of five.)

The last few weeks, I felt like Aaron had just given up on writing a show about a sketch comedy show and was instead retreating to his "West Wing" comfort zone. (And given a choice between a hostage crisis in Afghanistan or Danny's pursuit of Jordan, I'll take the former.) This one felt more on topic, not just with the flashbacks -- which Matt over at Throwing Things suggests are Sorkin apologizing for "Isaac and Ishmael" -- but the present-day parallel subplot with Jack and Simon. Steven Weber remains this show's best asset, and Jack remains the only character written in three dimensions, and if there's a reason to be sad about the cancellation, it's losing this performance.

I also liked, surprisingly, the scene where Harriet "teaches" Danny how to pray. I mean, Harriet is still obnoxious and pushy and a caricature of a genuine believer, but Danny's rationale for not wanting to pray ("I got what I got because I took action") was far more mature and convincingly argued than anything Matt has ever said on the subject. Maybe if Aaron had swapped around the two central couples, the show would have been less irritating.

One more episode to go -- titled, in Sorkin tradition, "What Kind of Day Has It Been" -- and I may actually do some praying of my own in the hope that one or both of these storylines gets wrapped up.

What did everybody else think?
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Thursday, June 21, 2007

What's Alan hearing?

I'm actually giving "Top Chef" a try this season, but I was out last night eating actual cuisine instead of watching it, so a post on that will have to wait until tomorrow. So in between watching summer programming for work and fleshing out my next "Freaks and Geeks" post, it feels like the time is right for another open thread question:

What music helps get your creative juices flowing?

I'm the kind of guy who has trouble doing any kind of task without some secondary audio or video stimuli. Can't drive without the radio on (usually with a podcast or audiobook these days), can only be bothered to clean up a room if I have the TV on in the background, etc. Writing is especially tough in this regard, because I need songs that are going to make me feel inspired in some way, without distracting me from the thoughts I'm trying to form.

For the first few weeks of this "Sopranos" season, I was struggling to find the right artist/album/playlist to have on as I was writing each Rewind column. Then, around episode 3 or 4, I chose "Boys and Girls in America" by The Hold Steady and the writing came faster and easier than it had for any previous episode. So for the rest of the season, my ritual would be the same: watch the show, talk about it with my wife for a few minutes, think some more on my own, then hunker down in my favorite chair, plug in the headphones and cue up the opening chords of "Stuck Between Stations." Usually I'd have the bulk of the column (first draft, anyway) done before I had to switch over to one of the other two Hold Steady albums. Like a superstitious athlete, I ain't trying another playlist on deadline until this one fails to prevent writer's block.

So that's what's carrying me at the moment. Whether you write, draw, analyze, invent, whatever, is there a particular artist or type of music that helps you get the job done? Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Rescue Me: Take it to the bank

Slightly premature spoilers (so don't read 'em till 11 p.m. or so Eastern) for "Rescue Me" coming up just as soon as I hide all my flatware...

Why do I continue to watch and write about a show where I can barely tolerate the main character, where I can't decide whether the writing of the female characters is misogynist or just incompetent, where all the dramatic storylines have become a complete mess?

I watch because of scenes like the kitchen table discussion of the spank bank, that's why. Because even when "Rescue Me" is fumbling everything else it does, the show is still comedy gold when it's just the guys in the kitchen, preferably (as Lou points out) started by Garrity or Mike using the phrase, "Hey guys, can I ask you something?"

I don't understand Sheila's insurance scheme -- Why not just tell the truth, while maybe omitting the RoHypnol stuff? -- nor do I care about the outcome. I'm not interested in Colleen running away to live with her rock singer boyfriend, nor any of the other semi-serious elements working through last week's episode and this one, but dammit this show can still bring the funny when it wants to.

Not sure whether I laughed more at Lou moving quickly to hide the knives at Sean's mention of Janet being in his spank bank, or at Sean's look of abject terror when Tommy suggests Colleen might be in the bank as well, but that was just a gem of a scene.

Some of the other comedy bits were more hit or miss. I liked Lou and Franco brainstorming how to woo Larenz Tate (particularly the "Laugh, put your arm around me like I said something funny" gag), but I thought they wrote Mike a few IQ points too low in his scene with the doctor. Uncle Teddy still feels like he's off in his own show. The scenes with Richie and Franco are usually ridiculous enough to make me ignore just how offensive they are, but the jewelry store scene didn't go far enough.

Still, it was all worth it for the spank bank scene. I admire the attempts to service all the members of their large ensemble, but the show's becoming too disjointed. I go back and occasionally rewatch my DVDs of "The Job," and that was a much tighter show, even if it was less ambitious than "Rescue Me" is. Lately, I'm starting to wish that Leary and Tolan could go back to that format -- if not half-hour, then at least all-comedy.

