Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Freaks and Geeks Rewind: Looks and Books

Spoilers for the "Freaks and Geeks" episode "Looks and Books" coming up just as soon as I scarf down an entire mall pretzel...

In my review of the "Freaks and Geeks" pilot, I wrote that the series was, "at heart, a show about identity, how the hellfire of high school forges one for everybody, and how hard some people try to craft a new one for themselves." Though "Looks and Books" isn't one of my favorite episodes (mainly because of the Sam storyline, which I'll discuss more below), it's still one of the purest distillations of that theme. Sam tries on a new identity, Lindsay retreats to the comfort of an old one, and both Weir siblings discover that it's not as easy to change (or change back) as they had hoped.

The first half of the season charted Lindsay's assimilation into the freak world, with her parents' unease over this shift an ongoing issue. Harold and Jeans' distrust of the freaks came to the forefront in "The Diary" when they briefly forbade her from hanging out with Kim, and it takes over the discussion here after Daniel talks Lindsay into borrowing her mom's car to pick up some amps for a Creation gig and Lindsay gets into a fender bender because she's too distracted by the freaks.

I feel like I gave Joe Flaherty and Becky Ann Baker short shrift for their performances in "The Diary," so let me say a few words about them here. The scene where Harold tears into Lindsay is a spectacular display of pain and rage, perfectly played by Flaherty, Baker and Linda Cardellini. When Harold tells Lindsay, "I could send my own daughter to jail, you know that?," it's a line that's not dissimilar to all his "You know what happened to her? She died!" comic rants from the early episodes, but there is absolutely nothing funny about what's being said here. Flaherty just seems so defeated, so afraid for his daughter -- which is the main difference between Harold and someone like Cookie Kelly, in that he gets mad out of love and she gets mad out of bitterness -- and his mood is so completely atypical from how he carries himself in the rest of the series that, even if Lindsay hadn't already made up her mind to ditch the freaks, I imagine his expression would have scared her straight.

After a visit by a concerned Millie designed to remind both Lindsay and us that Millie is awesome, Lindsay digs through her closet to find an outfit from her goodie-goodie Mathlete days. When Lindsay appears in the kitchen with her hair neatly styled and her wardrobe conservative and ladylike (no Army jackets to be found), Jean is overwhelmed with relief. And yet -- and here's the brilliance of both Jean as a mom and Baker as an actress -- you can see just the slightest hint of ambivalence on her face, as if Jean knows this is too extreme a reaction, and/or that even though this is what she and Harold have been hoping for, Lindsay had seemed pretty happy with her new friends...

...whom Lindsay proceeds to forcefully tell off when they approach her at school like nothing traumatic happened, or like they're completely blameless in the crash. She tells them to go to Hell, that she's sick of them getting her in trouble, that Daniel's menstruation jokes are lame ("It's hard to pick up on the subtlety of your wit"), and in case they had any doubt about her feelings, says, "I'm tired of you using me. You're the most selfish people I've ever met in my life. I know you don't care about being smart or going to school or anything else, but just because your lives are such lost causes, don't keep assuming that mine is."

While Lindsay's outburst doesn't particularly phase Ken (he's never liked her) or Nick (he's delusional enough to think she's still mad about their break-up), it shakes up Kim and, especially, Daniel. It's one thing for him to think of himself as a lost cause, quite another to hear that sentiment expressed by the nicest, smartest person he knows.

The Mathletes -- with the exception of bitchy Shelly Weaver, who has assumed Lindsay's position as "first bloc" and likes telling jokes about Lindsay's freak pals -- welcome Lindsay back with open arms. Mr. Kowchevski briefly tries to play fair and bench Lindsay in favor of girls who've been practicing all year, but when Lindsay gets fed up with Shelly's arrogance and demands to have her spot back, he relents to give the team a better shot against Lincoln.

To Lindsay's shock and dismay, though, the person she winds up bumping isn't Shelly, but Millie. Millie tries to take it like a champ because she cares more about Lindsay and the team than she does about herself, but eventually confesses that she's mad about being cut. This only stokes Lindsay's competitive fires -- a side of her we never saw as a freak, and something that helps explain why she sounds so unhappy whenever discussing her Mathlete days -- even more. Now it's not enough for her to win; she has to make Shelly look bad in the process. Even Jean notices after a while, asking Lindsay, "Are you having fun?"

While Lindsay's embodying the "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing" philosophy, Daniel's turning seriously introspective, wondering if maybe he should aspire to more in life than being the head burn-out. While patrolling the school grounds, he notices Harris absorbed in a Dungeons & Dragons manual. (Foreshadowing: Harris suggests Daniel would make a good dungeonmaster.) Daniel asks Harris what he thinks of him, whether Harris views Daniel as a loser. Harris, assured that he's not going to get beaten up for his answer, tells him, "No, you're not a loser, because you have sex. But if you weren't having sex, we could definitely debate the issue." Daniel talks about his difficulties with school and how he admires a guy like Harris who's comfortable doing his own thing without worrying what other people think about him. "You've got it pretty wired, huh?" he tells Harris. "I guess I do," Harries replies. "I don't have sex, though."

(It's a great scene for Harris, a bit less so for Daniel, in that I think he comes off as too articulate and self-aware, even for a storyline that's about him trying to challenge his own sense of identity.)

At the scrimmage with Lincoln, Lindsay generates quite the cheering section (essentially, the entire cheering section for either team), including her mom and dad and Kim, Daniel and Ken (Nick shows up briefly, then leaves because he doesn't want the freaks to know he's stalking another ex). As Lindsay displays the math chops that earned her the nickname "The Human Calculator," the freaks cheer wildly and, to Mr. Weir's surprise and confusion, hold up a new fender to replace the one that got ruined on Jean's car.

But even though Lindsay achieves the perfect outcome -- she kicks ass, the team wins and Shelly freezes up at a crucial moment -- she decides at a Mathlete slumber party that this world isn't for her anymore. As she's sneaking out to find the freaks, Millie stops her and asks whether Lindsay might still want to play Uno with her sometime, "When you've got nothing else to do?" Despite realizing that she doesn't fit in with the Mathletes anymore, the last few days have reopened Lindsay's eyes to the warm-hearted brilliance that is Millie, and she assures her they'll still be friends.

Lindsay runs off to hang out with the freaks -- who are, as part of their anti-loser crusade, preparing to go see the midnight showing of a foreign film -- but her relationship with both them and Millie is irrevocably changed after this episode. Where before Lindsay was trying too hard to fit in with her new crowd, going so far as to treat Millie (the symbol of her old life) dismissively, going forward she's more at ease with them, and with Millie. Instead of, say, walking on eggshells around Ken, she makes fun of him the way the other freaks do, and while she doesn't spend every waking minute with Millie, she also stops acting as if she's ashamed to know her.

(This also begins a new parent-child dynamic, as Lindsay temporarily has to sneak around with the freaks because of her father's ban. But we'll look at how that works down the road.)

The Sam half of the episode isn't nearly as interesting. It has a few very funny moments and it thematically parallels the Lindsay story (and sets up one of my favorite Weir moments ever, where Sam and Lindsay walk side-by-side through school with their new looks, and when Mr. Rosso compliments them, they thank him in unison), but sandwiched in between the demented comedy genius of the Bill story from "The Diary" and the devastating Neal plot from "The Garage Door," it feels slight and forgettable. (And, I should make clear, I'm judging this by "Freaks and Geeks" standards, not average high school show standards; this would easily qualify as the greatest "One Tree Hill" subplot of all time.)

Anyway, after seemingly putting a pin in the Cindy Sanders thing with "We've Got Spirit" (a wise idea, I felt, as there was nowhere to go with that storyline until the surprising turn it takes in "Smooching and Mooching"), the writers are already back to having Sam make a fool of himself to impress her.

Somehow still not understanding why Cindy likes Todd Schellenger instead of him, Sam starts taking relationship and style advice from Neal -- the only geek not to get any for the run of the series, and a kid who dresses, as Sam notes, like a ventriliquist's dummy (more foreshadowing!) -- and decides first to feather his hair, then, when Cindy fails to be impressed, to go shopping for a more contemporary wardrobe. (In one of the series' few "Didn't people look stupid back in the day?" moments, there's a camera pan through the cafeteria to demonstrate that all the "stylish" kids are wearing the ugliest shirts imaginable, while Sam's long-sleeve T is nothing to be ashamed of.)

After hitting up Harold for money and permission to go clothes shopping without his mom -- "Cut the apron strings!" Harold insists, as Jean seethes -- Sam makes mistake number two by deciding to get his extreme makeover at Silverman's, the disco polyester emporum last seen in "Carded and Discarded." In a sequence that nearly redeems the entire subplot on its own, Bill is forced to stuff an entire pretzel in his mouth to get around the store's no-food policy, and when the salesman (Joel Hodgson again) asks Sam whether he wants to be a stud or a super-stud, Bill -- his mouth full of pretzel -- urges, "Super-stud, Sam! Go for super-stud!" (Though it should go without saying at this point in the recaps: Martin Starr, brilliant.) The salesman talks Sam into buying a "Parisian night suit," a robin's egg blue jumpsuit that, as Neal correctly points out later, looks like the sort of thing old Jewish men in Ft. Lauderdale wear when they're tired of having to put on pants. Sam doesn't realize this, unfortunately, until after he's psyched himself up into super-stud mode (in a mortifying but really funny sequence that's nothing but John Daley dancing in front of a mirror and trying variations on his familiar "Oh, hi, Cindy") and entered the school in the thing.

