Friday, August 31, 2007

Mad Men: Stair master

Spoilers for the latest "Mad Men" coming up just as soon as I fill up my chip 'n dip...

"You know who else doesn't wear a hat? Elvis. That's what we're dealing with." -Pete Campbell
"Remind me to stop hiring young people!" -Bertram Cooper

Black is white, up is down, and Pete is absolutely right in a conversation where Mr. Cooper couldn't be more wrong. Though Pete's his usual overcompensating putz of a self the rest of the episode (we'll get back to his target practice foreplay in a bit), he's the only man in the Nixon brainstorming session who actually recognizes the threat John F. Kennedy poses -- not just to Nixon's presidential ambitions, but to the status quo that the men of Sterling-Cooper are dedicated to maintaining. Cooper and Roger see Kennedy's hatless-ness as a deficit; Pete recognizes the newness of it, and the fact that the country seems ready to embrace something new.

"Mad Men" takes place at the dawn of JFK's New Frontier, the tipping point when the culture (both high and pop) began being driven by young people. As Andrew Johnston wrote while discussing the Paul subplot in episode two, "the Mad Men era is one of the last times in American social history when younger men strived to appear older rather than vice versa." Of course Sterling and Cooper see Nixon as their dream candidate; they're on the losing side of history and don't even realize it. (Don's not immune to this, either, as evidenced by the deodorant campaign from a few episodes back where he dismissed all of Paul's space-age ideas as something that would scare housewives.)

While the Pete/Cooper exchange is just a small part of episode seven, "Red in the Face," the tension between the generations is a key part of the friction between Don and Roger. Roger, put out when his wife, daughter and mistress all go away on the same weekend, comes home for dinner at the Draper house and when Don's not looking, he makes a pass at Betty as he feels is his right as the senior man. (Note how dismissive he is when he says, "Oh, his war" when Betty mentions Don's service in Korea.) At first, Don -- his head still stuck on a conversation where Betty's shrink claimed she had the emotional make-up of a little girl -- puts the blame on Betty, but when Roger is a bit too effusive in his apology the next day, Don figures out what really happened and begins plotting his revenge, which is built entirely on him being younger and in better shape than Roger. (Note that he never really apologizes to Betty, though.) He bribes the building elevator operator to fake an out of service situation, then takes Roger out for a lunch overflowing with martinis, oysters and cheesecake -- the sort of thing he can just barely handle, but which he knows will cause Roger all sorts of discomfort when they have to climb 23 flights of stairs. Roger ends up projectile vomiting in front of the Nixon people, and I have to wonder how much of Don's glee at the end is about humiliating Roger and how much is about the prospect of not having to work for Nixon.

While Don is busy getting revenge, Pete and Betty are each suffering mini-meltdowns. Pete has to exchange a duplicate wedding gift and it's such an emasculating ordeal that he decides to use the store credit to buy a .22 caliber rifle to overcompensate for his feelings of penile inadequacy. This only leads to more hen-pecking from his wife, and so Pete takes the gun to the office again and creeps out Peggy by revealing a long, detailed fantasy about being an old-school hunter-gatherer in the woods. (What are we to make, though, of Peggy's trip to the lunch cart immediately after? I have a harder time reading Elisabeth Moss than anyone else in the cast.)

Betty, meanwhile, runs into Helen the divorcee at the market, and the snipped lock of hair from episode four comes back to bite her. "He is nine years old," Helen complains. "What is wrong with you?" -- which prompts Betty to slap her across the face (not as hard as the dad slapped the kid at the birthday party, but still) and storm out of the store without any of her groceries.

So here's my question for the peanut gallery: how accurate, if at all, is the shrink's assessment of Betty? We're supposed to view him as an aloof, sexist figure since he reveals everything about the sessions to Don, but at the same time, something is definitely wrong in Betty's head. Giving Helen's son the lock of hair was a poor choice, and slapping Helen was an incredibly childish response.

Another strong episode. What did everybody else think?
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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Dog day treats

Two links courtesy of Matt at Throwing Things related to upcoming stuff on two of our favorite sitcoms: What the folks from "The Office" did on their summer vacations, and a Slap Countdown clock that's going to figure into early episodes of "HMYM." Some spoilers in the former, but clearly none the production team doesn't want us to know about. Click here to read the full post

5 for the Day: Underdog Sports Movies

Over at The House Next Door, I wrote a post about five of my favorite movies from my favorite genre of all time. Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Dog days open thread

I've got nothing today, people. No column, no show I watched last night to blog on (I went with the real Yankees over the "Bronx is Burning" finale, which I'll get to later in the week), no remaining "Freaks and Geeks" episodes. So it's open thread time, where you can ask any questions, post on shows I've skipped lately, whatever. Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Must-read blogging

Over at The House Next Door, Matt has written a very moving piece on the reported suicide attempt by Owen Wilson (who Matt knew back in their Dallas days). Click here to read the full post

Friday Night Lights: Is she really going out with him?

Today's column looks at today's "Friday Night Lights" DVD release through the prism of the Tyra/Landry story arc that began late in the season:

A great TV drama, like a great football team, is often defined by its depth. You need stars to succeed, but you also need players further down the roster who can perform when their number gets called.

I wrote reams and reams of praise about the first season of NBC's "Friday Night Lights": how it's the best show on network TV right now, how it's a drama about high school football that's of equal appeal to sports fans and sports haters alike, how it's so obviously great that NBC actually set up a Web site ( offering a full refund to any unlikely soul who buys today's season one DVD release and doesn't like it.

Most of my talk about the cast, though, focused on the fantastic lead performances by Kyle Chandler as Coach Eric Taylor and Connie "The Emmys Are Irrelevant" Britton as his wife, Tami. One of the best pleasures of today's "FNL" DVD release is the development of a great top-to-bottom cast. In particular, two actors who began the season chained to the end of the bench -- Adrianne Palicki as outcast sexpot Tyra and Jesse Plemons as outcast motormouth Landry -- were playing like MVPs by the time the finale rolled around, both separately and in a beauty-and-the-geek romantic arc.

To read the full thing (including interview stuff from Palicki, Plemons and Jason Katims), click here. Click here to read the full post

Monday, August 27, 2007

Sports in the other city

Today's column (posted belatedly due to technical issues) previews tonight's episode of "My Boys," which tries very clumsily to distance the show once and for all from "Sex and the City," as well as the one-and-done fate of Fox's "Anchorwoman."

UPDATE: Some specific comments on the half-hilarious, half-annoying episode in the comments. Click here to read the full post

Busting loose

Spoilers for, in order, the "Kill Point" finale, "Flight of the Conchords" and, extremely briefly, "Entourage," coming up just as soon as I swap clothes with somebody who's not really my size...

Not a bad ending to "The Kill Point," I thought. There were some characters and set-ups that never really went anywhere -- Omar the sniper felt particularly wasted, as did the couple locked in the closet -- but there were so much else going on that I felt I got a reasonable amount of pay-offs. Mr. Wolf finally had to step in and deal with one of the psycho brothers (though when did Rabbit start acting crazier than Pig?), the writers faked me out on Cali's reasons for helping the escape (at first I assumed he had realized the only way to save the hostages was to get Wolf away from the other cops), and Leguizamo and Wahlberg got one more strong scene together at the end. I'm not saying it was perfect, but on the miniseries' own modest level, it got the job done.

(Also, for those wondering about the dedication card to the late "Shield" director/producer Scott Brazil, Brazil was supposed to direct most of "Kill Point," but died before production began.)

As I recall, last night's "Flight of the Conchords" was supposed to air sometime earlier in the summer, but it got pushed back to be the season's penultimate episode. As the show doesn't really do ongoing plotlines (when I interviewed them, the guys implied that after the Coco/Sally stuff was over, they were glad to be rid of any arc responsibilities), it's not a big deal, but it does have me thinking about why. As we've discussed before, the plot's kind of besides the point on this show, yet this episode felt a little overwhelmed by its story, which is one of those stock sitcom plots -- The Lie That Goes Too Far -- they've been doing since a few days after Philo T. Farnsworth invented the TV.

As such, this felt the least "Conchord"-y of any episode so far, even though I found it funnier than, say, either of the Sally episodes. I liked both songs, though the ode to Murray was the smarter of the two (the "Lord of the Rings" tune was largely carried by the video elements), and there were the usual brilliant little moments, like Dave's story about the five women who wanted to marry him, Murray not understanding why Mel was speaking Elvish, Murray insisting on calling roll at the impromptu band meeting, or Will Forte turning away from the guys without actually walking away. (His character, by the way, reminded me a bit of an old Alec Baldwin "SNL" sketch called "The Mimic," about a man who can only do three or four voices, all of them terrible.) It was unexpected but not off-key to have Jemaine be the more sensible member of the band for once, and Murray's explosion at learning he had been fooled was great, as was the revelation that he was bottomless for the entire final scene.

Finally (sigh), "Entourage." Well, at least the writers had Vince acknowledge that everything always works out fine for him, but it wasn't funny the way it was when Jerry Seinfeld did it in "The Opposite." Unless the Cannes episode features some amazing uptick in quality -- a practical impossibility, I think, since comedy road trip episodes invariably stink -- I can't imagine wanting to watch this show again next season, even if it's again the lead-in to "Conchords." Life's too short.

What did everybody else think?
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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Freaks and Geeks Rewind: Discos and Dragons

And so we've come to the end of our summer experiment. Very, very, very long spoilers for "Discos and Dragons," the final episode of "Freaks and Geeks," coming up just as soon as I learn to thread the projector...

"Discos and Dragons" was the In Case of Emergency finale. Convinced (rightly) that cancellation was imminent, Judd Apatow told Paul Feig to take as many ideas as he had for the future and stuff them into a single episode while he still had the chance. In fact, they even shot it a few weeks ahead of schedule, just so they would have a proper finale in the can should NBC shut down production early. But the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink aspect to its creation doesn't make the episode feel cluttered. If anything, the three major storylines seem together as if by design. What more perfect ending could there be for this series -- an 18-hour meditation on teenagers struggling to carve new identities for themselves -- than a triptych of stories in which three characters adopt completely unexpected new personas?

