Friday, September 08, 2006

Poetry Friday: "Musee des Beaux Arts" by W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.


"And so it begins.": Thursday gleanings

A quiet night for television, one of the last few before the real season begins.

The NFL on NBC looked nice. I'm more of a baseball guy, but it's always fun to be in football season, even if I don't watch every game. I was out doing things (near widescreen TVs, of course), so I didn't see every minute of the game or anything, but what was there was presented crisply and efficiently. NBC Sports has a real "just show me the stupid game" philosophy. They don't go in for artsy camera angles like ABC or obsessive technobaubles that cover the whole screen like Fox. It's a bit stripped down, and I like it, even if the John Williams composed theme song is a big step down from ABC's Monday Night Football riff with those three descending notes over and over and over.

Fox launched its two new sitcoms tonight, and they continued to be two of the worst new shows of the season (honestly, Fox, what's going on?). 'Til Death, I thought when I first saw it, was a mediocre script made slightly better by an excellent cast's willingness to go for broke. Seeing it again, I couldn't fathom what made the veterans Brad Garrett, Joely Fisher and Eddie Kaye Thomas and promising newcomer Kat Foster decide this was the vehicle for them. I can't imagine the script was that much better before network notes. Perhaps Garrett looked at it and thought, Yeah. I can wring the laughs out of that! But somehow I doubt it.

Anyway, the show revolves around the novel premise that as married couples get older, they have less interest in things they enjoyed as newlyweds. Also, it posits that women are only out to give men a hard time. Both of these, as I'm sure you can tell, are entirely new and original notions. The first time you watch this, you're sort of willing to give the cast some leeway. Garrett, mugger that he is, has an excellent technical sense of how to deliver a joke -- where to put the punchline, where to give a hangdog look, etc. Joely Fisher is his equal in that department. Eddie Kaye Thomas has a tendency to oversell, but he's easily balanced by the bubbly Kat Foster.

The second time you see this, the script hangs there limply, for all to see, devoid of jokes or original ideas or anything.

There's a bigger problem here, and it's a problem with the whole "hot wife/ugly husband" genre: You simply don't believe that Fisher and Garrett are really in love or ever really were in love. Everybody Loves Raymond (which, of course, starred Garrett) kicked off the whole genre, and its characters, nasty as they were, were always grounded in what was often an unpleasant truth: They loved each other. The show cannily showed us real moments of affection between the various family members, so when it eventually all went wrong, the humor was that much more effective.

No Raymond rip-off has managed to capture that finely tuned balance (it helped that Raymond was shepherded by old sitcom pro Phil Rosenthal). In all of them, the love of the hot wife for the ugly husband is treated as an afterthought, and the husband is only in it for the sex. No TV production cycle is as hermetically sealed as the three-camera sitcom production cycle, and that's probably why the genre in recent years has tended to view long-running marriages as smirkworthy freak shows. (It doesn't help, of course, that sitcoms believe that young = funny, often tossing aside great old hands at the art of writing funny for the Next Big Thing.)

So, in summation, 'Til Death. Not that good.

Eureka, which I caught up with tonight, may be finally losing me. I've been giving it the old college try (and I've liked some of the episodes well enough), but there's just not enough to it to keep me viewing on a night that promises to be the most punishing of the fall schedule. I'm glad that quirky, lightly amusing science fiction still has a place on the television dial, but the show could use a healthy dose of learning not to love itself so much. Ah well. I'm sure I'll check in again next summer.

At any rate, this week's episode was about lost loves returning and fathers and daughters learning to trust each other and. . .there was a robot.

Quite frankly, I couldn't describe the plot of any episode of Eureka (aside from the third one, which dealt with memory loss) in any great detail. That's probably a bad sign.

Then it was back to Fox. And if 'Til Death is garden-variety bad, then Happy Hour is atrocious, the worst new show of the season. Somewhere in all of this, there's the glimmer of a good idea, what with the attempt (apparently) to turn the film Swingers into a sitcom. And the sets look nice, I guess.

But, honestly, this is just a bad show, a classic example of trying to cram too much into a pilot. We don't get a tremendous sense of who the characters are, what their conflicts are, why we should come back from week to week. Fox seemed aware that this show wasn't horribly good, desperately underpromoting it, especially when compared to the all-out blitz for 'Til Death (at least here in Southern California).

