Thursday, May 24, 2007

Taking the night off

By all accounts, it was a fine episode of Studio 60 tonight, so I'll blog that over the weekend, but I've got a pile of screeners (Big Love, John from Cincinnati, Flight of the Conchords and Rescue Me, in particular) to catch up with and reviews to write for others, so you'll have to have your first post-less weeknight in a while.

It's the summer, though! Go outside and play with your dog! We'll be here when you get back.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"Twenty minutes is a long time.": Lost

(OK. I tried to choose a non-spoiler-y quote and photo, because pretty much everything in this episode was spoiler-bait. If you haven't seen the show yet, go watch it. You don't want to be spoiled as to what happens. This is "Crossroads, Part 2" good. Srsly, you guys. You'll probably guess a lot of them before they happen, but you'll want to go in unspoiled. Last warning. Once the italics end, the spoilage begins. Turn away! Look away!)

So when did you know?

Me, back when I was considering such a foolhardy thing, I always thought it would be cool to write a Lost spec where the characters were off the island and trying to cope with what had happened to them (the flashbacks would become flash-forwards). When I realized that idea was foolhardy, I thought about another idea where the flashbacks would be in a parallel universe -- what if flight 815 had actually landed? -- but I could never quite crack the on-island story in that one, so I let it be.

So I often have that idea bouncing around in my head when watching Lost. And, honestly, I've been relating the show to Battlestar Galactica a lot lately (and there's a real streak of "this has happened before and it will happen again" on that show). So Libby and I were on the right track of what was going on during the funeral parlor scene, and we had it all pieced together by that last scene before Jack met Kate down at the airport. But that doesn't take away from the shock of the idea. While it was somewhat similar to Galactica's second season finale, the show effectively erased its premise, something Galactica didn't do. Granted, I'll bet they get back to the island, but now they've got something else to play with. (Me, I'm guessing time travel will be involved.)

Any way you look at it, it was a hell of a way to close out the TV season (which technically ends May 31 but traditionally ends the Wednesday before Memorial Day). Sure there are a few loose odds and ends next week (House and Boston Legal both air their finales Tuesday, weirdly), but the year is pretty much over, and Lost's third season has been just as tumultuous a ride as the season itself (it was, after all, a year when 2.5 million viewers just went missing completely, according to Nielsen, and a year when nearly every show in primetime was down from the season before).

Season three started rather slowly. The premiere was quite a fine episode, but the next five after that killed off a fan favorite character (Mr. Eko), kept the sparkling ensemble cast separated from each other and effectively had most of the characters locked up in cages. In addition, it seemed the show had abandoned all pretense of narrative momentum, content instead for navel gazing and answering questions that weren't begging to be answered (on the list of story points I was curious about, the Kate/Jack/Sawyer triangle was way, way down there). The first six episodes reached their nadir when Sawyer was conned endlessly (what is with the show's fascination with con jobs?) into believing his death was imminent and then shown a completely different island from the one he started on. It was just a weird, stupid episode, and it made it seem as if the show was truly just an endless game of three-card monte.

It didn't help that the cliffhanger the mini-season ended on was the least vital of the show's history. While I enjoyed that November finale as rollicking adventure, it was far from Lost at its best. It was easy to see why fans had completely lost faith in the show, especially after a second season that moved glacially and occasionally seemed to have no purpose (watch it on DVD; it plays better). The ratings slumped to the point where Criminal Minds beat the show, and it seemed the end might be near.

But over the long break between the mini-season and the back-season, something curious happened. It was almost as if the show got angry. Aside from the Jack's tattoos episode (the third back from break), every episode in the back half of the season has had something to recommend it, and many have been among the series' very best. Even the much-maligned Tricia Tanaka Is Dead gained a new purpose when Hurley drove the van he got working in that episode down onto the beach tonight and used it to kill an Other who was about to kill his friends.

Obviously, there were things in the season that didn't work at all, but the writers figured out ways to dispose of those things soon enough. I was sort of amused by Nikki and Paolo's arc, all things considered, and I liked the way the show turned the episode featuring their deaths into one big meta-love-in of itself. It wasn't the sort of thing I would have liked to have seen from week to week, but it worked as a one-off.

Other than that, though, the back season was the most tightly constructed the show has been since season one. There are dangling plot threads from the first two seasons all over the place, but the final 16 episodes of season three told one mostly coherent story with a beginning, a middle and an end that truly did "change everything." There was stuff I didn't like and stuff I would have tweaked, but it was all worth it for an episode as rich in payoff as the finale, which was two hours of riveting television.

It's hard to say where the show goes from here. There are a lot of stories left to tell on the island, but there are stories to tell off the island too. Is season four about going back to the island, with seasons five and six being about unfinished business? Who was in the coffin? And why do we have to wait until February?

