Saturday, January 27, 2007

“Open your eyes, you crazy son of a bitch!” - Smallville



Spoilers follow.

Few would look to Smallville for examples of how best to pull off a high concept episode – certainly not an alternate reality one. The last time the show attempted one of these was last season’s underwhelming ‘Lexmas’, a Christmas-themed fantasy where Lex found himself married to Lana and living the perfect life; until she dies giving birth to their second child. It was a pretty pathetic episode, not to mention completely pointless. “I want it all!” proclaimed Lex at the end of said episode, hinting at the evil coming up the surface; only for that plot to fall on the backburner for the rest of the season.

‘Labyrinth’ is a similarly meandering episode. After being attacked by some form of monster from the Phantom Zone (they escaped along with Clark in the season opener and have been harassing him ever since) Clark wakes up in a mental institution, his powers gone. Everyone thinks he’s crazy; his bespectacled doctor tells him he dreamed up all the super-powers business as a way of coping with the death of his birth parents. “In a world where you had no power, you chose to give yourself super-powers,” he drones sagely. Wow, deep stuff. After an astonishingly easy escape, Clark finds that everything has changed: Lex lost his legs and is in a wheelchair, his mother is married to Lionel, and, most enticingly, Lana is still in love with him.

Alternate reality episodes can be gripping, even when they are so obviously false; a good example is ‘Normal Again’, a sixth season Buffy offering. ‘Labyrinth’, however, spent too long trying to come up with convincing explanations for how and why Clark dreamed it all up, an utterly pointless venture since we all know it’s fake. There were some freaky moments, though – Chloe getting gunned down was somewhat terrifying, especially if it's foreshadowing something – and overall it was a fairly entertaining episode by Smallville standards.

The good bits:
-Although I said the stuff explaining how Clark dreamed it all up was pointless, I must admit that the sequence where everything in his room reflected his life – a book called ‘Fortress of Solitude: A Prison Memoir’, a nurse called Raya, and soap called Jorel – was pretty amusing.
-The confrontation between Clark and alternate Lex was well done, especially by Rosenbaum, who sold one particular line (see the post title) with a startling level of emotion.

Some of the bad stuff:
-Lana, alternate or otherwise, was just as irritating and wishy-washy as ever.
-Tom Welling, sadly, cannot act. He proves it in every episode that puts him centre stage, and he’s proved it again here.
-If the Phantoms really wanted to entice Clark to this alternate world, wouldn’t they have put Jonathan in it too? Is it too easy to criticize Smallville for its plot holes? Yes, and yes.

Plot-wise, the episode concluded with Clark admitting to Chloe that he’s still in love with Lana (who will soon be marrying Lex). It also marked the debut of Phil Morris as The Martian Manhunter; you'll know Morris better as the hilarious Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld. Lets hope it's all leading somewhere interesting.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Messy love lives, secrets, and sillyness: Grey's Anatomy


Grey's broke out a few pretty ancient plots this week with rather mixed results. First off was Bailey's out-of-the-blue proposal for a free clinic in Seattle Grace. Now, the free clinic is a domain many a hospital show has touched upon--I remember Carol's attempts at setting one up in ER and Elliot getting stuck working at one in Scrubs. It seems quite unusual that Seattle Grace would have one, though, and even more unusual that a surgeon would push for its creation. They tried to sell Bailey's conviction with her impassioned speech to the attendings, and Chandra Wilson almost pulled it off, but I just don't buy it. Seems more like a storyline created out of the need for Izzie to donate money, than something Miranda would REALLY go for on her own.

Another story reeking of mothballs was the Amish (or in this case, as Todd has informed me, Pennsylvania Dutch) patient and her moon-faced parents. Even as far as Amish stories go, this one was particularly hackneyed. The shunning! The slow-motion hugging! The beards! Just too, too much. Also, the ambiguity of the patient and her shunned friend's relationship was strange. They seemed to just be BFFs, but they were emotionally intimate to the point of being lovers. Had me confused the whole time.

A really rather dormant plot, the Shepherd/Burke rivalry, was re-awakened here with the Chief's rumored departure (as many may remember, he promised his job to both McDreamy and McControversial in the first season). Better was Mark and Addison's interest in the job. Addison should stick to the OBGYN as she works well on the surgical floor, but Mark would actually be an inspired choice for the job. He's got the potential to be a really fun character, but the writers haven't advanced him much at all--he's still trading barbs with Derek/Addison and ordering the interns to get him coffee. Having him in a position of authority could make him kind of a Rocket Romano figure for the show. Then again, it might be a disastrous idea, I don't know. But gosh, he needs to do something!

Other talking points:
--Callie/Cristina was a fun pairing as they're both tougher and more straightforward than Izzie or Meredith (who, with the McDreamy drama resolved for now, has very little to do). More of that in the future, please!
--T.R. Knight continues to deliver strong stuff in the wake of O'Malley Sr.'s death. Nicely understated and really very sweet, it all seems true to his character. Plus they had him and Izzie rekindling the friend chemistry, which there has been far too little of this season.
--Chief Webber was great, and reminded me that he should get more dramatic stuff. If they do lose him, it'll be a shame, cause he's a great figure on the show.
--Two more proposals (enough already!), both of which I could go either way on. I'm just bored of TV marriage these days. It's happening too much and too fast. I figure one proposal is going to be accepted and another rejected (probably Callie accepting and Cristina rejecting), but I may well be wrong.

The next new episode begins the big three-part arc that includes a supposedly epic ferryboat fire. Topping "It's the End of the World as we Know It" will be tough to do, but here's looking forward to it!

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"My mom's kinda like Idi Amin with fake boobs": The O.C.



As always, beware of spoilers.

One has to admire the audacity of The O.C. as it draws to a close. Four episodes to go, and this episode spent most of its time on...well, not really anything at all. Taylor and Ryan's brief breakup was reconciled within 40 minutes, Che tried to woo Seth and free a groundhog but failed at both, and Summer did (from what I could tell) absolutely nothing at all. Funny that an episode with two major revelations (Kirsten's pregnancy and Julie's engagement) seemed so slight.

It wasn't so bad, though. Kirsten breaking the news to Sandy (and his awesome birthday gift) was very nicely done. Too bad that, after about two seasons of Mrs. Cohen basically twiddling her thumbs, she finally has a storyline with some significance--just as the show wraps up! No matter, it was a nice idea anyway. Less of a good idea is Julie's secret affair with Frank Atwood--where's his appeal, exactly? It's not like he's rich, charismatic or much of a father figure. Not only that, but he was going to propose to Julie on the same night as Bullet?! How long have all of these people known each other? With Friday Night Lights and Grey's Anatomy featuring proposals as well, I'm growing exhausted with that particular plot twist.

Say what you will about the Bullet (Gary Grubbs, who's giving the same performance he always seems to give, but with better one-liners) but this episode drove home his strengths as a potential partner vs. Frank rather well, if quite bluntly. His father-figure relationship with Kaitlin is especially zingy fun. Not that it really matters who Julie ends up with anyway, considering the rate she goes through men. Personally I'd like to see Dr. Roberts return. Having him duck out to Seattle did generate more fun in the Cooper household, but now that everything's wrapping up he should really ride back into Newport, in my opinion. He's really the only man who's ever seemed particularly right for Julie.

