Friday, September 21, 2007

Toby time

Spoilers for the "Burn Notice" finale and the "Survivor: China" premiere coming up just as soon as I buy a clean cell phone...

As mentioned in yesterday's column, I really dug the two-hour "Burn Notice" finale, which had both the drug and spy stories working neatly in parallel. For the first hour, we assume each story is going one way, with the husband and wife and Richard Schiff, respectively, as the bad guys, only to have the real villains show up around the 60-minute mark, with the stakes increasing dramatically.

Bruce Campbell will be the first guy to tell you that he's not a master thespian, but it's always cool to see how a slight tweak of his usual affect can make previously buffoonish behavior seem completely serious and credible. I liked seeing Sam hold up under torture, just as much as I was glad to see Michael finally bring his mom into the fold (not that I love the character, but the secret identity stuff didn't pay enough dividends to be worth the time spent on it) and to see Michael make some progress in his thing with the CIA.

At the same time, I hope the cliffhanger doesn't foretell too big a change in the status quo for next season. I thought the show hit a really nice groove towards the end of this first season, and I'd hate to see them flip things around so quickly.

Meanwhile, "Survivor: China" has one more episode to convince me that I'm not tired of the format. (I've already seen the "Earl" and "Ugly Betty" premieres.) It's not even that the premiere did anything particularly bad, but I've seen so many iterations of this show now that it's really hard to get enthusiastic anymore, even though we had an awesome season as recently as last fall. A few bullet-point notes:
  • On behalf of all people from the New York/New Jersey area, please shut up, Courtney. You don't speak for us in your disdain for the rest of the world. Okay, so maybe you do a little, but not that early and often.
  • Frosti does parkour! Awesome! I love parkour, and if you don't love parkour -- which you can get a cinematic glimpse of in these clips from "District B-13" and "Casino Royale" -- I am very sad for you. Not sure how useful a style of running designed for urban areas will work in the jungle, or even on these obstacle courses (the gravedigger's brute strength turned out to be far more valuable), but I'd like to see him really show off soon.
  • They're back down to 16 players for the first time in ages (Pearl Islands, maybe?), and it's about damn time. 16 is already too many people to keep track of, but 18 or 20 was ridiculous.
  • Given the number of times now that contestants have been stranded with only the clothes on their backs, why in the world would anyone be stupid to wear high heels, buckle boots, no bra, etc., at any point while in the employ of team Burnett? From the instant I showed up, I would be wearing several layers of the most comfortable, versatile clothing possible. (Not that I would go on "Survivor," as the hunger thing and my dislike of sleeping outdoors would make me useless.)
What did everybody else think?


R.A. Porter said...

(Alan, sorry for double-posting this, but I didn't think you were going to put up a Burn Notice finale post after the grab bag yesterday.)


I've been waiting weeks for the payoff on (former high-profile tv actor/actress who's barely had a line on Burn Notice and yet I'm sure is deep in the conspiracy) and they just didn't give me enough in the finale! I mean, the tiniest of teases so I'm now sure about it, but nothing more!!!

Alan Sepinwall said...

Which actress are you referring to?

Anonymous said...

i've been on the fence about this show all season, i watched the first half of the pilot and just never really got into it and now it's been getting great reviews so i'm leaning towards netflixing it

where would you rank burn notice in comparison to other current cable dramas?

and for the record I will now without question netflix the show once it comes out on dvd just because schiff was in a few episodes

Alan Sepinwall said...

It's not in the class of, say, "Mad Men." It's basically like a B movie -- and I think by now we need a similar description for TV shows that don't have much ambition but do their genre stuff really well. B-TV doesn't sound right, does it?

Anonymous said...

I said the same thing to my husband last night about the Survivor clothes -- I'd never show up in anything less that a pair of those ugly pants that zip off into shorts over a bathing suit layered with a tank top and a waterproof jacket all topped off with a pair of hiking boots and two sets of socks!

High heels? No bra? Have those people ever even watched Survivor??

And as skinny as that girl from NY is, she'll probably waste away to nothing so quickly we won't have to worry about how rude she is for long.

KaveDweller said...

I have been loving Burn Notice all summer. I wish it were coming back in January or something, cause that cliffhanger sucks.

As for Survivor....meh. I can never tell anything this early, I don't think we even heard half the people talk. Some people seemed cool and other seemed annoying, but I can't remember anyones names to really say anything. I am glad "Chicken" went. I could not understand a word he said.

Anonymous said...

Is Burn Notice leaving the air now, or has USA revealed any plans to rerun the season?