It's such a great finale -- one of the best ever, for any show -- that I'm going to ramble on a little more than usual. You may want to print this out and save it for bathroom reading, I don't know.

Let's start with the Dragons portion of the show, in which Daniel hits rock bottom and discovers the geeks are already there, just waiting to invite him to their D&D game.

This subplot actually begins as more of a pure geek story (even though the three central figures of the finale are all freaks). Bill, Sam and Neal are marching down the hallway, speculating on what people are going to write in their yearbooks -- Sam, optimistic, predicts some girl will confess a crush on him, while Neal knows that once again he'll get a lot of "You're a wild and crazy guy"s -- when a bunch of jocks run by, yell their intentions to clean out the geeks, and knock their books to the ground. While this is far from the worst humiliation any of them has suffered this year, it feels like the last straw to Sam, who complains that he doesn't want to be called a geek anymore, and wonders what's so geeky about them. Cue the perfectly-timed Harris, who wanders up with his new Dungeons & Dragons handbook, an easy answer to Sam's question.

Fortunately, sanctuary is only a few doors away, as the geeks arrive at the A/V room, where grown up, unapologetic geek Mr. Fleck always knows just the right thing to say to cheer them up. While puffing on a cigarette (a "cool" behavior he warns them not to imitate), he presents a graph of the lives of the jocks, starting with their early athletic triumphs. "Right there, where they cleaned you out? That's the pinnacle of their lives," he insists, then rattles off all the bad things that will happen to them in the future. The geeks, meanwhile, have nowhere to go but up: Ivy League schools, older girls realizing that they like smart guys, Fortune 500 jobs, and the inevitable moment where the jocks asks them if they want fries with that. (It's a lovely sentiment, but as the show pointed out repeatedly, our three main geeks weren't necessarily that smart -- or, at least, that academically inclined -- and I unfortunately could envision a future where Bill is serving fries to Todd Schellinger.) Sam, because he's 14 and has no interest in the "things get better when you're older" authority figure song and dance, complains that he wants things to improve right away. Mr. Fleck says the best they can do for now is to enjoy the simple pleasures in life... like the 18mm print of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" he just borrowed from his counterpart over at Lincoln. Neal raves that "A/V is paradise on Earth," but Sam doesn't seem convinced.

Speaking of not being academically inclined, Daniel is planning to cheat on Kowchevski's final exam off a guy named Dave, but on discovering that Dave broke his arm in gym class earlier that day, he goes into panic mode and slips out to pull the fire alarm. One problem: Mr. Rosso happens to be rounding the hall and tells him, "Better be a fire, bro." Rosso, as usual, tries to appear down with the young people, suggesting that Daniel thinks he's cool. "Don't think you're the Fonz or something? If a jukebox was broken, think you could hit it and it would start playing?" (Daniel, who probably hasn't watched "Happy Days" since junior high, if ever, just hangs his head in defeat.) Rosso says he's tried to be nice and is tired of Daniel taking advantage of that fact, so now he's going to humiliate Daniel by sending him to... the A/V room. One man's paradise on Earth is another man's Hell, apparently.

As all the geeks are having fun in A/V talking about their experiences screening the "girls' time of the month films," Mr. Fleck breaks the news about Daniel to them. Neal is indignant, both that someone would consider coming here punishment, and that they'll all have to suffer for Daniel's sins. Daniel, mortified and completely shut down (a state he'll remain in until the Dancing Sword scene) enters and tries to appear very, very small and quiet. Sam, who knows him through Lindsay, tries to be friendly without much luck, and the always-optimistic Gordon Crisp asks Daniel if he knows how to fix a projector. Daniel doesn't, and when Gordon offers to teach him, Daniel sinks even lower into his chair and says "Great."

In the cafeteria, Neal tries to get the other geeks to battlestations, insisting that Daniel will ruin the only place in school they like. Gordon shares the usual gossip about the freaks being high all the time and going nuts on drugs, and when Sam tries to defend Daniel as a good guy, Neal rebuts, "Sam, he gave you a porno. I wouldn't say you have a meaningful relationship with him." Over Sam's protests that they don't know him, Neal insists they have to make sure that Daniel shows movies every day so he won't be around to cause problems.

A day or two later, Lindsay, Nick and Kim are in English class with their fop of a teacher, when they're all stunned to see Daniel wheeling in the projector to screen the Zeffirelli "Romeo and Juliet." As the English teacher drones on and on about Zeffirelli casting real teenagers in the title role, Nick coughs out a "Geek!," Lindsay glances at Daniel with pity and Daniel struggles mightily to get the film going. After repeated assistance from some random kid, the projector starts working, the class gives Daniel a round of mock applause ("Saints be praised," sighs the teacher) and Daniel shrinks into a chair again, hating himself.

Daniel tries to throw himself a pity party, but Kim refuses the invitation, saying that it was his own choice to pull the fire alarm. "I suck at math!" Daniel moans. "I suck at everything!" Kim (either fed up with Daniel getting into trouble or feeling sorry for herself about the impending arrival of another crappy summer) has no pep talk to give him, and when Daniel complains that he always listens to her rant about her problems, she tells him coldly, "Why don't you go tell it to the fire alarm?"

(I feel like the episode's missing a scene, or even a line or two of dialogue, that gets more deeply into Kim's reasons for distancing herself from Daniel. It's not like he's done anything to her directly that would piss her off, but at the same time her being on the outs with him helps set up her scenes with Lindsay in the Deadhead plot, as well as Daniel's scenes with the geeks.)

In the hallway, Bill and Neal are getting excited about the upcoming D&D game. Bill wants to be a thief named Gorthon, even though Neal complains that he always falls down a well trying to steal stuff. Neal's going to stick with his Kragenmor the Destroyer character (apologies if I misspelled that one; my F&G script books are packed away right now) and asks Sam if Logan the Huge will be joining them. Sam's still suffering his bout of geek self-hatred and says he doesn't want to play. Neal accuses him of feeling too cool since he dumped Cindy (even though part of the reason Sam dumped Cindy was so he could go back to having fun as a geek). They argue over whether the game's too geeky, and Sam realizes he left a book back in A/V. He goes to retrieve it and finds Daniel slaving over the projector and a manual, desperately trying to learn how to be good at something for once.

The next day in A/V, Harris is boasting about the D&D campaign he has planned for that night (Gordon and Bill naturally go off on a tangent about the hot-looking goddesses in the handbooks) and mentions the use of the Dancing Sword. Daniel, who's been sitting small and silent as usual, stuns everyone by asking what the Da
ncing Sword is. Harris explains that it's a sword that can fight independently of its owner, and when Daniel complains about knights staying home and sending swords into battle for them, Sam tells him that the owner has to be nearby, and that the Dancing Sword is just a gimmick to allow you to fight two enemies at once. Daniel's genuinely impressed by this, and Harris -- who, don't forget, once suggested Daniel might make a good Dungeonmaster -- invites him to come play tonight, to Daniel's confusion and Neal's dismay. Harris insists Daniel would like it, and when Daniel laments that he wouldn't be good at it, Sam talks about how much fun they have telling stupid jokes and scarfing down junk food. Then Gordon -- lovable, always look on the bright side of life Gordon -- puts it in irresistible language for Daniel: "And the best part is, you get to pretend to be somebody you can't be in real life." Daniel agrees to play but tries to manage expectations about how terrible he'll be. Harris says he can't be worse than Bill, then asks Sam if he'll play. With his sister's cool, leather jacket-wearing friend in on the game, suddenly D&D seems more intriguing to Sam and he agrees.

That night in the Weir dining room, the geeks set about transforming Daniel into one of their own. Harris explains that Daniel will have to roll for his ability scores, and when the other geeks complain that Harris likes to use his role as Dungeonmaster to mess with their heads, he says in this marvelously sarcastic (and yet very Canadian) tone of voice, "Oh, I'm sorry. Perhaps I should let you encounter kittens and grandmas, so as not to upset you." Daniel rolls the dice, and it quickly becomes clear that he'll be a dwarf. Daniel doesn't want that, he wants to be a big destroyer guy like Neal plays as, but the guys convince him that dwarves are better at a lot of things than people give them credit for. (Again, this is just the message Daniel wants/needs to hear.) So he agrees, so long as he can call himself Carlos (no doubt an homage to Santana, which he and Nick discussed back in "Tricks and Treats"). "Carlos the Dwarf?" asks Bill, incredulous. "Yeah, you got a problem with it, Gorthon?" Daniel retorts sarcastically. When he sees all the geeks recoil at his tone (again, they don't know him), he laughs and says he was just joking, and from there on out, things go smoothly.

We don't see any actual playing of the game (though there's a deleted scene where Daniel figures out how to get everyone safely out of a dark cavern), but we see a montage of everyone -- especially Daniel -- having a blast. We return a few hours later (a record finish for a D&D campaign?) to Daniel proudly declaring, "Greetings, princess. It is I, Carlos the Dwarf. The dragon has been slain, and you're free to rule your kingdom." Harris congratulates him, the geeks all applaud. Daniel looks the happiest that we have ever seen him and asks if they can play again tomorrow night. As Daniel goes to the kitchen for a soda (after first asking the other guys if he can get them something, another sign of how happy and grateful he is to be in their presence, as he would never make the same offer to Ken), the geeks quietly huddle up and ponder the significance of Daniel's presence. "Does him wanting to play with us again mean he's turning into a geek or we're turning into cool guys?" asks Bill. Sam mulls it over and decides, "I'm going to go for us becoming cool guys."

If it hadn't been for Daniel's stint as a punk in "Noshing and Moshing," and, to a lesser extent, some of the scenes in "Looks and Books" (including the deleted bit where he asks Kowchevski for tutoring), I might have a harder time buying the geek wish-fulfillment aspects of all this. But Daniel's clearly been someone searching for a new role to play other than King of the Dirtbags, so why not Carlos the Dwarf?

