Saturday, May 13, 2006

In which I fall way, WAY behind

Got an important meeting tomorrow (with Maggie!), and I just can't seem to get this script in the shape I want it to be.

I'm going to give myself an ulcer.

Share haikus about each other in the comments.

Chris and Earl reviews coming soon, along with fall schedule predictions from me, Televisionary Jace and Jon and West Wing and Malcolm retrospectives.

And vote in the survey! Only a few days left.


Friday, May 12, 2006

"I named you Jeff because it's sporty."

As of this afternoon, Sons & Daughters is over at ABC. Studio NBC/Universal and creators Fred Goss and Nick Holly may shop the show around, but the odds of it getting a reprieve somewhere else are pretty small.

Contact info for Goss is at the link above.

It's really too bad, and I'll miss the show, but I look forward to what Goss and Holly come up with next. There's a way for their vision to fit on television.

I'm gearing up for a big weekend/week with the upfronts coming up (and I still need to get those Chris and Earl reviews out there), but I've got other irons on the fire tonight.

And vote in the best-of-TV survey, even if you can't vote for S&D.



Thursday, May 11, 2006

Very nutritious, but they smell like death: The Office (U.S.), season 2

Howdy! Earl and Chris reviews will be up tomorrow sometime.

For now, though, The Office.

Before we talk about it, let's go vote in this best-of-TV survey.

Every so often, a television series unexpectedly has a season that builds and builds and builds, until it's at a point where you hardly even recognize it for the show it was before. The Office came in to its second season as an entertaining enough diversion with amusing writing and some fine acting. Its first season was one that those of us who loved the British version spent in something approaching relief (hey! it's not embarrassingly horrible!), but the show never quite gelled in that first year, despite some funny episodes. Too many elements felt like a self-conscious homage to the British version AND some of the characters were too far over-the-top to fit in with the show's pseudo-realistic milieu.

But by the end of the second season, The Office was one of the best comedies on television (and if Sons & Daughters is canceled, there's no other challenger for its crown). There was stuff that still didn't work (I thought the episode with the fight was a little too over-the-top, and Dwight occasionally makes the show seem too much like a "show"), but the show started out ten times more confident than it was last year and only grew from there. The show's no longer in the British version's shadow precisely because it grew into a DIFFERENT show from that version. The show took that program's rhythms, internalized them and Americanized them. Instead of making Michael (who was a problematic character in the first season) a riff on Ricky Gervais' character in the British version, executive producer Greg Daniels and his writers humanized Michael AND made him a very particular version of the weaselly American middle-manager.

But enough about comparisons to the British version. The Office has earned the right to stand on its own.

I think the smartest thing The Office did was to broaden its character base. The central five were fine for a limited first season, but they would have grown tiresome over a long run. In season two, the show deepened the background characters who would wander through for a line or two in season one. By the middle of season two, all of them were regulars, creating the biggest sitcom ensemble in history (and, honestly, one of the best). In addition to that, there are non-regulars in the cast who have turned in to great recurring characters (like Creed). By filling this office with recognizable office "types" (like Angela the snob and Stanley the coaster), the show entered the zeitgeist.

I love the Jim/Pam romance (and the graceful denouement in the finale), but I think the show's heart comes from its enormous cast of recognizable people. At any moment, any one of these characters can turn on a dime and add a real pathos to the show. Let's face it. They, like us, have no desire to go in to their unrewarding jobs day after day. But they do. Because it's safer than chasing anything approaching a dream (and it's the American way).

I've said it before, but I'll say it again. Despite its tiny ratings right now, The Office is going to grow into the next Seinfeld. America is ready for cringe humor on the big scale, and this show is just the thing to take it to them. It'll be a slow build, but by season six, we'll wonder how this show was ever non-mainstream.

And by then, I'll probably be tired of it.

But for now, enjoy the ride. The Office is coming off a well-nigh-masterful second season, and no one can take that from it.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Oh, I am so mad at Lorelai right now: Gilmore Girls, season 6

You get 50 points if you can tell me what the quote above refers to!

And, while we're at it, vote in the best-of-TV survey. On Monday, you don't have to listen to me whine about it anymore!

So. . .goodbye, Palladinos. It was a fine run. We had four great seasons, one pretty good season and one middling season, shot through with occasional brilliance. And wasn't that fun? Aren't we all glad we could put the characters in a box, so it was just that much harder for them to claw their way out of said box? I'm sure the new showrunner LOVES you.