The horrified and mocking reactions of the other students make it clear that Sam, like a member of the Bluth family, has just made a terrible mistake, and he tries to sneak out to go home and change, using the geeks (and, especially, Gordon Crisp) as cover. The school secretary catches him and forces him to go to English class, where the humiliation worsens when he's called upon to diagram a sentence at the board while all the guys cough "Homo!" (The teacher, having no clue how to talk to teenagers, tells them, "Now, Sam wearing something different to wear his individuality makes him a 'homo,' then I guess we should all be proud to be 'homos'!")

Sam tries calling home between periods, not realizing that his mom is watching Lindsay's Mathlete competition (and wouldn't that sort of thing be after school?), and is on the phone with a neighbor when Alan and his gang show up for yet another round of mockery. "Just when I think you're as queer as you can be," Alan sneers, "you go and do something queerer." Sam finally loses his temper and shoves Alan up against a locker (isn't it funny how often the geeks manage to get the upper hand with Alan, even for a moment?), and when Mr. Rosso breaks up the fight, Sam begs him for a ride home.

This leads to a half-wise, half-creepy scene at the Weir house where Mr. Rosso tries to convince Sam that it doesn't matter what other people think of him, illustrated by a story where he got humiliated -- and, it's implied, beaten (and maybe worse) -- by a bunch of rednecks at a honkytonk down South.

"It's all about confidence," Rosso tells him. "If I say I'm the coolest guy in the world, and I believe I'm the coolest guy in the world, then suddenly, I become the coolest guy in the world." That night, Neal and Bill sleep over and debate the wisdom of Mr. Rosso's words. Neal, for instance, already thinks he's cool, but no one else does -- which, Bill explains, is because he isn't. On the other hand, Bill thinks Mr. Rosso is cool and "some kind of a genius."

Again, it's not a bad subplot, but it feels like the show had already grown beyond this kind of story in the space of 10 or so episodes. If I wasn't watching the shows so closely together, I might appreciate it more.

Anyway, some other thoughts on "Looks and Books":
  • Speaking of "We've Got Spirit," how much of the freaks' overzealous cheering is to show their support of Lindsay, and how much is residual hatred of anyone from Lincoln?
  • More Kowchevski Vietnam imagery: When the Mathletes get all hot and bothered by the Lindsay-for-Millie substitution, he tells them, "This is just for tomorrow's scrimmage! It isn't the last chopper out of Saigon!"
  • Before They Were Stars guest stars: Look closely at the Lincoln Mathlete who beats Shelly; it's Percy Daggs III. I know Wallace was supposed to be a geek before he met Veronica, but I had no idea he was this geeky.
  • This episode features the first mention that Ken comes from money, and that his life plan is to wait for his father to die so he can inherit his company, sell it, and live in the tropics. In his own way, he's slumming with the freaks just as much as Lindsay is.
  • The same scene also features Nick's latest life plan: he's going to be a DJ -- "and maybe, um, a lumberjack."
  • It's a good Harris episode all around, not just with the Daniel heart-to-heart, but him counseling Sam on his new hairstyle and reassuring Gordon that it's okay to be big: "Besides, the world loves jolly fat guys. Burl Ives, Jackie Gleason, Raymond Burr..." (This then leads into a typical geek progression about Burr, culminating in Gordon telling the story of how he met Burr at the auto show, and how nice he was.)
  • "Freaks and Geeks" was rarely a visually adventurous show, but I love director Ken Kwapis's use of the ol' deep-focus shot in the sequence where Shelly chokes. Very Frankenheimer.
  • I really do wonder how much the Mathlete Lindsay we see here resembles the Mathlete Lindsay who existed before her grandmother died. I have a hard time reconciling this ultra-competitive hardass with the girl Millie so openly worships, but I think that's part of the point: Mathletes used to be fun for her, but now all she can think about is winning, especially if it'll show up the freaks who got her into so much trouble.
Up next (later this week, as I'm almost back on normal schedule): "The Garage Door," which turns the spotlight over to the show's two resident teenage stand-up comedians, Neal and Ken.

What did everybody else think?
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Monday, July 30, 2007

Saving Grace: Oh my God, they killed...

Not a lot of comments on my first "Saving Grace" post. Is there not a lot of enthusiasm for this show because of the angel stuff? Anyway, spoilers for episode two coming up just as soon as I find a tube of glitter...

How's this for prompt service? By far my biggest complaint about the police scenes from the pilot was the presence of a stock Disapproving Black Captain, so the very kind producers end episode two with the semi-shocking death of said DBC. (He'll be replaced by Lorraine Toussaint, who I liked on Lifetime's "Any Day Now," but who I fear could become a Female Disapproving Black Captain -- two token cliches for the price of one! -- unless the writing for her is much stronger than it was for the late, unlamented Lt. Yukon.)

Beyond that, episode two was notable for its continued use of the Oklahoma locale. Last week it was the visit to the Federal Building memorial; this week it was Grace rolling up to the crime scene (at an oil rig, natch) with her deer kill strapped to her hood -- or, rather, everyone's complete non-reaction to it. The case itself wasn't particularly subtle in its parallels to Grace's situation with Ham and Butch, but at least it offered James Marsters to play a role in which he was completely unrecognizable from his days as Spike. (In case you didn't spot him -- and I'll admit that I didn't, until another critic pointed it out and I checked the DVD -- he was the dead guy's business partner.)

On the Earl front, I like how he's allowing Grace and Rhetta to learn certain facts (or not) like the lack of DNA in the saliva, then messing with their hunt by subbing in the bird feather for the angel feather Grace snatched. The scene where she visits Leon in prison suggests that Earl looks the same to everyone, which I think is a waste of a good idea. Nancy Miller, the creator, says God sends different angels to different people, depending on who they'd respond to, but Leon doesn't strike me as the kind of guy who'd give Earl the time of day if Earl were human.

I'm still not sure all the pieces fit together, but damn, Holly Hunter is interesting to watch.

What did everybody else think?
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My Boys: It rubs the lotion on its skin...

"My Boys" was a show that really grew on me last season, yet I never got around to blogging on it, and I didn't have a chance to write a column about the new season due to press tour brain fatigue. Some general thoughts on the series and brief spoilers for the two new episodes coming right up...

I will never pretend that "My Boys" is a great comedy, maybe not even a very good one, but I like all the characters and it makes me laugh out loud at least two or three times an episode, which is more than I can say for more respectable comedies like "Weeds" (which I happen to like, but in an ironic detachment way).

The problems are obvious: P.J.'s sports-themed voiceovers are every bit as annoying and obvious as the Carrie Bradshaw columns that inspired them. Even if you allow for the fact that Cubs home games take place in the daytime (freeing her up for all those nighttime poker game), P.J. seems an even less credible sportswriter than Ray Barone. (Though this may be one of those things where it's more glaring to me as a journalist, the way my wife used to yell at the TV during "ER.") Wherever the show is filmed, it doesn't feel like it actually takes place in Chicago. The writers don't really know how to deal with P.J.'s hotness and her boys' attraction to same; Bobby nearly slept with her in the pilot and then it was dropped like it never happened, she and Brendan have now almost gotten together a few times and again it's being ignored, and it's been implied a few times that Kenny has a major crush on her but is too afraid to do anything about it. I'm not saying the writers need to pair her off with any of the guys, but it would be more of an issue than it is, and it's something the show tries to ignore because it would complicate the just-one-of-the-guys premise.

All of that being said, "My Boys" passes the Time Test, in that these characters (as a group, if not individually) are people I would like to hang out with in real life, and whom I enjoy inviting into my living room for an hour a week in the summer. It's a fun show, and at times (especially when Gaffigan's involved) a quite funny show, as demonstrated in both of tonight's episodes.

While the first episode has to spend a chunk of time trying to undo P.J. and Brendan's cliffhanging clinch from last season, there's a bunch of fun scenes, like the guys who got to the poker game early trying to tip off the latecomers about the condition of Kenny's girlfriend, or Mike and Kenny mapping out Bobby's entire celebrity career (complete with stupid theme song), or, especially, P.J.'s on-air, Jame Gumb-quoting meltdown, or the unlikely foursome at the bed store.

So I'll be watching this summer, and blogging at least some of the time, and as I recall from the What Do You Want? thread, at least some of you will be watching with me.

What did everybody else think?
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John From Cincy: Get with the big and huge already

Spoilers for the latest episode of "John From Cincinnati" coming up just as soon as I organize my teddy bear collection...

Eight episodes into a ten-episode season (or, more likely, series, as I can't imagine HBO bringing this show back), I should be prepared by now for the digressions, the halting pace, the stories that come out of nowhere (and then quickly go back there) and all the other narrative oddities of Milch's latest work. Yet I keep expecting something more than (or different from) what the show is offering -- maybe because each episode offers a moment or three that suggests something grander, if not more coherent, than what we're generally getting.

Take Bill's interrogation of John. Milch has written a few thousand of them in his life. The episode's director, Jesse Bochco (son of Steven and one of the in-house directors in the final years of "NYPD Blue") has been behind the camera for a few dozen, at least. Yet somehow this felt completely new, and riveting. Of course, it featured elements you don't often see in an interrogation scene: a mentally-unstable cop who communicated telepathically with birds, a suspect who only mirrors what other people say, who maybe Jesus, and who can stab himself repeatedly in the gut and draw blood without injuring himself.