I've always been a bit of a Lost apologist and fanboy (indeed, no show gets me more fannish than this one -- I almost hate to criticize it), but I have never felt more confident in the show's ability to reinvent itself than I do right now. This whole off the island thing could completely implode, but I'm more willing to see where they're going with this than I have been at any point in the show's run.

So, thanks, Lost. Thanks for getting angry. You put a great capper on a fine season of television.

We'll see you tomorrow, as the Studio 60 burnoff begins, and then we'll try to have something new up every day during the summer, but, by necessity, posting's going to be a little light.

Thanks for reading us in the 2006-07 season!

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How American Idol lost its way and disappointed a country in season six

by Libby and Andy Scott



(In lieu of our usual Idol coverage, we offer up this conversation between regular Idol reviewer Libby and Andy Scott, editor of Everything Oscar and Entertainment Weekly's favorite Idol commentor. Both came to us separately and said they thought this season had been awful, so we threw them together to see what theories they could come up with to explain the decline. They also both assure me that Jordin was way better than Blake. -- ed.)


Libby:
So, since you've watched every season, what did you think was different about this year?

Andy: Well, for starters: the talent. Or should I say lack thereof.

I'll be the first to admit that American Idol has discovered a number of bad singers, some of whom have made it very far in the competition. But whenever things looked grim, there'd always be at least one contestant to swoop in and deliver a show stopping, buzz worthy performance that made devoting 5 months to American Idol worthwhile. I'm talking Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood or Chris Daughtry. These were people we looked forward to seeing each week.

Season six had none of this. There were no water cooler moments like "Stuff Like That There" or "Summertime" or "Alone". Jordin and Blake came close with "A Broken Wing" and "You Give Love a Bad Name" respectively, but to me they lacked a certain something. Not even Melinda pulled it off. Her best performance came during the semifinals with "My Funny Valentine."

But after that, she failed to remind us all why we fell in love with her in the first place.

Libby:
Okay, so beyond the dearth of talent, were there other things that brought this season down?

Andy: This is going to sound so cliche, but Sanjaya! I was literally sickened by his presence on the show, especially toward the end of his reign.

Of course, like I said before, Idol is known for producing as many bad singers as good ones, so the fact that he became so infamous didn't really surprise me. And it wasn't even the singing that bothered me really. I knew eventually, just like in every season, people would eventually grow tired of his act.

What actually pissed me off was how the show took advantage of his persona. On many occasions, they went out of their way to try and create those watercooler moments. The constant cuts to Crying Girl Ashley Ferl were bad enough, but it didn't stop there. I'll never forget one episode in particular when, after revealing Sanjaya's latest hairdo, the camera then cut back to Ryan Seacrest, who had a puzzled look on his face. To me, it came off not as humorous, but a desperate plea for more buzz, and therefore more viewers. Now I know the show has manipulated America for five years running, but this season, more than ever, its tactics were more obvious.

Libby: Then why did you keep watching?

Andy: I don't know. After investing 5 years in a show, it's not easy to throw in the towel. And even when it was bad, it was still a nice distraction from the rest of the world. I also think part of me was rooting for the show to get better. Like, before each episode, I'd always think "Oh, this one will be so much better than last week's!" Unfortunately, that never happened.

Libby:
So basically, it was kind of like a perfect storm of suck. Then, what they can do to prevent these sorts of things in the future? Should the basic setup of the show be made over?

Andy: If the producers are hoping for a comeback next season, they'd better pray for a more talented group of singers. But as we all know by now, American Idol is much more than a singing competition, so they're also going to need to give the contestants more face time.

If there's one thing that was missing this season it was a general lack of information about each contestant. To this day, I know very little about the top 12, and most of what I've learned I read on the Internet. If anything, they spent way, way, way too much time on each guest mentor, which made the contestants feel even less personable.

And I'm not sure if the show should change it's format. I mean, it worked for 5 seasons, which probably best explains why I was so confused about the whole Idol Gives Back thing. It felt so out of place compared to the previous seasons.

Libby: Is it possible that America's talent pool is tapped? Or, rather, that America's attractive talent pool is tapped?

Andy: For American Idol I would say yes, the talent pool is tapped - at least when it comes to the actual winner. People like Jennifer Hudson and Chris Daughtry have already proved that you don't need to win Idol to be successful anymore, so in a way that sort of takes away from the excitement of the finale, and therefore, the whole point of the show. The same thing will probably happen again this year if Melinda ever releases a record.

Libby: How about the mentors? They've already downgraded their involvement (the mentors are no longer guest judges, as in previous seasons -- ed.) so are they a necessary part of the show?

Andy: Previously, I always thought the mentors were a fun part of the show because they genuinely seemed to care about the contestants. This season was entirely different, though. With the exception of Lulu and (maybe) J-Lo, most of the mentors seemed to be there only to promote their latest single or upcoming album (Gwen Stefani, Bon Jovi) -- or even themselves.