The more inane teenager plots were carried off by the cast, but just barely. Che and Seth probably had the best material with their couple-y moments (the 'favorite snowcone flavor' conversation, for example). Taylor and the couples therapist could have been played for more laughs, because there certainly wasn't much dramatic punch to it. I think renowned show-snuffer Allison LaPlaca could have played the role crazier, but who am I to judge? It's not like she could get this show MORE cancelled.

Four to go! Anyone else still watching?

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T.V. on TV: Rome, The Naked Trucker and T-Bones Show, Friends of God, The Dresden Files and the NFL Network

By Todd VanDerWerff

HBO's Rome is good TV. It's not particularly deep, but it's fun to watch, and it's got great production values, cinematic direction and some fine performances. It's diminished, however, simply by virtue of the network it's on. If it appeared on a different channel, any channel, it would surely be considered one of its best shows. But on HBO, it has to compete with Deadwood, The Wire, The Sopranos and even young upstart Big Love. In comparison, Rome seems almost sophomoric -- a high gloss soap opera.

HBO's great series almost always take a worn-out genre and blow it up, following the template of The Sopranos, which hit familiar mob story plot points but did so more slowly and meticulously than other televised attempts at same. From there, HBO tackled Westerns and cop dramas and family soaps. Rome initially promised to be a nasty takeoff on swords-and-sandals epics, a chance to examine the lurid reality of Roman society around the time of Julius Caesar's reign, but the series has settled into a less ambitious groove; it seems content merely to exemplify its genre rather than reinvent it. Cecil B. DeMille movies made Bible stories more palatable by mixing in liberal doses of sex and violence; Rome just ups the ante a bit and shows them full-on. There's a vague and somewhat obligatory-seeming attempt to define the sex and violence as outgrowths of the era's politics (Polly Walker's Atia is constantly sleeping with men who will give her the greatest political boost), but for the most part, these elements serve the same function as in DeMille's films: Look at how much sex there was in ancient Rome! And how much violence!

_________________________________________________________
But wait. There's more.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

"No one sees me!": Heroes



Spoilers follow.

What was funniest about the return of Heroes for me was that after all the concentrated craziness everyone on the show's endured (like Lost, I think every episode on this show is usually contained within a day), there was a two-week lull in adventure. Apparently Sylar's been curled up in a drug cloud, Matt's been hanging around HRG's paper factory, and Claire's been faking selective amnesia. But now the high-octane, twist-a-minute cliffhanging thrill-ride of a show we love is back with a BANG, right? Right?

Sadly, not quite--the episode 'Godsend' mostly laid groundwork for new arcs, as well as asking "are you on the list?" for the first of what I assume will be many, many incessant times. Still, new Heroes is better than no Heroes, and with 24's return not quite living up to expectations (see Todd's post below) I'm willing to settle for the odd slow-burner as long as Tim Kring plunges us back into the action soon enough.

Plus, there was some stuff to love in this episode. I've definitely missed Hiro's cartoonish antics, for one thing. Hanging his head when he discovered that his magic sword was a fake, or when he made the wooshing sound on "FLYING MAN" quieter after Nathan chided him--he's just so darn lovable! Oddly enough, he's a good pair with Nathan, too. When Nathan congratulated Hiro on hooking up with his Texan waitress (we miss you, Jayma Mays!), I couldn't help but giggle. Also, his fake fight with the dinosaur was cute. Thank god they've gotten that mini-mystery out of the way and we won't ever have to sit through a Jurassic-Park-with-bad-CGI action sequence.

Also, Jack Coleman continues to do a stand-up job with a total cypher of a character. HRG could have been a typical Man in Black, but instead he's this fun mix of creepy dad and caring dad, plus he's both a nasty boss and clearly a beleagured subordinate (like one of my favorite semi-villains, Ira Gaines of 24 Season 1). I thought about his role in the show turning into a Professor X-type mentor to the heroes, but I'm not so sure it'll be that clear-cut after all. After all, he is still rather creepy. Also, kudos to the writers for making the Haitian more than just "scary silent black dude". Because honestly, that's only mysterious for a couple episodes at the most.

Other good stuff:
-Radiation man making big balls of zap with his hands is pretty cool. Kind of a more old-school power, plus he's clearly going to have a big run-in with Peter, if ya know what I mean.
-Also, hello, CHRISTOPHER ECCLESTON? Only about 30 seconds of him, but still, yay! A real casting coup.

Bad stuff:
-Niki, Niki, Niki. I just can't handle the whole "I'm Niki" *turns head* "I'M JESSICA! BOO!" thing. It's too cringeworthy. I really hope they kill her off, but I'm resigned to her not going anywhere.
-Simone. Now here's a killable character. Does she ever do anything? Odds on her dying before the season finale? Evens!
-D.L. and Micah, while fine together, are too separated from the rest of the storyline. Plus D.L. hasn't really developed a personality yet, he's basically just your standard loving dad cypher. Give them something to do!

Anyone else got anything to say? (Sorry this is about three hundred years late. But I have now taken the last exams of my life, so no more lateness in the future!)

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"If we don't change this tire ourselves, we're doomed.": Friday Night Lights

Spoilers for Wednesday's episode within, though if you read the episode title, you'll know how the episode ends anyway.









Okay. When I reviewed the pilot, I said that Minka Kelly was "perfect." Now I'm not so sure that's the case anymore. Of the mostly untested cast, she's probably the greenest, but I still like a lot of what she does, especially when she stares all doe-eyed at Scott Porter and tries to get him to love her (or propose to her). Saddling her with the love triangle storyline probably wasn't in her best interest, but Kelly is playing a very specific small town type, and she's doing fairly well with it -- she's the brilliant, beautiful girl who ties her life to a local boy and can't see any other way of operating when there's a whole world out there that would be perfectly content to have her in it.

Lots of stuff to comment on in tonight's episode, up to and including Smash's steroid use being outed by his mother. I like that Coach Taylor weighed Smash's offense against what kicking him off the football team would do to his life plan and gave him another shot, but is there any way this would happen in the real world? I get that Coach Taylor's a good -- nay, GREAT -- guy, but he's putting essentially his entire life and the life of his wife and daughter on the line to protect one stupid high school kid. I admire him for making the tough choice, but I don't see how this would never come out (and it almost HAS to never come out if the show is going to continue with Kyle Chandler as the lead).

While the long streak of "too close to call!" games has gotten a little too much (the show is resolutely marching through every single "we won at the last moment!" story point), it was nice to see that Matt Saracen had a good idea for how to win the game and that his good idea was still the sort of idea someone who hasn't been designing plays his whole life would think of -- the coach and assistant coach pointed out the flaw in his reasoning right away, but knew that it could work if he was precise. He was, so the team won.

It's weird that I have always criticized One Tree Hill for having its characters get hitched and divorced and such while in high school, while I felt that Lyla and Jason getting engaged was a pretty realistic plot twist, but this is, again, the sort of thing that happens to high school sweethearts in small towns all the time. This is an awful, awful idea, and I can't imagine it going forward (unless they want to up the depression in season two -- which would always be fun), but it was nice of the show to have the guts to go there.

