Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Modern Family, "The Bicycle Thief": The devil wears paisley

Quick thoughts on episode two of "Modern Family" coming up just as soon as I dance for my baby...

The fear when a comedy does a pilot as confident and funny as the "Modern Family" debut - one that was so good it even has other, Emmy-winning comedy writers raving about it - is that the writers used up all their best jokes on the pilot, and they've got nothing left for the series.

"The Bicycle Thief," thankfully, put those fears to bed.

The three branches of the family tree were kept largely apart - and the women were kept on the sideline on top of that, playing spectator to the fatherhood theme - but that gave a chance for Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet, Ty Burrell and Ed O'Neill (and Rico Rodriguez, who plays Manny) to shine. Cameron's frustration at having to rein in his more flamboyant qualities was a particular highlight, but Phil's horror as the divorced hottie wheeled the third bike up the driveway was also hilarious, and very well set-up.

Nothing fancy or groundbreaking here - there was even another heartwarming monologue by Ed O'Neill at the end - but funny and well-executed. I'm pleased, and I'm in.

What did everybody else think?
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Cougar Town, "Into the Great Wide Open": I'm getting too old for this stuff

Some quick thoughts on tonight's "Cougar Town" coming up just as soon as I put peanuts in your wine...

Opinion seemed split on the series pilot, with some people finding it funny and others finding it too desperate to work. I fell largely on the "funny" side (though there's always a flop sweat element to Courteney Cox's performances, in any role), and while I didn't find "Into the Great Wide Open" nearly as funny, it actually made me feel more confident about the show's long-term prospects than the pilot did.

That's primarily because of the scene near the end where Jules yells at Ellie from across their lawns about how she understands what she's doing is stupid, and that everyone's laughing at her, but she doesn't care because she wants to try it. That level of self-awareness on Jules' part is crucial; if she's deluded about how she's acting, and how it looks, the show gets unbearable in a hurry.

On the other hand, it's worth noting that most of the jokes that worked in this one involved the men, whether it was Ellie's husband's frustration at being a pawn in her feud with Jules (and then enjoying some time alone at Grayson's bachelor pad) or Travis' mortification on having to ride on his dad's golf cart. Bill Lawrence candidly admitted that the original cut of the pilot felt too much like it was written by guys pretending to understand a woman's problems. He and Kevin Beigel have since hired a bunch of female writers (including Mara Brock Akil from "Girlfriends"), and maybe their episodes will more evenly distribute the laughs than Lawrence's script did here, but that's something to keep an eye on going forward.

What did everybody else think?
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NCIS, "Reunion": Just one kid

Not a whole lot to say about last night's "NCIS," save that I'm pleased that the singing of "Chad Gadya" (a staple at the Sepinwall household at Passover-time) seems to be turning into a running gag. Because of "American Idol," my "NCIS" viewing tends to fall off late in each season, so I missed a lot of the Tony/Ziva/Gibbs issues that were being resolved in this one. Glad to have the team back together (not that there was any suspense about it), and a decent case.

What did everybody else think? And is anybody sticking with "NCIS: LA" so far? Feel free to talk about that in this post if you want. Click here to read the full post

'Hank' & 'The Middle' reviews - Sepinwall on TV

In today's column, I review ABC's other new Wednesday comedies: "Hank," which is awful, and "The Middle," which is pretty good and seems downright great when placed next to "Hank." Feel free to use this post to discuss one or both after they air tonight. Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sons of Anarchy, "Eureka": Head out on the highway

Spoilers for tonight's "Sons of Anarchy" coming up just as soon as I file the serial numbers off my extra gun...
"Charming's a special town. Not many folks take to it. I like to think the town chooses its occupants. Right ones stay; wrong ones disappear." -Unser
This killer second season of "Sons of Anarchy" just keeps getting better, doesn't it? Kurt Sutter and company (here Kurt co-writes with Brett Conrad, with Guy Ferland directing) are expanding the scope of what they can do - with this episode offering us the image of the full Samcro roster (augmented with a lot of help from Central Casting) out on their blood run, plus the action of Jax and Piney's assault on the bounty hunters' motel room - but they're also going much deeper into who these characters are and the many ways that their association with the club, and with Charming, is messing them up.

Last week, the Jax/Clay feud had to co-exist with the tension between Clay and Gemma. But with the club out on the road, and with Tig's capture by the bounty hunters complicating the gun deal, things come to a very violent head between these two. But more interesting than the fight itself, or the grousing beforehand, is seeing who's taking which side. Piney's clearly with Jax because he knows about Donna, while Opie sides with Clay precisely because he doesn't know about that, and because he's thrown himself so deeply into the club that he's going to blindly follow its leader. It made sense at the time for Jax and Piney not to tell him, but this is very bad now. The only way to get Opie on their side is to tell him the truth, at which point he may feel almost as betrayed by his father and his best friend as by his president. It's bad enough that Clay and Tig did this, but for Jax and Piney to not tell him - to let him keep liking and trusting the men who murdered Donna, and to let them stay alive when all Opie cares about is killing anyone involved - well, I just keep thinking about how good Opie is with explosives and worrying that this season is going to end with a lot of them going off.

On the flip side, I think we all assumed that one of this season's story arcs was going to be about Gemma stalking and killing (or badly hurting) AJ and the other men who attacked her. Instead, she spots his telltale tattoo in episode four, follows him, with gun in hand, and... can't pull the trigger.

Why not? Is it because she can hear AJ's conversation with his son and that humanizes him too much? Is it because he damaged her so badly that she's still afraid of him, even in a situation where she has all the power and he faces all the danger? Or has the experience - and the help and compassion she's received since from people like Unser and Tara and Neeta - altered her in a different way? Monstrous as the rape was, is it possible it's forced her to view the world in a different way? That she's not as cold and hard and vengeful as she used to be? Or is she just hanging around in the chapel because she won't have to talk to strangers in there?

Whatever the reason, Katey Sagal continues to knock it out of the park on this storyline, and I like how she played Gemma's hand tremors so they looked very much like Clay's arthritic mitts when he's in the middle of an attack.

Some other thoughts on "Eureka":

• Clay's difficulty in getting the bike up was a nice art-imitates-life moment, as Ron Perlman has struggled more than the other actors in mastering the art of riding. He's better now than he was at the start of the series ("I don’t talk to him; he doesn’t talk to me," he jokes), but when I asked him about the learning process back at press tour, he said:
Well, the interesting thing about Clay is that we’re dealing with a character whose riding days are probably coming closer to an end than a beginning. He’s got these problems with his hands. He’s got this oncoming profound arthritis which will disable him from being able to ride, which is one of the story points that we kind of revisit every once in a while. So that helps me in my disposition about my relationship with the bike. But the show is really so heavy on the presidency and all of the things that that entails that the riding of the bike, thankfully, is just, sort of an accessory to a very complex network of who the guy is.
• It's so rare to see Maggie Siff smile in character, as either Tara or as Rachel Mencken, that it was kind of startling when she flashed her teeth after seeing little Abel in his Samcro knit cap? And how soon before FX or the studio tries to merchandise those things?

