Saturday, October 06, 2007

“He has saved your lives so many times and you never even knew he was there”: Doctor Who

‘Last of the Time Lords’ is Russell T. Davies’ epic. At least, it is by Doctor Who standards. After the events of ‘The Sound of Drums’, the narrative jumps forward a year to a world devastated by the Master’s reign of terror. As he prepares to go to war with the rest of the universe, the Doctor and Martha are both working their very hardest to bring him down. It’s a very daring story by Who standards, especially that one year jump, unheard of for a family-oriented show airing Saturdays at 7pm (in the UK). Its impact is less for older viewers already hardened by the likes of Battlestar Galactica; still, it’s a risky step that could easily have blown up in Davies’ face. Some people think it did – in fact, ‘Time Lords’ was hated by fans and even casual viewers upon its initial airing, a feeling that has not really faded. I hope some of those fans are reading now, so I can explain exactly why this finale is so worthy of their undying admiration.

When I say ‘Time Lords’ is epic, I’m not so much referring to what we see on screen. If it wasn’t for those pesky budgetary restrictions, I’m sure this story could have been a full-on tale of worldwide destruction, totalitarian regimes and a resistance rising up out of the ashes. Instead we have to make do with Martha running around grey, faceless wastelands and a resistance that takes up little more than a staircase. If only this story had been done in movie form, it would have been amazing!

Never mind though. Who has shown can provide its fair share of epic battles and action extravaganza (just as long as it’s contained within one city, or a building); but in the end it’s the smaller, more intimate moments that you remember. In that department, ‘Time Lords’ kicks ass. Most of all it’s Martha’s show. Much of the year she spent traipsing around the globe is left to the imagination, but it’s all in Freema Agyeman’s face – tired, lonely, but forever determined. Agyeman proved she could hold up a whole episode by herself in ‘Smith and Jones’, but that was more of a fun ol’ romp. ‘Time Lords’ is an intensely dramatic piece of storytelling, in bursts joyous and depressing. Far from having any trouble with the heavier material, Agyeman thrives on it.

The beauty of her story is that even after a year of seeing nothing but destruction and death, Martha refuses to be broken. Her human side is always there: even when she sees the Doctor aged so far that he becomes a dwarfish creature, her response is to breaks into a wide smile and proclaim “The Doctor’s still alive”. Equally, her triumphant euphoria when they finally bring about the Master’s downfall is beautifully played by Agyeman. This is the moment she’s been working up to for an entire year, and she is just thrilled to be saving the world. Think about it now – how often do you really see that? Just as Simm’s Master takes such extreme pleasure in conquering the Earth, Agyeman’s Martha gets a very human thrill out of saving it.

Speaking of Simm, he is too fantastic for words here. I said last week that ‘Sound of Drums’ would not have worked without him, and that counts doubly true for ‘Time Lords’ – if in a different sense. Last week’s story gained most of its energy from his scenery-chewing antics, but the finale isn’t quite as focused on constantly keeping things moving. This more deliberate pace allows Simm an endless list of great moments to play: dancing around the Valiant to Scissor Sisters (sadly cut from the Sci-Fi version, but it can be seen here), further abusing his disturbed wife Lucy, taunting Martha out of her hiding place, and protesting in anguish as his plan comes tumbling down.

By far the best aspect of the Master (and of the episode as a whole) is his relationship with the Doctor. Early on he takes a perverse pleasure out of aging his nemesis even further, until the Doctor has become an unrecognisable bug-eyed little creature (another first-rate CGI creation). Yet the one endearing quality about the Master is that after every advancement in his war plans, the first thing he always does is go tell the Doctor about it. The Master may hate his fellow time lord, but equally he needs him if he is to take full pleasure out of the destruction he orchestrates. They are, in every sense, the two sides of the coin: irresponsible vs. dutiful, showman vs. humanitarian, etc. Martha sums up the Doctor best: “He has saved your lives so many times and you never even knew he was there. He never stops, he never stays, he never asks to be thanked.” For all my recent wonderings at the ‘dark side’ the Doctor, he is ultimately a selfless and kind-hearted individual, a point ‘Time Lords’ makes in earnest.

Though the ultimate conclusion is happy, there’s one aspect of ‘Time Lords’ which is as dark as could be: the Toclafane. Without the backstory, all they are is metal balls firing lasers at everyone. But with it, they gain a disturbing, depressing kind of menace. It is revealed that the humans we saw travelling to ‘Utopia’ a couple episodes back found not a safe haven, but only “the dark and the cold”. Lucy (who saw these events, and whose mind was warped by them) describes it as “dying…everything dying, the whole of creation falling apart”. So Davies is basically saying that the ultimate fate of humanity is to suffer and die in a hellish existence. A little off-message maybe, but it's too effective for me to care.

As for the Master’s downfall, it’s a suitably joyous moment. The ever-perfect music swells, Simm breaks down, and the Doctor is rejuvenated to his proper form. As Who moments go, it’s not among the best; but combined with the subsequent time-reversal sequence, it still leaves me with that particular happy feeling that often only Who can provide. Some may object to the use of the ‘Reset button’ technique, but as I already noted: 7pm on a Saturday night. Besides, even if the largers events are cancelled out, their reverberations are felt in both the affect on the Jones’ and in Martha’s decision not to stay with the Doctor.

Their final scene together is a poignant end to Martha’s season three arc. The Doctor acknowledges Martha’s huge achievement, but he doesn’t even need to – at this point Martha knows that she’s proved herself a worthy companion. I wish I could say here that this season has been predominantly about her journey, but due to the constant losses of focus on her character this is not the case. Regardless, Agyeman is wonderful, and Davies brings it all together perfectly with this very simple counterpoint with Rose: where she saved the world with weapons, Martha saves the world with nothing but words. There’s a beautiful symmetry there which overcomes any uneven characterisation up to that point.

'Last of the Time Lords' improves considerably on repeat viewings, so if you scoff at any of the points I've made please watch it again. There are niggles here and there, sure, but I can't bring myself to moan about them when the overall story and themes are so, so strong. The same applies to the whole of Who's third season - it's not perfect, but with so much to love that I can't bring myself to ponder on the negatives. And that's why I love Doctor Who: it completely squashes out the critic in me. Bring on season four!


"Enjoy your depraved hedonism.": Friday Night Lights

For all of the ways that Friday Night Lights continues to astonish me, what most astonished me about the season premiere was how the show betrayed itself. I don't want to get too hyperbolic because there was a lot of terrific stuff in this episode, but for a few brief moments toward the end, Friday Night Lights turned from an acutely observed portrayal of a warm-hearted small town into Rescue Me. In some circles, this would be a huge compliment, since Rescue Me (which is a show I enjoyed up until this wheel-spinner of a season) is one of the standard bearers for the "I did NOT see that plot development coming!" school of "edgy" TV. The writers in Rescue Me routinely put their characters through some of the most miserable of situations (or put said characters in certain corners so the only way they can get out is to react in certain ways) just to make sure the plot's always zigging and zagging. In order to give two underused characters, full of potential and rooted in solid acting, something to do, Friday Night Lights painted those two characters into a corner and then made them fight their way out. The deck is stacked, and it's not fair to the characters or us.

Naturally, spoilers follow, and they might even be more explicit than our usual spoilers. So back out if you haven't watched.

I have to start out talking about the melodramatic Tyra/Landry storyline that ends the episode, simply because it's what's left stuck between your teeth when you end the episode, even after that remarkable musical montage, showing the town coming together to celebrate the Panthers' championship from last season (FNL, if nothing else, understands the power of silence, of just staring at a face and trying to read it). In some ways, the direction almost saved the storyline (I loved those shots of the river rushing by, oblivious to what it carried), and Jesse Plemons and Adrienne Palicki made much of this work, but to get a sense of why it just didn't work for me, I'll probably have to engage in a little plot summary.

In season one, Tyra was attacked by a would-be rapist (in the superlative episode Mud Bowl). While it seemed as though Landry might come to her rescue, it was a big fake-out. Tyra fought off her attacker by herself, and this was mixed in with the climactic moments of the big game the Panthers were playing in a cow pasture. Landry found her right after she fought the guy off, and she collapsed into his arms. Naturally, he misread all of this (as Landry is wont to do), but the story ended up reinforcing Tyra's desire to get out of Dillon and her desire to reinvent herself as something other than town slut. It also showed that Landry might be the kind of guy she could be with in some sort of more idealistic universe, but in this one, he would probably have to be content to be her friend.

But y'know what? Palicki and Plemons had some fun chemistry. It's the kind of chemistry that I'm sure it seemed fun to explore. And, to be honest, Tyra's story arc was sort of over, but Palicki was still on the show. Meanwhile, I'm sure that Plemons, a very good actor, seemed like he could be doing more than providing comic relief and awkwardness. Since the two had good chemistry, at some point, it must have seemed natural to give them a heavier storyline.

This was not that storyline.

