Thursday, January 31, 2008

Lost, "The Beginning of the End": Cannonball!

Spoilers for the "Lost" season premiere coming up just as soon as I work on my jump shot...

"I don't think we did the right thing, Jack. I think it wants us to come back, and it's going to do everything it can..."

What. The. Hell. Is going on here? And why am I so happy right now?

Okay, well the second answer's obvious. I'm happy because that episode both rocked and rolled (and may have rapped at one point, too).

And the first question relates to the second. I'm also happy because, between "Through the Looking Glass" and now "Beginning of the End," I care again not only about the "Lost" characters, but about the mysteries. Lindelof and Cuse have sucked me back in. I'm racking my brain, trying to remember whether Dave ever seemed to touch Hurley or not (which applies to the appearance of "Charlie," about which I'll get back to). I genuinely care about the identities of the other half of the Oceanic Six. For cryin' out loud, I put my screener DVD into three different computers to try to make screen captures of a few shots in Jacob's cabin (a profile of Jacob in the rocking chair, and the face in the window) and got suitably freaked out when the disc would always freeze up at the exact moment Hurley arrived at the cabin, even though the scene played just fine in a standard DVD player. (It's like the disc didn't want me to properly analyze it! Okay. Now I'm just nuts.)

Considering the number of times over the years where I've called those producers con man playing a very expensive game of three-card monte, I suppose that makes me a sucker. But if so, I'm a very happy sucker, because the show was once again so bloody entertaining that I don't really care if I'm getting played once again. Make 'em this good, and I'd be okay with the final episode of the series revealing that the entire island was a dream that Hurley had while waiting for his onion rings at a Jersey ice cream parlor.

And speaking of Hurley, he's at the top of my list of reasons why the start of this season feels so much stronger than the same period last season. I got into a lot of this in today's column, but now I can expand on it with some episode-specific material.

Last year, we started off with bullying, obnoxious, stubborn to a lethal fault Jack, whose refusal to do the sensible thing at every single turn symbolized a season in which too little happened for far too long. Now we open with a spotlight on Hurley, the closest thing the show has to a fan surrogate. He's the guy who asks the right questions (even if he doesn't always get answers to them), cares about people's feelings, etc., etc. And not only was it a Hurley spotlight, it was an episode in which he and Jack are at cross-purposes, and in which Hurley, up until the final scene in the mental hospital gym (and maybe even there) is depicted as right about virtually everything while Jack keeps being wrong about everything.

Jack refuses to heed any warnings about the freighter, refuses to listen to Kate's concerns about where Naomi got to or the false blood trail, refuses to stray even one iota from the path he set for himself late last season. Hurley, meanwhile, believes Charlie's message (and is also the only guy on the beach who thinks to ask Desmond what happened to ol' Hoodie), throws the walkie-talkie in the ocean so everyone will stop bickering and start moving, recognizes that it's his place to tell Claire about Charlie, and convinces at least some people that Jack might be leading them to their death. (If he wasn't throwing in with Locke, he probably would have gotten even more converts, as Rose made clear when she refused to go with "that man.") And I don't think it's a coincidence that in the basketball scene, Hurley makes every shot while Jack keeps missing.

Now, Hurley's apology to Jack about going with Locke could undercut that, and maybe I'm being just as obstinate as Jack in refusing to acknowledge that. But I think there's a difference between being wrong about going with Locke (selfish, destructive island zealot) and being wrong about steering clear of the people on the freighter. It's very possible that what Hurley's saying is that he should have stayed with Jack and tried to convince him that the freighter people were bad. But I guess we'll find out down the road.

Before we get to analyzing the various questions raised by this episode, some other things that I felt "Beginning of the End" got so very, very right:
  • The coincidences are used as more than coincidences. I got bored with playing that game where you try to figure out whether certain guest stars had appeared in previous characters' flashbacks, but when Ana-Lucia's ex-partner Mike turned up as Hurley's interrogator, it was to serve a bigger purpose. When he asks Hurley about Ana-Lucia and Hurley denies ever knowing her, that makes it clear just how much the Oceanic Six have been lying to the world about what happened on the island.
  • They focused on the emotions of the moment. Hurley and Bernard's conversation on the beach about the lottery, bad luck and cannonballing goes high on my list of favorite "Lost" scenes ever. It was just a beautiful mixture of joy, wistfulness, humor and (because we know that Hurley's about to find out Charlie's dead, and that Hurley is going to be very unhappy after he's "rescued") ironic regret. They also didn't gloss over anybody's response to Charlie's death, and the return of the Oceanic 815 cockpit (is this the first time we've seen it since the pilot?) was a lovely reminder of how much everyone, including Charlie, has been through. Sawyer got to have a nice moment (for Sawyer) where he offered to hang back with Hurley on the walk, and they were even willing to take Jack to a place where he tried to shoot Locke in the face (and would have succeeded if the gun was still loaded).
  • They got almost everyone involved. Some people got shorter shrift than others (notably, as usual, Jin and Sun), but everybody got a little bit of face time, as opposed to those early episodes last year that were about nothing but Jack, Kate, Sawyer and The Others. In addition, the episode did a good job of hitting or mentioning as many island landmarks as possible: the beach, the cockpit, the radio tower, Jacob's cabin and The Others' compound. It feels like everyone and everything are connected again, which, even if there still isn't a master plan, creates the illusion of one.
  • The flashforwards are a vast improvement over the flashbacks. This was already obvious with "Through the Looking Glass," and it continues to be the case here. The flashbacks (save for characters when they're brand-new to the show) had long since stopped offering anything illuminating, and were all about adhering to a formula and slowing down the pace of the present-day storytelling. The flashforwards, on the other hand, add a whole new layer to the mysteries, and to the plotting, and I look forward to seeing how events on the island fulfill things we've seen in the future. The producers aren't completely done with flashbacks (we're going to get some backstory on some of the freighter people, and I imagine there's lots more to be told about Ben's time on the island), but now they'll be used when they're necessary, and not just as a stylistic crutch.
There's more I could talk about -- Jack's wink at Ben, Ben's hilarious "Tell them she's getting a really big bundle of firewood," Sayid calling out Locke for blowing up the sub -- but I think most of us can agree about the level of awesome and the reasons for it, so let's move on to some specific questions raised by the episode:
  • Who the hell are the Oceanic Six? Other than Jack, Kate and Hurley, I mean. Unless the producers plan to do nothing but flashforwards for those three characters, we're eventually going to have to find out who the other three are. Based on Hurley's presence in the group, we can't even rule out the people who went with Locke -- or even Locke himself, for that matter, though I can't imagine him agreeing to leave the island, let alone going along with whatever lie the Six cooked up about themselves and the fates of those left behind. And why are they lying? (Also, while Jack's line about growing a beard establishes this flashforward as taking place before the one in "Looking Glass," I think we can rule out Hurley as the guy in the coffin. It was a very average-sized coffin, and people liked Hurley too much for his funeral to be unattended.)
  • Who are "they" and what is "it"? I'm assuming that "they" (referenced by Charlie, Hurley and Matthew Abbadon, the alleged Oceanic representative played by Lance Reddick from "The Wire") are the surviving lostaways who for some reason couldn't/didn't join the Six in their return to civilization. Is "it" (see the quote at the top of this post) the island, the monster, or something else? Are we supposed to think that the island has sentience? And speaking of Mr. Abbadon...
  • Who the hell is Matthew Abbadon? Wikipedia says that "Abadon" is "chief of the demons of the seventh hierarchy." If he doesn't represent Oceanic, who does he represent, and why does he care so much about the whereabouts of the other lostaways?
  • Charlie: ghost, figment or something else? Again, can someone tell me whether Dave ever physically touched Hurley, either in the mental hospital or on the island? When you're dealing with a character with a history of hallucinations, on a show where characters either return from the dead or appear to, who's to say what's real and what isn't? Charlie could somehow actually be alive, making his getaway while Hurley had his eyes screwed shut (in much the way Abbadon bailed from the game room while Hurley was yelling for the orderlies), but I'm thinking he's gone on to his reward.
  • Who's the other guy in Jacob's cabin? Like I said, I tried and failed to make screencaps of this scene. On my 42-inch TV, Jacob didn't look exactly like I remembered him from the captures that the Lost Easter Eggs blog did last season. And since Jacob was in his rocking chair the whole time, who the hell was looking out at Hurley? Easter Eggs also did a capture of a random close-up of someone's eye during that earlier scene, but the lighting makes it hard to tell if it's the same one in the window here. I don't think it's Locke, and we know the whereabouts of everyone else, so who?
One final note: for those who want to hear me talk even more about the premiere (and maybe hint at next week's episode), I'll be on NPR's "The Bryant Park Project" tomorrow morning at 7:50 a.m. Eastern. (If you're not up that early, each episode's available as a podcast.)

