Saturday, April 22, 2006

Best of TV survey

It seemed like it was time to write a full post devoted to this again (especially since so many people are coming here to vote).

The rules:

You can only vote for shows that are still on the air and have episodes coming up. If you're doubtful of one or two, include some runners-up. Or talk to me.

E-mail me to vote.

Include commentary only if you want to.

We're cancelling the worst-of-TV survey because no one filled out ballots for that. I guess none of you FORCE yourselves to watch bad TV.

The deadline is May 15.

Thanks to The House Next Door, The Backstage and Oscarwatch for plugs. And extra special thanks to Edward Copeland on Film, where they have their own survey you should go check out (the best Best Pictures, of course).

If you have questions about certain shows, I'll keep updating this post to reflect what is and isn't eligible. Let me know.

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Gone such a long time

Hey! A best-of-TV survey! And I'll bet you haven't even voted yet. You know what my mom says about people who don't vote. She says they're bad citizens. And you wouldn't want to be that, would you?

Anyway, I wasted my energy getting a wireless network set up tonight, so Gilead will have to wait. Until then, why don't you buy it and read it. I mean, what else do you have to do?

I thought I would talk about the TV shows I've been cleaning off of my TiVos and let you know what I think of them. Yes, it's another coast-y episode-review post. So what?

Gilmore Girls: "The Real Paul Anka" and "I Get a Sidekick Out of You" (originally aired April 11 and April 18). So. . .anyway. . .too bad about the Palladinos leaving this show, huh? Stupid idiot that I am, though, I'll probably keep watching it through next season, just because it's the last year. But this is a show that's SO dependent on its creator's voice that it's never going to be the same. Kind of like West Wing. It might be a good show, but it won't be the show we all loved. Oh well.

Still, I'm kind of glad they decided to keep this show to only one more season. I'm not sure I could have handled another TWO SEASONS of this. The sixth season has been weird and meandery, and "The Real Paul Anka" was no exception. This was one of those patented late season episodes where nothing happens (come to think of it, last season's late season nothing happens episode came right around this time too). The Paul Anka gag felt pointless because the better part of a season was spent setting it up and it. . .fizzled. And I WON'T miss ASP's bad boy fetish when she leaves the show. Why couldn't every girl on TV fall in love with a whip-smart journalist/wanna-be TV writer?

"Sidekick" was a marked improvement. ASP has always known exactly how to make her characters sing, and she did a fine job here. It was nice to see another happy Stars Hollow wedding, and it's good to see Lane happy as well. Not all of the jokes hit, but I was so happy to see an episode that largely worked that I was willing to forgive a lot.

I'm also apparently the only person in the world who wants to see Lorelai and Christopher end up together.

The Simpsons: "Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bangalore" (originally aired April 9). Watching The Simpsons has become a bit of a habit more than something done out of pleasure. But for some reason, this episode really amused me. I laughed once every minute or so. It's not the laugh-a-second ratio of seasons 3-7, but it's still pretty darn good. The one thing The Simpsons still does really well is gentle satire (as opposed to the knife-wielding South Park), and this was a good example of that. Outsourcing was a great topic for the show to tackle, and it gave Mr. Burns something to do (which has been lacking). And there was a Bollywood number!

Lost: "S.O.S." (originally aired April 12). I'm glad the show is fleshing out its background characters. I actually have liked most of the flashbacks this year, but I can see where they bore people (I also think that the introduction of the Hatch made the flashbacks less structurally necessary, because now there's always somewhere to cut to). There's none of the thrill of discovery we got in season one, and if the show burns off its few remaining secrets for the main characters, we're going to run out of story fast. So it's a good move to flashback on the supporting cast. It also helps that Rose and Bernard had a genuinely affecting story. It's rare to see older people on television, rarer still to see a love story geared just toward them (and an inter-racial one to boot). While the "everybody's been healed!" motif is going to start to get old soon, it was played beautifully here. I have high hopes for Rousseau and Desmond flashbacks after this outing.

Everybody Hates Chris: "Everybody Hates Corleone" and "Everybody Hates Drew" (originally aired April 13 and April 20). The popular criticism of this show is that it's not as funny as a Chris Rock standup routine. But I don't think that idea holds water. The show doesn't WANT to be scabrously funny like a Chris Rock routine. It's FAR more interested in doing something more like The Cosby Show or The Wonder Years. That style of show might not be in fashion right now, but this is as fine an example of it as we've had in a long time. Criticizing it for not being a Chris Rock routine is criticizing it for not living up to YOUR preconceived notions of what it should be. And that's a criticism no-no.

