Monday, October 15, 2007

Chair masters

Pay cable round-up time, with spoilers for, in order, "Tell Me You Love Me," "Dexter" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" coming up just as soon as I sanitize my reading chair...

So, remember all those snarky comments suggesting that "Tell Me You Love Me" front-loaded all the really graphic sex scenes in the first couple of episodes as a bait-and-switch? Episode six put the lie to that theory, between Jamie having another franks 'n beans tryst (this time with Boone from "Lost" ) and, especially, Dr. Foster and her husband proving that, yes, old people can have very loud, very happy, very naked sex in a cozy armchair. While I'm sure that most of the audience (what's left of it by this episode) is focusing on all that exposed, not so youthful flesh, what struck me about the scene was that it was the first time all season (other than that half-glimpsed oral sex scene -- also featuring May -- in the premiere) that any characters on this show actually seemed to be enjoying themselves while doing the deed. Even Caroline and Palek's pot-fueled make-up sex wasn't significantly less mechanical than all those times they've been trying to impregnate her. And with the scene where May goes to meet her old lover, I feel like we have enough backstory now to legitimately consider the Fosters our fourth couple, which means I can say that I like half of the couples on this show, instead of only one out of three.

Meanwhile, the stories of my most and least favorite couples played out in some parallel. Dr. Foster tells Dave and Katie to stop trying to have sex, which of course opens the dam for them to finally start talking, even a little, about their problem. And Caroline and Palek, having quit both their fertility plans and therapy, finally enjoy each other's company, however briefly (and however aided by marijuana). I have to say, by the way, that while I absolutely despise Caroline, Sonya Walger's doing a hell of a job playing this spoiled, controlling ice queen, and watching her rip apart the sandwich lady (after having made an ass of herself with a temper tantrum in front of her boss) made me hope that the "Lost" producers are watching and realize that Penny might be far more useful as a villain than as Desmond's long-lost love.

"Dexter," meanwhile, has a lot of fun with this Narcotics Anonymous development, as what seemed at first to be a big hassle for Dexter turned out to be very helpful. It has Doakes "understanding" what his suspicions about Dexter really meant, has Rita taking him back, and it gives him a place where he can talk semi-openly about his addiction to murder, so long as he couches it in vague terminology. Plus, Jaime Murray from "Hustle"! What's not to like?

One thing I found particularly interesting was Dexter's dilemma about whether to break his pattern to stop the car dealer from killing his next victim. The overt admission that he doesn't target other killers to save people -- that they just make good targets and allows him to keep his word to Harry -- isn't exactly a surprise. But spelling it out like that, at a time when Dexter is being chased by a seemingly decent cop in Lundy -- in an episode where Lundy rips apart the audience's rationale for liking a vigilante serial killer with his "The worst killers in history are the ones who think the murders were somehow just" speech -- is a choice I'm not sure a lot of writing staffs would make. The trend in most series with morally complex protagonists is to slowly sand off their edges over time (even "The Shield" did that for a while with Mackey), and I admire team "Dexter" in their willingness to embrace everything that's wrong about their main character.

"Curb Your Enthusiasm" is coming perilously close to falling off my radar. That's three absolute stinkers in a row now. When "The Anonymous Donor" aired, I wrote, "The genius of "Curb" so often is that you know where a joke is going (but) laugh anyway." Here, I saw almost every joke in advance -- the toaster preventing Larry from getting Loretta to the interview, the phone swap and the havoc it wreaked -- but they were so predictable even within the "Curb" formula that I didn't find any of them funny. And the one pay-off I didn't predict -- the exterminator trying to stomp the rat-dog -- was one of those moments, like McEnroe inviting Larry to the party last week, where the show sacrifices any semblance of real human behavior at the expense of a gag. The guy's an exterminator; why is he just trying to stomp on this thing? And how can he not tell a rat from a dog? This is a far cry from season three's "Club Soda and Salt," where they managed to make professional expertise itself the joke.

As I recall, last season had a similar trend -- a few good episodes at the start, followed by a long stretch of catastrophe -- and I don't know how much longer I can stick around to see if things improve. It's emotionally draining to watch this show even when it's funny. The last few weeks ahve just been painful.

