Saturday, June 03, 2006

Being a jackass for fun and profit: House, season 2

Those are not the drugs he is looking for.

House is an odd, odd beast of a show. It's, at heart, a procedural. It's as formulaic as any episode of CSI, except when it isn't. And the formula should have gotten grating by now (they're wrong, they're wrong, they're wrong, it's a tumor is pretty much what it boils down to). But it has character development, of a sort. Scratch that. It has a REALLY GREAT character in Dr. House. One of the finest on TV in a long time. But he doesn't really develop. He can't, if he's going to be the center of a big, hit TV show. He might be touched by a dying girl, but it will cause him to. . .go out and buy a motorcycle? Really?

That said, creator and head writer David Shore can take this character and run with him for miles and miles and miles. When he moves the character incrementally forward (as he did in the finale, when House hallucinated a whole reality for himself that eventually led to his requesting a cure for his leg pain, which will eliminate his limp, one of the primary reasons for his grouchiness), it's breathtaking. Plus, he can use his characters to talk about things like predestination or why we construct our own emotional prisons or the like. It's really smart writing, not the sort you usually see on network TV.

But that formula, that formula! I'm surprised they've been able to spin it out for two seasons (I think they've done exactly three formula-busting episodes, one of which felt like a formula episode for a long time). When do we all get tired of everyone being wrong for three acts and then it's a tumor? When do they run out of crazy diseases to exploit? When do they come to a crossroads where they have to choose between the vaguely soapy plots they've had lurking in the background and the weird medicine stories?

And why do I worry about this sort of show of all things? Theoretically, a show where there's a case per week, which is solved in each episode, should be able to run infinitely. Thirty years from now, a wizened Hugh Laurie should still be getting us to tune in. It's shows like Lost, which flirt with jumping the shark with each new plot revelation, that SHOULD be making me afeared.

And. . .yet. . .I KNOW I'm going to be disappointed by Lost someday. I know that it's going to fall apart under its own weight. I made my peace with that before I even started watching the show in earnest. But something like House, I can hold out my insane hope for, even though I know intellectually that Shore will get tired of the show, and the character will run out of clever insults, and the medical mysteries will peter out.

So let's look at season two. Season two deepened the characters (again, incrementally). It gave Sela Ward some fun scripts to sink her teeth in to. And it heightened the writing. Since the show was now a hit, Shore and his staff could play around with the characters, giving them monologues and smart discussions.

I'm not trying to say that House is TV perfection. I can't imagine watching a whole string on DVD. But it's a fun show, perfect for a weekly kicking back in the chair.

Next: I think I'm up to Lost. Plus, I should probably do a So Long, Farewell post to Everwood (sniff).

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Friday, June 02, 2006

Quick hits

Here are thoughts on a bunch of shows that I watched off and on in the 2005-06 season, but didn't watch with terrible regularity.

Bones - Most of what I said about the show in my fourth or fifth post ever still stands. This is a show that is constantly in search of its tone. It can't quite nail it down consistently, and that's a pity. Still, I think this got stronger as the season went along, and Boreanaz and Deschanel (the two characters at the center) have such great chemistry that they make most of the show's squishier issues breeze right by. I'll probably keep checking in with this from time to time next year, especially once it moves to Fridays.

Desperate Housewives - I ditched this show midway through season two. I had not liked it since roughly November sweeps of season one (the whole thing just ended up thinking it was far more clever than it actually was), but I felt an obligation to keep up with the zeitgeist. Still, I checked in for the finale, and was moderately impressed. It's not the show it seemed it could have been in the pilot, but it's finding its way to a less interesting but still watchable version of itself. Indeed, I feel kind of bad. This show is still trying so hard, but it never had it in itself to be sustainable. When it started to think it was a satire of the suburbs in general, instead of primetime soaps in particular, that's when it started to lose itself.

One Tree Hill - I have seen exactly one episode of this show. What do the kids who rave about this thing even see in it? It's a bizarre little thing. I think they like the idea that all of these high school kids are getting married and having careers and stuff. And the fact that the creator seemed to be comparing himself to Shakespeare in the season finale? Might be the silliest thing ever.

Smallville - I only watch the season premieres and finales of this show because I have never had much patience for it and its bizarre supervillain of the week shenanigans (plus, the cast, while insanely attractive, is full of pretty poor actors). But I've always been a fan of Chloe, played by the estimable Allison Mack. And when she kissed Superman-in-training after having wanted to for five seasons, I was genuinely interested in the show for the first time ever. I doubt it will translate into a season pass, but at least they got me to care.