What did everybody else think?
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In Treatment, week one: Jake & Amy

I imagine most of the chatter tonight's going to be about "Lost," but if you want to talk about the fourth episode of "In Treatment," do so here. Click here to read the full post

Sepinwall on TV: 'Lost' season four review

The "Lost" season premiere is tonight, and I couldn't be more excited, if only because I'll be able to discuss it with everybody. My column today:
The "Lost" season three finale was no fluke. The show has got its mojo back, and then some.

Explaining exactly how is tricky. Screeners of season four's first two episodes came with a laundry list of plot points ABC asked critics not to discuss, like "Any details about Hurley's (redacted), or that he even has a (redacted)" or "Who goes with (redacted) and who goes with (redacted)."

I won't fill in those (redacted)s, but here's what I can tell you: Nearly nine months after "Through the Looking Glass," last season's thrilling finale, the show finally returns with new episodes (and a new night and time) to demonstrate that, while the series' producers may or may not be con artists of the highest order, they are definitely not slow learners.
To read the full thing, click here. I'll be back tonight with a more spoiler-filled look at the premiere.
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He thinks he's a prophet, but he's at a loss: 'Eli Stone' review

The first of two columns today reviews ABC's "Eli Stone," which I didn't like:
A few hours before I had a chance to watch the first episode of the new ABC drama "Eli Stone" (10 p.m., Ch. 7), my friend Ellen Gray from the Philadelphia Daily News e-mailed me to ask, "Did you watch 'Eli McStone' yet?" Moments later, she followed up with, "Sorry, I meant 'Eli McBeal.'" And just like that, I thought the experience of watching the show -- about a lawyer who begins hallucinating musical performances by George Michael and thinks he himself might be a prophet -- would be ruined. How could I tune into something this high-concept and kooky and not view it as imitation David E. Kelley?

In fairness to Ellen, I would have to be either blind, deaf or in a different profession for the last decade to not instantly spot the similarities to "Ally McBeal" and the rest of the Kelley canon: lawyers taking unconventional cases and using unconventional tactics. The blurry line between eccentricity and madness. Did I mention the music?

"Eli Stone" does not, in fact, come from the mind of Kelley, but rather Greg Berlanti, one of the most prolific and reliable producers of TV drama today. (See "Everwood," "Brothers & Sisters" and "Dirty Sexy Money," not to mention the only season of "Dawson's Creek" that was worth watching.) Here, Berlanti seems to have fallen down a rabbit hole, beginning with a wackiness quotient that it usually takes a Kelley show months or even years to achieve -- and that's usually the point when those shows become unwatchable.
To read the full thing, click here. Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

In Treatment, week one: Sophie

Talk about the third episode of "In Treatment," featuring our female gymnast, Sophie. Also, since additional episodes are out there, and some critics have been less than circumspect about plot details for episodes down the road, I'm going to ask that you discuss this episode, and only this episode (plus comparisons to the previous two episodes with Laura and Alex). Click here to read the full post

Lost: Would you say you have a love-eight relationship?

As part of "Lost" hype week, I point you towards another one of Mo Ryan's epic-length showrunner interviews, this time with "Lost" co-creator Damon Lindelof, No real spoilers -- a good chunk of the interview is actually about how Lindelof deals with spoilers getting out there -- but I also randomly come up midway through the conversation:

But now it’s very much expected in the fan communities that writers have to listen to them – “You are answerable to me, Kring.”

“And it’s not just the fans, it’s the critics who carry water to the fans. And I think the best critics are fans. That is to say, they approach their job as a fan. That doesn’t mean they like it or dislike [a particular show], but they’re fans of television.

“So you were at last year’s [‘Lost’ session at the critic’s press tour - more on that here] in January – I felt like it was a Senate hearing. When Alan Sepinwall started firing up on us, I literally expected the [TV] graphic of ‘Sepinwall, Newark, R’ [like you’d see in a congressional hearing]. It was unbelievable.”

I was the one [sarcastically] suggesting a flashback of Jin’s high school reunion.

[laughs] “That was a good one.”

But you don’t understand – the thing about that session, everybody said that was a really good session. People cared. The critics in the room were really engaged. That’s not always the case.

“I know. Sepinwall is great. He’s just a pain in my [butt].” [laughs]
Working on both my column for tomorrow's paper and my blog post for tomorrow night. I'm psyched. Can you tell that I'm psyched?

(Update: Someone in the comments asked if I had a link to my blog entry from that particular session in January. I can't find it right now, so after the jump I'm going to reproduce two passages from that session's transcript where I asked the sorts of questions that Damon was no doubt referring to.)
QUESTION: Question for the producers and I guess maybe for Matthew. I'm wondering why whenever Jack is placed in a position where he can ask things of The Others, he always asks such terrible questions? I mean asking Juliet what she and Ben talked about doesn't seem that useful either to him or to us.

DAMON LINDELOF: Since Matthew is not responsible for what Jack says, he has to unfortunately in some cases execute our best version of it. As writers, the questions that the characters are asking on the show is always a slippery slope. We find ourselves saying, "We'd be asking much better questions, too." Unfortunately, if Jack asked the questions that we wanted him to, The Others would answer none of them. So you would just have him asking a string of questions with Michael sort of looking back at him stoically, which probably would not be that interesting to watch. He asks the questions that at least he has an opportunity of getting an answer out of them.
QUESTION: If I could follow on what you just said about the reasons why Jack and Kate and Sawyer were all taken to the island, do you feel like you've explained -- obviously, Jack was there to do surgery on Ben, but why did they have to take Kate and Sawyer?

CARLTON CUSE: Ben took Kate and Sawyer because that was part of the manipulation that he felt was going to be necessary in order to convince Jack to do the surgery. He couldn't force Jack to do the surgery without creating what he felt was a situation in which he would be able to manipulate Jack into sort of agreeing willfully to do the surgery.

QUESTION: Is there a reason he couldn't have, way back when, before The Others started killing people, just wandered on over and said, "Hey, welcome to the island. I hear you're a spinal surgeon. I've got a tumor. Could you help a brother out?" Why does it have to be that convoluted?

DAMON LINDELOF: Well, I suppose there's certainly -- you know, there's certainly a point to be made for that version. But I would argue -- no offense to your writing skills -- that that version is considerably less intriguing for a mystery show. You know, the reality is, you know, if, when Kate was first stitching up Jack, you know, she's like, "Who are you?" he's like, "I'm a spinal surgeon. I've got some hardcore father issues. I don't think I'm going to be a good leader," and she's like, "You've got father issues? I blew up my fucking stepdad," you know -- then it would have been like, "Why even do the show?" because everything's right there.
Click here to read the full post

House, "It's a Wonderful Lie": Macho medical donkey wrestler

Spoilers for the Christmas in January episode of "House" coming up just as soon as I test-drive an iPhone...

Much like House, I was enjoying the fellowship competition so much that I worried things wouldn't be as exciting once the team had been finalized. And despite his attempt to keep things frictional with the bogus Secret Santa contest, this felt like... well, like a regular episode of "House." That means some funny lines (my favorite actually belonged to Foreman, when noting that lies don't make Taub's life any simpler), a strange clinic patient and the usual six or seven botched diagnoses in a row before hitting on the solution in the closing seconds.

I know some fans missed the old formula and were no doubt glad to be rid of the rose ceremonies and Cutthroat Bitch and the like. I, unfortunately, started zoning out at a few points during the episode (admittedly, after one of my longest work days in a while) and had to keep rewinding to figure out things like what Wilson said to lead House to the solution, or whether the clinic patient was really a hooker who does donkey shows but also feels that old-time religion, or just a nice church-going girl who enjoyed letting House think that she was a hooker who does donkey shows. (That last scene was also worth rewinding and rewatching just for the superb use of the Staple Singers' "Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas?")

So "House" is back to being what it used to be: a well-executed, superbly acted but extremely predictable show. And that's fine. But I already miss the topsy-turvy nature of the competition.

Also, why are Cameron and Chase still on the show, other than the producers' loyalty to those two actors? Foreman's been well-integrated back into the team, but there's barely enough time for Wilson and Cuddy, let alone those two. And should I read anything into the arrangement of that old team/new team tableau in the hospital lobby? Kutner and Chase together is a natural (they're the two suck-ups), but Taub with Cameron and Thirteen with Foreman instead of the other way around? Interesting.