Tyra's attacker returns (why now? because the show is back, says Libby), and he follows her all over town. Her friendship with Landry having grown deeper but more platonic (at least on her end), she calls on him to help her out, since she has few others in her life to turn to (perhaps Riggins, but he's busy having threesomes). Landry shows up at her house and tries to make his move. When he almost does, she suggests they go get some snacks. At the convenience store, while Landry is inside, the attacker jumps Tyra. Landry emerges from the store and rushes at him, only to get thrown off and punched in the face. The attacker says he'll be back and walks off. Landry rushes at him with a pipe, brains him, then realizes what he's done and tries to get him to the hospital (Tyra driving through tears). When they realize the guy is dead, rather than call Landry's dad (a cop), they dump the body in a river (or so it's strongly implied). And there we go (though next week's promo shows that Landry will make a rather large declaration -- if Tyra falls for it. . .groan).

It's not that there's no universe where this could happen. It's not that this is necessarily unrealistic. It's that it doesn't grow organically out of this show. It's melodrama for melodrama's sake. It's forcing the characters into an impossible situation in the hopes of producing drama. Do I believe that two scared kids might react this way to this situation? Yes. Do I believe they would get into this situation? No.

In an interview with Alan Sepinwall, executive producer Jason Katims defended the storyline, saying that the show has done shocking things before, like having Street become paralyzed in an on-field accident or having Lyla cheat on Street with Riggins. Neither of these storylines comes out of nowhere, though. On-field injuries are common in football (though not ones that bad, granted), and it's not like teen girls are always faithful to their boyfriends, particularly their boyfriends in stressful situations. The Landry/Tyra storyline pushes Landry out of character and makes him someone who's committed a murder. I respect the attempt to deepen a character mostly used for comic relief. I respect the attempt to build a love story between two very different people who had some very raw things in common. But forcing it in this manner is both a betrayal of the show's gentle realism and borderline sexist (assuming Tyra falls for Landry, she only will because Landry protected her from a rapist -- no one will get this reference, but Landry's Granthony!).

I don't mean to suggest that this has utterly ruined the show. What the show does well, it does VERY well (that scene where Tami burst into tears was a stunner), and so much here is still working (witness Aimee Teegarden's performance, one of the finest portrayals of a teenager I've ever seen) that I still think everyone should watch. But assuming the writers will fix this problem and not calling them out on it is disingenuous and based simply on our previous fandom for the show. This episode was probably 90% very good and 10% very bad. But, surprise, surprise, it's that very bad that rankles.

(Random note: I've seen a lot of people calling Lyla's religious conversion unbelievable, but I think that was exactly the sort of thing that would happen to someone in that situation. Religious conversions, especially at that age, tend to happen very quickly and have a lot of passion behind them.)


Friday, October 05, 2007

"What do you say we kill some evil sons of bitches and raise a little hell?": Supernatural

Confession time: I’m a total Supernatural fangirl. A rock salt toting, guns blazing, classic rock blaring, angst loving, Chevy Impala obsessed addict of the brothers Winchester. I love this show so much I even seriously considered going to a Supernatural convention! You guys. A convention. All about Supernatural. (Until I found out how expensive it was and came to my senses.) (But who am I kidding, if Jensen Ackles was scheduled to attend I would have been there with bells on.) Ladies and gentlemen, I am in deep and I know it.

I felt like I needed to get that out of the way in the interest of full disclosure, because this little obsession of mine can tend to color my feelings of the show a bit. As a savvy television viewer, I realize the strengths and weaknesses of the show…but I just don’t care about the weaknesses very much. I consider them part of the show’s charm. (“Look at that crappy visual effect! Isn’t it charming?”; “Oh, expository dialogue in the Impala yet again! Charming!”; “Dean’s stupid all of a sudden. Again. Charming!”) I tried to write a review of seasons one and two to kick off South Dakota Dark’s coverage of the new season, but every time I tried it just came out sounding like something a 12-year-old girl would write in her diary in glittery pink pen, so I gave up. Despite this, I promise to put down the glitter pen and attempt to take a less biased look at season three. I’m relying on you all to let me know when I get it wrong.

In last season’s finale, Sam and Dean finally managed to kill their nemesis, the Yellow Eyed Demon, but not before YED opened the gates of hell and let hundreds of demons out. Now, all of the hunters in America must gear up to fight the largest contingent of demons they’ve ever faced at one time. And did I mention that in order to bring Sam back from the dead, Dean sold his soul to a crossroads demon? And he only has one year to live? And if he tries to weasel his way out of the deal at all, Sam will drop dead immediately? Yeah, I’m thinking that might be kind of important this year.

Season three begins a week later, and Dean has obviously embraced his mortality as an excuse to live it up Dean Winchester style, which means driving fast, having lots of sex and eating cheeseburgers. Seeing as we’ll never actually get a sex scene unless Dean’s in LOVE or something, I have a feeling this might get old pretty quick. Sam has other things on his mind, namely trying to get Dean out of his crossroads deal and looking like he swallowed a bug.

Bobby (the always excellent Jim Beaver) brings the boys back to reality by enlisting their help scouting some possible demon activity, the first since the gates of hell were opened. While investigating what turns out to be physical manifestations of the seven deadly sins (Dean’s reaction: “What’s in the booox? Brad Pitt? Seven? No?”), they run into another pair of hunters doing the same thing, married couple Isaac and Tamara. They try to work together but Isaac and Tamara refuse and go it alone, walking right into a trap where Gluttony takes out Isaac by making him chug an economy sized bottle of Drano. Disgusting! And awesome.

Dean, Sam and Bobby storm in, save Tamara and grab Envy on their way out, heading back to wait for the other six to find them. In what appears to be an awfully flimsy plan, they split up, each attempting to devil's trap a sin so they can exorcise them back to hell. Dean and Bobby manage to corral Lust and Sloth (I think…this was unclear) but Sam gets triple teamed and has a bit of trouble with Pride. Pride, by the way, is awesome, all power suited-up with a Joker grin and an attitude to match. After literally backing himself into a corner, Sam is saved by a Mysterious Blonde Woman who has been stalking him in the shadows throughout the episode. Mysterious Blonde Woman kills all three demons with a slight assist from Sam and her kick-ass magic knife that can somehow kill demons, and walks out the door without identifying herself or what she’s doing there. Interesting.

After all the sins are exorcised, Bobby takes off and it’s time for Sam and Dean to have a heart to heart. Thankfully, this conversation lays it all out on the line: Sam thinks Dean is selfish for taking the crossroads deal considering he knew how it would hurt Sam when he died, and Dean doesn’t care because he is tired (echoing his feelings in Croatoan) and thinks he’s allowed to be selfish considering how much he’s done for his family. Perhaps, Dean, if you wouldn’t throw your impending mortality in the face of the sibling you made the deal to save in order to gain sympathy and allow yourself to do whatever you want, said sibling wouldn’t be so pissy about the deal you made. I’m just saying.

Overall, a solid episode but a bit of a letdown for a season opener, especially considering the knockout that was last season’s premiere. I think season premieres can only ever be as strong as the season finales they are continuing, and unfortunately season three was saddled with a pretty stagnant season two finale to build on. One thing I think they really dropped the ball on were the seven deadly sins. They just weren’t scary. The actors that played Envy and Pride were very good, and fun to watch, but after all of Bobby’s consternation about these primeval monsters, they were never very frightening.

I’m still not sold on the idea of Dean’s crossroads deal being the major season arc, especially considering unless the show gets cancelled you know he’s not going to die. It does allow the characters to change a bit, with Dean returning to his devil may care ways of the pilot and Sam being forced to man up and save his brother covertly. Change is good, and Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki really work well together and these stories will allow them to play off each other in a different way. As long as they can keep the story fresh and not rehash the same emotional beats each episode, this is an interesting chance to stretch the characters a bit. If they keep the emotional arc the same, though, this story could get old and quick. Dean’s emotional state is already about as subtle as a slap to the face. OMG, he’s banging LOTS of chicks! And eating LOTS of bad food! And driving SO fast! Could it be he’s feeling…RECKLESS?

Also, despite the insane fangirl backlash the addition of the Mysterious Blonde Woman has a lot of potential. Who is she? Why is she stalking Sam? Why does she have a kick-ass magic knife that can kill demons? Why is her hair so pretty? All important questions I can’t wait for the show to answer. I have a feeling this has something to do with YED’s assertion that Sam came back from the dead “wrong.” If it allows Jared Padalecki to play evil again, I say let Sam be wrong. Wrong Sam rocks.

Next week: a town full of evil kids. Yikes!


"You could be a freaky deaky and do data entry.": 30 Rock

30 Rock had that episode all critically acclaimed, low-rated shows must have when they return for their second seasons. You know. The one where they try to justify their awesomeness to the general public, so that they can be on the air for seasons to come. You know the one. I'm pretty sure Arrested Development had one, and I know Newsradio, Everybody Loves Raymond and Cheers all had one. Typically, these episodes have a lot of wacky plotlines that are better ideas than they are stories, and they tend to try to work as a second pilot, introducing all of the characters again and so on and so forth. Usually, these episodes don't work, but in the rare instances when they attract viewer interest, it's worth it to have an episode that doesn't fire on all cylinders.

