Friday, November 17, 2006

A full-ish season for Veronica Mars

Alan Sepinwall has the good word -- seven more episodes for Veronica Mars' third season, bringing the total to 20 for the season, 64 for the series' run, roughly 20 episodes or so short of a profitable afterlife in perpetual cable reruns and 35 or so away from running in weekend syndication in the early hours of the morning, like a good cult show should.

Curiously, another college-based show with a third season shortened (to 17 episodes) due to bad ratings, Felicity, went on to have a ratings resurgence in its fourth season -- and was then canceled (though that show was fairly dependent on its college setting and probably would have seemed off if it had continued past Felicity's graduation).

Veronica Mars was mostly saved by the utter failure of The CW to catch on as a network, the complete avoidance of its one new drama (Runaway) and a surprisingly strong showing among teens in the ratings (for whatever reason). It also helps that it holds on to marginally more of its Gilmore Girls leadin in the ratings than One Tree Hill holds on to its America's Next Top Model lead-in. Things looked good for the show, as it had de-emphasized the over-arching mysteries to be more appealing to Gilmore viewers, and the ratings were perking up slowly but surely. In the last three weeks, though, it has tumbled, since it aired a new episode without a Gilmore lead-in. Veronica has acquired a reputation as a show that's hard to catch up on if you miss one episode, which really isn't true, but once the new Gilmore fans lost the plot thread, they bailed (presumably). The show has also been plagued by the return of House and the hugely rated last episodes of Dancing with the Stars, which sucked almost all of the oxygen out of the room.

Then again, Veronica has always battled low ratings. In the first season, when UPN had nothing to pair it with, that was understandable, and the show was renewed mostly because it was the one show in UPN's history to have any sort of real critical buzz. In its second season, it capitalized on its new Top Model lead-in, holding on to more and more of its audience (against Lost, no less), until it suddenly lost the lead-in, having to follow up something called South Beach. The ratings tumbled, and when Top Model started up again, Veronica's plot had advanced too far for casual fans, and the ratings tumbled as the season went on.

The show has been helped by having a loyal cult that buys DVDs and insanely low production costs that make it easy to recoup expenses through advertising (though the show has many, many regular cast members, only three appear in every episode). Creator Rob Thomas knows his niche, and he delivers to it solidly, which keeps the fans buying merchandise. Still, it's surprising the show has never been able to reach the upper 3 millions, where Buffy the Vampire Slayer regularly resided.

Now, however, Veronica seems to have run out of lives. If the ratings don't perk up in the last few episodes, there may not be a season four, regardless of the financial incentives to make it happen.

So, naturally, expect lots of posts from us about how you have to watch the show or you won't be our friends anymore.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Big five: Lesser-known Muppet Show Muppets

Today, while trolling through our tracking information, David and I realized that, for some reason, the word that brings people here the third-most often (after "the" and "studio") was "muppet." A quick search showed us that we had mentioned the Muppets in passing twice, but never as the subject of a post.

So this post is for those of you who have been looking for some hardcore Muppet content and have been sadly denied in the past.

By the by, I decided to go with Muppets who weren't on the varsity roster. While all of the Muppets are popular to some degree, I have defined the "varsity roster" as every Muppet who later became a regular as a Muppet Baby (this means that, sadly, we had to leave out Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Animal, Scooter, Rowlf and Skeeter, who wasn't even a Muppet Show Muppet to begin with -- we didn't leave out Muppets who made "guest appearances" on Muppet Babies, such as Dr. Bunsen Honeydew -- well, we DID leave HIM out, but you'll see why in a moment).

Also, the Swedish Chef has been disqualified because, honestly, who doesn't love the Swedish Chef? That makes him varsity in my eyes.

So now then. . .

5.) Lew Zealand, boomerang fish thrower -- One of the best things about The Muppet Show was the way it made fun of the hilariously strange acts at the bottom of vaudeville bills -- once you got past the George M. Cohens of the day, you had to put up with bearded ladies and the like. Lew Zealand was a nice shot at these types of acts, and while he was a one joke character, the joke was just bizarre enough to be funny the many times he was brought out. I mean, honestly, the man threw fish!

4.) Beaker, helpful lab assistant -- Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, of course, was the Muppet staff's gentle mocking of those "science of tomorrow!" types that clogged the airwaves (and science fiction films) in the 1950s. Of course he had to have a helpful lab assistant, and that job fell to the monosyllabic Beaker, a character who managed to say as much through the word "Meep!" as many of the others did through whole monologues. Beaker usually started out frantic and got more frantic as the time went by. While he was probably a character created solely to entertain the kids, he was one of the better ones, and his role as Bunsen's assistant gave him ample screen time.

