Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Cupid, "Pilot": Oceans apart

Spoilers for the debut of "Cupid" 2.0 coming up just as soon as I visit the Temple of Eros...
"What are you doing?" -Dave
"Teaching this youngster how we used to kick it in the mid-'90s." -Madeline
I said a lot of what I had to say about the pilot my review of the new "Cupid" in today's column, in which I tried my best not to make too many comparisons to the original. But since this is a blog, and one where I spent a lot of time last year dissecting the Jeremy Piven version, I think it's only fair to, just this once, talk about how one looks in relation to the other. I'll try not to do this too much -- though I doubt I'll be able to avoid it when they do the episode remaking the original series' "The Linguist" -- but it seems unavoidable at the start to discuss how they kicked it the mid-'90s versus how they're kickin' it today.

First up, I should say I like Bobby Cannavale and Sarah Paulson quite a bit. They take different approaches to their characters than Piven and Paula Marshall did, as you would expect and probably want them to, but they make it work. Cannavale's Trevor seems more sweet and childlike than Piven's aggressive take on the character. (Piven might have led an "All You Need Is Love" singalong, but he would have been a lot angrier doing it.) Paulson, meanwhile, seems more sharp-edged than Marshall, which in turn balances nicely against Cannavale's gentler Trevor.

My issue is that I have little idea how well they're going to work together because, as discussed in the column, the show kept cutting away -- particularly in the second half -- to focus on the new Dave and Madeline. I don't know if people who haven't seen the original (or, at least, haven't watched it lately) would have the same reaction, but the Trevor/Claire material that we did get felt like the abridged version of the same scenes a decade ago; the plot content was there, but not the material on the margins that made it sparkle before.

Now, one of my complaints about the original "Cupid" pilot was that its version of Dave and Madeline (George Newbern and Connie Britton, in an entirely different plot) didn't get much screentime themselves. And that's always going to be a tricky balance between the regulars and the anthological guest stars. But I think in the first episode, it's more important to get to know the people who will be around every week instead of the ones who get a happy ending and never turn up again. And since Dave/Madeline '09 wasn't as inspired a story as some of the best ones from the original show, I got particularly frustrated that Trevor and Claire kept being pushed to the margins.

I'll give that story one bit of praise: where the original pilot had Trevor being correct and Claire being wrong, this one starts out the other way, then has them team up in the end. Because it's so easy for Claire to come off as the wet blanket, I think it's very smart to establish from the jump that she really does know what she's talking about with romance, and that she can sometimes be more perceptive than Trevor.

As for the rest of it, I like both Rick Gomez (older brother to Josh "Morgan" Gomez from "Chuck") and Camille Guaty (aka the original Maricruz on "Prison Break"), but I don't see the point in replacing the original show's Champ -- whom the writers didn't know what to do with half the time as it is -- with two different characters. But I'm happy to see Joe Lo Truglio from "The State"(*) (and, starting tomorrow night, a regular on "Reno 911") as one of the singles group members. I assume he'll be one of the ones, like Paul Adelstein on the original, who hangs around a long time because he can't find a girlfriend.

(*) Here's Lo Truglio trying to order a chicken sandwich. Good times.

Anyway, that's it for the one-to-one comparisons for a while, I hope.

What did everybody -- whether you watched the original show or not -- think?
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My Boys, "Welcome Back, Kalla Fotter": Police those moo-stashes!

Quick thoughts on the "My Boys" third season premiere coming up just as soon as I get a bicycle with one giant wheel and one tiny wheel...

I don't have much to add to yesterday's "My Boys" column, other than one bit of praise and one complaint.

First, the praise: they got the hell out of that unfunny wedding set-up as fast as they could and quickly jumped back into the things that make "My Boys" so much fun, like mustaches, and PJ's ignorance of girly things (the Keira Knightley discussion with Stef), and Andy wandering in and out of scenes making comments about everyone else. (Also, if you haven't watched Jim Gaffigan's "King Baby" special on Comedy Central this week, you really must. Genius.) And even PJ finally getting together with Bobby at the end felt like a part of the show, since they've been circling each other since the pilot, and since putting her in an ongoing relationship with one of the boys has a lot of comic potential (some of which is realized in the next few episodes).

Now, the complaint: how do you spend most of an episode on the boys growing mustaches in a contest and not tell us who won? It's an outrage! An outrage!

What did everyone else think?
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American Idol, Top 9: We Have No Theme Night

For a variety of reasons you wouldn't be interested in, I got interrupted in the middle of watching tonight's "American Idol," and when it came time for me to come back and watch everyone after Anoop (decent, but not worthy of being so smug towards the judges, even though they're mostly idiots) and Megan (a bit dull, but still much better than she's been in recent weeks), I found myself really struggling to care.

That sometimes happens at this phase of the contest where I haven't really latched onto a contestant yet, and I knew that if I kept going, I'd just be in a bad mood no matter what anybody else did. I came back to check out Adam, just because I wanted to see what bizarre thing he would do to "Play That Funky Music" (and I guess give him credit for never being dull, even if he's annoying half the time), and then stuck around through Kris' solid Bill Withers cover, but any opinions I apply to this show are going to be as irritated and uninspired as the faux theme. So go read the recap by my buddy Dan Fienberg, who's usually on the same wavelength as me and wasn't as detached from the proceedings, and fire away with your thoughts in the comments. Click here to read the full post

'Cupid' review - Sepinwall on TV

In today's column, I review the resurrected "Cupid," the original of which I spent a lot of time watching early last year:
Every now and then, you'll hear a story about a couple who met at an early age, couldn't make it work for one reason or another, then reunited years or even decades later and got their long-delayed happily ever after. "Cupid," ABC's remake of the short-lived series of the same name from 10 years ago, has a chance to be one of those stories, only I'm not yet sure if it should.
You can read my review of "Cupid" here. Back tonight with a separate post that goes more deeply into the Cupid '98 vs. Cupid '09 stuff than I wanted to do in the review itself. Click here to read the full post

Monday, March 30, 2009

House, "Locked In": Up-down solution

I more or less had my say on tonight's "House" in today's column, but fire away with your own thoughts on whether you wanted more gimmick, less gimmick, etc. Click here to read the full post

HIMYM, "Murtaugh": Guys like us don't die on toilets

Spoilers for tonight's "How I Met Your Mother" coming up just as soon as I make sure the bad guys have been de-kaffir-nated...

Murtaugh was an extremely silly, extremely broad episode, but it was also one that played so well to everyone's strengths that it worked very well. There have been better, richer, more quintessential-y "HIMYM"-y episodes this season, but few have made me laugh as much.

Barney's quest to do every item on Ted's "Murtaugh list" in a single weekend gave Neil Patrick Harris abundant opportunities for genius physical comedy(*), whether it was Barney simultaneously feeling pain in his ear and his back, or Barney struggling to do a shot without bending, or pretty much anything he did while dressed for the rave.

(*) Was discussing the episode with Fienberg, who suggested it might be NPH's Emmy episode. I countered that, while it's a very funny episode, he doesn't get to play any of the emotional stuff he's also so brilliant at, so maybe not. Not that it matters, given that the Emmy voters will just vote for stupid Jeremy Piven again. Sigh...

Josh Radnor, meanwhile, got to offer up a new flavor or Ted's d-bagginess by becoming a prematurely old man, Jason Segel got to let out plenty of primal screams as Angry Marshall (Angry Marshall is never not funny; or maybe it's just Angry Segel that's never not funny), and Alyson Hannigan got to offer a brief taste of Angry Lily (though the best part of that was when she was off camera and Lily threw the chair at Marshall).

Cobie Smulders didn't get to do as much, other than say "Gentlemen's agreement!" and tell some Canadian jokes, but the Canadian jokes are always gold, and these were part of an episode with some of the series' most inspired pop culture gags. Simply doing an entire episode built around the Roger Murtaugh character from the "Lethal Weapon" movies was clever enough, but to then combine it with references to the Canadian predecessor to those movies, and with Bunny Colvin from "The Wire" as the stereotypical Angry Black Laser Tag Captain, and then to top that all off with a completely random appearance by Teen Wolf(**)? '80s movie heaven, my friends. '80s movie heaven.