The Sopranos: "Mr. and Mrs. John Sacrimoni Request" and "Live Free or Die" (originally aired April 9 and April 16). The wedding of Johnny Sack's daughter episode was maybe my least favorite of the season so far. There was some interesting stuff in it (and I liked the insight into his family), but it felt mainly like an episode setting up lots of other storylines. Fortunately, at least one storyline (the discovery of Vito's homosexuality) played out in the next episode, which was one of the series' best ever. "Live Free or Die" crystallized this season's main theme: What would you do to change, to live the life you really want to live? Where the show's treatment of homosexuality has been sort of jokey in the past (perhaps appropriate, due to the show's setting), this episode showed just how dangerous life would be for a gay gangster. And the actors all really rose to the top of their respective games. The episode was a quiet one, but the issues of loyalty and the hypocrisy of these murderous gangsters who find homosexuality to be grave sin were driven home perfectly.

24: "11:00 p.m. - 12:00 a.m." and "12:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m." (originally aired April 10 and April 17). The President Logan twist still doesn't make sense, but Gregory Itzin is doing such a good job of making me not care that I (surprise) don't care. I find further support for my theory that 24 has tried to make the shift to a left-leaning zeitgeist show from Jack's mini-monologue about how the United States' government has no credibility. Granted, we're in full "we have to extend the plot to get to 24 episodes!" mode, but if we're going to complain about stretching things out, then. . .

Prison Break: "J-Cat" (originally aired April 10). C'mon, already. Just break out. We ALL know it's going to happen. And stop cutting to the least interesting government conspiracy storyline in the history of network television (note how I couldn't make it through the second TiVoed episode of this yet).

Big Love: "Affair" and "Roberta's Funeral" (originally aired April 9 and April 16). I've been wondering just how much I liked this show recently. I knew I liked it, but I wasn't sure if it was going to become something I grew to love. I still think this is a solid B+ show, which is trying to reach for A status, but these two episodes, plus Matt Zoller Seitz's interesting take on the show have put me firmly in its camp. "Affair" was probably the show's best episode yet, and it's juggling numerous soap opera plots as well as anything else on TV (okay, better than anything else on TV, save, maybe, Grey's Anatomy). Big Love also has something that the first few episodes of Desperate Housewives had: a sense of real consequence, that bad things could happen and destroy our characters. I don't know how long this show can keep up all of this plot spinning, but I'm enjoying the ride so far.

Phew!

The scary thing is. . .we haven't even TOUCHED the TiVo in the other room!

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ITube, YouTube, we all Tube for YouTube

In an effort to continue to bring you the best of the Internet (several weeks late), behold!

First, inappropriate Japanese sexuality with forest animals (and I promise this clip won't get you arrested)!



Next, the Easter Bunny! Kicking ass and taking names!



Finally, the world's awfullest Oscar production number. Really! The one that killed them for several years!



Don't you feel better with me as your friend?

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

"Don't forget to kill Tim": Deadwood, Season 1

In re: the best-of-TV survey, I forgot to say that Rome IS eligible. Its second season just began filming today. And if you haven't voted yet, do so soon. I'm also extending the deadline to May 15, the better to make it correspond with the end of the TV season (and the better to get every ballot I can).

Anyway, I've talked before of my love for Deadwood. I think it's probably the best show on TV (though the race is very tight, I must say).

But it wasn't always that way.

One would expect me to like Deadwood, I suppose, considering it's the first show in ages to feature my home state as the setting. Plus, I love art that deals with themes of community, and Deadwood does so in spades. But when the show first came on, I felt a tug-of-war between myself and it that I couldn't resolve all through the first season. In the second season, I embraced the program wholeheartedly, but in the first, I was more hesitant.

Having worked back through the first season over the course of a couple of weeks on DVD, I now more fully understand what the show was going for, and I'm able to say that while the second season of Deadwood is better and more cohesive, the first season is some amazing television.

In the first season, creator David Milch and his writing team began with the story that made Deadwood a place of American myth: the murder of Wild Bill Hickock. Now, I would wager that most Americans have a passing familiarity with the story of how Jack McCall shot Hickock in the back, but most South Dakotans have this story burned into their brains. You can't grow up in that state without visiting the Black Hills, and you can't visit the Black Hills without learning the story of Hickock's end (and possibly seeing a production of The Trial of Jack McCall).