What did everybody else think?
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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Freaks and Geeks Rewind: Pilot

So after sifting through all of your summer suggestions (and, as feared, dismissing most of them) and getting great pleasure out of writing a blog post and a column about Judd Apatow, not to mention two different posts about canceled shows I watched on Netflix, I've come up with a more concrete summer plan for this blog. I'll still be writing about HBO's Sunday shows, and "Rescue Me" and the other usual suspects as they pop up, but rather than try to analyze shows I don't feel much passion for (i.e., "Big Love"), I'm going to revisit some old favorites starting on DVD, starting with "Freaks and Geeks."

Why "Freaks and Geeks"? Several reasons: 1)It's awesome; 2)It had a relatively short run, meaning I can knock out all 18 episodes before the summer's over (especially if I do them in chunks); 3)It's the exact kind of show I would have blogged about had I been doing this back in 1999; 4)It's awesome; 5)Maybe this will inspire some people (whether fans of the show or people who never saw it) to rent or buy the DVDs; 6)I was enough of a fanboy about this show that I'll have the occasional amusing anecdote (like how I helped write episode two, but not really at all); 7)Did I mention the awesomeness?

I had briefly toyed with the idea of writing the reviews as if it was the fall of '99 and I didn't know what was to come -- the way Edward Copeland is blogging about "Twin Peaks" season two -- but I didn't want to be prevented from discussing stuff down the line, however obliquely. (And if you've never seen the show before, I'll do my best not to spoil too much for you, but know that with this show, plot is basically besides the point.)

Anyway, I've watched the first three episodes in the last 48 hours and will hopefully have time to review at least "Beers and Weirs" before the weekend. (I won't have a lot of blogging time during press tour next month, so if I want to finish this project before Labor Day, I have to do an odd schedule.)

Discussion of the pilot to one of the best TV shows ever made coming up just as soon as I complain about my smushed Twinkie...

High school. My God. What a baffling, painful, hilarious, life-altering period in anyone's life -- and what a funny, sad, dead-on accurate job that Team "Freaks and Geeks" (headed by creator/writer Paul Feig, director Jake Kasdan and producer Judd Apatow) does of capturing it all. Even if your teenage years weren't exactly like one of the characters on this show (and confession time: I was probably a cross between Bill and Neal), even if you went to high school decades and hundreds of miles away from the Detroit suburbs, 1980, you're going to recognize people, incidents and behavior as you watch this show, and the laugh-to-cringe ratio is going to be informed entirely by whether you were a participant or an observer in each scene.

We start off with the show's "Touch of Evil" moment, a tracking shot acrosss the McKinley High athletic field, up into the bleachers for some overwrought relationship dialogue between a golden boy football player and his beautiful cheerleader girlfriend ("I love you so much, it scares me"), then down below the bleachers (as the soundtrack features a needle scratch and an abrupt shift into Van Halen's "Running with the Devil"), where we get our first glimpse of the male Freaks: Daniel Desario (James Franco), handsome, squinty, always with a story to tell (in this case about getting in trouble for wearing a Molly Hatchet t-shirt); Ken Miller (Seth Rogen), deadpan commenter on the misadventures of the other Freaks (in this case, he's annoyed because it was his shirt Daniel was wearing); and Nick Andopolis, pothead drummer constantly veering between mania and narcolepsy.

The soundtrack shifts to Kenny Loggins' "I'm Alright" -- which nerds everywhere know as the theme to "Caddyshack" -- as we pan over to a series of interlocking Bill Murray impressions being performed by our three Geeks: Sam Weir (John Francis Daley), smart, but way too small and sweet for the punishment he's going to suffer in high school; Neal Schweiber (Samm Levine), master impressionist, even if most of his references are old even for 1980; and Bill Haverchuck, tall, gawky, spacey, and the butt of everyone's jokes -- including his two best friends. The boys are threatened by the arrival of Sam-hating freshman bully Alan White (Chauncey Leopardi), only to be saved by Sam's sister Lindsay (Linda Cardellini), a former geek herself who's been edging into freak territory since the death of her grandmother. Alan runs from this glowering older girl in her faded Army jacket, but rather than be grateful for his sister's help, Sam complains about the humiliation of being saved by her. As the Geeks run off, Lindsay mutters, "I hate high school."

And there you have it. Less than five minutes, mostly one shot (or the careful illusion of one shot), and you've met most of the important characters, understand their worldview, their place in the high school pecking order, and you know for sure this won't be like any high school show ever made before. (With the possible exception of "Square Pegs," but I would argue that "Freaks and Geeks" is the show that the uneven and badly-dated "Square Pegs" wishes it could have been.)