What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

Clearly, someone needs to flip it around on you, Alan.

Anonymous said...

Re: Dexter. We've signed up for a show about a serial killer. Anything the writers do short of making him stop killing isn't really risky, brave, or genre-bending, but more like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. He's too far gone for a minute change in his motivations to be relevant to our view of the character. (Or at least, it should be.)

I watched Hotel Rwanda right before Dexter and thought that would make it hard to take pleasure in a show about a ruthless killer. But it didn't-- starting with the title sequence, the style of the show is really key to ignoring the monstrous reality of Dexter.

Chris Littmann said...

Of the three, I only watch Dexter.

Still loving it, and I was almost giddy when I saw Doakes at the meeting, freeing up our ol' boy Dex to do some of his handy work. Lundy is an interesting guy ... this definitely has potential.

"Oh, and you owe me a Michelin motherf$%^er!"

Classic. I'm just waiting for him to look at Michael C. Hall and say "Whatchoo talkin' about, Dexter?" The episodes with Matt Willig only emphasized that Doakes is built like a bowling ball, about as tall as his shoulders are broad.

Anonymous said...


a) It's Jaime Murray.
b) Did you choose that image for its strong buddy cop movie vibe, or is it just me?

anonymous 12:03 PM,

I think you're right that in accepting the premise of Dexter the viewer is already "signing up" for a certain type of show. But such an outrageous premise also allows for the exploration of the consequences of vigilantism and the rationalization of torture (how does one approach the serial killer serial killer?), the limits of therapeutic culture (The NA program; Rita rebuilding her life), notions of redemption (Is there is a distinction of difference between Dexter and his brother?), and the relationship between personal responsibility and impulse control (Should Harry's rules be taken as a cruel satire on human relation or a sly distillation of it?). I'm not saying Dexter is great on exploring all of these issues, but I don't think it completely shys away from them. Admittedly, Dexter's monstrosity was in the background (to his brother's) in season one, but it seems more central in season two, and I have high hopes for soft spoken Agent Lundy -- a character who is clearly built to push back against the audience's natural sympathy for Dexter.

I do recognize that you're right from a long term perspective, since the show cannot let Dexter change fundamentally (and not get cancelled). And that will, eventually, be the downfall of the show, maybe as soon as next season. But so far this season I get the sense that the writers are attempting to make Dexter a more problematic protagonist -- and this season, unlike last season, is not constrained by source material -- and I am curious to see how they go about doing that. In particular, given the reappearance of so many of Dexter's prior victims, I'm wondering if they'll be willing to uncover an innocent victim.


Unknown said...

Of the three, I only watch "Curb".

My stomach can't handle what I have briefly seen on "Dexter" or "Love Me". At least "Dexter" seems to have critics behind it. "Love Me" is just disgusting.

I have laughed a lot at "Curb". It's not the same show it was in seasons 1-3, but it's still funnier than most comedies on TV.

Alan Sepinwall said...

a) It's Jaime Murray.

I thought it might be. Sometimes, blogs need copy editors. Or less lazy authors.

b) Did you choose that image for its strong buddy cop movie vibe, or is it just me?

I chose it in part because I was very afraid to make a screen capture of the Jane Alexander/David Selby septuagenarian sex scene from Tell Me You Love Me. :) Also, because Doakes looks cool, even if he's built like a bowling ball.

TL said...

Alan -

Should I take it as a given that there's about zero chance of TMYLM getting renewed for a second season?

This is the second week in a row that Curb has put me to sleep....

Alan Sepinwall said...

Should I take it as a given that there's about zero chance of TMYLM getting renewed for a second season?

It's already been renewed, as thousands of Deadwood and John From Cincy fans howl at the heavens in frustration.

Bobman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TL said...

as thousands of Deadwood and John From Cincy fans howl at the heavens in frustration


(Not that I thought TMYLM is a bad show, just too draining. I'm sure it costs about $14/episode to produce, though, unlike Deadwood.)

Anonymous said...

Jamie Murray was awesome on hustle, oh how i miss that show with the full gang (I was quite the stacie/mickey shipper).

