Remember the ending of last week’s Studio 60? With Tom’s brother getting captured and Jordan having a pregnancy crisis? Remember how dramatic and intense those last three minutes were? Well, by the end of this week’s Studio 60 those memories will feel very distant indeed. After that great set-up, Studio 60 has squandered any dramatic tension by choosing to stretch said storylines over not two, but three episodes. That’s right, last night’s ‘K & R’ is the first of a three-parter inter-cutting the current drama with flashbacks to past dramas at Studio 60.
Now admittedly, Aaron Sorkin has done wonders with this basic premise before – the West Wing two-parter ‘In the Shadow of Two Gunmen’ is television at its finest, a wonderfully gripping eighty minutes with rapidly escalating drama combined with flashbacks to the events of The Bartlett Campaign. Those episodes made events which the audience had never before wanted to see seem as dramatically urgent as the present storyline. The same effect has not been achieved on Studio 60. Theoretically, flashbacks seem like a good idea, especially in regards to the Matt and Harriet storyline. Here we’ve been introduced to a long standing couple that’s clearly already been through heaps of drama before we met them – therefore, with the flashbacks we should be able to gain a better understanding of their relationship. Right?
Wrong. In ‘The Friday Night Slaughter’, the flashbacks to Matt and Harriet first meeting merely re-emphasised what we already knew – she’s a believer, he’s a cynic who routinely belittles her beliefs, and they argue a lot. ‘K & R’ added nothing, instead contenting itself with more scenes of Matt and Harriet shouting at each other over Iraq and their contrasting beliefs. I’m sorry, what’s the point in flashbacks if they’re exactly the same as what’s going on in the present?
Sorkin at least had the good graces to acknowledge this overriding theme, with Matt and Harriet commenting several times ‘Haven’t we had this argument before?’ This led into a cute montage at the end showing all the stages of Matt and Harriet’s relationship, all of which involved them fighting. Acknowledging it, however, does not make it less irritating. Matt and Harriett’s constant fighting would be funny or endearing if they made a good couple, but clearly they do not. On a character level, whenever they are left together for long periods of time things inevitably end in misery (see The Harriet Dinner). And on a performance level, Perry and Paulson are both fantastic and give it their all, but simply can’t generate the necessary chemistry to get us involved in a relationship this central to the whole show.
Everything else was fine, if uninspiring. The scenes between Danny and Jordan were less interesting than they should have been, but I’ve never had a problem with the two as a couple. That being said, Danny’s totally out-of-nowhere proposal stretched plausibility, and I hope Sorkin and co. don’t plan on actually having them get married by the end of the season. Nate Corddry has proved very effective at the dramatic stuff, and his performance continues to impress. The ransom idea seems ridiculous to me, but I can’t claim to have much knowledge on the matter. Still, I didn’t really believe that both Matt and Jack Rudolph would get on board with such a risky idea. Finally, Kari Matchett continues to be abused; her character started out as a lovely romantic possibility for Matt, then started coming on way too strong, and this week served as little more than a plot device. I hope this will be rectified, as she and Perry have far better chemistry than him and Paulson.
Oh, and making fun of Jenna Fischer? Not. Cool.
Friday, June 08, 2007
Apparently, if you put the words Jericho somewhere on your blog, you get a lot of hits, and then the people that come and find you write comments and it's all a good time or something. Anyway, I'm a fan of hits, and I'm a fan of comments, so it's time to talk about Jericho's miraculous resurrection and one of the biggest "Save Our Show" campaigns I've seen in many a year.
I don't know what it is about Jericho (a show I found mostly solid, if unremarkable) that got the fans of it in such an uproar when the show was canceled (I'm actually surprised the "Save Our Show" campaign seemed to spring up AFTER the show was canceled, instead of before the upfronts in May), but I'm glad that the show's fans got it back. They worked hard to convince CBS executives that current Nielsen methodologies weren't counting them (and, to be fair, the Nielsen system is a dinosaur that can't measure current viewing trends well at all), and they found clever ways of making their voices heard -- sending thousands of tons of nuts and sending bouquets to CBS' Nina Tassler when they realized how besieged she must have felt. So when I launch into the following, it's from a place of admiration for what the fans did, even if I'm mostly befuddled with why they chose THIS show, one I watched all the way through without feeling any pangs of "Man, I want to see how that resolves itself!" at any point. Why THIS show and not, say, Invasion last year or Now and Again several seasons back or any of a huge number of cult programs that just didn't pay off like the networks hoped they would?
