Saturday, August 11, 2007

"Maybe I'm not as comfortable being powerless as you are.": Mad Men

Mad Men's fourth episode, "New Amsterdam," is probably the series' finest so far. It turns away from the heavily serialized aspects of the first two episodes and the suburban mundanity of episode three and treks off into a new world -- old money in New York -- and a new character -- the previously underwritten Pete Campbell. Campbell is a Dyckman, one of the old, wealthy families that dominated New York in the 19th century but found themselves falling on hard(er) times after the stock crash of 1929. Pete still has money, as does his family, but they're not who they once were, and the palpable sense of that loss hung over the scenes where Pete turned to his parents, hat in hand, to try to get the cash to put a down payment on the apartment his wife was crazy about.

Pete's entire life is dictated by his family name (even though it's not his name because his mother was a Dyckman). Though he longs to make a name for himself and shows the budding beginnings of an ability as a business man and an ad man, Pete is too tied to that old money. That name keeps popping up to haunt him, never letting him escape from it and make his own way in the world. Sure it's helpful when he wants to get the apartment his wife wants, but when he just wants to be Pete Campbell, self-made man, it's always there to show him that he can't expect to just get anywhere on his own. He's indebted to people he's never even met.

Pete's brashness and desperation to escape from having to beg his parents and in-laws for money leads him to pitch an untested idea to the people from Bethlehem Steel (and so interesting to see these bygone titans of American industry pop up in the show) without any prompting from his bosses. This, of course, sends Don and Roger into paroxysms of anger, and they go directly to the boss (Robert Morse, really making the most of what could be a stereotypical part), who tells them that Pete should stick around (before entering his office, Roger and Don must slip off their shoes, a subtle way of being re-informed that they are not the big guys around the office -- just yet). A bit chagrined, Roger goes to Pete and lets Don save face by telling Pete that Don saved his job. And then, in a remarkable scene, Roger and Don talk around but never quite land on their fears about the world at large (and Roger's claims that he just doesn't worry seem to conform with his WWII generation world view). The scene, which touches on why the two men drink and feelings of powerlessness, is one that seems to scream out everything the show does well, and it anchors the episode, even though it doesn't feature Pete Campbell, the episode's ostensible main character.

All of this was sort of clumsily intercut with Betty's adventures in the suburbs. I know the show's naysayers say that Betty and Don's whitebread suburban lifestyle is too cliched, ripped right from the John Cheever headlines. But I've enjoyed the episodes for taking that American legend and replaying it, straight. Since the days of Cheever, talking about the depressing sameness of the suburbs has become something you have to do with winking irony because the vast majority of people still live in the suburbs (or have moved on out to the exurbs). I mean I live in the suburbs, and I don't even LIKE the suburbs. Mad Men mostly plays all of this straight, so it's like viewing a mournful art film about The Way Things Were.

But I wasn't wild about Betty's encounter with the little boy who walked in on her in the bathroom and wanted a lock of her hair. I mean, yes, divorce is hard on kids and was even back then. But it felt sort of odd and out of place and psychosexual. Maybe I was supposed to take all of that away from the scene, but I wasn't buying it.

No matter. It was a very short scene in what was, overall, an exemplary episode. Now that we've learned more about the formerly stereotypical Pete Campbell, I have faith that Matthew Weiner and the rest of the crew of Mad Men know what they're doing and where they're going. The show is full of characters who are well-realized or on their way to being so. And every episode closes with an absolutely perfect song choice (so stop playing the "next week on" over it, AMC!).


“Again with the mothers. It's always the mothers!”: Doctor Who

Writer Stephen Greenhorn, who penned this week’s episode ‘The Lazarus Experiment’, was instructed by show-runner Russell T. Davies to model the story on the typical Marvel Comics plotline: “a good old mad scientist, with an experiment gone wrong, and an outrageous supervillain on the loose.” After watching ‘Lazarus’, I found myself wishing that Doctor Who would start taking this straightforward and uncomplicated approach more often. It’s true that these days, many of the Marvel villains introduced in this simplistic manner are often ridiculed. Yet many Who episodes up to this point – especially those written by Davies himself – can often become bogged down in overly complicated explanatory stuff that no-one ever remembers anyway. So while ‘Lazarus’ is not among the very best episodes of season three, it shows that sometimes the most basic approach really is the best.

Lazarus himself is played by Mark Gatiss, a British TV vet who contributed scripts to Who’s first two seasons and now continues his heavy involvement. He is fantastic throughout the episode, although I especially enjoyed his pervy old man right at the beginning. Once Lazarus turns into a huge monster Gatiss is unfortunately sidelined, but his slimy charisma in the earlier scenes still deserves noting. The design of his monster self is hardly original, but it at least sticks to the principles of the script: simple = effective. Plus how could I bash a monster so big that it often fills up the entire screen? When it comes to Who baddies, bigger may not necessarily mean better, but it definitely ain’t worse.

From the point of Lazarus’ experiment going awry things proceed in a fairly predictable manner, but Greenhorn throws in a couple extras to keep things interesting. There’s the Jones family, who here meet the Doctor and get a first dose of the dangers he tends to bring with him. For me, the standout character of the family has always been Martha’s mother Francine, played by Adjoa Andoh, who tends to steal all of her scenes even when David Tennant is around. Francine is one of those mothers who feels her way is right and that she must always have control, a trait that comes to the forefront here when Martha chooses to stick with the Doctor rather than her family. Francine’s intense protectiveness is thusly used to the advantage of Lazarus' mysterious paymaster Mr Harold Saxon, with a similarly mysterious character informing her that the Doctor is “dangerous”. But more on that in the weeks to come.

And then of course there’s the Doctor and Martha. The episode starts with the Doctor bringing Martha back home, apparently with the intention of leaving her there and moving on. By the end, however, he acknowledges that she was “never really just a passenger” and they continue onto another wacky adventure. ‘Lazarus’ is the final acknowledgment that Martha is fully aware of the danger being around the Doctor has put her in, but she just doesn’t care. In other words, this is her last opportunity to bail - an opportunity which, considering what's to come, she might soon wish she'd taken.

