Saturday, September 15, 2007

Nashville: We're Real People, Y'all!

(Welcome Andy Scott, better known for his work at Everything Oscar, to the team. Sadly, I assigned him to Nashville without seeing a screener. I have a feeling this will be the only time he writes this up, so enjoy it! -- ed.)

"Nashville: A town where stars are made, and hearts are broken."

So says the narrator of the new Fox "reality" series Nashville, a dull and obvious attempt to capitalize on the pop culture success of other reality shows like Laguna Beach and The Hills.

Of course, "Nashville" immediately goes out of its way to set itself apart from the MTV format. The narrator, for example, comes complete with southern twang, and the cast members are often shown singing songs with lyrics like "It ought to be illegal, baby, to look that good."

But sooner or later, "Nashville" inevitably reverts back to topics that so often plague today's reality shows. Sure, these characters shoot guns and play guitars, but at the end of the day all that matters in Nashville is who looks hot and who's dating whom.

Take the poolside scene, for example. At the beginning, we see characters Sarah, Lindsey and Rachel talking about how badly they want to break into the country music business. But once the cell phone goes off (it's a boy!) the conversation immediately switches to the opposite sex. Suddenly, Sarah Lindsay and Rachel become Lauren, Lo and Audrina, as though they were doing some bizarre homage to The Hills.

Which is sad, really, because Nashville itself is an interesting city. It's famous for things that go well beyond its music. Unfortunately, "Nashville" the series cares little about that, and the stuff it does care about is already overplayed. In the end, "Nashville" is a been there, done that snooze fest, and if you see it, you're better off doing what I do whenever I hear a country song on the radio: change the damn channel.


Friday, September 14, 2007

“I’m not in Hull. Stop saying Hull!” – Doctor Who

Although Doctor Who is often mentioned by many British writers as a show which terrified them at a young age, for teenage viewers like me Who has never been especially scary. That is until ‘Blink’, last night’s episode which featured the series’ first genuinely terrifying villain, the Weeping Angels. The Angels are a brilliantly simple concept: monsters which turn to stone when you look at them, but attack as soon as you turn your head or blink. Writer Steven Moffat’s monsters often seem like afterthoughts, and yet are consistently the most memorable baddies of their respective seasons. The Weeping Angels continue this tradition, and ‘Blink’ continues Moffat’s run of fantastic offerings to every season of Who.

‘Blink’ is unique for being the ‘Doctor-lite’ instalment of the season. Starting with last season’s ‘Love & Monsters’, one episode per season features only limited appearances by the Doctor and his companion because the actors are busy shooting another episode (in this case, ‘The Family of Blood’.) The episode instead centres around an entirely new character who has crossed paths with the Doctor. ‘Blink’ follows Sally Sparrow, whose curiosity and vivacious nature leads her to an old house inhabited by the Weeping Angels. After a message left there by the Doctor saves her life, he enlists Sally’s help in helping him stop the Angels and retrieve the TARDIS, which they have stolen. Meanwhile anyone who comes near Sally is sent back in time by the Angels, and have to play their part in helping her to survive and complete her task.

Where ‘Love & Monsters’ took a more cynical approach to this concept (that episode’s protagonist, Elton Pope, had his life ruined because the Doctor twice showed up too late to save his loved ones), ‘Blink’ is more upbeat in its approach. Sally’s acquaintances, despite having been forced to live out their lives in the wrong time period, seem remarkably content about their fates. Her friend Kathy Nightingale, who gets ‘zapped’ to 1920s Hull, leaves a letter for Sally in which she says she has had a full and happy life. Later a flirtatious cop, Billy Shipton, gets Sally’s number and then gets zapped. Then, in the episode's most beautiful and poignant scene, he meets her minutes later as an old man. While more melancholy about his fate, Billy has accepted his role in Sally’s journey and says that knowing they would meet again “kept me going”.

‘Blink’ is first and foremost about looking at a typical Doctor Who adventure from the other side. As was shown with Joan in last week’s episode, guest stars on Who will so often come and go with the writers leaving much of their story to the audience’s imagination. ‘Blink’, on the other hand, leaves much of the Doctor and Martha’s adventure to the imagination, and instead places the focus squarely on the humans who got caught up in his troubles. Some of it you won’t want to think about too much; Billy, for instance, has essentially lived out his whole life waiting for one moment at its end. Unlike ‘The Family of Blood’, however, in this case the end definitely justifies the means. We come to realise that the Weeping Angels pose too great a threat for the Doctor to worry about Kathy and Billy. Not that that stops us from worrying about them.

The script is beautifully structured and immensely satisfying. Moffat is a writer I could rave about for paragraphs on end, but all I’ll say is that ‘Blink’ proves his immense talent for taking seemingly ludicrous situations and making them so, so undeniably human. The episode is also beautifully directed by Who first-timer Hettie MacDonald, who makes every scene lush and vibrant. She actually manages to establish a unique tone, like nothing we’ve seen before on Who (nor may ever see again). As Sally, Carey Mulligan carries the proceedings superbly with her likeable and grounded performance. She is helped along well by the entire supporting cast – I’d particularly like to mention Louis Mahoney, who is so sweet as older Billy that he almost broke my heart.

Like all of Moffat’s scripts on Who, ‘Blink’ has a lot of subtext worth considering. But more importantly, it’s also a lot of fun. The ever-mounting mystery and terrifying villains are wonderfully realised, as is the charming dialogue. And I haven't even mentioned the Doctor and Martha’s two brief but very memorable appearances! Moffat gives the Doctor some truly hilarious lines to bit into, while also allowing himself a bit of self-referential mocking in the final scene (“Things. Well, four things. Well, four things…and a lizard”). ‘Blink’ truly has it all, and for that reason I believe it is destined to become a true classic in sci-fi television history.


Top Ten Reasons Why I Like Kanye West’s "Graduation" in Spite of Itself:

(Tom Breihan is way cooler than me. Seriously.)

10. Kanye is inching dangerously close to becoming an absolute parody of himself. The pop culture movie references, the forced cleverness in his lyrics. For the most part it WORKS, but it is kind of becoming old hat. The fact that he refuse to realize this makes it all massively entertaining on an unexpected level.