I've been watching a lot of pilots lately, and what strikes me is how so many of them feel like rough sketches, at best, for what might be coming, where nearly everything in the "Freaks and Geeks" pilot comes fully-formed. It's been nearly a decade (sigh...), but I remember the experience of watching this episode the first time well enough to know that most of the changes between the version I saw in June and the one that aired in September were minor (some music changes) or actually took away from the clear establishment of a character (they had to cut a scene between Sam and Kim Kelly that I'll get back to in a moment).

By the end of the hour, we've met (with the exception of some of the parents) virtually every character of note from the lifetime of the series: Sam and Lindsay's old-fashioned parents Harold (Joe Flaherty) and Jean (Becky Ann Baker); Daniel's on-again, off-again bitch on wheels girlfriend Kim (Busy Philipps); aging hippie guidance counselor Jeff Rosso (Dave "Gruber" Allen); Sam's cheerleader crush Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick); Lindsay's pious ex-best friend Millie (Sarah Hagan); Harris (Lea Sheppard), a slightly older geek who tries to mentor Sam and friends; unhelpful teachers Mr. Kowchevsky (Steve Bannos) and Coach Fredricks (Thomas Wilson); and"special" student Eli (Ben Foster). (IMDb even lists Lizzy Caplan's Sara having been in the pilot, but either I didn't spot her or didn't remember what she looked like at the time.) Even some characters who don't appear at all are established, like a reference to Bill's mom being hot.

That's a lot of characters to introduce, let alone define, in less than 45 minutes, and yet Feig, Kasdan, Apatow and company do it. As soon as Eli popped up, for instance, I recognized not only him, but the different ways the other kids would treat him. (There's a great scene midway through where some kids are having fun by engaging him in a discussion of President Carter, but the line between laughing at and laughing with is so blurry that when Lindsay tries to clue Eli into what's really going on, it's clear she's made a bad choice even before she uses the word "retarded" and enrages poor Eli into running off and breaking his arm.) Obviously, I'm projecting somewhat based on what I know of the rest of the series -- that, say, Kim or Mr. Weir or even Coach Fredricks will be given more depth in later episodes -- but from the start all the characters felt like familiar types but not stereotypes.

Feig was, like me, a geek, and so the pilot's sensibilities tilt ever so slightly towards Sam and his pals instead of Lindsay's budding friendship with Daniel and company. There's a brilliant scene where Cindy brings Sam the jacket he left in another room -- having no doubt put no thought into the deed beyond, "Hey, isn't that Sam's jacket? I should probably get it for him." -- and Neal and Bill contort themselves into a logic that interprets this as proof that Cindy's in love with Sam. And the episode's centerpiece is the dodgeball game (pictured above), shot like the Normandy sequence from "Saving Private Ryan," with nearly as much carnage. (Neal takes a shot in the jewels twice.)

Still, there are some righteous scenes with the Freaks. The Kim/Sam scene, in which she humiliates him for the sin of making eye contact by pushing him against a locker and asking if he wants to kiss her, was deleted both for time and because NBC executives found it too mortifying even by the cringe-inducing standards of the rest of the pilot, but Busy Philipps is so damn scary in it that I wanted to run and hide, and I was on my couch. And Jason Segel got to give the first taste of his gangly overexuberance in the scene where Nick tries to cheer up Lindsay by introducing her to his ginormous, Neil Peart-inspired drum kit.

But "Freaks and Geeks" was always more than a collection of humiliations, prog rock tributes and dodgeballs to the groin. It was, at heart, a show about identity, how the hellfire of high school forges one for everybody, and how hard some people try to craft a new one for themselves. Late in the episode, Lindsay gets fed up with all of her father's "And you know what happened to him? He DIED!" speeches and storms off to her room. Sam follows to make sure she's okay -- and to get some advice on his impending fight with Alan -- and Lindsay explains the source of her newfound bitterness. She was the only person in the room when their grandmother died. As Grandma was going, Lindsay asked if she saw the light that everyone always talks about. Grandma, terrified, told her she saw nothing. "She was a good person all her life, and that's what she got," Lindsay -- who, by all accounts, was the dictionary definition of a goody two-shoes -- tells Sam. He's either too afraid of the implications or not quite mature enough to understand Lindsay's point, and he changes the subject back to the fight with Alan (which he'll miss thanks to Cindy Sanders, while Bill, Neal and Harris' sidekick Colin have a clumsy three-on-one brawl in his place).

The main plot of the episode, if it can be said to have one, centers on whether Sam and/or Lindsay will attend the Homecoming Dance. In the end, both do, Sam for the promise of a dance with Cindy, Lindsay because Mr. Rosso forces her as punishment for cutting class. In a rare moment of triumph and uplift for the series, we see Sam enter the dance to the slower opening bars of Styx's "Come Sail Away," looking nerdy but adorable in his blue blazer and grey slacks. He makes a beeline towards Cindy (as John Daley slays me with the way he plays Sam's terror and anticipation), gets her out onto the dance floor, then panics when the song shifts into the electric portion, since he doesn't know how to fast dance. After the previous 40+ minutes, we're cued to assume this will end in tears, but instead Cindy gets Sam to relax and do his own version of the White Man's Overbite. Lindsay, struck both by Sam's minor victory and a rare moment of wisdom from Mr. Rosso (who suggests that if being forced to attend a dance is the worst thing in her life, her life's pretty good), apologizes to Eli for the "retarded" incident, brings him to the center of the dance floor and is soon so overcome with joy that she even throws off the Army jacket for a few moments.