What did everybody else think?
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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

In Treatment, week one: Alex

Talk about the second episode of "In Treatment," featuring the first appearance by Blair Underwood as Alex, here. Click here to read the full post

Strike Survival TV Club: Cupid, "Heart of the Matter"

Spoilers for "Heart of the Matter," episode 8 of "Cupid," coming up just as soon as I find a tissue...

He's a god. The man is a god. Plain and simple.

How else do you explain the miracle at the heart of "Heart of the Matter"? How could anyone but the God of Love find the one person in a big city like Chicago who would be a perfect match for Susan's heart? Who but Eros could have allowed Susan to have one perfect night with her savior before he died?

In a little while, Rob Thomas is going to talk about how, much as he likes the episode, it probably goes too far in answering the series' central mystery of "deity or delusional?" And coming immediately after an episode like "Pick-Up Schticks," which made a very plausible, haunting argument for "delusional," I can see how giving away the gag in only the eighth episode may not have been the wisest choice for whatever long-term future the series might have had with a different network/timeslot.

But there's a reason "Heart of the Matter" is the episode of "Cupid" I've watched the most, a reason it's the one I cite whenever discussing the show's greatness: because every single time I watch it, even though I know what's coming, even though with 20-20 hindsight the heart transplant thing seems screamingly obvious, when Susan starts thanking Trevor for introducing her to Dan, my eyes get as moist as Susan's. Every damn time.

There's something about heart transplants that make them an ideal subject for these kind of grand melodramatic moments. We think of the heart not only as the organ that keeps all the other organs working, but as the center of our romantic lives, and in turn of our souls. When someone receives someone else's heart, it inherently feels more profound than if they got a kidney or a liver or whatever. The greatest moment in "St. Elsewhere" -- one of the greatest moments in any TV drama, ever -- is the one where David Morse's character, newly and shockingly widowed, enters the room of the woman who received his wife's heart and finds comfort in taking out his stethoscope and simply listening to that heart beat. (It's such a brilliant idea that one of the "St. Elsewhere" writers couldn't help but copy it a decade later on a "Chicago Hope" episode.) I'm not saying that the Susan scene here is quite as amazing, but it's in the ballpark.

Or maybe I'm just a sap, I don't know.

It helped that the script did such a good job of establishing Dan as a likable, funny guy who could banter with a master like Trevor. Trevor's line about feeling like he lost a friend was right on. Matt Roth and Piven dropped into an immediate simpatico, and in a less tragic context you could imagine him usurping Champ's role as Trevor's sidekick.

It also helped that, as Rob notes below, Katy Selverstone is so committed and fierce as Susan. There was a period in the mid-'90s where it looked like she was going to break out -- she was doing those MCI ads for a long time, then did a "Seinfeld" guest spot at a time when every girl who dated Jerry or George was getting their own show, then did an extended run on "The Drew Carey Show" as the first of Drew's improbably pretty girlfriends -- but things never quite materialized for her. She still works, though, and performances like this one help explain why.

The B-story continues the ongoing tension between Trevor and Alex, and now expands it so that things are getting awkward between Alex and Claire. The sidewalk argument between Trevor and Claire where each begins arguing the other's viewpoint on commonality vs. chemistry was funny and extremely quotable. (My two favorites: "I'd rather be a slow-baked ham than niblit grizzle" and ""Hope someone got that on film, because that's the last time that'll ever happen," the latter of which set up Trevor's joke to Dan about them becoming romantically involved.) I also love that Claire sent her Dear John note via fax (though given the period, is it any worse than break-up by e-mail today?), and that any enjoyment she could take from Alex kinda sorta proclaiming his love was immediately dashed by the realization that Trevor lied to her. If it had already become clear that Trevor was in love with Claire, this is the first episode to really suggest she might subconsciously feel the same way; no one makes you crazier than the person you love the most, right?

And now it's time for Rob Remembers, where "Cupid" creator (past and, hopefully, future) Rob Thomas offers some behind the scenes insight into each episode:

I actually needed to rewatch the episode. This is one that Reno and Osborn shepherded and did significant script work on. I had almost nothing to do with it. I remember having a couple reservations about it. It did seems to really swing us into the "Trevor really is a god" side of the equation. Additionally, in the script stage, I had a problem with the buy at the end of the episode. It seemed like it was a bit far-fetched, but when I saw it on screen, I was won over.

I had forgotten how much I like the performance by Katy Selverstone. She has a kind of Jodie Foster vibe to her.

I remember we had a battle over a scene in which Trevor reacts to the news of Dan's death by smashing up a bunch of discarded furniture in an alley in a bit of a frenzy. Again the network was concerned that it made Trevor seem too real, too disturbed. I think I was in the minority in wanting to keep this possibility alive. The audience wants to believe Trevor possesses some real magic. I always felt like, if we gave them that, they wouldn't respect us in the morning. In any case, the scene of Trevor smashing things ended up cut from the final version, perhaps largely because we were out of time.

The original draft of the script was written by Karen Hall who Reno and Osborn had worked with on Moonlighting, I believe. Karen's sister Barbara is the creator/EP of Joan of Arcadia and Judging Amy.
Some other thoughts on "Heart of the Matter":

-One of the running elements of the series, but especially apparent here, is how easily Trevor's able to talk to strangers about their love lives and make it absolutely clear that he's not hitting on them. I know the script throws in a line where he tells Susan he's just trying to get a bonus for bringing as many people to the bar as possible, but there's just something in the way Piven carries himself that makes it clear that he's not looking to get laid, and I still can't put my finger on what he's doing.

-Along similar lines, as Trevor and Dan were bantering at the video store about the oddness of two unfamiliar men talking about relationships, my wife wondered aloud how the hypothetical "Cupid" remake might deal with same sex couples. In 1998, this wasn't really a possibility ("Will & Grace" had just come on the air, but it would be years before it was allowed to show two men kissing), but standards have changed somewhat. The gods themselves -- and the Greeks and Romans who worshipped them -- seemed open to various romantic and sexual combinations, so I would think Trevor gets credit for pairing off two men or two women.

-A far more minor clue than Trevor's recognition of Dan being Susan's perfect match: when Dan asks how he got into the Blackhawks practice, Trevor says, "I can get in anywhere. I'm Cupid, remember?" Throughout the series, we've seen Trevor talk his way into situations and places where he should be denied entry, but I keep thinking back to that shot of him on top of the building in "Heaven... He's In Heaven" and asking myself, "How the hell did he get up there?"

-When Dan begins describing the kind of skeeball he used to play (which we then see him play with Susan), it sounded (and looked) like every skeeball arcade I've ever seen in my life. Is anyone familiar with another look for the game that I'm not aware of?

-Just wanted to mention "Glass Blowing: Craft or Fetish." I'm almost afraid to Google it.

Up next: "End of an Eros," featuring Trevor and Claire's first outright team-up and some hilarious camerawork, which (if you haven't already gone BitTorrenting like some other readers) you can find here, here, here, here and here.

What did everybody else think?
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Monday, January 28, 2008

In Treatment, week one: Laura

Talk about the the first episode of "In Treatment" here. Because I'm three weeks in, all I'll say for now is that, while Laura's problems make her arguably the series' most important patient, the writing makes her one of the less interesting patients. Click here to read the full post

While you were out

Busier weekend than usual here at the blog, with 10 different posts from Friday night through Monday morning. Since not everybody seems to be scrolling all the way down (someone in the Wire On Demand thread asked me if I had heard of something I blogged about on Sunday afternoon), I'm going to take a page from Peter Abraham, busiest Yankee beat-blogger on the planet, who on his more prolific days will always do a table of contents style post linking to everything he just wrote. If you were away from your computer all weekend, here's what you missed:
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Sepinwall on TV: The doctor is in

Today's column previews the new HBO series "In Treatment," which I discussed briefly last week:
Therapy, as any good shrink will tell you, requires commitment. You're not going to solve all your problems in one session, or five, maybe even 500. Achieving mental health means sticking around for the long haul.

"In Treatment," the new HBO drama about a therapist and his patients, requires a commitment of its own, as it will air five episodes a week for more than two months straight. It's an almost intimidating amount of TV to watch - even at a time when the writers strike has wiped out most other scripted programming - but like therapy, the more time you spend with it, the more you get out of it.

