Sunday, January 31, 2010

Big Love, "The Mighty and the Strong": The candidate

A few quick thoughts on tonight's "Big Love" coming up just as soon as I stay at a Holiday Inn Express...

There are shows with insufferable main characters where the creative teams clearly don't recognize how insufferable those characters have become. (See, for example, Jack in "Lost" seasons 2 and 3.) The "Big Love" writers, fortunately, don't have any myopia when it comes to Bill, made abundantly clear by an episode like "The Mighty and the Strong," in which Bill bullies and/or manipulates everyone around him to get what he wants (in this case, his idiotic, obviously doomed plan to run for office so he can come out of the polygamist closet) while his friends and family struggle to keep up with his megalomania. Bill chose politics over trying to succeed Roman as the next prophet of Juniper Creek, but in a moment like the show's closing scene - where he agrees that Ben is wise to leave home for a while, in the same way the old men of the Creek always chased away the young boys when they threatened their access to the young women - is there really any difference? Hell, he even sends Nicki undercover to get dirt on his opponent, just like Roman did last season.

What was interesting about this episode was in seeing how, despite Bill's increasingly selfish, destructive behavior, the people around him have often turned out to be good. Ben is stand-up from beginning to end in this one (aside from his Benjamin Braddock moment in the family swimming pool), Sarah takes care of the baby (and we see that her marriage to Scott is everything that Barb once thought her marriage to Bill was), and even poor Don is such a good friend to Bill that he lets himself take the public fall, putting his freedom and his family at risk to enable Bill's run for office.

Even Alby has become, if not sympathetic - you can't use that adjective to describe someone who sells his mother into slavery with his sister's hated ex-husband - then recognizably human. Alby still has too much of Roman in him, but his father's death is letting him question things about himself and his upbringing (at the same time Nicki's doing it, interestingly enough).

Still not interested in JJ, or the usual antics with Bill's mom and dad, or the casino, but at the moment the good stuff's outweighing the bad - even if a lot of the good involves depicting how bad Bill has become.

What did everybody else think?
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Seventeen years ago tonight... 'Homicide' was born

A friend reminded me that on this night 17 years ago, after the first Cowboys-Bill Super Bowl, a little show called "Homicide: Life on the Street" debuted. Inspired by David Simon's great book about the year he spent embedded with a real Baltimore PD Homicide unit, "Homicide" has since been overshadowed by Simon's work on "The Wire," but the original show was pretty incredible in its own right.

Though my heart ultimately gravitated towards "NYPD Blue," "Homicide" at its peak was the better of the two classic '90s cop dramas, and it gave the world the majestic splendor that was Andre Braugher as Frank Pembleton, which you can enjoy in this scene from that very first episode, "Gone for Goode."

(I don't want to give short-shrift to the many other wonderful "Homicide" characters and actors, like Clark Johnson as Meldrick Lewis or Yaphet Kotto as Lt. Giardella, but Braugher's star always burned hottest and brightest on that show.)

And, for good measure, a few other bits of classic "Homicide" I could find on YouTube:

Pembleton gets a confession from a man he knows is innocent, just to prove a point to his boss. (This is a very long clip, but every second is worth it.)

Bolander and Munch employ a new kind of lie detector (in a gag Simon would re-use on "The Wire").

Kay Howard's perfect streak continues (also from the pilot).

Howard and Tim Bayliss quit smoking and drive their partners crazy in the process.

Meldrick is a Luddite (and a smooth operator).

God, I miss that show. It was never the same after the third season, as they began to introduce younger, more attractive, duller cops and eeeevil drug lords in futile attempts to goose the ratings, but good lord, when it was good, it was incredible. Click here to read the full post

There is a new blog logo. Discuss.

The latest logo should be largely self-explanatory, what with that show that's returning on Tuesday night. But I will say that I wrestled for a long time on which combination of four people to go with, and/or what theme to use (dead people? characters in flashbacks?) before setting on this grouping/theme.

A reminder, as always, that you can find links to, and explanations for, all the previous logos in this post. Also, since the first four minutes of the season have leaked on-line (and since there was a screening of the first hour of the premiere in Hawaii last night), let me remind you in no uncertain terms of the No Spoiler policy around here. Do not mention anything you've seen, or anything you've read. Do not even hint at it. Got me? Click here to read the full post

SNL: Hamm & Buble, together at last

Haven't written about "Saturday Night Live" for most of this season because, frankly, most of the episodes have been so terrible that it hasn't been worth the effort. But Jon Hamm's second appearance last night was in some ways even funnier than his first. Some thoughts on it (along with plenty of video links) coming up just as soon as I feel the wind blowing...

There was the requisite Don Draper parody (this time as part of a monologue depicting some his pre-Draper roles), and of course a sketch playing off his handsomeness Hamm as Scott Brown). But there were also weirder turns, like his work as the symbol of a gypsy curse in the Digital Short, or his random, disturbing testimonial in the middle of the already bizarre Closet Organizer ad. (I also liked the very low-key, late-in-the-show sketch where Hamm played a guy meeting the star of that ad.)

Not everything worked. The first post-monologue sketch was another one where they rode a Kristin Wiig tic into the ground, and I really wish they had left the "Greg is not an alien" sports talk show as a one-time thing. (Though Hamm did a decent Bill Hader impression in this one.)

The Digital Short's climax was the night's comic highlight for me, but a very close second was the inevitable sequel to Jon Hamm's John Ham, here with Hamm and musical guest Michael Buble opening the Hamm & Buble restaurant.

"SNL" is often only as good as its host, and in Hamm they've found a guy who's game for anything. Here's hoping his stints become an annual event.

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

Friday, January 29, 2010

Caprica, "Rebirth": She, robot

I said some general thoughts about "Caprica" in this morning's column, so a few more specific ones on the second episode coming up just as soon as I let the old subconscious find the answers...
"Do I look male to you?" -Zoe
"Yeah." -Lacy
"Frak." -Zoe
"Caprica" is about a whole lot of things, but at its center, it's about a teenage girl (or a digital facsimile of her) who's been turned into a giant metal killing machine. It's a misunderstood monster story.

And if there was a point in the three episodes I've seen (including the pilot and next week's) where I knew I was in with this series for a while, it was when I saw the visual device in which half the time we see the Cylon body, and half the time we see Zoe (still dressed for the holo-band rave). Something about the image of Alessandra Torresani being treated like another frakking toaster cut to the heart of the artificial intelligence issue. (It's also, at times, very funny, in a way the grim-by-design "BSG" very rarely allowed itself to be.)

(On the other hand, given the virulent hatred many "BSG" fans had towards the theological portions of that show's finale, I wonder how people will react to the idea of this creature as a "trinity" - part Zoe, part avatar, part robot - given how overt the parallel is to Christianity.)

"Rebirth" was mainly about dealing with the aftermath of the terrorist bombing, of Daniel and Joe's falling-out, but it also did a lot more world-building in its depiction of Little Tauron, and Sister Clarice's polygamous family (including Scott Porter from "Friday Night Lights" as one of her husbands), and I liked a lot of the little touches like seeing the fans at the Pyramid game place both hands over their heart before the anthem played.

And at the end, right before Bear McCreary got to dust off the drums from the "BSG" theme song, Amanda Graystone (wracked with guilt and grief and mania) detonated a rhetorical bomb at the memorial by announcing (incorrectly) that Zoe was responsible for what happened on the train. That was a powerful moment, but it was also preceded by that awkward flashback montage of events from earlier in the episode, and all I could think about was David Simon ranting about how HBO made him put something similar at the end of "The Wire" pilot because they didn't yet trust the intelligence of his audience. Jane Espenson and the rest of the "Caprica" gang have been around the block a while, so they should know what their target audience can and can't figure out on their own by now, and I'm hoping that's the last we'll see of a narrative shortcut like that.

Overall, though, I was very pleased, after waiting months to see what came after the pilot on DVD.

What did everybody else think?
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Dollhouse, "Epitaph Two": End at the beginning

And so we've come to an end of "Dollhouse." A review of the finale - or, really, some thoughts about the series as a whole - coming up just as soon as I tell you that I used to be a landscape architect...

What an odd little show was "Dollhouse." The premise seemed like a silly idea - or, at least, the early execution made it seem so - Eliza Dushku seemed miscast in a role that called for more versatility than she could muster, and the best and most important episode by far is one that never actually aired on television. (And if you didn't watch it in its many non-TV iterations, I hope you were able to make some sense of "Epitaph Two," because the finale assumed you'd seen it and didn't bother with hand-holding.)

And yet somehow, Joss Whedon and company made me care enough about the show and, especially, about its characters, that I... Well, I'm not exactly sad it's over, because I still believe the concept was too limited, and what made the last run of episodes so good was that Joss and company knew the end was coming and they didn't have to hold back. But I'm happy that Joss got to mostly end the show on his own terms, to give characters like Victor and Sierra and Topher(*) some closure, and to finish the story he started - even if he had to do it in a rushed, shoestring budget way.

