Friday, August 17, 2007

“Burn with me”: Doctor Who

Like last week’s ‘The Lazarus Experiment’, ‘42’ is another straightforward one-off slice of entertainment which also acts as a transition between the opening chunk of season three and the later, better, final chunk which brings all the strands of the story together for a gut-busting last five episodes (I’m excluding ‘Blink’, another standalone offering, although it is no less deserving of praise than the other five episodes to come). Upon re-viewing ‘42’, it doesn’t hold up as well as one might hope, but it’s still a decently gripping story.

Upon picking up a distress signal, the Doctor and Martha arrive on the S.S. Pentallian, one of those old buckets that looks like it’s one loose screw away from falling to pieces. Loose screws are the last of the crew’s worries though – the ship is hurtling towards a sun with only 42 minutes before impact. The real-time aspect is lovingly ‘borrowed’ from 24, with the similar title an apparent nod to this link. It also lends the story a nice intensity, although despite writer Chris Chibnall’s efforts it’s not quite as tense as it sounds. The race-against-time aspect is actually fairly formulaic, if still diverting. Instead it’s the quieter moments that make ‘42’ memorable.

All of these quieter moments revolve around Martha – perhaps surprisingly, ‘42’ gives Freema Agyeman her best chance to shine so far. First there is a clever sequence where Martha and crewmember Riley have to open a series of doors by answering questions set by a previous crew. I personally enjoyed the low-tech nature of these scenes, and wish the sequence had gone on longer. One baffling question also leads Martha to call her mother (the Doctor has given her phone universal roaming), and the two of them proceed to have a petty mother-daughter argument which contrasts amusingly with everything else about the episode. Later on, when Martha believes she is about to die, the two talk again. This second conversation is undoubtedly the best scene of the episode, an emotionally charged and sharply written interchange which plays on the things both characters don’t know – Francine is unaware of the severity of her daughter’s situation, while Martha doesn’t realise that her mother is letting a mysterious woman listen in on their call.

Martha also shares a brief romance with Riley, albeit one mostly motivated by their being thrown together in a small capsule while hurtling towards their deaths. However the two have genuine chemistry, and their kiss near the end of the episode is a disarmingly sweet moment. Throughout all of this, Agyeman is just fantastic. Her Martha is truly a force of nature, and Agyeman sells this with her heartbreaking and overwhelmingly human portrayal. A couple other choice moments: her desperation as the escape pod drifts from the ship, and her scenes with a possessed Doctor where she tries to assure him that he won’t die.

Admittedly I’m focusing on the things I liked more about ‘42’. The actual thrust of the plot, concerning a murderous entity that has overtaken one of the crewmembers and is picking them off one by one, is entertaining enough but becomes boring upon repeat viewings. There’s also some tacked on silliness about the planet being “alive” and seeking vengeance against the humans who mined it. While this basic premise works well enough as an episode, Chibnall handles it in a disappointingly by-the-numbers fashion.

Yet whenever there’s one scene that feels a little dull, another is always on the way to liven up the proceedings, whether it’s Martha on her own or her interactions with the Doctor. There’s also a fantastic penultimate scene in which the Doctor appears momentarily lost in his own thoughts, before snapping out of it and suggesting where they should be off to for their next adventure. Once again the disappointment at his refusal to talk to her is evident in Martha’s face. The Doctor half makes up for it by giving her a TARDIS key, but he comes across like one of those boyfriends who believe grand gestures will make up for a complete lack of personal intimacy. It’s a subtle but poignant scene that sums up why it’s worth wading through Who’s occasional tendencies towards sci-fi daftness. And I haven’t even mentioned the very last scene, containing yet another elusive reference to the mysterious “Mr Saxon”. They sure know how to keep us wanting.


"America, that's my Dad, I'm so proud!": Big Brother

It's status quo this week on Big Brother, as Dick acts like the buttface he is, people yell at him, Amber cries, and I shed a few tears of my own when Julie Chen reveals we're only halfway through the game. Let's get to it!

After Kail's surprise ouster and Jessica's triumphant HoH win, Dick and Daniele are in a tailspin and Dick unsurprisingly starts taking it out on his fellow houseguests immediately, ranting about how he was "lied to." I don't think Dick understands how this game works. The house, seeing the light at the end of the Dick oppression tunnel, finally stands up to him as a group and rants right back at him. Jameka does most of the confronting and even Amber gets a few good licks in, but it's Dustin tha
t earns my eternal respect when he tells Dick "don't ever tell me what to do, ever again." Take that, assbag!