If there's one reason I'm coming back, though, it's Beth Lacke. I missed the episode of How I Met Your Mother that Lacke was in last year (the only one I missed), and now I'm sorry I did. She sort of comes out of nowhere. I can't tell if she's a genuine comedic talent or if she's just trying that much harder than everybody else, but Lacke is one to watch -- curvy (by Hollywood standards), perfectly aware of her surroundings and blessed with a gift for unconventional line readings. When the show throws her and the lead in bed together by the end of the pilot (even though she's his boss and kind of doesn't like him), you sort of buy it because she does a good job of making you buy it. (Side note: I admired the guts to get the "will they/won't they" question out of the way right away, but, honestly, it could have been done with more grace.) Happy Hour is Lacke's show, and when it's canceled, I hope she bounces right back.

One final note: Why, exactly, has it become so hard for Fox to air its shows so they end at the right time? And, if it is that hard, why can't they tell TiVo they're going to run over. Constantly missing the last 30 seconds of Fox shows is starting to grate (though on the dramas at least all I miss are the "next time on"s).

Probably no thoughts tomorrow unless I finally get to Life on Mars. And sometime this weekend, I finally, finally defend Lost season two from the conventional Internet wisdom.


Thursday, September 07, 2006

"Christian, come in here and check out my balls": Nip/Tuck, season 4 premiere

I've never been a fan of Nip/Tuck, in my opinion the weakest show in FX's stable, but somehow I've managed to keep myself relatively up-to-date with the series, dropping in for the occasional episode if only to reaffirm my distaste for the ridiculous plotting, scattershot casting and yawnsome shock tactics that creator Ryan Murphy employs so very frequently. After the derivative Carver storyline that led exhausted viewers through an endless maze of red herrings in the third season, I figured I would forget the show for good. But, with Murphy's promises of a less absurd, Carver-free fourth season, I found myself dutifully watching Tuesday's premiere.

First of all, can this show go five minutes without a guest star? Larry Hagman demanding bigger testicles is one thing (honestly, it's those raging eyebrows of his that need work). Kathleen Turner as a throaty phone-sex operator, I can tolerate. But by the time Brooke Shields appeared as Christian's icy psychiatrist, my eyes could simply roll no further. As much as I understood the 'hilarious' irony of Shields playing a shrink, it all felt like an extremely low-rent version of The Sopranos's psych scenes, minus the incisive dialogue and plus some happy-go-lucky sodomy. The weakness of Shields' character was compounded by having she and Christian resolve their tepid sexual tension within about half an hour. Through the rushed exposition of these scenes, Murphy (who wrote and directed the episode) seems to be attempting to probe deeper into Christian's character by letting us know that he has intimacy issues and might be in love with his partner Sean. Um, obvious alert!

It says something that Christian's possible infatuation with Sean might happen to be the best plotline Murphy can rustle up this season. Unless you get kicks out of gross-out surgery scenes, Julian McMahon and Dylan Walsh remain the only real reason to watch the show. They're comfortable in their characters (early on in the series, Walsh had a whiny similarity to Michael C. Hall of Six Feet Under that he has now shed) and they have good chemistry together, but their charm is crushed under the weight of the bizarre plot curveballs their characters constantly suffer through. Already I read rumors of Joely Richardson (whose performance is becoming increasibly one-note with every tragedy dumped on her wretched character) exiting the series and the villanous drug dealer of season 1 returning with a vengeance. Couple that with Sanaa Lathan's minxy femme fatale (Wow! Never seen one of them before!), the one-in-a-million congential birth defect of Sean's new son and whatever troubled Matt (curiously absent from this episode) can cook up, and we're in for another crazily controversial/brain-rendingly dull ride. Judging on what I saw last night, I don't think I'll be able to keep up.


What our God in Heaven has in store

Need something to do?

PC Magazine lists the 99 best Web sites you don't know about.

I'm betting you don't know about them. And I'm betting you enjoy most of them.

From A List of Things Thrown Five Minutes Ago.

And, hey, while we're ripping off links from over there, why not check this out, Cameron Mackintosh geeks! Sez Moses: "When people talked about how the Internet was going to democratize the world, I'm pretty sure this isn't what they had in mind."

(I actually saw the original production of Les Miz in London in what must have been close to its last year. I hated it. But, then, the actors seemed to too.)

Edit: The London production of Les Miz is STILL RUNNING? Those actors must be suicidal by now!


"Sweatin' like a ho in church": Wednesday gleanings

Some lessons in casting.

Through the weird and wild wonder of the TIVO machine, I ended up watching Justice, the show that aired last here on the West Coast, first. I jumped in about 10 minutes late, but the show was pretty much the same as last week.

