Saturday, September 30, 2006

Dexter wants to play

I think it's safe to say there's no other show on TV quite like Dexter, debuting on Showtime tonight. Usually, when a critic says that, it means it's because a show has revived a less popular genre or taken a popular one and tweaked it ever so slightly. Dexter takes TV's most popular genre (the crime procedural) and beats the snot out of it, having a great time doing so.

Dexter, based on the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsey, is about a serial killer who kills other serial killers. That, in and of itself, might be reason enough to completely tune out -- television has a nasty habit of making the completely amoral and immoral too sympathetic -- but Dexter somehow avoids the pitfalls inherent in the material. It's a creepy, icky thriller, one of the few television productions to give me the chills in a long time. At the same time, it's a nicely conceived procedural, showing the specifics of a kind of forensics work that doesn't get a lot of play on the CSI shows (blood spatter analysis). And, finally, it works as an examination of morality itself -- what makes a thing good and what makes a thing bad? Does the fact that Dexter keeps his killing confined to the monsters that plague society make his actions acceptable? After all, that's how his foster father trained him.

Now, obviously, Dexter is not the first work of art or even the first television show to deal with these issues, but there's never been one quite as stylish and ghoulishly humorous as this. To be fair, the show can be hard to take. There's a lot of blood, and a lot of things that aren't shown that let your imagination go wild. Showtime, which has been looking for the hit to turn it in to HBO, is probably not going to find it here.

But for the rest of us, who like a little horror mixed in with our police procedurals (as in the little-seen and too-gothic-by-half Epitafios that aired on HBO last winter), this is going to be a treat. The characters around Dexter aren't fully sketched in yet, but one senses they're in good hands just based on the performance of Michael C. Hall, who nicely subverts his good guy image as the title character.

There are a few things in the show that don't work. The series likes to rely on a few too many cop show cliches (the hardened lieutenant who can't take the female police officer seriously -- though, thankfully, this time it's a woman not taking another woman seriously), and Dexter's voice-over, which plays throughout the show, can be a little too over-the-top.

But this is easily the most stylish, smartly wrought crime show on TV. Between this, Weeds and Brotherhood, Showtime has arrived.


Keep on Truckin'...

Stream the new THE HOLD STEADY LP, BOY AND GIRLS IN AMERICA in its entirety here.


Thursday, September 28, 2006

A Brief (Ha!) Recap of the '06-'07 TV Season

All numbers are from the The Programming Insider archives at TV Tracker and


The Good: Remember the question I asked before the season began, about whether Crime shows would finally fall this season, and I said probably, with Criminal Minds being among the first to go? Well, I was wrong. A lot. Criminal Minds (Ranked #9 for the season with 16.89 million viewers) exploded this season, beating Lost near the end of that show's limited fall run, jumping to #2 last week in total viewers and now has the coveted Post-Super Bowl slot. Otherwise, it's mostly business as usual: CBS is #1 among total viewers but #2 among Adults 18-49, they have the biggest comedy on TV (Two and a Half Men [#14, 15.45]) and the only successful comedy line-up on network TV, and they've somehow found a way to make almost every timeslot on their schedule work.

Toss-Ups: While they still dominate Thursdays among total viewers, ABC has put a major dent in their line-up. Despite (Or maybe because of) early controversy, Survivor is having it's lowest rated season ever (#13, 15.65), CSI (#2, 21.46) is feeling the heat of Grey's, and Shark (#22, 14.04) is performing decently, but you know Without a Trace would probably be kicking butt here. Speaking of Trace (#17, 15.07), the critically-acclaimed procedural's move to Sundays helped boost the night for CBS, but the show itself is down by nearly 30% from this point last year. And while Jericho started out well, looking like one of the season's surefire hits, it has gradually decreased, and has leveled off at around 9-10M viewers. Still, that's the best that timeslot has seen in years.

The Bad: Tuesdays at 10:00 is beginning to look like the network's lone cursed timeslot, having already gone through two shows in this young season (Smith and 3 Lbs.) after going through four overall last season.

Overall: As I said earlier, they're the only network right now that has something working in nearly every timeslot. If young people actually watched them, they might be the model for The Perfect Network.


