Saturday, February 28, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: Weddle & Thompson talk "Someone to Watch Over Me"

As she's been doing for most of this final batch of "Battlestar Galactica" episodes, Mo Ryan reached out to the writers of "Someone to Watch Over Me" with some questions about the show. Last week and this week, she invited me to throw in some of my own questions, and writers David Weddle and Bradley Thompson answered many of them -- while Weddle noted that he had answers for others in a letter he wrote to "BSG" composer Bear McCreary. Bear should have the full letter up on his blog by the time I post this, and I'll include some excerpts from it at the end of David and Bradley's responses to the questions Mo and I asked.

Alan: When Tyrol returns to the dream house on Picon, is it empty because he's not doing the projection with Boomer? Or is it empty because she was scamming him the whole time?

Weddle: Cylon projections are fantasy expressions of their subconscious desires or emotional life. Tyrol’s return to the empty fantasy house at the end of the show to find Boomer and his imaginary daughter gone was an expression his devastation and despair.

Thompson: It’s empty because that’s what he experienced. Like Tyrol, you’ll have to draw your own conclusions. But it was definitely not a random dramatic decision. We weren’t being all mysterioso. There’s logic to it.

While working in Japan a long time ago, a Japanese businessman I was interviewing explained that when Americans come to his country, they’re always asking what they should see, and his countrymen advise them to go see this or that famous shrine. The Americans take the trip and arrive at this shabby little shrine. And they’re disappointed. An interview subject told me it was because of a different cultural orientation. “For you Americans, it’s all about reaching the goal. For us, it is the journey.”

"Battlestar Galactica" is a wonderful journey – which, because we all took it together, will make Ron’s fantastic three-hour finish all the more compelling.

Mo: Did Boomer really love the Chief? Or was that final speech to him just another part of her con job?

Weddle: Did Boomer really love the Chief? That’s an interesting question and one I don’t have a neat answer to. Boomer is deeply conflicted. I think the process of having false memories planted in her, getting switched “on” as a Cylon, shooting Adama, getting shot by Cally, and her experiences on New Caprica have left her severely disturbed. She was determined to go through with her mission, but in the process of seducing Tyrol she reawakened feelings of love that she thought were dead. I think she experienced real misgivings just before she got on that Raptor, but felt she had gone too far to back down. Wrapped up in that is her perverse envy of Athena, who obtained everything Boomer once wanted, and this festered into a sick desire to strike out at Athena. It’s difficult to say someone who did that loves the Chief, and yet in her damaged way, I think she did and still does love him.

Thompson: Good question. She may not even know the answer. Boomer’s a complicated, damaged individual. Might both be true?

Mo: Is Tyrol in love with the real Boomer or the one he remembers?

Weddle: This is exactly the question he is struggling with. His visits to the fantasy house illustrate that he’s in love with the dreams he’s attached to Boomer about a life he would like to have. Don’t we all do this to some extent to the people we fall in love with? And when they fail to live up to our fantasies or expectations, it can be excruciating for them and for us.

Thompson: Black-and-white answers would be nice. But that’s not generally true of the human – or Cylon - heart. Brings up an interesting question: Does commitment to your mission, your country, your people, outweigh the dictates of your heart?

Mo: What did the Chief think was in that box he toted around for Boomer? Change of clothes?

Weddle: In the beginning of the episode, Starbuck instructs Raptor pilots going out on long duration planet-hunting missions to pack food and water for those long flights. And we see them pack cases just like the one Boomer puts Hera in. Tyrol thought he was giving Boomer a chance to get away and find a life somewhere. Naturally, she would need to take food and water to give her as much time to do that as possible.

Thompson: “PROVISION PACKAGE - LONG DURATION” – We establish those big boxes of gear as planet-hunting mission requirements early in the show, and since that was Athena’s task, it would draw attention if she didn’t load out one of those crates. So Chief Tyrol probably assumed she was carrying the box she was issued for the flight.

Mo: Would we be correct in assuming that everything Boomer did from the moment she left Cavil's base ship was part of his plan to get Hera?

Thompson: How do you escape from a fully armed base ship?

Alan: Ron said in the podcast for "Deadlock" that there was originally a different plan for how Boomer's story would end, but he couldn't get into it yet without spoiling what was to come on the actual show. Are we yet at a point where you can explain how the original plan diverged, or do we need to wait a while?

Thompson: You’ll have to wait.

The part of the question that is from Alan: Bear McCreary said that the piano player was partly modeled on him. Was this story about finding a way to celebrate Bear's contribution to the show, or had you decided to do a music-themed Starbuck episode and then realized you had a pretty talented musician nearby you could brainstorm with?

The part of the question that is from Mo: Was Bear on the set for the entire making of the episode, and if so, how much of "STWOM" was changed/altered/rethought based on his input? I look forward to reading Bear's account of the making of the episode on his blog, but what is your take on what he brought to it?

Thompson: The show was never conceived as “music themed” – we wanted to help fill in the gap we perceived in Starbuck’s story – and since her father was a musician, it seemed natural to explore what happened to the musical part of her.

We asked to have Bear was in Canada for the entire shoot, because he had to compose music that would actually be played live on the set during shooting by Roark Critchlow and Katee Sackhoff. It was also vital to have him interact with Michael Nankin, our director, because making a show like this is a constant process of discovery, and we needed the flexibility to change as we learned new things about the characters.

Bear also sampled our wonderfully out-of-tune set piano so he could add music voiced with the same instrument during scoring, as well as change any pieces that didn’t fly during the initial performance.

We modeled Slick on Bear because Bear undergoes the same tortures of the damned trying to top himself with each new Battlestar Score (keep setting the bar to the maximum and then trying to top it – try that for four years straight – yet he keeps succeeding). That seemed to match Slick’s drive to compose.

I can’t really speak to the idea of how much was “changed” due to his input because he was a full-on interactive collaborator in making the episode as successful as it was. It was something we all did together (with Ron and Michael, Katee and Roark) growing this thing organically from all our input.

Alan: Am I correct in interpreting the shot of Kara, Tigh and Tory at the piano -- with the piano player and his sheet music nowhere in sight -- to mean that he was never there? And if so, is Kara hallucinating -- or is she projecting? And is there any reason why we shouldn't assume that Kara's father -- musician with a name that starts with D, who taught her how to play the Final Five version of "All Along the Watchtower" -- is Daniel, the artistic and missing eighth Cylon model?

Thompson: Interpretations are always subjective and belong to the interpreter. We put something on the screen with clues to assemble into conclusions. Are yours the same as ours? Do they satisfy you?

Mo: Does the fact that Dreilide Thrace's recording was titled "Live from the Helice Opera House" have any connection to the "Opera House" visions that have long been part of the show?

Thompson: Maybe.

Mo: To me, so much of this episode (quite heartbreakingly) dwelled on what these people have lost or given up or had to suppress in order to survive. Was revisiting that an important part of starting to close the chapter on the story of these characters, in particular Tyrol and Starbuck?

Weddle: It was thrilling and fulfilling for Brad and me to write this episode because we got to revisit the pivotal characters of Boomer, Tyrol and Starbuck. We were deeply involved in plotting their character arcs throughout the four seasons of the show and it was exciting and rewarding to craft some of the final movements of their journeys. The entire staff believed it was very important to revisit the Boomer/Tyrol relationship, especially since the Chief has discovered he is a Cylon. And exploring Kara’s relationship with her father in a way completes her biography and rounds out her character. This episode puts events in motion that will propel our characters to the climax of our story. So it is not a tone poem in any sense of the word.

Thompson: We always felt that a love such as shared by Chief Tyrol and Lt. Valerii wouldn’t simply go quietly away – especially given the changes that both have gone through in the last four years. And the reasons they parted – do they make sense after all this? Is there still something left? We wanted to see where that led. And since we’re in the last headlong dive for the final logo, if not now, when?

Mo: For me, the moment when Tyrol spots the daughter he could have had is one of the most bittersweet and emotional ones of the season. Aaron Douglas' performance was spot on throughout, but I am betting director Michael Nankin had something to do with the performances we saw. Am I right in recalling that you had asked that he be hired to direct this episode? Why?