Fortunately, it was boosted by having the wonderful Amanda Seyfried on board. Seyfried, of course, was the dumb blonde in Mean Girls before moving on to a season-long gig as Lilly Kane in the first season (and second season finale) of Veronica Mars. Most recently, she was a regular as Sarah, the daughter who was most questioning of the family's lifestyle on Big Love. In tonight's show, Seyfried was a bit over the top earlier, when she was doing the whole, "The nice, sweet girl actually has a horrible temper!" scenes, but she managed to really sell the scene where her testimony devolved into a crying jag as she recounted the tale of her love with an older, richer, married man.

Seyfried really sold the ambiguity of her character's guilt or innocence, so it automatically made the rest of the show more interesting. A procedural rises or falls based on its guests. CSI became so successful because its casting agents had a real eye for interesting guest stars to play the suspects of the week. House also has a good eye for this sort of thing. The accused in the pilot of Justice was not nearly as interesting as Seyfried's-gawky-farm-girl-turned-Hollywood- hottie-gone-horribly-wrong.

The regular cast was as good as could be expected -- in other words, the other actors got out of the way and let Victor Garber ham it up. And that's always a path to success. Or entertainment. I don't rightly know anymore.

On the other hand, the lovable crank has become a television archetype in record time. And the problem is, I just don't care enough about Garber's character to learn why, exactly, he became said lovable crank.

Project Runway is maybe the best cast reality show out there. In some ways, this cast is weaker than the second season's cast (I haven't seen much of the first year), but it's still full of the sorts of "characters" you don't see on other reality shows (or on many scripted shows for that matter).

I think the biggest problem with this season has been the growing lack of insight into the design process. Earlier seasons showed where the contestants drew their inspiration from in greater detail (unless I'm vastly misremembering -- and correct me if I am). This season, the show seems more interested in interpersonal drama. There's nothing wrong with interpersonal drama, but the creative element always set Runway apart, and it's a shame to see it go, even if it's for bizarre only-in-reality characters like Vincent, the man who thinks pajamas are good party wear (I defer to the general consensus that the guy should have left for his weird robot hat in -- week one, was it? -- but his genuinely bizarre nature has added some randomness to the whole deal.

Fortunately, Vincent has left the show. He didn't really deserve to be there any longer (and I would have traded him for sweet, good-natured Allison, who had the nerve to expose Heidi Klum's hatred of the moderately curvy and was thus ousted), but he occasionally made for good television.

Now, though, we're really down to the class of the bunch, I think (Allison aside), and I'm intrigued to see how the final few shows play out (assuming I have the time to keep up as the fall season revs up).

Speaking of reality, since we get a lot of hits from search engines about reality shows, expect some regular coverage of the big reality hits from a person with a far greater stomach for the genre than I fairly soon.

Bones was the final show of the evening, serving up a twisty-turny narrative that was a tad too predictable (aside from one truly interesting twist) but mostly well-played. While the gradual softening of Bones herself is still a bit mystifying, it's allowing the show to play a bit more with its sense of humor.

The case centered around the body of a mother discovered with the body of a dead baby. While in the first season a very serious case of a dead child nestled uncomfortably with joke writing, in this episode, the humor grew more naturally out of the characters and didn't feel as ill-at-ease. The dead child also played nicely (if over obviously) into a subplot about Agent Booth's child and Bones' realization that she can't quite have an ordinary life (nicely left as subtext when the same sentiment has too brutally been text in the past).

That said, the show's guest casting is still all over the map. A scene with the perpetrator of the crime that should have been moving or creepy or something just sort of flopped around laughably. Really, once you leave the safe confines of the Booth/Brennan scenes, one never knows what you might get on this show, and that's kind of a shame.

I don't know if I'll stick with Bones this season (Jericho, 30 Rock and Top Model will take precedence in my house), but it's certainly an interesting enough diversion when there's nothing else on.

Tomorrow: Catching up on stuff I've missed. And David reviews the season premiere of Nip/Tuck.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

I moved...sue me.

The Thermals- The Body, The Blood, The Machine

It's hard to love something that's so on the nose yet so left of center at the same time. The Thermals brandish a sublimely tuned blend of proto punk and pop mentalities that, very raggedly, add up to one of the most joyous punk opuses of the last few years. I love being hyperbolic. Their not so subtle jabs and questioning of organized religion is very Hold Steady-ish, but...that's a good thing. HOWEVER, don't let me fool you. The Thermals are shockingly unique, and have a tendency of not fully revealing their cards until you're well into the album. This is expert music making, reminding us of the true bliss involved with the rapidly vanishing LP. It's kind of rare these days, no?