Finally, just after the TARDIS dematerialises, Martha gets a message from her mother warning that the Doctor is going to get her killed. “This information comes from Harold Saxon himself!”, she proclaims. How amazing that one single line could bring on so much wonderment and so much excitement to Who fans everywhere. I know it had me practically salivating in anticipation.


Friday, August 10, 2007

"One, two, three, vagina!": the obligatory two weeks of Rescue Me

Oookay. I've been kinda avoiding this post (I'll do Damages next), cause Wednesday's ep was kinda freakin' weird. But, I gotta talk about Tommy holding his baby over the Hudson river, so, let me talk about that first.

Hey! Guess what! Excuse the french, but that was BULLSHIT. Such a shame, too, cause it came at the end of the best ep the show's had all season, probably. The baby fire at the beginning was chilling (sadly, set to indie rock--basically, you can't walk anywhere on this show without it being set to indie rock. Next ep, I fully expect Tommy to be buying milk, set to indie rock). And hey, after the baby fire, things actually fell into place and had like, logical structure! Susan Sarandon shows up with Franco's adorable daughter. Lou confesses he wants a child. Sean and Mike....also do things that I don't really remember. There was the basketball game, and the scenes surrounding it, which were funny and well put together. Also, Tommy bonded with Black Sean, or whatever the hell he's supposed to be called, a character I'd be happy to have stick around. Jerry Adler has been good fun on the show so far too. Neither are doing anything particularly alarmingly good, but they're putting in good banter every episode and they're restoring a faint, faint air of normalcy to the firehouse scenes, which have felt off-kilter the whole season, especially after Jerry shot himself.

Then, Tommy, who's been kinda humming and hawing over the fate of Janet's nameless baby, especially in the light of the baby fire, sees brother Johnny (Dean Winters, we miss you!) who tells him to drop the baby into the river. Well, that's nice. Now, that scene, with Johnny's speech, would have been kinda on the nose if it had just consisted of the speech, and maybe Tommy looking out over the river, or looking at the baby and then at the river. But I coulda lived with that. Instead, we need to see Tommy actually pull a Michael Jackson and DANGLE the baby? Come on. We all knew he wasn't gonna do it. Maybe Tommy's vaguely entertaining the idea (even that seems like a stretch to me), but for it to be absolutely rubbed in our faces, AND used for an utterly lame cliffhanger, was not cool at all. Messed up what was a great episode, and that's sad.

All that considered, let's think about Wednesday's ep, "Solo". Now, basically, things were kinda back to weird and disjointed, but there was the fun extra of a ca-raaayzeee dream sequence at the beginning! That's right, Tommy comes home to tell Janet he...dropped the baby in the river. No, wait, he's kidding! Instead, he actually just gave the baby away to Sheila. What? WHAT? What's so crazy about that? Seriously, one of the worst things about the goddamn baby-dangling is it makes it seem like Tommy giving the baby away to Sheila is a rational and sane decision. When in fact it's both A: lunacy and B: a recycled plot on this show, which was lunacy the first time it happened. I have had quite enough of the child trafficking going on in Rescue Me, honestly. Back to that dream sequence, though: after Janet kicks the shit out of him for hocking the baby, Tommy is psychically assaulted by various ghosts, including Jimmy Keefe and Johnny Gavin, who seem to be spouting nonsense (were there a few lines from On the Waterfront in there, or was I imagining things?). Then, the apartment starts to burn down, accompanied by screams of agony, and Tommy puts an axe into various doors and walls before collapsing onto the floor, a wailing, devastated mess.

The problem with Rescue Me attempting this stuff (and they've done so in the past a fair number of times), is it always seems like Leary and Tolan are cribbing from shows like The Sopranos, but just...not getting it right. It's all too grainy, and unsubtle, and frankly kinda silly. Like, what did I pick up from that dream? Tommy's freaking out. Oh. The other problem is, that dream sequence set such an intense tone, the rest of the episode just couldn't really handle it. I sort of liked Tommy matter-of-factly describing his mental breakdown to the ex-priest cousin, and then marching off to an AA meeting. Overall, though, everything just felt off, and a lot of the episode's plots weren't too grabby. Worst of all was Susan Sarandon telling Franco to man up and go back to his fiance, which sucks, cause his fiance is boring and has the retarded brother, whereas Susan Sarandon is great and has the adorable child.

There was also Garrity trying to figure out what's up with his absent wife--Tatum O'Neal's feckless presence is sorely missed, also--but not really coming anywhere close to figuring out as to where she, y'know, was. Or when she was coming back. The probie mighta been involved in that one, too. Weirdest of all was, even though the firehouse is aflame with gossip about Tommy's latest freakout, and how badly his wife beat him up (she ran him over with a car!), but Chief Jerry Adler is still very interested in setting up his daughter with wayward Mr. Gavin. Now, we later find out his daughter is kinda loopy and irritating (and, of course, who better to take such a role than the wonderful Amy Sedaris), but still, TOMMY? Apparently he tried Lou first (wtf) but I'd pick the married guys before I picked Tommy! His home situation is too terrifying to even contemplate! Tommy's scenes with Sedaris were kinda fun, but the whole thing still felt pretty off. Too bad Sedaris couldn't be given a cooler role. She's kind of a strange fit with the show, but she really didn't get a whole lot to do except be odd for about five minutes.

Honestly, I saw "Solo" yesterday, and I barely remember what happened in it, but I still vividly remember "Seven", which I saw like a week ago. Next week sounds kinda promising (intervention for Maggie!) and I'm nowhere near giving up on this show. Still, there are a lot of crappy plots really weighing down some nice material, and it's sad to see week-to-week.