• In addition to his showdown with Ethan, quoted above, I loved Unser's continued exasperation with having to be Gemma's friend and protector, particularly the way he says, "What am I supposed to do with that?" after Gemma admits to pointing a gun at the woman in the other car. And Unser later reminds us of how long he's known Gemma, and how well he knows her, while again painting a parallel between Gemma and Tara. Is one of the stories of the series going to be Gemma softening just as Tara gets harder to handle her life as Jax's "old lady"? And how soon before that hospital administrator starts being more overt in her objections to all of Tara's visitors from both sides of the law?

• The bald, intense club member who rode with Jax, Piney, Chibbs and Half-Sack on the rescue mission is Happy, played by technical advisor David Labrava. He appeared in several episodes last year, but it had been a while since he played a prominent role. But if you're going on an armed raid, he's clearly a guy you want on your side.

What did everybody else think?
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Big Bang Theory, "The Jiminy Conjecture": Buggin' out

Back at work today but a little under the weather, so I'm not really up to dissecting last night's "Big Bang Theory," save to say that the Sheldon/Howard/Raj banter was very funny, and the Leonard/Penny subplot pretty lame. What did everybody else think? Click here to read the full post

House, "Epic Fail": First-person cooker

Spoilers for last night's "House" coming up just as soon as I break my own toilet...
"I'm fine. Just not happy." -House
I was bracing for a let-down after the wonderful season premiere, and much of "Epic Fail" - specifically, anything to do with Foreman, Thirteen and the Patient of the Week - lived down to expectations. As I wrote in my "Broken" review, seeing House in a different context made me realize how unnecessary the hospital, the cases and, especially, the sidekicks (Wilson and possibly Cuddy excepted) had become. So a storyline where all of that existed largely apart from House was particularly dull. There came a point where I pretty much stopped paying attention to the case, except to wonder which was more incompetent: security at a software company where two random doctors could break in to play their still in-development game, or the entirety of PPTH that would let a patient suffer a delusional episode in the middle of the lobby without anybody but Foreman and Thirteen doing something about it.

That said, it was a pleasant surprise to have Andre Braugher still around as Dr. Nolan, as I had assumed his guest stint was one-and-done. (Braugher has a TNT show coming up later this season.) Also pleasantly surprising: that for at least one post-"Broken" episode, the writers were trying to do more than pay lip service to House's efforts to get better. We saw with the dog urine gag that he can still be the House we know and are amused by, but he seemed actually happy for a few minutes during the cooking class, and he sincerely dismissed Cuddy's concerns about narcissism. Given how quickly the show has tired of previous cures like the Ketamine, I still suspect House will be back to being a misanthropic bastard by mid-season. But at the moment, you can tell that Hugh Laurie is really engaged by the challenge of playing some different notes as this character - of playing a House who's tired of being quite so miserable. I don't have high expectations for his return to the hospital, but at least seeing the fellows adjust to a slightly kinder and gentler boss will be amusing for an episode or two.

After that? Well, maybe I can hold out hope that House gives the cooking thing another try. I would totally be into a show where he gives up medicine altogether and becomes the next Anthony Bourdain.

What did everybody else think?
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Monday, September 28, 2009

How I Met Your Mother, "Double Date": Dopplegangland

Quick spoilers for tonight's "How I Met Your Mother" coming up just as soon as I do the check dance...

Ted solo in the A-story and everyone else in the subplot isn't the ideal construction for a "HIMYM" episode, and unsurprisingly, the parts of "Double Date" that worked mostly took place in the Stripper Lily plot. Lily's excitement over seeing her hot doppleganger got old after a little while, but Marshall's elaborate fantasy of Lily's death(*) got funnier the longer it lasted. And Barney's obliviousness about Robin's disgust at his strip club-hopping ways was amusing. Plus, I feel pleased that, of all the weeks they could do a Mustache Marshall gag, it would be the one where I have the current blog logo.

(*) My wife pointed out that this was also a "King of Queens" storyline, albeit there the Dead Wife Fantasy wasn't nearly as elaborate, or tender.

As for Ted's replayed first date(**), I actually think it was a good idea - and one that featured the bare minimum of Ted as d-bag - and I always enjoy Lindsay Sloane, who played Jen. But Ted's not an incredibly funny character on his own and needs a strong personality like Barney (or Blah Blah, or some of his other weird girlfriends) to bounce off of, and cute cat fixation aside, Jen was fairly mellow. So it was 20 minutes or so of two nice people figuring out they weren't exactly right for each other. A decent story, but not a comedy goldmine.

(**) And before a million people ask, the song played as Ted imagined an alternate timeline where they got married was "Rewind" by Goldspot.

One thing: now that we've met Stripper Lily, Mustache Marshall and Lesbian Robin (who looked not dissimilar from the raised-as-a-boy Robin we met in "Happily Ever After"), we had better meet the other two dopplegangers that Future Ted promised - and soon.

What did everybody else think?
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'Lie to Me' improves with help from 'Shield' creator Shawn Ryan - Sepinwall on TV

In today's second column, I interview Shawn Ryan about the improvements to "Lie to Me," which opens its second season with a good episode guest-starring Erika Christensen.

Because I have the day off, no time for a second episode post, so feel free to discuss the premiere here after it airs. Because of Ryan, and because the show has gotten better in the ways I describe in the column, I'll be watching "Lie to Me" more regularly, though it may be a situation like "NCIS" where I'll only write about it on occasion. (Procedurals don't lend themselves as well to weekly dissection.) Click here to read the full post

'Trauma' review - Sepinwall on TV

In the first of two columns today, I review NBC's "Trauma," which has a good cast (Cliff Curtis in particular) and pedigree, but isn't as exciting as it wants to be. Click here to read the full post

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Mad Men, "Seven Twenty Three": Looking at the sun burned my eyes out, now I'm blind

Spoilers for tonight's "Mad Men" coming up just as soon as I spend time with my family reading the Bible...
"Let me explain something to you about business, since as usual, you're turning this into something about yourself: No contract means I have all the power. They want me, but they can't have me." -Don
"You're right. Why would I think that has anything to do with me?" -Betty
A total solar eclipse arrives midway through "Seven Twenty Three," and characters are warned repeatedly to not look directly at it. Betty tries and feels faint. Don puts on his sunglasses and waits for the sun to pass a bit before looking up, while Sally and Miss Farrell watch the eclipse from the safety of a cardboard camera obscura. And at other points in the episode, both Roger Sterling and Francine's husband Carlton talk about looking at the normal sun without any ill effects.

And all throughout "Seven Twenty Three" (the title stands for the date on which Don signs his contract), characters are given the opportunity to directly face something they want, or something they fear. Some choose to stare into the sun, while others try looking indirectly, each with varying degrees of success.

The episode itself starts with the indirect approach, as we get glimpses of Betty, Peggy and Don in situations that won't explain themselves until much later in the hour. It's not really necessary - I'm not fond of non-chronological storytelling, or in media res openings, unless they reveal something that wouldn't have been apparent had the episode been told in a traditional way - but it at least sets the tone for another intense, unsettling episode.

"Seven Twenty Three" doesn't have the macabre comedy of "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency," nor does anyone lose a foot (and the ability to golf). But by episode's end, we may have witnessed a murder, because it feels like when Don signs that contract on 7/23, Dick Whitman dies.

And if that's the case, good riddance to bad rubbish.