09. The lack of skits that everyone seems to be so happy about is cool and all, but their absence here reeks of pandering. To clarify: the album works very well without them. You don’t miss them or anything, but they are conspicuous by their absence and it oddly becomes distracting. Kind of ironic, I guess.

08. Even though he still can’t seem to reconcile his faux lyrical complexity with the grandness and meticulous nature of the production, it’s still an interesting dance to watch. Graduation probably contains some of Kanye’s weakest flows but strongest moments of pure, organic musical greatness.

07. After listening to the album several times over, I am thoroughly convinced that Kanye does, in fact, love and worship Jay-Z. I should have known this before—I mean, everyone else did—but I never fully bought it before he laid down those verses on “Big Brother.” He lays it on a little thick, sure, but subtlety has never been West’s strong point.

06. West kind of scales himself back in a lot of ways on Graduation but is able to keep a lot of his arrogance in tact. It works in spots and it doesn’t work in other spots. I mean, in the end, all the bitching we do about his ego—it is a big part of what makes him so compelling, or, dare I say, charming. So, while I don’t love all the results when he switches things up like he does on Graduation, I enjoy seeing his conceit shine through even when he is attempting to hide it.

05. This has to be one of the worst album covers in recent memory. No, REALLY. I’m not one to hate, and I generally don’t care about this kind of stuff. However, a cover like this speaks such volumes as to how over the top this guy goes that it actually works as a brilliant metaphor for his whole career. As ugly and ill-conceived as it is…this is fucking perfect. Though, really...was this all THAT bad?...Well they both are kinda shitty, aren't they?

04. Why is Wayne’s verse on “Barry Bonds” so weak? I mean, did West bring him in to make himself look better? How does THAT work? Wayne is one of the most exhilarating rappers around right now and KANYE WEST outshines him easily. Did Wayne take a dive? Is this all some sort of twisted comment on steroids? What the hell am I talking about?

03. The growth that West exhibited on Late Registration, while a tad overstated, seemed really natural. His work on Graduation, while presented as growth, seems a lot like him holding back more than anything else. However, I like the control he displays here, because it does show significant growth as an artist…as pretentious as that sounds.

02. T-Pain sucks. Really he does. The thing is…Kanye uses him in just the right way on “Good Life,” and it makes for a good track. That alone is one of the most impressive things that anyone can do!

01. Essentially, Graduation is an above par album with occasionally run of the mill material. A very odd juxtaposition (if you will), but it keeps things damn interesting. Graduation is a difficult album to embrace, but I think I am falling in love with it nonetheless.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

"I really want to get a picture of her crying one day.": Mad Men

Mad Men turned its focus back to Betty Draper for the first time since its second episode and also unleashed what was probably the funniest episode of its entire run. Some of the symbolism was a little heavyhanded (this IS Mad Men, after all), but it was, overall, an enjoyable look at the politics of the Draper marriage and gender roles at Sterling-Cooper. And the final scene worked on a variety of levels, not the least of which was just simply as something to laugh at.

Betty was the focus of the show's A story (such as there was one). After meeting up with a guy from one of the biggest ad houses (who also had designs on stealing her husband away from Sterling-Cooper), Betty was surprised to find herself interested in returning to the world of modeling, something she had insisted she hated to Don in the past and something she had seemingly left behind forever when she became Mrs. Draper. Tantalized by the idea, she started slipping into her old skin, trying on dresses made for her by a famous Italian designer (for a while, I thought they were aiming at making us think of Versace, but he would have been too young).

To a real degree, Betty's identity as a housewife seems like a mask that she puts on, a kind of smile she affects, just another modeling job. So it was interesting to learn that she hated modeling at one time. And a session with her psychiatrist revealed even more, tying in her issues with modeling and being pretty to a mother who saw her only as someone who could become beautiful and land a husband (her mother also hated Betty's career as a model). Betty's repressing a lot of anger at her mother, the psychiatrist sort of suggests, and this sets Betty (who has frequently spoken of her mother in glowing terms) off. Betty's a bundle of contradictions that seems likely to snap at any moment, but as long as she keeps her ability to shift between the different smiles she wears, she can't be capsized.

So Betty returns to the world of modeling, sitting in for a Coke campaign as the fresh, glowing mother at the center of the ad. January Jones' modeling experience comes in handy here, as Betty seems a natural. Sitting in that photo session, readying to be a fake wife and mother, Betty seems somehow more alive than she ever has as a real wife or mother. And when she makes insistences that she be allowed to return to modeling and when she doesn't take no for an answer, the Draper marriage lights up as well. Don likes strong women, we've seen, and this new, pseudo-independent Betty intrigues him.

Betty's return to work is cut short, though, when Don turns down the offer to work for the ad house and she is let go. She seems devastated at first, but she puts a big smile on her face and presents the development to Don as her idea. He suggests to her that she's a great mother, the best one there is, really, and she smiles again. The next day, when she calls up to her kids and tells them to play safely, she smiles again when they shout their affirmation. Then she takes a BB gun out in the yard and shoots at a bunch of pigeons.

Allow me to explain. The Draper kids were out with a neighbor, watching him tend to his birds (the heavyhanded symbolism in the episode mostly came here -- more caged birds). At the start of the episode, they watched him while Betty was there to watch. Later, though, they were alone with their dog, and the dog seized one of the birds in its mouth. After the neighbor told them that if he saw the dog in his yard again, he would shoot it, Don's daughter had a nightmare and confessed everything to her parents (Betty said the quote in the post title -- more evidence of a sort of deeply suppressed sadism that has popped up every so often in her character). So Betty went out at the end of the episode and shot at the pigeons. It was a great sight gag, but it also worked as Betty trying to re-establish control, both over her neighbor and over Don, who compartmentalized her yet again as a perfect little housewife, a caged bird. Her anger wasn't just at the neighbor for terrorizing her kids; it was also at her husband.