"Amber, you're so a psycho right now.": Big Brother

When we left our depraved little hamsters at the end of last week's live show, they were hanging upside down in some sort of ridiculous fight to the death for HoH. One can only hope in the meantime they've all fallen and sustained injuries that knocked the idiot right out of them. I doubt we're that lucky.

And so they hang. After only a few minutes, Amber is the first one out followed in quick succession by Eric and Jameka. Jameka chimes in from the diary room that she was "fathomed" the rest of them could stay in the competition so long because it was very difficult. I'm fathomed by her use of fathomed in that sentence, myself. It might be grammatically correct, but all it does is give me unpleasant memories of that horrible NBC show Surface, which had the working title of Fathom. That show was bad, yo.

The hanging continues, but things start to get interesting when the houseguests see a banner flying over the back yard that exclaims: "We love Nick! Amber & Eric are liars! LNC is the Nerd Herd." Spending your hard-earned cash to fly a banner over the Big Brother house strikes me as a little pathetic, but I have to give the person whose idea it was to have it fly over during an endurance competition to ensure everyone sees it a whole lot of credit, because that's smart. The houseguests immediately start freaking out and questioning what it means, especially the part about LNC being the Nerd Herd (which is unfortunate, because I thought that was the most hilarious and insulting thing about it).

As the house works itself up into a righteous frenzy, Eric just sits silently and looks like he swallowed a bug. For all of the intrigue CBS tried to manufacture with America's Player this year, it's sublime that they only way America actually impacted the game was by flying a banner over the house and outing their own player. Classic. Amber cries that she doesn't understand why anyone would call her a liar, because if she tries to lie the words won't even come out of her mouth. She has that rare speech impediment where her tongue is not physically capable of forming lying syllables, haven't you heard of it? Amber, bullshit. Why don't we call Nick up and ask him about your ability to lie? Not that I'm saying her lie to Nick about his nomination wasn't necessary, but don't lie by saying you can't lie because you have some kind of moral imperative that prevents it. That's just hateful.

Meanwhile, the hanging HoH competition is still in full swing. Since Dick has the emotional maturity of a fruit fly, things turn ugly once he steps down and starts verbally abusing Jen and Kail to pass the time. Jen finally stands up for herself and gets some good licks in on Daniele about cheating on her boyfriend in the process, and a still shell-shocked Eric foolishly steps in to defend Daniele's honor. Eventually, Jen falls and weak, feeble Kail makes a deal with Daniele that if she steps down, Daniele has to promise she's not going to be evicted this week. Not even promise she won't be nominated, mind you, but simply promise she won't go home, like Daniele controls everyone's vote and can actually make this happen. Kail is an idiot. Of course, Daniele agrees and Kail gives her the HoH, much to my dismay.

Daniele and Dick immediately congratulate themselves on how awesome they are and talk about how it was stupid to vote out Nick, their biggest ally. Um, duh, and thanks for playing, guys. They start to put the pieces of Eric's deception together and decide he has been the threat all along, like it was Eric and only Eric's decision to vote Nick out and not their own stupidity, so Eric must go via the dreaded backdoor. The best part is how they come up with elaborate reasons as to why Eric cast the errant votes. It's like they're right yet so, so wrong at the same time, congratulating themselves on how they "knew it" the whole game. I call bullshit for the second time this week, O Omnipotent Ones. I cannot wait until they are out of the house and see how little they actually knew.

After foolishly believing Jessica is on their side to vote out Eric, Daniele nominates Jen and Kail for eviction. At this rate, Jen is going to top Dr. Will for the number of times she is nominated without being evicted. It's impressive. Jessica immediately goes to Eric and tells him Daniele's plan, which causes Eric to do some pretty ugly posturing in the diary room about how he isn't going out without a fight. I understand that he sort of got screwed by America and he's angry, but this is not a pretty side of his personality. Luckily he seemingly has Amber, Dustin, Jessica and Jameka on his side and is safe this week no matter what, right?

The veto ceremony this week is especially cruel, with the contestants bidding for punishments in order to win. If you bid too low, you're out. If you are the top bidder, you "win" the punishment, which includes things like eating slop, wearing a bunny suit, losing chances at HoH, and losing part of your prize money if you win. I especially think losing your prize money is vile. CBS is already cheap by only giving a $500,000 prize, but taking up to half of it away? That's brutal. I feel like if you survive an entire summer with Dick you deserve $500 MILLION, but that's just me. Long story short, Jen wins the veto by giving up half her prize money. Jameka doesn't win, but somewhere during the game gave up competing in the next five HoH competitions and is now regretting that decision. I'm not sure why Jameka continues to compete so hard in veto competitions she doesn't even need to win. Probably because God told her to, but if that's the case I think her God sort of sucks and she should stop listening to him about game matters. Just some advice from me to you, Jameka.

Now, the scheming begins. Daniele and Dick somehow lure Jen into their evil alliance and get her to agree to work with them to get Eric out. With Jen, Zach, and Jessica's (supposed) vote, they know they have the numbers to get Eric out. Jen gets in Jessica's ear and tells her about his duplicity when she was HoH, and how he tried to get her to nominate Jessica for eviction (which you will remember was an America's Player task). Jessica starts to get worried, but Eric smooths everything over by later wooing her with yet another America's Player task, asking her to go to the final two with him. What a tangled web we weave, America.

Looking far cuter than is called for in her bunny suit, Jen uses the Power of Veto on herself and Daniele puts Eric up in her place. Dick and Daniele seem very certain Eric is going home, which tickles me because if there's one thing you can be sure of in Big Brother, it's that you should never be sure of anything. To her credit, Kail isn't feeling so secure because with Jen at least she knew everyone hates her, but with Eric she shows he has friends in the house.