3.) Doglion Beast, friendly monster -- When I was a wee lad, I loved the Muppets, but I was also slightly terrified by them (the famous Gorilla Detector sketch was traumatizing). I had a Muppets coloring book which featured the characters faces staring up from the page. I went through and systematically colored out all of their eyes. For some reason, though, the big goofy monsters on the show didn't scare me. I think it's because they were played as big, dumb louts or as essentially friendly beasts that just wanted to be a part of the Muppet Show proper. And look at that face -- doesn't he look like Sully from Monsters Inc.?

2.) Sam the Eagle, patriot -- I recently read an article that was deeply concerned with why the people of my generation tended to not be as concerned with "traditional American values" as those of generations past -- why, in essence, we were more likely to support gay marriage, loosened obscenity laws, adult content on TV, etc. Now, of course, a lot of this has to do with just being young (you tend to get more conservative as you age), but I like to think that Jim Henson, that incorrigible liberal, got all of us to mistrust traditional American values with his hyper-patriot, Sam the Eagle, who was always worked up about the decency of some bit of the show (that usually wasn't the least bit indecent). Sam is probably the only Muppet one could imagine as a Cabinet member. After all, who else will think of the children?

1.) Marvin Suggs, player of little fuzzy ball things -- I mean, look at him! That's just NUTS!

Just missed the list: Harry, the guy who blew everything up; Statler & Waldorf (was unclear if they were varsity or not -- I would say they are); Dr. Julius Strangepork of "PIGS IN SPACE"

Okay. I give. Enjoy this. The Swedish Chef prepares Chocolate Moose


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Giving postmodernism a bad name: Zach Helm's Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger Than Fiction (Marc Forster, 2006) is Zach Helm's first major script adapted onto the big screen.

Who's this Zach Helm guy, you say?

He's a 31 year old up-and-comer who's buzzed to death in Hollywood. If you have ever browsed through glossy Hollywood magazines such as Vanity Fair or Fade In , you'll likely to have encountered some "It/Golden Boy" slanted piece about him, lauding him for his visionary genius and his classy pedigree (playwright-cum-screenwriter-cum-Lucy Liu's ex-fiance-cum-newly-annointed-writer/director).

I'm sure Zach Helm is a nice guy, in spite of such Tinseltown hype (I mean, it's not all his fault, really). But in the wake of all that buzz, I can't help but want to dispel - right here and now - the notion that Helm is the Second Coming. If Stranger Than Fiction is evocative of anything, it's that Helm is basically a third-rate Charlie Kaufman.

Stranger Than Fiction is a film that gives postmodernism a bad name - it's literally and figuratively about nothing. The film revolves around an IRS agent/lonesome semi-sad sack named Harold Crick (played by Will Farrell) and his inevitable discovery one day that his life is narrated by Emma Thompson's novelist, Kay Eiffel, who appears to be suffering from a bad case of writer's block.

The big catch to Stranger Than Fiction is that Ms. Eiffel will - sooner or later - kill off Harold. She does that to all her characters, as Dustin Hoffman's literary professor/Harold's literature consultant point out. (That last "quip" by the Hoffman character was supposed to be funny, by the way, but I neither smiled nor laughed).

The problem with Stranger Than Fiction is that Helm's script is full of quips and quirks that don't amount much to anything, really. Harold goes to Hoffman's Professor Jules Hilbert, where a bunch of self-complacent "ha ha, ain't I smart?" quips are set in place. Hoffman tells Harold to find out if his story is being concocted as a tragedy or a comedy. Cues the next sequence, where he meets up with Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the woman he will be auditing and secretly harboring a crush upon. By the end of the evening, Harold, pen and pad in hand, has more tallies under "tragedy" than "comedy".

Or consider another quippy moment when the ol' wise Professor advises Harold to call in sick the following day and do nothing, as means to figure out if Harold's life is really plot-devised. Cues another "hilarious" sequence, where one moment, Harold is peacefully watching the TV amidst ringing phones, and the next, a bull-dozer heads for his living room - where Harold is sitting as of that moment! It's not so much amusing as it is ridiculously twee in its supposed comedy.

To be fair, Helm does, every once in a while, attempt to tie up his meta-narrative with some lasting themes -it's just that he fails every time. The control novelist Kay Eiffel has upon Everyman Harold is, as more readily apparent in the second half, supposed to be a reflection upon Our (as in me, you, and everyone in the audience) overwhelming dependence upon standardized time and scheduling.