Thompson: Every one of the cast was blow-you-away spectacular. One of Nankin’s many gifts is the ability to run the throttle on these powerful engines so that the moment has maximum impact when it finally plays. I have to say that Aaron and Grace outdid themselves for this episode, fearlessly reaching into painful personal places for some of their best work. And Katee reached the same place with Slick.

Another part of Mr. Nankin’s talent is that he creates an atmosphere where actors feel safe taking chances, can risk falling on their asses, knowing that he’ll put them back on the path if they go astray. It’s a trust built over a lot of working together. And it’s especially tough on these actors because with them, we expect brilliance.

Michael Nankin is one of the most talented directors I’ve had the good fortune to work with, and he was slotted into Episode 19 long before we knew what it was – or that we’d be writing it. After “Someone…” Mark Verheiden was sorting out the writing assignments for the last shows of the series and asked us if we wanted to do one more. We, of course, grabbed for it with both hands and our prehensile feet. He then asked which slot we’d prefer and it was a no brainer: Mr. Nankin’s.

Mo: How much did you draw on the Weddle & Thompson writing process and collaboration for the scenes Kara and the piano player composing music?

Thompson: In my recollection, it was more about the agony and joy Bear experiences during that process. Of course, there are parallels in any creative endeavor, but in this case, David spent a lot of time talking with Bear and making it musician/composer-specific.

Mo: Speaking of composition, what had to be cut from "STWOM"? What happened on set that you weren't expecting or that presented difficulties?

Thompson: It’s been a while since I watched all this go down, but I think most of the cuts were in the music because it was long and that was the place where we could best afford the loss. The show was restructured in editing, because Andy and Paul found a way that the climax with Kara and the climax with Boomer could happen simultaneously, which made the end much more satisfying.

And I should note that we’d been admonished (by high level players who will remain nameless) not to have Helo make the mistake he makes. We backed off in subsequent drafts (feeling like we were somehow cheating the fans) until Michael Nankin’s first round of script notes hit Ron, saying, “I can’t believe you have this opportunity and you’re not going all the way with it.” And Ron turned to us and said: “He’s right. It’s so wrong we have to do it!” And we got to put that moment back in the show.

An addendum on Boomer-Tyrol story from Thompson: The thing I forgot to mention is, if I recall correctly, that the Boomer Tyrol aspect of this story was something we'd floated in the room in season 3 but didn't know where it fit or what it would be. Like so many Battlestar ideas, it simply hung in limbo until the time was right for maximum impact.

That's one of the genius parts of Ron -- patience. Like with the nuke six asked Baltar to get. And how it eventually played out. When the time came, we were very happy we'd had that one in our back pocket. But Ron didn't force playing that card until it made sense to do so. Likewise with Boomer-Tyrol.

Alan: A portion of the fandom has gotten upset with episodes like "A Disquiet Follows My Soul" and "Deadlock" for what they perceive as a slow pace, not enough answers about the mythology or forward plot advancement, and not enough about what they consider "the endgame." Now you guys have written an episode where large chunks are about Starbuck remembering how to play the piano, and while I liked it, I suspect you may have the barbarians at the gate like they were for Jane last week. Anything you want to say to reassure them about what's coming? Is a lot of the endgame stuff being saved for the finale proper? Or do you feel like fans who only care about the plot and the mythology are missing some key component of the show?

Weddle: I love the shows that concentrate on the emotional lives of our characters. They are fundamentally important in laying the foundation for the big action oriented episodes like [Season 3's] "Exodus." "Exodus" has so much power because "Occupation" and "Precipice" set the table, and put all the pieces in place for the climax. “A Disquiet Follows My Soul” sets the table for the two unbearably tense mutiny shows that follow it. Fans may think they want every episode to be nothing but slam-bang action, but if you didn’t have the quiet episodes that place each character emotionally and set up the stakes for our people, the action episodes would be hollow exercises.

Thompson: A great symphony or great novel can’t all be furious pace, crash, and bang. That would leave no room for dynamics and contrast. Battlestar Galactica has always been about the characters, not plot or endgame. It rests on the people: They’re either interesting and satisfying or not. As for what’s coming? It’s Ron’s vision, Ron’s story and either you trust him with the few hours that are left or you don’t. All I can say is that for us, the series comes to a satisfying, earned, and honest conclusion.

Mo: Did I spot Mr. Weddle sitting next to Starbuck in Joe's Bar at one point? Or was I projecting?

Weddle: Congratulations on spotting the Weddle skinjob at the bar. Now you know the hideous truth. Weddle is a Cylon. I am surprised you didn’t spot another skinjob in the bar during the previous episode.

Thompson: Yes. I’m in the scene, too, though I don’t think I made the cut. We flipped for who would be where, and had no idea how the scene would play at that point.

...We felt this had to be a memorable episode, one that could stand beside the others. And we soon hit upon the idea of dealing with Kara’s father, the absent parent whom we knew about only through a brief snatch of his piano music played in her apartment in “Valley of Darkness.” By exploring her relationship with her father, we could complete the story of Kara, in a way.

We also were drawn to the idea that the scene in “Valley of Darkness” where Kara and Helo visit her apartment would contain two major clues to the epic story of "Battlestar": Kara’s painting on the wall, and her father’s music, which she plays and is obviously deeply affected by. If we could pull this off, a tangential scene that initially seemed to be only a poetic mood piece, would later be revealed as one of the most pivotal moments in the entire series.

So we sat down in the writers room with the rest of the staff and began to explore this. The first pedestrian approach that I flogged was to tell the story in a series of flashbacks where Kara would remember playing piano with her father as a child and remember the day he abandoned her. We soon hit on the idea that the song he taught her could be “All Along the Watchtower.” The problem was how we could make this episode feel inventive and fresh and not like “Maelstrom II.”

Two inspirations enabled us to create an exciting new story that was not derivative. First, Mark Verheiden suggested that Kara’s father appear in Joe’s bar on Galactica as a kind of ghost, or projection of her subconscious. And we would hide this until the very end of the story when she finally remembers the song he taught her to play.

The second inspiration came from Ron Moore, who had the idea of Hera actually drawing the notes of "Watchtower." Ron said this could enable Starbuck to remember the song at the very moment that Hera is being kidnapped. Once we had those to breakthroughs, the story fell into place very rapidly...
Again, you should be able to read the full letter at Bear's blog.
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Friday, February 27, 2009

Battlestar Galactica, "Someone to Watch Over Me": Shoot the piano player

Spoilers for tonight's "Battlestar Galactica" coming up just as soon as I barter for some new soap...
"Let's make the most with the time we have left. Please?" -Boomer
Counting tonight's show, the time we have left with "Battlestar Galactica" adds up to five hours over four weeks. And I'm guessing that some of you -- maybe most of you -- aren't going to be happy that we just spent a good chunk of one of those hours on Starbuck re-learning how to play the piano.

And I might be troubled, too, if I didn't consider the characters -- especially people like Kara, Tyrol and Boomer, the center of this episode's two storylines -- at least as important to me as the mythology and the dogfights, and if I didn't feel fairly confident that the writing staff are explicitly saving the remaining seismic events for the Ron Moore-scripted finale.

For that matter, there's a lot more to "Someone to Watch Over Me" than piano lessons. The hour makes it pretty clear that Kara's father (first name starts with D, artistic temperament, either composed "All Along the Watchtower" or at least taught it to Kara) was Daniel, the missing eighth Cylon. It puts Hera back into enemy hands, revealing along the way that Cavil was willing to sacrifice Ellen in exchange for getting hold of the famous Cylon/human hybrid. And it tells us that the sentient Cylon goop won't be enough to hold Galactica's crumbling superstructure together -- especially not after Boomer's emergency jump, done too close to the big ship, sends massive shockwaves throughout the hull.

But let's talk piano lessons. This episode was written and directed by a trio of "Galactica" veterans: Bradley Thompson and David Weddle on script, Michael Nankin behind the camera. As Nankin did much earlier this season with "The Ties That Bind," he infuses this episode with the qualities of a nightmare. The montage of Kara going through the same routine (shower, pointless briefings about pointless recon missions for inhabitable worlds) makes it seem like she's just floating through her life at this point. She literally doesn't know who -- or what -- she is, the ship she loves is falling down around her, and like everyone else in the fleet, she probably suspects that she doesn't have much of a future. Kara Thrace is a frakkin' mess under even the most optimal of conditions; now that the end times are upon her, it's not hard to imagine her retreating into this fantasy(*) about her old man, and not even realize that's what she's doing.

