Friday, October 30, 2009

White Collar, "Threads": Who's wearing the hat now?

I want to write a bit about tonight's second episode of "White Collar," but this cold/flu bug is barely letting me string sentences together. So I'll just say a couple of quick things: 1)I'm confused as to why they ditched Matthew Bomer's Rat Pack wardrobe so quickly, as that was one of the more distinctive things in the pilot; 2)Natalie Morales replaces Marsha Thomason as the junior FBI agent, presumably so there can be some sexual tension with Cafferty; 3)Nice to see Tiffani Thiessen worked into the story a little, though they can't do that every week in that way.

What did everybody who's a little more coherent think? Click here to read the full post

Grey's Anatomy, "Give Peace a Chance": Eeeny-meeny diaper genie

Fair is still fair. I said last week that I wouldn't be blogging "Grey's Anatomy" regularly so I could focus on the good stuff and not dwell on the parts I don't like, but that I would pop in to talk about episodes I particularly liked, and this is two weeks in a row of that.

I don't know if Ellen Pompeo's quasi-maternity leave and Katherine Heigl's temporary hiatus to film a movie forced Shonda Rhimes and company to focus more on straight-up medical drama and less on romantic angst and light comedy, or if this tonal shift was planned all along, but I really, really like it. While the dating and comedy are what distinguished "Grey's" from other hospital shows, its most reliable element has been when it just deals with the medicine with a minimum of frills, and "Give Peace a Chance" was another good example of that. And I've found Derek a lot more interesting as super-surgeon than I ever did when he was just the object of Meredith's desire.

Plus, the episode gave me an excuse to use that subject line. Click here to read the full post

30 Rock, "Stone Mountain": Good for a few chuckles?

Quick thoughts on last night's "30 Rock" coming up just as soon as you come to see my cover band...

I had dinner with fellow TV critics James Poniewozik and Maureen Ryan the other night, and Mo asked me why I was being so hard on "30 Rock" lately(*), especially compared to a show like "How I Met Your Mother," which can offer up its own clunkers and, at its best, isn't in the same comic stratosphere as "30 Rock" at its best. And I told Mo that the difference is that "HIMYM" creates an emotional engagement with its audience, so that I actually like the characters and enjoy spending time with them even in the episodes that aren't particularly clicking. There was a time where I felt some affection for Liz Lemon, but Tina Fey and company have taken the show in an all-zany, all-the-time direction - maybe not "Family Guy" with better writers, but not that far off - and while that's fine when the jokes are landing, when they don't land, as they haven't for most of this season, then it's a lot more frustrating than watching a not-very-funny episode of "HIMYM" or "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation."

(*) And I should say that I feel like I've been hard on "30 Rock" pretty much since it came back from the writers strike late in season two. They've done some brilliant shows, and also some uneven shows with brilliant things in them, but I don't want to get labeled as a backlash-er when I've been saying this stuff for a year and a half.

In particular, I want this "real America" storyline to go away, immediately. All the jokes about it feel angry and uncomfortable, like Fey has had a lot of bad meetings with the real-life versions of Jack Donaghy of late and wants to vent. It feels like watching those episodes of "Designing Women" where everything would grind to a halt so Dixie Carter could deliver a long rant about whatever was bothering the head writer that week. Fey and company have tried to leaven the anger a little bit with fart jokes and Jack beating up Jeff Dunham's dummy, but overall they need to let go of this.

Tracy's Rule of Threes subplot had a couple of funny moments ("Can you get me on Charlie Rose?" and Tracy not knowing Jimmy Fallon), but there weren't enough to carry another mediocre season four episode.

What did everybody else think?
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It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, "The Gang Wrestles for the Troops": I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubble gum

When I wrote my column about "The League," I said that "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" tends to bat around .333 for me, but tonight's wrestling episode (complete with Rowdy Roddy Piper and his bucket of chestnuts, Rickety Cricket briefly being triumphant and the guys once again composing songs that the masses can't appreciate), coupled with last week's Green Man vs. Philly Frenetic brawl, has the show on a very funny streak at the moment.

Or maybe I'm just happy that Piper's appearance gives me an excuse to quote from, and link to, this scene.

What did everybody else think? And does anybody want to weigh in on "The League"? Click here to read the full post

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Office, "Koi Pond": The face of the joke

Seems to be at least one Thursday a season where I'm too overwhelmed by a cold or flu to be able to tell if "The Office" was any good or not. I want to say that "Koi Pond" didn't really work, but that could just be the germs talking. (Though I will say that they have not rendered me incapable of laughing, as I got a big kick out of finally watching the "Subtle Sexuality" webisodes afterwards.)

So since I feel incapable of rendering judgment (and will therefore put off "30 Rock" until tomorrow morning, or whenever I start to feel human again), what did everybody else think? Click here to read the full post

Parks and Recreation, "Greg Pikitis": The pump don't work cause the vandals took the handle

Spoilers for tonight's "Parks and Recreation" coming up just as soon as I send a peach pit to the lab...
"Greg Pikitis sucks and I want to destroy him." -Leslie
I didn't have major problems with the last two episodes, but "Greg Pikitis" felt much more like the version of "Parks and Recreation" that I most enjoy: silly, but also intentionally small in scale. The idea that Leslie's arch-nemesis would be a teenage vandal (with one of those names designed to sound funny every time Amy Poehler said it) was inspired, as was the combination of tightly-wound Leslie, deadpan Dave(*) and enthusiastic but inept Andy, who gets to stick around with the series as a part-time Parks Department employee.

(*) Seriously, how great has Louis CK been on this show? He always seems to know (and/or is getting great direction about) the right amount of time to pause between words to make a simple line like "I would be frightened to live in the town that she's a cop of" sound really, really funny.

The party storyline was also a case of taking something really simple and hanging as many jokes on it as possible, from Ron being oblivious about the message being sent by the combination of his mustache and his costume, to the "straight guy" costume being identical to Brendanawicz's regular wardrobe, to the realization that all of Ann's "watchdog" friends loved Andy. And does anyone want to set the over/under on how many episodes before Ron F'ing Swanson is hooking up with the soon-to-be-ex Mrs. Haverford?

Like "The Office" when it's clicking, "Parks and Recreation" this season works on two levels: it makes me laugh a lot, and it also makes me happy to spend time with these characters in their mundane but goofy little world.

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

Community, "Introduction to Statistics": Trips and treats

Spoilers for tonight's "Community" coming up just as soon as I rip the antenna off your car...

That's more like it.

"Introduction to Statistics" was the strongest episode the show's done in several weeks. It made good use of the whole ensemble, giving every character a chance to shine without anyone's schtick feeling overdone (there was just the right amount of Abed doing his Christian Bale impression, for instance), and the humor was a nice mix of character-driven conflict (Pierce's fear of being old, Jeff trying to get the teacher to bend her No Students rule), broad comedy (Annie loudly weeping to get Jeff to come to the party, Pierce's bad trip), random pop culture references (Pierce as the Beastmaster, Troy dressed up as Eddie Murphy from "Delirious," Batman saving the day as Pierce's desk fort collapsed) and sharp dialogue (Starburns complaining, "My heart stopped beating fast and I can't pee!"). Plus, Chevy Chase got to revive one of my favorite gags from "Spies Like Us" in the way Pierce dealt with his mother on the phone.

On top of getting the balance right, this episode also improved on some specific things that weren't working too well lately. Senor Chang had become really, really broad, and here he occasionally seemed like an actual person, and one who can be used outside of Spanish class scenes. And while the Jeff/Britta thing still lurks on the perimeter of the action, here it was turned into a joke, as Shirley kept wrongly assuming that Britta was furious that Jeff was going after the teacher. Also, getting to flirt with an actress/character with whom he shared actual chemistry seemed to bring Joel McHale back to life. There was a stretch of episodes there where it felt like the show was working in spite of its main character, but here he was just as integral to why the episode was funny as everyone else.

Also, I'm glad to see the streak of Abed/Troy closing scenes continue. There are other character pairings on this show that are really funny, but Danny Pudi and Donald Glover work so well together that it seems right they get these weird little showcases at the end of each episode.

