Saturday, September 23, 2006

Hospital vs. Hospital: ER, Grey's Anatomy premieres

The other day I had the privilege of watching the big season premieres of THE big US hospital dramas (I suppose House is a set in a hospital, but it's not really concerned with the goings-on in the place): old-school ER and new big thing Grey's Anatomy. Now, I must confess, I had never seen an episode of Grey's before in my life. Shocking, I know, especially considering I'll watch next to anything on TV.

After catching myself up with the basic story situation so I wouldn't be totally in the dark, I settled down and let the waves of voice-over angst, MOR indie ballads and hospital melodrama wash over me. I've been told that this episode was rushed and is not up to GA's usual standard, but I still thought it was just fine. I was heavily reminded of Ally McBeal, which I'm sure has been pointed out by critics smarter than I, but they both share that quirky, somewhat articulate but really completely ridiculous and (I'm sure) eventually rather infuriating quality. Like, Meredith wasn't getting on my nerves yet, but I could tell it wouldn't be long before she did.

From what I saw, Grey's Anatomy and ER are really apples and oranges. ER has always placed a lot of focus on the medical side of things, tossing the viewer into that steadicam, rapid-technical-dialogue thing it does so well, letting its characters interact between caseloads. On the other hand, the medical side of Grey's seemed almost lazily absurd--the bubonic plague plot of Thursday's episode was kinda lame and tacked on, considering the pure drama that can be milked out of quarantine situations. I also refused to buy that tough-as-nails Dr. Bailey would simply watch what'shisname from The Practice hyperventilate to death (did he die? I wasn't actually clear on that) because some faceless security guard wouldn't let her through the door--surely there are procedures for treating quarantined patients? And is it true that there was a PROM in the hospital last season?

Anyway, I can forgive all that! The law side of Ally McBeal was always just as dumb, and who cares about all that when you have such fine RELATIONSHIP MELODRAMA! Right? Well, maybe. I'm not sure how many wistful gazes set to endless music montages I'll be able to tolerate, but there was a healthy amount of humor (even concerning crazy Izzie's situation) in this episode and the actors are well-settled into their characters, as romantically stricken as they all seem to be. There's a definite zeitgeist-y grab here, and I could feel myself getting reluctantly hooked even though I was aware how substandard the episode really was. Ain't that just the way, right? 26 million viewers can't be wrong!

I've been an ER fan since I was a wee lad. It's probably the first hour-long drama I ever followed to a serious extent. Which is a good indication of how OLD the damn show is. I'll be the first (and definitely not the last) to admit that ER has gotten extremely stale: none of the original great characters have survived and the writers can usually only churn out about 5-6 above-par, vaugely original stories per year. The season 13 premiere 'Bloodline' summed up perfectly why the show is such a shadow of its former self but still eminently watchable.

Above all, the ensemble is ER's real strength. Parminder Nagra is a breakout star that'll probably never happen, Goran Visnijc, Maura Tierney and Laura Innes are reliable pros, Mekhi Phifer has a finely-tuned sardonic charm and Linda Cardellini was Lindsay Weir on frickin' Freaks & Geeks! Unfortunately, this fine cast are forever burdened with dark plotlines and unnecessary angst (the worst offender definitely being Tierney's Abby Lockhart, who is among other things a recovering alcholic, a victim of domestic abuse, a child of a bi-polar family and, after Thursday's ep, lacking a uterus). The writers, having years ago lost grip on any sense of organic storytelling, stick mostly to filler hospital stuff punctuated with the occasional horrific, epic tragedies and action-packed unreality, with a big guest star thrown in for good measure once in a while.