(*) Now, is it a fantasy, or is it projection? I don't know that it's a coincidence that the other half of the episode brings us our first extended glimpse of Cylon projection in a while, especially if we're supposed to read all these clues about Kara's father as evidence that he's a Cylon and that Kara, not Hera, is the first human/Cylon hybrid. If Tyrol can project on his own with no real training -- and can do it without Boomer by episode's end -- then couldn't Kara be unwittingly doing that, assuming we're all right on the money about her true nature? Being a hybrid alone wouldn't explain the existence of a second, Extra-Crispy Starbuck that she and Leoben found on Earth, but I'm having a hard time believing she's anything else.

Now, whether or not she's a human/Cylon hybrid, Kara is definitely a hybrid of two cultures, daughter of an artist and a warrior, one who was very much leaning towards the world of the former until daddy ran away (or perhaps got boxed by Cavil?), and who then threw herself whole-heartedly into the latter. She's Starbuck, biggest, hardest, coldest bad-ass of them all, but her interactions with "Slick," and the glimpses we get of little girl Thrace playing next to her father, show us how much of Starbuck is an act of rebellion, and maybe even one of theater. No one would become that hard-core unless they were running away from the opposite lifestyle; she has to be Starbuck to prove that she's not daddy's little girl, that neither he nor anyone else can ever hurt her again. But we've seen from time to time, through her affairs with Lee and Anders, and through her relationship with Adama -- who replaced the father she believes abandoned her -- that Kara still has her vulnerabilities, no matter how she's worked to spackle over them.

With or without the "Sixth Sense" twist at the end, when you find out that Slick was never really there, and that Kara was playing "All Along the Watchtower" all on her own, with a little help from Hera's drawing (Hera, like Kara, is wired into the larger plan of the "Galactica" universe), this was still a wonderful showcase for Katee Sackhoff. We've seen the deconstruction of the warrior persona in episodes like "Scar" (also written by Weddle and Thompson), and before we get to the end, we get to see what made her that way.

Kara's story also worked nicely in parallel with the Chief/Boomer story, as both of them are characters who believed for a long time they were one thing, only to find out they were something else. And in the case of Boomer, I'm still not sure who and what she is.

Laura Roslin calls Boomer an emotional vampire, and based on the game she runs on Tyrol, and the emotional devastation she drops on Athena -- who not only has her baby stolen, but has to watch her husband obliviously have sex with the baby-stealer(**) -- Madame President is on the money. But how much of Boomer's behavior is her own at this point? Is there an independent Boomer at all, or is she being manipulated just as much by Cavil now as she was back in season one? We know Cavil has enough autonomy from the other models that he was able to pull off kidnapping his parents and erasing his siblings' memory of them; who's to say that he didn't arrange some kind of backdoor into Boomer's programming that allows him to pull her strings whenever necessary? It would explain why she sided against her line with Cavil to kick off the civil war, or even why she was so determined to hurt humanity on New Caprica when she seemed to so strongly identify with them in "Downloaded."

(**) There were complaints last week that the Tigh/Six/Ellen love triangle felt like a collection of soap opera cliches, and there's a part of me that felt that way about the Helo/Boomer sex scene, which was like the "Galactica" version of every evil twin plot ever done in daytime drama. But I thought the direction of it -- much of it shown from Athena's dazed point of view -- elevated it, as did the backstory. It's been established in the past that Helo has a wandering eye when it comes to other Eights, and also that only other Cylons can usually tell the identical-looking ones apart, so I bought that he'd fall for Boomer's ruse.

On the other hand, the idea that Boomer's mind isn't her own may not be that satisfying, especially with so little time left. There may be more revelations to come with her over the next four hours, but maybe she really was so soured by getting tossed in the brig and then murdered by Callie (who would then go on to marry the love of her life) that she's a willing and eager collaborator with Cavil.

Either way, she sure does a number on the Chief, who suffers a massive betrayal at her hands for the second time in the series. Aaron Douglas is one of those actors who seems to get better the less dialogue you give him, and so much of this episode's power was expressed through his eyes: the wave of emotion (half joy, half regret) at realizing that he and Boomer had a child in this fantasy life, the horror at discovering that he aided Boomer in kidnapping Hera, and, especially, the devastation at returning to the now-empty Picon house. Boomer's gone, the unnamed fantasy daughter's gone, and Tyrol's even still dressed in his flight deck coveralls, because the house is no longer the home he and Boomer might have built; it's just a fiction that he let himself believe too deeply in.

So, let's see where we are... Starbuck probably a half-Cylon, Hera missing, Galactica on the verge of disintegrating, Cavil ready and able to strike... Whatever reservations you may have about these most recent episodes, you have to believe that huge, huge things are coming over the last few hours -- and that few, if any, of the characters we love are going to make it out okay.

Some other thoughts:

• The hour was also an excellent showcase for Grace Park, who has me completely thinking of Boomer and Athena as different people.

• It's sometimes instructive to think of "BSG" as the show Moore would have wanted "Star Trek: Voyager" to be. The ship breaks down over time, supplies are hard to come by (they're down to the last tube of Tauron toothpaste in the known universe -- or, at least, the last non-irradiated tube, if Tauron's in the same shape that we last saw Caprica), and morale frequently breaks down. I saw a few publicity photos of Tyrol and Boomer in the Picon house and thought, "Oh God, I hope this isn't going to be like a holodeck episode," and while projection is sort of the "Galactica" version of the holodeck, it's not used as an excuse for goofy off-genre episodes, but for something much psychologically richer and more appropriate to the characters.

• They're starting to run out of new hairstyles for Tricia Helfer at this point, as Sonia, the Six who has apparently replaced Natalie as the leader of the rebel Cylons, doesn't look all that different from Caprica Six.

• Donnelly Rhodes still gets all the best lines as Doc Cottle, this week getting to dismiss the Cylon's suggestion of plugging Anders directly into their ship as "quack ideas."

• Slick was modeled on "Galactica" composer Bear McCreary, and at one point there was even talk of Bear playing the part, before everyone decided they needed a professional actor to play some of the emotional nuances off of Sackhoff, and cast Roark Critchlow.

• I loved the shot of Kara's marital tattoo in the mirror at the bar, with the reflection creating the illusion of the complete picture that's only supposed to exist when she and her husband have their arms entwined. She's all alone now.

• Tigh and Ellen mostly take a backseat after last week's drama, but we see how clearly Saul is hurting when he tells Tyrol, "We're all in Hell" and storms off to mourn Liam on his own.

Finally, Mo Ryan again let me piggyback on the questions she sent to the episode's writers, so check back here sometime tomorrow morning and hopefully I'll have some answers posted.

What did everyone else think?
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The weekly 'Friday Night Lights' reminder

As usual, I'm reposting the original version of my "Friday Night Lights" review from the DirecTV run to preserve the comments, and as usual, doing so may not ping everyone's RSS reader. So if you just watched "Keeping Up Appearances" and want to read about it, click here. Also, please keep your comments in the original post, and not here, to keep things simpler for everyone to follow. Click here to read the full post

Friday Night Lights, "Keeping Up Appearances": Show me the money!!!!!!

Spoilers for "Friday Night Lights" season three, episode seven, coming up just as soon as I use some vaseline...

NOTE: This and all subsequent "FNL" season three reviews were written after viewing the DirecTV cut, which can be several minutes longer than the NBC version. So both my review and the early comments may refer to scenes that were not shown on NBC.

Okay, that's two duds in seven episodes overall, and two out of the last three. Still a much better batting average than season two, but other than Street and Herc's fight in the backyard, and Scott Porter's performance in general, I found almost no redeeming qualities in this one, where at least I found about half of "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" to be good.

I don't want to devote too much time to this one because it's a busy week and I'd rather focus on things I enjoyed, but among my complaints:

* The random introduction of a new Panthers player, with a problem that was easily solved in an episode with virtually no tension and no inspiration felt pointless. Even Tami giving a nice speech about how wonderful Eric is -- followed by Eric opening the car door for a very self-satisfied Tami -- wasn't enough to make it all feel worthwhile.