Anyway, that's almost a rhetorical question. We like what we like, and Jericho had the kind of plotline that inspires devotion (there are a lot of post-apocalyptic genre fans out there) as well as a nicely CBS-ian view of the end of the world -- things are going to blow up, sure, but we'll all stick together in the end. And as the season wore on and the people of Jericho had to work harder and harder to survive while their neighbors fell to human weakness, well, the show bordered on compelling. And the ongoing story of what was happening to the U.S. as a whole was interesting enough to make me think I would tune in for a second season if it materialized. Plus, there was a hugely dramatic cliffhanger of the "What's going to happen next!" variety. So I'm guessing these elements grabbed the fans, though, apparently, unusually late. (Maybe they just never really thought the show would be canceled?)
My biggest problem with the Nuts for Jericho campaign is that it's going to unreasonably raise expectations among online genre fans (who are already well-nigh insufferable much of the time). When a television show is canceled, it's almost always a business decision (there are a few cases where something else got in the way, but business usually trumps these other factors). Jericho stayed on the bubble so long, it would seem, because its core audience was very devoted and made up of the sorts of people who didn't watch CBS all that often, a luxury that the much-more-watched (at least in the Nielsens) Close to Home didn't get, simply because CBS didn't need more crime. But when Jericho was canceled, it wasn't exactly a surprise -- the show simply didn't pull down large enough ratings (again, in the Nielsens) to justify a renewal on a network that has nary a weak spot on its schedule.
And there's where it gets tricky. Fans of anything are slow to recognize its weaknesses. Indeed, fans of Veronica Mars are still bemoaning that The CW never gave it a chance, when the show got chance after chance after chance on that network and UPN. While I loved that show, it never had the ratings it needed to prove it could grow beyond its tiny cult, and it was canceled for that reason. But, by and large, fans have such devotion to something that they can't imagine it not being to someone else's taste (not consciously, but sub-consciously -- for example, when someone insults, say, Deadwood at length, I want to brawl with them). Now, granted, Jericho came back after a long hiatus and had to stare down the American Idol monster. But it had been slowly leaking viewers for most weeks in the fall. The American Idol showdown seemed to simply accelerate a natural process -- that of a cult show sloughing off those who didn't want to be a part of the cult.
CBS also didn't (apparently) realize just how many people were watching the show on a DVR or an Internet download. (I say "apparently" because I have a hard time believing that a major network wouldn't have paid attention to these stats.) But why should they have? Internet downloads make a little money, sure, but not enough to cover production costs (though, of course, DVD sales might recoup those expenses -- we'll wait and see). And DVR viewers rarely watch the ads. And there's the rub. If you're not watching the ads, the network isn't as interested in you. And, increasingly, people in the most valuable demographics just aren't watching the ads (it didn't help that Jericho isn't exactly the most product placement-friendly show in the world). This is a problem for all of the networks, of course, but I think it may be why CBS, which still boasts strong ratings in the "we're still watching the ads!" demos of old people and older people, was less concerned with DVR playback numbers.
Now, every article of this nature notes that there have been successful "Save Our Show" campaigns in the past. But the only one that went on to produce a series with a successful run was the one to save Cagney & Lacey. And that show wasn't serialized (like Jericho) and was in a fairly safe, television-friendly genre. What makes the Jericho campaign so amazing was that it resurrected a show on a first-place network that probably could have just ignored the campaign. Since the show was resurrected on a network that was so strong (barring an unforeseen series of misfortunes this fall), Jericho becomes THE proving ground for all save our show campaigns. If the Jericho fans can't get more people to tune in and watch the show (preferably within 72 hours of broadcast), the show will go away for good. Not only that, but it could jeopardize ANY save our show campaign. If the most powerful network on the air can't make something like this work, why should The CW?
So we come back to the question of why. Not only why this show inspired so much passion but why CBS listened to that passion when it didn't really have to. Does this mean that every blaringly loud "Save Our Show!" campaign is going to work from now on? Not at all. I think what simply happened was that the viewers of the show caught CBS in a perfect storm of bad press, where the best good press decision they could make was to renew the show. Reportedly, network affiliates don't like the newer, edgier dramas the network debuted for the fall (particularly the sexy, soapy Swingtown), while those who follow the development season closely still bemoan CBS thinking with its wallet instead of its sense of quality in passing over Babylon Fields and The Man (although a friend who's read both insists they weren't all that). What's more, early critical reaction to the network's new pilots has been rather tepid, and the network can't seem to raise buzz anywhere outside of How I Met Your Mother or the occasional season of Survivor or The Amazing Race. What better way to combat all of these problems than to scoop up the one show that HAS generated a significant amount of press in the offseason? Even if you DID cancel it?