'Bloodline' continued right on from last year's hospital kidnap scenario and managed to cram in a car chase, a rape, life-and-death scenarios for two major characters, a hysterectomy, a crying/bathroom trashing scene and three murders in cold blood. I won't deny it was gripping stuff, and it certainly looks like I'll be sticking with the show for the foreseeable future (it's renewed until what, like, the year 3001?). But I was also mourning the ER I used to love (I'd probably say the last excellent season of the show was around season six), which didn't rely on such epic nonsense to keep its viewers hooked--and it used to have a lot more viewers, too! I simply can't empathise with these characters anymore, they've been twisted around so many times that I've totally lost sight of their internal narratives. Nevertheless! As I have always promised myself, I will continue watching until the writers are so short on plot ideas that a meteorite hits County General. After all, I'm sure there are some very nice guest stars lined up around the corner. Plus, with John Stamos joining the cast here and Bob Saget on How I Met Your Mother, we're not far from getting the majority of Full House's cast back on the air! Which is one of the seven signs of the apocalypse! Yay!

On the basis of these two episode, I've surmised that Grey's Anatomy is objectionable but very watchable because it's chatty and silly and totally over the top, wheras ER is objectionable but watchable because it's extravagant and flashy and totally over the top. So I'm a little sad to report that I'm sticking with both of them, which means I'll be watching four medical shows this year, and I'm sure that will inflame the hypochondriac in me. Oh well.


Friday, September 22, 2006

Hey, crab man: Thursday gleanings

The TiVos are finally beginning to feel the relief of being cleaned out, as the first official week of the fall season winds to a close. There is much rejoicing in this house.

I do things in reverse on Thursdays, starting with The Office, then going into My Name Is Earl. Suffice it to say that while I occasionally have issues with Earl, tonight's bloc of comedy was really strong, solidifying the 8 p.m. hour on Thursdays on NBC's claim to be the best hour of comedy on television (though, really, what else is there?).

I haven't laughed as much at an episode of a TV show as I did at tonight's premiere of The Office since. . .the penultimate episode of last season of The Office (the glorious one with the complaint box that took me from being occasionally skeptical about the show to a full-blown evangelist for its charms). There isn't really another series on American television that can really make a claim to being as consistently funny as The Office with as well-drawn of characters (admittedly, the pool is pretty shallow, limited to My Name Is Earl, Everybody Hates Chris, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Scrubs and How I Met Your Mother -- though a few new shows will join those ranks). When The Office is firing on all cylinders, it's one of the best sitcoms of the young decade. Even when it's not firing on all cylinders, it's entertaining and full of great jokes.

After a long summer that made it look like the show would turn into Friends Redux, with the Jim and Pam relationship becoming the next Ross and Rachel, the show dispatched with that element quickly, revealing that the two weren't together, but Pam wasn't with her fiancee anymore either. Jim, however, had moved on, to another branch of Dunder-Mifflin that was both better-run than the Scranton branch and more on edge. The main thrust of the episode dealt with Michael discovering Oscar was gay and being intermittently appalled and fascinated by the knowledge, finally outing Oscar to the whole office.

I usually don't think of the American Office in terms of the British one that spawned it, but one of the best things Greg Daniels and his writers and actors have done has been to really delve into the passive-aggressive relationships Americans have with their jobs. Most Americans would really rather be doing something other than what they are actually doing (even Dwight, who seems happiest at Dunder-Mifflin, would rather be beet farming or hunting, you sense). The British version of the show accepted that work was something to dislike much more readily than the American one does -- Jim hates his job, but he'll gladly take a promotion and pretend it's a good thing; Michael has been a businessman since high school; Ryan takes mock pride in going from temp to junior sales associate. In the British version, characters actually toyed with leaving their jobs to pursue their dreams. In the American version, we hear so little about those other dreams that it might as well not even be an option because when you quit your job to chase silly fantasies in the U.S., you're putting your life in danger, what with our oft-inadequate social safety net.

The story of Oscar's outing nicely illuminated this idea, going from a mere social blunder to an outright cataclysm. Oscar finally exploded, telling Michael exactly what everyone in the office thinks of him, then relented a few moments later, hugging Michael and saying he didn't mean it. Honesty only comes until you need to keep the job you hate. How American.

(David, who lives in the UK, will probably beg to differ with all of this, but he's wrong.)