This is a long prologue to saying that this was a very funny episode of 30 Rock, but it didn't quite hit the heights the show hit in the latter half of season one. A lot of this had to do with the special guest star, but in its efforts to introduce everyone in the main cast (except for Frank and Pete, weirdly), the show also got a little too convoluted. There were a lot of stories flying around here, but not all of them ever got beyond their central concept.

To me, one of the things about 30 Rock that's the most interesting is how lonely it lets Liz Lemon be, just how disappointed she seems to be that she can't have it all (the actress who plays her, Tina Fey, seemingly DOES have it all). It's one of the show's bolder moves and one of its most blatant callbacks to the great workplace sitcoms of the 70s (Fey has said Mary Tyler Moore is an influence). To that end, I think I enjoyed Liz's wedding dress story the most of all, even if it removed Liz from the role of straight woman she plays so well. Fey is really good at playing Liz's desperation, and when she spent most of the episode traipsing around in a wedding dress, it somehow seemed exactly like something the character would do instead of the weird sitcom storyline it was. Nothing ever quite works out for ol' Liz Lemon, but she'll keep trying.

The SeinfeldVision storyline didn't work quite as well, simply because Jerry Seinfeld didn't seem to fit into the show's universe. 30 Rock is goofy, fast-paced farce, but Seinfeld's shouting-as-acting technique strained even this show's reality. He just seemed too mannered for the show, where everyone seems to exist in the same universe. I realize that Seinfeld isn't the world's greatest actor, but his mugging worked best in the SeinfeldVision clips and not in the rest of the show, even if it was great to see him dismiss Kenneth with a "Really?!"

I don't think that having Jack collapse in tears at Seinfeld's knees (even if it was, seemingly, another reference to Seinfeld, the show) was the best idea either. Jack is best when he's coolly in control of the whole situation, frustrating Liz with his business-savvy mind and his strange eloquence. The show really only works if either Jack or Liz is completely in control of their lives and what's going on. As it was, the show lacked a straight-man. It just seemed too crazy.

The story of Tracy and Kenneth's devolution, thanks to Kenneth being appointed Tracy's office wife (after Tracy's wife left him), was pretty funny, but it would have felt more apropos in an episode where the main plot was stronger. I had a similar feeling about Jenna's weight gain. It was a great runner (especially the brief highlight from Mystic Pizza: The Musical and Jack's maxim about how much women on television can weigh), but it would have worked better grafted to a stronger episode.

But, man, this was a funny episode anyway. Share your favorite quotes in the comments.


Thursday, October 04, 2007

"Don't let the red hair fool you, bitches! I can be very high fashion, okay?": America's Next Top Model

Andy: Because I missed last week's episode I spent the majority of episode 3 getting trying to get to know the models.

I say trying because it was nearly impossible to do so what with all the catty drama going on in the house. Of course, I'm talking about the fight between Saleisha, the self-proclaimed "experienced" model, and Bianca, the 18 year-old who obviously has something to prove.

The fight itself, despite the amount of airtime it consumed, was a nonevent. In fact, I can't even tell you what it was about except that there was a lot boasting involved and a couple of middle fingers here and there.

I was way more interested in seeing what the other models were up to in the little screentime they were given. Like Heather. I didn't like her in the premiere. Call me cruel, but the whole Asperger's angle had me cringing in my seat. This is America's Next Top Model, not Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

But last night's episode had me rooting for Team Heather. It's kind of hard not to like someone who can be really pretty and still not have any idea how to put together an outfit. Plus: her illness has yet to be exploited. Let's hope the producers keep it that way because Heather has potential to be a really interesting character on her own.

Speaking of which, I was also really intrigued by Victoria. I didn't expect her to make it past the first round, so the fact that she's still here makes me wonder if she has something I don't quite see yet. Right now, all I'm seeing is awkward, but maybe things will get better after the makeover episode; assuming she gets that far, anyway.

Sadly, season nine is still in its early stages, so it's hard to get a good read on the rest of the contestants. But I will say that I was glad to see Kimberly go. Not that she was ugly or anything, but her whole "Omigosh, I'm so new to all this!" persona served no real purpose on the show. Something tells me she'll be completely forgotten about in the coming weeks.

Also - and this might be a question for Libby to answer - how come Tyra didn't show up until the latter half of the show? That has to be some type of record, right? Is she spending too much time over at her other show? Or does she already know that cycle 9 kinda, sorta sucks?

Libby: I'm so embarassed by how much I enjoy this show, though never, never when Tyra Banks is on this screen. As for her showing up late in this show, that seems to happen occasionally throughout the season and when it does happen, we should be greatful. *nods*

This week's episode was mostly good, outside of that overblown fight. I was so pleased by Bianca's near elimination, as I thought that the show finally decided to be proactive and eliminate the inappropriate mega-bitch from the get-go, but of course, despite the big stupid speech Typrah gave about "I was the only person who liked your picture; being a top model is about more than pleasing one person" it IS her show and she'll keep whoever she wants, y'all. Ugh.

Heather continues to be my far and away favorite, illness or no, the girl photographs like a dream. Victoria rocks awkward like it's never been rocked before, though her straightforwardness seems to be continually misinterpreted at panel. Additionally, Sarah makes "real-sized" crazy-hot and illustrates why skeletal should stop being interpreted as the gold standard.

Less impressive for me this week, were Bianca, the out-and-out bitch, who's photo this week looked like a man in a dress rappelling down a wall. Also, I don't get the love for Chantal, who looks like a washed up 70's porn star or Ebony, who's bangs obscure for the rest of us whatever it is the judges appear to see in her.

Next week is everyone's favorite: MAKEOVERS! Word. There's going to be some hardcore drama and it sounds like SOMEone is going bald ... AWESOME! Okay, that's a lot of capital letters. My apologies.

I have some theories as to how all this is going to shake out (Lisa to win, Heather to place, Saleisha to show) but I don't think I wanna lock in those picks until after I see how the remade models present themselves next week. Until then ...


"I'm voting for you because when you snore at night-time it sounds like someone's choking a walrus.":Survivor:China

(Previously on Survivor: Dave was a bossy idiot who sucked at challenges. His Zhan Hu tribe voted out Ashley anyway. Fei-Long was up three to zero on challenegs and looking very good.)

This week on Survivor we open to a little good, old-fashioned character assasination. At the Fei-Long tribe Jean-Robert, when he is not snoring and keeping everyone awake, is creeping out the females of his tribe by snuggling with them while they are trying to sleep. He also claims to need to snuggle with the prettier ones. Ew. Everyone is naturally grossed out by this and makes fun of him in confessionals. Also, James catches a crab and the tribe fights over how to use it. Fascinating stuff. Although I think that is the first time I have heard James speak so that's always a good thing. What I was looking for here is to see who dropped in profile (via confessionals) and it seems that Todd and Amanda are on the back burner for now while Courtney, Leslie, and Aaron are still pretty prominent. Staying prominent usually isn't a good sign as after initially introducing you to the characters the editors tend to hide people who go far for a little while. There's usually one exception to this and it is a matter of figuring out who that is that helps you predict a winner. Meanwhile on Zhan Hu Peih-Gee talks about how Dave continues to burn out his energy working at camp. Quite frankly, I don't understand what that ridiculous stone thing he is building is supposed to be at all. We learn though a couple more confessionals that the entire tribe doesn't like Dave, in case we were not sure of that already.

After this initial camp stuff, it is time for the reward challenge. The prize? Comfort stuff: kerosine, rope, blankets, and a tarp. The actual challenge consists of a three-on-three men vs. men or women vs. women matchup where the contestants need to knock the opposing team off of a platform. Despite the fact that the Fei-Long men best the Zhan Hu men twice, the women went first and the Zhan Hu women beat the Fei-Long women all three times. Zhan Hu chooses to kidnap Leslie, who pays back Jaime for last week's action by giving her the clue to the hidden immunity idol. They know that it is in an obvious position and that it isn't anywhere on the ground now, so I'm wondering why they aren't looking where the editors so conveniently tell us viewers the idol is hidden. That does look pretty high up so it might be hard to retrieve; and I'm not sure how far away it is from their actual camp, so I'm not going to judge anyone's stupidity for now. I will, however, judge Leslie's stupidity, as she foolishly gives away a whole bunch of information about her tribe while not gaining much information about Zhan Hu, as they put on an act that they are a happy tribe while she is there. Meanwhile at Fei-Long, Courtney and Todd overhear Jean-Robert and James talk about who they want to vote out: apparently either Courtney or Leslie. I always like it when people get busted like this, because if you are stupid enough to talk openly about who you are going to vote out without even checking to see if anyone is around to listen you deserve to have it turned around on you. Also, Jean-Robert, when speaking about Courtney, says "the only thing better than a million dollars is a million dollars and some ass." More ew. I hope this guy goes pretty soon.