(**) Yes, the ads during the NCAA Tournament gave away "Teen Wolf," but I'm okay with it for two reasons: 1)Hopefully, it got the show a few new Bill Simmons-type viewers for what was a very funny episode; and 2)The commercials didn't give away the fact that the scene featured a score that was a soundalike to the actual "Teen Wolf" music.

Some other thoughts:

• So, I think this is as appropriate a place as any to talk about the "Lethal Weapon" movies -- specifically, whether the increasing goofiness of the sequels, and their gradual defanging of Riggs from psycho Vietnam vet to wacky guy who's just mad about his dead wife, diminish the brilliance of the first movie. Discuss.

• Segel's Danny Glover impression was awfully good, but maybe not as good as my impression of Teen Wolf asking for a keg of beer. I spent a sad amount of time in college practicing that one.

• I know some have complained about the hiding of the two pregnancies, but I'm starting to get amused by it, particularly the one moment where they had to hide Hannigan's belly behind a box of orange slices and a dozen basketballs. On the other hand, am I the only one who gets disturbed watching Cobie pretend to drink beer?

• Are the weird Russian beers remnants from Marshall and Lily's airport tradition?

What did everybody else think?
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Chuck, "Chuck vs. the Broken Heart": Number Six with a bullet

Spoilers for tonight's "Chuck" coming up just as soon as I empty out my wallet...
"Please take good care of him." -Sarah
Despite featuring one of the series' most concentrated doses of Captain Awesome to date, "Chuck vs. the Broken Heart" was decidedly less awesome than the two episodes that preceded it. Where "Lethal Weapon" and "Predator" were both game-changers that significantly moved both Chuck and the series forward, "Broken Heart" felt more like an hour that was treading water. There was a lot of fun stuff in it, and the conflict at the center of it needed to be addressed (though better than I think they addressed it here), but mostly it just made me antsy to see Chuck and his dad face-to-face next week, and to get back to the Chuck-becomes-a-spy business.

Sooner or later, the show did need to have General Beckman or someone else in authority question the closeness of Chuck and Sarah's non-business relationship, and the montage of heart-on-sleeve moments between the two was a reminder of just how closely the government is watching Chuck.(*) But the execution of how it went down left something to be desired, even if it gave us Tricia Helfer and Adam Baldwin arousing each other through a shared love of tranq darts, and even though it gave us Jeff and Lester leering at Helfer doing a pole dance in the middle of the Buy More.

(*) Though, given that, it seems weird to me that Sarah's apartment isn't in any way wired for surveillance. Wouldn't they, at the very least, have something rigged so if Chuck enters wearing his tracking watch, some microphones turn on? They have no problem peeping on every other place Chuck goes, including Casey's apartment; why does Sarah rate special treatment, other than for plot convenience?

Okay, so Beckman thinks that Sarah's losing the ability to be objective about her asset, correct? So what sense does it make to bring in an evaluator if the evaluator's first move is to bench Sarah and take her place as Chuck's handler? Either get Sarah out of there from the start, or else give her a chance to hang herself by acting in her usual capacity. There was a lot of mileage to be had in watching Sarah and Chuck try really hard to stay on their best behavior -- and only then, after they failed publicly, would we see Alex Forrest assume Sarah's duties. A much more logical, potentially tension or comedy-filled progression than what we got.

Beyond that, I'm not sure I buy General Beckman changing her mind about Sarah based on how the rest of the case went down. Sarah largely saved the day because she's a better safecracker than Alex, not because of her emotional attachment to Chuck. Yes, "Chuck" doesn't pretend to aspire to a "Wire"-level of verisimilitude about the way government espionage works, but if you're going to do an episode that's calling attention to one of the more obvious plausibility issues, you need to provide a better argument for why it's not that implausible than what we got here. Had Sarah tried to build a case on being able to be effective in spite of her feelings, rather than because of them, I'd go with it, but I don't see General Beckman buying the "because" argument, especially based on the facts in evidence.

That said, I did enjoy watching Helfer inserted into this world, and to see Casey manage to be attracted to Alex without being blinded to the fact he preferred working with Sarah(**). Some good comedy work by Baldwin, and by Helfer, who didn't often get to be funny on "Battlestar Galactica." She'd be in funny scenes, but most of the comedy would come from James Callis reacting to her; where here, I very much laughed at the expression on her face (and on Adam Baldwin's) as Alex and Casey were cleaning their guns together. And the climactic scene with Chuck and the evil doctor (played by Shaun Toub from "Iron Man") bonding as they got high on laughing gas was a nice example of the Funny Forgives a Lot rule.

(**) Though even that requires some willing suspension of disbelief. Casey, not that he wants to admit it, likes Chuck, and he and Sarah generally work well together, but he's as frustrated as anyone at having to cover for the other members of Operation: Bartowski when their emotions are getting in the way of the job. I could see him standing up for Sarah while at the same time preferring the new hottie -- unless, of course, he recognized that then the team would just have a different couple with unresolved sexual tension, and nothing would be improved by that.

I also have to invoke that rule on the Awesome bachelor party drama. I figured there would be some kind of artificial tension injected into the Ellie/Awesome relationship before the wedding, and using it to amp up Chuck's desire to get the hell out of spy world makes sense. But even if Chuck can't tell Ellie the truth about what he does, hasn't he learned just enough about lying by now to tell her something like, "Uh, Devon passed out after having too many drinks, and Jeff and Lester thought it would be funny to take some pictures of the stripper climbing over him"? Not hard -- even for someone as congenitally bad at deception as Chuck -- as it's basically the truth (minus the true identity of the stripper), and there's plenty of photographic evidence (as Awesome looks asleep in every shot) to support it.

But if I didn't buy that conflict any more than the rest of the episode, that subplot did give us Jeffster trying -- and spectacularly failing -- to be cool at their first-ever bachelor party, Casey hosing them down, Jeff buying Subway subs, Jeff hiring his sister as one of the gross initial strippers ("She gave us a deal!"), etc. Even when "Chuck" isn't making a lot of dramatic sense, it's still an awfully good comedy.

Some other thoughts:

• As if naming Tony Hale's character after the two leads in "Spies Like Us," and the show's go-to bugs after a bit of terminology from that movie isn't enough of an homage, tonight we get Chuck and the evil doctor recreating the famous "Doctor." "Doctor." "Doctor." "Doctor." scene from that movie.

• Still more '80s movie homaging: Alex Forrest is named after the Glenn Close character from "Fatal Attraction." Fortunately, no bunnies were harmed during the filming of this episode.

• Why would Chuck's computer be programmed to open a radio link to General Beckman if he ever says the name Carmichael? And even if it was, wouldn't that function be taken away the first time it accidentally happened in Captain Awesome's presence? Between that and Devon still being (barely) conscious when Chuck mentioned the CIA to Alex, methinks we're heading towards Awesome being the first person in Chuck's normal life to find out what he really does on all those in-home install calls.

What did everybody else think?
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Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose for at least two more years: 'Friday Night Lights' renewed!

Ausiello has been saying the announcement is coming for a while now, but it seems to be official today: DirecTV has agreed to order two more seasons of "Friday Night Lights," maintaining the window of exclusivity arrangement they had this year.

Now, there are still two episodes to go in the NBC run of season three, so I want to step very lightly around what happens in those episodes -- and I will ask any commenters who watched the DirecTV run to do the same -- but the season's closing episodes do beautifully set up the show for at least two season's worth of storylines. Easy. And even though a number of the current characters are high school seniors and might not be back full-time, there's definitely still Coach and Mrs. Coach, and Buddy, and some of the characters who aren't graduating yet (Landry and Julie are both juniors at this point in the story).