Anyway, I mentioned Jennifer Hudson, who was part of season three; the last season you watched before you started watching season six. What did you make of your return to Idolland after being gone for so long?

Libby: While I never hid my obvious disdain for the show, I'm ashamed to say that despite how painful it can be, it still remains an addicting and compulsively watchable program. (Assuming you have TiVo. Watching it live is a fate I'd not wish on my worst enemy.)

Idol is America's favorite show. It is dictated by Americans. Thus, its follies are those of America itself. As evidenced in so many other areas, Idol is dictated by beauty and flash, not quality and substance. I think it's when Idol thinks it's anything more than the most shallow part of our psyche that it fails us. It's, like, congrats to the show for raising money for the needy, but at the same time it has us expect more from it, when that's just bound to end in disappointment.

Andy: Was season 6 addicting enough to keep you watching in the future?

Libby: I honestly don't see that happening. I've walked away before, and I don't foresee having a problem doing it again in the future. Especially as the show prefaces its seasons with nearly two completely offensive months of auditions and public humiliation.

Andy: I've talked to many people who plan to do the same, which leads me to ask: do you think, after six seasons, American Idol is over as a cultural touchstone?

Libby: I think it's easy for people to say that they won't watch it next year, but to the same extent, it is a very addicting show.

Every time that I think that it's over, Idol manages to suck people back in. I'm not going to say that it's over yet, but I think its hold over the American public is definitely weakening. However, until something comes along to replace it, I think it'll be around until some contracts start running out.

Andy: Do you think that replacement show could be, oh I don't know, Project Runway, especially since we'll be blogging it together in the fall?

Libby: Truly, I think it could be! Runway is the perfect reality show, in that it provides quality AND plenty of opportunities to be snarky and/or catty. (If only it was on a major network! -- ed.) I know that if I were a random reader, I would be quite interested in what bloggers had to say about such a quality production!

Andy: Agreed. Sharpen those claws, girlfriend! I’m ready when you are.

Anyway, thanks for taking time out to chat with me.

Libby: Thank you, Andy and welcome to SDD!

Andy:
Glad to be here!

Back to you, Todd.

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"It takes someone awfully small to break in through a doggie door.": Veronica Mars

(A note: Due to TiVo being a snivelling little jerk, I didn't get to see the first hour of the two hour finale. No matter, though, it was easy to catch up with the second hour.)

Until tonight's series finale aired, I wasn't really going to miss Veronica Mars. I still liked the show, and I still would have watched it in a fourth season, but I was, frankly, ready to have the Tuesday break (mostly just because I'm covering something on every night, people!). But the final episode of the season made me nostalgic for the show that was, the show that was gradually turned into something completely different (still compulsively watchable, but completely different) by network notes and frantic writerly tap-dancing to fill in holes and make characters invented for very specific purposes in a very specific mystery make sense. The first season wasn't as ambitious as the second season, but it was probably more perfect, conceived as a sassy little mystery that everyone in the cast had an emotional investment in.

So the show was fighting a losing battle from the first. The fans who loved it in its first season would excoriate anything that came after, and those who tried to discover it late were baffled by the show's continuity and weird, snarky tone (UPN and The CW often sold the show as a teen soap, which it assuredly was not). For a time in the second season, the show grew from week to week as more and more Lost fans gave it a shot and more and more Top Model fans stuck around to see what the fuss was about. But once the show started airing without the Top Model lead-in, it was dead. Really, its best shot at becoming something like a hit was probably in that moment, and bad scheduling ultimately killed it (though, really, the show should have been on The WB in the year 2000 -- that was the perfect network for it).

I'm not mad at The CW for canceling the show -- it certainly was given enough chances, and it certainly pulled in viewers on a few occasions, only to bleed those viewers in the weeks after. Creator Rob Thomas did everything he could to please the network and casual viewers, but, ultimately, his heart was always with the show's serialized aspects, and the final episode Tuesday night reminded us of that, as much of the plot and many of the characters referred to would have been unknown and inscrutable to a casual audience. The finale flashed back to the Lilly Kane murder (by having Veronica once again infiltrate Kane Manor), and it called back a host of incidents from season one in resetting Veronica back to who she was then -- a prickly, unconventional teen girl who solved mysteries.

I still remember the first time I saw Veronica Mars, working my way through a stack of DVDs in the late summer of 2004. I had already seen Lost and Desperate Housewives and House and many of the other pilots that would knock people's socks off that season. And, to be honest, I thought perhaps UPN's other drama pilot that year, Kevin Hill, would turn into the big hit. But Veronica grabbed me immediately. Some things about the pilot were a little clunky (the show had yet to figure out how to do the whiplash changes in tone that so marked its run), but the character was there, and the idea was there, and Kristen Bell was on from day one. I had been waiting for Rob Thomas to make something good since the days of Cupid (a show I dearly loved), and I was glad to have him back again.