All in all, this was a good episode -- even the Tyra storyline (she often feels tacked on, but at least she had some real emotions to play tonight instead of tacked-on ones). Buddy Garrity continues to be the worst-written character on the show, but his relationship with Lyla humanizes him enough to make him not completely unrealistic (though I don't think I need to see him sleep with Tyra's mom). And Julie continues to be the best daughter in the history of television.

So what did you think?

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"You're black." "I know.": The Knights of Prosperity

I won't even bother with a spoiler warning, since I know none of you are even watching this.

The Knights of Prosperity seems doomed to be ABC's vaguely critically acclaimed, low-rated sitcom that garners a small cult audience and flirts with renewal, only to be unceremoniously canceled a few days before upfronts for the year. From now on, when I try to describe this concept, I'll just say, "It's this year's 'Sons and Daughters,'" and you'll just say, "Oh!" except most of you will probably say, "I've never heard of that."

Anyway, Knights was probably doomed to fail when Mick Jagger told them they couldn't use his name in the title or the promotional materials. The original title -- Let's Rob Mick Jagger -- is way better than what they ended up with, and their use of the funny stuff he did in the pilot in commercials probably doomed his involvement anyhow. I don't know that there was a solution to this dilemma. Any celebrity who would have allowed ABC to use their name and image in the promotions probably wouldn't have had a high enough profile to draw the viewers the show would have needed anyway. (Let's Rob John Malkovich, perhaps? Malkovich, Malkovich?)

It's too bad nobody's watching, though, because y'all are missing a funny show. It's not THE funniest show on TV or even the funniest new show of the year (30 Rock, take a bow), but it's pretty clever and there are at least four or five good-sized laughs in every episode and a lot of incidental material that will make you smile. Sofia Vegara's character is becoming more and more of a Catalina from My Name Is Earl ripoff (tonight, she started talking about her life before she immigrated, and it sounded just as awful and bizarre as. . .Catalina's life), but the other characters are nicely drawn and well played.

So next Wednesday, take a break from American Idol and check this out. I think you might have a good time!

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"What makes this Canada?": Veronica Mars

Spoilers exist within, and if you love Tina Majorino as much as I do, you'll wait to watch the episode to read 'em.









Look, I love Mac on this show. And I really like Tina Majorino's character on Big Love too. But when both this show and that show end, someone needs to give her her own program, preferably involving her debunking urban legends or staring furtively at a computer or pining for a circus clown or something. The twee-er the better, because our Tina can play twee.

All in all, I think Veronica Mars is back to its season one high of mixing overarching mysteries, smaller mysteries and soap opera angst. The obligatory action climax to the serial rapist arc had a few silly moments (and must Veronica be in danger all the time), but it reunited all of the main characters convincingly and made us remember why we loved them. So did this episode. Sure there were minor bits about the Dean O'Dell murder (mostly from Keith -- carrying the expositional load), but the college stuff was solid, and the dueling rebound relationships between Parker, Mac and Veronica made it seem like the title character had -- sigh -- friends. What's more, the episode made me care about Veronica and Logan again AND let us see just how great a guy Piz would be for Veronica in REAL LIFE, not a pseudo-noir universe where nothing is as it seems.

For once, the mystery of the week was rather engaging too. It helped that the monkey, when found, was pretty cute, but it also made the obligatory "animal rights!" episode every show with an animal rights supporting star has to do seem less like the cliche it could have been. It was nice that the mystery of the missing monkey had some shades of moral ambiguity too -- Veronica essentially lied to a client (though, admittedly, she gave them their money back) to protect an animal, and it was always clear that the monkey was being used for some form of important research. I think we were meant to side with the anti-monkey-killing side, but the show didn't demonize the opponents, which lent it an aura of complexity that made the whole thing work.

Also, this was hands-down the funniest episode in a while, from Keith's clumsy undercover work to Veronica and Mac's many quips. And it gets points for not making Mac's new boyfriend the culprit. Girl deserves some happiness, doncha think?

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

In Da Club (w/ the sniffling indie kids): New Tracks from LCD Soundsystem and !!! (Chk Chk Chk)


There are certain things you just have to accept about James Murphy. One of those things is that he is not as good as he thinks he is. However, another one of those things is that he's not as bad as some backlash bloggers would have you believe either. DFA is, by and large, something of mystery to me in terms of popularity but it is hard to flat-out deny talent when it's put in front of your face. "North American Scum," the first bit of music to surface from LCD Soundsystems forthcoming Sophomore LP Sounds of Silver, is an unassuming little romp filled with that offcentre swagger that Murphy pulls off so annoyingly well. An only mildly ironic love letter to the idea of being a yank, its dirty guitar hook and disco-funk mentality meld with Murphy's sardonic yelp creating a legitamitely headbanging club anthem that ranks somewhere in the middle on the "Is the new album worth checking out?" scale. On the other end of the dance floor we have OG Dance-punkers, !!! readying a new LP as well. The first droplet we get of Myth Takes is "Heart of Hearts," a lo-fi masterpiece, that finds !!! at a stylistic and organic peak. The tingling synth, the muffled bassline, the subtly abrasive vocals and slightly off-key harmonies. A dark and simplistic journey of heartbreak with only the cold sting of real emotion "Heart of Hearts" is both a genuine dance treat and a layered "mood" piece that ends far too soon. In the end, I await both albums with definite degrees of guarded excitement.

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Coming sooniness

Posts on Heroes, Gilmore and Veronica Mars will be winging their way to you in the next 24 hours. I had a column due, and David had exams, so there you go.

What's your excuse?

Also, go Paul Greengrass!

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

OSCAR NOMINEES

PICTURE
: Babel
: The Departed
: Letters From Iwo Jima
: Little Miss Sunshine
: The Queen

DIRECTOR
: Alejando Inaritu, Babel
: Martin Scorsese, The Departed
: Clint Eastwood, Letters From Iwo Jima
: Stephen Frears, The Queen
: Paul Greengrass, United 93

ACTOR
: Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond
: Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson
: Peter O'Toole, Venus
: Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness
: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

ACTRESS
: Penelope Cruz, Volver
: Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
: Helen Mirren, The Queen
: Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
: Kate Winslet, Little Children

S ACTOR
: Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine
: Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children
: Djimon Hounsou, Blood Diamond
: Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls
: Mark Wahlberg, The Departed

S ACTRESS
: Adriana Barazza, Babel
: Cate Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal
: Abigal Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine
: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
: Rinko Kikuchi, Babel

O SCREENPLAY
: Babel
: Letters From Iwo Jima
: Little Miss Sunshine
: Pan's Labyrinth
: The Queen

A SCREENPLAY
: Borat
: Children of Men
: The Departed
: Little Children
: Notes on a Scandal

ANIMATED FILM
: Cars
: Happy Feet
: Monster House

FOREIGN FILM
: After the Wedding, Denmark
: Days of Glory, Algeria
: The Lives of Others, Germany
: Pan's Labyrinth, Mexico
: Water, Canada

SCORE
: Babel
: The Queen
: Pan's Labyrinth
: Notes on a Scandal
: The Good German