Because most of Dick's appearances in the first two seasons were in situations where Jon Hamm got to play him as vulnerable, even tender (think Don-as-Dick in Anna Draper's house), it's easy to forget just what a bastard he is. He's the one who coldly stole the real Don Draper's life without thinking of the consequences, the one who chased away his own brother to protect his secret, the one who makes Don hold himself at such a crippling distance from his wife. And Dick Whitman is the one whose first impulse at a sign of trouble is to bail on everyone who cares about him. As Jon Hamm put it to me, "When Don's in trouble, Dick runs."

And in "Seven Twenty Three," forces conspire to keep Dick from running, maybe ever again. Sterling and Cooper have always indulged Don's refusal to work without a contract, looking the other away and allowing him to make his power play against Duck. But Conrad Hilton's lawyers force the firm to look directly at this particular quirk, and they realize that it's no longer acceptable. Cooper won't let Don avoid the confrontation, and when Don tries, Roger tries going around Don to Betty, who calls out her husband for his wanderlust - where, she rightly wonders, does he plan to be in the next three years that this is such a burden?

Don-as-Dick is not pleasant to watch in this one. Cornered, he lashes out in ugly fashion at Peggy (who's devastated by it) and then at Betty (who has learned how to fight with her husband), and I'm not sure the character has been any more unappealing than he is in those two scenes. Then he tries going hobo, but he can't even do that well anymore, as his getaway is interrupted by visions of Archie Whitman calling him out for what Don fears is an empty life ("What do you make? You make bulls--t!"), and as he winds up getting rolled by the two hitchhikers. Dick's supposed to be the hustler, not the victim.

The man Dick Whitman turned himself into is a master of the universe, capable of playing all the angles and finding a way to win the unlikeliest of victories. But here, we see other men sitting in Don's chair, putting him ill at ease and telling him how his life is going to be. Connie makes it clear that, however they bonded at the country club, he's going to dictate the terms of this relationship. And Bert Cooper turns out not to be the doddering eccentric we've taken him for, but an absolute killer. He's had the Dick Whitman card in his pocket since the end of season one, but he's declined to play it until now, going straight at Don with it, yet being elegant enough to phrase his attack in an oblique way. (He paraphrases a line he used on Don in last season's "The Gold Violin" about how he knows a little about him, then asks, "After all, when it comes down to it, who's really signing the contract, anyway?")

With no contract, Don has always had the ability to walk away from his job, and even from his life. That's gone now, at least for the next three years. He completely loses this fight, able only to divorce himself from Roger (who poked his nose into Don's private life one time too many), and he's stuck. Throughout "Seven Twenty Three," we see how Don/Dick behaves when there's even a threat of taking away his freedom. Now that it's gone, will things get even uglier? Or will rooting him to one place - and therefore making Dick Whitman irrelevant - allow him to finally accept that this is his life, and to maybe be content with that?

Whatever happens, we can now forget about the idea of Don leaving Sterling Cooper to open his own shop anytime soon (unless Weiner decides to throw us a curveball and opens season four sometime in 1966, as Don's contract is coming to an end). This is where he is, and he, the show and the viewers need to make peace with it.

Getting back to the direct vs. indirect approach, the episode's three lead characters each try a different strategy in dealing with business and with potential romantic partners.

Betty, having realized that the baby isn't going to fix her marriage, is eager for the opportunity to do business with the very interested Henry Francis (who touched her belly at the same party where Don met Connie), and she and Henry flirt with each other without either one coming right out and admitting that they want to jump the other's bones. The closest they come is when Betty calls Henry out for knowing in advance that he wouldn't have time to see the endangered reservoir, and he cleverly changes the subject to the fainting couch in the furniture store window. And Betty, interested but maybe not ready for another affair just yet, can at least buy the couch so she can lie on it and fantasize about him (while looking like a character out of a Renaissance painting).

It's unclear whether Don is actually trying to flirt with Miss Farrell or if he's just making conversation, but things get frosty when she cuts right through all the talk about vacations to accuse him of hitting on her like every other dad. Between her behavior in the classroom, the drunk-dialing episode and now this, sometime tells me that Abigail Spencer is once again playing a role that needs to be measured on the Crazy/Hot scale. But even if she's as cuckoo bananas as I fear, her forthrightness clearly appealed to Don; if he wasn't interested before their conversation began, he is now. And this won't end well for anyone involved, least of all poor Sally.

Peggy tries the indirect approach with Don about the Hilton account, and he sees right through it. This is the second time this season she's had the bad timing to go see him after he had a bad meeting with one of his bosses, and it's just brutal to see Don be that cruel to Peggy, even if he does have a point about her ambition.

And just as Don chewing out Pete in last season's "Flight 1" (after a similar case of poor timing) drove Pete to become Duck's acolyte, Peggy goes to Duck's hotel suite. Duck - who has never had a problem being direct - tries to give her a glimpse of "what opportunity looks like," but she has to look away. And having never looked in Peggy's direction during their time at Sterling Cooper, Duck finds he can't stop looking at her now. Though the Peggy/Duck hookup comes from out of the blue, it makes sense in the moment. Peggy has only ever been with boys like Pete and the college kid, who don't know what they want and/or need Peggy to take the lead. Duck is a man, one who knows what he wants and can describe it in detail to Peggy. As with the Don/Miss Farrell flirtation, this will not end well - Duck is always too impulsive (he sees what he wants and goes after it), and the way he talked about loving the taste of liquor on Peggy's breath doesn't speak well to the long-term prospects for his sobriety - but at the moment I'd prefer not to look straight at that probability for the time being, and instead look around to the more immediate questions. Will Peggy be smart enough to realize that taking the Grey job now would be a big mistake? Will she feel so close to Duck now that she won't be able to resist it? And either way, how will Don and/or Pete react when they find out?

Some other thoughts on "Seven Twenty Three":

• I can only cover so much - and only notice so much - in any given episode, and sometimes the analysis in the comments of these reviews has me smacking my head, wishing I had thought of (or wrote about) something one of you suggested. With last week's episode, it was the notion (first suggested here) that Guy's maiming and its aftermath could be read as a kind of black comic allegory for the Kennedy assassination: an energetic, charismatic young rising star (who may have been more style than substance) has his life cut down in a moment of shocking violence, and in the aftermath, the beautiful woman by his side (Joan standing in for Jackie) wanders around in a blood-soaked dress. I'm never sure how much of any of this stuff is intended by the writers, but it's fun to talk about all the possibilities while we wait for the next episode, isn't it?

• Along similar lines, I had a long conversation with Mo Ryan (whose own review should be up on her blog shortly, if it's not already), and she had a slightly different take on the eclipse, suggesting the episode is about people being blocked in the same way the moon blocks the sun. Don loses his escape route, Peggy is denied a choice account, Betty appears to lose her chance to save the reservoir, etc. "But," she added, "nobody denies Connie or Bert. Two sun kings who used their power and schooled Don about who's in control."

• Joan was unsurprisingly absent from the proceedings this week. I think Hamm, Jones and Moss are the only castmembers who appear in every episode each season (many shows these days have what are called 10-for-13 deals - as in, you're a regular, but you're only paid to be in 10 out of 13 episodes - with their supporting actors to save money), and it makes sense that one of Christina Hendrick's non-appearances would be immediately after Joan's grand exit from Sterling Cooper. I still believe she'll be back, and hopefully soon.