Midway through this season, I wasn't sure if I wanted it to continue. After I watched the season finale, I would have been furious if it didn't. Three cheers for new business models! Click here to read the full post

Family Guy, "Not All Dogs Go to Heaven": Please call me Dirk Diggler

I don't normally write about "Family Guy" -- nor, for that matter, do I always watch "Family Guy." But I wound up needing some laughs late last night, and after a very weird "Simpsons" episode (which somehow managed to combine a parody of Bing Crosby in "Going My Way" with a parody of "Saw") failed to provide them, I put on Peter, Stewie and company and wound up watching the best episode of that show I've seen in a while. A few brief thoughts coming up just as soon as I order a McDLT...

You can call "Family Guy" comedy porn, or comedy junk food, or whatever unhealthy-but-gratifying metaphor you prefer, but when the random jokes are good -- as they were throughout -- I can let go the fact that there isn't much of a story holding them up. And, actually, the story of born-again Meg and atheist Brian felt more cohesive than your average "Family Guy" plot, so it had that going for it -- in addition to Peter warning the audience to change the channel on a Meg-heavy episode, which is the sort of thing I imagine "The Simpsons" writers occasionally want to do if they're giving us an episode focused on Marge.

Stewie kidnapping the cast of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" was more what I usually expect from the show: nonsensical, and it and didn't have an ending, but the jokes made me laugh a lot, from the Trekkies all asking non-"Star Trek" questions at the con, to Patrick Stewart and Stewie getting into another of his endless h-before-w pronunciation arguments, to Stewart and Wil Wheaton recreating the "You'll get nothing and like it!" scene from "Caddyshack."

It ain't deep, but when you've got the voice of Lt. Worf asking to be called "Dirk Diggler" at the bowling alley, or God recast as the early-'80s Flash Gordon, it makes me happy enough not to mind.

What did everybody else think?
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The Amazing Race, "Gorilla? Gorilla?? Gorilla???": Stay with the pack!

Very quick spoilers for last night's "The Amazing Race" coming right up...

Watching the episode on a DVR delay, I had a very bad feeling early on that Mel and Mike White were digging themselves too big a hole by choosing to look for the gorilla statue on their own when it was clear the other five teams were all traveling in a different direction. I had 17 other things I needed to watch, and didn't want to put one of those off just to suffer through the end of Team Schneebly, so I asked a friend who watched it live to tell me if my suspicions were correct. He said they were, I turned it off and got back to watching the new season of "In Treatment." (More on that later on the week.)

As Kisha and Jen pointed out a few episodes back, one of the elementary rules of racing is that, when in doubt, stay with the herd. Even if you're all wrong, you'll all be wrong together. But if you're wrong by yourself, you're screwed. The potential reward of being the first team to find the first clue of the leg doesn't come close to outweighing the huge risk of being by far the last team to find it.

Ah, well. Team Schneebly was my favorite, but I'm sure I'll be back next week, and for the rest of the season. Feel free to discuss all the parts of the episode I missed.
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'My Boys' review, 'House' goes POV - Sepinwall on TV

In today's column, I review the return of "My Boys" on TBS, which seems much improved over the previous disappointing season, as well as tonight's point of view gimmick episode of "House," which very much echoes the famous episode of "M*A*S*H" that Ken Levine co-wrote. Click here to read the full post

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Breaking Bad, "Down": Lies and the lying liars who tell them

Spoilers for episode four of "Breaking Bad" season two coming up just as soon as I signal for a left-hand turn...
"Shut up and say something that isn't complete bulls--t." -Skyler
Vince Gilligan likes to talk about how "Breaking Bad" is a show about metamorphosis, "a guy transforming from a good, law-abiding citizen to a drug kingpin." And as we watch that transformation in progress, we also see him changing from a fairly sympathetic leading character into a loathsome bastard, someone who's not just a villain in the sense of cops vs. crooks, but in terms of actively (if not always intentionally) inflicting misery on the people around him.

We got signs all through the first season that Walt isn't quite the innocent victim he first appeared to be, most notably the episode involving his ex-partner and ex-girlfriend. But an episode like "Down," in which Walt tries and fails spectacularly to mend fences with Skyler, and in which he continually shouts over Jesse's attempts to explain his dire circumstances, show that his faults have expanded from simple stubborn pride to a dangerous level of willful ignorance. He can't fix things with his wife, and he can't listen to his partner, because he can't even begin to contemplate where they're really coming from.

What's also fascinating about this one -- other than the great work by Cranston, Anna Gunn and Aaron Paul -- is the way that Walt has already crossed the line of no return. When he told Jesse last week that nothing had changed, that they had no choice but to keep cooking, my heart broke a little bit, because Tuco's death should have given him the opportunity to get out clean. But he's been skulking around too long for Skyler to not want answers, and he can't give them to her. Even if he were to say, "I cooked meth for a few months but I've stopped now," they'd be over as a couple, if they aren't already. It's so monstrous what he's done -- even before you factor in the deaths of Crazy 8, Tuco, et al -- that Skyler wouldn't be able to get past it, and her BS detector is too well-honed for him to slip anything short of the awful truth past her. His choice has already damned him, so he might as well keep on going and hope he can come up with enough money(*) to provide for Skyler and "Flynn" after he's gone(**).

(*) Note that, when he's counting the rolls of banded money and realizes there's an odd number, he thinks for only half a moment before keeping the extra one for himself, rather than splitting it between himself and Jesse.

(**) As others have pointed out, it's hard not to notice how relatively healthy Walt has seemed for the last few episodes, moving around easily and with a minimum of coughing. Wouldn't it be just the right sick touch for the treatment to work and the cancer to go into remission after Walt's already charged this unbreakable course towards Hell?

Jesse's storyline, moving in parallel to Walt's, was of the so-sad-it's-funny (or vice versa) variety. The moment where Jesse slammed the phone down on the counter, only to see it immediately scooped up by the mover, was the funniest thing on TV in the last week to not involve Liz Lemon as a Muppet. I thought the glimpse of his old bandmate, now clean-cut with a wife and a kid while Jesse's a dirtball who sells drugs and falls into outdoor toilets, brought home how far he's fallen even more than our previous glimpses of his normal suburban family. Jesse, like Walt, has had opportunities to do something other than get sucked deeper into the drug game, and he hasn't taken them. And even though you can tell he wants nothing more than to get away from his surprisingly dangerous old science teacher and maybe pursue the life his parents always had in mind for him, he's just as stuck, too. No house, minimal money, and nothing going for him except a mobile drug lab. Poor bastard; he's just as trapped as Walt.

Great episode. Dark episode, but what else do you expect at this point?

What did everybody else think?
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United States of Tara, "Snow": In treatment

Spoilers for the penultimate episode of "United States of Tara" season one coming up just as soon as I make someone my special lady...
"But it's doable, right? We can fix this?" -Max
"It's not like a 10-minute dry cleaner's, Max." -Tara
We're one episode away from the finish line of season one, and if I can beat my Bruce Banner metaphor into the ground a little more, I seriously doubt that a trip to find Trip is going to fix much, if anything, for Tara and her family, in the same way that Banner's attempts to make the Hulk go away never quite worked.

Part of the set up for this season was that Tara had only recently gone off her meds -- that she decided she'd rather risk letting her alters back out into the world than go through life in a permanent haze. But after T came out and broke Marshall's heart last week by seducing Jason(*), it's time for drastic steps to be taken. Marshall suggests a return to the medication, but instead Tara and Max pursue a stay at a psychiatric facility, under the care of Dr. Holden (Joel Gretsch from "The 4400").

(*) Kate's theory that T did it to protect Marshall seemed unusually generous from her -- and probably too generous for the situation. Maybe Jason hurts Marshall down the road when he decides to get back on the hetero train full time, but I can't imagine that stinging nearly as badly as the way things actually went down. Yes, Jason's break-up -- "Remember me when you win your Oscar, okay?" -- was probably gentler than what might have happened if the relationship had traveled its natural course, but I still see the shed incident as far more scarring -- and also not something that's going to help Marshall take care of himself the next time he gets a crush on an unavailable boy.