Later, the fighting gets even uglier when Jameka, Amber and Dick get into it again. Jameka is really feeling it this time, and when Dick starts attacking her religion she even goes so far as to call Dick's mother a bitch. Yes, that is a pretty horrible thing to do but Jameka at least has the decency to feel bad about it later. Dick says horrible things all the time and simply does not care. Amber consoles herself post-melee by hiding in the HoH bedroom and talking (crying) to God (America) asking him to grant her forgiveness for all of her past wrongdoings. She also apologizes to God (America) for being so out of shape and asks him for the strength to exercise more and eat better. I'm sure he'll get right on that, Amber, right after he solves the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and fixes whatever the hell is wrong with Britney Spears.

Eric goes to the diary room to learn who America wants to get nominated, and even though I hate Dick so much I actually took the time to vote for him numerous times this week, America would rather see Dustin voted out. Honestly. I said I was moving to Canada, and I might just mean it. What the hell is wrong with America? Why is Dick the most popular houseguest? There's entertainingly antagonistic and there's just plain vile, and for me he is just way too far on the vile side. Despite Eric's efforts, however, Jessica smartly nominates Dick and Daniele for eviction, giving a fantastically honest little speech basically calling this a revenge nomination. In the diary room, Jessica reveals that although most of the house wants Dick out, she is really gunning for Daniele because Daniele is the greater threat to her game, as Jessica isn't even on Dick's radar. I'm not sure how smart Jessica is yet, but she definitely has her moments. Also, she's cute as a button!

Now that both Daniele and Dick are on the block, Dick comes up with the very mature plan to simply bother everyone in the house so much they send him home over his precious daughter. I don't know why he thinks this will work - he's been attacking everyone since day one of this game, and he's still there. It's obviously just an excuse to play up his "evil" personality one more time, and I'm over it. As promised, he takes his harassment to the next level this time by waking up the house to a symphony of banging pots and pans, homophobic slurs, and personal insults. What a charmer. I appreciate that CBS put a few of his homophobic slurs on the actual show ("Princess" being the main one) but they left out the really horrible, offensive things he was saying to Dustin. Dick is getting the reverse-villain edit this year, and it's sickening. Also, It should be noted: Daniele thinks his display is hilarious, and does nothing to stop it. The entire house retreats to the HoH room to hide from Dick's ridiculous tirades. Way to help your daughter's game by alienating her further from the rest of the house, Daddy! You're the best.

The veto competition is a combination eating/croquet game, where the more disgusting things you eat the more chances you get to accumulate points by hitting croquet balls. It's sort of like the bizarro Fear Factor version of Plinko. Of course, Dick sails through the eating round, as does Dustin. Everyone else struggles, especially Jessica who we even get to see throwing up one of the blended concoctions. Thanks, Big Brother! Zach realizes he doesn't need to win the veto, so he purposely throws the competition but not until after he tastes the blood. Um, okay, Zach. The producers must hate him, because his theme song is some serious "bumbling doofus" music. In the end, Dustin and Dick are neck and neck for the veto, but Dick pulls out a lucky shot on his last croquet ball and wins by one point, and my summer-long nightmare continues. I swear, I should be getting hazard pay for volunteering to recap this show. Todd? Can you hook a sister up here?

Because Dick is convinced this will force Daniele to love him, he tells her he plans sacrifice himself so she can stay in the house. Daniele's expression upon this admission is sort of like, "Um...duh. And I'm not promising anything after we're out of here either." After Dick riles Jameka up yet again, Jameka makes an off-handed comment to Daniele about how Daniele condones her father's behavior, and Daniele follows Jameka up to the HoH room to have a good long fight with the house about how they don't understand how hard it is in the house for HER, since she's stuck in there with her horrible father. Daniele? I think they know how much it sucks. When they rightfully point out how she never stands up for them or asks him to stop, her response is basically, "but you guys are so mean to me because of him! I never did anything to you!" They also bring up how she only interacted with Nick for the entire first few weeks, which means they never got the chance to know her. Daniele apologizes for Dick's behavior and asks him to cool it, but loses any points for this gesture when she diary rooms about it all being strategy. She really is her father's daughter.

Eric, still under America's directive, starts hinting that perhaps Dustin should go on the block as a pawn. Dustin agrees and even volunteers himself for the task, which ruins all of the respect his game play earned from me last week when he spearheaded the movement to keep Eric in the game. You never volunteer yourself for nomination, Dustin. The pawn always goes home! Jen doesn't help matters by confusing poor Jessica about Dustin and Eric's true loyalties, an episode which fatefully coincides with an America's Player task that forces Eric to avoid Jessica altogether, fueling her paranoia. In the end, when Dick vetoes Daniele she half-heartedly puts Dustin up in her place. Dustin cockily mocks Dick in the diary room, sure he is safe. Oh, boy. This is not going to end well for young Dustin.

