Saturday, March 10, 2007

"The hardest thing in this world is to live in it": Buffy the Vampire Slayer at 10

If someone had told you in 1997 that the two most influential dramas to debut in the next 10 years would be a comedic horror tragedy about a girl who fought vampires and a slow-moving drama about a mobster who visited a psychiatrist, you might have hit them in the face for making no sense (doesn't everyone deal with the nonsensical this way?). But, somehow, that's just what happened. Sure there have been more influential dramas in television history (Hill Street Blues), but in the 90s and 2000s, somehow, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Sopranos set the course for nearly everything to come.

In some ways, though, it's easy to see why The Sopranos was so thoroughly broken down and inserted into the DNA of every other show on TV -- it arrived with instant critical acclaim, was nominated for boatloads of Emmys and became a huge hit for HBO, turning pay cable into THE place to see quality drama. Buffy, on the other hand, arrived with critics not sure what to make of it (though they quickly jumped on board and sang its praises throughout the run -- the reviews of the series finale were mostly rapturous). It was never nominated for a major Emmy (coming closest with a writing nomination for Joss Whedon's teleplay for "Hush" -- ironically, in a show acclaimed for its dialogue, a mostly silent episode -- in season four), and it was never anything more than a tiny cult hit. But it built a network (Buffy and Dawson's Creek made The WB THE place to be for teens and young adults in the late 90s and early 00s), and its story turns became legend, even if no one watched them. At this point, who DOESN'T know that Buffy lost her virginity to Angel, only to find that he turned evil?

You can see Buffy's genetic code everywhere (indeed, the creator of the biggest drama on television -- Shonda Rhimes of Grey's Anatomy -- lists Buffy as perhaps her most important influence) these days, though, where more successful series have had little to no impact. The West Wing, graced with acclaim, Emmys and ratings, hasn't been as influential because it was, at its best, essentially a workplace drama elevated by Aaron Sorkin's way with romantic, theatrical dialogue. It did nothing new down at the structural level. But Buffy, almost by accident sometimes, completely reinvented a lot of television drama tropes.

To wit:

  • --Buffy made the pop culture reference as character shorthand a safe thing to do. Sure there had been topical jokes on TV before (and references to pop culture -- Reverend Jim Ignatowski on Taxi wore an E.T. button for what felt like three seasons and The Simpsons all but perfected the cultural reference in the early 90s), but Buffy found a way to use them to highlight who its characters were and how they reacted to the world around them. Willow had different things to say about the culture she lived in from Xander, whose references were often more nerdy. Now, obviously, this trend has become annoying in recent years, but it's hard to imagine, say, Gilmore Girls without Buffy.

  • --But you know what? There's another aspect of Gilmore Girls that's hard to imagine without Buffy -- the whip-smart, strong female at the center of the show. The 90s saw a lot of intelligent and kick-ass women on television (Scully and Xena for two), but Buffy one-upped them all. Her immediate wake kicked off Dark Angel and Alias, but the female protagonists on both of those shows were still subservient to men. Buffy wrote her own rules and made her own world (and the show even made a point to show that her leadership style often made her seem like a jackass) and everyone, even Giles, ostensibly her boss, had to keep in line with what she wanted. She was an uncompromised, strong woman, and characters like Veronica Mars and Lorelai Gilmore -- heck, even the women of Deadwood (though I somehow doubt David Milch ever watched Buffy) -- have followed in her wake. Joss Whedon's understanding of feminist theory, position paper-y as it could occasionally be, was the most nuanced portrayal of the abilities and potential of the feminine ever depicted on TV screens.

  • --Perhaps Buffy's biggest level of influence was in the plotting department. Before Buffy, huge story turns rarely happened on shows. Sure, The X-Files and Twin Peaks had both set out big, over-arching narratives, but X-Files never altered the status quo that much (going to ridiculous lengths to keep Scully a skeptic) and fans turned on Twin Peaks when it altered the status quo. Perhaps because it was a tiny show on a tiny channel, Buffy was never afraid to create big, dramatic story turns. Angel was evil, and then he wasn't, but Buffy had to send him to Hell anyway. Faith was conflicted, and then she was evil, and then she was in jail, and then she was saving the world. Willow was a nerd, and then she was a sexy nerd, and then she was a witch, and then she was gay, and then she was evil. And so on. Whedon and his writers were unafraid to have their characters change, to have the increasingly dire circumstances they found themselves in alter their very beings (as would happen in real life). A Buffy season finale was an event to anticipate all year long, just because so much would happen -- lives would change, friendships would be put to the test, all of that. The serials that are all over television now live or die by this kind of plotting, but few of them do it as well as Buffy, which understood that these kinds of major changes could only work if the characters made them work. And Buffy made it OK to kill beloved characters who weren't leaving the show. When Buffy's mother, Joyce, died in season five, it was, assuredly, a part of her hero's journey, but it was also a chance to ruminate on death and the holes it leaves in our lives. Admittedly, Buffy didn't kill any regulars until the series finale (a trend that's en vogue now) and occasionally went in for the shock death (I'm still not sure Tara's death was completely necessary, especially in the way it was carried out -- though I can see why others think it was), but its influence in this regard was even felt during its run (24 killed Jack's wife; West Wing killed Mrs. Landingham). In particular, Buffy has influenced genre TV, where there's always a shot at resurrection, in this regard.