SONG
: "Listen", Dreamgirls
: "Love You I Do", Dreamgirls
: "I Need To Wake Up" - Inconvenient Truth
: "Patience", Dreamgirls
: "Our Town", Cars

ART DIRECTION
: Dreamgirls
: The Good Shepherd
: Pan's Labyrinth
: Pirates of the Caribbean: DMC
: The Prestige

CINEMATOGRAPHY
: Childen of Men
: The Black Dahlia
: The Illusionist
: The Prestige
: Pan's Labyrinth

EDITING
: The Departed
: Blood Diamond
: Babel
: United 93
: Children of Men

COSTUME DESIGN
: Dreamgirls
: Marie-Antoinette
: The Devil Wears Prada
: Curse of the Golden Flower
: The Queen

MAKEUP
: Click
: Apocalypto
: Pan's Labyrinth

VISUAL EFFECTS
: Pirates of the Caribbean: DMC
: Superman Returns
: Poseidon

SOUND MIXING
: Dreamgirls
: Pirates of the Caribbean: DMC
: Blood Diamond
: Flags Of Our Fathers
: Apocalypto

SOUND EDITING
: Pirates of the Caribbean: DMC
: Blood Diamond
: Flags Of Our Fathers
: Letters From Iwo Jima
: Apocalypto

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
: An Inconvenient Truth
: Jesus Camp
: Deliver Us From Evil
: Iraq in Fragments
: My Country, My Country

Tallies:
Dreamgirls: 8
Babel: 7
The Queen: 6
Pan's Labyrinth: 6
The Departed: 5
Blood Diamond: 5
Letters From Iwo Jima: 4
Little Miss Sunshine: 4
Notes on a Scandal: 4
Pirates of the Caribbean: DMC: 4
Children of Men: 3
Little Children: 3
Apocalypto: 3
United 93: 2
The Devil Wears Prada: 2
Flags of Our Fathers: 2
An Inconvenient Truth: 2
Cars: 2
The Prestige: 2

-Dreamgirls: shut out of top categories but nomination leader (due to three song noms)
-Jack Nicholson: snubbed for Mark Wahlberg
-Volver: snubbed in foreign film
-Leo DiCaprio: nommed for Blood Diamond, not The Departed as many assumed

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Oscar roundtable

(Some friends and I got together in the week before Oscar nominations via e-mail to discuss the films of 2006 and the films that looked likely to be honored. I'd like to thank my fellow SDD contributors Jon and Tram Bich Ngo -- who also writes for Lucid Screening and Talk to Me, Harry Winston! -- and Everything Oscar editor Andy Scott.)

Todd: This year's Best Picture lineup is pretty set in stone, it would seem. Babel, The Departed, Dreamgirls, Little Miss Sunshine and The Queen look to be the five that make it, and I, honestly, can't think of a more boring list. It's not that any of these movies are explicitly bad -- even Babel is a better film than Crash was last year -- but they're just so crushingly middle-of-the-road.

Even The Departed, seemingly a better movie than director Martin Scorsese's last two efforts, is mostly a lark, not as full-to-brimming with insane directorial choices as Gangs of New York and The Aviator were. And, what's more, a lot of critically acclaimed movies with decent box office seem to have been left behind. And we're not just talking about, say, blockbusters that just wouldn't raise AMPAS' interest. A lot of films (that I know several of you don't like all that much), from United 93 to Children of Men to Pan's Labyrinth, are going to get overlooked just because AMPAS seemingly couldn't bother with them.

The last time there was similar political turmoil in the world at large -- the 1970s -- AMPAS wandered off the beaten path and rewarded some interesting stuff. Now it's a chore to get them to even nominate something that's not strictly middle-of-the-road.

Anyway. What do you think of the final five? And even though most of the categories seem pretty sewn up for nominations, doesn't it seem like just about anything could win?

Jon: Sadly, the only two nominees (well, guaranteed nominees) I've seen are Dreamgirls and LMS. I greatly enjoyed both, and I don't have as much of a problem with their nominations as some people, but I must agree there were are more deserving films out there, including United 93 and Children of Men. Even very commercial films like Casino Royale or (to a lesser extent) The Descent would've been more worthy choices, not to mention fun and off-beat.

Honestly, I kind of get the feeling that Academy is almost apologizing for last year's very un-commercial line-up (to both the public and ABC, who experienced the lowest ratings for a show not aired less than a week after war was declared), with a line-up that the public will find very easy to digest, with the exception of Babel (but that should find viewers that feel they just became more socially aware of the world by watching it).

As for predictability, the only other major category right now that is in total chaos in terms of who's getting in is Supporting Actor, where you literally have 10 different contenders, only two of whom are truly set in stone (Jack Nicholson in The Departed and Eddie Murphy in Dreamgirls, with Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine almost there). Otherwise, total chaos. The best part still is that this is the same category that slipped in surprises like Alan Alda and William Hurt in the last couple years, so there's still the chance of somebody slipping in that few saw coming. Right now, I've got Arkin, Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children), Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond), Murphy and Nicholson.

My only worry with that line-up is that that also matches up with Entertainment Weekly's predictions, and I don't think they've ever gone 5/5 in the category.

Tram: I've only seen one of the five (The Queen) and quite frankly I'm not sure I can muster the excitement to see the rest. (While I concede that EW's newly released list of "25 films you must see before Oscar night" was terribly tempting, temptation can only get you so far.)

The Queen was quite enjoyable during the viewing. Yet a few days after viewing Stephen Frears' flick, I could not remember a single damn thing from the film.

Okay, let me retract that last sentence. There are ONLY two things I can still remember from The Queen. The first is that MILF (or is it GILF?) Helen Mirren was entirely game for the fashionably challenged looks of Queen Elizabeth II. And the second is that Tony Blair (played by Kate Beckinsale's ex, Michael Sheen, who astonishingly resembles the real man himself) ultimately saves the day with his razor sharp brash-not-too-brash communication skills (being able to empathize with both the modern British masses and the elite, traditional one-woman monarchy that is Elizabeth).

Babel, likewise, looks to be one of those film that reeks of boring, "respectable" quality. I have to admit I was semi-skeptical of the film from the get-go. In spite of all the fuss and hullabaloo from Cannes (Alejandro González Iñárritu nabbed the Best Director prize), I could not help but remember a juicy anecdote involving jury member Samuel L. Jackson. "Crash Benetton", he snarked to his fellow colleagues, according to several gossip reports. Well, if that isn't enough to scare me outta the nearest Landmark Theater, I don't know what will.

Films like Crash make me ever more cautious of the multi-linear device of storytelling that's quite trendy. Apparently, the whole "we are all interconnected" adage has paved the way for cheap transcendentalism. I feel pain. You feel pain. Hey, I know you from my babysitter! OMG, we're all the same?!

Then, there's this year's "the little indie that could", Little Miss Sunshine. I could've sworn that this past winter, the film was screaming my name, yelling "See me! See me!" It hollered my name during my United Airlines plane trip. But I just dozed off, only to be awakened by the feel-good finale which involves the clan getting their freak on/out to Rick James' "Superfreak" song at the beauty pageant. Upon arrival to my intended destination (Honolulu), there Little Miss Sunshine was again -- screening at my local $1.00 movie theater! But alas, two weeks and a much-ballyhooed DVD release later, I still haven't seen it.

