Friday, November 30, 2007

FNL: All apologies

Vacation weekend looms, so brief spoilers for the "Seeing Other People episode of "Friday Night Lights" coming up just as soon as I do some laundry...

In the interest of discussing as much of the episode -- which had its ups and its downs but largely seemed like a transitional show setting up next week's (hopeful) conclusion to the rapist storyline -- as possible in as little space/time as I have available, let's go straight to the bullet points:
  • Riggins' time rooming with the meth-cooking underwear model was handled in just about the right way, I thought. Clearly, there was something wrong with the guy well before he made the suspicious cold medicine request, but Tim actually seemed to be enjoying his time there (a little) for a day or so. I liked him doing individual apologies to all the players on the team (calling red-headed Bradley "Firecrotch" was a nice touch), and wish that the scene had carried on as if he was going to do one for every player, even as Coach was putting the guys through their calisthenics and barking at Riggins about all his future probationary work.
  • Beyond Riggins' return to the team, the football stuff seemed odd. Even in a strange season where the new coach was forced out after a handful of games, shouldn't the natives be a lot more restless when the team has two losses (or is it three?) already, and one a humiliating, Knicks vs. Celtics-style blow-out? Shouldn't Coach be in bunker mode trying to fix the defense, with him as the one letting the marriage slip away again? Instead, the only comment anyone made about the loss was Glenn; even Saracen didn't stay mad at Smash for very long after Smash seemed to not care about losing.
  • I thought the handling of the Julie/Noah story was much more interesting this week, particularly if it turns out that Tami was overreacting to that just as much as Eric was to her and Glenn. I continue to find Julie an intolerable brat this year, but she's a realistic brat, and in the scene where she confronted her mom about Noah, Aimee Teegarden reached down deep to a place I'm not sure even she knew existed. That wasn't just her cranking up the volume; that was pure, unadulterated, unforced rage.
  • On the other hand, Matt and Carlotta continues to bore me, and it was strange how the Smash storyline ended halfway through the episode and largely turned into an excuse for Smash to play love doctor for Matt. I don't mind a lighter story now and then, but after playing Smash's college choice much more seriously in the last episode (and even in the Mama Smash scene here), the stakes suddenly seemed much lower tonight. On the other hand, Zach Gilford's delivery of "Was it Cabo in your pants?" made the entire thing worth it.
  • If it hadn't been for Lyla hitching a ride in the Landry Love Wagon back in "State," I guess this would have been the first Lyla/Landry scene ever. I'm waiting to see how this ends up (if, in fact, it ends up) next week, but the one thing I can never complain about with this story arc is Jesse Plemmons' performance. The kid brings it every week, whether the material deserves it or not.
  • Just because it merits saying every week: Connie Britton is amazing. Highlights this time included her response to Eric accusing her of not spending time on the family, her tearing into Noah, the look of guilt and shame on her face as the argument with Shelley got away from her, and her joy at hearing Eric say he liked her.
What did everybody else think?
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What do we love? Pain!

Topic for the weekend (and into next week if you want): what were the best shows (or even episodes of shows) you watched on TV in the calendar year 2007? Any genre, any daypart, doesn't matter; if it was on TV in '07 (and not a rerun like a "Seinfeld" episode or something), it qualifies. I know we have another month to go, but I need to start gathering my thoughts for the Best-of list, and while I have a lot of things in mind (probably too many already), I'm always paranoid about missing something obvious. Click here to read the full post

Scrubs & Earl: Arrested development

I'm going away for the weekend, which means tonight's "Friday Night Lights" review may be brief, as will Sunday night's "Dexter" review (assuming I'll even have computer access on Sunday night to post it).

In the meantime, some very quick thoughts on last night's "Scrubs" and "My Name Is Earl" coming up just as soon as I doctor my birth certificate...

I really want to be enjoying this final "Scrubs" season more than I am (and the longer the strike lasts, the greater the likelihood that the show won't have a proper finale, short of Bill Lawrence doing a YouTube diary entry where he talks about what would have happened with J.D. and Elliot and what The Janitor's name was), but it continues to feel both flat and repetitive. Having the characters acknowledge that they went through the exact same problem two or three episodes back doesn't excuse the fact that they're doing it again. I appreciate the look at how hard it is to leave behind your (relatively) carefree twenties and deal with the responsibilities of your 30s (having gone through much the same not long ago), but I feel like they're beating me over the head with it, and making J.D. seem even denser than usual in the bargain.

Also beating over the head? The none-too-subtle hints that Kelso was hiding his age to avoid mandatory retirement. It's the kind of story you can actually tell in a final season (not that we'll necessarily get to see the episodes where Kelso steps down), but as with J.D.'s cluelessness about when he could and couldn't be immature, Elliot not getting this, even after she learned he was 65, frustrated me.

Also running in place, though not necessarily in a bad way, was "My Name Is Earl." Earl was talking so much about his freedom that I suspected something would trip him up, and I'm okay with that, because it feels like the better episodes of this uneven season have dealt with Earl as a convict. (This one, maybe not as much as the inter-gang love story, but I'll never complain about an opportunity to see Jason Lee breakdance.) Plus, paroling Earl would have lost us Craig T. Nelson's warden, one of the more amusing characters they've added.

I still expect them to find a way to get Earl out of prison within a few episodes, but now there's a new issue to deal with: Earl's broke. He had to run out of Lotto money eventually -- $100,000 isn't that much money, especially after taxes, and even living in that fleabag motel, it's been more than two years -- and I'm curious to see how Earl sets about being a freelance do-gooder without any money to support himself. Even if he gets back that job at the appliance store with the cast of "Rudy," is that enough to both support himself and the various expenses that come along with The List?

What did everybody else think?
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All TV: 'Tin Man' takes all the fun out of Oz

Today's column previews Sci Fi's underwhelming "Wizard of Oz" updating, "Tin Man":
Imagination is hard. Imagination requires the creation of new ideas. Re-imagination, on the other hand? That just requires taking a pre-existing idea and changing it ever-so-slightly. Since new ideas in Hollywood are hard to come by, we get lots of re-imagining these days, from simple TV-to-movies translation like "Transformers" to more radical changes like the new political allegory incarnation of "Battlestar Galactica."

The problem with re-imagination comes when the material's so popular that any changes - or, for that matter, the reason for telling the story again - have to seem justified.

In the case of "Tin Man," a six-hour miniseries debuting Sunday night at 9 on Sci Fi, the source material is one of the most beloved stories ever: L. Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz." The press notes insist that "Viewers familiar with Baum's storyline will delight in the dozens of clever ways in which this new interpretation echoes the old," but for the most part, the changes all seem puzzling and arbitrary.
There's also a review of HBO's Don Rickles documentary, "Mr. Warmth," which I liked a lot more. To read the full thing, click here. Click here to read the full post

Thursday, November 29, 2007

30 Rock: Do they have fist names in Knuckle Beach?

Brief spoilers for "30 Rock" coming up just as soon as I enjoy some homemade country gum...

One of the best first season episodes of this show was the one where Liz met Floyd's girlfriend Liz Lemler and went into a complete Dubya-style meltdown, even barking out "I'm the decider!" whenever someone questioned the wisdom of her latest escalation. It was a hilarious episode from start to finish (it was also the one with Jack's family, each with their own pronunciation of "Donaghy"), and so I guess I can't blame them from going to the Iraq war parody well again. But I felt like the baseball plot of "Cougars" kept beating me over the head with all the obvious parallels. With Baldwin, Morgan, McBrayer and this writing team in place, there were definitely going to be some funny moments ("One word: surge!" "That's two words!"), but almost all of them were throwaway gags like the title of Tracy's tell-all book or Jack's charity that gives tuxedos to homeless people. Maybe if Jack hadn't announced his intentions to follow in Bush's footsteps, it might have all worked better, but the writers' need to spell it out in advance lest we not get it was distracting. (Also, the Liz version of this story worked in part because Liz is a liberal; seeing a devout Republican like Jack playing out failed Republican policy isn't as funny, even on a silly canvas like a Little League team.)

Liz's May-December cougar plot, meanwhile, has been done in various forms on lots of other shows (there was one sitcom in particular that did the gag where both halves of the couple lied about their age and didn't realize how far apart they were, and it's driving me nuts that I can't remember), and yet Tina Fey almost made it seem fresh with her usual willingness to appear completely pathetic. ("Oh... when will death come?") Frank's sexual confusion didn't quite work for me, but at least it led to one of the better Anne Heche-bashing lines I've heard in a while ("You can't be gay for one person -- unless you're a woman, and you meet Ellen.")