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

Modern Family, "Run For Your Wife": I'm out of order? You're out of order! This whole episode is out of order!

Some quick thoughts on last night's "Modern Family" coming up just as soon as I eat my way there...

It turns out that NBC isn't the only network that likes the play with the airing order of its shows, as "Run For Your Wife" (about the first day of school) was clearly supposed to air before last week's "Coal Digger" (which already had the kids in school), if not before some other episodes that have already run.

While this stuff is always annoying for continuity wonks like me, I at least understand why the network might have wanted to hold this one back, as it was easily the weakest outing for what's otherwise been a consistently strong, funny new show. In particular, Phil felt more derivative of Michael Scott (socially tin-eared, immature, convinced that the lame activities he's into are cool, etc.) than ever before. Ty Burrell pretty much stole the pilot out from under the rest of the cast, and it seemed like Phil was going to be the break-out character of the season, but I'm already tired of seeing him written this way. (That said, he was given a bit more humanity in "Coal Digger," so I'm not that worried. I just don't want him to be a juvenile idiot every week.)

This was also the first episode since the pilot to largely keep the three families separate. I suppose that's necessary now and again, but I'm already finding that I prefer the unexpected combinations (say, Claire with Manny, or Jay with Cameron) more than the regular family units.

And the comedy here also felt a little too broad. Someone asked a week or two ago how the same writers responsible for "Back to You" could have made this show. My response was that the rhythms of the writing really don't feel incredibly different from that show, or from any other sitcom Steve Levitan or Christopher Lloyd have worked on (separately or together), but that the format (specifically, the absence of a studio audience and/or canned laughter) allows the jokes to be delivered in a more understated way and not feel like they're being forced upon us. In a couple of spots last night, though - particularly the Phil stuff and Haley's driving lessons - it was too much. Even Cameron screaming as he prepared to smash open a car window was over the top, but saved by Mitchell being deadpan as he told the woman from OnStar that she was hearing a man's voice.

Not every week can be brilliance, but I'm not worried. "Community" had a few recent duds, but tonight's episode is a really strong one. Every show, particularly new ones, will have creative ups and downs.

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

Good news about 'Chuck,' 'Scrubs' and 'Better Off Ted'

Courtesy of my friend Joe, two bits of very good news (one surprising, one not) about shows of interest here on the blog:

NBC is going to order six extra episodes of "Chuck," on top of the 13 already ordered (thanks in part to the passion of all the Subway-eating fans).

"Scrubs" will be back on Dec. 1 at 9 with back-to-back episodes, and "Better Off Ted" will follow at 9:30 on Dec. 8. (I talked about the revamped version of "Scrubs" with Bill Lawrence a couple of months ago.)

We knew that ABC was going to bring those two comedies back in that hour, in between seasons of "Dancing with the Stars," so it was just a question of specifics.

The "Chuck" news, on the other hand, is as unexpected as it is cool, and I'll have some more thoughts on that after the jump...

None of this is official as yet, but coupled with the news that NBC won't give "Trauma" a back-nine order, it sure sounds like the plan is to pair "Chuck" with "Heroes" again ("Chuck" at 8, "Heroes" at 9), and probably to bring "Chuck" back in January so a bunch of episodes can air before the Olympics, as opposed to keeping the show off the air until March. (The alternative, which Joe suggests, would be to stick with the March launch and then run the show into the summer, but that seems less likely, given the network business model.)

While the Monday at 8 pile-up is still not ideal for the show, at least "Big Bang Theory" (which has by far the biggest audience overlap of any show in that timeslot last year) has moved. And between the failure of "Trauma," the delays on "Parenthood" (which at least has Lauren Graham to replace Maura Tierney) and the network's decision not to air "Southland" at all, there are holes to fill, even with Leno taking up five hours a week. "Chuck" is a known quantity for NBC, albeit a relatively low-rated one, so it can help fill those holes. And getting it on the air in January, if that's the plan, seems a good compromise between March (Olympic promotion, but way too long off the air) and rushing it on the air to replace either "Trauma" or "Southland" with no promotion. Now they can plug it for a while, at least during football and the Thursday comedies.

My one question is how the writers are going to handle the shift from 13 to 19 episodes. "Chuck" writer Ali Adler tweeted yesterday that they had just finished filming episode 8, and writing tends to be several episodes ahead of production, so they're not far from the end. So Fedak, Schwartz and company have two options:

1)Do the first 13 as planned, then continue the story with six more episodes after that.

2)End the season as planned, only in the 19th episode, and try to wedge in a bunch of additional stories (some self-contained, some not) in episodes 13-18.

Each option has its potential downside. "Felicity" tried Option 1 when the WB unexpectedly ordered some extra episodes at the end of their final season, which led to a weird time-travel storyline. "The Sopranos" went with Option 2 when its final season was split into two parts, which led to Gay Vito's trip to New Hampshire.

But one of my concerns about the 13-episode order (after I got over the joy and relief that the show would come back at all) was that the tight schedule meant we wouldn't get a chance to have some self-contained episodes that had nothing to do with the main arc, like "Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer" or "Chuck vs. the Best Friend". The extension may give the writers an opportunity to do a few more of those, though the timing may be awkward if they all come in a clump right after, say, The Ring has kidnapped Ellie and burned down the Buy More.

But it's six more hours of "Chuck" than I thought we'd be getting this year, on top of the 13 hours of "Chuck" I wasn't so sure we'd be getting, so I ain't complaining.
Click here to read the full post

'The League' review - Sepinwall on TV

In today's column, I review "The League," FX's new comedy that's kind of about fantasy football, but not nearly enough as it should be. It begins with my own sad little tale of Ryan Torain.

Suffice it to say, this one will not be in the blogging rotation. Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Friday Night Lights, "East of Dillon": We happy few

A new season of "Friday Night Lights" has begun, and, like last year, I'm going to review each episode as it airs on DirecTV, then repost these reviews whenever NBC gets around to showing each episode. Spoilers for the season premiere coming up just as soon as I embark upon my hero's journey...
"You think you're gonna waltz back in here, and everything's gonna be okay?" -Billy
I wrote in generalities about how much I like the new East/West Dillon set-up in today's column, so once you're done reading that (you do all read my columns, right?), I'll get to some specifics on "East of Dillon."

While characters like Eric, Tim and Landry are all struggling to walk into situations they think are familiar, but really aren't, "East of Dillon" felt very familiar in a good way. The colors of the uniforms have changed, as have some of the faces, but this is still the show we know and love so well.

The gerrymandering subplot from last season's "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" (done back when Eric had no idea he wouldn't be coaching the Panthers anymore) helped cover most of the potential plot holes. Buddy, Joe McCoy and company made sure that any kid with even a vague amount of football experience would be placed on the "west" side of town, which leaves Eric with nothing but scrubs like Landry or untrained athletes like Vince. And so the understandably desperate composition of the East Dillon Lions led to that stunning, typically "Friday Night Lights" spine-tingling, sequence in the locker room at halftime, with the Lions looking like they'd just stormed the beaches at Normandy, and Eric walking from casualty to casualty, trying to comfort each wounded, shell-shocked boy, and slowly recognizing that the only thing he could do for them was to spare them another 30 minutes of beating.

What a rough start to this new chapter of Eric Taylor's career. What a (typically) amazing performance by Kyle Chandler, who was just as good in quiet scenes like that as in loud, frothing-at-the-mouth moments like his rant to the jerk with the gold chains. Frankly, it's amazing he didn't scare away the entire team in that moment, particularly since most of these are guys with no experience in organized football, or in being yelled at by men like Eric Taylor. And you can see how much the frustration, and desperation, of his new job was fueling that rant, and how instantly he regretted it.

And while Eric is struggling to make something of the Lions, Tami finds herself in among some metaphorical lions, as she's stuck hanging with Joe McCoy, Wade Aikman and the rest of the horrible gang at West Dillon - not to mention taking all the blame from parents mad that their kids are going to East Dillon.(*) I loved seeing her take a tiny measure of revenge on Wade by not only choosing tails, but asking for the Panthers to start with the ball. It doesn't get her husband his job back, but in desperate circumstances, you have to take pleasure in the little things, and I always love watching Connie Britton play Tami smiling through well-hidden rage.

