Saturday, October 20, 2007

“I was Jack the Ripper”: Smallville

Is it any surprise that Dean Cain is actually more suited to playing an evil psychopath than he ever was to playing the good guy? The funniest thing is that he plays Dr. Curtis Knox, this week’s one-off villain, pretty much identically to how he once played Superman. There’s something slimy about Cain, making him well-suited for the role of Knox but woefully inadequate as a likeable protagonist, one of the reasons I never much liked ‘Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman’.

Never mind that though. This week’s Smallville, ‘Cure’ was a small step up from last week’s lacklustre offering—if not exactly an original premise. Knox is a scientist who lures meteor freaks with a procedure that will cure them of their affliction. Chloe, who is increasingly panicking at Jimmy’s constant reiteration of how much he hates meteor-infected folks, takes interest. Unlike us, she is unaware that Knox is actually kidnapping some of his patients and transferring their organs to the woman he loves, hoping to make her immortal like he is (a pointless development that is never explained). Ignoring reason and her masses of past experience, Chloe goes to see Knox. He kidnaps her, and is about to harvest her when Clark comes to the rescue. It is at this point that the story takes its most ludicrous turn—Knox accidentally kills his love, and as he cries over her corpse, Clark and Chloe segue instantly from scared to sympathetic. Aww, look, he’s alright, he was only murdering people so that she’d live forever, but now he’s ended up killing her as well! That is some tragic shit! That’s some Shakespeare right there! Vomit.

Also vomit: Chloe and Jimmy’s relationship troubles. It always frustrates me when a perfect couple is not even allowed a single second to be happy before the melodrama kicks in. I understand that there’s no drama in a happy couple, but like George and Callie before them, Jimmy and Chloe always seem to be going through contrived disputes that make no real sense. This week, Chloe totally blows off Jimmy because she's so obsessed by her newfound meteor freak status. Then she finds him hanging out with Kara, and more than looking shocked, she looks thunderstruck. Chloe’s motives in ‘Cure’ are highly questionable. Writers Al Septien and Turi Meyer try to write off Chloe’s out of character actions as a result of high emotion (an excuse too often employed by TV shows) but it’s not buyable, mostly because Chloe has always been Smallville’s smartest character. Still, I like that Chloe is so horrified by her new abilities, and welcome a more creative attempt at exploring these worries in the coming episodes.

What really annoyed me about this story, and what is a constant problem with Smallville, is how it disintegrates its key couples. The thing is, viewers invest in these relationships. Some without realising that (due to the rules of TV writing) they’ll never work out, and some in spite of this knowledge. I fall happily into that latter group. Stupidly, I invest myself in relationships I enjoy. Chloe and Jimmy are a perfect example. Clearly, these two complete each other. They have been set-up as a perfect couple who just took a while to get together properly. This season, they are finally together and happy – or at least they were. ‘Cure’ seem them break it off, again. It’s not that I didn’t see this coming, or that I didn’t buy the reasoning (Jimmy feels ostracized because Chloe refuses to tell him what’s going in her life); I’m just tired. I’m tired of the Smallville writers taking any excuse to break apart a perfectly good couple, then bringing them back together, and then breaking them apart again. It’s not believable, nor is it part of these characters’ journeys – it’s a lack of any other ideas combined with pure laziness. And I’m not just talking about Chloe and Jimmy. ‘Cure’ also sees the beginning of the inevitable problems between Clark and Lana. At the opening of this episode, the two are happy, the perfect couple. That lasts ONE SCENE. We soon find out that Lana has her own disturbing secrets that she is hiding from Clark. To complain about this in the early seasons of a show would be ignorant of how TV works. That I have to complain about in a show’s SEVENTH season shows Smallville’s writers to be the ignorant ones.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Smallville is Smallville, you could say (in fact, I’ll be disappointed if Carrie doesn’t post a comment in this vein). ‘Cure’ was ridiculous fun, typically well-structured as Smallville’s ‘freak of the week’ plotlines often are. Yet to praise a contained story while the continuous ones take such infuriating turns would surely be to miss the point.


"As soon as I met her, I knew I wanted her to be Mrs...whoever the hell I am.": Men in Trees

It's a strange experience, watching these episodes that were supposed to air last season. Because of the interruption, all of the characters are in the same place they were when we left them last year and it feels odd. Stagnant somehow, like we're just killing time waiting for the real season two to start. Not to say there weren't significant plot developments this episode -- because there were -- its just that these plot developments felt strange coming two episodes into the season.

The meat of the episode revolved around two main storylines, Marin and Jack spending the night in the woods and Sara's fight to retain custody of her son. Marin and Jack end up together by accident, the overly twee result of his desire to tape otters mating and her desire to find the perfect wild ingredient for a stew. She runs into Jack and gets lost trying to find her way out of the forest, and then ends up getting herself poisoned by a wild plant she mistakes for garlic. They share a nice night together waiting for the otters to mate, and the purpose of this encounter is obviously to show us that Marin and Jack are meant for each other and give Lynn an excuse to book it out of town at the end of the episode, which she does. This is a huge development in the show, but coming directly after an episode where it was re-established that Jack and Lynn were together and Marin and Jack were over, it feels strange and a bit forced. I know the writers are only dealing with the situation ABC dealt them and this episode has been in the can since early 2007, but it is just awkward.

Not having such a romantic day is Sara, whose deadbeat Dad ex-husband has come back into the picture and is fighting for full custody of their son. He's played by regular Vancouver player Callum Keith Rennie (a.k.a. crazy Cylon Leoben) so you know he's going to be kind of a dick. And dick he is, using Sara's prostitute past as a method to gain custody. Luckily for Sara, police officer Celia is subpoenaed but lies under oath that she has no recollection of Sara ever being a prostitute in Elmo. Sara retains custody of her son, but decides to let her ex have visitation rights because she wants him to know his father. Aw. The best part of this story is that Nicholas Lea makes an appearance as Sara's hot, sensitive minister ex-boyfriend. I love Krycek.

Also in this episode, Patrick starts to have misgivings about his last name since it doesn't represent his biological father. He changes it from Bachelor to O'Bachelorton, a mixture of his, Buzz's, and Annie's last names. It sounds silly, but it was rather cute because Patrick is just adorable.

Next week, the word spreads that Lynn left town and Jack admits to Marin he messed everything up with them. Christ Almighty, if Marin starts dating Cash instead of Jack I might just hurl.


"I've seen you play with a hangover many times, and you played like a champ.": Friday Night Lights

(Delayed thoughts on the absolutely remarkable Mad Men season finale and the last three episodes of The Office up over the weekend. People don't pay us to do this, so bear with us as we catch up. -- ed.)