* Really, the problems in all the storylines were resolved far too easily: Street gets an offer on the house within days of putting it on the market at the higher price, Buddy's forgettable younger children come around through the magic of watching Panther football, Landry very quickly makes peace with having made a fool of himself with Devin the bass player, and a 30-second conversation with a sports agent gives Street an entirely new career path.

* And speaking of which, even if Lyla is convinced he'll make a "great sports agent," it's gonna take Street a long time to achieve his dream of becoming the next Jerry Maguire. Most agents have law degrees, and Street doesn't have more than a GED (if that). If his goal is to be able to immediately provide for his baby and baby mama, this seems like the wrong way to achieve it.

* The actress playing Devin is one of the weaker performers they've had on the show in a while.

* Lyla's been involved in so many other stories over the years that it's hard to keep track of her feelings towards Buddy. I mean, I think they're currently getting along well enough to justify her taking his side against the young'uns, but it's been a while since they've had any significant interaction.

* Joe McCoy has become a cartoon villain awfully fast, hasn't he? The musical score towards the end of his dinner date with Coach sounded like something out of a silent film where the heroine's getting tied to the train tracks.

Okay, now that I think of it, there were a couple of things I liked other than the Street/Herc fight and Scott Porter. I thought Billy getting misty-eyed at Tim's highlight video (particularly at Coach's words of praise) was a nice moment. I thought Kevin Rankin was his usual good self. I liked Tyra's reaction to Landry's premature girlfriend announcement. Oh, and I have a soft spot for that Flaming Lips song, which was big back in my college years.

But overall, it was completely forgettable. Let's hope next week is better.

What did everybody else think?
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Burn Notice, "Sins of Omission": My fiancee Sam

Spoilers for last night's "Burn Notice" coming up just as soon as I see what I modify my disposable camera...

Why was "Sins of Omission" one of the best episodes of this very strong "Burn Notice" season? Let's count the reasons:

1)A bad guy who was not only well-cast, with Jay Karnes from "The Shield" (sporting his haircut from "Sons of Anarchy"), but well-written as someone so good at his job and so smart about the way people like Michael operate, that our heroes were never really able to trick him. The best they could do, when all else failed, was to push him into a corner where he had no choice but to do what they needed him to do.

2)Some good romantic and familial tension for Michael with the appearance of Dina Meyer as thief/ex-fiancee Samantha. It's always fun to see Michael, who's so in control of any professional encounter, be at a loss on how to deal with his mom, or Fiona's jealousy, and this particular scenario raised the stakes a little.

3)They didn't drag out the Karnes portion of the episode once they ran out of interesting twists for it, but instead put Karnes off to the side and did a quick one-act reverse heist story with Michael and Samantha breaking in to return the chip. The episode felt richer for all the stuff going on in it.

4)Victor, so crazy and intense and jittery, makes a great foil for Michael. Even when they're only talking on the phone from separate locations, there's an energy to their interaction that isn't always there with some of his other professional rivals (including Carla, who was pretty flat in this episode). While it's fun to watch Michael physically dominate bad guys who don't have his training, it's even more entertaining to see him triumph over an equal.

5)Dude, Michael made a taser out of a disposable camera. Dayeenu.

What did everybody else think?
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30 Rock, "Larry King": Quiet riot

Spoilers for last night's "30 Rock" coming up just as soon as I avoid the Noid...
"Tracy Jordan, saying three serious things and then a joke!" -Larry King
Better. Much, much better. Maybe the first episode of 2009 I enjoyed unreservedly.

Other than Jenna, they used the entire cast (even Pete, who's been MIA for weeks and weeks) and used them well, gave us a Jack story that balanced comedy with some genuine emotion, got some good mileage out of a rare Liz/Kenneth story (Kenneth usually rolls with Tracy or Jack), and employed the guest stars as well as they have all season. They cracked the code on Salma Hayek a few episodes back (enough that I'll be disappointed if this was her swan song), and Larry King was a delight being his usual oblivious self as a foil to Tracy's increasingly tenuous connection to reality.

I'm coming to this one relatively late in the day because of my movie-going adventures last night, so let's do some bullet points and open it up to you:

• My friend Mike swung by this morning to watch the episode with me (and so I could introduce him to this NSFW Flight of the Conchords video about a dance floor containing too many of something), and he made a good point about Jack and Elisa's post-coital scene: total missed opportunity to give us a glimpse of the legendary Alec Baldwin chest hair (which Matt Seitz likes to compare to a catcher's protective gear).

• Baldwin's Elisa impression was funny, but also very reminiscent of his work as Mrs. Rodriguez in the classic Tracy/Jack therapy scene. Perhaps Jack is, like Baldwin's "SNL" character The Mimic, very limited in the number of voices he can do.

• The cabbie was played by Ajay Naidu, best known as Samir Nagheenanajar from "Office Space."

• By now, you probably don't need me to point out the incredible resemblance between the Republican response by Lousiana Governor Bobby Jindal earlier this week and Jack McBrayer as Kenneth, or even to point you to McBrayer responding to all the comparisons in one of Jimmy Fallon's test shows. But if you somehow missed all that earlier in the week, enjoy. It's amazing.

• Love that Kenneth believes "99 Luftballoons" was "Nina's famous anti-balloon protest song."

• Did you catch that the Zorgonia Ave. station had a billboard for the Janice Jimplin biopic? So Jenna did sort of appear this week.

• Not only did the episode bring back Pete, but we got our first concentrated dose of Jonathan since early in the season, complete with shirtless flute-playing video.

• Liz's celebratory moments are funny in this one because they're so lame: she's had sex two more times this year than Jack (which means things with Drew are going okay), and she took the naked photo because it was a rare moment when her boobs were pointing in the same direction. (Also loved Kenneth's interpretation of "adult photo" to mean a shot of Liz driving a car or wearing a suit.)

• Tracy summarizing the plot of "Teen Wolf" was just the writers' blatant attempt to get Bill Simmons to write about "30 Rock," right?

What did everybody else think?
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American Idol: Semi-finals, week two (results)

Last night, I blew off primetime to go with a friend to a screening of "I Love You, Man" -- only the company massively over-issued passes, so my friend Steve and I were told "better luck next time" when we were eight spots from the front. Instead, we saw "Taken" (aka the greatest Father's Day movie ever), and I'll be slowly working my way through Thursday night's TV as the day goes along. First up is the "American Idol" results show, which of course I can watch in under five minutes. Spoilers ho (though I suppose the picture's a bit of a giveaway)...

Okay, so the next trio to advance consists of Adam (no big shock to advance), Allison (ditto) and Kris (who?). My only theory on Kris going forward after his forgettable "Man in the Mirror" is that the 'tween girls found him cute, and also that no one else Wednesday night was all that good.

Unfortunately, Nick/Normund's run has come to an end, and there's no way he makes it to the wildcard. I think the producers thought he'd be briefly entertaining, but they have to be terrified of him actually getting to the finals, where there'd be the usual indignation and where he would feel in no way beholden to play ball. (He'd know the show knows he's a joke, and has no real interest in his future, and so he could do whatever he wanted, in the same way Sanjaya started acting once it became clear the show hated him.) What's annoying/silly is that, for two weeks in a row, they've climaxed the show by pairing the joke contestant (first Tatiana, now Nick) with the most obvious person to advance, creating absolutely no suspense. If Nick had been put up with Kris, or Tatiana with Michael Sarver, the show can at least create the illusion that the freakshows have a chance. The way they're doing it makes the fakeout even more of a waste of time than usual.

Now, the final's so far is two-thirds male, which bodes well for someone like Megan (I'd call her as close to a lock for a wildcard as there is), but not so much for someone like Anoop (who basically has no shot if two guys go through next week, given the show's obsession with gender balance even in years when one gender stinks).

So for those who watched the full show, anything notable happen while I was fast-forwarding? And how did Nanny Brooke's song sound?
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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Life, "Hit Me Baby": Tech support

Quick spoilers for last night's "Life" coming up just as soon as I take inventory of objects around the house...

"Hit Me Baby" suffers from one problem that can't be helped and one that could have been.