After seeing the underqualified Dr. Ocean struggle to stay afloat in Tara's wake, it was really interesting to watch a specialist work with Tara, even though his methods didn't seem to be working. Tara got to deal with people she didn't have to explain her condition to (including Robin Weigert from "Deadwood"), Max got to be around spouses of DID patients -- and none of it made them feel better. How is confronting Trip going to improve things?

I intend to do a much longer examination of the season finale, so I want to move to the bullet points now so I can go and watch it:

• When did Patton Oswalt turn out to be such the smoothie? First he out-slicked Agent Ballard on last week's "Dollhouse," and here he makes Charmaine weak in the knees with Neil's speech about how their relationship was more than just sex. Between these two episodes, his voice work in "Ratatouille," what I hear is a great lead performance in "Big Fan" (friends who saw it at Sundance loved him in it), and the fact that he's in the next Steven Soderbergh movie, I wonder if he's going to become one of those guys who winds up being an even better dramatic actor than he is a comedian.

• This was the last episode to be written by Alexa Junge, who ran the writers' room this season but who won't be back next year. I have no idea what went on behind-the-scenes to lead to her departure, or how the show might be affected by her absence next season, but Diablo Cody raved about Junge when we spoke before the season premiere, while adding that she had no interest in running the writers' room herself. So either she's grown a lot after a year on the job, or she'll have to find a new trusted lieutenant.

• One of the things Cody mentioned in that interview was that, towards the end of the season,"we were really able to play with the idea of, 'Would Tara ever masquerade as one of the alters to get away with something?'" I haven't noticed that before now, but in this episode, we see Tara briefly pretend to be Buck to get that guy to stop hogging the pay phone. One of the few benefits to the condition, I suppose.

• I think Nate Corddry has done an admirable job of making Gene seem like an obvious creep and yet also like someone who'd be a survivor in this job despite his creepiness, but I'm hoping next week brings an end to Kate's time in the Barnabay's family, and that next season the character gets to do something else.

What did everybody else think?
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The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, "Pilot": Oh, Botswana

I mostly had my say on the two-hour pilot of "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" in Thursday's column, but feel free to weigh in on rolling R's, Stringer Bell relocating to sub-Saharan Africa, or any other part of the debut that pleased or displeased you. Click here to read the full post

Kings, "First Night": The binding of Isaac

Spoilers for the third episode of "Kings" coming up just as soon as I readjust a painting...
"This country only works if people look up to us -- not some boy." -Queen Rose
"First Night" is the last episode of "Kings" I've seen in advance, and probably my favorite of the three. It gives the great Ian McShane his strongest showcase so far in this role, and it gives us a much stronger idea of the role of both God and the monarchy in this alternate universe.

God's presence as an active participant in the Biblical tale of Samuel, Saul and David would have seemed to be the hardest element to translate into modern times, but Michael Green has done a surprisingly adept job at it. God appears to have chosen David as Silas' successor (the butterfly crown in the pilot), and in this episode He appears to punish Silas for his hubris by making him sacrifice his relationship with his illegitimate son Seth (but not, mercifully, Seth himself). It's all left just ambiguous enough that if you prefer not to mix your divinity with your contemporary political drama (even one liberally adapted from the Old Testament), you can just write it off as coincidence, but McShane and Eamonn Walker are sure playing it like men who believe.

Susanna Thompson's Queen Rose, meanwhile, believes quite devoutly in the idea of a royal family helping to elevate the commoners by giving them elites role models to aspire to. That's often been the argument in England about the enduring popularity of the royals, even long past the point where they had any real power: people living hard lives like knowing there's some grandeur in their world and believing that, under the right (albeit unlikely) set of circumstances, they might get to experience it firsthand some day. Of course, Rose only wants it to be a belief, and not a reality, and so she and Jack -- his mother's son just as much as Michelle is her father's daughter -- are doing everything they can to keep a commoner like David from making a major jump up in class.

"Kings" is this weird hybrid of the Bible, Shakespeare and soap opera, and the scenes with Jack taking David and his friends on a tour of Shiloh's hottest nightspots tilted more towards the latter. It wasn't quite "Gossip Girl," but those scenes definitely felt less vital than any of the material involving McShane or Thompson.

Based on the lousy ratings for the first two weeks, I have little illusion about the show continuing past this first season. But the one plus of NBC being in such lousy shape across the board is that it's not easy to pull even the low performers like this, which means chances are decent that we'll at least get to see the full season. And with any luck, Green will by then have advanced the narrative to a good stopping point, if not the natural end point for what's designed as an epic, years-long saga.

What did everybody else think?
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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Dollhouse, "Echoes": I wish I could go back to college

Quick spoilers for last night's "Dollhouse" coming up just as soon as I jump on a trampoline...

"Echoes" wasn't on the review DVD that Fox sent out that included last week's "Man on the Street" and next week's "Needs," and I can see why. While it fills in important pieces of backstory about both Echo/Caroline and the Dollhouse itself, it also spends a lot of time on elements of the series that viewers haven't really liked to this point.

Basically, it's the "Dollhouse" equivalent of Star Trek's "The Naked Time," or Star Trek: TNG's "The Naked Now," or "Band Candy" on Buffy, or any other episode of a sci-fi series that has some outside element (drugs, alien mind control, whatever) unleashing the characters' inhibitions so we can watch them be silly for a while. The problem is, I don't want to see Topher or DeWitt or Dominic be silly. From where I sit, they're the villains of the piece, loathsome in just about every way, and watching them unleash their inner child, strip down to their undies, or whatever other ridiculous behavior they did isn't amusing or endearing the way it is when Mr. Sulu runs barechested through the Enterprise with a fencing sword; it's just creeps acting creepy in a different way.

At the same time, this is already the third or fourth instance in seven episodes where the imprinting process has gone awry -- not to mention the ongoing problem of the Dolls not having some sort of default memory of each other in the event of an incident like Echo turning up in someone else's mission -- and so this gross and evil institution also seems like a very incompetent organization. If they're going to be so awful, they can at least be good at it, right?

I'm glad to know more about Caroline, and about who's funding the Dollhouse, but if I hadn't already seen "Needs," I'd be dismissing "Man on the Street" as a one-time fluke before the show went back to putting Eliza Dushku into fetish wear.

What did everybody else think?
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Friday, March 27, 2009

Party Down, "California College Conservatives Union Caucus": The Cuban cigar crisis

Quick thoughts on the second episode of "Party Down" coming up just as soon as I think about Jim Abbott...

I liked this one even more than the pilot, in that it took a very broad target (Young Republicans) and managed to tell unexpected jokes about them. The running gag about the guests giving Henry a hard time about quitting was especially good, and not just because some of the lines were being delivered by Jason Dohring (here working alongside fellow "Veronica Mars" alum Alona Tal).

I like the way that Henry, because he's the one member of the team who has no real plan in life, winds up envying the lifestyles of each week's guest. The others all want to be actors, or writers, or Super Crackers managers, but Henry can admire being a suburban family man, or even a passionate young conservative, because any of those seem better than being known only as the "Are we having fun yet?" guy.

I don't know that the payoff to the Schwarzenegger plot, with Ron having to burn a flag while all the guests watched, worked as well as last week's similar stain stick joke, probably because it was so similar. I don't want to see every episode end with Ken Marino violating (or appearing to violate) some great social taboo while a guest looks on in horror, as diminishing returns have already set in.

Still having a good time with this one. What about the rest of you?
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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 "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" 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, "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall": Honor thy father

Spoilers for "Friday Night Lights" season three, episode 11 coming up just as soon as I register for a leaf blower...