The original cut of the episode ended not on the shot of the Weir siblings dancing, but on a cut back to Mr. Rosso, who flashes that goofy grin and says to himself, painfully in earnest, "Some days, I've got the best job in the world." NBC wanted a less ironic note to end on, and for once, they were right. As I said in my column on Apatow's success in movies versus his failure in television, one of the key differences between his movies and his TV work is that his movie heroes get the girl in the end. "Freaks and Geeks" wouldn't have worked with Sam and Cindy as a happy couple (though they do date near the end of the series), but for this one shining moment, they're together on the dance floor, and they're happy -- and so, however briefly, is Lindsay. Without that moment of uplift -- which feels totally earned -- and the promise of similar moments down the line (say, the Freaks showing up to watch the Mathletes, or Bill's seven minutes in heaven with the cheerleader from the pilot's opening scene), I don't know that even the small handful of masochists like me who loved this show would have stuck around for long.

Damn. Now I want to go and watch the dance scene again. Back in a few.

Okay, I'm back. Still gets me, every time.

Some other thoughts on the pilot:
  • It's funny how much certain characters' appearances changed over the course of 18 episodes. Nick and Ken in particular are far more clean-cut than they'd become, while Alan the bully has a period-appropriate hairstyle here, but ironically will come back in a few episodes sporting a buzz cut. (Presumably, the actor had to cut it for another role, and the writers have to hand-wave it away as the result of Alan getting head lice.)
  • In an early scene on the smoking patio, Nick says he doesn't want to go to the Homecoming Dance because "You know they're going to play disco. Disco sucks! I hate disco!" Now, do you think Feig knew at the time that he'd be writing Nick into "Discos and Dragons" (based, as with so much of this show, on his own life experience), or was this just accidental ironic foreshadowing?
  • Nick's drum kit, by the way, has ten cowbells. Is that enough to satisfy Bruce Dickinson, or would he need more?
  • One more Nick note, and something I only just noticed when I was rewatching the dance scene a few minutes ago (no, the above was not a joke): Nick actually goes to the dance. You can see him sitting on the stage, wearing a sportscoat and smiling like he burned a few on the way over. Given that the episode had already set up Nick's thing for Lindsay, I'm surprised there's not some kind of deleted scene about her running into him there.
  • Though the show overall did a great job at period accuracy, there would be occasional glitches, like the Nick/John Bonham stuff I'll get into when I discuss "Beers and Weirs," and Neal telling Sam to avoid Alan like Han Solo avoided Jabba the Hut. One problem: this takes place in the fall of 1980, months after die-hard nerds like Sam and Neal would have seen "Empire Strikes Back" and learned the futility of Han's avoidance strategy.
That's it for now. I'm likely going to be tied up for most of Wednesday, so talk amongst yourselves and I'll try to hit "Beers and Weirs" before the weekend.
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It came from the Netflix queue!: Kitchen Confidential

My "Freaks and Geeks" DVDs returned in the mail today (thanks, Gayle!), but before I get to seriously analyzing, say, the impact of substituting "Running with the Devil" for "You Really Got Me," I want to say a few words about a more recent ratings casualty: "Kitchen Confidential." A few weeks ago, I Netflix'ed and wrote about the unaired episodes of "Kidnapped," and I'd like to do more of that over the summer, when the time and the appropriate title presents itself ("Day Break" seems an obvious candidate if/when it comes out, or if I feel motivated enough to watch the remaining episodes online).

That feels more fun to me than finding something to say about "The Closer" or "Heartland" (though you can read my pan of that in yesterday's column), or even "Big Love." I wrote a column a few years ago about how the TV-on-DVD phenomenon means you never have to watch shows you don't care about; it also means I don't have to blog about shows that make me ambivalent at best.

Anyway, on to "Kitchen Confidential," as I try to adapt the Pilot Watch format to this Netflix idea...