(*) Ultimately, the degree to which I was invested in Topher's fate - Topher! - may be the most incredible thing about "Dollhouse" from "Epitaph One" on. This was a character I viewed as symbolic of most of what wasn't working about the show in the early days, but once Topher began developing a conscience, Fran Kranz and the writers consistently knocked it out of the park. I have no idea if this was a course correction or the plan all along - show us an amoral man, then show him discovering morality with the highest stakes possible - but damn, did it work.

Because here's the thing about Joss Whedon: he makes me care about the kinds of shows I shouldn't (and usually don't) care about. Vampires hold no intrinsic appeal to me, yet I never missed an episode of "Buffy." The premise of "Firefly" is fundamentally silly, yet I love that show and have watched it and the "Serenity" movie many times over. And, again, here was a show that had no business working, yet I found episodes like "Man on the Street," "A Spy in the House of Love" and "Belonging" to be terribly engrossing. And he does that because he's great at creating and casting characters(**), and at making them seem real and vital and sympathetic no matter what the show is about. I think space cowboys are silly, but I cared about Mal Reynolds. And, ultimately, I wanted things to work out okay for Victor and Sierra - or, at least, for them and the other characters to get some kind of ending.

(**) He's particularly good with supporting characters. Buffy and Angel were interesting to a point, but "Firefly" is the only Whedon show where I found myself liking and being entertained by the star as much as I cared about the second bananas.

And "Epitaph Two" offered plenty of closure, as well as just enough in the way of happy endings to feel satisfying without completely undermining what we saw in "Epitaph One."

Priya and Tony wind up together with their son, albeit after a lot of bumpy years and a lot of USB uploads for Tony/Victor. Topher gets to undo all the personality wipes his tech called, even if he can't undo all the collateral damage that came with it, and he has to sacrifice his life to do it. (Though after his knowledge of all the pain he caused, death was an obvious blessing for him.) Paul dies, but Alpha (returned, reformed and mostly sane) finds a kind application for the dollhouse tech, and for Echo's ability to absorb and control multiple personalities at once, by arranging for her to imprint herself with Paul - to let him into herself(***), when she couldn't do it metaphorically when he was still alive.

(***) And because that moment comes so late in an incredibly busy finale, we don't have to spend much time dwelling on how the logistics of this would work. If Paul is now a part of Echo, and she can love him, does that mean her other various personalities can have relationships with each other?

There's not enough time (or money in the budget or days on the schedule) to provide closure for everyone (Dominic, Whiskey), but an imperfect but often moving finale feels right for this show, you know?

We can argue about whether Fox meddled too much with the early episodes of the show, or if the concept itself was going to make "Dollhouse" a non-starter for a broadcast network-sized audience. But Fox did renew it, and they gave Joss enough warning to wrap things up, and they kept to their promise to air all the episodes in a relatively timely fashion (give or take a telethon). The show ultimately didn't work commercially, but the treatment was vastly better than a different Fox administration gave "Firefly."

Still, my ears couldn't help but perk up when FX president John Landgraf said at press tour that he had an upcoming lunch scheduled with Joss. Joss has sounded reluctant in the past to leave the familiarity (and, of course, the bigger budgets/paychecks) of network TV for cable, but I'm guessing/hoping this experience has finally convinced him it's worth sacrificing some dollars for more creative freedom and reduced viewer expectations. I think an unfettered Joss Whedon could make an absolutely kick-ass show for FX, or HBO, or whoever's smart enough to hire him and mostly leave him alone. And if the "Dollhouse" experience, while ultimately not a success, leads to that, then this will all have been worth it.

What did everybody else think?
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Burn Notice, "Friendly Fire": Devil inside

A review of "Burn Notice" from last night coming up just as soon as I pack my 8-tracks...
"This man is a freelance psychopath - and I'm the only one in a position to do anything about it." -Michael
"Friendly Fire" was a mixed bag of an episode, illustrating many of the series' strengths, but also some of its pitfalls.

On the one hand, it was a good Sam showcase, and offered a lot of spycraft tips (warehouse roofs are easy to bust into, ice cream carts can be rigged to blow) and cool action beats (Michael, Sam and Mack walk down the side of a building under heavy fire). And it followed up on last week's Michael/Madeline confrontation in showing a Michael who now accepts he's more vigilante than spy, and that helping people comes before any attempt to get back in.

On the other, Michael's satanic gangster character was too much to swallow. Michael's undercover characters always skirt the edge of caricature, and this guy - particularly in that goofy whisper he used - fell over it. Even though things kept blowing up whenever he snapped his fingers, I kept waiting for Omar or someone else to refuse to take him seriously until he talked in a normal tone of voice.

(Also problematic, but not in a "Burn Notice" structural way: how do you cast Danny Trejo in an episode where a bad guy wields a machete, and not make Trejo the guy with the machete?)

I'm reserving judgment on Gilroy until we see where this is going. Giving basically the same performance he did on Fox's annoying, short-lived international production "Mental," Chris Vance fit in much better as a cartoonish "Burn Notice" bad guy. But he also seemed very much like Michael Shanks as Victor. Gilroy's situation is different than Victor's, but "Burn Notice" has been on long enough that the danger of feeling repetitive is very real, so we'll see if this winds up seeming like a Carla retread or not.

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

'Caprica' review - Sepinwall on TV

As I said last week, post-press tour fatigue prevented me from reviewing "Caprica" in time for the TV premiere of the pilot, but since many of those who care got to see that months ago (when I reviewed it the first time), I felt comfortable coming in a week late with a column review. There are pilot spoilers in there (it's rerunning tonight at 7, followed by episode two), with advance warning, so be careful as you read.

Back tonight with specific thoughts on the second episode, "Rebirth." Click here to read the full post

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lost: the big question is...?

Mo Ryan from the Chicago Tribune had a long sit-down with "Lost" showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse back in December, which resulted in a terrific, spoiler-free three-part interview about their approach to writing the final season, what their expectations are of the fans' expectations (and whether this could be a "Battlestar Galactica" situation, where the ending upsets some fans to a degree that they disavow the entire series as a result), what their feelings are about Ewoks, and more. It's many thousands of words, and you can read Part 1, Part 2 and, today, Part 3.

One thing that Cuselof have said, both in that interview, and at their last press tour session is that fans need to be prepared to not have every mystery explained for them. So with the final season premiere only days away (and critics aren't going to see this one in advance, since the guys don't want it getting out whether Jughead did its intended job or not), let me ask you this:

What one "Lost" mystery do you most care about getting an explanation for? And how much, if at all, will it affect your enjoyment of the final season if we get to the end and that one's not explained?

And the flip side: what one mystery would you be most surprised to get an explanation for? Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Friday Night Lights, "Injury List": No good deed goes unpunished

A review of tonight's "Friday Night Lights" (which, for a few more weeks, debuts Wednesdays at 9 on DirecTV's 101 Network) coming up just as soon as I walk into some hit-or-miss cooking...
"You're not a loser. And you're not nothing. You're kind, and you're good, and you're strong." -Becky
The end of these 13-episode seasons can really sneak up on you. It wasn't until after I had watched and written about last week's "I Can't" that it occurred to me that we only had three episodes left to go. But with the East vs. West Dillon game coming up, and all the big, unsettling developments of "Injury List," it's impossible to not realize that the end of the season is barreling towards all our characters like a freight train.

Throughout "Injury List," we see characters suffering the consequences of their own selflessness. Tami's career is in jeopardy because she chose to be a sympathetic ear to Becky about her pregnancy, even though she's absolutely right that she never once told Becky to get an abortion (or what to do at all). Luke kept his hip injury secret for the sake of the team and allowed it to get worse as a result, ending his season prematurely (and drastically reducing the Lions' chances of a morale-boosting upset over the Panthers). Vince, having gotten back into business with Calvin and Kennard to pay for his mother's rehab, has to witness Calvin's murder in the course of a debt-collection run gone awry. And Riggins, who has been a good friend and mentor to Becky while resisting any temptation to give in to her obvious feelings for him, and who has also been a good and helpful tenant to Cheryl, winds up tossed out by a jealous Cheryl when she misinterprets an innocent viewing of "Thelma & Louise" in her bedroom.

With all the bad things happening to the team, and to his family, is it any wonder that Eric (who doesn't even know the extent of how bad things have gotten for everyone) wants to linger at the bar with Buddy, drowning his sorrows in beer rather than going home to find out what terrible development has happened next?