The format is derived from an Israeli drama, and it follows psychologist Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) through his week, with a different appointment each day. On Mondays, it's Laura (Melissa George), a beautiful, damaged woman whose crush on Paul may or may not be requited. On Tuesdays, it's Alex (Blair Underwood), a control freak naval aviator trying to come to terms with a battlefield tragedy and a recent near-death experience. Wednesdays bring Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), a 16-year-old gymnast who wants Paul to proclaim her non-suicidal. On Thursdays, we get Jake and Amy (Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz), a married couple whose relationship has grown toxic after years of battling infertility. And on Fridays, Paul goes to see his own shrink, Gina (Dianne Wiest), to tell her (and us) how he really feels about his patients.
To read the full thing, click here.

And after thinking about it over the weekend, I've come up with a blogging gameplan. Every weeknight (or, if I go to bed early or am otherwise detained, the next morning), I'll post an open thread for anyone who wants to discuss each episode. Because of the nature of the show and the fact that I'm three weeks into the season already, it's hard for me to discuss each episode individually without betraying what I know about what's coming -- which comments are lies, which seemingly minor bits of dialogue turn out to be important later, etc. So you can talk all you want (or not), and I'll weigh in with comments if I think I won't be giving things away. Maybe I'll post some expanded thoughts at the end of each week, maybe not. And maybe no one will be watching, which would render the whole thing moot. But I think the show is pretty cool and merits discussion. Click here to read the full post

The Wire week 5 thread for the On Demand'ers

You should have this memorized by now. This is the place to discuss "The Wire" episode 5, "React Quotes," until it airs on Sunday night. Do not discuss this episode in last night's review thread for episode 4, and do not discuss anything from future episodes. All comments with spoilers will be deleted. Click here to read the full post

Mad Men redux: Ambivalent women

(Note: Because AMC is rerunning the first season of "Mad Men" every Sunday at midnight, and because a lot of people missed the show the first time around, I'm reposting my blog reviews for each episode the morning after. These are written as they were back in the summer/early fall; if I feel differently about anything in retrospect, I'll mention it in the comments. Also, while comments from both newbies and people who watched the first time are welcome, if you've seen these episodes before, please be vague about events in later episodes so as not to spoil things for the newcomers.)

Spoilers for "Mad Men" episode two coming up just as soon as I buy a new child safety seat for the car...

After devoting much of the pilot to the title characters, episode two of "Mad Men" is for the ladies -- mostly.

Betty Draper, kept off camera for most of last week to serve the pilot's not-so-shocking twist ending, gets to play screentime catch-up. We learn that she's suffering from some kind of condition where her hands freeze up at inopportune moments. (I don't know enough about medical history to understand whether Betty's condition is really psychosomatic, as her doctor suggests, or simply something a doctor in 1960 wouldn't be able to diagnose.) She's out of sorts, depressed about the recent death of her mother, crushed by her role as homemaker but not understanding that there could be an alternative, frustrated that Don is just as big a mystery to her as he is to everyone else. When they lie in bed together, she looks at him and whispers, "Who's in there?" It's not apparent yet whether she suspects Don is sleeping around, but she's thrown by the news that a divorcee has moved into the neighborhood. As claustrophobic and terrifying she may find her life, being a single mom in 1960 Westchester sounds infinitely more terrifying.

It's really scary to see how constrained Betty's life is, how much control of it is placed -- by her ignorance and by the standards of the time -- in the hands of Don. He's the one who pushes her to see a therapist, and he's also the one who can then call up the therapist to find out what Betty talked about in her session. January Jones has a look that works really well with the style of the time (in present-day movies, I don't usually notice her, but she has this vaguely Grace Kelly quality when you put her in the dress and the hair and the makeup), and I'm glad she's portrayed as more than just the ball and chain that Don escapes from with work and with Midge.

And speaking of our resident beatnik floozy, we find that she's not just Don's mistress, but rather a free love type who sleeps around, an arrangement that has its pluses and minuses for both of them. Don doesn't have to feel completely guilty that he goes back to Betty the next day because he knows Midge has other guys, but he also can't help getting upset when evidence of those guys -- say, Midge's new TV set (on which her favorite show is the same as Don's kids') -- stares him right in the face. And Midge doesn't have to feel like a kept woman who's breaking up a marriage, but she still can't stand to hear about Betty. When Don says, "I can't decide if you have everything, or nothing," she tells him, "For the moment, nothing is everything." On some shows, that line would sound like psychobabble masquerading as profound insights, but the small details of how these characters are written and played gives it real meaning.

With Pete off on his honeymoon (an excuse to sketch in the other young guys at the agency), Peggy gets a bit closer to Paul, one of the copywriters on Don's team. Paul is set up to be everything that Pete and his cronies aren't -- well-read, semi-enlightened (he at least sees the value in women copywriters for certain types of jobs), not as blatant in his advances -- but in the end he's revealed to be just another horny guy trying to get with the new girl, and Peggy is only able to fend him off by hinting at her involvement with Pete. (Paul assumes the man she's talking about is Don, and in one of my favorite lines of the episode, says, "Do you belong to someone else? Shit. I don't even like to sit in Don's chair.")

I'm just very taken with this show, and if I wasn't so burnt-out from being at press tour for two weeks (see the latest iteration of my Bon Scott/Alex O'Loughlin problem), I'd attempt to elaborate more about what it continues to well. Instead, it's on to our friends the bullet points:
  • Yes, People Really Lived This Way moments of the week: the Draper kids drive without child seats, or even seat belts, and are completely unharmed in Betty's fender bender, and the daughter runs around the house with a dry cleaning bag over her head and Betty's only concern is that her dress might get ruined without the bag on it.
  • John Slattery has just nailed the arrogance and indifference of a guy like Roger. Again, an exchange like the "What do women want?" "Who cares?" bit between Don and Roger could have come across as being written in italics, but Slattery makes Roger's attitude seem like the natural thing.
  • Robert Morse! How perfect is that? They cast Robert Morse -- star of the original version of "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying" -- as Mr. Cooper, head of the agency.
What did everybody else think?
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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Simpsons: I love the '90s!

Just wanted to say that tonight's "The Simpsons" was easily the best of this season, and one of the best I can remember from the last few years. A single story from beginning to end, lots of funny '90s period gags, lots of funny pop culture gags (the "This is your cousin, Marvin Cobain!" joke was brilliant), song parodies within song parodies (when you get Weird Al to make fun of you making fun of Nirvana, you've accomplished something), and they finally acknowledged the continuity/chronology problem of Homer being 40 and Bart being 10, even though Homer got Marge pregnant not long after high school. It may be a lot rarer these days, but when "The Simpsons" has got it, it's still got it. Click here to read the full post

Breaking Bad: A big old messy-mess

Spoilers for "Breaking Bad" episode two coming up just as soon as I flip a coin...

When you have an offbeat drama that ends its first episode with an unexpected murder or two, chances are your second episode is going to be about disposing of the corpse(s). "The Black Donnellys," for instance, followed that pattern last season, but at least they had solved the dead body problem by the end of show two, where here "Breaking Bad" is stretching out the problem -- with the wrinkle of a body that should be dead but isn't -- into next week.

I'm not saying it's necessarily a bad idea in this case. You hear a premise like "chemistry teacher starts cooking crystal meth," you might think wacky hijinks (even with the whole lung cancer issue), something as relatively lightweight as "Weeds." Clearly, Walt thought something similar: he'd hang out with his ex-student, cook some meth and make money for Skyler and Walter Jr., no fuss, no muss. The show and Walt's life of crime are both turning out to be a lot uglier than that, and so spending a few episodes depicting the inefficiency of corpse disposal -- and, more importantly, the ethical dilemma of what to do with a man who once tried to kill you but isn't an immediate threat right this second -- doesn't seem like a bad idea.

But, man, is it dark. And slow. Vince Gilligan has adequately put me into Walt's head to experience the horror of all this, but there's a part of me that wishes he would take the easy way out and just tell a lot of jokes about Bryan Cranston in his tightie-whities, you know?

In fairness, Gilligan mixed in some very funny moments, like Jesse's obnoxious ghetto boy answering machine message (which got more amusing the second time), or Jesse ranting about the sanctity of the coin flip, or (my favorite) Walt sliding their prisoner an entire bathroom's worth of stuff. (That gag reminded me, oddly, of Ned Flanders' elaborate hot chocolate making scene in "The Simpsons Movie.") Cranston and Aaron Paul have very quickly established a comic rhythm -- see also the "Because somehow it seemed preferable to telling her I cook crystal meth and killed a man" argument -- and Cranston was superb again in the darker scenes, like Walt at the ultrasound appointment realizing that he wouldn't be around for his daughter's life.