In case you hadn't realized it by now from all the shots of Reese sitting at a desk, and/or wearing a bulky coat, Sarah Shahi is pregnant, and the show is trying to work around that fact with this storyline of Reese being assigned to this FBI task force. That's a better on-screen solution than some I've seen over the years, especially since it looks like the task force is investigating either Crews himself or the Jack/Mickey/Roman axis of evil, but a large part of this show's appeal is the chemistry between Shahi and Damian Lewis, and I'm disappointed that what would appear to be the show's final half-dozen or so episodes will keep the team largely separate.

Now, what fun there was to be had in "Hit Me Baby" came from the writers playing with Crews' increasing reliance on Reese, as we saw him trying and failing to make Tidwell, Stark and even the patient call center lady into his new sounding board. But that's a good gag once and then the show has to go forward for a while with Crews as a man without a real partner.(*)

(*) Was Stark always supposed to be this stupid? The way he acted in this episode can't simply be written off as him struggling to go from patrolman to detective, as he came off like Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel for most of the episode, even before the poisoned mushroom capsule literally made his jaw go slack.

The other problem is that the episode was far too self-consciously goofy and weird, piling on one bizarre, hyper-stylized character after another, from the identically-dressed, pigeon-loving identical twins to the hitman/woman herself, who seemed more like a character out of a comic book (or, at least, "Burn Notice") than someone who should be on "Life." I know the show operates on a frequency that's slightly off of reality, but they took it way too far last night. Instead of finding it all amusing, I started rolling my eyes.

Though, I should admit to continuing to enjoy one especially-stylized performance, as Helen McCrory (aka Mrs. Damian Lewis) returned as the rebel smoker, cleavage barer and all-around badass insurance investigator. Working in her native accent while her husband gets to show off his non-regional American diction, McCrory continues to be a blast to watch, and a nice counterpoint to Ted.

One other complaint: why bother re-introducing the season one muscle car with the new flower power paint job a few episodes back, only to have it repainted by the next time it appears? I had assumed we'd see Charlie driving the thing around as it was, answering questions about it the way he took all those queries about the car with the bullet holes. Seemed pointless.

What did everybody else think?
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Top Chef finale: Casey, Casey, Casey...

Since I wrote a column about it yesterday, might as well way in on the actual results of the "Top Chef" finale, just as soon as I get a golden baby...

Talk about leaving a bad taste in your mouth.

Though my column was largely about how I'd feel unsatisfied if Carla beat Stefan, I still think that result would have been infinitely preferable to what we got with a Hosea victory -- and with the way that Carla lost.

Based on what we were told about the dishes, and on the show's insistence of judging meal-by-meal and not cumulatively, Hosea won fair and square. (When even Fabio is admitting he was better than Stefan, you know he deserved it.) But he was such a smarmy tool in the way he did it -- it takes a real gift to out-smug Stefan(*), you know? -- and he was so mediocre, relative to Carla and Stefan, throughout the season, that it really displeased me to see him get the win.

(*) As sad as Carla's breakdown in front of the judges was, it was nice to see how badly Stefan felt for her, and maybe a sign that a lot of his jerkiness was a persona he created, either to survive in the kitchen or to stand out on the show. Whatever the reason, he showed me something there.

Stefan made some bad choices in conception, letting his ego be his own downfall in the same way that Richard Blais' ambition tripped him up at the end of last season, when he had a million different ideas but couldn't focus on getting a few of them just right (especially once he lost his sous-chef). And that's okay. That feels consistent with his character as portrayed to date, and with the way the show is set up. You're supposed to succeed or fail on your own merits.

Carla, on the other hand, was inadvertently sabotaged by her sous-chef. The two dishes she conceived on her own were adored by the judges. The two that Casey had big input on were flops, and ultimately doomed her. I know it's Carla's fault for listening to her -- especially on the sous vide, since Casey in her season not only had no experience at the technique but didn't seem to like it (it was Hung's deal) -- but in past seasons, the finale sous-chefs were just there to help execute the chef's plan, and it appeared they weren't even allowed to offer their own suggestions. (Casey's sous-chef at the time did a talking head where she claimed she had reservations about Casey's ideas but wasn't supposed to say that to her.)

Either they changed that rule, or it was never a rule but more of an unspoken philosophical thing that Casey simply didn't abide by. Either way, even if Carla let herself be talked into that stuff, it still feels like outside forces played too big a role in her loss, and that leaves me feeling cheated.

Or maybe this gets back to what we were discussing last year, when Lisa went on that cockroach-like streak of being the second-worst chef nearly every single week, that maybe the non-cumulative judging is becoming a problem. I know Colicchio argues that if you go to a restaurant with a great reputation and eat a bad meal there your first time, you're not going to go back, but the judges (the regular ones, anyway) aren't really in the role of first-time diners, and they shouldn't be forced to act like they are. If you go to a restaurant you've previously loved and they serve you something inedible, you're not going to boycott the place; you're just going to assume the kitchen had a bad night, or that one item on the menu isn't for you, but you're probably going to go back for other things on the menu, right?

Maybe Hosea's dishes were so much better than Stefan and Carla's -- or, at least, maybe his mistakes were so much more minor -- that he would have been able to overcome going into the finale at some kind of deficit to the two superior chefs. Maybe not. But seeing the win come down entirely to a slightly above-average chef having a good night at exactly the right time frustrates me.

What did everybody else think?
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Sepinwall on TV: 'Jesse Stone: Thin Ice' review

In today's column, I review "Jesse Stone: Thin Ice," the fifth movie based on the Robert B. Parker character (albeit the first not based on a Parker book). It's good. Click here to read the full post

American Idol: Semi-finals, week two

Spoilers for week two of the "American Idol" semi-finals coming up just as soon as I praise Doogie Howser...

Nor-mund! Nor-mund! Nor-mund!

On a night when there were few outright terrible performances but also very few memorable ones, Nick Mitchell, in the guise of alter ego Normund Gentle, stole the show by continuing his Andy Kaufman-esque assault on all that the "Idol" franchise holds dear. His version of "I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" was a mess musically (though the last sustained note was yet another reminder that Nick is actually a pretty good singer), but he embraced the parody, played it to the hilt, and just might have a shot at making it to the finals. And if that happens, I will be beyond pleased. For all my sincere enjoyment of "Idol," I think the injection of some self-aware irony into the competitive portion of the show (as opposed to the auditions, where we've seen Normund's like before) could really liven things up for a few weeks before the public gets tired of the joke.

The purist in me would be annoyed if Nick managed to succeed ahead of a more deserving singer, but the only other guy who left an impression at all was Adam Lambert, whose take on "Satisfaction" is already looking like one of the more polarizing "Idol" performances in recent memory. It was in the neighborhood of jukebox musical Rolling Stones, and his attempt at a Mick Jagger sneer seemed more like self-satisfied smarm, but the guy does have an interesting instrument, and that's one of the few performances I'm going to remember from this show.

The best pure performance of the evening came from Allison Iraheta on Heart's "Alone." That song has been kind to many past "Idol" contestants (Carrie Underwood's performance of it was the only time in season four when she seemed to have a soul), and if Allison's wasn't the best cover we've heard on the series, she still knocked it out of the park and made me want to hear more of her.

The only other woman I'm interested -- and who I'm sure will be back for the wildcard if she doesn't make it through this week, based on how all four judges seem to have a mad crush on her -- is Megan Joy Corkrey. I actually have no idea how good her voice is, both because "Put Your Records On" isn't that flashy vocally and because I was so mesmerized by her complete ignorance of what to do with her arms that I barely noticed anything else about the performance. Seriously, watching her randomly sway and swing those arms around was like having Elaine Benes as an "Idol" contestant.

So far, I'd say both semi-final shows were very disappointing. I'm glad that they dropped the decade themes for this round, as we've gotten to hear the contestants mostly choose contemporary songs that reflect who they want to be as artists. The problem is that they're often picking boring contemporary songs, or at least ones that don't lend themselves well to this kind of solo artist showcase. A lot of the performances this week would have been enough for people to survive in the previous 24-->20-->16-->12 format, but not when the goal is to be one of three people advancing.