(*) Okay, so one obvious nitpick: didn't Tami say that both schools would get a lot of state money if the town agreed to the redistricting plan? Regardless of where all the best football players go, shouldn't East Dillon be less of a pit than it's being sold as?

As we move between two different high schools, and work in graduated characters like Riggins and Saracen, there's not a ton of time for the newbies, so we only get brief glimpses of Michael B. Jordan as Vince, and of Madison Burge as anthem-singing Becky, with the two other new regulars not turning up until next week's episode. And that slow integration is smart, especially since, much as I love both characters/actors, I'm not sure how much room the show really has for our two alums at this point. (That's more of an issue in episode two than here, though, so we'll deal with that next week.)

Like I said in the column, JD McCoy's heel turn was way over-the-top, particularly when he snarls, "This is my Dillon now!" (Shades of this infamous teen drama line?) I can see how he would resent Coach and even Matt after what happened in the last two episodes of last season, but they took a character who was compelling ambiguous last year and turned him into a cheesey mustache-twirler, and who's now 100 percent on his abusive dad's side.

But a few nitpicks aside (and I'll get to one or two more in the bullet points), this was a terrific return to Dillon, east or west.

Some other thoughts:

• I think that the moment where the Panthers assistant coach came to join Eric's threadbare coaching staff would have had more impact if we had any idea who this guy was, or even a name. But Mac's the only assistant coach to get any real screen time in the earlier seasons, so hopefully Random Guy and Crazy Stan will get a bit more developed as members of the Lions.

• Love that Tim once again finds himself in bed with a MILF. Did he and Lyla decided not to bother with the losing proposition of a long-distance relationship, or is this just Riggins being Riggins?

• Louanne Stephens remains a comedy machine as Grandma Saracen. "Landry? Stop throwing the ball. You look like a girl."

• "East of Dillon" seemed to have a higher concentration than normal of scenes where male characters are rolling around the floor fighting each other. An easy way to illustrate the tension in town, I suppose.

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

'Friday Night Lights' season four review - Sepinwall on TV

In today's column, I review "Friday Night Lights'" fourth season, which is as terrific as I expected it to be, based on the clever ending of season three. After the jump, I'm going to briefly explain how I intend to cover the show this season.

Because the show is going to air on DirecTV's 101 Network now, and not on NBC until sometime midway through 2010 (at the moment, the plan isn't to air it until summer, and it therefore won't be legally available online anywhere until then), I'm going to take the same approach that I did last season, which is as follows:

1)Because the episodes are, in fact, airing now, in a form where at least some of the audience (myself included) can see them, I'm going to review them as they air, rather than writing reviews months from now, colored by my impressions of the season as a whole.

2)I'm going to post these reviews as they air, usually (but not always) right after the episode finishes airing. Because this version of the blog publishes a full RSS feed, last year I initially published the after-the-jump part of the review as the first comment, which RSS won't publish. That proved to be something of a hassle (among other things, I had to manually publish each post so I'd be there to publish the comment, rather than just doing it in advance, and that meant I sometimes didn't get to post until sometime the following day), so unless anyone strenuously objects, I'm not going to do that this time. (The way I figure it, if you follow me via RSS or XML, there are going to be times where I have posts for shows you haven't gotten to yet, and if you want to stay spoiler-free, you've figured out ways to do so.)

3)Sometime close to the premiere on NBC, I'm going to pull all the reviews off the blog - this time with plenty of advance warning for anybody who wants to save them for some reason - and re-publish them one at a time as NBC shows them. I'll also make sure and check the comments first to be sure nobody put a spoiler for, say, episode 7 in the post for episode 2. (And DirecTV viewers, please try to be courteous of the NBC viewers in that way, okay?)

So my review of the premiere, "East of Dillon," should go live tonight at 10, and then it'll go live again months from now when NBC airs it. That way, all the comments stay in one place, even if some will be separated by a long stretch of time.
Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sons of Anarchy, "Potlatch": Bad luck Chuck

Spoilers for tonight's "Sons of Anarchy" coming up just as soon as I get an orange Fanta...
"Change won't happen quick, or without blood, but it'll happen. It has to." -Jax
This season of "Sons of Anarchy" has been about a schism at the top of SAMCRO, with Jax and Clay supposedly representing conflicting leadership styles. But we've seen in recent weeks that both are just as capable of being cagey as they are impulsive and arrogant. And we see in "Potlatch" (another episode with a title that had me running to Wikipedia for an explanation) that both men are just as capable of getting a club member's wife killed through their own impulsiveness.

Jax is the guy we're supposed to be rooting for, but more and more, the only sane one in the bunch seems to be Tara, who hears all his talk about reform and yet sees a man going to jail, getting beat up, beating other people up, and digging a hole deeper and deeper. At this point, Jax's dream of reforming the club feels like a fool's errand, where the wisest move would be to walk away - if only he could bear to give up his cut. He begins the episode talking to Tara about how that vest is all he ever dreamed about, and when Alvarez threatens to take it at gunpoint after Jax and Opie walk into the wrong bar, Jax tells him, "Pull the trigger, man. It's the only way this leather's coming off my back."(*) This is not a man who walks away from things, even hopelessly, horribly screwed-up things like SAMCRO.

(*) Sidebar to talk about how incredible Charlie Hunnam has been this year. As I said in a comment last week, whatever issues I had with him at the start of the series are long, long gone now. (Even the accent is much less spotty than it used to be.) He carries himself with such power, can stand toe-to-toe with anyone else in the ensemble, and is just generally bad-ass. The venom (with a tinge of self-hatred, given what happened to Luanne) in his voice when Jax told Clay, "I'm not the one murdering women!" was something to hear, wasn't it? Much as I'd like to see Jax turn SAMCRO into a peaceful organization, I wouldn't want to lose Hunnam's portrayal of the character's violent side.

And while Jax is busy screwing things up this week, we see Clay demonstrate why he's been such an effective club leader for so long. The mindgame he runs on Tig is brilliant. He doesn't even acknowledge Tig's point that there needs to be peace with Jax; he just goes straight at Tig's sense of loyalty and competence, and gets his black bag man back in line, PDQ.

But clever as Clay is, and well-meaning as Jax is, they still don't seem to be a match for Ethan Zobelle, who seems capable of taking over gun distribution in this area on all ends. His daughter's sleeping with the son of SAMCRO's IRA connect, and picking up details about how that operation runs, while Ethan's buying the loyalty of the Mayans - whom SAMCRO scorned in favor of the Niners - with a whole lot of free guns. It's clear by this point that he has no interest in white supremacy and every interest in fiscal supremacy, and so long as he can keep guys like AJ in line, how can SAMCRO hope to beat this guy, especially since they're too busy with in-fighting to come together on a proper strategy?

Some other thoughts on "Potlatch":

• Chuck the compulsive masturbator makes his return, and seems in surprisingly good spirits for someone who - after the Chinese cruelly but cleverly chopped off most of his fingers - is no longer able to perform his favorite act. Between him and blind, widowed Otto, it's been a rough patch for both SAMCRO members and assorted hanger-ons. If I was somebody like Neeta, I'd be very afraid of suffering a permanent injury, and soon.

• Between Chuck's return and Half-Sack displaying his nuticle for all to see, this was a pretty funny episode, considering how many bad things also happened in it. (Tig: "Is it gay that I want to see it?" Bobby: "Gay-curious.")

• I don't know how it played out with sponsored interruptions, but this was one of the shorter episodes I can remember, clocking in at just under 39 minutes without commercials.

• Would you rather have seen the confrontation between Tara's boss and Gemma, or did you appreciate the cut away because you could tell how that was going to go down as soon as they wound up on the elevator together?

• I'm glad I can understand Chibs' wife a bit more than Chibs himself. And I like how Gemma framed her opinions about the lady: "There are only three women I'm afraid of: my mother, my third grade math teacher, and that Irish bitch." Think she'll wind up being a factor in whatever goes on between SAMCRO and the IRA?