Let's start with Tami's story. Again, we're not going to discuss any of our own feelings about abortion (which goes against my commenting rules), but after the relative even-handedness of the last couple of episodes, it felt like "Injury List" jumped too far over to one side, demonizing the other in the process. I'm not saying the show can't have a point of view, but some of the characters opposing Tami are coming across as straw men - less so Luke's mom (who is being written as someone who isn't thinking clearly because of her personal stake in the matter) than the woman on the school board who, despite not having been there for Tami's conversations with Becky, indignantly asks, "Are you calling me a liar?" Yes, people on both sides of this debate can become irrational about it, and in a small town like Dillon it almost doesn't matter what actually happened versus the perception of what happened, but it feels like the deck is being stacked too much, both against Tami and in favor of the writers' viewpoint on the issue.

But then, nobody's head is entirely clear in this one. Luke won't see that he's putting both himself and the team at risk by not telling anyone about his condition. Vince doesn't want to accept that a sober version of his mother wouldn't want him doing this for her. Cheryl's so blinded by jealousy of the daughter she already resents that she lumps Tim in with every other jerk she's ever met.

Even Matt Saracen, who resurfaces in Chicago(*) after his abrupt departure at the end of "Stay" - a selfish but understandable extreme response to his selfless decision to stay in Dillon at the end of season three - can't quite accept (or simply doesn't want to accept) Julie's anger towards him, even though he could have easily left town and stayed in touch with her if his head had been on straighter.

(*) I was very glad to see that "Stay" was not, in fact, Zach Gilford's last appearance on the show. The character was too important for such a vague exit. Even though things with Matt and Julie don't seem to be ending happily, at least we see what he's up to, and that other parts of his life are finally starting to work out for him. I can take a bittersweet ending for a beloved character, so long as it's a real ending, and not just Matt driving off into an uncertain sunset.

Calvin's death(**) isn't entirely Vince's fault - though Kennard does have the two friends swap jobs after Vince is so reluctant to hit the guy with a crowbar earlier in the episode - but it sucks him in deeper to the criminal world he's been trying to escape all season. (And it also brings the show deeper into territory it's been skittish about since the start of season two. See the first bullet-pointed thought below for more on that.)

(**) So much for my prediction at the start of the season that we'd eventually see him put his attitude aside and ask Coach if he could rejoin the team.

It also dramatically raises the stakes and shifts the balance of the Jess/Vince/Landry triangle. It's clear that Jess really does like Landry, a lot, but it's just as clear that her connection to Vince - and to his mother (she winds up comforting both as they weep in this episode) - runs much deeper than any simple high school romance, and Jurnee Smollett was great at showing both Jess the carefree teenager having fun with her boyfriend and Jess the wise-beyond-her-years kid who has helped people around her shoulder tragedies.

Though Tim's circle of tragedy isn't quite as rough as what we've seen Vince go through this year (or what we saw Saracen go through this year and in years past), Riggins is a character defined by his bad luck - and by his optimism in the face of that. So I suspected things would not end well between Tim and Cheryl almost from the moment she complimented him on being such a good friend to the family. But I believed, based on what we've seen of this trio, that she would react this way to finding her daughter in her bed with Tim (even if they were fully clothed, eating popcorn, watching Geena Davis, etc.), and that Tim (who had a similar false assumptions encounter with Coach and Julie in season two) would swallow it and move on. But at least he has the ranch, and Becky (more mature than her mom) was able to reassure him that he's a better man than people want to think of him.

Compared to these other issues, Coach getting another loss on the record - and staring down the hated Panthers as his next opponent - could seem like an afterthought. But the show has spent the past two years building up the McCoys (and Wade Aikman) as villains, and "Friday Night Lights" has taught us over and over that if football success can't heal the other problems in a community, it can at least make them more palatable. If the season ends with the Lions beating the Panthers (and knocking them out of the playoffs in the process), it won't bring Calvin back to life, cure Regina's addiction or heal Tami's relationship with the anti-abortion parts of the community, but it could at least provide hope at a time when so many of the characters seem to be without it.

Some other thoughts on "Injury List":

• Jess's awkward dinner with Landry's parents ("So what do you think of Obama so far, Jess?") was funny. But I couldn't stop thinking about an e-mail a reader named Jodi Ross sent me last week about this storyline, which pointed out that Jess is caught between two boys, one of them known as a troublemaker even though he was never involved in anything especially serious before this week, one of them with a reputation as an innocent goofball even though he committed a murder and covered it up. "Most of Landry's luck with Jess is due to his privilege, which allows him to be the easy-going fun guy who gets to bury his past," Jodi wrote, "where Vince is struggling upstream with no cover." Now, I don't think this is what the writers are intending with this story. I think they'd like to pretend that the murder storyline never happened, and they'd like us to play along with that, and to be honest, I've mostly blocked that memory out, except when I crack jokes about Landry killing people who displease him. But when you look at the storyline in that light, it's hard to not start reading unintended sociological commentary into it, and that's yet another problem with them having gone to that stupid well at the start of season two. It's a bell that can't be un-rung, and a change in the character that can't - or shouldn't - be ignored, much as we'd all like to.

• I was rewatching part of the season four premiere earlier this week, and Calvin does, in fact, refer to himself by name in his introductory scene, when Coach is telling him to take the gold chain off during weigh-in. It just went by so fast (and was mumbled enough) that it just became easier to apply the Angry Necklace Guy nickname until I heard it again more explicitly. RIP, ANG.

• Because "Friday Night Lights" usually takes the faith of its characters very seriously, it can get away with a joke like Luke's mom ordering him to say his prayers and Luke whispering, "Dear Lord, please let me get some more drugs before Friday." (And even in that context, it's Luke praying for something to help his teammates.)

• Getting back to Julie, how well do you think Tami and Eric are going to react to her proposal to join Habitat for Humanity full-time - postponing her college plans in the process?

• Interesting that Becky so easily saw through Tim's lies about where he got the money to buy the ranch, despite being lovestruck as usual for #33.

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

Swag for a good cause

If you want to help out the people in Haiti, and/or get your hands on some of the weird swag TV critics get in the mail all the time, Mo Ryan is conducting a charity auction of some of the cooler items on and around her desk. Check it out. Click here to read the full post

White Collar, "Bad Judgment": Quit bugging me

Still not likely to write about "White Collar" regularly, but I found last night's episode an improvement enough over the last few that I have some thoughts coming up just as soon as I find a tailor in the middle of the night...

"White Collar" has two obvious strengths in the rapport between Tim DeKay and Matthew Bomer and the idea of a lawman working with a con man, but it has two fundamental flaws: 1)The show has yet to give us any reason to care about Kate, other than the fact that Neal cares about her; and 2)White collar crime (or, at least, the way the show has so far depicted white collar crime) isn't all that interesting.

"Bad Judgment" worked around both those flaws while playing up the series' strengths. We got a lot of Neal and Peter working together well - and, at times, working towards the same goal with one party not realizing it was happening - we got a whole lot of Moz moving in Peter's world, and we got a lot of glimpses into how Neal and Mozzie's cons work. At the same time, Kate didn't appear at all (though she was, as usual, talked about a lot), and the mortgage fraud case was treated as a MacGuffin-ish excuse to have Peter and Neal go against the judge and Fowler, and not as something we should care about in and of itself.

I don't know if they can downplay the cases this much every week, particularly with Fowler heading back to Washington for the time being, but this was still a much more satisfying episode than last week's "Hard Sell" or many of the later episodes from the first half of the season. If Jeff Eastin and company can find a way to either make Kate interesting or ditch her for good, we might be cooking with gas eventually.

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

Human Target, "Embassy Row": Every girl crazy for a sharp-dressed Chance

A quick review of last night's "Human Target" coming up just as soon as I change clothes right before I leave for an event...

Last week's "Rewind" was the fourth episode produced, but Fox pushed it up, no doubt because they felt it was a stronger episode than "Embassy Row." This happens a lot with new shows, and with a fairly episodic series like "Human Target" it's less of a big deal than when it happens to something like "Firefly" (which, coincidentally, co-starred tonight's guest star, Sean Maher). And having watched "Embassy Row," I understand Fox's reluctance to put it out front and center.

Three episodes into the series (let alone two, had we not had the shuffle) feels way too early to be doing an episode that casually tosses the premise aside. I'm not saying that "Human Target" shouldn't be allowed to do episodes not built around Chance playing bodyguard(*) - frankly, it would get dull if they couldn't do a change-of-pace show now and then - but when you do it this soon, it sends a message that you don't have a lot of confidence in the core concept. And given that they already abandoned so much else from the comic book character, I'm starting to worry that the creative team doesn't know what it wants to do beyond "Let's do an action show with Mark Valley!"

(*) Yes, in the end, Chance and company wound up saving Maher's life (and Chance's own), but the primary focus here was on revenge, not protection.

And while there are certainly worse ways to spend an hour than watching Valley beat people up while Chi McBride and Jackie Earle Haley get on each other's nerves, I tend to like my shows to have a more clear sense of identity than that - even if they're telling stories about a man with dozens upon hundreds of identities himself.