Ah, well. Win some, lose some. At least we have three more of these, while "The Office" is done for the duration.

What did everybody else think?
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Life: Orange man

Quick spoilers for "Life" coming up just as soon as I order personal pineapples for everyone on my Christmas and Chanukah lists...

In my review of the last episode to air, two weeks ago, I wrote:
If, in a hypothetical world where the strike wasn't taking place and "Life" wasn't almost certainly destined to be canceled once it ends, I were the showrunner hiring prospective writers, I'd hand them a copy of this episode and say, "This is what our show is."

Based on the show's pleasantly surprising back nine (or whatever) pick-up earlier in the week, I was wrong on the first end of that run-on sentence. Based on last night's episode -- which followed the "Farthingale" template to a T, with a beautiful tableau of a dead body, a case with personal parallels for Crews, and more intensity on the frame-up job -- I would guess that the "Life" staff dug "Farthingale" as much as I did.

I liked how, as with last nights "Pushing Daisies," the Murder of the Week turned out to be, if not beside the point, than not the emotional center of the episode. The murder case had its interesting moments -- the aforementioned tableau, Crews and Reese busting in on the kitten farm, the killer (played by Michael Gladis from "Mad Men") swallowing the guitar pick and looking every bit the cat that ate the canary when he was finished -- but the heart was in Crews' reading of the kidnapped boy's situation and his recognition of how they both had large chunks of their lives stolen away. (Not sure who's worse off; Charlie was old enough to understand what was being done to him, but at least he remembers his pre-prison life, where the kid's real mom is going to be a stranger to him.)

And it can't be said enough how much I enjoy watching Damian Lewis work. He's so at ease with himself that you understand why those runaways might talk to Crews even without the offer of the fruit, or why Reese would agree to give him back the knife and side with Charlie against her father. But then there are those moments when he gets his back up -- either with the kidnapper dad in the apartment, or when he sees Jack Reese enter the station with the manila envelope -- and you understand perfectly what prison did to him. I almost don't care about the plots anymore -- even though they've gotten much better since the first few episodes when I was ready to punt the show -- because I just want to see what Lewis is going to do next.

It seems as if Crews' rogue investigation is nearing a point where he either has to uncover the conspiracy or get booted off the force. I'm agnostic about that story arc's value, but I know some of you have said that's the main reason you're watching. Based on the improvement on the episodic stuff over the last month or so, would you still be as engaged with "Life" if we quickly find out who framed Charlie and why?
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Pushing Daisies: Sticky situations

So my cable's back up, and thanks to those strike-inducing network websites, I've had a chance to catch up on some of last night's TV, which I'll be working my way through blogging in between viewing the Thursday NBC shows and Cowboys-Packers.

Spoilers for "Pushing Daisies" coming up just as soon as I dust myself for prints...

As someone who watches almost every episode of the shows I like, I'm more sensitive to over-use of formula than some (see my weekly complaints about "Reaper," though I still haven't gotten to see that one), and therefore more excited whenever a show deliberately gets away from that formula.

"Pushing Daisies" hasn't been too married to its formula, but this week's episode still seemed like a deliberate attempt to go off-template -- and a funny one, at that. What seemed like our Murder of the Week (complete with Jim Dale's "The facts were these...") was solved 10 minutes in, apparently never to be dealt with again (only for the Real Doll-loving killer to pop up again in prison), then the episode seemed to shift into a bunch of wacky hijinks between the Pie Ho's and Molly Shannon (ala the "Bar Wars" episodes of "Cheers"), and then we got a second, more important Murder of the Week -- and yet one that, in the end, was solved almost entirely via Jim Dale montage. And just when it seemed as if Ned had decided to put off telling Chuck about her dad so we could have one of those predictable "Why didn't you tell me the truth!" break-up moments around May sweeps, he just blurted out the news at episode's end. Never a dull moment in this one.

It helped to have so many funny bits -- none funnier than Emerson's "I mean, it's a broad generalization, but my guess is an attractive man who makes pies for a living shouldn't even spend a short amount of time in prison," but also including Olive baking a gun-pie, Chuck and Olive as cat burglars (complete with cleavage window for Olive), and another bit of formula undercutting, when Jim Dale said, "Then he considered how being locked in a prison was actually much worse than some silly metaphor about truth."

Don't know how many episodes remain from pre-strike production, but we're probably not going to see any of them till January, which makes Ned's confession a mid-season cliffhanger of sorts.

What did everybody else think?
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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

House: And the winners are...

Brief spoilers for last night's "House" -- including a photo of the newly-configured team, so avert your eyes, RSS reader types -- coming up just as soon as I turn on my garbage disposal...

As mentioned in the past, the representatives for the three winners leaked the news of their hiring to the trades weeks ago (I think Fox may have even put out a press release announcing Kal Penn's hiring), which meant I spent most of this episode trying to figure out what House's reason would be for dumping Amber. (And good on the writers for giving Anne Dudek a really nice showcase in her farewell episode. If there actually winds up being a pilot season this year, I hope between this and "Mad Men," she gets a good role.)

That knowledge of the results makes it hard to judge the episode as it was intended to be viewed, and made me focus more on the parts I didn't like -- the heavy-handed "sometimes, dying/losing is easier than living/winning" theme of both patients, in particular -- than on watching House manipulate Cuddy into the result he wanted. I also still don't feel like the writers ever gave us a justification for hiring Kutner; despite my Kal Penn love, Kutner hasn't been right enough or prominent enough, and they'd better start giving him more to do now that the team is established.

Even if the news hadn't been leaked, I probably would have figured it out by now, as Penn, Wilde and Jacobson were easily the three most recognizable faces of the entire search (not counting Michael Michele, I guess), but for those of you who managed to remain unspoiled, how did you react to both the episode and the results?
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Journeyman: Sbarge saves

Spoilers for Monday night's "Journeyman" coming up just as soon as I buy an iPhone...

Reading the Nielsen tea leaves is supposed to be part of my job description, but I'm damned if I can figure out what Monday's numbers -- which, thanks in part to one of the worst "Monday Night Football" games ever, were up from the previous week but still terrible compared to "Chuck" and "Heroes" -- mean for the future of "Journeyman." Two more episodes are in the can, with the second one designed to provide some measure of closure in the event of cancellation, and I have no idea whether NBC will air either one. Yes, they promised that the show will be back in two weeks, but what if the already back-nined "Life" does significantly better in its Monday tryout next week? Given Hulu and other on-line methods of distribution, I imagine the other episodes will be available in some form, and there remains that slim chance that the strike could disrupt pilot season enough that even a charity case like "Journeyman" might get a small pick-up for next season, but I also wouldn't be shocked if "Blowback" was the last hour to air on the NBC television network.

And, if so, this wasn't a bad note to end on. No, we still have no clue about The Powers That Be's origins or motivations, but Jack has now been brought into the fold, Dan has learned the consequences of going off-mission, and Bennett did Dan the solid of killing that nosy FBI agent. Answers are always preferable, but we're at a good equilibrium point for the concept and characters now.

(Speaking of the FBI agent, how chilling was the moment where he starts ignoring Jack to mutter to himself about how "they" always need currency, implying -- as tachyon expert Dr. Langley suggested a few weeks ago -- there are always powerful men trying to track down and exploit time travelers?)

Raphael Sbarge did a good job in a showy role, playing convincingly nuts without chewing (much of) the scenery. Katie's been a problematic character for the show, but I pin that more on the writing than on Gretchen Egolf, whose fear in the apron/sandwich scene was very well done.

I kept wondering how far TPTB were going to let Dan go in his mission with the young Bennett. Would they, for instance, let him save Bennett as a kid and in turn undo the events of the previous episode and get adult Bennet out of his house? That might have been interesting, but would once again have led to a status quo reset. Jack needed to be in on the loop already, and I loved Reed Diamond's performance in the scene where Jack sees Livia across the newsroom.

(Also, had Dan rescued young Bennett, what would it mean for either of the girls Dan saved last week?)

I don't know that "Journeyman" ever has it in it to be a great show, but it's been solidly entertaining for the last five episodes or so. If it's done, I'll miss it but I don't think I'll mourn it, you know?