• The book Roger mentions on the elevator is "Confessions of an Advertising Man," by David Ogilvy, one of the most influential books ever written about the profession. Ho-Ho (still being swindled by Don, Pete and the gang) mentioned reading the galleys of the book back in "The Arrangements," though he mispronounced the author's name as if he were an Irishman named O'Gilvy.

• Loved how Don the amateur decorator was able to concisely identify the one part of the new living room that needed changing, and that the professional quickly realized he was right. And even my completely untrained eye can tell that she's right about the fainting couch: that thing is way too big for the space, and too out of sync with the other furniture. It sticks out just as badly as Marty Crane's recliner did in Frasier's apartment, and it blocks out the fireplace in the same way the moon blocks the sun for a few minutes.

• Interesting that Lucky Strikes would still be considered Sterling Cooper's biggest account, though it makes sense given that Connie is so far only letting them take over the New York hotels. If he had handed Don the keys to the entire chain, they'd be number one on the client list, right?

• Ever since Hamm told me about all the pieces of physical business that Weiner likes to throw at him, I can't help paying more attention to them, and how easily he seems to pull off bits like Don refilling his cigarette lighter while he talks to Roger. And his grace then stands in contrast to a moment like Don and Pete's conversation about the Hilton account, where Vincent Kartheiser spends the entire scene struggling to button his jacket with one hand. That may have been intentional (to show, again, that Pete isn't nearly as smooth as Don), or it may just be that Kartheiser was having a problem, but the director liked his performance enough to stick with that take; either way, it was momentarily distracting.

• When baby Gene came home at the end of "The Fog," it sounded like Carla wasn't going to be around for a while to help, though some other people suggested all the dialogue implied was that Carla wouldn't be a night nurse because she had to get home to her family. But if Carla's not around, then Gene is either the easiest baby of all time, or Betty Draper really does have the assistance of magical fairies to always look so put together (and to have time for things like the Junior League) during the newborn stage.

• You understand why the intensely private Don would want no part of Roger anymore, but it's a plus for the viewer that Don won't be starting up his own shop, because we get to keep enjoying John Slattery's knack for saying the most obnoxious things - the line about Don's name being on the sign, but only after his, "and probably Cooper" - and seeming charming doing it.

• Note that Betty, the anthropology major-turned-housewife, often feels compelled to show she's just as smart as the professionals she meets. Hence her saying "like in a skyscraper" to make it clear that she understood Henry's joke about not sleeping well with so many people on top of him, or her peevish reaction when he tried to explain his reference to His Master's Voice. Do you think she actually knew what it was, or is she trying to act worldly in front of him?

• Hard as it is to see Don rip into Peggy, it's more than a little amusing to see the two of them awkwardly come face-to-face the next morning: Don with his busted nose, Peggy wearing the same clothes from the day before after doing the walk of shame from Duck's hotel. Now, does Peggy have the apartment with Karen yet? Was there no time to go home and change? The Pierre is at 61st and 5th, and Sterling Cooper is on Madison between 47th and 48th; I suppose it's possible that the apartment, if she has it already, was in the opposite direction.

• Though I'm sure Don already regrets his relationship with Connie, I'm going to enjoy watching Chelcie Ross spar with Jon Hamm on a regular basis. Connie's not a man who's used to being told "no," and you can tell he's equal parts peeved and intrigued when Don does it. (In that way, Don was right when he said Cooper should have told Connie's lawyers to pass along the message about it being important to Don.)

• Bert's sharp as a tack moment in Don's office is nicely set up by a more typical moment of Cooper goofiness, as he puts his shoeless feet up on the coffee table and says of Connie, "I met him once. He's a bit of an eccentric, isn't he?"

• Carlton, played by Kristoffer Polaha, is skinny again after sporting a gut in his lone season two appearance. I guess the running is paying off for him.

• When Don is in the car with the hitchhikers, it's the second time this season (the first was with the stewardesses) he's briefly let a stranger believe he's some kind of spy. Come to think of it, the Europeans in "The Jet Set" also assumed Don was a spy until they saw his business card. Weird foreshadowing, or just an acknowledgment that Jon Hamm looks like he could have played James Bond?

• After sharing very little screen time together in the first two seasons, we've had a good amount of Roger and Peggy moments this season, here with him running into her on his way out of Don's office, complaining, "Didn't we give you an office?" (Which, to play the role of Betty the joke-explainer, is funny because Roger's the one who gave it to her.)

• Do Don and the thieving hitchhikers stop at the liquor store on the way to the motel, or did Don have that much booze in the Caddy? There are a lot of bottles on the motel room table.

Finally, thanks again for being so smart and passionate in your comments about the show. As I'm writing this review on Friday afternoon, the number of comments for "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency" is edging close to 400, which is a ridiculous number for this blog - and which may be getting unmanageable if I want to enforce Rule #5 of the commenting rules. So I'm going to amend that slightly for this show, and say this:

Until we get to 200 comments, same rules apply (skim everything before posting to avoid annoying duplication). After 200, if you're going to ask a question, or if you're going to suggest a theory or observation that you don't think has come up yet (i.e., "I think that guy Connie from the country club bar might be Conrad Hilton" or "Do you think Joan's bloody dress was supposed to be a Jackie Kennedy analogue?"), or if you want to answer or correct something from a previous comment, I want you to do a word search (every web browser has one, usually listed as Find in the Edit menu) for some possible keywords you might be using. (In those cases, try "Hilton" or "Jackie" or "bloody.") If you don't see any of your keywords - and keep in mind that Blogger splits the comments into multiple pages once you get past 200, so check 'em both - then ask/opine away.

And, as always, remember Rule #1: Be nice and respectful of each other.

What did everybody else think?
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Dexter, "Living the Dream": Family guy

"Dexter" season four premiered tonight, and after the jump, I'm going to offer some spoiler-minimal thoughts on why I'm probably not going to be writing as much about the new season as I did in years past, followed (with fair warning) by a few specific thoughts about the premiere itself. All that coming up just as soon as I TiVo Jon Stewart...

I've seen the first four episodes of this season, and while they're definitely an improvement over season three, they weren't enough to shake me of my belief that this isn't a show that should be having a fourth season. The longer "Dexter" is on, the more diluted the concept feels, and the cuddlier he becomes. Dexter as reluctant husband and father leads to some funny moments in the premiere, and in the other episodes I've seen. But it also keeps sanding off the character's edge, in the same way the writers did by making Miguel Prado(*) a monster whose crimes pre-dated his involvement with Dexter, and who had become so loathsome that even his estranged wife wasn't upset he was dead. A Dexter who kills a once-decent guy whose soul he destroyed is morally gray; a Dexter who puts down this mad dog is a hero. Similarly, Dexter wanting to maintain his secret identity to avoid hurting his new family and "killing for two now" makes him seem a bit more noble, and the audience more complicit in wanting him to stay free.

(*) And I couldn't help noticing how far we got into the "Previously, on Dexter..." sequence before Miguel was mentioned, and how quickly the montage dispensed with his story.

Michael C. Hall is still great, and the season's story arcs are unfolding more clearly and confidently than last year's muddled plots. But there came a point in an upcoming episode where I jotted down the following note: "I care so much more about Lundy and Trinity than I do about Dexter."

Hall is good enough, and the show well-made enough, that I'm going to keep watching, but I don't feel particularly invested in it. And since I've learned it's no fun for me or for my readers for me to keep writing at length about a show where I've reached that point, these weekly reviews will be much briefer - or, in some weeks, simply opportunities for you to offer up your own thoughts on the latest episode.

