Thursday, September 20, 2007

Deus ex Marvina

Spoilers for, in order, "Top Chef," "Weeds" and "Saving Grace" coming up just as soon as I teach Casey the proper pretentious pronunciation of "coq au vin"...

"Top Chef" ditched the gimmicks last night and was much more interesting for it. Not that the roach coach challenges don't make for interesting TV, but this late in the competition, it's really time to see who has the serious cooking skills, and both challenges were more about pure kitchen talent than seeing who could work best within a set of artificial constraints. Not surprisingly, the top two in both challenges were Hung and Casey, who are clearly the two best chefs remaining. Hung has the best technical skills (even though he coasted for a lot of weeks when he didn't respect the challenge or the guest judge), Casey seems to have more artistry and a sophisticated palate (even though she's only been showing off both the last few weeks), while Dale has a penchant for crippling errors within some good ideas and Malarkey has been flying by the seat of his pants for a couple of months. (Not that Tre didn't deserve to go home for screwing up royally during Restaurant Wars, but it feels wrong that he's gone and Malarkey's in the top four.)

Interesting that in both the Quickfire and the Elimination, there was early talk of Casey's dish tasting the best, but Hung won the first for reasons unknown (the Le Cirque owner's joke about wanting to pick her because she's hot was skirting the edge of being charming, and only because he's an old European guy) and the second in part because she called her otherwise great dish coq au vin when it wasn't exactly that. I can see Colicchio's point -- if you order a dish off a restaurant menu, you should get the dish as named/described -- but I don't know that it's a worse sin than Hung's non-puffy potatoes. Still, Hung's got skills, and I look forward to seeing what the two of them make in the next two episodes, and what ways Dale and Brian choose to implode on the way to the finale.

I've been keeping up with "Weeds" all season but only feel compelled to write about it on occasion -- in this case, because the writers finally decided to send U-Turn to the crack den in the sky. With all due respect to Paige Kennedy's performance, I couldn't wait to be rid of the guy. I don't want Nancy's career to be completely consequence-free, but being an indentured servant to this psycho was too far to the other extreme, especially since I still don't quite understand how she and Conrad wound up in debt to him in the first place.

I look forward to the inevitable Nancy/Conrad/Heylia reconciliation, though the highlight of the series continues to be Doug vs. Celia. Doug demonstrated not only uncanny accuracy with the five-iron, as Matthew Modine noted, but had me laughing hysterically when he showed up at the construction site wearing the dirt weasel (or whatever it is) t-shirt. Why was Kevin Nealon so rarely this funny on SNL?

One downside to the episode was the arrival of Olsen Twin #1 (or #2, I forget) as Silas' latest love interest. I have no idea whether she was any good or not, because my eyes start to hurt anytime I look directly at the screen when she's on it. Anyone else have a similar reaction?

Speaking of people I'm sometimes afraid to look at, Holly Hunter spends the first 10 minutes or so of the "Saving Grace" finale showing off her toned glutes, but the episode's overall focus is on a different part of Grace's anatomy: the scar on her shoulder that's been the subject of so many ominous close-ups in the past. The revelation of how she got it doesn't exactly unlock the puzzle of Grace -- she was already engaging in reckless sexual behavior when Devil/Evil guy stabbed her, after all -- but the idea of Grace exposing herself emotionally, if not physically, to all of her co-workers with that interrogation is a positive step on her road to redemption. The first step towards solving a problem is admitting that you have onem, and all that.

Because the police story was tied so intimately to Grace -- a fact that was obvious long before she went into the interrogation room -- it was more compelling than previous cases have been, but that's a trick you can only pull once or twice a season, if that, before it gets old. (Last week's eeeevil druglord episode, which I didn't blog on, at least featured the awesome visual of Early flying in to stop Grace from going to The Light.) When the show comes back next year, I hope Nancy Miller and the other writers give up the ghost on the cop thing -- not necessarily by giving Grace a new career, but by making the cases at best a background detail as Grace deals with Earl, her family and all the men in her life. Because those procedural stories are as big a waste of Holly Hunter's time as they are mine.

What did everybody else think?


Alan Sepinwall said...

I forgot to mention in the "Top Chef" stuff that while Hung's getting the Villain Edit, Dale seemed far more irksome in this episode. What kind of junior high move was asking Hung for advice on how to win the Quickfire, then acting petulant when he (rightly) wouldn't offer it?

memphish said...

I'm rooting for Casey at this point because Hung is a miserable human being, refusing to offer help and whining to the judges when he gets none in return. I think the guest judge in the elim. challenge summed it up best though when he said he'd hire Hung. If I was running a kitchen, I'd hire Hung too for his technical skills, but I think Casey is better at coming up with more innovative ideas and works with more interesting ingredients and techniques.