I just feel very adrift when I watch the show. I recognize that's the point. I just don't know if it's a feeling I'm ready to experience on a weekly basis.

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

The Wire, "Transitions": Oscar the grouch

Spoilers for "Transitions," the fourth episode of "The Wire" season five, coming up just as soon as I practice my putting...

Look at that face in the picture above. Look at the expression on it -- or the lack of one. Here's a man who has just achieved his heart's desire, the only thing it's clear he's ever cared about. He is the undisputed king of the Baltimore drug trade, master of all he surveys, and what does he feel? Does that look like a man who's enjoying his moment -- who's even capable of enjoying it?

David Simon likes to describe the Greek -- Marlo's new best friend -- as a symbol of capitalism in its purest form, someone whose only concern is maximizing profits by any means necessary. Vondas has a sentimental streak, and was reluctant to sell out Frank, Nick and now Prop Joe, while the Greek himself has no problem cutting anyone loose if it's good for business. But if that's the case, if the Greek is pure capitalism and nothing but, what does that make Marlo?

Marlo, I think, is pure capitalism as well, but he's also a pure product of the drug culture he's been raised in. Avon, Stringer, Joe -- they all had outside interests, took pleasure in their successes, in family, love, whatever. Marlo's younger than any of them, has grown up in a Baltimore much rougher and more consumed by the drug trade, and he reflects that. He is cold, wants for nothing but to wear the crown, and now he has it. And that is a very scary proposition for Baltimore.

And speaking of which, rest in peace, Joe Stewart. He finally met a problem he couldn't talk his way out of.

"Transitions," as the title makes clear, is about the transfer of power from the old guard to their next generation proteges, from Joe to Marlo, and from Burrell to Daniels (who's far more well-rounded and moral than Marlo, but who has a tendency to keep his emotions under wraps, and who was originally introduced as a single-minded careerist). The episode makes the connection plain in the scene where Joe tells Herc that he and Burrell were a year apart in high school, but the parallels are clear throughough. Both are men who have survived for a long time while vast changes have taken place in the institutions around them, both were gifted at cutting deals and knowing which palms to grease, and in the end both refused to see that the world had finally changed enough to render their way of doing business obsolete.

Carcetti was going to be done with Erv sooner or later, but by juking the stats one last time -- the old trick that served him and his predecessors so well under Royce -- he seals his fate. Joe, meanwhile, thought he could civilize Marlo, that if he taught him enough, showed him enough kindness, Marlo might curb his usual homicidal ways, at least when it came to Joe. Worse, he stuck to old values like putting family before business, and it got him killed. Had he given up Cheese to Marlo after Omar stole the re-up, he never would have had to introduce Marlo to Vondas, and without access to the connect, Marlo wouldn't have been able to kill him. (Really, Joe brought this on himself when he sent Omar after Marlo to entice Marlo into joining the co-op to help get rid of the New Yorkers on the east side. Had he just hired Brother Mouzone or someone like that, none of this would have happened.) And had he turned on Cheese after Butchie died -- as Slim Charles, far more loyal to Joe than his sister's boy could ever be, wanted him to -- he might have gotten out of town alive. But even though Joe can recognize that his nephew's generation has different values, he still can't truly comprehend how much people like Cheese and Marlo value respect above all else.

(Getting back to Marlo vs. Daniels for a second, note that Cedric, having expanded his horizons beyond a simple desire to keep climbing the ladder, is actually able to put a smile on his face when he assumes the throne.)

So now Marlo and the Greek are in business together -- a perfect, terrifying match if ever there was one. Some of the On Demand posters have wondered why the Greek would be willing to sacrifice such a dependable, meticulous partner in Joe in favor of a loose cannon like Marlo, but the Greek -- pragmatic in a way Vondas can't always be -- makes it plain. No matter what they said, Marlo would keep coming back, and would kill Joe, so why not accept this man who clearly seems interested in learning the right way to do business with them? Left unsaid are two points: first, that if Joe had let a fox like Marlo into his henhouse, perhaps he wasn't so dependable anymore; and second, that if Marlo self-destructs (as we can only hope he does), they're still so far removed from the street that they'll have plenty of time to get away. Invisible, invincible, invulnerable -- that's the Greek.

That was, at one time, Omar as well. Is it still? Can he really take out Marlo, even with the help of Butchie's old pal Donnie? (Played, I believe, by Donnie "The real-life Omar" Andrews.) I don't know what it says about me, but as bad as I felt for Omar last week when he learned of Butchie's death and realized his tropical retirement was about to end, it made me feel very, very happy to see him marching down a Baltimore back alley in his duster, skull cap and the rest of his war togs. The confrontation with Slim was riveting, but do you think he spared him simply because he didn't seem to have anything to do with Butchie, or because he's trying to find some way to get his revenge on Marlo without breaking his promise to Bunk? A man's got to have a code, so what happens if he breaks that code?

The two transfers of power so dominated the episode that the season's two most-discussed storylines -- McNulty's fake serial killer and the happenings at the Sun -- took a backseat for a week.

Jimmy and Lester made slow but steady progress on the former, with a little help from Lester's old pal Oscar, yet another of the show's examples of individuals crushed by the system. What I find really interesting is that, even as Jimmy is just exploiting the issue to help him in his insane quest to turn the money faucet back on, the show itself is actually taking some time (not as much, but some) to look at the problem. The visit to the homeless camp introduces us to various types who have found themselves out on the street: the mentally-ill man who collects business cards, the guy who has a job but not enough money to afford a place to live, and of course, Johnny 50.

For those of you who haven't watched season two in a while or don't have a long memory for this stuff, Johnny was Nick and Ziggy's frequent partner in crime. (In case you don't remember him, here he was the guy with the dog.) It's a nice touch, as it both puts a semi-familiar face on the homeless issue and serves as a quiet epilogue to the port story. While I imagine a lot of the stevedores haven't wound up on the streets, having either family or pensions to help cushion the fall, it's not hard to see how a relatively young, single guy like Johnny wound up where he is.

Over at the Sun, Templeton's dreams of working for a prestige paper like the Washington Post get dashed, and it couldn't have happened to a bigger tool. We already know he's a lazy, entitled fabulist, and when he actually gets a chance to hobnob with the folks he thinks he's worthy of knowing, he blows it. In addition to being full of crap as usual with his "I prefer to write it dry" (what little we've heard of his overwrought prose makes him sound like the kind of guy who sleeps with a thesaurus under his pillow), he trash-talks his current employers, and when the Post editor notes areas where the Sun still impresses him, Scott's adrift because he doesn't cover the state. I'm not saying he would have been hired otherwise, but maybe if he had tried talking up what the Sun's Metro staff was able to accomplish even with the cutbacks, he might at least have had a shot.

And while Scott's off getting shot down, Gus gives Klebanow a prime example of the impact the buyouts are having on their newsgathering (Twigg not being available to get the true dirt on Burrell's "retirement"), then witnesses another on his own (them missing the Clay Davis perpwalk because they don't have a statehouse reporter, and because Bond's people didn't care enough to make sure the Sun was there to cover it). Tough times in the newspaper business. Everytime I even think about buying into the "Simon's too much of a cynic" school of thought, I read a story about yet another major paper doing massive staff cutbacks (this week, it was the Chicago Sun-Times) and just get depressed again.

The Colicchio story seemingly has little to do with any ongoing arcs, but it provides some nice character moments for Herc and Carver. When the series started, the two of them were symbols of what the War on Drugs had wrought on the Baltimore PD: impatient knuckleheads with no interest in anything beyond street rips. Carver learned his lessons and is now in a position of some power at the Western, while Herc never did and is now off the force, in a rare "Wire" instance of merit triumphing. (But only sort of, in that Carver had to snitch on Daniels to get his stripes in the first place.) Seeing Colicchio completely unrepentant about assaulting the schoolteacher gave Carver no choice but to report him, but what was unexpected was Herc recognizing in the end that Carver made the right call -- and that he probably deserved to get bounced from the job. No doubt, this rare moment of Herc wisdom was aided by the realization that he's working for the man (Levy) who represents the man (Marlo) who ruined his career, but it was still a pleasant surprise. (I also loved the shot of all the beer cans on the Western roof, a Bunny Colvin call-back.)

