Thursday, December 31, 2009

Looking back, looking ahead

On the last day of 2008, I predicted (after watching a bunch of January and February screeners) that 2009 was going to be a very good year in TV. And that's exactly how things turned out.

I don't know that 2010 will live up to that, but I've been watching screeners for the past few weeks(*), plus I know we have things like the final season of "Lost" - which may or may not disappoint, but is sure to not be dull - and HBO's new "The Pacific," "Treme" and "Boardwalk Empire," FX's "Justified," AMC's "Rubicon" (and, of course, "Breaking Bad") and more, all coming up.

(*) The four shows pictured above - "Life Unexpected" on CW, "Human Target" on Fox, "Chuck" season 3 and "Caprica" - will be premiering in the first few weeks of the year, and so far I've liked them all to varying degrees.

So after another relatively quiet week of TV, things are gonna start getting really interesting as of January 10th. Looking forward to seeing how it goes.

Happy New Year, everybody. Stay safe. Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Better Off Ted, "It's Nothing Business, It's Just Personal": Better dead than red

A quick review of last night's "Better Off Ted" coming up just as soon as I help my daughter build a house of Legos...

That's more like it. The first few episodes of this season had funny bits here and there, but "It's Nothing Business" was the first one that reminded me of the stronger installments from last spring. It had physical comedy (Veronica sleeping sitting up, Ted's tiny office), a bit of farce (every one of Ted's attempts to interfere in Veronica's relationship with Mordor making things worse) and some sharper, more ridiculous corporate satire in the use of the red labcoat and everyone's reaction to it.

Don't forget that there's a new episode (and a new, JD-free "Scrubs") on Friday after the Rose Bowl, allegedly at 8:30 Eastern, but possibly airing later due to the unpredictability of live sporting events. I'm planning to pad my "Ted" recording by 90 minutes, which oughta do the trick of capturing both. And if not, there's always Hulu the next morning.

What did everybody else think?
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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

At the movies: My 20 favorite films of the '00s

Having run through my favorite TV shows of the decade and the year, and then having invited comments yesterday on your favorite films of '09, I guess the only thing that's left is a movies of the decade list, which follows after the jump...

First, a few caveats. In this decade, I had a kid, started a blog to go with my column-writing, and saw The Star-Ledger's TV department shrink from three people to just me, and those three things drastically cut down on my ability to either go to the movies or watch them on DVD. So there are many movies big and small that I just never got to. Because of that, and because my tastes are idiosyncratic, I want to be clear that I'm not saying these were the 20 best movies of the decade, just my favorite 20 of the films I saw.

Here's how I would sum up "best" vs. "favorite": my favorite movie of all time is "Midnight Run," but I doubt it would crack a list of the 100 "best" movies I've ever seen, if you catch my meaning. The 20 films below (and the handful of runners-up) are a mix of films I think are genuinely great ("Children of Men"), ones that I've watched a million times ("Wonder Boys," which, to be fair, came out in the decade's second month, and so had a head start on the other entries), ones that happen to strongly check a particular box for me ("Miracle"), and some combination of all three ("The Incredibles").

So in alphabetical order, here's the list:

"Almost Famous" - Deeply auto-biographical films can feel self-indulgent (see a later Cameron Crowe film from the decade, "Elizabethtown"), with lots of scenes, characters and storylines thrown in simply with the defense of "this is what happened to me, man!" With "Almost Famous," Crowe told his own story, but it was a great story, and one that turned out to be universal to anyone who's ever been passionate about music, or writing, or, really, passionate about anything.

"American Splendor" - I'm a comic book fan, but I'd never read Harvey Pekar's work until I saw Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini's film, which deftly, hilariously and at times movingly mixed the real Pekar with a bunch of fictional stand-ins, some live-action (most obviously Paul Giamatti, in a performance I liked even better than his work in "Sideways"), some animated. Great work as well from Hope Davis as Harvey's wife, and if the movie had contained nothing but the "Revenge of the Nerds" scene, it might still be on this list.

"Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" - The funniest, silliest, most spectacularly quotable movie of Will Ferrell's career. It makes me laugh every damn time, and I like it so much that I've even watched "Wake Up, Ron Burgundy," the straight-to-video "sequel" that's essentially a collection of (understandably) deleted scenes and subplots. Sixty percent of the time, it works every time.

"Before Sunset" - Like many Gen X'ers, this movie caught me right in the sweet spot, as I'm around the same age as Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's characters, just like I was for "Before Sunrise." Richard Linklater made what seemed like one of the most unnecessary sequels of all time feel essential and powerful, and now, like many of my bretheren, I hope like hell the trio keep revisiting the characters every 10 or 15 years, "7 Up"-style.

"Children of Men" - Just balls-out filmmaking by Alfonso Cuaron and company - not just the famous tracking shots (like the ambush scene), but the creation of a believable, terrifying dystopian world, the performances by Clive Owen and Michael Caine, the music and the rest.

"City of God" - Foreign language films probably suffered the most in my movie downsizing this decade. The Brazilian "City of God" is one of the few I saw, and I was damn glad. Like "Children of Men," it's a marriage of incredible filmmaking technique (by director Fernando Meirelles and company) with a nightmarish world - only this one is the very real slums of Rio, as seen over several years. Loved the TV spin-off "City of Men" (which Sundance Channel aired a few years back), too.

"The Dark Knight" - The first of several comic book movies on the list, and also the first of three Christopher Nolan movies. In addition to giving us the justly-celebrated performance by Heath Ledger as the Joker, "Dark Knight" also did as good a job as I've seen of a live-action movie showing what it would be like to live in a comic book world, to live in terror of people like the Joker and even Batman himself.

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" - Kate Winslet's best performance in a very good decade for her, a Charlie Kaufman script that managed to marry his usual inventiveness with a real depth of feeling often lacking in his other scripts, and beautiful direction from Michel Gondry. What's not to like? (Other than the fact that Clementine and Joel are probably toxic for each other, that is.)

"The 40-Year-Old Virgin" - Still the best of the Apatow brand of films (both those directed by him and those made by his pals and/or former "Freaks and Geeks" stars). It has a lead performance by Steve Carell so good that it more or less helped save "The Office" (Greg Daniels credits this movie with helping him figure out how to write Michael Scott) and one explosively funny joke or set piece after another. Often imitated, (still) never quite duplicated.

"High Fidelity" - It leaves out a couple of key moments from the Nick Hornby book - Rob refusing to buy the records from the woman with the cheating husband (which is on the DVD as a deleted scene), and Rob and Laura arguing about the mix tapes he always made her - but otherwise Stephen Frears, John Cusack and his screenwriting buddies expertly translate Hornby from England to Chicago. A great (and, whenever Dick or Barry are on-screen, hilarious) meditation on love, be it of music or a woman.

"The Hurt Locker" - I had 19 films set on this list and couldn't pick a 20th. Then I did the post yesterday about the year's best movies, and I just couldn't get "Hurt Locker" out of my head. Among the many things that are cool about it - Jeremy Renner's performance (I can't believe ABC had this guy under contract for a show and let him go), the various action set pieces expertly set up by director Kathryn Bigelow, all the effective cameos - I may be most impressed with how Bigelow and writer Mark Boal managed to make a 100% non-political Iraq War movie. "The Hurt Locker" never asks why we're there; it just accepts that we are, and then goes to show you what that experience is like (terrifying, but also thrilling, mostly) for one specific unit that's there.

"The Incredibles" - I could probably put a half dozen Pixar movies on this list and not blink, but for diversity's sake, I'm going to let my favorite one stand in for all of them. A tremendous superhero movie (and at times spy movie), a great family story, a fantastic commentary on the "Everybody gets a trophy!" mentality our society falls prey to (case in point: my endless Best of the '00s in TV lists), impeccable voice casting and the follow-up I was hoping for from Brad Bird after the wonderful "Iron Giant."

"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" - A tale of two comebacks. Shane Black had more or less dropped out of the movie business after "The Long Kiss Goodnight," and Robert Downey Jr. was in the midst of another of his troubled, underemployed periods, when the two teamed up for this self-aware modern noir played half-straight, half for laughs, and all of it fun. Val Kilmer hadn't been this good in a long time, and no one has ever used Michelle Monaghan this well before or since. A high rewatchability level, as well.