It didn't seem like a particularly interesting concept when it first started, but there's been so much positive buzz that I want to check it out now.

As for Survivor, I check out a couple of rounds ago and never regretted it. Get back to me when it the ousted members are put to death rather than merely sent off. Now those would be stakes worth watching!

R.A. Porter said...

Audrey Landers. The moment I saw her I was sure she was involved. I'm about 90% sure that was her voice on the phone calls last night.

How about we call shows like this Pulp TV? Good, clean fun like an old Shadow or Doc Savage.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Ahhh. I didn't recognize the woman on the phone in my review screener, and I specifically asked the USA publicist who she was and was told my version still had a temporary dub for those scenes.

On the other hand, no disrespect to Audrey Landers, but I can't see her on this show in that type of role. A client? Sure. The orchestrator of Michael's misery? Not so much.

Maybe it's a soundalike. I wasn't looking at the screen the first time Johnny Lee Messner showed up, and I could have sworn it was James Remar from Dexter.

Davy said...

Yeah! for parkour. Yeah! for District B-13 (which co-stars the "founder" of parkour).

Actually, I didn't know until you posted how to spell parkour. I'd been assuming it was just like the French word "parcours," and a quick look at Wiki explains how the word derived from that exact word.

I had hoped Frosti would have done better at this part of the challenge, but to be fair to him, he lost a lot of time by accidentally forgetting to drop his drawbridge, and yet he'd *still* caught up by the end of his run. I'd say that, if he can channel that without forgetting to do things, he may get a chance to show off on another obstacle course.

Chicken didn't have the social skills to play this game. When everyone knows you've got the skills to help, passive-aggressively attacking their decisions and then refusing to offer advice? That's a one-way ticket off the island.

And oh yeah, I HATED the NY girl. She thinks being from New York means you're hateful and emo and dismissive of everything, and she's proud of that? O-kay then... I'm from Kentucky and am at times hateful, emo and dismissive, and my NY friends are probably more happy-go-lucky than I am. She's got a lot to learn about how location doesn't necessarily make a person. But I don't think she'll last long enough to learn that lesson here.

R.A. Porter said...

It certainly could have been a soundalike, but look back over the season (I think I've got this timeline right):

- She shows up as Sam's new ladyfriend at the end of 1.5 - the episode in which the Feds back off Michael to be replaced by Jason Bly in 1.6.

- She graciously gives Sam a Caddy with OnStar (a great technology for being bugged and tracked if you can get the access...I mean, every word you say and everywhere you go)

- For a reasonably well known actress, she hasn't had much screen time at all. Granted, she hasn't been working much in the past few years, but to men of a certain age she (and her sister) are pretty unforgettable.

- Arye Gross played *way* against type, though the writers did a good job of making it look like he was just doing his regular-guy shtick.

All I know is...I'm already missing what turned out to be one of the best shows this summer.

Alan Sepinwall said...

was that Landers as Sam's sugar momma? I had forgotten.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Mad Men, why the rerun last night? Was that on the schedule or a last-minute change?

Alan Sepinwall said...

On the schedule for quite a while. I got next week's episode (which is very good) a few weeks ago and it was labeled as airing on the 27th.

Not sure why they did this. One of the benefits of 12 or 13 episode cable seasons is that you get to air all the episodes in a row, major holidays excepted. All this does is increase the number of episodes that will have to compete directly with original broadcast network fare.

Anonymous said...

I thought Audrey Landers was going to turn out to be the villain in the first episode in which she appeared. When she didn't, I couldn't tell if they were holding her back for something bigger, or if she just isn't really that much of a star.

And speaking of guest stars.... What was the deal with killing off Richard Schiff after two minutes of screen time? It seemed as if he was really dead, but I can't believe he would have taken such a tiny role (in a cable drama, yet). If he doesn't turn up in some larger capacity next season, his agent's got a lot of 'splainin' to do.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Schiff was hired as a fake-out. You hear his voice on the phone, see his face in a few early scenes this episode, and you assume he's been cast as The Big Bad, when in fact he's the Janet Leigh in "Psycho," there to be killed when you least expect it.

Schiff may have agreed to do it knowing it wouldn't take up a lot of his time but would be memorable, or because he's friends with someone on the production, or just because he wanted a paid trip to Miami. Actors take jobs for all sorts of reasons.

Anonymous said...

Alan, if that's the case, then I think they wasted him. The moment he came on the screen, he seemed like a jaded CIA hand with a wry sense of humor -- a character out of "Syriana," only potentially funny. (As opposed to the cartoon spies and heavies this show's guest stars usually play.) He would have been the perfect person to explain what was going on behind the scenes that led to Michael getting burned. We may have been faked out as to his reason for being there, but it also seemed like kind of a rip-off that we didn't get to see more of him.