Some other thoughts on "Transitions":
  • I have yet to see "Gone Baby Gone" (it's at the top of the Netflix queue for when it comes out on DVD), but congratulations to Amy Ryan for the Oscar nomination. The scene where Beadie confronted Jimmy about his drinking (and, implied, whoring) was a painful one. When we met Jimmy and Elena, we were inclined to side with him, or at least to put some measure of blame on her for the end of the marriage. Now, though, Jimmy's doing this to someone that we know and like, and it's clear that Beadie has done absolutely nothing to deserve what's happening to her.
  • Nice to see Kima getting on better with Elijah now than the last time she got the parental urge. It helps that he's older and more interactive now, but seeing the traumatized kid from the triple-homicide seems to have reminded her that Elijah is more than just a financial commitment she made to Cheryl before they split.
  • I'm opposed to the idea of typecasting -- if an actor's good enough to play multiple roles, he or she should be allowed to -- but it still troubles me whenever I see an actor from one of my daughter's shows pop up in an adult series. In this case, it was Roscoe Orman -- Gordon from "Sesame Street" -- as Oscar. I recognize that this is my problem, not someone like Orman's, but now I understand why so many parents were confused when Steve from "Blue's Clues" played a murderer on "Homicide."
  • Sometimes, the best moments on this show involve the audience having far more knowledge than one or more characters in a scene. In this case, we know exactly why Bond isn't interested in using "the head shot" on Clay -- he intends to make his career on this case, which he can't do if he hands it off to the federal prosecutors -- but poor Lester doesn't.
  • More continuity: the florist Joe hires to arrange Butchie's funeral is the same one Bodie went to for D'Angelo's funeral back in season two.
  • Was anyone else terrified at the realization that Neresse took Burrell's file on Daniels with her when she left his office?
  • For that matter, was anyone else terrified by the notion that Burrell was going to pull an Al Capone in "Untouchables" and bash Daniels' skull in with that putter? Clearly, it was shot to evoke that famous scene, but the scariest thing in it was the way Burrell didn't say a single word throughout it. Had he delivered some kind of threatening speech, it wouldn't have been half as chilling. On very rare occasions, less really is more.
  • Who exactly am I supposed to pity more in the scene where Michael's mom bails him out of jail? I suppose Michael, in that the mom letting Bug's dad back in the house is what led Michael to become a drug soldier, but that is one messed-up family.
Lines of the week:
"...out of respect for the man's skill set" -Joe explaining why he's going to avoid Omar

"Area chief?"
"Name of Rawls, as I remember it." -Jimmy & Lester revisiting Oscar's story

"Motherfucker, don't even... Fuck you, too, motherfucker." -Bunk telling off Jimmy

"You will eat their shit. Daniels, too, when he gets here." -Burrell, putting Rawls in his place (and inadvertently quoting Carcetti)

"Collegial? I fuckin' failed out of journalism school. What's the fuck do collegial mean?" -Gus

"You'd take the 'crab' out of 'crab soup.'" -Gus to Jay Spry

"You're killing me. I gotta ask..."
"Stone stupid." -Herc and Prop Joe revisiting Burrell's salad days

"I wasn't made to play the son." -Marlo
Finally, a word about the "Wire" posting schedule. Last season, the two-tiered set-up worked fine. The small handful of "Wire" fans who watched the On Demand episodes had a place to talk, and the bulk of us got to talk about each episode the following Sunday night. This year, though, the On Demand talk has increased exponentially. By now, the show's audience is so small and focused that anyone who realy cares about it and has access to On Demand isn't going to wait until Sunday to watch. By the time I come in on Sunday nights, it feels as if every nook and cranny has already been thoroughly examined, and I'm just repeating or cribbing what's been said over the last six days. (The Marlo/Daniels parallel comes courtesy of blog commenter Stooge9, for instance.) So I'm thinking strongly of switching things up and just posting the reviews on the night the On Demand episode airs.

I don't want to ruin things for the people who don't have On Demand and/or can't get around to watching each episode until Sunday, but one of the advantages of leaving spoilers off the main blog page is that you can wait and read the entries at your leisure without having to worry. I'm not sure I can actually make the logistics work -- writing these posts takes time, and to switch up I'd have to do two in one week, plus I'm not sure I'll be getting the final three episodes in advance -- so while I try to figure that out, anyone who wants to make an argument for why I should stick to the current schedule, feel free.

What did everybody else think?
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Naked came the nude

Always nice to see our government operating in a timely manner. Five years after the fact, the FCC has issued a $1.4 million fine against a bunch of ABC affiliates in the Central and Mountain time zones for a February '03 episode of "NYPD Blue" that opened with a scene of Charlotte Ross' character being caught naked in the bathroom by Sipowicz's little boy Theo. (You can find slightly more graphic pictures here, or read Amanda Wilson's review at my old "NYPD Blue" site.)

Leaving aside how long it took for the FCC to get around to this one (bureaucracy in action!), I've gotta agree with ABC's defense (quoted from the B&C article):
"NYPD Blue, which aired on ABC from 1993-2005, was an Emmy Award-winning drama, broadcast with appropriate parental warnings, as well as V-chip-enabled program ratings from the time such ratings were implemented," ABC said Friday in a statement.

"When the brief scene in question was telecast almost five years ago, this critically acclaimed drama had been on the air for a decade and the realistic nature of its story lines was well known to the viewing public," the network added.
This was arguably the most skin ever featured on the show (though anybody who wants to offer a counter example from the Delaney or Brenneman days, I can be persuaded), but it was also an episode from late in the 10th season. Anyone who didn't know what "NYPD Blue" was about by that point had probably just purchased their very first television set the day before. Click here to read the full post

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Craphole Island ROOLZ!

Sorry to be a tease, but I just got done watching screeners of the first two episodes of "Lost" season four, and all I can say is that the season three finale was no fluke. They've got their mojo back. I shall say no more until Thursday, but geeks get ready to feel very, very happy. Click here to read the full post

Torchwood: First you wanna kill me, now you wanna kiss me. Blow.

Brief spoilers for the "Torchwood" season two premiere coming up just as soon as I trademark the name "Bikini Cops"...

Now this is the show I was hoping for when they gave Jack his own spin-off.

Like I said in my column, Angsty Jack is a complete waste of both the character and John Barrowman. Brooding, he's a bore. Charming and happy and perfect, he's wonderful. And the overall mood of "Torchwood" seems to have brightened right along with Jack.

The blowfish car chase/hostage situation was done with just the right light touch; a deadpan moment like a blowfish-headed alien driving a red convertible isn't the sort of thing this show could have pulled off last year. (It was maybe the most "X-Files"-ish moment of the series so far.) The team is getting along better instead of betraying each other every five minutes (Jack's absence having forced them into it), and the main story with Captain Jack vs. Captain John managed to ride that Whedonesque funny/scary/funny/tragic wave really well.

James Marsters' presence obviously helped -- I imagine the scene pictured above exploded the heads of half of skiffy fandom -- but the entire production felt far more confident, whether it was John's violent arrival, or Jack entering the bar for a Wild West-style shootout, or a paralyzed Gwen trying to will Ianto and the others to find her. The execution on almost everything was spot on.

It wasn't perfect -- the "it would activate the bomb" excuse for not cutting off John's hand was lame, and the writers really need to make up their mind about whether Torchwood is a super-secret organization or so well-known that old biddies make derisive jokes about it -- but it was a vast, vast improvement over nearly all of season one.

What did everybody else think?
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Friday, January 25, 2008

FNL: She spikes

Spoilers for "Friday Night Lights" coming up just as soon as I apologize to anyone who may have been offended by my punching them in the face...

There are only three games left in the Dillon football season? Whoza whazza wha?

I've had lots of problems with "FNL" season two, but none moreso than the way the show has completely lost track of the damn team. We've seen, what, six games in 13 episodes? (With Smash playing terribly in almost all of them, which makes his big college recruiting story seem doubly baffling.) And now there are only three more before the playoffs start? And we spend an entire episode with zero football action or practice, but with a subplot devoted to the girls' volleyball team?

I know the company line is that "FNL" isn't really about football, but that's just a lie to lure in the people who would otherwise refuse to watch a show about football -- and who, based on the ratings for season two, aren't going to watch anyway. Season one was absolutely about football, and that's what made it great. It was about how a town defined itself through this team and how the pressure of being that defining element shaped the lives of the coaches, the players and their friends and family. There was plenty of action that took place away from the gridiron, but the season was always there in the background. We were always aware of how the Panthers were doing, how Saracen and Smash and Riggins were playing, how secure Eric's job was, etc.