"The Lord of the Rings" trilogy - Ask me to pick one of the three, and I'll probably go with "Return of the King" (even with the endless epilogues), but everyone seems fine treating them as one single work, so I will, too. I remember going to a critics' preview of "Fellowship" with Matt Zoller Seitz, and when the Balrog came out to battle the fellowship, Matt turned to me with an 8-year-old's smile on his face and whispered, "I'm so happy right now." "Me too," I said back, and I'm sure I was wearing a matching goofy grin. A tremendous technical achievement, but unlike "Avatar" (which I admittedly enjoyed), one that also seemed invested in the more traditional aspects of storytelling like plot and characterization.

"Memento" - The one that put Nolan on the map to make the other two of his films on this list (with a minor bump along the way in the solid-but-nothing-more "Insomnia"). You know a gimmick movie works if it stands up to multiple viewings, and this one does, thanks not only to the clever device that Nolan and his brother used to tell Leonard's story ("I have this condition..."), but the performances by Guy Pearce, Carrie-Ann Moss and Joey Pants. If anything, multiple viewing prove rewarding, as the story only becomes creepier and more tragic once you get out of Leonard's mindset and can remember all the pieces at once.

"Miracle" - The list's token Underdog Sports Movie, it's one I think is really underrated because it was one of a wave of Disney assembly-line sports flicks of the decade. What elevates "Miracle" above the likes of "Remember the Titans" or "The Express" are two things: Kurt Russell giving one of the best, most committed performances of his career as Herb Brooks (jump to the 1:50 mark of this clip and watch how Russell plays Brooks' uncertain reaction to the victory he devoted his whole life, and arguably too much of it, to achieving) and director Gavin O'Connor's long recreation of the Miracle on Ice game, a rare sports movie game sequence that feels almost as thrilling as the real thing.

"The Prestige"
- Our third and final Nolan movie, it's a bit of a puzzle box like "Memento," but on a grander scale, as we watch a pair of magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, both at the top of their games) try to outdo each other with ultimately deadly consequences. The Nikola Tesla stuff alone is wonderful, but this is another one of those "watch til the end every single time you see it on cable" movies for me.

"Spider-Man 2" - The overcrowded nature of the third film, and the greatness of "Dark Knight," have made it easy to forget how many people were happy to crown this one as The Greatest Superhero Movie Ever when it came out in 2004. With the origin story out of the way (and it still amazes me that everyone feels the need to do origin movies for these franchises, when the second film is usually much better), Sam Raimi got to tell a classic Spider-Man story on screen, with one great action sequence after another (Spidey vs. Doc Ock on the skyscraper is my favorite), a good command of the idea of Peter Parker as the guy with the world's worst and best luck at the same time, and a very strong supporting performance from Alfred Molina as Otto Octavius.

"Wonder Boys" - Based on a book by one of my favorite authors, Michael Chabon (and far more adaptable than "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," which spent the decade in development hell, and which is probably better off unmade), "Wonder Boys" is a funny, shaggy, exceedingly likable story of one memorable weekend in the life of a one-hit wonder author (Michael Douglas), and the various eccentrics (including Tobey Maguire, Katie Holmes and Downey Jr.) trying to help or hinder his return to usefulness. I'm a writer, so the subject may speak to me more than most, but it's my go-to DVD whenever I need to put a movie on while getting something else done.

"You Can Count on Me"
- The smallest movie on this list, it's the simple story of an estranged sister and brother briefly coming back together before the usual forces send them apart again. It's carried by great performances by Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, and by playwright-turned-filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan's attention to the small details that define a sibling relationship.

Others considered: "The Royal Tenenbaums," "Sideways," "Lost in Translation," "Serenity" (just for the TV fanboy in me), "Casino Royale" and many other Pixar films (notably "Wall-E" and "Up").
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Monday, December 28, 2009

Men of a Certain Age, "The New Guy": Big shirtless Ray

A quick review of tonight's "Men of a Certain Age" coming up just as soon as I look at all our sexy cabbage...

I'm on vacation this week, and a little under the weather, so I don't have a lot of time and energy to spend on "The New Guy." Once again, I think Ray Romano and Andre Braugher are really bringing it, here depicting Joe so adrift that spending a night hanging with his bookie seems like a good idea and Owen struggling with the revelation that Joe's marriage was over much sooner than he had thought.

This wasn't one of the stronger Scott Bakula episodes, though, but I imagine I could watch weekly installments of The Joe & Manfro Show, so it's all good overall.

What did everybody else think?
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What was your favorite movie of 2009?

Since this has apparently turned into a movie blog for the last week of '09 (what with the absence of most original TV this week), I may as well ask a question that's come up a bit in the "Up in the Air" discussion below: what was your favorite film of the year?

Now, I don't get to a lot of movies anymore, and I doubt I'll have seen more than 3 or 4 of the 10 Best Picture nominees this year. But with that caveat in mind, my favorite of 2009 would be either (depending on my mood) "Up" or "The Hurt Locker" (today is a cold and windy day, so I'm feeling "Hurt Locker"). "Up" was yet another Pixar masterpiece (particularly the opening montage about Carl's marriage), while "Hurt Locker" was both a kick-ass action thriller and the most engrossing war movie I've seen since "Three Kings."

So, what was your favorite from this year, and why? Click here to read the full post

At the movies: Up in the Air

The Christmas-to-New-Year's period is my one big movie-going stretch of the year these days, so two days after hitting the local multiplex for "Avatar," I was back to see George Clooney in "Up in the Air,", which I thoroughly enjoyed even as I had to keep reminding myself that the movie wasn't called "The Air Up There." A spoiler-laced review (designed, like my TV reviews, to be read after you've watched the thing) coming up just as soon as I throw out a pillow...

"Up in the Air" works on a lot of levels at once. You can simply enjoy it as George Clooney's most unapologetically dashing, romantic leading man performance since "Ocean's Eleven," or maybe even "Out of Sight." He's been great in other movies, but often in roles that feel designed for him to run away from his own innate charms. (He did, after all, win his Oscar for "Syriana," a movie where he packed on weight, grew a beard, and got tortured.) Clooney has become a great actor - and the scene on the airport shuttle where he takes the call from Vera Farmiga may be the best-acted of his career - yet there's something tremendously appealing about just seeing Clooney be Clooney... at least until those later scenes in which Clooney sees the folly of this.

Farmiga and Anna Kendrick are also terrific, and the sequence where the older duo console a heartbroken Kendrick and then invite her to crash the party (complete with a cameo by a not-so-Young MC) was as purely fun a 15 minutes as I've had at the movies in a long time.

But "Up in the Air" isn't just the story of a dashing road warrior. It's a blunt and poignant look at getting downsized in the worst job market in decades. Jason Reitman's idea to cast real people who had been recently fired to talk about their experience was a nice touch. Even better were Clooney and Kendrick's scripted interactions with J.K. Simmons and Jeff Eastin (as the devastated guy in Detroit), the former illustrating Clooney's belief that his job can be about more than just letting people down easy, the latter illustrating just how brutal this profession really is, particularly at a time like this when jobs are scarce.

And, of course, the second half of the movie also beautifully shows how Clooney's personal philosophy is just as much a delusion as his professional one. His life is fun, but empty, and the 1-2-3 punch of spending time on the road with Kendrick (who's far more human and empathetic than her tele-firing plan would suggest), falling for Farmiga and going to his sister's wedding (where Danny McBride showed how easily he can dial his usual schtick into more realistic, dramatic levels) forces him to realize that he does, in fact, need other people in his backpack.

And what makes the movie feel particularly resonant, I think, is that Clooney figuring this out doesn't solve anything for him, any more than his platitudes really help most of the people he fires move on in the job market. Had the movie followed a more predictable arc - had the "When Harry Met Sally" moment where Clooney goes running to tell Farmiga that he loves her worked out(*) - it would have made everything that came before feel phony. Instead, Clooney ends the movie in the exact same physical space as he began it, even as his emotional life has been ripped apart.