What did everybody else think?
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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Experiencing technical difficulties... please stand by

Some home repair issues have rendered me essentially TV-less for a couple of days. Thanks to the wonder of all those on-line "promotional" airings on network websites (gosh... I wonder if the writers or actors get paid for that stuff...), I shouldn't have to miss much, if anything, but I'll be getting to stuff like "House," "Reaper" and the Wednesday shows a little later than usual. Sorry, but sometimes life gets in the way of seeing "Life," you know? Click here to read the full post

Heroes: All-day suckers

Spoilers for "Heroes" coming up just as soon as I teach my daughter never to talk to strangers...

Oh, "Heroes," you had me, and then you lost me. After last week's unreservedly strong outing, we get an episode that had me counting the minutes till "Journeyman" came on. (Blog post on that to follow later today after I finish watching it; sacked out halfway through.)

If the theme of last week's episode was fathers and children, this week's theme was "with great power comes great gullibility." The plots all moved forward, but all depended on characters -- primarily Maya, Peter and Mohinder -- being foolish enough to put their trust in the bad guys, all while ignoring the protests of characters they should trust more.

Obviously, we have more information than the characters in the show do -- and, in fairness, it's still not completely clear what Company Bob's intentions are (though if he's made a face turn, then it's HRG who looks the fool) -- but the entire episode, and much of this season, falls under Ebert's Idiot Plot rule, where the only way the story works is if as many characters as possible act like idiots. I gravitate towards stories about smart people, which is one of the main reasons why HRG and Nathan (remember him?) are among my favorite characters on this show. Mohinder and Peter have always shown themselves to be vulnerable to whatever svegnali crosses their path, and it annoys the snot out of me.

As Peter's powers expanded last year, we talked a lot about how the writers would need to be careful or else he would render all the other characters useless; turns out their solution is to once again make him a moron. So maybe he doesn't want to listen when the Joanna Cassidy character accuses Monroe of being the one trying to release the virus, but when Monroe unties her binds entirely as an excuse to kill her when they could have easily left her tied up and unharmed, that should have been a big flashing danger sign.

(Hiro doesn't come off looking so smart, either, by giving vengeance as his reason for wanting to fight Kensei/Monroe; given that they did have several marvelous team-ups in the past, and that the Cassidy had already accused Monroe of wanting to release the virus, even Peter might have been willing to listen had Hiro played that card. Probably not, though. This is Peter Petrelli we're talking about.)

I could talk in more detail about the rest of the episode -- about how the pay-off to the Monica/Micah story next week better be pretty sweet to justify her not kicking some gangbanger butt upon being discovered, how I really like the work Kristen Bell is doing and wish we were getting a lot more of her, how Mohinder and Parkman must employ the least reliable babysitter in New York -- but I just want to wash the taste of idiocy out of my mouth after that one and get back to "Journeyman," or something else I might genuinely enjoy. Blurgh.

What did everybody else think?
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HIMYM: Barney's secret

Brief spoilers for "How I Met Your Mother" coming up just as soon as I find my framed Reggie Jackson photo...

A pretty good episode, I thought. Not great, and kind of all over the place, but enough funny moments and distinctly "HIMYM"-y elements that I enjoyed it.

I worried that the stunt-casted supermodels would derail the show, but fortunately, their appearances were brief and mostly an excuse for Barney to make a fool of himself. (And was it just me, or did it sound like Heidi Klum's dialogue was being looped in reverse whenever she uttered the German phrase for "yips"?) I liked insecure, yippy Barney, but the genuine article is still funnier; the scene where he explained his "investments" ("I foresee agressive growth in my future!") was probably the best thing in the episode.

I loved the mocking of Robin's gym look ("Oh, hey, lesbian prison guard," Barney mistaking her for a man) and actually wish there had been more of that. The gang playing Top That Insult is one of this show's most reliable weapons, and usually the target is either Ted or Barney. Still, Ted and Robin each losing their attraction for the other once and for all was a welcome, funny touch.

Wayne Brady was funnier in his previous appearance; "closeted gay guy tries to act like girls aren't gross" is a pretty played-out joke. (Plus, the meta part kept getting in the way, given the sexual orientations of the two actors and how convincingly Neil Patrick Harris plays a ladies man.) On the other hand, I thought Stephanie Faracy was well-cast as Rhonda the Man-Maker, and I liked the montage of Rhonda coming up with one-liners to describe her conquests, only to fall short because the last one just happened.

What did everybody else think?
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Chuck: The pineapple incident

Spoilers for "Chuck" coming up just as soon as I practice my hurdling...

So on the same night that NBC announced that "Chuck" was getting a full-season order (the number of additional episodes will depend on how long the strike lasts), the show presented a strong example of why it deserved the extension. Maybe it wasn't the life-altering hour promised by the promo monkeys (more grousing about them in a minute), but it was the usual amount of fun, and in at least one area improved on what the show had done to date.

As a blend of comedy, drama and action, "Chuck" has been consistently good at the first, often good at the second and usually just acceptable at the third. Doing cool action with the budget and, more importantly, schedule of a weekly TV series is hard ("24" and, especially, "Alias," are the only recent shows I can think of where the fights and shoot-outs rarely felt perfunctory), and outside of Bryce's parkour-flavored escape from the Intersect lab in the pilot and Sarah and Casey's spork-off at the Wienerlicious in episode two, the action on "Chuck" has been just north of okay. Sarah throws a couple of high kicks, Casey fires off a couple of shots, and... scene. Fortunately, those sequences are usually over so quickly that it's not a big deal, and I'll take funny jokes and likable characters over kewl martial arts, but the action was definitely lagging behind the other parts of the show... until last night.

I'm not saying the big showdown at the Buy More would have fit seamlessly into a John Woo or Jet Li movie, but moments like Casey two-fisting a pair of semi-automatics or Sarah and Bryce fighting back to back looked a lot more impressive than what this show has typically given us when it's time for a bit of the ultra-violence. It helped to have Matthew Bomer back as Bryce, since he's clearly more assured with this stuff than Yvonne Strahovski.

And yet, in typical "Chuck" fashion, the most impressive bit of action was comic. I went back and replayed Big Mike's vault over the counter three or four times, both because it consistently made me laugh and to make sure there wasn't an obvious edit or other kind of cheat in there. But no, that was actor Mark Christopher Lawrence, invoking the old comic book cliche of "How can anything so big move so fast?" Maybe he had help from a hidden trampoline, but I don't care. That was just a splendid moment, and one of those lighter bits that reminds me not to take the show seriously enough to start nitpicking the reality of stuff like Casey's weapons cache in the home theater room. (Plus, Chuck did a good job of pointing out the silliness of that one.)

I worried that bringing Bryce back so soon wasn't the wisest decision, that it was something Schwartz and Fedak could have saved for down the road when the episodic stories were wearing a little thinner. But there's always this weird dance a new show has to do, especially one that didn't get much love from the network until late in the game: you can't pull a Lou Piniella and try to save your big guns for games that might not get played. Bryce's return led to a solid episode with nice dramatic work from Strahovski and Zachary Levi (who was superb in the moment where Chuck recognized what a perfect match Sarah and Bryce were), and they wrote him out in a way that will allow him to come back and cause trouble for Chuck down the road, if need be. (Maybe even as someone who's gotten too deep into his cover identity and gone rogue for real?)

And not that I was exactly panicked about which phone Sarah would answer -- the show's called "Chuck," not "Bryce" -- but the promo monkeys once again did a splendid job of ruining the fun with their ad for next week's episode. I guess they thought the promise of Strahovski in a bikini was a better hook than finding out who she chose.

Some other quick thoughts on "Chuck Versus the Nemesis":

-Much like Ellie, I think it's time for a moratorium on the big family dinners. Captain Awesome trying to bond with Casey was funny as the Captain always is, but the Thanksgiving dinner scene, like a similar sequence back in "Chuck Versus the Helicopter," was more labored than this show usually gets.

-I always like Julia Ling (in her brief appearances as the drunken viola player, she was one of the few genuinely amusing parts of "Studio 60," and she made a great band geek in the otherwise forgettable Chris Brown guest arc in the final "O.C." season), but there needed to be some kind of explanation for why Anna is back with Morgan after he humiliated her with the public dumping last week.

-I loved that Jeff has to fix the cash registers because he's the only guy in the store old enough to remember the '80s, and I loved him and Lester cowering under the Nerd Herd desk while Morgan tried to talk them out.