It's a hell of a scene. Bill's terrified of John and what he represents, John wants to help Bill but, as happens throughout the episode, he can't find the words to explain his meaning, and stabbing himself seems like the only way to drive home the point that he's not some kidnapper or child-molester or whatever human brand of evil everyone suspects him of being. Throughout the show, people have been unsure how to react to John and his miracles. Here, even as Butchie lists them one by one, everyone's too panicked by the "Shaun will soon be gone" message to believe there could be a higher power at work; instead, they compare him to a terrorist like Bin Laden (who himself claims to be doing the work of his god).

And what does "Shaun will soon be gone" mean, anyway? Maybe this has all been in service of making Cissy sign with the now benevolent Linc, and Shaun will be "gone" on the surfing circuit, I don't know. But I have a sinking feeling we're not going to find out nearly enough in the course of the next two episodes, not when we keep stopping for weird digressions like Barry and his teddy bear.

Some random thoughts on a random episode:
  • Callback to the Sermon: "The internet is big," just like mud, fur and the stick.
  • I was pretty sure that was Milch's voice on the intercom taunting Barry, and Steve Hawk's insider report at HBO.com confirms it.
  • I've noted in the last few episodes that Keala Kennelly's gotten much better as an actress, but she's not so good with the monologuing.
  • Unexpected levity: Butchie's "If this is an intervention, I'm clean."
  • Luis Guzman has been underused, but he had a bunch of funny moments here, including Ramon's "Go, Barry, get your vision, get your number, go, go, go, Barry!" chant, his reference to Barry's man-purse, his monologue at the shuffleboard court ("Alert! Alert! Diving in! Latino verging on luck!"), and, especially, his explanation of where John came from. ("Cincinnati?")
  • I'm still having a hard time reconciling Jennifer Grey as Dickstein's fiancee with the Jennifer Grey of the '80s, or even the Jennifer Grey of "It's Like, You Know..." If it wasn't for the voice, I'd refuse to believe it.
What did everybody else think?
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Every dragon's a little bit racist

Spoilers for "Flight of the Conchords" and "Entourage" coming up just as soon as I call in tech support...

As I often mention when discussing the problems with the Emmys, people who work in television don't spend much time watching television, yet nearly every TV person I chatted with at press tour asked me what I thought of "Flight of the Conchords" and confessed that the show was really growing on them. I don't know if it'll ever be a mainstream hit, but in terms of industry buzz, it appears to be doing well enough that I can't imagine HBO not renewing it.

And a good thing, too, because I'm not sure I can live without the minds who gave us "Albi the Racist Dragon" (now in Davey and Goliath-Vision!), Murray's lonely ode to the leggy tech support girl (in the most technically impressive video by the show's admittedly modest standards), and, especially, the sequence with Dave teaching the guys how to flip the bird, even as they protest that the gesture seems neither obscene nor appropriately bird-like. (The bird montage, oddly, went on so long that the gesture began to lose all meaning, like that time Jon Lovitz kept saying "Tartlets" on "Friends.")

I do wonder, though, whether the boys will be able to come up with enough new music for a second season, since they told me they'll have used up about 98% of their catalogue by the end of this season. But at the moment, no show makes me happier than "Conchords."

I think "Entourage" made me happy once upon a time, but I'm struggling to remember when or how. I suppose I should be happy we got a break from one-note Billy Walsh, and the scene with Ari attempting to be a good dad was unexpectedly sweet, but I'm going to be scarred for life by Drama having furry sex (and by his reference to the meanest thing he ever did to a girl), and E is just a waste of oxygen and screen time. (The funniest part of the whole episode was the preview for next week, where the lady on the phone pointed out that Eric's job is irrelevant.) This wasn't Worst. Episode. Ever. territory like, say, the trans hooker episode, but I'm just not feeling this show at all anymore.

What did everybody else think?
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Friday, July 27, 2007

Doctor Who: If I can change, and you can change, maybe we can all change into Daleks

Spoilers for the "Doctor Who" episode "Daleks in Manhattan" coming right up...

I'm jet-lagged and this is the first half of a two-parter (the conclusion of which I haven't seen yet), so this is gonna be short.

I don't have any kind of fundamental opposition to the Daleks as a concept, but much like the Doctor, I'm starting to get frustrated with how easily they keep popping up, despite story after story in which they're erased from time, once and for all. It's like how the X-Men writers keep killing off Magneto, only to have the next writer bring him back, time after time.

This was also one of the less subtle episodes they've done, and while the Daleks themselves aren't particularly subtle villains, my head started to ache from the number of times I got beat by the clue-by-four. The wise leader of Hooverville is named Solomon, and he solves a dispute over property by dividing it in two? Sure, why not? Every single character makes a comment at some point about how mankind is capable of building something like the Empire State Building while letting something like Hooverville exist, and just in case we didn't get the point, we find out that Talullah's Broadway revue is called "Heaven and Hell"? Super!

I mean, the broadness of the dialogue and characterization match our cultural memories of 1930s Noo Yawk -- or at least of the movies about that time and place -- and there's some fun in seeing the Doctor and Martha interact with a cast of Damon Runyon types, but overall it felt disposable.

What did everybody else think?
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The Simpsons Movie: Spider-Pig, Spider-Pig...

Brief spoilers for "The Simpsons Movie" coming up just as soon as I find a really kind-hearted carnie to give me one more chance...

Expanding a little on my initial thoughts from a few hours after the screening, I'm really happy with the movie, even though I know it's not an instant classic the way the "South Park" movie was.

The first 20-30 minutes feature most of the best gags and memorable sequences, with Bart's naked skateboard ride and, especially, the Fox crawl joke as highlights. (The theater I saw it in was packed with industry people -- including Fox chairman Peter Liguori -- and the place exploded when the crawl began. I know it's wishful thinking, but maybe that gag can shame Fox into changing its bug-happy ways -- for "The Simpsons," if not for all of primetime.)

Of course, that early stretch of the film is the part lightest on plot. While there's set-up for all the shenanigans with the EPA and President Ahnuld, the first half-hour is essentially a series of thinly-connected sketches -- very funny sketches, but still a format that would describe the TV series from around the point it hit double digit seasons. But it was still a pleasure to get to experience vintage "Simpsons"-style humor ("I'll teach you to laugh at something that's funny!" or Nelson losing his voice from laughing too long at Bart's doodle) with a huge, boisterous crowd. (I wonder how this movie's going to play for people who just wait on the DVD.)

Once the EPA storyline really kicks in, the laughs slow down, but I like that Groening and company didn't try to force gags. I know some critics and fans have complained that the movie doesn't feature nearly enough of the supporting cast, especially with Homer packing up the clan to Alaska. I'm okay with the focus on the family, though; they're the reason most of us fell in love with the show, and I've missed the genuine emotions at the heart of the series' earliest episodes like "Lisa's Substitute." Bart's growing affection for Flanders and, especially, Marge's videotaped message for Homer were really affecting. (Julie Kavner was really amazing in the video scene; too bad voice actors have no real shot at major film awards.) Would I have liked more of Mr. Burns or Apu or Barney? Sure, but not at the expense of the family dynamic.

For all the talk about how the writers didn't want to do the movie if they'd just be repeating bits from the series, there were several sequences that were exactly that. Homer's vision quest in the frozen wilds reminded me of his post-chili cook-off hallucinations, and Comic Book Guy evaluating his life in the face of impending death was nearly identical to the bit from the Halloween episode where he gets hit by a French missile. (The only difference: instead of feeling he's wasted his life, he now has no regrets. If the Halloween shows weren't out of continuity, I'd make some kind of Worst. Mischaracterization. Ever. joke. I guess I just did.)

I also loved how David Silverman and the animators opened up the visuals for the big screen, in a way that made all the characters look like themselves, but better.

So that's me. What did everybody else think?
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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Mad Men: Ambivalent women

Once again, apologies for posting this by mistake last night. I had either forgotten what day it was, what day "Mad Men" airs, or both. This may be the last blog post for a few days (except maybe the "Simpsons" movie review) as I attempt to reassemble my wits in the comfort of my own home.

Anyway, spoilers for "Mad Men" episode two coming up just as soon as I buy a new child safety seat for the car...

After devoting much of the pilot to the title characters, episode two of "Mad Men" is for the ladies -- mostly.

Betty Draper, kept off camera for most of last week to serve the pilot's not-so-shocking twist ending, gets to play screentime catch-up. We learn that she's suffering from some kind of condition where her hands freeze up at inopportune moments. (I don't know enough about medical history to understand whether Betty's condition is really psychosomatic, as her doctor suggests, or simply something a doctor in 1960 wouldn't be able to diagnose.) She's out of sorts, depressed about the recent death of her mother, crushed by her role as homemaker but not understanding that there could be an alternative, frustrated that Don is just as big a mystery to her as he is to everyone else. When they lie in bed together, she looks at him and whispers, "Who's in there?" It's not apparent yet whether she suspects Don is sleeping around, but she's thrown by the news that a divorcee has moved into the neighborhood. As claustrophobic and terrifying she may find her life, being a single mom in 1960 Westchester sounds infinitely more terrifying.