(*) Fienberg (who didn't love the movie in general) complained that he figured out that Farmiga's character had a family early on, and therefore grew impatient waiting for Clooney to find out. I have to admit that I didn't catch on until right when he showed up at her doorstep - again, I feared that Reitman was going the cliched rom-cm route when Clooney bailed on his big motivational speech - and was floored when I realized what was up. But I can see how spotting the twist early (like the people who somehow figured out Donnie Wahlberg killed Bruce Willis) could make some sections of the movie drag.

I don't get to the movies a lot anymore, and I haven't seen a lot of the movies that are considered serious Oscar contenders. But of the films I got to in 2009, "Up in the Air" is easily in the top 3 with "Up" and "The Hurt Locker."

What did everybody else think?
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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Doctor Who, "The End of Time" Part 1: Master race with a Master face

A review of the first part of "Doctor Who: The End of Time" coming up just as soon as I try to make an Ood laugh...
"Even if I change, it feels like dying. Everything I am dies. Some new man goes sauntering away. And I'm dead." -The Doctor
When I interviewed David Tennant back in the summer, he said he was excited by the challenge, in these final movies of getting to "take this immutable character to mutable places." The Doctor's fear of his impending death - with or without regeneration(*) - gave Tennant some of the best material he's had to play in his run on the series, and the scenes dealing with that fear were the highlights of "The End of Time" Part 1. Watching him in the cafe with Wilf, you understood just how much The Doctor enjoyed being this particular aspect - and also how much Tennant had enjoyed this role of a lifetime.

(*) Again, I came to the character as a newbie with Russell T. Davies and Christopher Eccleston, but when I asked in the past (particularly around "Journey's End") about how The Doctor usually reacts to the idea of death and regeneration, I was told it usually happens so suddenly that he doesn't have time to show any emotion at all. So Davies has created a relatively unusual circumstance for his leading man to play on the way out the door.

Beyond The Doctor's fear, and some of his other interaction with Wilf, I largely found this half of "End of Time" to be disjointed and overly busy. I don't know if BBC America made any cuts to what aired in the UK on Friday(**), or if Davies just tried to take on too much, or if my ignorance of the pre-Davies series just makes me less interested in the Time Lords and the Master, but it felt like there was too much going on, too many new characters being introduced (and not with the usual grace Davies gave to one-off characters in the series itself), and, as happened at the end of the third series, too much of John Simm chewing on the scenery (and on chicken bones).

(**) Even if they didn't make any cuts, the number and duration of on-screen bugs and billboards for other BBC America shows drove me nuts. How about letting us pay attention to the show we're actually watching for a few minutes, folks?

Of course, the first half of a big story has to spend a lot of time on set-up, so I'm still relatively hopeful for next week's conclusion. But I wanted to share Tennant's excitement for the whole shebang, and I only occasionally did.

What did everybody else think?
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Friday, December 25, 2009

At the Movies: Avatar

Merry Christmas to everyone who celebrates it! Last night, I undertook half of the traditional Jewish Christmas (the other half involves Chinese food) by going to the movies to see "Avatar," which I loved. Everything I'd heard about the story and characterizations were true, in that it's recycling a few dozen stories of allegedly cultured men discovering the nobility of the local savages (it's a little bit "Dances with Wolves," a little bit "Pocahontas," etc., etc.). Fortunately, everything I'd heard about the visuals (which I saw in 3D) was also true. The movie was just a treat for the senses for almost three hours, and the performances (particularly by Stephen Lang, who seems to be making a comeback after being off the radar for a long time, as the ruthless lead soldier) were good enough to compensate for most of the cliches.

We complain all the time about how the whole mainstream movie industry is designed to appeal to 14-year-old boys. For once, here was a movie that made me feel exactly like a 14-year-old boy, and I didn't mind a bit.

If you've seen it, what did you think? Click here to read the full post

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Doctor Who: David Tennant looks back

"Doctor Who: The End of Time, Part 1" - the first half of David Tennant's farewell to the role - airs tomorrow in the UK and then Saturday night at 9 on BBC America. I haven't seen it in advance, but I do have the transcript of an interview I did with Tennant at press tour back in late July, in which he looks back on his early days in the role, how his Doctor wound up wearing sneakers, how a childhood of pretending to be The Doctor turned out to be very useful when he got to play the role for real, and a lot more.

So read it after the jump, and whether you live in the UK or have, um, some means of accessing the episode after it airs there, please refrain from discussing "End of Time" until after I've seen it and posted about it, either Saturday night or sometime Sunday. Any comments referencing the content of the movie in any way will be deleted.

(Two notes: First, as mentioned, this was done back in late July, before Tennant was cast in his first American pilot, NBC's "Rex Is Not Your Lawyer," so at the end he discusses having early meetings with American producers and trying to gauge how much they know of "Doctor Who." Second, due to mechanical difficulties that I didn't notice until after the fact, the first five minutes of our conversation - most of it devoted to Tennant's recent experience at Comic-Con in San Diego - were not recorded. We pick up with Tennant discussing how he came to his interpretation of the iconic character.)

I'm not quite sure what decisions I made and what just occurred. Somewhere in between making a decision and going with the flow, you end up with a performance.

One of the differences between your character and (The Ninth Doctor) was that you were both sunnier and darker. You could get very angry. Was that something that was on the page when you were starting?

It's how I was interpreting what was on the page, certainly, but I dare say a different actor would have done it very differently. It's one of those characters that is open to personal interpretation in a way other characters might not be. Because he can sort of be anything. You have to just kind of see how it fits with you, I suppose. I love Russell (T. Davies)'s writing, and I respond to it very keenly. I had just done "Casanova," which he had written, and they felt in some ways like very similar characters. I mean, The Doctor does less shagging, but there's a brio, and there's a kind of passion for adventure which I think is similar in both characters. So I possibly brought some of that with me. And the way Russell writes both characters, there's an enjoyment of language and of thought colliding with each other faster than the speed of thinking. Which I've always liked. I like that kind of writing. I'm a big fan of "The West Wing," and the way Aaron Sorkin writes those people who can think and speak faster than the synapses can flash. I love characters who are clever and smart, and you have to run to catch up with. I think there's something very appealing and rather heroic in that. So it made sense that The Doctor should be like that, to me.

How much input did you have into things like the look?

The look was something that myself and the costume designer worked on hand in hand. Russell and Phil (Collinson), our producer, and Julie (Gardner), our exec producer, they would all have an opinion, but basically, Louise Page and I worked it out between us, and threw ideas back and forward and came up with 'the look' - which, again, from the minute you take over is what you're being asked about. And that's quite tricky, because it has to be of its time and yet timeless. And I always wanted a long coat. To me, it feels like The Doctor has to have a long coat, and that's something imprinted on me from childhood, because he always did. And there's something heroic in a flapping coat, but at the same time, I need to get rid of it sometimes and just be a scrawny guy in a suit that doesn't quite fit. So there was a sense of authority to him, but it's undermined by his own carelessness. He wears a suit, but doesn't wear it with proper shoes. Something about that felt right. But, again, we arrived at it slightly by accident.

And it has to be something you can run around in and wear every episode.

Absolutely. I was very keen on soft shoes. That was something I was always adamant about. That was the closest Louise and I had to a disagreement, and I was determined. In the first few episodes, they're my own shoes, because I wanted them to be old and battered and lived-in and falling apart. So until they did fall apart, I used my own shoes. And then, at the point when they didn't have any soles left, we got some new ones. For me, they were never as good again. I love when they were actually falling off my feet.

Someone asked me if you got to keep a pair.

The ones that were mine, we actually ended up selling for charity. So I don't know who's got them now. But I do have a couple of the pairs we used on the show. But there were hundreds of them.

When you're working with Billie (Piper), who'd had a pre-existing relationship with the other Doctor, how do you approach that as an actor, in terms of his feelings for her?

That could have been very tricky, because Billie would have every right to feel it was her patch. But mercifully, because Billie is so generous and so lovely, and such a great actress and wonderful human being, frankly, it was such a joy to work with her, and such a pleasure. Dramatically, that's what's going on between the characters, because she's having to rediscover this new man who's the same man she knew, and how she feels about that. But very quickly, I think we established that relationship that they had was as deep, and ran even deeper ultimately.