On the live show, Julie Chen opens by giving Dick a complete tongue bath in her monologue at the top of the show. Julie, shut up. America, please listen to me. He is not a hero. He is not cool. He is not funny. He is a sad, sad man with severe anger management issues who cannot let go of his youth and act his age. Unfortunately for me, America again makes me understand how George Bush got a second term in office by telling Eric to get Dustin evicted. I think Eric is starting to realize how much America is screwing him as well, because while he says he will try his hardest, his face totally says "Fuck you, America!" He's obviously desperate for that America's Player money, though, because he works overtime trying to somehow get Dick to stay. He eventually accepts a deal with Dick that he, Jessica, Dick and Daniele will go to the final four together. This is actually a pretty good move if you can trust Dick or Daniele at all, which I can't imagine Eric could feel comfortable doing. Jessica goes along with this plan, and seems to agree that if there is a tie she will vote to evict Dustin.

Back on the live show, Julie intros a clip from former houseguest
Joe. He has nothing nice to say out Dustin, calling him arrogant and selfish. The Big Brother producers do something completely insane here, giving Dustin a total villain edit for this package by twisting several events to make them look worse than they were. Yes, Big Brother. Give (mostly harmless) Dustin the villain edit and give Dick the hero edit. I swear, I might just have to smuggle a weapon into the wrap party this year. Or at least an air horn I can blow into an unsuspecting producer's ear while he's grabbing shrimp from the buffet.

The live vote is actually exciting for the second week in a row, as it's still unclear who is going home. As expected, Amber and Jameka vote to evict Dick and Daniele and Eric vote to evict Dustin. Surprisingly, however, Jen and Zach vote for Dustin to be evicted as well and he is voted out, 4-2. Damn! One thing that Big Brother cannot do well is tease a live vote effectively. We never got any inkling Jen or Zach were voting this way, and I wonder if they were always planning this or if Jessica and Eric got in their ears at the last minute. Dustin is sufficiently shocked, as are Jameka and Amber. Poor Jameka, she is really screwed now with Amber as her only ally. Dustin acquits himself nicely in his exit interview with Julie, correctly assessing that Eric was the other vote to evict him and that Amber and Jameka kept their words. Have fun in the sequester house, Dustin! You better hope Dick stays in the game a long, long time to save your sanity.

This week's HoH competition is a memory task. Apparently the houseguests were awoken this morning to the sight of a Mad Hatter-costumed little person reciting common proverbs (Or maybe aphorisms? I'm not sure.) When they go in the back yard, they find a barbershop quartet and a pirate on stilts. Upon return to the house, a human statue and several bunnies await them as well. If I saw that human statue, I would probably walk right out of the front door and quit. People dressed up like that freak me out. Going to Grauman's Chinese Theater is torture. One time I wasn't paying attention while walking into the Hollywood and Highland complex and I almost ran right into a little person dressed like Chucky from those Child's Play movies, and I actually got scared and screamed a little bit. Don't even get me started on that guy who dresses up like Superman.

Anyway, for the HoH competition the houseguests will now be asked questions about their strange visitors. Jen gets eliminated first on an easy question, and I cry like Amber with a hangnail. Eventually it's down to only Daniele and Amber (!), and Daniele wins HoH. Sigh. This is going to be yet another long week of annoying Dick antics. It will be interesting to see if she and Dick stick to their deal with Eric and Jessica, but as long as Jen stays in the house I'll be happy. Go Jen!

Live feed clip of the week:

I searched for an hour trying to find a fun clip of these houseguests from the last week, to no avail. Do they have any fun at all? To remedy this, I am including one of my favorite clips of a past houseguest making his own fun to combat the severe boredom of the BB house:

"Here's a list of dream things I would like right now: Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock to come rap in the backyard..." I love you, Will.


Thursday, August 16, 2007

"The bear is not talking. It's what the hunter imagines the bear to be thinking.": Mad Men

I know a lot of people love that the show finally confirmed that Don Draper was, at one time, Dick Whitman. And I know that a lot of people feel that this is the show finally kicking in with something resembling a "storyline." But I, well, I. . .kind of don't like this aspect of the show. I don't think it's awful, and they're certainly doing a good job of making it believable and having it tie into the show's themes and such, but it just feels so prosaic, like Mad Men is down in the muck, having a game try at doing what all of these popular "serialized" shows are doing and sort of not getting the hang of it. It's like a kid who's only ever seen football on TV getting together with his pals and trying to play for real -- he sort of gets the idea, but he spends most of his time standing off to the side with a bemused smile on his face (OK, I was that kid).

I'll give Mad Men that the deployment of this device wasn't as ham-fisted as I feared it might be a couple of weeks ago when that guy approached Don on the train and ranted to him about Dick Whitman. The long-lost brother who sees his presumed-dead brother in the newspaper and comes to visit him was straight out of soap opera boilerplate (as was the rather cliche revelation that Don Draper has mother issues -- yes, we know you worked on the Sopranos, Matthew Weiner), but the whole thing worked in spite of itself, mostly because Jon Hamm is just so compelling in this role (and the young actor playing his brother was no slouch either). Somebody else suggested this first, but if they ever get away from Bryan Singer's youth-y Superman (or if they ever make a Captain America movie), they should sign Hamm up. He's got the gravitas and the old-school charm to play the role.