So here's my question: in your imagined second season of this show, how long did Daniel's geekdom last? It's kind of a nice respite from all the crap in his life, but at the same time Daniel's 3-4 years older than his new pals, and if there's been a ruling impulse in his life other than self-loathing, it's a need to seem cool. He agrees to play in part because he's estranged from his own group; Kim and Nick mocked his moment of shame with the projector, and he and Kim had another of their temporary break-ups. What's going to happen when Kim comes back from following the Dead and finds out that Daniel's been hanging out with a bunch of freshman nerds and playing Dungeons & Dragons? How much is Ken going to make fun of him for this? And would Daniel have the intestinal fortitude to stand up for his new friends, or would he immediately fall back into his old pattern of delinquency and not giving a damn? And how exactly would Mr. Weir respond to the hoodlum he didn't want around Lindsay (more on that below) suddenly hanging out with young Sam?

While you mull that over, let's move on to Nick's story of death by disco.

It's the Friday night before Daniel's fateful D&D game, and the bowling alley on 15 Mile is having its weekly disco night (where Mr. Rosso picked up the woman who gave him herpes), DJ'ed by none other than the guy who sold Sam his Parisian night suit. Daniel and Ken show up, dragging Kim and Lindsay (but not Amy, no doubt a victim of the out-of-order production) along for a freak tradition: mocking disco and anything associated with it. Daniel and Ken count to three and yell out "Disco sucks!," which brings the entire dance floor to a halt... including a polyester-clad Nick, who's there with Abba-loving Sara, whom he's been dating on the sly for a while now.

The freaks are all aghast and, back at school, they try to get to the bottom of this strange new relationship. Kim insists to Lindsay that this is just a ploy to make Lindsay jealous. Ken does a slow burn as Sara calls him "Kenny" and invites him to practice dance moves with her and Nick. They're so excessively schmoopy that Ken finally asks Nick, "When does Allen Funt come boogieing out?" Nick, having gone completely to the dark side, starts comparing disco favorably to Led Zeppelin, and Ken bluntly states the making-Lindsay-jealous theory. When Nick storms off, annoyed, Ken grabs Lindsay and begs her to start dating Nick again; "I can't take much more of this."

In his basement -- still bereft of the drum kit -- Nick and Sara practice their moves in preparation for him competing in that week's dance contest at the bowling alley. Nick marvels at how good he is at this, since he couldn't stand disco. Maybe, he suggests, "you end up being the best at something you hate." As if that wasn't enough of a warning sign to Sara, he goes on to talk about how good Lindsay is at math even though she doesn't enjoy it, and Sara wisely calls a time-out to find out what Nick's feelings are for his ex. Nick pledges his allegiance to Sara, and she confesses that he's had a crush on him since the sixth grade. "I can't believe that you like me," she says. (She's Nick's own Nick, way too into him for anyone's sake.)

The night of the contest, Ken literally drags Lindsay through the bowling alley, begging her to help him undo Nick's disco brainwashing, but the DJ spots him as the heckler from last week and tries to mock him in turn. As the bouncer drags him out, Ken points that the place is empty and disco is dead, but the DJ insists (in a marvel of spacey devotion by Joel Hodgson), "Disco is alive! It's alive, I tell you! You know it, and I know it, and" -- as he puts "I Will Survive" on the turntable -- "Miss Gloria Gaynor knows it, too!"

(One person who doesn't know it: the bouncer, who tells Ken he's right, and that Disco Night will be replaced by Foxy Boxing as of next week.)

Lindsay's on her own, and Nick insists to her that he's not doing this to win her back. "I'm not some idiot," he says. "You told me to move on, and so I did." Nick goes on and on about how Sara's introduced him to all kinds of new things, and that he even quit smoking pot. Lindsay -- who might still be with him had he been willing to give up the ganja -- is taken aback, and tries to recover by complimenting him for the achievement. "You seem like you're having way more fun with her than you ever did with me," she says, before wishing him luck in the contest and walking out.

As Nick turns back towards the dance floor, he looks completely and utterly defeated; he was putting on a good front for Lindsay, but everyone was 100 percent right that this entire thing has been one painful, unsuccessful ruse to win her back. (Lindsay's expression as she exits is harder to read; obviously, she's upset he couldn't find the strength to stop smoking pot while he was with her, but I can't decide if she wishes she was still with him now that he's clean.)

The opening bass line of "The Groove Line" begins, and after Nick casts one last regretful look back at the departing Lindsay, he puts on his angry game face and launches into an epic dance routine, at once smooth (the moves themselves, which he's great at) and ridiculous (the look on his face, which is 1000 times too intense for the moment). In one of the commentaries, Apatow laments that intercutting the dance scene with Lindsay's departure casts the scene in a much sadder tone than he maybe wanted, but I think that's what makes it brilliant. It's comic and tragic at the same time: Nick now trapped in a relationship he hates as much as Lindsay hated being with him, discovering that he's a far better disco dancer than he ever was a rock drummer, strutting around that dance floor looking like he wants to kill someone. If it didn't require so much advance knowledge about Nick and Lindsay and their doomed relationship, I would easily pick it as the perfect scene to show to someone to explain the genius of the series. As it is, Segel's dancing is so funny I might use it, anyway.

And even if Nick's dancing gets a little too sad for Apatow's liking, the button to this subplot is so hysterical on its own that all should be forgiven. After Nick's turn is over, he's replaced by "the magical disco stylings of Eugene," a floppy-haired, leisure suit-wearing guy who doesn't so much dance as do a little mime and then start pulling out scarves, canes and playing cards for various tricks. The crowd eats it up, and as Nick sees even this hollow victory slipping away, he protests, "They didn't say you were allowed to do magic!" (As if he would have been able to had he just been allowed.) Sara then commits the cardinal girlfriend sin of rooting for the other guy, saying of Eugene, "Wow. He's really good." (Check the look of disgust on Nick's face in reaction to that; as if he didn't already hate this relationship enough, you know?)

Finally, we come to the one D-word left out of the title: Deadhead.

The same English teacher who took such delight in disparaging Daniel announces to the class that our very own Lindsay Weir has been selected to attend a prestigious two-week academic summit at the University of Michigan. Lindsay doesn't seem pleased by this development, especially after hearing a description that involves daily ranking, competitions and rivalries -- in other words, all the things she gladly left behind when she quit Mathletes.

Mr. Rosso is dumbfounded by Lindsay's unhappy reaction. She protests that she hasn't studied much this year; are the other students in Michigan that dumb? No, Rosso tells her; she's just that darned smart! He starts quoting lyrics from the Grateful Dead's "Box of Rain," which she predictably doesn't recognize, and after a bit of Abbott and Costello ("Quoting the who?" "Not The Who! The Grateful Dead!"), he pulls out his copy of "American Beauty" (the album, not the movie) and explains that it helped get him through a lot of confusing times in college. (Or did it? More below.) Sensing her confusion, he loans her the record to help her get through finals and get her mind right for the summit -- not realizing how badly this one decision will backfire for McKinley High's academic pride.

While Lindsay's walking through the cafeteria, the Deadheads we first met in "Smooching and Mooching" spot the album tucked under her arm and compliment her good taste. Lindsay admits she's never heard it before, and they tell her it's the best album ever. Deadhead Samaire gushes, in her glassy way, "I wish I never heard it, just so I could hear it again for the first time." After school, Lindsay drops the needle on the record, and as "Box of Rain" begins to play, she lets the music slowly wash over her, until she's swinging her arms and dancing around like she's standing in the mud at Woodstock. (Cardellini and Segel must have been killer dance partners when they were still together, no?) Clearly, the music speaks to her like it spoke to Mr. Rosso.

At dinnertime, Jean and Harold rave about Lindsay getting into the summit, and are taken aback when she suggests she might not go. "Are you wacky?" asks Harold. (John Daley has a great moment where he laughs and repeats "Wacky?" with his mouth full of food.) "You are going to that summit, Lindsay. It isn't even open for debate." Jean and Harold explain that she'll be exposed to so many great people, get a foothold into attending any college she wants, and shut down any of Lindsay's attempts to protest.

At the cafeteria, the Deadheads tell Lindsay stories of following the Dead around on tour. Deadhead Samaire talks about a show in Jersey where it started raining, and everyone danced in the mud, and when a rainbow fell over the stage, "I started crying." (The funny thing is, Samaire sounds exactly like she does when she's not playing a stoned character.) The male Deadhead pulls a Gordon Crisp and puts the culture into language Lindsay can get behind: "It's about being together and having a good time... Judging has nothing to do with it. That's not what the Dead are about. It's about being connected and being free." They intend to spend a week and a half after school ends following the Dead from Texas to Colorado, and when Lindsay sheepishly explains she won't be able to go because of the academic summit, they cement their position as her new idols by not judging her about it, saying, "You gotta do what you gotta do."

While walking the halls with Kim, Lindsay complains about the summit and how it'll feel like going back into school. Kim, as she did with Daniel, declines to feign sympathy, instead noting that at least Lindsay gets to leave town for a while and do something, while Kim herself will be stuck behind because she has no money and, besides, Daniel hates going anywhere. Lindsay -- relatively well-off Lindsay, with her functional, supportive parents -- tries to suggest that Kim can go anywhere she wants, but Kim -- she of the ramshackle home, harpy of a mother and creepy stepdad -- replies, "That's easy for you to say, Lindsay, 'cause you get to leave. I don't."

(Watching the episode in chronological order, we then spend a while with Lindsay and Nick at the bowling alley, but when I sorted my notes by storyline, I was struck by the fact that the Kim scene leads directly into the next one. I've always wondered how much of Lindsay's decision has to do with her desire to escape her brainy good girl image once and for all and how much is her trying to help out best pal Kim. I think it's probably 70-30 image reinvention, but I could be persuaded to change that ratio.)

The Weirs walk Lindsay to the bus, Lindsay lying that she doesn't want to be driven to Ann Arbor so she can spend the trip thinking and getting her head straight. Jean and Harold are overflowing with pride, and Sam says he's going to miss her. Neal and Bill run up to say goodbye, Neal offering a box of chocolates as his latest futile attempt to woo Lindsay. (Bill, hilariously, notes that they give the same gift to his grandma whenever she travels by bus -- along with pinning her name and address to her coat in case she gets lost.) Lindsay kisses them both on the cheek, and Neal is naturally outraged over Bill getting equal reward even though he didn't spend a cent.