-You make the call: was the use of "pineapple" as the safety word another lift from "How I Met Your Mother" (where one of the show's best episodes revolved around a pineapple incident), a bit of friendly ribbing (Schwartz and the HIMYM guys have been photographed hanging out together on the picket line), or a complete coincidence?

-I'm enough of a nerd to immediately recognize that Bryce and Chuck were speaking Klingon, but not enough of one to be able to translate any of it. Any of you who are nerdier than me: did the dialogue match what they said it was supposed to be, was it one of those "My Name Is Earl" things where they were saying something else entirely for the audience's benefit, or was it just gibberish?

What did everybody else think?
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Sepinwall on TV: 'House' gets a creative shot in the arm

Blog as column incubator, part 936: today's column is mostly a rehash of last week's blog entry about the final four "House" fellowship candidates, though I talk a little more about why I feel the search has reinvigorated the show. Click here to read the full post

Monday, November 26, 2007

Chuck and Life get the back nine (or whatever)

Hot off the e-presses, from NBC:
NBC has picked up the freshman dramas "Chuck" (Mondays, 8-9 p.m. ET) and "Life" (Wednesdays, 10-11 p.m. ET) for nine more episodes -- or the balance of the 2007-08 season -- it was announced today by Ben Silverman, Co-Chairman, NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios.
If the strike goes on and on, a back nine is moot, but as the release says, these two shows will get to make as many episodes as any other show with a full season order if/when the strike ends.

We all know that "Bionic Woman" is basically dead (expensive, constant backstage turmoil, nobody much likes it), so that just leaves "Journeyman" among NBC rookies with an undecided fate. That show's creator says the final episode they produced will provide some level of closure, which is something.

Don't know whether the announcement suggests real progress was made today in the WGA/AMPTP negotiations, or simply that NBC had to make decisions around now to avoid losing their options on the casts, producers, etc., but as I like both shows, I'm pleased. Click here to read the full post

Dexter: Doakes, docks, Dex

Spoilers for "Dexter" coming up just as soon as I change my shirt...

"Don't get caught."

Last night's episode, "Resistance Is Futile," asks the audience to take a lot of things on faith, but maybe none moreso than the idea that Harry Morgan would make that the first rule of his Code.
Harry (making his first appearance in a couple of episodes) is still something of a mystery to the audience, and this season has made him even moreso, with the revelation of his relationship with Dexter's mom and the mechanics (but not explanation) of him adopting Dexter but not his brother. There's certainly a chance that he could have decided that Dexter's continued life and freedom were worth risking the lives of innocents, but doesn't track for me with what we know of the guy. The Code of Harry always seemed to be about channeling Dexter's bloodlust in a useful direction first, self-preservation second.

If Dexter were a more normal character -- as normal as any serial killer could be -- than Dexter's willingness to frame and/or kill Doakes in order to evade Lundy's task force wouldn't be an issue. A normal person, even a mass murderer, would be capable of independent thought in ways that Dexter simply isn't. He needs The Code to function, not only as a killer, but as a man. Even when he seemed to be abandoning The Code for selfish reasons in the middle portion of the season, it wasn't an independent act; it was him being manipulated by Lila, who briefly succeeded in replacing Harry's Code with her own.

Even Dexter admits to being torn about Doakes; if it were up to him, he might actually give himself up to protect Doakes, even though Doakes hates him, but he makes it clear that he's turning the decision-making back over to Harry. And I see Harry's priorities here -- as well as several other actions taken throughout the episode -- as less true to character than a contrivance to keep the story going. "Dexter" is usually so well-crafted that I don't see the hands of the writers pushing the characters around; last night, I did.

We all knew Doakes would be framed sooner or later -- the reference last week to his dad being a butcher was the final giveaway (though that's not the damning evidence that Lundy and the Captain tried to make it out to be; after all, the Bay Harbor Butcher didn't name himself) -- but few of his actions in this episode made sense, even within the context of Doakes' hot-headedness and hatred of Dexter. What the hell is he doing leaving the blood slides in the trunk of his car? What was the value of the trip to Haiti, especially with the slides left behind in America? Doakes kept acting like he had some brilliant master plan, but other than planting the GPS on Dexter's boat and following him (without benefit of any kind of recording equipment he might use to prove he's the framee and not the framer), it seemed like he was just running around in ways designed (by the writers, not him) to raise the FBI's suspicions.

Meanwhile, on what planet does an FBI agent -- especially one as smart as Lundy has seemed until now -- place crucial evidence in the hands of a man whose life is being threatened by the prime suspect? I'll go with Lundy being tricked into thinking Doakes is the Butcher -- as I said last week, we have knowledge he doesn't -- but why not give the slides to Masuka? He works for the Miami PD and therefore meets the Captain's criteria, and he also doesn't have any kind of motive to make sure Doakes goes to prison. It just doesn't make sense except as a bit of plot mechanics.

I'm also bothered by Dexter's complete inability to protect Angel from whatever bit of emotional vampire voodoo Lila has planned for him. Yes, Dexter is an emotional cripple, but he's also capable of giving out just enough detail -- say, telling Angel she's a pyromaniac who once set fire to her apartment to keep Dexter from breaking up with her, or, even simpler, asking him friend to friend to stay away because the break-up was so painful -- to make even a hard-luck horndog like Angel run screaming from that pale wackjob. Again, I was watching the scenes and picturing the story meeting the whole time:

"Okay, so how do we keep Lila around now that Dexter's dumped her?"
"I know! We'll have her start dating Angel!"
"But wouldn't Dexter just tell Angel to stay the hell away from her?"
"Well, what if Dexter tries to tell him but Angel doesn't want to listen?"
"He'd have to be really vague -- like, idiotically vague -- for that to work."
"I think I can do that!"

And yet, all that said, Michael C. Hall is so wonderful and the production team casts such a spell that some of these objections (not all, but some) didn't occur to me until after the episode was over and I began thinking about the review. The moment when Doakes appeared on the dock with his gun drawn took me completely by surprise. I knew something bad was going to come of Dexter leaving Jimenez's body alone for so long, but I just assumed Lila would be involved, or that some of Jimenez's drug-dealing cohorts would have turned up, that the house would be completely empty, whatever. For whatever reason, Doakes' presence just didn't occur to me; I have one of those computer brains that's constantly trying to predict where stories are going to go, and it's rare that I have a "No way!" reaction the way I did there.

(And yet, even that scene required a leap of faith, as the hair-trigger Special Forces badass Doakes had previously been established as would never allow Dexter to take control of that situation. He would have at least kneecapped him and figure out a plan later.)

I wouldn't call "Resistance Is Futile" a bad episode; Hall alone all but prevents the show from having one of those. But it's the first time all series where I'm genuinely concerned about the plan going forward. Writers are supposed to pull strings; it's their job. We're just not supposed to see them as clearly as we could last night.

What did everybody else think?
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All TV: Getting to know 'Nimrod Nation'

Today's column previews the new Sundance Channel documentary series "Nimrod Nation":
"Deer season just got over with, and now it's basketball season."

And in those 11 words, you pretty much have life in Watersmeet, a small town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula that's the subject of the new Sundance Channel documentary series "Nimrod Nation" (tonight at 9).

For men like brothers Jeff and Phil Zelinski, it's a simple, glorious life: You raise your kids, you hunt and fish, and when the sun goes down, you head to the local high school to watch the Nimrods.

The Nimrods - the nickname derives from a great hunter in the Book of Genesis, as Watersmeet is prime hunting country - were the subject of a series of ESPN commercials in 2004, with the tag line, "Without sports, who would cheer for the Nimrods?" The ads were directed by Brett Morgen, who was so taken with the unpretentious people of Watersmeet that he returned to chronicle the beloved hoops team's 2005-06 season.
There's also a short preview of season two of "Notes From the Underbelly," which I still dislike. To read the full thing, click here.

By the way, last night's "Dexter" was the first one I didn't get to see in advance, so I won't be able to post on it until later today, if not tomorrow. Click here to read the full post

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Battlestar Galactica: All of this has happened before, and now we'll see it again

Spoilers for "Battlestar Galactica: Razor" coming up just as soon as I get on the treadmill...

In my column, I talked about how, while I really enjoyed a lot of the individual pieces of "Razor," the film as a whole frustrated me because the Fisk/Tigh scenes from "Pegasus" and "Resurrection Ship" spelled out virtually everything that happened in the Cain portion of the movie, while the Kara/Kendra Shaw suicide mission was undercut by the knowledge that Starbuck would live and Shaw would almost certainly die.