Here's my v. subjective train-of-thought: If I ever wanna see an authentic portrayal of a dysfunctional family-in-action, I'll either pay another visit to mom and pops or rent a Jane Campion or John Cassavetes flick. But I'm pretty sure -- sure as hell, in fact -- wouldn't wanna see the "fun" in dysfunctional anytime soon.

Todd: If we're going to examine the five films, I've seen all of them. If I had seen enough films this year to have a top ten, The Departed would probably sneak in, but I don't know that any of the others would. I liked The Queen, but almost more as a museum piece -- an American regarding a work of art wholly outside of his area of expertise. So much of the film's plot is wrapped up, I think, in what the viewer's relationship is to the royalty (even if that relationship isn't existent) that my puzzled detachment was probably all wrong to go in with. Still, Mirren and Sheen were terrific, and the rest of the cast was strong as well. I'll never tire of seeing James Cromwell in a kilt -- when he guests on 24 later this season, I'm hoping he keeps the Scottish duds.

Babel, I thought, was quite a bit of good technical direction in search of a coherent narrative or theme or. . .hell, anything. I think Inarritu has a really good eye, and his actors always feel like they're in the same film, even if they never share screen time, but his weakness for the overriding theme of mankind's misery banding us together just rings hollow every time -- as hollow as those faux-Capra movies that people like Frank Darabont try to make every few years, where everything is all sunshine and puppies. Inarritu and screenwriter Arriaga prefer hitting the viewer in the face to actually saying something meaningful. You're supposed to like the blood in your mouth.

Little Miss Sunshine was a perfectly serviceable episode of a particularly good sitcom with an incredible cast. Sure, it relied a little too much on stupid plotting and "lessons learned," but that's why even the worst sitcoms are still popular years after they aired. Imagine my surprise when the film turned into one of THE critical hits of 2006 -- a critical love that didn't really manifest at the time, to be honest. It landed on lots of top ten lists and made the industry award rounds, and the whole thing puzzled me immensely. It was held up as a new triumph for American indie film, but this was about as far from American indie film as you could get. The problem is that the kinds of films that major studios used to make are now being made by their smaller subsidiaries as they chase the tentpole dollars.

Twenty years ago, Little Miss Sunshine would have starred Diane Keaton and Bette Midler somehow, and it would have been a Paramount production. Now, it's regarded as hip, simply because Hollywood's refusal to chase money from customers other than teenage boys labels everything from Clint Eastwood war dramas to LMS as "hip" and "edgy."

The Departed actually WAS hip and edgy, though. It's another film I've been surprised to see the level of praise for -- it's decidedly minor Scorsese, and it's obvious the guy is just having some fun and cashing a paycheck. But, hell, the script is so much fun, and the performances are so ridiculous that I won't complain if it wins the whole shebang. It's just a popcorn movie, but one executed with real panache.

Finally, there's Dreamgirls, a film which is both over- and under-rated, somehow. It has copious virtues and the detriment of a second half that behaves much like a deflating balloon. Jennifer Hudson, of course, is worth it, and she shoulders most of the load here, but I'm surprised this is inspiring as much adoration and vitriol as it is.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by many of the films that were passed over for industry prizes -- Letters from Iwo Jima, a film I wasn't terribly fond of, attempts to humanize America's WWII enemy (less successfully than Downfall, I might add); United 93 brings back one of the most painful days in American history with searing intensity; Pan's Labyrinth is a.) a fairy tale, b.) in a foreign language and c.) full of realistic violence, so I'm thinking it was never even an outside shot, even with its anti-fascism message; Volver was from Pedro Almodóvar (a filmmaker, I'll admit, who leaves me cold most of the time) with all that implies, as well as the Spanish thing; Children of Men came on too late and was relentlessly grim, even if that grimness was in service of a denouement that I found more emotionally affecting than anything outside of United 93 this year.

And that, of course, isn't to mention the numerous films that most AMPAS voters have never heard of that deserve recognition -- titles as varied as Three Times, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Old Joy and The Proposition. Out of all of these interesting titles (and MANY I haven't mentioned), it just seems odd to me that Babel was chosen as the "critics' darling." There were better, more critically acclaimed films to be chased, but I guess Babel makes white, limousine liberals feel good about themselves without ever suggesting that they actually, y'know, do something about the world's problems (Crash cast a similar spell -- and it won).

I guess I'm just disappointed in how disconnected these Oscars feel from the ACTUAL year in film 2006. Granted, there was no award-worthy blockbuster this year (Superman Returns came closest for me, but lackluster box office doomed it), but 2005's unusually diverse slate of nominees had given me hope that things might be changing. In reality, everything Hollywood produced last year fell flat, and 2006 was a return to form, more comparable to 2004 (when films like Eternal Sunshine, Passion of the Christ, The Incredibles, Spider-Man 2, Fahrenheit 9/11 and the Zhang Yimou traveling roadshow were passed over for the likes of Finding Neverland and Ray).

AMPAS has ALWAYS had middlebrow taste, of course, but I've always hoped that they could overcome this in at least one slot per category. I came to serious film discussion through the Oscars (I devoured most of the Best Picture nominees in late high school -- or as many as I could find in rural South Dakota), and it pains me to see so many mediocre films that will be dissected by kids decades from now. But that ignores, of course, just how many mediocre films have been nominated before.

Okay. I've talked enough. What performance or film or technical element from 2006 would you love to see nominated Oscar morning? It can be something realistic or something completely nuts. And explain your choice too!

Tram: "I came to serious film discussion through the Oscars (I devoured most of the Best Picture nominees in late high school -- or as many as I could find in rural South Dakota), and it pains me to see so many mediocre films that will be dissected by kids decades from now. But that ignores, of course, just how many mediocre films have been nominated before."

Oh WORD. In the grand tradition of the previous Oscar seasons, there has been an awful lot of backlash space devoted to the awards themselves (the most recognizable ones have been from Slant and The Onion's The AV Club). And while I can't say that it's unwarranted, a part of me crumbles inside when someone insists that it doesn't amount to anything, simply because it really does mean something to me.

The Oscars will always remain oddly endearing because it introduced me to some of my most favorite film and film directors today. I'm gonna go all the way by saying that the OscarWatch forums imparted me with more foundational film knowledge than any of the college film courses I've taken in the past three years *yes, cue the fiddles, plz!*

Anyhoo, while I think Todd has pretty much covered all the Limousine Liberal grounds necessary for an Oscar discussion, I would like to add Ryan Fleck's Half-Nelson as another entree into the white liberal guilt genre. In spite of the fine lead performance by Ryan Gosling and the overall proficient display of filmmaking onscreen, I thought the film was a calculating, little "woe is me, woe is me" fable under the guise of a liberal disillusionment veil. But to each their own, I guess. At the fear of becoming another Armond White (I think I should ban the word "smug" from my personal vocabulary), here is a piece I wrote a few months ago explaining my sentiments.

"What performance or film or technical element from 2006 would you love to see nominated Oscar morning? It can be something realistic or something completely nuts. And explain your choice too!"

I would pee in my pants if Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Three Times got nommed for Best Picture, but yeah, it has no chance in hell. Ditto for Byambasuren Davaa's The Cave of the Yellow Dog. (It's about a girl and her cute, little dog! Watch it y'all!)