Somewhere in the middle of last night's Friday Night Lights episode, the show suddenly seemed to shrug off its melodrama and remember what it did so well in its first season. The episode up until this point was full of strange drama and strained conflict. But when Tim Riggins showed up at church to impress Lyla Garrity, the show fell back into what it does best -- earnest docudrama about the perils of growing up in the middle-of-nowhere Texas. The show sat back and just observed the worshipers at Lyla's megachurch, not even trying to offer up a statement on them (most shows would have been judgmental, though a few would have been patronizing). Riggins similarly hung back until he was listening to the pastor's message and seemingly moved by it. FNL has always had an interesting relationship with religion. It knows that to accurately portray its characters, it has to involve religion, but it often feels distanced from the whole idea, as though it's just a little too prickly to engage with it. Points, then, to the show for honestly engaging with Lyla's conversion and NOT just making it a bit of business for her to overcome in order to get back together with Street or Riggins (though the latter certainly misinterpreted her interest in his genuine experience at the church, making a failed pass at her).

The church scene was everything that Friday Night Lights is at its best and everything that I wish the show was being on a weekly basis. Sadly, tonight's episode was probably the worst of the show's run yet, even if it adequately put all of the pieces in place to reset the status quo and get things back to where they need to be for the show to work again. The thing is, I really wish the show didn't HAVE to set the pieces back in place. I understand the desire to mess with things to create drama, but by breaking apart all of the things that made the show work in season one, the writers have created a show where the warmth, humor and reality of the first season has given way to melodramatic plot twist after melodramatic plot twist. Some of this is working beautifully (Julie and Matt's breakup made perfect sense and has also led to mostly believable wounds on both sides -- more on some of the unbelievable ones in a bit), but much of it just feels like drama for drama's sake (particularly the Coach Taylor absence).

The Taylor absence is so grating because it doesn't make a lot of sense. Why wouldn't Julie and Tami have been with him in Austin all summer anyway? And why has it taken him so long to see just how much things are falling apart without him? I get that the show wants to show what the town is like without its strong center, but I think that Dillon and the characters we've met who live there are a lot more resilient than the writers give them credit for. I continue to be unimpressed with the new coach, who is the first utterly loathsome character on the show, someone completely without nuance. His general inability to guide the Panthers in any reasonable way (and the way in which he exacerbates the weird Smash/Saracen rivalry) and his constant yelling leave no doubt in your mind that Taylor is the only man for this job. How did this new coach get hired anyway? Did he yell at the Dillon school board until they relented? Tami and Julie's fight was perfectly written, acted and staged right up until Julie heaped on us the general idea of the storyline ("DAD LEFT US AND GRACIE IS A BABY, SO SHE NEEDS MORE ATTENTION THAN ME!"), which just felt like something the character would never say in so bald-faced a way.

Part of the problem with this season so far is that everyone in the cast is acting the hell out of the material they've been given, and the directors continue to turn in stunning work. This has led to a line of thought that if the show MUST be doing melodramatic storylines like Tyra and Landry's murder plotline, they're being done about as well as they could be done. But, honestly, this cast and these directors could have made the season of Laverne and Shirley where Laverne was the only original cast member left seem like the second coming of The Sopranos, so I'm not sure I completely buy that theory, especially when so many of the plot developments seem so hollow at the core. Of course Taylor's not going to stay in Austin, and of course he's going to give family concerns as his reason for leaving the position there, but the numerous pieces the show has shoved around the board artlessly have made the whole thing feel like a time waster. Last season's FNL would have gone out of its way to show every side of the matter; this season's FNL just wants to introduce some drama for the sake of having drama.

One of the things that I miss about first season Dillon was just how funny it was. Sure there are some all right jokes in these episodes, but they're also missing the sheer comedy of Matt showing up in a Member's Only jacket to pick up Julie for a date or Landry helping Riggins with his assignments. I don't think the show has to be a laugh riot, but one of the first things to go in its pursuit of twistier storylines has been that element of humor that always made the show feel very humane. It almost makes what's going on seem incredibly dry.

I've resolved not to say anything about Landry and Tyra until they again dominate an episode (which looks like next week), but the plotline continues to horrify me in just how much I enjoy watching it, if that makes sense. I continue to be rather insulted by the idea that Tyra would fall for Landry thanks to this, and the development of the OMG WATCH THAT MUST BE FOUND BECAUSE OMG GRANDPA IS COMING was just too much, but the actors are selling it enough that it ended up being one of the least of my concerns tonight. (I mean, you have to have larger concerns in any episode where three plotlines run directly through Riggins for some reason, including one that has Jason Street losing common sense and hoping against hope that he can go to Mexico to be cured. I get that he really wants his old life back, but there's just no resolution to this storyline that won't disappoint, either because it repeats what we already know or because it does something completely implausible.)

The final straw was Matt going crazy, apparently, and tackling Smash after Smash won the game for the Panthers (also, it was good to have Smash, who's barely been in the show this season, back). I get that the kid's at a low point, but this felt out of character. I'm also not thrilled to see him eventually hook up with the maid he hired to take care of his grandmother (I liked how she spent a whole monologue telling us about how she wasn't a cliche and then ended the episode by giving him a massage while singing in Spanish). But, hey, Saracen's a dumb kid, so I'll let him be for a while.

There's nothing here that's unfixable by any means, and so much of this is still remarkable television. But the show feels like it's sliding toward some weird hybrid of itself and a more accessible program, and I'm not sure that hybrid will ever be enough to sate either the show's fans or the unwashed masses.


Friday, October 19, 2007

"And I just kept going hoping I would find the one lie that made sense of all the others!": Everybody Hates Chris, Aliens in America and Boondocks.

It’s depressing to think that some of my favorite shows have already gotten the doldrums. Perhaps you’ve noticed my conspicuous absence from the site for the last week or so (or more likely, you haven’t). A combination of factors including family in from out of town, illness and a serious and debilitating case of the Mondays have all played a part in my absence. However, the main excuse I’m using for not writing is that I’m bored. My shows are BORING. I know that’s not a good, or even valid in some cases, excuse, but it’s what I’m sticking with for the moment.

Take Everybody Hates Chris, for example. What used to be a fun show to pay the bills during, now drags along, making me wish I had a check book to balance. In Chris’ defense, it’s an inevitable turn of events, as any show that centers around a teenage boy will surely follow the boys adventures in independence and focus less on his interactions with his family. Unfortunately, the family aspect is where this show’s strength lies. As talented as Tyler James Williams is, he’s just not as interesting as his supporting characters. It’s a bad sign when the viewer looks forward more to the B plot than to whatever is going on in the A plot, yet that’s exactly what happens to me week after week.

