Wednesday, October 31, 2007

House: Hey! You! I know you! I know you!

Spoilers for “House” coming up just as soon as I make sure my pills haven’t been tampered with...

Ahh, the therapy episode. A tried and true TV staple, and handy as all get out when you have a bunch of new characters who haven’t had much solo time to establish themselves. This being “House,” of course, they couldn’t do things as simply as to have the candidates deal with an actual therapist, so instead they disguised the concept with the mirror syndrome patient, well-played by Frank Whaley. And, as Grumpy noted, this wasn’t exactly like seeing a shrink because the patient was completely unbiased. As viewers, we needed to buy into the notion that he could completely psychoanalyze someone after hearing them utter a few sentences, but when you’ve got a dozen or so characters and only 42 minutes of screen time, leaps need to be taken.

(Poor Whaley, by the way. His career seemed so promising after “Field of Dreams,” “The Freshman” and his Oliver Stone movies, but then the ironically-titled “Career Opportunities” essentially killed it, and now most people just know him as the guy whose burger Sam Jackson eats in “Pulp Fiction.”)

Sorry. End digression. While I don’t think we learned anything we didn’t already know about Cutthroat Bitch, Grumpy or Unnicknamed Plastic Surgeon, Kutner (who I keep wanting to just call Kumar for simplicity’s sake) was a pretty blank slate before last night, and we even got some minor insight into the mystery that is Thirteen.

While I’d be fine with never seeing Cameron or Chase again, I’m glad Foreman’s back. Omar Epps and Hugh Laurie have developed some strong chemistry over the years -- maybe not Laurie/Robert Sean Leonard strong, but strong enough -- and he serves a valuable role that I don’t think any of the candidates can, as the one guy who always stands up to House and the one doctor House respects unreservedly (much as he acts like he doesn’t).

Nice to see Wilson and Cuddy get more prominence after being mostly AWOL during the candidate search, and the only thing the episode was really lacking were more reminders that Chase had chosen “Nobody” in the pool; by the time we got to the payoff about Chase and House splitting the profits, I had forgotten about the set-up. Plus, I’m pleased to see in the previews that the dreaded Michael Michele’s role won’t be one (presumably) that could threaten to turn into a regular gig.

What did everybody else think?
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Reaper: It's the great Satan, Pumpkin Sam

Spoilers for the much-improved Halloween episode of “Reaper” coming up just as soon as I figure out whether I still have my copy of Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” script...

Just when I was about to write off “Reaper” as a one-episode wonder, along comes an episode that was easily the best since the pilot, full of humor, pathos and tweaks on an already-tired formula. Now, a show about Satan’s minions should consider a Haloween episode a gimme, but the “Reaper” of the last few weeks seemed incapable of rising to the occasion. (I figured, at best, that we’d see Sam go after the soul while dressed as a ballerina or something else humiliating.)

When I’ve complained about the lack of face time for the escaped souls, a character like Leon -- very loosely based, given the real guy’s fondness for anarchism, on Leon Czolgosz -- is exactly what I had in mind. It’s a lot more interesting when Sam’s prey has a personality – compare how Leon dominated the episode while the primary target, the Butcher, was just an afterthought (and the lamest-looking CGI hellhound since Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis at the end of “Ghostbusters”). It helps when you have a very funny guy like Patton Oswalt around, but Leon was entertaining both as himself and as a wedge between Sam and Sock.

Meanwhile, we got the first real growth in Sam’s relationship with the Devil, who (perhaps foolishly) let Sam witness an unguarded moment of his Linus-esque melancholy over the commercialization of Halloween. I don’t know if any other Satan-themed movie or TV show has made that point before (I stopped with “Brimstone” after the pilot), but it’s an astute – and, as beautifully played by Ray Wise, funny – one.

There were some other nice touches throughout, like the shameless Sock’s pumpkin envy, the visits to the DMV both without and then with Gladys, and Ben bonding with yet another animal from Hell. I even found Ted amusing for once with his overenthusiasm for Halloween.

So, one-time fluke thanks to the Halloween inspiration, or a sign that Fazekas and Butters have realized they can’t just stick to the formula every week?
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Everything you wanted to know about the WGA strike but were afraid to ask

Thoughts on "House" and, if I see it, "Reaper," coming up later this morning. In the meantime, tonight at midnight is when the WGA contract expires, but there's a chance that a strike could be pushed back a week to 10 days, according to Variety. That story also has a good breakdown of the issues still being negotiated and where each one stands. Adalian and Schneider also have a very helpful primer on just what TV is going to look like in the event of a strike. Short version: fans of "Everybody Hates Chris" and trashy reality TV will be fine, fans of latenight TV are screwed, and fans of everything else are somewhere in between. Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Heroes: Hell if I know

Spoilers for "Heroes" coming up just as soon as I find a non-English speaker I can monologue to...

It's a measure of how low a bar "Heroes" has set for itself this season that I could come to the end of an episode with so much wrong with it like "The Line" and think that it was actually one of the better installments they've done.

The bad parts are obvious: Mohinder remains little more than a writer's tool who inevitably chooses the path of least intelligence to suit the needs of a story, Maya and Alejandro are just as dull and repetitive with Sylar as they were without him, every story moves at a glacial pace (arguably this week's worst offender: Peter and his bonnie wee lass in Montreal), and promised huge moments never quite materialize (the legendary battle between Kensei and an army that Hiro kept describing turned out to be two or three guys chasing them through a tent maze).

And yet, in the middle of this mess were a few great scenes in which Jack Coleman and the writers re-embraced the dark side of the Force when it comes to HRG. Threatening a man with the loss of his most treasured memories is a lot more entertaining than seeing Jack Bauer shoot people in the leg -- though the fact that HRG later killed the guy (in another pleasant surprise) sort of rendered that punishment moot.

But the problems remain huge. Scott Collins from the LA Times did a brief interview with Tim Kring the other day in which Kring sounded mystified about all the complaints about this season:
"People tend to look at last season and see things in it that were not in it," Kring told me by phone. "We haven't deviated that much" from last year's formula.
Actually, I agree with both of those statements. I think the novelty and forward momentum of the first season often made it seem more interesting than it actually was, and I think by far the biggest miscalculation of season two has been Kring's refusal to deviate from last year's formula. We already did the whole "heroes across the globe slowly converge on New York to prevent an apocalypse" arc last year (and my guess is that it's New York again because the "Heroes" FX team already had the CGI code for Times Square and it made their lives easier). Why are we just repeating that? Why not have more of the characters together from the start of this year, if only to reduce the number of storylines and therefore help them all progress more quickly?

It's strange how Kring and company have no problem borrowing liberally from comic books when it suits their purposes (the various stories lifted from Watchmen, Monica's powers, the entirety of "Five Years Later") and yet they're reluctant to copy such an obvious theme as the formation and dysfunction of a super-team. I'm not saying they should have broken out the spandex and codenames, but a season where, say, the Petrelli and Bennet families were living in close proximity and struggling to define their relationships and how they should use their powers seems a hell of a lot more interesting than anything that's been done with these characters spread across the globe.

Maybe it's a failure of nerve. The season one denouement showed that Kring and company are going to struggle with the big epic payoffs (though "Five Years Later" did just fine as a mostly standalone epic), so rather than try something more ambitious that they might have even more trouble pulling off, the writers have retreated back to the formula that served them so well back when the show and its characters were new and we didn't know how the magic tricks worked. And if that's the reason, then I doubt a significant improvement's going to come anytime soon. Like Kring says, this is what "Heroes" is, like it or not. At the moment, I don't like it very much.

What did everybody else think?
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Bones bonus

I had intended for today's column to actually be a three-fer, with the "Nip/Tuck" review, the "My So-Called Life" DVD preview, and also a few words about tonight's Halloween episode of "Bones." But I only have so much space in the paper, and went on longer than planned about McNamara/Troy in LA, so I'm going to take advantage of the unlimited space of this blog and write a bit about "Bones" after the jump.