It's really scary to see how constrained Betty's life is, how much control of it is placed -- by her ignorance and by the standards of the time -- in the hands of Don. He's the one who pushes her to see a therapist, and he's also the one who can then call up the therapist to find out what Betty talked about in her session. January Jones has a look that works really well with the style of the time (in present-day movies, I don't usually notice her, but she has this vaguely Grace Kelly quality when you put her in the dress and the hair and the makeup), and I'm glad she's portrayed as more than just the ball and chain that Don escapes from with work and with Midge.

And speaking of our resident beatnik floozy, we find that she's not just Don's mistress, but rather a free love type who sleeps around, an arrangement that has its pluses and minuses for both of them. Don doesn't have to feel completely guilty that he goes back to Betty the next day because he knows Midge has other guys, but he also can't help getting upset when evidence of those guys -- say, Midge's new TV set (on which her favorite show is the same as Don's kids') -- stares him right in the face. And Midge doesn't have to feel like a kept woman who's breaking up a marriage, but she still can't stand to hear about Betty. When Don says, "I can't decide if you have everything, or nothing," she tells him, "For the moment, nothing is everything." On some shows, that line would sound like psychobabble masquerading as profound insights, but the small details of how these characters are written and played gives it real meaning.

With Pete off on his honeymoon (an excuse to sketch in the other young guys at the agency), Peggy gets a bit closer to Paul, one of the copywriters on Don's team. Paul is set up to be everything that Pete and his cronies aren't -- well-read, semi-enlightened (he at least sees the value in women copywriters for certain types of jobs), not as blatant in his advances -- but in the end he's revealed to be just another horny guy trying to get with the new girl, and Peggy is only able to fend him off by hinting at her involvement with Pete. (Paul assumes the man she's talking about is Don, and in one of my favorite lines of the episode, says, "Do you belong to someone else? Shit. I don't even like to sit in Don's chair.")

I'm just very taken with this show, and if I wasn't so burnt-out from being at press tour for two weeks (see the latest iteration of my Bon Scott/Alex O'Loughlin problem), I'd attempt to elaborate more about what it continues to well. Instead, it's on to our friends the bullet points:
  • Yes, People Really Lived This Way moments of the week: the Draper kids drive without child seats, or even seat belts, and are completely unharmed in Betty's fender bender, and the daughter runs around the house with a dry cleaning bag over her head and Betty's only concern is that her dress might get ruined without the bag on it.
  • John Slattery has just nailed the arrogance and indifference of a guy like Roger. Again, an exchange like the "What do women want?" "Who cares?" bit between Don and Roger could have come across as being written in italics, but Slattery makes Roger's attitude seem like the natural thing.
  • Robert Morse! How perfect is that? They cast Robert Morse -- star of the original version of "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying" -- as Mr. Cooper, head of the agency.
What did everybody else think?
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That's it for me!

In the final entry of the tour blog, I recap the "Private Practice" session, which largely turned into a discussion of all things "Grey's Anatomy." (Plus an opportunity for one last "I'm Taye Diggs!" joke.) Click here to read the full post

Spoilers (or not).

Remember when I said yesterday I didn't know what day it is? I wasn't exaggerating, as I published my "Mad Men" review a day ahead of schedule. Apologies to anyone who clicked through; I've yanked the post and will put it back up tonight before I fly home and get some badly-needed rest.

It's the last day of tour, and my next-to-last tour column is a discussion of the delicate dance shows with ongoing storylines have to do when they come to face a couple of hundred news-hungry reporters. There's spoiler-y stuff of varying degrees about "Friday Night Lights" (big), "The Office" (little), "Heroes" (maybe big), "House" (ibid), and "Lost" (medium, at best), so don't follow the link if you don't want to know. Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Of Australians and ABC

From the tour blog: I apologize for yet another Alex O'Loughlin/Bon Scott-related fiasco, and ABC announces its premiere dates. Click here to read the full post

The British are coming! The British are coming!

Today's column tackles the biggest recurring question of this tour: why are there so many British (and Aussie) actors playing Americans as the stars of new shows?

Somebody wake Lou Dobbs and tell him he has a new kind of immigration crisis to rail against. A new group of foreigners is streaming into this country, and these people are stealing our best jobs, replacing our doctors, our cops, our reporters, even our bionic women.

Or maybe they're just stealing acting jobs. But for cultural pride, isn't that just as important?

There's going to be a British invasion on TV this season, with about a dozen actors from Great Britain or its former territories playing Americans in new network primetime series.

To read the full thing, click here. Click here to read the full post

Best. Simpsons movie. Ever.

To quote the Bizarro Jerry, me so happy. Me want to cry. At the last minute this afternoon, a friend of mine with a ticket to see "The Simpsons Movie" realized that it came with a plus-one, and he asked me to be his plus-one. (Thanks, Joe!)

I'm not going to spoil anything right now -- I'll do a proper WAW-style review sometime this weekend, after I'm back from tour and fully awake -- but I will say that I was really, really happy with it. The first half hour is as funny a sustained stretch as any of the best episodes, but there's also room for some heart (Julie Kavner is GREAT), appearances by virtually every character ever (even if some of them are on-screen for half a second) and Albert Brooks doing another brilliant guest voice turn. Really, the only thing it was lacking was an epic musical number, but I'm okay with that. I don't know if it's as perfect as the "South Park" movie, but if you love the show, you will not be disappointed. Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Freaks and Geeks Rewind: The Diary

Spoilers for the "Freaks and Geeks" episode "The Diary" coming up just as I interrogate a group of potential prank callers...

Do a Google search for "Freaks and Geeks" and "painfully honest," and you'll get about 200 hits. For "brutally honest," it's more than 400. Start mixing and matching -- say, "painful," "honest" and "Freaks and Geeks" -- and you're getting close to 1,000.

My point is, so much of what made this show great was its honesty, but that same candor also made it a hard watch for a mass audience. The truth hurts, like the saying goes, and "The Diary" is an episode about just how much it can hurt.

In the main plot, Kim gets busted hitchhiking with Lindsay, and an apoplectic Harold ("You could have been picked up by Ted Bundy!") and Jean demand to get to know more about their daughter's new best friend. They insist on having Kim's mom, Cookie, over for dinner, and when Cookie arrives at the Weir home, she's not the shrieking harpy from "Kim Kelly Is My Friend," but an innocent-sounding martyr who lives for her children and is terrified of what Kim is becoming.

(Please pause from reading this review to once again boo Sassa and Ancier for not airing "Kim Kelly Is My Friend," since the contrast between the two faces of Cookie totally gets lost here.)

In the course of their meal, Cookie suggests the Weirs try reading Lindsay's diary, as snooping through Kim's stuff is the only way she has any idea what her daughter is really doing. (Either she's full of crap, by the way, or she only just started this practice after "Kim Kelly Is My Friend," since at the time Cookie seemed to believe all of Kim's lies about hanging out with Lindsay.)

Harold, remembering how badly Lindsay tricked them back in "Tests and Breasts," decides they can't trust their daughter anymore. He bans Lindsay from hanging out with Kim and, while Lindsay's at school, he and Jean sneak into her room and find her diary.

Until this point the first time I watched the episode, I was starting to worry that I had seen this plot done before on cheesey sitcoms, but what happens next makes it uniquely a "Freaks and Geeks" story. Instead of finding references to bad behavior, sex and drug use, Jean turns to a page where Lindsay is discussing -- gulp -- Harold and Jean:
"Two of the worst ones are mom and dad. They are the most boring, repressed people on the face of the earth. They say they love each other, but who knows? It's probably just part of their routine. Anyway, can robots really be in love?... Their full life is this monotonous routine, she cooks dinner -- practically the same meal every night -- he comes home barking like a dictator who's scared his penis will fall off if he ever has to clear the table, and she lets him walk all over her."
Jean is completely thunderstruck to read her life described in this way, and she and Harold are both disturbed enough that they put the diary away, never to invade its privacy again. Jean throws herself into proving Lindsay wrong, cooking up an exotic (by Weir standards) dinner featuring Cornish game hen in plum wine sauce. Harold, who just wants his usual supper, hurts Jean's feelings, first by mocking the game hen, then refusing to help clean up because, "That's your job." (I will tell you right now: if I ever used that phrase about my wife and housework, I'd be sitting in a lawyer's office the next day.)

When Jean's next cooking experiment leads to a badly-charred fish and some more mockery from Harold, she flees into the bedroom, sobbing and insisting that she doesn't want to be a robot. Why, she asks Harold, can't they try to enjoy life more by changing things up? He's baffled, explaining that he's very happy with his life the way he is.

"I like chicken, I like pot roast, and that's how I feel about you, Jean!" he tells her, and when she complains that he doesn't appreciate her any more than he does a pot roast, he's even more baffled, telling her, "Everything I do, I do to serve you. I think of you when I'm stocking fishing poles. I think of you when I'm answering questions about cross country ski wax. My whole life is about serving you. And I love you, Jean. Thank you."

It's a really lovely scene, and in some ways a prelude to the marital strife subplot from "Knocked Up." Because Harold's not much for big displays of affection, Jean assumes he's unhappy but too stuck in a rut to do anything. Harold, meanwhile, is perfectly happy with the status quo, so long as it includes Jean and the kids, and realizes he should say that more often.