And, of course, the whole thing was shot through with fantastic jokes, from Kevin's inability to stop giggling to Dwight's faux crying to Creed's admissions of sexual debauchery in the '60s (Creed may be the funniest single character on any show on television -- largely because the producers only give him one or two lines per episode). The only one I found a bit over-the-top (the biggest complaint to be leveled against the show is that it ruins its verite jones by doing stuff you might expect in a more typical sitcom) was when Meredith ate some of Angela's hand lotion. Otherwise, very well done.

I really liked My Name Is Earl too, though, as always, I had some minor irritations with it. It felt like a good segue to a season when Earl's list won't be the matter of primary concern, and any situation that lets Jamie Pressley mug for the camera is a winner in my book, but I'm still troubled by -- well, Alan Sepinwall puts it better -- how UN-ruffian-like Earl seems much of the time. The show never makes you buy wholly into the notion that Earl was a bad person -- he never struggles with doing the right thing, in other words -- so you never quite get the right sense of internal conflict that would drive the show forward.

Fortunately, the supporting players around Earl are more than enough to keep me coming back. Pressley is perfect, and Ethan Suplee is one of the best overgrown man-children in a genre overgrown with them. Eddie Steeples is also a fun presence, always bringing a laid-back groove to his scenes. And Nadine Velazquez's increasingly dire childhood in Mexico is a reliable source of laughs as well. The scripts and direction tend to be sharp as well, and the Coen Brothers-influenced settings are just the right shade of quirky without being overbearingly so. There's more right than wrong with Earl, and it's a great companion for The Office.

Finally, I caught up with Prison Break (Grey's Anatomy, CSI and the Thursday pilots will have to wait). While it took the show 13 episodes to reach the wheel-spinning stage last year, it seems like it's spinning its wheels already this year. Theoretically, having lots of stories to cut between should be interesting, but it's increasingly too much of a chore for the writers to incorporate everyone, and you can feel it. I'm not sure how long I'll hang on for this ride, especially with the full-blown assault of the fall season upon us. Still, it's a passable diversion.

So what did you think?

Soon: Libby on Next Top Model and Grey's.

Tomorrow: Other stuff, catching up and the start of a new feature.


Thursday, September 21, 2006

The American Dream

America's Next Top Model
8-9 p.m., Wednesdays, CW

Andy Warhol: A Documentary
9-11 p.m., Wednesday - Thursday, Sept 20-21, PBS

LAST NIGHT WAS QUITE HORRIBLE. I had to choose between the season premiere of America's Next Top Model and that new Andy Warhol documentary.

So I did the only thing deemed reasonable at the time: I channel surfed every ten minutes, switching between CW and PBS during intervals.

But I don't think Warhol would have minded, really. In fact, I think he would've been an obsessed devotee of ANTM, and especially captivated by the Diva herself, Tyra Banks.

One of the things that makes ANTM so entertaining is Tyra's love for, well, Tyra. In the opening of Season 7, there is solid evidence that Tyra, ex-model extraordinaire, has shifted up a notch. Did anyone check out the contestants' divine shindig?

Perhaps the most hilarious moment of last night's episode was the Tyra self-portraits adorning not only the living room walls (Warhol-esque mechanically replicated, multi-colored quad images of La Banks), but intricately displayed over each girl's bedroom space. What is the last thing you see before going to bed? TYRA!!! The first thing you see in the morning, upon waking up? Also TYRA!!!

Maybe I am overestimating Tyra Banks' intelligence here, but the ubiquituous images that surround the house can only result in positively startling developments for the show. It is only by comparison and contrast would the girls be driven - more than ever before - to nab the top prize. If ANTM is an extension of the Tyra Banks universe (did anyone check out the first half, where the girls revealed sob stories not too different from the Tyra Banks show?) and the girls are merely small moons orbiting her universe, then wouldn't it be the ultimate dream if one of the girls were to become the next TYRA?

THE FIRST TWO HOUR-SEGMENT of Ric Burns' sprawling documentary of Andy Warhol's life and work was long, at times even a bit tedious, but ultimately, time worth spent. I have to admit - one of the reasons I found the doc to be so enjoyable was because it was masturabatory. It was masturbatory in the sense that all these academic talking heads loved Warhol for the same reasons that I loved Warhol. But like masturbation, it gets kind of tiresome at some point, and I felt a bit numb towards the last half hour.