Also, while the idea of rotating the order of the judges annoyed me, I did think the four-headed beast did its job this week. With two hours to fill, and no irritating parental interviews this week, the judges got a lot of time to talk, and between Kara's articulateness and some good follow-up questions from either the contestants or Seacrest, the contestants actually got some useful feedback for once. (Other than, of course, poor Jeanine Valles, who got complimented on her legs and little else.) It won't be enough to help most of them, given the format, but it's the sort of thing the judges are supposed to provide in theory but usually don't in practice.

What did everybody else think?
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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lost, "The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham": Dying for Ben's sins

Spoilers for tonight's "Lost" coming up just as soon as I eat a mango...
"There is no helping me. I'm a failure." -John Locke
I sit here, typing this review, in simple awe of Terry O'Quinn.

Structurally, "The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham" was almost identical to last week's "316": exciting scenes on the island at the beginning and end, sandwiched around a whole lot of real-world material that's all about filling in blanks and getting characters where we know they're destined to go. But where "316" frustrated me with an extremely thin Jack arc at its center, "Jeremy Bentham" was compelling throughout because Lindelof and Cuse have crafted such a memorable character, and because O'Quinn plays him with such soul that I really don't care that I knew almost everything that was going to happen through the mainland sections of the hour.

Even the climax, where Ben interrupts Locke's planned suicide, wasn't that surprising, in that we knew Locke was going to end up dead, and I think most of us assumed (before the news last week that it was a suicide) that Ben had gotten over on poor John one last time. One way or another, that cord was going back around John's neck, and as he told Ben more and more about the details of his mission (Jin's ring, Ms. Hawking's name and role), I knew Ben would be the one holding it. But that knowledge didn't matter, didn't suck away any of the tension, because there was so much pain on O'Quinn's face that I was completely absorbed into the moment.

Cuse and Lindelof like to talk about how they believe the characters are more important to the show than the island mythology, and an episode like this bears that out. We got a few clues about the island -- the Tunisian desert is always where the frozen donkey wheel spits out its movers, Ben tricked Widmore into moving the wheel years before, the island isn't just animating corpses but bringing people (Locke, at least) back to life -- but really, this was just the story of John Locke, lonely zealot, and it was more compelling than the last few episodes leading up to it, even though those featured more action and/or more more mythology.

The Locke we see as Bentham isn't quite the madman he was on the island, but he's also not the bitter loser he was before the crash of Oceanic 815. He's somewhere in between. He's back in the wheelchair, but only as a temporary convenience, and he's still capable of moving without it, even being a man of action, when he has to. He's passionate about trying to get the Oceanic Six (minus Sun, since he kept his promise to Jin) back to the island, but the mania he showed when he was leading Boone to his death or blowing up the Dharma sub has been replaced by a weariness. Away from his beloved island, not really sure how much to trust either Charles Widmore or Matthew Abaddon, and with Richard's warning about his death always present, John is tired, and he's more empathetic than we've seen in a while. He genuinely grieves when he hears of Nadia's death. He takes a detour to see Walt just to make sure the kid's okay. He tells a mistrustful Kate a little about Helen, and he never pushes anyone too hard about coming. He knows his mission is important, but he also genuinely cares for these people, and he's neither crazy nor ruthless enough to try anything more than a passionate argument.

It's just a pleasure to see all the emotions wash over O'Quinn's face in every scene, and also to see how being in his presence makes every other actor raise their game. The scene in Kate's kitchen may have been Evangeline Lily's strongest moment on the series to date, cutting and insightful but still very much in character for Kate. And that central Jack/Locke relationship always brings out the best in Matthew Fox. (It helped that Jack was in a different, more interesting emotional place in this episode than he was in "316.")

The trick of the final season and a half of "Lost" is going to be whether Cuse, Lindelof and the other writers can find a way to move the plot forward and solve all the mysteries while still providing an interesting character hook. The season's first few episodes did that, and so did tonight's. Let's hope they continue to pull off the balancing act.

Now, this episode did raise a lot of questions on the margins, and also hinted at answers for others, so I think the best way to discuss the rest of it is to go straight to the bullet points:

• Okay, so if I have my time travel math right, Jack, Kate and Hurley are back in the '70s with Jin, Dan and company (and, I'm hopimg, Rose, Bernard and Vincent), while the rest of Ajira 316 -- including the resurrected Locke, Ben, Caesar, Ilana, Frank Lapidus and, I'm assuming, Sun -- are on the beach in the present. Frank and a woman (again, likely Sun) took off in one of the outriggers, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see them shooting at Sawyer an episode or two from now.

• I was wrong on three things from last week. Having killed off most of the remaining anonymous Oceanic 815 passengers, I assumed Cuse and Lindelof wouldn't want to replace them with anonymous Ajira 316 passengers, but most of the flight appears to have survived. Also, Locke's note to Jack read "I wish you had believed me," not "I wish you had believed in me." And Locke did tell Jack about meeting Christian, which Jack is in denial about on the surface, but which obviously was the tipping point to get him to the place we saw him in during the "Through the Looking Glass" flash-forwards.

• The island's healing power in action: not only does it bring Locke back to life, but it heals up his leg, which was still broken at the time of his death.

Lostpedia says that the Dharma purge -- which was when Ben officially joined up with The Others -- happened in 1992. And yet Widmore -- who was in the real world long enough to have a daughter and build a business empire -- tells Locke that it was Ben who tricked him into moving the donkey wheel and becoming exiled from the place. So is he telling the truth, and, if so, does that mean he wound up returning to the real world in the past?

• I've given up on trying to guess which of Ben or Widmore is the good guy -- probably because it seems like neither one is. Ben we know to be a ruthless, manipulative, compulsive liar who will play or hurt anyone who gets in his way, and who seems to place his own agenda over even the island he claims to care so much about. (He knows the island wants Locke to be its savior, and he keeps trying to kill Locke.) But Widmore's explanation about Keamy and the freighter full of explosives doesn't hold water, he clearly manipulated Desmond into winding up on the island, and the version we saw in 1954 didn't seem particularly trustworthy.

• It was a nice gesture on Locke's part to not ask Walt to come back, but it's kind of a frustrating one from the writers. The narrative has now caught up with Malcolm David Kelly's growth spurt, so there's no excuse to not bring him back into the action. After all the time they spent in season one on Walt's psychic powers and his own connection to the island, it doesn't seem fair to make that another narrative dead end, and I hope he comes back again before the end of the series.

• The Locke/Walt scene was also kind of awkward because of how little interest Walt showed in finding out more about his dad or the other Oceanic passengers or anything else. I believe (though I haven't watched the season four finale in a while) that his encounter with John takes place before he sees Hurley in the mental hospital, but either way, even estranged from his father, you'd think he'd show more curiosity about either Michael or the other people he was stranded with.

• I have to say that I loved the shot of Locke staring out at the view from the beach. Just gorgeous to look at, and a neat visual encapsulation of how happy this place makes him.

• Have we seen the Dharma facility where Caesar finds the shotgun before? I briefly thought that they might have landed on Alcatraz, but then I recognized the beach and the outriggers, and I know that Sawyer's group was traveling only through time and not space, so what is this place? (UPDATE: Enough people have convincingly argued that the station is the Hydra, from Alcatraz, and that perhaps Lapidus landed the plane on the runway that was being built in season three, that I'm willing to go with that. We still have to account for the other outriggers that wind up on the original Oceanic 815 beach, but I expect that will be explained in short order.)

• Seems like half the places Locke visited in this episode had "Santa" in the name, furthering the New Testament connotations to his mission and the way he has to die and be resurrected to save his flock.

• Well, I guess we don't have to worry anymore about whether Lance Reddick will be available to appear on "Lost" so long as "Fringe" is on the air, do we? I reserve all judgment on Matthew Abaddon's status on the good/bad axis until we learn a whole lot more about Widmore.

What did everybody else think?
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Leverage, "The Second David Job": In plain sight

Quick spoilers for the "Leverage" first season finale coming up just as soon as I say hi to my mummy...

I would call "The First David Job" the more satisfying half of this two-part finale, simply because the ideas of Sterling setting up a Bizarro World version of Leverage, and of our heroes having to reverse roles to save the day, was more clever than anything either side pulled off last night. Still, it was fun to watch Kevin Tighe's panic level build throughout the hour -- that's one of the staples of the heroic con artist genre, made especially pleasurable when you have a glowering wonder of an actor like Tighe playing those notes -- and to see Nate's ex-wife more thoroughly integrated into the team.