"Kitchen Confidential"
What it was about: A master chef who's also a recovering alcoholic and notorious womanizer and troublemaker is given one last chance to run his own restaurant. Adapted (loosely) from the life and memoirs of Anthony Bourdain
Who was in it: Bradley Cooper as "Jack" Bourdain, Owain Yeoman as his criminal second-in-command, Nicholas Brendon as the pastry chef, Bonnie Somerville as the owner's daughter/head waitress, John Francis Daley as a virginal rookie chef from Utah; Jamie King as the hot but ditzy hostess. In recurring roles: John Cho (who was supposed to be a regular but had movie commitments) as the fish expert, Frank Langella as the owner, Sam Pancake as a waiter and Erinn Hayes as another sous-chef.
Why it worked: It was no "Arrested Development" (which served as its lead-in and killed any chance it had of succeeding), but it had a confident, farcical tone that made it my second-favorite new sitcom of the fall '05 season (after "How I Met Your Mother" and ahead of early "My Name Is Earl" and "Everybody Hates Chris"). The writers took advantage of the fairly novel setting (for sitcoms, anyway) with storylines about stolen recipes, cooking school traumas and the tension between the wait staff and the kitchen staff when it comes to tipping. A very good cast; even though many were playing to type (Brendon as a geek, Daley as an even bigger geek, King as a hot ditz), they played those types well. At its heart, a show about a bunch of overgrown boys armed with knives, forks and blowtorches trying not to kill each other with same while making shockingly edible food.
Why it didn't: Again, it had "Arrested Development" as a lead-in. Creatively, though, there was definitely an HBO-Lite (or FX-Lite) feel to the show. Turn to a page of the real Bourdain's memoir at random, and odds are you'll find something more scandalous than what happened on the show. In particular, the decision to start with a sober Jack feels like something the network insisted on; the Owain Yeoman character is closer to what I imagine the producers would have done with their hero on cable. Cooper's also an acquired taste -- especially compared to how funny the real Bourdain is on his own shows or in his "Top Chef" cameos. I liked Cooper and bought him as this sleazebag chef; my wife and a lot of other critics didn't.
What happened post-cancellation: Since 13 episodes were produced and only four aired, most of the series -- including some of the funnier episodes (if you don't have a lot of time, I recommend "You Lose, I Win," "The Robbery" and "Teddy Takes Off") and and a lot of tinkering. With Cooper and Somerville's sexual chemistry non-existent, Hayes was brought in as Jack's occasional love interest (and, essentially, a female Jack). Late in the run, Langella turned over control of the restaurant to Somerville and gave Jack a swank apartment upstairs that no doubt would have been the center of lot of sexual hijinks.
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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Sunday night funnies (and weirdos)

Damn. Busy night of TV. It's the summertime, and yet there are five different shows I ostensibly follow, including one that's airing two episodes a week until Fox gets it the hell off its airwaves. Brief spoilers for, in order, "Entourage," "Flight of the Conchords," "Meadowlands" and "The Loop" coming up just as soon as I get fitted for prosthetic nose and mustache...

God love Doug Ellin and those magnificent bastards at "Entourage." Not only did they finally give us a glimpse of Vincent Chase, working actor, but they threw in a Martin Landau-as-Bob Ryan shout-out! (For your poor people who missed it, Vince reveals that E has been reading Bob's autobiography -- titled, of course, "Is That Something You Might Be Interested In?" -- on the set of "Medelin.") That joke alone is going to buy this show, oh, at least two or three weeks of goodwill from me.

I wish they had stuck with the mockumentary format for the entire episode, as most of the best jokes (like Nicky Rubenstein trying to explain why he was bringing cocaine to Colombia) came out of that framework, while the bits that broke it (like the guys discussing the rules about who could and couldn't have sex with Sofia Vergara) could have easily been cut.

As for our first extended look at Vince acting, I thought they took the right approach, giving us just enough of a taste -- and in the middle of a movie that's supposed to be a mess -- that it doesn't matter how silly he looks in the Pablo Escobar make-up. All in all, not a bad start to season four, though I wish Ari could have been involved more somehow (maybe as part of the machinations to get Gaghan).

I have to say that I may already feel more affection for new lead-out show "Flight of the Conchords," but that's largely because I have a strange sense of humor. A character whose hobby is building a bicycle helmet that resembles his hairdo? A robot-themed music video featuring a "binary solo" where the guys sing nothing but 0's and 1's? Lyrics like "You're so beautiful, you could be an air hostess in the 60s" and "You could be a part-time model, but you'd still have to keep your regular job"? New Zealand's raging inferiority complex compared to Australia? That's my kinda show, even if I felt like the musical numbers upstaged the regular scenes in the premiere. (In other episodes, the reverse is true; of the four I've seen, none of them manages to get the balance just right.) "Tenacious D" aired during a period in my life when I didn't have HBO, so I can't do the obvious compare/contrast, but I'm definitely amused by the newbies.