What did everybody else think?
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30 for 30, "Muhammad and Larry": The Greatest, at his lowest

Some thoughts on the latest (and best, so far) installment of ESPN's "30 for 30" series, "Muhammad and Larry," coming up just as soon as I dazzle you with my magic tricks...
"Is there any question as to why Ali fell apart? Not if you were around looking at him. Not if you saw him every day, talking slower, walking slower, moving slower, punching less. You could see him falling apart." -Ferdie Pacheco
These first four "30 for 30" films have all been tragedies in some way, and "Muhammad and Larry" is the grandest tragedy yet. The timeframe of the series (which has to cover events from ESPN's lifespan) means we can't get a film about Ali when he was The Greatest of All Time, when he was faster, and funnier, than any other fighter on the planet. Nor can we see the Ali of the '70s, who had slowed down but gained in toughness what he lost in speed, and who survived legendary slugfests(*) with George Foreman and Joe Frazier. There are traces of that man in "Muhammad and Larry," particularly in the snippets of him bantering with the visitors to his training camp (and in magic trick sequence, which becomes incredibly poignant when you realize the Parkinson's has robbed him of the ability to even do something as silly as sleight-of-hand), but this is an older, slower Ali.

(*) The great irony of The Rumble in the Jungle is that, by winning through his ability to take a punch, rather than his ability to dodge one, Ali set himself up for all the brutal hits that would lead to Parkinson's. The Holmes fight was just the most infamous example of it, but the man took a savage beating for almost a decade.

And those classic Ali fights have been well-covered by the dozens of Ali documentaries and books out there (HBO did a terrific Thrilla in Manila film earlier this year), whereas Albert Maysles' footage of the build-up to Ali-Holmes sat on a shelf for decades, because no one wanted to revisit the horror of that one-sided demolition of the beloved Ali.

Then "30 for 30" came along, and Maysles' archival footage was combined with contemporary interviews(**) - shot by Maysles with help from co-director Bradley Kaplan - and so we get to see the car wreck of a fight unfold in slow motion. We barely see any of the fight itself, but there's such a sense of dread over the build-up footage, and such regret in the voices of most of the 21st century interviewees, that we only need a few glimpses to recognize how awful this was, and how sad that nobody could talk the champ out of it.

(**) One of the contemporary interview subjects is Star-Ledger sports columnist emeritus Jerry Izenberg, who appears in all the Ali films because he's one of a small circle of guys who was close to the champ in those days. (He's also one of a handful of writers to have covered every single Super Bowl in person.) I would never want to be a sportswriter today, not least because of the whole "no cheering in the pressbox" thing, but the access that guys like Jerry got back in his heyday was really remarkable. "Sportswriter in the 1960s" is definitely one of the dream jobs at the top of my list should I ever finish my time machine.

At the same time, "Muhammad and Larry" manages to tell the ultimately happy story of Larry Holmes. Holmes never got much respect as champ, in part because everyone felt bad about the whupping he laid on Ali, in part because he was a fairly bland, unassuming guy compared to Ali, Frazier, Foreman and the other men who had dominated the heavyweight ranks for the previous two decades. But it feels oddly refreshing to see a relatively well-adjusted champ, one who gets so much obvious, simple pleasure out of listening to songs written about him, and who's perfectly happy to still be living in his hometown of Easton.

Only three more of these films to air by the end of '09: next week's "Without Bias," then "The Legend of Jimmy the Greek" on Nov. 10 and "The U" on Dec. 12. I have the first two of those and hope to watch them soon, so the plan will be to keep writing each film up as it airs.

What did everybody else think?
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Dexter, "Dirty Harry": The family man

Some quick, belated thoughts on Sunday night's "Dexter" - as well as an explanation for why it's leaving the blog rotation for a while - coming up just as soon as I hear from my landlord...

"Dirty Harry" had a strong beginning, with Dexter forcing his way into the crime scene to see if Deb was okay, and a strong ending, with Dexter stalking Trinity and discovering he's not the only successful serial killer with a wife and kids back home. And that ending promises to create a nice moral dilemma for Dexter, who wants vengeance for his sister (and, to a lesser extent, for Lundy, whom he liked as much as he's capable of liking anyone), but who's also going to want to learn how Trinity has compartmentalized his life for all these years.

In between though, the only part that was engaging at all was Deb's meltdown in the parking lot, with too much time spent on nagging Rita, or the boring supporting characters.

After my review of last week's episode, a reader suggested that I should perhaps give "Dexter" the That's It For Me! treatment, since it had been so long since it seemed like I enjoyed an episode unreservedly. And while I'm not ready to give up on watching it, I think I might be ready to treat it the same way I've been treating "Grey's Anatomy"(*) this year: watching but not blogging, so that I can enjoy the parts I still like and not dwell on the other parts that annoy me.

(*) And in what other way would I ever be able to discuss "Dexter" and "Grey's" in the same sentence? Maybe for a story about shows that rely too much at times on voiceover narration?

And, on the odd occasion when an episode is really strong (like last week's "Rashomon"-style "Grey's"), I'll pop back in and do a blog post. Because at the moment, writing this stuff is as fun for me as I imagine it is for you to read.

What did everybody else think?
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Curb Your Enthusiasm, "The Bare Midriff": Go with your gut

Thanks to the concurrent Yankee/Giants games Sunday night, I only got finished with "Curb Your Enthusiasm" this morning. Some quick thoughts coming up just as soon as I take a break in the flaunt...

What a bizarre, but ultimately satisfying, episode.

"The Bare Midriff" went to some very weird places, even by "Curb" standards: the 1960s flashback, which ended with blood being sprayed onto the windshield as the woman's husband was beaten to death; Lewis being uninjured by being hit by a car aimed straight at him; Larry being arrested for stealing napkins; and the running gag about how all bald people, regardless of race, look alike to non-baldies. "Curb" usually takes place in a slightly exaggerated version of the real world, but it has to be mostly real for Larry's behavior to be as funny as it is, and there were large swaths of "The Bare Midriff" where it felt like we had traveled to that parallel earth from "Fringe."

At the same time, though, it was such a pleasure to watch Larry and Jerry Seinfeld bounce off of each other, to see how alike they are and how much they enjoy each other's misanthropic company, to see how well they know how to push each other's buttons and can understand each other's hidden motivations(*), etc.

(*) In that respect, I think they should have had Jerry figure out the reason behind the Cheryl thing as quickly as Jeff did a few episodes ago. They could mine a lot of humor out of Jerry being irritated that he got sucked into helping Larry fix his marriage, but realizing it's too late to back out now.

And the bare midriff itself was a wonderful sight gag that kept paying dividends throughout the episode, leading to the great moment at the end where Larry's life was saved by Maureen's love handles(**).

(**) Speaking of which, what kind of casting call must that have been like?

What did everybody else think?
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'Battlestar Galactica: The Plan' DVD review - Sepinwall on TV

In today's column, I review "Battlestar Galactica: The Plan," which comes out on DVD today (and will allegedly air on Syfy sometime next year). Short version is that, like "Razor" (which I also didn't love), it feels more like a DVD bonus feature than an actual thing itself, despite the predictably kick-ass lead performance by Dean Stockwell. Your mileage may vary. Since it's on sale today and won't be airing on TV for months, it's cool for people to openly discuss the content of it in the comments, so read at your own risk. Click here to read the full post

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Mad Men, "The Gypsy and the Hobo": The conversation

Particularly long spoilers for tonight's "Mad Men" coming up just as soon as I alphabetize the secretaries...
"Open this drawer." -Betty


Damn damn damn damn damn damn damn.


Back in the days before comic book fanboys got a little too obsessed with their favorite titles maintaining a uniform continuity, comic writers were fond of doing fantasy issues where Lois Lane would finally prove that Clark Kent and Superman were the same guy, or where Batman would get married and have seven Bat-sons, or Green Lantern's vulnerability to the color yellow was replaced with a vulnerability to the color fuschia. Eventually, these "imaginary stories" (because the others were, of course, very real in the minds of their readers) became so commonplace that, whenever a title experienced a genuine seismic change to the status quo, the cover would often have to be accompanied by a blurb declaring this, Not a hoax! Not a dream! Not an imaginary story!