Anonymous said...

BigTed, I too was looking forward to Schiff after hearing his voice on the phone a few episodes back. It brought back fond memories of his Entourage cameo (back when that show was worthwhile) where he begged Ari to get him cast in some sort of action role because he wanted to beat people up and be a badass onscreen. However, I'm definitely ok with it because for me it was a great fakeout, as I didn't see his death coming at all. Figure you hire Richard Schiff, you at least keep him around longer than the other antagonists (Sam's FBI guys, Bly, Arye Gross, etc), so when that doesn't happen, I'm really surprised and I like that.

Liked the finale in that they brought together a lot of the side characters they had used throughout the season (including Michael's brother, and Barry the $ launderer), everyone got to be funny and dramatic and used in a logical manner, the plots twisted and ran into each other in good ways, and things blew up in satisfying fashion.

The show doesn't seem out to analyze the human condition or transcend any genre or medium, just provide a good time with fun characters in a reasonably exotic local. I think it succeeds there very well; there's definitely something to be said for aiming at the Center-Right field gap and hitting it every time.

K J Gillenwater said...

It helps if you skip a few seasons of "Survivor" and then watch. Seems fresher. However, since I am a huge "Ugly Betty" and "My Name is Earl" fan, "Survivor China" just dropped off my list. Which is too bad, because I was looking forward to watching people get kidnapped. I was hoping Ms. Charming New Yorker would be first.

I am really hoping that Frosti and the quiet gravedigger go far in this game. Both of them seem like really cool people.

Unknown said...

Burn Notice is Popcorn TV. It's light and not especially nutritious, but who doesn't enjoy it?

Mad Men is Serious TV. It's visually detailed, and I'm sure it's well-written, but I gave up on it after 2 1/2 episodes. It was too slow, and I found I was browsing the web instead of watching. I haven't missed an episode of Burn Notice, though.

Anonymous said...

R.A. Porter:

I'm sympathetic to your theory, but all I can say is that it didn't sound like Landers to me. But I realize that really doesn't matter, since the voice could be easily redubbed by any actress. In fact, I think your best strategy is to start campaigning for Landers to have the role. You have until next summer.


It's basically like a B movie -- and I think by now we need a similar description for TV shows that don't have much ambition but do their genre stuff really well.

Why not just separate the genre from the ambition? _Burn Notice_ is a P.I. show. _Mad Men_ is a historical soap (see _Homefront_, _American Dreams_, or _China Beach_); it may very well be more than that (though I'd argue that it isn't), but I think the genre label is accurate. Similarly, _The Sopranos_ was always a mob drama, and _Deadwood_ was always a western. Some labels are tricky -- _The Wire_ was a crime drama but is urban drama? And what the heck is _Dexter_? -- but on the whole I find that most people "get" genre descriptions.

So calling _Burn Notice_ a good P.I. show is a compliment based on the genre label. While this label seems equivalent to "Popcorn TV" and "unambitious," I find those latter descriptions can come off like backhanded compliments.


Anonymous said...

"Burn Notice" has been a fun watch this summer. I didn't mind Schiff making a cameo appearance, although it would be fun to have him around a bit more. And if Sam's sugar mama turns out to be the Big Bad, I hope we don't find out until the last season because I'd hate to see this show burn (no pun intended) out too soon.

I like "Survivor: China" so far. Gwen Stefani's clone, Courtney, needs to go ASAP. Not only is she obnoxious, but she's too skinny for this show and as much as I enjoy watching some of these idiots suffer, I'd hate to see her get any thinner. My early faves are Todd (the gay Mormon flight attendant), the Grave Digger, and Frosti the Parkour Boy.

R.A. Porter said...

I'd like to clarify one point: I think Audrey Landers is playing the Mr. Trick-style big bad. In other words, she's going to look like the top of the food chain for some amount of time, but will probably be killed off when it's revealed that the real super-villainous mastermind behind it all has been...


Michael Westen's not-dead father who was a super-spy all along!

Alright, maybe I'm crazy.

Anonymous said...

^If they go that route, I'd rather it turn out to be his mom, who burned him because she wanted him closer to home (the him almost getting killed all the time stuff not being part of her plan, of course).

R.A. Porter said...

Oooh, Dez! Nice one. I'd never even considered Moms as the mastermind. Of course both are crazy ideas...crazy like a fox!

Anonymous said...

Hopefully, one of us will be right. Then only one of us will be crazy, hee hee!