I think Colicchio was having to reach pretty hard to criticize Casey for misnaming her dish. I love to make Coq au Vin (and eat it at restaurants) and I'm not cooking an old rooster, and if I'm paying for it it better not be old rooster either.

rukrusher said...

Re Grace

I agree that the procedural police stuff has been rather pedestrian at best, but I do think Grace's job is a large part of the desire to portray the long term impact of the Ok City bombing. All of Grace's siblings are either involved directly with responding to the incident or helping the community deal with the emotional scars from the attack. Plus she comes from a large family of mostly brothers who are all living in the shadow of the father and her choice to become a cop and dedicate herself to this mans world is also a strong part of the whole story. I do not see how you separate the police stories and still have a show. If her whole life is her job and her only social contacts are her family, who she wants to avoid, and her co-workers who she is slowly alienating, (she has slept with three of them this season alone.) I think what I want is more compelling police stories, not less of them.

Taleena said...

Dale was pretty grating this episode and if Brian can impress that panel of judges with a rustic (read non pretentious) dish, even if he needed to scale back on the green puree, then he deserves to be there. Do I think Tre should still be there? Yes, but I don't think Brian is undeserving.

Unlike last season when it was the battle of the loathsomes.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I think what I want is more compelling police stories, not less of them.

I want them, too. I just don't think the current creators -- or almost anybody currently working in television, really -- is capable of giving them to us. There's been such a glut of cop shows for the last 10-15 years that there is no single-episode case we haven't seen a million times before, usually done better.

The cop shows that still work do so by using the cases as, at most, a framework on which to hang the real point of the show: Vic Mackey's constant attempts to stay out of jail ("The Shield"), the decay of the Baltimore infrastructure ("The Wire"), pickles conducting electricity ("CSI"), etc.

I agree that Grace's job is important to defining her as a character, but the writers havne't done a very good job of using the stories to illustrate things about her character. They're just there to fill time and provide a good promo.

Anonymous said...

Alan --

I believe the debt came about like this (and my memory is a little vague, but I think this close):

Nancy and Conrad promised $300K of pot to the Armenians. U-Turn got wind of it and showed up, claiming half. (Or maybe it was the other way around.)

When the pot wasn't there, U-Turn and the Armenians wanted their 300K. U-Turn bought out the Armenians' share of the debt. Then Helia showed up and paid off Conrad's debt of 150K, but wouldn't help Nancy.

Anonymous said...

Why was Kevin Nealon so rarely this funny on SNL?
I'm guessing because Weeds has better writers.

I like Saving Grace (at least enough to keep watching it), but am I the only one who thinks that Holly Hunter should tone it down a bit? IMO she's really overdoing the whole country-girl, tough cop routine.

What I'm trying to say is that I can really tell that she's acting, especially when she's around those other cops, and I find that kinda jarring.

Oh, and if it wasn't for the Angel Earl angle, I definitely wouldn't be watching this show. It's no where near as good as, for example, Dexter.

And speaking of Dexter, I think Holly Hunter could learn a thing or two from Michael C. Hall when it comes to realistically portraying a character.

Alan Sepinwall said...

And I've fixed the attempted Latin joke in the subject title.

Anonymous said...

Everybody used to talk about waiting for the Olsen twins to come of age. Little did we know that they would turn into bug-eyed, heroin-thin freaks.

Anonymous said...

The debt thing kind of came about as Tuck wrote but a little backwards.

DEA agent Peter, realizing he had put his career on the line for basically nothing (Nancy was never going to have feelings for him) decided to cut his losses and force her to give him the money for the sale of the pot. She and Conrad found U-Turn to sell the pot to. Unfortunately, U-Turn decided to rob them instead of paying for the pot.
Meanwhile, Heylia, trying to get herself and Conrad out of trouble with the DEA, hired the Armenians to kill Peter. She told them that Conrad would pay them with the money from the U-Turn deal not knowing that the money didn't exist.
Then the pot wasn't there (thanks Silas, the most unlikable character on television besides Hank Moody) so Nancy and Conrad owed both U-Turn and the Armenians. U-Turn then payed off the Armenians so that Nancy and Conrad only owed him. However, since he was robbing them anyway, the debt was really just U-Turn doing whatever the f**k he wants.

Got it?

Anyway, I also hated the Olsen scenes. Her character has cliche written on her face and it was all so rushed.
Then again, I hate any storyline involving Silas.

Beckylooo said...