So here's my question: I think we can all agree that "Leverage," while entertaining, didn't quite live up to the potential of its premise or its cast, so what improvements would you like to see made for season two? Similarly high-concept genre shows like "Chuck" and "Burn Notice" are demonstrating that it only takes a few tweaks between seasons to go from entertaining diversion to can't-miss, so what can the "Leverage" producers do to make a similar leap? Do you want Kari Matchett to stick around? More cases where a member of the team has a personal stake? Less of those? Something else entirely?
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In the news: Andy and Conan re-unite, the CW will go on

Two new items of note I didn't have a chance to write up last night:

• Andy Richter will be re-uniting with Conan O'Brien when Conan takes over "The Tonight Show" in a few months. The press release is very careful to call him the announcer, and not a sidekick, even though he "will participate in comedic pieces." I suppose the distinction gives him more flexibility if acting jobs come along than if he had to be on the couch for every show. Still, in whatever capacity he'll be on, it'll be nice to have him back more or less full-time. One of the best things about Conan's final "Late Night" was seeing the two of them together again.

• The CW has renewed six shows for next season: "Gossip Girl," "90210," "America's Next Top Model," "Smallville," "Supernatural" and "One Tree Hill." The shows themselves aren't that surprising -- if the CW was going to do early renewals, it'd be for these six. (This, by the way, doesn't mean "Privileged" or "Reaper" or other CW shows are automatically doomed, just that those decisions won't be made until closer to the upfronts.) What's semi-surprising is the way the renewals suggest the CW will definitely be around next season. Given the ratings struggles going back to the WB/UPN merger, and some of the specific disasters this year (the outsourced Sunday night shows, "13 - Fear Is Real"), there was some suggestion that Warner Bros. and/or CBS were ready to give up on the idea. Apparently we'll get at least one more season of lime-green graphics. Click here to read the full post

Sepinwall on TV: 'Top Chef' finale preview

In today's column, I look ahead to tonight's fifth season finale of "Top Chef." I never did get around to blogging on any of the episodes, for one reason or another, but it's been a mostly enjoyable edition, I've found. And Fabio needs his own show, like, yesterday. Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Terminator, "Desert Cantos": Burial of the plot

Brief, belated spoilers for Friday night's "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" coming up just as soon as I put on some plaid...

My interest in "Terminator" is really waning these days, and not even the surprise appearance of the SkyNet drone (wee though it was), nor the brief glimpse of Shirley Manson trying to be a better mom to Catherine Weaver's daughter, was enough to compensate for yet another episode that dragged on forever for little purpose.

The use of the title cards (referring to different stages in the funeral process) at the start of each act implied that -- like the Mexico-set "Mr. Ferguson Is Ill Today" -- the production team believed they were making something more ambitious, or profound, than they actually were. I've been a fan of the episodes that have dealt with the psychological toll of time travel and knowing the apocalypse is coming, but those episodes have focused on the regular characters we know well and care about. This was largely about that burden falling on a bunch of unsuspecting new guest characters, and so it felt that we, like John and Cameron, were crashing a funeral where we had no business being. It was extremely, extremely dull.

They're clearly heading in a direction where SkyNet is now trying to establish itself years before the new Judgment Day -- and possibly one where Shirley Manson is working against them -- but they really, really, really need to get to the point already. Or, failing that, they need to give us a lot more Cameron and Derek in the weeks to come.

I did find it a nice touch that the Max Perlich character claimed to be a former cop from Baltimore, since Perlich spent a couple of seasons on the Baltimore-based "Homicide" as squad videographer J.H. Brodie. But again, not enough to make me like that hour.

What did everybody else think?
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Monday, February 23, 2009

Big Love, "Come, Ye Saints": I will turn these cars right around!

Haven't posted on "Big Love" in a while, but last night's episode (which I didn't get to until tonight) was so good -- and so delivered one of the things I've been hoping for from this show -- that I'll offer up some spoiler-y thoughts just as soon as I change out of this bathing suit...

I had largely given up on writing about "Big Love" because there were only so many ways for me to say "I love the Henricksons and wish I'd never see the Juniper Creek gang again." And then they went and gave us this lovely episode that featured Juniper Creek only in passing (with Nikki calling Wanda for advice on her flirty boss) and simply focused on the sprawling Henrickson clan and its many iterations. God, I hope the showrunners were paying attention to how strong this hour was -- and why it was -- and that maybe they'll ease back on the compound for a while down the road.

In addition to the lack of Roman, Lois and company, what made "Come, Ye Saints" work was that it was a classic family road trip story -- but a "Big Love" family road trip story. Everyone gets on everyone else's nerves, but because there are so many grown-ups and so many kids -- and because most of the adults (and some of the kids) are keeping secrets from each other -- the conflicts are blown up and never-ending. The wives finally find out about Bill's Viagra habit. Ben wrestles with having a hot sister-mom who's much closer to his own age than to his father's. Nikki cops to taking birth control. Sarah tries to keep her pregnancy a secret. And Bill's usual mask of self-denial briefly takes on some cracks, as the strains of the trip help him almost -- almost! -- see what a burden this lifestyle is on all his wives and children.

And yet there's that beautiful, sad moment at the end -- so well-played not only by Amanda Seyfried and Jeanne Tripplehorn, from whom I've come to expect excellence, but from the more uneven and opaque Bill Paxton -- when the family finds out about Sarah's pregnancy and the miscarriage, and suddenly the huge family becomes not a burden but a blessing. Four parents and seven siblings means a lot of shoulders to cry on, after all.

There are episodes of "Big Love" that I largely suffer through to get to the good stuff. This one (not just the family scenes, but moments like Charles Robinson's cameo as the angry preacher) was all good stuff, from start to finish.

What did everybody else think?
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Chuck, "Chuck vs. the Best Friend": Automobile safety

Spoilers for tonight's "Chuck" coming up just as soon as I block a door with my hand...
"Don't you know who you are to me, what you mean to me, all that you've done?" -Chuck
"Think you could butch it up just a bit, bro?" -Morgan
"Chuck vs. the Best Friend" may not have had fancy 3-D graphics or easily-promotable guest stars, but it was the strongest episode of the new year because it focused so much on the core relationships, and because it brought spy world and nerd world together again.

Of all the improvements made between season one and season two, my favorite has been the way most episodes have strengthened the ties between Chuck's two employers. What makes "Chuck" more than just an action show or a goofy workplace comedy is that he has a foot in both genres. It's not a coincidence that many of this season's best episodes either climaxed with nerd world providing a spy solution ("Chuck vs. the Seduction"), took place primarily at the Buy More ("Chuck vs. Santa Claus") or both ("Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer"). So after having Morgan and company functioning independently of Chuck for most of the last two episodes, it was nice to have a show where the mission of the week was largely an excuse to explore Chuck and Morgan's friendship, with some well-played, sweetly bromantic moments between Zachary Levi and Joshua Gomez.

Morgan's stalking of Anna also gave us yet another creepy window into the life of Jeff ("Does it shock you that eighty percent of my encounters with women have been completely without their knowledge?") and set up an amusing parallel to Chuck's government job, with the Buy More gang just as dubious of Chuck's ability to play spy as Casey usually is. And because so much of Chuck's existential angst comes from which parts of his life are real and which are only pretend, it felt nice to have a referendum on his friendship with Morgan -- along with Ellie, the biggest constant in his life and one of the few relationships where the reality is never in question -- in an episode where Morgan has a genuine reconciliation with Anna while Chuck's stuck playacting with Sarah. Even Chuck and Sarah's friendship is built on false pretenses, since both are crazy in love with each other and would be much more than friends if circumstances were different.

Though this was largely a Chuck/Morgan episode, Sarah was at the center of two of the standout moments. The first was the fight in the car, which was one of the best action sequences the show has done to date. I'd probably put it just behind the foot chase in the Gravitron, and only because that had an added layer of comedy that this one didn't. But even without laughs, it was very cool to see Sarah and Smooth Lau going at it in such an enclosed space, and using all the elements of the car -- a CD in the stereo, the seatbelt, the bucket seat, and the airbags -- as weapons.