We hear the acoustic guitar of "Ripple" begin to play, and Linda Cardellini absolutely destroys me with the way she turns back from the bus steps and says, "Hey, Mom?" Jean, ignorant of what her daughter plans to do, beams and says, "Yes, sweetie?" Lindsay, fully aware that she's about to break her mother's heart -- that she's going to fundamentally alter her relationship with her parents, forever -- tries to find a way to apologize in advance, but all she can say is, "I'll see you soon."

The bus pulls away, the Weirs and Neal and Bill waving enthusiastically as Lindsay has to live with her decision. But by the time the bus pulls up to a stop (still in town? in Ann Arbor? I'm never clear, and it's obviously an LA city street), she's clearly made her peace with it, and steps off to see Kim leaning against the Deadheads' VW Microbus (of course they drive a Microbus), waiting to greet her for the start of their journey along the concert road. Lindsay strips off the conservative jacket she'd been wearing and gladly pulls on her familiar Army jacket (embracing her freakdom once and for all). Everyone piles into the van, and Samaire drives them up to the corner where the bus is sitting and then off in the opposite direction.

The End.

I've always loved that ending, but it really angers some people I know well -- including my wife and one of my sisters, both of whom attended summer academic events in high school and had a great time. I feel like, having gone back and looked at all 18 hours of this series, Lindsay was no longer a person who was capable of enjoying herself at an event like that. "Looks and Books" clearly showed that. If it wasn't the Dead, or Kim's need for some kind of summer adventure, she would have found another excuse not to go. It's who she had become, for good or for ill.

And while we're debating whether Lindsay made the right choice or not, let's also have a spirited argument about my old good-looking corpse theory: that I'd rather have one perfect season of a show than witness it get watered-down over the years as producers repeat themselves, try to attract a bigger audience, etc. It's a theory directly inspired by this here show. While we have no way of knowing what the creative team would have been able to do in the event of a miracle renewal, I imagine NBC would have put on major pressure to make the show more commercial, just like "Homicide" wound up featuring all those serial killers and evil drug lords and beauty queen detectives as a compromise for its continued survival.

For what it's worth, I asked Apatow what remaining plans he had for a second season that didn't get used up by episodes like this and the Sam dates Cindy arc, and this is what he wrote:
I wanted to write about Lindsay having a real drug problem. Bill's mom would marry the gym teacher and Bill would be forced by his step dad to play on the school basketball team. And I would have explored Neal's parents' divorce trial and his life as he lived with his mom and saw dad on Sundays.
If Paul Feig or any of the other writers are out there and want to share any other stories they hoped to do in year two, fire away. Clearly, though, there was lots of material still to be written about these characters. (Lindsay having a drug problem -- no doubt part of her time with the Dead -- would have set up an unexpected role reversal with the suddenly-clean Nick.) But do you think the show could have still been the show we all worshipped if it came back? And what would you have wanted to see in a second season? (As I mentioned last week, my big hope was for some scenario, any scenario, that put Bill and Kim Kelly in a room together for a few minutes, just to see what happened.)

Some other thoughts on "Discos and Dragons":
  • Because I hadn't seen most of these episodes in so long, when Harold banned Lindsay from ever hanging out with the freaks again after the car crash in "Looks and Books," I couldn't remember whether we saw him relenting in a later episode or if the writers just let it slide. Based on Harold inviting Nick into their home in "Smooching and Mooching," it feels like the latter. I just wish it had been more directly addressed at some point, as it would have added an extra layer to Lindsay's decision to forsake the summit in favor of following a hippie band with her freak best friend. In our mythical season two, Joe Flaherty was going to rain some major hellfire and brimstone down on Lindsay for this.
  • One last possible chronological boo-boo: "American Beauty" was released in 1970, only 10 years before the series began, yet Rosso talks about listening to it while he was in college. How old is he supposed to be? Dave Allen was in his early 40s at this point; would Rosso have needed to still be in school to dodge the draft in his early 30s, or is he supposed to be significantly younger than the actor playing him?
  • One other "American Beauty" question: how do hardcore Deadheads feel about that album? It and "Workingman's Dead" are the only two albums of theirs I own, in part because, as I understand it, they're atypical of the band's studio output, as well as the concert jams that made them famous. Would Deadhead Samaire really have been that over the moon about that record?
  • Speaking of Dave Allen, Mr. Fleck is played by Steve Higgins, who, along with Allen and Higgins' brother David Anthony Higgins (from "Ellen" and "Malcolm in the Middle"), were the stars of "The Higgins Boys and Gruber," one of the first series on The Comedy Channel (one of the two channels, along with Ha!, that merged into Comedy Central). The creator and producer of that show? Mr. Joel Hodgson.
  • And speaking of Hodgson, I've neglected until now to mention that one of his "MST3K" co-stars, Trace Beaulieu, appeared repeatedly on this series as the biology teacher, Mr. Lacovara. He has a very funny moment here in the cafeteria, where after assuring Lindsay that attending the summit put him on the path to his current level of success, he turns and knocks over a student's lunch tray. As the students all jeer, he raises his hand and says, "That was me! I'm a clumsy clod!" in an overly-cheerful way that suggests he suffered many such humiliations when he was younger before learning that self-deprecation is the only way to survive them. (God, this show was great with the little moments like that, wasn't it?)
  • Another lovely little touch: the beret Sam wears while playing D&D. (Also, even though Sam keeps the other geeks hanging about his involvement until the last minute, they wind up playing the game at his house; chalk that one up to the Weir dining room being one of the show's standing sets, I guess.)
  • Seth Rogen's Canadian accent didn't come out too blatantly for the most part during the season, but there's a line where he's complaining about Nick's love of disco and says, "No, thank GAWD!" like he's on the verge of ordering a Molson's and some back bacon.
Up next: B'dee, b'dee, b'dee, that's all folks! Sorry. (If you're coming to the party late, you can find all the recaps by click on the Freaks and Geeks label below, or just clicking here.) This has been a fun little experiment. Some of these episodes I had only ever seen once, and most I hadn't watched since the real turn of the millennium. So it's been a pleasure to watch them again and rediscover certain things (James Franco was funny! Joe Flaherty was a good dramatic actor!) while reconfirming things I already knew (Martin Starr, genius! Jason Segel, completely unafraid of public humiliation!).

I know at least a few people who worked on the show have seen these. Apatow's aware of it, and Gabe Sachs stopped by the "I'm With the Band" post to talk about how cool it is to see everybody praising the show so many years later. If anyone else wh
o was lucky enough to be involved with this series is reading this, I hope it's gratifying to see so many people haven't forgotten the love. (Also, judging by the comments and some of my e-mail from people who just bought the DVDs, there are still people willing to experience it for the first time all these years later.) It was a classic as soon as it aired, it is a classic now and it's going to stay a classic for as long as there are teenage outcasts (or semi-reformed adult outcasts).

At the tail end of my "The Little Things" recap, I said I'd like to do this again next summer with another brilliant but canceled selection, and there are already a lot of suggestions in those comments. Feel free to keep 'em coming, keeping in mind some of the following criteria that made "Freaks and Geeks" such a good choice: 1)Only ran one season (and less than the full 22, at that); 2)Is readily available on DVD so the people who didn't see it can catch up if they want; 3)Is deep enough to merit extended recapping and analysis (this would leave out most straight comedies -- including, much as I love it, "Undeclared"); 4)Is just old enough that there's some nostalgia to revisiting it (that would probably leave out something like "Firefly"); and 5)There's an ending. Maybe it's not a definitive, all your questions answered ending, but the creators got to go out on the note they wanted. Anyway, when the upcoming TV season starts winding down in May, I'll look back over the suggestions and consider my options. (It took me seeing "Knocked Up" in early June to give me the idea in the first place; be nice to have a head start this time.)

Whew. What did everybody else think?
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Jekyll: Half a life

Spoilers for the "Jekyll" finale coming up just as soon as I turn the power back on...

Well, that was fun, wasn't it?

There were some obvious problems in the final two hours, notably the horrid accent by the actress playing Mrs. Utterson (she made Benjamin sound like he came from Southie or something), and I feel like the epilogue raised far more questions than it answered. But until then, there were plenty of cool moments: Hyde discovering that he has digital rewind (and good on the FX team for that stuff), the revelation that Hyde wanted to save Claire and the boys ("I'm a psychopath with superpowers, and you're my girl!"), the hilarious punchline to the protracted set-up with bad-ass mercenary Mr. Carver, Hyde declaring "we are coming," Hyde telepathically sending "RUN IF YOU WANT TO LIVE" messages to all of Peter's goons, Peter's good manners increasing proportionately with his homicidal intent, etc.

Looked at as a group, I'm not sure it hangs together perfectly. Nurse Reimer became irrelevant after all that set-up in the first two episodes, and despite the amount of time spent trying to explain Tom's origins, I'm still confused. (Better they had just left the mystery unsolved, I think.) But James Nesbitt was brilliant, and Moffat gave him lots to play while playing his usual structural games.

What did everybody else think?
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Sleep deprivation is easy. Comedy is hard.

Today's column was inspired by a field trip I made in the middle of press tour to check out an event run by the one and only Ken Levine:

The thing about believing in dreams is that you have to learn to ignore all the people who keep telling you to wake up.

Last month, 20 dreamers arrived at the L.A. airport Hilton to attend The Sitcom Room, a two-day "sitcom writing fantasy camp" set up by Ken Levine, an Emmy-winning 30-year TV veteran who's worked on some of the best comedies ever ("M*A*S*H," "Cheers," "The Simpsons").

Richard Porter, 39, came from Phoenix, where he long ago lost any affection for his software engineering career. Isabel Gaddis, 46, came from Seattle, having recently decided it was time to do something she enjoyed, and why not sitcoms? Lizbeth Finn-Arnold, 39, came from Morganville, where she's been writing scripts while raising two kids. Jesse Allis, all of 16, didn't have to travel far; he was a child actor looking to become an adult writer.

All were fans of Levine's writing, both for sitcoms and on his blog (, where he shares old war stories and composes spoofs like the hilarious "Studio 60" takedown "If Aaron Sorkin wrote a show about baseball."