Aside from the fact that I think Paige Kennedy's performance was actually quite bad (did ANYone believe for a second that he was actually strangling Nancy? Stage Combat 101, friends) I agree with every word of your take on Weeds. I wasn't as bothered by how they ended up in debt to U Turn (though it was unnecessarily convoluted) but rather that three rather smart individuals couldn't find a way to out fox the dolt. U Turns a boob. Blowing Nancy's best asset, her ability to move through the "straight" world with out attracting attention, by blowing her cover over and over. Not that the writers used that to raise the stakes. They ignored it and hoped it would go away. And trying to use Nancy as "muscle"? Absurd. Completely, totally absurd.

They've had to spend so much time untwisting the plot pretzel they made during last season's finale that they've had no room for the solid character work, emotional life and heart that previously acted as grounding for the absurdity. The only flash of heart left is sweet Shane. Poor kid. Hopefully with U Turn gone they can return to form.

Otherwise I'd prefer 30 mins of Doug taking chip shots at Celia. The role of Nealon's lifetime, to be sure.

Anonymous said...

I loved the challenges on last night's Top Chef, but I agree with Memphish that the stated reasons for not giving Casey the Elimination win were pretty weak. I can see voting Hung the winner because of his sophisticated technique and talent for classic French cooking, but none of the judges said anything like that. The impression that I got was that Casey came in second because she named her dish the wrong name. Lame. (Admittedly this might be an editing issue rather than a judging issue, mabye the Bravo folks didn't choose to show us the best articulation of why Hung's dish should have won.)

I also agree that a Casey-Hung final two is being heavily forshadowed, but I think there may be a dark horse final pair: the Casey-Dale "best buds" showdown. Hung has made some amazing-looking dishes, but he's also been a bit boneheaded about criticism, blaming the "unsophisticated palates" of his judges for failures like his arroz con pollo and the cauliflower ice cream. It would surprise but not shock me if Hung got a bit too "out there" during the Final 4 challenge and ended up getting cut in favor of Dale, who is not consistent but is capable of putting out some delicious stuff. I will be shocked if Casey doesn't make the finals, but I've been wrong about this stuff before!

Dani In NC said...

I'm with Hunter -- I wouldn't be watching Saving Grace if it weren't for the heavenly redemption angle. I also agree with Rukrusher -- I don't know how they could get rid of the cop stories. I like seeing Grace interact with her coworkers, but the cases themselves are boring.

Anonymous said...

I wrote an essay once for an anthology (with proper thank yous to Alan) where I argued that while Det. Kelly was a more compelling character than Andy Sipowicz, you couldn't build a long-lasting series on an existential Sisyphus-like character like Kelly. I suggested that switching the focus to Sipowicz (made easy by Caruso's departure) allowed NYPD Blue to last forever because Andy was a character who could grow over time. I loved that show, and loved Dennis Franz, but it was never as good for me as when Kelly was there.

The more Holly Hunter's character moves towards redemption, the less interesting she becomes to me. I've seen that show, on ABC back in the day ... I don't need to see it again, no matter how good Hunter is (and she's plenty good). Since nothing else on the series is anywhere near as good as Hunter, I'm not sure I'll be watching when it returns.

Anonymous said...

"because she's hot was skirting the edge of being charming, and only because he's an old European guy"

ummm... come on. casey IS hot. are we to deny an old dude an observation WHILE he does the right thing and awards hung the prize?

"skirting the edge" my ass. hung is lucky this young american guy wasn't the judge...

Chris Littmann said...

Alan --
To explain how Nancy/Conrad ended up in U-Turn's debt...when the whole thing went bad at the end of Season 2, the Armenians were owed money from the crop they were going to sell to U-Turn. U-Turn assumed their debt and essentially bought the pot that no longer existed...and halfway through typing this I see another commenter already explained.

Anywho, when I saw them reach that hill, I turned to my roommate and before I could blurt out "Oh my god he's going to die!" He dropped and started seizing. I'm like you, not sad to see U-Turn go, but I do wonder, given that we've seen Marvin's dark side, if he'll take over above Nancy.

JJB said...

are we to deny an old dude an observation WHILE he does the right thing and awards hung the prize?

I didn't really appreciate the inclusion of the "old dude's observation," especially when Casey interviewed earlier in the episode about the obstacles women face when working in the kitchen.

Anonymous said...


I read the Grace finale the opposite way. I found the serial killer (or budding serial killer) storyline incredibly tiresome, especially since in the end it was used to isolate Grace from the rest of the cast for most of the episode. We already know Grace is damaged goods, and we aren't surprised that her behavior has gotten her (physically) hurt in the past -- so why not focus on why she is worthy of redemption in the present? Unlike some of the previous commentators, I think I like most of the cast on this show, and I would like to spend non-procedural time with them (e.g. the Hanadarko family cruise, maybe more time with Ham and Butch).