  • --Buffy mixed genres in bizarre and dazzling ways. It was a horror movie every week, but it was also the funniest show on TV. Its story turns resembled a tragedy at times, but it also had a huge romantic heart. It was created by an atheist, but it had an almost religious quality, a faith in both monsters and otherworldly powers, at its center.

  • --In its own way, Buffy made genre TV feel safe about being cinematic, furthering the stylistic ground broken by The X-Files. Whedon himself directed a nearly silent episode, a musical and an austere episode almost like a European film. And the fourth season finale, Restless, is one of the more cinematic offerings in the history of television, brimming with gorgeous shots, esoteric scripting and camera moves to die for. It's all in service of a dream episode (one of the few places where TV shows feel they can be cinematic), but the direction adds a level of drama to the proceedings that caused buzz across the show's fandom for seasons to come (you still see dissertations on the ultimate meaning of the cheese man). But Buffy didn't stop its cinematic qualities there -- The Gift, season five's finale, is full of the same sorts of things, this time in service of a coherent storyline.
And, of course, I could go on -- the show, after all, has been roundly deconstructed in scholarly circles and the subject of a linguistics book on how its dialogue influenced teen patois and other television shows (I still say that the rise to prominence of "Not so much" started here). And its "one season tells one story" structure has been copied by show after show (24 and Heroes, for two). But those five points seem to me to be the reasons Buffy continues to linger.

Assuredly, all five of those things had been done before by other shows, but never all at once and never so well (a short-lived SF series called Dark Skies was also fond of huge, jaw-dropping reversals, but it was a pretty horrible show). Without Buffy, you don't get any of the shows listed above, but you also don't get things like The O.C. or Lost or the new Doctor Who (whose creator is another professed Buffy fan). Obviously, a lot of crappy shows have cribbed from Buffy, but so have a lot of great shows.

And the show's writers, directors and actors have spread across the television landscape, landing on some of the most prestigious shows around (to go to the show's IMDB page is to see just how far-flung the Buffy alumni are).

And yet, there's still resistance to the show in many quarters. Buffy, of course, is never going to be for everyone. The sheer number of things it does (and does well) are so all over the map that it sounds like it shouldn't work. Plus, it has often horrible effects and makeup (despite the sincere attempts by the craftsmen in these areas), and it can be cheesy. And it's based on an awful, awful movie! But, at its best, Buffy was a deeply moral work about the cost of being a good person in a rotten world and the value, above all else, of the family you create for yourself. There hasn't been a show like it since, nor will there ever be.

There have been better shows since Buffy's heyday, but there have been few riskier. Watching it now, it's amazing just how much it dared and how much it succeeded. It felt ahead of its time in 1997, and, in many ways, it still does now.

Happy birthday, Buffy. Here's hoping you bring good TV to many generations to come.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

"Kabala is a wonderful religion that mixes the fun part of Judaism with magic": 30 Rock

VADA SULTENFUSS LIVES!

I don't know if you were 11 in 1991 (I guess the odds are against it), but Macauley Culkin ruled the world (and was heavily hyped to be getting his first ONSCREEN KISS in the movie My Girl), The Addams Family movie was bigger than big and a shy and slightly gawky young lady named Anna Chlumsky starred as a shy and slightly gawky young lady in the movie My Girl. Culkin was killed by bees. It was Chlumsky's movie. I didn't get to see it because of a blizzard, but I did get to have Hot Stuff pizza and watch Fantasia and Big with Jeff Gillam.

Where was I?