The second was the fakeout with the exploding Nerd Herder. Even if you hadn't figured out Chuck was using the just-introduced remote control to pilot the car without being in it (and I'll confess to missing that), you knew the show wasn't going to kill off Chuck. But Sarah doesn't know that, and Yvonne Strahovski sold that moment so well that my assumptions about Chuck's safety almost didn't matter. Geez, she's good.

While Morgan got inadvertently sucked into spy world for the week, we still got a relatively self-contained -- and completely hilarious -- subplot with the rest of the Buy More crew, as Jeff and Lester unveiled their epic musical side project... Jeffster!

The name alone is genius, but Scott Krinsky and Vik Sahay kicked the subplot up several notches with their gonzo dedication to Jeff and Lester's feelings about their awful band. I loved Lester's panicked monologue about all that could go wrong if they succeeded (including his own death by auto-erotic asphyxiation) and his demented rock faces during their performance of Toto's "Africa."(*) And Jeff's paraphrasing of Eminem's "Lose Yourself" was a nice touch.

(*) "Africa" is kind of a great song, isn't it? Toto's an easy early '80s punchline, just because of the name, but when the soundtrack shifted from Jeffster! to the actual song, it gave Morgan and Anna's kiss -- dare I say it? -- an epic quality. Maybe it's just the chorus. I don't know. But the balance of '80s cheese and '00s alt-rock continues to be perfect.

If I have a complaint about the Jeffster! story, it's that Ellie and Awesome's wedding planning strife was solved way too easily. I'm not saying this show should turn into "Chuck vs. the Bridezilla," but if they're looking to give those two something to do, I think they missed a chance to get more mileage out of the idea of Devin having to deal with the extremely non-awesome ordeal that is planning a wedding. Having him somehow take care of Ellie's half of the list by the end of the episode seemed not only too easy, but a waste of an ongoing source of comedy.

Still, good times all around. Some other thoughts:

• Episode writer Allison Adler (or someone else in production) was obviously amused by the idea of the characters saying "Wang" early and often by naming Anna's bad guy boyfriend Jason Wang. And, really, who can blame her?

• I thought it was a nice touch that Anna was so excited to realize that Sarah has ever had a thought about her -- and how eagerly she referred to Sarah and Chuck as her friends immediately after -- showing how insecure Anna is around her.

• No stunt-casting in this one, but I suspect we'll be seeing a lot more of Jennifer Jalene (who played Smooth) elsewhere. Lots of screen presence.

• Also, one good '90s music cue: Jane's Addiction's insanely catchy "Been Caught Stealing" playing over the brief flashback to Chuck and Morgan's childhood.

• Though this episode was originally supposed to air before "Chuck vs. the Suburbs," the only continuity problems I could spot were within the episode itself -- specifically, the way the Awesome/Ellie scenes often seemed to be dropped into the episode regardless of when the other action was happening. We cut, for instance, from Chuck in the Castle being ordered to befriend Jason Wang, to Chuck waking up the next morning with Awesome by his bed, to Chuck back in the Castle reacting to Beckman's orders like he just got them. Meanwhile, we cut from Chuck and Sarah at the party to Ellie calling the Nerd Herd the next morning, then back to the party. Just some very strange editing choices.

• This episode finally gives us some more concrete info about Chuck's mom, who apparently bailed on the family when Chuck was in the fifth grade.

• Though most of Casey's one-liners are deliberately groan-worthy, he had a couple of genuinely clever ones here: "See if the skin-covered robot flashes on anything," and then "Bartowski, you're like the poster child for friendly fire."

• I liked the introduction of more Bond-like gadgets into Chuck's world, including the Nerd Herder remote, the tennis ball grenades and the knock-out breath spray. It not only suits the show's less-than-realistic look at espionage, but seems an easy way to make Chuck less of a goober when the fighting starts.

• This episode also seemed to feature General Beckman slightly more than usual, most notably with the bit about her being friends with Condoleeza Rice. Do you think we're heading for a juncture where she has to come out to Burbank to personally supervise Operation: Chuck?

What did everybody else think?
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The Amazing Race, "Your Target Is Your Partner's Face": We don't have to pray just to make it today

Thanks to CBS finally getting the rights to put "The Amazing Race" up on their website, I was able to watch last night's episode this afternoon. Quick spoilers coming up just as soon as the winds change...

New season continues to be strong, and to reward me for my decision to give the franchise another chance. A minimum of airport drama, a minimum of jerkiness (though both are inevitable to some degree due to the format and the stress it creates), some well-constructed challenges and a few lucky twists of fate have all led to two very good episodes.

In particular, the drama with the shifting winds led to one of my favorite reality show moments ever, in Mel White's refusal to pray for them to change in his favor. It's such a staple of reality TV (and sports, for that matter) for people to crassly assume that God cares about who wins a game show (or a football game) and will reward whoever makes the loudest/earliest/most frequent prayers in His name, that it's so refreshing to hear someone instead believe that God has more important things to worry about. It sort of reminded me of David Cook's refusal to pimp out his dying brother for votes last season on "American Idol," in that reality TV has so lowered the bar for what we accept as human behavior in certain situations that it's almost startling to see people behave reasonably, or in any kind of manner that favors dignity over personal gain.

Even without the non-prayer, it was still a suspenseful sequence in which Mother Nature, combined with Mel's bad groin, created something far more entertaining than if the challenge had gone as planned. And while the Segway part of the Detour didn't seem exceedingly difficult, the pie-throwing was one of the more entertaining needle-in-a-haystack choices they've come up with.

I like that Steve got his on-camera moment of tenderness and support for Linda before they were eliminated, and even them snapping at each other on the drive to the pit stop didn't get in the way of that. (Again, racing makes people crabby sometimes.)

What did everybody else think?
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Flight of the Conchords, "Love Is the Weapon of Choice": Brahbrah in the house

Spoilers for last night's "Flight of the Conchords" coming up just as soon as I go to jazzercise class...

Last week's episode was about as perfect as "Conchords" gets, with a very funny storyline balanced by two catchy songs with memorable music videos(*). "Unnatural Love" was going to be a tough act to follow under any circumstances, so I suppose I should be glad that last night's show was still relatively amusing and had some good videos. (The video for the title tune had a real Queen circa 1982 vibe to it.) But it was very inconsistent and the songs themselves have already completely vanished from my head.

(*) I may need an intervention to stop watching those two on YouTube. In particular, ever since a commenter last week pointed out that the cowboy from The Village People is leading the conga line in "Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor," it's become this huge obsession of mine. It very well could lead to divorce, and the only thing saving me is that my wife keeps humming the tune from "Carol Brown." In fact, I just watched "Too Many Dicks" again after I went to get the proper link. Dammit.

I like Kristen Wiig a lot, even though I think "SNL" is now leaning on her so heavily that it's diluting a lot of what makes her funny. My problem with the episode is that the writing tried to have it both ways with Brahbrah(**), who at times was just as crazy as all the regulars in Conchords world, and who at other times was supposed to be the straight man who pointed out how bizarrely Bret and Jemaine were acting in their attempts to seduce her. The insanity -- like the various photos of Charlie the dog in disguise, and her unexpected explanations for each one (gourd party?)-- plays to Wiig's strengths, and I'd have preferred if they went entirely in that direction. Instead, it felt awkward whenever she was relatively sane and questioning why Jemaine suddenly had a beard.

(**) After she confirmed the pronunciation of her name, I went back to the beginning of the episode to check how she said it there, and it's impossible to tell. Probably why Barbara was a good name to goof on.

On the other hand, I thought it was a wonderful touch that Murray, for all his obliviousness -- he's a band manager who doesn't understand the concept of backing tracks -- was the one to cut through all the posturing and explain to Brahbrah what the guys were up to. It's those rare and unexpected moments of insight from the main characters that makes their eccentricities work. I know that seems contradictory to my complaint about Brahbrah, but the rules are different for ongoing characters versus one-offs.

Also, maybe I just wasn't paying close enough attention, but I hadn't realized there were a lot of dogs (epileptic dogs, at that) in the audience for the benefit, and so the joke about the strobe light giving them all seizures took me too long to process for me to laugh at it. I'll blame that one on Oscar fatigue, though.

What did everybody else think?
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