Pete and Peggy made up the other big thread of the episode. Peggy's putting on a little weight (though she doesn't seem to be pregnant -- thank God), and she's become the talk of the office for doing so (the attempts to bulk up Elisabeth Moss were valiant but didn't quite succeed). Peggy, realizing that she's valued for more than just her looks now, doesn't need to make herself an object. Whether she also connects food with sexual desire (as was suggested a couple of weeks ago by her bizarre Danish fetish) remains to be seen, but when the cracks about her weight get to be too much, Pete slugs one of his friends and it turns into a brawl (prompting one of the best jokes of the episode from Sterling to Draper). It was bizarrely honorable to see the often small and venal Pete stand up for his girlfriend in a way he wouldn't stand up for his wife. I don't think it's true love or anything, but this, coupled with Pete's strategy to choke out Kennedy in undecided states so Nixon can win the election, suggests to me that he actually has a future ahead of him, unlike most of the others at Sterling-Cooper.

Don's wooing by the other ad agency was a fairly straightforward plot (at least until he took his wife down with him when he turned down the job), but I did like the shadings it put on the relationship between him and Roger, who really, really needs Don if he's going to keep Sterling-Cooper in business.

One thing I'm unclear on: How much time was skipped in this episode? It seemed like it might have been a few months, but I couldn't pin it down.


"I have to put up with an overgrown twelve year old for another week.":Big Brother

Well, we are almost at the end of yet another season of Big Brother; and much like in each of the past five seasons, I am so disgugusted with the contestants left that I can hardly stand watching anymore. Except this time it is much, much worse. There is something about this show that guarantees that in almost all cases the best contestants go out midway through the game, occasionally a good one (Dr. Will, both times; Danielle, her first time on) do well but that is not the norm.

And this is certainly a normal season in that regard. Anyway, on to things, and there were certainly a lot of things this week. Almost twenty-five percent of Sunday's episode was spent on recapping what had already taken place on Thursday's episode. They also use some diary room sessions which are clearly past tense which irritates me a little bit; like ones from Eric for example. I don't really care about what that little dweeb has to say at this point anyway; he's gone. But a very quick recap for you: Jessica was evicted; Dick won HOH, Eric was evicted. And the unthinkable has happened; now that Jessica is gone I am rooting for Zach. Zach: the least self-aware reality tv show contestant in probably the history of television; however he is still better than the rest of the people left. After the initial recapping we are on to the HOH, a slightly slightly more complex take on the usually boring HOH question quiz. This one wasn't even performed live, so I would think they could have taken the opportunity to do something a little more interesting. But essentially, fourteen different pictures of competitions were put on the memory wall; the contestants had to memorize the details and then answer mostly numerical questions about them. Like "how many black guitars were found in the picture of the houseguests in competition X." I surely could not remember that. But the contestants actually do pretty well, with Zach and Danielle both only answering one question incorrectly leading to their tiebreaker; in which the answer was 69 and Zach answered only *one* more than Danielle, 59 to 58. Personally if I would have gotten to see this before I had to hear her whine about it on the feeds later I would have thought it was awesomely hilarious.

Before I proceed onto the nominations I wll explain something about the rules of Big Brother for those of you who don't know; I am sure you do but considering that not one of the four contestants who is actually on the show realized it there is always the chance. Nominations before the veto ceremony do not matter. HOH at the final four contestants only provides you with immunity; the real power is in the veto winner, who gets to decide who gets to vote someone out. Zach, who has had a deal of sorts with Dick and Danielle for almost the entire season now, thinks that he now holds the power and must get Dick or Danielle out. Thus he breaks their deal and nominates them both. What he doesn't realize is that all this will accomplish will be to induce Dick to rant at him for the remainder of the season. He should have waited until after the veto because the only way he could have gotten rid of them were if he or Jameka won the veto.

What I dislike even more than Zach's dumb decision was on Tuesday's shows, in the usual post-nomination anger section of the show; Dick and Danielle display the most unbelievable self-entitlement and poor sportmanship. I mean I expect this from reality stars, but if you watched it on the show and even more if you see it on the feeds it is unbelievable at times. Their favorite past time is quizzing each other on different insults about the other houseguests for hours on end (ie "Which Big Brother contestant is going to get fired after the season?" Answer: Jen, "That is correct! Ding!"). After a little bit of this Dick goes off on another purposeless rant on Zach; I am surprised that he doesn't lose his voice because he screams so much.

To my delight, after this it is time for a sequence at the Jury House! Looks like it is in Southern California somewhere, or possibly Mexico,. We see the whole Jury arrive: Dustin, Jen, Amber, Jessica, and finally Eric. However my anticipated look at the jury house is ruined when Jen and Jess each only gets one quote and Dustin talks more than everyone else combined. Shut up Dustin. The one thing that is interesting is that Dustin says that he would like to see Eric or Danielle evicted (before Jessica and Eric come in); so that means we may know where his vote lies.

Back at the house, it is time for the Power of Veto and later a live eviction! So the veto competition is essentially a match the houseguests to two questions game. There are eight questions and 6 houseguests beween each, and when you get a houseguest correctly you can use a wheel to determine one digit of the correct answer to the puzzle; how many seconds have passed by so far in the Big Brother house. I think to myself instantly: no way does Danielle not win this, and I am right! Yet again, tying Janelle for the most veto wins ever in one season. After this there are several minutes of Dick and Daniele celebrating in the most obnoxious and inappropriate manner; the odor of smugness coming out of my television sort of making me feel like vomiting. Danielle uses the veto on herself instead of her dad, giving a fake excuse about payback but I really think it is because she wants to make him vote out Jameka instead of her. In any case, he does. Jameka in this last episode handles herself with a lot of class and I like her a lot more than I used to.
If only you would have had the ability to win something in this game besides that one veto competition a long time ago, Jameka.