At the live show, Julie (wearing some sort of cummerbund) very seriously warns us, America, that our player is in trouble. America shrugs and wonders why she thinks we care about their stupid little twist that was clearly designed simply to make them money from text messaging. We soon learn just how in trouble Eric is, though, from his own insecure posturing since being outed as a liar. It seems a few days ago he told Dick he had serious dirt on Amber, something horrible she lied about in her personal life and told him in confidence. Eric threatens to reveal this horrible lie to the
entire house once it is advantageous for him to do so, strategically. First of all, this is a totally disgusting thing to do. Amber shouldn't have revealed something "in confidence" while in a house where all of her words are put to tape, but Eric is gross to use her secrets against her like this. Secondly, why in the world would you tell something like this to DICK of all people? You know he can't keep his mouth shut. Eric is an insecure, posturing little dweeb who yearns for the acceptance he didn't get growing up, that's why, and it's reprehensible.

Of course, Dick uses this information to manipulate Amber into thinking of voting out Eric. Good thing she promised on her child's life she would vote for Kail! Since she obviously cannot vote Eric out now (because her mouth can't make lying syllables, remember) she tries to convince Dustin to do it for her. He's like: bitch crazy, we need Eric to take out Daniele and Dick. Finally he gets sick of the illogical Amber Logic, and agrees to vote out Eric so she can keep her word and God won't strike her child down on the street. Dustin is so obviously lying here, and I think he just became my favorite player because of it.

After acquiring some ghetto braids to give her anger sufficient street cred, Amber decides to confront Eric. Obviously, she does this in front of the whole house instead of taking Eric aside and talking privately, because when you air your grievances privately you don't get to manipulate everyone else around you into giving you sympathy. Her outburst is truly legendary, and I think what Eric did is horrible, but I can't have sympathy for her once she starts in on him for not being worthy of the "good people's group" in the house, and saying that Nick was. Amber, there is no "good people's group." You all suck, and honestly, you almost suck the worst. Only Dick reaches higher levels of suckitude.

Julie brings us back to the live show to learn about Kail's home life and Dick's has-been friends. For once, the vote isn't set in stone and I want to get to it, Julie! I don't care that Dick is friends with rock "stars" from the late 80's and that scary chick from Rock Star: Supernova! The vote finally goes down, and Kail is evicted 4-3. The look on Dick and Daniele's faces are priceless and Dick immediately goes after Dustin for not voting out Eric. Which...what? Dustin easily lies and says he did. I'm not sure why he feels the need to lie, but it's still kind of awesome. Jessica wins a Julie Chen-bungled HoH competition, and she, Eric and Dustin celebrate mightily, as do my roommate and I on the couch. Go Jessica! You are cute, and not obnoxious! Now, just nominate Dick and Daniele and leave my girl Jen alone, and all will be well.

Clip of the week:

I'm sure all of you saw Amber's anti-Semitic comments, so I'm not going to waste my space here showing them to you again. I'm not going to waste my time on any of the houseguests this week, actually, because my lovely friend Pablo just sent me this hilarious video and I have to share even though it has nothing to do with Big Brother. It's from a British show called The Mighty Boosh, and I'm sure I'm the last person with internet access to see it, but here it is anyway.
I may or may not have spent the last two hours watching every Mighty Boosh clip on YouTube because of this. Enjoy!


Thursday, August 09, 2007

"There's a really fine line between being competitive and just being an asshole.": Two weeks of Top Chef

Meanwhile, back on Bravo, Top Chef continues down the slippery slope of corporate whoredom with two episodes chock full of product placement. Last week, the quick fire challenge entailed a knowledge bee of sorts. The contestants were tasked with identifying certain ingrediants by sight or taste depending on the item. I admit when this challenge began, I was intrigued, as the ingredients varied from mundane to exotic and I was interested in seeing the breadth of the chefs knowledge. Yeah, unfortunately that didn't happen. In general, the chefs came up lame in this challenge with the vast majority getting eliminated upon their first try. Ultimately, it was Casey that showed her prowess and gained immunity for the episode.

As for the elimination challenge, guest judge Rocco DiSpirito informed the contestants that they needed to pair off and plan out a meal that could be frozen and marketed as a BERTOLLI MEDITERRANEAN STYLE MEAL! That's right, from frozen piecrusts to frozen meals, truly Top Chef is the height of the culinary world. But I digress ... DiSpirito also informed the kitchen that the winners of the challenge would receive a trip for two (each) to Italy. Because obviously going to Italy would help a person hone their, um, flash-freezing technique?

What we learned early on in this challenge was that the key to success was to quick freeze all of the elements seperately so that upon cooking, you weren't left attempting to defrost a frozen pasta brick. Despite this knowledge seemingly disseminating throughout the kitchen, it was only the pairing of Tre and CJ that acted upon their knowledge. Working less successfully as teammates were the couples of Howie and Sara M., Joey and Hung. As one could probably forsee, Tre and CJ easily win the elimination challenge and the trip to Italy, while it is an extremely weepy Joey sent home.

Moving right along ...

This week's episode started with an absolutely thrilling challenge involving COLDSTONE CREAMERY ICE CREAM! The chefs were instructed to make up some of their own mixin's to add to COLDSTONE CREAMERY'S Sweet Cream ice cream. Now, since most of the chef's aren't complete morons, they went with fruits and other complimentary flavors to add to their ice cream and got on famously. Of course there were those that went down in flames. There was Casey who incorporated, well, something gross that actually made guest judge Gorvind Armstrong shudder. Well played, Casey. And then there was Hung. Poor Hung decided to go the way of Season 2 contestant Marcel (he of the ill-advised foams) and whipped up a white chocolate cauliflower foam along with a variety of other "texturally interesting" ingredients. Yeah, that went over well.

