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?


Unknown said...

Jeanie's coming back?! Well, now I have to start watching ER again. Sometimes it's hard to watch nowadays because I keep thinking of when they did all these storylines the first time - and they were much better. Nothing will ever top George Clooney as Doug Ross. But from the few bits I've caught, this season seems to be better than the last two or three.

As for Grey's, I'm glad they're acknowledging what a mistake George and Izzie was. But I am also sick of the high school motif. My roommate and I were joking that that kid's brain started swelling up in the last episode because McDreamy looked away from what he was doing to gossip with the scrub nurse. I wish Shonda would just abandon all pretense of medical realism and stop with the cutesty "patient of the week" stories which mirror the doctors' personality flaws. Compared to shows such as ER which have always been (or at least seemed) somewhat grounded in medicine, it's tiresome.

Thanks for your thoughts on these two, Alan - good to know someone other than me is still watching!

Anonymous said...

It's great to read your comments on "ER", Alan! I haven't been watching regularly this year, but I really liked last season, which I thought had a workmanlike consistency to it. It's true that "ER" recycles plots like there's no tomorrow, but isn't that part of its appeal? There's something comforting about tuning in and knowing what to expect. They can't all entail unexpected plot twists like "Lost" or "Heroes". That said, I'm not sure whether John Wells' plan to renew the show for another year is a good one.

I'm really looking forward to seeing Jeanie again though. I thought the departure of her character was wonderfully understated, and one of the best of the series (along with Carol riding off into the sunset with Doug).

Alan Sepinwall said...

Jeanie's coming back?!

Yup, two episode guest arc. I'm told she'll mainly be interacting with Pratt, but that there will be some scenes where she hangs with Haleh and Chuny to gab about the good ol' days, which should be nice.

That said, I'm not sure whether John Wells' plan to renew the show for another year is a good one.

Eh. From what I've seen the last few years, I don't know that there's been a significant dip (or rise) in quality. The show is what it is, does what it does, and they could probably squeeze one last year out of the concept. Plus, there's been some talk that they want to revisit a lot of older characters and stories beyond Jeannie, and there wouldn't be time to pull that off in however much time is left this year after the strike ends.

For as long as "ER" has been on, and as great as it once was, I think it deserves to go out properly, and not in a strike-rushed season (maybe even without a real finale).

Anonymous said...

I haven't watched "ER" in a couple of years, and I don't think I will again. In a way, trying to get caught back up with the characters and story lines would seem like going back to high school.

I enjoyed the New Comic-Book Guy stuff in this episode of "The Simpsons" quite a bit. I could see Jack Black becoming a recurring character, if only to provide deeper commentary on the latest in youth pop culture. But a lot of the jokes in this episode seemed more dated that usual -- as if the time lag between writing, animating and airing the show has gotten longer. The Oprah jokes, the Curves gym satire and the OK Go parody referenced things from more than a year ago, and Homer's plastic surgery lagged "Family Guy" (instead of the other way around as usual). When "South Park" can turn around an episode in less than a week, it's starting to seem as if the time required to do much higher-quality animation on "The Simpsons" is taking a toll on its relevancy.

The character relationships on "Journeyman" were interesting as usual. But the show seems to be making up time-travel rules as it goes along. There has to be some kind of intelligence behind Dan's "missions" (as there was in "Quantum Leap"), or his changes to the past would cause all kinds of unknown havoc to the present. So if he decides to defy that intelligence, you'd think there might be farther-reaching changes than just between him and his brother (or the kidnapper showing up at his house). For instance, he gave his editor a scoop in the past -- how does he know that early success wouldn't change the editor's career now, or have resulted in his working somewhere else entirely? Considering how long science-fiction writers have been dealing with issues like this, you'd think the show would at least consider them.

Anonymous said...

I watched last week's ER episode (probably the first since season 10) and Maura Tierney proves to be one of the most under-appreciated actresses around.

Abby's grown so much since she first came along in season 5 (?) and without question that has more to do with Tierney's acting than the writing on the show (which is less than stellar at best).

Alan by any chance do you know what the status is of Noah Wyle coming back for his last few episodes (the way they structured that contract was just ridiculous) as I really miss the Abby-Carter moments. And yes, I have no problem admitting that I was quite the Carby shipper.

Unknown said...

I don't think the Korean Tom Jones cover should have thrown me as much as it did since so many animators seem to be Korean and Family Guy has done similar throwaway jokes... but I nearly busted a gut laughing at that musical interlude.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Abby's grown so much since she first came along in season 5 (?)

Season six, I believe. Tierney and Goran became regulars the year after Clooney left, and he fulfilled his five year deal, as I recall.