Yes. Anna Chlumsky. She, randomly, turned up on tonight's 30 Rock as Liz Lemon's rival for the affections of Flower Guy, Liz Lemler (Lemler's flowers were sent to Lemon by mistake because they worked on the same floor). While Chlumsky was good, I was more bothered by trying to figure out who she was for the entire episode and then being impressed that she wasn't dead (just like today's children will be wondering whatever happened to Miley Cyrus). Her rough contemporaries are all out there, doing things, being chained to radiators in their panties and so on and so forth. So it's a fine moment for the Chlum to make her comeback.

But that wasn't all!

30 Rock continued its string of strong episodes with another solid collection of jokes and ridiculous plot lines. It maybe wasn't as strong as the last couple of weeks, but it was a good show, marred only by a couple of stale bits (the astronaut joke just proved that some things are TOO topical for humor) and a plotline that wasn't ever as funny as it could have been. I liked Nathan Lane as Jack's brother Eddie (and I'm not a big fan of Lane's work on film), and he and Alec Baldwin were good together, but the constant repetition of various Irish tropes and stereotypes reached the critical mass it needed to take off too late (roughly when the Donaghy men all revealed their fist names and Liz told Jack to punch his sister in the face). Still, so many of the one-liners interspersed throughout were funny enough to make the story pleasant enough.

More interesting was Liz's attempts to fire people, staring with the other Liz. Her meltdown from having a plan to firing her entire accounting staff highlighted just how much better Tina Fey has gotten as an actress in the course of one season (as did her recitation of her plan to Pete -- complete with that creepy little coda). I think she's probably just more comfortable within the confines of a sitcom and with this cast and that leaves her room to do her thing. Either that or she just realized she needed to raise her game to work with everyone else here. Either way, Fey has turned into a solid center for the show and an intriguingly feminine one (Fey's writing staff doesn't write Liz as just another man in a skirt -- common for female bosses on TV).

The Tracy runner about religion (quoted above) worked at giving us just the right dosage of Tracy and his wackiness. Tracy Morgan can carry a plot (as seen the week he went to the corporate meeting with jack), but he's almost better at doing these bizarre one-offs and strange gags. I laughed so much at "I believe vampires are the world's greatest golfers" that I missed the punchline, which was even better (I'll leave it to you to find out). That's the sort of thing Morgan does well (only Jack McBrayer's Kenneth compares in the cast), and I like how the writing staff is figuring out how to implement him.

It's all for naught though, because the show's going away for weeks 'n' weeks now. Catch up on it on the NBC Web site, so when it makes its triumphant return we can all watch it and laugh together, okay? I just. . .I need this show in my life right now. Like Chlumsky needed Culkin in that movie. Until he was killed by the bees, of course.

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That's entertainment!

Warning to my mom and those at work: The below features some swearing and a half-naked woman. You won't notice the woman isn't wearing, er, bottoms though because you'll be too busy looking at the cat.

I know this has made the rounds, but cats in things they aren't supposed to be ARE amazing.



And if you don't like that, check out this excellent collection of local ads on YouTube (the best 50!). I like all of them, but I'm sad they don't have our local USA Baby Crib Sale spot (not on YouTube, sadly). Someday, I'll post it so you can see what the fuss is all about.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

"I just wish you could sing better": American Idol

by Libby


This American Idol wrap-up is brought to you under protest.

Tonight was the slightly more bearable night of contestants. *shudders* A sad statement, no matter how you look at it.

Jordin Sparks continues to charm as "Pretty Betty" and was spunky and likable as ever, performing Pat Benatar's "Heartbreaker." Girl showed she had some funk in her, but is just never as good as the top tier of talent in this game. Sparks is a personal favorite of mine, but I just don't know if she has what it takes to be more than an amazingly talented 17 year old.

Sabrina Sloan showed off her big voice with "Don't Let Go" but as she continues to belt out solid songs week after week, she seems unable to go the extra mile and connect with anyone on a personal level. Sloan comes off as calculating and cold, not ideal characteristics for an AI champion.

Poor Antonella Barba is just out of her league at this point in the game. Her thin voice just can't hack this level of competition and even turning in her best performance of the last few weeks only goes to prove how out of her element she is. Barba's flaws have been exposed in every possible fashion it seems, and it's time to close this chapter in Idol history.

When Haley Scarnato was introduced tonight, I had a really hard time picturing her/trying to figure out which one she was. This is not a good thing. Eventually, I recognized her as the frenetic, manic performer from last week, only for that image to be shattered by a horrible, theatre-kid, song-styling of a terrible song I hope to never hear again. Scarnato has a great career performing as a Disneyland princess ahead of her, God bless her...