My weirdness tolerance is different when it comes to dramas. When you're being weird for the sake of laughs, I'm happy, but weirdness for the sake of dramatic tension -- or, worse, weirdness for its own sake -- gets old with me in a hurry. So I'm not sure I'll make it to the end of the first season of "Meadowlands," with its elaborately-choreographed neighborhood dance numbers, its high-functioning autistic teenage fetishists, its deliberatey opaque flashbacks, psychotic cops, etc. But it's an interesting start; I'll give it a few weeks to see whether there's an actual show here or just a collection of randomness and homages to "The Prisoner" and David Lynch.

Two more episodes of "The Loop" to confirm my belief that this was a mercy cancellation. Still some funny stuff -- most of it involving Joy Osmanski, both with and without a Bedazzler -- but I watched both episodes blaming my lack of laughter on fatigue, and then I put on the "Robot Chicken" ode to "Star Wars" and laughed practically from start to finish. (It's an apples and oranges comparison, I know; I make it just to note that I was capable of laughter tonight, and "The Loop" really helped me achieve it.) Plus, I have no idea why they didn't just dump Sam's brother while they were canning the two roommates.

What did everybody else think?
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John From Cincy: You're getting a little hard to follow

Spoilers for "John From Cincinnati" episode two coming up just as soon as I update my temblor insurance...

What an intriguing, frustrating show this is. I want to give it the same kind of deep analysis that "Sopranos," "Deadwood" and "The Wire" merit, and yet I can barely make heads or tails of it at times. There's obviously something about it that's compelling me to keep watching (and it's not just loyalty to Milch, as "Big Apple" lost me around here), yet I'm hard-pressed to explain why I'm watching, or what the hell this show is about.

In fact, I'm so flummoxed by the damn thing that I feel the need to go straight to the bullet-points, rather than attempting any kind of rigorous analysis. Maybe I'll be more in the flow in a few episodes time, but for now let's take it piecemeal:
  • I'm not sure which irritates me more: the Luke Perry/Emily Rose long con that no one can be bothered to explain (shades of Wyatt Earp's "brilliant plan" that Milch never got around to telling us about on "Deadwood"), or the incoherent goings-on at the motel that lent this post its subject line. I don't know whether the motel stuff would be more or less appealing if the characters used plain English instead of Milchspeak; I have a sneaking feeling that the only vaguely interesting thing about Luis Guzman and company here is that they're hard to follow.
  • And the extended "Deadwood" reunion continues. Last week gave us Jim "Ellsworth" Beaver as Vietnam Joe and, of course, Austin "Morgan Earp" Nichols as John. This week we have Dayton "Charlie Utter" Callie nearly unrecognizable as Steady Freddy, Butchie's Hawaii-based drug dealer; and Garret "Jack McCall/Francis Wolcott" Dillahunt as Dr. Smith, who's going to have a whole lot of 'splaining to do after he discovers what Zippy did to Shaun. Not that I expect "John" to get a second season, but it would be amusing, in an in-jokey way, for Dillahunt to come back as a new character sporting a new hairstyle (maybe one of Butchie's junkie pals?).
  • Speaking of Zippy, is it coincidence that the bird can resurrect both itself and others at the same time that John and his magic pockets have arrived, or are the two phenomena related? Between the resurrection stuff and Cissy telling Dr. Smith that he'd get to crucify Shaun with more tests, this week would seem to put John's identity more in the Jesus column than the space alien column.
  • Cissy and Mitch are, on paper, the main characters of this show (John's more of an inciting incident in human form than he is a character), yet it wasn't until their fight in the hospital that I really felt like I understood them, or like they were that important.
What did everybody else think? Are you enjoying/understanding this more than I am?
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Pilot Watch 2007: ABC, Part 2

And so we come to the end of Pilot Watch '07. Unlike last year, most of the networks (except Fox) didn't bother sending out their mid-season stuff, so I haven't gotten a look at "Lipstick Mafia" or "Cashmere Jungle" (or whatever they're called) or "Swingtown." On the plus side, the only fall show I didn't get a pilot for was "Moonlight," and that's because they're starting over from scratch. (Watching the Shannon Lucio/non-David Greenwalt version would be as big a waste of time as watching Fox's "Wedding Album" a year ago, which got completely revamped into "The Wedding Bells.")

Thoughts on "Big Shots," "Dirty Sexy Money" and "Women's Murder Club" coming right up...

"Big Shots"
Who's in it: Dylan McDermott, Michael Vartan, Joshua Molina, Christopher Titus, Nia Long, Paige Turco, and more
What it's about: Four Master of the Universe types get together at the country club to play golf and get advice on handling the women in their lives
Pluses: Good to see all the leads employed (I was a big "Titus" fan), and McDermott and Titus play well against type.
Minuses: One of the guys actually utters the line "Men -- we're the new women," apparently to justify the amount of time the guys spend talking about relationships and their feelings. I'm already frustrated by a Niles-and-Maris-style running gag where Titus is forever complaining about his wife without us ever getting a good look at her.