Then they make love, as first Sam and the geeks and then Lindsay and Kim come home and realize, to their horror (or, in Neal's case, fascination) what's going on. (Kim: "Lindsay, your parents are swingers!") It's a great finish to the series' biggest spotlight on the elder Weirs, and the only thing taking away from it at all is the "Wanna have some sex?" joke from "Carded and Discarded." (Harold and Jean getting busy would be a bigger deal if we hadn't just seen them do it a few episodes earlier.)

As with "We've Got Spirit," the story has more than one side. While Harold and, in particular, Jean are grappling with what Lindsay really thinks of them, Kim is badly hurt by what Lindsay's parents really think of her.

Lindsay, still not fully acclimated to life among the freaks, makes the mistake of telling Kim why her parents don't want them hanging out anymore. While she doesn't quote Harold's "She's as dumb as a crayon!" line, she does tell Kim that her parents think, "You're not smart, you do drugs, you have sex -- stupid stuff like that." Even with a "My parents are morons, Kim" caveat, it wounds Kim to hear her friend talk about her that way -- and without any suggestion that Lindsay tried to defend her.

So Kim starts lashing out at Lindsay for the first time since the early episodes, and in turn makes life miserable for Daniel and the other freaks. In a scene I had completely forgotten about, but is now one of my favorite James Franco bits of the series, Daniel tries to calm Kim down by suggesting the Weirs aren't completely wrong in their description of the freaks: "I had some daughter in high school, I wouldn't want some guy crawling all over her... I mean, who wants their kid to have sex and do drugs? Nobody." Daniel's usually acting aloof or wounded, but there's a real impish sweetness to the way Franco plays this scene that really charmed me on repeat viewing.

Anyway, Daniel gets fed up with Kim's moodiness -- "She's like the rawest nerve there is. She's like a body without skin. She's like a bloody..." -- and begs Lindsay to apologize. In a callback to the hitchhiking scene that started all this drama, Lindsay and Kim's English teacher calls on Kim to discuss "On the Road," and mocks her when Kim complains that she gave up on it because the writer was clearly on drugs, and if she turned in a report written in that style, she would get a bad grade. (That run-on sentence, by the way, was brought to you by the late Jack Kerouac. Thank you very much.) Lindsay loudly supports Kim, noting that Kerouac was, in fact, high when he wrote the book, and cites Truman Capote's five-word takedown of the book: "That isn't writing; it's typing." Between that public display and Lindsay's invitation to hang at her house, Harold and Jean be damned, things go back to normal between the two of them.

The geeks, meanwhile, get the show's second sports-related plot in a row, as Bill gets fed up with always being picked last in gym class. He's convinced he might be a really great shortstop, but he has no way of knowing because he's always placed in deep right field -- usually alongside Gordon Crisp in "backup right."

Since Coach Fredricks won't listen to his pleas directly, Bill steals a list of teacher's phone numbers from Rosso's office and pulls a Cameron Frye: he calls Fredricks at home, pretends to be Gordon's father and demands that Fredricks give some of the less obviously athletic kids more of a shot. Unfortunately, Bill doesn't understand exactly how the cover-your-ass mentality works and is frustrated when Fredricks' response is simply to offer Gordon the chance to play shortstop (Gordon declines), while still relegating Bill, Neal and Sam to be scrubs.

After Neal's super-cool father, Dr. Schweiber, tells the geeks stories of his own crank-calling days, Bill decides to go a step further, calling up Fredricks and, in an affected voice, telling him, "You're a turd, a stinky fat turd. Go sniff a jockstrap, you poophead. You love patting boys butts... You're a perv and a loser and a stinky turd."

In a brilliant montage that's a cop drama parody by way of a 14-year-old boy's sense of humor, Fredricks calls the kids in his gym class into his office one by one and demands that they read from a transcript he made of the prank call. (Alan finds it especially hysterical that he gets to call a teacher a "stinky fat turd" and a "loser.")

Fredricks eventually fingers Bill (there's a deleted scene where he still can't identify the culprit and accuses Sam to make the real perp confess, but that was probably a twist too much) and demands to know why Bill said that stuff to him. Bill again pleads his case for a more prominent role in this softball games -- "And the thing is, I might not be bad. I never get better, because I'm never given the chance. I could be good." -- and because, as we know by now, Fredricks really isn't a bad guy, he recognizes the truth in what Bill is saying and decides to give the kid a chance.

This leads to a Bizarro version of gym class, where Bill and Gordon are the captains and the jocks get picked last. After a cut away to the scene in Lindsay and Kim's English class, we return to find Sam the pitcher completely gassed. Bill, who's always wanted to call a meeting on the mound, runs over and waves in Neal to give Sam some encouragement. Sam throws a pitch, the jock at the plate hits a pop-up to shallow left, and as the part of the "Rocky" theme from when Apollo knocks Rocky down and Rocky gets up to keep fighting (only the single greatest film score snippet of all time) plays, Bill ranges back and makes an impressive, if ungainly, catch. Sam and Neal run over to hug and celebrate -- while the man already on base tags up and scores.

(The way I had remembered this scene, the joke is that the geeks lose the game in the last inning because they're too busy celebrating Bill's catch, but the real punchline is even funnier, as Neal notes: "Oh, only 8 and two thirds innings to go." Sam was already used up and they hadn't even gotten the first out yet!)

Some other thoughts on "The Diary":
  • Though Sam gets the forefront next time with "Looks and Books," this is the first of a middle batch of episodes where the geek plots focused largely on Bill and Neal, a good choice, as the writers were close to running on fumes with the Sam/Cindy material.
  • A hilarious recurring gag: each time Bill calls Fredricks, Fredricks is seated on his living room couch and we can hear the theme songs to bad sitcoms ("Diff'rent Strokes," "What's Happening?!?!") in the background. During the first call, Fredricks is watching TV in his underwear and eating ice cream and pretzels. (To be fair, sometimes you need salty and sweet at the same time, and why mess up perfectly good clothes in the process?) the second time, he's fully-dressed and not slovenly, and when the "you like patting boys butts" call ends, the camera pulls back to reveal that he's on some kind of half-assed date with the female gym teacher Fredricks was flirting with during Sam's naked marathon in "I'm With the Band."
  • Two things about Lindsay's English teacher. First, why are Lindsay and Kim and Nick in the same class? Does the Track One/Two/Three thing only apply to certain classes like math and science? Second, the English teacher was played by Linda Cardellini's acting teacher, who does a fine job of playing the kind of pretentious twit who thinks the kids adore him when they can barely tolerate his mock coffee house banter.
  • "We've Got Spirit" pretty much put the Nick and Lindsay story to bed, but this and the next few episodes will feature some background gags about Nick coping with the break-up, here with him being pissy towards Lindsay. ("Can you be quiet, please? Class is starting.")
  • As mentioned above, this episode features the first visit visit to the Schweiber home, and our first glimpse of Sam McMurray as Dr. Schweiber. There's some none-too-subtle groundwork laid for the events of "The Garage Door" where Dr. Schweiber explains that he sometimes comes home in the middle of the day to change his shirt because it gets sweaty; my wife hadn't seen the later episodes and even she knew where that was leading.
  • The Fredricks interrogation sequence gives Samm Levine another opportunity to do his Shatner, but what makes the bit really work is Thomas Wilson's mispronunciation of Leonard Nimoy's last name.
Up next (sometime after I get back to Jersey and recuperate from press tour): "Looks and Books," in which the Weir siblings each try on a very different persona from the ones we're familiar with.

What did everybody else think?
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Damages: The devil is in the details

Today's column previews FX's new drama "Damages," which I wanted to like more than I did:
The new FX legal drama "Damages" offers two superb performances by old pros Glenn Close and Ted Danson. It has a knotty, ripped-from-the- headlines thriller plot that evokes the best of John Grisham. And it has the moral ambiguity and style we've come to expect from the home of "The Shield" and "Rescue Me."

One thing it doesn't have: a compelling main character. It's a doughnut show: lots of sweet, satisfying goodness around the edges, nothing in the middle.
To read the full thing, click here. Click here to read the full post

Monday, July 23, 2007

Holy Holly, holy (expletive deleted)

Today's column takes a look at tonight's debut of TNT's "Saving Grace," which has me oddly transfixed:

Is the world ready for an R-rated drama about angels? For a gritty crime drama that's one part "NYPD Blue" for every part "Touched by an Angel"? Since the show in question, TNT's new "Saving Grace," stars an acting force of nature, I guess we had better be.

Holly Hunter plays Grace Hanadarko, a detective with the Oklahoma City P.D., as self-destructive and charismatic as any fictional male cop you've met.

We meet Grace while she's having naked bucking bronco-style sex with her partner Ham -- her married partner, I might add. When Ham tries to bolt their latest assignation out of religious guilt, she tells him, "I don't believe in God, but I promise: you'll never have mind-blowing sex with me again."

So Grace sleeps with the wrong men -- and in bulk, too -- drinks far too much, curses like a sailor and is heading down the toilet when God decides to take a hand in her life.

You can read the full thing here.