The immunity challenge is a double task: 4 members must chop ropes to release a set of discs, and once this is done the two remaining members competing must put these discs on a special stick as a puzzle. Courtney chops first for Fei-Long, and does a ridiculously poor job, such that Zhan Hu finishes all four of their chopping targets before she finishes. The rest of Fei-Long makes up the gap pretty quickly, however, so that they aren't that far behind Zhan Hu, who was struggling with the puzzle. The deficit turns out to be too much, though, and Zhan Hu wins their first immunity challenge and second challenge in a row. I was so confident in you, Fei-Long! Back at Fei-Long, the voting discussion bounces between Courtney, Jean-Robert, and Leslie, but Courtney has better allies and eventually Leslie is voted out over Jean-Robert six to two. I didn't like either of them so I am not too dismayed. Despite the loss, Fei-Long is the tribe with alliances and strategy being shown by the editors, so I still think they are going to end up going into the merge with an edge, and thus most likely the winner will come from there. My bet is still on Todd or Amanda, although Aaron is a slighter possibility. I think that Peih-Gee from Zhan Hu will go far as well, because she is getting a lot of airtime without too much negative connotation. Most likely to be going home very soon seems to be Dave and Jean-Robert. Everyone else but Courtney has been fairly invisible, and I am not sure if she is going to go sooner or later yet.


"Women like to pretend they’re complicated. I know better.": Gossip Girl

The glorious, bitchy wonder that is Gossip Girl continued it's winning streak this week with an episode that makes you ask: why is it such fun to watch people be so damn mean?

The show has definitely set its tone by now, and that tone dialed in nicely at level catfight, with a dash of touching moment thrown in to balance everything out. This tone is illustrated perfectly in the A story of the evening, Ivy Week. I come from public school roots so to me this entire concept is akin to preparing for an alien invasion, but apparently in high falutin' schools like the one our characters attend it is common practice for Ivy league schools to visit them and meet prospective students at fancy parties. Who knew?

This sets the perfect scene for Blair (with help from Chuck) to exact revenge on Serena in front the recruiters by incorrectly outing her as attending rehab for a drug problem at a local treatment center. Of course, Blair and Chuck's assumptions are incorrect as it is actually her brother Eric who is secretly staying at the treatment facility. After Serena takes the fall in front of the Ivy recruiters, Eric awesomely confronts Blair and reveals his suicide attempt. Blair obviously has genuine affection for Eric, and in a touching scene reaches out to Serena, reading her a letter she wrote while Serena was away in exile about how much she missed her. This storyline was almost perfectly done, with just the right amount of treachery and forgiveness. Although Serena and Blair seem to have mended fences, at least a little bit, will it last? That's doubtful, much to my delight.

In other news, Nate is still being pressured by his (almost cartoonish) father to attend Dartmouth. Lather, rinse, repeat. Although Nate had some better scenes this week, especially with Dan, it's still hard to get into his story as it has a definitely feeling of "been there, done that" to it.

Also being there and doing that is Dan, who is counting on Ivy Week to make a good impression as he isn't a legacy, because he is POOR. With his awesome apartment and ex-rock star/artist Dad. Whatever, Dan. Of course, legacy Nate gets an automatic leg up at the party, but very kindly gives Dan an in with the recruiter when he finds out how much Dartmouth means to Dan. Theirs is a developing friendship that could be interesting, especially considering they are both in love with Serena, not to mention the animosity between Dan and Chuck.

Speaking of Chuck, he spent the entire episode as Blair's little scheming lapdog looking for dirt of Serena, and it was delicious. Blair and Chuck as partners in reputation ruining crime is a load of fun, especially since Blair is not charmed by him one bit. It's a nice dynamic that hopefully continues as the season progresses.

Oh, and the adults did some stuff but I fell asleep.

Overall, another strong episode. No one seems to be watching, however, which begs the question: are teen dramas just that hard to launch, or is this yet another troubling sign that The CW can't get eyeballs on any of their non-reality programming? I'm desperately hoping it's the former, because without The CW there will be no network avenue for young adult programming, and that would be a crime. Especially since young adult programming like this is so enjoyable.


“Would you condemn this woman to a life where people look at her face when they talk to her?”: House

The writers know it, and so do we – it’s nice to have some new characters on House. Although the show has had various antagonists and love interests for its title character, House has never before altered its formula to the point of adding permanent new characters, happy to stick to few-episode arcs. Nor did it really need to change itself – three seasons isn’t too long to stick to an ensemble of six core characters. Theoretically, there’s no law against a remaining with your formula for a whole series. Only after the third season proved the shtick was getting a little stale did the need for change become readily apparent.

So last week we were treated to a premiere in which House gets all his advice from a janitor, before eventually conceding that he may need a new team; and now this week we get an episode in which House whittles down a group of forty potential applicants to a final ten. As an audience, we take just as much pleasure in this torturous process as House does. Among the applicants are Kal Penn (Kumar from Harold & Kumar), Olivia Wilde (The O.C.) and Peter Jacobson (one of those familiar faces who everyone knows from something), along with several unknowns. Beyond those three, all of whom I liked, a few others made an impression: Jeffrey Cole, introduced a little too obviously as ‘the guy with religious beliefs’; Henry Dobson, a likeable older man who I hope sticks around; and Amber Volakis (Anne Dudek) aggressive and annoying. Although I won’t spoil it here, the info on the eventual three new regulars is out there if you want it.

This week’s case was another welcome departure from the usual formula. The basic idea was admittedly more in tune with usual House than ‘Alone’, in that it had House messing around while his underlings did most of the work for him. Yet it felt different, which is good enough for me. Especially amusing: a walk-and-talk scene with a mass of twenty white coats following House down a hospital corridor. The patient’s freaky hearing-by-seeing hallucinations were also suitably trippy. The lengths House goes to keep her illness secret get a little ridiculous, but serve well as a blind test for the applicants.

Finally, ‘The Right Stuff’ starts off the surprisingly slow reintegration of Chase, Cameron and Foreman. House sees all three of them wandering the halls at different points, but after Wilson insists that they’ve all taken jobs elsewhere he wonders if he might be going mad. Usually I wouldn’t buy House falling for this, but I believed that the shock of seeing them again would be jarring enough to put him off his guard. (Side note: that’s two wins for Wilson in a row – the guy is on a roll!) It turns out that Cameron is in charge of the E.R. and Chase was called in by Wilson. Both get great returning scenes: Chase shows up at House's surgery to provide the correct diagnosis, and Cameron greets him more warmly with some casual flirting. Turned out Foreman really was working somewhere else though, which makes House one-third crazy. Sounds about right.

Another strong, fun episode. Keep it up House!


"I want to be normalcized. And independent!":Dirty Sexy Money

While I enjoyed the premiere of Dirty Sexy Money, I had some (I think) understandable concerns about its sustainability as a series. After watching the second episode, I am less concerned, but I am not sure if I like where its going. The problem was that certain types of jokes are only going to last for so long, but the second episode was almost completely devoid of any comedy at all.

This episode picked up where the last one left off; with Nick George (Peter Krause) continuing to work for the rich and famous Darlings as a means of investigating potential foul play amongst the Darlings in the death of his father in a plane crash. However, he still has to put up with all of their daily issues, almost none of which require the skill of a lawyer. His main tasks this week are to find the mother of Brian Darling's illegitimate son, since he does not want to claim him, and to make sure that everyone shows up for a photo shoot to promote Patrick Darling's potential candidacy for the U.S. Senate.

While doing this, he also makes some progress on the murder mystery front, speaking to the plane mechanic who we found out last episode was paid $100,000 by Brian (it wasn't for the murder, it was blackmail money regarding the illegitimate son) and stealing Tripp Darling's journal. Well, it looks like Tripp Darling didn't kill his father either, even though he did know about the affair between Nick's father and his wife Letitia Darling. In fact there is a scene at the photo shoot where Nick announces to the entire family that he stole Tripp's journal because he is trying to find out who killed his father. That was surprising to say the least. I had my suspicions that it would turn out none of them did it but that the series revealed (or at least implied) this so soon wasn't expected. The next likely suspect? A billionaire called Simon Elder, whom Nick's father was collecting information on, all stored in his briefcase unlocked with the help of Tripp at the end of the episode. I'm not sure how this will motivate Nick to keep working for the Darlings if he doesn't think one of them murdered his father, but we'll find out next week I'm sure.

The other Darling members had their own dramatic moments this week, with Brian finally accepting his son (although he still lies to his family and makes him pretend to be a Swedish orphan) after Nick discovers his mother has fled to Brazil and gets fed up and brings him to the photo shoot. Juliet, the younger twin, is living in a hotel in an air of fake independence, and refuses to go to the photo shoot and is replaced by a look-a-like. Unfortunately for her, her greatest rival and former friend is staying in the penthouse of the same hotel. I suppose that this is a setup for cattiness to come, but nothing has happened yet as the only Darling to see her new neighbor was her twin brother Jeremy, who was seduced by her. Patrick Darling wavers on running for Senate throughout the episode (his father wants him to, his mother doesn't) but eventually decides to take the plunge on the advice of his transsexual lover. Karen Darling unfortunately doesn't get much this episode, as the only thing she really does is pine for Nick and ask him to tell her fiance that he isn't allowed to be in the photo shoot. She really needs better material.