That said however, this week’s episode took some tentative steps toward righting this wrong by involving Julius in the A-plot involving Chris driving his dad’s car. Though not extensive by any means, the interaction between Chris and Julius almost made the episode worthwhile, with the “Rochelle and the kids go to court” B-plot was a pleasant enough diversion, what with DWAYNE WAYNE (?!) as the judge. Word. Made me want to break out my flip up glasses, yo.

I guess what I’m trying to say (even though it may not seem like it) is this week’s episode was better, but still not great. That being said, it was still better than last week’s episode where the balance of the school was completely upset when Caruso lost his big bad bully status. Which made little to no sense, as the kid who plays Caruso is so much smaller than everyone else on the show. Ah, the trials of casting children.

Speaking of children, Aliens in America was also significantly improved over last week’s episode. Last week saw Justin attempting to distance himself from Raja after the latter proclaimed them to be the best of friends in quite embarrassing fashion in the middle of class. It was sweet and illustrated how sometimes when we hurt others we only end up hurting ourselves, but it wasn’t exactly a laugh-fest. Rather, it was short on laughs, long on schmooze.

This week was definitely funnier, but the ways they went about getting those laughs were sometimes questionable. This week saw Justin and Raja bring a fictitious rocket club to life while simultaneously raising suspicions about Raja's terrorist status. Also, there was a subplot referencing masturbation. While I found the plot funny and completely apt for a sitcom centered on two teenage boys, it was still a little yishy? But maybe that's where the humor lies. After all, I'm not sure there have been many things more honest than the conversation between Justin and Raja in which Justin proclaims that he needed to see boobs and he needed to see a lot of them. While never having been a teenage boy, I imagine this to be a sentiment often felt, though rarely admitted and the hilarity contained within was tangible.

All things considered, this weeks episode of AiA renewed my hopes in the show and made me plenty glad that the CW has ordered three more scripts for the show.

As a late addition to our Monday night slate of child based comedies we have Comedy Central's The Boondocks. After a mediocre premiere last week, Boondocks returned with much stronger stuff this week, when Tom and Sarah Dubois (Jasmine's parents) run into Usher while on a date. It's all funny stuff when Tom's paranoia and Sarah's new crush end up with Tom moving out and into the Freeman's house. The highlights of the episode include Riley informing Tom that losing his woman would be more respectable if it were to a real man like T.I. and Tom's music video.

All in all, easily the highlight of the evening and a much better start for the season than last week's premiere. Good times.


"Don't play with my Jesus.": Supernatural

Oh, hell yeah. Now THAT was fun!

I've been able to contain my fangirly glee so far this season because, frankly, I've been pretty underwhelmed. But last night's tale of a not-so-lucky rabbit's foot turned this losing trend around, incorporating so many of the things I already love about the series while introducing some new challenges for the boys to face throughout the upcoming season as well. Most importantly, though, it was damn funny -- and I sure do like it when the Winchesters get their funny on.

The episode begins with Sam telling Dean all about Mysterious Blond Woman, a.k.a. Ruby. We've finally got an official name! Hallelujah. I was sick of writing Mysterious Blond Woman every week. Dean is understandably freaked out by the fact she's a demon, and skeptical of her claims that she can help Dean get out of the crossroads deal. It was refreshing to see Sam tell Dean about Ruby right away, but it was unclear just how much he told him. Did he tell Dean about Mary and her friends mysteriously dying? I'm not quite sure.

While arguing in the car, John's old cell phone rings (which Dean has kept charged and ready in the glove compartment for the last year without Sam knowing, which -- tell me another bedtime story, Kripke) and the boys learn that a previously secret storage unit John kept in Buffalo was robbed. They go to investigate and find that a box holding a cursed object was taken, track the box to a pair of goons hired by notorious thief Bela, and learn that the stolen object is a rabbit's foot that brings the owner great luck until he loses at, at which time it conspires to kill the owner in a most fabulous, gruesome, Final Destination-esque way. They sure aren't skimping on the gore factor this year, and I approve heartily. During the fight to retrieve the foot, the fight which Sam and Dean are losing in the most hilarious way because of the goon's rabbit's foot-assisted good luck, Sam grabs onto the rabbit's foot and the luck switches to him.

Dean, of course, is thrilled about Sam's good luck until Bobby tells them the catch about dying once you lose the foot. Oops. Not long after Sam gets the foot, Bela steals it back from him and his bad luck begins. Bad Luck Sam might be the best Sam of all (even better than Evil Sam), because there is nothing funnier on this earth than gigantic Sam falling down. Numerous times. Well, maybe there's something funnier than Sam falling down: Sam losing his shoe in a gutter and whining about it like a little child. Wait, maybe there's something funnier than that! Sam trying to put out an air conditioner fire and having his whole sleeve go up in flames. Bad Luck Sam is a freaking riot. While Sam sits around and tries not to get himself killed, Dean goes off to Bela's apartment in Queens to retrieve the foot. After a very fun standoff, he tricks it out from under her nose and goes back to Buffalo to destroy it and save Sam from the curse. On the way, I'm sure he picked up some lottery tickets just because. Just because he's Dean, and that's what Dean would do.

The episode also marked the return of everyone's favorite psycho hunter Gordon, still behind bars after being set up by Sam and Dean last season. It seems jail has done nothing to curb his quest for Sam's blood, however, and Gordon has recruited some hunter friends on his quest to kill Sam once and for all. Said hunters are led by a scenery chewing Jesus-freak named Kubrick who, unknowingly aided by the bad luck of the rabbit's foot and thinking he's being lead to Sam by a higher power, starts to believe that killing Sam is a mission straight from God. He ends up torturing poor Sammy until good luck-assisted Dean comes to save the day. In the end, though, Kubrick returns to Gordon and they hatch a new plan: springing Gordon from the clink so they can go after Sam together. To which I say: yikes! I have to say, as annoying as I think this Kubrick guy is I love that they brought on a religious nut hunter, because it makes sense that people so inclined to that persuasion would want to be hunters to kill the evil things in the world. Him being friends with psycho Gordon just makes sense, and they are going to be a crazy force to be reckoned with in the future.

I think the best thing about this episode (besides the humor) was the fact that it was so layered. For the first time all year it truly felt like the characters existed in a real world, with past elements from John, Bobby and Gordon all coming into play. They boys weren't just traveling to some town and killing bad things. They were interacting with characters established in the past and reacting to consequences of things done previously in the world of Supernatural. They've spent two seasons building this world and it was a pleasure to watch them take advantage of all their hard work.