Stephanie Edwards is the new Idol contestant that I just don't get all the fuss over. She still just strikes me as a second rate everything and doesn't bring anything new to the table for me. Singing a Chaka Khan song I've never heard of, I just don't have anything to say about her. That doesn't strike me as a positive development ... yet the judges love her. Go figure.

LaKisha Jones has a great voice and gives a stellar performance of this song, that only had me wondering about 50% of the time about whatever happened to Whitney Houston, and man, didn't SHE have a great voice. Eh. You can't win them all. Jones, as the judges mentioned, has nothing to worry about, though one of these weeks, we'll be in for a surprise ending, and someone completely undeserving will go home, a la Jennifer Hudson. I'd be wary if I were Jones.

For the first time this season, Gina Glocksen distinguished herself from the rest of the group. Glocksen was out of her comfort zone before, and I respect what she was attempting to do, but before you show your range (or lack there of) you need to shore up your base ... and by revealing her rocker girl roots, she showed something that Idol is always sorely in need of: personality.

Do I even have to talk about Melinda Doolittle? Damn. I wish Doolittle would drop out of the competition. Jones can win, and that's fine, but I want Doolittle to go to the studio RIGHT NOW and start recording a record so I can go buy it. Forget the Idol crown ... who needs it? Let's get this girl a contract and get down to business. Man ...

Which brings us to ...

Blecch: Antonella Barba and Haley Scarnato
Bye-bye: Barba and Scarnato

That's it.

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"So. You really the number one draft pick, Grimace?": Lost

It's like I don't know this show anymore, what with the vaguely interesting flashbacks, the characters asking questions that might be relevant to their escape from the island of those who can provide answers and the advancing plot. I don't know what angried up the blood over at Lost, but the episodes since the return from the long break (aside from that deathly dull Jack one of two weeks ago) have been pretty great by the show's mad pulp standards.

Lost has always provided its "answers" so matter-of-factly that I imagine the people who continually cry out for those answers are probably blindsided by the new information. Granted, we still don't know what the island is or why the monster acts as it does, but those are the sorts of things we probably won't know until the very last episode. But the fact that the show wrapped up much of the backstory of the relationship between the Dharma Initiative and The Others in one long, expository scene (complete with Russian, this season's chic language) that was almost taunting in how casual it was, how out-of-the-blue ("Hi, strangers!" our Ukrainian friend seemed to say. "I'm going to trust you and tell you everything!"). Probably the biggest revelation was that The Others "purged" the Dharma Initiative. In addition, we got confirmation that the collapse of the hatch led to the Others being cut off from the outside world and that The Others have been on the Lost island for a long, long time. And Sayid seemed to have absconded with a collection of books on the Dharma project, so at the very least, he'll get some quality reading done.

If anything the denseness of the main plot was its biggest flaw. It zig-zagged so dramatically all over the place (Sayid gets shot! Locke plays computer games! Mrs. Klugh gets shot!) that it often threatened to veer well off the tracks. A friend was telling me that he thinks the scope of Lost has become too big for the show to encompass in a 40 minute program that needs to service a handful of island stories PLUS ongoing mysteries PLUS flashbacks. Maybe with the 60 minutes afforded to an HBO or Showtime show all of this could be crammed in, but it can lead to wheel-spinning on network.

Tonight, however, showed that the show can still do all of this at once when it really wants to. Of course they can't reveal everything all at once, but the writers can come up with the breakneck pacing that marked so much of season one when they want to.

Tonight's flashback was also a worthwhile one (finally), digging into the tortured past of Sayid. It told us nothing we didn't know, but Naveen Andrews has always been one of the show's best actors, and his final scene with the woman he tortured years ago as a member of the Iraqi Republican Guard was a powerful one, largely because of the performances of the two actors. I also liked that the show didn't skimp on its ambiguous relationship with torture -- Sayid has used it to extract information, but the human toll on him seems to be much larger than on, say, Jack Bauer. Most other series would have had the woman be mistaken about Sayid being her torturer, but this one went ahead and let us know that Sayid had, indeed, poured burning oil over her skin and damaged her for all time. Her act of mercy tied in nicely with the theme of the show (notice the repeated -- and not exactly subtle -- dialogue about the mercy rule in the ping pong subplot), and it provided a juxtaposition for why Sayid didn't kill the Ukranian when he had a chance. Plus, the woman's monologue about the kids trapping the cat in the box and torturing it was well-written and well-delivered. It was a bit obvious, but, well. . .this IS Lost.