The best moments of the episode are probably those that contain Tripp (Donald Sutherland, who is clearly having fun with this) and Letitia (Jill Clayburgh, who I am glad got more time this episode), who both give good performances that add to the depth of their characters. Both of them show the regret they each have over her affair with Nick's dad with competence and subdued (surprising, for this show) emotion. There are also some good moments between Nick and his wife, but Krause, who has much less to do this episode, didn't get as many chances to shine as he did in the premiere. I'm not sure how I feel about William Baldwin yet as he is just sort of there; I don't know if he's doing a very good job playing a wooden character or a bad job playing something else. Jeremy was slightly less annoying this time around, but I haven't really been engaged in his or his sister Juliet's storylines yet. I still like Brian, who was a little less bitchy this episode but got a good scene with his son.

Now, back to what I said before. There wasn't really much going on this episode that was very funny. This could be either a good or bad thing in the long run. The show needs to do some character building, and the tone of the pilot simply would not be sustainable for a series. However I think it may be a mistake to delve completely into the drama category, because at least some of the reason for watching this show is to get trashy comedy out of it. So, my verdict is still out on this show, but we'll see in the weeks to come.


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

"I can hold my breath for a long time.": Pushing Daisies

Pushing Daisies, even in its pilot, combines so many things I usually find hard to take in television that I'm sort of surprised with how much I like it. But, indeed, it's a fine, fine pilot, and unlike everyone else, I think it would be setting us up for a fine, fine show, sort of a fairy tale Moonlighting, if you will. I could be proven wrong on this (I seem to be horrible at predicting what will and won't work this fall), but I'll stick by it for now.

The pilot (or "Pie-lette," as everyone involved with the show insists on calling it) starts out a little too bustling for its own good. And it's here that I'm going to talk about what I thought maybe worked a little too hard to make the show stick the landing -- the direction of Barry Sonnenfeld. Now, I liked Sonnenfeld's Maximum Bob well enough (ABC, while we're remaking old, relatively unknown shows I enjoyed, consider picking this one up too!), but here, he just tries too hard to make the whole thing look like a movie. Some of the stylistic choices here overwhelm the slightly sad core of the show, as though the desire to make this thing look like a million bucks overcame any sense of decorum ("And now we'll throw in some Claymation! And how about some zany camera angles?!"). This is most obvious in the show's first 10 minutes, which work overtime to establish the world's complicated universe and the rules it lives by. It's nice to have the rules upfront (it can be a little disorienting to not get the rules at all) for once. The world post-Lost has decided that disorientation is the way to go because that show nailed it so well. But to make disorientation work, you need a killer cast and a scenario that makes the disorientation seem normal and acceptable. Most of the new disorienters don't bother with this, so we end up with stuff like, say, Journeyman, which is an OK show, marred by how hard it is to figure out just what the hell is going on (I think it's more noticeable there because the time travel stuff is wedded to a fairly standard procedural). So when Pushing Daisies tells us upfront "Here's how the world here is going to work," it's a nice change of pace.

Still, the direction works so hard to slip all this exposition by us that the first ten minutes are headache-inducing. I honestly, honestly thought I might hate this. The combination of twee and showy was grating on me. But after those first ten minutes, the show settles down considerably and turns into something that lavishes attention on the justly praised script (by the great Bryan Fuller). I couldn't tell you exactly when the pilot turns from strained to confident, but I peg it as roughly at the point where we see Chuck's sad little life until she got on the cruise ship. From there, the thing is on the rails, setting up how Ned's life is going to work now that Chuck is in it and allowing Emerson (Chi McBride, one of our most underrated comic actors) to puncture the twee just as often as is needed. Without Emerson, this show wouldn't work (much as I liked Wonderfalls, that show could have used a skeptical private eye to roll his eyes at Jaye's wacky escapades sometimes).

What I like about the show so outnumbers what I don't like that I should spend a little time talking about it, I suppose, but it's much easier to just do a full paragraph of things that I thought were nifty. Anna Friel on her own is a LITTLE too much like the magic pixie girl (I believe the AV Club coined that term to describe Natalie Portman in Garden State) in every single indie movie where some sad boy finds that life still has a purpose, but she reins it in enough for me to figure she'll have it figured out by midseason or so. I like Lee Pace a lot. He's just the right sort of offputtingly interesting that you need at the center of a show like this. He's probably this season's America Ferrera, unless the show absolutely tanks (and with the amount of money spent on making sure it doesn't, I'd be surprised). The rest of the cast is good, especially Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene as Chuck's shut-in aunts. I'm not completely sold on Kristin Chenoweth, who just doesn't have enough to do yet, but she's an actress the small screen will eventually figure out how to harness properly. Again, faith.

What works most for me is the chemistry between Pace and Friel. The show simply doesn't work if we don't buy the doomed romance between Ned and Chuck. It's easy to screw up a will-they/won't-they pairing, especially when that's a central tenet of your show. So many shows have tried to force it by just pushing two attractive people together and hoping sparks fly. I don't know how the casting directors landed on Friel and Pace, but whatever they did worked. The chemistry is palpable, and that's going to help the show get over the hurdles of turning this whole thing into a series.

(Random caveat: I wish the show had been a little more serious about the way that Ned killed the funeral director indirectly. They almost got there by having Emerson give him a hard time, but it still swept that sort of thing under the rug too much. Hopefully the ramifications of what Ned did come back to bite him later in the season.)

I don't know if Pushing Daisies is a series. The degree of difficulty here is incredibly high. But it has been on a lot of shows of this ilk, and some have pulled it off. If anyone is going to make it work, it's Bryan Fuller, whose corkscrew plots and deadpan dialogue are a perfect fit for wherever this show might go. I realize I should probably be more cynical about this show's chances, but here's hoping they're unfounded. There's a great series lurking in here somewhere, and I have faith it will find its way out.


"Doctor Jeager, Doctor Cuervo, Doctor Captain Morgan. He has two titles.": Reaper

Yeah, yeah. I've been reading all sorts of complaints about how Reaper episode two isn't as good as the pilot, and Chuck episode two isn't as good as the pilot, and blah. Don't give up hope just yet folks! I perfectly enjoyed this ep, although it definitely suffered a little from rehash-itis. I'm always willing to forgive the second episode of a new show, though. Especially in shows like Chuck and Reaper, where the pilots introduce an entirely new situation for our hero and give away a lot of information at once. That means the writers are forced to try and recap this stuff as succinctly as possible for any new viewers. It also means that the second episode is kinda the template episode for all future episodes to come. It's where we see the skeleton idea of how the show will run week-to-week, although by the third episode the writers are usually already fooling with the formula and advancing stuff along. That second episode, though, well, it's a tricky one. I can think of a half dozen other shows this is true for just off the top of my head.

Anyway, my main criticism of this episode? Not enough Missy Peregrym! She got even hotter since last week! Her brief moments onscreen were fine, especially when she said the cart-recovery duty was her favorite because she got to see lots of movies and hang out. That sounds like, my perfect job. Especially if I got to hang out with Missy Peregrym. Damn! In all seriousness, though, I hope Sam and Andi get together sooner rather than later. There's isn't really a will-they-won't-they thing, it's more a when-the-hell-will-Sam-man-up-and-ask-this-girl-on-a-freakin'-date kinda thing. I hope they don't employ some lame plot device to drive them apart for a couple episodes, either. It's the inevitable, guys. You laid it all out there in the pilot. Let 'em do it already. Or at least get her in on the missions.

The mission itself was pretty darn similar to last week's, I'll admit. Okay, so the guy shot lightning instead of fire, but they're obviously gonna have to get creative quickly about these things or the monster-of-the-week stuff is gonna get boring quickly. Already I am wondering about the long-term future of this show, how they're going to keep things fresh, cause Sam, Sock and Ben dressing up like idiots to fight a dead dude is clearly already getting a bit creaky. Nevertheless. Sam, Sock and Ben have terrific friend-chemistry going. The collective freakout moments where they all yell and cry and laugh at each other at the same time while under elemental attack are something you can't fake. These guys are darn good together. Tyler Labine's little asides and conversational tics are terrific too. Plus, bring in his ex-girlfriend more than one scene per episode please! She raises Labine's game a notch every time they're together. Also, the bit where the RC car got crushed by a real car and Sock said "Okay, so...that happened". That was great. The real problem here isn't the action scenes or the goofy scenes in the Home Depot place, it's the investigation stuff. So far both Sam and the audience's brain hasn't really been heavily taxed and the damned's stories has been pretty mundane. Hopefully things will get a little more complex and interesting in future weeks.