And if you've made it this far without having watched the episode yet, now's the time to turn away, as I'm going to get more specific with a few bullet points about "Living the Dream," in 5... 4... 3... 2... 1...

• As that Lundy note suggested, I'm really glad to see Keith Carradine back, and to see how Lundy's presence so disturbs both the unflappable Dexter and the very flappable Deb. Carradine has this great relaxed charm, and it's easy to understand why half the shows on television (like "Damages," where he'll appear in the next season) are trying to engage his services.

• Angel and LaGuerta are together? Sigh... I like the supporting actors on "Dexter," David Zayas as Angel in particular, but their non-Dexter-related subplots are never very compelling, and just there to lighten Hall's workload. The one plus of this is that it means instead of having to slog through a boring romance story for Angel and one for LaGuerta, we only have to see one for the two of them.

• Because John Lithgow's most notable role of the last 15 years is Dick Solomon on "3rd Rock from the Sun," it's easy to forget that he spent much of his early career playing a series of creeps and killers. Go rent Brian DePalma's "Blow Out" for a fine example of how well he could do it then, and he still can get uber-creepy when he wants, as he did with the bathtub killing.

• I still love love love the show's opening credits, and was therefore amused by the parody of them featuring a Dexter too sleep-deprived to do his morning routine properly.

Anyway, that's me. You may be feeling more enthusiastic about the show being back, and this new story direction. What did everybody else think?
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Bored to Death, "The Alanon Case": I never drink... white wine

Very quick thoughts on the second "Bored to Death" coming up just as soon as I tell you what upsets me most about the environment...

Of the six "Bored to Death"s I've seen, this was probably the best, both in terms of nailing the form and tone (effete, neurotic Brooklyn guy plays at being hard-boiled private eye) and in terms of being funny (if Ted Danson gets nominated for an Emmy a year from now, he'll have to submit this episode for the cold sore/Krav Maga scene).

The guest casting was very good, including Kristen Wiig as the alcoholic client and Michael Potts (aka Brother Mouzone from "The Wire") as the cheerful colonic technician ("I am going to find all your treasures!").

Watching the first episode, I couldn't fathom why HBO picked this show up. Watching "The Alanon Case," I got it, and it kept me watching even though I ran hot and cold on the later episodes.

What did everybody else think?
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Curb Your Enthusiasm, "Vehicular Fellatio": Get out of my dreams and into my car

Quick spoilers for tonight's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" coming up just as soon as I reject your hypothesis...

The "Seinfeld" gang is here next week, but I have to say, I was a lot more excited by the end of this episode - specifically, that Leon will be sticking around even though Loretta and the rest of the Black family have moved out. Leon has now become such a fundamental part of the show - I'd argue he's currently the funniest character other than Larry himself - that it would have been a huge disappointment to say goodbye to him along with everybody else. And I love that they didn't even bother contriving a reason for Leon to stay while his sister was bailing, but instead had him act like no other option had ever occurred to him. I'm so relieved JB Smoove is around to matter-of-factly deliver lines like "Ass is ass, Larry!"

(One question on the Leon subplot: why wasn't there some kind of joke made about how unusual it is that one of Leon's friends was a big "Seinfeld" fan? Wasn't there always a big deal in the '90s that "Seinfeld" at its peak was the most-watched show in white households and the least-watched in black ones?)

The rest of the episode dealt, hilariously, with rules of etiquette governing oral sex and automobiles, with occasional interludes for Larry to attack a vacuum-sealed package (which led to one of the better "Curb" episode-ending jokes in a while), and guest stars Sharon Lawrence and Lolita Davidovich both fit in well.

What did everybody else think?
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Friday, September 25, 2009

Dollhouse, "Vows": Who am I this time?

Spoilers for the "Dollhouse" season two premiere coming up just as soon as I think about Fozzie Bear...
"My whole existence was constructed by a sociopath in a sweater vest. What do you suppose I should do?" -Dr. Saunders

"We are lost, but we are not gone. Will you help me?" -Echo
I had initially planned to do a full column review of the new season of "Dollhouse," but time and space limitations during Premiere Week meant I eventually ended up combining it with my "FlashForward" review in one long column. By doing that, and therefore by focusing on the structural links between the two - that "FlashForward" has an excellent premise and iffy execution, while "Dollhouse" has the opposite combination - I had to leave out the larger point I would have made in a "Dollhouse"-only review, which is this:

What "Dollhouse" is about theme-wise is fascinating, and what "Dollhouse" is about story-wise is only sometimes interesting.

What episodes like "Man on the Street" and, especially, the unaired "Epitaph One"(*) showed was that the dramatic meat of the series wasn't in Echo's missions, or even in Ballard's attempt to take down the Dollhouse and save Caroline, but in those much larger questions of identity, and of the moral implications of being able to erase a person and make them into someone else entirely.

(*) The "Epitaph One" world was originally going to be revisited in this episode, but Joss Whedon said those scenes were cut for time, and he's not sure exactly when this season he can get back to them. If you missed them over the summer, you can read some of my concerns about how the show will deal with the non-airing of such an important episode in the grand scheme of things here and here.

So Echo's undercover assignment for Ballard in "Vows" didn't do a whole lot for me - even if Jamie Bamber's guest appearance, alongside Tahmoh Penikett, made for another "Battlestar Galactica" smackdown between Apollo and Helo - until Bamber started smacking Echo around and inadvertently brought her prior imprints back to the surface. It's easy to get on Eliza Dushku for having a more limited range than the part calls for, but I thought she did a very good job in that scene, both as her undercover FBI agent character was trying to convince Bamber, and then after her brain went haywire again. And her kung fu fighting character from "Man on the Street" is always welcome.

But really, there was a lot of treading water in that story until we got to the climax of that mission, and then to Echo telling Ballard in the Dollhouse that she remembers all of her personae in some way. (I still don't quite understand, or care, why Ballard was so invested in using Echo to bring down this guy, nor why DeWitt indulged his desire to do so.) Echo retaining her old imprints, and Ballard becoming her handler, were both revealed in "Epitaph One," but those moments were still well-played, and compelling as part of the larger "Dollhouse" world.

The highlight of "Vows," though, was the Dr. Saunders storyline. Because the fate of "Dollhouse" was very much up in the air last spring, Amy Acker signed on to do ABC's midseason show "Happy Town." So she'll only be in 3 of these first 13 episodes, though Joss said on a conference call last week that those three "will be extraordinarily memorable," and "Vows" certainly qualifies.

Saunders' struggle to accept that she's really Whiskey - and that she'd rather stay Dr. Saunders then "die" by going back to her true identity - was really well-played by Acker, and the sort of story that typifies "Dollhouse" at its best. Eliza busting out kung fu moves or Dichen Lachman in a Jackie O pillbox house are fun and all, but where "Dollhouse" really gets gripping is when it's asking these existential questions about identity and the soul.

Of course, it doesn't hurt if these questions are being asked while a half-naked Amy Acker is trying to jump Topher's bones to mess with his head, which made the scene sick and funny even as Saunders' story was getting darker. And I should say that, between "Epitaph One" and "Vows," I'm coming to not hate Topher quite as much as I used to. I still don't think Fran Kranz is as funny as Joss and company think he is (or want him to be), but having the show more overtly question the morality of the Dollhouse - and making Topher have to hear and absorb those questions - he's becoming less of a wacky sociopath and more of a tragic figure. He's worked so hard and so fast proving he was the smartest kid in the room that he's only now coming to realize he should have slowed down to ask "Should I do this?" before he asked "Can I do this?"