My most realistic Oscar wish would be Naomi Watts' performance in The Painted Veil and even that one's a long shot. I'm normally not a hardcore Watts' fan (Mulholland Dr. excepted), but damn, what I wouldn't give to see Watts slip in for the last Best Actress spot, in lieu of either Penelope Cruz (Volver) or Kate Winslet (Little Children) ... I know, the mind boggles -- I just kinda dissed Kate Winslet, Teh Goddess.

Todd: One of the things that's happened this year (as Tram mentioned) is that publications like The Onion and others have complained about the Oscar hype machine -- how it elevates "sure things" into Oscar steamrollers regardless of their quality. Dreamgirls is the typical movie held up as one that wasn't that good and was unfairly praised by the likes of Tom O'Neil and his ilk (who benefit from making the right calls at the earliest moment).

To be honest, the preponderance of online Oscar sites has grown tiresome to me, even though friends run a few of them. Back in the early 2000s, when I first got in to Oscarwatching, there were a handful of sites, which were mostly fan efforts that were conducted as labors of love. Sasha Stone's Oscarwatch.com and Tom O'Neil's Goldderby.com sprung up around the same time and cultivated two very different crowds of forum rabble who analyzed every single key turn in the race and statistic-ed the hell out of them. It was all fun and wonky and very, very geeky. (I particularly liked Stone's site, as she really seemed to have no patience for the whole Oscar game, and that thinly veiled contempt kept things edgy.)

No one on those forums thought they were dissecting the films' QUALITY, but, rather, their chances at winning an Oscar. But like all things fun and wonky and geeky (in the 00s, at least), it was co-opted. Now every publication has an Oscar blogger, and the awards season means big business for both trade papers and dailies. The Oscars, in an attempt to get away from efforts to predict them, shifted their schedule earlier, giving everything an air of unpredictability that has led to a mild upset in a two-horse race (Million Dollar Baby over The Aviator) and a shocking upset, historical in just how big of an upset it was (Crash over Brokeback Mountain).

This huge shift of emphasis has, frankly, dulled the excitement of the season for me. It's not just that AMPAS ignores the worthiest films; they've always done that. It's that it's rather unexciting to predict the same five films for best picture as everybody else and have it be something that graces the pages of even the New York Times. The whole thing has grown so massively overhyped that the simple pleasures of a stupid award show (seeing who botches their speeches, seeing how the academy decides to brush past the more obscure technical awards this year) have been subsumed by an ocean of press outlets that all seem to be seeing exactly how much like Access Hollywood they can be.

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe all of the hype has made you guys enjoy the Oscars even more.

Jon: Hardly. The season has indeed gotten duller with the commercialization and hype of the whole race. The last few years everyone's predictions match up about 90% overall, with the occasional race that's still exciting (Supporting Actor is the only one, as I said earlier). This year you have two categories where the nominees are set in stone (Picture and Actress, Cruz/Judi Dench for Notes on a Scandal/Mirren/Meryl Streep for The Devil Wears Prada/Winslet), two more that everyone matches up on with only a little room for excitement (Actor goes Leonardo DiCaprio for Blood Diamond or The Departed/Gosling/Peter O'Toole for Venus/Will Smith for The Pursuit of Happyness/Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland, with Sacha Baron Cohen for Borat possibly slipping in, and Supporting Actress going Adriana Barraza for Babel/Cate Blanchett for Notes on a Scandal/Abigail Breslin for Little Miss Sunshine/Hudson/Rinko Kikuchi for Babel, with Emily Blunt for The Devil Wears Prada or Toni Collette for Little Miss Sunshine hoping the love for their respective films sweep them in), and Director with its usual "Who will be the lone director??" suspense (But it's always possible for it to match 5/5 with Picture again, like last year).

However, a recent turn in the race (Little Miss Sunshine winning the Producers Guild of America award) has shaken the race up in ways that have excited those like me that like that now-rare excitement and PO'd those that despise the pedestrian tastes of the Academy (which are really nothing new).

A sadder part is how the commercialization of the race seems to be even affecting the precursors to the Oscars. When you look at the nominees for the Director's Guild of America, you don't get the sense that you're looking at a list of what directors thought was the best work their peers had done this year, but that they took their ballots and went "What is the most likely Best Picture line-up?" I doubt they actually say that, but awards that were once awards that merely lined up with Oscar are now trying to actually predict it.

The worst case of this would be the BFCA (Dubbed "Critics Choice Awards" for broadcast, heh), who would brag about how they always matched up with Oscar this certain amount of times in this category while presenting the award. Worse still about this is that by trying to predict the awards, they're avoiding what helped make tem such good predictors, like throwing out new names for the Academy to consider. Could Silence of the Lambs make it anywhere in today's Oscar environment? What about Babe?

Anyway, this Friday I expanded my list of Oscar contenders I've seen with The Queen, probably one of my personal picks for the very best of the year. It's an easy-to-digest film, yes, but unlike Dreamgirls and Little Miss Sunshine (still good films, mind you), it at least invites some interesting discussion about the world we live in today, what with the way we connect to people that we never actually knew, or how we're always struggling with the ways of previous or future generations, or even out-of-date ways of ruling, which oddly ring true after the film as I listened to power struggles between the President and the new Congress on how to deal with Iraq.

It actually comes a lot closer to being socially conscious then you give it credit for, Todd. Still, United 93 and Children of Men would make better representatives for the politics and social environment of today, but The Queen will do, I think.

Tram: Do any of y'all find it freaky that the New York Times' The Carpetbagger (née David Carr) refers to himself in the third person?

And yes, I do agree with both of you guys that the Oscars have become commercialized to extremes. Tom O'Neil's GoldDerby has now been co-opted with the LA Times' The Envelope, and the New York Times' with its ridiculous The Carpetbagger...

I find the commercialization frustrating because ten years ago (at the wee age of eleven) I became an Oscarwatcher due to my burgeoning love of movie trivia -- it was genuine. (I received the People Magazine Pop Culture Almanac as a Christmas present one year -- and bam -- I was set for life!)

For me, at least, the game of Oscar prognosticating has always been, more or less, an extension of geekdom. Since '97, I've religiously visited every Oscar site there ever was, from Zeusefer's weekly updated charts to the early EW boards. Which films have received the most Oscar nominations? Who lost in what category for what year? Which now-classic film got snubbed? Those pieces of trivia still excite me 'til this day.

And so while I understand where the likes of The AV Club's Scott Tobias and Slant's Ed Gonzalez are comin' from, these backlash pieces feel repetitive at best. It bears no repeating that the Oscars are middlebrow -- that's a given. The Oscars have been -- and will always be -- a barometer for the middlebrow. Why should this year be ANY different?

Instead, my love for the Oscars stems from divine dorkiness -- none of that film analytical/scholarly stuff (despite it serving as an introduction to such things). I’ve enjoyed the Oscars mainly for two things: 1) watching the whole goldderby race evolve in my own little, comfy bleachers and 2) rooting for the underdog, normally deemed too "upperbrow" for most conventional Academy members.