The emergence of Bela also adds a new flavor to the world of the brothers Winchester. Here's a girl who has no care for good or evil, right or wrong -- only a care for the almighty dollar. Bela's scenes with Dean were full of firecracker fun as they danced around in an attempt to undercut each other at every turn. (Dean tricking her into touching the rabbit's foot at the end and then her subsequent theft of Dean's winning lottery tickets as revenge was a beautiful little tit-for-tat.) Again, despite previous fangirl backlash I love, love, love Bela. Well, I actually hate her -- I mean, she SHOT SAM and all -- but I hate her in that awesome way it is fun to hate horrible yet charismatic television characters. I have a feeling she's going to be a thorn in Dean and Sam's side all season, and I am looking forward to seeing her again.

Well, I'm out of ways to say how much that kicked ass. I guess I'll just go watch it again and giggle uncontrollably.


"There is something vibrating in your pocket and I hope it's your phone.": Gossip Girl

[I apologize for the delay in posting this recap. A Wednesday power outage created havoc with my Tivos. - C]

Perhaps I was just really happy that the power came back on before I missed any more of my precious television shows, but for my money this was the most enjoyable episode of the season so far. Splitting time between Blair's legendary annual sleepover, Serena and Dan's first real date, and Rufus and Lily's reconnection over a bowl of pasta, "Dare Devil" managed to show character development in all its leads (save Nate and Chuck, who were absent but not missed) and had a hell of a good time doing it.

After Serena chooses a date with Dan over Blair's sleepover, Blair decides to invite little Jenny Humphrey instead. Unfortunately for Jenny (who shows up with pink sleeping bag and bunny slippers in tow - aw) this is not your typical sleepover of watching scary movies and giggling about boys. This is the sleepover Sarah Michelle Gellar's character in Cruel Intentions built, with designer clothes, club hopping and a wicked game of Truth or Dare. Blair's goal is to shame Jenny mercilessly, but Jenny isn't one to back down from a fight and does everything from ruining a stranger's relationship, to drinking a gin martini, to breaking Eric out of his rehab facility, to talking her way out of getting arrested when she gets busted stealing a jacket from Blair's mother's store. Jenny is kind of fierce, but also a truly frightening character -- a social climber who will do anything to get to the top and always look fabulous while doing it. She's Blair, if Blair was poor. Blair recognizes a kindred spirit, and it looks like our dear Jenny is headed for the social elite.

Serena and Dan finally go on a real date, but Dan bungles everything by trying to give Serena the fancy night he thinks she wants. Serena confesses she hates the date, and Dan takes her on a "Dan" date to play pool in a dive bar. She loves it, because who wouldn't love a place that had "Mama, I'm Coming Home" on the jukebox, and they are ridiculously cute while they flirt over the pool table. Penn Badgley and Blake Lively have fantastic chemistry, and this episode went a long way to redeeming Dan's character after a few shaky incidents of douchebaggery in previous weeks. Their date is interrupted to help find Eric, but in the end they share a pretty smoking kiss on the New York streets. I've gotta say, I'm on the Serena/Dan train and I don't want to get off. I'm really not looking forward to Nate's return, because the story of Nate and Serena's True Love makes me want to fall asleep.

The parents even got in some great moments this week when Lily goes to Rufus's house to have him help find Eric, who Lily eventually finds and decides to let return home from the rehab facility for good. This pleases me, because I am just in love with that little actor who plays Eric. He is delightful. The best news about this episode was that the parental scenes felt unforced for once, and showed an actual connection that was only hinted at before. I don't want to see large portions of the show devoted to the parents, but if they stay as good as the moments in this episode the characters could definitely grow on me. Also, imagine if Rufus and Lily got married. Dan and Serena would be step-siblings! And so would Eric and Jenny, who have a cute flirtation thing going! Awkward. And awesome.

Another great episode. Again, it's too bad the ratings don't reflect this.


"Every time I meet a new person, I figure out how I'm gonna fight 'em.": 30 Rock

(OK. The weird ignoring of posting this week's episode photos in favor of posting photos from next week's episodes is getting on my nerves. Hence, you get a photo of those two nice hot dog guys from last episode. Thanks a lot, NBC! -- ed.)

I don't have a lot to say about this week's 30 Rock, which wasn't as disappointing as the season premiere but also didn't hit the heights of last week's episode. It was just a solid, funny episode, with some great lines but not a whole lot else beyond that. While I liked the slow building of the cookie jar collection subplot (culminating in two weirdly wonderful scenes where Jack and Kenneth confronted their family issues, which had been sublimated into the jars) and I thought the story as a whole was pretty good, I wasn't as invested in Liz trying to make Tracy's marriage work or Jenna trying to gain back all of that weight. The show is doing a great job of keeping its five main characters bouncing off of each other, but that's one of the problems.

In season one, the show went beyond the central five (Liz, Jenna, Jack, Tracy and Kenneth) to do some great stuff based around the characters who worked in The Girlie Show's writing room. Pete, Frank, Twofer, Josh and Cerie all had fairly distinct personalities (heck, even Lutz did), and when Liz was trying to ride herd over them, it led to some of the show's funniest moments. I understand that the show has tried to simplify its storylines a bit (adding in characters gradually) in order to get new viewers up to speed (and it appears to be working somewhat, as the show has gone from out-and-out bomb to disappointment in the ratings). This meant that the first week was largely focused on Jack and Liz, while the second week rolled in plots for Tracy and Jenna and this week rolled in a storyline for Kenneth.

But I miss the frantic pace that the best episodes of 30 Rock had last season, the feeling that just about anything was about to happen and that the large ensemble cast would be involved in some way. It also helped that Pete (who's still technically a regular) was always there to balance out Liz when she got too crazy or that Frank was always there to be the extra level of sleaze that the show needed sometimes. The conflicts between Twofer and Tracy or Cerie and Liz were also funny. I get that throwing a dozen characters at new viewers would be just too much for them to handle, but couldn't the show have worked a couple of them back in to the rotation in this episode.

It all comes down, I guess, to how much America wants to watch a show about show business. My guess is that most folks don't particularly want to, but the show is set there, and that's what Tina Fey knows, so there you go. To that end, the writers are playing up the "workplace" aspects of the show and playing down the show biz aspects, like the writers room. But couldn't they do crazy stories in the writers room that were more workplace-y? Newsradio was always about how hard it was to be a decent boss, and Liz could easily fall into that template with the other writers (especially as she has Jack there to be her own Jimmy James).

I'm not worried about this season of 30 Rock like some are. I'm glad that they're catching new viewers up, but I hope that the show soon shoots back into the stratospheres of craziness we know it to be capable of.

(And why bring on Buscemi if you're just going to give him a thankless part that will be over in a handful of scenes. 30 Rock isn't at the guest star whoring level of Will & Grace or anything, but it does need to figure out a way to make the guests it gets work better in the context of the show. Just a quibble.)