Locke turned into kind of a dunderhead in this episode, but I mention him simply because he's exactly who I would be in this situation -- someone who sits down at the computer and plays games. I feel you, John.

The ping pong B-story was serviceable (and provided the quote above). It's nice that the show can mix the big mythology drama of the Sayid storyline with the goofier stuff, but something about Sawyer's behavior here came off as half-cocked, probably because the guy has always been kind of a jerk about people touching his stuff. He's absconded with the guns and held the camp hostage before, so now, he just. . .plays ping pong? Still, this was a nice tension reliever when the show needed one.

I like that the show feels free to do odder hours like last week's Hurley van adventure, but I also like knowing that when the show needs to advance its myriad plot lines, it can do an episode like this one or Not in Portland. This wasn't the absolute finest episode of the series (or the season), but it did so much heavy lifting for the rest of the plot, that I can't wait to see what's next.

Let's just hope Sayid keeps asking the questions.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"You must feel like you're walking underwater" - Prison Break

















This week's Prison Break, the aptly-titled ‘Sweet Caroline’, was the first episode of its current season to deliver the qualities that made the show fantastic entertainment back in its inaugural season. This was thanks to several things, but the primary reason was that it was actually tense. Thinking back to first season offerings like ‘Riots, Drills and the Devil’, ‘End of the Tunnel’ and the season finale ‘Flight’, the show wasn’t just mindlessly entertaining – it was (on occasion) edge-of-your seat, nail-biting stuff that kept you guessing to the last second. This quality had all but disappeared as quickly as the airing of the sophomore season’s opener. So it was nice to find myself, in the last five minutes of ‘Sweet Caroline’, right back on the edge of that seat with no idea of what to expect.


Most of the stuff that came before was equally satisfying. Mahone caught up with Sarah, but the two ended up having an impromptu ‘whose-drug-experience-was-worse’ debating session. The writing was ludicrous (beyond taking drugs, in what way are these characters similar?), but the scenes were saved by William Fitchner, excelling this episode as an ever frantic and drug-addled Mahone. T-Bag arrived in Chicago, but lost his bag of Westmoreland's cash in a (probably unintentionally) amusing ‘chase’ sequence around an airport baggage reclaim. Bellick caught up with Sucre in Mexico, but the two ended up hatching a plan to go find the newly up for grabs $5 million. Sadly, Kellerman was wasted this week – his Oswald-style assassination attempt was foiled by, uh…security detail standing in front of Reynolds. Considering he had just shot an agent to get his vantage point, it was more than a little ludicrous that he wouldn’t just disregard another life for the sake of killing Reynolds; implying that he didn’t have it in him to pull the trigger would have been much more effective.


What made ‘Sweet Caroline’ truly satisfying was the return of Caroline Reynolds. Patricia Wettig never really got a chance to shine in the show’s first season, but here she did superb work, exposing Reynolds as a sad, tired woman with gallons of blood on her hands and too many regrets to count. The expression on Wettig’s face when listening to a recording of her dead brother was heartbreaking; her request to hear how he died was equally poignant. Most shocking, however, was the reveal of Reynolds and Steadman’s incestuous relationship. This twist rang surprisingly true – but it wasn’t dwelt upon. Instead it just hung in the air for the rest of the episode.


The tense finale I referred to was Reynolds’ decision of whether to grant the brothers their pardon or give in to the might of ‘The Company’, which apparently even she has no influence over. In the end, she chose to screw over both parties and announced her resignation, throwing in a highly malignant form of cancer just for the Battlestar Galactica fans out there. On paper it doesn’t sound like a hugely tense moment, but the episode held a surprising emotional grasp over me and has set up for what should be an unpredictable final three hours of Prison Break’s second season. Just to clarify, I don't think the show is returning to form - 'Sweet Caroline' just had one of those reliable episode conceits that not even Prison Break could mess up.

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"Now you can't have any of my pot pie": Heroes



Now, Heroes was gonna have a lot of trouble topping last week, but this episode (which is the last original ep we're gonna have for a while) took things in a nice action-packed direction that left every character on a reasonable cliffhanger. I figure these last few episodes (this was number 18, so there's only four or five left after this) will be nice and action-packed, so this was a nice primer for that. There was so much going on here, I'll try and handle each character's arc one at a time.