Needless to say, Hung and Casey were the big losers while Howie's flaming berries and Dale's peach cobbler stood out from the crowd in a more positive fashion, with Dale winning immunity. Now, let me take a minute and talk about how ungodly annoying Top Chef's product placement has gotten. As if it wasn't enough that we had the GE KITCHEN and the GLAD FAMILY OF PRODUCTS, but now every episode we have BOMBAY SAPPHIRE or COLDSTONE or BERTOLLI. Seriously, we see the commercials, we know who your sponsors are! Beyond that, if we're going to be this ridiculously obvious about it, why not just rent out a couple of muppets, slap a color and a letter on there and air it on PBS. Honestly, if Top Chef is going to treat us like children, they might as well give us Prairie Dawn instead of Padma.

End Rant.

Now where was I. Oh right, so after Dale wins immunity the chefs are informed that there isn't an immediate elimination challenge. Instead they get to get all hooched out and get DRUNK in Miami. And of course they all fall for it. I mean, really? Have these people ever SEEN a reality show before? IT'S A TRICK! *sighs* Anyway, they all get dressed up and excitedly pile into the limo only to be surprised outside the club with a couple of mobile eateries and instructions to divide into teams and start cooking for the after bar. Which takes me to another rant. While I feel like the contestants should have been savvy enough to suspect something fishy was coming, I think it's completely unfair to do this to a coed group of chefs and here's my completely non-sexist reasoning. The fact of the matter is this: women and men have completely different "bar-hopping" wardrobes. Men wear nice pants, a nice shirt, I dunno, shoes? Women wear 4 inch heals, strips of fabric for a top and sometimes pants. I'm not saying this is right, but it's how it is. Nay, it is what is EXPECTED of women on the club scene. So when I saw teary-eyed Casey and Sara at the site of the challenge, I couldn't blame them. Clipping around a tiny kitchen in hooker heels with my boobies exposed to the elements (in this case, a deep fat fryer!) would really put me off my game as well. But, well, I guess I've run out of things to say about that. Other than I think it'd decidedly unfair.

Ok, really this time, where was I?

Oh, so the teams were CJ, Casey, Howie and Sara N. pitted against Tre, Brian, Hung and Sara M and the chemistry problems on team 1 were obvious from the start. While their after-bar menu seemed more appealing, what with sliders and milkshakes, it just didn't gel for the judges. Indeed, it's Tre that wins the challenge by utilizing cheese grits and bacon wrapped shrimp while Sara N. is sent home after Howie sells her out and the judges find her personality lacking. Next week looks fun with the restaurant showdown, so let's hope its not as product-whorey as the last few episodes.


Shorthand: Vampire Weekend "Vampire Weekend EP"

Vampire Weekend is a bit of old news among hardcore (or even not so hardcore) bloggers at this point. However, I would be remiss not to mention them here, as they are clearly worth a listen.

Vampire Weekend employ a specific type of easy going, hipster nonchalance that greatly works to their credit. They come with almost no excess baggage despite being an NYC hype story through and through. More importantly, of course, their blending of deft pop and what one uninformed individual might loosely describe as “world music,” is a true testament to the success of the base, formulaic nature of valuable pop music. Front man Ezra Koenig carries with him a swagger and a purpose that seem both magnanimous and biting at the same time. This allows Vampire Weekend to keep an aura of unexpectedness about them. Their debut EP is merely three tracks long, but they are able to almost perfectly connect the worlds of aesthetic bliss and narrative creativity in that relatively short time span. It’s hard to tell just which way they are going to go at any given moment, making the EP a decidedly exciting experience.


Shorthand: Los Campesinos "Sticking Fingers Into Sockets EP"

Los Campesinos! (ironic title with exclamation point aside) more than deserve all the hype they are receiving as of late. To say that their debut EP has myriad influences is not only stating the obvious, it's selling the group short. Los Campesinos! have this delightfully... eccentric (let's say)way of presenting themselves as hybrid, manic tongued, satirists that are only as self-aware as they allow themselves to be. Like an all too deliberate blend of Pavement, The Go! Team, and Architecture in Helsinki, Los Campesinos! make their mark with exhilarating pop opuses, bratty personas and playful exteriors. This is about as simultaneously charming and talented as a group can be, methinks.


When Someone Great Is Gone: The New Pornographers "Challengers"

There's a lot to be said about The New Pornographer's respective catalogue as it stands today. Under their belt, they have three solid, pure pop works of uneven but equally ambitious...vigor. With a seemingly continuous and unquestionable unified front, their tight compositions of harmless yet meaningful fluff contradicts the very nature of their implied, pretentiously indie roots. For lack of a better explanation, The New Pornos forget themselves on purpose. Because of this fact, you remember them for much longer than you might expect to. Challengers, their latest LP finds them slightly forgetting a formula that gave them much credibility in the past: the art of never lingering. On most of their previous works The New Pornographers operate similarly to an old school punk band: they come in, get the job done and get the fuck out. Excess is not something that they have ever cared to understand. This operation allowed them to create many pop gems short in length but endless in spirit and staying power. This is not to say that the tracks on Challengers are exceptionally long; it's more of a largeness in the production that the group never seems to reconcile with completely. It all seems dubious and out of place. Their shoes simply seem too big here, and they lose their footing far more often than they should. If things aren't over-complicated on Challengers, they are simply drawn out and/or boring. Newman and Case are certainly two of the most earnest and genuine personalities one could have the pleasure of listening to, but Challengers finds their talents drowning in lukewarm histrionics. I want to say that The New Pornographers are better than Challengers, but the sad truth may be that The New Pornographers have finally arrived at mediocrity.


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Channel surfing: Power of 10

I am about to make that guy that searches the Web for posts about CBS shows so he can post comments that support CBS shows at all costs REALLY HAPPY. You can totally take this one to the bosses, CBS lurker poster guy.

You see, Power of 10 is probably the best new primetime game show since Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? debuted. I hesitate to say that because it feels like I'm missing something, but Deal Or No Deal sucks, 1 Vs. 100 is too easy, and the U.S. version of The Weakest Link never captured what was so fun about the British show. Power of 10 takes the best things about Millionaire (the ladder system and the audience participation aspect), then blends them with the "Survey says!" excitement of Family Feud and doesn't wrap it all up in a bizarre and completely pointless scoring system like Family Feud does.