Every week, after Mad Men, I log on to my various haunts and see what people thought of the episode. Most of the big media critics who do a week-by-week recap of the episodes seem to enjoy the show (Sepinwall, Johnston and Poniewozik all enjoy the show to varying degrees), and the TWOP boards are filled with love for the program. But at other corners of the Web (most notably over at New Critics), the show is admired but from a respectful distance. It's as if people are afraid to touch it, so otherworldly does it seem. The most frequent complaints leveled at the show from such quarters say that it dabbles in cliche (well, yes -- but I would argue the show reinvigorates those cliches, which we'll get to), has very little plot momentum and has little to no "likability" (I use the term as a summarization of a prevailing attitude that there seems to be no joy to the characters or the storylines).

But those latter two things are some of the things I LIKE about the show. Indeed, they're almost the WHOLE reason I like the show. The plot doesn't move like a rocket, and everything (even the outright cliches about the era, largely taken from Cheever and Updike and the like) is played completely straight, without the sort of ironic affectation that we take for granted in a story of this sort. We're meant to scoff at the self-involved, swaggering white males of the 50s and early 60s. We're supposed to sneer at the people living in the suburbs in their little boxes of homogeny. Somewhere along the line, in the midst of all of this Desperate Housewifery, we've forgotten the people who populate these stories are just that. We're always stuck with the shrill caricatures of American Beauty (though I liked Kevin Spacey in that -- go figure) or the easy laughs of Weeds (though I like Mary-Louise Parker in that -- a lot). That's not to say that any of the above are awful or anything; it's just to say that Mad Men takes stories that could be stultifyingly dull and remakes them in its own image. It is telling old stories in an old way, and that's invaluable.

Earlier in the week, I managed to kill a comments thread at another blog where someone was complaining about a critic who didn't like enough of the new cable series (prompted by said critics pan of the mostly uninvolving Californication). The prevailing sentiment in a lot of TV writing seems to be that something was "good for TV." It's an attitude that stretches back to the birth of the medium, a medium that has always been seen as inferior to nearly every other one (ranking somewhere above video games and comic books, I wager, in the popular consensus). The problem is that we're living in an age where we see just what people who have the full capabilities of the medium's unique qualities in mind can do -- witness The Sopranos or The Wire or Friday Night Lights or even Lost when it's not too busy chasing itself down a rabbit hole. Just saying that something is "good for TV," that it was passable entertainment, is no longer good enough. I realize it's not exactly the popular thing to do, but when we're confronted with something as unique and singular and differently told as, say, The Wire or Mad Men, I think we owe it to ourselves to back up and figure out what, exactly, is going on here, not bray about how it should be more like the rest of TV (can you imagine how awful this show would be if it sped up the plotlines and turned itself into just another suburban soap?). Yes, Mad Men has its minor problems, but it's also an intimately told tale of the end of an era, full of the kinds of portents and hidden tensions that could provide enough subtextual gas to run a dozen other lesser shows.

(Lengthy aside about John from Cincinnati follows: I'm still decidedly mixed on the quality of the show, but recent interviews with Milch in Variety have me believing people will be hailing it as a classic 50 years from now. It feels like one of those genre-busting things that no one really gets in its time but seems to warm to after a few decades get into the rear-view mirror. We certainly shouldn't fault Milch for completely abandoning conventional storytelling logic for an examination of the very tenets of that logic and the language that builds it up. It's just a question of how much of it you "got," and the show was probably the sort of thing that one couldn't "get" without pondering it for a good long while. And we haven't had that good long while yet.)

OK. Yes. Back to Mad Men.

I'm really taken with the way this series portrays women. Granted, none of them are exactly in a position of power, and they all have to kowtow to men to get what they want, but I'm impressed with how Mad Men portrays many women at different PLACES in their lives. Betty and Joan are probably the most stereotypical (the bored housewife and the vampy secretary), but Midge, Peggy and Rachel aren't exactly the types you'd see in a story like this every time. They feel like people on the edge of something new, like those who might break through in a few years.

I'm sure some aren't liking the way that Pete was made into a jerk again (willing to whore out his wife like that), but I found it all of a piece with his character. He's beginning to get desperate, and it's a nice touch that he's not very talented (or, indeed, that most of the characters aren't very talented). He's feeling more and more trapped, and that's why he's willing to do such ridiculous things and take a chance on his young, fragile marriage.

But it was all about Draper and his long-lost brother (and good work on the fake-out, Mad Men! glad it wasn't a gun). That final clinch between the two men, Don's eyes lost in the past, trying to avoid coming to terms with everything he had done and given up, spoke volumes. Mad Men may not seem like it on the surface, but it's a show broiling with passion.