That's one of the things I've always wondered about the franchise: does The Doctor have the same feelings for people and things that he did before he regenerated? Does he have the same feelings for Sarah Jane that he did in the '70s?

Not necessarily, but with Rose, he certainly did. Meeting Sarah Jane again was deeply moving for him, I think. And what was interesting there was, he, in a sense, has gotten younger. That's The Doctor's eternal problem: he will always outlive his earthbound friends. And that's a great dramatic opportunity that you don't get in normal drama. You've got this character who's virtually immortal, certainly in terms of anyone from Earth, and how does that impact on those relationships? Even within a fantasy action/adventure scenario, you get to play these wonderful emotional beats. It's unlike anything else.

Patrick Stewart (with whom Tennant recently co-starred in a London production of "Hamlet") has talked about how one of the reasons he keeps being asked to play these iconic science fiction characters is that the training that he has through Royal Shakespeare allows him to give it a gravity and a reality, so it's not just silly men in funny suits.

Well, there's a similar trick - "trick" is underplaying it a bit - to playing Shakepseare and to playing this kind of work: you've got to play it absolutely real. But the language of Shakespeare is slightly heightened, and you have to serve it up. And there's a similar thing to that science-fiction/fantasy stuff, and you have to absolutely ground it in veracity, and yet just serve it up a little bit. I completely get what Patrick says, and I'm sure Ian McKellen might admit to a similar thing. If you can sell that you're the King of Scotland, or Henry V on a tiny stage in a studio theater somewhere, then you can probably sell that you're a starship captain or a time traveler. There is a similar skill there, yeah.

Obviously, when the two of you were working together, you had larger concerns in mind. But was there ever a point where you were able to talk about your shared experience?

We did a bit. He had recently acquired his Star Trek costume after spending years thinking he wasn't going to get it, and I was hoping for mine to arrive, so we talked about that. Of course, it's been a huge part of Patrick's life and my life - as has the Royal Shakespeare Company.

How was it to film your last scene as The Doctor?

Emotional. Thrilling, because the scripts are so exciting. You finally get - this character that we do manage to explore, an emotional life for The Doctor that you might not necessarily expect. Essentially, he has to remain unchanged at the end of each story that the series carries on - but when you get to the point where this version of the character is going to die and he knows he's going to die, the sands of time are running out and the bell is tolling and all those metaphors, you get to take this immutable character to mutable places, and that's very exciting. And emotional, as well. The character's coming to the end of his life, you're coming to the end of your life on the show, which has been all-consuming. Particularly back home, but all over the world, it's a huge deal. It's very important to people, and particularly to me, all of my life. So to be moving on from that - and I know I'll never say goodbye to it entirely; I'm sure The Doctor will travel with me as long as I'm on this earth - that's very moving and emotional, and it was to film it.

I assume you've had some conversations with some of your predecessors about this experience. Did they have any advice? Or thoughts on what it was like for them?

Just that it never really goes away. That it's so loved, you can try to get away from it, but you never will. That's to be embraced, not fought. But I'm still too close to it to really know. Maybe I'll need to be around when the next series starts transmitting before I really know how I feel to have moved on. And I feel hugely privileged to have been one of eleven.

I imagine that, having been a fan of the show as a child, it must be like growing up as a football fan and suddenly you get to play for your club.

I think it probably is very similar. And it's a weird mixture of emotions, because it's such a thrill, and completely surreal to believe you've ended up in this position. And then you get on set, and there's a job to do, and you have to just knuckle down and do it. You can't get too bothered about how absurd it is that you've ended up in this position. But it's still hugely thrilling. The peripherals that come with it are very weird: to be on a comic strip, to be a plastic figurine, to be on a t-shirt, and a cake and whatever else it is. They make everything now! They make soap, and anything you can care to think of. That's weird. That's not something you're prepared for at drama school, that whole side of it. Being a merchandisable commodity is peculiar. But a wonderful experience to have had.

Is this something that, as a child, you had ever fantasized about: 'One day I could be The Doctor'?

Yes, but never realistically. Never really. It was a sort of whim. Because, like, there are only 11 of us. I was much more likely to play Hamlet than I was to get to play The Doctor. And both of those were pipe dreams. There's only 11 of us, only 8 of us alive who have had that honor. It's a giddy reality to confront.

Were there certain parts of it that were either exactly as you might have imagined, or not at all as you had imagined? Like being in the TARDIS?

Being in the TARDIS never stopped being a thrill. It's such a wonderful set, and such an iconic thing. Anytime you did start to get blase about it, there'd be a new guest member of the cast who would come and get thrilled with it again. We all grew up with it. It's part of our race memory. You'd always be reminded, when someone new came on the show, how exciting it was. Everyone wanted to be photographed in the TARDIS, or to show their kids, or grandchildren - and, frankly, to be in it themselves. Everyone wanted to be by the TARDIS console, and with their arm around the Dalek.

And playing a scene opposite a Dalek or a Cyber-Man, that's got to be quite surreal for you as well.

Quite surreal - but really cool! The Daleks particularly. They have these operators inside of them, and they manage them so adeptly. And we have the voice on set - Nick Briggs - and it's wired up with cables, so the lights light up as he speaks. They happen, right there in front of you, all at once. Playing a scene with a Dalek, you can really immerse yourself in that reality. Some of the monsters are CGI or green-screen, and others are rubber head there, elements added afterwards, but the Daleks are live in front of you, happening.

But there was never, early on, a case of it being hard to focus on the acting because, "Hey, I'm in a scene with a Dalek"?

I'd say the opposite of that. Because if your formative experiences are pretending to do that on the playground, it's remarkably easy to just access that fantasy life again. I don't think that's underselling the process of acting. It's just an easier fictional world to surrender yourself to, because childhood memories are so potent. When you're being paid and allowed to, you can give yourself over to the fantasy very easily.

One of the themes, going back to "The Christmas Invasion," is that your Doctor can be a very destructive force. Donna says he needs to be controlled and all that. Is he a good guy? Is he a bad guy in your mind? A mix of things? Something more complicated?

It's complicated. He's had some very difficult experiences, with the Time War that we hear snatches of. He was clearly there when his own people perished. That left him with emotional scars, and he does have this tendency - there seems to be a slightly alarming tendency to bloodlust, in there somewhere. It's quite well repressed. He's basically morally pure and righteous, but there's a possibility of hubris in there. And that's something we will explore in these final stories. There's an Achilles heel there that he isn't entirely resistant to.

Well, speaking of the Time War - when you play Hamlet, and you're doing a scene about your father's death, the character you're playing has experienced this directly. The Doctor that you're playing sort of was in the Time War, but again, sort of not.

We'll find out slightly more about that before the end. It won't be more explicit.

But getting back to what I asked about earlier, he's had these experiences that he didn't really have. How do you access the emotions of things that Eccleston experienced in the first season, or that the previous Doctors went through? Ten is a different character from them.

Yes, but he's the same man. It is a peculiar one. There's no right or wrong about it, I guess, and you pick and choose when you're the same man and when you're a different man, if we're being honest about it. Clearly, he's the same man who experienced this. He still lost every member of his own race. That doesn't change when he regenerates. That's still something he has to deal with, so I think he still feels those scars.

So something that happened to Paul McGann happened just as much to you?

Exactly. And when he meets Sarah Jane again, it's the same man as met Sarah Jane before. And that's how she responds to it. She might be disconcerted that he's younger, but she gets that it's the same man.

Well, speaking of youth, the three of you in this modern era are a fair amount younger than most of your predecessors.

Well, I'm a little younger than Chris (Eccleston), and Matt (Smith)'s a lot younger than me.

Do you feel that that version of the show that Russell's created and that Steven (Moffat)'s going to carry on almost requires a younger man, just because of the physicality of it?

I don't know. I think you could write the show to whoever was in the part. I don't think I'm wrong that Steven didn't intend to cast an actor as young as Matt. His instinct was to take it a bit older again. Clearly, it comes down to the actor. The Doctor can be anything, really. So I think you cast someone because they seem exciting and right and enthused and inspiring for the part, and that becomes what The Doctor is. The Doctor can be anything, and if you cast a decent actor, then he's The Doctor, and that's it - whether he's 73 or 23.