UPDATE: Bumping this up to the top of the page so people can use this as the place to comment on tonight's premiere, as I won't have a chance to do a separate post. My column contains most of my salient thoughts on the pilot. Click here to read the full post

Seth offends, Amy confounds

From the tour blog: the "Family Guy" cast does a live script reading, and Amy Sherman-Palladino reveals the intended "Gilmore Girls" finish (but not really). Click here to read the full post

Fox double-dip

From the tour blog: the Fox execs speak, and Nigel Lythgoe admits that "American Idol" ignored its own contestants this season. Click here to read the full post

An almanac of semi-complete world knowledge

Spoilers for "Flight of the Conchords" coming up just as soon as I explain that I'm so disenchanted with "Entourage" at the moment that I decided to go get take-out in between "John From Cincy" and "Conchords," and don't even feel compelled to carve out time from my press tour schedule to watch it on the Slingbox (so feel free to comment on and spoil it in this thread; really, I'm good)....

The Conchords meet John Hodgman. The Conchords meet John Hodgman. The mother-flippin' Rhymenoceros and the Hiphopopotamus meet mother-flippin' John Hodgman! Awesome! What a perfect melding of styles: the Conchords' deadpan simplicity with Hodgman's deadpan condescension. (You see, it's a chip, with a speaker attachment.) I was so stoked at the end of that episode, that I fired up a couple of minutes of the audiobook version of "The Areas of My Expertise." (One of the greatest audiobooks ever made; I can't imagine how the print version can compete with it.)

As always with the show, it's the throwaway details I love the most: Murray not thinking that the meeting had begun since Hodgman hadn't called roll, the implication that Mel had destroyed her husband's career by stalking and marrying him, Bret's second Bowie dream taking place on the couch because he was afraid of Jemaine after the wig/spooning lyric, the realization that Bret knew he was going to flash someone and had therefore bothered to draw lightning bolts on his package, etc.

(One side note about the episode's theme of appearances: I interviewed the guys on my first day at press tour, and while Bret looks exactly the same as he does on TV, Jemaine's kind of shockingly good-looking in person. It may just be that he was smiling and joking instead of holding himself in that pinched, constipated pose he always has as TV Jemaine, but for the first time I understood why the ladies dig him.)

The Bowie dreams were silly and fun and a blatant excuse to set up the video at the end. Unfortunately, I felt like the song was too reverential of Bowie to be that funny; it was clever and all, but it's not going to be rattling around my noggin the way "Other rappers diss me, say my rhymes are sissy..." and "Brown paper, white paper..." have been.

What did everybody else think? And, really, how was "Entourage"?
Click here to read the full post

John From Cincy: Attack of the '90s teen idols

Spoilers for episode seven of "John From Cincinnati" coming up just as soon as I order some fries at the Peach Pit...

So after last week's episode left me equal parts baffled and enthralled, this week brings an episode that was more coherent but less engrossing. I'm not saying Milch has lost all the goodwill he built with John's sermon, but I feel like I've stopped seeing the magic again because all I can notice is the magician trying too many tricks at once.

We're seven episodes down, three to go, and I have no idea what, if anything, this is all building towards. Instead of getting back in the game, as John admonished in the very first scene of the series, Mitch Yost has gone AWOL from the last two episodes (and the previews didn't make next week look like a Mitch-fest). Linc spent the first five episodes cooking up some kind of unexplained scam involving Cass (then Tina) and the Yost family, has a change of heart thanks to John and then spends an entire episode ranting about business models and playing a game of digital recorder double-cross with Mark-Paul Gosselaar. (That casting, by the way, I suspect is less of a meta-commentary on '90s teen shows than it is that Gosselaar starred in the final years of "NYPD Blue" and got on well with "John" producer Mark Tinker and was no doubt available quickly when Milch dreamed up the character at the last minute.) Palaka gets yet another pointless mystery ailment, which is largely an excuse to keep Dr. Smith on-stage, which in turn is an excuse for Cissy to worry about the hospital throwing him under the bus -- which is only a problem if the Yosts decide to sue someone, no? I don't get it.

Are there brilliant isolated moments? Absolutely: the look in Bill's eyes when he looks up his spiral stairway to Heaven, Shaun rubbing the back of his dad's head, Dickstein making a stick figure in the wet cement (a callback to "the line and the circle" from the sermon), virtually any scene involving Kai (for someone who got dumped on so much in the early episodes, Keala Kennelly has really proven herself as a worthy addition to the Milch repertory company), and the first real surfing action since the second episode (since the pilot, really, since Shaun's competition was an afterthought).

But the episode was so lacking in an overall through-line that I can't even get too mad at the HBO promo people for inserting John's "Shaun will soon be gone" -- the episode's climax, and major foreshadowing for what's to come -- into the ads for this episode. What the hell else were they going to put there? Linc yelling at Wonderboy? (Who?) Cunningham reveling in his new calling as a candy-striper?

Last week made me feel like I was floating a little, just like Mitch; this week made me feel like I was disappointingly back on terra firma, just like John in his wetsuit when he looked down at his bare feet atop the raised ground.

What did everybody else think?
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What's Alan Reading?: The Harry Potter spoiler thread

So I skipped the press tour evening event and finished reading "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." While this site isn't usually a place for book commentary, it's hard to find someone who isn't invested in this book, even here at a TV press tour.

At the TCA Awards last night, Greg Daniels devoted half of his acceptance speech for "The Office" winning best comedy to boasting that he was already at page 450, then suggesting how he would cast the in-attendance second bananas as Potter characters: Brian Baumgartner/Kevin as Hagrid, Mindy Kaling/Kelly as either Parvati or Luna (he couldn't decide), Angela Kinsey/Angela as Dolores Umbridge, Kate Flannery/Meredith as Aunt Petunia, Oscar Nunez/Oscar as Viktor Krum, Leslie David Baker/Stanley as Uncle Vernon, and Creed Bratton/Creed as Lucius Malfoy. (Halfway through, Greg asked, "Is this too nerdy for everybody?") At today's "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader"-themed Fox lunch, Jeff Foxworthy stopped at my table because he saw my copy of the book and wanted to know how far I had gotten; his son had finished it late the night before.

Since I publish the full versions of my posts to various site feeds, I'm going to take any and all "Deathly Hallows" spoilers straight to the comments. If you've finished the book, read on... Click here to read the full post

Sunday, July 22, 2007

David Chase speaks again! (But not really)

From the tour blog: David Chase uses me to set up a punchline at the TCA Awards. Click here to read the full post

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Lovefest Gone Awry

From the tour blog: things get oddly hostile between the critics and the producers of "Aliens In America" and "Gossip Girl." Click here to read the full post

Friday, July 20, 2007

Doctor Who: Hey! You! Get into my car!

Spoilers for the latest episode of "Doctor Who" coming up just as soon as I put out the cat food dish...

Like I said last week, I'm a bigger fan of the Doctor's trips into the future -- and/or to other worlds -- than I am of the past, so "Gridlock" had plenty to make me happy: hovercraft traffic jams, interspecies dating/breeding(*), a dead government on autopilot, and of course the final(?) appearance of The Face of Boe.

((*) Though I'm not clear: are the kittens Mr. & Mrs. Brannigan's babies or their pets? Do the cat-people begin life as kittens? Does that only happen with human/cat-people hybrids? Or are they just plain cats? Valerie calls them "children" a few times.)

Russell T. Davies' script does a wonderful job of painting the motorway as a kind of dystopian hell: a never-ending traffic jam the authorities and the upperclass have completely forgotten. Instead, it's revealed to be the salvation of the blue-collar citizens of New Earth, spared the drug-induced genocide of the rich people up above, then kept alive in a kind of benign neglect through the life force of our man Boe. You think it's the worst thing that could have happened to them, you assume the TV presenter's "We're so sorry" sign-off is an apology for keeping these poor people trapped down there, only to realize just how lucky the motorists and citizens of the undercities really are. (Given that the world above was killed "in seven minutes flat," I assume the Face of Boe produced that recording somehow.)

It really amazes me how often the show's able to play that same kind of "Everybody lives!" note from "The Doctor Dances" in season one and still affect me. When the Doctor gets the roof open and Valerie gathers the kittens and tells them, "Children; that's the sunlight," I definitely got a lump in the ol' throat, even though the show's gone to this particular well a half dozen times or more over two-plus seasons. I think it just goes to show how great Davies is at establishing a world and an epic scale so quickly; when the Doctor's around, miracles don't feel routine, even though he so often performs them.

"Gridlock" is also interesting as the first episode where the Doctor acknowledges the way he's been treating Martha as a place-holder and nothing more, as well as the first time Martha realizes how dangerous life with the Doctor can be.

It's also the first moment of David Tennant's tenure when he gets really upset over the destruction of the Time Lords and Gallifrey; until now, Ten has been largely defined as the guy who let go of all the baggage Nine was carrying, but as he talks about Gallifrey, you realize that while the face has changed, the heart's the same, and that hurt still aches over all that it's lost.

(Or is it all lost? Before it dies, the Face suggests the Doctor isn't alone; I don't know what's coming, but I wouldn't be surprised if there's another Time Lord floating around out there. After all, how do you wipe out a race of time-travelers? Wouldn't at least one or two of them still be hanging out at Versailles or the Jersey shore or the end of time at the moment when Nine ended the Time War?)