Your mileage may vary on both of those points. I think I would be more willing to go with the familiarity of the Cain story if it gave me a deeper understanding of the woman and why these terrible things happened on her watch, but again, I feel as if those earlier episodes did such a strong job of spelling out the why in addition to the what that there was very little for "Razor" to add. The revelation that Cain was having an affair with the Gina version of Number Six offers some new color to some of her actions -- it makes the institutionalized rape of Gina even sicker than before, and I didn't think such a thing was possible -- but she had already gone around the bend when she insisted on carrying out the attack on the staging ground over her XO's very rational objections, before she knew about Gina. Every bad decision after that was a matter of degree, not kind. (If she hadn't walked into that trap, for instance, she might have protected the civilian fleet instead of scavenging it.)

Still, I enjoyed the hell out of Michelle Forbes' performance, especially in those early moments before the Cylon attack, when you see a slightly softer side of Cain. The treadmill conversation with the XO established a strong rapport between the two (I laughed when the XO refused to leave and Cain had to say "Think about it" again to shut down the vacation talk), and even the hazing of Shaw suggested a woman who, under different circumstances, might not have become a walking atrocity.

The "present-day" scenes (if we can refer to a story that takes place more than a year ago in "Galactica" time) expanded on some things we didn't really know about the non-fat Lee's tenure on the Pegasus -- how he adjusted to the challenges of command, why Kara was assigned to Pegasus in "The Captain's Hand" and then not in the next episode -- but mostly it was an excuse for some incredibly kewl action: Kara getting into a shoot-out with the retro Raider in the middle of the Pegasus hangar deck, or the Raptor crew bailing out and flying the rest of the way using just their suit-thrusters. Stephanie Jacobsen did a solid enough job as Kendra, but I never felt invested in her redemption arc (or lack thereof) the way I did in the events involving characters I already knew. I kept wishing that Fisk hadn't been murdered by the black marketeers, but had just been humiliated and demoted; building this story around Graham Beckel might have given it more gravity, though it would have eliminated the more obvious parallels between Kara and Kendra.

(And speaking of which, whatever happened to the plot thread of Kara having been converted to Cain's way of thinking by the end of the Resurrection Ship story? Never came up again, and could have been really useful here, perhaps with Kara trying to bond with Kendra over their mutual respect of Cain and Kendra dismissing her as a poseur who knew Cain for all of five seconds. Maybe it's on the DVD for all I know.)

If the purpose of the parallel structure was to show how Lee was a very different commander for that ship, or for Lee and Bill to develop a greater understanding of how and why Cain did what she did, I don't think it came through. When Bill essentially excused Cain because she didn't have Roslin screaming in her ear the whole time, it seemed like he and the writers were letting Cain off easy. Yes, Adama wanted to keep fighting and had to be talked out of it by Roslin's speech about hiding and making babies, but I just don't see Adama under any circumstances shooting Tigh in the head for questioning the wisdom of walking into an obvious trap, or ordering the rape of a treasonous ex-lover, or the murders of innocent civilians. I understand the motives behind Cain's actions (and will probably understand them even more after seeing the flashback scenes on the DVD), but that last scene felt like the script in some way trying to justify the film's central character.

The Lee/Kara/Kendra story did offer up one huge hint -- or is it a red herring? -- about the direction of the final season, with The Hybrid warning Kendra that Kara will lead humanity to its own destruction. I don't want to spend too much time analyzing that now, simply because we don't know exactly who or what that person in the Viper cockpit was at the end of season three, nor about the nature of Kara's "death," nor the motives of The Hybrid, both in general and in terms of what he told Kendra. I really hope, though, that Ron Moore has an amazing idea to explain the series' running "All this has happened before, and it will happen again" theme, because it's come up so often that I'm expecting something very cool.

If it seems like I'm being a harsh critic, it's because I hold "Galactica," like "Friday Night Lights" and "The Wire" and a handful of other great series, to a higher standard. Did I enjoy "Razor"? Absolutely. Was I grateful to get a taste of the series during the long hiatus? You bet. But was it as great as it could have been, given the personnel involved and their track record? I don't think so.

Some other thoughts on "Razor":

-I got a review copy of the extended cut DVD yesterday but haven't had time to watch it yet. Hopefully, I can see it before the Dec. 4 release date and do a short supplemental post on the additional scenes.

-I have, however, seen all the Young Adama scenes that aired as interstitials on Sci Fi. As cool as Kara's hangar deck aerial combat was, it's not a patch on man vs. Cylon in freefall. What an incredible bit of action/FX. (The FX team throughout did an amazing job. The destruction of the Scorpion shipyards looked stunning.)

-Who else here had a kind of fanboy (or fangirl) seizure at the sight of a vintage three-man Cylon configuration from the old series? I don't even like the '70s "Galactica" and I whooped and cheered when the action cut to that scene. Sometimes, I'm easily amused.

-Have we seen Laird (the engineer whose family was massacred on the Scylla) in the present-day action since "Resurrection Ship, Pt. II"? I think it would have been really interesting to see some kind of interaction between Shaw and Laird, even if it was simply them passing each other in a corridor and simultaneously cringing. This movie put us inside the head of a Cain loyalist, but what must those months have been like for a poor conscripted bastard like Laird?

-So not only do the humans of the 12 colonies know "All Along the Watchtower," but they have their own version of "99 Bottles of Beer," as suggested (but not sung) by Starbuck and Showboat. Will we eventually meet the colonial equivalent of the Wiggles?

-I don't want to be reductive and suggest that any strong bond between women implies romantic feelings (I know Tigh and Adama don't want to have sex, at least outside of any "Battlestar" slash fiction). But I can't decide whether Kendra's uneasy initial reaction to seeing Gina and Cain kiss was just, as she told Gina, surprise that her fearless leader needed any romantic companionship, or if there was a twinge of jealousy in there. There were no other clues to Kendra's personal life, so that's probably a reach.

-Anyone want to analyze the thinking behind Young Adama's call sign being Husker?

-One thing I didn't quite grasp from the flashback to the first Cylon war: it appeared that the human prisoners were being kept in the building that Adama walked out of just as the base ship was taking off, which means the surviving prisoners could be freed later. Was that just some clumsy editing at the end, and we're meant to think that Adama was on the base ship and then wound up exiting through the concrete bunker?

-Was Starbuck's "Ain't it grand when a plan comes together?" supposed to be a tribute to Dirk Benedict's other old show? On "The A-Team," Hannibal's catchphrase was "I love it when a plan comes together." Also, it's hard to hear the phrase "We've all got it coming" in this context without thinking of the scene where Clint Eastwood says it in "Unforgiven."

What did everybody else think?
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Friday, November 23, 2007

Grey's Anatomy: The ghosts of disasters past

Spoilers for last night's crash-tastic episode of "Grey's Anatomy" coming up just as soon as I find my "Radio Days" DVD...

Figures. A couple of days after I complain about Shonda preparing to do another disaster episode, it turns out to be by far my favorite episode of the season. In other news, I wore a heavy sweater and a heavier coat for the Thanksgiving drive yesterday and lost five pounds from sweating in what turned out to be a 70-degree day. (I blame Jack Donaghy.)

In doing some pre-emptive complaining, I focused too much on last year's underwhelming ferry crash three-parter and completely ignored that two of season two's highlights were the train crash episode and the Super Bowl bomb two-parter. It isn't that Shonda can't write disaster episodes; she just fumbled last year's.

As with so many things "Grey's," there wasn't a lot of reinventing the wheel going on here. "Homicide" and "China Beach" both did variations on the story of a dying man being kept alive only by unusual pressure (a subway car for "Homicide," a pair of pneumatic pants for "China Beach"), and one of my favorite Peter Benton episodes of "ER" featured him missing his mother's birthday party because he had to save the life of a skinhead with a knife in his chest.

But as with so many things "Grey's," the ideas mattered much less than the execution. James Pickens Jr. and Chandra Wilson were superb throughout their two stories (Pickens doesn't get nearly enough credit for the gravity he brings to this often-silly show), and the two paramedics trapped in the rig came off as real people and not object lessons for how one of the doctors should be improving their life. I do wish, though, that when Meredith started babbling about her role in the soon-to-be-widow's story, the Chief had simply said, "Meredith, this isn't about you," but the rest of the storyline was put together so well that I didn't get too annoyed.