After some preliminary remarks and Q&A, Levine divided his 20 students into teams of five. He gave them a mediocre scene he had penned for a fictional sitcom and told them to rewrite it -- while factoring in "notes" from non-existent network and studio executives and other assorted mishaps straight out of Levine's own career. The teams worked furiously, and the next morning got to see their versions of the scene performed by a trio of actors. They critiqued each other and by all accounts, everyone learned a lot and had a great time.

Then came Sam Simon.

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Doctor Who: I'm only human on the inside

Spoilers for "Doctor Who" coming up just as soon as I dig up some beer...

The "Doctor Who" fans who have already seen the entire season have been pimping the "Human Nature" / "The Family of Blood" two-parter as the Alpha and the Omega, the bestest "Who" thing ever, or close enough to it. I have to assume that a large part of that enthusiasm comes from the "Family of Blood" half of things and the way it builds on what's already happened. "Human Nature" is a very strong episode, but it didn't blow me away on a level that, say, any of the Steven Moffat-penned episodes have.

The premise -- the Doctor, on the run from powerful aliens with stolen Time Lord tech, has to hide from them by becoming human, blotting out all knowledge of his true identity and leaving Martha as his escape hatch -- is a strong one, but not unprecedented in TV sci-fi. A lot of the episode, in fact, evokes two of the best "Star Trek" episodes ever: "The Inner Light" from Next Generation and "The Visitor" from Deep Space Nine. Maybe it's more groundbreaking from a pure "Doctor Who" fan perspective, as the guy's spent 40-plus years acting the aloof god (save the Paul Cornell-written novel that inspired Cornell's script for these episodes), but the basic idea didn't floor me.

But again, that doesn't mean it's not a great episode. David Tennant's been accused of overacting in the part, of making the Doctor just a bundle of tics and shouting. I don't necessarily agree with that, but there's no mistaking his fine performance here, as he finds a way to seem completely human and yet with enough of a trace of Ten that I said, "Yeah, that's what Ten would be like if he was a regular person." And given the set-up, I imagine he's going to have even better material to play in part two, once the Doctor inevitably returns to godhood and has to reflect on what he's gained and lost in the process.

That said, what makes "Human Nature" really fly is Martha. This is, what, her eighth episode to date, yet she doesn't seem half as established -- both as a person and as the Doctor's partner -- as Rose did by her eighth episode. (The great "Father's Day," also written by Cornell.) Whether by design or coincidence, too many episodes this year have spent significant portions of time with the Doctor and Martha split up, and those moments when they're together tend to be largely about the Doctor defining his relationship to her in comparison to his friendship with Rose. But she saved the day last week and the Doctor gives her the ultimate trust this week, and she in turn trusts him not to get her stuck as a maid in 1913 England. Martha really handles herself well here, even when she's doubting herself and running back to the TARDIS to seek guidance from the Doctor's living will recording.

Meanwhile, Martha finally says aloud what's been obvious for a while: that she loves the Doctor, and not in the undying friendship way that Rose had with Nine (and possibly with Ten), but in a "Okay, if he has two hearts, what else does he have two of?" way. If the writers keep pairing the Doctor with attractive young women, sooner or later the matter of a companion falling for the guy is going to have to come up; what better time than when he's become (temporarily) human?

I wasn't floored by "Human Nature," but my hopes remain high for the conclusion in two weeks (razza frazza Labor Day weekend scheduling). What did everybody else think?
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Friday, August 24, 2007

Good formula

Today's column looks back at this season of "The Kill Point" and previews the finale (no real spoilers):

Two men. One in the bank, one outside it. One armed with a gun, the other with a phone.

As formula goes, it doesn't get more basic than that. (I hear tell of an Aristophanes-penned hostage negotiation story set in an Athenian money-lending house, and I suspect that if anyone ever turns up Shakespeare's missing "Love's Labours Won" script, bank robbery will be involved.) But over the last five weeks, the creators of Spike TV's "The Kill Point" have been proving that old formulas get recycled because they work.

Scheduling conflicts kept me from reviewing the miniseries when it began in late July, but I've been enjoying it so much that I wanted to weigh in before Sunday night's finale (9 p.m., Spike TV, with the entire season to date airing in a marathon beginning at 3 p.m.).

Producers James DeMonaco and Steve Shill haven't tried to reinvent the wheel here; they just want to use it to go very fast and maybe smash into a few things along the way.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Mad Men: Jews cruise

Slightly early spoilers for the sixth episode of "Mad Men" coming up just as soon as I watch a dog play the piano...

After the last few episodes focused on Don and Pete, episode six is another look at the women of "Mad Men": the compromises made, the four very narrow and yet very different routes that Joan, Peggy, Rachel and Midge have chosen to navigate this world they never made.

Joan had been our mystery woman until now, the queen bee vamp who buzzed around the typing pool, handing out advice on matters both personal and professional without revealing anything about herself -- like, for instance, why a woman of her relatively advanced age (Christina Hendricks is 29, which would have made her an old maid in an office like that) still hasn't landed her own husband and got a house up in Westchester. Now we know the answer: Joan doesn't have the house because she doesn't want it. Like Midge, she enjoys being an independent woman, having her pick of multiple men -- notably Sterling/Cooper co-founder Roger Sterling, who, like Don, is both turned on troubled by his mistress's free spirit -- and not being tied down to any one of them. (She can brazenly wiggle her fanny in front of the two-way mirror because any or all of the men on the other side could be hers if she wanted them.) She has her roommate Carol, she has adventures and she doesn't want to be kept in a gilded cage like that stupid canary Roger buys her at episode's end. And yet where Midge lives her entire life outside the system, by day Joan is a keeper of that system, herding the secretaries around like cattle and trying to jump in between Peggy and Fred (the "creative" guy played by Joel Murray) as if she were a Secret Service agent trying to take a bullet for the president. As liberated as Joan is in some areas, she can't wrap her head around the notion of a fellow secretary having something useful to offer the ad guys; I'm sure she had the same dog/piano reaction that Fred had.

And speaking of Peggy, this is an interesting, if not totally unexpected route they're taking the character. The second episode, where Paul gave her a tour of the offices, established that female copywriters do exist, in very small numbers and only for accounts related to lady products, but this has some real potential. (If nothing else, I look forward to the first time she has to work for Don in this capacity instead of as his gal Friday.) And unlike David Duchovny's stupid, cliche-riddled blogging on "Californication," the phrases Peggy came up with ("basket of kisses," "I don't think anyone wants to be one of a hundred colors in a box") actually sounded good. If I was an ad guy in 1960 and I heard someone use those in casual conversation, I'd be intrigued, too.

Rachel Menken comes back into the picture as Don's token Jewish acquaintance, called in to help Don understand how to market a line of cruise ships bound for Israel. And after dismissing him out of hand in episode three because she had no interest in being someone's mistress, it now seems not a horrible idea to her. Being a female chief executive has to be rough on the love life today; in 1960, I imagine what suitors Rachel actually had tended to be guys after her money. The phone call with her sister suggests she's not the first member of her family on a path to old maidhood, and that has to be a scary proposition. The question is, is she prepared to compromise her values in the hopes that Don will leave his wife and marry her, or is she just that starved for companionship that she'll be The Other Woman? And how mad is she going to get when she realizes that she would, in fact, be The Other Other Woman?

Finally, Don visits Midge and gets another reminder of how poorly he fits into her world. Taking him to that coffee house might as well have been a trip to Mars for poor, conservative Don, and try as he did to mock Midge's other "friend" Roy, he's never going to be comfortable in bohemia. So will he attempt to swap Rachel in for Midge, or will he try to have all three women? And how will Midge respond to either scenario?

A few other thoughts:
  • Any scene where John Hamm's hair isn't drowning in pomade is a bad idea. The opening scene where his hair was flopping around made him look far too much a modern man.
  • Anyone care to analyze Don's dream of Adam's birth for clues about Dick Whitman's deep, dark secret?
  • Anvil time: "Some men like eyebrows, and all men like Joan Crawford. Salvatore couldn't stop talking about her." Also, Salvatore's bitchy put-downs of the women on the other side of the mirror. I just can't believe nobody doesn't get it. The prime of Paul Lynde's career wasn't that far away, was it?
  • Could have been anvillicious but wasn't: Rachel offering the alternative definition of "Utopia" as "the place that cannot be." Sounds not unlike the romantic space she wishes she could occupy with Don.
What did everybody else think?
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Hairy situations

Cable catch-up time, with spoilers on, in order, "Californication," "Saving Grace," "My Boys," "The Bronx Is Burning" and, as promised long ago without fulfillment, "Top Chef," coming up just as soon as I get a plastic surgery consultation...

After last week's kerfuffle over my pan of the "Californication" pilot, I decided to give the show at least one more episode to prove me wrong. Sorry to say, Duchovny fans, but I'm out. This was a retread of all the things I disliked about the pilot (women throwing themselves at Hank with little provocation, Hank acting like a 12-year-old boy in a way we're obviously meant to find charming, an unexpected ongoing focus on pubic hair), and now we've added in the "Studio 60" Problem: we're told Hank's this brilliant writer, but his first blog entry (penned in an Apple product placement scene that makes all the Mac love on HBO seem tasteful and subdued) was a smarmy cliche-fest. I'm glad for showkiller Paula Marshall that she's kept herself in such good shape, but I don't think I need to see any more "Californication." I think it would be a badly-written show with any leading man, but maybe a different actor would be able to find the appealing side of Hank instead of playing him as a one-note, self-satisfied douche. I really like the actress who plays his daughter and look forward to her popping up in something else.

As a counterexample to Duchovny on "Californication," I give you Holly Hunter on "Saving Grace." Here's another self-destructive, substance-abusing, middle-aged person who sublimates her pain by having lots of sex with her many willing suitors, but I both like her and understand her appeal to the opposite sex (even though Holly Hunter herself needs to spend a few weeks following Dr. Nick's steady gorging process, combined with assal horizontology). That's a credit to Hunter's performance. There's a thin line between charming rogue and irritating jerk; she stays on the right side of it in a way that Duchovny can't or won't.