Ray Wise was used pretty skimpily here too, but I'm more okay with that. He's so sensational, the writers should be trying to withhold him as much as possible because it makes it all the better when he shows up. However, his scenes were a little boring, mostly involving him needling Sam into doing his unholy duty. This is something we already went through in the pilot. I don't want to see Sam playing the 'hide the Satan box' game in episode three--he needs to embrace what he's doing, on some level at least, or else the show is gonna feel very uneasy. Plus Ray-Satan is much better when he's dropping casual pop culture references and smiling like a shark that just broke the glass bottomed boat. Less exposition, more larfs next week please. And, Ray Wise for the Emmy.

The final story here was Sam working up the courage to tell his mother he had lied to her in the pilot, and that he was still working for Satan. This was absolutely the right call storywise, and I'm glad they got it out of the way this quickly. Sam lying to his mom in the pilot was a nice quiet beat in a hectic pilot, plus it established the essential niceness of his character. However keeping it a secret would be kinda mean and patronizing, and it would lead to all sorts of "secret? what secret?" scenes like the ones we had today (and the ones we're gonna get for a while on Chuck)--let's be honest, those are usually boring. The only problem was, the family stuff didn't quite fit in with this episode, where there was always something else going on, somewhere else to run to, so it kinda felt jumbled and tacked on. That's a streamlining issue, though, and plenty of new shows have those. I'm still very excited about where Reaper is going. Don't desert it in droves, peeps! The numbers are good enough that this could actually SURVIVE on the CW. Exciting!


“I don’t kid about quiche”: Chuck

Okay, so that wasn’t nearly as disappointing as early word would have you believe. True, it wasn't as thrilling as the pilot, but with a pilot that hectic how could it be? Instead, ‘Chuck vs. The Helicopter’ takes a more leisurely approach. While not without its fair share of action (the fight in Wienerlicious being the most memorable of these), the overall story puts more focus on further introducing the core characters.

The main plot is a mixed bag. A doctor is brought in to try and remove the secrets from Chuck’s brain, but soon after is seemingly killed when his car explodes. Both agents suspect the other, prompting tensions of a violent variety as they duke it out while each trying to hold onto Chuck. As a provider of consistent thrills it’s not so successful. Chuck’s doubts about Sarah weren’t too compelling as the resolution - neither agent was responsible - was a given from the beginning. On the other hand, any episode which gives Baldwin loads to do and lets him and Zachary Levi play off each other can’t be so bad. The villain is kinda dull, but he’s also beside the point, posing an interesting question: is it worth investing more time on a villain-of-the-week if it means less time with the core cast? It remains to be seen how this balance will be handled.

The many stressful and near-death situations Chuck suffers this week allow Levi plenty of chances to jump around and freak out, but little else. He’s still an endearing lead, but could do with a few more funny lines. Ellie and Morgan were detached from the action and as such felt kind of aimless here, though I’m sure they’ll get more involved soon enough.

The real focus in this story was on the two warring agents, Sarah (not her real name apparently, but whatever) and Casey. Their dynamic gets more hostile this week – first they fight for control of Chuck and then later, in a bizarre and brilliant scene, they fight for real. Adam Baldwin is still hilarious, playing all his stuff deadpan and emotionless as he should. There’s a couple suggestions of how ruthless Casey might really be, coupled with a further reminder of his willingness to kill Chuck if he gets the order. I liked that where most shows would counterpoint this suggestion with a more optimistic moment, Casey got no such treatment, and so remains just a lovable psychopath.

As for Sarah, I didn’t quite buy her anger at Chuck for not having trusted her; the writers are clearly trying to paint her as the more human of the two agents, but Yvonne Strzechowski is overplaying it a bit. Still, I’m glad that she is a genuine character rather than just eye candy (although she is that too), although the disadvantage of her model-like looks is that I don’t buy even the suggestion that she’d go for Chuck. Levi and Strzechowski have chemistry, but as of yet I'm not sold. Then again, this suggestion might well remain no more than that, at least for a while.

Overall, not the most eventful of sophomore efforts, but any weaknesses in the larger plot were made up for by the smaller, character moments. Chuck can’t be expected to stage adrenal efforts that rival Tony Scott blockbusters every week, nor should it try. The show has already established that it can stage suitably awesome shootouts and car chases; whether it has a genuine heart, however, is still a question mark.


Heroes Tuesdays: Season Two, Episode 25, “Lizards”

It’s both understandable and frustrating that after the first season of Heroes, in which the characters’ journeys crossed paths repeatedly and various secrets were unearthed, the writers have basically hit the reset button. The entire cast was assembled in New York for the Season One finale; now everyone is spread out across the world again, pursuing their own interests, although thankfully by now most of our heroes are comfortable in the use of their abilities. Only Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia), rendered amnesiac by his journey (and subsequent explosion) into the heavens, is doing the perplexed/amazed facial expressions dance as he shows off his various powers, and in his case it might be a good thing. In the doe-eyed, idealistic Peter (who mimics and subsequently retains the abilities of any other hero he gets near), the writers found a de facto lead character for their show, but also stumbled across a fairly common problem in superhero writing--Peter is simply too powerful for his own good.
Read the rest of the article here.


Cavemen and Carpoolers: Open thread

I was all set to watch the new first episode of Cavemen and weigh in here, but my DVR chose to be hinky (something it ONLY does with ABC, for some reason), so I didn't get to see it. The show wasn't sent out to critics. My current, er, methods of watching the show are progressing rather slowly, all things considered, so I'll just open up this thread and let you talk about how the show actually wasn't the end of the world (or maybe it was -- I'm just going on general consensus here and the vibe I got from the original pilot, which was much too one-note but not an abomination or anything).

Anyway, Carpoolers, which follows, has ended up being the show I was the most disappointed by. I wasn't looking forward to it at all (outside of my general affection for Fred Goss and the unfortunately canceled Sons and Daughters), but once I watched it, I was surprised to find the soul of a solid little family comedy lurking inside of the latest way too wacky single-camera show that tries to capture the soul of Arrested Development or The Office. These new single-camera shows eschew believable characters and relationships in order to just have wacky hijinks fly all over the place. It just doesn't work. A second episode is marginally better, but it relies too much on the story of a married guy giving his ring to an unmarried guy who wants to seduce a woman. Yawn.

Anyway, it's quiet day for us here at SDD. Expect thoughts on Reaper (and Chuck, hopefully), House and Bones today. Chill out and wait for the debut of Pushing Daisies tonight.


Tuesday, October 02, 2007

"Propensity? I got propensity.": Everybody Hates Chris and Aliens in America

Everybody Hates Chris returns for it's third year, a show everybody likes, but nobody watches. And to be honest, this show typically falls to the bottom of my DVR, always an entertaining diversion, but rarely anything more than that.

With that in mind, I was still excited for the premiere of my favorite family sitcom on tv. My excitement was obviously misplaced. Even before the redesigned opening credits aired, the show was all wrong. The episode features Chris having to talk with a guidance counselor because of some sub-par assessment test scores, only to have the counselor played by . . . himself. Rather, the real Chris Rock.

Now, this is disconcerting for a number of reasons, not the least of which being the weird supernatural, paradox, flux-capacitor vibe it gives off. (Though I know it shouldn't, it still struck me as completely odd and out of place.) I can understand the want to have Rock appear on the show, to boost sagging ratings, or, well, just because it's his show. The problem lies in the fact that Rock already IS on the show. When I say this I don't just mean the character Tyler James Williams portrays (very well, I might add) but refer to the constant narration Rock provides for the show. This episode then, featured not only Rock as the guidance counselor, but then offering narration, occasionally in the same scene. It wasn't confusing necessarily, but odd, and completely took me out of the episode.

Beyond that was the fact that the premiere just wasn't very funny. Rock seemed overwhelmingly amused by whatever he said, while I was left cold. His advising Chris to make sure college was really what he wanted out of life was a good tip, but seemed a little premature to tell a kid just entering his ninth grade year. Beyond that, Chris' family was relegated to the B plot, in which Julius was taking care of getting the kids new school clothes. This relied heavily on the "Julius is cheap" character flaw to provide all the laughs. (This, along with "Julius works a lot" seems to be all they really care to tell us about his character.) Additionally, it seems like this would be a task that Rochelle would undertake. Nevertheless, it ends up in an argument (as it always does) that is neatly resolved in the episode's final moments.

My disappointment in this episode is pretty high. It has so much potential, that I just hate seeing it mired in lackluster plotting. It's a great lead in for Aliens in America, which brings me to . . .

Aliens in America was one of my top five pilots of the fall and a perfect sidekick for Everybody Hates Chris. After all, who can better relate to a black teen in a all-white high school, than a Muslim teen in a, well, all-Wisconsin high school? No one, that's who.

Except, therein lies the brilliance of the show. Raja, a Muslim foreign exchange student, comes to live with a white bread, Wisconsin family, expecting a friendly jock to befriend and elevate the popularity of their nerdy eldest son, Justin. As you can imagine, they are a bit bewildered by the turn of events and much drama (and comedy, thankfully) ensues. It's during this time however, that Justin discovers the kindred spirit that is his new house guest. Raja is an outsider, sure, but so is Justin, and this discovery opens up a whole new world for him.