As the show grew into a genuine critical darling and media buzz sensation as it wound its way toward the end of its first season, it was easy to get caught up in the excitement. Here, we all felt, was the logical heir to Buffy. But the show was probably never as mainstream in its appeal as Buffy, which, after all, was about a teen girl learning how to be a great leader of men. Veronica Mars was always about a teenage girl learning just how little the world wanted to do with her and biting back. The two shows had a high school milieu and a strong female protagonist in common, but not a whole lot else (though Joss Whedon did star in that second season Mars episode). And as the show entered its second season, creating a deeply tangled and complex mystery and then unraveling it rather coincidentally, it was easy to see people turning on it for not matching that first year.

Me, I actually liked the second season a little better. But that's no matter now. The show got its third and fourth and fifth chances this year and squandered them all. Perhaps it was just one of those shows the audience avoids, perhaps because it doesn't know what's good for it.

So what will you take from Veronica Mars, the series (or the series finale)? Me, I'm going to take the great work of Kristen Bell, Tina Majorino as the feisty sidekick and Rob Thomas' talent with cutting dialogue and red herring clues. And I prefer to think that that rainstorm Veronica walked off into at the end of the episode passed over quickly and left her with a very boring life filled with few mysteries and a nice life with Logan.

Or maybe the rain was better.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

"You look badass.": Heroes



Sigh. After weeks of terrific buildup, Heroes ended with a real whimper yesterday, despite some very cool moments. Maybe it was the overabundance of sappiness writer/creator Tim Kring loaded the dialogue with; maybe it was that they just didn't have the budget to render Peter vs. Sylar properly; maybe it was just a case of too much hype. Whatever. "How to Stop an Exploding Man" wasn't an absolute DISASTER--it just kinda left me wondering if that really was it. Let's take this one at a time, as usual.

OK, so, the biggest problem: the Sylar/Peter showdown. Not just because Sylar has been continually built up as this golden terror throughout the season (I mean, he was originally intended to be killed here, right? I assume he's not dead from the final shot and the rumors we've all heard, but if that was the sendoff they were planning, oof), but also because of the "PETER, THOU ART THE WORLD'S HERO" stuff here. Now, Richard Roundtree's a cool guy, and he could sell me a box of mint thins any day, but no one could deliver the liquid crap that was his speech to Peter in that weird fever dream. Reeked of Kring trying to find a 'full circle' thing for every one of his characters with one of the oddest retcons ever. Weird. Anyway, here's why I think the big showdown didn't work: um, Sylar's powers! Seriously, over the course of the season, what powers has he stolen from people? Jayma Mays' photographic memory, Rusty Schwimmer's super-hearing, Isaac's precognition, Ethan Cohn's....toaster-melting? Even Ted's radiation didn't really seem controllable. So that leaves Sylar with...yep, telekinesis. Which is all he used, and he didn't even use it that well. Basically, he's a victim of both his own hype, which made him out to be an unstoppable power-mad killing machine, and what I can assume was the writers' fear to waste terrific powers on one-shot victims of Sylar's razor finger. Oh well. To be honest, Peter was no better, and he has way cooler powers at his disposal! It ended up with Sylar tossing Pete around for a bit, then Peter...smacking Sylar around with his newly-acquired-from-Niki super-strength, then Hiro racing in to stab Sylar and promptly vanishing.

About Hiro--his little "hello goodbye!" stabbing act was literally THE. LAMEST. HERO. MOMENT. EVER. My mind boggled at how all of George Takei's awesome samurai crap last week led up to Hiro learning that...the pointy end of his sword goes into Sylar's chest. Yeah, we already got that from Isaac's comic book, thanks. Jeez. Rather than having his big fight, Hiro instead got to lead off next season (or should I say "volume") with his little time-travel act back to feudal Japan. Seems, by the sight of the eclipse right at the end and the funky tattoo on the samurai flags, that this is around when all the hero stuff really started up, so I guess Tim Kring is going to explore the mythology behind the powers next year. Which...could go either way, I guess. It's risky. I think (as does Todd) that Heroes may well end up suffering from the classic "second season sucks!" fan malaise that afflict many a genre show. Side-note: one of the best moments in this ep was right at the end with Hiro's subtitled swear word, "@#$!" or whatever. Classic little wink to kid-friendly superhero comics there.

What else, what else. Plenty of almost-deaths this ep, none of which I think will actually be followed through on next season. Simply for the reason that if they wanted to whack a regular, they would have made a slightly bigger deal about it. Nonetheless, I'm gonna say that if they're gonna kill anyone (and seriously, I'm pretty sure everyone's gonna make it), it'll be Parkman, cause he DID take four bullets to the chest. He deserved it too! "I'm gonna kill Sylar, he's the bad guy and I'm the cop"--where you been for the last season, mate? HE'S GOT BLOODY SUPERPOWERS! Honestly. D.L. was such a non-entity the whole ep, but since they sort of tied him into Niki and Micah so much, I assume he won't be gone, and as for Nathan and Peter, who exploded up in the stratosphere--IF THERE'S NO BODY, THEY AIN'T DEAD! Another side-note: Sepinwall complained that Peter should have just flown off himself, given that he's got the power, but I believed that he was spending all his concentration on trying to not explode, and he's never been shown using two powers before (or being particularly proficient with all the powers in general), so that didn't bother me.