There was an urgency to these proceedings that was missing throughout the ferry crash episodes, which seemed less about the disaster at hand than about Meredith's latest fugue state. Here, there was a nice balance between plot and character. We got a glimpse of Bailey's marital troubles, but it didn't slow the momentum of her case, any more than Karev trying to juggle two women distracted from the heart patient. After last week's iteration of Life Is Just Like High School, it was refreshing to see all the characters acting like grown-ups -- or, at least, like college students -- and the George/Izzie time was virtually nil.

There's still time to screw this all up -- none of these stories may turn out to need two full episodes -- but this was the most I've enjoyed this series in quite some time.

A few other brief thoughts:

-Great job by the makeup department on Seth Green's exposed artery. I couldn't even look at him in the final scene, even was before it became obvious that it was going to burst in mid-flirt.

-For a few minutes there, it seemed that the swastika plot was heading in a direction where it turned out Gale Harold regretted the thing and was just ashamed to have any black doctors see it -- which would, in turn, explain his concern about his black partner -- but the later scenes suggested he was unrepentant. Where are they going with this?

-Geez, Jane Doe: if a guy risks his career to slip you into the viewing room, the least you could do was not strike up a conversation with the girl next to you in which you quickly admit you're no supposed to be there and who snuck you in.

What did everybody else think?
Click here to read the full post

Sepinwall on TV: A doomed ship, and what caused its downfall

Today's column previews tomorrow night's premiere of "Battlestar Galactica: Razor."
The TV-movie "Battlestar Galactica: Razor" opens with a montage of events that took place aboard Pegasus, another military ship that turned up in the middle of "Galactica" season two and was destroyed at the start of season three. We see, in rapid succession, the murders of two commanding officers and the battlefield death of a third.

All are events we've seen before in the course of the series, but packed this close together, they suggest a cursed ship - that the crew of Pegasus and, especially, its leaders, were damned by actions they took long before we met them.

"Razor," which is bridging the long scheduling gap between seasons three and four (debuting sometime next year), shows exactly what the men and women of Pegasus did to deserve their fates. The problem is, we already know most of it, and so what's at times a gripping yarn and compelling morality tale eventually crumbles under the weight of the audience's knowledge.
To read the full thing, click here. Given the holiday weekend, I don't know that I'll have a chance to do a separate "Razor" blog post with spoiler commentary, so if you want to discuss it after it airs, feel free to comment here. Click here to read the full post

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Pushing Daisies: He who smelt it, dealt it

Okay, so I know I said I was taking Thanksgiving off, but my daughter woke me up earlier than expected and last night's "Pushing Daisies" was so ridiculous and wonderful that I feel compelled to say something about it sooner rather than later, so some very brief thoughts coming up just as soon as I jump in a pool...

The silliness. My word, the silliness. I just want to list some of the many marvelously silly things in this episode:
  • "Follow the yellow thick hose"
  • "Jews for cheeses"
  • An odor expert named "Le Nez" (French for "The Nose")
  • The pop-up bookstore as parody of ultra-serious comic book stores ("Pop-ups aren't just for kids anymore")
  • Emerson reading Knit Wit magazine and then obsessing over pop-up books
  • Ned's bearskin rug story
  • Olive, when she wasn't busy falling out of her dress even more than usual, threatening to cut a bitch
  • The perfectly befuddled look on Lee Pace's face during the first decontamination scene
  • Did I mention the "Jews for Cheeses" t-shirt? From the Hebrew Feta Fest?
  • All the retro touches, like Emerson offering up a Klondike-5 phone number, or the aunts' wooden "slide" viewers
And yet, the moment when Aunt Vivan began singing "Morning Has Broken" was so sincere and beautiful without taking away from all the goofiness of the rest of the episode.

Pure, stupid pleasure that hour was. Again, happy Thanksgiving everybody.
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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly

An early happy Thanksgiving, everybody! I'm taking the holiday off, which means no reviews of tonight's shows. Maybe I'll hit "Pushing Daisies" over the weekend -- and I'll definitely have a preview of Saturday night's "Battlestar Galactica: Razor" movie on Friday morning -- but in the meantime, here's a link to one of the great Thanksgiving-related bits of TV comedy ever: a very special "WKRP In Cincinnati." (I would have posted a link to the "Cheers" food fight, but it seems to be in violation of the "Everything is on YouTube" theory. Click here to read the full post

House: Now you see him, now you don't

Spoilers for "House" coming up just as soon as I figure out who won our "When does someone finally have lupus?" pool...

A good episode for the most part, with the Cuddy's thong subplot providing Hugh Laurie the opportunity for many, many hilarious moments. (My favorite being the back-to-back scenes where he realizes that Big Love did, in fact, get Cuddy's thong.) I'll miss Big Love, as I thought the actor and character bounced better off of Laurie/House than some of the remaining people, but then, I still wish Scooter was here.

Now that the contest has only one episode/firing to go, though, I want to focus more on that than the episode itself. (Though feel free to discuss it in the comments if you want. The Wilson/House foosball game was another nice moment.)

I'm still annoyed that the representatives of the final three actors leaked the news to the tabloids, as it's sucked some suspense from the last batch of episodes. But for a thought exercise, let's pretend none of us knows who's staying and who's going, and let's look at these final four to decide who should stay and who should go.

(Note: while we knew Taub's specialty, the other ones -- not to mention some of the first names -- come from a Fox press release.)

Thirteen (Olivia Wilde)
Specialty: Internal medicine
Pros: More willing to stand up to House and less vulnerable to his mindgames than anyone, including the Cottages 1.0. House's frustration with his inability to manipulate her gives Hugh Laurie some amusing notes to play. Medically-speaking, has been right more often than anybody who's left. And I don't object to having Olivia Wilde on my television screen.
Cons: Finding out about her possible Huntington's diagnosis takes away a lot of the character's mystery, both for us and for House. While she inspires funny moments from House, she herself isn't that funny.

Amber/Cutthroat Bitch (Anne Dudek)
Specialty: Interventional radiology
Pros: The writers love her; without having put a stopwatch on it, I would guess she's had the most screen time/dialogue of any of the remaining candidates. Her ruthlessness provides lots of possibilities to toy with the series' standard formula. She and Taub have nice chemistry together. Brilliant (if completely inappropriate) nickname. I don't object to having Anne Dudek on my television screen.
Cons: Once she has the job, what is there for her to be cutthroat about? While Foreman was arguably first among equals in the original configuration, there's no real room for advancement within the team. How amusing is she if she doesn't have a goal to achieve? She and Taub may be redundant. Kind of cartoonish.

Chris Taub/Mini-Stud (Peter Jacobson)
Specialty: Plastic surgery
Pros: Jacobson's a strong, funny actor who plays well off everybody. As a near-contemporary of House and someone who was very accomplished in his own field (albeit a less-respected one), not to mention someone of independent means, he can stand up to House in ways the others can't or won't. Has nice chemistry with Amber, but also has a moral complexity she lacks, making him more unpredictable.
Cons: "Chris" Taub? Huh? There may be Jews out there named Chris, but I've never met any. Again, do you need both him and Amber?

Lawrence Kutner (Kal Penn)
Specialty: Rehabilitative and sports medicine
Pros: He's played by Kal Penn. Kal Penn is awesome and needs to be in my viewing life more often. his enthusiasm and recklessness provide colors that nobody else on the show provides, whether the original Cottages or these newbies. Funny.
Cons: By far the biggest screw-up left; even though he was right several times in this episode, the others have seemed much more on the ball, and none of them have lit patients on fire. I feel like we know far less about him than any of the other remaining candidates (not to mention past firees like Scooter, Grumpy and Big Love). He doesn't even have a nickname, for gosh sakes.

If I got to choose, I'd probably pick Amber, Taub and Kutner. What say you?
Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Missing girls, extraordinary freelancers and old crushes

I haven't done too many multi-show entries this season, since some people complain about them and they generally draw fewer comments than the posts for single shows. But every now and then, I just don't have enough time or energy to devote multiple paragraphs to a show, or I come to it so late after it airs that it feels like the conversation's already come and gone. It's why I haven't blogged about "Grey's Anatomy" in weeks, for instance; I don't get to them until Saturday or Sunday, and by then, nobody cares.

Still, every now and then I want to touch quickly on some shows I've missed, or make room for a show I wouldn't have time to write about otherwise. So before I get back to writing my post-Thanksgiving columns, some brief thoughts on, in order, "Journeyman," "The Simpsons," "Grey's Anatomy" and, of all things, "ER," after the jump...