Let's start with HRG, who isn't quite as tragically memory-lost as we might have guessed by the end of "Company Man", but certainly in a much more compromised position than usual. We also got the introduction of a new character, a typically sassy girl shapeshifter. On the power front, I've already read complaints that they didn't use the typical 'morphing' technique (which Mystique from X-Men totally has the monopoly on), instead shaking the room about a bit and going FLASH, probably to save a little money, but I thought it was kinda cool. Shapeshifting is definitely one of the most classic superpowers that they hadn't used yet, so I wasn't surprised to see it here. Hope they don't get rid of her too quickly, cause I'm not sure what their policy on re-using powers is yet.

Moving on to Mohinder, at least he proved he isn't THE STUPIDEST PERSON IN THE WORLD by finally cottoning on to the fact that Sylar had been hanging with him the last few days. When he figured it out was unclear (maybe he was embarrassed it took him so long to figure out) but hey, good on him, right? Well, maybe not, considering Sylar had him pinned up against a wall by the episode's end. To be honest, I'm very tired of Sylar's whole shtick, so I hope the rumors of him returning next season are either untrue, or involve him returning in a vastly different capacity. He's really somewhat too powerful unless he's up against Peter, so they don't have him use his powers but rather lurk around and make angry faces. On the other hand, he's clearly gonna face off with Peter next time (he's already taken first blood--remember future Hiro saying he didn't recognize Peter without his scar?), so here's hoping that's pretty cool. Todd thought the cliffhanger was a little lame, cause they're clearly NOT going to kill Peter (again, future-Hiro), but I think Peter's bangs are a big enough casualty for me.

What else we got? Malcolm McDowell, who has become somewhat of a journeyman TV guest star (recently he's been in Monk, Law & Order CI, and of course Entourage), showed up as the mysterious Linderman and lent such a shadowy, dark figure the earthy Yorkshire charm we expect from Alex DeLarge. The whole Nathan, Jessica/Niki thing was a bit rushed and vague for me, but I liked the showdown with Linderman. Revealing the Alvar Hanso-esque character within a season was the right thing to do, because with conspiracy stuff on TV these days, less is definitely more. Then again, maybe I should stop comparing Heroes to Lost, as Tim Kring seems to see it more like 24, with each season having its own self-contained arcs. Claire was acting the fool with the Haitian, but it led to her getting to New York (exactly what I've been hoping for) and featured the major revelation that Peter & Nathan's mother is perfectly aware of their powers (and that Claire is her granddaughter) and has some stake in the overarching plot. Which is cool. Her speaking French to the Haitian was an especially nice touch.

Finally, Hiro FINALLY got the sword and his powers back (I was almost prepared for another stall tactic, I had grown so frustrated by his storylines) as well as dearly departed Ando, who turned out to be gone for like, one episode. His return was ludicrous (if you think about the plausibility of him somehow getting a security guard's job/uniform, you'll start laughing) but hey, the more Japanese banter, the better. Their trip to the future could go either way (apparently it's going to be quite a long one, spanning at least an episode or two--why can't Hiro just travel back?), but as long as there are some answers, I think I'll be happy.

Anyway, no more new episodes until April 23rd, so better start baiting that breath now.

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"Now we exposed! Russia is exposed!": 24

Man, remember when the Russians weren't our allies and we could say whatever we wanted about them in our popular entertainment?

Well, 24 has gotten around that, and easily the best thing about this episode was all of the wacky antics at the Russian consulate. Never mind that it's probably a bad idea for Jack to be invading yet another country's consulate (after the same actions landed him in Chinese prison). What this episode is really about is the ridiculous accents on the actors playing the Russians (and speaking in English for our benefit) and Kiefer Sutherland barking out what a Russian speaker assures me is a bunch of Russian-sounding syllables that don't mean anything. Glasnost!

You see, the Russians have provided the Arab terrorists with their nuclear weapons, and now, they're helping the Arabs launch attacks against the United States. Why? I guess they're nostalgic for the Cold War too. Or something. 24 has never made sense, but it's never made as little sense as it does this season.

Still, this episode was probably an improvement on the last few weeks. It was more about running and gunning than secret White House politics or navigating the icy waters of CTU or anything like that. Even as it becomes more and more apparent that this season is made up of the bits and pieces of previous seasons that worked (a nuclear explosion here, a consulate invasion there), Kiefer Sutherland really digs in and invests the various adventures of Jack with more and more gravitas and you sort of just go with it. Even the torturing, which has become almost perfunctory, was sort of good because Sutherland really made you feel like he was chopping a Russian's fingers off.