Now, I never really warmed to "Bones" when it first debuted. I liked David Boreanaz displaying his light comedy chops as Booth, but Brennan seemed less a character to me than a collection of anti-social tics designed to approximate Dr. House. (Plus, on a more nitpicky level, I never bought into the notion that a woman this clueless about and uninterested in human behavior would either want to or be capable of writing a series of best-selling mystery novels.) Given how many TV shows I watch in a given week, I don't usually make time for crime procedurals, and on the rare occasions when I do, it's usually "NCIS," which makes me all nostalgic for the light dramas of my '80s youth.

But people I know like Dan Fienberg kept insisting that "Bones" had become a lot of fun. So when the show added John Francis Daley from "Freaks and Geeks" to the cast last week as a young shrink counseling Booth and Brennan about their (professional) relationship, I decided to give it another shot -- and I'm glad I did.

In the long period of time that I've been away, it would seem that the writers have played to Boreanaz's lighter side more and more, and he and Emily Deschanel have developed a nice comic rapport. Last week's therapy scenes were genuinely funny (and even kinda sweet when Booth thought Brennan wouldn't want to know him under different circumstances), and tonight's show has a lot of good scenes of them sparking off each other. The pictured Halloween costumes are a nice touch (I've always had a weakness for Halloween episodes, especially on dramas), but even better is a scene where the duo are interviewing a fundamentalist preacher. Bones the empiricist seems genuinely interested in how the guy justifies parts of his belief system, but naturally asks about it in the bluntest way possible, and Booth has to explain to the guy that this is just her being curious.

The mysteries are still limited by the nature of the format -- given X number of suspects in a 41-minute episode, odds are the killer's identity will be obvious well before the heroes figure it out -- but I like these characters and I was entertained watching them work. Since I'm not interested in any of the reality show options in this hour, I might have to work "Bones" into semi-regular rotation.
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All TV: 'Nip/Tuck' has a little work done

Today's column is a two-fer, starting with a look at the new season of "Nip/Tuck":
Early in tonight's "Nip/Tuck" season premiere (10 p.m., FX), our plastic surgeon anti-heroes are getting a tour of a TV show in need of some medical consultants when they witness the show's star throwing a tantrum over a script for a musical episode.

"That's the kind of desperate schlock you don't do until your fifth season!" he screams.

Though "Nip/Tuck" has thus far resisted the allure of an all-singing, all-dancing hour, the start of the show's fifth season finds creator Ryan Murphy trying two other gimmicks: moving the series from Miami to L.A., and having Christian Troy (Julian McMahon) and Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh) get involved with show-within-the-show "Hearts 'N Scalpels."
There's also a short item about the "My So-Called Life" DVD. Been having a lot of fun rewatching those episodes, especially the Jason Katims-penned "Life of Brian."

To read the full thing, click here. Will get to "Heroes" later today. Please save your comments until then. Click here to read the full post

Monday, October 29, 2007

HIMYM: Walk of shame

Brief spoilers for "How I Met Your Mother" coming up just as soon as I disinfect my couch...

Confidence in season... rising. I don't know that this one was as funny as last week's flashback-packed episode, but that's two in a row that reminded me of a conversation I once had with Craig Thomas. I was asking him about the way he and Bays and the other writers like to play with time and unreliable narration, and he said something like, "We like to do episodes that only we would do," if that makes any sense. Several of the episodes from the start of the season felt like they could have been slightly-altered scripts from a half-dozen '90s NBC sitcoms, where these last two have felt uniquely "HIMYM."

Last week obviously played up the chronological comedy, where here what worked were the focus on Marshall and the use of one social ritual (job recruitment) appearing indistinguishable from another (seduction) -- all of it conveniently explained to us by Barney.

The Porno Ted plot probably could have been done on other shows, but the presence of Barney -- and the echoes of "Slap Bet" -- still made it feel specific to this show.

My only complaint -- assuming it's not being done intentionally to mess with viewers like me -- is that, just as Busy Philipps showed up without getting a single scene with Jason Segel, John Cho comes and goes without getting to bounce off Neil Patrick Harris for the "Harold & Kumar" reunion. What's next: Nicholas Brendon plays Robin's new boyfriend in another one of those completely self-contained B-plots that doesn't feature any of the other actors?

What did everybody else think?
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Chuck: For your ears only, Casey

Spoilers for the latest "Chuck" coming up just as soon as I rank the James Bond movies in qualitative order (a list that would have "A View to a Kill" at or near the bottom)...

Damn, I enjoyed that. Easily the funniest "Chuck" to date, and one with a decent emotional core, too. I don't know if the show has levels beyond what it's giving us now, but if the execution can be this good every week, I'm cool with it.

Start with the funny, with the episode hilariously bookended by Morgan playing Mystery Crisper (I'll admit that I have a weakness for comedy about people eating or smelling disgusting things) and Chuck tormenting Casey with a rehash of the desert island sandwich debate. In between we got the Captain dressed as Biblical Adam (twice!), the Captain teaching Morgan how to be a tucker (and does it speak ill of me that I'm several years older than both Morgan and the Captain and yet I prefer to be untucked?), and Josh Schwartz spoofing himself with the slo-mo montage of Chuck running to profess his bromantic love to Morgan, which was note-for-note from the New Year's Eve episode of "The O.C." season one, down to the use of Finley Quaye's "Dice" on the soundtrack.

(And if you're not an "O.C." viewer, it's still funny as a spoof of the climax to half the bad romantic comedies produced since "When Harry Met Sally.")

On the emotional core side, the villain of the week worked well as a counterpoint to Chuck, with some similarities but not so many as to be "ER" or "Grey's Anatomy"-level sledgehammer-y, and Chuck and Morgan both dealt with some maturation issues and yet still managed to end the episode doing the Sandworm dance.

Good stuff all around (with the exception of Chuck's "View to a Kill" love, though it's probably age-appropriate as one of the first Bonds he saw). As I'm still wrestling with my twee tolerance when it comes to "Pushing Daisies," I'd have to say this episode puts "Chuck" in the lead as my favorite new show of the season.

What did everybody else think?
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Curb: You keep using that word

Brief "Curb Your Enthusiasm" spoilers coming up just as soon as I get a prescription filled...

Soooo close to being a classic "Curb" episode. All the ingredients were there, save the biggest one: the ending. I liked almost everything else -- dating a doctor as parallel to seeing a doctor, Jeff's dismay at turning bald (Jeff Garlin is almost as good as Susie Essman at playing comic rage, but it's often funnier because he's called on to do it so rarely), Larry getting into trouble for using the N-word (and, especially, Larry being branded a bigot by the pharmacist because of the doctor's hilariously-phrased note) -- but then we came to the final minutes and it was clear Larry didn't come up with a good way to end it.

After all, after getting into trouble twice for repeating verbatim what the guy in the men's room said, shouldn't Larry have figured out by now that he can tell the story without using the word? Plus, Jeff and Susie know the story now; when Larry froze up, why didn't one of them finish it?

Still, 95% of a really funny episode, and seeing Brenda Strong with Larry David reminded me of the old story about how, when he cast her to play braless wonder Sue Ellen Mischke, she noted that she was nursing and, therefore, could make her breasts whatever size Larry wanted.

What did everybody else think?
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Today's column is a mailbag, dealing in part with the possibility (probability?) of a WGA strike, the whereabouts of the "Law & Order" mothership, and the end of "Damages" (which I didn't see). Click here to read the full post

Hello. My name is Dexter Morgan. You killed my mother. Prepare to die.

Spoilers for "Dexter" coming right up (and, yes, I know I did the "Princess Bride" homage with a "Lost" post last spring, but it was too apropos to not recycle)...