CSI - Floppy hat? Floppy hat! Seriously. . .this remains one of TV's most handsome shows. But it's become such a yawn, thanks to the overexposure of its format.

Without a Trace - I really liked the episode where the white kid and the black kid both disappeared but the media turned the white kid's disappearance into such a big deal that the black kid got lost in the shuffle. It was the kind of drama TV anthologies used to do, chock-full of social issues and never, ever subtle. Other than that, see immediately above.

Two-and-a-Half Men - Charlie Sheen's recent tabloid troubles have made this show hard to watch. It's hard to laugh at him playing a lech when he actually is one in real life.

Phew! I'm nearing the top of the immense pile I buried myself under. Tune back in tomorrow for a quick look at season two of House.

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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Whaliens, away!: Invasion, season one

And, yea, the networks did devote hours upon hours of time to stories of aliens living among us. But only one of these shows did go on to receive a full season. And, lo, that show was canceled.

Invasion was doomed by doing something that television rarely does well (indeed, something that television rarely does at all). It created a tone of foreboding suspense and then tried to sustain that over a season. The show moved glacially for its first six or seven episodes. By the time the plot kicked in, it was already too late.

I wasn't as big a fan of Invasion as some, but I always appreciate it when television tries to do something different, and Invasion was different, all right. It was an attempt to marry the creeping dread of 1950s science fiction (often paranoid) with a weekly serial that had a metaphor at its center that was just vague enough to seem to stand for anything and everything (I liked to read it as a commentary on right wing hegemony, but I know many who read it in just the opposite fashion).

The series was pinned down by two fantastic performances from William Fichtner and Kari Matchett. Playing a couple in their second marriage (Matchett had been married to the show's ostensible hero, played by Eddie Cibrian, while Fichtner's wife had died), the two soon both found themselves as "hybrids," recreations of the people they had been made by some creature that lived in the water. Fichtner, it was revealed, had been a hybrid for a long time and hoped to control the situation as more and more people changed (including his wife). As Matchett grew more used to her new powers (a nice metaphor for how we can discover ourselves once we're out of a relationship we're not at our best in), her children began to turn on her (just as the children of divorce will often come to find one of their parents "alien"). And Fichtner couldn't keep the situation under control, deceived by his underlings, sent on the run, forced to improvise, as good a stand-in for any unwinnable war as anything (the broodingly apocalyptic undertone of the show was a nice change from most sorts of these shows -- it was pretty clear the aliens would win eventually).

Where the show crumbled (and where, I think, the show lost Lost's lead-in) was in the plots involving the "hero" Russell. He was too bland of a straight man. Where Lost's hero has become something of a psychotic power-hungerer, Russell was just. . .a guy. This might have been okay, but he was the dullest guy ever, and, as our stand-in, he just wasn't good enough. It was much easier to side with the aliens, and that tore the show apart from the inside out.

That said, I think the show was getting to a point where it would have been very addictive. The scenes from the next-to-last episode where the hybrid army, posing as the real army, forced regular humans into the ocean to be converted by the glowing creatures were genuinely chilling, something that can rarely be said for broadcast television.

Invasion was, I think, too close to our every day lives. Its insistence on tugging directly at the dark secrets in the human heart probably doomed it from day one. When it comes to American art, the message that when it's us vs. them, the them may just be a bunch of people trying to do the right thing who went for a swim at the wrong time is one that many don't really want to consider. Not that I blame them. Most people watch TV to escape, and Invasion, on its own terms, refused to be escapist.

On the other hand, we got one season of fairly strong television. We got enough stuff to fuel fan fiction writers for years. And the season we do have forms a relatively complete arc. It was a brief run Invasion had, but it was an impressive one.

I'm interested to see where Shaun Cassidy lands next.

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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Two shows about the marrying kind of man and the wrong one gets canceled

If you haven't already read it, Matt Zoller Seitz's Rescue Me review perfectly encapsulates everything I wanted to say about the series. So I won't bother until the end of the year.

Did you miss me?

I know I've fallen far, far behind on actual series people actually care about, but May sweeps gave me a chance to catch up on What About Brian? and see the last few Love Monkeys, aired on VH1 after CBS canceled the show (corporate synergy strikes again!). Both shows got fair-to-middling reviews when they debuted (from this critic and from people who actually get paid to do it), but both improved as they went along. Unfortunately, the show that got truly must-see ended up getting canceled while the show that still has a lot of problems got an inexplicable renewal.

So let's start with What About Brian?, which was picked up largely so ABC could say, "See? We didn't cancel EVERYthing!" Also, they probably have a vested interest in keeping J.J. Abrams happy (for obvious reasons). So Brian and his pals got the fall time slot.