Strangely, though, I'm not bitter about the Palladinos leaving the show they've shepherded for so long. I can see their point-of-view (even if I think an eighth season, which they seemed to want, would have been disastrous). And I'm sure they're bitter about all of the pilots they've been promised that were canceled. And the fact that they've been writing and rewriting EVERYTHING in a show that has scripts that are much longer than average TV scripts. . .well, I can see why they were exhausted.

Still, if you have to leave your baby, do you really need to leave it in such a poor state? The sixth season of Gilmore Girls never completely jumped off the cliff and descended into territory where it was bad, to be precise, but it rarely got up over the mediocre status.

The emotional journey that the central characters went on at the start of the year (when the titular mother and daughter weren't speaking) was an interesting one for the characters, emotionally and psychologically. But it also felt terribly, terribly forced. It felt as though Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan decided it would be interesting to have the two characters endure a separation and THEN decided how to make it happen. It also dragged on a bit too long and didn't find more interesting ways to fill the characters' time.

And then we came to the April arc.

Now, honestly, I'm not THAT huge of a Luke and Lorelai fan. I think their chemistry often feels forced (reportedly, the actors don't like each other all that much). But the April arc felt like even MORE of a convenience, a way to postpone a wedding that the show has been leading up to for some time for another season. (That said, I really like Vanessa Marano, who plays April, and I think she's a nice addition to the cast. I just don't like the way she was added.) I tried to cut the storyline some slack since I liked the actress, but it never really coalesced. It forced all of the characters to behave in ways they wouldn't behave for the convenience of the plot (Lorelai taking something like SIX MONTHS to confront her fiancee about the awful way he's treating her? Really?!).

Gilmore Girls has done big, dramatic stuff well before. But, increasingly, it feels like the show's true strengths are in comedy. And that's where I'll miss the Palladinos most. I'll miss the random Paris Gellar rants. I'll miss the pitch-perfect Gilmore pop culture references. I'll miss bizarre conceits (like the invasion of troubadours) that pay off perfectly.

But I understand why they left. I just think the show will be worse off without them.

Still, good luck getting out of that box, new writers!


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

I hear she's smarter than me: Veronica Mars, season 2

Whipsmart? Platinum blonde? Great with a comeback? Sassy as all get-out? That's right, aside from the whole "18 years old" thing, Veronica Mars just might be my ideal woman.

Before we get in to ten reasons why season two of Veronica Mars was better than season one (and I'm aware that's an unpopular opinion, and I'm prepared to defend it), may I remind you to vote in the best-of-TV survey?

So. Veronica Mars. I thought that season two of this show built on the solid foundation it had laid down in the first year and shot off into uncharted. . .

Hold on. I feel my fanboy coming on.


Okay. Got that out of my system. Seriously, though, that was the best season finale I've seen in years. The cliffhanger, as it was, wasn't much of one, but the ways in which Rob Thomas and his writers tested and shattered their characters were peerless.

So. Ten reasons.

10.) As good as Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni were in season one, the rest of the cast grew to match them in season two. It's a tricky thing to build an ensemble, especially for a teen show, especially on a network like UPN or The WB, which constantly tries to get you to cast model lookalikes (ahem. . .One Tree Hill?). Veronica Mars fell prey to that with the casting of Teddy Dunn (more in a moment), but the second season allowed the show's other actors to show off their abilities. Francis Capra, Jason Dohring and Percy Daggs III all, in particular, found their inner chops this year (Dohring was starting to figure them out in the latter half of season one), and that made the ride that much more thrilling. And then, like freaky acting geniuses, Bell and Colantoni actually went on to OUTSTRIP their season one work. Incredible.

9.) The show expanded its universe and supporting players. A good noir world (and Veronica Mars tries to be one) offers up a rich, lived-in world, where evil can win and good gets a reprieve just to get up in the morning. In season one, VM didn't quite have the whole universe thing figured out. In season two, it stumbled by adding the Fitzpatricks (who never really quite gelled with the rest of the show), but it excelled when it expanded the world of the Casablancas brothers (I'm so glad the show kept its femme fatale, Kendall Casablancas, alive), Neptune High (making Tina Majorino's Mac all but a regular was such a smart move) and the upper echelons of Neptune's power circles (Woody Goodman ended up being a wonderfully pathetic guy). Plus, the show was careful to make Neptune the kind of world where a secret child molestor could become the mayor. Perfect.