"You've taken the Costner thing a little too far": Rescue Me

No doubt this season has been MONSTROUSLY erratic, but yesterday's ep "Animal" was a standout, in my opinion. Some seriously strange stuff, but also some absolutely terrific scenes and all-around nice work by all the firemen.

I'll admit it certainly started oddly. That would be Gina Gershon, who had a wordless cameo last week depositing a card into Tommy's pocket, having rapid and bizarre 'sex' with Tommy before retreating to a leopardskin beanbag and shrieking "DON'T TOUCH ME!". The significance of this scene mostly eluded me, except for adding to the disproportionally long list of female deviants Tommy's encountered over the years, and I guess just adding to Tommy's general frustration. Interestingly Tommy's actually been relatively level-headed this year. Usually the seasons have him either recovering or building up to a breakdown, and while I'm sure crazy stuff is gonna go down before the season is out, he was almost the voice of reason in this episode.

First off there was the Gavin intervention--it was nominally for Maggie and Uncle Teddy, but it just degenerated into an airing of grievances and vices among the whole clan, including Sean Garrity (I love that he's a Gavin now), Charles Durning and that funny laywer cousin. Of course, Tommy and priest cousin, the two officially sober Gavins, start out as the pious lecturers but are quickly accused of hypocrisy by the rest of the clan for arguing that things can only get better. It was a great scene, and it reinforced the episode's central theme, which seemed to be: life sucks, especially if you're a Gavin, and there's no fixing it. Think about it. There's the poor no-name baby (who was alternatively called "Elvis" by Sheila and "Wyatt" by Janet this week), there's Tommy's increasingly decrepit father, Maggie seems to be entering a spiral of insanity unrivaled even by her, and Janet's reverting to her evil nomad act from season 2. Sidenote: in the big monologue I'm about to check out, Tommy praises Janet for being a great mother to his kids. Really? I mean, maybe when they were together pre-9/11, but Janet's repeated kidnapping of the kids and general neglect and depression really casts a huge shadow on what's supposed to be her big redeeming feature. Honestly, when she called Tommy from a motel room having nicked Elvis/Wyatt and Katy, I just wanted to shake her. She really sucks!

OK, let's talk about Denis' probable Emmy clip this year, shall we? After all, the season 3 episode he submitted for the Emmys this year is the one where he gives that long monologue in the bar. In this episode, Tommy gets a raving call from the increasingly despondent Mike, who has combined pills and booze to combat his loneliness & depression about his mother's death. Tommy chases Mike onto a roof, sits him down, lights up, takes a drink, and delivers a speech about...well, just about how messed up death is. It's actually hard to get across how Leary got this speech so right, but he really does seize your attention with stuff like this, doesn't he? Delivered in one long take, and low-key throughout, but I'd like to find a watcher who wasn't dazed by that. Sorta bundled up Tommy's major traumas: survivor's guilt over 9/11 and the loss of his son, but didn't lay it on thick like the aforementioned bar monologue last season or the "gosh, ain't we just ridiculous" marriage therapy scene earlier this season. Sure sold me on the episode, and it's stuff like that that makes me forget the more ridiculous portions of this show. Course, the speech ends with Tommy throwing himself off the roof, but they weren't dumb enough to make it a cliffhanger--Tommy had just hopped onto the fire escape below, which immediately destabilizes, throwing Tommy into mortal danger. As much of a compromise as the Rescue Me boys can rustle up, I guess. They'll never quite let the ridiculousness go.

Other stuff:

-The firehouse stuff was great. The fire scene was short but powerful, and no indie rock! Larenz Tate and Jerry Adler are really growing into their roles, and I would like to see them on board for the long haul. Franco and Lou finally discovering that the rumors were true about what the Chief was packing was hilariously done.
-Maybe Susan Sarandon isn't gone for good! Anyway, thank God Franco's boring fiancee is history. Maybe the reason most of the women on this show act so nuts is because they just can't write more realistic female characters?
-Anyone else notice the Samantha Bee cameo as Tommy's real estate agent? She was in the background the whole time, but I'd recognize that voice anywhere. Leary & Jon Stewart are pretty good buddies, I hear.
-Totally minor final point, but Tommy's pratfalls amongst the beanbag furniture at Gina Gershon's place were extremely amusing. Who knew Leary was a funny physical actor?


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

"The truth is out there! Resistance is futile!": Kyle XY

Despite the writers' best efforts, most episodes of Kyle XY that focus on the show's ever-expanding mythology usually fall flat. Monday's episode "House of Cards" was a welcome departure from that trend, as Kyle, Declan and Tom Foss's mission to break into Madacorp made for one of the most entertaining episodes of the season so far.