The first part of the three-part Head of Household competition is begun at the end of Tuesday's episode and continued to the Thursday episode. It involved standing on a little platform holding up a key above your head, while a Rabbit rotated around at the different contestants feet on a long pole; the contestants had to jump it ever time it passed by or else lose. Danielle states in a diary room that she talked to her dad about how if this competition had anything to do with freezing water she would lose, and because I am sure the producers would never use this information that she said on camera against her what must have been previously planned before she said this happens: freezing water constantly dumped on the contestants! Danielle predictability gets really cold and eventually slips and falls out of the competition. I felt really sorry for her here actually, for once, as she was visibily shaking to the point where it was sort of distubing to watch. So it was Dick versus Zach in a battle of wills; of course Dick screams and taunts him throughout the entire competition. After a while Dick is noticably weak seems like he is going to fall over out of exhaustion. However Danielle gives him words of encouragement until he eventually has to quit. The competition lasted eight hours, and the war hero music the editors give him in the sequence after he has quit sort of makes me want to gag; although I'll give him that I probably couldn't have done that competition for that long. Zach wins part one, hooray.

In the second part of the competition, Dick and Danielle compete in what is basically an athletic puzzle, they have to do a puzzle representative all of the heads of household, taking the pieces from one giant water tank and diving into another to assemble them. Dick absolutely destroys Danielle, halving her time. So it is time for the final competition. However there is another segment at the jury house with Jamea arriving. Every single houseguest is noticaebly displeased that she got kicked out, but noticably happy that Zach nominated Dick and Danielle. So the entire jury doesn't understand how the final four works either, I guess. Once again Dustin dominates all the talking. He must be one of those annoying people who interfere in and take over conversations at parties, I imagine. Onto the final competition; questions about how the jury members would finish sentences. To my great regret, Dick beats Zach by a point, and becomes the new head of household. As is his power, he gets to choose his opponent in the final two; and in what will surprise absolutely nobody he votes out Zach and gives us Big Brother viewers a Donato final two.

What is interesting about this is that since I think for the first tme since the first Big Brother season, which I didn't watch, Eric will indeed continue to be America's player and so one vote will be yours. Do you care who wins, America? Stay tuned for next week as Carrie comes back to recap the Sunday and Tuesday episodes, and potentially the wrap party! Also, next week it is time for more reality as I will be covering Survivor: China.


In my eyes: Some thoughts on 50 Cent's "Curtis"

Despite the implied promise for Curtis to be more of a personal album of sorts, 50 Cent's latest (much talked about) LP remains a viable candidate for mass pop consumption but lacks a certain life that ol' Fiddy seems to have been gradually losing hold of over the last couple of albums. That being said, it is a little surprising how well this album comes off on repeated listens.

You could say that Curtis is uneven--and it is most certainly that--but the overall mood remains remarkably constant throughout the record. Not to mention that the aforementioned aesthetic is no different than we've seen before, and no different than we would expect. 50 just seems to have ups and down in regards to his delivery and overall demeanor.

On Curtis you get "I Get Money" which is just vintage 50, at the top of his game, just spitting that ridiculous, arrogant boastfulness; you get "Ayo Technology," a great song in its own right, but so odd for his character and flow; and you get a song like "Amusement Park" which is the same horrible, unsubtle sexual innuendo track that "Candy Shop" did just as bad years ago.

So Curtis is kind of all over the place. Interestingly enough, that is a fairly big compliment in this case. The semi manic nature of the album's many moods makes it all the more attractive upon repeat listens. Because, in the end, this is a pretty solid rap album. At first, everything seems to be on something of a lower level, but that's really just hype talking. 50 has never really been that great of a rapper. He's made one great rap ALBUM, but his success has much more to do with image and perception than it does with his talents as an MC. I don't really mean that in a bad way. This game is about presentation, and he has always presented himself in just the right way so that it will compensate for some of his minor shortcomings as an actual rapper. He's a lot like Kanye in this respect. They just appeal to two different types of hip hop fans.

Sure, Curtis is not some vivid window into 50 Cent's soul, but it is also not a sign of him going downhill. If anything, the album is almost completely on par with his last outing. The problem he seems to be having is simply that people may WANT something more from him. The interesting thing about that being is that they only want more because he seemed to promise that to them.


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Final Countdown!: Top 25 Singles of '07 (So Far)


01. Pro-Nails, Kid Sister (Ft. Kanye West)
02. All My Friends, LCD Soundsystem
03. Elephant Gun, Beirut
04. Bird Flu, M.I.A.
05. Atlas, Battles
06. Umbrella, Rhianna (Ft. Jay-Z)
07. My Moon, My Man, Feist
08. The Underdog, Spoon
09. When Someone Great is Gone, LCD Soundsystem
10. D.A.N.C.E., Justice

11. Control, Kid Sister
12. Konichiwa Bitches, Robyn
13. Radio Nowhere, Bruce Springsteen
14. LoveStoned / I Think She Knows, Justin Timberlake
15. Jimmy, M.I.A.
16. 23, Blonde Redhead
17. Give It to Me, Timbaland (ft. Nelly Furtado & Justin Timberlake)
18. Don't Tell Me To Do the Math, Los Campesinos!
19. Boyz, M.I.A.
20. Can't Tell Me Nothing, Kanye West

21. The Plot, White Rabbits
22. Summer Love, Justin Timberlake
23. Ayo Technology, 50 Cent
24. Breaker, Low
25. Stronger, Kanye West


Physics for Poets: The Twilight Sad "Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters"

I find it so rewarding when an album can completely catch me by surprise these days. To be perfectly honest, I feel odd listening to such sad bastard music without feeling like such a sad bastard myself. Maybe it's because the goal of a band like The Twilight Sad isn't so much to bring you down, but perhaps simply to examine the fall.

Front man James Graham writes sad, sorrowful tales of adolescence. Throughout The Twilight Sad's debut album Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters there is bitterness and pain and loss. However, within in these prose there is also a clarity of spirit and heart that cannot be ignored. This elevates The Twilight Sad's work to a surprising level of maturity and acceptance that is immediately recognizable and massively rewarding.