Football was the foundation on which everything else was built, and now it's become this obligatory thing that the writers feel like they have to bring up from time to time, when they'd rather be spending time on another romance or crime plot.

Think of some of the stories that could have been told this year within the framework of what's been established: How is proud outcast Landry fitting into this celebrity jock subculture? How much heat is Coach getting in and around town for his role in what's been a very troubled post-championship season? How is Street going to shape a life for himself without football still living in this town where everyone knows his tragic story? But they've either been given cursory treatment or ignored entirely in favor of silly, off-mission stuff like manslaughter and Carlotta and stolen drug money.

I'm not saying there needs to be game action every single week, but we need to have a sense that games have been played in between episodes, how the team is doing, how Smash is still playing brilliantly enough to attract all these recruiters, how Matt's playing now that he's the undisputed leader of the team, etc. I complained a while back about how all the characters seemed sealed off from one another in separate little shows. The football team and its season is the show's unifying element. Without it being front and center, you've got... well, you've got "Friday Night Lights" season two.

(Oddly, if NBC was really that insistent on downplaying the football stuff, Katims and company had a built-in way to accomplish that without ignoring the reality of this world: they could have had season two begin not long after season one, covering the spring semester of the school year. There could still be some football content -- spring practices, maybe some early recruitment -- but the game's absence wouldn't have been as glaring, and we also wouldn't have had to skip over major events like the team adjusting to the post-championship glow, Eric's early days at TMU, Smash and Waverly breaking up, etc.)

By making the football such a minor element, it takes away a lot of the power from a story like tonight's Smash plot. Okay, so he's going to miss the final three games of the season. But what does that mean? Are they struggling so much that they won't qualify for the playoffs if they lose two or three of these games? What little game action we've seen suggests the team has almost been winning in spite of Smash; how big a blow is this, really?

That said, Smash's story and Street: car salesman were the highlights of "Humble Pie." Not coincidentally, both had at least a tangential connection to football.

Gaius Charles is often underutilized (he was MIA for the early part of this season), but when called upon -- in this case, in the scene where he has to listen to Mama Smash (Liz Mike, wonderful as always) tell him to take the damn deal, and the one where he comforts his little sister after she gets the prank call -- he delivers. I just think the plot would have been better if we had more context about the season.

Scott Porter's been MIA of late, because I think the writers are at a loss about what to do with Street as Jason himself is. I don't know that having him sell Chevys is the ideal answer for either man or show, but at least it plays off Jason's history with Buddy (who was on his way to being Street's father-in-law once upon a time) and puts him in another place where he has to use his force of will to beat a stacked deck. Plus, Herc is never not funny, and the brief montage of Jason getting dressed for work was another nice reminder of the commitment the show and Porter have given to showing what life in a chair is like.

The rest of the episode? Meh. Tyra as volleyball badass was amusing, but not nearly as amusing as Tyra as Powder Puff badass. (Plus, nowhere is it mentioned that Tami's new coaching job is eating into more time she could be spending with the beautiful baby she feels so guilty about leaving at daycare.) I think I went into a coma at some point in the Lyla/Tim/Logan Huntzberger triangle story. (Also, my review screener had some sound problems, so the line may have been looped in later, but how does Lyla know how much money Tim owes Guy? And how easily can a girl in Dillon -- even the daughter of Buddy Garrity -- toss around three grand?) I got a kick out of "God's little gift to Landry," as Matt described little Jean, but given the way the show is now completely ignoring any emotional fallout from the rapist story, it makes me regret its existence even more. I watch Landry hanging out with Riggins and Smash like they're total BFFs, and I wish we could have spent the first half of the season showing how he got to that point, instead of on stupid melodrama that no longer has any impact on what's happening on the show.

What did everybody else think?
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Strike Survival TV Club: Cupid, "Pick-Up Schticks"

Spoilers for "Cupid" episode 7, "Pick-Up Schticks," coming up just as soon as I do the loser dance...

Whew. I remembered this as a dark one, but didn't realize how dark until I watched it again. This is one where the only person who comes out smelling good is Champ. Trevor's desperate, bullying and acting very much the lunatic and not the exiled god, Claire makes at least one, if not two big ethical violations, and the guest star of the week lets Trevor push him into doing a bad, bad thing. And yet, in the midst of this darkness may be the biggest laugh I ever got out of the show. Weird how well the comedy and the tragedy sometimes go together, isn't it?

So Trevor's starting to panic again about not getting back to Mt. Olympus, especially when the very desirable Helen Davis (Sherilyn Fenn, halfway between knotting the cherry stem on "Twin Peaks" and getting into a custody dispute on "Gilmore Girls") tries to make a move on him. Because of Zeus' "No shagging the livestock" rule (for those not up on your Greco-Roman myths, Zeus was infamous for nailing everything that wasn't already nailed down), if Trevor has sex with a mortal, he becomes one, permanently.

His state of mind isn't helped by all his glimpses of the happy, horny union he created between Claire and Alex. If it wasn't obvious before that he's in love with Claire, it is here, and if you read this episode as if Trevor was just a delusional human, his desperate need to escape is him twisting his fantasy to cope with his own jealousy. On Mt. Olympus, after all, he won't need to see Claire and Alex having a fun sexy time, will he?

Trevor's bitter desperation makes this a very bad time for him to meet Sam (Todd Field, back when he was an indie film actor rather than an indie film director), a nice, shy member of the singles group, and to hear Sam talk about Sure Score, a seduction technique that Claire describes as "drug-free Rohypnol." Under ordinary circumstances, Trevor's belief in true love -- and his understanding that his "mission" involves love and not sex -- would make him think of Sure Score as both useless to his cause and kinda gross. But hard-up, jealous and tightly-wound, he talks himself into the idea that it would have value in his mission, and in turn bullies Sam into using it on the barista for whom he has an unrequited crush.

While Trevor's trying to avoid Helen and pressuring the very decent Sam into doing something both know isn't right, Claire is having sex with Alex -- lots and lots and lots of sex. This is a very different Claire than we've seen before (and a different Paula Marshall): looser, happier, hungrier and more physical. (Two or three episodes ago, it would have been hard to imagine Claire strutting down the street and singing "Bad to the Bone.")

But as she mentioned back in "Heaven... He's In Heaven," she has a bad tendency to throw all of herself into a relationship, and she's so fixated on Alex and all the dirty things they can do to each other that she gets sloppy in other areas. She's not really on top of the Trevor/Sam thing, where under ordinary circumstances I think she would have spotted this happening as soon as Sam piped up about Sure Score in the group. Worse, she outs Trevor as a mental patient when Alex starts to get jealous of all the time she spends with another man. And when Alex -- who doesn't seem so swell in this episode, either -- lets Trevor know that he knows, then directly confronts him about Trevor's desire to be with Claire, it pushes Trevor so far over the edge that he decides to have sex with Helen and give up his godhood (or his delusion) once and for all.

He can't go through with it (there'd be no show if he did, after all) after Claire leaves a perfectly (or imperfectly, depending on your POV) timed message on his answering machine apologizing for her recent behavior and encouraging him in this new relationship. This leads to the bleakest moment of the series: Trevor in his underwear on the edge of the bed, babbling to himself about how he needs to go home already, while a freaked out Helen quickly gathers her things to go. (Piven really kills it in this scene.)

And just when we think things can't get any darker, or stranger -- after Sam has seduced the barista and then left her in a fit of self-loathing, after Trevor's meltdown and all the rest -- we cut to Claire in bed with Alex, telling him a story about her childhood, and the more she talks and the more she touches him, the more we realize that she's using Sure Score on him.

Now, Rob doesn't get into this in today's Rob Remembers, so we're on our own in deciding what Claire is or isn't doing here. The point of the scene could have been to show that the difference between Sure Score and a perfectly ethical seduction technique may not be that great. But from where I was sitting, it seemed like Claire, just as desperate in her own way as Trevor, afraid of screwing things up with this perfect on paper match, decides to give herself an edge using a technique she had read up on.

Whatever the reason, this is the only episode so far that made me uncomfortable by the end. That's not a knock, by the way. I think "Pick-Up Schticks" is very effective at what it's trying to do in showing the side of Trevor's world that isn't so happy-go-lucky. Just as episodes like "A Truly Fractured Fairy Tale" (which isn't remotely as well put-together as this one) are useful in reminding us that Trevor won't always make a match, episodes like this are important in keeping open the possibility that Trevor's as sick as Claire thinks he is. I'd have a better time watching "Meat Market" or "First Loves" again and again, but Trevor on the edge of the bed, on the edge of sanity, is one of the images I'll always remember when I think back on this show.