CBS got to the top of the network pile by being smart, and the Jericho move is rather a no-brainer. If it doesn't work, they can just shrug and scrap the show (they won't lose a ton on a seven-episode season). If it does work, they look like geniuses. The big, powerful networks could stand to take more risks like this, especially in an age when technology threatens to make them irrelevant.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go polish my "Bring Back Cupid!" buttons.
Thursday, June 07, 2007
I’ll talk about Big Love in more detail starting June 11, when the House debuts a new recap series, "Big Love Tuesdays." For now, I'll just say that in the first five episodes of the HBO drama's second season, it has evolved from a damn good show to a nearly great one. In its first season, Big Love seemed reluctant to tell the story of a polygamous family without leaning on expository crutches; to make certain episodes happen, it occasionally lapsed into plot contrivance or needless melodrama. But in its sophomore outing, Big Love moves with the confidence of a series that has figured out what it wants to be and how to get there. As the House recap title indicates, HBO, in its infinite wisdom, has stranded the show on Monday, a night where even Six Feet Under couldn’t do much, ratings-wise, so I’ll sound the alarm now: Don’t miss it.
For the uninitiated, Big Love parses relationships between people in a family setup that few Americans have experienced, and it makes them comprehensible and believable. Even if you've never had to deal with a third mother or a sister wife, the series illustrates the difficulty of navigating these relationships with subtle writing and even better acting (especially from Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin as the wives of Bill Paxton's ambitious retailer, Bill Henrickson). It still rankles when the two younger wives call Tripplehorn’s Barb "boss lady"; but no other series could conceive a scene as original as the one where Goodwin’s Margie tells Barb that she understands her limits in her uneasily flirtatious relationship with Barb and Bill's teenage son.
There's so much more here.
(Here's something I'll bet you didn't know. I'm doing some writing for TimeOut New York, and my first piece appeared in this week's issue. I'm also, apparently, using a star rating scale. Look for more TimeOut New York stuff soon. -- TV)
Rescue Me has never known what to do with its female characters. Most of them lose all self-control at the mere sight of legendary firefighter and perpetual screwup Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary); the rest break his balls or start fires that nearly kill him.
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Before I finally saw the finale of Entourage's mixed, bloated third season today, I had read plenty of reviews saying it was a fairly mediocre cap to a largely disappointing run of episodes. While it didn't exactly leave me jazzed, it was a pretty enjoyable half-hour, better than the last episode, with the eye-rollingly obnoxious Middle Eastern prince financier and his horny trophy wife.
Thankfully, that whole situation was immediately brushed under the rug in the first minute of this episode, cause I really didn't want to see them turn into recurring characters. Instead, the show reached back and yanked out a pair of older guest stars to finally get Vince's dream project Medellin going. There was Adam Goldberg, as maniac financier Nick Rubinstein, who first cropped up a few weeks ago (and made a welcome return, I might add--it's always a pleasure to see Goldberg flip out over something), and there was Billy Walsh (Rhys Coiro), the sub-Tarantino helmer of Vince's indie flick Queens Boulevard. Walsh is kind of a one-joke character, but his antics amused nonetheless, as Vince and E nonchalantly dropped in on Walsh's latest gig--hardcore pornography. It's funny (as well as somewhat of a blessing) that Entourage, which is after all an HBO show about movie stars in Hollywood, features almost no nudity or hard drug use, so I figure all the naked women wandering around in the scenes with Walsh were a little nod to that. Or maybe Doug Ellin just wanted to crowbar some skin into the finale, who knows.
After Walsh got on board, and Rubinstein provided the dough, it was really just a matter of getting the four buddies together and having them celebrate Vince's upcoming project. Each season of this show has ended with Vince about to begin shooting on a movie (Queens Boulevard, Aquaman, Medellin), and then when we come back the movie is in the can and it's back to the silly antics we tend to expect from the ensemble. In general, I think this is a good idea--I doubt the show has the budget to go around shooting little mini-movies, and it's really best to keep that stuff off-screen, as Studio 60 showed us. Still, I'd like for once to have some material that touched on what it's actually like when Vince is shooting a movie, so I hope we get at least a little of that in season four (from what I'm hearing, at least the first episode is going to center on the filming process, so that's cool).
Aside from all that, not much else went on here. Very little Ari (he just stood around and shepherded everyone together), although there was the EXTREMELY welcome return of Shauna (Debi Mazar), who has been mostly missing from this season while on maternity leave. Hopefully she'll be back in full force for season 4, because her little curse-filled torrent of commands on the phone to Drama was a definite highlight this week. Drama's plot involved him spending way too much on a condo that I'm sure he doesn't need (they'll never split these guys up). The whole Drama thing is obviously a "pride before fall" situation, cause he's really at his best when he's miserable. Sadly, no sign of Turtle's girlfriend.