There were certain archetypal episodes that Russell would do: The Doctor goes back and meets a classic English author, Doctor on a space station, etc. Were there types that you were particularly fond of as you got that point in the season?

I would be fond of them all as they came up, to be honest. Because, unlike most long-running shows where you've got the police office set, and the cafe set, and you tend to visit them again, we have one standing set on Doctor Who. We have the TARDIS, and we're only in it for about a minute each week. So each episode had such a particular life about it - a particular guest cast, it looked different, we filmed them in different places - that each one lives very distinctly in my memory. We got to go to Rome to film the Pompeii one. And then some of them we would film completely in our studios in Cardiff. But each one feels distinct in my memory. The variety was absolutely the spice of it.

Do you feel, having been through Comic-Con, and having seen how The Doctor is perceived at least by some people here, that having done this role might give you more of an entree to doing things here if you wanted to?

Maybe. Certainly, it's been interesting being in LA for a few days, meeting people and seeing what response you get. But Doctor Who, it's a funny one. I think people who love it, love it, and are passionate about. And people who don't love it, don't even know about it. So we're in an interesting place here. And that's coming from Britain, where it's part of popular culture. I still don't quite get where we sit in American culture. But it's fun finding out.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at asepinwall@starledger.com
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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I don't know Butchie instead

Since things are slow, TV-wise, let me offer up a couple of morning links:
  • James Poniewozik offered up a new category of year-end list: The Cincy Awards, which go to shows that aimed high but couldn't quite hit the target (at least not on a regular basis), named in honor of David Milch's memorably weird (and occasionally moving) "Deadwood" follow-up, "John From Cincinnati." (You can read all my old posts on that show here.) James explains the concept in more detail here, then makes his picks for this year's Cincy winners here. I don't disagree with any of the entries on the list, and to it I'd add "Nurse Jackie" and perhaps "Glee" and "Fringe." Feel free to discuss the shows you think should be on such a list for 2009, and also defend any selections James and/or I made that you think are unfair.
  • As I mentioned a few days ago, I briefly toyed with the idea of making my Best Reality Shows of the '00s list into a list of the best reality seasons before changing my mind. But Adam Bonin, whom I consulted at that stage of the list-making process, went ahead and did his own reality seasons list, which you can feel free to peruse at your leisure.
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Better Off Ted, "Battle of the Bulbs": The nude Bhamba

A quick review of last night's "Better Off Ted" just as soon as I take it back to the sarcasm store...

We're still not back to the level "Ted" was regularly hitting in season one, but "Battle of the Bulb" felt like a step in the right direction. There were a lot of very funny lines like Veronica's lightbulb joke, Rose's reaction to hearing Ted say "suck" ("So, 'suck' is okay to say now? Because I have some thoughts on the lunch you packed me.") and virtually every word out of Bhamba's mouth as he discussed sex with Lem's mom. (The return of Bhamba in general is always a welcome thing.) Khandi Alexander got to show off her comedy chops for the first time since "NewsRadio," Veronica trying to turn Linda into her sociopathic protege worked very well (and spared us from a third consecutive lame Ted/Linda storyline), and the popcorn popping in Lem's mouth was a wonderful sight gag.

Still, I hope we get another episode on the level of "Racial Sensitivity"(*) before the end comes - and make no mistake, it's coming. As I mentioned in the "Scrubs" review, ABC is going into Mid-Season Burn-Off Theatre mode with both comedies. They're going to air one "Scrubs" and two "Ted"s on New Year's Day after the Rose Bowl, and double-run both shows through January to get them off the air before "Lost" comes back. Considering how bad the ratings were last spring, and how surprised everyone was when ABC renewed the show, I suppose we should all look on this second season as an unexpected bonus (just like season two of "Dollhouse"). But like a lot of other TV critics, I'm wondering what, exactly, ABC would have to lose at this point by airing one of the remaining "Ted"s on Wednesday night. With "Hank" long dead, there's a hole there, and it's at least worth a shot. I recognize that the remaining Wednesday shows are all family comedies of various sorts, and their sensibilities are different than what "Ted" does, but funny is funny, and it seems worth a shot. This isn't a case of "Scrubs," a show that's been around forever, and where viewers have had a chance to decide if they care to watch it. This is a show that most people don't even know exists, and pairing it with some comedies on the rise instead of one living on borrowed time, even once, seems only fair, no?

(*) And thanks to all of you who either tweeted or e-mailed me links to the various stories about a racist Hewlett-Packard webcam. Always funny when life imitates art - especially art as good as "Racial Sensitivity."

What did everybody else think?
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Scrubs, "Our Mysteries": How can we miss you if you won't leave?

A review of last night's "Scrubs" coming up just as soon as I let all the funk out...
"I don't know, old friend. I've left so many times, I've come back so many times. Even I'm confused." -JD
If the continuation/reinvention of "Scrubs" hasn't damaged the show's overall legacy for me, it's started to make me resent John Dorian a lot. At the very least, it's reminded me of how insufferable he was in the last few NBC seasons before coming back to earth last year. And once again, his presence as irrationally needy man-child - and the apparent need to make him prominent while the show still had him(*) - has made it hard to really gauge how well "Scrubs" Med (or Zombie "Scrubs," or whatever kind of unkind nickname you want to give it) is doing.

(*) This was the fifth episode out of Braff's six-episode commitment, but with JD wrapping up his Sacred Heart teaching gig, I'm assuming - or hoping - his last appearance will be smaller, probably in a personal story involving Turk, or Cox, or even Elliot whenever Sarah Chalke appears next.

The JD portions of the episode continued to be extremely lame - other than the intro of the Interracial Hardy Boys idea, and the scenes at Bob Kelso's shag pad - but I still stubbornly believe the rest of the series still has some promise. The joy in Cox's voice as he talked about opening the "big box of failure" at Christmas, or the terror on Denise and Drew's faces as Sunny asked them on a double date were reminders that there are several very strong comic characters/actors left as regulars. And if Cole still seems like warmed-over Aziz Ansari, Dave Franco plays very well with Ken Jenkins. (But then, who on the show doesn't?)

This season/spin-off has had its early problems, but so many of them have been tied to the decision to bring back JD - and then to the writing staff backsliding in their writing of him - that I really want to see the first post-Braff episode before making a major judgment on things.

Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things, I guess. The ratings have been bad (though not as bad as for "Better Off Ted"), and because "Lost" is coming to Tuesdays before these two comedies will have been on the air for 13 weeks, ABC is going to double-run both for the month of January, and they're also going to air a "Scrubs" and two "Ted"s after the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.

In other words, we've reached Mid-Season Burn-Off Theatre mode.

It was a surprise that ABC renewed either comedy in the first place, and the ratings have shown why. So enjoy Zombie "Scrubs" (or don't) while it lasts, because this looks like we're finally, actually, really coming to the end of the line soon.

What did everybody else think?
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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Best of 2009 in TV - Sepinwall on TV

Last week, I gave you my list(s) of the best TV shows of the decade. Today, it's this year's turn, with my list of the best TV shows of 2009. As often happens, I couldn't limit myself to 10 and wound up with a mix of 20 new and returning series. So go over and read, watch the embedded video, etc., and then come back to yell at me for shows that you feel I ranked too high, too low, or not at all.

UPDATE: A couple of additional list thoughts:

1)As I predicted at the end of 2008, this was an incredibly strong year in television. This list could have easily expanded to 25 or 30 entries to include other Sepinwall faves like "Burn Notice" or "How I Met Your Mother" or "30 Rock" (or even interesting newbies like "Kings" or "Nurse Jackie") that I didn't like quite as much in '09 as I did the stuff that made the list. And based on the screener deluge that greeted me when I returned to the office yesterday, I have no reason not to have similarly strong feelings about 2010.