Thursday, October 18, 2007

"Say what you want about Mel Gibson, but the son of a bitch knows story structure.": South Park, Season 11

(My apologies for the mix up in episode numbers last week. This is, of course, the second half of Season 11. This makes last week episode #10, and this week #11. A minor detail, but I needed to clarify.)

"Imagination land," the proposed first episode in a trilogy, is probably one of the better South Park episodes that I've seen in a long while. The episode's strongest component lies in its ability to take its own ridiculous nature to a specific level and never let up. When South Park does this, the results are usually amazing.

The episode begins with Cartman on the hunt for a leprechaun he swore he saw in the forest several times. Early on, we learn of a bet that Kyle has made with Cartman. The terms being that unless Cartman can produce proof of this leprechaun, he must pay Kyle ten dollars. On the other hand, if Eric is able to prove the leprechaun's existence, Kyle has to suck Cartman's balls.

So, yeah, this is par for the course.

Kyle, of course, made the bet knowing that it is impossible to actually prove the existence of a leprechaun. Lo and behold, however, there one comes skipping along down the forest trail. After his capture and before his escape, the mystical little fellow shrieks that the boys have made him late in warning of an impending terrorist attack! This matters not, as Cartman simply wants Kyle to suffer the humiliation of sucking his balls post haste. He has no problem mentioning this fact to Kyle's parents, as he appears at their house with both Kyle's signed contract of agreement, and a camera special for the event. Eric is not pleased with Kyle's refusal to make good on his deal.

Later, while trying to forget the fact that they can't really explain how they recently met a leprechaun, the boys are encountered by the Mayor (?) of a place called Imagination Land. He is looking for said leprechaun and wants to prove to the boys that this is all real. Before he takes them off on the Imagination Balloon, Butters makes sure that he isn't, in fact, going to rape them. When you watch the episode, try to get the "Imagination Song" out of your head. I dare ya!

The actual place Imagination Land is probably one of the best visual gags South Park has ever been able to pull off. I watched the episode twice, and I am still pretty sure that I've missed some characters. Imagination Land, you see, is where all the products of human being's imagination live. So, be it Optimus Prime, the Ninja Turtles, or the Care Bears, they are all alive and well in Imagination Land.

As it turns out, the leprechaun was right! Soon after the boys arrive, terrorists attack Imagination Land in a most gruesome, and shamefully hilarious fashion. I mean really, you haven't lived until you've seen a bloody Ronald McDonald walking around, looking for his severed arm in a brilliant Saving Private Ryan homage. In the middle of the horrid attack, a...fucking dragon shows up and whisks the boys away to safety. Unfortunately, they leave the always vulnerable Butters behind by mistake.

Meanwhile, Cartman is still stewing about his "dry balls" and decides to take Kyle to court. Losing the case rather quickly, Kyle is given 24 hours to suck Eric's balls or he will be held in contempt. Cartman celebrates with a victory party in which he dresses himself up like a Sultan, awaiting Kyle's arrival. This is funnier than it sounds, I assure you. Before Kyle is able to do the deed, however, he and Stan are taken away by the government on official business.

It seems that the terrorists have made a video from Imagination Land, with Butters reading off their list of demands. Since Butters is not an imaginary character (hehe), this made them suspicious as to who he was. This is all Mel Gibson's idea, of course, as the government turned to Hollywood to come up with ideas on how to stop these terrorists. Michael Bay and M. Night Shyamalan make cameos!

Back in Imagination Land, Butters is given the task of trying to stop the terrorists from BLOWING UP THE BARRIER BETWEEN THE GOOD IMAGINATION AND THE BAD IMAGINATION. He fails, and that's the end of part I. Not without a teaser, though, involving Eric hitchhiking to Washington to "make his own justice." He vows to a picture of Kyle, "before this is over, you WILL suck my balls."

Okay. Do you see?? DO YOU SEE? Do you see how ludicrous and convoluted this story is? Do you see why this makes it perfect? I spoke last week on Trey Parker writing small. That is not to say that I want him to write small all of the time. It is just a nice change sometimes. However, Parker does this sort of nonsense better than anyone could. It has the potential to be very entertaining watching these threads come together over the next two episodes. The satire seems to be a little obvious here, with our "imaginations running wild" and Terrorists attacking everything that we hold dear, but the rhetoric has been kept at a decided low, so far. This could be one of the better spectacles the show has been able to pull off.

Next week's recap will, no doubt, be shorter. I just needed to prove a point!


"What They Saw" - Life, episode 1.4

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"What They Saw" gets to a central issue in the revived police career of Det. Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis). How will Charlie's objectivity as a cop be affected by his 12 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit? Crews and his partner Dani Reese (Sarah Shahi) are called to the scene of a murder at a house overlooking L.A.. A wealthy gay man is dead of a gunshot wound and his wedding ring has gone missing. In the woods behind the house Crews catches a homeless man named Holt Easley (William Sanderson of Deadwood) with the ring in his pocket. Open and shut, right?

Of course not. Easley claims to have seen the dead man's husband James (Anil Kumar) commit the murder and toss the ring into the woods. Reese doesn't buy it, but Crews doesn't think the gabby, boozy, Easley is capable of murder. And it's not as if there aren't any other suspects. There's a neighbor named Drew (John Livingston) who might be a closeted homosexual and is alleged to have been sleeping with the victim. For his part, Drew claims to have heard the lazy rent-a-cop who ignored an alarm on the night of the murder make homophobic slurs. But then Easley's DNA turns up in the victim's house...

If "What They Saw" has a flaw it's that William Sanderson gets too much screen time. Since Charlie doesn't want to put Easley in the system he brings him home to his unfurnished mansion. In a not particularly interesting subplot, Charlie's boarder Ted (Adam Arkin) doesn't take to the new guest. (There are repeated jokes about Easley's personal hygiene) Charlie was sent to prison for the murder of a partner with whom he owned a bar and his family; when the now cleared Charlie gets his liquor license back Ted tries to persuade him to open a new place, but Easley disrupts Ted's (very quickly put together) presentation.

In my first post on Life last week I didn't get to the character of Constance Griffiths. Played by Brooke Langton, Constance is the lawyer who won Charlie's release from prison. This week Constance is developed considerably. We learn that she seems to have a savior complex in a scene where Charlie meets her new client Neil(Rodney Rowland). Charlie's prison smarts enable him to size the guy up instantly, and his judgment is proven right when he gets a look at Neil's files. When Charlie tries to get Constance to drop Neil as a client we learn two more things about her. She's married, and her advocacy for Charlie is motivated by the fact she's in love with him. This revelation puts into context some hints that had been dropped in the first three episodes.