Thematically, musically, lyrically...there's really nothing new here. The album's sweeping sound and grand wall of white noise wears its shoegaze tendencies on its sleeve. Graham, while tender and eloquent, has a limited range that becomes evident fairly early on in the LP. The songs unfold in simple and delicate fashion with little mystery and mostly expected catharsis. The unique thing about The Twilight Sad is the way they elevate these familiar elements and give to them a more accomplished sense of resonance than one would ever expect. They accomplish this with stark sincerity and an almost naive optimism that unexpectedly shines from underneath the stormy surface of the album.

Graham's ridiculously thick Scottish accent is just a wee bit jarring at first, but becomes refreshing after a while. The fact that so many bands no longer feel the need to hide their accents anymore is actually encouraging. So, as Graham lays down these crisp vocals with not a hint of pretension, not a hint of posturing, not a hint of deception, you can hear him all the more clear when he takes you into this deliberately painful world filled with past lives and stinging regret.

If nothing else, Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters is a minor masterpiece in terms of atmosphere as well as control. So many times it seems the album will simply start spinning its wheels and drone on musically and lyrically, losing its purpose and formation. Instead, slow hands guide the work in just the right direction, evoking just enough empathy to make it vital; enough sympathy to make it real; enough life to make it hurt.

*You can hear cuts from the album here.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

"K…either he won the lottery or he’s going to tell us that the McRib just came back.": My Boys


I’d love wax eloquently about my disapproval of that horrible cliffhanger, but BOO is all I can seem to come up with right now. As the final minutes approached and it became clear they weren’t going to reveal who P.J. invited on her trip to Italy, my anger grew more intense by the second.

Cliffhangers can be a wonderful thing. When done well, they feel earned and keep the audience talking about and excited for the reveal in the upcoming season. This doesn’t mean they aren’t still frustrating, but a well-executed cliffhanger is a wonder to behold. (A few of my favorite recent cliffhangers: Felicity season one, when you don’t know whether the cab brings her to Ben or Noel; Veronica Mars season one, when you don’t know who is at Veronica’s door; and The Office season two, when you don’t know what happens after Jim and Pam’s kiss.) On the flip side, a poorly executed cliffhanger just makes the audience angry and disillusioned, which is exactly how I feel right now.

Let’s back up and see how it all went down. Both episodes dealt with P.J. and Stephanie’s upcoming trip to Italy and P.J.’s search for a date to bring along. She starts dating botanist Evan from the barbecue, but things quickly go wrong when she invites him to poker night and the guys all actively ignore him and make him feel unwelcome by repeatedly forgetting his name and excluding him from the conversation. It doesn’t seem like they do it on purpose, but good goddamn is it rude. He leaves the party early and later tells P.J. he is swamped at work and can’t make another date at this time. She is rightly concerned he isn’t into her, but three days before she is scheduled to leave for Italy he shows up at Crowley’s and tells her he was out of town on business and wants to get together with her. She tells him about her trip and, having decided she will take the Italy adventure alone, promises to call him when she returns.

The next day at a Cubs press conference she runs into the cute Cubs pitcher Matt, who just learned he is being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers have a really cute retro logo. And that’s all I know about the Brewers. Matt claims that this clears up their ethical issue (which seems wrong to me because don’t the Cubs play the Brewers?) and they can start dating. He’s really cute about it, and when P.J. tells him about her trip to Italy he tries to invite himself along. She also tells him she’ll call him when she returns.

To complicate matters even more, on her way back from the press conference P.J. runs into Thorn (a.k.a. Straight Man Sisto) on the street. Ooo…Thorn shaved his ugly beard. Pick Thorn, P.J.! Despite his assy name! He tells her he broke off his engagement and acts delighted to see her. He also manages to invite himself along to Italy, and somehow P.J. refuses despite his sexy, sexy voice and cute, stubbly face. Ahem. Sorry, I got distracted there. Perhaps she refuses because he was in Chicago and didn’t bother to call her, and that’s kind of a dick move? Perhaps.

The boys also throw their hat in the ring to be P.J.'s date, with Mike saying he'd be a wonderful valet and Bobby claiming his language skills will come in handy. This leads to a hilarious dream sequence when she imagines herself sleeping in the same bed with a shirtless Mike and a Sopranos-coiffed Kenny. I love the continued canonization of Kenny's Sopranos impersonation.

In the end, P.J. shows up on the plane
last minute and woefully declares to Stephanie and Lance that she actually decided to put her heart on the line and invite someone along and he didn’t show up. At that very moment, a flight attendant comes and informs P.J. her travel companion has arrived and has upgraded her seat to first class. And then…nothing. BOOOOO!

The reason this cliffhanger doesn’t work for me is I am not invested in any of P.J.’s potential relationships. I think the show wants us to be rooting for Brendan, but they so thoroughly dropped that storyline at the beginning of the season I can’t muster any sort of excitement for a potential pairing. Also, it’s hard to get excited about a big cliffhanger when the show itself so easily swept the last cliffhanger under the rug when it spent the season premiere tap dancing around P.J. and Brendan’s big kiss.

I’ll be back next season because everything other than the romantic storylines on this show is still very good, but I honestly believe the cliffhanger was very ill-advised. It’s too bad it happened, because otherwise these were two solid episodes loaded with hilarious moments (the Ferris Bueller's Day Off homage, Andy’s “Metaphor” boat, “Capitano di Cruncho,” and making fun of Michigan, to name a few standout moments) but ultimately was not successful at all.


Monday, September 10, 2007

"That's not the issue. That's never been the issue.": Tell Me You Love Me

HBO's Tell Me You Love Me has literally come out of nowhere, certainly from my vantage point. I remember a couple months hearing online rumblings about an HBO show starring known actors (including Tim DeKay of Carnivale, Ally Walker of Profiler, Sonya Walger of Lost, Adam Scott of various things, and four-time Oscar nominee Jane Alexander) that featured what at least seemed to be actual sexual intercourse. Just to get all this out of the way (as if you haven't heard already), the reality is that the sex seen on this show IS acting, with the help of realistic prosthetics. Anyway, there's already been a strong critical reaction to Tell Me You Love Me, boosted by HBO's common tactic of sending out whole seasons of its lesser-known shows. However, unlike most who've written about this show, I'm going in entirely blind, and watching/reviewing week-to-week. Critics seem desperate to assure viewers that the show is a slow burner, becoming more and more compelling (and disquieting) as it goes on.