Take for example, the whole wrist watch metaphor. As Thompson's cumbersome narration informs us, Harold lives by his watch - time is his life. He brushes his teeth a designated amount of brush strokes, arrives at the bus stop just at the right moment, etc. But one day when Harold accidentally switches his watch to a few minutes late (thanks to a businessman stranger's ill-informed stopwatch), he bumps (again) into the love of his life, bakery worker, Ana, on the bus!

Helm's sophomoric take on themes regarding time and control only reminded me of the brilliant script Andrew Niccol contributed to The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998), which is better executed in both irony and drama. In The Truman Show, Niccol uses the meta relationship drawn between Everyman Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) and God-like TV producer Christof (Ed Harris) to question many things, among them: role-playing, identity, and perhaps most importantly of all, the haze of dream and reality prevalent in our spectacle-driven, mediated world.

Nor does Helm's work here in Stranger Than Fiction, unlike Kaufman's Adaptation, illuminate upon anything about the writing process, let alone theoretical questions concerning the vague line between author and readership. We are not revealed anything about Kay Eiffel's creative mind, that is, unless you consider countless scenes of Emma Thompson hallucinating about potential deaths (Yes, she wants to kill off Harold Crick, asap - we get it) as indicative of insight.

Perhaps it is telling that I became increasingly impatient of Harold Crick's impending death. Not because I love to see people killed off, but moreso because as subject and author, Harold Crick and Kay Eiffel are as bland as they come. Stranger Than Fiction doesn't provoke anything, except pangs of frustration and boredom.


What you SHOULD be watching. . .

I've gotten some requests to give you a handy-dandy schedule that you can use to plan your TV viewing week. I've pared this down, cutting out the completely unnecessary stuff, and I think you'd be mostly ready to go with this lineup.

Of course, I don't actually expect you will watch ALL of these shows. Only someone who's COMPLETELY INSANE would do that.


This schedule assumes you have at least one VCR and/or DVR with which to record stuff. The * means the program is recorded.

So let's start with. . .

8 p.m.: How I Met Your Mother (CBS)
8:30 p.m.: Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)*
9 p.m.: Heroes (NBC)
10 p.m.: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC)

A note: When 24 returns, it bumps Studio 60 priority-wise. So you would watch 24 at 9, then follow it up with your recording of Heroes at 10.

This is a mostly lightweight night. HIMYM and EHC are two of TV's best comedies, and watching them back-to-back is always a nice way to forget the start of the work week. So is Heroes, an increasingly goofy good time. And then you can watch Studio 60 and make fun of it, like we do in the VanDerWerff household! Until 24 comes back, that is.

8 p.m.: Friday Night Lights (NBC)
9 p.m.: Veronica Mars (The CW)
10 p.m.: House (Fox)*

Three of TV's top dramas in a row. While FNL looks to be moving soon (probably to Sundays, if TV Guide can be believed), it and Veronica Mars need all the help you can muster. That's why you're going to record House and watch it later, because that show doesn't need the extra eyeballs. It was tough to exclude Gilmore Girls here, but maybe we can bring it back later in the week.

8 p.m.: Read a book or watch something else you have taped.
9 p.m.: Lost (ABC) (but until it returns in February, read a book, unless you really, really, really like Taye Diggs)
10 p.m.: The Nine (ABC)

For a night that was mildly overcrowded last year, this cleared out in a hurry. Especially with Lost gone, Wednesday is kind of a wasteland, unless you really like reality TV. In that case, you've got two of the finest -- America's Next Top Model on The CW and Top Chef on Bravo. I'm not a huge fan of either, but maybe you will be. The Nine, flawed though it is, still needs your support. It's compelling!

8 p.m.: My Name Is Earl (NBC)
8:30 p.m.: The Office (NBC)
9 p.m.: Grey's Anatomy (ABC)
10 p.m.: Ugly Betty (ABC)*

A note: Once Scrubs and 30 Rock move here permanently on Nov. 30, bump Grey's to some other night. It's the biggest show on TV, and it has just as much bad in it as good. It doesn't need your help.

Thursday is colossally overcrowded. I've left out the spooky good time Supernatural, the resurgent The O.C. (though I was never a huge fan), the "some people still like it" ER and the entire CBS lineup (I don't need Survivor or CSI). Mostly, this is another lighthearted night. NBC's comedies are, again, two of the best on TV, and the ABC dramas are both spectacular fun. Close with Betty, which is easily the better show.