Aaaaanyway, I think season 3 is getting kind of a bad rap from everyone. The problem seems to be, the arc is really only justified to the typical 12-episode HBO style (it's really the same as the Aquaman arc: Vince wants project, project is difficult to get, after a while Vince gets project), but they had to stretch it out to 20 because of the Sopranos, so we get these fairly unnecessary side-plots like the Ramones movie, and Ari getting fired. It's easy for me to pick about 12 eps that I liked this season, so I'm gonna let the show's faults slide and hope that next season (which, by the way, starts in two weeks--no rest for the wicked!) keeps things more consistent. Can I get a woo hoo?
As summer TV begins in earnest over the next few weeks, we want to know what YOU want to see us cover.
We're planning to cover the big HBO summer shows, of course, and we'll continue to check out the summer burnoff of Studio 60. In addition, FX's two summer dramas will get a look from us, and we'll hopefully be able to keep up with Showtime's Weeds and Meadowlands (and Brotherhood if that airs in the summer). Joey will be looking at Doctor Who and (I hope) The 4400, and I'm hoping to lure some new contributors with bright, shiny baubles. Finally, Libby will be checking out the summer cooking reality shows and The Closer.
But are there other shows we simply MUST cover? We've got enough spare time that your wish is pretty much our command this summer.
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
Monday, June 04, 2007
(Warning: If you haven't seen Sunday's Sopranos episode yet and you still plan to watch it, this is yet another episode where if you spoil yourself, you'll probably ruin the whole thing. Here's the short version: It was a great episode -- like the last two, one of the series' best -- and you really should watch it for yourself and come back prepared to discuss the following themes: collateral damage, the declining role of the U.S. in world geopolitics and an impending sense of doom. -- ed.)
The car skidded away after its occupants had entered a gun battle with two other characters. The people in the car had proved victorious, but as they zoomed onto the highway, a motorcycle plowed into the side of the car and the bike's rider flew off, sliding across the road. He might have been OK, clad in protective gear and helmet as he was, but he was soon run down by another car, his bones crunching beneath its tires. A large crowd looked on and winced, oohing and ahing at the pointless carnage of both the gun battle and the motorcyclist's accident.
In the world as seen by David Chase, we, the audience, serve the role of both the motorcyclist and the onlookers. The human cost of those surrounding the Sopranos gang is dire indeed, stretching right down to a faceless man who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time (the season has been filled with one-scene characters like this -- given a chance to do the right thing or show their innocence or die pointlessly -- people who come in contact with the Sopranos and leave bloodied). When we choose to do the convenient thing instead of the right thing, Chase almost seems to argue, someone will get hurt. Sure, you might not run down a motorcyclist, but the human cost is still present. The Sopranos has always been a deeply moral work, almost in spite of itself, but that morality is tempered with cynicism. America used to stand for things, Chase seems to say, but now what does it stand for? (More on that in a moment.)
Chase also seems to indict much of his audience by sending the crowd of onlookers outside to gawk and stare at the gun battle between the two on the New York crew and Silvio and Patsy Parisi and then the motorcyclist's accident. Primarily, the onlookers were strip club patrons, and Chase seemed to be tweaking those who watch the show only for the violence by giving them a huge dose of it all at once (and the gun battle sequences and execution scenes in this episode were tense examples of how to direct and edit these sorts of things). Is it any coincidence that most of these people were strip club patrons? By not wanting to engage with the show on any level other than "who's gonna' get whacked," Chase seems to say, some audience members are simply turning into the very voyeurs that Tony and the gang prosper off of. It's fine to watch the show (or any television) that way, but there's little to no point to it.
But the whole episode seemed to be about the collateral damage the Sopranos gang has caused as it cut a swath through the Jersey landscape. Lots of people died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, including Phil's mistress' dad and the mistress herself. A.J. watched a PBS documentary that talked about insurgents in Iraq cutting down people with IEDs. The patrons of the model train store where Bobby was gunned down screamed and shouted as the murder took place. Carmela is forced to pack up the kids and get them to a safe location. Even Melfi got taken down simply because she associated with Tony, mocked at a party by her lousy friends.