Finally, I would be remiss in discussing the episode if I didn't point your way towards Ross Ruediger's review over at The House Next Door -- specifically, his paragraph where he discusses the origins of the Macra (the giant lobster thingees that menaced Martha) in an old black-and-white Patrick Troughton episode. Here's a sample:
When the Macra showed up in “Gridlock”, every single old school Who fan popped a boner (yes, even the ladies). Why we did this, I do not know. We did not ask for Macra, we did not care much about Macra, but we were puzzlingly, orgasmically elated to finally see some fuckin’ Macra.
Seriously, go read it. I'll wait.

What did everybody else think?
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CBS round-up

From the tour blog: various tidbits from CBS day two, including a potential replacement for Mandy Patinkin, "Jericho" season two news and CBS' attempt to solve the football overrun problem. Click here to read the full post

Mad Men: Smoke gets in your eyes

Spoilers for the debut of "Mad Men" coming up just as soon as I smoke up a pack of Old Golds...

Well, that was fun, wasn't it? I mean, there's some problem with subtlety from time to time (gay Salvatore butching it up at the burlesque club, the Nixon/Kennedy and Xerox jokes), and I know I wasn't the only critic who was confused at first when AMC asked us not to spoil the ending with January Jones (since we didn't think it was surprising enough to qualify as a twist), but beyond that... pure coolness.

I spent a while with Matthew Weiner at AMC's press tour party (a swinging affair at the Friar's Club, with Jeff Goldblum and his jazz band playing songs from 1960), and when I mentioned that I hadn't seen a particular episode, he smiled and said, "You're gonna love it. It's about time travel." I cocked my head, raised my eyebrows and tried to figure out whether he'd had a few too many Old Fashioneds, or if he was taking the show into David Lynch territory.

But when I finished the episode in question, I understood what he meant. Where some shows set in the past can't help but feel like it's a bunch of actors playing dress-up, "Mad Men" made me feel like I was getting a glimpse of what New York of that era really looked, sounded and smelled like.

It helps that, with the exceptions of Elisabeth Moss and John Slattery, I don't have much of a history watching these actors, so I didn't spend a lot of time admiring how the hair and makeup people had transformed them. (From what little I remember of Connor-era "Angel," Vincent Kartheiser is unrecognizable as Pete the account rep weasel.) But there's a real commitment to period detail: the clothes, the hairstyles and, especially, the cigarettes and attitudes.

The two come together in the opening scene, where we meet our hero Don Draper (Jon Hamm, looking like he's on his way to audition for "Superman") working on an ad campaign for Lucky Strikes, now that the government has ruled that tobacco companies can't promote their products as healthy. He asks a black waiter named Sam why Sam smokes Old Golds; Sam's not used to rich white customers trying to engage him in conversation, and Sam's boss automatically assumes Sam is harassing Don. (Because even in 1960 Manhattan, why would a man like Don want to talk to a man like Sam?) Don waves the boss away without exactly getting indignant on the black waiter's behalf, and the two men talk tobacco. Sam explains that he smokes Old Gold because that's what they gave him in the Army (an early crossover between government and corporate marketing interests), and as they banter back and forth, he mentions that his wife wants him to give up smoking because of an article she read in Reader's Digest, Sam and Don both laughing at how ladies just love their magazines. Don scans the crowd and sees men and women of all ages (but one color) smoking and laughing, and he wonders why he can't feel as happy as they all look.

Give me a great opening scene(*) and I'll stick with a show through a lot of faults. "Deadwood," for instance, had that amazing sequence where Bullock holds off a lynch mob so he can hang a horse thief under the banner of law, and because of that, I didn't get too worked up that I was having trouble keeping track of all the characters for the next few episodes. The "Mad Men" intro is so perfect in the way it takes you into its world and lays out all the series' key themes -- marketing, casual racism and sexism, the ennui that can come even when you have it all -- that I'll forgive the copier joke, or the fact that I figured out Don was married as soon as Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt, who was the best thing about "Standoff") suggests she'd make a good ex-wife.

(*) A kick-ass title sequence helps, and "Mad Men" has one, that sequence of Don's silhouette falling through various idealized illustrations of late '50s life before winding up seated in an art deco chair, his back turned to us, a cigarette dangling from his hand. Weiner says the idea came from director Alan Taylor, who took a look at Hamm and said, "Have you seen the back of this man's head? Have you seen what that is, what presence that is? Who is this person, this mystery?" (Note that the first time we see the flesh and blood Don, it's from that same vantage point.)

There's a lot to digest here, a lot of characters to meet, a lot of casually offensive dialogue to adjust to (I'm fond of Don telling Rachel Menken, "I'm not going to let a woman talk to me like this," but almost every line uttered by Pete and his cronies does the same trick), and Weiner uses the patented pilot device of My First Day At The New Job to smooth the transition, turning Moss's Peggy into our eyes and ears -- at least until she winds up inviting the engaged Pete into her apartment, the aftermath of which I'm grateful we didn't have to see nor hear.

I could go on for a while here, but I've got a press tour to cover, and I already wrote a thousand or so words about the show in yesterday's column, so I'll hit a few minor points and then turn it over to you.

  • Though a few characters come across as very broad here, I've now seen the first four episodes, and if the Pete spotlight in episode four is any indication, Weiner's going to get around to plumbing everyone's hidden depths by the end of the season.
  • "It's Toasted" was an actual Lucky Strikes slogan, but one that dates back to 1917. Over the run of the series, Weiner's going to be playing a little loose with this area, using actual brands but either inventing new campaigns or giving Don credit for other men's work.
  • Nice to see John Cullum as the Lucky Strikes boss, the first of some very cool guest-casting that the series will use. (Also, did you catch Mel from "Flight of the Conchords" as one of the switchboard operators? She's the one in the middle.)
  • I really loved Peggy's visit to the judgemental, chain-smoking gynecologist. Just thought that warranted mention.
What did everybody else think?
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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Why I hate the Emmys, part 841

Just finished my Emmy column, and my bosses said it was cool to post it at the tour blog. It largely duplicates stuff that's being discussed in the lower thread, but feel free to comment in either thread. Click here to read the full post

Not that the Emmys really matter, but...

... after the jump are my very preliminary reactions to the nominations, having just rolled out of bed and skimmed and scanned the list:
  • While "Heroes," "Ugly Betty" and "30 Rock" all did well and got major nominations, "Friday Night Lights" only gets nods for casting and directing. "Teen dramas" often have a hard time with the Emmy voters, but given the Academy's history as a supporter of brilliant but struggling series ("Hill Street Blues"), it seems a shame that the only rookies that got nominated in the big categories were either really popular or about the entertainment industry. (Not to take anything away from those three; "FNL" just needed it more.)
  • "Boston Legal"? "Boston Legal"? Look, I've got nothing against Spader and Shatner, but for that show to be named one of the five best dramas on television when "Deadwood" can't get more than some technical nominations (apparently, the makeup artists and hairstylists have longer memories than the actors, writers and directors), when "Battlestar Galactica" still gets largely treated like a skiffy show and ignored (though I was pleasantly surprised by the writing and directing nods), when "The Wire" -- one of the best, if not the best, dramas to ever air on television -- can't get any nominations... ridonculous.
  • Masi Oka gets a nod, which is cool, and there's nobody in the drama supporting actor category I'd automatically be inclined to kick out, but it's a shame that neither Dominic Chianese nor Vince Curatola got nominated.
  • Neil Patrick Harris was another pleasant surprise, but other than that and a few technical nods, that was it for "HIMYM." Grrr...
  • No Lauren Graham, for the last time.
  • Alec Baldwin is a lead actor on "30 Rock"? Sure, why not.
  • Jenna Fischer gets in! I have no doubt she submitted the season finale, and anyone who watches that final talking head interview and doesn't vote for her is a moron.
  • I am totally okay with the writing nominations: the "Galactica" opening two-parter, the "Lost" finale and three "Sopranos": "Kennedy & Heidi," "The Second Coming," and "Made in America."
Talk amongst yourselves. I have to wake myself up and write a column about all this.
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Freaks and Geeks Rewind: We've Got Spirit

Spoilers for the "Freaks and Geeks" episode "We've Got Spirit" coming up just as soon as I do the Funky Chicken...

"Mom, did you break up with my boyfriend?"

Of all the break-up scenarios I've ever heard, whether real life or on TV, I'm not sure I've ever encountered a more cringeworthy one than what happens with Nick and Lindsay -- which makes their split, and this entire episode, quintessential "Freaks and Geeks."

Among the many things I'm rediscovering as I watch the episodes again is that Nick and Lindsay weren't a couple for nearly as long as I remembered. Though Nick is flirty with her in the pilot and tries to unhook her bra in "Beers and Weirs," the arc of their relationship essentially runs four episodes, from "I'm With the Band" to here, and they're technically only a couple in "Girlfriends and Boyfriends" and here. Yet the elasticity of time makes it feel like something that went on so much longer. Time flies when you're having fun and all, and this was one giant fun vacuum, at least for Lindsay.

The episode opens with them once again down in Nick's basement, Lindsay once again miserable, Nick once again totally baked. In a rare candid moment about drug use on the series, the script is allowed to acknowledge, here and elsewhere, that Nick has been blazing up. I imagine Apatow was able to get permission because the pot-smoking is depicted so negatively, the reason Nick's life is going nowhere, the main reason Lindsay can't stand being with him. If he had any real ambition, a desire to do anything but get stoned, listen to records and bang on his drum kit, she might be happier with him; instead, he's this lazy, creepy thing, a guy who shows up outside her bedroom window in the middle of the night, wearing a hoodie and looking like a serial killer (Jason Segel, again fearless about looking like an idiot), because he just couldn't stop thinking about her.