I will, however, say this: the doc is not a complete wank-fest. The filmmakers have accumulated a great deal of meticulous information about Warhol, from his childhood to his first sexual encounter. These bits and pieces are quite intriguing (even if some may seem superfluous). For a man so embellished in public, pop culture, Andy Warhol was an intensely private man (for an example, he kept his churchgoing habits closed off from all but his closest family and friends until his death). His contradictions only further embellish cryptic persona, and for me, an Andy Warhol obsessor, I take what I can get.

One of the more fascinating segments in that two hour duration revolved around Warhol's dirt poor upbringing, which I instinctively drew as a connection that was very close to his life's dedication to immortalizing pop culture artifacts.

Maybe this sounds politically incorrect of me, but I feel as if the word "poor" is used too often by the struggling-but-not-too-desperate lower middle class. As a result, the simple but somber definition of the word has since been cheapened; its initial power, lost.

And so I say this with utmost sincerity that I was paradoxically surprised - and unsurprised - when it was revealed that Warhol's first generation Slovakian immigrant nuclear family unit didn't come close to the lower middle bracket; they were truly ghetto. It was somehow cathartic to find out that Warhol's mom was scrubbing people's floors for a living. Things suddenly made more sense. His persona, his love for pop culture, became so much more clear and rational, in light of these facts.

At the core heart of Warhol's work, the thing that made Warhol so unforgettably Warholian was that amidst all that irrelevancy and superficiality prevalent upon the pop culture surface, he reminded us that there is something ultimately more deeper, personal, and penetrating at play here than we ourselves would like to think. Pop culture has - and still do - foster dreams for consumers ... just about any kind that you can think of. And nothing can be more alluring to a kid in the Pittsburgh slums than the idea of potentially obtaining that Dream some time, some how.


Badgers badgers badgers badgers MUSHROOM MUSHROOM: Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday gleanings

Had a chance to get a LITTLE caught up tonight, even if I STILL haven't seen Prison Break. To that end. . .

--I don't know what the producers of House are doing with this teenager who wants to sleep with House storyline, but I find it sort of fascinating. House's self-destructive streak as his leg pain reappears has been well-built, and I hope he continues to at least consider her offer (he can eventually turn her down, if the producers feel it would be too distancing for him to sleep with her), just because I don't want to see another CRAZY! STALKER! storyline (though, sadly, this appears to be headed that way). The case of the week was kind of boring, but I'll watch Joel Grey in anything. Could have done without the rats chewing on his face, though.

--New show #1: Smith is an example of CBS' attempt to catch up with the quality drama trend that's got all of the networks so aflutter, but it's hampered by the fact that it doesn't quite know what it wants to be and by the fact that it feels preprogrammed to be a quality drama, which is almost always fatal (see: Huff). It's enough to make one wonder why, exactly, these top quality actors all signed on. They do the best with the material they've been given, but this is largely uninteresting stuff that's not delivered with the right panache (a lot of scenes seem to be going for a moody/manly Michael Mann vibe, but they don't ever quite reach the right state of overwroughtness).

Still, there's a certain stylishness to this show that you just don't see on CBS all that often (see below). It's not as stylish as your typical ABC or NBC show, but it's clear a lot of money was spent on this pilot. There's a nice, sly sense of dark humor too (I loved the scene where Simon Baker kicks the cat), and I think I'd rather watch the slyly dark series than the Michael Mann-ish one, even IF the actual thieving was pretty cool.

Still, this feels too prefabricated to be worth keeping up with -- especially in one of the best new seasons in recent memory. It all feels like an attempt by CBS to go against the rules, but it's a little too late. Now, going against the rules IS the new rule. So, of course, you'll see an amoral criminal who really loves his kids and wants to get out of the game. And so on.

If this were, say, last year, I would stick with this all season to see if it improved. As it's this season, I'll give it a few more episodes (I don't really have anything else in the time slot), but it's on a short leash with me.