It was great to see her pop again here, although I'll admit that at first I thought it was just Carly Pope with a british accent.

At first I too was worried about the Dex in NA plot but it's totally paying off humor wise

Anonymous said...

If you watch last night's show carefully, it's clear that Dexter didn't actually prove that the car dealer killed those women. It certainly seemed likely -- he did have sex with them, and he was obviously a jerk and a liar. But the guy never confessed to the murders, and it's possible that he was victimized by a "Sea of Love" scenario, where someone was stalking him and killing everyone he slept with.

While I don't think they're actually going in this direction, it would be interesting to see what would happen if someone Dexter executed turned out not to be guilty.

Chris Littmann said...

bigted -- get out of my head!

I was just coming back to pose just that question. I started thinking about that last night just the same way I started to think after I watched House for a while.

Just as House had to get a case wrong eventually, I started to wonder if Dexter would finally get something wrong. In my head I was trying to resolve how that would work out. It certainly seems he had evidence with the icky DNA match though, but nevertheless, as the guy was pleading for his life the thought crossed my mind, too.

Anonymous said...

Dexter is not only the only show I watch of the three, but it is so brilliant that I find it insulting to lump it in as a "group" thread instead of having its own.

I continue to be amazed by Hall as an actor. He finds a way to always remain true to Dexter, yet, for a character with a very low capacity for emotion, has the ability to evoke emotions from the audience with just a look. The semi-orgasmic look on his face when the car salesman starts to describe the trunk space was just hilarious. And the AA speech at the end was both haunting and moving, acknowledging his monster while seemingly taking a small stand to it for the first time.

Even Hall's voiceover work is exceptionally well done. VO's in general always seem like a cheap way at exposition, and thus insulting to the audience (see Veronica Mars VOs), but Hall does a great job of using it to expand upon the character of Dexter and give us insight.

Dexter is a candle that is currently burning very, VERY brightly, and is easily the most compelling show I've seen in years, but, as they say, the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long. I think this season is turning out to be a battle between Dexter and his own sister, and that touches on so many HUGE themes, but I do worry that they will have few places to go from there. Still, I would rather have 2-3 seasons of brilliance than 8-9 of mostly filler. So if the writers are playing all their cards early and all-out, I'm going to be fine with that, even if it means the last season (whenever that is) will be disappointing as there is no content left.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Dexter is not only the only show I watch of the three, but it is so brilliant that I find it insulting to lump it in as a "group" thread instead of having its own.

Didn't meant to insult you or the show, but what difference does it make? Since I've been doing this blog, there are only a handful of shows that have never wound up as part of a round-up thread at some point or other. It happens. Hell, last year I didn't even blog about every episode of this show, and it was one of the best things on TV (then and now).

Anonymous said...

Alan said: "Didn't meant to insult you or the show, but what difference does it make? "

It might just be perception, but having a show "highlighted" as a stand-alone entry lends it some importance as a show that people ought to try if they aren't watching it already. Being one of a list in a multi-show thread is a bit tarnishing. Especially if the shows Dexter is being 'lumped' with are, from the look of the comments, complete duds now.

Secondly, a separated post about Dexter apart from other shows allows the comments section to be fully concentrated on praising / discussing / analyzing that one show, which again helps build audience awareness and increased loyalty, as well as showing Showtime the level of that fandom more easily. Compare this to what this thread has - some degree of jumbled, disjointed jerkiness as some comments on the other shows 'interrupt' the flow. I think this is an important distinction to have for a great show with a small audience, but obviously you don't agree.

I fully understand that Showtime does not rely on advertisers and thus have much less worry about traditional TV models for success, but a show as good as Dexter should still be promoted by critics to attract as big an audience as possible, if just for the love of great television and a 'vote' on future television's direction. As you probably care more about television's direction than most, I would think giving a great show a 'highlight' spot, which really is as little effort as just two different blog posts entries, would be a nice freebie marketing thing you could do to shape the TV landscape ever so slightly. I mean, really, does HIMYM really deserve such a consistent highlight over Dexter?