You need to slap a blurb like that on "The Gypsy and the Hobo," in which Betty finally confronts Don (who could sure pass for Clark Kent if you gave him some spectacles) about his own secret identity, and in such a way where there's no room for him to run, or hide, or dissemble. He fudges one detail (that the Army "made a mistake" only because he switched the dog tags around) and leaves out the adultery, but beyond that, he tells Betty everything: Archie. The prostitute. Abigail. Uncle Mac. The switch in Korea. Anna. Even, much as it pained him to do so, Adam.

And Betty - who impressively backs her lying husband into a corner and makes it abundantly clear that he has no choice but full transparency - hears all of this. Early in his story, she sarcastically asks if she's supposed to feel sorry for Don because he doesn't feel capable of being loved, but by the time he finishes explaining how he drove his own brother to suicide, she does feel pity for him.

More importantly, it seems, she feels some relief - and, so, amazingly, does he. This has always been Don's nightmare scenario. The day Betty found out the truth about Dick Whitman was going to be the worst day of his life, as far as he was concerned, so he held himself apart from her, kept secrets, slept with other women, even treated her like a child. But Betty finds out, and Don's world doesn't end. She doesn't order him out of the house, doesn't call the cops, or a divorce lawyer. She offers him breakfast the next morning and, when he gives her an excuse to not have to go trick-or-treating with him, she declines the offer. She doesn't want to run, and doesn't want him to run, not yet. She actually wants to be with him.

And as they stand on Francine and Carlton's porch, and Carlton jokingly asks the grown-up Drapers, "And who are you supposed to be?," Don looks... happy? At peace? Or simply surprised that his wife hasn't thrown him out yet in spite of knowing the truth about Dick Whitman?

After watching this one, I may need to retract my Hugh Laurie is a lock to win next year's Emmy column, because if Jon Hamm submits this one(*)... well, we have a horse race then, folks.

(*) Bryan Cranston would be tough to beat in any year - and lord knows what the "Breaking Bad" writers are going to give him to play in season three - but Hamm didn't help himself this past year by submitting "The Mountain King," which isn't an ideal awards showcase, in that he's playing Dick Whitman for virtually the whole hour, as opposed to shifting back and forth between the two personas, or else largely playing the more magnetic Don Draper personality.

By now, Hamm's made the switch from arrogant Don to cowardly Dick so often that the trick should feel less special, but it doesn't. He goes from defiant (when he thinks Betty hasn't been inside the drawer yet) to defeated (when she tells him she has) so perfectly. You can almost see all the air leave his body - not to mention all awareness that Miss Farrell is waiting outside in the Caddy (more on that in a bit) - once he learns that the jig is up. And while Betty suspects that Don will try to run again (and why wouldn't he, given what she knows?) or come up with a story, we can instead see Don not trying to manufacture a pitch, but Dick bracing himself to tell his wife as much of the truth as he can handle. And you can see that he was not in any way prepared to be hit with the thunderclap of Adam's name, even though he's precisely aware of what's in the box. Sending his brother away is, as far as Don's concerned, the worst thing he's ever done - worse than stealing the real Don Draper's name, worse than cheating on Betty - and so he's tried to bottle it down even further than Archie and Abigail and the rest. But as Betty tells him the name, his confession becomes the opposite of the advice he gave Peggy in "The New Girl" - "I guess when you try to forget something, you have to forget everything." - and so even though he doesn't want to tell her everything, he has to. And Hamm... has Hamm ever been better than he is throughout this whole sequence, playing a Don/Dick who's totally exposed, who can't run or hide, who has to confess all of his greatest shames to the woman who represents his dream life? And that look on his face in the end - there's just so much there, right? So many possibilities for what he's feeling, and for what his life might be now.

And I don't want to slight January Jones in here. This is twice now that she's had to play Betty trying to cope with a devastating truth about her husband (first Bobbie Barrett, now this), and Jones was just as good at playing Betty's steely resolve here as she was at the broken doll quality of "A Night to Remember." Betty nibbles around the edges of the problem at the start of the show (asking Don if he has any cash handy, well aware of how much he has in that drawer), then gets frank but depressing advice from her father's lawyer Milton(**), then heads home early so she can have the element of surprise to aid her against her very slippery husband. And she does not give him an inch of breathing room, does she? I loved seeing the role reversal in the kitchen, with Don reduced to a child who's been caught doing something bad, and Betty as the maternal figure who's going to administer discipline but has to calm the little brat down first by getting him something to drink.

(**) I'm sure Betty would be screwed-over to an extent if she wanted a divorce and couldn't prove adultery - though wouldn't Jimmy Barrett be happy to offer supporting testimony? - or the identity theft, but would she really be at risk of losing the kids? I thought it wasn't until after the "Kramer vs. Kramer" era that courts stopped routinely assigning primary custody to the mother in divorce cases.

And the genius part of the script, by Marti Noxon, Cathryn Humphris and Matthew Weiner, is the way that Miss Farrell's presence hangs over the proceedings like a ticking time bomb. Betty doesn't know she's out there, and Don may forget quickly, but we are acutely aware that she's still out there, and that she might be impulsive (if not outright cuckoo bananas) enough to knock on the door to find out what's taking so long, and then this delicate situation between husband and wife could just explode. I've watched the second half of the episode several times already, and each time I'm on edge, even though I know that Suzanne just waits for hours, then slinks off with her suitcase in the middle of the night, suspecting, but not knowing, what's to come.

Now, Weiner and Hamm have talked in the past about how one of the fundamental problems of the Draper marriage is that Betty doesn't know who Don really is, and Don therefore keeps her at a distance so she won't find out. Those walls are gone now, and in theory, their relationship could get healthier as a result. But there's another problem, perhaps an even bigger one, and it's that Betty still doesn't seem like Don's type. She's his idealized woman, but not the ideal woman for him. And maybe she could become his woman (as in their Italian role-playing), but for now it's clear that he's still drawn to the more independent, more in touch with their own emotions women like Midge or Rachel or Suzanne, and when he tells Suzanne he won't be seeing her again, he adds a "not right now" caveat. That could be just him trying to soften the blow, or it could mean that, for all that was exposed and potentially healed tonight, Don's wandering eye will still be an issue.

Even if it isn't, there's the fact that he never concretely told Suzanne that Betty doesn't know about the two of them, which could lead to something very awkward down the road should their paths cross again. Because whether Suzanne's crazy or just ahead of her time (and this episode lends more evidence to the latter theory), she seems exactly the type of person who would feel compelled to apologize to Betty should they ever come face to face, and that would be very, very bad for all involved.

Whether Miss Farrell surfaces again or not, whether Don and Betty manage to be more open with each other or not, this is a radical dynamic shift in their marriage. Don has always been not only the bread-winner, but the decision-maker. Not anymore. Betty knows too much about him now, can do too much damage to him now, can absolutely take away the kids and the money by getting him sent to jail as a deserter and an identity thief. So either he learns to share power with her, or she takes it from him. And we all know how little this man, whether he's calling himself Don or Dick, likes to be told what to do. If this isn't a solid partnership, then entirely new problems are going to arise.

And I see that I've now written over 1600 words about something that took up maybe a third of the running time of "The Gypsy and the Hobo," if that. I don't want to slight the rest of the episode, particularly since so much of it tied in thematically to the Don/Betty conflict.

In both Roger's story and Joan's, we see them dealing with romantic partners, past or present, discovering the truth about who they really are trying like hell to fight that, just as Don has for so long before potentially accepting his true identity at the end of this one.

Roger's old flame Annabelle has a crisis on her hands because her dog food company's name is poison in the marketplace, and she refuses to let Don (who knows a thing or twelve about the power of rebranding yourself) or anyone else change that name. And recently widowed, she's convinced herself that she was the love of Roger's life and can easily get him back, and is hurt and mystified to be both rejected in the present and dismissed about the past.