There were some decent action beats, and Valley had good chemistry with guest star Emmanuelle Vaugier, but overall "Embassy Row" felt pretty disposable. We'll see if it was just a blip or a sign of further trouble ahead, but we're in the managing expectations period for a new show. And after mostly liking the first two episodes, I don't want to start thinking of "Human Target" than more than it's capable of (or interested in) being.

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

Scrubs, "Our Dear Leaders": Turk dances (sort of)!

A review of last night's "Scrubs" - the last episode currently scheduled to air, but not necessarily the last one that will air - coming up just as soon as I run out of clean laundry...

Of last night's episode, one of my Twitter followers wrote, "I think that was the 6th time I watched a new scrubs thinking it would be the last ever."

I don't know if the number could actually be that high (it was only the last couple of NBC seasons where the show began to seem like it was living on borrowed time), but I understand the larger feeling. "Scrubs" has been close to ending for what feels like forever, and this isn't even automatically the ending. As Bill Lawrence said at press tour, ABC might air the two episodes left in the can on Wednesdays (if they do, my guess would be during the rerun-heavy March/April period). And because ABC owns the show and therefore (unlike the situation with "Better Off Ted") makes money off the DVDs and other back-end items, there's still a chance (however tiny) that we could see another season.

But since I don't really believe in the renewal scenario, and since Bill told me that the last episode in the can won't be a real finale-style episode like we got last year, I can treat "Our Dear Leaders" as the end of the line, and anything that airs afterwards as a bonus. And in that context, the episode summed up the strengths and weaknesses of "Scrubs Med School."

On the plus side, it made the Cox/Drew parallels even more explicit with Perry's plan to make Drew realize being a leader is a good thing, it had more fun with Denise (as played by a sore-throated Eliza Coupe) learning to accept that she has emotions other than hatred, it gave James Franco's Brother Dave Franco more funny bits of business in the margins (along with similar stuff from The Todd), and it let Donald Faison dance, however briefly. (And on a night when I randomly put on WGN long enough for them to show a "Scrubs" promo featuring Turk's greatest dance ever!)

But the Turk story overall gave us a character who, like JD in the season's earlier episodes, should have grown up more by now. As we saw with last week's lesbian patient story (and as Myles McNutt also observed in his review), in trying to force all the stories to work around a parallel theme, it feels like they've had to regress Turk too much to make his plots match those of the med students. And Lucy's insanity was only funny to a point.

When Lawrence told me back in the summer that the new main character/narrator would be a woman, he called it a "dynamic shift." But Lucy is so tonally similar to JD that the shift never felt that dynamic. In retrospect, I wonder what a Drew-narrated version of this season would have been like. We probably would have had to ditch the fantasy sequences, but we actually haven't had that many from Lucy, and that's an aspect of the show that hasn't been essential for a long time.

Back in the summer, Lawrence said:
"It very well may suck. But don't say it sucks until you see it. And my pledge is that if it sucks, it's not going to suck in a fizzly way. It's going to suck in a giant, 'Oh my god' kind of way, because we're really swinging for the fences and trying to do some big stuff.
In the end (if this is the end), this new incarnation of "Scrubs" only occasionally sucked in an "Oh my god" way, and usually when JD was on screen. But there were enough interesting moments, and good discoveries (Franco, Michael Mosley), that I'm glad they gave it a shot. And if ABC somehow decides to keep "Scrubs" as The Show That Won't Die, then it sounds like (and, based on these more recent episode, seems like) Lawrence and company have a better idea of how to make this version of the show work going forward.

And if we don't get a real finale this time, so what? We already got "My Finale" last spring.

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

Reader mail: Final thoughts on Jay Leno vs. Conan O'Brien

Reader mailbag column today, in which I deal with the Jay vs. Conan mess once and for all (I hope). Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Better Off Ted, "Mess of a Salesman": Deal with it!

A quick review of tonight's "Better Off Ted" - at the moment, the last episode of this hysterical comedy currently scheduled to air - coming up just as soon as I say goodbye to common sense...

God, I'm going to miss this very weird, very funny show, and if "Mess of a Salesman" wasn't this season's strongest entry, it still offered us an appropriately silly note for the show to end on(*).

(*) For now, at least. Steve McPherson didn't sound like he wanted to try the show on Wednesdays, and based on the ratings neither "Ted" nor "Scrubs" deserve any additional chances - but whoever would have thought we'd get a second season based on how the first one did? I don't want to instill false hope - and anyone thinking of petitioning another network to pick it up shouldn't waste their time (again, the ratings were beyond awful) - but more surprising things have happened.

We got to see the recklessness of Lem (in leather pants!) and Phil breaking rules, buying corpses (with "new dead guy smell"), and subjecting a family of robots (albeit not the whole extended family) to a wind tunnel. We got Veronica and Linda playing an unconventional but effective few rounds of Good Cop/Bad Cop. We got Eddie McClintock (from "Warehouse 13") as Ted's brother, suggesting an alternate universe version of the show in which McClintock (more innately funny than Jay Harrington, but still workable as a straight man) had been cast as Ted. And we got another Veridian ad, even though this season has been unfortunately scarce with those.

In a fairer, more hopeful world, "Ted" might have had a better chance to succeed. (If nothing else, ABC could have plugged it in on Wednesdays for a week or two once "Hank" was mercifully killed.) But if I try to look at this situation like Linda and not Veronica, I see that we got 24 episodes (with two still to go) of hilarity, got reassurance that Portia de Rossi's work on "Arrested Development" wasn't a fluke, discovered that Andrea Anders could be funny when given better material than she received on either "Joey" or "The Class," got the wonderful comedy duo of Malcolm Barrett and Jonathan Slavin, and got time capsule episodes like "Racial Sensitivity" and "Beating a Dead Workforce."

And, again, as I linked to a couple of weeks ago (and which I remind you is very NSFW), we got this.

Sigh... what did everybody else think?
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'NCIS' star Michael Weatherly is having a very good year - Sepinwall on TV

In today's column, I interview Michael Weatherly from "NCIS" about his unexpected run of good fortune on the show (and about what he's brought to the show, so it's not all exactly about luck).

It occurs to me, by the way, that between last night's "Chuck," the second "Human Target" and tonight's "NCIS," there's been an awful lot of episodes over the last week in which characters spend most or all of the hour dealing with intrigue aboard a commercial jet liner. Fienberg tells me you still need at least three items for a trend story, even in this age of Twitter. Well, we're at three (that I know of). Did the WGA have a bad flight together or something? Click here to read the full post

Monday, January 25, 2010

Men of a Certain Age, "Father's Fraternity": What's got one thumb and can't act? This guy!

A review of tonight's "Men of a Certain Age" coming up just as soon as I clash with the cumin...
"Everyone gets a turn, and mine's over. I'm okay with that." -Artie
One of the recurring themes of "Men of a Certain Age" is the fear that Joe, Owen and Terry have, to varying degrees, that their prime is over (probably long over), and that life will be all downhill from this certain age. In "Father's Fraternity," we meet Joe's father Artie(*), who's a man of an even older certain age, and who has a stronger belief in - and more supporting evidence about - his own obsolescence.

(*) Artie was, of course, played by Robert Loggia, who, despite a long and distinguished career - which included some time on "The Sopranos" - always makes me think of either this commercial or this "Family Guy" scene. I suppose it's a testimony to Loggia's gravity and coolness that the orange juice people would think of him for such a weird ad.

And, of course, we see Artie in contrast to a story that's heavy on Owen Sr. One father has given up on his vitality, while the other will let you pry it from his cold, dead fingers. And that's had mixed results for the two adult sons. Joe, who never had a father standing in his way, runs his own business, but lost his grip on his family, and Artie's retreat from the world gives him one more thing to be anxious about. Owen, meanwhile, is stuck in a state of perpetual post-adolescence, just waiting for the old man to let him take over the dealership, but it's unclear whether he'd be ready if Owen Sr. walked away, or if he only seems inept half the time because he knows he's stuck as a lackey.

And in the strongest Terry story to date, we get a sense that a lack of any kind of male role model has led him to his own empty life, which makes him undesirable even as a Big Brother two days a week. A lot of this season has been about Terry getting smacked in the face with how the rest of the world sees him, and this was a particularly hard smack. (In contrast, Owen's son got off easy bonking his head on the doorway when Terry's attempt to show up the Big Brother administrator failed.)

If Scott Bakula got his best dramatic showcase of the series so far (albeit in the usual understated "MooCA" style), then the filming of the commercial was Andre Braugher's comic masterpiece. Because we know from his other roles what a gifted and charismatic talker Braugher can be, it's especially funny to watch him portray the many, many, many ways Owen could be terrible on camera. And after seeing the guy swallow one humiliation after another from his father, it was nice to see an episode where Owen Senior and Junior were able to come to an accord: Jr. agrees that his dad isn't that ashamed of him, and neither man wants Owen to have a starring role in the commercial, and the compromise (complete with the "scrappy" salesman poking his head into frame at the end) was a clever, funny touch.