Brian isn't a BAD show, per se. It's relatively well-written dialogue wise, and the cast is charming enough (though there are way too many characters). It even has that nice, glossy ABC "look" to it.

But there's a problem with the show. These characters don't seem to exist on any realistic level. Example: Brian sleeps with two girls in 24 hours (both of them ridiculously hot, mind you) and then feels GUILTY about it. He wasn't in a relationship with either (or anyone else). He didn't have any weird psychosexual hangups (that I could tell -- though that would make the show instantly better). He just. . .slept with two girls in 24 hours. And debated whether he was fair to them.

It's times like this that I have to resort to the terminology of Craig Engellend, my grade school classmate.

In short, what a douchebag.

It would be fine if they gave Brian some CONTEXT for his feelings of guilt. Maybe he's a ridiculously handsome Presbyterian minister, struggling to get by in Los Angeles without sleeping with ridiculously hot women and failing. That's a show I would watch. The show they have now just makes Brian into a whiny, simpering fool.

Are there men like this? Almost certainly. And I'm not saying that Brian should eat a whole can of snuff tobacco and then shoot guns or anything. But it would be nice if he came to some sort of conclusion about the whole experience. "Yes. Banging two chicks was fun, but it was probably a situation that could get me in trouble," he could say. It would be a little PSA, but we would buy it. Instead, he just reads like some weird female fantasy of what a sensitive guy should be like.

(Brief pause for feminist critical theory identification. I'm aware that men have spent millennia creating female characters who are basically fantasy versions of what we would like all women to be -- virgin/mother/crone, whatever. And I think it's great that now women have risen to such levels of prominence that they can create bizarre male fantasies. But that doesn't mean I'm going to enjoy WATCHING them.)

Now. . .the show was getting a little better. Sarah Lancaster is not the world's most charismatic actress, but the show was doing a credible job of making her the ONLY GIRL FOR BRIAN who happens to be ENGAGED TO HIS BEST FRIEND (capital letters added to roughly approximate the tone of dialogue in the pilot). And the subplot with the computer geek with the ridiculously hot wife who wants to try an open marriage actually worked on a few levels and made me care about it.

But the show is just a bunch of people wandering around a fairy tale version of Los Angeles, acting like fairy tale versions of real people. Fairy tale reality isn't bad if you play it that way all the time (Felicity was kind of fun). But Brian wants to play for keeps. And you're never playing for keeps when all you have to do to get the gold is guess the mystical dwarf's name.

Actually, if What About Brian? adds a mystical dwarf in season two, I'm watching every week.

Love Monkey also debuted with its share of fixable problems (once again, there were so many characters that the pilot had to zoom past most of them and let us sketch them in on our own). But as the season went on, it fixed those problems. The relationships between the characters deepened and started to make more sense. The gay friend's secret homosexuality came out almost as an afterthought (and wasn't a HUGE deal to his friends). We could see that the show would eventually steer our main character to an everlasting love with Judy Greer (which is what we should all aspire to anyway), but we also saw that it would enjoy the ride, let him hook up with his cute coworker or that girl he delivered a pizza to. Etc.

Plus, Love Monkey really built up the idea of the main character's job. As an A&R rep for an indie record label, he got to deal with the ins and outs of the music business, which is a business most of us have only a passing familiarity with (if that). In short, this was interesting. (Side note: Brian works in the video game industry. This, too, could be interesting. But the show ignores almost every aspect of the job. So, not interesting.)

But here's the main difference between the shows: Tom of Love Monkey isn't out to find the girl of his dreams. Brian is. Tom doesn't know that his best gal pal is the girl of his dreams. Brian DOES. So when Tom doesn't do anything to prevent becoming the "lonely little monkey" mentioned in the pilot, it feels real. He's consciously making the choice to risk spending his life alone so he can have these fun years as a single dude in the city. Brian, on the other hand, figures out exactly what he wants, then lets every woman on Earth jerk him around.

Now, there's nothing wrong with an indecisive character. Hamlet, of course, is a whole play about being wishy washy (AMONG OTHER THINGS, sorry). But Brian is not Hamlet. He's not debating whether to kill his uncle or not. He's debating whether to steal the girl from his best friend. Interesting would be him swearing not to and finding himself pulled into a collision course with her every season finale or so. Interesting would be him secretly trying to undermine their relationship. Interesting would be him blatantly making plays for her every time he sees her. Instead, the show tries to find a middleground between all three and just. . .fails.