I'm so pleased when shows like this make it on the air because they serve as the perfect counterpoint to the glut of other teen based shows out there. (See: Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, and that's just the CW.) Where those shows glamorize and sexualize, Chris and Aliens show high school for what it really is: a painful, ugly journey, often fraught with with hilarity, both intentional and unintentional.

The cast is pitch-perfect, with the exception of Scott Patterson as the father, Gary Tolchuk. Patterson tries to play the dad as a nerdy, penny-pinching pushover, and while sometimes playing against type works, this is not one of those times. All in all, though, this show is something to watch, perhaps it'll even rise to surpass it's predecessor.


"Don't travel with citrus. It explodes, I don't know why.": Journeyman

It's always tricky to judge a show by only the pilot. Even the most interesting of pilots can be completely derailed by their second episode (best recent example of this: The Nine). Unfortunately, Journeyman fell head first into the pilot trap, because what last week appeared to be the start of a somewhat compelling show took a huge step backward with a disappointing second installment.

Not to say that the entire episode was bad. What worked in the pilot still worked the second time around, mainly Dan's attempt to figure out his new time traveling ability and his continued encounters with Livia. She confirms they are both time traveling and she is seemingly still alive, but when Dan asks where she "lives" she becomes very vague and doesn't give him an answer. She does give him some advice about his journeys (Like not traveling with citrus, which, how did she end up finding that out? Does she keep grapefruit in her purse?) before leaving mysteriously, again. Their interactions are quite interesting, but I can't help but feel their story might work better in a film than in an ongoing series. Is there really enough story there to sustain a show?

What didn't work in the pilot was the person-of-the-week story, and I'm sad to say that's what drags down the second episode as well. It's obvious that they are trying to establish a sort of procedural feel here, so that viewers can jump in at any episode and understand what is going on. The problem is, the stories so far are far too weak to carry such a large portion of the show, and therefore end up dragging everything down into a pit of mediocrity. This week's story of a baby delivered on an airplane (which was like a ridiculous, white, 1970's version of Soul Plane) who, by Dan's intervention, ends up giving bone marrow to save a guy's life that we only ever briefly meet, was completely forgettable. If the time travel somehow seemed to tie into Dan's life or the lives of his friends and felt like it had actual consequences for the characters we are getting to know, it might be better. But as it stands, it's very hard to worry about the fate of people we know we'll never see again.

Journeyman is still a very well-crafted show with a great look, decent acting and competent enough writing, enough that it is frustrating that the story is so lacking. I'll be around for a few more weeks to see if the show can step up its game, but otherwise I think I'll be content let Dan take the rest of his journey without me.


"This just in. Look at my hand. How weird is my hand?": How I Met Your Mother

After last week's excellent premiere, it was inevitable that Mother would take a step or two back, but this was actually one of their weaker efforts in a while overall, even if there were some very funny bits scattered throughout the episode. Part of the problem, I think, was that one of the main plots of the episode was taken from Seinfeld (and one of the episodes I've actually seen!) and the other plot centered around Robin's rather unfunny boyfriend and a large collection of unfunny backpacker caricatures. That the episode worked as often as it did is tribute to the easy chemistry this show has with its audience.

In some ways, it was a noble try from the show at having three plots all running at the same time. Sadly, the show's comic rhythms usually suffer from this sort of plotting. It's better to have one main plot and a smaller B-plot with possibly a runner of a C-plot. This episode contained three plots, all of roughly equal weight, and the only one that was amusing throughout was the Marshall and Lily story (as Marshall struggled to write an appropriate death letter for his wife in case he passed away, while Lily's death letter was a collection of useful information, nothing more). I'm not sure if this was written better than the other two plots or if this was just something I hadn't seen a million times, but I enjoyed how its familiar twists and turns unfolded, particularly in the final gag (mostly for the newspaper in the background, which read, as near as I could tell, "NYC Lawyer Captures Nessie" -- looks like Marshall's livin' the dream). Even the old age makeup worked for me, and I usually hate that sort of thing.

One of the other great things about the episode was the way it reawakened the Barney/Robin chemistry. The show capitalized on this in spades in the back half of season one, but it was lost in season two, a necessary demise in the face of Ted and Robin's relationship. I don't necessarily want to see Barney and Robin get together ever, but it might be fun to see them discover that they would make good friends with benefits for each other.

I wasn't so sure about the Ted and Barney posing as tourists plot. For one thing, Seinfeld did it better. For another thing, it just meandered along and didn't really go anywhere (though Barney's elaborate back story for the two was amusing in fits and starts). Fortunately, the plot came to a head in Ted's rant about New Jersey. It wasn't the kindest thing ever said about the Garden State, but it at least put a capper on the storyline, which was what the meandering affair probably needed (it was also probably the funniest moment of the episode all around). It is nice to see Ted as Barney's wingman and see what he missed so very much in season two, and Ted is a little bit better as a devil-may-care single guy than a romantic swooner, but I still wanted something more from the storyline.

I wasn't horribly enraptured by the Robin storyline either. I like how Cobie Smulders has turned into that rarest of things on TV -- a funny hot girl (other examples include Becki Newton on Ugly Betty and Jamie Pressly on My Name Is Earl -- though her character is far from hot). And I liked both her marijuana high and the way she conversed with her vacation self (and Barney's reaction to just how hot and twisted the dream got). But Gael was a laugh killer, even when the gang was trying to use big words to talk around him. I like that the show thought Enrique Iglesias would bring in the ratings, but it really seems like he didn't, sadly. And the backpackers crowding Robin's living room also failed to take off as either characters or a plot device. So the story ended up being kind of a wasted one.

I like that everybody's back to the beginning, so we can start the story over again. But I thought that this episode ended up mostly being one that didn't work all that well. I'm not going to proclaim that the show is in a slump or anything stupid (not after the excellent premiere), but here's hoping the show rebounds as quickly as it has in the past next week.


Monday, October 01, 2007

"You have a better chance at banging me on that bar than you do of talking to her.":Prison Break

Every now and then there is an episode of Prison Break where really not that much happens to serve the overall plot as a whole and it feels more like a procedural show. Michael Scofield's problem of the week, if you will. Well this was one of those episodes so there isn't all that much to talk about. The entire thing centers around Michael and Lincoln's attempts to arrange a cell phone call between Sara and Michael in a proof of life scenario. This despite the fact that at the very beginning of the episode Lincoln gets pictures of both L.J. and Sara holding up the current newspaper. Now, we all know that Sarah Wayne Calles is off the show, but could they have been any more blatant about using a different actress for this picture? It looks like her, sort of, if you don't really look at the picture closely at all. But it is clearly not her. Not that this show has any remorse about recasting; I think they have recast Sucre's girlfriend, Maricruz, at least once if not twice already.

Before I talk about that though, I'll talk about what else is going on both in Sona and outside the prison. Bellick is on a quest to get shoes this episode! Fascinating stuff. He eventually steals them from someone who he was fighting with earlier in the episode when the guy was busy giving Lechero a haircut. Lechero having a haircut is a pretty weird plot device seeing as how he, you know, doesn't have any hair. If he can have a telephone and a television don't you think he could maybe score an electric razor as well? Mahone finds out from his lawyer that he will not be having a trial date for a year, which naturally angers him. He threatens his lawyer in a fit of rage while simultaneously asking for a new supply of his drug that he's fiending for, Varatril. I went through the trouble of looking it up because I was curious and it is fictional. By the way he's acting though I am guessing it is supposed to be a sedative of some kind. He also has a plot-convenience conversation with Whistler, who doesn't trust Scofield, where he tells him that Scofield will do anything for the ones he loves but will screw anyone else over. Considering that Scofield reveals to Whistler that he is going to help him break out because of Sara, I guess Whistler will trust Michael now. Sucre doesn't do much at all this episode except beg Lincoln for money, then show up drunk on his doorstep. It looks like the show is suffering from the same problem last season, where it has to make up boring subplots for all of the peripheral characters. I hope that these people have something to do with the escape from Sona soon, as their plot threads are just irritating me at this point.

T-Bag, at least, has something to do with the main arc this time around. Michael decides that he needs a cellphone to talk to Sara and threatens to reveal to the religious Panamanians that T-Bag is a rapist and child molestor unless he helps him attain use of the phone for a period of time. T-Bag, not wanting to die, lets Michael use the phone while Lechero is out getting his haircut. I quietly wonder to myself what happened to the regular phone that Lechero was talking on last episode, and why he thinks it is so important to get it charged so quickly that he is willing to leave it alone for someone to steal. T-Bag also plants information in Lechero's head that his minions want to overthrow him, so we may be seeing a power coup in the next few weeks. Anyway, the cellphone is the important thing, and Michael gets to receive a call from Sara after all. But he forgets to put it back completely on the charger, prompting Lechero to check his outgoing calls and discover that a call was made to Lincoln! He does not, however, check his incoming calls to realize that he was called by a kidnapper. He asks his minions to investigate this number, which means that he will of course find out that Lincoln is Michael's brother, leading to trouble for Michael later. You know, if I had a cellphone in a prison, I would probably keep it with me at all times even if other people feared me and even if it needed to be charged. This whole scenario was just completely ridiculous and hilarious I thought.