Dr. Greg, meanwhile, struggles with his psychiatric interview - and the man would be the world's least insightful shrink, based on his whining to Joan, "You don't know what it's like to want something your whole life, and to plan for it and count on it and not get it," which exactly sums up the story of Joan's life now that she's married to this loser - and is so fixated on keeping his surgical career going that he (as a bunch of you speculated on the last time we saw the jerk) enlists in the Army. The military is desperate enough for cutters that they'll even sign up his brain-less fingers, and I suspect (as so many of you did) that he's going to end up in Vietnam, either dead or gone for so long that Joan will wind up back at Sterling Cooper, under whomever the new ownership turns out to be. Now that Roger knows she's looking for work, so long as he has any kind of influence under the new structure, whom else would he call first?

Cathartic as it may have been to see Joan bash her clueless rapist husband in the head with a vase - and irrationally excited as I am by the thought of Greg getting blown up in Vietnam - I found Roger's story the more interesting of the two subplots this week. John Slattery, as always, gets the best lines and knows how to deliver them - when Annabelle compares their relationship to Rick and Ilsa in "Casablanca," Roger replies, "That woman got on a plane with a man who was going to end World War II, not run her father's dog food company." - but there was something oddly tender and mature about how Roger carried himself in this one. Or, if not mature, then secure - as in, maybe he really does think Jane is The One, does love her enough to not cheat on her (as opposed to just being afraid of getting caught), and has genuinely been looking all his life for someone just as carefree as himself. Now, it's entirely possible that Roger is full of crap and just trying to hurt Annabelle the way she hurt him, and it's more than probable that should Jane start to feel the ticking of a biological clock and start talking about settling down and having kids, Roger would toss her aside like he did Mona and start looking for his next young thing. But if young Roger was really the man Annabelle described - "hoping to be a character in someone else's novel," boxing, not wanting to work at his father's ad agency - then maybe this is for real.

Or maybe I'm feeling more kindly disposed towards Roger this week because of how charming he was during the phone conversation with Joan (who, even she no longer works at Sterling Cooper, knows the company's operations better than he does).

I spent some time with Slattery and his wife Talia Balsam (who plays Mona) at AMC's press tour party in late July, and we got to talking about whether Roger had settled - that he wanted Joan and wound up with Jane. And Slattery, who thinks about the character a lot more than I do, said he didn't believe so. He felt that when Roger, after his season one heart attack, told Joan, "You are the finest piece of ass I have ever had, and I don't care who knows it," that wasn't just Roger being crude, but Roger expressing the depth of his feelings for her. Joan was a great time for Roger, but she was also strong-willed and tough and more serious than Roger ever wanted to be, and despite his promises to leave Mona for her, perhaps he always knew this wouldn't work in the long-term.

But whatever's happening with Roger's marriage, with Joan's career, with the Draper marriage, the ownership of Sterling Cooper, things are going to happen soon and they're going to be tumultuous. We end this episode on Halloween. Margaret's wedding is 23 days away, which means JFK's assassination is only 22 days away. Again and again, I go back to Grampa Gene's line to Sally about their Roman Empire book: "Just wait. All hell's gonna break loose."

Some other thoughts:

• Great as so much of this episode was, "The Gypsy and the Hobo" also suffered from that occasional "Mad Men" tendency to be a little too on-the-nose, to spell things out too blatantly. So we get Bobby dressing up as the hobo his father truly is, and we got Greg's vase-inducing line so perfectly summing up Joan's life story, and Roger's line about the dog food company name ("Let it go! The name is done! It's unfair, but it's over!") so neatly echoing his feelings about Annabelle, and, of course, Carlton's closing line to Don.

• I had gotten the impression from Don's conversation with Adam back in "5G" that Mac was just as much of a sonuvabitch to Dick as Archie had been, and it seems to pain him to say Mac's name to Betty, yet he also tells her, "He was nice to me." Am I misremembering?

• For a half-second, I thought the episode's title might be an allusion to Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves" (tramp is another word for hobo, and Don's an identity thief), but the song came out 8 years after the episode, so... ?

• The vanity mirror in the Draper master bathroom led to a memorable closing shot in "Maidenform," and here we see it used to show just how much Don hates himself for all the things he confessed to Betty. Guy can't stand to look a himself, from three different angles.

• It's been a good season for "Mad Men" cigarette humor, from Pete's coughing fit in "Wee Small Hours" to Don unabashedly lighting up a half-second after Annabelle explains that her husband died of lung cancer.

• A lot of people were intrigued last week by Roger's comment to Bert Cooper about having discovered Don at a fur company and want some gaps filled in. I don't think there's a lot left to fill in. Don has said before - most memorably in his Kodak pitch in "The Wheel" - that he began his advertising career as an in-house copywriter for a fur company in the city. (This is also how he met Betty, as she was a model at the time.) I imagine Roger tried to acquire the company's business, was told they were very happy with their in-house whiz kid, and proceeded to poach the whiz kid. But check out the look on Roger's face when Don says he's eaten horse meat, which I'm guessing was an allusion to his dirt-poor upbringing. Everyone at that office has always speculated about Don's past (except Cooper and Pete, who know), and Roger tried to probe Don about it going back as far as the series' second episode, on a double date with Mona and Betty. Given how much he's grown to dislike Don, any chance he tries to probe further?

• Annabelle, by the way, was played by Mary Page Keller, who's had a long career in television but is probably still best-remembered for playing one of the leads in "Duet," one of the first sitcoms on the Fox network.

• Loved William banging on the door to Gene's office, assuming Betty and Milton were conspiring against him. So cheap and petty, as always.

• Is this the first time we've seen Sterling Cooper's focus-testing suite since the secretaries tried out the Belle Jolie lipstick (and Joan obligingly gave the chipmunks a show through the two-way mirror) back in season one? That scene was funny, particularly Peggy's confusion about how to turn off something that's actually happening, but I thought the line, "When people are protesting, I'm on board!" was another instance of the episode aiming too directly at its target.

• Still trying to figure out how to equate 1963 travel times to 2009 ones. Google Maps puts Ossining to Norwich at only two hours, when Miss Farrell says they'll need four, where last week Don made what today would be a six-hour round trip from Ossining to Framingham well before dawn.

• The song playing over the end credits is "Where Is Love?" from "Oliver!" - which, don't forget, is the musical Joan got St. John and Harold Ford tickets for on the trip that led to the end of Guy's golfing career.

Once again, we're going to stick with the slightly modified version of the commenting rules for these posts, so let me repeat how it works. Until we get to 200 comments (i.e., until the comments are split into separate pages), the original rules apply (skim everything before posting to avoid annoying duplication). After 200, if you're going to ask a question, or if you're going to suggest a theory or observation that you don't think has come up yet (i.e., "I think that guy Connie from the country club bar might be Conrad Hilton" or "Do you think Joan's bloody dress was supposed to be a Jackie Kennedy analogue?"), or if you want to answer or correct something from a previous comment, I want you to do a word search (every web browser has one, usually listed as Find in the Edit menu) for some possible keywords you might be using. (In those cases, try "Hilton" or "Jackie" or "bloody.") If you don't see any of your keywords - and again remember that Blogger splits the comments into multiple pages once you get past 200, so check 'em both - then ask/opine away.

It may seem annoying or laborious for you to do this, but I want everybody to show respect for - and not waste - everyone else's time and effort, and this seems the best way to do that.

And given how close we are to the end of the season, let me again remind you of an even more important commenting rule: No Spoilers, which includes absolutely no reference to the previews for the next episode. Period.

What did everybody else think?
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Bored to Death, "The Case of the Beautiful Blackmailer": Because they got high

Quick spoilers for tonight's "Bored to Death" coming up just as soon as I dispute my ranking...

"The Case of the Beautiful Blackmailer" did two very wise, albeit well-overdue, things: it let George in on Jonathan's double life as an amateur private eye, and it put Ted Danson and Zach Galifianakis together. Danson and Galifianakis are from two different generations, and have two different styles of comedy, but funny is funny, and the two of them getting baked together was an inspired, hilarious sequence.

The one downside of the pairing is that it hung a lamp on how much the two sidekicks are carrying the show, and how little I care about Jonathan as either neurotic singleton, struggling novelist or bumbling private eye. He's as oblivious about his shortcomings as Jason Schwartzman was as Max Fischer in "Rushmore," but Max had a bravado and unswerving belief in himself that compensated for how inept he was at most tasks. I don't like Jonathan, nor do I find him especially funny most of the time, and watching the Ray and George scenes, I started imagining an alternate version of the series where Ray and George accompanied Jonathan on cases, but they - and we - never got out of the car.