If I had an issue with "Father's Fraternity"(**), it's that it felt like the Joe and Artie story wrapped up a little too neatly. Because the show works in a low key with low stakes, it's been able to get away with either small victories (Owen gets the permit, Terry chooses to not help his old flame cheat on her husband) or half-victories (Joe has to drive Albert to the golf tournament). Artie rediscovering his self-worth and sense of purpose by the end of the hour was too much, too soon. I know that a part-time job at a big box hardware store isn't that important in the larger scheme of things, but for him to go from the half-asleep zombie we met at the beginning of the episode(***) to the Feech La Manna-ish go-getter ready to fix his own damn sink at the end was abrupt. Our three leads have been taking baby steps all season, while Artie (admittedly a guest star whom the writers didn't have as much time to work with) practically leaped out of his lounger and into a new life.

(**) And by that, I mean an issue other than the way the episode liberally bent the laws of time and space so that Joe's "upstate" father could so easily come down to work at the party store, the Big Brother offices would be open on a Sunday morning, etc., etc. All shows have to mess around like this for storytelling purposes, and it doesn't really bug me, but it felt particularly noticeable in this episode for some reason.

(***) Just as a sidenote, I love how quick Joe's kids are to dive into their cell phones - and to not interact with the adults around them - whenever given the opportunity. Then again, as a dad of a young kid who will one day want a phone of her own, maybe I should be horrified.

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

Life Unexpected, "Home Inspected": You can pick your friends, but...

A quick review of "Life Unexpected" episode two coming up just as soon as I turn a bong into a lamp...

There are some very good things in "Home Unexpected," particularly the continuing performances by the three leads, and the expansion of Lux's world (along with an explanation of what she was planning to do if/when she got emancipated). But there are also some very frustrating things, too, as the show falls victim to the "Repeat the pilot a half dozen times" pattern that so many new series feel compelled to follow. In the pilot, and this episode, and next week's, and (based on some comments Liz Tigelaar made at press tour), we're going to get a lot of stories in which things seem to be going hunky-dory between Lux, Cate and Baze, then Lux has some reason to back away, then realizes in the end that they care about her (and vice versa) and everyone tries to make a fresh start.

And I get why networks push for that approach - not everyone sees the pilot of a new show, particularly on a less-viewed network like the CW, and one without big stars, and so you want to give any potential newbies something to grab onto - as well as why Tigelaar might think it makes sense for the characters. (Not that this is a very realistic show, but on whatever level of realism we think it takes place on, it would be weird if there weren't some early bumps in the road for the trio.) But for those of us watching every episode, it can get a little wearying.

Also, the story about Cate's radio job bugged me. Yes, they established in the pilot that she and Ryan have to keep their relationship a secret for the sake of the show, and so it might follow that she has to do the same with her kid. But there comes a point where all the secret-keeping can be more detrimental to the show's success - sooner or later, won't they be spotted around town as the minor local celebrities the show wants us to view them as? - and Cate's on-air confession at the end seems particularly damaging. First she says on-air (in the pilot) that she has a kid, then doubles back and lies about it early in this one, then goes back to the truth again at the end. If the whole point of these shows is that listeners begin to feel like they know the hosts and have a kind of one-sided friendship with them, how are they going to react when it starts to become obvious how fake the host's on-air personalities really are?

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

Chuck, "Chuck vs. First Class": Up, up and away

A review of tonight's "Chuck" coming up just as soon as I write a letter to the airline...
"Let me be a spy. Let me out of the car. I'm ready." -Chuck
One of the reasons I assume NBC sent out five episodes of "Chuck" season three for critics to review is that the network wanted us to see the Chris Fedak-scripted "Chuck vs. First Class," the best of the bunch, and the third season episode that had the most fun, and the strongest handle on, Chuck's transition from schmuck hiding in the car to honest-to-gosh secret agent man.

This is a tricky thing the show is doing. Fedak and Josh Schwartz talked about the Intersect 2.0 as "a game-changer," but whenever I hear that phrase used to refer to a TV show, I usually think either A)I liked the game they were playing just fine and don't want it changed, or B)I didn't like the game and the show is therefore unlikely to change enough for me to care. By giving Chuck all these abilities, and by having people like General Beckman and now Agent Shaw accelerate his transformation from asset to spy, the writers risked robbing the show of a lot of its charm - of changing it from a spy show whose unlikely hero can save the world because he's good at Missile Command or label-making, to a more traditional spy show with a more conventional hero.

An episode like "Chuck vs. First Class" shows that the writers have managed to find a happy medium between letting Chuck grow and changing the show too much. Yes, Chuck goes on a solo mission on a fancy airplane(*) for the first time, but he has Shaw, Sarah and Casey talking him through most of it. He gets the Intersect to work well enough to become both an expert fencer - in a very entertaining, very "Chuck" fight sequence where our man again manages to stop the bad guy without lethal force - and later nunchuk master, but he also has to employ his ability to squeal like a girl, and the nunchuks never actually get used because Shaw and Sarah have taken out the bad guys via remote control. Chuck develops, a little - and it would be frustrating if he didn't - but the writers aren't pushing him as fast as Sarah fears Agent Shaw is, and they're not losing the essence of the series in the process.

(*) That was some very cool design work by the production team on that first class cabin, even if I doubt most airliners actually have room for a large wetbar these days.

In addition to advancing Chuck's career arc as a spy, and giving us more insight into Shaw - whose wife was, as I guessed, the agent he mentioned losing in last week's episode - "Chuck vs. First Class" also sets the stage for some kind of love rhombus between Chuck, Sarah, Shaw and Hannah, the charming woman Chuck meets on the plane and then helps get a job in the Nerd Herd, played by Kristin Kreuk. (This creates a superhero in-joke that I'm not entirely sure was intended, with Sarah heading towards the movie version of Superman and Chuck towards TV's Lana Lang.)

I've expressed my impatience with the Chuck/Sarah Unresolved Sexual Tension, but I'm actually okay with this particular wrinkle. First, Brandon Routh has been very interesting as Shaw. (As others have said, there were many problems with "Superman Returns," but he wasn't one of them, and I would hope he gets the post-cape career he deserves rather than the marginalized one Christopher Reeve had before his accident.) Second, though I was never much impressed by her during the brief period when I cared about "Smallville," I thought Kristin Kreuk fit in very nicely here, and had good chemistry with Zachary Levi. So I can actually understand Sarah and Chuck being drawn to these respective newcomers. I think the show needs to have some forward movement with the two of them soon, but at the same time I can go with the delaying tactics more easily when they're plausible and/or likable. (Lots of shows just come up with delays for the sake of delay, and don't bother to put much thought into them.)

The cherry on the sundae that is "Chuck vs. First Class" is the Buy More subplot, maybe my favorite story set at the store since Jeffster! played "Africa." With "Chuck" (mostly) flying solo, Fedak was free to tap into a comedy gold mine the show has mostly left alone over the last two-plus years: John Casey as Buy More employee. The idea of this veteran, homicidal NSA bad-ass being forced to spend large chunks of time working retail alongside the likes of Jeff and Lester is probably something the show could have done more with sooner. The problem, I guess, is that Buy More subplots usually occur while Operation Bartowski is off on a mission, and that wasn't a problem here. So for once we got a real sense of just how much the other employees are afraid of Casey, and we also got to see Casey applying spy tactics (first fear, then brainwashing) to put down Lester's insurgency. Adam Baldwin and Joshua Gomez made a nice team, and I hope this isn't the last we see of the NSA-colonel-turned-Buy-More-lieutenant-Ass-Man.

Some other thoughts:

• On the last day of press tour, Warner Bros. held a "Chuck" press conference at the Buy More set, with the whole cast, plus Schwartz, Fedak and Brandon Routh (who has learned very well from the show's spoiler-paranoid atmosphere how to answer a question without saying anything at all). A couple of highlights: First, Yvonne Strahovski said that when the Intersect 2.0 was introduced, she worried that Levi was going to take away all her kung fu scenes, which she enjoys - "But it's been good. It's been more fun because now we get to do kung fu together." (The panelists, and several reporters, "Awwww"ed at that.) Second, when Schwartz was asked when we would next see Jeffster!, he said, "We have to build to it. Jeffster is something we can't unleash too early. Otherwise, afterwards is disappointing. So, we gotta earn it. But it's coming." (Fienberg did a more detailed write-up of the set visit, if you care.)

• Have there been previous mentions of Sarah being a trained pilot? We know that Casey can fly jets, but it seemed odd when Shaw said Sarah could, too.

• Stone Cold Steve Austin made, as you'd expect, an effective Ring baddie, but I also liked the casting of Josie Davis (who once upon a time was the "plain" younger sister on "Charles in Charge," before growing up to be a soap opera vamp) as Serena the evil flight attendant.