One of the problems of primetime game shows since Millionaire is that no show has ever quite gotten down the gradual ramping up of the difficulty of the questions (even Millionaire got way too easy after the first few months). Shows either feature questions that are way, way too easy, or they skew too obscure. Jeopardy!, of course, has perfected the idea of easy questions growing into difficult ones (again, that's gotten easier too), but that show wouldn't work in primetime, so much does it feel like a relic from another era. Yes, its ratings are huge, but how many would make it a once-a-week appointment. It just benefits from being on at the time when people are preparing dinner or settling in for the night.

Power of 10 veers away from the dumb luck and trivia-hound style games that have dominated the post-Millionaire era. It certainly has its bright, flashing lights and loud, dramatic music (which will probably get quickly tiresome), but its questions are based on the answers thousands of Americans gave to a survey. So instead of someone puzzling over whether Drew Carey is a comedian or a presidential candidate, they get to puzzle over just how many of their fellow Americans are stupid enough to think Drew Carey is a presidential candidate, not a comedian. It's a subtle twist to the format that really injects it with new life. Who knew that what was waiting to resurrect Millionaire was Family Feud?

The segments where two people (often seemingly chosen from diametrically opposed social standings) face off in a best-of-five series to see who can land closer to the correct answer are fascinating too, almost in a sociological way. Seeing a prim young woman and a taciturn black man (most likely in his 40s) have wildly divergent opinions on how many Americans thought cats were smarter than dogs was a fascinating look into how these particular individuals felt and how the audience's pre-existing stereotypes about both the question and those answering it. I was surprised, for instance, to find the man thought more Americans thought cats were smarter than dogs. Maybe it's just my Midwest upbringing (don't ask me about it unless you want to hear a really long, really boring story), but I had it in my head that the opposite would be true. Instead, he lost, when more Americans ranked dogs as the smarter animal.

Obviously, these questions are inconsequential, but it would be interesting to see the show take on real political and social issues. Maybe that would make the show too hot button, but it would be rare to see a game show that tackled topics like that at all.

And if anyone could make it palatable, it would be Drew Carey, who's a surprising natural at the game show hosting thing. He jokes and ad libs easily (far more so than he ever did on Whose Line Is It Anyway), and his empathy for the kid on the first night of the show (Carey told him if he wasn't sure, he should keep the $100,000 and not risk losing $90,000 of it) and subsequent contestants has felt surprisingly genuine. Carey's not perfect, and he's not a consummate host just yet, but he's a fair sight better than Howie Mandel.

Power of 10 isn't perfect TV, and like most primetime game shows, it will probably get old very fast, but for now, it's perfect summer TV. It's not too challenging, and it knows exactly which buttons to push.


“I think I like her, in an ‘I want to be alone in a dark place with her’ kind of way. “: Kyle XY

I'll get to the meat of the show shortly, but I just have to brag for a minute: Brian Taylor is evil! I totally called it, albeit in a strangely obsessive manner! Good gracious, I'm smart. It's a burden, really. Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Previously: everything that's happened on the show, ever. Seriously. They're long.

Tom Foss is back, and Kyle goes to him accusing him of hurting Lori and demanding answers as to where he disappeared to. Foss says that he did send those threatening photos to Declan, but it was only an empty threat and he would never actually hurt Lori. Kyle also shows him the "Don't Trust Foss" message from Adam Baylin, and Foss looks genuinely hurt and confused as to why Baylin would have written that. Kyle doesn't believe Foss, and cuts him out of his life for good.

This week in Trager family land, it's a classic case of while the cats are away the mice will play. Let me tell you from personal experience, nothing good has ever come out of that saying. Stephen and Nicole go out of town for the night and leave the kids to their own devices, even though last time they did this the kids threw a raging party. So naturally, the kids don't want to do anything rational or normal. Lori, still in the throes of her assault-instigated downward spiral, decides she wants to check out a murder scene in the woods. Hmm, this wouldn't happen to be the very murder scene from the first episode of the season where Jessi offed the redneck hunter? Something tells me it is.

Kyle immediately tries to put a stop to the plan because the murder scene happens to be right where Zzyzx was before he and Tom Foss blew it up. Lori will not be dissuaded though, and when a suddenly Kyle-focused Jessi shows up, Amanda's jealousy rears its ugly head and she asks to join as well. The whole group (including Andy and an awkwardly lovestruck Josh) make the trek and when they arrive, a drunk Lori decides to go wandering off on her own and wanders right towards the Zzyzx compound. Kyle and Declan go scurrying after her, while the rest of the group stays behind. While exploring the area, Jessi suddenly gets flashbacks to her pre-programmed days when she killed the hunter, which causes her to freak a bit and go after Kyle. Amanda, who is still leery of Jessi's sudden interest in Kyle, goes with her. I'm sure that will go well.

Once they get into the Zzyzx compound, Kyle starts having strange flashbacks to Zzyzx years long gone, when he was still in his incubator. From these flashbacks, he learns that Professor Kern (the scientist found murdered in the pilot) was actually a pretty bad dude and was running tests on Kyle including strategic war analysis. When he found that Kyle was making judgment calls instead of just being a computer, he tells Baylin he is pulling the plug on Kyle because he isn't reacting like he should. Baylin resists, but Kern has the support of the financial backers...and of Baylin's EVIL friend Brian Taylor! Taylor cleverly keeps his involvement with Kern hidden from Baylin, however, but he couldn't keep his evil ways hidden from me. That's right. These flashbacks do give him some interesting information, when he learns that when in his incubated state he somehow downloaded the entire Zzyzx mainframe into his head, and the flashbacks he's seeing aren't flashbacks but just security tapes from Zzyzx! The science on this show is so amazing, because since it is made up they can just add new made up things whenever it fits the story they want to tell. Those clever writers. The flashbacks also serve to show that Foss was the one who saved him when Kern was trying to have him killed. Aw, Foss. You big softy.