Two different perspectives on the same situation: Dexter and Lila both believe that she’s helping him, but Lila thinks she’s helping Dexter beat his “addiction,” while Dexter thinks Lila’s on the verge of becoming his sidekick and confidante in serial killing. I don’t know if Dexter’s right, but considering the premise of the show, I don’t think Lila is, even though both of them came to these conclusions after she talked Dexter out of committing the most justified murder of his life.

Great episode, even if the red lighting in the bar and use of “Gimme Shelter” wasn’t so much a Scorsese homage as a bit of cheap shorthand. This is the most off the rails we’ve ever seen Dexter; even when he was screwing things up with Little Chino, he was at least sticking to the parts of The Code of Harry about preparation, concealing his identity, etc. Here, he just lost it, and it’s a mark of how well this show makes me both empathize with Dexter and understand his methods that, as he was in the middle of beating on and preparing to kill the man who killed his mother, all I could think was, “Man, you’re leaving fingerprints everywhere!”

(Of course, being methodical winds up potentially screwing him over in the end, as he goes to clean his boat of blood unaware of the surveillance camera Lundy installed at the marina. How exactly is Dexter going to slip out of that noose?)

If there was going to be a Scorsese-endorsed Stones song on the soundtrack, maybe it should have been “Sympathy for the Devil,” given the sales pitch on justifiable homicide that Dexter seems to be beginning with Lila. The question is how willing she’s going to be to buy into it. On the one hand, so much of Lila seems in synch with Dexter: the addiction, the use of mannequin parts the way Rudy used human bodies, the fascination with dead bodies, and now the news that she killed a man who did her wrong (albeit accidentally). On the other hand, Dexter is a badly-damaged individual, warped by an experience far more horrific than I imagine Lila has ever witnessed. Where he sees a potential sidekick, I see (or want to see) a woman who’s going to be dismayed if/when she finds out what Dexter really is.

Meanwhile, I’m curious to find out whether Frank Lundy’s anything other than the man he’s presented himself as so far. I admire the writers’ willingness to depict the man hunting Dexter as such a decent guy, not just a good investigator but an attentive father figure to Deb, who’s trying to teach her how to be a better cop and person while getting over her Ice Truck Killer trauma. The parallels between Deb with Lundy and Dexter with Harry are so strong, though, that this episode’s revelations about Harry’s secret relationship with Dexter’s mom makes me wonder what skeletons Lundy has in his closet. Is his interest in Deb entirely paternal, or will there (God, I hope not) be a moment where he reveals himself to be just another creep in her life? Does he, like every other character on this show, have some hidden kink, or is his role entirely to show what a fully functional human being looks like when thrown into Dexter’s sick world?

What did everybody else think?
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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Friday Night Lights: Sing it, Six!

Spoilers for the "Friday Night Lights" episode "Backfire" coming up just as soon as I work on my Spanish pronunciations...

"Backfire" was a definite "Do the ends justify the means?" kind of episode, as the producers appeared to shut down a number of storylines that weren't working, but in a far more abrupt manner than they could or should have.

I'm glad to have Coach back in Dillon and coaching the Panthers, for instance, but the dispatching of MacGregor felt much too easy. The previous three episodes (plus the disastrous game at the start of this one) had shown MacGregor to be such a stubborn tyrant that no one (except Smash) could possibly want him to stay, just as the TMU had been shown to be such a clearly bad fit for Eric that everyone could see he needed to leave it. Wouldn't it have been more interesting if one or both of those situations was reversed? What if MacGregor was a tinpot dictator but Eric was having the time of his life as a college coach? Or, what if Eric hated TMU and knew his family needed him but MacGregor hadn't made any obvious missteps with the Panthers? The scene at the end where MacGregor confronted Eric about what he and Buddy had done was well-acted by both Kyle Chandler and Chris Mulkey and had a moral complexity that the rest of this arc lacked, but that doesn't change the fact that MacGregor was a strawman bad guy.

(Also, how did Buddy go from being a drunken pariah a few episodes ago to having the political capital to pull off this coup d'etat? Even if the rest of the town felt uncomfortable with MacGregor, I'm sure Slammin' Sammy Meade wasn't the only one who resented the hell out of Eric for quitting after last season. It might have been interesting to watch Buddy build himself back up into the power broker he used to be, as we watched him sell the other committee members on the swap, but instead it got glossed over.)

Meanwhile, I'm sure many people are glad that Julie and Tami have stopped being at war with each other (I never minded this subplot, but that seemed to be a minority opinion), and yet the turnaround came awfully quick. Having Eric back in the fold certainly helped, as he convinced Tami to not ground Julie, which in turn made Julie slightly more willing to listen to Tami's story about losing her virginity (and also made a date with The Swede less an act of rebellion). But she's just now noticing that "Anton" is a no-account slob just floating through life after high school? It's not like she hadn't been to his dive of a house before. Some more superb acting from Connie Britton (albeit not up to The Talk from "I Think We Should Have Sex," where the virginity story was implied but not articulated), but there was definitely a feeling that the writers were in a hurry to wrap this one up.

I'd like to think that they've also wrapped up the dead rapist storyline, but I don't think that's what's happening. When the detective who interviewed Tyra talked about closing a case, he meant the attempted rape from last season, not the cause of this guy's death. I suppose this could go in a direction where the small-town Dillon sheriff's department decides not to waste resources looking into the death of some lowlife serial rapist, or that they assume he died from the fall into the river (barring a crossover with the people from "CSI: Dillon"), but there's been so much talk about Landry's watch and the impending grandfather visit that I don't think we're done with it yet. When Tyra talked to Landry about how they had no choice, how they had to stick to the path they were on, it felt unintentionally meta: once the writers chose this unfortunate storyline, they had to follow it through all the way.

On the plus side, one storyline I was dreading -- Street and Riggins road-tripping to Mexico for the shark surgery -- turned out to be the episode's highlight. I used to complain a lot about Taylor Kitsch in season one, but damn if he hasn't won me over. As the karaoke scene devolved from drunken fun into a very loud expression of pain from Street, you could see Riggins finally doing the math and realizing how bad this has the potential to become. In an episode where a lot of characters either shed tears or expressed deep feelings of remorse, the most powerful moment turned out to be Riggins begging Lyla to come help him talk Street out of this dangerous con game.

Now that Eric's back in town for good, I want to give the rest of the season a clean slate (murder storyline aside). Maybe all the narrative shortcuts of last night's episode will allow the show to go in a more promising direction from here. Glass half-full, I hope.

Some other thoughts on "Backfire":
  • Loved Eric's confusion ("The what?") in response to Buddy's (no doubt rehearsed) "The eagle has landed" call.
  • MacGregor's "I'll be seeing you again" threat implied another Voodoo arc where he winds up on a team that faces the Panthers in the playoffs. For the Texas high school football types, how realistic is that? Do teams often switch coaches in mid-season? And wouldn't the fanbase of the defending state champs be far more panicked at a loss in only the second game of the season?
  • I wish the writers would treat Lyla's born again conversion as something other than a phase she's going through, and an excuse to meet new boys. The show usually does a superb job of portraying how faith helps govern these people's lives, but Lyla seems very much a poseur. If nothing else, she should have had an answer for Santiago the hunky delinquent's question about why God allows suffering. That's one that true believers get asked all the time, and they're supposed to have an answer.
What did everybody else think?
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Friday, October 26, 2007

Comedy night done kinda right

Spoilers for "The Office" and "Scrubs" coming up just as soon as I wave to my girlfriend...

So "The Office" is back to 30-minute episodes and all should be okay with the world, right? Not so fast. I hope I can stop writing about the damn length issue soon, but they're making it awfully hard, first with those episodes that petered out a little more than halfway through, and now with a regular-size episode that was so busy and oddly paced that it felt like it had been planned as a one-hour and cut down at the last minute.