Finally, the continuing mystery of who set Charlie up and why. The cops working Charlie's case twelve years ago hid the fact the victim's young daughter was in the house during the murders. That girl, Rachel, disappeared into the foster system. Her whereabouts are unknown; when Charlie gets her files (he seems to have no trouble finding the info he needs) he discovers that she never spoke about what she saw that night but (in a folder labeled "art therapy") drew graphic and violent images of the crime.

I've barely mentioned Sarah Shahi as Det. Reese, but she's turning into an irresistible straight woman for Lewis' eccentricity.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

"Give me your paws, Winnie the Pooh.": Pushing Daisies

Pleasantly pleased am I to say that the third episode of Pushing Daisies was a fine step up from episode two and maybe even marginally better than the pilot. Seemingly without breaking a sweat, the show deepened several of the characters and got into the moral grey area of the pilot (how Ned let the funeral director die) and let him off less easily than you would expect for a network TV show. The series still gave the disquieting notion that since the funeral director was a jerk, it was OK to have him go, but the strain the action put on the Ned and Chuck pairing was a nice little hurdle for the two to overcome, especially this early in the storyline. I'm afraid I'll quickly grow bored with the two finding plastic sheens to kiss through, but for now, I'm still enjoying their kooky chemistry.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the episode was how it tied the mystery of the week in to a deeper emotional place for the characters than the mystery last week, which seemed steadfastly set on making sure we understood the show's universe. This week, however, sent the characters back to the funeral home where they found Chuck in the pilot, and Chuck learned that her life was exchanged for another. Her palpable sadness and anger at this moment finally gave Anna Friel something to play outside of magical pixie girl, and she was more than up to the challenge. Lee Pace matched her with his frustration and attempts to say he wasn't a murderer, just someone who couldn't bear to re-kill Chuck (well, he IS a murderer, but the show was willing to at least admit the morality was sticky, which was more than I was expecting).

It also helped that the mystery itself was more assured than last week's entry. Last week's mystery was deeply predictable. While this one also was largely so, it had a lot more fun with the idea of a man raising the dead to solve murders (I loved that scene where Ned kept accidentally touching corpses). The story of trying to find all of the stuff the funeral director absconded with also expanded the kinds of mysteries the show can tackle, even as it eventually turned into another murder investigation.

I also liked that the episode let Olive in on the secret of who Chuck really is. Kristen Chenoweth is really playing this part to the hilt, and I'm surprised how quickly I've fallen for a character that I thought was a little underdeveloped in the pilot. Some might say Chenoweth goes too far, but I admire her commitment to the daffiness of the show, and I love that her new love interest is Raul Esparza. I don't know if Bryan Fuller just created this show to give work to Broadway legends he loves, but I sort of hope he did. I mean, is there any OTHER reason to create a television show?

But the pleasures of the episode (and the show) extend beyond the premise and the plotting. I'm not usually one to fall for TV dialogue, but it's strong here, and the delivery from the actors pushes it past strong and right to unusually strong. Chi McBride, in particular, is having a great time with this stuff, and it's just fun to see him play around with the words here. Dialogue is overrated as a skill, but it's nice to see it done so well, all the same.

I should admit that the cutback on production values was sort of noticeable from time to time (that scene in the funeral home basement was lit really, really poorly -- I get that's what they were going for, but it just became distracting), but it wasn't so noticeable as to pull me out of the show at all (aside from that awful CGI pan toward the top). Still, you could tell that they made an effort to work on standing sets as much as possible and keep the art direction to a minimum. Here's hoping that the show's modest hit status pushes its budget back up a smidge. I'm not sure we need to see young Ned every week, but I'm fine with it so long as he's slowly learning new things about his gift (and the firefly testing was a nicely subdued fantastical image).

So what's the magic number here? When do we stop worrying that this show will never work and just enjoy what's going on? I know I say I won't worry about this, but it's hard to not think about it, in the business I'm in. So are you noticing any of this, kids at home? Or do you just not care? Or did you give up after the pilot? (If you did, try to check this one out. The twee was backed off by just a smidge, as was the narration.)


"Beta males are in right now": Reaper

A very nice fourth episode of Reaper, I thought, one that really gave me hope for this show succeeding as a series. There are still kinks to work out, but it's early days and the humor and fun of these characters is really shining through, and the monster-of-the-week thing is settling down quite nicely after a couple hiccups. I still love Sock (a lot of critics seem to find him grating, and I usually agree when it comes to obnoxious best friends, but he really charms me for some reason), I'm still infatuated with Andi and I think Rick Gonzalez as Ben is already the underrated comic performer of the year.

Let's hit Sam 'n' Andi first. Man, Andi is so hot. OK, I shouldn't make these reviews a weekly "I want to sleep with Missy Peregrym" column. That's bad. Still, she is very appealing. Flaming Lips concert? Hanging with her in her car? She snores? (Fellow snorer here). Jeez. She's just fantastic. So it IS too bad that the writers are dragging out the inevitable with these two. As I wrote before, Sam and Andi aren't a case of "will they won't they". It's a case of "when the hell WILL they?" Although Andi this week seemed more solid about the idea that she and Sam are actually JUST FRIENDS. But no, she's kidding herself, and everyone knows it. They'll hook up around episode 8, I bet. Or they would, but the other problem is the writers haven't even taken the step of letting Andi know about the whole Sam/Satan thing. They're really taking the whole 'move the season arcs forward' thing veeeery slowly, aren't they. Let's at least get that far, shall we, and not have that revelation spoil their relationship for a while. Cause that would be a pain.

Villain of the week was good here. Yeah, he lacked a little depth, but I prefer it that way. Maybe every one villain in eight should have more going on, but usually a good ol' fashioned psycho will suit me fine. As long as the banter is flying and the peril is at least slightly heightened. Rather than the suit up, run away, suit up again, beat the bad guy approach of the last three weeks, there was a more sustained action sequence and they even got Andi mixed up in the middle of it. Better still was Ben's doomed love for the dove vessel, and also the gang didn't break into the DA's office this time around (that was getting a little hackneyed). Although I still like Sock's ex, I just wish they could use her a little more creatively.

Best of all, Satan was deployed not just as a chummy goofball this time around, but he actually got a little bit scary. Seriously, this is EXACTLY how they should be writing him, and I was especially pleased by the bar conversation at the end. Satan should be kind of...petulant, but in an aloof, knowing manner. He should be on Sam's side, but he should also be willing to threaten him. Doing something creepy like seeing Andi (that's the first time he's interacted with another cast member, as far as I know, and it was a great moment, him seeking her out in the mall), but also giving Sam a few breaks...perfect! Did I mention that final bar scene? While Satan almost running Sam over with the trucks was cool/creepy enough, their final conversation was just excellent. I really look forward to those two developing that warped boss/worker relationship they have going on. My favorite bit of the night was probably when Sam compared Satan to his Work Bench boss, and Satan was actually visibly offended, saying "that guy's a tool!" He's got feelings too, folks.