A few other thoughts:

• Victor's face is healing, which means he'll be back on assignments soon (and which explains why his face is fine in "Epitaph One"). And there's a good explanation for why Saunders hasn't had her own scars repaired.

• One early part of the undercover story that I liked: the editing of the sequence where Ballard sublimates his feelings for Echo by working out while she consummates her marriage to the arms dealer. As DeWitt puts it later, "Fighting crime by listening to Echo have sex - it's terribly noble."

• Another Whedon alum joins the proceedings, with Alexis Denisof as the mysterious Senator Perrin, who somehow knows about the Dollhouse and is publicly angling to shut it down. Hmmm...

• This is the first episode at a standard length for a network drama, as opposed to the 50-minute "Remote-Free TV" cuts that "Dollhouse" and "Fringe" got to make do with last year. Joss said last month that he was relieved to not have to fill so much time each week. The downside, though, is that at the 50-minute length, I imagine they could have made room for the "Epitaph One" stuff.

What did everybody else think?
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Freaks and Geeks: It was 10 years ago today...

My ex-partner Matt Zoller Seitz celebrates the 10th anniversary of the debut of "Freaks and Geeks" with a video essay about what made the show so great.

And, if you're feeling nostalgic, you can always read any or all of my "Freaks and Geeks" recaps from the summer of '07, which was the first time I did the summer DVD rewind thing. Click here to read the full post

Brothers: I watched so you don't have to

I chose to do an interview with Michael Strahan last week rather than a proper review of his new sitcom "Brothers" (which debuts tonight at 8 on Fox with two episodes) because I didn't have the heart to stomp all over the guy who stomped out the Patriots in Super Bowl 42.

But in all candor, "Brothers" is not anything you might classify as "good." Fienberg gets into cataloging the number of jokes in the pilot that are either about the gap in Strahan's teeth, co-star Daryl "Chill" Mitchell being in a wheelchair, or dad Carl Weathers apparently suffering early-onset Alzheimer's (a plotline that's abandoned altogether in the second episode). It's...

Nah, I can't say anything more. But even if Strahan and that Giants team holds a special place in your heart, pass. You'll want to remember him sacking Tom Brady, and not this. Click here to read the full post

'The Cleveland Show' review - Sepinwall on TV

In today's column, I review "The Cleveland Show," talk about my feelings for "Family Guy," and ask whether the universe really needs three Seth MacFarlane shows at once - particularly if one of them is about Cleveland. Click here to read the full post

Fringe, "Night of Desirable Objects": It's a mole! It's a scorpion! It's Super Baby!

Quick spoilers for last night's "Fringe" coming up just as soon as I crash a car with a frog...

"Night of Desirable Objects" was a pretty meat-and-potatoes Monster of the Week episode, and those tend to rise and fail based on two questions: Is it scary and/or creepy? And is the monster memorable in some way? In this case, I'd say the answers are "some of the time" and "not especially." I didn't think the teaser was as effective as they were hoping for - even when the show was struggling creatively in the first season, the teasers tended to be bang-on, like the hedgehog man storming out of the airplane bathroom - but Peter and Olivia's descent into the scorpion boy's lair was fairly well-done.

Where "The X-Files" tended to take a clear Separation of Church & State approach to the standalone episodes versus the mythology ones, the "Fringe" writers are trying to juggle both most weeks. Here, for instance, we have the shapeshifting assassin cozying up to Olivia, and Olivia starting to hear sounds from the parallel earth (or earths). While I understand the reason for taking this approach - audiences are more impatient now than they were even in the early-mid '90s, and ongoing story arcs have become a more acceptable part of weekly network dramas - I think I liked the way "X-Files" did it better.(*) The monster episodes tended to feel richer because the script was focused entirely on telling this one horror story, and the mythology episodes (before it became clear that the mythology was never going to make any sense) were more fun because we only got them on occasion, and because they in turn could focus entirely on the larger mysteries because there was no traditional case to deal with.

(*) It is entirely possibly, by the way, that I'm romanticizing the past here, as it's been a long time since I popped in my "X-Files" DVDs. For all I know, Cigarette Smoking Man kept walking through episodes like "Post-Modern Prometheus" or "The Host." But this is how I remember it, anyway.

Also, with Olivia out of the hospital, there was less of Walter and Peter, and of Walter, period, than I would have liked. The fishing lure scene at the end was nice, but the season premiere was a reminder of how much more interesting the show tends to be when the Bishops are at the forefront and Olivia is off to the side.

What did everybody else think?
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Grey's Anatomy, "Good Mourning"/"Goodbye": Laugh till you cry

Some quick thoughts on the two-hour "Grey's Anatomy" season premiere coming up just as soon as I say "rue"...

As the two titles suggest (as did the multiple use of the title logo at 10 o'clock), the premiere was actually two separate episodes aired back-to-back. And I keep going back and forth on whether it was a good idea to do that, or if we'd have been better off spacing out the tearful speeches over two weeks.

That isn't to say that there shouldn't have been tears, or speeches. George's death, no matter how marginal he had become last season, is and should be a huge event in the lives of these characters. Had the show raced through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's famous five stages of grief (as opposed to the four stages of cancer, with the fifth stage being death), it would have rang false, as if everyone making the show was in a hurry to move past the events of the wildly uneven fifth season. And I also recognize that putting both episodes on a single night allows the show to deal with the mourning period in an appropriate but self-contained way, so that when we do get into these season six stories about the hospital merger and the rest, it won't feel like there's a constant pall cast over them.

My problem, I guess, is that there's a very specific rhythm to a "Grey's" script - particularly a big three-hanky one like this - whether it's written by Shonda Rhimes herself or in this case by Krista Vernoff. When you put two episodes back-to-back, those rhythms - the pace at which the acts build to emotional crescendos and then briefly recede - start to become too predictable, and it sucks some of the life and emotion away.

There were so many strong performances (particularly by Sara Ramirez, Chandra Wilson and Justin Chambers) in these two hours, as well as a lot of great individual moments, highlighted by the hysterical laughter at George's funeral. But in the end it felt a little like overkill - or over-grief, I suppose.

Still, "Good Mourning" and "Goodbye" maintained the tone and quality of the creative upswing we got at the end of last season. In general, "Grey's" is really strong at the starts and ends of seasons - I liked last season's premiere - but things are a lot dicier in the middle. I'm hopeful this season's equivalents of Wacky Asperger's Doc or Ghost Sex are at least briefer than last season's. And maybe we'll get lucky, and skip over the bad patch altogether.

What did everybody else think?
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Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Office, "The Meeting": I see ghosts

Due to various technical mishaps at the Sepinwall household, I wound up watching tonight's "The Office" on my one TV without any kind of converter box or digital antenna. So the whole thing looked ghost-y and/or snow-y, and the bad picture unfortunately got in the way of some of the jokes. (It took a few lines of dialogue for me to understand the joke about Darryl's sister, for instance.) So I'm going to eschew comment on this one, save to say that the teaser was hilarious, and that the situation set up in the final minutes has a lot of promise.