And it's time once again for Rob Remembers, where "Cupid" creator (past and, hopefully, future) Rob Thomas gives a behind-the-scenes look at each episode:
Interestingly, I liked this episode much better when I watched it this week than I remember liking it at the time.

I remember what made me cringe when we shot it -- the Sure Score scenes. I don't think they were particularly well-written and we really went overboard to underline that these guys were losers -- the military uniform on the leader was just one example of overkill. Those scenes became painfully on-the-nose, and they took me out of the episode. I really felt how badly we'd misfired later when I saw the movie MAGNOLIA. I didn't much care for the film, but in it Tom Cruise was essentially teaching a brand of this uber-male, make-women-your-prey philosophy, and I thought he was spellbinding. Did he win the Oscar for that role or merely get nominated? I seem to remember Michael Caine winning that year, but I could be wrong. I digress...

Interestingly, we had to be extremely careful with those scenes as not to encroach on the empire we were lampooning -- something called Speed Seduction if I remember correctly. ABC was very concerned as those people were apparently quite litigious.

My biggest regret was to have Claire break doctor-patient confidentiality so cavalierly. If I had to do the episode over again, I would've either made it an accidental slip or I would've really backed Claire into more of a corner in order to excuse it. We took a lot of flack from fans for that, and it was probably deserved.

I suppose I was pleased, however, with some of the fallout from Claire's error. I love the Trevor/Alex confrontation scene. I think the Trevor/Claire/Alex scene at her home is one of those scenes I'd put on a reel to show off what made Cupid work. Jeremy and Paula are great in it. I'm particularly proud of the "un" runner. The scene that we went back and forth with the network about was Trevor's meltdown when he decides he can't have sex with Sherilyn Fenn. The network thought it played too real. They thought he looked genuinely crazy, and they preferred him in lighthearted, "television-crazy" mode. We trimmed a bit out of it, but fought hard to keep the bulk. It was important to both Jeremy and me that the show could go in that direction.

There was also an argument about his motivation there. The network didn't understand why, given Claire's blessing, her apparent lack of jealousy, Trevor would then opt out of having sex. The reason, I argued, was that if she didn't care for him romantically, then he didn't want to be stuck here "on earth."
Some other thoughts on "Pick-Up Schticks":
  • While everyone else is busy going down the morality rabbit hole, Champ is involved in a fairly pure, chaste courtship of his upstairs neighbor. It fits thematically with the rest of the episode, in that Trevor keeps trying to corrupt things by turning their apartment into a shag pad. But what's interesting is that, at the rock bottom of his depression, as he prepares to sleep with Helen and give up everything he believes he is, Trevor still has it in him to rectify things with Champ and the neighbor, by offering him a copy of Lord Byron's "She Walks in Beauty" -- real magic words, as opposed to the hypnosis of Sure Score -- for Champ to read to his girl.
  • Maybe it's because I was 25 with the mentality of someone 10 years younger when I first saw this episode, but the moment when Trevor goes out on the balcony to do dumbbell curls -- a payoff to the "forearms like Popeye"/masturbation joke from earlier in the episode -- produced whoops and whoops of laughter from me at the time. My wife, who was just starting to date me at the time and watched each episode with me, says it took a lot of trust on her part to keep the relationship going after witnessing that spectacle.
  • Even if we didn't have Rob here last time to unravel the conclusion of Nick's flirtation with the Kate Walsh character, his continued presence at the singles group is proof that he's not still dating her. Again, once characters from the group find love, they don't come back.
  • As I said back in the "First Loves" review, Snuffy Walden's score for this episode sounds like an unused "thirtysomething" composition, and it gets kind of distracting in spots.
  • In the montage near the end, we see Sam successfully hitting on a different waitress. Given the lacerating speech he delivers at the Sure Score meeting, I'm assuming he was just flirting with her the old-fashioned way, but I could be convinced otherwise.
  • Nice throwaway moment where Helen, stalking Trevor, bumps into him as he's arranging for two local joggers to alter their routines just enough to bump into each other and maybe pair off.
Coming up on Tuesday: the series reaches its midway point -- and its high point -- with "The Heart of the Matter," which you can see here, here, here, here and here.

What did everybody else think?
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Sepinwall on TV: Jack is back

Today's column previews season two of "Torchwood" -- which, based on the first two episodes, I consider a vast improvement on season one:
Captain Jack finally shows up for the second season of "Torchwood," and the show is much better for it.

In the most literal sense, Jack was present for the first season of "Torchwood," an "X-Files"-tinged spin-off of "Doctor Who" about a British government agency that deals with extraterrestrial sightings. But though Jack was still played by John Barrowman, he bore little resemblance to the character who had been on "Doctor Who" - a charming, supremely well-adjusted, omnisexual time traveler and all-around swell guy - and instead became a tortured, angsty bore.

Jack wouldn't be the first character to get an ill-advised spin-off makeover - see also the neutering of Addison Montgomery as she went from "Grey's Anatomy" fifth wheel to "Private Practice" heroine - nor will he be the last. But he may be one of the few who get to recover.
To read the full thing, click here. I'll try to do a brief post tomorrow night more specific to the premiere. Given the presence of James Marsters, I suspect people are gonna want to talk about it. Click here to read the full post

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Chuck: Twice as Awesome

Spoilers for tonight's "Chuck" sandwich coming up just as soon as I work on strengthening my thighs...

So how does a "Chuck" sandwich taste, anyway? Kinda bittersweet, I have to say. On the one hand, I'm grateful to get any original "Chuck" at all after nearly two months. On the other, I had sort of made peace with its absence from my weekly viewing, and after two hours, it's gone again. Much as I enjoyed these, I'd almost rather NBC had stuck to the original plan of saving them until they had more episodes produced.

"Chuck Versus the Undercover Lover" was definitely the stronger hour of the two. It had a heavy dose of Casey, who's become the not-so-secret weapon of the show. ("Breathe, Casey! Breathe! Or grunt! Grunting is good, too!") It had that great fight scene with Chuck strapped to Casey's back (I've seen martial arts movies do variations on this, but it usually involves both people whooping ass, where Chuck's squealing uselessness was the best part). While both episodes used the ancillary characters a lot (hence the post title), I thought they were used better here, particularly Captain Awesome being trapped at the Nerd Herd strip poker game. (I was assuming that this was Morgan the amateur therapist's attempt to scare Awesome back into Ellie's arms, but no, the guys are just that sad and creepy.) And it had greater consistency than "Chuck Versus the Marlin," which was ragged in a way that lots of episodes written right before the strike have been.

If I had one real complaint with the first hour -- and it's hard to complain much about an episode that makes such hilarious use of "Love on the Rocks," or that contains a line like "I don't want to die a male stewardess!" -- it's that they should have used the "Casablanca" parallels back in the return of Bryce Larkin episode. If there's an analogue to Rick, Ilsa and Victor Lazlo, it's with our central love triangle -- which, oddly, would make the show's main character the Victor Lazlo stand-in. (Maybe they can do an episode soon where Chuck leads the Nerd Herd in a round of "La Marseillaise.") Also, I think there was a missed opportunity for a "Mr. & Mrs. Smith"-esque scene where Casey and his Ilsa, having discovered each other's true identities, get off on shooting bad guys together.

Where I really enjoyed the doomed romance at the heart of "Undercover Lover," the best parts of "Marlin" tended to be on the fringes: Chuck's cell phone photo of Captain Awesome is of Awesome kissing his own bicep, Jeff telling Lester how to deal with the "pigs" (and then folding under interrogation), Big Mike not noticing the emptied and/or restocked versions of the store until his fish came into play, the "Over the Top" reference in Lester and Jeff's thumb wrestling match, Big Mike literally turning up the heat on Chuck, and Awesome finally discovering a situation that was unequivocally not awesome.

The main story was funny in spots -- particularly Jeff and Lester's mammary cam video turning out to a plot point -- but what held the rushed script together was Zachary Levi's work in the scenes where Chuck tried to say goodbye to people, just in case. Levi's good with the jokes and all (see the weak thighs joke from "Undercover Lover"), but what really makes the show work is the vulnerable charm he brings to the part. I knew Chuck wasn't going to be sent to the bunker, but Levi at least made me feel recognize how lousy even the possibility was.

One other note: I hope Yvonne Strahovski has spent a good chunk of the strike hanging at the dojo, because she looked badly outclassed by the actress playing pita girl in the latest Wienerlicious throwdown.

What did everybody else think?
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