2)Don't get too hung up on the order. The top 4 shows are more or less interchangeable in my eyes in terms of the great years they had, and I spent a lot of time shuffling other shows around while trying to figure out how you judge a "Modern Family" against an "In Treatment" or "Lost." In many ways, I think Mo Ryan had the right idea with her list, which she insists on doing in alphabetical order.

3)In case you're curious to see what made some of my previous year-end best-of's, I added a category tag at the bottom of this post that will take you to my lists from 2005 (the year the blog started) to the present. Note that the first few years will feature links to non-existent Star-Ledger columns, as for a long time NJ.com stories disappeared after 14 days. Click here to read the full post

Monday, December 21, 2009

Men of a Certain Age, "Mind's Eye": Joe & The Fat Guy

A review of episode three of "Men of a Certain Age" coming up just as soon as I pretend I'm the king of Croatia...
"Whatever I am... what if he's worse?" - Joe
If "Mind's Eye" had contained nothing but that wonderful David Simon Worlds Collide moment where Owen (aka Frank Pembleton from "Homicide") met the older customer (aka Stan Valchek from "The Wire") looking for The Fat Guy, it would still be my favorite episode of this young series so far(*).

(*) In the morning, you'll see my list of the best shows of 2009. At one point, it was going to be two separate lists of 10 - one for new shows, one for returning series - but I couldn't quite come up with 10 new shows I was totally happy with, while the returning shows list was getting overstuffed, so I combined it into one list of 20. But if this show had been on the air for even a few weeks longer in the year, I think it would have been a strong contender for a spot at the back of the hypothetical new shows list. Four just didn't feel like enough.

The show is always about the three guys facing the uncomfortable truths of their certain age, and those truths were particularly uncomfortable for them in "Mind's Eye": that Owen's job makes him (and others) miserable, that Joe's son has inherited the anxiety that makes Joe so unhappy, and that maybe Terry envies his settled-down friends more than he wants to miss.

The Owen story was the definite highlight of the three, allowing Andre Braugher to combine the shlubby everyman quality of his performance so far with a bit of cocky Pembleton flash. And who doesn't dream of a chance to reinvent their job so they only have to deal with the fun stuff (hugs, smiles, moving up the sales leaderboard) with none of the headaches (awkward negotiations, customers resenting you, pressure from the bosses)?

The only part I didn't quite understand - and, admittedly, I'm ignorant about how a sales commission job like this works - is why Owen's check for the month would have been that low. I get that he was making sales below market value, but his total sales were way up, and it wasn't like he was letting the dealership take a loss on any sale. Wouldn't the volume of sales compared to a normal Owen month lead to at least a comparable check, if not a slightly better one? Or does Owen's dad have the ability to give Owen a lousy check just to spite him for not playing by the dealership's rules?

While Owen's resentment of Terry would keep him from ever admitting it, he was playing a role as The Fat Guy, just as Terry winds up role-playing as the family man home-buyer, and Scott Bakula had fun playing off of guest star Cynthia Watros, and at showing Terry's dawning realization that the role would be a lot more fun if it were real.

And Ray Romano continues to do some really interesting, small dramatic work as Joe deals with the parental nightmare of having passed his worst qualities on to one of his kids. I liked that Joe's big speech in the parking lot didn't really fix anything - that we cut from what should be this big inspiring moment to Albert riding in the car with his dad (which no doubt will lead to more teasing from the other kids, and therefore more anxiety). It rang true, and it was funny at the same time it was sad.

Even though "The Closer" aired its last episode of '09 tonight, there's a new "Men of a Certain Age" next week, which I guess is TNT's way of seeing how the show can do without its flagship series as a lead-in.

What did everybody else think?
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And in the end...

So a new "Survivor" winner was crowned last night. And even though I didn't watch this season (I kicked the "Survivor" habit after Fans vs. "Favorites"), this was one of those editions where it was impossible to not be aware of some of what was going on. And what happened with the ending has me thinking about the larger question of how the winner of a reality season affects our perception of that season, which I'll talk about (including, obviously, a spoiler on the "Survivor" winner) after the jump...

So Russell, whose apparent dominance of the game - and all the writing being done about that by other TV writers I follow - made me feel like I was watching the season even when I wasn't, did not win. Natalie did. Some people are already calling it a hose job, a lame jury vote akin to Amber beating Boston Rob because the All-Stars were pissed that Rob outplayed them, or akin to Neleh losing in Marquesas under similar circumstances(*). Linda Holmes, who used to recap "Survivor" for Television Without Pity, argued earlier this year that the Russell-as-greatest-player-ever narrative was constructed by the show and Russell's desire to self-promote, and didn't reflect what was actually happening, and she wrote this morning that the jury vote vindicates her take on the guy, and the season..

(*) Anyone want to argue against Vecepia (who beat Neleh) as the least deserving "Survivor" winner ever? She did nothing all during that season, and backed into the win because there was always a bigger fish to try in her original tribe, then because Neleh and Pascal organized an alliance flip, then because the producers screwed up the Purple Rock of Death twist, then because Kathy's chest was too big, and then because the jurors were a bunch of whiny babies. I know some people will argue for Sandra from Pearl Islands, but at least she was a key part of what was that season's longest-lasting, most dominant alliance, and she was going up against a contestant who was eliminated, then voted back into the game through a twist so lame the show has never recycled it. I say Vecepia, all the way.

But whether you believe the Russell hype or not, this season was all about Russell's alleged dominance, only it ended with him not winning. And if you bought into the guy's mystique and aura, I'm wondering whether his loss retroactively makes you enjoy this season a little less.

When I was working on the Best Reality Shows list for my Best of the '00s package, I briefly toyed with the idea of making it a Best Reality Seasons list, mainly because I felt weird about putting "The Apprentice" season 1 alongside the completely body of work for four other series. And while I was thinking about that, I asked a few reality fan friends for their thoughts on what were the best seasons of my respective candidates. When I told Adam Bonin that I was thinking of going with "American Idol" season five - which I felt had the best mix of talented singers, memorable performances and weird things that happened - he objected on the grounds that Taylor Hicks won that year. I argued that the winner shouldn't matter if the rest of the season was good enough, and that I found the David Cook season really unsatisfying even though I liked Cook himself a lot and was glad he won.

But the more I thought about it, the more I saw Adam's point. Taylor's win doesn't taint that "Idol" season for me, necessarily, but there are plenty of other reality seasons I like less because of who won, like Jenna on "Survivor: Amazon" or Hosea on "Top Chef" a couple of seasons back. Conversely, two of my favorite "Survivor" seasons, Palau and Cook Islands, had incredibly deserving and likable winners in Tom and Yul. Had Katie or Becky, respectively, won because of bitter juries, I might think less of those years in spite of all the entertaining things that happened in each.

Now, I've heard from fans of scripted shows like "The Sopranos" or "Battlestar Galactica" who so hated their finales that they decided they retroactively hated the whole series. And I'm sure the "Lost" finale (which simply won't be able to satisfy everyone, no matter what Cuse and Lindelof do) will lead to some of that.

But at least in those cases, the endings were crafted behind the scenes by the people who made you like the show in the first place. Reality producers don't have that luxury. I'm sure the "Idol" producers were tearing their hair out when Daughtry went home and it became clear Taylor was going to win, just as Jeff Probst for years has made his displeasure clear when someone other than one of his alpha male favorites wins. (This was really obvious, and awkward, at the Cook Islands reunion, when Jeff did everything short of beg the jury to do a re-vote in favor of Ozzy.) All a reality show can do is assemble the strongest cast they can and hope that the jury, the judges or the American public votes to keep things interesting and ultimately satisfying.

Anyway, to sum up that long ramble (forgive me; it's my first day back in the office after a week off), I'm wondering whether people who watched "Survivor: Samoa" all the way through are upset that Russell lost, how that impacts their overall view of the season, and how much you all weigh endings in general when judging a TV season or series.
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What is the new logo?

This week's logo was a reader submission, courtesy of Greg Packnett. Can you figure out what these four people have in common?

As always, this post has links to, and explanations for, all the previous logos. Click here to read the full post

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Doctor Who, "The Waters of Mars": Wet wet wet

As I mentioned in the "Dollhouse" post directly below this one, we're at the end of a long week for me and I'm not physically or mentally up to doing a write-up of the penultimate "Doctor Who" movie with David Tennant, which started out as another story of The Doctor trapped on a space station whose crew get picked off one by one, and then became something very different in the final act.