The Good: Welling having the #1 show on television sure is good. Grey's Anatomy (#1, 22.20), despite having the now-typical sophomore backlash, has made ABC a player on the most important night on TV. Even better, Thursday kick-off show Ugly Betty is one the few shows this season to become a hit almost entirely on its own (The only other one would probably be Heroes). On Sundays, meanwhile, Desperate Housewives (#3, 21.10) showed that there is life after backlash, having been #1 4 of the first 10 weeks. And, of course, there's Dancing with the Stars (Tuesdays: #4, 20.66; Wednesday: #5, 19.08) which I said at the beginning of the season just might be the American Idol of the fall, and I was partially right. While it didn't reach the heights of AI, it did dominate its timeslot and boost ABC on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Toss-Ups: Brothers and Sisters has apparently been building in quality as of late, but it still has a mediocre rendition of 60% from Desperate Housewives, better than Desperate's first lead-out Boston Legal but far lower than Grey's Anatomy, a show that eventually turned into a hit in its own right, a feat B&S will take a while to reach. And Lost (#7, 17.70) is still getting ratings that most cult shows would envy, they're waaaay down from last fall, and it is now cool to bash the show for its weirdness and slow-moving nature. Except here at South Dakota Dark, of course.

The Bad: ABC has fumbled Tuesdays and Wednesday post-Dancing/Lost in a way rivaled only by Fox in the fall. On Tuesday, you have the bombtastic Help Me Help You, which squandered over half of Dancing's audience despite ending in a half-hour with no other sitcoms, and Big Day, which premiered last week with a low 7.5M viewers, and will probably go even further down this week. On Wednesday, Day Break, Lost's replacement, has dipped to less than 5M viewers, and The Nine was pulled from the schedule after dropping to a horrendous 4.1M viewers the day before Thanksgiving. ABC is also having problems with the post-Grey's slot, where Six Degrees was squandering almost 65% of the medical show's audience before getting pulled. Men in Trees showed slightly better numbers this Thursday, losing "only" half of its audience.

Overall: They have one all-around well-working night (Sunday) and two almost fully operational (Wednesday and Thursday). Otherwise, they need serious help, 18-49 Crown be damned.


The Good: [Insert Lame "Save the cheerleader, save the world" Joke Here] Heroes (#18, 14.84) has become the biggest new show of the season, and a Top 10 smash among Adults 18-49, so yeah, that's pretty good. Also on Mondays, Deal or No Deal fever (#12, 15.77) probably won't be wearing off anytime soon, as NBC has decided to cut the show down to one edition a week, which should keep it preserved longer. And people's thirst for game shows doesn't end with Howie Mandel, as shown by 1 vs. 100's minor success on Fridays, usually getting around 9 or 10M viewers. Also on Fridays, Las Vegas and Law and Order both survived their moves to the night, where both also usually score in the 9-10M viewer range, better than what the network has been getting there as of late (Inconceivable, anyone?). Sunday Night Football (#8, 17.36) has benefited from NBC being able to choose what games play for the second half of the season. And while My Name is Earl and The Office aren't exactly kicking butt in total viewers, they usually tie the more-watched Ugly Betty among Adults 18-49, and The Office has been the most-downloaded show on iTunes so far this season.

Toss-ups: Despite airing two Law and Orders back-to-back, Tuesdays have been rather lowly lately for NBC, not helped by the disappointing performance from God's Gift to TV Friday Night Lights, which has become NBC's Arrested Development. Also not-so-hot is the much-lampooned Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which has gradually decreased into the 7M viewer range. Still, it got a full-season renewal, mostly thanks to its high numbers among rich people, the audience with the most money to throw away. Oh, and after the much talked about resurgence of E.R., the veteran medical drama is back to the low levels it was at last season.

The Bad: Wednesday has been terrible for most of the season, With Kidnapped being one of the biggest flops of the season and 30 Rock being barely saved by the new Must-See TV Thursdays (Where people are still ignoring it), and The Biggest Loser hitting series lows. Medium has been doing okay on the night, but NBC is missing the obvious opportunity to move Medium back to Mondays, where it would be a far better fit with the culty Heroes than Studio 60.