This post sounds more belligerent than I intend, I obviously think your blog is worthwhile enough to read and post here. My tone is not anger towards you as much as passion for a show as good as Dexter.

SJ said...

Hmm I don't know Alan. I thought this was another great CYE episode. Larry trying to talk Cheryl into "sick sex" was hilarious (I almost lost it when he was rubbing his hands over her body), Jeff not missing a beat and switching the talk to cleaners when Susie shows up suddenly, Larry going crazy about a spider and scaring everybody, Larry trying to kiss the dog, Larry's father thinking that the masseuse loves him, Leon and Hal's conversation ("I'm Barack Obama, president of hittin that ass!")

Shawn Anderson said...

I think we're soon going to have to give C.S. Lee some extra love. The best unknown side character actor working two shows this fall season (Vince Masuka on Dexter, Harry Tang on Chuck.)

I hope his role on Chuck gets expanded a tad more... it might just be that I'm projecting Masuka on the Tang role, but I can't help cracking up whenever he's on screen.

Anonymous said...

The guy's an exterminator; why is he just trying to stomp on this thing? And how can he not tell a rat from a dog?

I took it as a parallel to Larry stomping the sh&t out of that spider. Plus he never really looked at the dog; he just stomped away.

Doakes being okay with Dexter being a drug addict cracked me up. And I loved the look of jealousy on Rita's face when she saw Dex's new sponsor.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I took it as a parallel to Larry stomping the sh&t out of that spider.

Oh, I got that. I just didn't think it worked at all.

Anonymous said...

^ I had the opposite reaction--it gave me the biggest laugh all season (but in that horribly uncomfortable way a good CYE joke does). It probably helped that the guy looked and acted like Chris Farley (uncannily so in some scenes, where it did get a tad distracting).

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree on Curb. There is no doubt that Curb today is less funny than the first couple of seasons. (I digress but Larry's phone going off playing Hava Nagila when he was in the prayer circle was priceless) Nonetheless, the show is still funnier than almost anything else on TV.

To be sure, we all knew where the phone gag was going but the conversations that each character had was what made the bit work. The "tension" between Larry and the exterminator at the end was also classic Curb. All in all I actually thought this was a pretty good episode.

Undercover Black Man said...

Dez, I was feeling Farley as well. I even wondered whether this guy might be Farley's little brother or something... his "Jim Belushi." ;^)

I thought it was a pretty good ep. I'm really enjoying the interplay between Larry David and J.B. Smoove. ("How do you know I ain't flippin' your ass right now?" "Because I'm unflippable.") Silly, but I like it.

Tom said...

Yes, not the best of CYE this week, by far. But it still delivered two belly laughs (the J.B. Smoove/Tim Meadows phone exchange and the stomping of the Rat Dog) and one bit of delicious weirdness (the front porch awkwardness at the end of Larry's "date" with the exterminator). Plus I now know how to call a deaf person a c*cks*cker. That's TV I can use.

SJ said...

That is indeed Chris Farley's brother, Kevin Farley. It doesn't mention his appearance on CYE though.

Anonymous said...

Oh, that's the Farley that does that annoying anti-drug commercial about his brother. Interesting choice of casting, still. Too bad his name isn't Jim! :-D

Anonymous said...

One more thing: I loved the spider-stomping scene, mostly because I've done nearly the exact same thing (except I screamed "Die die die!" as I stomped the little bastard), but in front of other grad students, not kids. Heh.

Anonymous said...

You know, I said I wasn't going to keep watching Tell Me You Love Me but now I can't stay away. I really like the style of the show, I think, despite the unlikeable-ness of nearly every single character.

By the way, it is supposed to be three core couples going to May for therapy, right? Where the hell did Hugo disappear to? I never liked him, but Jamie isn't really a couple if she's by herself.

David and Katie continue to be the most compelling couple, but May's advice was a bit ridiculous. A sex therapist tells them not to have sex ever again? Okay, show.

Caroline really scares me, but I agree about Sonya Walger. Great stuff.

And finally, I love how they always have some sad song playing at the end and then the title flashes onto the screen. It's small, but kind of neat.

See, I said I wasn't going to watch anymore and now I've written a novel. I clearly have separation issues.