I'm enjoying this, and feeling less need to compare it to Chuck. Really great stuff!


Who watches The Watchmen?: The Boss, Band of Horses, and Radiohead

Bruce Springsteen, Magic

If nothing else, the timely reunion of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on Magic showcases a deliberate use of nostalgia and charm to further propagate the idea that American Rock n’ Roll is alive and well. I find this kind of interesting, since no one has even bothered to claim that it wasn’t in years. They fight the good fight though; with every layered upon, sing-along chorus and every massive guitar piece (still with that oddly conducive minimalist style), they prove that age truly “ain’t nothin’ but a number.” Unfortunately, none of this really matters. Outside of a few instantly memorable tracks, Magic is mostly an exercise in marginal craftsmanship matched with massive showmanship and deserved notoriety. Although there are some more than adequate bright spots here and there, Magic tends to be something of a snore-fest.

Band of Horses, Cease to Begin

Band of Horses debut album, Everything All the Time was quite simply able to put at the forefront the group's general charm and breeziness. The LP wasn't the second coming, but it was a wonderful mission statement for a band that had a clear vision of themselves, as well as a delightfully melancholic disposition. This wasn’t off-putting or overbearing, making Band of Horses a fairly easy band to embrace. Cease to Begin, Band of Horses second stab at the Long Player, finds them employing most of their already established work ethic from Everything… only they seem to have developed a taste for… long-windedness (let’s say.) The easy-going, mild dramatics of their first album seem buried beneath pounds of personal conflict, sadness, and some surprisingly pointed bitterness. This is not to say that Everything… was some sort of feel-good hit, but there was never the overbearing gloom that seems so prevalent on Cease to Begin. While this shouldn’t really be a problem for a group like this, this all just comes off as moody and, well, lazy. Cease to Begin is not a bad album, but it is a significant decline in scope and identity from a band with serious potential to become something amazing.

Radiohead, In Rainbows

Only Radiohead can create this type of hype in ten days. Of course, the same thing can be said regarding the let down that In Rainbows ultimately is. Sticking strictly to the music, In Rainbows is simultaneously one of Radiohead's boldest albums and maybe one of their most vanilla. The album reaches these heights of beguiling atmosphere, but somehow stays grounded in the sordid reality of places that Yorke is not used to standing at all. While that may sound sort of interesting, it is surprisingly...not. This is all peripheral yammering. The truth is that there is not much going on on In Rainbows. Nothing that hasn't went on before, and went on in a more interesting way, with a more interesting tone. Sure things are surprisingly soulful here; surprisingly tuneful. However, this is also surprisingly lacking force, surprisingly lacking singularity, and surprisingly lacking vision. In Rainbows would disappoint less if it were presented as a collection of demos and outtakes taken from the past several years, and not as a supposed cohesive album. ain't.


"Why am I always answering your questions when you never answer mine?": Journeyman

Each week Journeyman continues, I become more and more certain that this premise would work much better as a two-hour film than as an open-ended television show. "But Carrie," I hear you say, "Quantum Leap had a very similar premise, and ran for years! And was sort of awesome!" To which I answer yes, that show was sort of awesome, because it fully embraced its own inherent silliness and allowed the audience to connect with the new characters each week by having the time traveler inhabit their world instead of him just being a periphery player in it each week. Journeyman, on the other hand, bogs itself down by attempting to straddle the past and the present each episode, and by splitting the hour in half like this it only succeeds in making the viewer half invested in both worlds.

Take this week's time travel story, for example. Wait...I can't give the example because I honestly can't even remember what happened. I think it had something to do with Dan helping a woman who killed her husband plant evidence so it looked like she did it in self-defense, which seems a bit shady. Beyond that, though, what significance are we supposed to take from this story? Perhaps I'm being too harsh, but what about that story causes a viewer to want to stick around and see who Dan helps next week? Without that driving force, these stories simply seem like a waste of time.

The larger portion of the episode dealt with Dan and Katie's marriage (again) and how his time travel affects his home life in a negative way (again). Although I know it would be frustrating to have your husband disappear into thin air and take the car keys with him, after four episodes this is already getting old. Seeing as we never had a chance to see Dan and Katie be happy, and they are both pretty horrible for being together since Katie used to be with Dan's brother, I don't know how we as an audience are supposed to be invested in this relationship at all. Because the show tells us to be? That's just not enough.

As always, the most compelling parts of the episode occur when something happens to further the mystery of why Dan is time traveling. This week, it occurs when Dan contacts a scientist named Elliot Langley to inquire about something called tachyons, to which Langley jokingly asks if Dan is "building a time machine" and rushes off the phone, promising to call him back at a more convenient time. The scientist does call Dan back, but it's on the humongous 90's phone of the past while Dan is in the past. Could this guy be the key to why Dan is time traveling? Is there something more sinister going on here, like a government conspiracy? I really would like to find out, but seeing as these compelling things take only about five minutes of the show each week I'm not sure I have the patience to do so.

(By the way, the second the Spin Doctors played on the soundtrack I said "It must be the 90's!" Two Spin Doctors/90's references on two different Monday night shows. Disturbing.)


“I’m feeling like a knife fight”: Chuck

Another fun episode, if more uneven than the last. I don’t think this is really what I like from Chuck, but I can appreciate its intention and what satisfaction it did provide.

The Corrina character was my main problem. Predictably written and kind of a dud, the only decent purpose served by her whole storyline was to tell us more about Sarah. Unfortunately, ‘Chuck Versus the Wookie’ had no B-plot – everything was about Corrina and practically every scene involved her. I rarely understand the need to build a whole episode around a guest star, especially this early in a show’s run, and this one was far too obvious a character to justify the focus she gets.

Corrina is a fellow government agent and former co-worker of Sarah’s. She appears on the scene and starts shaking things up, turning Chuck against Sarah (for a brief period of time) and revealing a big secret. I didn’t totally get why Chuck freaked out so much over the news that Sarah had dated Bryce – for starters, wasn’t it obvious? – but I still found it one of the more effective things about this episode, mostly because Chuck and Sarah do so well in scenes together. In past episodes I was frustrated by their material, but now they're starting to grow on me. The whole fake couple dynamic has created an interesting tension which Levi and Strzechowski play effectively. I would complain that the ‘will-they-won’t-they’ thing is going to get dull, but with the knowledge of Rachel Bilson’s imminent arrival that’s easy to let go.