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.
"If you don't want to know, don't ask." -Buddy Garrity
The first two-thirds of this season had to serve two masters: moving forward the stories of our core characters while also giving Smash and Street proper send-offs. Over this most recent batch of episodes, Jason Katims and company have had a new double-mission: to send off the remaining high school characters while also laying the groundwork for a fourth season, even if the chances of one aren't that likely.

So while Matt and Shelby try to find a better solution for taking care of Grandma, and while Lyla and Tyra try to figure out how to get into college, the McCoy family situation explodes and the school board introduces the controversial idea of re-opening the long defunct East Dillon High in order to get more state assistance.

As always, I'm coming at the subject of high school football (Texas or otherwise) from a position of extreme ignorance, but would the redistricting plan automatically lead to the creation of a second football team? My wife went through a similar redistricting in her Long Island town, and the two schools there had joint athletic teams. But whether or not the writers are fudging the reality of this scenario, it's creating some interesting tension between Eric and Buddy (whom I'm always glad to see in full-on Machiavellian king of the boosters mode), and between Eric and Tami. Even if there isn't a fourth season for all this to pay off, I feel like some good stuff is going to go down between now and the finale.

The episode did a great job of laying the groundwork for Joe McCoy's explosion, as he let various perceived mistakes and violations by J.D. just build and build in his mind until he couldn't think straight anymore. As Katie tried to point out to him, J.D. doesn't call the plays, but by the time the game was in full swing, Joe was so far gone that he took every pass, completed or otherwise, as a personal affront, so that he was primed to blow when J.D. talked back for what I'm guessing is the first time in his life. Again, this is a story with potential to work in both the short-term and the hypothetical long-term, though I suppose I could also see a scenario where the McCoys leave Dillon at the end of the season.

The Tyra story was probably the episode's weak point, if only because, like last week, it just felt like a replay of Tyra moments from earlier in the series. In particular, her mom's big speech about Tyra being different from Mindy was really reminiscent of the speech she gave Tyra at the father-daughter dance in season one -- and then, as now, I didn't totally buy it. It's not that Angela's a bad person, but they spend so much time showing how narrow her worldview is, and how she tries to justify her own life choices by nudging her daughters down the same path, that it always seems a little pat when she turns around and gives a tearful monologue about how what she really wants is for Tyra to live a completely different life. People can be complicated, but I see no connection between the woman at the end of this episode and the one who all but told Tyra to skip school to go chasing after cowboy Cash.

Unlike Tyra, Lyla doesn't have to worry about getting into a college; she just can't pay for it. As the reality has sunk in, she's turning herself into an honorary Riggins to cope -- after all, isn't much of Tim's character defined by his ability to shrug off all the terrible things that happen to him as simply his lot in life? -- and you can see how much that's bothering Tim. What drew him to Lyla was that she was the exact opposite of him: optimistic and driven and outgoing. He doesn't want to date the female Tim Riggins, even if she looks like Lyla. My only issue with this subplot is that Minka Kelly is still the cast's weakest link. She's been fairly solid when asked to play sarcastic or disapproving, but whenever one of her stories takes a serious emotional turn, she's never quite up to it.

Definitely up to it? Zach Gilford and Kim Dickens and Louanne Stephens, as Lorraine takes a tumble and Matt lashes out at Shelby because he doesn't want to face the reality of the situation. Grandma's outburst about her slippers felt terrifyingly real; when the dementia reaches that point, what the hell can you do? Dickens in particular has had to carry a very tricky role; because Shelby knows how badly she hurt her son, she's now making a superhuman effort to be whatever he and Lorraine need her to be, whether that's a chauffeur or a caretaker or, in that great scene at the hospital, a verbal punching bag. I think a lot of actresses would make Shelby seem a little too perfect for a woman who ran out on her son, but Dickens always lets you see the wheels spinning, the way Shelby's letting Matt tear into her because she knows she's got 17 years of karmic debt to pay off.

Now, we only have two episodes left, and I'm curious to see how they're going to be structured. Do we get the state championship in episode 12 and then a 13th episode that tries to telescope the rest of the school year and shows us how all the seniors wind up? Or will it follow the pattern of the final two season one episodes, where we had an episode with no game, followed by the championship, with any resolutions sprinkled in and around the football action? Whether or not a fourth season happens, the graduating characters deserve their own send-offs, and even if they don't get as much screen time as either Street or Smash, I hope they each get their moments.

Some other thoughts on "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall":

* Joe McCoy is so nuts that I almost -- almost -- feel sorry for him. Wade Aikman, on the other hand? Total jerk. I don't know what practice he was watching, but the one I saw had JD in complete command of the Panthers offense, and the only time he let Madison distract him was during the water break. When does Mac get back?

* Riggins plays special teams? Is that common for the star offensive player on a high school team? Then again, Justin Tuck did block a field goal a couple of games ago, and he's the Giants best defender, and we've already established that I know little to nothing on this subject. I will say, though, that maniacal as Joe was, I don't know what Eric was thinking trying to throw the ball that much in those conditions. To bring in another Giants analogy, that was like whenever offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride insists on having Eli throw the ball a few dozen times when the Meadowlands winds are swirling at tornado levels.

* I loved Riggins asking Buddy if he was going to have to walk back to his car, and Buddy realizing he had randomly driven them to the middle of nowhere.

* Princess Diana died when Tyra would have been six or seven years old (unless you assume that she and Tim and Lyla have all been held back a few grades); would she really be making a "Lady Di" reference to Mindy?

* Even though a lot of the Tyra/Landry material has been repetitive, I really like the easy banter the two characters have together, which only makes a moment like the one where Landry gives her a pep talk about all her hard work feel even sweeter.

* Have we established the financial situation of Lyla's mom and stepdad? I doubt the health food store is raking in the cash, but surely they could help out a little with college, no? Or does her mother feel so betrayed by Lyla staying with Buddy that she wouldn't help? Either way, that needs to be addressed.

* God, I love stripper names, real or stage. Fashionette?

What did everybody else think?
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Grey's Anatomy, "Elevator Love Letter": A more-than-decent proposal

Spoilers for last night's "Grey's Anatomy" coming up just as soon as I knit a scarf...

Okay, the series is on a real roll right now. I can't really forgive the ghost sex or the interns starring in their own David Cronenberg movie, but if the rest of the season is as good as the last few episodes have been, I can at least try to forget that stuff.

Start with that horrifying opening sequence with Hunt trying to strangle Cristina in his sleep. Even though I knew it was coming -- Kevin McKidd had been making the talk show rounds to promote the episode -- it was still riveting because of how dead Hunt's eyes were and how Cristina wasn't able to get a sound out or even really struggle because of his size/strength advantage. Seeing her flail around, or some sort of insane look on his face, would have made the scene feel over-the-top and cheesey; this felt disturbing. I don't know if this is how PTSD actually manifests itself, but it seemed that way. And after being stuck on the sideline for too much of this season, Kevin McKidd and Sandra Oh are killing right now.

I thought Derek's proposal -- and Meredith's behavior in response to his earlier attempts -- was very grown-up and sweet, and reflected a relationship that's grown to be about more than the stupid will-they-or-won't-they drama. And the moment when Derek finally came out of his stupor and started telling off the oncologist was well-played by Patrick Dempsey, who's been doing some nice work during this arc.

Izzie's impending surgery, meanwhile, gave every member of the ensemble something good to play, whether it was Callie and George revisiting their divorce or Bailey being the only doctor who could control her emotions enough to visit Izzie, or, especially, Karev telling Meredith that he should have looked into the ghost nonsense much sooner. (You and Shonda both, buddy.) Every time I watch Justin Chambers get a showcase episode like this, I think about how lucky he is -- and we are -- that the "Cold Case" producers decided to can him after a few episodes, which allowed him to land this more demanding, high-profile gig.

"Elevator Love Letter" wasn't perfect. The storyline about the perpetually-dying old woman was way too obvious in the exact way the tone was going to shift from comedy to poignancy, and I think the time may be coming for me to write a screed about how every ABC drama is apparently required to use the same cutesy You Are Watching A Funny Scene Now music over anything even vaguely comic (which, again, is a network-wide problem, not something that's "Grey's"-specific), but overall, very, very strong.