Overall: They don't have a lot of obviously bad things going on right now (Like ABC), but they also don't have a lot of obviously good things (Like CBS).


The Good: House (#11, 15.96), just like last fall, is the biggest plus on the network's schedule, dominating its timeslot and holding its own unlike any other AI-boosted show (Well, maybe 24, but that did well before AI came along). Prison break is still doing decently on Tuesday, despite the show's major plot changes this season. And Sundays have been doing well among Adults 18-49, with American Dad being smartly placed as a bridge between The Simpsons and Family Guy.

Toss-Ups: Well, Bones was #1 among Adults 18-49 last week in its timeslot, but #3 among viewers.

The Bad: Jesus, what a terrible, terrible line-up of new shows. Vanished was getting semi-decent ratings after Prison Break, but was moved to Fridays (Where it eventually died) for Justice (Which moved from Wednesday where Criminal Minds and Lost were killing it), which was canceled after only a few weeks and replaced with House repeats (Which performed far better). On Tuesdays Fox tried boosting Standoff by having it swap timeslots with House for the first four weeks, which got it a big premiere number and even bigger drop-off the following three weeks. It is now fighting for fourth place with Gilmore Girls, yet still got a vote of confidence from Fox, which ordered four more scripts. And finally the two failed Thursday comedies 'Til Death and Happy Hour. The former is still there, struggling to keep sitcom viewers from NBC, while latter was gone the week after returning from Baseball hiatus (Which, by the way, was the lowest rated post-season ever). And dare we mention Celebrity Duets and The O.C.?

Overall: As long as American Idol and 24 deliver the goods this Spring, Fox could care less about the fall.

The CW

The Good: For the budding hybrid of UPN and The WB, progress has been slow. However, America's Next Top Model has shown zero drop-off from last season (Unlike most of the shows on The CW) and even came in third in its timeslot among Adults 18-49, beating NBC and ABC. Wrestling is still obviously popular on Fridays, even occasionally beating Fox in total viewers. And Reba and 7th Heaven have become the most unlikely Sunday power duo, showing increases in their timeslots.

Toss-Ups: So, so many toss-ups. Gilmore Girls, Smallville and the Comedy line-up have all dropped off by double digits from last season, but have all leveled off to what look like decent numbers. And Veronica Mars and One Tree Hill were both shows that barely made the line-up, and have had mixed results. Veronica Mars started off with okay numbers, holding onto 65-70% of GG's audience until The CW aired an episode after a GG repeat and stopped showing ads for it, and the show suffered until the Hearst Rape case was solved last week, getting record numbers for the show. One Tree Hill followed a similar pattern, starting out well, then dipping (Mainly due to Lost and the increasing Criminal Minds), then this week broke 4M viewers, its biggest number this season.

The Bad: Runaway showed that the network either should've A) kept Everwood, or B) get new shows that could actually attract an audience to a new network. Also, one would think that combining the two networks would lead to bigger numbers than both of the old ones, but the numbers have been mostly the same as both UPN and The WB individually, and even occasionally lower.

Overall: They need a show that can attract a new audience to the network and keep them there.


Ugly Gleanings

ABC's Ugly Betty, debuting tonight, is like the show your mother never knew she was crying out for. And that's, seriously, a compliment. A style-bending tightrope walker of a show, Betty is like chick lit writ large. It's never anything masterful, but it tastes pretty darn good and it goes down easy.

Now, to be fair, there's stuff here that doesn't work. Some of the jokes are trying a little too hard (some of the sight gags especially), and some of the characters get reduced to stereotypes (and don't seem as if they'll ever break free of them). And when you're blending this many different styles and tones, you're bound to tumble every once in a while, which Betty does from time to time.

Where the show doesn't go wrong is in the character of Betty herself, who is instantly fascinating, unlike anyone else on television. An essential optimist, Betty is beset upon by a world of troubles, a world that doesn't understand her and condescends to her. Turn the dial just a few notches to the left, and this would be something akin to the Book of Job at a fashion magazine. Turn it a few notches to the right, and it would be almost unbearably cruel comedy, like the short-lived Lisa Kudrow vehicle, The Comeback. Somehow, the show makes Betty that hardest character to pull off -- someone who struggles to make their way in a world hostile to them and never gives up. Not once do we question what Betty wants because the show and, more importantly, actress America Ferrara (wonderful here) sell it to us.