Unlike some previous episodes, the problem wasn't Michael acting out of character. His desire to prove his creative chops with the commercial made this a quintessential Michael Scott story. I just don't think the execution worked, in part because it kept bumping up against the Dwight and Andy subplot, and the semi-related stories about Dwight and then Jim getting too involved in Second Life. The commercial plot could have easily taken up the entire episode, which would have still given everybody something to do while expanding on the process of making the thing and the bumps along the way. Both of Daryl's songs were great, but I would have loved to see Daryl, Andy, Kevin and Creed (all of them with some kind of musical experience) butting heads over who'd get to lead that portion of the task, and the entire production felt rushed. Even the climax, in which we discovered that Michael had made a pretty good commercial, after all -- especially given the time constraints -- didn't get enough chance to breathe; the episode just kind of stopped. There was a chance to do an ending similar to Michael and Pam at the art show in "Business School," but there just wasn't enough time.

Which isn't to say that I've done an about-face and am now pining for the days of the hour-long episodes. I just feel that all the stuff with Dwight, Andy and Jim -- while offering up some nice moments like Dwight and Andy's joyous reaction to Angela screaming, "Oh, D!" or Pam realizing how much time was spent in crafting Philly Jim -- could have been cut (or moved to a different episode) to help make the A-story better.

I mostly said my fill on "Scrubs" in this morning's column. I still wish the writers could take a mulligan on the Kim pregnancy story, but at least I'm glad that the Elliot/J.D. cliffhanger didn't immediately turn into another installment of will-they-or-won't-they?, since we all know by now that they shouldn't. There were some funny bits -- I especially liked Kelso smelling Turk's egg-sweat, and Janitor explaining that his girlfriend Lady has "a brother named Him" -- but the show has done a lot of the other jokes before, and better (the list of J.D.'s exes, Dr. Beard-fah-say).

What did everybody else think?
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Thursday, October 25, 2007

The honkies shot me!

Spoilers for "My Name Is Earl" and "30 Rock" coming up just as soon as I compete in a page-off...

It's a good thing "My Name Is Earl" gets to air first, because on nights like this where another NBC comedy does the same joke -- in this case, extended breast-feeding -- most viewers get to see the "Earl" version first. Nothing in this episode was as funny -- or as strange -- as Randy's creative writing exercise last week, but there were the usual grace notes sprinkled throughout, like Earl admiring the science behind his conjugal date's new breasts, or Joy asking Darnell to explain JPGs and downloading to her. It's hard for me to look at Alyssa Milano, though, without thinking of all the poor MLB pitchers whose careers she's messed with by dating them. (Think what heights Carl Pavano could have achieved if Milano hadn't gotten her hands on him!)

"30 Rock" did probably its best episode of the season by playing to its biggest strength: Jack playing off of Liz ("Are you an immigrant?") and Tracy (the entire offensive African-American and Latino role-playing therapy bit, highlighted by Jack as Tracy's dad saying "chifforobe"). Tracy's butchering of the National Anthem couldn't quite live up to the Frank Drebin version from "The Naked Gun" (which has rendered me incapable of attending a ballgame without singing, "And the rockets red glare, bunch of bombs in the air..."), but the satire of the public reaction to Michael Vick (as opposed to athletes accused of raping or killing people) felt right on.

Carrie Fisher was also one of the better-incorporated guest stars, returning to the tried-and-true theme of Liz's devotion to her job at the expense of all else. (And they only felt compelled to make one "Star Wars" joke.) As someone who served as "SNL" head writer and no doubt had to hear a lot of whinging from baby boomers about how the show had sold out and wasn't cutting edge like it was in Chevy's day, Tina Fey obviously had some issues to work out, and I like that she and Liz seem to have made peace with selling out so long as you can be funny doing it. (Plus, as she returned to Jack for more mentoring, he delivered another brilliant bit of Donaghy advice: "Never go with a hippie to a second location.")

While watching the slightly revised opening credits (Liz, Jenna and Jack get new poses, while Tracy, Kenneth, Pete and Frank don't), I made a note that Pete and Frank had barely appeared so far this season, and for my comeuppance got the most Pete-heavy episode of the season. It's all relative, but at least he got to resolve the page subplot before it got too strange. (I'm trying to figure out how any show, even one about a supercomputer, could spin off "Cheers," "Miami Vice" and "Highway to Heaven.")

What did everybody else think?
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Bionic Woman: Brilliant!

Credit where credit's due time: that was a pretty good episode of "Bionic Woman" last night. Spoilers coming up just as soon as I enjoy a hidden cookie...

While the series as a whole still has numerous problems, there was a five minute or so sequence -- Jamie at the party and then busting into the lab with running commentary from Nathan the tech guy -- last night that had me thinking, "If the show could be like this all the time, I'd really enjoy it." It was fun, it moved, and both Jamie and Nathan seemed like real people instead of grouchy plot devices.

Now, I don't know how much of the credit for that goes to the undercover device that let Michelle Ryan use her native accent for once. We all assume that all these Brit actors are so talented that they can just slip on our accent and deliver an amazing performance without breaking a sweat. But maintaining an accent is work, and not ever actor can multi-task as well as Hugh Laurie or Damian Lewis. The scenes where Jamie was pretending to be a Brit were the first time Michelle Ryan had the spark she showed off in "Jekyll," and you could tell the producers recognized it as well, with the "method actor" contrivance that had her continuing to speak British even when it was just her and Nathan on the phone. Frankly, I was hoping that the Jordan Bridges character either wouldn't find out she was an American or else would make some flirty request at the end for her to break out the other accent from time to time, because for once I wasn't whining about how much better Katee Sackhoff is.

And as Nathan, Kevin Rankin (aka Herc from "Friday Night Lights") is more entertaining than the rest of the supporting cast combined. Dump Isaiah, Molly Price, maybe even Miguel Ferrer (though somebody has to be the Exposition Boss), keep Will Yun Lee around only for those obligatory scenes where the special forces guys show up to provide Jamie with backup, and the show would be significantly improved.

Not sure I buy Bridges as a super-spy just yet (though, admittedly, he only slipped into that role near the end of the episode and will get to spend a lot of time in a tux next episode), but he and Ryan had good chemistry. Maybe that, as much as the accent, helped draw her out of that dull shell she'd been stuck in for the first batch of episodes.

There hasn't been a lot of new product this fall that has me excited, but this is the first episode of a disappointing rookie to make me glad I didn't bail after the pilot. One-time aberration, or sign of a future rise in quality?
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Pushing Daisies: With arm wide open

A million new shows on Wednesday nights, but the only one holding my attention enough that I have to rush to blog about it is "Pushing Daisies." (Judging by the lack of comments to my last Wednesday round-up, I'm guessing I'm not the only one.) Spoilers for the latest episode coming up just as soon as I perform transplant surgery on a bird...

This episode wasn't as good as last week's -- the twee-to-funny ratio (perhaps epitomized by the relative screen time for the aunts vs. Emerson) favored the twee a little too much -- but this weird show just slaps a smile on my face for 40+ minutes a week (no commercials for this boy), and that's enough. Hell, it was worth it for Olive and Aunt Vivian's brief duet on They Might Be Giants' "Birdhouse in Your Soul." (Hey, unemployed "Viva Laughlin" producers: this is how you show someone singing in the car without seeming embarrassed about it.)

A couple of points to note. First, Warner Bros. is really holding the line on the budget right now, as the green screen effects in several scenes (particularly the one outside the Pie Hole when Olive first found the pigeon) looked like something out of the '70s. I hadn't realized just how much of the show was CGI-driven until that moment.