Nonetheless, I was definitely taken with this episode--there's a whole lot of promise here, and the show is doing something that television has basically never seen before. What we have is essentially a three-character piece. I mean, really it's about eight characters, but as the pilot only barely touched on Jane Alexander and her husband, I'm talking about the three couples. Sure, they're individuals too, and all the performances seemed good (Ally Walker and Adam Scott stood out the most to me on this first viewing), but what we're doing here is trading off between three ongoing storylines examining various stages of adult intimacy and the incredible, sometimes mundane but somehow fascinating subtleties and balances each relationship has. What I most admired about this episode was the writing, specifically the dialogue. It was fully frank, but not in that obnoxious way that one sometimes encounters on HBO (I refer not to the eloquent profanity of David Milch, or the almost mundane workplace explicitness of The Wire/Sopranos, but shows like Six Feet Under, which used the f-bomb like it was a badge of honor). The conversations these couples have often feel really loaded and tense, but this isn't some subtext-laden Pinter play--they talk like real people. And there's no bullshitty speechifying either. Cynthia Mort (the show's creator) is using her silences and pauses properly, but not laying on anything too thick either. Once in a while, Hugo and Jamie's arguments began to grate, but their stuff was saved by a couple great individual moments. More on that below. I'll tackle each couple on its own, seeing as the storylines don't criss-cross at all.

The couple I found most instantly compelling (and cringeingly realistic) were the married-with-kids in their 40s, Katie and David. The "wife catching her husband secretly masturbating" scene at the start felt a little predictable--that's a device I've seen used several times before--but the scene where Katie confronted her husband and proposed marriage counseling was just terrifically acted by Walker and DeKay. There in particular, DeKay really managed to straddle the right side of a very thin fence. David's initial strong reluctance to confront the lack of sex in his marriage could just make him look like an inconsiderate jerk, or worse a cheat. Instead, especially with his dismay at Katie mentioning counseling, DeKay really made it seem like he knew something was wrong, something terrible, but he couldn't bring himself to look it in the face. Because Katie and David's emotions and fears are the most internal and withdrawn (they seem to have a mechanical, not always unfriendly, but hardly exciting routine about most of their life together), the actors have it tough, but so far they're doing an excellent job. Walker impressed me the most in her first meeting with the counselor near the end of the episode. Mixing truths, half-truths and what seemed like possible lies (her general discomfort at the suggestion of masturbation), with the briefest pause to cry--it was a perfectly undersold cap to the laying out of Katie's emotional state. What's most compelling about this story, I guess, is that it's a sort of mystery--a mundane one (why have a seemingly secure couple in their 40s started to completely abstain from sexual contact?), but a truly confusing and complex one too, and with these two great performances at the wheel, I think this will be the most interesting coupling to parse overall.

Whew, I wrote a lot about that. I liked the other two too, but less so, my enthusiasm dwindling with the couples' ages. So, on to the pregnancy-focused Carolyn and Palek, played by Sonya Walger (who I'm gonna need another couple episodes before I completely shake the image of her as Penny from Lost) and Adam Scott (an actor I've admired for his scene-nabbing work in stuff like The Aviator and Veronica Mars--particularly the latter, in which he was just the perfect mix of charming and creepy). Like every couple on this show, they're a couple who clearly work and are in love, but there's a real edginess just below the surface here, one that seems more dangerous than the despairing malaise of Katie/David or the tempestuous fighting of Hugo/Jamie. It's the pregnancy thing that makes it so, I guess. There's so much tied into fertility and insemination and so on--machismo, self-esteem, mixing clinical science with sexuality, like the scene where Carolyn basically demanded Palek have sex with her, before half-heartedly adding "and I want it, too". I think that's why I found their stuff the most tense. Doesn't help that they're both fairly softly-spoken, but they also both seem like they could blow at any time. Palek in particular, who already seems a little bit emasculated, getting work from Carolyn's family and being paid by her father, and having sex when Carolyn's mother is in the other room as if to establish himself as he can't seem to do at the dinner table. The image of him ejaculating at the end of the episode, too, while the most graphic thing the episode depicted, was almost a sick little nod to the audience, as we know his fertility is being called into question and his sperm will literally be under the microscope soon. Anyway, I thought Palek/Carolyn was the relationship that laid the most groundwork, but also seems like the one that could hit meltdown the most significantly. It's something about pregnancy--such a delicate topic for a married couple that can't easily achieve it.

I'll say much less about the final couple, Jamie and Hugo. I didn't explicitly dislike their stuff, but I was always eager to get back to the others. I think it's because their dialogue was a lot more upfront, as they were basically just arguing with each other the whole episode. Also, Jamie breaking off the engagement seemed even more hollow to the audience than it did to Hugo--we know the couple isn't hitting the rocks that quickly, although I guess it proves how fiery the two of them are going to be. Luke Kirby and Michelle Borth sold their sex scenes very well, effectively conveying the strong physical connection these two have (and that the older couples in this show might well have had at one point). However, I felt the best moment here was Hugo's final promise to Jamie that he would be faithful in marriage. We knew he was lying, and felt like Jamie did to some extent also, but Kirby made it seem like the character almost believed what he was saying, but also knew he was really saying it as a wedding-saving compromise. It was a perfect, realistic mix of honesty and dishonesty, on a show that really seems to feature a lot of that kind of behavior. After all, isn't that how we behave? Telling other people and ourselves half-truths, or quarter-truths, or lies with a dash of sincerity.

Anyway, this might be tough to blog every week, but I'm definitely going to give it a try. HBO aren't onto a ratings winner here by any means, I think, but this is definitely going to be a fascinating experiment to experience week to week. Even if I can see the frankness of the sex becoming a bit dull--I guess that's part of the point.