The episode opens with Kyle examining the mysterious box he retrieved from Adam Baylin's safe at the Zzyzx compound ruins in the previous episode. Looking at the lock, he realizes he will need Baylin's ring to open it. Too bad he pawned the ring in order to get into Amanda's pants. Props to eagle-eyed commenter (and all-around swell gal) Nea, who noticed the similarities between the lock on Baylin's box and Kyle's missing ring last week. When Kyle tells Foss he pawned the ring, Foss has a bit of a hissy fit and tells him the ring means "more than he knows." Later in the episode, evil Brian Taylor calls it a "Latnock ring," which I'm thinking is some sort of evil secret society and the true big bad controlling Madacorp. Interesting. When Stephen brings his boss Evil Madacorp Dude
(who finally gets a name -- Julian Ballantine) home for dinner Kyle sees him with the ring and alarm bells go off in his head. I honestly didn't realize Foss and Kyle didn't know Madacorp controlled the Zzyzx project.

Once Kyle realizes they need to get the ring in order to open the box, he brings Declan to Foss and they formulate a plan to break into Madacorp and steal it while Ballantine is busy with Stephen testing some weird new MRI-type machine or computer or body scanner or something. I don't know. It's science-y. First, though, Foss and Declan have a little pissing contest over who is Kyle's one true love. Now, now, boys. Jealousy is not becoming.

Back at the Trager house, Emily Hollander is setting up clues to make it look like she and Stephen had an affair while they were out of town on business together last weekend. Stephen doesn't help his case any by not even telling his family that Emily was on the trip with him, and on that plot point I call bullshit. It's completely out of character and serves only to set up the storyline. Nicole is a bit concerned, but Lori really gets bent out of shape when she overhears Emily saying she lost her contacts right before the hotel conveniently calls to let Stephen know he left a pair of contacts in his hotel room. Lori looks devastated.

In Jessi's latest therapy session she tells Nicole about the strange memories/dreams she's been having of escaping fires and murdering redneck hunters. In a nice bit of continuity, Nicole suggests she draw her memories to help her sort through them just as she did with Kyle when she first started treating him. When Nicole sees Jessi's identical drawing style a huge light bulb goes off in her head. It's about time someone noticed the similarities between the two. Jessi makes some interesting discoveries of her own when she goes home and finds evidence of Emily's daughter Paige in Emily's room and decides to go pay Paige a visit at school. Emily is sufficiently creeped out, but I can't really feel sorry for her because she really brought this on herself by taking such a strange job in the first place.

Finally it's time for the best part of the episode - the raid on Madacorp. The plan is basically this: Kyle will get Stephen to get him clearance to enter by lying and telling him he left something in Stephen's office and Declan will create a disturbance to allow Kyle to breach the security system while the guards are distracted and allow Foss, pretending to be a guard, to retrieve the ring with Kyle's electronic assistance via the security system. It's a fun little plan full of twists and turns, and the editing and pacing are perfect. The best part is Declan's distraction, which is basically to act batshit crazy, spray painting "MADACORP IS PEOPLE" (heh) on the front of the building and talking in sci-fi gibberish. Also of note is that while in the Madacorp security system Kyle finds evidence of his code name "781227" and also of a "781228." Dun dun DUN.

Of course, things don't go as planned and everything falls apart when Lori shows up at Madacorp to give her father a piece of her mind about his supposed cheating ways. As the boys are trying to escape in full-on abort mode, Declan's trick ankle gives out and Foss must create a diversion by beating up some security guards. When they see Ballantine racing down the hall to capture them, Declan rigs the elevator using an old MacGyver trick and Kyle manages to grab the ring right off Ballantine's hand as he reaches in the elevator to try to stop them from escaping. This is patently ridiculous, but totally fun so I can't even bring myself to care about the implausibility. Once he's home, Kyle uses the ring to open Baylin's box and finds a picture of a young Adam Baylin with a woman who looks exactly like Jessi. Finally, everyone is starting to realize Jessi isn't who she seems!

Now, the sad part. I've been saving this story for last because it is just killing me. When Josh tries to reach out to Andy and talk to her about her cancer, she tells him she is going in for more tests to see if the cancer has returned and rebuffs any effort he makes to comfort her. Confused, Josh talks to Nicole about what is going on and in the process Jean-Luc Bilodeau breaks my heart. He's never had the chance to really show any range before, but he knocks this scene right out of the park. Nicole gives him the very good advice to just be there for her, and Andy will come to him when she needs his help. Later, Josh does just this when Andy tells him her cancer has returned and he sweetly finds a way to be there for her without making her feel like a freak. They are so cute, you guys. If Andy dies, I am going to cry right into my bag of Sour Patch Kids.

Next week: Kyle and Jessi compare belly buttons, or lack thereof. Amanda disapproves.