• When we visit Lester's home for the first time, there's a picture of him being bar mitzvah'ed, which is a photo of a young Vik Sahay's head pasted onto someone else's bar mitzvah photo. Funny sight gag, but it doesn't exactly track with some season one scenes that implied Lester was recently converted to Judaism and/or was preparing to be bar mitzvah'ed as an adult. Because unless you're Danny Duberstein, you don't usually get bar mitzvah'ed multiple times.

• This week in "Chuck" pop culture references: Chuck tries to order a martini "shaken, not stirred" like James Bond used to (before Daniel Craig got the part); the codenames Shaw uses to communicate with the plane-controlling satellite are taken from "War Games" ("Crystal Palace" was the code for NORAD missile command) and the Bourne films (David Strathairn was working on Blackbriar in the third movie); the brainwashing sequence looked very similar to a scene from the Warren Beatty '70s conspiracy thriller "The Parallax View"; and the line Lester says about Morgan ("Morgan Grimes is the kindest, warmest, most understanding human being I've ever known in my life") comes from the brainwashed soldiers in the original "Manchurian Candidate."

• This week's musical selections included the Otis Redding version of "Respect," Carla Bruni's "L'Amourese," Mackintosh Braun's "Wake Up" and "Ready, Aim, Fire" by unknown (which, I'm told, is the name of the band).

• Though we never get to see Hannah's flat, her description of it lives up to the Roger Ebert rule that all movie and TV apartments and hotel rooms in Paris must have a view of the Eiffel Tower from the window.

• Last season's finale confirmed that Chuck does, in fact, get a paycheck from the government for his spy work. Do he and Casey (who just got a raise from Morgan) get to keep their Buy More paychecks, too? (Now that Sarah works at a government front, this isn't an issue for her like it was in the Wienerlicious days.)

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

Why I don't write about 'Damages'

Because new readers come to this blog all the time, I often have to deal with repeated questions like "Why didn't you ever write about 'The Wire' season 3?" or, even more common, "Why don't you write about my favorite show?" With the season three premiere of "Damages" beginning tonight, I thought I'd head off any queries about that at the pass with a link to this column from the start of season two, in which I explain why the show just isn't for me. I haven't watched the season three episodes FX sent for review, and I'm not going to be doing any future blogging on it, so click through and you'll know why. Click here to read the full post

There is a new blog logo. Discuss.

Another week, another blog logo. This is one where I had a really hard time narrowing it down to just four people once I picked the theme.

As a reminder, this post contains links to, and explanations for, all the previous logos, including last week's mullet-astic one. Click here to read the full post

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Big Love, "Strange Bedfellows": Mr. Henrickson goes to Washington

Tonight's "Big Love" offered up a whole lot of Bill Henrickson at his most smug, stubborn and irritating, and the return of Teeny in the body of a different actress, but it also had some great interaction between Nicki and Cara Lynn (who is absolutely her mother's daughter), a great turn by Sissy Spacek as an influential Washington type, and some very interesting developments on the Margene front.

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

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Conan O'Brien's 'Tonight Show' farewell: 'The hardest thing I have ever had to do'

Over at, I have some of the highlights from Conan O'Brien's last "Tonight Show" episode. Conan's closing speech was as eloquent as the "People of Earth" statement he delivered to declare he wouldn't host a "Tonight Show" that aired tomorrow.

And that's the end of this saga, folks. For a little while, anyway. Click here to read the full post

Friday, January 22, 2010

A long time ago, in a galaxy or empire far, far away...

I had planned to have a column for today reviewing one or both of "Caprica" (9 p.m., Syfy) and "Spartacus" (10 p.m., Starz) but a higher level of press tour exhaustion than anticipated, coupled with NBC dragging out the Conan O'Brien negotiations until yesterday, meant I never got the chance to do it. So I'll have a few thoughts on each after the jump...

UPDATE: Bumping this up so you can talk about one or both if you watched tonight.

I did review the "Caprica" pilot when it was released on DVD back in April, so you can go read that if you want. (The changes for airing are mostly cosmetic, with some of the nudity at the virtual reality rave unsurprisingly deleted.) I've since seen two more episodes, which in some ways intrigued me even more than the pilot. It's not "Battlestar Galactica"(*), in that it swaps out the military components of that show for a bit of teen angst and soap opera intrigue, but I really like the lead performances by Eric Stoltz and Esai Morales (two actors who in previous roles often made me feel like there was something missing), and the social commentary is just as sharp here as it was on "BSG." If next week works out better, I'll likely do some kind of column timed to the second episode, and on some level this is going to be added to the blog rotation. (The problem, as with all Friday shows, is that it may take me a few days to get around to writing about it once my advance screeners run out.)

(*) I recognize that for the people who are still bitter about the finale of "BSG" - to the point where they've renounced their affection for the entire series, and not just the ending - saying "It's not 'Battlestar Galactica'" might be a compliment. Then again, most of the same people - including Ron Moore, David Eick and Jane Espenson - are involved, so we'll see. To answer two questions I've received often: 1)No, "Caprica" won't spoil anything about the later seasons of "BSG" if you started but haven't finished the original series, and 2)Yes, you can watch "Caprica" without having watched "BSG" at all. It takes place almost 60 years earlier, is planet-bound and has many different concerns (and only one shared character) from the original show.

As for "Spartacus: Blood & Sand" (insert mocking fake name here), I struggled to get through two of the four episodes Starz provided for review. If you're a teenage boy who loved "300" - or any other demographic who loved "300" - you may well dig all the digitized, slow-motion blood splurts, the abundant nudity (albeit with some of the full frontal coming from male characters as well as female) and the stylized, computer-generated backgrounds. But stay far away if none of those things make you say "Hells yeah!" Not even my affection for honorary TCA member Lucy Lawless is going to keep me around.

Feel free to talk about one or both tonight. And if you've seen the "Caprica" pilot on DVD or online already, please refrain from any plot spoilers until tonight at 11 Eastern, okay?
Click here to read the full post

30 Rock, "Winter Madness": Get Dale Snitterman!

A quick review of last night's "30 Rock" coming up just as soon as I figure out whether the Subway joke in the teaser was supposed to be a dig at "Chuck"...

There are, to my mind, three types of "30 Rock" episodes: the ones like the Steve Martin episode that don't really work at all, the ones that feature a lot of funny gags but aren't wholly satisfying, and then the ones like "Apollo, Apollo" where everything clicks and all the stories, jokes and character beats come together to create a perfect whole.

"Winter Madness" falls into that middle category. I enjoyed a lot of the jokes about the staff's anger at having to go to Boston and share rooms (Grizz/Dotcom tension is always funny), Tracy's road rage coming to fruition, and Kenneth and Cerie's horrible playacting with Nancy Donovan. But it felt like the episode just stopped, rather than building to a real conclusion, particularly in the Liz/Dale Snitterman story, and I enjoyed Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore(*) in the Christmas episode much more than here.

(*) Because everyone vented his or her spleen about Moore's (intentionally?) horrid Boston accent when we talked about "Secret Santa," can we please table that discussion here?

I'll take uneven-but-funny "30 Rock" over a lot of television, but when "Parks and Recreation" and "Community" have been as strong as they've been this season, it becomes harder to wave away this show's weak spots.

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

Community, "Interpretive Dance": What's 2 x 7?

A review of last night's "Community" coming up just as soon as I spend money on breakaway clothing...

14 episodes into its debut season (which just added three more episode, as part of NBC's push to avoid repeats post-Leno-in-primetime), "Community" is still exploring different combinations of its large cast of characters, here striking unexpected gold with a Troy/Britta pairing. As the show's token straight person, Gillian Jacobs has a tougher job than the other actors, and the writers have often struggled to make her funny when the situation calls for it.(*) But she had some very nice moments here, first with her delight in getting to be outraged over Shirley saying "You people," then with the goofy "Tea for Two" tap dance. And Donald Glover, who's already established himself as a terrific physical comedian on this show, was as fun as you'd expect in showing Troy learning to express himself through modern dance.

(*) This isn't an uncommon problem - see also how "The Simpsons" tends to sag when episodes are built around Marge, who fills the same role in that family that Britta does in the study group. While sitcom straight men can be funny - Michael on "Arrested Development," Dave on "NewsRadio" - it's fairly rare.