What did everybody else think?
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ER, "I Feel Good": Camp classic

Very brief spoilers for the penultimate episode of "ER" ever coming up just as soon as I make a friendship bracelet...

I almost wasn't going to blog this episode, as I'm busy today, and as it was a very low-key episode leading up to next week's two-hour series finale. But I couldn't let mention of it pass for a few reasons:

1)It featured Linda Cardellini dancing, and if you've ever seen the "Freaks and Geeks" series finale, you know she's an awesome dancer. (The great shame of the Cardellini/Jason Segel breakup is that it deprived the world of the possibility of them doing some kind of filmed dance number together.)

2)It gave us a nice coda to the years-long Redemption of Archie Morris story arc. Basically, Archie's been a good guy for a while, but even with his good intentions he was still a bit of a social bumbler, and here we see him put it all together with that great quasi-proposal to Claudia. Great, great work from Scott Grimes(*), who's been the best reason to watch the show in these final years.

(*) I knew John Stamos was a drummer who sometimes plays with the Beach Boys, but who knew Grimes could sing? Apparently, he has a band.

3)It cleared the decks of a lot of running subplots so the finale doesn't have to spend time wrapping up everyone's personal life. We still have the inevitable Sam/Gates reunion, I suppose, but Archie gets his happy ending, Neela's been seen off, Banfield gets to adopt the baby, etc. I don't know exactly what the finale's going to entail (and let me remind you once again about the No Spoilers rule -- which extends to previews, interviews, articles, spoiler blogs, whatever), but I'd like to think it winds up being more about the hospital and the series' themes than it is about these characters who, while likable, aren't that important in the grand scheme of things "ER."

So, the obvious question before we go: what would you like to see in the "ER" finale?
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The Office, "Two Weeks": Company woman

Spoilers for last night's "The Office" coming up just as soon as I mix up a scotch and Splenda...
"You know what? I had a great time at prom, and no one said yes to that, either." -Michael
There are many different flavors of "Office" episodes, and not surprisingly, fans have their favorite flavors, as well as the ones they can't stand. You've got your supporters of the squirm-inducing, British-flavored episodes like last week's squirmy outing or "Phyllis' Wedding," and those who would rather be stabbed in the eye with a fork than to see another of those. You have your broadly comic ones where Michael and Dwight are wearing fake mustaches and Dwight is peeing into a soda can, and some people think those are so silly as to be worthless. Then you have your low-key, relatively realistic episodes where Michael's verging on bankruptcy or trying to get a date on Valentine's Day, and some complain that they're not funny enough. And you have your swoony romantic episodes where Jim and/or Pam makes some grand romantic gesture, and the people who aren't into the PB&J thing roll their eyes the same way Meredith did when "Little Miss Thing" Pam(*) tried to get everyone's attention.

(*) And I'm surprised it took the show this long to establish that Meredith, the aging office tramp, would resent the hell out of someone like Pam.

"Two Weeks" was a mix of the silly and the realistic flavors, starting off with a bunch of gags about how much worse Michael behaves when he's not even trying to be a boss, but then heading to that moment near the end where he convinces Pam -- who has spent all day mastering the new copy machine and realizes just how empty her career is -- to join him in his Jerry Maguire quest to build a new paper company to rival Dunder-Mifflin. The jokes were great (I particularly loved Jim hearing monster noises from Michael's computer and yelling that Monster.com is singular), but what elevated the episode into something really special was the Pam and Michael stuff at the end: Michael and Pam's pure joy at telling Jim they're in the middle of a company meeting, followed by end-of-"The Graduate" shot of them walking away, as you see their giddiness replaced by the realization that they've both walked away from secure jobs in a bad economy to start up a business that has very little chance of succeeding. Steve Carell and Jenna Fischer are always brilliant in those moments when they have to show multiple emotions at once, so it was nice to finally see them get to do it side-by-side.

But will the Michael Scott Paper Company really fail? Before we get into discussing the rest of "Two Weeks," I want to speculate a little -- and I'll remind you early not to go discussing the previews, or anything you've read on other sites, or anything that's even vaguely spoiler-y -- about the different paths this story can travel.

The episode's end plants the seeds of Charles Minor inadvertently destroying the Scranton branch because he doesn't know the employees as well as Michael does. Michael, for all his social obliviousness, does know how to read people professionally, especially these people, and he would know better than to put inarticulate Kevin on the phones or make lazy Stanley the "productivity czar." So we could certainly see a situation where the once-profitable Scranton branch goes in the tank under the leadership of Charles (or whatever outside guy he brings in to run things), and David Wallace has to go begging for Michael to return, regardless of how Michael's new venture is going.

But do you think the show would be brave and/or foolish enough to have Michael succeed? He does know paper, he does know the area, and he does know the customers better than anyone else. He is at times a miracle worker with sales, and with the right people around him running the business side of things, maybe he makes a go of it. I doubt it -- Oscar made very salient points about how hard this will be for him -- but you never know. But while the show has gotten away with keeping certain characters apart for a batch of episodes (Jim in Stamford with Andy and Karen, Ryan at corporate, Pam at art school), would a permanent split really work? I doubt it. It's too much fun to see Pam and Jim working as a team, or to see Stanley have to deal with Michael, etc., to take those elements away forever. But as an interim thing (again, ala Jim in Stamford), it could work, especially if it puts Pam on a different professional track when she returns.

But back to "Two Weeks" itself. A drunk Michael wandering through the office and being more disruptive than usual was hilarious, as was one of the best collections of talking heads I can recall from a single episode: Oscar's dreams about quitting; Charles recognizing the effect he has on women; Toby comparing Michael to a movie on a plane; Kevin wondering if he should compliment Michael directly, then being too lazy to do so; etc. And there were great throwaway jokes about the office dynamics: not just Meredith's disdain for Pam, but the staff all having thought out what line they would use if they quit (and Michael not quite recognizing that they dream of using it on him); Andy trying desperately to not respond to Michael's job offer; Michael and Dwight both hoping the other one wouldn't want to keep working together; Michael putting a "sterile" note in Oscar's food; and more.

I also loved Michael listening to the tearful farewell message from the head of Prince Family Paper and realizing that he let Dwight talk him into putting out of business the one place that might hire him.

Yup, the creative team (in this case led by writer Aaron Shure and directed by Paul Lieberstein) was firing on all cylinders with this one. I look forwarded to the two episodes we're getting in two weeks (next Thursday is all-"ER"), and can't wait to see where this arc goes next.

What did everybody else think?
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Reader mail: Imported actors, opening credits and 'In Treatment'

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, my editors asked me to revive the reader mailbag column, and I thank the many of you who sent great questions. Space considerations only allowed me to answer three (initially, there were four, but one got cut and is being held for next week's mailbag), but I hope to get to more of them in the next few mailbags, and/or you can always try asking them the next time I have time to do an open thread discussion.

You can read the mailbag column here. Click here to read the full post

30 Rock, "Apollo, Apollo": Most sensational, celebrational, Muppetational

Spoilers for tonight's "30 Rock" coming up just as soon as I Liz...
"If that kid could see you today, he would... throw up." -Liz
Every now and then, I'll go back over old blog reviews of "30 Rock" and look with dismay at the ones where I did nothing but list the jokes I liked -- not because my opinion of those episodes has changed, but because I feel like I've in some way fallen down on the job. If I can't do more than just list what was great -- if I can't explain why it was great, or what the larger meaning of its greatness is -- then what good am I as a TV critic, right?