"His pancreas is gonna explode because his brain is on fire!": Tuesday gleanings

'Twas, I thought, a solid season premiere of House. I thought some of the forced jocularity from the good doctor was a little, well, forced, but I like the way David Shore and the other writers are slowly delving into this character, bit by bit.

It was great to see Kathleen Quinlan (Oscar-nominated at one time for Apollo 13) again though, no? One of the great things about the dramatic TV resurgence of the last few years is that it has taken over-the-hill character actors who can't get the time of day in major Hollywood studios and given them meaty parts to play, even if they're only on for a week. The Buffyverse continues to cross-pollinate the rest of the TV world, too, what with Clare Kramer (season five's Big Bad, Glory) playing the yoga girl who had scurvy.

If anything, I thought, this episode tried to do a bit too much. The yoga girl was tacked on a bit perfunctorily. I get what the writers were going for, what with House testing out being nice to people and all, but we never really got a sense of her as a person, and the best episodes of House personify the patients quickly and handily.

Fortunately, this was all counteracted by the week's true medical mystery, the man who hadn't walked or talked or anything for eight years whom House thought he could cure. This story was well-built, pitting House's own team against him and finally giving House's superiors the chance to say no to him. After his long hallucination in the second season finale and his self-diagnosis (leading to the cure of his leg pain), House has gotten cockier, readier to trust his gut, damn the evidence presented to him. Wilson recognizes that this could eventually lead to his downfall, but for now, he's saving people left and right.

I really liked the scene where the man in the wheelchair slowly regained his sensation, attempting at first to move his arms, then stand, then talk. It's a frightening thought, being trapped in your own body, and House dramatized it without doing too much crazy stylistic stuff.

A final note: It was marvelous fun to see Hugh Laurie do the Tom Cruise in Risky Business slide and skateboard, but I think seeing House play with his newly healed leg is the sort of thing that doesn't need to be seen every week. I also like the show's tacit acknowledgment that the leg pain was just a crutch, an excuse to be cranky.

Could it be that while other shows introduce malcontents as heroes, the show that made them popular is going to soften its malcontent just a bit?

Also checked out Standoff again and liked it less than the first time. If the House premiere was trying to do too much, Standoff was trying to do too much times two.

The problem, as I see it, is that Standoff is about five different and very interesting shows crammed into one, not very interesting show. There's a cool action-drama about the tactics used to end hostage situations. There's a procedural about sussing out the minds behind the hostage situations. There's a sort of "chess game" show about using strategy to outthink the hostage takers. There's a fairly classic "banter" show. And there's a romantic comedy. All of these elements are jostling for attention at the same time, and while a superior writer can pull that many different goals off, this writer just can't.

I really admire the decision to just dump us in the middle of the story, but why couldn't we have backed up a few months to see the relationship between the two leads when it was in its new and exciting infancy. Was it really all about sex, as the lead guy maintains? Or were there other feelings there (the show hints at them, of course)? By dropping us in near the END of the relationship, the show cheats us out of a lot of the stuff we might want to see in a romance set in the world of hostage negotiators. In some ways, this episode feels like a February sweeps episode forced to be a pilot. The audience is growing more sophisticated, but it still wants to see the most interesting parts of the story.

That said, I wouldn't be surprised by a high rating for the show. The first scene really catches your attention, even if you don't really care about the guy betraying his girl (since you don't know them yet). And the story about the son of the senator turning Muslim terrorist only. . .not really. . .was well-executed, if a tad predictable (and the implications of the mother/son relationship -- while not straying over into incest -- were yishy enough to take one out of the scene -- if you're going to do that sort of thing, go whole-hog and really shock us).

All in all, though, I don't think Standoff will be worth a return visit.

I'll try and TiVo Nip/Tuck. I really came to dislike the show about halfway through its second season, but friends assure me there's still a lot there to admire, and some critics say it has returned to form after what was said to be a disappointing third season (I didn't watch).

Backing up, though, what, exactly, went wrong with Fox's development this year? The network has to sort of play it safe, since it's so weak without Idol but so strong with it, so I understand the desire to really hit the procedural and traditional sitcom formats hard, but this is a network that used to routinely turn tired genres inside out and try new things. This year, they just feel like CBS. And the CBS clones aren't even GOOD CBS clones like House or adequate CBS clones like Bones. They're just CBS clones.

When one says that Justice is the best new show on Fox, that's honestly not a compliment to Justice.

Tomorrow: Do I watch anything on Wednesdays right now? Oh yeah. Project Runway and Bones and maybe something else.