So tell me what you thought, and in a week's time we can discuss (hopefully at more length) the first part of the final Tenth Doctor story, "The End of Time." Click here to read the full post

Dollhouse, "Stop-Loss" & "The Attic": Caroline's army is here to stay

There are a lot of things to say about last night's "Dollhouse" double feature. But after a long and draining week, I'm not the guy to say those things. (Though I will offer up one thought in the comments, about these episodes' relationship to "Epitaph One.")

So what did you guys think? Click here to read the full post

Friday, December 18, 2009

Dan LeBatard, go to your room!

While I posted my whole Best of the '00s package of lists last Friday, Fienberg has slowly been working his way through his list of his favorite 31 shows of the decade, one a day since the start of December. (And at much greater length, and with more thought, than I gave any single show on my lists.)

Proving that we are not, in fact, the same person, Dan has a bunch of shows on his list so far that appeared nowhere on any of my lists. And today, he paid homage to the one show I couldn't figure out how to include in any of my lists, short of contriving a "Best Sports-Related But Non-Sports Programming of the '00s" list just so I could salute ESPN's wonderful "Pardon the Interruption."

Fienberg and I disagree vehemently on the merits of Dan LeBatard as guest-host (I'm of the opinion that LeBatard is the one fill-in who, particularly on days when it's him and Tony together, brings the show somewhere into the quality neighborhood of a Tony/Wilbon episode, whereas Fienberg claims to turn off the set when he hears the word "Bam!"), but overall, he says a lot of things I would have said about the only show I watch every weekday.

So go read that, and at the end there are links to all his previous Best of the '00s entries. Click here to read the full post

Merry Chrismukkah to all, and to all a good weekend

So on Twitter yesterday, one of my followers said, "How much does it suck that we don't get a Christmas episode of Chuck?" And given Josh Schwartz's flair for holiday episodes on "The OC" (which gave us not only Chrismukkah, but great episodes built around Thanksgiving, New Year's and, I believe, Arbor Day) and the fact that "Chuck vs. the Santa Claus" was one of season two's highlights, I am a bit disappointed, yeah.

(I asked Schwartz if he had any springtime holidays in mind to compensate, and he said, "Yeah, Pesach." I think he was joking, but how much would an episode set at Lester's seder table rock?)

Which brings me to my question for you on a very slow day of the week before Christmas (and the last full day of Chanukah): what's your favorite December holiday-themed episode of a TV show, and why? I'm not talking about specials like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" or even "A Charlie Brown Christmas," but an episode of an ongoing series that happens to deal with Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, New Year's, etc. Click here to read the full post

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"I'm on the radio EVERY DAY!!!!!"(*)

(*) Can you identify, without Google, the context of this particular "Frasier" quote?

Mo Ryan has posted the second and final part of the chat she had with me and James Poniewozik over pizza(**) in late October. (Part one, focusing mainly on "Lost," is here.) This one has us discussing "Mad Men," "Dollhouse" and more. No spoilers for anything that hasn't already aired, and in fact the "Mad Men" discussion took place before that season ended.

(**) Damn Poniewozik (or one of his Twitter followers) for coming up with the much better subject line "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place" for his own post on this discussion. Damn them!

Now, if that's not enough Sepinwall gab for you for the day, or if you want to hear the mellifluous tones of my voice, I'm scheduled to do a couple of radio interviews today, one traditional, one online.

I'm supposed to be on WNYC's "The Leonard Lopate Show" from 1 to 1:20 p.m. today, where New York Magazine critic Emily Nussbaum and I will be talking about the year and decade in TV. (And if you haven't yet read Emily's piece on the greatness of TV in the '00s, you should.)

Then at 3:40, I'm scheduled to be a guest on Mediaite's "Office Hours" live web show, to discuss similar but not identical things.

So the opportunities to read or listen to me bloviate about the state of TV at the end of the decade are plentiful today. Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Friday Night Lights, "In the Bag": Don't fence me in

A review of tonight's "Friday Night Lights" coming up just as soon as I swaddle and shush...
"I'm offering you all I got. This is not just about football. Think about that." -Coach
Now that Matt Saracen has placed Dillon in his rearview mirror, the latest episode of season four focuses on the characters who are still stuck in town, and focuses on new bonds being forged or old ones being strengthened.

Eric learns to place some trust in Vince over the gun situation, and Vince responds in kind. Julie leans on Landry and an extra-curricular overload to get her over Matt's abrupt departure. Landry realizes that the long distance thing with Tyra ain't happening and makes his move with Jess. After Becky's dad shows up briefly and turns out to be every bit the waste of a paternity test that Papa Riggins was to Tim and Billy, Tim steps further into the role of father figure for Becky, much as she'd like him to be interested in her in a different way. And Luke gets his dad to see the value of the football team in his life just an accident with the repaired fence and the cattle may sideline Luke from that team for a while.

And if Luke is out of commission, that's going to put even more of a burden on Vince - is the wildcat really the wildcat if one guy's taking all the snaps from center? - and his tenuous but growing relationship with Coach.

As I discussed around this point last season, one of the drawbacks of the 13-episode order, when combined with the show's desire to give its outgoing characters multi-episode send-offs, is that some storylines wind up with a lot of blanks left to be filled in by the audience. Vince's story here felt like it was either missing some pieces from his perspective, or else was designed to be told mostly from Eric's POV. In other words, Coach doesn't know if Vince has a gun at school, or why, or whether he's sliding back into the criminal life that landed him on the team, and therefore, neither do we. And if that's the plan, that's fine, but I'd like to get inside Vince's head more as the season goes along. We know from "The Wire" that Michael B. Jordan's good enough actor to carry whatever they want to throw at him here, and with Luke potentially sidelined and Landry a scrub-slash-kicker, the only other good active Lion that we know might be helpful, fry-mooching Tinker.

Landry has less time to work on his kicking game, as he winds up a one-man support system for Julie, who's still struggling to deal with Matt's departure, then hit harder when she learns that she (currently) comes in behind Grandma and Shelby on Matt's priority call list.

There was a time early in the series where I would have lumped Aimee Teegarden in with Taylor Kitsch and Minka Kelly as the cast's obvious weak links. But Kitch is now an indispensable part of the show, and it's been a long time since Teegarden hasn't been up to the challenge of a script. (Kelly? Well, at least the writers figured out how to write around her limitations.) Julie's reaction to hearing that Matt called someone other than her, and her trembling trip to the podium during Academic Smackdown!(*) were wonderfully played. We've been so focused on Matt's departure that it's easy to forget the girlfriend he left behind; this episode made forgetting Julie impossible.

(*) Vince McMahon has taught me that the word Smackdown! must be both capitalized and accompanied by an exclamation point. Who am I to argue with the man who made stars of the likes of Haku and The Brooklyn Brawler?

Of our four new characters, Becky has been the least integrated into the world as a whole. Other than her brief, currently on hold flirtation with Luke, she's appeared almost exclusively with Riggins. But even if she's still on the outskirts of the series, it's hard not to feel sympathy for her after an episode like this one, and also to see how complicated her relationship with Tim is going to get. She's crushing on him madly; he's not interested. Becky worships her daddy; Tim sees the guy as an exact replica of his own deadbeat dad, and while he's not necessarily wrong, it's clear Tim's taking out some anger towards Walt when he picks a fight he knows he can win with this guy. And by shattering Becky's illusions about her dad, Tim might chse her away (not in a way he intended), or he might make her lean harder on him than ever.

Lots going on here. Lots of characters in flux, and lots of potential for the latter half of the season.

Some other thoughts:

• Because there are so many new and old characters to service, and because Adrianne Palicki wasn't available to stop by this season the way Minka Kelly did, our closure (for now) on the Landry/Tyra romance has to come via a one-sided phone call. But it felt right to me (even if the show/Landry maybe waited too long to make that call), because as good as Tyra could be at times, and as much as she cared for Landry, she also was desperate to get the hell out of Dillon without looking back, and she has a history of treating Landry badly even though he went on a five-state killing spree for her that one time. So while it makes me sad that she didn't even have the courtesy to write a "Dear Lance" e-mail or text message, I buy that she would have moved on with her life and tried not to look back. (Or that she looked back but didn't have the heart to tell Landry it was over, possibly out of fear that he might kill her.)