Random thoughts:
- Sour Patch Kid sightings: 0


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Big Love Tuesdays: Season Two, Episode 22, "The Happiest Girl"

At the end of "The Happiest Girl," the tenth episode of Big Love’s second season, Rhonda Volmer (Daveigh Chase) sings the titular song, leading into a montage that is slightly too obvious; throughout the hour, every woman on the show has had her happiness undermined except for the ever-oblivious Rhonda. But Chase's sad performance and the song's untapped irony manages to put the sequence over, completing an episode that is a welcome return to form. The most famous version of "The Happiest Girl" (performed by Donna Fargo) takes on a sheen of irony to modern audiences simply because it is so earnest and unironic: she’s in love with her husband and no one’s going to take that from her, dammit. In this day and age, that sort of thing automatically seems suspicious, and Big Love mines these moments of suggestion as persistently as it can without overplaying them. It makes sense that Rhonda would want to sing this song on local TV (and that the show's hyper-focused producer would use her to get at bigger targets -- namely, Amanda Seyfried’s Sarah). It also makes sense that Rhonda's rather uncharismatic manner would come off as flat and mournful. It's nice to see a musical montage done well in a medium that so often does them poorly.

But this one also works as an expression of one of the show’s central themes. Big Love is obsessed (sometimes too obsessed) with the notion that our public faces conflict with the faces we wear in in private. Even some of the non-polygamist characters are forced to live in secret, whether by choice or as a defense mechanism (for instance, Rhonda forcing Tina Majorino's Heather into a tight spot by threatening to expose Heather's love for Sarah).
There's more here.


"When did you become Burt Reynolds?": My Boys

How much of ourselves do we really reveal to our friends? Last night's fine episode of My Boys explores this phenomenon with a lot of humor and a little bit of grace, with some shame thrown in as a fun bonus.

The episode starts out with a bit of subterfuge from Kenny, who apparently has a new girlfriend he's never introduced to the gang and so therefore they think she doesn't actually exist. Kenny tries to convince them she does by taking them to a Brazilian steakhouse (a.k.a. Churrascaria) she introduced him to on the ritzy side of town. Let me just say: yum. No matter what they say to the contrary during this episode, women can definitely appreciate delicious grilled meat served table side until you can't stuff any more flesh into your craw. (That came out a little more graphic than I originally intended, but I stand behind the sentiment. Meat = awesome.)

Unfortunately for the gang, it seems the "meat baby" in Mike's stomach turns him into somewhat of a savage and the boys, sans P.J. and Stephanie, look for a bar in the area to calm down his inner meat-beast. On their way they run into Bobby, and despite his repeated protests they end up at Bobby's apartment for the first time. When they walk in it becomes immediately apparent that Bobby has been keeping a big secret: he's loaded. It turns out his family comes from money
and owns the apartment building Bobby lives in. ("Isn't there a Newman wing at the hospital?" and "I went to college on a Newman grant...thanks." were my favorite references to his family's wealth and stature in the community.) He didn't want to tell them about the money because it has affected his friendships in the past, as the apartment is the only perk he takes from the family's money now. The gang is sufficiently impressed by the apartment and gives Bobby the ribbing you would expect when you find out your friend's family runs in the same circles as presidents and dignitaries.

In polar opposite secret news, Stephanie admits to being $22,000 in debt when her car is towed after dinner at the Churrascaria. P.J. enlists Andy's help to curb her spending, which leads to some funny Gaffigan shenanigans as he convinces Stephanie she must cut up her credit cards and move out of her fancy apartment and into something more affordable. Despite some initial wavering, Stephanie submits to the changes in stride, although P.J. convinces Andy they shouldn't give up their trip to Italy just yet. They keep mentioning this trip to Italy, which will supposedly include two mystery guys as their travel companions, so I'm thinking this is going to be an important plot point for the season finale. Will Brendan end up being P.J.'s mystery Italy man?

In the end, even after all secrets are revealed the gang still manages to escape with their friendships intact. At their request, Bobby tells them one cool "rich guy" story involving his 16th birthday, making out with Chelsea Clinton (is that really such a score?) and a Porsche. He plays it off like he made it up, but the little wink he gives to Kenny makes me think it might just be true. Either that, or the wink shared with Kenny meant he knew Kenny was making up his girlfriend and would keep his secret. I couldn't quite figure it out. What do you guys think?

Next week: Jeremy Sisto! I like him. He's tall and slightly disturbing, like he might either kiss you or kill you at any moment. Or maybe both.


Monday, August 13, 2007

"Is he still bitching about being bitchslapped by a bitch?": Entourage x 2

Hi. Yeah. I...don't know what to say about this show anymore. I'm someone who always tries to look on the bright side of quality slumps a show I like is enduring, but I've just had enough. I didn't review last week's ep, which was about Gary Busey throwing paint on Drama, because it was STUPID. I'll give you a little mini-review now: bringing back Busey, who's sorta acceptable as a ironic pop culture punchline ONE time (he previously appeared way back in either the first or second season, doing the exact same schtick) reeked so heavily of the laziness that imbues the show these days, I just could not summon up the energy to type my hatred for it. Ugh. Also: Scrubs did the Gary Busey joke so, so much better!