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

"I served my country, and my country served me up": Monday gleanings

Prison Break is a different show in season two. I'm not sure it's a better show. I'm not sure it's a worse show. But almost all of its faults have carried over intact from the first season. The characters are still one-dimensional, the dialogue is still on the nose, and the plotting is still oft-ridiculous.

But the show remains a fun guilty pleasure, so I continue to watch. Monday's episode advanced a handful of storylines and avoided a few others. As always, the Michael and Lincoln stuff was the most interesting (if only to see the huge variety of new doodads they're adding on to Michael's tattoo), what with Michael convincingly throwing William Fichtner (something the show needed, even if no one seemed to realize it in the first season -- a convincing nemesis for Michael) off his trail through car explosions and whatnot. And the setup to that explosion was fun and tense too.

The Sucre stuff was fine tonight too. I liked the constant cutaways to the Virgin Mary bobblehead, which kept warning him against running from the cops, only to see him slip on to a train, then take off through a cornfield. It was a nifty setpiece, and it nicely established Sucre as being very good at improvising his way out of these sorts of situations.

I wish I could say the same for C-Note, who apparently set up an easy capture of himself. I don't want to see the criminals be stupid and telegraph their captures weeks in advance. I'm already turning this storyline off until there's some sort of twist.

Vanished, which I stuck with for three episodes because I do that for all serials, doesn't look likely to get an order for three more from me. The acting, if possible, got even worse tonight, and the plotting continues to be haphazard and all over the place.

I'll try and get to Life on Mars later this week (been DVD marathoning The Wire recently, so regular TV viewing has fallen behind).

Finally, Standoff debuts tonight, and it's the sort of show that would really benefit from tremendously sharp writing. Unfortunately, it doesn't have that, though the two leads make it seem sharper than it is. It suffers from a fundamental flaw in trying to set up too much about the relationship of the hostage negotiators in the pilot, when it might have been more fun to learn about how they got together and how their love blossomed and then blew up over the course of a season. It would be a lot like every other will-they/won't-they relationship on TV, yes, but this just feels a bit disjointed and messy.

Still, there's a lot of promise in Standoff. The cast is in place, and with the right writing staff, it could work really well. I'm not sure audiences will give it time to find itself though.


Monday, September 04, 2006

"It's hard to remember there was a time when politicians were not interviewed by a anthropomorphic puppet."

Time Trumpet is a BBC series that will quite probably never join the bizarre smorgasbord of vaguely US-accessible British television that the Beeb airs on its American channel. It's far too heavily grounded in obscure British pop culture, it's weird and lo-fi, and there's a sketch where several talking heads describe a sequence of arcing colors for three straight minutes. Of course, I'll probably be proven wrong and HBO will be remaking the show for an American audience within the year.

All that considered, I've still selected a short analysis of Time Trumpet for my debut post on this fine blog, with the hope that anyone whose interest is mildly piqued will investigate YouTube for evidence of its hilarity.

The show is basically a nonsensical version of I Love the 80s where celebrities of the past and other commentators wax lyrical about the news and culture of yesteryear. Except Time Trumpet is set in 2031, and the assembled talking heads are recollecting our near future. It's a brilliant conceit that allows for a sharp, wry and absurd look at the increasing bizarreness of Britain's cultural and political arenas. Just as the show's creator Armando Iannucci (one of the resident geniuses of comedy in England who was recently responsible for The Thick of It) hijacks the news program in The Day Today and the talk show in Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge, he injects his brand of surreal nonsense into a setting that is plausibly and recognizably factual to the viewer, while playing gleefully fast and loose with truth. See the sketch below, concerning the supposed fued between PM Tony Blair and his deputy Gordon Brown:

Time Trumpet makes no bones about its obviously manipulated footage and the fact that the actors playing elderly versions of personalities such as Tom Cruise, David Beckham and Bob Geldof aren't exactly lookalikes. Despite the ridiculousness of it all, Iannucci can still land punches with the best of them, such as the sketches below where he brilliantly undercuts Conservative Party leader David Cameron's infuriating "new, young, hip" image by replacing an interviewer with a donkey:

Or this clip, comparing the so-called "Cameron revolution" with Blair's New Labor:

Time Trumpet isn't quite up there with the brilliance of Iannucci's top creations and it may go the way of some of his other more forgotten projects (into relative obscurity) but that's all the more reason to try and catch it now while it's still somewhat hot. After all, what better way to look cool than to watch obscure British comedy TV? I could have written about The Thick of It, but everyone's got BBC America these days. And as good as that may be, is there anything on BBC America that salutes "the homliest rape-based theme tune ever"?