With Luka now a part-time character, that leaves Abby as by far the longest-tenured regular, followed by Pratt (season eight) and then I'm not even sure who's after that. Neela?

No idea about Wyle, by the way. But like I said, the desire for the final season is in part to revisit old characters -- hell, even Doug and Carol, if Clooney can be talked into it by his old buddy John Wells -- and it's not like Wyle's too in-demand to make one last curtain call.

Anonymous said...

I loved GA season 1, loved it a little less season 2, hated all of season 3 and became a loud critic.

Based on interviews w/Shonda over the summer, it appeared she knew what a mess she had on her hands, so I decided not to abandon it totally this season, although I don't eagerly watch it live on Thursday like I used to (favoring NBC's comedy lineup instead).

So other than Izzy resuscitating a deer in episode 1, I've mostly been impressed by Grey's near return to the magic from the early days, before the Denny Duquette/prom fiasco which in retrospect marked the beginning of its deterioration.

I strongly agree with your sentiments, Alan, and will add one more comment that you didn't mention. With Addison out of the picture, I'm delighting in rekindled friendship between Derek and Mark Sloane. The Chief becoming Derek's trailer neighbor is a lot of fun, too.

George and Izzy, together and apart, still have a long way to go before the damage to their characters is undone, but neither one seems to be as self-righteous and sanctimonious as last season.

Anonymous said...

The OK Go reference did seem dated. And there wasn't even a Springfield twist, it was just a duplicate.

But "Watchmen Babies" (V is for Vacation!) more than made up for it. As was the hilariously obscure Sandi Pittman joke.

But now I have to ask: what was the "Death of Aquaman" joke? --Ted

Anonymous said...

I thought last night's Journeyman was terrific and next week looks even better!

Is the show in such bad shape that they won't even air the episodes that have already been shot?

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to pop into your section on Grey's, since I love it, and I think it's much better and it's nice you are still watching it.

The part with Mer and her dad really nearly made me cry - when she finally heard what she'd been wanting to hear all her life, and then found out it was just a line he used on anyone, when he was at that certain stage of drunk. I really felt for Mer (less so for Lexie cause at least she had a dad to be proud of her, in the past, as Alex paraphrased)

thefutoncritc says we at least get two parts of the sweeps disaster - here's hoping there are only two parts - i scrolled away when i read "Meredith tries to save..." so as not to find out who's dying this time. (someone once said if your name is Grey, but it's not Meredith, you are doomed. Let it be someone else this time! Bailey, maybe.)

I'd also like to mention one of the rare appearances of the perennially advertised McDreamy(ness) with Bailey, over band uniforms (falling asleep to the end of season 2, I was reminded that Addison, too, was in band)

On our list, we fought a bit about Bailey being such a wimp lately, and out of character - but someone sold it really well, so I can live with it, as long as it doesn't recur... or become a habit (I'm tired)

Journeyman, later, and ER - I'm two eps behind and still (right now) trying to catch up (also, had to watch Chuck tonight, as I just couldn't make it last night)

Also, I've contributed some pencils at whatever-that-site-was.

Kenrick said...

I really enjoyed this week's Journeyman. I'm liking the idea that there's a greater power at work, watching the timeline, so that whatever changes Dan makes doesn't destroy the world. Yeah usually they just zap him out when does all he needs to do, like when he confronted the kidnapper at his cubicle, but perhaps since he was so insistent on doing things his way, the powers that be decided to teach him a lesson and let him proceed the second time around. I admit it's hard to ignore the generally lack of repercussions of his past changing habits, but I guess they have to really localize the changes to tell a coherent story. One question is, should Dan have multiple sets of memories then? Like he still remembers the original timeline, but if he changes something that later on affects his own self, he should gain another set of memories....

afoglia said...

I'm with you on the first part of "The Simpsons", but I think it fell off as soon as the plot shifted to Marge. The gym jokes were all flops.

But at least it was better than the third plot, another example of Homer acting like an idiot. (Did his plastic surgeon remind anyone else of Dr. Nick?)

"Journeyman" was really good this week. I'm feeling guilty about missing a few of the first episodes. No chance it's going to survive, right? Do you know if the writers at least wrote an open ending for their final episodes?

Anonymous said...

if Clooney can be talked into it by his old buddy John Wells --

Clooney said a while ago (I don't remember exactly where or when, but I know he said it) that he'd come back for Wyle's last real episode... and he didn't, and that pisses me off way more than it should.