While the attempts to capture the tone of a telenovela are occasionally misdirected, this took the best thing about the original series (the central character) and left it mostly intact. It's an update that's not quite on the level of, say, All in the Family or The Office yet, but it could be on its way, and that's reason to rejoice indeed.

So if you have a mom or a daughter or something, sit them down and watch this with them. They'll probably like it even more than you do.

That means you, Mom.

Betty's the only big debut for the rest of the week, so let's get to one show I missed last night and a couple of shows I took in tonight.

I forgot that I had watched The Amazing Race the other night. The leg was generally fascinating, with interesting locations (I'd actually really like to visit Mongolia now) and some cool challenges. The teams are still fun to watch (even if the recently dating couple with the girl with the prosthetic leg is starting to frighten me by just how much they ENCOURAGE each other -- barely restrained passive aggression anyone?). Honestly, though, I think maybe cycle 10 is about the tops a reality show can go. I'm willing to have a good one prove me wrong, but once you're this far in to a reality show's run, you know roughly everything the show can throw at you. Any playing around with the rules feels strictly perfunctory, a way to throw a faithful audience off the trail. I'll stick with this Race through the end, but the show will have to add some new elements to bring me back for the 11th iteration. Perhaps they could cast me. . .

Ah, Jericho. How you pain me.

I love the genre you're set in. I love your willingness to deal with the fact that life after a nuclear war wouldn't be all perfect-society-wine-and-roses. And I love that you're also willing to do a serious riff on Alas, Babylon.

But you continue to mess things up at crucial points. This week, you turned a potentially interesting plot point (yeah. . .what ABOUT prisoners after an apocalyptic scenario) and made it into a ho-hum action thing (complete with truly awful rock guitar on the soundtrack -- no, really). Wasn't the attempt to shield the town itself from the deadly fallout headed its way an interesting enough plot complication? Did you really need that action element? In so many ways, this feels focus-grouped to death in a way that it's obvious inspiration, Lost, never does (largely because Lost's pilot was shot so chaotically, never leaving ABC time to say, "Hey. . .wait a minute").

And then you go and pull out an incredible scene like that last one, where the HAM radio operator slowly tries to make contact with other cities in the U.S., sticking a red push pin in for the cities he can't reach, methodically working his way through Denver, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Diego. . .

We see the towns in close up, fingers pressing a push pin solidly into the dot for each town, until finally, we're just looking at the tray of push pins themselves, the fingers going to them again and again and again, pulling out pin after pin after pin. We don't need to see every city destroyed. We just need to see a rapidly diminishing pile of red. It's a startlingly visual way to tell us a bit of the story we've been curious about, a metaphor for all of the loss and grief and fear that would surely follow an event like a nuclear attack. Television so rarely relies entirely on visuals to convey what it wants to say that this moment arrives as a surprise -- a moment of real cinematic prowess surrounded by over-obviousness.

Jericho, more like THAT please and less like the guitar rock.

Project Runway is sending four people to its final three because the judges couldn't make the call. While I don't normally enjoy rule-bending on reality shows, it feels like a good idea this time, just because the four remaining all obviously had the requisite talent. I expect good things from all four. What I'm NOT feeling is Bravo's decision to stretch out the show's denouement over THREE WEEKS. A reunion? A two-part, three-hour finale? No thank you. Just let me see the last hour. I have other things to do.

A side note: As good as the Veronica Mars premiere that's now airing for free at is, the second episode is even better. I know a lot of you didn't like season two, but season three looks to be off to a promising start.

And how about those credits, huh?!


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

"I'm okay! I'm okay!": Gilmore Girls season seven premiere

What if they threw a Gilmore Girls and no one talked all that fast? And what if when they DID talk fast, it all rang hollow and false? And what if the pop culture references were all a little too depressingly post-1950?