Second, I'm not sure how I feel about Chuck and Ned finding so many workarounds to their no-touching problem, especially this quickly. On the one hand, it would be dumb if they didn't try things like plastic wrap and, here, the beekeeper suits. But on the other, it's quickly taking away some of the poignant quality of their relationship. Those bee suits didn't look that heavy; essentially, all Ned needs to do is wear winter-weight clothing all the time and he and Chuck can hug, dance, etc., whenever they want. I know that's not the same thing as being able to have a real kiss, or make love, or even just feel each other's skin, but I felt more moved by the situation back in the pilot when they couldn't even hold hands, you know?

One other note: Dash Mihok, who played the escaped con, was one of the castmembers in the original "Cavemen" pilot and was essentially the only thing I liked about it. So, of course, he was fired. Glad to see he's moved (even for one episode) from one of this season's worst new shows to one of its best.

What did everybody else think?
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A surgeon and a doc, abooooove it allllll...

Today's column previews the final season of "Scrubs":
"You go when you're supposed to go, and everything else is homicide!"

That's a line by Detective Meldrick Lewis from the great "Homicide: Life on the Street," and one I think about whenever I hear that a show I like is coming to an end. Are they going when they're supposed to, or is it a case of network homicide?

Much as I wish I could say NBC is unjustly slaying "Scrubs" by declaring in advance that the seventh season will be the comedy's last, it feels like it's time. Maybe even a little past time.
To read the full thing, click here. To read the accompanying list of 10 best episodes (and thanks for all the suggestions, folks!), click here. (Bonus reason for clicking through: YouTube links to stuff like Turk dancing and the "West Side Story" parody.) Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Reaper: If you want to destroy my sweater...

Very brief spoilers for "Reaper" coming up just as soon as I sign for a package...

Last week's episode was a marginal improvement, but now we're back to lame formula again. The soul again had no personality (did the guy even talk at any point?), Sam and Andi aren't interesting enough as a couple for me to want to watch him pine after her for years (as opposed to Jim and Pam on "The Office," say), and we're already at the point where every beat of the story (unsuccessful first encounter with the soul, vessel gets lost and/or damaged, etc.) comes with the same clockwork predictability that it took "Law & Order" the mothership five or six years to reach.

I want this show to be better, because the pilot was so hilarious and because Ray Wise is brilliant as Satan, but it's looking more and more like a poster child for the Great Pilot, Mediocre Series conundrum.

What did everybody else think?
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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

House: I ain't sayin' she a gravedigger...

Spoilers for "House" coming up just as soon as I pretend that someone else was imitating me...

Awww, Scooter/Bosley! I'll miss you, you lovable old coot! Again, with the names of the final three actors already out there in the media ether (and let's keep being as vague as possible in the comments, for the benefit of people who don't read the trades), I figured Scooter wasn't long for the show, but I'm disappointed he went home before some of the real deadweight. (Spoiler alert -- and I'm only doing it because he clearly ain't getting the job -- I'm looking at you, guy pictured above who played Huff's crazy brother on "Huff.") I at least liked the rationale for dumping the old man, but since the show's going to be overpopulated anyway, why not let him stick around in the glorified administrative assistant job House promised him a few episodes ago?

I don't know if the medical mysteries have gotten more interesting of late, or if I'm just paying more attention because House's candidate search has breathed some new life into the show, but I really liked this ghost story. Not sure how Cutthroat Bitch convinced the patient that she was talking to last episode's dead guy, but beyond that, a lot of interesting twists and turns, and the moment where the woman had to say goodbye to the hallucination of her dead mama was as touching as intended. Cameron trying to give Big Love a leg up -- whether out of support for the most sensitive fellowship candidate or just a way for her to screw with house now that she's blonde and bold and all that -- was also fun.

(It occurs to me, by the way, that the candidate search is falling into the same writing/editing trap as the reality competition shows it's spoofing. Big Love and Bosley got by far the most screen time of the candidates -- though Cutthroat Bitch and Nickname-less Plastic Surgeon weren't ignored, either -- and so I figured one of those two would be let go.)

I'm a bit surprised that Foreman is coming back to rejoin House's team instead of starting his own. On the one hand, it spares the already too-busy show from having to shift to an ongoing A-story/B-story structure that might prove less amusing. On the other, if House is hiring three newbies and is forced to take Foreman back, and eventually -- or so we assume -- Cameron and Chase are going to come back into the fold, the ongoing team is going to be almost as big as the temporary team we had tonight. It's working right now because House is screwing with everybody and amusing himself in the process, but will he be able to play as many games when everyone's status becomes permanent?

What did everybody else think?
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For the Scrubs fans...

... care to offer suggestions for best episodes ever list I'm doing to accompany my review of the season seven premiere? I have some definites in my head already ("My Old Lady," "My Lunch," "My Screwup," the one where Turk dances to "Poison," the one where JD asks The Janitor the riddle, among others) but there are some open spots on the list. So name your faves and make your case. Click here to read the full post

Heroes: She's electric!

Spoilers for "Heroes" coming up just as soon as I try to muster the enthusiasm to make a joke about something that happened in the episode...

Okay, someone want to tell me why I should still care? I had been assuming my level of ennui with this season was the result of so little forward plot movement, but here we had an episode with arguably more of it than the rest of the season combined -- Peter opens the magic box, Veronica Mars shows up and electrocutes the head Lucky Charmer, Parkman confronts his father (who actually was the Nightmare Man and not a red herring) and has a quintessential illusion-inspired fight with Nathan, Mohinder crosses paths with Nikki, Monica learns how to use her powers, etc., etc. -- and yet I was just as bored with this one as all the others. I've been procrastinating this blog entry for the last few hours (the "My So-Called Life" DVD set makes a handy tool for that) because I just couldn't muster the enthusiasm to write about it.

Besides the obvious narrative foot-dragging, here are the problems, as I see them:
  • Flat characters. This was a problem in season one as well, but the stories were advancing so quickly and with so many surprises along the way that it didn't matter how two-dimensional almost everyone (even characters I enjoyed, like Hiro) were. The only regular character with any real complexity or nuance is HRG, who unsurprisingly is the one who's most watchable even when the stories are going nowhere. But now that we know this world, what everyone can do, etc., it becomes harder and harder to feel invested in a bunch of cardboard cut-outs who often have less personality than actual comic book superheroes.
  • The big split. I and other people rode with some of the slower sections of season one because we were under the impression that, eventually, all these characters would come together and something interesting would happen. Instead, we got that dud of a finale where everybody stood around while Peter beat up Sylar with a parking meter, and when the new season began, the writers had split everybody up again. There's more interaction now than there was at this time last season (say, Parkman and Nathan teaming up to see his dad), but we're still stuck in a bunch of parallel narratives that move only slightly faster than your average daytime soap.
  • Been there, read that. Back when this show began, I noted that Tim Kring wasn't a comic book fan, which could go one of two ways: 1)He would approach the concept of people with powers in an entirely fresh and interesting way, or 2)He would start recycling a bunch of comic book tropes without realizing it. It's been far more the latter than the former, though with people like Jeph Loeb on the staff, much of the recycling can't be written off as accidental. I don't even care that they're still ripping off Watchmen, or that Monica has the Taskmaster's powers, or whatever; there's only a limited number of new ideas out there, and I care more about something interesting being done with a concept than whether the concept has been done before. The problem is, they're not doing anything interesting. I've read that Parkman/Nathan fight scene a million times in X-Men and other comics, always playing out exactly that way. Maybe it seemed cool to the non comics-reading audience, but how big a portion of the audience is that?
Halfway through watching the episode on my DVR, I started looking forward to the "Journeyman" episode I planned to get to afterwards, then spent most of the rest of the episode waiting to see if Claire might appear to keep Hayden's consecutive episodes streak intact. (She didn't, which means either Jack Coleman's the only one left, or that nobody's been in every episode.) If the show was more engaging right now, neither of those thoughts would have entered my head for more than a second or two.