Love Monkey, instead, is about how when you're having a good time being single, when your job is fun and the city you live in is a blast, you can wake up one day a "lonely little monkey." It's not the driving force of the series. It's not the story arc. But it's always there, lurking in the background. The subtext, if you will.

On Brian, the only subtext is the text. And that makes it all the poorer.

I wish Love Monkey had gotten to continue. It was really nailing down the relationships between its characters. It even portrayed a completely functional marriage (so, so rare on television) in all of its quirks and oddities.

But Brian has a lot of potential (he said after trashing it for 20 minutes). It's got some great writers on staff, and J.J. Abrams (who isn't as hands-on with this project) can fix a show in a matter of episodes. I may tune in in the fall to see if it happens.

But I'm not hopeful.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Do you want to ... ?

I've been busy getting this stuff into shape over the long weekend, so I haven't posted as much as I thought I would (through some fun schedule magic, I have ANOTHER three-day weekend next weekend, so maybe I can get more up then).

Anyway, no post til tomorrow night. But remember to watch Rescue Me on FX. It's one of the two truly awesome shows that will be on this summer, even if it veers too close to misery porn at all times. It's one of the most darkly comic things you ever did see, though, and that's what I love about it.

In the meantime, can any of you flash animate? I've got an idea that would make a fun Internet cartoon series (and make for a great way to blow off steam), but I don't have time to learn how to animate (and I would be terrible at it anyway.

Furthermore, would you like to read a script for a pilot I'm hoping to shoot independently? It's copyrighted and all that jazz, so you wouldn't be able to steal from me, but you could cower before my genius.

In actuality, it's still pretty rough, but I've FINALLY nailed the structure of the thing, which is always a positive.

For both tasks, please e-mail me.

I also just realized I completely forgot about the TV survey. Fear not. I will try and get that whipped into shape over the week.

Happy new season everybody! It starts Thursday.

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Sunday, May 28, 2006

How I learned to stop worrying and love CBS crime dramas

I checked in with a bunch of CBS crime dramas through the month of May (to check out the season finales and a couple of heavily hyped episodes of Without a Trace), and I realized I had forgotten just how enjoyable these shows can be (perhaps, given the grim world these shows take place in, "enjoyable" isn't the most apt word, but you know how it is).

In general, these aren't the sorts of shows I like to watch. The character development tends to be an afterthought, subservient to the twists and turns of the mysteries. But there has been SOME character development over the years, and the generally top-notch actors on these shows imbue their characters with some life. Anthony LaPaglia in Without a Trace is particularly good, though I'll always have a soft spot for William Peterson and his big floppy hat on CSI.

But these shows are very, very popular. They've made CBS the most-watched network by far. But they're starting to see their popularity erode (especially among the younger viewers advertisers cherish). That's probably because there are too many of them, and they are too similar, but, by and large, the CBS crime dramas are pretty good programs. Not a one of them is outright awful (though Criminal Minds flirts with that distinction through its sheer pretentiousness). Every single one of these shows is well-produced, well-written, well-directed, well-acted and well-done. Every single one of them does ripped-from-the-headlines stuff in a much more interesting fashion than the Law & Orders over on NBC.

So in this season of summer reruns, I tell you that there are worse things you could do than click on over to CBS for a little crime-solvin' goodness. CSI (the original), Without a Trace and Cold Case are particularly good and won't make you feel dirty in the morning. Plus, you'll get to see that big, floppy hat, which William Peterson appears to have asked CBS to work into his contract.

What's most odd about the CBS crime dramas is that they're all pretty unrelentingly grim (the only ones that aren't are NCIS, which appears to be trying to be a comedy every so often, and Close to Home, which got rid of its non-grim aspects for season two -- whee!). I can't think of a network that has built its image around the idea of bordering on nihilistic. Even their top comedy, Two-and-a-Half Men, borders on sheer chauvanism from time to time. People on CBS inhabit a bleak, bleak world, where your only hope is the staff of your local law enforcement agency. Thankfully, these people are all perfect at what they do. Even CBS' network branding emphasizes how much they kick butt in the ratings every week (CSI = THE WORLD'S NUMBER ONE SHOW!), as opposed to how much they get people buzzing over their latest plot twists (ABC) or how great they used to be (NBC).

When you're on the top, you can do that, I guess.

It's just odd. One of the common complaints about things like Homicide and NYPD Blue was that they were so grim, so realistic, so gritty, that they would NEVER see widespread success. Who knew that just over ten years later, that model would be the TOP DOG on TV. All you need are a few deadpan jokes and some grisly violence, and you got yourself a network.

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