What did everybody else (who had a normal picture) think? Click here to read the full post

Community, "Spanish 101": Wise up, wiseacre

Spoilers for the second episode of "Community" coming up just as soon as I remind you that real stories don't have spoilers...

The day before my "Community" review, which I had already written, was going to run in the paper, "Spanish 101" arrived in the morning mail. All at once I was excited to watch it - "Community" being my favorite new show and all - and yet nervous that it would stink, since I didn't want to have to rewrite the column, and since I wanted the show to stay good.

So I quickly popped in the DVD, and by the time Senor Chang (played by the always-hilarious Ken Jeong, who'll be a semi-regular castmember) finished explaining how his knowledge will bite your face off, I was completely relieved. I wouldn't have to rewrite a thing, because this episode was turning out to be even funnier than the pilot.

In addition to the hysterical Senor Chang scene ("Use your hands! It's 90 percent of Spanish!"), "Spanish 101" was a great showcase for Chevy Chase as Pierce. As with his guest stint on "Chuck" last season, I think there's a danger at this stage of Chevy's career that the writers who grew up worshiping him in movies like "Caddyshack" and "Fletch" will just assume that his mere presence is an automatic laugh-riot, as he wasn't one of the stronger parts of the pilot. But just as the "Chuck" writers started giving Chevy funny material to play, "Spanish 101" makes it clear just how disconnected Pierce is from reality, in mostly funny but occasionally sweet ways. I'm still laughing at the notion that Pierce's skit was both homophobic and "surprisingly and specifically critical of Israel"(*), and laughing even harder at the montage of Jeff and Pierce's presentation, ironically scored to Aimee Mann's "Wise Up," which has become a cliche choice to accompany extremely earnest movie montages. I can't decide my favorite image: Chevy and Joel McHale in the tiny hats, the afro wigs (a "Fletch" homage?), or the robots. But it was wonderful throughout.

(*) Bonus points for paying off that joke with the Israeli flag in the montage.

Meanwhile, the subplot with Annie and Shirley trying to impress Britta with their protesting skills (brownies, electrical tape) made it clear that "Community" isn't going to be a comedy sausage-fest. And it also made clear that the Jeff/Britta flirtation won't be just the story of a d-bag chasing a completely awesome woman - that in some ways, Britta has constructed a self-image that's just as phony as Jeff's, except that she's better-equipped to acknowledge that. And that's good. I prefer my will-they-or-won't-they pairings to be on equivalent moral footing, more or less.

Abed continues to be the show's go-to character for meta jokes about all the pop culture tropes that are being used and/or satirized here, and I'm fine with that so long as it's limited to him and Jeff. Some shows ("Knights of Prosperity" was one) run into trouble when every joke from every character is a pop culture reference, but so far "Community" is offering a nice mix of jokes built on actual behavior along with lines like, "Conflicts like these will ultimately bring us together as an unlikely family."

The second episode is often the hardest one for a new show with a great pilot. "Spanish 101" makes me feel very confident about this show's future.

What did everybody else think?
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FlashForward, "No More Good Days": Seth MacFarlane is here why?

I wrote about the pilot of "FlashForward" in today's column - and I was specifically concerned that the pilot's second half (boring, talky) is more representative of what the series will be then the first half (car chases, special effects, kangaroos). I'm curious what you all thought. Was the first part, plus the cliffhanger, enough to keep you around for a while? Do you like any of the characters? And, again, how badly does the distraction level of having Seth MacFarlane play one of the FBI agents outweigh any value his acting skills might bring? Click here to read the full post

Parks and Recreation, "Stakeout": Burger me!

Spoilers for the second episode of "Parks and Recreation" season two coming up just as soon as I have flashbacks about that brownie...

"Stakeout," in addition to being another funny episode to start the second season, was interesting to me for the way it divided up the cast into clear stylistic pairings. We got Leslie and Tom, played by two high-energy comics in Amy Poehler and Aziz Ansari, hiding in the van together; Ann and Mark, the two relatively normal, straight men characters on a date; and, in my favorite combo, Nick Offerman and Aubrey Plaza in an epic duel of comic minimalism as April offered to help Ron deal with his crippling hernia. Andy, meanwhile, remains the wildcard as he lives in the pit, out of some pathetic hope that Ann will take him back and he can move back in within seconds.

The Ron/April stuff was the funniest - Ron flinging the burger at his mouth is the funniest food-related thing to happen on NBC Thursday since Kevin brought his famous chili to work - but the Tom/Leslie scenes had their moments, and they were important from a long-term perspective. It's one thing for Jim to be constantly mocking Dwight on "The Office," since Jim is our hero (sort of) and Dwight is a broadly-drawn and obnoxious supporting character. But this show's writers are making a clear and understandable push to make Leslie seem more human and sympathetic. So for Tom to hate and/or mock Leslie 24/7, while Leslie's too sweet and oblivious to fight back, might be a bit much, so it was good to see an occasional moment where Tom recognizes that she's not so bad all the time.

That storyline was notable for three other things. First, it added back in a joke that got cut from the pilot script explaining why Aziz Ansari is playing a character named Tom Haverford.

Second, for the second week in a row, and more directly here, we got a story playing off of recent political headlines, with Tom's encounter with the cops turning into a Skip Gates parody. (He even says "I'll step into your mama's van!" in lieu of "I'll speak to your mama outside!") When I talked with co-creator Mike Schur for last week's interview, he said the writers are making an effort to be more topical this year. I'm curious how you feel this one worked out; does coming this close to the details of an actual event take you out of the story?

Third, the main cop was played by comedian Louis CK. My only previous exposure to him was his HBO sitcom "Lucky Louie," which I panned (and which unexpectedly led to Jim Norton yelling at me on Opie & Anthony for a few minutes), but I liked him a lot here, particularly his talking head at the end - "I was attracted to her in a sexual manner that was appropriate" - which Schur said CK improvised.

In fact, one of the key stylistic differences between "Parks and Rec" and "The Office" so far is that Schur and Greg Daniels have let their actors improvise more often than "The Office" cast gets to. I asked Schur about this, in something that wound up getting cut from the actual interview piece, and this is what he wrote:
I think it may just be because Amy and Aziz (and Aubrey too -- all the "A"s) are so comfortable improvising, we just allowed for more time for them to do it. I knew Amy as an improviser first, and I think she's the best improviser I've ever seen, so it would be silly of us not to take advantage of that. Offerman is great too. They all are, really.
So what did everybody else think?
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'FlashForward' & 'Dollhouse' season two review - Sepinwall on TV

In today's column, I review the pilot for "FlashForward," which is a show that has a cool premise and mediocre execution, and the season two premiere of "Dollhouse," which is a show that started off with a dumb premise but has started to be executed so well that it doesn't matter.

I'll have a separate, brief "FlashForward" post tonight, and a "Dollhouse" episode post tomorrow night. Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

NCIS, "Truth or Consquences": The chair

Every now and then, I'll mention that "NCIS" is the show I watch the most while blogging about the least. Belatedly watching the season premiere tonight (one of the advantages of having seen so much in advance is that I can catch up on the DVR backlog), it occurred to me that that's kind of silly. "NCIS" isn't deep enough to get the kind of weekly scrutiny I give to "Mad Men," or even "House" (the other procedural in my regular viewing rotation), but there ought to be things worth discussing on at least an irregular basis, right? And since I don't watch the Tuesday reality shows on NBC, ABC and Fox, nor the two CW soaps, I'll have a bit of time on my hands that evening this fall. So a few thoughts on the season premiere coming up just as soon as I get you to be my home theater guy...