--I like what I see of The Unit, but it's also a little too rah-rah for me, in a way that never really acknowledges the toll of war on people's psyches. It's always an action-packed show, and it's worth watching for the rough approximation of Mamet-speak its writing staff tries to pull off from week to week. Still, this is the third-best choice in a tough, tough time slot, so I don't think I'll keep up with it. Hence, the photo. You'll get to pretend I've covered it extensively!

Anyway, the premiere was a good episode, with some good twists and turns and some nice insights into the way Special Forces work the way they do. Military dramas used to be a big genre, and I feel like this one is just a few steps off from really reigniting these types of shows. It doesn't help, of course, that the popularity of the war in Iraq has fallen so precipitously as of late.

--New show #2: I like Jericho more than just about everybody, but even I'll admit that it's a show at war with itself. There's the better, grittier, more realistic show about what it would be like to survive a nuclear war in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and there's the cheesier show that works in one action adventure per week and feels network-mandated in some ways, as though CBS found it necessary to have one A-story per episode that repeat viewers could follow.

The problem CBS didn't realize is that the grittier show DOES have A stories viewers can latch on to. There's the opportunity here for doing something that Lost quickly shied away from -- depicting just how tough it would be to survive in a truly apocalyptic situation. I'm not saying that everyone needs to start dying from radiation poisoning (surely the writers could come up with a mostly believable scenario that would keep Jericho isolated but free from harm), and I can see where that would be depressing. But I would like to see a show about rebuilding the needs of the community in a world where small towns have exported most of their business to nearby Wal-marts and such. If I were in my hometown and a nuclear war left me stranded there, it would take time for everyone to find their feet. When Jericho gets into that territory, it feels like a much more interesting, much more riveting show than when it's dealing with rescuing a school bus full of children or avoiding escaped convicts (next week's episode).

The other big problem here has to do with the production values, specifically the music. The music is far too intrusive, almost ruining the chilling moment when the kid sees the mushroom cloud (the one that's been in all of the promos). A Sean Callery or Michael Giacchino would have built the music to this moment, and instead, we get some twinkly attempts at suspenseful music. To do a show like this, CBS has to be prepared to shell out to make it cinematic, and they just don't seem willing to at this point.

The build-up to the mushroom cloud also felt off. It was done in the best "Day After" politics-in-the-background manner, but it felt almost abrupt. And no one discussed afterward who, exactly, might have launched an all-out nuclear assault on the most powerful nation on Earth.

Still, when the show is focusing on notions of people suddenly stranded in a very familiar world, it's a compelling and gripping one. Hopefully, the show is a big enough hit so the producers can abandon the action adventure elements and confront the more realistic and interesting issues.

--Why does anyone watch Criminal Minds? There's a loyal contingent that is dedicated to the show at my work, but it just seems stupid to me every time I watch it.

--The Biggest Loser may be the dumbest thing I've seen on television.

--New show #3: Having now seen more episodes of Vanished, it's amazing how much Kidnapped is like it. But Kidnapped is immeasurably better. I've seen it three times now, and it's been better each time. This is not because it's particularly nuanced or anything, but more because I was able to watch it on its own terms, separating it from the memory of other, better shows. It's not quite 24 yet, but it leaves Prison Break handily in the dust.

A lot of that has to do with casting. Jeremy Sisto is an unusual choice for the lead of a series like this, but he actually works in the role, playing against type nicely. Because you can't quite pin him down as the typical action hero, you're not quite sure what he's going to do next, and his odd line readings really work against the overall conventionality of the show.

The players within the family of the kidnapped boy -- from Dana Delaney to Mykleti Williamson -- are all quite good as well. They help ground this story in a realistic place, even as we're sure to find out that one of them is involved somehow (my money is on Ricky Jay).

The show also makes great use of its New York City location, giving it a real cinematic feel that, say, the CBS shows (or Vanished) just can't touch. The action sequences are well-choreographed. While they take place on a smaller scale than the typical movie action sequence, they are nicely aware of geography, making each one make perfect sense.