What concerns me, a little, is the way Britta's stage fright was caused by seeing Jeff and Professor Slater holding hands. I was glad to see Slater come back, as Lauren Stamile and Joel McHale had great chemistry in the Halloween episode - and certainly more than McHale and Jacobs had in the early episodes when the show was still trying to make us care about Jeff and Britta as a couple. I had thought that later episodes (including that Halloween show, where Britta didn't care at all about Jeff's date, even though Shirley kept assuming she did) suggested the creative team had recognized Jeff/Britta wasn't working and that the writers had just turned their initial attraction to each other into a running gag. But we're clearly meant to see that Britta still has feelings for Jeff, which I think is a mistake. The only thing more frustrating than a show that drags out sexual tension for too long between two characters with chemistry is a show that tries to force chemistry where none exists in the first place. It's entirely possible Jeff and Britta could work at some point, and Britta has become a more interesting and likable character since the start of the series, but I don't want the show to keep going to that well just because the writers think they're supposed to.

But overall, "Interpretive Dance" was another winner, also giving us smaller character moments like Annie's repeated panic at the thought of Troy and Britta being together, Dean Pelton's repeatedly creepy behavior around Jeff and Slater, Troy denying that he thinks of Shirley as his mom, Jeff comparing the truth to Jim Belushi, and every joke about Pierce's Twitter account. So I'll worry about too much Jeff/Britta when there actually is too much of it, and not when an episode only hints that there could be.

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

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Burn Notice, "A Dark Road": Cagney vs. Lacey

A quick review of the "Burn Notice" winter premiere coming up just as soon as I have the sewing skills of an orangutan...
"People need me. So I have to." -Michael
"Yes, I guess you do." -Madeline
The first half of this season of "Burn Notice" set up a couple of story arcs - Michael loses the "protection" of management, and Michael tries to get unburned - with a lot of potential I'm not sure the episodes entirely lived up to. But the back half of the season starts very strongly with "A Dark Road, which sets up an intriguing new adversary in the unseen Mason Gilroy, while also presenting a terrific episodic story for Michael, Sam, Fi and, especially, Madeline.

Like Chuck Bartowski, Madeline Westen is a character who's reluctantly learning the tricks of the spy trade through someone she cares dearly about. Even if the casting of Sharon Gless's old "Cagney & Lacey" partner Tyne Daly didn't give the intelligence asset story an extra kick, seeing Madeline wrestle with befriending and then having to destroy Tina was a great showcase for Gless. It was also a nice exploration of the mother/son relationship and of Michael's dawning realization that being a vigilante isn't what he does just to kill time until he's unburned, but a calling he can't ignore.

The insurance scam plot also displayed the show's reliance on good old-fashioned practical stuntwork, as we saw with the various high-speed car chase scenes. At press tour, "Burn Notice" creator Matt Nix turned up to talk about a show he's doing for Fox called "Code 58," about a cop with a mindset stuck back in the '80s, but who's effective despite his throwback methods. I watch a scene like Michael out-racing Ryan as a job audition, or Michael and Sam racing to stop Ryan from pulling the train scam without them, and I can see where Nix is coming from with the "Code 58" character. Car chases used to be a staple on television and in movies, but they fell out of fashion, partly because there were too many of them, but mostly because people started getting lazy about them. When you do them with enough imagination and energy - and add them to a story and characters we care about even without the muscle cars - they can still be very, very cool.

And on top of that, we got the usual spy advice, like the value of using an acetylene torch as a kind of bullet-proof shield, or that you can fit a bug inside a car remote control keyring.

Couple all that with the intriguing marine stadium location, and the fact that Michael has no idea what Gilroy's game is, and the usual Bruce Campbell-related comedy gold ("What's wrong, Sam? I've never seen you drink a beer that slowly."), and I was very happy to be back in this world again.

What did everybody else think?
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The Office, "The Banker": Clip joint

It's a recycled photo for a recycled episode of "The Office" - specifically, for a clip show that was advertised only using scenes from the framing device. On the one hand, I was happy to see many of these clips again (the Creed montage alone was worth the price of admission). On the other hand, this kind of bait-and-switch can always be frustrating. I actually knew that there was an "Office" clip show coming, but I let myself get fooled by the commercials into deciding that it wouldn't be airing for another week or two.

So, on balance, what did you think? Happy to be reminded of "Office Olympics," great moments in PB&J and "Save Bandit!," or irked that you expected a wholly original episode? And was the framing device with Dave Costabile worthwhile in any way for the ongoing Dunder-Mifflin saga? Click here to read the full post

Parks and Recreation, "Leslie's House": Party girl

I got to see tonight's very funny "Parks and Recreation" back at press tour when my mind was still fresh, so a review coming up just as soon as you guarantee fridge space...

I talk a lot in these reviews about the tone of "Parks and Rec," and about how the show needs to be rooted in a very mundane level of reality for most of the comedy to work. Some characters, like Andy and Ron F'ing Swanson, get to bend those rules a little, but we have to believe in Leslie's behavior, or else... well, you saw most of season one, didn't you?

So the series employing a farce structure for an episode like "Leslie's House" could have been disastrous, since farce typically involves a heightened level of reality. ("Frasier," much as I loved it, was always more than happy to trade believability for a good joke, so that show's periodic farce episodes fit in nicely.) But what makes "Leslie's House" fit into the framework and tone that this season has established is that it's a very Pawnee kind of farce.

Yes, Leslie's dinner party spirals out of control, thanks to her fixation on creating the perfect evening for Justin, and thanks to her moral weakness in letting the rec center teachers provide all the food and entertainment. But I believe that Leslie would try too hard, because we've seen so many examples of that in her work life, and I believed that the rec center teachers would get sucked into things based on the way small town politics and gossip works. Once Leslie had her moment of weakness and called the cooking teacher, it was only a matter of time before the bartender, belly dancer and even the accounting software guy would find out and try to pitch in. There was never a moment in Daniel J. Goor's script where it felt like things were spiraling too far out of control, too quickly, just for the sake of a laugh.

And I loved the idea that Leslie would then insist on a disciplinary hearing even after she had paid to keep all the rec center teachers employed, just so there would be an official government document in which Justin said the party was great. In a way, that's just as much an abuse of power as the party itself, but it's also an incredibly Leslie thing to do, and a nice punchline to the story that kept them from dragging the party on too long.

"Leslie's House" also offered some nice movement on the Ron/Tom/Wendy triangle, and on the Andy/April/April's gay boyfriend and his boyfriend triangle (quadrangle?), and it gave Paul Schneider some rare funny moments as Mark tried to cope with his jealousy of Justin. (Andy's jealousy was, of course, funnier, because Andy is the more innately broad and silly character.)

All that, plus Ron Swanson bringing his own plate of deviled eggs to a dinner party and making sure no one else gets to have any. As we know by now, Ron + breakfast food = gold.

What did everybody else think?
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Why I'm not jumping into 'The Deep End'

Because I took off yesterday and am mostly taking off today, I didn't have the time to write a column review of ABC's "The Deep End" (which premieres tonight at 8), but even if I had the time, I wouldn't have much enthusiasm to write about it.

Basically, "The Deep End" is "Grey's Anatomy" with lawyers, and the execution is as cynical and flat as that premise sounds. There are a couple of actors I like (as a "Veronica Mars" fan, I believe I'm legally obligated to root for Tina Majorino to succeed, I always enjoy Clancy Brown and I appreciate that the producers didn't mess around and instead simply cast Billy Zane to play the Billy Zane role of the firm's amoral jerk of a managing partner), but the humor feels forced and there aren't any moments in the pilot akin to the more powerful/poetic scenes on "Grey's" (or, for that matter, on a David E. Kelley show when Kelley manages to stay out of his own way). It's just a bunch of attractive people in suits saying the same lines we've seen a thousand times before on shows like this.

One of the producers is David Hemingson, whose "Kitchen Confidential" I really enjoyed, so I may check back in on the show in a few weeks. But nothing I saw in the pilot has me wanting to make room for it on an incredibly crowded Thursday lineup. (If I want to add a show on that night, I'll start watching "Bones" or "Survivor" again.)

Feel free to discuss the pilot here tonight after it airs. Click here to read the full post

Cougar Town, "Stop Dragging My Heart Around": The ex file

I'm again mostly taking the day off to recover from press tour, but I thought last night's "Cougar Town" was another strong one. When I talked with Bill Lawrence last week about "Scrubs," he also said that he realized a few episodes into this show that the "attractive older woman dates hot younger guys" premise wasn't all that interesting, and that the show worked much better as an ensemble about this makeshift family Jules had created around herself. That was clearly the right way to go, and it's led to good recurring gags like Grayson's songwriting or Andy's role as secret-keeper/blackmailer, and it's allowed characters like Bobby and Laurie to get a little deeper without taking away all the funny things Brian Van Holt and Busy Philipps have been doing.

So just as soon as I jam out some lyrics and point out that Jules and Bobby were watching "Scrubs" in one scene, what did you guys think? Click here to read the full post

Modern Family, "Fifteen Percent": What is hip?

A quick review of tonight's "Modern Family" coming up just as soon as I order a Sanka...