The rest of the storylines here were quite boring, to the point of insignificance almost. Mohinder appointed himself guardian of person-tracker Molly, while Molly made an ominous reference to someone she couldn't herself track because he "looked back" at her when she did. Probably their main season 2 villain there. Nathan's mother, it turns out, was no shapeshifter--she really is that intense, and seemed to believe in Linderman's plan that much. Which is fine, but we didn't really get a resolution on that one. HRG got a name, a good one too (Noah), but he and Claire just sorta stood around most of the ep. Oh, and apparently literally nobody lives in New York. Peter took a nap on a road without any cars troubling him, and the Sylar/Peter showdown happened in full view of...absolutely nobody. City that never sleeps, my ass!

OK, I think I'm done. It is too bad that Heroes couldn't end with a bang (I don't even know if that's a pun or not), but I certainly won't be giving up on it anytime soon. Here's hoping that next season, with the new characters and arcs that come with any new season, maintains the "excitement and plot first" ethos that this season mostly stuck to. I mean, even though Heroes, as many critics will tell you, is no masterpiece, it was definitely one of the more consistently enjoyable shows on TV this year. Until September! Excelsior!

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"Your mistakes have been totally unacceptable.": 24

The failure of 24's sixth season wasn't surprising because it was a calamitous fall (though it was that) or because the show could never rebound from it. It was surprising because the show fell apart so quickly and so completely. Even a late-in-the-game attempt to completely reboot the season's storyline couldn't get anything going, in spite of a few brief scenes that worked almost in spite of themselves or because they managed to channel the near-operatic quality the show has had in its best moments in prior seasons.

And the season actually started off pretty well. The first four episodes had their completely daft moments (particularly in the White House scenes -- where it felt like the characters were going to just talk each other to death), but they concluded with the haunting image of a man weeping as a nuclear bomb wiped out Valencia, and their portrayal of Jack Bauer as a man wounded by years of torture and turned into a bleak shell of himself. This all promised something vaguely post-apocalyptic as the season moved on. It might not have been as action-packed as what we were used to, but the mournful tone would sustain it.

Instead, the show just completely ditched any of that, using the nuclear bomb less as something fearful to hang over the season and more as a mere plot device that set up the season's main threats -- more nuclear bombs were going to go off anywhere in the U.S. at any minute. While this wasn't a bad idea for a series, it intractably placed the series in a weird, neo-conservative place right from the start. The difference between the first five seasons and season six of 24 was that in the first five seasons, there were diligent men and women working to keep the terrorists from us. In season six, at least at first, they simply weren't enough any more to keep out the wily terrorist menace.

There was other stuff along the way -- somehow, the series wrapped in the Russians and the Chinese and Jack Bauer's evil family (that played just as oddly as it sounds) and a bunch of boring CTU plotlines, including Chloe trying to figure out if her ex-husband was drinking again. Now, the show has always had crappy melodrama, but it's been balanced with good melodrama (think of how the shocking death of Edgar came in an episode with a boring series of scenes between Jack and Kim last year) and pitch-perfect action sequences. The series has never been a perfect one, but it's willing to get by with brute force when need be. In season six, even the action felt almost perfunctory.

And that's because, it bears noting once again, the characters this bad melodrama and this action were happening to were simply not as interesting as any of the characters killed off in season five. Jack was still compelling, and so was Chloe, but she got saddled with some of the worst plotlines on the show (she's pregnant now? seriously?), while Jack was sidelined for whole episodes at a time in the middle of the season, particularly as he was breaking into Russian embassies and the like. Even the blatant copying of prior seasons was more forgivable than the lack of interesting characters to care about (after all, a series in its sixth season can be forgiven a little self-worship, right?). It's as if the series completely forgot everything that won it the Emmy in the prior season, and none of the new characters it introduced could compete with, say, the Logans.

It's worth noting that 24 has followed roughly the same path as another Fox series -- American Idol. The first seasons set the templates for the seasons to come (and were the most successful seasons in many ways). The second seasons saw substantial growth from the years before. The third seasons then fell back down when the formula debuted in the first seasons revealed its weaknesses. Then, the fourth seasons revamped the formula, and the fifth and sixth seasons followed the same patterns as the second and third seasons. But in this case, perhaps there's no reinvention that could save 24, a show which seems unlikely to suddenly develop a whole new cast of compelling folks for Jack to hang out with.