Some have said that a kidnapping can't fill a 22-episode season. I'm willing to give the writers the benefit of the doubt -- since they know when the ending point is coming, they can plot out the twists and turns more easily, though I don't know that they will do that (making it up as you go along sometimes works for 24).

This isn't the second coming of 24 as some have insisted, but it's really grown on me, and I'm going to keep tuning in to see what's up next. This was a great introduction to what could be a great series.

Tomorrow night's new shows:

--New show #4: Shark, most notable for starring James Woods, is slightly better than Justice in the "House with Lawyers" sweepstakes that seemed to catch fire with the networks this year. Much of that is due to Woods, who is occasionally something like phenomenal. But I'm not sure that the show ever rises above the level of a blatant House-clone, even with the great direction of Spike Lee. And the willingness to have the character have a CRISIS OF CONSCIENCE in the pilot and join the forces of good really feels like something that never would happen.

Still, it's worth checking out at least once, just for Woods.

--New show #5: (Can you tell I'm getting tired?) Six Degrees is beautifully acted, but the concept and dialogue are a little bit too pretentious. This is another show that would have been a solid favorite any other year but feels a little been-there, done-that this year. Still, it's another show that will be hard to not want to watch the second episode of.

Tomorrow: Libby talks on those next top models.


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Coal miner and wife, plus new shows galore

I honestly don't remember everything I've watched since I disappeared last week or thereabouts, so I'll just run through a lot of things before getting to the new shows that have debuted since I left.

--I hate it when reality shows bring back contestants who were ousted. It feels patently unfair, even if they try to couch it in, "Well, these people were really good at one time and just had a bad week, and that's why they're gone," like Project Runway did when it brought back Vincent and Angela. Really, it felt like the show just wanted to spur conflict when it more easily could have spurred my heart to warmth by bringing back Allison. We're two weeks from the end, though, and the show is starting to bore me. It's trying to be too much about the interpersonal conflicts and not enough about the creativity.

--I didn't really pay attention to Bones, but Libby said it was good.

--Survivor: Race-Baiting Edition ended up not being nearly as exciting as I thought it would be. All of the tribes ended up conforming to certain prevalent stereotypes and it STILL felt boring.

--The Simpsons was a Lisa and Bart story. These can be the show's finest half-hours, but this one was a little too chaotic, even if it had a solid series of laughs (most coming in the throwaway gags hidden in the periphery of the frame). Plus, the White Stripes cameo felt really shoehorned in, even more than these guest star bits usually do. Still, it was an interesting storyline to have Bart become a musical genius at Lisa's expense. The show has done the same basic plot before, but never this specific one, so it felt vaguely new.

--Family Guy was more annoying than usual. I never need to hear another "Weenie and the Butt" and/or 97.1 gag again. It got old. Fast.

--If you were to read these bits without having seen the shows in question, you would have NO IDEA what was going on.

--The Amazing Race 10 kicked off, and it did a much better job of incorporating its newer, more diverse lineup than Survivor did. The fact that there were 12 teams instantly tipped most race aficionadoes off that there would be a dual elimination week, I'm sure, but it felt like a cheat to have it come in the first episode, especially if it meant we had to lose the two, er, MOST diverse teams (the Muslims and the Indians). Both teams blame their eliminations on bad cabbies, and that may be true, but I can see why the show doesn't show such stuff, as it would be dramatically uninteresting. Anyway, the show's good eye for casting once again lands a bunch of interesting people, from the girl with the prosthetic leg to the all-too annoying cheerleaders to the just-stereotypical-enough gay couple to the former drug addicts who were also models (wait. . .what?) to the COAL MINER AND WIFE, who managed to be everything most people think is wrong with the South in one couple.

--David said more than enough about How I Met Your Mother. But, somehow, I think the show has continued the roll it was on late last season. The drama is still stronger than the comedy at times, and I can see why so many people are irritated that Ted and Robin are together (since we know they'll break up), but this is one of the few will-they/won't-they relationships I can think of where we know THEY WON'T, and that's interesting to me.