And that, I think, set me in my weird ambivalence towards the show in the first half of the first season. I knew all too well what was coming. While many might only have known that Hickock was going to die, I knew exactly what to expect from the storyline. And that made the first five or six episodes, at least the first time around, a near bore.

Don't get me wrong. I loved the acting and the gorgeous writing (which often falls into iambic pentameter). And the solid direction was a cut above TV standards. It was the plot itself that was dragging me down. I knew, as it were, TOO MUCH, like when you get spoiled for a show like 24, where the plot itself is almost the whole reason for the show to exist.

The second half of the season, when the Hickock storyline became only one of many stewing on the show's stove, allowed the show to grow on me. By the end of the season, I was highly anticipating a second season (and when it came along, I found my anticipation to be rewarded).

But watching the show once again, I find that everything holds together better for me now. Now, knowing too much is a GOOD thing, because I know the ULTIMATE plan for the season. In short, the Hickock stuff makes more sense as a prelude to the meat of the show, rather than a story arc in and of itself.

Deadwood is, in so many words, about the creation of society from nothing. When there's no one to dictate law to you, what sort of laws do you fall back on? The laws of God? The laws of common human nature? Or no laws at all? Deadwood asserts (in a somewhat bold notion for television) that we all have moral codes of our own, that even the worst of us have things we simply will not stand for. No one is all bad or all good. No one is without sin, but no one is without virtue either. This, of course, is just like life. But it's nothing like most television.

The Hickock stuff works as prelude in retrospect because it sets up a situation where the citizens of Deadwood begin to question just how much lawlessness they will stand for. Most of the people in Deadwood have moved there to get rich quick, to evade problems in other parts of the country or to live in a state that is close to anarchy (one can see this attitude reflected back at us in the contemporary Black Hills, where the prevailing sentiment about the government is that there should be as little of it as possible). But the murder of Hickock (and the later murder of two teenagers) represents a tipping point. The citizens begin to see the need for the trappings of society: a mayor, a council, a sheriff. With these things comes responsibility. With these things comes a government. In essence, you can live in fear for your life, or you can have gradually increasing government control over your life. It's the paradox of any free society, and no one has quite solved it yet.

Deadwood is also a show where the various characters seem to represent certain facets of the American public, though just when you think you've got what they represent pinned down, they flit off in a different direction. All of the characters represent many different things, which is the way it should be in any work of art that mixes realism with allegorical elements. The little girl Sophia works both as mute observer and as innocent corrupted by the big bad world. Al Swearengen works as politician, corrupting influence, moral conscience and Greek chorus. And Seth Bullock neatly encompasses both the need for law and the hypocrisy of it.

In short, Deadwood is a deep, deep work. I'm not sure I've yet gotten all the meaning out of it after two viewings. But instead of prattling on about themes and symbolism (which is surely boring you), I'll discuss the two things everyone mentions when discussing Deadwood: Ian McShane and the language.

One of the typical complaints leveled against Deadwood is that Timothy Olyphant (who plays Seth Bullock, the ostensible hero) is not half the actor that Ian McShane (who plays Al Swearengen, the ostensible "villain") is. This is somewhat true.

But Olyphant has a MUCH harder part to play. He has to struggle with himself, but usually land on the side of truth, justice and the American way. He's a fairly straight hero with a few personal issues. And the way the writers write him isn't one-tenth of the way they write Al Swearengen.

Simply put, Ian McShane has a lion of a role to rip in to. It's the kind of role that Milch writes so, so well. A largely amoral man who has a lot to say and says it in a deeply expressive manner. In any given episode, McShane gets to play the full gamut of emotions, while Olyphant gets to play one or two (generally frustration and/or righteous anger). Is this a weakness of the show that the characters are unbalanced thusly? I don't think so. I think it reflects Milch's somewhat cynical belief that when the chips are down, Bullock may not be the guy to turn to.

As for the language (Deadwood has easily the most profanity-laden dialogue on TV), I think it helps increase the verisimilitude of Milch's milieu. Profanity doesn't work for every show (it would feel out of place to have this much profanity on, say, Everwood), but for gritty realism, like the kind Milch traffics in, it works. In addition, Milch knows how to write a profane tirade and sort of make it sound like Shakespeare. While the language got many critics in a titter when the show debuted, I think that it has slowly become a part of the tapestry the show weaves.