The episode left Jack looking out over the ocean as the sun rose, his face a grim mask of shock and pain at realizing he once again had to leave behind everything he loved. For the first time since season three, it wasn't a cliffhanger at all. That's probably good, as the series can do just about anything in season seven to try to resurrect itself. But the show's going to need to do a lot more than just shake up the format completely. It simply may be too late for 24.

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The Accidental Musical: Once

There is absolutely nothing new in Once, but the way it combines old elements in new ways makes it feel like an accidental film, as though no one involved quite knew what they were doing and were as surprised to find what they had as the audience who eventually saw it. Once is basically a boy-meets-girl, girl-meets-boy story combined with a struggling-artist-finds-his-muse-and-makes-good story. Or, if you prefer, it’s Brief Encounter for the emo set. Also, it’s more-or-less a musical. And if you haven’t stopped reading yet, it’s way, way better than it sounds, easily one of the best films of this young year so far. It’s one of the few works of art to understand how intimate and vulnerable an act it is to share some small creation you’ve slaved over with someone else.

Once tells the story of a guy (Glen Hansard of the Irish band The Frames) who’s struggling as a street musician, performing songs by Van Morrison and other favorites by day and his own stuff by night when no one’s around to listen. One night, he meets a girl (Mark√©ta Irglov√°) who tosses him a small sum and then asks if he can fix her vacuum cleaner (his day job is working as a vacuum repairman with his father). When she stops by the next day with her vacuum, he finds out she can play the piano, and the two mesh almost instantly. You can probably surmise where the story goes from there, as the duo begin writing songs and lyrics that are more about their growing feelings for each other, and form a small band to record a demo. But the film isn’t just a simple romantic comedy/musical, as it takes seriously the complications inherent in any relationship between bruised adults (both are nursing old relationships that went bad).
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There's more here.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

"With everything we've been through this year, what's a little property damage?": Brothers & Sisters



OK, yeah, I haven't blogged this in weeks. Get over it. Actually, after the Rebecca-kissing-Joe conclusion episode, I went off B&S a little bit, when it piled on episode after episode of little fun and way too much drama. It was great, then, to see that this season finale (written by creator Jon Robin Baltz and showrunner Greg Berlanti), which had it all: moving Emmy-bait crying! shocking revelations! a huge event scene! tons of comedy! etc.

I'll start by acknowledging the strangest, and worst, twist of the episode, that being Ron Rifkin's character, Saul, turning out to be gay. Even better: The O.C.'s Michael Nouri (Summer's dad) delivered the news while awkwardly propositioning him! Wow!....what? OK, now, it makes a DEGREE of sense. Apart from his entirely unseen relationship with Holly, Saul was basically a man of a certain age who was a bachelor and seemed to have very little in his life, woman-wise. But still, WTF!? They're gonna have to get past the whole Holly thing (my guess, just from a brief shot included in this episode, is that Holly is aware of his secret), plus it reeks of just giving Rifkin something to do, considering how he is even less-used on this show than Balthazar Getty. The good thing about Brothers & Sisters, though, is how they deal with these kinds of insane revelations--they center an episode around it, have every character find out one by one, and then there's a dinner scene at the end where they all scream, cry and laugh. And then it's just accepted! So, I anticipate this from Ron Rifkin.

Speaking of gay characters, Kevin (who's my personal favorite, and I'm still real glad Matthew Rhys is delivering week-to-week on a successful US TV show) encountered McCallister's hot gay brother again as they planned the Walker/McCallister engagement party together, and eventually they did the whole TV thing where you fight and get in each other's faces, and then furiously make out. Now, I actually think this is an overused convention, and I also thought they should have had Kevin and the gay brother (I forget his name) trade barbs in at least one other episode, cause the whole thing felt a little forced. But I guess it's gonna feel a little forced whenever the show introduces a gay character, and he eventually hooks up with Kevin (except for Saul, I assume. Perish the thought), but that's the pitfall of network TV, I guess. Still, the reveal that the gay brother (I really should look up his name) was a Methodist minister was...pretty funny. Especially when Kevin dragged Kitty in the kitchen and she got all excited that her attempt at gay-matching had worked.

Concerning Kitty: she didn't do a lot in the finale, but she's really moved on as a character this season. At the beginning, there was just this inherent campiness to Calista Flockhart doing basically ANYTHING, she'd been out of the limelight so long. Introducing Rob Lowe, however, really energized her scenes, and made the political stuff less awkward (strangely, even though she joined the staff of a senator, the political stuff really got backgrounded once Rob Lowe hit the scene). They really work together, and I like how they've integrated him into the Walker clan all nice and quiet. Even though he's a bit saintly (his big dark secret was more a small, slightly dusky fib), he's just so charming!? Having his family be craaazier than the Walkers was obvious, but their debauchery at the celebration and the Walkers' nonplussed, defeatist attitude to it was amusing.