8.) Speaking of noir. . . Veronica Mars wasn't afraid to play dark in season two. The dispatching of Weevil's nemesis when the stadium crumbled was deliciously twisted. The ultimate triumph of Aaron Echolls was as well. And the virtuous guy calling in a murder from the beach while hanging out with his baby. . .wonderful.

7.) The story construction was some of the best in TV series history. Frankly, this is where most of the complaints came from in the middle of the season (and the frequent pre-emptions didn't help). I can sort of see where these complaints were warranted in the part of the season when the show became preoccupied with Duncan's baby (and, briefly, with Wallace's alleged crimes). But the last 10 episodes or so were an incredible build-up to an incredible payoff.

6.) The individual episodes were more consistent. When fans talk about the wonder of season one, they're talking, in general, about the last half of the season, when the show figured out the proper balance between soap opera, overarching mystery and episode-based mysteries. The first half of the season had its fits and starts (the cult episode, in particular), when the show was still trying to figure out its formula. Season two took the balance of elements discovered in the latter half of season one and stretched it out through the whole year. Plus, the individual mysteries were better written, with more fully realized characters at the center of them.

5.) The writing got that much snappier. One of the chief appeals of this show is watching Veronica say and do the things we wish we would do when boxed in to an unpleasant situation. And while the first season had its share of memorable one-liners, season two was better overall in this regard. In the first year, the show was funnier than most dramas. In the second year, the show was funnier than most comedies (notice how I didn't give any examples? Yeah. I'm tired).

4.) The show got rid of Teddy Dunn. Teddy Dunn isn't a bad actor. But he just couldn't play either of the characters he was asked to play (the original notes for the show indicate that Thomas wanted Duncan to be the show's "guy fatale," but Logan ended up being much better at that role. . .so when Duncan was made a bland hero, he couldn't do that either). Plus, he didn't fit in with the story now that Lilly Kane's murder had been solved. The show found an elegant way for Duncan to leave AND let him have a final kissoff that was truly magnificent.

3.) The bus crash mystery forced Veronica into a new position. Veronica's position in the first year was that she wanted nothing to do with the world of Neptune. It had spurned her, so she would spurn it. But in a good noir, the hero eventually needs to realize that society as a whole will be better for their quixotic stands against the ruling power. Veronica came to realize this as well in season two, discovering that not only could she help people, but she could come to rely on them if need be. By working on the side of justice, Veronica took a larger step towards becoming a part of a more just society.

2.) The season set up a third season nicely. The college episode was one of the season's highlights, and it gave me hope that VM could be even BETTER in college (especially with Mac as a series regular).

1.) That finale. I mean. . .I had guessed who the killer was and all, but still. . .HOLY CRAP!

And, since all good things come with bad, two things that the show did that made it falter ever-so-slightly.

1.) Not enough Veronica and Logan. I don't mean that the show needed them together as a couple to work. I mean that the show is most on fire when Dohring and Bell are at the center of the screen. These two have some of the best chemistry in many a year, and Thomas and company would go episodes allowing the two only a scene or two. The end of the finale, though, seems to ensure this won't be the case next year.

2.) The show didn't work hard enough to humanize the bus crash victims. "I Am God," the episode where we met all of them, was a season highlight, but it came too late to make an impact in how the crime EMOTIONALLY impacted Veronica. If, say, (and I hate to suggest this) Mac had been on the bus, it would have played out MUCH more emotionally. The great thing about Lilly Kane was that she was Veronica's best friend. When she died, it gave Veronica purpose. But the purpose from the bus crash wasn't immediately clear.

I want to see how Lost and Sopranos wrap up their seasons, but for now, this is a strong number one show for the 2005-06 television season.

I hope I see you next season, Miss Mars.


Monday, May 08, 2006

Open thread: Best season/series finales

Arrgh. I'm backed up with deadlines, so I'm just going to throw a thread up for discussion purposes, without really getting in to the topic too deeply.

What do you think are the best season/series finales in TV history (since we're in that time of year)? The Boston Phoenix thinks these are the best season finales, and this article says these are the best series finales (Angel? Really?!).