MTV Video Music Awards: The (De)Evolution of Britney Spears

When Todd e-mailed me today to ask me to do a little writeup on last night's MTV Video Music Awards, I had to make what I feel is a depressing confession: I didn't watch them. Yes, the girl who loves High School Musical has to finally admit she's just too old for MTV. I used to love the channel (and the VMAs in particular) but the sad state of modern pop music and the downward spiral of MTV programming in general has pretty much kept me off the channel completely for a few years, save guilty pleasure shows like The Hills.

Just because I didn't watch the entire awards show, however, doesn't mean I didn't tune in to the first five minutes to see the much anticipated Britney Spears "comeback" performance. I am a fan of Britney's catchy, meaningless pop music and a former huge fan of her in general. And I mean, a very, very huge fan. An "I own Crossroads" size fan. Her downward spiral has cured me of much of the fangirly nature of my love, but I will always hold a soft spot in my heart for her.

That's why last night's train wreck of a performance made me so sad. Say what you will about Britney's talent (or lack thereof), but when she's at her peak the girl can put on a hell of a performance. Yes, she lip syncs. I don't care, I'm watching for the dancing and the sexy. I don't buy songs like "Toxic" because she can sing like an angel, but because they make me want to get up off my ass and shake it around the room like a maniac.

I thought it would be interesting to look at all of her VMA appearances over the years and see just where everything started to go wrong.. I think it might have been in the 2003 clip right when Justin Timberlake smirks at the camera about 30 seconds before she kisses Madonna on the mouth. That smirk says "Y'all, I know this girl and this is SO not going to last. In two years she's going to be at home licking Cheeto dust off her fingers watching me become the biggest pop star in the world." But judge for yourself:

1999 - ...Baby One More Time

Despite being saddled by a terrible remix of a great song (don't even play, you know it's a good song), Britney still manages to put on a decent show here in her first official VMA performance. Note the energy in the dancing for later comparison.

2000 - Oops! ...I Did It Again

This is the iconic Britney performance, the one that cemented her as the world's biggest pop star. I remember watching this live (it was pre-Tivo) and being absolutely mesmerized when she ripped off her suit to reveal she was basically wearing Bedazzler jewels as clothing. I consider myself a straight girl, but when she gets down and dances on the floor at the end? I might have turned a little bit gay. I proceeded to watch this performance every time the show was re-aired over the next week.

2001 - I'm A Slave 4 U

Coming off of a career-making performance in 2000, this one has a very slight hint of desperation about it. It's like she was sitting around and said, "How do I top being basically naked on stage? I know -- LIVE ANIMALS!" It's still a great performance and has probably my favorite choreography of any of her VMA appearances, but it doesn't have that magic the "Oops" performance did.

2003 - Like a Virgin/Hollywood (with Madonna, Christina Aguilera and Missy Elliot)

You can basically boil this entire performance down to what happens at 3:56 - THE KISS. Cue thousands of DVR's rewinding and freeze framing to see if there was tongue involved. (I checked -- just a little bit.) Madonna has always known how to generate controversy, and this is probably one of her more blatantly manufactured attempts to stay in the public eye by creating a spectacle. At the time it seemed to me like Britney was dumbly being used by Madonna and just went along because DUDE, IT'S MADONNA, but now I think Britney just didn't give a crap and wanted to shock people as well. (Check out Snoop Dogg at the end. I'm pretty sure he's thinking: "Am I just more high than normal, or is this some seriously stupid shit?") Despite all of my slagging, I actually thought this performance was pretty enjoyable. I don't know. I confuse myself sometimes.

2007 - Gimme More

Embarrassingly bad hair weave? Check. Scared, deer-in-headlights look? Check. Some sort of Xanex-like drug in her system? Check. If Britney wanted to make a comeback, this definitely was not the way to do it. She looks like an in-shape version of Anna Nicole Smith circa her reality show. I sort of dig the song (it's been spinning on my iPod all week) but her performance is just so lackluster and affected. For someone known for her dancing, she dances about as well as I do in this clip. Hint: I'm not a very good dancer. One thing I will say is that unlike many other bloggers out there, I'm not going to go insane and call her fat. I think she looks pretty fantastic, actually.

What do you guys think? Is her career over? Remember, America loves a good redemption story...but they might love the downward spiral more.


Sunday, September 09, 2007

"I'm gonna dress like a little Dutch girl.": Curb Your Enthusiasm

I suppose I should preface this by saying that Curb Your Enthusiasm is a show I've always found enjoyable, but it's never numbered among my favorites. For all of the talk about how the show is innovative and how the improvisational nature of it keeps things fresh, it's actually pretty formulaic. This means that the show is very comfortable, like slipping into a comfortable pair of pajama pants, but when it's off, it can be painful to watch. It also doesn't make me terribly excited to check it out from week to week, though I guess covering the show will change all of that.

Anyway, season six gets off to a funny start with an episode that builds and builds to some good stuff, though the funniest scene in the entire episode comes in the middle when Larry and Cheryl get trapped at the Funkhousers (and are forced to contemplate playing Pick-Up Sticks of all things). The rest of the episode is filled with the sorts of awkward situations Larry David plays so well.

The smoke detector bit in the opening was all right, but it mostly seemed to serve an unfortunate tendency of the show -- when it goes for something that might be universal in Hollywood but just isn't for the rest of us. How many of us have so many rooms that we can't tell which smoke detector is going off? And Larry's beating of the malfunctioning machine with a baseball bat similarly seemed like it had been done somewhere before.

From there, though, the episode set up the rest of the storyline of Larry trying to show up for parties he didn't want to go to a day late, claiming he thought the party was that day instead. It's a clever idea, and the way every stop he makes turns into a singularly bad party (and then snowballs outward to affect other events) was also funny. It's a strength of the formula that we'll buy that Larry will do dumb things like this and still find his friends seizing on to his ideas (both Jeff and Richard try the gambit later, to Larry's detriment).

The rest of the episode focused on Cheryl wanting to take in a family stranded by a huge hurricane (which managed to let Larry get in a swipe at global warming, weirdly). I'm not sure where this is going, but it wasn't the best plot point here, even if Vivica A. Fox makes a good foil for Larry (and even if it paid off the smoke detector gag fairly well). I'm willing to see where this goes, especially if Fox is further involved.