But at least Melfi did the right thing. After realizing that there was no way she could get through to Tony (as expressed previously, he was simply using the sessions to become a more efficient monster), she cut him off in a scene that hinted at as many of her misgivings about treating a mobster as it did bring others to the surface. I don't believe the show's finale won't have a Tony/Melfi scene in it, but the whole sequence where she berated him for everything from treating Meadow differently from A.J. to ripping a page out of one of her magazines was a resonant one, the sort of thing you wouldn't see in, say, Analyze This (a movie with a similar premise that the show was frequently compared to in its first season). After years of doing unspeakable things, what sets Melfi over the edge is Tony's casual destruction, his disregard for a piece of her property as (seemingly) insignificant as a magazine. She's done with this man, and he, shamed by the one person who COULD shame him, is equally done with her. Melfi has always been the show's one moral character, and her refusal to associate with Tony anymore seems designed to allow the viewer to cut him loose once and for all as well.
The whole episode also resonated with ideas of a fading American world power. A.J. and his friend Rhiannon discussed the ascension of the Chinese (we caught a quick glimpse of what she was looking at on the computer before Tony kicked her out). A.J., the child of a monster, proved completely ineffectual in the face of adversity, curling up in bed and having to be dragged out of it (perhaps suggesting what, exactly, Chase believes of my generation). And poor Bobby spoke wistfully of a world where people could take the Blue Comet train from Manhattan to Atlantic City and ride in a luxurious Pullman car, sleeping in a nice bed and sipping fine drinks. The idea of the American cultural miasma slowly sucking itself down into a tarpit has always burbled beneath the surface of The Sopranos, but the show has never so blatantly referred to the idea that a corner has been turned and there's no way back. And it's been doing so all season, making increasingly pointed political commentary about the Bush administration and the war in Iraq and obliquely commenting on China, a nation ascendant as the U.S. was when Bobby's imagined man could ride The Blue Comet.
The Blue Comet is everything that has been lost by both the characters and the country they live in. The characters are unable to step out into the world without spreading death, and they long for simpler times and greater men (Tony's admiration for Gary Cooper, for example). They themselves are incapable of measuring up to the men who preceded them (look at Tony fetishizing World War II, as so many baby boomers do), and their children seem unsuited to the tasks ahead of them (contrast Tony's WWII documentary watching with A.J. watching a documentary on how messed up things have gotten in Iraq). After Bobby finishes discussing the Blue Comet, we see a masterfully edited sequence that cut between the New York soldiers advancing on Bobby and the model train rushing through its little, perfectly constructed world. Bobby, in his death throes, falls through that world, destroying it utterly, and the rushing locomotive plunges off the track. The train is coming. The end is near. Are you ready for the Rapture? (Interestingly, the series that will inherit The Sopranos' time slot, John from Cincinnati, is ALSO uniquely preoccupied with the end of the world. But we'll get to that later this week.)
The episode ended with Tony laying in a bed in an old, creaky house (haunted, literally, by a ghostly cardboard cutout of Sil, now incapacitated and in a coma doctors say he will never come out of). He's surrounded by the skeletons that remain from his crew, including the increasingly ineffectual Paulie, who farmed out the hit on Phil that went so badly and chuckled about A.J.'s new girl immediately after telling Tony that Sil would never recover. He lies in a bed, clutching an assault rifle given to him by his now dead brother-in-law, and waits for the end to come.
Sunday, June 03, 2007
"Get an eight ball, cook it up with some baking powder, let it cool into a rock and smoke it.": Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
After last week's welcome respite from Studio 60's main storylines, the show picked up with its romantic comedy and its "your brother is in Afghanistan" and its sexual harrassment lawsuit stories. Needless to say, this was mostly disappointing, though the ending of the episode -- featuring Tom finding out his brother had been captured in Afghanistan -- was powerful in spite of itself, even though it didn't really belong in THIS particular show. A show about a news network? Sure. The West Wing? Even better. But here? It just didn't make sense.
That said, what's up with Aaron Sorkin's female characters? I used to like Kari Matchett's character on this show, but this week, she devolved into a puddly, giggly little thing who spent the entire hour flirting with Matt, even though she was supposed to be representing him and the network in a lawsuit. Her leaning back to brag about her IQ was gag-inducing. What reasonably intelligent woman DOES that? I haven't met one. In addition, there are Harriet and Jordan, two people who stopped making sense a long time ago (I still don't get why Jordan's with Danny instead of, say, Jack, other than the fact that he was there for her to fall into the arms of).
But this episode wasn't completely irredeemable. While I'm tired of most of the storylines, the show brought all of them to crisis points so that we can hopefully resolve most of them next week and then move on to something else. While the resolution of the Matt addiction storyline was a little hackneyed, that final scene where Danny berated him was pretty good. And it's amusing to see Sorkin beat himself, the critics and the general American public up over not embracing the show.
So, even though I can't think of a lot to say about this episode, I didn't feel like it was a complete waste of my time. I'm glad the ratings perked up a little, because I want to see the rest of this without renting it. For completism's sake.