When talking to Sara, who is clearly not Sarah Wayne Calles judging by the voice (and I wonder why they even bother to show the shots of her back while she's talking, everyone knows its not her), she tells Michael that rescuing her is a "lost cause" and (I'm paraphrasing here) "its like they're giving us until midnight when we need until 3:00 AM." I realize immediately that this is some kind of code. When Michael tells Lincoln about it, it takes him a lot longer. You're smart, Lincoln, really you are! There happens to be a statue of The Lady of the Lost Causes, Saint Rita, in Panama City, so Lincoln (after a tip from a cab driver, because goodness knows he can't figure out anything on his own) goes there. Since it would be bad television if Lincoln was smart in this situation, he does not figure out the three o'clock clue right away, so just when he does Sara breaks a window inside the building in which she is being held captive and her captors escape with her and L.J. before Lincoln can set them free. You're going to be in trouble now with that Company woman Lincoln! When talking to her later on the phone, she reveals that she has left him something in the garage of his hotel, a punishment for his transgression. We see a box with blood dripping out of it; perfect for the size of someone's head. My guess? Sara is dead, and we won't have to see fake-Sara any longer.


"Tequila solves everything.": Brothers and Sisters

There was a time when I could never bring myself to watch this show. I would let them pile up in the TiVo and watch them all at once, inevitably ending up disappointed that I didn't have more episodes to watch. Things have obviously changed since, in SDD's fall TV draft, David and I nearly came to blows over who got to review Brothers & Sisters this year. While this happened for a variety of reasons, I think one of the most important was that we could both sense that Brothers & Sisters was on the verge of becoming something a lot bigger than it was last year. Indeed, Sally Field's surprise Emmy win shocked few here at SDD, who expect big things to come with this show.

Sunday's premiere entitled, "Home Front" examined the ongoing travails of the family Walker a summer after we last saw them. The episode is bookmarked by two video letters, one from Nora, one from Rebecca, to still deployed Justin. In addition to taking place months later, the episode also features Kitty's birthday, which means that it's been a year since Father Walker took his final, fateful plunge.

Since I'm still not used to dealing with such elaborately casted shows, let me just recap where everyone is at when we rejoin the action at the Walker compound: Nora is trying to stay busy and sane, despite the fact that she hasn't heard from Justin in three weeks; Rebecca is still living with Nora, ignoring Holly, and generally being Nora's idea of a dream daughter; Kevin is still dating Senator McAllister's pastor brother; Tommy is a busy new father, while his wife seems to be suffering from a postpartum depression, coupled with grief and a serious case of the bitter; Sarah and Joe are still separated, though speaking, and Sarah has taken to frequenting a "Little Children"-esque playground; Saul is still being pursued by some guy who used to be on The O.C.; Holly misses Rebecca; and Kitty is furiously trying to balance the campaign and the coming nuptials. Phew.

This show's bread and butter is the chaos that comes when the family is all together, so the likelihood that Kitty's birthday would pass without a full-out celebration was never really an option in my mind, regardless of how the plot tried to convince me of such. And, indeed, the show really began firing on all cylinders. Of course, this always seems to happen once we introduce alcohol to the situation, but that's neither here nor there. I know I've harped on it before, but this show does family interactions second to none. While the storylines may tend toward the melodramatic, they're sold so convincingly in the quiet moments between characters, or even in the loud moments. There is an honesty in 30something siblings name-calling or telling each others secrets, a purity of emotion in the hurt that comes when your mom is playing favorites, despite how justified she may feel by doing it.

The problem comes because despite how well the show may handle their melodrama, it just doesn't work to give everyone their own plotline. This week's episode ended up stuffed to the gills (as you can see above) and nearly every plot seemed as though it got the short shrift. The only ones that really seemed to work were those of Nora and Kitty and that could very well be because they got the most time to play out. If the show wants to keep it's audience involved in all the characters, we're going to need a lot more time with them, lest Tommy's wife come off as merely bitchy, or Saul, well, I have NO idea what's going on with Saul.

Brothers & Sisters needs to figure out how to balance their characters before too much of the season slips by. My gut feeling is that this was a one-time-only thing to get everyone (including the new viewers they were surely hoping to attract) caught up with the goings on with the entirety of the Walker clan. It's definitely something we'll keep an eye on in the future.

As for next week, look for continuing faux-drama regarding Justin. Honestly, does anyone out there think the show would kill him off? I didn't think so. Thus making the "next week on" seriously irritating what with some scene obviously taking place at a military funeral. Let me know what you guys thought of the episode. Tell me if you think this has the "break-out hit" potential that I think it does. And please tell Todd that there is no way Justin and Rebecca end up together. *shudders*


"We might as well sit on the porch and play banjos!": Desperate Housewives

Despite all of the critical praise, awards and hype surrounding Desperate Housewives’ first three seasons, it’s never been more than pleasantly diverting for me. However, even when the show hit a creative nadir in season two, something about the residents of Wisteria Lane kept me coming back for more. Although I think this show is neither as clever nor as groundbreaking as it is believes itself to be, I absolutely credit it with encouraging the return of adult soap operas to primetime programming, and for that all soap lovers should be grateful.

Last season we left the housewives in various stages of agony and ecstasy. Susan and Mike finally closed the annoying “will they or won’t they” door for good by getting married. Bree and Orson returned from exile with a baby on the way, only instead of the baby being Bree’s as her baby bump would attest, it turns out it is really Danielle’s that Bree is pretending to bear herself by wearing pregnancy pads. Lynette learned she had cancer. Gabrielle married political climber Victor, only to overhear him treating her more like a political commodity than a wife and immediately running to the arms of Carlos. And Edie? Edie hung herself after a Gabby-smitten Carlos gave her the boot.

Or did she? Turns out, after Carlos dumped her Edie meticulously staged her suicide attempt so that Carlos would rescue her and be cuckolded into staying with her. That’s not pathetic at all, wanting a man who would only stay with you out of fear of what you will do if he left. Girl power! It seems Edie’s plan didn’t accommodate for nosy neighbors, and when Carlos gets distracted by a neighbor's anger of his incorrectly placed trash cans she ends up almost accidentally finishing what she started. He saves her just in time, though, and her plan appears to work, as any ideas he had of leaving her have gone by the wayside.

Not to say Carlos is in love with her, because he’s too busy planning secret rendezvous with Gabby to worry about falling in love with Edie. Gabby, somehow managing to be simultaneously sympathetic and dreadful at the same time throughout this entire storyline, wants Carlos to leave Edie and she will leave Victor so they can be together again. Since their relationship was so wonderful the first time. Carlos refuses, so she tries to make it work with Victor – only to run back to Carlos’ bed at the first sign Victor is planning to continue to put his political career ahead of his marriage. I don’t know why she cares about saving her marriage, considering she’s in love with Carlos and heard Victor saying he only married her for the Latino vote on her wedding day, but let’s just go with it. It’s Gabby, she can’t be alone.

Bree is still working the pregnancy pads and finding it more and more difficult to keep up the ruse. Andrew, somehow becoming the only sane person in the Van De Kamp family, refuses to be involved with the charade. After a close call with a barbeque fork to the belly at a neighborhood party, Orson tells Bree they should just tell the truth, and Marcia Cross rocks my world with a speech about how she messed her own kids up so much, and just wants a chance to do things right this time. Completely understandable, yet oh so woefully misguided at the same time. I love Bree.

Susan is trapped in the 80’s sitcom portion of the evening, finding out she might be going into menopause and freaking out, only to learn she is actually pregnant. Mike is ecstatic and Susan acts happy as well, but we learned earlier in the episode she doesn’t want any more children. I already don’t care.

Lynette is busy with chemo and keeping her cancer a secret from everyone. She only reveals her illness when a pushy school mom gives her a hard time for not helping with any of the school events that year. This reveal comes simultaneously with the reveal to the other housewives of her condition, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say Felicity Huffman broke my heart a little bit in that scene. She really brings so much to the character, and the scene in which the housewives band together and declare “no more secrets” (while all lying through their teeth) is a touching one.

Now, on to the new blood. Susan’s old neighborhood friend Katherine (a PERFECT Dana Delaney) has moved back to the neighborhood with her new, younger husband Adam (Nathan Fillion, who makes the world better by simply existing) and daughter Dylan in tow. Like everyone on Wisteria Lane, they have a secret and I’m pretty sure that secret has something to do with Dylan, considering that although Dylan grew up on the block and was Julie Meyer’s best friend she doesn’t seem to remember anything about that time of her life. There’s also some sort of nonsense with a mystery room, but considering what happened the last time the show had a mysteriously locked room I’m going to forget that part because….NATHAN FILLION, PEOPLE.

All in all, a pretty solid start to season four. Definitely enough of a setup to be at least pleasantly diverting. And did I mention Nathan Fillion?