Look, 24 is a shadow of its former self at this point in time. It's even a shadow of what it was at the start of the season. And it's become clear that this is another season that won't ever quite redeem itself (the last, though, was season three, which righted itself in the last eight hours after the virus escaped and it almost became a horror movie). Part of the problem is that the show doesn't have any fallback characters anymore (I know I keep complaining about this, but it's true). The best fallback character they have -- ex-President Logan -- is hanging out with Jack. While Sutherland and Gregory Itzin have great chemistry, I would rather see Logan hanging out with the bad guys or trying to apologize to Bill Buchanan (mostly wasted) or something.

But, hey, there are a lot of great guest stars strutting around and delivering important-sounding dialogue! Kari Matchett (late of Invasion and icy blonde hot) was there, and so was Chad Lowe! And Bob Gunton! I mean, you could just take the 24 guest cast from this season and turn it into some sort of halfway watchable family soap.

Finally, there's Powers Boothe. I doubt that anyone would believe for a second that this vice president wasn't EEEEEEEEEEEEEVVVVIIIILLL (in addition to my doubts that he would somehow end up on a ticket with President Palmer), but Boothe is an old-school scenery chewer, and it's fun to just watch him chow down.

So we're at the halfway point now, and deep in the thick of the middle third of the season, when things usually start to just get made up as the writers go along. Do you think this season can be saved, or are you just watching for the Kief's bad Russian like I am?

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

"Ryan, you're a silly!": American Idol

by Libby

Aren't you people tired of this yet? I DON'T LIKE THIS SHOW ... I find it hard to imagine that there are literally millions of people in America rabid for this crap. It's disturbing.

Tonight's "theme" instructed the contestants to share something with America that America doesn't already know. Joy.

As I've stated week after week, I love Blake Lewis. He makes me forget I'm watching American Idol, and honestly, at this point, I don't know that a better compliment exists. Tonight, Lewis came out with a 311 song, showing, again, that it's occasionally nice for the #1 show in America to have something vaguely contemporary. At the very least, it was different from everything else being sung. The judges were approving, and Lewis will undoubtedly make the top 12.

Seriously? We're still doing this, people? Sanjaya Malakar is not a good singer. It doesn't matter if he's a slightly better singer when performing John Mayer (also not a great singer) -- he is still not good. It's embarrassing for all involved that this kid is still on the show. Tonight, it was actually so bad that the judges were wondering why they EVER liked him. Sad, America. Sad.

Sundance Head is, somewhat inexplicably, still in competition, and, again inexplicably, singing Pearl Jam ... poorly. Somewhere, Eddie Vedder is rolling in his grave. Is there any way for "Jeremy" not to sound horribly dated? I didn't think so, but the judges are meh, and if America says it's so, it's so.

Chris Richardson looks a lot like Bradley Cooper. A LOT. I find Bradley Cooper attractive, ergo, let's keep Richardson around a little longer, eh? Beyond that, Richardson had a nice little performance of a Keith Urban song that I've never heard of. Seeing as I've never heard a Keith Urban song before, this did not surprise me. Surprising, though, was the fact that Richardson can definitely pull off that sort of faux-country-pop thing, which makes him (slightly) more than just a pretty face.

A few weeks ago, as the all-male Idol episode came to a close, I got a phone call from my brother. He'd missed the episode but wanted to know how the couple of ridiculously talented African-American gentlemen had done. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I had no idea what he was talking about. Perhaps he was watching a different show, as Jared Cotter is clearly not ridiculously talented. Cotter is merely vaguely talented with some very serious issues that evidently cause him to turn every song into a plodding, overly emphasized crap fest. Ugh. People suck, and should also not be allowed to pick Stevie Wonder songs anymore. Ever.

Just so you know ... writing this review is nearly as torturous as watching the episode.
Gah.

Brandon Rogers was back tonight with a considerably less crappy performance than last week, but then, seeing as how he sang a Cyndi Lauper song last time, that's not really a surprise, is it? I didn't think so. Rogers has a ton of energy, a great smile, and yet nothing to make you remember him from week to week. At least not in a good way. Generally, I feel most of his songs are done a bit too sugary sweet, and some edge would be a welcome change for him.