Things continue to get interesting on "Journeyman," as Dan decides to defy the "rules" by going after the pedophile kidnapper -- and, for whatever reason, the time travel gods decide, after a while, to let him do it instead of zapping him back to the present whenever he starts to go off-mission -- we get our first major instance of Dan rewriting the timeline in a way that directly affects him (by erasing all the progress he'd made with Jack), and Father Phil of the FBI gets the very bright idea to study the search history on Dan's iPhone. And after being a willing, almost enthusiastic accomplice the last few episodes, Katie is (rightly) back to thinking Dan's new side job is a tremendous imposition on their family. Looking forward to seeing where all this goes -- and, given the time travel milieu, a scenario where Dan gets to hit the cosmic reset button so the FBI stops looking for him wouldn't be such an annoying thing.

For the first act of this week's "Simpsons," I was in comic book geek heaven. A "Death of Aquaman" joke? A "Watchmen Babies" joke? Alan Moore, Daniel Clowes and Art Spiegelman (in Maus mask!) showing off super physiques and powers? Jack Black as an awesomely stereotypical hipster geek (complete with CD of ironic Korean Tom Jones covers)? All of it splendid... and then the episode made a sharp right turn and forgot about the comic book story altogether.

The "Simpsons" writers have been using the first act as a kind of self-contained red herring story for almost a decade, but this felt like one of the most abrupt shifts they've done. Usually Lisa or someone makes a meta comment late in the episode about how weird it was that they started out buying a funeral plot for Grandpa and instead wound up playing tennis against the Williams sisters, but here the fate of Comic Book Guy was left up in the air -- as was, for the matter, the status of Marge's super-successful chain of women's gyms.

And yet, despite being a strange, completely disjointed episode without even the usual token nods to continuity (say, a throwaway line at the end about how the gym chain went bust), this was a really funny episode even when the nerds went away. It's the second or third time now that Marge has gone on a fitness kick (I loved the steroid episode), but I got a big kick out of her shame at working in a gym for cool people -- complete with O.K. Go treadmill parody -- and especially at the Oprah spoof. ("When are you and Straightman getting married?" "You get a German cuckoo clock! And you get a German cuckoo clock! Everybody's getting a German cuckoo clock!") By the time they got to all of Homer's weird plastic surgeries, the episode went off a cliff, but even there there was a nice recovery with a fairly heartfelt discussion of why Marge is still with Homer. We've had the same conversation a few dozen times over the years, but when you're on this long, what are you gonna do?

"Grey's Anatomy" has been finding its groove again of late. The Lexie/Meredith relationship has added an interesting color to the show without stacking the deck in either character's favor. The Callie/Bailey chief resident switch should hopefully restore the dignity of both. Justin Chambers has convincingly begun to assert himself as a leading man type now that the writers are giving Karev more to do. Brooke Smith is welcomely bitchy in a way that evokes early Addison without directly copying her. Best of all, the current developments in the George and Izzie romance, while not redeeming either character, suggests that the writers have finally recognized what a dumb idea this was. (And if this was the plan all along, boy did they need a third-party character -- Cristina -- to point out early and often how they didn't seem like they'd work as a couple.)

This latest episode hit on Shonda's pet theme of how her characters (and/or their creator) have never really escaped high school. On the one hand, I'm tired of this worldview and wish that at least one of the regulars could let go of their adolescence. On the other, it's what "Grey's Anatomy" has really always been about, and Shonda's a lot better at, say, showing Bailey fawn over her high school crush than she is at writing big disaster episodes. (Of course, that's what it looks like the next two episodes will be. Sigh...) I really like what they've done with Thatcher Grey and how Lexie's situation mirrors Meredith's own, not that Meredith can see it, and I enjoyed that girl from "The Nanny" much better here as a teen outcast than I did when she was shoving her boobs in David Duchovny's face on "Californication."

Finally, "ER." Hey, remember "ER"? Every now and then, I get a compulsion to check back in on the gang at County General before giving up a few weeks later because I've seen all these stories a million times before with characters I had greater attachments to. With the show approaching 300 episodes (which will probably merit a column of some kind), it's been once more unto the breach the last few episodes, and... I haven't hated it. Really like parts of it, in fact.

The focus has been on Abby, who's the longest-running character and someone who, back when I was watching more steadily, vascillated between my favorite character and someone whose scenes I reflexively fast-forwarded through. (Oddly appropriate, given her family's history of bi-polar disorder, though I don't think the writers intend for me to have that reaction to her.) Maura Tierney has been acting the hell out of this story arc, in which Abby fell off the wagon and -- in a moment that felt exra-shocking because of how casually it was presented -- into the bed of the new ER chief. (Played by Stanley Tucci as if no one ever told him "3 lbs." had been canceled.) Alcoholic characters hitting bottom is a TV cliche, but it's being handled here in a matter-of-fact, quietly devastating manner.

A lot of the newer characters go by in a blur for me (though I'm glad Linda Cardellini went back to being a brunette; a much better look for her), but that may be part of the point. There was a funny meta joke a couple of episodes ago where Chuny, one of the few characters who've been with the show since the beginning, notes how much the ER has changed since the days Mark Greene and Doug Ross ran the place, and one of the newer nurses asked, "Who?" The show's been on so long that I'm sure a good chunk of the audience had the same reaction to that line. As with "The Simpsons," it's hard not to keep repeating old stories, but because there's been so much turnover in both the cast and the audience, they're still getting away with it. Whether this is the last season or not (John Wells was negotiating for one more before the strike began), I may have been sucked back in unti the end -- or at least through the upcoming Jeannie Boulet guest arc.

What did everybody else think?
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Chuck: I find the pastrami to be the most sensual of all the salted, cured meats

Spoilers for "Chuck" coming up just as soon as I sharpen the knife in my shoe...

For a long time, the NBC promo department was unsurpassed at two things: 1)Getting better-than-expected (or sometimes deserved) tune-ins for shows, and 2)Ruining all the big surprises for the people who tuned into those shows. Based on NBC's perennial cellar-dwelling these days, they're not so good at the former anymore, but man do they still kick butt at the latter.

There was a major development (Chuck and Sarah kiss!) and a major surprise (Bryce lives!) at the end of "Chuck Versus the Hard Salami," and of course, the ads ruined both of them with overly-strong hints. Grr. Argh.

Fortunately, the episode's A-story was strong enough that it didn't need to rely on the "Holy crap!" factor, as the writers and actors had a lot of fun with the all-too-brief Chuck/Sarah/Lou love triangle. Among the many things Josh Schwartz proved with "O.C." season one is that he can give good triangle: the Seth/Summer/Anna trio were written well enough that, even though the audience had been geared up to root for Seth and Summer, I think most of us would have been okay had he stayed with Anna longer. Similarly, there were obvious pros and cons to Chuck being with either Lou (beautiful, normal, funny, overtly into him, but someone he'd have to lie to all the time) or Sarah (beautiful, in on the secret, but also scary and still hung up on Bryce) -- which oddly, makes Rachel Bilson the Anna, not the Summer, in this scenario.

I'm not sure what it is about sandwiches that makes them both so good and so funny, but making Lou a sandwich impresario remained an inspired choice -- not so much in the fake orgasm sound gag at the beginning (one of several predictable jokes in the episode; more on that when we get to the Morgan story) than for Chuck making his sandwich order sound like dirty talk. ("This is a hot sandwich, sweetheart. In the reuben family.") I'm going to miss Lou, but it's not like she could never resurface, what with her store being in the same strip mall and the break-up having been fairly amicable.

Meanwhile, I know there's been some debate about what value that Yvonne Strahovski brings to the show -- besides looking great in the Wienerlicious uniform, of course. I had recently concluded that she brought enough dramatically and in chemistry with Zachary Levi that it didn't much matter that she wasn't funny. Turns out, she can be -- at least, in a way that plays off of how good she looks in the Wienerlicious uniform, as her terrifying seduction of Lester may have been the episode's comic highlight. ("What about that movie?") Some actors are inherently funny, while others need material tailored to their strengths. Based on that scene and the "Out of Sight"-esque argument in the car trunk, it looks like the "Chuck" writers may be figuring out what Strahovski's strengths are.

I know there's also been a lot of debate about what value Morgan brings to the show. I've generally been agnostic to favorable about Morgan, with "Chuck Versus the Sandworm" being a symbol of all the good things he can add to the show. This episode was the flip side of that, the first time I actively disliked the Morgan/Buy More portions, which so telegraphed all their punchlines (Morgan wrongfully assumes Anna is telling the guys about the kiss and blabs it himself, Morgan dumps Anna way too soon) that even the NBC promo department couldn't have ruined them any more.