--A list of the shows I've fallen behind on while entertaining people is lengthy and includes (in order of my shame) The Wire, Brotherhood, Life on Mars, House, Prison Break and Gospel Bill.

Now, the new shows.

Really, there's no genre in television where the sheer skill of craftsmanship shines through more than the traditional (multi-camera, if you will) sitcom. If you know what you're doing, you can make really weak material seem funnier than it is simply through the effective use of the setup-punchline format and some zippy direction. It doesn't hurt to have a cast that's willing to play ball, but, really, one can appreciate a sitcom on the same level as a cabinet -- some of those cabinets are going to be so exquisitely crafted that they'll rise to the level of art, but most of those cabinets will have doors that open and shut and shelves that hold things.

The latter is how I feel about The Class. It's a particularly well put-together cabinet, but it's still just a cabinet. Fortunately, the show gets better as it goes along. If you tuned in to the pilot and felt the show really struggled against its completely insane premise (which feels like something tacked on to sell the show to the networks), fear not. Episodes two and three split the characters off and throw the competing storylines up against each other, even though the paths of the various people never really cross. This is good news for those of us who think the premise of the show is just too ludicrous to be believed.

To some degree, the show is overstuffed. In a single-camera comedy like The Office, an ensemble this huge feels natural because many of the ensemble members can be sitting in the background, behaving normally. In a show like this, where the entire cast is competing for the attention of the audience (often overacting, most noticeably in the case of Lucy Punch), it feels way, way too manic.

It doesn't help that none of the characters seem to exist beyond one-line descriptions in the minds of the creators. There's the gay one and the trophy wife and the sarcastic one and the boy next door. None of this feels remotely original, even when Lizzie Caplan is making the most of her sarcastic quips. Especially when compared to How I Met Your Mother, which airs afterward and has managed to create five believable characters drawn with nuance, The Class can feel shrill.

So, by stuffing the show with so many characters and not forcing them to share stories but also by never developing those characters, The Class manages to be a sitcom that experiments mightily with the form and then feels. . .like every other sitcom.

The worst thing about the show may be the storyline about the woman who is still bitter about her prom night ten years ago and her marriage to a man who may or may not be gay. It's the sort of thing that would have felt tired ten years ago, and the passage of time has not been kind.

But I liked quite a bit in this (particularly Caplan), and that's largely due to David Crane, Jeffrey Klarik and the estimable James Burrows. All three are sitcom vets, and all three make even the horrible moments of this show somehow bearable.

Somewhere in The Class, there's a great show struggling to get out. The ruminations on how bright, hopeful youngsters turn into bitter, sad adults are spot-on, and the idea that this is a genre-bending dramedy is an interesting one, but the show itself never quite gels, and its reliance on sitcom tropes will probably keep that from happening.

--My mixed emotions about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip are up here.

Tomorrow, I'll get to Smith (mediocre), Jericho (above average for me but not the best for many others), Six Degrees (odd. . .but watchable) and Shark (strictly average). I'll also hope to catch up with some other stuff on the TiVos, including the other CBS comedies. Look for Libby's thoughts on America's Next Top Model as well.


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Friends forever: Monday gleanings

Often when I'm lazily watching daytime television I'll happen upon a repeat of Friends, and I usually find that's a nice option to settle for. Easy laughs, not too threatening or challenging, and the cast have great natural chemistry. Now, it's a little early to be making such claims, but I think CBS's excellent How I Met Your Mother, which premiered its second season yesterday, is the heir to Friends's sitcom throne. This article agrees, comparing the show to Cheers and Taxi. High praise for a show that gets okay reviews and is basically a moderate hit? Maybe. But I find HIMYM a joy to watch and yesterday's episode was, for me, the high-point of the young 06-07 season so far. It has a genuine, friendly 20-something New York feel and its jokes hit 90% of the time, but most importantly it has one of the best-gelling ensembles on television. Even though it has a bona-fide show-stealing performance in Neil Patrick Harris' cheesy womanizer Barney, and two other recognizable TV vets in Alyson Hannigan and Jason Segel, everybody balances each other out perfectly. When the group is together, they hit a fantastic comic rythym and their zingers never sound scripted (pity about the hollow laugh track, though). Even in Friends, there were always a few character pairings that didn't really fly (how often did you see Rachel/Chandler, or Monica/Joey, or Phoebe/Ross?), but the friendships of How I Met Your Mother have never felt false so far.