That said, I'm falling out of love with "Saving Grace" as a whole, thanks to the police stuff. There's a weird epidemic going on in TV right now -- both with current series and a lot of the fall pilots -- of cop shows with interesting, original leads and completely uninspired procedural stories. I understand that cop shows are more instantly commercial, which is why Grace or, say, that immortal guy from "New Amsterdam" carry a badge and gun, but the genre's so oversaturated right now that almost no one can find anything original to do with the cases. The Oklahoma setting provides a small amount of novelty -- not going to see a story about bull seed on "Cold Case," I don't think -- but not enough to keep me from zoning out until Grace heads to the bar or her love shack.

Good casting in the latest episode of Frances Fisher as the cool aunt Grace has modeled herself after, but did I miss a previous reference to her father having died in the Oklahoma City bombing? I know she lost her sister (or sister-in-law?), but this seemed like new info.

Speaking of potentially new info (or yet another example of how I need to pay closer attention), "My Boys" revealed for the first time (maybe) that Kenny runs a sports memorabilia shop, which answers the final question of how PJ knows all her boys. (Andy's her brother, Brendan and Stephanie went to school with her, Bobby's a rival beat writer and Mike used to work for the Cubs.) Mike and Kenny are funny as usual together, and the "negotiation" at the bar managed to work Gaffigan into their dynamic nicely. Didn't care much about the Jeremy Sisto romance subplot (though it did make me listen to a sample of "The Wrong Girl" just because it was on a mix tape between my beloved Fountains of Wayne and the Flaming Lips), and we the beginnings of the douchey Brendan storyline that's going to pay off nicely next week.

The writers of "The Bronx Is Burning" are lucky the cops caught Son of Sam as relatively early as they did, since it gave them an excuse to dump that subplot with a few episodes of the miniseries left. The show works much better as an all-baseball affair (like I said at the start, either they needed to cover all the stuff from Mahler's book or just the Bombers), even if the Reggie/Billy/George dynamic is feeling repetitive by this point. Two complaints about the first World Series episode: 1)I love "Blitzkrieg Bop" as much as the next guy, but it feels like they've already played it 57 times so far. The Ramones' catalog is consistent (simplistic?) enough that you can substitute a lot of other songs and get the same effect. 2)How in the world do you incorporate so much of the Howard Cosell/Keith Jackson telecast of game two and not include Cosell saying "Ladies and gentleman, the Bronx is Burning"?

Finally, I've been watching "Top Chef" all season, but often so many days late that a blog entry has seemed beside the point. (A big part of the problem: the show inevitably makes me very hungry, and I don't want to be snacking at 10:30 at night, so I have to wait until I can see each show close to a mealtime.) I've been enjoying it a lot and wish I had started with the franchise sooner. (Though I hear season two was very skippable.) All the "Bizarro Apprentice" stuff I admire about franchise sibling "Project Runway" (competent contestants, creative challenges, rational judges), only with a subject I care about.

That said, this show tends to telegraph its exits even more blatantly than latter-day "Survivor." Anytime two contestants declare their undying friendship (in this case, Casey and Tre), you know one of them's out. Tre compounded the sledgehammer foreshadowing with all his overconfidence, and by the time we were halfway through the judges' visit to Restaurant April, I knew he was done. He had been the obvious frontrunner early on, but he'd been through a lot of ups and downs and was clearly the main reason for this loss. If, as the judges have said elsewhere, the judging isn't supposed to be cumulative, he was the right choice. (If not, CJ should have been tossed.) It's interesting, though, that the remaining field includes a few people who have consistently been either brilliant or awful (Hung, to a lesser extent Howie) and then a bunch of people who have had some good moments and some bad ones, but nothing really remarkable on either end. Usually in this kind of show, there's a more obvious pecking order by this stage, and I honestly can't tell who's going to win, or who should.

What did everybody else think?
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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Glad to see me? I guess we're in the next life!

The universe seems to be conspiring to make me write a post about my favorite movie, "Midnight Run." (Note: "favorite" does not directly equal "best I've ever seen," but rather #1 on my Desert Island list.) First, my column for today got bumped to Sunday and I needed something good to post. I'm already in a nostalgic state of mind with these "Freaks and Geeks" recaps. The other day, TV Without Pity posted a list of its editors' favorite movies to watch whenever they're on TV. When I went to Edward Copeland's site to read his "Superbad" review, I saw that he had written a tribute to "Real Genius," another Desert Island favorite of mine. (My friend Fitz and I spent all of sophomore year at Penn quoting this movie at each other.) And while thumbing through EW's Fall Movie Preview issue, I saw in the entry for "Gone, Baby Gone" that Ben Affleck cast John Ashton in an important role because of how much he loved him in... "Midnight Run."

If you feel like the reviews of a seven-year-old TV show are too retro, feel free to skip this tribute to a 1988 box office disappointment. But if the phrase "Serrano's got the disks!" means anything to you, or if you're just a fan of action/comedy/drama hybrids with great set pieces and even greater chemistry (because there are oh so many of them), I'm going to write an ode to Walsh and The Duke just as soon as I try on my new sunglasses...

For the benefit of those of you blindly loyal enough to click through even though you haven't seen the movie, here's a basic summary (more spoiler-y content will follow later, so if you're intrigued just go rent the thing and come back later):

Robert DeNiro is Jack Walsh, a disgraced ex-Chicago cop who now works as an LA bounty hunter. It's a miserable, bottom-feeding business, and Walsh wants out. So when bondsman Eddie Moscone (Joey Pants) asks him to chase after an accountant who skipped on a $500,000 bond, Jack demands a hundred grand reward so he can retire and open up a coffee shop. The accountant is one Jonathan "The Duke" Mardukas (Charles Grodin), who discovered he was working for notorious mobster Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina), embezzled millions and gave it away to charity. Walsh has five days to find The Duke and bring him back to LA for trial on some unrelated charge, and while he finds Mardukas very quickly in New York, getting him across the country becomes a huge problem when Serrano's goons, an FBI agent named Alonzo Mosely (Yaphet Kotto) and rival bounty hunter Marvin Dorfler (Ashton) all try to abduct or kill Jack's charge.

Sounds pretty generic, right? A hodgepodge of every '80s action buddy movie cliche, I know. Even with the terrific execution (save for some pacing problems near the end; the movie's about 15 minutes and one car chase too long), why "Midnight Run"? Why this movie above all others, above any examples of my beloved Underdog Sports Movie genre, why above the collected works of Spielberg, Scorsese, Hitchcock and Ratner? (Okay, just goofing on the last one. Or so you think.)

Again, I recognize that there are many, many movies that are objectively better, but none gives me as much sheer pleasure on viewing after viewing. Some if it's my age; I was 14 when it came out, a very impressionable age, and it had so many appealing traits like car chases and shoot-outs and lots and lots and lots of profanity. (IMDb puts the number of F-word uses at exactly 119, which had to be a record at the time, especially for a non-Mamet film.) But the age thing only goes so far (even allowing for that year also including other Sepinwall Pantheon films like "Die Hard" and "The Naked Gun"). The age made me more susceptible to the movie's charms, but it was "Midnight Run" itself that has made me love it so much over the (nearly -- gulp -- 20) years since its release.

I'm a big fan of Little Bit Of Everything movies, and "Midnight Run" is a pretty great example of that. It has action and comedy and thrills and pathos and male bonding and Americana. (One of my favorite things to observe on repeat viewings is the movie's ode to the American service industry: waiters, train porters, etc. all come off quite well. No wonder Walsh wants to open a coffee shop; he'd probably be happier doing that.) Lots of movies try to do many or all of those things, but "Midnight Run" is one of the few that pulls it all off equally.

Of course, it helps when you have Robert DeNiro in your lead role, because the man can do anything. This was his first out-and-out comedy, and unlike the current paycheck phase of his career, he still gave a crap about his craft. Walsh is gruff and cynical and prone to violence, but he also has a wiseass side that you just didn't expect to get from DeNiro in 1988. It's probably too pretentious to compare Walsh to Philip Marlowe (I love "Midnight Run," but I'm not kidding myself about its ambitions), yet hearing Walsh heckle Mosely with lines like "These sunglasses, they're really nice: are they government-issued, or all you guys go to the same store to get them?," I can't help but lament the fact that nobody ever thought to cast DeNiro in a Raymond Chandler adaptation when he was younger and still trying.

DeNiro's versatility allows the movie to go through a lot of tonal shifts without seming clumsy about it. Walsh can be threatening to smash the Duke's head into a toilet bowl one minute, doing a slow-burn over the Duke questioning his meal choices the next, running frantically from Serrano's snipers right after that and then grab right for the heartstrings when he goes to beg his ex-wife for the cash to complete the trip.

That scene with Walsh's ex, more than any other, is what that makes "Midnight Run" more special than your average '80s buddy flick. It's such a raw, painful moment that it provides a gravitational pull to the rest of what could easily be (and occasionally is) a very cartoonish movie. In that moment when Walsh sees his daughter for the first time in years -- and we in turn understand his need to escape his humiliating bounty hunter existence -- he becomes a real person we care about, and that in turn lends weight and even plausibility to those scenes where he's shooting helicopters out of the sky or figuring out how to solve all of his problems with a package of blank computer disks. (The scene also signals a sea change in his relationship with the Duke, even more than their night as train hobos. Once the Duke has witnessed this most private of moments, Walsh can't entirely view him as a meal ticket, though he still talks like he does.)

More than holding his own opposite DeNiro is Grodin, who's like some kind of marvel of conservationism. His energy level always seems barely there, and yet he wrings these huge laughs out of tiny changes of inflection or unexpected pauses. Witness the many different ways he asks Jack "Why are you unpopular with the Chicago police department?" while they're on the bus, the constant mental recalculation going on as he asks the El Paso waitress about the price of coffee and tea or his deadpan (and, from what I understand, improvised) impersonation of an FBI agent while he works the counterfeit bill scam. I recognize that he was always a square peg for most of his acting career, but it's hard to fathom that Grodin was, like, the 17th choice to play this part (after a list that included Robin Williams, the young Bruce Willis and... Cher). He's perfect, and he bounces off DeNiro brilliantly.