The rest of the teens underground aren't having such a good time. When Jessi starts cattily inquiring to Amanda why Kyle would even like her
(My favorite insult: "Is it because you're blond?"), Amanda gets her back up and tells Jessi to step off, and that Kyle is hers. I like jealous Amanda, she actually has a personality. Jessi's newly programmed brain doesn't agree with Amanda, and when she gets angry she goes all Carrie again and causes a little earthquake underground. This of course makes the already unstable Zzyzx compound start to collapse and traps Declan, Kyle, Lori, Amanda and Jessi inside while methane gas leaks in. Once they all finally find each other underground, Kyle conveniently uses his downloaded information and finds them a way out. Made up science to the rescue! Jessi is in the middle of a flashback-induced psychosis, so Kyle sends the rest of them out while he looks for her. He finds her and leads her out, but goes back in to retrieve a box from Adam Baylin's safe. When he emerges, he is barely breathing and Amanda issues her lifeguard-approved CPR to bring him back to life. Of course, their CPR ends in a passionate kiss. I repeat, Amanda is much more interesting with these jealous tendencies. Flaws look good on her.

Above ground, Josh is struggling with how to tell Andy he likes her and acting strangely because of it. She is acting weird herself, but still calls him out on his strange behavior. He says he wants to tell her something, and she says she does as well. They decide to both spill on the count of three, with Josh saying "I like you" and Andy saying "I have cancer." Poor Josh and Andy! I had a feeling she was going to be a cancer girl, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. I do think that it will give Josh some interesting character development, but I really enjoy Andy and the actress who plays her, and hope she doesn't have to die so Josh can learn An Important Lesson About Life and Love just like Shane West in A Walk to Remember. Oooh, maybe he will make her a telescope! And take her to straddle the state line so she is in two places at once! (Sorry, I was going into my own little flashback there. I love that stupid movie.)

In the end, Kyle goes to visit Foss and finds him trying to decode Baylin's warning message for himself. Foss's consternation over Baylin's supposed distrust of him is very endearing. Kyle thanks Foss for saving his life and they determine that someone must have tampered with Baylin's message because he definitely trusted Foss. Hmm, Brian Taylor perhaps? Now, their next task: to open the box Kyle took out of Baylin's safe at Zzyzx.

Next week: Kyle and Amanda fight because he is keeping secrets from her. Ugh. This better not become a Clark/Lana thing, or I'm out, or at least fast forwarding through all Amanda/Kyle scenes.

Random thoughts:
- Sour Patch Kid sightings: 2. A sighting and a mention in dialogue that was actually natural and not cringe-worthy.

- If you are not sticking around after Kyle XY to watch Greek, you should. It is the perfect summer series for teen drama fans.


Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Big Love Tuesdays: Season Two, Episode 21, "Circle the Wagons"

After last week's generally excellent “Kingdom Come”, Big Love retreats to its Juniper Creek storyline in “Circle Your Wagons,” written by Doug Jung and directed by John Strickland. This is probably the most interesting that Juniper Creek has been in a good long time (perhaps mostly because the compound has been largely sidelined throughout season two), but it is still grating and rather boring to have to go to the compound for lots of backstabbing and squabbling politics when our hearts and interest lie with Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) and his increasingly unruly wives. Unfortunately, the Henrickson storylines are also lacking, and the episode ends up being one of the more lackluster ones in the otherwise sterling second season.

One of the nice things about “Circle Your Wagons” is that the show rebounds from a few weeks of sturm und drang with an episode that reminds us that Big Love can be a really wickedly funny comedy when it wants to be. Sure, there are the concerns over who will lead the UEB in the absence of Roman and Bill’s politicking with his wives to let him buy the gaming company he has already purchased, but the episode features some choice laugh moments as well, from Margie (Ginnifer Goodwin) running into an ex-boyfriend she wants nothing to do with, to Lois (Grace Zabriskie) slowly getting the wheels in her head to turn so she can extricate herself from her marriage to Frank (the absent Bruce Dern). Zabriskie plays the role of Lois, Bill’s mother, rather broadly, so she doesn’t always fit in with the other goings-on, but she’s a welcome respite from the Juniper Creek storylines, where she’s one of the few characters who isn’t either ridiculously quirky or all-consumingly self-serious.
Read the rest here.


"What's the matter, Boo-Boo, you photograph puffy?": My Boys

"Sexiest Party Man-Boy." Is there a more perfect description for favorite My Boys pest Trouty (Johnny Galecki) than that? Although last night's episode ("Ethics") was ostensibly about P.J.'s struggle to maintain a professional demeanor when she develops a mutual crush on a cute new Cubs pitcher, the episode for me belonged to Trouty and his hilarious inclusion on the "Chicago's Sexiest Bachelors" list. Trouty should be the most annoying character in the world, but Galecki has pitch-perfect delivery and puts just enough likability into the guy that you can't help but love him. He's the guy you wouldn't want to be your wingman on a night on the town because he'll chase away all of your prospects and you'll surely go home alone, but you might not have been able to get into that posh nightclub without him so he becomes an indispensable part of the group. Trouty's best running gag last night was bragging that he was #16 on the list and cringing when he found out that his friends either placed much lower than him (Brendan, at #37) or didn't make the list at all (everyone else), attributing Bobby's exclusion to the fact that he photographs puffy and actively pursues bad hair days.

As for P.J.'s dating dilemma, this story really did not resonate very well. It's been previously established that she's a responsible journalist and takes her job very seriously, so I don't buy for a second she would even go out on a date with the cute new Cubs pitcher, let alone consider dating him seriously. Although Travis Schuldt (best known as Keith on Scrubs) played him with the perfect amount of charm and vulnerability, I just don't think their connection seemed strong enough to cause P.J. so much heartache. Perhaps if it was teased out over several episodes this would have been a better story, but as is it was a pretty big yawner.