Appropriately titled "Where We Were", the premiere picked up right from last season's finale which had finally united will-they-won't-theys Ted and Robin but broken up the reliable couple Marshall and Lily. Compressing the summer months of Marshall's moping and Ted and Robin's burgeoning romance into 22 minutes was a smart move: the impacts of the breakup and the new relationship were keenly felt, and now the show's writers can play with those situations in more interesting ways after quickly laying the groundwork. Also, it means they don't have to contend with their five characters being two couples + Barney, which is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. Already the seeds have been sown for trouble ahead for Ted and Robin--their brief spats during this episode were defused by their puppy love, but such cannot last forever (as the future-Ted narrator Bob Saget assures us, they are not meant to be together). This bodes well for Marshall, played by the goofily charming Jason Segel, but I look forward to a few episodes of he and Lily trying to survive the couples scene on their own. Although I think HIMYM will probably never progress beyond from being a moderate hit, you never know! Cheers was a flop in its first season, right? Thus, onward! This show can only get better!

Talking about Friends, co-creator David Crane has a new show before HIMYM called The Class. See what I did there? This is a FRIENDS-themed post. The Class is a sitcom about an elementary school reunion and the disparate people it brings together, with hilarious consequences. But my first reaction was, "Huh? Elementary school? Really?" Who on earth goes to a grade-school reunion 20 years on? And remembers anyone from grade school, let alone has a history with them? But, no matter. There's definite promise to the premise, and the ensemble that's been assembled has some promising names--although, as many critics are pointing out, the limited scope of ethnicity in the cast rears its head here as it did in Friends. There's nothing too radical going on here plotwise either, with three potential couples already matched from a cast of just eight, which may prove a problem if the show ends up lasting.

My personal favorite among the cast is Lizzie Caplan, who played a fairly non-threatening punk in Mean Girls and deploys sarcastic bromides with similar effectiveness here. She'll likely be paired with the puppy-dog Jason Ritter if their opposites attract, as these things tend to do. I couldn't make as much of an impression of Andrea Anders, who was adorable if one-note in Joey, as she was saddled with the brunt of the pilot's dramatic moments. It'll take me a couple more episodes to get a handle on the others, but I'm happy to oblige. With Crane and veteran director James Burrows at the helm, The Class is in safe hands. It's never going to be anything remotely daring, but if the seemingly talented ensemble (the show's definitely a good pair with How I Met Your Mother) gets it right, they have plenty of solid material to play with.

Finally, how can one make a post ruminating on Friends and not mention THE show of the 06-07 season, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which premiered on NBC last night? Starring Matthew Perry among others, and created by Aaron Sorkin, there's almost too much to recommend this show. Todd already pinpointed Studio 60's flaws over at The House Next Door, so I won't go into too much detail here. I'll just say that despite Sorkin's ridiculous belief that TV is in a tailspin from which only he can save it, this show is brimming with promise. The nine-minute opening sequence is particularly astounding to watch, even after so many imitators have attempted to emulate director Thomas Schlamme's fluidity. But an hour-long TV drama about a sketch comedy show certainly isn't as dramatically rich a premise as The West Wing, even with Sorkin behind the helm. Nonetheless, Studio 60 is basically required viewing, and I'll certainly stick with it for this season unless it really reeks. Which it won't. I mean, hello? AMANDA PEET!

As for Prison Break, well I can't shoehorn Friends into an analysis of that show. Also, watching it just leaves me exhausted. Maybe Todd had some thoughts. I just hope they re-introduce Haywire soon. Cause if there's one thing Prison Break needs to be, it's CRAZIER.