8 p.m.: Doctor Who (SciFi)
9 p.m.: Battlestar Galactica (SciFi)
10 p.m.: Watch your tape of either Gilmore Girls or Grey's Anatomy here or, God help me, tape 1 vs. 100

SciFi serves up one of the best blocks of science fiction TV in memory, which is nice, because the networks have essentially given up on this night. However, 1 Vs. 100 is weirdly compelling, what with its ridiculously easy questions, fine hosting by Bob Saget and strange, strange concept. It's going to stop being compelling very soon (See: Deal or No Deal), but for now, it will do.

8-11 p.m.: Watch college football or taped stuff or go out and do something. Come on! Pull yourself off the couch!

The networks have abandoned Saturday. "Go have fun!" they say. I think you should take them up on it.

7 p.m.: Spend time with your family -- who wants to deal with 60 Minutes anymore anyway?
8 p.m.: The Amazing Race (CBS)
9 p.m.: Dexter (last week's episode, Showtime)*
10 p.m.: The Wire (HBO)

Showtime and HBO really suck, putting their two class acts on at the same time. As fun as Dexter can be, it's no The Wire, so you're going to have to sit on that tape all week long and avoid spoilers. Meanwhile, you've got The Amazing Race to keep you warm.

Now, there are plenty of other shows out there that you can put on your viewing schedule, but if I find out you're an avid Criminal Minds fan. . .

Well. . .you know how mean I can be.

Coming soon: HDTV and the complete lack of objectivity.


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A full season for Friday Night Lights

Friday Night Lights, the greatest show ever (and that's only slight hyperbole), has gotten a much-deserved pickup for a full season, despite its ratings qualifying it as one of the lowest-rated dramas not on The CW or cable. The show struggles in a tough time slot (it's on opposite Dancing with the Stars and NCIS), and its blend of football, teen soap and family drama seems carefully calibrated to appeal only to TV critics and those who love them.

That brings the list of full-season pickups for new shows to this:

Brothers & Sisters
Men in Trees
Ugly Betty


The CW:
The Game

Friday Night Lights
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

In that list, there's exactly one genuine hit (Heroes) and two pretty big hits (Ugly Betty and Jericho, two shows that ended up being self-starters). You also have three shows that have held up well in big time slots (Shark, The Game and Brothers & Sisters) and one show that became a mid-level performer completely unexpectedly (Men in Trees, which gets the call to the big leagues on Nov. 30 when it follows Grey's Anatomy for the first time). Finally, you have Studio 60 and Friday Night Lights, two shows that have cult audiences, critical buzz and little else (though Studio 60 is losing what little buzz it started out with).

The networks have been unusually patient this year, not yanking the serials instantly, even when their ratings have been poor. ABC stuck with Six Degrees for far longer than seemed absolutely necessary (perhaps to placate J.J. Abrams?), then gave the middling What About Brian? a full-season order (somewhat for the same reason, but also because the show performs well with 18-34-year-old women for some reason). It's also stuck with The Nine, a far better show that has far more promise, but seems destined to follow Invasion into a one-season-and-out pattern. Hopefully, ABC will give it a full season to tell its story, as the characters are interesting, if not quite as good as those on Friday Night Lights. Only CBS showed an itchy trigger finger, pulling Smith after three episodes, but that show was a non-starter. Fox has canceled most of its fall slate, but that's largely because all of its shows were pretty awful. The same goes for The CW, which canceled the plodding Runaway.

What am I still waiting for full-season pickups on? I think 30 Rock has gotten funnier and funnier, but from the way its ratings are sinking, it's clear America doesn't agree with me. I hope it carves out a spot for itself after Scrubs on Thursdays and gets a full year (or something close to it), if only to get to see Alec Baldwin's performance once a week. I still hope that The Nine gets that back nine, though I'm far less optimistic in that case. And, finally, I'm holding out hope that Veronica Mars gets a full third season, even if season four seems like a distant dream at this point in time.

But, really, I've had a pretty good fall. I haven't lost anything I deeply cared about, and the one show I unconditionally love just got its full season order.

And, hey, a fifth season for The Wire was announced before the season had really gotten started. Woo!

Finally, if you're thinking of trying out 3 Lbs. on CBS tonight, don't bother. The full details at House Next Door in the morning.