• We've established a pattern by now that Billy Riggins is both none-too-bright and a little too eager to try on a life of crime when his finances get tight. So I can buy that he would let himself get drawn into Angry Necklace Guy's pitch about turning Riggins Rigs into a chop shop, and this could potentially tie Tim to Vince down the road, when for now the only new character he has a relationship with is Becky. But season two has made me incredibly wary of this show dabbling in crime, you know?

• And what are we to make of the final scene, with Tim and the renamed Skeeter stopping by a large piece of ranching property for sale? Is Tim going to take the Riggins Rigs cow and start his own cattle operation?

• As we see, West Dillon (formerly Dillon High) has its own Smackdown! team, so how did Landry the chess club nerd not know about it?

• Barry Tubb, who plays Luke's dad, knows a thing or two about TV ranching, as he played a supporting role in the original "Lonesome Dove" miniseries and the "Return to Lonesome Dove" sequel.

• When we met Glenn at the start of season two, I wondered if the writers were going to have him throw himself at Tami while Eric was still commuting to and from TMU. Two seasons later, he finally does it, fueled by booze and tequila and a blue ribbon award for West Dillon, which clearly has as many academic advantages over East Dillon as it does athletic ones. Tami's response to this, both in the moment and the next day (after Glenn has an attack of liberal guilt and says, "It's like I mouth-raped you!") was yet another example of how great this woman is under pressure.

Just a reminder, this is the last original episode to air until January 6, in the usual timeslot, Wednesday at 9 p.m. on DirecTV's 101 Network.

What did everybody else think?
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When TV critics attack

A few weeks ago, I met in New York with Mo Ryan and James Poniewozik to enjoy some fine pizza at John's in Times Square. While we didn't manage to create a TV show the way that Joss Whedon did over pizza that time with Eliza Dushku, we did talk a lot about "Dollhouse" and a host of other TV nerditry, and Mo recorded and transcribed the whole thing. The first of three parts, focusing mainly on "Lost," is up today, and Mo will post the other two tomorrow and Friday. (I'll link to them then.) And just enjoy the fact that I can be every bit as rambling and tangential and non-grammatical as my interview subjects. Click here to read the full post

Chuck season 3 is... awesome

So, Chrismukkah has come right on time in the Sepinwall household, where I just finished devouring a care package of the first five episodes of "Chuck" season three. (In case you missed it, NBC released the new key art poster yesterday.)

The short version: if you're somebody who bought a Subway sandwich on the night "Chuck vs. the Ring" aired, or if you somehow hate sandwiches but love "Chuck" anyway, or if you're just a fan of TV shows that are both fun and awesome, then you'll be pleased with what "Chuck" will have going on when it returns on January 10. I'm typing this blog post with a goofy smile plastered across my face, and I suspect it's not going away for a while.

A slightly longer, mostly spoiler-free (save for some premise and guest-casting stuff that spoiler-phobic creators Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak have been fine putting out there) take coming up after the jump...

So Chuck now knows kung fu, and a whole bunch of other cool spy stuff, but the essence of "Chuck" hasn't changed. It's still a show about an ordinary guy who has stumbled into life as a spy, and his new superpowers aren't reliable enough to suddenly turn him into another Captain Awesome. (Awesome, meanwhile, is struggling to deal with his brother-in-law's secret identity.) He's still Chuck Bartowski, for good and for ill, and while his abilities and position in spy world have evolved, they don't take away from what made the show so entertaining in the first place. (At the same time, he gets to be just assertive and competent enough on occasion that it could sway people who've said they would like the show if the lead was less of a wimp and/or bumbler.)

The guest casting remains top-notch, with good use of the likes of Vinnie Jones, Armand Assante and Brandon (Superman) Routh, to name just three of the familiar faces who pop up in these early episodes. The music's pretty kick-ass, too, both the ironic stuff (Emmett Millbarge's taste in power ballads is about what you'd expect), and the usual Schwartz/Alex Patsavas indie rock selections. (Jeffster!, alas, does not perform in any of these five episodes, but I'm sure that's coming.) There's action, and comedy, and romance and the usual buoyancy we came to expect from the show last season. We lose Anna Wu for budgetary reasons, alas, but Morgan, Jeff and Lester all pick up the slack nicely.

Looking forward to discussing this all in more depth on Jan. 10 and 11 (don't forget: three episodes are airing over those two nights, in a "24"-style roll-out), but just in case anyone was worried that the show would somehow lose its mojo after a late season run that featured stuff like Jeffster! crashing a wedding and Casey kicking ass with a radiator, don't freak out. It's the show you remember, just with some occasional tactical upgrades.
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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

NCIS, "Faith": Merry Christmas, DiNozzo

Been a while since I did an "NCIS" post, but the sweet Christmas episode feels like a good opportunity to take the temperature of the room on both the episode (featuring the return of Pa Walton as Gibbs' dad, Gibbs and McGee both doing a great job at playing Santa, an entertaining bar brawl with Tony and Ziva, and Blue October's "Kangaroo City" over the closing montage) and how the season's been thus far.

What do you guys think? Click here to read the full post

Scrubs, "Our Histories": His last words

A quick review of tonight's "Scrubs" coming up just as soon as I hear Ted and Gooch's song for West Virginia...

Though the show is still struggling to serve too many masters - telling the story of the med students, saying goodbye to characters like Ted and Gooch, keeping JD a prominent part of the picture - when a clean break might have been wiser, "Our Histories" was a definite improvement on last week's episode. (Also Cole with Dr. Cox is a pairing that we must see as much as we can.) I imagine we can't really judge the show till after Zach Braff's gone and the focus narrows, but this one gave me the same feeling as the season-opening double-feature: I didn't love it all but was glad to still be spending time at Sacred Heart.

We got more concentrated time with the med students (even if Aussie Supermodel Doc still doesn't have a defining character trait other than being hot and Australian) and Cole managed to not be a complete tool without taking away from what can make the character funny. By confronting JD's age head-on and making his denial of it the point of the JD/Turk story this week, their antics went over much better than they did in the first three episodes(*). And while Ted's goodbye wasn't really necessary - landing Gooch was essentially Sam Lloyd's farewell last season - I'll never object to some Ted/Kelso time.

(*) Also confronted head-on: the obvious similarities between the Paul Dooley story and last season's incredible "My Last Words." The problem with a show that's on this long is that all the stories get repeated, even if they're being repeated on new characters - even "My Last Words" was designed as a sequel to "My Old Lady" from the first season. This wasn't as effective as either of those, but it ultimately wasn't going for tears as much as it was trying to put these four characters together to see what happened.

What did everybody else think?
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Better Off Ted, "The Lawyer, the Lemur and the Little Listener": I've never known you to pay money for any kind of capade

Again, I'm off this week, so most posts will be brief, particularly in the case of something like tonight's "Better Off Ted" where I reviewed it in a column last week. I thought this one was an improvement on the premiere, in that it gave us a Veridian ad and put more focus on Lem and Phil (the tail/antler conversation being a highlight), but this is two episodes in a row where the Ted plot felt like it just dragged on and on.

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

New 'Chuck' poster: Kick it!

The first few "Chuck" season three episodes are supposed to arrive within the next day or two, and I'll do a quick, spoiler-free write-up as soon as I get through whatever they sent. In the meantime, enjoy a gander at the new key art for season 3. Click here to read the full post

Big Bang Theory, "The Maternal Congruence": My mother! My girlfriend! My mother! My girlfriend!

The return of Leonard's mother on last night's "Big Bang Theory" wasn't quite as strong as her original appearance last year, I thought. Inherently funny as Christine Baranski is, and as good as she is with Jim Parsons, it felt a bit one-note - or, at least, like it was repeating the same note we heard last year. Funny in spots, particularly in the car ride back from the airport, but not one of the season's best.

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