I don't know that I can blog this show every week, but this is a promising start to season six, especially after a fifth season when it felt like the show didn't have a lot left to say.


Our fall season

(That's actually fall in South Dakota! In one of the few places where they have trees, by the Big Stone Lake!)

So I'm a little late in getting this up, as our fall season actually began last night with our coverage of the U.S. rebroadcast of Torchwood. But better late than never, right?

As always, if there's a show not on this list that you would rather be covering, please e-mail me. We'd love a Dancing with the Stars reviewer in particular, but we're willing to print stuff on just about any show.

Most of these shows will get full, weekly reviews. Some will get an occasional recap of a few episodes (Curb Your Enthusiasm, likely).

Also, welcome to our team two new reviewers -- Andy and Erik.

Here's our lineup:

Brothers & Sisters (Libby)
Brotherhood (Todd)
Curb Your Enthusiasm (Todd)
Desperate Housewives (Carrie)
Dexter (Justin)
Tell Me You Love Me (David)

Aliens in America (Libby)
Chuck (Joey)
Everybody Hates Chris (Libby)
Heroes (House Next Door link) (David)
Heroes (Second opinion) (Erik)
How I Met Your Mother (Todd)
Journeyman (Carrie)
Prison Break (Justin)

Bones (Libby)
House (Joey)
Reaper (David)
(I'm trying to find something to cover on this night, so if you know of something you think we simply must look at, please let me know. But wow is this night empty after being so crowded the last few years.)

America's Next Top Model (Andy and Libby)
Bionic Woman (Erik)
Dirty Sexy Money (Justin)
Gossip Girl (Carrie)
Private Practice (David)
Project Runway (whenever it starts) (Andy and Libby)
Pushing Daisies (Todd)

30 Rock (Todd)
Grey's Anatomy (David)
My Name Is Earl (Andy)
The Office (Erik)
Scrubs (Joey)
Smallville (Joey)
Supernatural (Carrie)
Survivor (Justin)
Ugly Betty (Libby)

Friday Night Lights (David and Todd)
Men in Trees (Carrie)
Nashville (Andy)

Torchwood (Joey)

Look, also, for further music reviews from Daniel and more predictions from Jon. And we'll try to get some features up over the weekends, so you can peruse our top ten favorites and the like.


“Contraceptives in the rain. Love this planet” – Torchwood

(First, a quick note – all my reviews of Torchwood will be going from the untrimmed British versions. On BBC America each episode will be edited by a few minutes for timing reasons, so on the off-chance I ever mention anything that got cut out, that’s why. Okay, onwards!)

In a sense I have made it my mission to try and turn people onto Doctor Who, especially American viewers who need all the encouragement they can get. However, it’s a lot harder to vigorously recommend Torchwood, an offshoot (and an anagram) of Doctor Who that first aired in Britain almost a year ago. Torchwood started out as a story-arc that spanned the whole of Who’s second season. In the penultimate episode it was revealed to be a secret organisation which combated alien threats to Britain, the plotline then culminating in an epic battle in and around the Torchwood base in the season finale. Russell T. Davies, showrunner on Who, decided a continuation of Torchwood’s story would make a perfect vehicle for one of the Doctor’s first season companions, Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman, now a British household name). And thus Torchwood the spin-off was born.

In fact Torchwood is one of two spin-offs to come out of Davies’ hugely successful revival of Who, the other being The Sarah Jane Adventures. But where Adventures is a kid-oriented show (though it’s still very much worth a look), Torchwood prides itself on being dark. As it airs post-watershed in Britain, it can get away with a lot of stuff you’d never see on US network television, let alone Who – swearing, sex, bloody violence, it’s all here. Unfortunately, these dark aspects often feel over the top and shoehorned in for the sake of shocking the audience. This isn’t as readily apparent in the first episode though, so I’ll come back to it in later recaps.

What is apparent is that Torchwood has the potential to be an entertaining, if not exemplary, show. The first scene establishes the show’s overall tone immediately – the Torchwood team take over a police crime scene, bring the victim back to life, then talk to him for a couple minutes before he dies again. I don’t mean to suggest this show is all about them talking to dead people – that aspect is pretty much dropped after the first episode – but it successfully establishes Torchwood’s cynical tone (when asked what he saw when he died, the victim says “Nothing…oh my God, there’s nothing!”) and dark, moody style (the scene takes place at night, with rain pouring down the whole time). John Barrowman also gets to deliver a character-establishing monologue about “Contraceptives in the rain”, concluding with him proclaiming, “Well at least I won’t get pregnant. Never doing that again”. It’s a genuinely clever scene which exemplifies exactly how good this show could have been (and, in fairness, sometimes is).

Ominous as that may sound, I won’t start getting negative just yet. ‘Everything Changes’ is a fun fifty minutes of television and a good set-up for a series. It follows Gwen Cooper, a Cardiff Police Constable who stumbles upon the world of Torchwood and finds herself drawn into it, uncovering a traitor within the unit in the process. Said traitor is Suzie Costello, played by Indira Varma, who was included in the cast list and cast photos to keep her out-of-nowhere death a surprise. Unfortunately this is the weakest aspect of the plot, as Suzie’s secret killing spree is only hurriedly explained and doesn’t really make a lot of discernible sense. Thankfully most of the other happenings – Gwen’s initial entrance into Torchwood, all her scenes with Captain Jack, the rest of the team experimenting with alien technology – prove suitably entertaining stuff.

It’s a shame, therefore, that Torchwood isn’t able to keep up this level of quality in further weeks. This can probably be put down to the role of Russell T Davies, who takes scripting duties for (at least so far) the only time before handing the show off to other writers (specifically Chris Chibnall, ostensibly the showrunner). Before Who Davies wrote several adult-oriented shows, and while there are a few moments in ‘Everything Changes’ which seem more like an imitation of adult material (the swearing and Suzie’s eventual suicide are two good examples) mostly he successfully pulls off a balance between the dark and the light. It is the failure to keep up this balance that cripples further episodes of the show. But more on that in the coming weeks.