Lindsay wants to dump him, but she's got a bad vibe about his break-up from Heidi Henderson, a vibe that's amplified when Heidi talks a major amount of trash about Nick, followed by Nick showing up in full-on creep mode to trash Heidi in return. Daniel, who is wise enough about relationships to see where this is going, begs Lindsay not to dump Nick, knowing what his friend is like post-dumping. (Ken on the prospect of Lindsay ditching Nick: "Hate to be that guy's drum set tonight.")

And here Lindsay makes a mistake that certainly shouldn't be a mistake, but is: she tells her mother what's going on. (Some of it, anyway, leaving out the dope smoking and focusing more on the clinginess and fast pace.) Jean insists it's not right for Lindsay to lead Nick on if she's unhappy, and that she should call immediately to break things off. Lindsay works up the courage for a second and calls Nick, but she can't bring herself to say anything. (He assumes it's Ken prank-calling him and goes on a long rant that, in one of the episode's funniest jokes, continues long after Lindsay's hung up the phone, so stoned is he.)

Jean, who worries throughout the series about not being involved enough in her daughter's life, is completely verklempt at this development, boasting to Harold, "I feel like... a mother, you know?"

Lindsay decides to try in person, visiting Nick in his basement. Though he's once again stoned (there may not be a single scene in the episode where he isn't), he calmly and clearly explains his side of the Heidi Henderson break-up, in a way that totally makes him sound like the wronged party. Lindsay, feeling guilty about having misjudged Nick as a stalker (even though he really kinda is), decides to give things one more shot...

... until Jean, unaware of Lindsay's about-face, asks Nick how he's coping with the break-up. Lindsay, horrified, tells her crestfallen mother to stay out of her life, and chases after Nick, who tries to recover his dignity by pretending to dump her, instead. He is, of course, devastated, and retreats to his car to listen to The Who's "The Song Is Over" at top volume, while Lindsay weeps in her mother's arms.

What a perfect ending to a thoroughly dysfunctional "romance." Nick was way too into Lindsay, she was with him almost entirely out of pity, and she couldn't even end things properly. I do wonder, though, whether the writers might have gone back to this well in season two, as "Discos and Dragons" makes very tentative steps towards rekindling the interest on both sides, but we can talk about that when we get to the finale.

The rest of the episode diverges slightly from the show's usual A and B-story format, with three different plots spilling out of the McKinley basketball team's impending big game: Sam makes one last attempt to woo Cindy Sanders by becoming the team mascot, Neal attempts to steal the mascot job to further his own comic goals (the two stories are linked, but not entirely), and the other freaks accidentally discover vast reservoirs of school spirit.

When Herbert, a freshman who plays the team's Viking mascot, breaks his arm during a pep rally in the cafeteria, the cheerleaders -- led by Type-A whip cracker Vicki Appleby -- hold open auditions for a new Viking. Sam wants to do it to impress Cindy. Neal wants to do it because he thinks Herbert's been wasting the comic potential of being a little guy with a giant Viking head. (Herbert, who spends most of the episode on the verge of collapse because his mother won't let him sleep for fear he has a concussion, later tries to explain to Neal that he wanted to be funny, but Vicki wouldn't let him; advice that Neal will later ignore, for good or for ill.) Neal's comedy obsession seems to be setting the two friends up for an ugly showdown, until Sam plays his trump card and tells Neal, "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope." (Invoking the first film of the Trinity is like the nuclear option of nerd arguments.)

Sam beats out a very unimpressive field (including Colin, who started out the series as Harris' sidekick but has transformed by this point into the show's token theater geek, and who's always turning in the wrong direction on the audition dance moves) to win the job and a hug from Cindy, but she's still hung up on Todd. "It's not a crush; it's an obsession," she tells an irritated Sam, who can't help but notice how Todd keeps ignoring the woman Sam worships. Sam, still not getting that he has no real shot with Cindy even after the events of "Girlfriends and Boyfriends," lets himself be put through mascot boot camp by drill sergeant Vicki (and John Daley demonstrates some physical comedy chops with his endless Funky Chicken'ing).

Reality finally slaps him in the face right after he puts on the giant Viking head and, through its tiny eyeholes, spots Cindy and Todd kissing right before the big game with Lincoln. Cindy runs over to brag about what happened, and Sam lays into her, saying Todd's not even nice to her. Cindy coldly tries to play it off as Sam's nerves about his first mascot gig, at which point Sam decides he doesn't want to be a Viking anymore.

This opens things up perfectly for Neal, who steps into the suit and giant head and gets big laughs from the crowd by doing John Travolta's "Saturday Night Fever" dance, pretending to pick his nose, even playing air guitar with his prop sword. Vicki, assuming it's still Sam in the suit, gives him hell and forces him to come over for a Human Pyramid -- which he completely botches by grabbing someone's bra strap. The pile collapses, the head comes off and Neal's identity is revealed. (Cindy: "Nate Schweeber, you're a jerk!") Though McKinley wins the game thanks to some last-second free throws from Todd -- who, it turns out, is a good guy, which even Sam realizes when they bond over Todd puking before the game begins -- the cheerleaders are too busy getting their revenge on Neal ("Oh, god, I'm a bleeder!") to celebrate. (Herbert, while no one's looking, falls asleep on the bleachers. Since we never see him again on the show, for all I know he actually had a concussion and died.)

In the third side of our B-story pyramid, Daniel, Ken and Kim spend a lot of time complaining about the volume of school spirit built around the Lincoln game... until some Lincoln basketball players attack them in a soda-throwing drive-by. Later on, Daniel spots the offending car and is in the middle of spray-painting "U-SUCK" on the side when the owner -- and his very large Lincoln teammates -- come out. Daniel wants to run, but the car owner calls Kim a bitch, and Kim demands that Daniel defend her honor, even badly outnumbered. (Daniel: "Tell my mother I love her.")

Cut to game time, when the freaks show up bruised, battered and suddenly brimming with a desire to see Todd and the McKinley team kick the snot out of those punks from Lincoln. They turn into the most fervent cheering section you've ever seen (James Franco really gets into it, particularly in a "Lincoln, Lincoln, I been thinking..." chant), and even get complimented on their passion by a fellow student. (This would be funnier if Apatow hadn't been forced to cut an earlier scene where that same student berates Daniel and company for not having any school pride.)

If "We've Got Spirit" isn't the funniest or the deepest episode of the run, it still deserves credit for moving well, for putting so many balls up in the air and bringing them down simultaneously around the big game, and for the creatively awful way they brought the Lindsay and Nick storyline to a close.

Some other thoughts on "We've Got Spirit":
  • A couple of Before They Were Stars guest casting treats in this episode, both of which I'd forgotten. One's a bigger deal than the other in retrospect: America's #1 Box Office Star, Shia La Beouf (see above for a photo of Baby La Beouf), doing some very funny work as Herbert (he plays the speech to Sam about all the ways you can fall while attempting the Human Pyramid like he's a soldier who's been in country for 150 days lecturing an FNG about how to avoid stepping on a Cong landmine). The other is Matt "Logan from Gilmore Girls" Czuchry as the Lincoln player who calls Kim a bitch. Meanwhile, Joanna Garcia (aka Vicki) would go on to have one of the more successful post-"Freaks" careers of the recurring cast, spending six seasons on "Reba," but the writing was never remotely as good as it was for her as Vicki, who manages to be funny in her ball-busting without going over the top.
  • Danny Leiner's better known these days as the mind behind fun stoner flicks like "Dude, Where's My Car?" and "Harold & Kumar," but if I were ever to write that Ultimate Underdog Sports Movie script I've had rattling in my head since I saw "Hoosiers," he might be the man I'd want to direct it. Working on a TV schedule and a minimal budget, he makes the Lincoln-McKinley game look really exciting. I think it may be the constant cuts to Coach Fredricks looming on the sideline, or Franco's cheering, but the game sequence is really a lot better than it needs to be.
  • Not a very Bill-heavy episode, but he has a great scene where he complains about all of Neal's various suggestions about what he'd do if he were the Viking -- including a number of silly dances -- then walks away, sighing, "I can't be seen with you." It's interesting how often the writers set up Bill -- on paper, the strangest, most socially-awkward of the trio -- as the arbiter of what is and isn't cool, geek-wise.
  • A few days after this episode aired, Matt Seitz came into the office raving about all the POV shots of Sam and then Neal through the mascot head's eyes, convinced that it was the director's way of doing a split-screen without anyone realizing it, but when I rewatched the episode, I didn't notice any POVs where one Viking eyehole was showing a drastically different scene than the other. But Matt's the guy who directed a movie, so maybe he's seeing more than I am.
  • This was the ninth episode of 18, so we're at the halfway point of this summer experiment. If I can carve out the time, I'll do a write-up of "The Diary" sometime next week, but beyond that, I may have to put the freakage and geekage on hold until after I come home from press tour and recuperate for a few days. I'm only human, and I've got a column and two different blogs to fill with news and current TV before I can find time to write up a seven-year-old show.
Up next (at some point hopefully soon): "The Diary," a special spotlight on Harold and Jean Weir, plus another sports-themed episode.

What did everybody else think?
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