(Again, the A-story had some telegraphed jokes of its own -- see also Lou's crate of smuggled salamis -- but enough good things were going on around them that it didn't matter so much.)

We all figured Bryce would be back sooner or later, so I doubt my jaw would have been on the floor whenever he turned up, but it would have been nice to find out without any help. I wonder if it's a one-time-only return or if he'll be some kind of recurring nemesis.

What did everybody else think?
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Heroes: Fathers day

Spoilers for "Heroes" coming up just as soon as I take a foot bath...

Well, alright. First episode this fall that I can call good not just by the drastically lowered standards of season two, but on its own. There are some things here and there that could be tweaked, but that was a pretty solid hour of television.

"Cautionary Tales" was helped by both its narrow focus and who it focused on. Usually, episodes try to pack in so many stories and characters that none of them has the time to build momentum and make an impact, and it's especially annoying when we jump away from a good story to the likes of the black oil twins or Peter hanging with Irish stereotypes.

Only three stories here that, for the most part, stuck to the more interesting characters: HRG, Hiro and, in a surprise to me (not that they used him, but that I found him interesting), Parkman. We got a straightforward thriller plot with the HRG/Bob double-kidnapping, a sentimental farewell with Hiro and Papa Nakamura, and some mystery thrown in with a corruption of the hero tale with Parkman and Ma Petrelli.

And, in a "Heroes" rarity, all the stories were thematically tied together as tales of parent-child legacies. Hiro and Kaito, in the moments before Kaito's death, finally recognize what they mean to each other. HRG and Bob, go to war over having made very different choices with their superpowered daughters. And Parkman gets too drunk with his expanded powers to realize he's slipping down the slope towards becoming the father he hated so much. (And not that I ever want to see Mrs. Parkman again, but the season already began with a Matt/Nightmare Man parallel, as he walked out on his wife and her child -- albeit a kid that wasn't his.)

The episode even managed to use West, arguably the most annoying addition of the season, in an effective way, by turning him into HRG's latest superpowered sidekick (after Invisible Claude and then The Haitian). West practically flew more in this one episode than Nathan did all of last season, and he was too busy pulling of high-speed rescues and abductions to creep me out like he so often does. (Though his behavior in this episode suggests that we weren't supposed to find him so disturbing in earlier episodes, which suggests poor acting and/or writing back then.)

Even with only three stories, some shortcuts still had to be taken. Parkman's slide into mind-control junkie is a rare case of a "Heroes" storyline that should have been stretched over more episodes (not that I think we're done with it, but he slid awfully quick here). I think Hiro and Kaito's journey could have easily filled up a whole episode without getting dull -- say, with Hiro taking his father on an extended This Is Your Life journey before finally stopping at his mother's funeral -- and, like others, I'm annoyed that, once again, Kaito is dead without us having any idea what his powers were. But damn if the funeral scene didn't get to me, anyway. Hiro's actions have always been driven by a childish love of comic books and legends, and he finally seemed to become a man (even moreso than when he "killed" Sylar) in that moment when he realized he was thinking exactly like his younger self. I don't want to lose the optimistic enthusiasm Masi Oka brings to the character, but I also don't like characters (even the usually paper-thin ones on this show) who remain stagnant, so I'm curious and hopeful about seeing a slightly more mature Hiro down the road.

Meanwhile, the writers found a way to, once again, make one of Isaac's paintings come true while dodging the repercussions of it. (See also the painting of Claire's homecoming, where Claire and Peter looked dead but got better.) I couldn't imagine them being dumb enough to kill off HRG -- for all the series' other missteps, Kring and company are smart enough to kill off the more disposable characters like Simone and D.L -- and we had just seen the amazing curative powers of Monroe's blood last week, so it wasn't a huge shock when HRG came back from the dead. But it was also a fun little callback to Claire waking up on the autopsy table at the end of the series' third episode. (One question: just how potent is that blood? Will HRG still need his trademark glasses? Are he or Nathan going to be missing some childhood scars?)

Two episodes to go in this arc -- and possibly in this season, depending on how the strike goes -- and it feels like there are even more loose ends to tie off here than there were with two episodes to go at the end of last season. Can they really pull it off, or are we in for another round of Parking Meter Beatdown Theater?

What did everybody else think?
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All TV: 'Frank TV' doesn't make an impression

Today's column looks at the long-awaited, over-hyped debut of TBS' "Frank TV," plus a few newsy odds and ends Click here to read the full post

Monday, November 19, 2007

HIMYM: It was awesome! You just got slapped!

Spoilers for "How I Met Your Mother" coming up just as soon as I compose a song to celebrate the occasion...
What is this feeling that's put you in your place?
The hot red burning on the side of your face?
You feel the blood rush to your cheek.
Tears start to fill your eyes,
and your lips are trembling and you can't speak,
and you're trying,
you're trying not to cry...
You just got slapped!
Oh! It was everything I had hoped for! And even more! Because Marshall wrote and performed a song about it!

I have no idea whether that was an original Jason Segel composition like the legendary "Lady L" from "Freaks and Geeks," but The Slapsgiving Song was the perfect capper to a mostly-perfect sequel to the original "Slap Bet."

I say "mostly-perfect" for two reasons. One, because of the glaring continuity error in the montage of the first two slaps, where the first slap showed was actually not the first of the five slaps in question (which was Marshall's mighty backhand at the apartment) but rather the first slap of the episode (at McLaren's, back when Marshall thought he won the bet because Robin said she used to be married). For a show so geeky about its own continuity, in an episode that was one long ode to the continuity geeks in the audience, it was a glaring flub, and one I'd like to blame on the writers strike in some way. If not, fellow dorks, start composing your no-prize letters now to explain it.

(UPDATE: I checked with one of the producers, and he said they want to fix the clip of the first slap for future reruns, DVDs, etc., if possible. Sometimes, a mistake is just a mistake.)

Two, while the original slap episode featured two perfectly hilarious stories in the bet itself and the revelation of Robin's musical past, the A-story of "Slapsgiving" was a far more sober meditation on the nature of Ted and Robin's post-split friendship. It was really well played by Radnor and Smulders, and something the show has needed to address head-on for quite a while, but every time they cut away from Marshall and Barney and to anything Ted and Robin related, I began to feel like Milhouse in "The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show," on the verge of tears because they haven't gotten to the fireworks factory yet. (If I had thought to record it, I could make my whiny "When are they gonna get back to the slap bet?!?!?!" my new ringtone.)

Still, the slap culmination lived up to the advance billing. Like Barney, I had wondered why the writers/Marshall tipped their (large) hands about the date and time of the third slap, as it would take away the surprise that made the second slap so much fun. But by having Barney question that and Marshall act unconcerned, it only made the whole thing funnier. I did wonder whether we were being set up for a bunch of Mamet-style double-switches and reversals -- finding out that Barney wasn't really scared of the slaps but was just acting that way to guilt Lily into postponing it, or that Lily and Marshall were in cahoots all along -- but the straightforward approach worked fine on its own. And did I mention there was a song at the end? And that Barney, even in pain, supplied the "whoa oh oh oh"s?

A few other quick thoughts:

-I think it should be mandatory that Robin have to say the word "sorry" at least once every other episode, if not every episode. It's never not funny, even when it's not the focus of a scene.

-Also, I talked to one of my many Canadian relatives yesterday and wished her a belated Happy Canadian Thanksgiving, and she told me, "Oh, nobody really cares about that up here." Of course, she's a non-French speaker living in Montreal, so her view on any things Canadian may not be representative.

-I knew a girl once who had a pierced Brosnan. She said it felt like her timothy'd Dalton, only suaver and with a better sense of humor.

-Of course Barney dressed as Borat for Halloween (sort of) last year; as I mentioned in my discussion of the "Douchebag of the Year" sketch on "SNL," Borat is one of the holy trinity of douchebag impressions, along with Ace Ventura and Austin Powers. I love Barney, but the guy definitely has a lot of d-bag pre-requisites.

-The Ted and Robin story wasn't all angst and fighting. After all, what other show would offer up Orson Bean (in another bit of classic "HIMYM" unreliable narration) playing a 41-year-old who says things like "We's gonna get silly, bitches!"?

What did everybody else think?
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