Despite this, there were many things to like about this episode. Trouty, of course. Andy also had a hilarious gag about sneaking into the bachelor list party using a tux he keeps in his car for emergencies, and continuing to validate his reason for being there by doing activities you would do at a party in a tux -- walking around with a clipboard, serving champagne, and most amusingly, playing the drums in the band. Jim Gaffigan steals every scene he's in. Kenny and Stephanie got some time on the forefront as well, and their antagonistic relationship is always fun to watch. We don't know yet why they hate each other so much, and I hope they wait a long time to tell us because their animosity is just too much fun.

Overall, the weak A-story means this episode wasn't the best but as long as Trouty is involved, you can't consider the half hour a total waste. Next week: someone is secretly rich! I hope it's Mike, because that would make his furniture-less apartment that much more awesome.


Sunday, August 05, 2007

"He can't even take a dump. How's he gonna be a master criminal?": John from Cincinnati

After I gave Mitch Yost a hard time in the last few weeks (he hasn't appeared in three straight episodes), the Bruce Greenwood character returned this week and somehow brought some stability with him. Mitch was kind of a shifty guy in previous episodes, one that seemed caught up in events that he didn't even pretend to understand. Now, after a brief sojourn in Mexico and a meet-up with an old friend called The Chemist (a great Howard Hesseman), Mitch has returned, and he's the much-needed ballast to Cissy, who has increasingly seemed detached from any reality in recent episodes. And Mitch's return being such an effective catalyst was the biggest surprise in this John-less episode, probably the best episode since that excellent sixth episode (the one with the scene between Cissy and John at the kitchen window and that moving, transcendent sermon at the motel). A commentor on the episode two weeks ago pointed out that the plot moves like a spirograph, arcing outward and outward to gradually reveal an ever-more-complicated design.

And that design is David Milch's grand old theme: the building of community.

In the second and third episodes, the ones focusing on Shaun's injury and miraculous recovery, the Yosts rebuffed the community that came to offer their condolences and then their expressions of wonder. Now, with Shaun disappearing, seemingly to go off with John on some sort of visit to John's father, the Yosts pull together their increasingly close-knit Imperial Beach community. Cast members who seemed to have nothing to do with anything have banded together with the Yosts and a slew of recurring players to invent a group of people who care deeply about each other and long to help each other through the hard work of living life. They canvass the town to find Shaun, gather together and share a mystical revelation in the form of that weird little stick figure that turns up everywhere (from the strange bar at the hotel that seems to be a place for the dead and living to mingle to an Avon catalog). The importance of these people coming together to share their lives is, in the parlance of John, huge.

And that's, ultimately, what John from Cincinnati seems to be about, both the character and the show. It's about characters finding each other in the pits of despair and bringing a measure of grace to each other (that scene between Barry and the doctor where the doc almost unexpectedly came to Barry's aid was a beaut). As much as I like the overarching mythology of the show, I'm not sure it's the point of the show, and I'm not sure David Milch has any idea beyond the faintest one what, exactly, it all means.

The frustration with this show set in early, and it continues, to an extent. If you can just let go and enjoy the show on the level of it having great dialogue, a handful of great characters and a series of interesting themes and insights, it's quite the good time. But if you require a strong central character (by far the most interesting characters exist on the show's periphery) or a plot that has something of a momentum to it, forget about it.

Still, the show is compelling in its own weird way. It feels like nothing else on TV, now or in the past (I know a lot of people compare it to Twin Peaks, but this feels more religious than that show, if that makes any sense). I don't blame you if you hate it; in fact, I'm often at wit's end with it. But there's a lot there to respect and even love. Last week, I thought I was only in this because there were only two episodes left. This week, I think I might actually watch a second season.


"The urge to kill is too strong!": Doctor Who

Unlike the first half of this Dalek two-parter, which was virtually without merit, 'Evolution of the Daleks' is more of a mixed bag. On the one hand, all the problems which pervaded the first part are still present: thinly drawn characters, lack of a strong dramatic drive and boring, obvious dialogue. On the other hand, 'Evolution' has something over its preceding half: an interesting theme at its centre. Namely, what would happen if you mixed together a Dalek and a human?

Writer Helen Raynor has a concept rich with possibilities here, and she knows it. The basic approach is to have Dalek Sec, who transformed himself into a Dalek-Human hybrid at the end of last week’s episode, become sympathetic towards human life. When Solomon is exterminated early on in the episode, Sec reacts in shock. He then demands that the Doctor be kept alive, because he is a “genius”. Sec’s intellectual capabilities grow to a point where he is almost scholarly – one could picture him sitting down to enjoy a good book. He summarily rejects the usual Dalek policy of exterminate-first-ask-questions-never, declaring that in order to survive the Daleks must become more like the humans. His ideas soon prove too much for the other three Daleks, who ‘dethrone’ Sec and persist with the traditional world domination angle. Like the fantastic ‘Gridlock’ it works as a social commentary, although unlike ‘Gridlock’ the point is overstressed to the point of ramming it down the viewer’s throat.

Sadly, beyond this one central idea there’s little else of note in the entire episode. Tallulah’s still annoying; Lazlo’s storyline is extremely forgettable; and the Daleks themselves still lack menace, largely because they are exposed over the course of ‘Evolution’ as a narrow-minded and often stupid race who are so doomed to utter failure that they no longer even feel like a threat. Raynor also tries to go for something darker with the Doctor’s willingness to die, but this feels completely out of his character (plus we know he’s going to be fine anyway, so who cares?).

‘Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks’ are (at best) a weak couple of episodes that I prefer to just put out of my mind. On reflection, I assume it was one of those ideas which probably worked a lot better on paper than in execution. I suppose it’s better that Who’s weak patch comes early on in the season rather than later, however, and while I still wasn’t a big fan of ‘Evolution’, it remains watchable enough. Which, for a show like Doctor Who, I suppose is enough.