"Dirty Sexy Money"
Who's in it: Peter Krause, Donald Sutherland, Jill Clayburgh, Billy Baldwin, Samaire Armstrong, and more
What it's about: When the private attorney to a rich and powerful Kennedy-type clan called the Darlings dies under mysterious circumstances, the Darling patriarch (Sutherland) recruits the lawyer's do-gooder son (Krause) to come work for the family that dominated his childhood.
Pluses: It's a Greg Berlanti production, which means it has all the soapy elements you expect, but more smartly executed. Despite playing a character who could easily act like more of a self-righteous prig than Nate Fisher, Krause is very likable. Glenn Fitzgerald (who did a multi-episode stint on "Six Feet Under" as a young guy dying of cancer) is a lot of fun as the most obnoxious Darling -- who just so happens to be a man of the cloth.
Minuses: As the Darling sibling who's had a lifetime of semi-resolved sexual tension with Krause, Natalie Zea (a Rebecca Gayheart lookalike) doesn't seem as irresistible as the script is calling for. Most of the characters are very broad -- especially Armstrong as a Paris Hilton-type -- which is fine for a pilot where you're introducing a lot of characters, but no good going forward. (I trust Berlanti enough to not worry too much about this.)

"Women's Murder Club"
Who's in it: Angie Harmon, Laura Harris, Paula Newsome, Aubrey Dollar
What it's about: A San Francisco cop, prosecutor, medical examiner and reporter regularly get together to solve the really tough cases and provide relationship advice to each other. Based on the series of James Patterson novels.
Pluses: Where most of the season's other new cop shows like "Life" and "New Amsterdam" either treat the crimes as an afterthought or just can't be bothered to come up with a good one, former "Angel" writers Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain have written some decent mysteries (or at least adapted them well from Patterson's books). Harmon's well-cast enough as a self-destructive cop that it made me realize how badly Sam Waterston missed her. For what it's trying to do, this show does it well.
Minuses: What it's trying to do isn't something I'm terribly interested in.
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How to succeed in show business without really changing, take two

So, as I mentioned Wednesday, I decided to turn the Judd Apatow idea into a full-blown column, and Judd was cool enough to hop on the phone with me on a few hour's notice.

For more than a decade in television, Judd Apatow's work defined noble failure. The people who actually watched the shows he wrote and produced -- including "The Ben Stiller Show," "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared" -- became obsessed with them, and still speak of them in hushed tones implying a religious experience. But the ratings were never good and most of his shows died after a single season.

Now he's the movie business's King of Comedy, the man with the golden funny bone, writer/director of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" and producer of more than a half-dozen other comedies set to come out over the next year and a half. The words "Judd" and "Apatow" may be the easiest way to get a movie greenlit at the moment.

So what changed? What is Apatow doing differently as the man who gave you Steve Carell's chest-waxing and Katherine Heigl's full-frontal baby delivery than he did as the poster boy for

Maybe nothing.

"I learned a lot from the TV work," Apatow says by phone while driving from meeting to meeting, "but I'm basically trying to do the same thing."

To read the full thing, click here. Meanwhile, my "Freaks and Geeks" DVDs have been located and are allegedly in transit to my home, so hopefully I'll be able to start blogging on that soon.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Summertime new

Today's column splits three ways, with reviews of HBO's "Flight of the Conchords" (which grew on me to the point where I can't get some of the songs out of my head), the "Entourage" premiere (which does, in fact, show Vince at work), and Showtime's "Meadowlands" (which I think is just weird for weirdness' sake but is at least entertainingly weird). Click here to read the full post

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Rescue Me: Andy, I don't want your giant box of porn!

Spoilers for the "Rescue Me" season premiere coming up just as soon as I go rescue some cats...

Boy, I hope the Exposition Fairy got paid overtime for that one, because this felt like an entire episode spent on characters telling us what's happened in the nine months since the fire. So let's sum up: Garrity has longer hair and hate's Maggie's porn (in the funniest parts of the episode), Chief is skinnier and not dead, Tommy's living with Janet and the baby and not dead (and trying to get in touch with his feminine side by watching Oprah and listening to Dr. Laura), Sheila is still insane and not dead, Franco's girlfriend's retarded brother is still easy comic relief, Lou's having more sex than he can handle with (Ex) Sister Theresa, and Chief Pechre is still loathed by all. Oh, and a woman who looks like Jennifer Esposito has spent the last nine months trying to get 80-year-old Tommy Gavin to go on a date with her, even though he's brushing her off at every turn in addition to the problems inherent in being Tommy Gavin.

The episode's spine is the arson investigation, which I have a hard time caring about since it's attached to that stupid cliffhanger in particular and Tommy and Sheila's relationship in general. I think I would like this show a lot better if Tommy never had to deal with another woman again -- except maybe his daughters, as I'm still not burned out on him panicking about Colleen's sex life -- and as with the cliffhanger (which even Leary admitted at the time was bogus), we know that Tommy's not going to lose his job or go to jail. Leary did some nice work in the monologue scenes, but I just don't care.