Am I being a tough grader here? "Heroes" consistently gets more comments than any other show I blog about these days, but in skimming the last few entries, it seems like most of the comments are arguments about why the show's lame, rather than whether it's lame. I'm not checking out yet, but I'm wondering if anyone else is thinking about it.
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Chuck: Sizzling siblings

Spoilers for "Chuck" coming up just as soon as I make a stakeout mix CD...

Thus far, the reaction to Morgan seems to have a range of "Gah, I can't stand him!" to "He's funny, but only in small doses," so the prospect of us having to spend An Evening Of Morgan along with Chuck, Sarah and Ellie wasn't that exciting. But you know what? It kind of worked, mainly because there was an effort to humanize him, to make him more than just the pathetic comic relief. He bonded with Ellie (the surrogate for the "Gah, can't stand him!" segment of the audience) and showed that sometimes he's a lousy salesman not because he's incompetent, but because he's too kind-hearted. By the end, I'd say my opinion of the guy was roughly on par with Ellie's: I still wouldn't want to spend a whole lot of time hanging out with him, but he seems like good people. I actually felt bad for him when the Nerd Herders deployed The Wounded Raccoon at the exact wrong moment (though I was also laughing at the time).

The spy story had some interesting touches, chief among them Chuck both screwing up royally and then saving the day (with the help of the fireworks that seemed like a throwaway joke earlier in the episode). It's going to get old eventually if Chuck is told on every mission to wait in the car and then disobeys that order, but it was worth it here for the fight scene with the freeze frames: the three spies each got a freeze frame when they were throwing an impressive punch or kick, while Chuck got one while stopping a really old man from getting away in his wheelchair. If you don't have the time/budget to do elaborately choreographed fights, might as well find a way to make them funny, and that was.

I also like how, once again, we're exploring some of the real emotional ramifications of Chuck's new life, this time in how it affects his relationship with Ellie. When I watched the pilot, I worried that Ellie would quickly become deadweight in the same way that Francie and Will Tippin did on "Alias" (until Francie got killed and replaced and Will went to work for the CIA), but that hasn't happened yet. Sibling relationships are something that most TV seem ambivalent about, because there can't (or shouldn't) be any sexual tension, but seeing Chuck struggle to be a good brother -- and learning how he and Ellie were effectively orphaned years ago -- makes me like him more and more.

Oh, and Chuck sang along to "Private Eyes." Since the Captain was absent this week (no doubt for budget reasons, same as Harry Tang), let me just say that that was awesome.

What did everybody else think?
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HIMYM: Meet cute or meet crazy?

Spoilers for "How I Met Your Mother" coming up just as soon as I eat a sandwich...

Whew. Crisis averted, at least for one night. Because that? That was the "HIMYM" I know and love. A plot with all five characters just hanging out at the bar and telling jokes at each other's expense, multiple flashbacks (often to the same event), Future Ted finding creative ways to work around parts of the story he doesn't remember (Blah-Blah) or can't tell the kids (eating sandwiches), another Barney theory on dating (complete with visual aid this time) being proved correct and an extended appearance by Ted's Jewfro. (Though it's not actually supposed to be a Jewfro, as Ted's a gentile.) Hell, even the flashforward to Combover Marshall and Nancy Reagan Lily, which was so depressing the last time (save the "NYC Lawyer Captures Nessie" headline in the background) was upbeat and funny this time.

So it's clear Bays and Thomas still remember how to do it right; they've just been going too far in focusing on the new Ted and Robin status quo. Hopefully, this one wasn't an aberration but the start of a resurgence.

What did everybody else think?
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Monday, October 22, 2007

Viva la cancelaciĆ³n!

If you're like Tim Goodman and believe that the first real cancellation of the season doesn't happen until a scripted show takes a fall, then today is a very special day for you dead pool watchers. We already had our first non-cancellation cancellation with Fox's "Nashville" (which was supposed to return in mid-October and then... didn't), and our first official cancellation with the CW's "Online Nation." But according to a high-placed source at CBS, today brings our first scripted bloodshed of '07-'08, and it's... drumroll...

"Viva Laughlin."

It's not a huge shock. The sneak preview on Thursday lost nearly 60 percent of its "CSI" lead-in audience, and Sunday's timeslot premiere lost about a quarter of the people who watched on Thursday. (And that's on average; the last half-hour of "Viva Laughlin" to ever air was down more than 40 percent from Thursday's first half-hour.) Any way you slice it, it was a ratings fiasco.

Official announcement's coming later today, and the cancellation is effective immediately. A "CSI" repeat will plug the gap this Sunday, and "Amazing Race" will be back Sundays at 8 (or whenever the late football game ends on double-header weeks) starting Nov. 4.

So let's all light a candle for poor Mike Brady soundalike Lloyd Owen, for all those blackjack and roulette tables that will go un-danced on in the future, and for all the poor viewers who had to suffer through any part of the first two episodes. When you sing along with the car radio or iPod on the commute home, try to pretend you're on your way to some cheesey start-up casino. Click here to read the full post

Curb: California Split

Spoilers for the latest "Curb Your Enthusiasm" coming up just as soon as I set Season Passes for all of my wife's favorite shows...

Art imitating life or an amazing coincidence? Ordinarily, I hate learning and writing about the personal lives of celebrities, but given how much of this show either spins out of things that happened to Larry or things he wishes had happened, it's hard not to look at the break-up of his on-screen marriage without wondering about the parallels to the real one. Larry and Laurie have said it's an amicable split, but was a faulty TiVo involved in any way? Or did Laurie find out that Larry was writing a separation into the show and start getting ideas? For what it's worth, the real-life Davids announced their split in July, which was several months after "Curb" wrapped production for the season.

Okay, that aside, "The TiVo Guy," while not great, was still a significant improvement over the last batch of episodes. Cheryl coming to her senses and dumping Larry was a long time coming, and there's a lot of fun to be had with the premise. I loved Larry trying to justify his value to Cheryl with the omnipresent tissues/mints/pen supply, and him asking Cheryl -- who for a moment seemed willing to listen sympathetically to him -- corroborate his story for the skeptical hostess, and I really loved how quickly Funkhouser caved on his loudly declared intention to side with Larry in all of this.

More importantly, the new status quo (however temporary) allows Larry to date. I know people weren't crazy about the Mel Brooks arc from season four, but I loved the parallel arc with Larry repeatedly failing in his attempt to fulfill Cheryl's promise to let him have sex outside the marriage before their 10th anniversary. (Interesting that Gina Gershon, who played one of those failed conquests, wasn't in this episode, even though Larry's single and he stopped by her dry cleaning establishment twice.) The very married in real life Lucy Lawless was a good sport as Larry's first date; I look forward to him humiliating himself many times over with the opposite sex.

Oddly, though, my favorite part of the episode had nothing whatsoever to do with the split, or with anything else: Larry showing up the D-bag with the Bluetooth by having an equally loud conversation with himself. In an episode in which he was wrong on so many, many things, Larry could not have been righter in that moment.

What did everybody else think?
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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Dexter: Spoiled rotten

Spoilers for the latest episode of "Dexter" coming up just as soon as I have a meltdown in front of the entire office...

I want to start off by talking about the traditional weak points of any "Dexter" episode: the police storylines not directly involving Dexter himself. And, sure enough, we get more dead weight with Pascal having a meltdown and losing her command back to Laguerta, followed by the not very interesting revelation that the other woman Pascal was losing her mind over was Laguerta.

But on the other hand, the Doakes subplot was a nice bit of shading for both the character and the universe. We knew Doakes had been in Special Forces and had done some unpleasant things there, but this is the bluntest the show's been about how badly that stuff scarred him. Dexter asked way back in the series premiere why Doakes was the only cop in Miami who can smell the monster on him; it's because Doakes is part monster, himself, just better at holding onto his own leash.