The B-plot in "Gary's Desk" involved what increasingly feels like the "let's insulate Jeremy Piven so he can win many more Emmys!" show. The same thing reared its head in yesterday's ep, "The Young and the Stoned". Last week, Ari tried to deal with warring twins in his agency on the day of big client Mary J. Blige's arrival. This week, Ari tried to stop his wife from macking on a Latino beefcake in a guest appearance on The Young and the Restless. Now, Piven as Ari is always gonna be somewhat funny, no matter how damningly bad the material, but the crap they've given him this year has been so eye-rollingly lame, it really feels like the show has lost its MVP. Throwing him into the mix with the boys would improve both their material and Ari's, and it's sad every week in which they don't interact.

Now, Mary J. Blige's appearance last week, and Anna Faris' this week, is my next criticism with a problem I feel is mounting on this show. The celeb cameos in Entourage have always been kinda self-serving, but now it feels like there's not even a joke to be in on anymore. I don't explicitly have a problem with Blige or Faris, but the "oh hey look, it's X!" way they're introduced just emphasizes the lameness of it all. I like things like Scarlett Johansson's genuinely "ooh wow!" appearance in season 1, or Mandy Moore actually getting to play herself as a character, or one-off scene-chewers like James Woods, but Anna Faris? Really? The girl from Scary Movie and a few episodes of Friends? They couldn't rustle up someone who like, has a personality for E to bump off of? Watching E and Faris together was literally like, a black hole of blandness. Hopefully we don't have to snore through anymore of it. In the case of Blige, the "wow isn't this special guest star such an INCREDIBLE SUPERSTAR?" over-adulation act should be explicitly avoided by a show like Entourage. This is supposed to be a snipey insider comedy about Hollywood, not a chance for entertainers to get a little publicity.

I'm not even gonna write about what actually went down in "The Young and the Stoned"--basically, Turtle got some weed and some hot girls, and after some harmless hi-jinks with the cops, everyone except for E got high and had sex. Woo. Never seen that before. There's three eps left this season, which hopefully means there will be SOME plot movement to keep things maybe a little interesting, but I have a sinking feeling that's way too optimistic.


Sunday, August 12, 2007

"We are all frail vessels.": John from Cincinnati

Frustrating, enervating and enthralling, John from Cincinnati might be the most awesome show that I couldn't ever determine the quality of. It was the sort of thing I loved watching over and over and over, but I could never quite decide if I was enjoying myself or just enjoying the brief moments of brilliance scattered throughout every episode. The series contained bits that were just masterful, better than anything else I saw on TV this year or any year. But the show also seemed content to just circle around those bits, seemingly certain of its genius. It was content in its own stratosphere, and understanding need not apply.

But I'm not too upset about that -- certainly not as upset about some critics who ditched the show after the first handful of episodes. I loved the cast, especially, and the dialogue was always pleasingly elliptical and rock solid. I didn't really need answers (and sort of resented when the show tried to pile on a bunch of cryptic ones toward the end of the last episode), but if I was going to get them, I wanted to go all out, not just keep burying the lede. I understand anyone who abandoned the show because it didn't seem to have a coherent plot or theme or anything (really, I do), but I also eventually realized that the show was worth watching without a plot.

So what happened in the finale? Was all revealed? I don't quite think so. Shaun came back from Cincinnati (heavily implied to be Heaven) with John, and the opening montage that brought them back, surfing on the clouds, then on the waves, was masterfully shot and edited (set to the strains of Dylan). It was up there with the best stuff the show has ever done. If the rest of the episode was downhill from there, there was really no way it couldn't be downhill.

But I liked a lot of the other scenes, especially where Linc and John discussed John's true nature (and Linc was finally able to pry some answers from the guy, though not so concrete as to satisfy the show's harshest critics) and the scene where everyone went to the car dealership and met a man who may or may not have been John's father. As an added bonus, even more Deadwood alums turned up in various roles, and you got the sense that the show would have just become Deadwood completely in season two.

I think what frustrated so many about the show was that they were used to the typical way to tell a genre-ish story like this. Sure, you have to wait for answers, but when they come, they're concrete and point to bigger questions. John from Cincinnati just didn't care about its mystical overplot, I half suspect. Instead, it was more interested in the tale of how the Yosts, fractured and falling apart, became a family again, and how the town of Imperial Beach became the sort of place where you'd buy a second coming of the Sermon on the Mount.

I don't know if I'll buy JFC on DVD when it comes out (we've been trying to cut back), but there's stuff here that will hang with me for as long as I'm thinking and writing about television. There's other stuff I forgot as soon as it aired, but that's the nature of a beast like this. All you can see are the fins, and you can't quite figure out if you're reeling in a sturgeon or the Loch Ness Monster herself.