"Rescue Me" has always had a sloppy feel to it, with subplots and running gags coming and going at random, but this episode felt particularly disjointed. The next couple are a little better in this regard (and also funnier), but the show's gone from one of my must-sees to something I watch because it's summer and not much is on.

What did everybody else think?
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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Pilot Watch: ABC, Part 1

In between my recent brushes with celebrity, I was pleased to see the arrival of the ABC pilots. I've watched four of them so far, and rather than wait until I've had time to view them all, I'm just going to hit those four: the much-anticipated "Pushing Daisies," plus the sitcoms "Carpoolers," "Cavemen" and "Sam I Am."

It's been a little bit since the last Pilot Watch, so I'll put the disclaimer in full: These are not reviews, just first impressions. I know that many things can and will change between now and September, from recasting to rewriting to complete overhaul. This is just how I responded to these pilots at first glance.

"Pushing Daisies"
Who's in it:
Lee Pace, Anna Friel, Chi McBride, Kristin Chenoweth, Swoosie Kurtz and the voice of Jim Dale
What it's about: A pie-maker has the ability to bring living things back from the dead by touching them, but with several strings attached: if he touches them again, they die for good, and if he doesn't touch them again within 60 seconds of resurrecting them, someone else nearby will die in their place. While working alongside a private eye who's found a way to make money off the pie-maker's power, he resurrects his childhood sweetheart and has to face a lifetime of never touching her.
Pluses: I was never as enthralled with previous Bryan Fuller-produced series like "Wonderfalls" and "Dead Like Me" as a lot of my critical bretheren, but this one really clicked for me. Pace (the brother on "Wonderfalls" and the co-star of the underrated Showtime romantic tragedy "Soldier's Girl") has the right mix of quirk and reserve for the material, Friel makes the resurrected girlfriend's matter-of-factness seems sensible and appealing. The production design, the direction of Barry Sonnenfeld (the visually richest thing he's done since the Addams Family movies, if not since he was DP for the Coen brothers), and the narration of Dale (voice of the amazing Harry Potter audiobooks) all combine with Fuller's off-beat writing to create what's far and away my favorite pilot of the season.
Minuses: If you thought Fuller's previous shows were a bit too twee, this won't change your mind. Both visually and tonally, it's going to be damn difficult to replicate the feel of the pilot on a weekly basis.

Who's in it: Fred Goss, Jerry O'Connell, Faith Ford, Jerry Minor, T.J. Miller and Tim Peper
What it's about: Four guys of varying backgrounds commute together to their jobs at a nearby office park.
Pluses: I quite like Minor (the one on the left in the photo) as the repressed nerd who usually winds up driving the carpool, as well as Miller, who plays the man-child son of Goss and Ford's characters and spends the entire pilot wandering around in a ratty bathrobe and tighty-whities.
Minuses: I've never been in a carpool myself (I hate the environment too much for that), but these guys seem to talk about their feelings an awful lot more than I ever do with my best male friends, let alone three quasi-strangers with whom I share nothing but geographic proximity.

Who's in it:Bill English, Nick Kroll, Dash Mihok, Kaitlin Doubleday and John Heard
What it's about: Spin-off of the Geico commercials, about three twentysomething cavemen struggling with prejudice in 21st century Atlanta.
Pluses: Mihok (who you might remember from "Felicity," or the Leo/Claire "Romeo and Juliet"), as the requisite dim-bulb, shows some physical comedy chops, particularly in a dance number at a cowboy-themed country club party. In the right hands, this could be that interesting satire of race relations that Steve McPherson was bragging about at the upfront. After expecting to cringe throughout the entire 21 minutes, I never really did.
Minuses: Didn't laugh much, either. The 21 minutes just kinda came and went with almost no reaction from me, good or bad.

"Sam I Am"
Who's in it: Christina Applegate, Jean Smart, Kevin Dunn, Melissa McCarthy, Barry Watson, Jennifer Esposito, Tim Russ
What it's about: A woman wakes up from an eight-day coma with no memory of who she is, and gradually discovers that she was a very nasty person pre-coma.
Pluses: As she showed in "Anchorman," Applegate has grown up to be a really polished, likable comedienne. The "Regarding Henry"-style plot ("Regarding Henrietta?") has potential, and there's a very funny moment where it's realized, when Sam -- having just discovered she's a recovering alcoholic -- attends an AA meeting and can't decide what to sample from the coffee/pastry table.
Minuses: With the exception of Watson (as Sam's boyfriend) and Russ (as her doorman), the supporting characters feel way too broad. As with "Cavemen," I largely sat through the pilot, not responding to any of it.
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