As for the Bay Harbor Butcher arc, we're entering potentially interesting, potentially dangerous territory for the series. I continue to like everything they've done with the story thus far, and thought the twist of Masuka finding the algae on the stones and not the corpses was brilliant. Dexter's such a blood maven that the rocks probably never occurred to him as anything but a utility for weighing down the bodies.

That said, Dexter scrambling around trying to sabotage the case against himself reminded me more than a little of middle-period "The Shield," where we'd see Vic Mackey be an episode and a half away from going to jail forever, only to wriggle out of the trap again and again. I love "The Shield" dearly, but feel like the series has definitely been diminished by its longevity and the number of Houdini escapes Vic's pulled. I don't know how many great seasons there are in the "Dexter" concept, but within that, I think I want this season to be the only one (other than a planned final one) where Dexter himself is the target of a manhunt. I'm assuming in the end he's going to escape Lundy's task force somehow, someway, and I'm fine with that -- the cost of doing business in series TV is accepting that certain parts of the status quo can never be changed -- but if I'm feeling itchy in the fourth episode of the season (and one in which Dexter really doesn't accomplish much of anything with his dumpster/refrigeration unit stunt), I worry how played out the concept might seem by the end of the year.

Or maybe I'm just crabby because I first saw this episode nearly a month ago (though that was my reaction at the time) and have been waiting ever since to see episode five.

A few other brief thoughts:
  • I'm undecided about Lyla. On the one hand, Jaime Murray's certainly not unpleasant to look at, and I'm enjoying the concept of Dexter co-opting the 12-step world so he can finally unburden whatever soul he has without getting into trouble for it, but there's something a little too calculated in the writers' conception of Lyla the bohemian artist who makes Dexter want to throw caution to the wind.
  • JoBeth Williams as Rita's mom! Does JoBeth Williams ever not give a good performance?
  • I'm really intrigued by Deb's story so far this year. She and Dexter don't share the same genes, and what Rudy put her through came at a far more advanced age than Dexter's own childhood trauma, but what are the chances that she could become a monster herself?
What did everybody else think?
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Friday, October 19, 2007

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Mad Men: The time machine

Spoilers for the "Mad Men" season finale coming up just as soon as someone tells me how long 20 minutes is...

How freakin' great was Don Draper's sales pitch to the Kodak people? So great that he wowed the Kodak guys into cancelling their other pitches. So great that it made me want to invest in a slide projector even in this age of digital photography. So great that it sold Don himself on illusion of the happy life he appears to share with Betty.

It's just too bad Don bought his own BS at the exact moment that Betty finally learned to see through it.

"The Wheel" had some questionable moments -- I'm still wrestling with how I feel about Peggy giving birth (more below) -- but that mesmerizing sales pitch scene, coming on the heels of Betty turning the tables and sending Don a message through her shrink, reaffirmed how much I love this show and how much I'm going to miss it until it comes back (more below on that as well).

I'll take Don's epiphany before Betty's. Though the matter of The Box was largely settled during last week's magnificent Don/Pete showdown, Don didn't find out until tonight that Adam had killed himself shortly after sending it. When I wrote last week about the horrible realization of Don abandoning his brother, I was referring both to leaving young Adam behind on the train platform but also to paying him off and sending him away in the present. In that moment when he talked to the fleabag hotel manager, Don came to the same realization I did -- that his cowardice and self-interest can have a dire cost on the people around him -- and it played out in maybe my favorite shot of the series, as the camera pulled back from Don, his face buried in his hands, his entire body aglow in the light from the desk lamp. (This was Matthew Weiner's directorial debut, and he did a fantastic job, as well as on the script.) Don may have run away from everything in his life, up to and including his own name, but he can't escape the basic truth of who and what he is and how much damage he does to the people around him.

Faced with the twin gutpunch of losing Adam and then finding out that Rachel Menken had, upon glimpsing the true face of Dick Whitman, gone on a three-month cruise, Don seemed to recognize that it was time to stop running -- or, at least, that he has nowhere left to run to. Harry's latenight, tighty-whitie-enhanced speech about the cavemen handprints reaching out to him from the distant past, gave him the Eureka moment for the Carousel sales pitch, and as he sold the Kodak guys on his vision -- "This device isn't a space ship. It's a time machine." -- he bought into all those Norman Rockwell images of himself, Betty and the kids.

(Interesting how, once again, Don has a chance to do a forward-thinking campaign -- the Kodak people specifically want the ad to include references to R&D and the science of the projector -- and once again chooses to go the nostalgic route. It works brilliantly for him here, but it's been a recurring theme of the series that Sterling Cooper is on the wrong side of a cultural shift, and I wonder if later seasons will deal with Don struggling to seem current.)

Betty, meanwhile, finally is forced to stop acting like a child and confront the reaity of Don's adultery. I love that it's so obvious to the world that Don is screwing around that Betty's friend Francine comes to her for advice on how to deal with news of her own husband's cheating, and yet Betty's oblivious. And even after that scene, she might have choosen to keep playing ostrich if only Don had given the right answer to her question about why Francine's husband would cheat. Something like "Because he's weak and selfish" or "Because he's a jerk and I've never liked him" -- anything but Don's self-incriminatingly vague "Who knows why people do what they do?"

After figuring out that Don and her shrink are regularly chatting about her sessions, Betty tries to seek comfort from, of all people, Helen the divorcee's creepy son Glenn -- another sign of Betty's own arrested development -- before realizing that she can turn this all to her advantage. She may not have the strength to confront Don directly, but she knows that her shrink is telling Don everything about her sessions, so why not send a message through him? (An added bonus: it makes her seem more sympathetic to the shrink, rather than just some spoiled housewife who keeps whining about her dead mother.)

Other cable shows have ended their first season with the anti-hero's wife packing up the kids and leaving (both "The Shield" and "Rescue Me" did it), but the difference here is that Betty's Thanksgiving trip was already planned. All Don did was fail to come home in time to join them. Among the many things I look forward to in season two (barring a time jump; again, see below) is how much, if at all, these epiphanies change the nature of the Draper marriage. After all, Weiner studied at the foot of David Chase, a man who clearly believed human beings to be incapable of real, lasting change. Will Don really dedicate himself to the marriage, or will he latch on to the next sophisticiated brunette he meets? Will Betty find a backbone, or will she go back to letting Don do all the thinking for her after he shows her a little extra affection?

I'm not sure I know what to think about Peggy giving birth. When she first started to gain the weight, it seemed an obvious direction. She had, after all, both gone on the pill and had sex with Pete in the very first episode -- Chekhov's "when you show a gun in the first act" and all that -- and it might have been an interesting direction to see Peggy try to deal with the Mommy Trap at the exact moment her copy writing career was beginning to blossom. But as the weeks went on with no reference to Peggy being with child, I became far more intrigued by the alternate explanations: that she was sublimating her desire for Pete with food, that she was subconsciously packing on the weight so the men of the office would stop looking at her like a conquest and more like a colleague, whatever.

So when Peggy wound up at the hospital and was revealed to be pregnant -- news to her as well as us -- I wasn't exactly thrilled. I can work around Peggy not questioning her lack of menstruation as a sign of both the times and her relative lack of sophistication, but it still doesn't completely sit right with me. Based on her refusal to look at the baby in the recovery room, my guess is she gives it up and shows up for work on Monday like nothing ever happened. That in itself says something interesting (and tragic) about Peggy's character, but it feels a little more predictable and TV-like than some of the other options.

Still, the moment when Don promoted her to junior copywriter was a glorious one. Previous episodes had established that she had real writing chops, and the subplot here with her and Ken trying to cast the radio spot showed that she was starting to learn to play the game. Not only was she willing to cut her losses quickly when it became obvious that she had made the wrong choice, but she fired the actress in such a way that she knew could get Ken laid if he wanted. Peggy's not some kind of feminist symbol, and I like that she has her own agenda that sometimes leads her to sacrifice her ideals about fair play and proper treatment.