Director Martin Brest (the man responsible for two of the biggest stinkers ever in "Gigli" and "Meet Joe Black," yet also unarguably a key creative force here) surrounds DeNiro and Grodin with a Murderer's Row of Hey, It's That Guy!s, all cast marvelously to type: Joey Pants as a weasel, Kotto as a grouchy authority figure (I love that Mosely takes out his frustrations about Walsh stealing his ID by constantly stealing Marvin's cigarettes), Ashton as a tough guy without much going on upstairs, Philip Baker Hall as Serrano's cautious attorney and, especially, Farina as Serrano himself. Farina has all these great sarcastic, profane tirades that are the best of their kind this side of Alec Baldwin in "Glengarry Glen Ross," yet he dials it down brilliantly for the moment where Serrano sits with the Duke in the back of a limo and coldly declares that he's going to kill him tonight, go home, have a nice dinner, "And then I'm going to find your wife and I'm going to kill her, too." Again, lots of other movies and actors would give you whiplash between the jokes about stabbing people with pencils and chilling threats to men's wives, but here, as played by Farina, it works.

As I said above, the movie's too long (the final car chase outside Flagstaff doesn't remotely need to be there, save that I'm sure some studio executive complained the movie was getting too slow), and there are some logic problems that get more glaring on repeat viewing (I've seen the movie dozens of times and still don't understand the nature of the Duke's initial arrest or why Mosely doesn't want Walsh to bring him in). But there is no movie in my collection that has gotten more play, no other movie that I'm always in the mood for, no movie that offers me all kinds of little pleasures each time. (This time, as I rewatched it to get my head around this blog entry, it was closing my eyes from time to time just to appreciate Danny Elfman's very atypical blues-y score.)

Thanks for indulging me. August's a slow month. Feel free to use the comments to ramble on about your own Desert Island #1. And if no one wants to give me a ride home from the airport, looks like I'm walking...
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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Freaks and Geeks Rewind: The Little Things

Spoilers for the penultimate episode of "Freaks and Geeks," "The Little Things," coming up just as soon as I get people to stay away from those cans...

Behold, the episode that launched a comedy empire. Sort of.

"The Little Things" was the episode that convinced Judd Apatow that Seth Rogen was a man he wanted to keep working with, which in turn led to him hiring Rogen as both actor and writer on "Undeclared," which in turn led to Rogen showing him the "Superbad" script he wrote with his childhood best friend, which in turn led to Rogen getting cast in "40-Year-Old Virgin," etc., etc., etc. I'm not saying that Apatow wouldn't be Hollywood's reigning Comedy God without Rogen, but the two men definitely bring out the best in each other.

But we'll get back to that. I want to kick off this look at "The Little Things" with the story that carries over from the previous episode: Sam's doomed relationship with Cindy Sanders.

A fair amount of time seems to have passed since "Smooching and Mooching," enough that Bill can later refer to his Seven Minutes in Heaven in a "Did I ever tell you about that time?" way to Neal. We open up with Cindy dining with the Weirs, Cindy kissing up to Harold with her talk about being a young Republican (George H.W. Bush, then the VP, is due to speak at McKinley High, and she gets to introduce him) and her hatred of poor people. Sam, in turn, is already learning to hate her. At school, he now eats at the popular kids' table, while the other geeks look on resentfully. (Harris as Yoda: "Once you start down that dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.") Cindy continues to prove herself to be judgmental and manipulative, first by insulting a rival school's cheerleaders for being ugly, then trying to goad Sam into fighting Todd. Sam still hasn't quite grasped that Cindy is definining him only in comparison to Todd, but Todd gets it and tells Cindy that he likes Sam too much to beat him up.

After school, Sam complains to Bill and Neal that Cindy's boring, and only wants to make out. (Neal, predictably: "I'd kill to be that boring.") Bill suggests that Sam take Cindy on a real date to do something that he wants to do instead of one of her ideas, and when Sam is skeptical about Cindy's desire to do something that Sam enjoys, Bill the wise man asks, "Then why are you going out with her?" (Neal the horndog: "Because she's a goddess!")

So Sam gets Cindy's permission to take her on a date of his own design (because it's that kind of relationship that he needs permission), and we get our final glimpse of the collected geeks' views on dating. Gordon adopts an awful British accent and suggests a Broadway show of some kind. Bill suggests a screening of "The Jerk" (no doubt he remembers how it helped him get over with Vicki), and when Neal insists that that's not a romantic movie, Harris counters, "Laughter is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Get a woman laughing, you get a woman loving." The matter of the locale having apparently been settled, they turn to a discussion of the appropriate gift, and Sam asks Harris what he gets for the much-discussed but rarely-seen Judith. Unfortunately, he's no use -- Judith wants only scented oils "and time with her man" -- so Sam turns to his mom. Jean, beaming at the idea of her son becoming a man (and that he still wants her counsel in a way that Lindsay doesn't), gets out an heirloom necklace from her mother, positive that Cindy will love it. (Clearly, she hasn't been paying attention when Cindy comes over for dinner.)

And then, disaster on every level. At the movie theater, Cindy hates the necklace, both because it's old and not her style, and because Sam didn't spend any money on it. (With Cindy, it's not the thought that counts.) But you know what she hates even more? "The Jerk." While Sam is laughing uproariously at the legendary "He hates these cans!" scene, Cindy's putting on the lemon face to end all lemon faces. Sam notices Cindy's displeasure and offers to buy her popcorn. "Will popcorn make this movie funnier?" she asks, her voice dripping with scorn. This in turn pisses off Sam so obviously that even Cindy realizes she's gone too far with her boytoy, so she tries to distract him with a hickey, which only annoys him more. (Nothing like a girl you've grown to loathe trying to give you a hematoma.)

Later that night, Sam tells Lindsay about this awful date, and when he mentions that Cindy hated "The Jerk," Lindsay knows her brother enough to say "Uh-oh." "What's wrong with me?" Sam asks. "She's so pretty; why don't I like her?" Lindsay explains that not all attractive people are cool, and that he should break up with her. Sam's afraid to do this because people already can't believe Cindy's willing to date him; what will they think of him if he dumps her? (Dude, did you not see "Can't Buy Me Love?" That's the whole premise. Oh, wait... seven years down the road. Sorry.) Lindsay, speaking from very painful experience, tells him that he can't keep dating someone he doesn't like.

Sam shows up for school the next day wearing a baggy turtleneck, the better to hide Cindy's love mark. Neal is deeply offended that Sam would be willing to break up with such a hot girl, and refuses to believe that a hot girl could be uncool. After Sam pukes out his courage and has a men's room chat with Ken (more on that below), he mans up and approaches Cindy, who immediately confirms his feelings by barking "What the hell is that?" at the sight of his hickey-hiding turtleneck. When he counters that she won't wear the heirloom necklace, she spits, "It was ugly!" She tries to get out of this fight because she needs to go introduce Vice-President Bush, but Sam's not going to let her wriggle off the hook. Sam tells her that he doesn't want to date her anymore, and would rather go back to being friends.

"No, Sam," she tells him in complete disbelief. "You can't break up with me. You're supposed to be nice. That's the only reason I'm going out with you in the first place!" Sam points out that he, in fact, is a nice guy, but they have nothing in common and they're not having any fun. Cindy admits this is true, but she can't deal with the humiliation of being dumped by her nerdy rebound guy, so she throws the necklace at him and storms off. (Our final glimpse -- ever -- of Ms. Sanders is her all red-eyed and unrecognizable as she introduces a future Commander in Chief.) Neal and Bill wander over for moral support, and Neal's enough of a friend to tell Sam he did the right thing. Bill asks if this means Sam will go back to eating lunch with them, and when Sam says yes, Bill says, "Thank God."

Can I just say how much I love the turn this story took? Whatever plausibility issues people may have had with Cindy asking Sam out in the first place, this is pretty much how the story should have gone once they went out, even if it was completely unexpected. Any other show would have had Cindy turn out to be awesome, or else would have had her be the dumper, not the dumpee. It's not even that she's a bad person, just spoiled and a little selfish. But she's a terrible match for Sam, and he was too blinded by her looks to realize that until he got to spend a lot of up close and personal time with her. (The idea of the cheerleader goddess not being the perfect woman is something the writers from "Ed" could have really learned from; I kept waiting for that show's hero to realize that his dream girl from high school was a fairly dull adult.) Some great squirmy comedy performed by both John Daley and Natasha Melnick.

The episode's other relationship story is even squirmier and more unexpected, as Ken has to wrestle with the discovery that Amy was, as he puts it so memorably to Daniel and Nick, born with both the gun and the holster.

Things have seemingly been going great with Amy since they hooked up back in "The Garage Door," and the only source of stress in their lives is Amy's nervousness about having to play "Hail to the Chief" at the Bush assembly. ("There's a lot of tuba," she notes.)

While hanging out in her bedroom for a "study" session, Ken opens up about his distant relationship with his parents -- they're not bad people, but "I guess raising me wasn't one of the things they learned in college" -- and how he's closer with his nanny. Amy in turn decides it's time to let Ken in on her deepest secret and explains that, "When I was born, I had the potential to be male or female." Ken, confused, says, "Yeah, me too." And so she delicately walks him through the concept of being born with ambiguous genitalia, and how her parents and the doctors decided the best thing would be to make her a girl.

Ken, not surprisingly, doesn't know how to respond to this. "No... This is good... that you told me... this," he tells her, trying to play cool. He acts reassured when she tells him that she's all-girl now, but when they bump into each other in school the next day, he engages in clumsy small talk and then makes a point of hugging her instead of kissing her. Later, she confronts him directly, and he gets more and more worked up about his inability to do anything to change this situation. "It's over, move on," he insists. She says it's not that easy, that there will always be a part of her that's...

"... a guy?" Ken asks, and Amy brushes him off.