So what do you think?

And vote in that blasted best-of-TV survey.


Sunday, May 07, 2006

So long, farewell: 7th Heaven

Look at that picture! They all look so young, don't they?

And when you vote in the best-of-TV survey, don't vote for 7th Heaven. Please.

Anyway, I thought I might provide brief eulogies for the seven long-running series leaving the air this year. I've seen enough episodes of all of them (save for one, which might surprise you) to offer a concise enough analysis of what was good and bad about each series.

The first show to air its series finale (and The CW confirmed it wouldn't be back last week) is 7th Heaven. It's also the longest-running of the shows leaving the air, clocking in at 10 seasons. It's also the longest-running family drama of all-time (using The WB's stringent requirements that the show be ABOUT a family and not just SUITABLE for family viewing), beating The Waltons out by one season.

But why did a show this mediocre and, well, WEIRD last that long anyway? At its best, 7th Heaven was nothing more than an idiosyncratic 50s throwback, like one of those shows produced by the church where a modern family would confront a moral crisis, then resolve it through good Christian living. Now, in theory, there's nothing wrong with this, but 7th Heaven tried to blend these conventions with the modern soap, so we got a show where people were waiting to get married so they could hop in to bed together and have sex solve their relationship problems.

Plus, it had a dog named Happy, credited as being played by a dog named Happy.

7th Heaven started out as a show that wasn't exactly BAD, per se. Its first few years, when the family was mostly intact because Jessica Biel hadn't left to pursue movies and the title of Esquire's sexiest woman in the world, the show was fairly entertaining for what it was. It was safe, granola-y programming, the type your mom might like to watch.

But then things went off the deep end.

There's a common stereotype out there of the judgmental fundamentalist Christian. I think 7th Heaven may be more responsible for that stereotype than any work of culture in the history of the world ever.

Okay, I exaggerate (somewhat), but the producers did seem to have no idea how to build a consistent moral universe (see the comments about sex above). Plus, with the exit of Biel (and later Barry Watson), the household at the center of the show became a revolving door, letting character after character enter the show, then leave when they didn't gel with the central ensemble. At least Happy remained a constant.

Plus, as the little kids grew up, the show just got kind of creepy. They all turned out uniformly attractive, and, soon enough, they were getting married or sleeping with the neighbors or sleeping with the latest boarder in the house.

And the moralizing got SO SHRILL. No one in the central family could ever be in the wrong, but those surrounding them certainly could. And the judgments passed down from the Reverend were always right. If you didn't listen to him, surely awful iniquities would befall you.

And the acting was always pretty bad. And in the musical episode, the singing was even worse.

Look. There's always going to be room for moralizing in pop culture. There has to be. We, as humans, get some perverse pleasure from seeing fictional characters have their comeuppance handed to them on a silver platter when they do something wrong. We like our white hats and black hats.

But that doesn't mean the moralizing has to be as thuddlingly obvious as it was on this show.

The next shows to leave the air are Malcolm in the Middle and The West Wing. Check in Saturday to see what I think of those.


Quote of the Day!

Libby, on some people we know who recently had a baby: "If I had the last name Justice, I would name my baby something AWESOME like FIREBALL."

Fireball Justice: Attorney at Law.

For some reason, my post yesterday in which I intimated that Adam the cyborg from Buffy was a villain who was somewhat lacking has attracted comments (both in the comments section and over at Bootstrap Productions).

Now, I like season four of Buffy quite a bit. It's probably the "funniest" of the seasons, which automatically endears me to it. And Adam, both as a concept and as a way to metaphorically mirror the season's larger storylines, works to some degree.

But he lacks a personal connection to the gang as a whole. While one could argue that Glory from season five also lacked a personal connection, she eliminated the need for one by both making Buffy her personal kick-toy and by threatening the life of dear Dawn just by her very existence. Adam, on the other hand, has no connection to anyone but Riley (who didn't feel like a "core" cast member) and Spike (who only got acquainted with him much later on).

Plus, he wasn't very funny.

I think the original (rumored) storyline, where Professor Walsh and Adam worked together in tandem, would have worked much better. Professor Walsh had become a mentor figure to Buffy, and her turning to the dark side would have affected Buffy more.

Adam was just something to kill, not something that it would be emotionally HARD to kill.

So there you go.