Peggy's promotion was also great because it was yet another indignity for the loathsome Pete. After his humiliating defeat in Bert Cooper's office last week, he discovers that he'll continue having to live off of hand-outs from one set of parents or the other. He tries to play landing the Clearasil account as some kind of tremendous achievement, but even though Don (briefly) takes pity on him and pretends that he's impressed, both men know it's just another in a long list of Pete skating by based on family connections. And even that small moment of triumph gets ruined for Pete when Don -- who has finally learned to see Peggy as both a writer and a person worthy of his respect -- decides to assign the Clearasil campaign to Peggy. Pete exiting the season in a huff seems about right.

What a brilliant show.

Some other thoughts on "The Wheel":
  • Though I'm ambivalent about the pregnancy reveal, it did work nicely in parallel with a couple of the men's stories. First, we have Pete's in-laws pressuring him to give them a grandchild at the exact moment that Pete's illegitimate offspring is born. Second, Peggy's baby's a "whore child," not in the literal sense that Dick Whitman was, but in how he'll be treated by society if his true parentage is known. (And if the baby gets adopted, he'll be raised by others the way Dick was.)
  • Duck Phillips has only had the head of accounts job for one episode, but already, he's distinguished himself from Roger in a crucial way: he turned down the offer of a drink in the middle of a work day. Given the gossip we heard last week about his London meltdown, I'm guessing he's a recovering alcoholic.
  • After their amazing party sequence last week, the supporting cast largely takes a backseat to our four main characters in the finale. But I really liked the glimpses of Harry -- who had clearly confessed to his wife at the earliest opportunity -- crashing at the office and roaming around in his unflattering undies. Compare that to secretive Don, who even when he sleeps in his office manages to look dashing.
  • Weiner apparently said in an early interview that he'd like each season to pick up two years after the previous one ended, so that he could cover the entire '60s in a five-season period. I don't know that I love the idea -- too many things happened late this season that I want to see immediate follow-up to (Peggy's promotion and whatever choice she makes about the baby, Betty's newfound awareness of Don's infidelity, Don's ascension to partner and Roger's health problems, etc.) -- but it would appear Weiner's backing away from the idea. At the very least, he doesn't want to commit to it, judging by this great, in-depth interview Maureen Ryan did with him a few days back. In the interview, Weiner also talks about how he wants to go back into production by November so they can be back on the air by June. I really hope there isn't a writer's strike, or "Mad Men" will be one of many, many shows that will get stuck in limbo until the labor dispute is resolved.
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Alan Sepinwall's day off

October 19 is my birthday, so I'm pulling a Ferris and taking Friday off. (Playing the role of Cameron: my daughter.) I wrote my "Mad Men" and "Friday Night Lights" reviews in advance, so those should be posted close to on time (if either one's delayed here, check the blog, which allows me to auto-schedule posts), and I'm going to deal with "The Office" and "30 Rock" really quickly right now. Spoilers coming up just as soon as I make a reservation under the name Abe Froman...

Paul Lieberstein, who plays the most melancholy character on "The Office" in Toby, writes and directs a very melancholy episode that I found oddly compelling in a way that none of the previous three were, even though I would argue all of those were funnier, minute-to-minute. Lieberstein really understands what makes these characters tick, so while Michael's second job and money problems or Dwight literally moaning over Angela weren't gut-bustingly funny the way the DVD screensaver gag or the Alfredo's Pizza Cafe/Pizza By Alfredo gag were, I felt invested throughout. And by the time Jan gave Michael the pep talk in the train yard and Jim opened up to Dwight about heartbreak -- and then professed his love of Pam/Italian food -- I was genuinely touched.

Which isn't to say there was no comedy here, just of a lower-key variety, like Michael pointing out to Ryan that he wasn't going to figure out the Power Point presentation even if he didn't have the second job, Kelly being baffled by Darryl's straight talk, the protracted "whoever" vs. "whomever" debate, or Kevin telling Michael to call someone in the mob for gambling advice. Also, any episode in which Michael can cogently explain why the original "Die Hard" was much better than the fourth gets major bonus points from me.

Meanwhile, any "30 Rock" episode that comes out and makes the obvious but brilliant Jack Donaghy/Tim Donaghy joke automatically gets a pass from me. Fortunately, there was some other brilliant stuff in there, including Kenneth's reaction to Jenna licking his face, Steve Buscemi saying of Jack's cookie jar collection, "You wish it was a gay thing!," Angie explaining that Tracy wouldn't play Obama because "we support Kucinich," or Jack explaining that "businesswoman" isn't a word. They still haven't knocked one out of the park yet this season, but they've made me laugh a lot.

What did everybody else think?
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A case of the Wednesdays

Okay, I'm feeling seriously underwhelmed here. I've now gone through almost all of the hellacious amount of new series that are airing on Wednesday nights (I'm about a third of the way through "Dirty Sexy Money"), and outside of the previously-blogged "Pushing Daisies," nothing especially wowed me and yet nothing made me rush to change the channel. Hell, the best thing I watched all day may have been the last 20 minutes of Monday's "Journeyman" that had been sitting on the DVR. So really brief thoughts on what I've seen, and feel free to comment on any of those plus things I missed ("Kid Nation," the Fox comedies, whatever). Spoilers ho for, in order, "Journeyman," "Bionic Woman," "Private Practice," "Life," "Gossip Girl" and "America's Next Top Model"...

"Journeyman": I'm glad that the writers are giving the show a sense of humor as Dan gets accustomed to the complexities of involuntary time travel, and I'm starting to feel a bit invested in the Dan/Katie marriage. But by far the coolest thing in the episode -- really, the coolest thing in all four episodes -- was the tachyon expert calling Dan while he was still in the past. I don't know that the show will be around long enough for Dany to explore his condition the way Henry in "Time Traveler's Wife" did, but that one moment put a big smile on my face.

"Bionic Woman": Meh. M-E-H, meh. Sister angst bores me, the spark of personality they gave Jamie last week was gone at the expense of a contrived thriller plot with iffy fight and stunt choreography (I'm already tired of the one punch/block combo that Michelle Ryan knows), but the Sarah Corvus/Jae stuff remains worth my attention.

"Private Practice": Outside of the continued dishrag-ification of Addison, there's nothing as egregiously bad here as a lot of the messes Shonda has made on "Grey's," but has there been anything remotely as compelling as "Grey's" when it's good? The attempt to turn Hooper and Violet into a slightly older George and Izzie is disappointing (what's so wrong with the occasional rock-solid male/female platonic friendship?), but at least they're doing it early so we won't have to rewrite history later, and at least there's no adultery in the mix.

"Life": I'm always happy to see William Sanderson (beloved as both Larry of Larry, Darryl and Darryl and as E.B. Farnum) working, and I have to admit that Crews and his quirks are growing on me. Not enough to keep me fully alert during all the twists and turns of the murder case, but enough to stick around a while longer.

"Gossip Girl": Several improvements over last week: Chuck and Tiny Archibald were absent and completely unmissed, Dan stops acting like a superior prig, and Blair is back to being queen bitch after last week's softer side. (I particularly liked her improvisation during the jailbreak from the Dawn Ostroff Memorial In-Joke Clinic.) Still makes me feel like a very old man while I watch, though.

"America's Next Top Model": Looks like Heather's getting more comfortable around the other hamsters, based on her very blunt and accurate critiques of each of them, and she also provided some nice comic relief with her klutziness (which may or may not be Asperger's-related) on the ice. Bianca had been growing on me as kind of a Fun Bitch the last few weeks, but her shredding of Lisa after Lisa came back from the bonus photo shoot was more the nasty, please go home soon (not that she will) kind. It's interesting how those two are the only ones to consistently stand out in terms of screen time (in addition to whoever the bottom two is each week); foreshadowing the finale, or just the editors playing up the two most compelling "characters"?

What did everybody else think?
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