Then I watch an episode like "Apollo, Apollo" -- easily the best "30 Rock" of the season, and one of the series' best episodes to date, one that required me to make liberal use of the DVR rewind function to go back and catch jokes I had missed because I was laughing so hard at the ones before them -- and I'll be damned if I don't want to do anything but rattle off the many, many, many jokes I loved. If anything, there's a part of me that feels that, where my deconstruction of a show like "Mad Men" or "Battlestar Galactica" -- or even another comedy like "The Office" (which was also great tonight, and which I'll get to in the morning) -- might enhance the experience, when "30 Rock" is this good, there's a magical quality to it that I feel I can only take away from by trying to explain its genius.

Still, I wanna try -- before going to the inevitable bullet point list -- because I do feel like this one was special, and a significant cut above even some of this season's stronger entries like "Believe in the Stars", and I think I can get at why without ruining the magic trick.

So, some of the reasons why:

It had Muppets. Okay, this is an obvious one. The Muppets rule, and singing Muppet Jack (pictured above) was only topped by the transition from Muppet Liz to flesh-and-blood Liz moving in a very Muppet-like fashion. But Muppets alone aren't enough. What else?

It had Dennis. Dennis also rules, and I would argue is a stronger occasional character than Dr. Spaceman (who's usually awesome but occasionally misses the target). The writers (in this case, Robert Carlock) have completely zoomed in on the narcissistic worldview of that kind of That Guy, then cranked those qualities up to appropriately absurd "30 Rock" proportions. So much nonsense spews out of his mouth that it's easy to miss it all, but a line like him explaining that he was upset to watch Hurricane Katrina coverage and see "what those people were doing to the Super Dome" sums up his idiocy within the "30 Rock" universe -- and his genius to us viewers at home -- quite neatly.

It had heart. It's easy for a show with this many talented writers and actors to just turn into an amalgam of zany gags. And, certainly, those episodes can be awfully satisfying on their own. But the ones that allow Jack and/or Liz to have some human emotions in the midst of the chaos are even moreso. Jack feeling so much joy as a kid that he had to vomit is a good joke on its own, but the way Alec Baldwin played Jack's sadness at reaching 50 and no longer feeling happy enough to puke made the final payoff that much richer. And speaking of which...

It all came together. This, more than anything else, is the thing that's been separating some of this season's better episodes from the truly classic "30 Rock"s like "Rosemary's Baby" or "The Fighting Irish." Even the episodes that are filled with very strong jokes and/or brief moments of pathos from one of the characters don't quite end as well as they could. Either the jokes tail off, or they fail to cross over, or both. Here, each joke built on top of each other -- say, the way Kenneth's Muppet-vision was followed by Tracy's Tracy-vision and then Jack's $-vision -- and then they all collided at the end, as Liz and Jenna's feud, Jack's need for a moment of happiness, and the practice of turning your own name into a gerund to describe a gross bodily function all blended into a hilarious climax. (And even there, the script kept adding more jokes, like Frank's horrified "He's mortal!" reaction to seeing Jack vomit.)

This was just genius all around, and Carlock, director Millicent Shelton and the whole gang deserve an extra attaboy, followed by the traditional lazy bullet-point list of other stuff I loved, including:

• Jack has a Google News alert for "Tracy Jordan ridiculous disaster"

• Jack's list of things he wanted to (and did) accomplish by 50 included "Beat up a Russian"

• Grizz is Adam West's agent

• Liz's Jenna impression has a British accent, and Jenna is both happy about that and eager to explain why

• Tracy's childhood dream of going into space includes "killing the Ewok"

• Tracy is totally on his game in the meeting with Liz, with the clever wordplay and the quoting of Robert Browning

• Jack threatens to "Benjamin Button myself" if he can't find out what was in the box

• Pete once dreamed of following his dad into Congress, if not for that one DUI in high school...

• Jack assumes from watching "24" that video technicians can analyze anything from any image

• For that matter, the mere fact that Jack watches "24"

• Everyone Jack brings in to solve the mystery thinks they're there for a job interview

• As Tracy and company do their own version of the "Right Stuff" slo-mo walk (the second NBC comedy of the week to do so), Kenneth makes perfect "Star Wars" creature noises (do any of you want to try to identify exactly what creature that was?)

• Tracy in the simulator: "I'm Lizzing! Hah hah! Lizzing! I'm Lizzing!"

• In Jack-vision, Kenneth is only worth seven bucks

• Every single damn thing about Liz's Chicago phone sex commercial, from the hairstyle to the teeth to the random eating of pizza halfway through

• In addition to Frank, Lutz's horrified reaction to the Jacking -- "What just happened?!?!?!" -- was pretty great.

Feel free to add your own favorites if I've left any out.

What did everybody else think?
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Thursday, March 26, 2009

American Idol, Top 10: Results

Quick spoilers for tonight's "American Idol" elimination coming right up...

So, Michael Sarver, Matt Giraud and Scott MacIntyre in the bottom three(*), Scott sent back to safety first, and Michael goes home. Despite Simon claiming earlier in the show that they would seriously consider the final performance, and despite Simon then claiming that they hadn't decided after Michael finished "singing for his life," they declined to use the Judges' Save on our resident roughneck.

(*) Based on Matt being in the green on DialIdol, I'd be tempted to suggest that putting him center-stage was part of a producer push to fire up whatever fanbase he has. But Ryan explicitly said he was in the bottom three, and he tends to be very careful with his word choice when they play those sorts of games. When Anoop hit center stage a few weeks ago despite also being in the DialIdol green, Ryan never explicitly said he was in the bottom, just that he had to stand in the center. So perhaps my chances of making money on Matt in the office pool aren't as great as I guessed last night. Sigh...

I watched very little of the remainder of the show, pausing only long enough to notice two things: 1)Roooooben has dropped a lot of weight from the last time he was on the show, and good for him, even if he still has no stage persona other than a nice smile; and 2)Now that the New York Times got the producers to admit that this year's group performances are being lip-synced, the contestants have given up any pretense of making it look real, and it's become brilliantly comic. Adam Lambert looked like he was struggling to hold back a giggle when he had to fake those three big high notes in rapid succession.

Michael was on borrowed time, so no big deal on the elimination. Did I miss anything else of note? How was Stevie Wonder?
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Life, "5 Quarts": Death becomes her

I would do a full review of last night's "Life," but it would just be a rehash of things I've been saying the last few weeks: the case didn't really make sense, the show is suffering badly because Sarah Shahi's pregnancy is keeping Crews and Reese apart, and Ted seems to exist in an entirely different show. So rather than waste time expanding on those same points over and over, I'll just ask: what did everybody else think? Click here to read the full post

A word of warning: Do NOT watch 'In the Motherhood'

Back in the days when The Star-Ledger had multiple TV critics and tons of space, Matt Seitz and I made it a point to review every new show at least once. Matt's gone, and the paper is smaller, so I sometimes have to let things go. But in the case of ABC's heinous new sitcom "In the Motherhood," I at least wanted to post some kind of warning to the blog, because it is really, really atrocious. Not so-bad-it's-good. Just bad. Plain bad. Why am I watching this?-level bad. Imagine ABC's thematically-similar "Notes from the Underbelly" -- which struggled to reach levels of mediocrity -- and strip away anything that was remotely appealing about it, to the point where this one even has Rachael Harris in a recurring role and can't give her anything funny to do.

Other than the admirable physique of the incredibly-shrinking Horatio Sanz (that's him on the right, next to Megan Mullally, who plays a character that's like Karen from "Will & Grace" if she had no good dialogue to redeem her awful behavior), there's no reason to tune in, even for a moment. It's bad, people. Move on. Nothing to see here. Click here to read the full post

Scrubs, "Their Story II": The next generation?

Quick thoughts on last night's "Scrubs" coming up just as soon as I try a Popsicle...

I think we're all in agreement that, even if the ratings weren't as small as they were, "Scrubs" in its current form has outlived its usefulness. They're repeating the same jokes about the characters (though they usually at least acknowledge it, as they did with JD and Turk's reprised pimp strut), and aside from the wonderful Glynn Turman episode with Turk and JD, most of the season's memorable moments have come from either the new interns or from expanded roles for the likes of Ted and Janitor.