I'll pause here to mention that Balthazar Getty actually gave a good performance last week, which was centered around his decision to let one of his twins live rather than risk both of their lives. Hackneyed story, and a heavily padded episode, but still, he was good. They really should use him more.

The finale was called "Matriarchy" (the pilot is called "Patriarchy"...see what they did there?), and thus it did center around Nora (Sally Field), although it wasn't quite as baity for her as some of my fellow watchers had hoped. She had a knockout scene, though, as she and Kitty went to the airport to bid Justin goodbye, as he was ducking out quietly to rejoin his unit without spoiling Kitty's crazy engagement party. Nora was very much a peacemaker this episode, trying to bury all the season's old grudges (hatred of Holly, resentment of Rebecca) and keep everyone happy as usual. All her stuff--with Kitty, with Rebecca, with Justin--were the highlights of the episode.

I'll pause HERE to mention that I appreciated Rebecca's revelation that she was like, into older guys, and had stalked some teacher of hers instead of going to college. Kind of explained her angst as well as her supposedly "EVIL" behavior in seducing Joe. So, yay. VanCamp forever! The character is interacting less awkwardly with everyone, so I'm looking forward to her and Nora tearing shit up next season now that Kitty's moved house.

Basically, this is the kind of finale I really like in a show, and it's not one you get so often. Like, usually, there's some massive upheaval, or a big twist at the end, but this finale just looked at how the characters have developed and settled over the year, and was happy for it. The "everyone jump in the pool!" thing was a bit over-the-top, but that's the Brothers & Sisters thing, so I was down. Did everyone else enjoy? Any other favorite season finales? Who wants Michael Nouri back as a regular cast member next year? See you in September!

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"It's NBC. They gave Joey 46 episodes.": two weeks of Entourage



Damn my papers for impeding me from blogging Entourage last week, cause that episode ("The Resurrection") was one of the best of this third season, with everyone getting a nice storyline, whereas usually there's a fun Ari plot and everyone else gets some throwaway stuff. . Sunday's ep ("The Prince's Bride") was less terrific, but the season is coming to an enjoyable conclusion...well, at least something's happening, after weeks of typical stalling.

OK, I'll do this character by character, cause the two eps actually bleed together plot-wise. Ari, Vince and E's plot was actually the weakest last week, but it got gears in motion on the dead-alive-dead-alive pet project Medellin, as they wrested control of it from a mogul (played by the always-welcome Michael Lerner, who's great at playing Hollywood ball-busters), laying millions on the line for full creative control over the script. Entourage is always solid at the wheeling-dealing part of Hollywood action, and this was no exception. This week, the three of them visited a Middle Eastern prince of some sort to ask for $60 million dollars to fund their movie. Now, this plotline was...far less plausible. They'd go for trying to get a massive wad of cash from a shady heir before shopping the scripts around the Hollywood studios? After hyping up Aquaman's success so much early on, I really can't believe that Vince's star wouldn't be strong enough for someone more legit to get behind him on this one. Weird. The whole thing ended up with Vince being forced to have sex with the Prince's wife to seal the deal. Oh, Mr. Chase! Whatever will you do! I love how a bad situation for Vince involves him having to have sex with a (older, but still attractive) woman. Damn his luck!

Then there was Drama, whose new pilot hit the air last week to terrible reviews but strong ratings. The whole episode last week involved Drama trying to avoid his reviews, then confronting the Variety reviewer who panned him before driving into the desert to figuratively drown his sorrows. Others have already pointed out how Entourage ended very similarly to The Sopranos last week, with Drama looking out over the Grand Canyon, but it was still a funny coincidence. Doug Ellin says he wrote last week's ep for the purpose of getting Kevin Dillon an Emmy nom, and it was a good showcase, although I think Piven is always going to overshadow him in that category, sadly. This week, riding on his success, Drama was called in to see Brett Ratner (in another "hey, look at me, I'm on Entourage! I can satirize myself!" director cameo moment) for a small part in Rush Hour 3. Course, they meant to call Drama's son on Five Towns instead of him, but Drama manage to plead his way into a cameo anyway. It was a far less entertaining, and a little too endorsement-y for Rush Hour 3, so I was far less impressed.

Maybe my favorite storyline these past two weeks has been Turtle's awkward courtship of a cool cute auto-shop girl. It's hardly a new storyline (really, down to the overprotective father and the understanding mother, it reeks of mothballs), but I think Turtle is an underused character and I like it whenever they give him anything substantial to do, which is rarely. Seriously! I know some people think he's irritating, but after he settled down (he was fairly hyperactive in the first season), he's grown on me quite a bit. Plus, his love interest is extremely suitable, and they have good chemistry. The scene this week where she made him take his hat off was especially fun. And cliched as he may be, the guy who plays the overprotective father (who is he? I know him, but I can't remember where from...), is hilarious, down to his sporadic bursts of deadpan profanity.