To tell you the truth, it wouldn't be all that bad, as season seven's premiere evinced Tuesday night. Was it the best episode of the show ever? No. But it wasn't the train wreck it could have been (like when David Milch left NYPD Blue or Aaron Sorkin left The West Wing). There's a lot of room for improvement, and it's hard to shake the feeling that you're watching some weird Gilmore Girls spinoff that's more dramatically inclined (granted, with all of the same actors and sets), but what was there was pretty solid, even mixing in a few laughs.

(Also, if you haven't watched, don't think too hard about the image above, okay? It'll be better if you don't. Promise.)

For the most part, Dave Rosenthal wrote himself out of the tiny little corner Amy Sherman-Palladino had painted him in to, even if it took a lot of dramatic, borderline depressing scenes to do so. He also has a way with comedy, giving most of it to the show's bit players, since the central two couples of the show were in dire straits (Babette's monologue about her intimates was a particular highlight). There's a bit more of the obvious sitcom to Rosenthal's touch (after all, a car did drive through a building in this episode), but it's clear the show isn't in completely incompetent hands. And that's reason for a sigh of relief.

Now we just have to hope the next 21 don't suck.


"We are not special! We are Japanese!": Gleanage

I've been malaise-y lately. Not sure why, but it's time to make this go again. Fortunately, tonight was an oddly quiet night of television, so I could catch up. Plus, there wasn't THAT much to watch over the weekend.

So. In short order.

In what's becoming a weekly theme, I really liked bits and pieces of The Simpsons, but I felt it didn't really hang together as a whole episode. I liked the old, practically abandoned mall. I liked Bart and Lisa's antics. I liked the main idea of Marge becoming a handywoman, even if it fell apart when Springfield expressed a preference for 1950s-esque gender roles that was a little silly and hard to believe (I know. . .it's a cartoon). And, as always, the action denouement was just dumb -- even if it WAS set on a roller coaster (and, of course, roller coasters are inherently awesome). I think it's indicative of what's wrong with the show that I had to sit and think for a good long while before remembering that the side plot with Bart and Lisa tracking their too-fat cat to discover it had adopted another family was from ANOTHER episode of the show that I had watched that evening in syndication.

I don't know that I'll pick up Desperate Housewives again, but the premiere was better than anything in season two, if not quite living up to the promise of the first four or so episodes of season one. The annoying voiceovers are still the worst on television (and why, exactly, is Mary Alice still watching over her friends after she essentially assuaged her guilt over her mystery, the basis for season one?), and Teri Hatcher is still one of the most cringe-worthy actresses in primetime, but the other three women all have interesting storylines and the show has once again figured out how to write Bree (probably helped by assigning all of the Bree writing to Frasier alum Joe Keenan). Granted, there's not a lot else on Sundays, but I like having a stretch of days with nothing much on, so I don't know if I'll stick with this, but I'm not surprised that it's working for the longtime fans who tuned out last season.

A brief summation of Brothers & Sisters:

"Hello, gay brother! How are you?"

"I am good, working mom sister. Did you know that our mother is played by Sally Field, two-time Oscar winner?"

"I did know that. Did you know that our sister is played by Ally McBeal?"

"I, Ally McBeal, am a conservative in a family of liberals. Politics!"



Seriously, though, this so isn't the show for me, though I'll stick with it through the first few Greg Berlanti episodes, as I so loved his last creation, Everwood. Libby seemed to enjoy bits of it while openly scoffing other parts, which seems like a fairly astute response to the show, which had about fifty different creative teams' fingerprints all over it (and that's only a slight exaggeration). Jon Robert Baitz may be the next playwright to transfer his sensibility over to television, but you wouldn't know it from this hamfisted hour, which tried too hard to do too many things. Still, there was promise here (namely from the amazing cast), so I'll stick with it until Berlanti shows up.