The thing that always impresses me about "NCIS" is how easily it shifts from the goofy banter to the deadly serious - a knack that former showrunner Donald Bellisaario developed on the likes of "Magnum, PI" - without the intrigue undercutting the jokes, or vice versa. And no character typifies that more than DiNozzo. He can be tied to a chair, under threat of torture or death, still making stupid jokes and random movie references, and the danger feels as real as the jokes do. Whenever I talk with Michael Weatherly at one of CBS' press tour parties, he makes like he's just a guy who picks up a paycheck for being handsome, but what he does - being a light comedian who can be credible when things get dark - takes skill. I don't know that he was this good when the series started (though as I recall, he was the one part of "Dark Angel" that I liked before I kicked that show to the curb), but he's clearly learned from Mark Harmon, who's skilled in both areas.

Nice to see Tony and McGee pull off the rescue mission, and to see Gibbs show off his famous sniper skills in the process. A strong episode, and a reminder of why this is one of the most popular shows on TV.

Even though I virtually never post about it, I know from the "NCIS: LA" discussion that the original has fans here, so what did everybody else think?
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Modern Family & Cougar Town: Thoughts?

I reviewed "Modern Family" and "Cougar Town" in today's column, but I'm wondering what you all thought of one or both of them. Click here to read the full post

Mercy & Eastwick: I watched so you won't have to

Once again, there are too many new shows debuting in a given day for me to have time/space to write about them all, so some extremely quick thoughts on "Mercy" & "Eastwick" coming up after the jump...

Fienberg does an excellent job of cataloging the many, many, many ways that "Mercy" (8 p.m., NBC) is similar to "Nurse Jackie" and "Hawthorne," so I won't rehash that here. I want to like the show, because it's both set and shot in Jersey (with Paterson standing in for Jersey City), and because I think the lead (the almost entirely unknown Taylor Schilling) has interesting screen presence. But "Mercy" isn't just derivative; it's stridently, obnoxiously derivative. And the producers' refusal to acknowledge that there's not an original moment in the pilot suggests it's not going to improve anytime soon. Pass.

"Eastwick" (10 p.m., ABC), meanwhile, is a remake of 1987's "The Witches of Eastwick" (which was itself adapted from the John Updike book), only we've downgraded from Jack Nicholson, Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon to Paul Gross (who I usually love, but who's woefully miscast as Satan), Rebecca Romijn, Jamie Ray Newman and Lindsay Price (who puts on glasses so she can play The Plain One). That's a pretty steep talent drop, and the show (which is shot on the old Stars Hollow set from "Gilmore Girls") seems like a WB show circa 2002 - not one of the good ones, but a copy of a copy of a copy of one of the good ones. And where I might check back in on "Mercy" in a month or two (assuming it's still on) just because I like some of the actors and want to see if they're being used better, there's nothing here that interests me enough for a return visit.

Feel free to use this post to discuss one or both of these shows after they air tonight.
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'Modern Family' & 'Cougar Town' reviews - Sepinwall on TV

In today's column, I review ABC's "Modern Family" (which I like a whole lot) and "Cougar Town" (which has potential but isn't quite there yet). Both shows will be in the rotation for the time being. Look for a post or posts tonight for comments for after they air. Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sons of Anarchy, "Fix": Ima let you finish

Spoilers for tonight's "Sons of Anarchy" coming up just as soon as I dry out under stress...
"Just father-son s--t, you know." -Jax

"Nobody likes seeing Mommy and Daddy fight." -Tig
Ethan and his buddies in the League spend a lot of "Fix" hatching various schemes to bring down Samcro, but they almost don't need to bother. Thanks in part to the emotional trauma they already inflicted on Gemma (and Gemma's refusal to share this with Clay), and in part to events that happened long before the League rolled into Charming, Samcro seems to be doing a bang-up job of trying to destroy itself.

Clay and Jax are still pushing at each other, trying to establish both authority within the club and moral superiority over the other. And Gemma's increasing, unexplained coldness to Clay finally pushes him over the brink and leads to a nasty scene outside of Luanne's studio. Opie's still looking to go out in a blaze of glory, and now Bobby is getting sexual favors from Luanne (the wife of another club member) in exchange for keeping secrets from Clay.

As the two lines quoted above suggest, the Sons treat the club as a family - Clay's the dad, Gemma's the mom, Jax is the favorite son, Piney the crotchety grandpa, Tig the dirtbag cousin, etc. - so when the three people who really are family start going at it, the ripple effects are much stronger than if, say, Half-Sack and Chibs had a beef going. And making matters worse, only a few people know what the Clay/Jax feud is about, and nobody who's actually a club member has any idea why Clay and Gemma aren't getting along, Clay included.

In the middle of a surprising amount of action this week is Bobby Elvis, who I suppose in this family metaphor would be the guy who's not related to anybody but is called "Uncle" because everyone's known him so long and likes him so much. (That he does a mean "Hava Nagila" helps in the latter portion.) Bobby was in jail when the hit on Donna went down. Given the way Clay leans on him for counsel (he's the angel on the shoulder to Tig's devil), it's entirely possible Bobby could have prevented the tragedy had he been out on the street at the time, and now he's trying his best to shut down this current problem before it boils over. But if it comes out that he's screwing Luanne to cover for her skimming - "prison clause" or no - the club's internal strife is only going to get worse, no?

While the club members are fighting with each other, Tara gets stuck in a metaphorical catfight with Ima the porn starlet, who wants Jax for herself. Because Gemma is such a force of nature on the show (and so well-played by the creator's wife, particularly during this current rape arc), there's always a danger that she'll start to be right about everything. So I was glad to see Tara resist the advice to brawl with Ima, and that she instead found a more emotionally satisfying way to mark her territory, even if that's not what she intended when she ripped Jax's shirt open in the bathroom. (The "I won" look on Maggie Siff's face when Ima walks into the room is priceless.)

With the club still in business with Luanne, the problem with Ima likely isn't going to go away anytime soon. Nor are the issues between Jax and Clay, Clay and Gemma, and, of course, Samcro and the League. We've got a whole lot of season left to go, and knowing the way Kurt Sutter rolls, things are going to get a lot uglier before they get prettier.

A few other thoughts:

• Usually, "Sons of Anarchy" pre-credits sequences tend to run so long that they're more or less regular acts, with the credits thrown on 10 minutes in for the heck of it. But tonight's teaser was extremely short.

• While Unser is still taking a barrel-ful of cancer meds, Hale lets himself be talked into siding with the League. I wonder if his conversations with Ethan are what Wayne's talks with Clay were like a few hundred years ago.

• This is the episode where I first noticed Adam Arkin's shifting accent - specifically, the way he says "vig-i-LAWN-tee" when Hale's at the cigar shop - but several of you said that it was in the first two episodes, as well, so I must have just missed it.

• With the talk of the prison clause, and with Clay getting serviced by a groupie during his quasi-split with Gemma, it may be time for the show to revisit exactly what the rules are concerning fidelity in this world. Last year, it seemed like Gemma was suggesting you can fool around on the road so long as it doesn't follow you home.

What did everybody else think?
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