Only one episode to go, but really, we segue right into season 4 after a very short break, so it won't be too long. My guess for the season finale, is that Medellin will finally be ready so that Vince can shoot it over the break (the show seems really intent on avoiding the actual production process). And there'll be crazy antics as always!

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"The falcon cannot hear the falconer.": The Sopranos

(Gross. Words all over the picture. Get with the program, HBO!)

While so very many Sopranos fans longed for an outright bloodbath to close out the series, this continuous, blistering buildup is even better. I wouldn't even mind, at this point, if it all fizzled out, because the feeling of festering entropy has been impressive, a remarkable crumbling for all of the characters, who seem just as likely to end the season truly aware of their evil natures as they are to end the season in jail or dead (Alan Sepinwall first posted on the idea that the show's hell would be realizing just how bad of a person you are back around episode two, and his theory seems more and more prescient).

First things first.

I've got a friend (Jacob, who's on the contributor list over there but never contributes) who insists that Robert Iler is one of the show's greatest strengths. Up until these last few episodes, I wouldn't have agreed with him. Iler isn't bad, but he's never had a whole lot to work with until now, and his work with that little stuff wasn't remarkable enough for me to sit up and proclaim him a genius of acting. But now that he's been handed a huge storyline, the kid's practically Emmy-worthy. His work tonight, especially the whole section from his reading of Yeats' "The Second Coming" through Tony's rescue of him after the attempted suicide, was incredible. His gasps on the side of the pool were difficult to watch, and his sobs felt desperately real.

Speaking of The Second Coming, let me unearth my college English major for a moment. Here's a little Yeats for you. . .

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

All straining for significance aside, doesn't that second stanza suggest Tony's journey over the back half of this season? The desert, specifically is mentioned, and the blank gaze that he's increasingly used as he sinks more into his sociopathic self. And how else to read the final shot of the episode, where Tony walked down the long hallway of the hospital toward his son, shoulders slouched, finally having become the rough beast after he smashed Coco's face in (and how did he not kill him, exactly?).

What's been most remarkable about these last nine episodes is the way they feel like they truly encompass the series 80-plus episode run. In many cases, the show has seemed to mostly forget its past, resetting every week like most other TV series. But in these last nine, there have been copious numbers of callbacks to old grudges and events -- Phil's still mad about Tony B killing his brother so long ago, and he so holds it against Tony and the Jersey crew that he seems hellbent on provoking a pointless war. Is there a way either side can back down? And is there a way to unfurl the war in two episodes? If there is, I imagine The Sopranos will find a way to do it.

Meanwhile, Meadow's dating a guy with mob connections. Meadow has previously been the only character who successfully was able to carve out a life separate from her father's profession. But now that she's with Parisi, is there any way she can continue to be both in the world but not of it? Or does she get sucked down into the mire, just like her mother, who's had her chances but let them slip by?

Perhaps the most illuminating scene was Melfi's therapy session with Dr. Kupferberg, who said he was sad to not see Tony in the news. But he also shared the disquieting news that sociopaths don't respond well to psychotherapy as we understand it, mostly using it to find newer, more efficient ways to be sociopaths (which connects with what we've seen of Tony over the years). One of the foremost tropes of The Sopranos over the years has been its embrace (however half-hearted) of dime store psychology and philosophy, but these last nine episodes have seemed to reject all of that -- people are just people, and they'll do the terrible, terrible things they do for any number of reasons.

The show isn't completely free of psychotherapy -- as the terrifying fight between Tony and Carmela over the Soprano curse and who was to blame for A.J.'s depression showed -- but it's increasingly suggesting that there are no easy answers to anything, which must frustrate those who want to read the show as a simple morality play or mob fantasy. Indeed, the Tony and Carmela fight seemed to suggest just as strongly that there was no easy solution to A.J.'s malaise. After all, the guy seemed genuinely despondent about the very state of the world (Paulie suggested the rampant depression among mob kids had to do with all of the toxins in the air -- a line which can be read literally or metaphorically). But the show's suggestion that Tony is truly becoming his mother (right down to saying "Poor you" many, many times in this episode) is a bit too easy and pat. Certainly his mother lies at the root of many of his problems, but his foremost problem is that he is a monster of a human being and he's unwilling to admit it to himself.

The episode's centerpiece was Tony revealing his revelation from the end of the last week's episode. It was a long, rather hallucinatory ramble about how there is more to life than just what we're seeing and the role of the mother in life (she's the bus driver, see?). Parsing out this whole stretch will require a few more viewings (and consultations with those wiser than I), but Tony appears to finally be disconnected from any twinges of guilt he has about who he is or how he makes his money. And that's a frightening way to enter the final episodes.

The opening image of the show was a giant pile of junk, asbestos wafting off of it in the chill wind. The toxins are spreading, and they'll catch everyone.

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