So my question -- particularly after watching an episode that so blatantly tries to set up Denise, Sunny and new guy Derek as the spiritual descendants of Elliot, JD and Turk -- is whether I would be interested in the ever-so-slim possibility of the show rebooting itself next year around the young'uns. And based on "Their Story II," probably not.

Now, it's not entirely fair to judge anything based on one of the periodic episodes where JD turns the narration over to other characters. I've rarely liked those shows, and feel like they miss the point of JD's narration working only because he's such a weirdo. (The Moral of the Story stuff is usually unnecessary.) But while Eliza Coupe continues to create this really unique and interesting character in Denise, I don't see enough in the other interns to want to follow them, with or without some ancillary characters like Janitor or Kelso hanging around.

(And speaking of Janitor, I thought giving him three different running gags in the same episode -- the motorized cart-as-puppy, the hypnotism, and his refusal to punish Sunny -- was at least one too many.)

One final question: if Turk's "Poison" dance is an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10 for comedy dancing awesomeness, where do you rank the updated version of Elliot's "Told You So" dance? And do you think the dance has improved any since its first appearance in season one?

What did everybody else think?
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American Idol, Top 10: Motown Night

Spoilers for last night's "American Idol" Motown Night coming up just as soon as I give my wife a crayon mustache...

First of all, before I get into the song-by-song breakdown, I want to express my displeasure with doing this as a two-hour episode. I understand (sort of) the need to do it when you have more than 10 singers, but isn't this traditionally the point in the season where the performance show finally contracts down to an hour -- or, at least, 90 minutes? Traditionally, the show gets away with two different episodes a year (Top 9 and Top 3) where 9 songs are sung in an hour(*), so why can't they do it here instead of padding it out? And, yes, I know the answer to that is ratings/money/because they can/etc.

(*) Just checked the schedule for next week, and it looks like they're going to let the Top 9 show run an hour and 20 minutes. Sigh... Are they gonna do that again at Top 3? Or is "Osbournes Reloaded" so genuinely terrible that Fox didn't want to unleash more than 40 minutes of it on the world?

Anyway, song-by-song:

Matt Giraud, "Let's Get It On": Just as I was wondering if, like Scott, he was going to stay glued to the piano bench for the rest of the competition, he spends 20 seconds there and then gets up to dance for the rest of the song. The Mr. Rogers sweater looks goofy, but this was very much in Matt's faux-Timberlake wheelhouse, albeit not in a class with Marvin Gaye (or even Jack Black). I still doubt I'm going to win any money off him in the office pool, but I'm feeling more confident that he'll be around a while.

Kris Allen, "How Sweet It Is": Putting him back-to-back with Matt makes it more obvious that they're basically the same contestant: more comfortable with an instrument than without it, heavily modeling themselves after a contemporary artist (in this case, Jason Mraz, with a touch of John Mayer), non-threateningly handsome, etc. Where Adam and Danny are the more obvious favorites to win the show, these two sound much more like something you'd actually hear on the radio today. A solid performance, leaning more towards the James Taylor version than Marvin's.

Scott MacIntyre, "You Can't Hurry Love": I actually liked what he did with the arrangement, but I'm tired of hearing Scott smack up against the limits of his very modest vocal range. He was off-key several times, again strained to hit notes, etc. And unlike Matt in some previous weeks, his piano playing isn't so impressive as to make up for his other shortcomings. I'm ready to see him go.

Megan Joy, "For Once In My Life": This is two weeks in a row now where the snippet we heard of her rehearsing with the mentor sounded much more interesting than the actual performance -- and this time she can't blame it on the flu. I continue to believe that there's an interesting modern cabaret voice in there (again, ala Zooey Deschanel), but her nerves really seem to be getting the best of her on stage, even though she kept the spastic arm waves to a minimum. (She still wiggled, but it seemed more in the beat this time.) She has no shot at winning, but I'm hoping she sticks around long enough to find a theme/song that suits her, and that's able to stay calm enough to do it justice.

Anoop Desai, "Oooh, Baby Baby": This is two weeks in a row of Anoop slowing it down to show that he can really sing and isn't just the likable guy with the great name. And he can absolutely sing. His falsetto isn't quite as good as the one Adam will trot out later in the show, but it's better than Matt's, and most of the previous "Idol" men who think they can go up that high, and his a cappella group experience comes in very handy when it comes to blending in with the backup singers. It's not quite as passionate as last week's "Always On My Mind" (the studio version of which is awesome), but it should hopefully give him enough musical street cred with the judges that he can go back to being fun for a few weeks.

Michael Sarver, "Ain't Too Proud to Beg": When mentor Smokey Robinson, who effusively praised every other contestant, couldn't come up with anything good to say about Michael's interpretation, you knew this was going to be problematic. And, sure enough, Michael's attempt to "church it up" meant mostly that he plastered a huge smile on his face and stripped all the edge out of a song that Smokey tried to explain was a desperate final attempt to hold onto a departing lover. He has a better voice than Scott, but Simon was dead on when saying that Michael has no shot to win.

Lil Rounds, "(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave": Has this song ever served any "Idol" contestant well? It put Kimberley Locke in the bottom three and put Jennifer Hudson in the bottom two. A quick trip through Wiki says that Vonzell Solomon got away with singing it during the season four semis without anyone complaining, but for the most part, the song seems like a trap on this show, as it encourages a singer like Lil to shout too much and race to keep up with the tempo. This reminded me very much of the performance snippets we heard of Lil in Hollywood, when I was baffled by why the judges loved what sounded like yelling. Cool flapper outfit, bad performance.

Adam Lambert, "The Tracks of My Tears": Nice. Very nice. I've been saying for a few weeks that Adam's clearly the most talented singer this year, but that I haven't yet liked anything he's chosen to do with that talent. Not anymore. After the beating he took for last week's sitar-inflected "Ring of Fire" cover (and shame on me for not pointing out how similar it was to Dilana's version on "Rock Star") and for his dismissal of the country theme, Adam goes into hero-worship mode with Smokey, then slicks back his hair and does a terrific, largely faithful cover of one of Smokey's greatest hits. Where that "Ring of Fire" arrangement largely amounted to ripping up the song and starting over from scratch, what he did here was to keep the basic framework intact and playing around with it in smaller ways (a tweak on the melody, a quieter and more introspective finish) to keep it from sounding like karaoke. Delicate, beautiful falsetto, and the kind of performance that's going to be remembered for a while. The only reason I can fathom for it not getting the pimp spot is that the producers are desperate to hold onto Allison so the last two months of the competition won't be Lil and a bunch of dudes.

Danny Gokey, "Get Ready": This is the version of Danny I prefer, him doing what the Thing Throwers have dubbed his "Robert Down Jr. Jr." thing instead of turning into Inspirational Ballad Man. Not a home run, but a solid double, and the sort of thing he needs to do every few performances so he doesn't become boring.

Allison Iraheta, "Papa Was a Rolling Stone": This is one of those seven-minute epics that seems weird squeezed into a 90-second "Idol" slot, though at least this is one where a good chunk of that extra time is instrumentals (as opposed to Michael Johns trying to do "all the good parts" of "A Day in the Life" in a minute and a half). I wasn't nearly as on board with this as the judges were, as I think Allison stumbled several times in the middle, either trying to remember the lyrics or trying to keep up with all the tempo changes, and that she just powered through it at the end to make up for that. Now, when Allison powers through, it doesn't sound like shouting in the way that Lil sometimes does -- after Adam, she's in that next tier of this season's stronger singers, alongside Anoop and Danny -- but it did feel more like showing off than trying to fit her voice to the song.

Best of the night: Adam, and it wasn't close, even though there were a number of other very good performances (Anoop, Matt, Kris, Danny).

In trouble: I'm hoping that either Michael or Scott's time is up, but I'm worried about Megan.

What did everybody else think?
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