What did everybody else think?
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Friday, October 23, 2009

Tune-in alert: White Collar

I didn't get an opportunity to review USA's "White Collar" (which debuts tonight at 10) for the paper, but it's a fun show, a solid addition to USA's stable.

The short version: Tim DeKay ("Carnivale," "Tell Me You Love Me") is a brilliant FBI agent specializing in white collar crime, and Matthew Bomer (Bryce Larkin from "Chuck") is an equally brilliant (if not moreso) white collar criminal sprung from prison by DeKay (the only man who ever caught him) to help crack a case. It's a little bit "Catch Me If You Can" (Bomer even gets to wear a bunch of Rat Pack-era suits), a little bit "48 Hours"/"Hardcastle & McCormick," and DeKay and Bomer play well off each other. In a particularly nice touch for the genre, there's no attempt to manufacture phony tension or dislike between the two of them, because these guys are too smart to waste their time on that.

It's not perfect. Tiffani Thiessen isn't particularly well-used as DeKay's wife, there's some odd shuffling going on with the actresses playing DeKay's junior FBI partner (Marsha Thomason in the pilot, Natalie Morales from "The Middleman" starting next week), and I liked the pilot more than next week's episode. But it definitely feels like something that's going to be in my rotation for a while.

I'll try to bump this post up tonight after the episode finishes - which should be around 11:12, due to a long running time - so you can discuss it more after you've seen it. Click here to read the full post

Dollhouse, "Belonging": Angel and the bad man

Spoilers for tonight's "Dollhouse" coming up just as soon as you tell me about the retirement plan...

In an ideal world, I would devote a lot of time to extolling the virtues of "Belonging," easily the strongest episode of this uneven second season of "Dollhouse" and one of the better episodes, period, of this up-and-down series. I would write once again about how terrific Dichen Lachman is as Sierra (and as Priya), and I would write about how remarkable it is that Topher has become, if not a sympathetic character this season, then at least a much more interesting one than the sociopathic quipster he was in season one. I would write about how well the episode followed up on the revelation in season one's "Needs" that Priya was essentially a slave of the Dollhouse, and how this episode managed to cleverly have its cake and eat it too, by showing how the Dollhouse as an institution could be so corrupted, even as our central characters were revealed to be ignorant of, and horrified by, the truth of the situation. (I might also spend some time wondering why Topher couldn't just do as Priya asked and wipe her back down to her pre-Dollhouse life; with Nolan gone, and the technology they have at hand, precisely why are they keeping her a slave when they know better?) I might write for a while about how good Enver Gjokaj is at playing a lovestruck Victor-as-doll, or about all the delightful malice dripping from Olivia Williams' voice as DeWitt called Nolan a "scumbag one tick shy of a murderer," or about how much I would look forward to the always-terrific Keith Carradine as an amoral Rossum exec. And I would note, as I and so many others so often do, that it's not a coincidence that one of the series' better episodes kept Eliza Dushku's presence to a minimum.

But this isn't an ideal world. Fox has pulled "Dollhouse" from its November sweeps schedule, and will burn through the next six episodes by airing them as Friday double features for three straight weeks in early December. That'll leave three episodes left on the initial order of 13, and while the Fox scheduling chief promised all 13 will air, he never said when, so it could be a while. And based on the ratings so far, and Fox's probably-wise decision to pull the whole abominably-rated Friday lineup during sweeps, I would say that the odds of seeing any episodes past the 13 are virtually non-existent. The show's done, and all we can do now is watch the remaining episodes when they air, hope they're good, and again ask the question about where things went awry.

And lord knows we've already played that game a time or twelve, blaming everyone from Fox (for alleged creative meddling), to Dushku (for a limited range), to Whedon (for placing too much faith in Dushku), to the concept itself (which has led to some terrific episodes like this one but also some flat-to-terrible ones).

And at the end of this particular long, strange week, I don't have the energy to once again play the blame game any more than I have to further sing the praises of all involved in the making of "Belonging." So talk about the good, or the bad, and we'll get back to it in early December, okay?
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HBO renews 'In Treatment'

Great news, particularly around these parts: HBO has ordered a third season of "In Treatment," to begin filming early next year and airing sometime later in 2010. Gabriel Byrne is still the star, HBO hopes to have Paris Barclay back as lead director and executive producer, and the new writing showrunners (replacing Warren Leight, who himself replaced Rodrigo Garcia) will be actor-turned-Oscar-nominated-screenwriter (for "Capote") Dan Futterman and his wife, Anya Epstein. Too early to say which, if any, of Paul's previous patients will return (including Dianne Wiest as Gina, I suppose). Given the real-life relationship of the new creative team, I wonder if Paul will be doing more couples therapy, or less. Click here to read the full post

Grey's Anatomy, "I Saw What I Saw": Perspective

I've more or less stopped blogging about "Grey's Anatomy," because I realized that if I just watched the show without writing about it later, it became much easier to ignore the parts I don't like (which ain't going away, because they're part of the fabric of the series) and enjoy the parts that I do. But I want to make a brief exception for last night's episode, which featured lots of the good stuff and virtually none of the bad. They can't go as dark as this every week, but it worked very well for an hour, and the "Rashomon" gimmick (telling the story of the patient's death from multiple perspectives) actually added to the proceedings (it gave a better sense of the chaos of the night, and of the ongoing tensions created by the merger), when sometimes TV shows do the multiple-POV thing and get nothing extra out of it.

I suspect I'll go back to watching-only next week, but I wanted to give credit where credit was due, and this was one of the best episodes they've done in a long time.

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

Community, "Football, Feminism and You": I'm not an alien! I am a Human Being!

My day's starting to get bogged down, so I don't have time to say much about last night's "Community." This is a couple of disappointing episodes in a row they've done - here, the only storyline I really enjoyed was Pierce and Dean Pelton teaming up to design a mascot - and while I'm still not worried about the show (every comedy has off-weeks, and new ones in particular can take a while to find the right balance of everything), I'd like to see them hit another one out of the park, and soon.

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

Parks and Recreation, "KaBoom!": KaMake My KaPit a KaPark

Spoilers for last night's "Parks and Recreation" coming up just as soon as I put on an apron...

I'm of two minds about "KaBoom!"

On the one hand, it had an awful lot of very funny moments - Ron asking Leslie "What the ka(bleep) were you thinking?" or Andy showing up naked at Ann's house (and the black dot migrating depending on his position, "Borat"-style) - and it moved the park subplot along significantly.

On the other, certain scenes - Andy getting dumped on by the backhoe, or the Pawnee city attorney (played by the always-reliable H. Jon Benjamin) cautioning Leslie about what she could say to Andy, or the revelation that the KaBoom! guy (played by Aziz Ansari's "Human Giant" buddy Paul Scheer) is an eccentric who likes to play elaborate pranks with pro-social consequences - while funny, felt very much like they belonged in a different kind of show. Specifically, they felt like something out of "Arrested Development."

Now, I worship "Arrested Development" as much as the next TV critic, and ordinarily I wouldn't object to a show striving to achieve that level of lunacy, particularly when it was as amusingly-executed as here. But Greg Daniels, Mike Schur and company have established a baseline tone and level of reality for this show, and it's worked really well at that level this season. And I don't want to see "Parks and Rec" suddenly get all wacky, right when they figured out that the series, and its lead character, work best on a more realistic, mundane scale.

Again, a good episode. I just don't think I want to see many more like it.

What did everybody else think?
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The Office, "The Lover": The in-laws?

Spoilers for last night's "The Office" coming up just as soon as I give you the chills...

Out. Standing.

As soon as I realized Michael was going to have sex with Pam's mom in the wedding episode, I started anticipating what the fall-out episode would be like. We had to wait a week (and suffer through an episode I really disliked), but the end product absolutely lived up to, and in some ways surpassed, my expectations.