To be perfectly honest, I could talk about Deadwood for hours on end. But that would be much too long of a blog entry. I'm going to be working my way through season two as HBO reruns it, and then I may do an episode-by-episode review of season three when it debuts this summer. We'll see.

Anyway, next up on the TV on DVD plate is Rescue Me, season one, which should be interesting.

Tomorrow: Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and American expressions of faith.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Keep Those Cards and Letters Coming

I forgot just how cramped things would be tonight, so the Deadwood review will have to wait. Sorry to the three of you that were anticipating it so highly!

Some quick thoughts. . .

--Voting continues on the best-of-TV survey. If you've voted, you're sick of hearing me talk about this, but a few series keep popping up with an "Is this eligible?" tag, so I thought I would answer those questions. 1.) Sons & Daughters is eligible, unless ABC declares it to be dead sometime before May 1 (it won't happen). 2.) The Shield is eligible, since it has several episodes coming up in 2007. 3.) The Daily Show and all talk shows are eligible. 4.) Once again, Arrested Development is not eligible. 5.) Reality shows are eligible too. Thank you for your time.

--Let's keep those ballots flowing in. It'd be nice to do a top 20 (or even 50), but I'll have trouble justifying that with the current paltry number.

--I hate articles like this where the journalist begins from a predetermined conclusion and writes backward to support that. The Boston Globe is a pretty good paper (even for entertainment stuff), but this article jumps to exactly the WRONG conclusion about Lost. I'm sure there are some people who are really, really frustrated with the reruns, but those who have abandoned the show over that fact have to make up a tiny number. The same complaints about too many reruns dog ALL shows with devoted followings and serial storylines (it gets even worse when the show is a hit). Indeed, the same grumblings dogged Lost LAST year, and the series saw no appreciable slump.

What's happened this year is, I think, two-fold. Firstly, Lost is up against American Idol, which is the biggest show on television. What's more, American Idol is bigger than ever for some reason this year (the personalities are more interesting this year than they were last year, I guess). So that's taking a small chunk out of Lost (AI has decimated Criminal Minds even more, though that show is still a hit).

Secondly, Lost very subtly shifted from being a show about characters with an overriding mythology as a backdrop to a show about mythology with characters as a backdrop this season. When the characters blasted open the hatch and found a man living down there, the show's larger story became an even bigger reason to tune in. As mocked as the writers have been in some corners of the Internet for saying that fans tune in for the characters, that's true for many, many fans (the people who dissect every little detail are probably a vocal minority). What's more, when you examine the show's numbers for this season (as the article linked above points out), the show is actually UP among 18-49-year-olds. It's DOWN among older people, though. And that has to do with the fact that younger people have grown up in a world full of serialized storylines, while older people have not. When the show made that jump, I'm willing to bet, older people probably didn't see what could appeal to them in the show anymore.

That said, this is all speculation anyway. But the reruns probably aren't hurting this show. All shows have reruns on network TV, and they don't exactly decimate something like Grey's Anatomy. More likely, it's the subtle shift Lost made from populist hit to cult hit (though still a very big cult hit) in its underlying philosophy.

--In my paper, Get Fuzzy and Pearls Before Swine run side-by-side. Needless to say, Tuesday's strips caused great concern until I backtracked to Monday's Get Fuzzy and saw what was going on. You don't get a lot of meta-commentary in the funnies. I'm not sure that this works, but at least it's trying something different.

That's all for now. Check back in for Deadwood excitement tomorrow.

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Monday, April 17, 2006

South Dakota Back

So, anyway, the computer I ended up on for the latter part of my vacation week did NOT want to acknowledge Blogspot's existence. It's times like this when it would be nice for my laptop to not be in, y'know, the computer fixer-upper place.

Sorry for the prolonged absence. But I am back in SoCal now, after a stop in grey Omaha and chilly, snowy Salt Lake City. The house is cleaner than we left it, the cats' dishes are still full, and the mail is on the counter. All of this seems less miraculous when you realize we had house sitters (and excellent ones, apparently).

Anyway, I must be kept from you a while longer for I must go begin valiantly attempting to empty out two TiVos full of a week's worth of stuff (and still accumulating). Let me know what I should watch first.

Tomorrow, Deadwood season 1 reviewed.

And, hey! Let's start stuffing my ballot box for the best of TV survey. And while you're at it, send me your ballot.

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