I hardly paid attention to a mostly filler Prison Break, which saw T-Bag turn on his dubious charms so that his pals could. . .dig up a woman's garage in a search for $5 million. The show is rapidly becoming expendable for me, and I may ditch it if I need the free time. It's not that the show is exceptionally worse than season one; it's that season two has really cast the show's weaknesses in sharp relief. As a part of Michael's wacky scheme, the cons were all interesting enough, but when they're asked to carry their own stories, they just can't do it. I realize it's unrealistic to have everyone stick together, but the show only seems to work when the ensemble can be an ensemble, so the stronger players can boost the weaker ones. Which isn't happening. But next week will have the most! twists! yet! before the show goes on a baseball hiatus. Let's hope it can get me interested again.

I really don't know what to make of Heroes. I like a lot of it and find a lot of it quite laughable. The plotting is alternately droopy and lightning-quick, while the characters are a mixed bag of genre archetypes (and not in a good way like Lost). The series is also too pretentious and dreary by half.

I'm not one of those people who believes that comic book movies or TV shows have to be campy fun, but if they're going to take on the more "adult" tone of the modern graphic novel, these shows should be prepared to go all the way. Heroes is a frustrating amalgam of the two. And, honestly, even the serious comic titles (and, to tell you the truth, I'm not the most knowledgeable about this) out there blend their dire, adult situations with some well-placed one-liners. Heroes isn't quite there yet.

But, seriously, this is the kind of show I'll watch all season, even if it sucks. The plot twists, while not exactly surprising, are genuine twists, as opposed to what was exactly expected. And the cast is game. Plus, the Japanese space and time-bender and the indestructible cheerleader are enough for me. It's not going to be the next Lost, but maybe it can be a slight improvement on Prison Break.

Finally, Studio 60.

I've somehow become known online as a hater of the show (even on those laffy-taffy TWOP boards), and, honestly, I'm not. I still like more about the show than I dislike, but the flaws about it are more apparent than any other Aaron Sorkin show. Maybe I'm just older or maybe Sorkin has a limited bag of tricks (or maybe both), but I can see this growing tired sooner than his other shows.

Still, episode two was great until the last five minutes when we saw the prayer circle scene (which was condescending AND stupidly written) and THEN what would surely have gone down in history as the worst sketch ever written (Gilbert & Sullivan? That's what America's calling out for?). I can handle that this takes place in its own Sorkin-verse, but when he blatantly takes us out of it to indulge his own whims, that hurts the show. If the crowd had mostly been baffled by it, it would have made the scene great, but the crowd LOVED it. Ugh.

Still. . .that Matthew Perry needs about 15 Emmys.

And, finally, a much more successful dramedy, How I Met Your Mother. I don't know why, but this show fills me with the sort of joy I haven't felt since Gilmore Girls in its heyday. And, to be honest, the show still has its flaws. I think I mostly like that the characters are so sharply, specifically defined, especially in a genre full of stereotypes. These are both easily recognizable types and very specific people, and I like that. I also like that the show isn't afraid to go for a long stretch without any easy punchlines. The actors occasionally try too hard to sell some of the lesser jokes, but the writing captures the rhythms of real conversation when it's on its game, and I like that too. And I like the drama.

*dreamy sigh*

I may have to make David review this because I'm clearly unable to view it with a clear head.

The magic of TiVo meant that Family Guy came last. And, honestly, they're the LAST animated show to make fun of Wal-Mart. So I hope they didn't think this was fresh. This is another show I'm rapidly growing disenchanted with, as even the '80s callbacks are getting more predictable (a letter from the electric company leads into the opening sequence from The Electric Company? Is there ANYone who didn't see that coming?). Ah well. Watching less TV is good for you, I've heard.

Help Me Help You shows a bit of promise, and Ted Danson is a consummate pro, but the characters mostly feel ripped off from Arrested Development and The Bob Newhart Show. Still, I could see this catching on with a small cult.

Not so with Runaway, which is probably the slowest-plotted of the new serials. Who wants to untangle another conspiracy? Not me! And, honestly, if The CW didn't like the ratings Everwood got, why did they greenlight Everwood Has a Kid with The Fugitive?

Thoughts on the Gilmores momentarily.

It's good to be back.


Monday, September 25, 2006

A long time ago. . .

I'm going to try and wake up tomorrow morning to get some gleanings up (yeah. . .THAT's gonna happen), but for now, revel in this.

David and Libby hate it. I think it's pretty cool.