After a couple of sub-par episodes that largely kept the three families apart, "Modern Family" was back in terrific form tonight with an outing that had at least some interaction between Jay and Mitchell's families. And it was that interaction - first with Mitchell playing the gaydar prank on Jay, then with Cameron turning up to show that the poor Kristen Schaal character had no gaydar - that led to some of the episode's best moments and biggest laughs.

I get what Steve Levitan was saying about it feeling contrived if the families are all together too often. But with the three groups living so close together, and with all of them having different kinds of childcare needs, it doesn't feel contrived at all to have a few characters from different groups crossing paths every week.

At the same time, some of the funniest bits in "Fifteen Percent" happened when the groups were isolated from one another: Mitchell asking the car's voice recognition software to give him directions to Hell and the car responding with "Mexican food," or Schaal being freaked out by Manny's wise-beyond-his-years quality, or Phil and Claire, and then Claire and Hayley, celebrating home theater success(*) in parallel to the Cutters celebrating their win in The Little 500 at the end of "Breaking Away."(**)

(*) This may just be one of those stories I could relate to a little too well, as I periodically get calls at work, on business trips, etc., to walk people at my house through the various remote control procedures necessary to make our living room AV equipment work. If I ever get conked on the head and develop retrograde amnesia, we're all in trouble, viewing-wise.

(**) Why do so many of the best Underdog Sports Movies of all time take place in Indiana? You've got "Breaking Away" (with early roles for Dennis Quaid, Jackie Earle Haley, Dennis Christopher and Daniel Stern), "Hoosiers" and even "Rudy."

Levitan's script had a lot of fun with Chazz Palminteri obliviously doing and saying stereotypically gay things, and it also had two of the best punchlines of the series to date: Gloria explaining that "I come from a neighborhood with a lot of prostitutes," and Mitchell responding to the fiery bouquet by telling the florist, "Look at that: two things flaming at once."

Very, very funny episode.

What did everybody else think?
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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Friday Night Lights, "I Can't": Indecision 2010

A review of tonight's "Friday Night Lights" (which, as usual, is airing on DirecTV's 101 Network Wednesdays at 9) coming up just as soon as I crawl out of the room...
"I can't take care of a baby." -Becky
Last week, I complained that the Becky pregnancy story was a waste of time because the heated politics around the abortion issue(*) meant that a network TV drama would be extremely unilkely to show a regular character(**) choosing to terminate her pregnancy. Instead, "I Can't" proves me wrong, as Becky - after a lot of soul-searching and conversations with Tami Taylor - decides she simply can't have a baby, and goes through with the procedure.

(*) I want to again remind you, in no uncertain terms, about this blog's No Politics rule, which absolutely extends to the subject of abortion. We are not going to talk about this story in terms of anyone's personal beliefs about the subject. Any comment that doesn't discuss the topic solely in the context of how it was used within the drama of this episode will be deleted. I know this will be difficult, particularly since we so often discuss matters on this show in terms of whether the characters did or didn't do "the right thing." But I know that this is one of those subjects that very few people on either side of the debate can discuss rationally anymore, so we're not even going to try.

(**) I only recently noticed that Madison Burge, who plays Becky, is the only one of the four new actors who isn't featured in the opening credits, so technically she may be a day player rather than a series regular. But that's really a matter of semantics, as I've often seen people in recurring roles on shows appear more frequently than some people in the regular cast with their names in the title sequence. Certainly, the show has acted as if Becky were just as much a regular as Luke or Vince, and she's been much more prominent than Jess.

We're not going to talk about whether we agree with her decision, but "I Can't" effectively showed how she came to it, even as it showed her unsure even afterwards that it was the right one.

Becky has her mom as an obvious, close-at-hand example of a woman whose life was derailed by teen pregnancy - and who, as Becky strongly implied to Tami, has resented her daughter for it ever since. Becky, like Tyra before her, wants to get out of this town and have more opportunities in her life than her mom had. But she also heard what Luke told her last week, and she recognizes that her mom could have aborted her 16 years ago, and as we see at the end after she hangs up on Luke, the end of her pregnancy is weighing heavily on her.

Becky was annoying when she was introduced, no doubt by design, but I think Madison Burge has done a great job of showing the anxious, uncertain, ambitious girl hiding behind the bubbly beauty pageant chatterbox that Tim Riggins first met, and she ran with the ball when given an opportunity here. (The difference between Pageant Becky and real Becky is most obvious when she walks away from a difficult conversation with Luke in the hallway to ask a girlfriend about her notes.)

And Connie Britton, as you'd expect, was just as good at showing Tami struggling with whatever her legal obligations are as a principal (if not Becky's principal) versus what she would say to Julie, versus her recognition that Becky is not her daughter and she therefore can't tell her what she should do. And there's always been the suggestion, whenever the subject of Julie's sex life comes up, that Tami was incredibly wild in high school. Watching Britton play her scenes with Burge, I couldn't help but wonder if the reason this girl's situation hits so close to her - and the reason she freaked out about her daughter losing her virginity - is because she had to face it herself when she was Becky's age. (It's also entirely possible, of course, that Tami is just the empathetic person we know, and also that she really does start thinking about what would happen if it were Julie, but Britton and the script and direction leave the ambiguity in there.)

And where Becky ultimately makes a painful choice to preserve her own future, our other main story has Vince once again jeopardizing his future for the sake of a loved one.

It's a recurring theme on "Friday Night Lights" that so many of these kids have had to raise themselves, and/or that they're more mature and self-sufficient than their actual parents. And we've seen throughout the story with Vince's mom that he's used to being the man of the house - to getting the bills paid and looking after Regina instead of vice versa. But we also see when he's at her hospital bed - in a killer scene from Michael B. Jordan - that Vince is still just a kid who wants his mom around, and who doesn't yet have the maturity or wisdom to realize that his mom's addiction has nothing to do with him.

So despite a bonding moment with Virgil - who, when hit up for the loan to pay for Regina's expensive private rehab facility, tells Vince he's proud of him, and that, "I'm saying no to the money, not to you" - Vince feels he has no choice in this. He has to save his mom, at all costs, and so he gets back in with Calvin and his criminal buddies, and gets another gun to replace the one he brought to Coach's house.

Virgil's own story also deals with self-preservation vs. family. It's clear from his conversations with Eric about coaching Vince, and then from his advice to his son Caleb at the Pee-Wee game - "You have fun out there, alright?" - that his own coaches took all the fun in football away from him. He quarterbacked a state championship team in 1983. Black QBs weren't unheard of at the time, but they were rare, and often colleges and/or the pros tried to turn them into defensive backs or receivers or some other position. Based on Virgil's comparison of himself to Vince, he would have been a player ahead of his time, one who could very easily have run into a coach or coaches who tried to change his game to fit the playbook rather than changing the playbook to fit his tremendous athletic gifts. So when his football career ended abruptly (something Jess alluded to when she was giving Landry punting lessons), he backed away from the game - and, in the process backed away from his children, who all grew to love football in spite of their old man.

Virgil showing up at Caleb's game doesn't instantly heal things between this father and his kids, or between Virgil and the game he played when they called him Big Mary, but it's one of the few upbeat moments in an episode that mostly deals with characters making agonizing choices in impossible circumstances.

Some other thoughts on "I Can't":

• It's unclear whether the show has dropped the story about Luke's hip injury and painkiller habit (he tells his dad the hip is fine, but we also see him limping when he gets out of his truck before the scene where his parents confront him), but it's pretty clear that his role as the former baby daddy will not be dropped so easily. How will his devout Christian parents react to learning that Becky had an abortion without telling Luke or giving them an opportunity to intervene? This could get ugly.

• Tim seems to have talked Billy out of the chop shop business (and Taylor Kitsch's native Canadian accent has never been more apparent than when he says the phrase "chop shop" over and over in a scene), but I wonder if it's going to be that easy. Billy didn't look to me like a man ready to quit just yet, and I also don't know if Calvin's boss is the type to just let a partner walk away clean.

• Julie's healing from the Saracen break-up continues, but there are hints dropped here that she might be on the verge of quitting school to follow Ryan around the world with Habitat. I'm not saying that teenage girls don't often make dumb decisions because of boys they've fallen for too hard, but I feel like we've seen variations on this particular story a few times too many on the show, in plots like Julie with the Swede or Tyra with cowboy Cash.

• Vince and his mom live at 2609 Chavez, an homage to one of the players on the Permian football team Buzz Bissinger chronicled in the "Friday Night Lights" book.

• Getting back to the Big Mary plot, it's interesting to see that Eric can't quite see past the racial thing when Virgil tries to explain about Vince. I think it's because Eric prides himself on being a great offensive coach, so when Virgil tries to point out a flaw in his playcalling, Eric's blinkers go on and he can only accept the idea if it comes from a cultural issue rather than a lack of imagination on his part.

• Not as much obvious music this week than in some others, but the song playing over the early Lions practice scene was "Percussion Gun" by White Rabbits.

What did everybody else think?
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