Sunday, November 12, 2006

That's how I Roland

Hey, it's me DAVID! You've probably forgotten, but I'm back from whatever hiatus I may or may not have been on. Here are a few episodes I really dug over the past week:

After a few episodes of a fairly standard (though nonetheless solid) formula where Dexter tracks the ice truck killer and also finds time to slice up some other weirdo, Showtime's cheerfully demented newbie show had possibly its best episode yet on Sunday with "Return to Sender". As Dexter feared that his double life was about to be uncovered, he made a fair point--"Eventually most serial killers get caught. There's really not much of a retirement plan". I was shocked to realize that I had basically forgotten to think of Dexter as a 'serial killer', an archetype as tired as the day is long. Dexter is no opera-loving sophisticate in the Hannibal Lecter mode, and he's nothing like the by-the-numbers psychopaths we see on Law & Order or Criminal Minds with specific reasons for their mental deviance. He's merely someone who is fully aware of the breach between him and normal society and his potential for dangerous behavior, someone who acts on his desires in the most acceptable way possible. This show's achievement is that it's putting an interesting spin on the idea of the serial killer for the first time in years by giving us someone who is believably insane, but is nonetheless someone we can root for. If Dexter was an inflated, egotistical avenging angel who preached about the morality of his killing code, he would be a complete bore, but his character takes a much more interesting tack. Of course, the problem with a show with such a fascinating lead character is that it's tough to be as interested by the rest of the ensemble, but the show's cast is good enough to keep it afloat for now, especially the feisty Jennifer Carpenter as Dex's sister, and they're clearly doing the best they can to flesh out the others without boring us too much. Todd, catch up on this already!

Next is my super-favorite How I Met Your Mother, which concluded the first third of the season with "Crazy Eyes", reuniting Marshall and Lily in a nicely low-key, but still touching, fashion. In fact, the show has handled its two big relationships with exceptional deftness this year. After Ted's grandstanding antics in the first season finale, I feared Ross-and-Rachel-esque turbulence once he got with Robin. While I have no doubt there's trouble ahead for the pair (and soon), the writers haven't been afraid to keep them in the background for whole episodes at a time, and so far they're entirely believable together--it helps that Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders have a great laid-back chemistry. It's great that I can praise such a goofy show for its attention to realism, considering nearly every episode attempts to subvert its sitcom formula by chopping up the timelines or messing with character identities. "Crazy Eyes" was no exception, its best conceit being Barney's infuriation at his new nickname 'Swarley'. Plus, Andrew from Buffy and Inara from Firefly were in it! Still my favorite show on TV.

I meant to post last week and hype up the return of The O.C., which aired its third episode (clearly Fox are looking to burn this likely final season off quickly) on Thursday. I'll hype it now: this show is good again! Promise! As a fond admirer of the show's freshman year, I am still cautious considering that season 3 also started fairly well before going into a major tailspin. But there's a maturity here (after what I felt was the fairly immature decision of dispatching Marissa) that has taken me by surprise. "The Cold Turkey" really wrapped up the emotional shellshock Ryan, Summer and Julie had been suffering through after Marissa's death and never really struck a false or ridiculously over-the-top note. I fear what may happen once Seth, Ryan and Taylor leave for college (they have to eventually, surely?) and the writers will have to juggle many plot strands in many different locations, but here's hoping they don't veer off into anything too dull (i.e. whatever Sandy did last year), implausible (i.e. Seth's life being devastated by a couple ounces of pot) or ridiculous (well, Marissa's gone, so that part should be easier!). Also, here's hoping that Fox doesn't whisk the show away early due to its rather abysmal there any chance of that happening?

Finally, several things struck me as I watched Everybody Hates Chris this week. First off, Chris has the by far the best soundtrack on television. There's no fighting that. I've never watched a show that's had me tapping my feet throughout an episode. That sounds really cheesy, but damn if it isn't true. Secondly, Chris is building up a fantastic repertoire of guest stars. This year we've had obvious standouts like Whoopi Goldberg and Jason Alexander, but also the excellent Jackee Harry and particularly Antonio Fargas (Huggy Bear!) as Chris's sharp employer Doc. What I really like is that Chris never really forces any of these actors down your throat, a trait Will & Grace and Friends could be so guilty of, but actually builds proper characters and just lets the actors do something with them. Finally, this week's episode "Everybody Hates the Buddy System", a loose parody of 'The Defiant Ones', packed a far more realistic punch in its depiction of Chris' racially-motivated bully Caruso than anything Studio 60 has been able to muster up (sorry--I hate picking on Studio 60, I think it's just too easy, but that episode with the black comedians really bugged me). Anyway, like Todd has said, Chris is one of the standard-bearers for a great crop of comedy that's currently on the air. Do keep up!

I wanted to post on Lost's mini-finale too, but I don't want to make this post any longer. So I'll be back soon with thoughts on the six episodes as a whole. Ain't life grand!