But I too would love to see some of the old cast members come back (Eriq La Salle, please, I know you're not doing anything but directing Without A Traces).. and a Carter-Benton reunion would be without doubt amazing, and I fully admit Carter-Benton is one of my favorite TV relationships of all time, granted it's no Leo-Josh, but it's sure up there.

Random but I also liked when they brought the Ruby character from season 2 back a few years ago, that was great, and I think that was one of the last episodes that I saw.

However my biggest problem with ER is that it has always favored the patient/case of the episode over the character-to-character personal moments and would cut away from those character bonding/character development moments for some unnecessary scene with a patient or over-the-top crisis in the ER.

Anonymous said...

I was very disappointed with The Simpsons. The first act was great, but any hopes for a kick ass Comic Book Guy episode was doused by Marge's seemingly B-story takeover. To have an episode start so promising and then to dump the potential for a Marge/Homer storyline we have seen many times before just seems like a waste.

I'm hoping the upcoming Sideshow Bob episode is better.

Anonymous said...

Is "Journeyman" doing so abysmally in the ratings that it is pretty much going to be cancelled??? God, I hope not.

This is such an intriguing show. And I can forgive any timeline problems b/c it is that entertaining. I get pulled into the character relationships every week. The tension between Dan and his brother is great. Like how they keep shaking up the wife's emotions when it comes to Dan's disappearing. And I also liked the idea of the child perhaps also skipping through time.

Is anyone else wondering when future-kid will come back in time to tell his dad something?

Also, I noticed this week that Livia is wearing some very conservative clothes. Very non-descript. With some kind of geometric type patterns to them, plus the trenchcoat. I don't remember if this is how she dressed every week, but it seems to me she is dressing kind of plainly, so she could fit in pretty much anywhere (any time, I mean) and not look too out of place.

However, I was struck over the head with her 'swell' comment. I don't remember Livia ever using 40s slang before. But maybe I just wasn't paying attention?

Please keep this show on the air. Please renew it. It really is well done.

Stef said...

I always forget ER is still on! I think I stopped watching right after Clooney left... in 99? 2000? Wow.

I echo the other sentiments on here about Grey's. Loved sns 1 & 2, loved sn 3 until that horrendous nearly-show-killing ferry crash, and was very cautious about sn 4 in the beginning but they have started to win me back. While the romantic relationships on the show have always gotten all the attention, I actually think the *friendships* are what Shonda and company write best. I loved last year's growing friendship between Bailey, Addie, and Callie (aka the adults), and this year I'm also enjoying Mark and Derek being buddies again, as well as Cristina and Callie. It *almost* but not quite makes up for the horrendous George and Izzie debacle.

I still haven't seen Journeyman, but I hope to watch it whenever it ends up on DVD. (Although it still trips me up to see pics like this of Lucius Vorenus in regular clothes.) Alan - with the strike and the debate over all of the different media residuals, is it likely that this season's shows, once they determine how/when they wrap, will be really delayed on DVD, as well?

K J Gillenwater said...

Hmmm, I was just doing a bit of research, and there seems to be some hope that "Journeyman" and other shows with middling to low ratings might get renewed. Due to the writers' strike, there may be little to no time to prepare pilots for next season, which would mean the networks would want to hold on to shows they already have.

Curious how a writers' strike, although I completely side with the writers, would alter next year's tv season so much. I'm guessing without the strike, "Journeyman" would have been on the chopping block already. So, in a way, I'm glad for the strike, if we get to keep shows that are worth keeping.

The same could be said for "Friday Night Lights," which is getting slammed in its 9 pm Friday night spot.

Anonymous said...

Oh Kristin,
I do so hope you're right!

Anonymous said...

Kat said...
"Jeanie's coming back?! Well, now I have to start watching ER again."

Same! I stopped watching after Forrest Whitaker got capped.

Alan Sepinwall said...

But now I have to ask: what was the "Death of Aquaman" joke?

Bart's thumbing through the back issues and finds a "Death of Superman" cover, with Aquaman placed prominent near the front of the throng of mourners. Then he flips to the next comic in the box, and it's "Death of Aquaman," identical to the first cover in every way save that Supes and Aquaman have swapped places.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Missed this the first time around:

I wish Shonda would just abandon all pretense of medical realism and stop with the cutesty "patient of the week" stories which mirror the doctors' personality flaws.

Actually, "ER" did an awful lot of that, especially in the early days. When Susan Lewis was going through her "I want a baby!" stage, she dealt with a lot of pregnant patients, Carol and Carter's patients always seemed to in some way parallel whatever crisis they were going through, etc. It wasn't all the time, the way "Grey's" is, but it was frequent enough that, when I wrote an "ER" spoof for a column around season four or five, I made a point to include several doctor-patient mirror plots.