That night, the male freaks are sleeping over in Nick's basement. Ken declares that he's going to break up with Amy, and when Daniel and Nick protest, he explains about the gun and holster situation. Nick seems appeased by news of Amy's long-ago surgery making her into a girl, but Daniel -- in maybe his harshest moment of the series (if he's not goofing around, and Franco plays the scene so oddly that it's hard to tell) -- says "I don't think it works that way. I think you better get rid of her." Ken realizes he doesn't want to break up with her, he "might even love her." Daniel asks if that means Ken's gay, and Ken angrily replies, "I don't know, does it?" Daniel insists he was joking (or was he?), but now it's all Ken can think about.

Ken needs advice, and tries to get some from Mr. Rosso, but only after explaining that he assumed Rosso was gay. Rosso (already suffering a lot of indignities that week; for more, see below) then turns the counseling session into an interrogation to figure out why Ken might think that of him, and Ken quickly bolts for yet another half-baked attempt to figure out which way he swings. First he puts on a David Bowie record, then some heavy metal, then a disco album to see which one he responds best to. When that (shockingly) fails to provide a concrete answer, he pulls out two nudie mags, one featuring men, one women, and studies them intensely. Rogen's reactions throughout are priceless. (If I had to guess which moment during the episode made the lightbulb go off above Apatow's head, I'd pick the filming of this sequence.)

The freaks are hanging around at night, and Ken reads way too much into Daniel greeting him and Amy with "Hey, guys," demanding to know what Daniel meant by that and then punching him in the face. Amy, realizing that Ken told the others her secret, runs off and refuses to let him in to explain when he comes tapping on her bedroom window. In a very nice little moment scored to Jackson Browne's "The Road," Ken starts walking home alone from Amy's house; Daniel pulls up in his Trans Am and sheepishly offers to drive Ken home. Not a word is said about the punch, or about the earlier conversation in Nick's basement; nothing needs to be said.

Amy realizes in a conversation with Lindsay the next day that Ken didn't tell everyone, but she's too caught up in "Hail to the Chief" nerves to concentrate on her Ken problem. Ken, meanwhile, goes to the men's room to figure out what to do and comes across Sam Weir, puking in anticipation of his Cindy break-up. Ken, who knows Sam in passing as Lindsay's kid brother, asks why Sam would want to dump a girl that hot. "She's really different than I am," Sam explains, to which Ken replies wearily, "Yeah, I know how that one goes." Ken says he's on the verge of dumping his girlfriend, too, but can't explain why, so Sam offers up his tale of woe about how Cindy hated "The Jerk," how they have nothing to talk about, and don't have any fun together. Ken explains that Amy's really cool about all that stuff, and Sam bitterly asks him, "God, then what's the problem?" Ken realizes what an idiot he's been and wishes Sam luck.

(Just a perfect scene, as almost every geek/freak world-colliding moment tended to be. Maybe that's why so many people consider "Beers and Weirs" their favorite episode. Among the many reasons I lament the non-existent second season is that at some point the writers would have had no choice but to put Bill and Kim in a room together, if only to see what happened.)

The camera work switches over to hero-style as Ken walks (marches?) through the long line of McKinley marching banders in search of his tuba girl. He finally finds her near the front of the line and declares, sincerely, "I'm sorry, and I don't care, and I'm sorry." Amy smiles, he smiles, and they hug -- only this time, the hug feels like a huge step forward instead of two steps back. (And as a nice real-world touch, ala Lindsay's bag getting stuck on a desk while she tries to storm out of Kowchevski's classroom in "Tests and Breasts," Ken bonks his head on the rim of the tuba while he's moving in.) The Bush assembly begins, and as Amy begins playing "Hail to the Chief," Ken catches her eye and yells out, "Yeah! 'Hail to the Chief!' This song rocks!"

This subplot got the episode nominated for a GLAAD award (they lost to an episode of "Ed," as a matter of fact), and it's not hard to see why. The writers (Apatow, Jon Kasdan and Mike White) get some big laughs out of Ken's confusion, but they also take the situation itself seriously; none of the laughs ever come at Amy's expense. It's a minefield topic, and the writers avoided blowing up.

Considering how much of the episode hangs on Ken and Sam's relationships, it's funny how the climax has little to do with either one, but instead on a third, non-romantic subplot. (The deeper we got into the season, the more the writers seemed interested in moving away from the familiar "This and That" story structure, which may also explain this episode's non-traditional title. Either that, or Apatow, Kasdan and White couldn't come up with a variation on "(Blank) and Bush" that would pass Standards & Practices.)

After treating Mr. Rosso as the very easy butt of jokes for most of the season, the show's penultimate episode (last, really, as "Discos and Dragons" was made several weeks ahead of schedule) finally decides to give our guidance counselor a little respect -- but only after piling one humiliation after another onto the guy.

Rosso proudly tells Lindsay that she's been selected to ask VP Bush the first question in the informal cafeteria Q&A and is bewildered that Lindsay seems so unhappy with this honor. She notes that she's a Democrat, and he responds that they live in a country where you're supposed to question your leaders, but "I guess me and all my hippie friends were just wasting our time at Berkeley." He finally gets her into the spirit of things by explaining that she's special (not in the Eli way) and destined to be around world leaders. At seeing Lindsay's excited face, he utters the "I've got the best job in the world!" line that was cut from the end of the pilot as being too ironic. Before he can bask in the moment, a Secret Service agent -- played by Apatow's old boss, Ben Stiller -- enters and explains that they're commandeering his office as a workspace until the VP's visit is over. As Rosso walks out, Agent Meara (named for Ben's momma) keys his mic and requests a background check on this teacher, who he describes as "about 6'3," a real Dr. Feelgood look."

Lindsay invites Kim to help her brainstorm a really tough question for Bush (Kim jokes that she should ask about Area 51). We don't know what they come up with, but when Lindsay runs into Mr. Rosso in the parking lot -- locked out of his car, because it's just one of those weeks for him -- he bitterly explains that Bush's people rejected whatever the question was as "too... sophisticated" and instead wrote a vapid one of their own: "What is your favorite place to eat in Michigan?" Rosso is really down at the realization that this is a "glorified photo op" and suggests that his Berkeley protesting didn't accomplish much, that "they" stopped the war when they felt like it. Rosso's friends have all sold out for Wall Street jobs that no doubt pay many times his $12 grand salary, "and I can't get the keys out of my mother's car!"

By this point, Lindsay's developed an odd little crush on Rosso ("He's actually kind of good-looking," she tells the disbelieving freaks), but when she complains about the situation to Harold, he asks her not to make waves -- and, in fact, to use the opportunity to put in a plug for his store, which is facing an uncertain future with a chain megastore moving into the mall. "Your only affiliation right now to any party is to the Weir party," he tells her, half-threatening, half-pleading. He even produces an A1 t-shirt for her to wear (which we'll later discover has "Welcome George Bush" stenciled on the back).

The day of the assembly, Lindsay's impressed to see Rosso all cleaned up in a suit, his hair pulled back into a neat braid. He apologizes for his parking lot meltdown and feigns enthusiasm about the VP's visit, but Agent Meara bars him from entering the cafeteria because he's on the mailing list of some questionable organization. As Meara escorts him to a "holding area" (really Rosso's own office), Mr. Rosso shoots Lindsay a beautiful, knowing look that makes it clear exactly what she needs to do.

Agent Meara takes advantage of the situation to get some career counseling from Rosso (being the vice-president's bodyguard feels as pointless a job to him as being a high school guidance counselor no doubt felt to Rosso in the parking lot). He says he just wants to rip off his vest and jacket sometimes and go make pancakes somewhere, "But that'd be crazy, right?" Rosso smiles wisely and offers to give him something like the Kuder preference test to determine his ideal career.

At the assembly, a tearful Cindy Sanders walks off and Lindsay rises nervously in her A1 t-shirt to ask the first question. As her parents gaze proudly at her, she says, "Mr. Vice-President, my name is Lindsay Weir. My dad owns A1 Sporting Goods on 16 Mile Road. My question is... why did your staff reject my question? Are you afraid of an open discourse with the students?" (Really, it's the best possible question she could have asked; if anything's going to make the ineffectual vice-president look bad, it's an attempted cover-up at a high school assembly.) Rosso is listening on the PA as Meara goes through the test ("Do you like working with major appliances?") and, smiling like the proud papa that Harold resembled moments earlier, calls Lindsay "One of McKinley's finest." You know, sometimes that job's not so bad, is it?

Some other thoughts on "The Little Things":
  • Two of the deleted scenes for this one are amazing, but one got cut for time and the other got cut because it was mortifying and creepy even by the standards of a show that had Nick stalking Lindsay for the better part of a season. The former is a sequel to Ken's failed visit to Mr. Rosso, in which we discover that while Rosso's not gay, Mr. Kowchevski is. (Kinda puts his whole "Tests and Breasts" speech about Daniel's bedroom eyes in a different light, doesn't it?) The latter features Cindy forcing Sam to recreate their slow dance from the pilot, and to sing "Come Sail Away" (because, of course, Todd never sang for her) and it is absolutely, wonderfully horrible. If you've got the DVDs, please check 'em out. They may be the two best cut scenes in the entire package.
  • Speaking of Kowchevski, his one surviving moment in the episode is a funny one, as he (on the Secret Service's orders, because he's a good soldier) chases the freaks from their usual stairwell hangout. Daniel cracks, "How are we ever going to plan our coup?" and Kowchevski seems very pleased by the prospect of getting Daniel arrested for saying that.
  • I remembered Stiller's performance as being far more mannered, but he really dials it down. You never don't notice that it's Stiller the movie star, but he has some nice moments like the pancake scene.
  • What's with the male freak sleepover? I would write it off as them just hanging out while high, but sleeping bags are involved.
  • Getting back to the issue of guns vs. holsters, can we get a gender breakdown of how everybody feels about "The Jerk"? While I've found some women who like it, the list isn't very long, and it feels like one of the more gender-polarizing members of the Geek Comedy Pantheon.
  • Need another ruling: is Bill a bad guy for telling Neal about his time with Vicki, or is it cool because he knows Neal will never believe him?
Up next: The end. But what a great and glorious end it is. I hope to be taking some days off later this week for some much-needed family time, so don't expect the "Discos and Dragons" review before, say, Monday. It's going to be a long one, and I want the time to do it right.

What did everybody else think?
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