"The Office" is designed so that Jim and Pam tend to play straight man/woman to everyone else in the office. They get funny asides, but they're primarily there to add a human element to the proceedings, and to help ground broader characters like Michael, Dwight and Kevin. "The Lover," written by the veteran "Office" team of Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky (and directed by Eisenberg in what IMDb is saying was his directorial debut, not counting a few "Office" shorts for, flipped that around. Jim and Pam were still human, but for once they were the ones having the huge reaction to events, where Michael was relatively buttoned-down. (And when he got more juvenile, it was only to match Pam's level; the threat to "start dating her harder," for instance, only came after Pam ripped into Michael and said she didn't give a s--t about his happiness.)

What a superb episode for both John Krasinski (particularly in his terrified, exasperated initial reaction to the news) and, particularly, Jenna Fischer. Because this isn't a note Fischer gets to play, you could tell she relished it, yet she managed to be loud and disruptive and immature while still seeming like Pamela Morgan Beasley Halpert.

And I loved the way Michael was written (and played by Steve Carell) in this one. As with Stanley's outburst in "Did I Stutter?," he wasn't going to tolerate that kind of overt insubordination from anyone in the office, even his beloved Pam, but he's also afraid of her enough that he had to go get Toby to fight the battle for him. (Poor, pathetic Toby; he actually wanted Michael to be his friend, and was crushed when Michael told him off after the plan didn't work.) And you could see that he was genuinely hurt by the vehemence of Pam's reaction - not only the disgust that it's Michael Scott sleeping with her mom, but the thought that Pam doesn't care about him being happy. Michael, as we know, has few friends in this world - and most tend to be moms - but he thought he could count on Pam and Jim as two of those, and it messed him up, in a funny way, to have them so furious with him.

Much as I loved many parts of "Niagara," this was easily my favorite episode of the season so far, and possibly an "Office" all-timer.

Some other thoughts:

• The Dwight/Jim subplot with the bugged mallard was the perfect contrast to the main plot, because, as Jim points out in the note he writes to the camera crew, Dwight absolutely picked the wrong day to try screwing with him. The opera music added a nice Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd feel to the proceedings, and the payoff - Dwight was actually clever enough to use the mallard as a decoy, but insane enough to want to listen to eight hours of Jim talking about paper stock - was great, in that it gave Dwight some edge back. If Jim can always beat him, and, on top of that, if Jim is now blatantly Dwight's superior, then that relationship is too one-sided to be as funny as it once was. So Dwight needs to "win" every now and then.

• Speaking of Dwight, I didn't like that he was so pumped-up to see Michael do his Blind Guy McSqueezy character (which all the women in Michael's improv class understandably hate). The Michael Scott Paper Company arc seemed to signal a sea change between these two characters, with Dwight no longer hero-worshipping and sucking up to Michael; his reaction in the teaser seemed very much like the Dwight of a few seasons ago.

• The best part of last week's episode turned out to be a deleted subplot (up, as usual, at and Hulu) about Erin's struggle to ingratiate herself in an office where everybody loved the previous receptionist. I like that there continues to be this weird tension between her and Pam, and that Erin seems to take Michael more seriously as a boss than Pam ever did.

• Is Creed crying at the aria because he's a musician and can appreciate beautiful music, or because it reminds him of a time when he was locked in solitary for three weeks?

• The "Frankie and Beans" running gag from Jim and Pam's honeymoon was a nice touch. It starts off as one of those inside jokes that's sweet for the people who understand it and obnoxious for those who weren't there, then became Jim's lifeline after Pam found out he knew about Michael and her mom before she did, and finally became funny for them again after Pam had a chance to calm down a little.

• Ryan Howard: Douchiest character in TV history? I feel like the fedora - and, particularly, his refusal to tell anyone where he got it, so that he can continue to be Cool Hat Guy - pushed him over the top, but I'm willing to listen to counter-arguments.

What did everybody else think?
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Thursday, October 22, 2009

30 Rock, "Into the Crevasse": Werewolf bat mitzvah?

Quick spoilers for tonight's "30 Rock" coming up just as soon as I become ambassador to the world's gayest country...

Though I'll always love Will Arnett for playing Gob Bluth, I've never much liked him as Devon on "30 Rock." On a show that manages to make a lot of one-note characters very funny (see Dr. Spaceman, who doesn't even appear in this episode but gets a laugh from the appearance of his Cigarette Diet book), Devon just comes across as one-note. And while he occasionally brings out a funny, juvenile side of Jack (the headlines will be "Donaghy saves company, marries your mom"), an episode with this much Devon isn't gonna be one of my favorites.

And speaking of one-note characters, they either need to find something new to do with Jenna or have her quit "TGS" like Josh did last week. I've been trying to think of the last Jenna storyline I enjoyed unreservedly, and at the moment I'm going all the way back to the start of season two when she gained too much weight from eating all that Mystic Pizza. Untalented, oblivious narcissism can be funny in spots, but not for three-plus seasons.

Jack, Frank and Twofer trying to build a better microwave and instead re-inventing the Pontiak Aztek might have been funny if I'd never watched Homer Simpson destroy his half-brother's car company, and they've done better iterations of the "Tracy's mad at Liz" plot.

It's "30 Rock," so there will always be amusing moments in isolation - Pete shoving Liz, Jack's book jacket blurb ("Lemon numbers among my employees"), Liz foolishly popping her retainer back in - but there weren't even enough in this one to qualify for my Funny Forgives a Lot theory.

What did everybody else think?
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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cougar Town, "You Wreck Me": Is he really going out with her?

Spoilers for tonight's "Cougar Town" coming up just as soon as I get my fighting nails on...

It's been remarked on a time or twelve in the comments to previous episodes that some people are watching largely for the scenes with the guys, and are putting up with Jules' stories to get to them. "You Wreck Me" (named after one of the more underrated rockers in the Tom Petty catalog) was the first time I really felt that way, not just because Brian Van Holt, Ian Gomez and, now, Josh Hopkins bounce so well off of each other, but because I could barely tolerate Jules for much of the episode.

Between the writing and the way Courteney Cox recites every line of dialogue like she's been dialed up to 11, I started to get really baffled about why Josh the boy toy would want to put up with this shrill, high-maintenance, neurotic mess, no matter how hot a mess she might be. (And the pan up from the legs to the ratty t-shirt, night mask and night retainer was one of the few decent Jules-related jokes of the episode.)

Now, there came a point in the lifespan of "Scrubs" where JD was just as much of a freak in relationships as Jules is, but you have to consider two things: first, that it took the show years to get him to that point after starting him out as quirky but mostly a recognizable human; and second, that most fans absolutely couldn't stand JD once he got to that ridiculous level. (And the show was much-improved for pulling him back to earth in final season of its original incarnation.)

I'm not sure the "Cougar Town" writers yet have a handle on this character, and so long as Cox is still playing to the non-existent cheap seats as if she were still on a three-camera sitcom filmed in front of a live studio audience, I fear she's going to remain this weird trainwreck of a character. And I don't think that's what Bill Lawrence and company intend for her. There have been moments in episodes (notably at the end of "Into the Great Wide Open") where the performance is toned down and the level of self-awareness rises enough for Jules to be likable, but they aren't coming often enough right now.

What did everybody else think?
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Modern Family, "Coal Digger": Football, you bet

Very quick spoilers for tonight's "Modern Family" coming up just as soon as I ruin gay for you...

While not up to the standards of last week's wonderful "The Incident," "Coal Digger" found several more amusing family combinations (Luke feuding with "uncle" Manny, Alex trying to bond with Grampa Jay, and, of course, Claire and Gloria being tense around each other), featured another wave of great throwaway jokes(*), and even managed to make Phil seem like not a complete doofus for a few minutes as he defended Claire to Gloria. And the family all jumping or being pushed into the pool was one of the better of the show's requisite Heartwarming Endings (Sincere Edition).

(*) Lately, as I take my notes on shows, I jot down "just as soon as I" candidates. Usually, the winner makes itself obvious right away, but every time I thought I had it locked, another one would come and top it. At various points, it was going to involve climbing a rope, eating bubbles, dressing up as the Hamburglar, dressing like a count, wearing an ascot, going a really long time without blinking, and The Righteous Brothers coming on the jukebox.

What did everybody else think?
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