Phil Stacey has been reminding me of someone episode after episode and I think I finally figured out who ... Now perhaps this isn't a particularly kind comparison, but the truth hurts. That said, I think I would much rather endure endless probing by otherworldly visitors than have to listen to Stacey's rendition of LeAnn Rime's "I Need You." And I really LIKE Phil Stacey. I want him to continue on! But tonight was just ... weird. He should stick with the belting and not so much with the breathy. *shudders*

I just want to punch Chris Sligh in the face. He should be doing better than he is. He doesn't have the greatest voice, but he is definitely different from the rest of the competitors. If he's going to pick songs that no one's ever heard of/going to remember, then he could at least pick awesome ones like "Rockin' the Suburbs" or ... something ... equally awesome. Whatever. He was fine tonight, but that seems to be the best we can expect out of this crop of men, so, I guess that's that.

Tonight's winner was Travis Tritt. Because I didn't know he was still alive. So, congratulations Mr. Tritt ... you're ... not ... dead. (I've seen Travis Tritt in concert with a bunch of bikers! -- ed.)

Atrocious: Sanjaya and Jared
Aloha: Jared and Phil

I hate you, America.

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"Oh, the Greek tragedy of it all": Brothers & Sisters



Yes, I realize I've used two Emily VanCamp photos in two weeks, when this show has a vast, talented ensemble. Then again: she's Emily VanCamp?

Anyway, after weeks of rather light, silly episodes things took a more dramatic turn on Sunday with "The Other Walker", when the existence of Rebecca, Holly's secret lovechild with Walker patriarch William, was revealed. Rebecca had shown up for a couple minutes last week (with VanCamp also added to the main cast, which means she's here to stay) but really got mixed into the show this week, which abandoned the whole "focus in depth on a couple family members a week" thing and checked in with the whole cast's reaction to the news. While this was one of the main flaws in the show during its much-maligned early episodes (where the writers had a lot of trouble handling the large ensemble) it worked fine here, getting across the seismic shock of Rebecca's revelation.

Then again, since Rebecca's existence had been confirmed ages ago, it also seemed a little half-baked, with the scenario (the Walkers conspire and argue over whether to reveal a devastating secret about William to Nora) a re-tread of the earlier episode where the siblings learned of Holly's status as secret mistress before Nora did. Thankfully, the conniving of Tommy, Sarah and Kevin did not last long, with Saul (I hope I'm not confusing anyone by not ascribing the myriad names on this show to their respective actors) confessing everything to Nora early on, mostly because secret-keeping is always a disaster for these characters. It's always nice to see some of the more backgrounded actors in this ensemble get a little something to do: Balthazar Getty has been afforded a little more screentime in recent weeks, and Ron Rifkin got something to sink his chops into when his burgeoning relationship with Holly was sunk by Sarah telling Rebecca about her father's identity. Okay, enough exposition. I'm getting tired typing out all these names.

Despite all of the crazy drama/wacky situations the Walkers get into every week, Brothers and Sisters deserves commendation for keeping things mostly on the level, reality-wise. When a character does something bad, like Sarah spilling the beans this week, it feels justified, not just a melodramatic twist to drive the story along. While Sarah's mini-betrayal worked well, and Rebecca's confrontation with her mother directly afterward was great work from VanCamp and Wettig, other plot twists were a lot more obvious. It was clear Kevin's closeted actor boyfriend was doomed from the minute Kevin called and badgered Asian Harry Knowles, and it was equally clear that nice sensitive Justin was going to be the one to bridge the gap between Rebecca and her new siblings. Still, I'm glad closet-boy is gone (not the worst storyline in the world, but it had played its course) and I liked Justin and Rebecca's episode-ending 'tell me about yourself' talk (aside from "Afghanistan! That must have been intense."). But I think I'll like basically anything involving Ms. VanCamp.

Now that sweeps are over, I'm not sure when this show is back, but stick with it! Things can only get better! EMILY VANCAMP!

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No! Big TV!

Big TV chose this weekend to stop working. Apparently, the bulb is burned out. Now, fixing this is apparently not that hard (the Internet solves all), but buying a new bulb is expensive, and it has to be shipped to us.

Thankfully, it's March, so there's not a lot on the air for me to be missing. But your 24 recap won't be up until tomorrow, sadly. David will be back with a Heroes review, plus MAYBE thoughts on Black Donnellys and Brothers & Sisters (we never promise anything), and I've got thoughts percolating about The Class (ending its first season Monday night) and Zodiac. Plus, Joey will be adding his thoughts on that mad, mad, mad, mad Prison Break. So there will be content and stuff to read, even if big TV wages war against us. Expect the normal schedule if it kills us (except, as noted, for 24).

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Monday, March 05, 2007

BSG Mondays: Season 3, Ep. 54, "Maelstrom"


Warning: Severe Battlestar Galactica spoilers straight from the top if you go here.

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