Charlie Kaufman's win for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Best Original Screenplay) in '05 remains one of the best memories I've ever had of Oscarwatching. In spite the fact that Kaufman was sweeping most of the precursors (including the Writers Guild Award), I was still on the edge of my seats, cautious of the Academy's conventional taste in film.

Oscarwatching becomes less fun once things get too serious and the giddy fanboy spirit dies down. Last year was pretty much an all-around downer. Just when I thought the John Horn-Patrick Goldstein "I am such a progressive Blue-Stater" podcast at The Envelope couldn't have been more worse, George Clooney had to deliver that infamous self-congratulatory speech. It was, like, y'all are a bunch of middlebrow limousine liberals! But I like you anyway, inspite of your hypocritical twittiness, so DON'T push it!

On a lighter note, you guys must have seen Nathaniel R’s brilliant short featuring all the Best Actress contenders? It reminds me of why I had loved the Oscars, in the first place.

Andy: I still can't get over how everybody is predicting the same Best Picture lineup. It's frustrating a.) because it's boring and b.) because if all goes according to plan, this will go down as one of the blandest lineups ever -- almost as bad as 2004, if you can believe it.

Of course, I'm happy that The Departed and The Queen are probable nominees. Along with Children of Men, they made 2006 somewhat tolerable. But beyond that, it gets ugly.

I get why everybody went nuts for Little Miss Sunshine. Even its biggest haters have to admit that it's a pretty cute movie. But what I don't get is why it's winning so many awards. People are treating it like its the second coming of Sideways when it's really anything but. Yeah, the performances are worthy, and so is the message, but at the end of the day it's really just a good movie disguised as a great one.

And then there's Dreamgirls. I hate talking about Dreamgirls because it makes me hate it more than I actually did. But as much as I respect Bill Condon for all that he's done for the movie musical, Dreamgirls is not very good -- certainly not as good as Chicago was. It kills me to say this because I really wanted it to be good. Hell, I anticipated it for over a year. But beyond Hudson and Murphy I found myself feeling more disappointed than not.

Nevertheless, I've accepted where they stand in the race. And I won't throw a big hissy fit if they're nominated. Both movies struck a chord with audiences so there's nothing I can really do about it. Besides, I'm more intrigued by the Babel love fest. It totally boggles my mind to think that it'll be nominated for Best Picture. But in a way, it's fitting because Babel really represents everything that was 2006: the year in movies: dull, slow; a real disappointment. What gives?
I guess the only way to make up for all this is to have some sort of surprise in the other categories. Maybe a nod for Guerillmo Del Toro for the brilliant Pan's Labyrinth or Sacha Baron Cohen, who really gave one of the best performances of the year. It's nice to see both audiences and critics respond so positively to his work. Hopefully Oscar will do the same.

Todd: Thanks for talking with me guys. I was going to say something brilliant in summation, but the Oscars are announced in 30 minutes. So I guess that would be pretty pointless. Here's hoping for big surprises and a few nominations that go against the grain!

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"New dart": How I Met Your Mother

Spoilers! And, in lieu of having access to network-approved stills from these episodes, I'm just going to post a photo of Cobie Smulders. Smulderiffic!






I thought this was probably the weakest episode of How I Met Your Mother's second season so far, despite the presence of the estimable Bryan Cranston, reprising his role as Ted's co-worker Hammond Druthers. There were a lot of solid laughs, but neither of the two storylines ever added up to more than a collection of jokes. The jokes, of course, were funny, but I wanted something beyond that. Plus, some of the storylines were rather out of character in some cases -- would Lily REALLY be averse to painting "Little Barney"? For $10,000? And would he just let it go like that?

Also, in theory, Hammond's life just getting worse and worse and Ted contributing to that at the worst possible moment was an idea with potential, but it played meaner than it probably should have. I've heard from some that this show is a mean one, but I've never bought that. The central characters are all very sweet to each other, and their relationships are a nice foundation to build the rest of the show on. But this episode sort of tossed that out the window, it felt like, even though I'm sure at the script stage this felt like a better idea than it ended up being.

I like that Mother is interested in covering the big milestones in its characters' lives (tonight, we saw Ted become the boss at work), but I don't know that the episode rose to that level of promise.

Still, there was plenty of stuff I enjoyed, including. . .

--Marshall's glee over getting to see Nessie. I love that he's crazy about all things paranormal (even if Sasquatch frightens him).

--The whole scene where Barney discovered the painting of Marshall. That felt like the show at its best.

--"New dart." Say it fast, and you'll know what the joke was about.

--Robin's dismissal of Ted's creative impulse in bed (which struck me as fairly realistic).

--The strange voyage of Marshall's painting.

Even for a slump episode, this was pretty good, a sign of just how consistent this show has been this year. Here's hoping February sweeps kicks it up a notch again (November sweeps, after all, featured Swarley, Barney's gambling odyssey AND Slap Bet -- in three consecutive weeks!).

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"There's another pretty girl at the dance, and this one's not pregnant.": Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Spoilers!






I thought it was great when Aaron Sorkin said he was going to turn this show into a romantic comedy to a bunch of reporters (in the same meeting, he bashed bloggers, which, I guess, means that I should join the blog blackout on the show, but I just can't bring myself to). Sorkin has always written romantic comedy-style banter well, and when his male leads pursue the women in their lives quixotically, it's oft-well done. Sorkin's script for The American President is like the perfect synthesis of his major concerns (I'm not as wild about the finished product, but the script. . .oh the script), and that's a pretty great blend of his romantic workplace ideals and his straight-out romantic ideals. So I thought that Studio 60 could work as a romantic comedy.

What no one told me was that it was going to be a CREEPY romantic comedy. The opening montage (featuring Bradley Whitford's Danny calling Amanda Peet's Jordan over and over and over and over while she was on vacation) made Danny look rather unstable -- sure he's a workaholic, but he also has nascent stalker-like tendencies. Sorkin has done the "guy who just won't take no for an answer but is sort of charming doing so" plot point before, but something about the whole thing is off here. Whitford and Peet don't have a lot of chemistry, and that seems to throw things.

But Matthew Perry and Sarah Paulson (as Matt and Harriet) have even LESS chemistry. I know that we're supposed to buy in to the idea that this is a love that was one of the great showbiz loves of our time, but it just doesn't play. Perry and Paulson -- good actors both -- just have too brittle of a chemistry to be plausible in this context. And these are the two relationships the show's going to be rebuilt around?

Fortunately, Sorkin has an ace up his sleeve. Nate Corddry and Lucy Davis are great fun as Tom and Lucy, one of the show's stars and one of the show's writers respectively. Their tentative courtship made for the best moments of tonight's episode.

Unfortunately, most everything else rang false, from the relationships outlined above to Jordan's hatred of reality TV (not ALL reality TV is bad -- just most of it, but, then, most of TV period is bad). The FCC plot continued to be an irritant (there's no way any of this would happen like it is), right down to the pointless "we're talking about what we're talking about without talking about it" exchange between Steven Weber and Ed Asner about the Arts and Leisure section.