And while I liked that Rhetta got something more to do, her storyline turned Earl into a puzzle maker, sending obscure signals via carved ducks and Indian idols. Shouldn't a last chance angel not communicate in riddles? And Earl's comments at the episode's close, suggesting Grace's life will get bumpy as her mission becomes clear, wasn't encouraging. If the answer to the question of why Grace is worth redeeming has to do with preventing bomb going off or some such nonsense, I'm not really interested.

The show has never found a good balance between the Earl stuff and the procedural stuff. If this had been a true season finale I'd be curious about how the writers would retool and readjust the show based on viewer response. But since I assume this is a cable "finale" with plenty of next "season"'s episodes already in the can, I don't necessarily expect a change in structure come next year.

I still think the show could pull things together, but the writers need to look at how other shows have tackled this tonal problem -- Medium, maybe.

As for Top Chef, I try not to parse the judges' comments too closely, as it is clear that a tremendous amount of cutting goes on in those sequences. In fact, I'm sure that in many cases they could edit the sequence to completely mislead the audience. It is only in the accumulation of comments over a few episodes that you get a real sense of the chefs, and I think your impressions about the final four are spot on.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, same here. I respect Casey for laughing it off, and I'll give the "old dude" a pass by virtue of age and cultural background, but I would rather have heard him praise Casey's skill instead of her looks when explaining why she came in second.

We got a really weird edit of that Quickfire -- they clearly showed the Le Cirque guy calling Casey's the "best yet" when he tasted it, but he gave the win to Hung. I can't help wondering if he ultimately decided to make Hung the winner precisely because Casey is an attractive female and so he figured Hung's *must* have been better. Again, this might just be poor/confusing editing, but it left a bad taste in my mouth.

Eric said...

One thing to remember about the Top Chef finals - they're like the Apprentice finals in that the two finalists have to lead a team (although a much smaller one) in order to complete the assignment. Hung has shown zero leadership ability throughout the season, and more than that, simply doesn't care about the other people in the kitchen. His carelessness has consistently made the kitchen a more dangerous and difficult place to work, and he rarely takes responsibility for that. I don't see his sous chefs working very hard to make him look good. (Then again, I don't see anyone deliberately sabotaging him, either. That's just not how these guys have played.)

Anonymous said...

I've wanted to like Weeds, but the show's tone is just too damn smug and immature for me. I'm primarily an urban dweller, but I've also lived in the 'burbs and like them very much. Weeds's self-satisifed contempt for all things suburban is just off-putting, and I also don't think it's inherently funny that everyone's a pothead.

Justin Kirk's pretty funny and memorable, and Mary Louise Park is luminous, but this thing just doesn't sing for me.

I also agree with the other commenter that NYPD Blue was never as compelling post-David Caruso. The Kelly character may have been limited, but it was impossible to take my eyes off him.

Unknown said...

Memphish: What you do with your money is certainly your prerogative, but trust me: it tastes better with rooster. A more mature bird just stands up better to the long braising, and the texture is much less, well, overcooked chicken-ish.

Hung was absolutely in the right, at least in this case -- with five contestants left, on the eve of the finale, it would be ridiculous to essentially tell a competitor how to win. It was worth a try, though. I'm still surprised by all the kvetching about the editing. It makes perfect sense for Bravo to withhold the full logic of an elimination; otherwise there would be no drama in the final moments. And what kind of reality show would that be?

Anonymous said...

"We got a really weird edit of that Quickfire -- they clearly showed the Le Cirque guy calling Casey's the "best yet" when he tasted it, but he gave the win to Hung. I can't help wondering if he ultimately decided to make Hung the winner precisely because Casey is an attractive female and so he figured Hung's *must* have been better. Again, this might just be poor/confusing editing, but it left a bad taste in my mouth."

here is my take, from my old age and as an attempt to explain how we old think to you young (particularly the females here.)

"old cook judge dude" was going to give the quickfire prize to hung. he liked casey's dish. almost. but not enough for her to win. so he felt the need to pay her a "compliment" as to her almost winning. he complimented her on the fact that although she lost, he found her exquisite. i guess this has gone out of style.

*young women* outrage!

*old french dudes like myself* yes you are, and i don't mind saying so...

it wasn't a slight. he was being honest and nice and graceful and sweet, in a "old cook judge dude" french way.

i assume you would have rather he said "hung, you win. casey, you suck!"


that is how you do it here in america, no?

that statement would make you feel better? as a woman?

see, now i am confused...