I'm one of those that thinks Studio 60 is getting slightly better -- I thought the Christmas episode was a real highpoint for the show. But I think focusing on the romantic comedy aspect is a lost cause if the two pairings that were the focus of tonight's episode continue to be the focus. Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford have a tremendous chemistry that's almost never exploited, and their relations with the other cast members AS EMPLOYERS are often interesting. Why not take a page from the Newsradio playbook and do a show about how it's tough to be the boss?

Might be worth a shot.

(Honestly, I wouldn't offer all of this advice, but there's every chance Aaron Sorkin is reading this right now, even as I type it. Hey. Gotta take your shots when you can!)

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"Actually, you're hurting me now.": 24

You know the routine. 24 is only as good as its plot twists (and boy is there a doozy in this episode), so if you don't want to know, stay out.







Okay. President Logan being evil? I went with it. Michelle being immune to a plague randomly? I went with it. Even Nina being the mole? I went with it.

But Jack Bauer having an evil brother we've never heard of, a sister-in-law who lusts for him, a nephew that may actually be his son (c'mon, tell me you're not thinking it) and an estranged father who also might be evil was. . .a bit of a leap for me. I like James Cromwell and Paul McCrane, and it's nice to see them get work, but McCrane's character (who was introduced last season) actually being Jack Bauer's brother WITHOUT HIM KNOWING HE WAS EVIL UNTIL TONIGHT hurts my brain. They could have brought back Kim, said she had been brainwashed by terrorists and then told us she had become an expert on nuclear weapons just so she could prep this season's attacks and it would have made more sense.

I mean, if the show's going to indulge in torture, it's kind of fun to see Jack torture his brother (in a sadistic sort of way) after seeing him for the first time in years ("Hey, bro! Mind if I tie you to this chair?"), but the plot twist sort of feels like 24 trying to top itself for the sake of topping itself. It's one turn too many.

That said, the whole hour felt kind of off. The early bits with the mushroom cloud causing panic were a bit more fear-monger-y than 24 usually likes to be (and, really, it's hard for the show to top itself in that department). And the CTU love triangle stuff is still a massive drag on the show (it's at this point that the writers wish they hadn't killed off everyone last season). The White House scenes are still a liability, but I liked Wayne Palmer's speech to the nation about the nuke at the end of the episode.

But the ludicrous plot twist so dominated this hour for me that I can't really talk about anything else. I'll keep watching the show, but 24 may have wandered off into territory I just can't follow it into.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

"Junebug!": Everybody Hates Chris

Spoilers for Everybody Hates Chris inside. Not that that will matter all that much.




Everybody Hates Chris seems determined to revisit every single old family sitcom storyline and rejigger them just enough to make them new. I don't know if this makes them lazy or brilliant, but I know I didn't need to see another episode where the main character had to care for an egg as a baby (I still think Frasier did it best by having fussy NILES be the one who had to care for a bag of flour baby). Every episode hits all of the same plot points -- kid thinks it'll be a snap, kid tries to get out of doing much, kid can't get out of doing much, kid learns how hard it is to be a parent, kid has a new appreciation. Granted, Chris tacked on a storyline where Chris left his egg at the store where he works and it got mixed in with other eggs, but it hit all of the other plot points note for note.

That aside, Chris managed to avoid making this too boring by grounding it in the characters. The long montage where all of the people in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood that is the show's setting gave Chris advice on how to raise his egg was both amusing and seemed to confirm all of those "It Takes a Village" theories. And the fact that Chris' mom sort of rubbed his face in how much work a baby would be gave the episode an extra bit of resonance, as Chris' mother's greatest fear is that one of her kids will come home with a kid (as Chris Rock remarked as the narrator -- his mother STILL hasn't met his kids).

The lost egg subplot, fitfully amusing as it was, felt sort of tacked on, but the episode concluded with a new way in to the "your parents have it tough! they worry so much!" messages that these types of episodes always impart.

A subplot about Chris' sister's fear of werewolves was also a bit of a non-starter, but the other characters all added the warmth that makes Everybody Hates Chris such a fun show to watch (I was particularly taken with Julius' desire to name the egg baby Junebug, which was hilarious, shout-out to the movie starring Amy Adams or not). Chris is at that stage where spending time with the characters is such a pleasure that even a lackluster episode like this one flies by relatively painlessly.

Also, congrats on the third season, kids!

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"Chubby Little Loser": Extras

Away with ye unspoiled!




Sorry this is late. I was otherwise occupied last night (Go Colts!) and didn't get to this until this afternoon.

Anyway, what I liked least about season one of Extras was the sense that it was just a barely plotted series of sketches. These were very funny people, so it was fun to watch them try to crack each other up, and it was nice to have Ricky Gervais play a straight man instead of the buffoon. But the stories were often flimsy excuses to have stars goof on themselves, and there wasn't the overall sense of desperation that made The Office such a triumph.

Extras, season two, isn't quite The Office, but by giving Gervais' character, Andy, a taste of undeserving fame, it's exploring dramatic territory The Office never touched -- on The Office, when you got something you wanted, it was fabulous. Extras says there's no way to get what you want and stay pure unless you're a David Bowie-level genius (and the song he made up about Andy was hilarious, as was the group singalong). Andy has sold his creative integrity out to get on TV, and now no one will ever think of him as anything but a hack. He has everything he wanted, but absolutely nothing he wanted at the same time.

Getting what you want and finding out that it's nothing like what you thought it would be isn't exactly a new theme in fiction, but Extras has wed that to a truly hilarious sitcom (and a truly hilarious so-bad-its-good sitcom within a sitcom). By tying the show's funny strengths to an ongoing plot, Extras has made itself one of the better shows on TV. More's the pity it's all over in four episodes!

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BSG Mondays: Season 3, episode 49, "Rapture"




Midway through its third season winter premiere, the Battlestar Galactica episode “Rapture” reached all the way back to the pilot miniseries to reveal just how much a character who shouldn’t be able to grow had grown. Caprica Six (Tricia Helfer), the Cylon who snapped a baby's neck of a baby in the miniseries’ opening minutes, was involved in a tense standoff with Boomer (Grace Park) and Sharon (also Grace Park) over the life of Sharon’s child, the human-Cylon hybrid Hera. The child, quite ill, wouldn’t stop crying and needed the care of a human doctor, something the other Cylons weren’t sure they were going to let Sharon seek out (some of the misdirected anger at the child made it seem as if the Cylons, as a race, were suffering from post-partum depression). Boomer put her hand around the child’s throat, threatening to snap her neck. Six’s next move was quick and decisive -- she knocked Boomer out, then snapped Boomer’s neck. This reversal of that moment from the miniseries highlighted just how far Six -- ostensibly an unchangeable, programmed robot -- and all of the other characters had evolved during the course of a miniseries and two-and-a-half full seasons.

“Rapture” itself was kind of frantic, cross-cutting endlessly between political intrigue on the Galactica, a dire rescue mission on a planet’s surface, betrayal on the Cylon basestar, pseudo-mysticism in a long-hidden temple, a small group of soldiers trying to hold off a superior force, and a few bits of family and relationship drama. And then a star went nova. The hour might have felt too dense if the third season of the show hadn't been, thus far, rather miserly in its willingness to advance the overarching plot. The thickly plotted “Rapture” and its equally substantial predecessor, the midseason-ender "The Eye of Jupiter," went a long way toward rectifying that.

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