The spy plot was pretty weak. I know there’s only so much this show can do on a budgetary level, but I’d expect something better than a diamond in a plain white room, endless pathetic goons and a hairy drug dealer. Obviously the writers are more concerned with the core characters than constant killer villains, which is only right. I’d just prefer the baddies to be vaguely menacing as well as sources of fun. Also, I like Beckman and Graham, Sarah and Casey’s superiors – could we have a bit more of them? I like the idea of them as an older version of Sarah and Casey. Perhaps they could show up outside of a computer screen? Just a thought.

But the biggest problem with ‘Chuck versus the Wookie’ has to be the lack of Casey and Ellie. Casey was around, and had a few funny moments, but in many scenes between Chuck and Sarah I couldn't help feeling he should be there, if only to undermine their drama with a sarcastic comment. Ellie, meanwhile, is the show’s human centre, and therefore not an episode should go by when she doesn’t get something to do. Her and Captain Awesome. (How amusing to think that those two are the only stable couple in the show!)

The weaknesses are somewhat made up for by the final scene. Chuck goes to see Sarah to apologise, but pleads almost desperately for her to tell him something, anything about herself that's true. It’s a touching scene and Levi’s finest moment yet. Then, as soon as he is out of earshot, Sarah whispers to herself that her middle name is Lisa. On a show that so far has been oriented more towards action and laughs than characters, it’s a disarmingly sweet moment that made me very hopeful for Chuck’s long-term future.


Heroes Tuesdays: Season Two, Episode 27, “The Kindness of Strangers”

Finally, with its fourth episode, Heroes picked up speed, dropping its more leaden plots for a week and adding depth and intrigue to the key mysteries. We’re not even close to the rollicking, ridiculous heights the first season occasionally reached, but “The Kindness of Strangers”, written by creator Tim Kring and directed by Adam Kane, shone a little hope on what has otherwise been a slow-moving season. Truth be told, the episode benefited from the absence of two plots foregrounded in previous weeks: Peter Petrelli’s (Milo Ventimiglia) adventures in Ireland and Hiro Nakamura’s (Masi Oka) Back to the Future-esque antics in medieval Japan. While Hiro’s stuff had been fun, in an irrelevant, oddball kind of way, both storylines were draggy and distracting. These opening hours should have set out some general arcs for Season Two, but instead they’ve been meandering and sluggish, hinting at vague mysteries instead of hooking viewers with exciting new story developments.
Read the rest of the article here.


Monday, October 15, 2007

"It was a good week. We had fun, but it's over.": How I Met Your Mother

(Look! A photo from season one! Who knows why they didn't release shots from this episode. Oh well.)

This was the first outright miss of Mother's third season, the first episode that just didn't work that well, even with some very solid jokes. I think the problem simply comes from two plots that seem like they're heading in more interesting directions, then briefly turn into exactly the cliche plots you think they will be before heading off in slightly more interesting directions. But it's all too little, too late for the show, which never quite regains its footing. Instead, it feels like a lot of funny enough jokes surrounded by air.

Part of the problem is that the sound mix on the "live" studio audience is weirdly low. In the first season, the actors didn't quite know how to play to a studio audience that wasn't there, but now, they and the director have adjusted well enough to play off the audience that will eventually watch the show on tape (who then laugh and have those laughs recorded for the laught track). It's a tricky balance, but the show managed to finesse it just right through the back half of season one and in to season two. Now, though, the laugh mix seemed turned down a little low, so the actors seemed to be overacting, braying punchlines out into nothingness. I'll be the first to admit that a lot of these punchlines weren't the best, but the bad mix made them seem even lamer and buried some good jokes that could have been genuinely funny if the actors didn't feel like they were trying to sell them too hard. One of the benefits of a laugh track (and they DO exist) is that it makes a show feel like you're watching a live stage performance. Hammy acting on stage is acceptable in a comedy (if not encouraged). Without that audience braying, though, the show just ends up feeling a little forced and unfocused. (I was SURE I would be the only one to make this point, obsessed as I am with what makes a laugh track work and not work. Only now I find that The AV Club also made it. Ah well. Can't win 'em all.)

There were a lot of jokes that COULD have worked here (mostly dealing with Marshall's inability to realize that his "game" was pretty lame -- the revelation that he considers a Dr. Seuss hat the pinnacle of game was perfect and spot-on, insofar as character is concerned), but they got buried in plots that were boring as well. Robin dates a guy who has a kid and then realizes that his kid is kind of all right before she finds out the kid likes the guy's other girlfriend better? Aside from that resolution, I've seen that before. Ted and Barney make a bet to win over the heart of a girl they see in the bar? Seen that too, though the pleasingly twisty resolution almost made up for the lameness of the set-up (and the strange, strange sight gag of Barney wandering about the woman's body in miniature). Why not have Robin's dislike of kids be confirmed by the kid being a real little monster, then have her have to tell this to her boyfriend? This is also something I've seen before, but slightly less than the other twist on the story. And why not have a competition where Marshall's refusal to get involved made him the one with the mystique and therefore the most game. The writers are trying, gamely, to get Marshall involved in storylines and not just make him the old, married guy, but it's not quite working yet.

Not every show can work every week, and it's possible I'm just tired and cranky (I see that a lot of fans enjoyed this episode). But I think HIMYM's recent striving for its romantic comedy roots has undercut something that made the show work so well in the latter half of season one and all of season two -- it was an ensemble show about friends masquerading as a romantic comedy. The romance stuff (particularly Ted and Robin's dating travails) has never been the best thing about the show. The best thing about the show is getting to know the characters better and finding out new things about them. To that end, I'm happy next week's episode is Marshall-centric. I'm getting a little tired of seeing just how much Ted and Robin can screw up their love lives.

(Still, that Dr. Seuss hat. You've gotta give 'em props for that.)


Notes on Bionic Woman, episodes 1-3

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I've been asked to quickly bring readers up to speed on the first three episodes of NBC's Bionic Woman. Rather than attempt a full-fledged plot recap, here are some brief summaries followed by (in italics) a portion of what I wrote for my own blog right after viewing each episode.

  • "Pilot" - Bartender Jamie Sommers (Michelle Ryan) is injured in a car accident right after telling her boyfriend Will she's pregnant. Jamie awakens to find that Will is actually a scientist/surgeon who has by way of saving her life implanted her with top-secret bionic technology. A horrified Jamie escapes from the facility where she's being held only to encounter Sarah Corvis (Katee Sackhoff) on the outside. Sarah is Bionic Woman 1.0, and (as depicted in a prologue)her bionics are causing mental illness and often homicidal behavior. In the climax, Sarah assassinates Will and fights Jamie to a draw before escaping. Will's father Anthony Anthros is the creator of the bionic technology in Jamie and Sarah. He's broken out of prison by forces unknown at the end of the pilot.

    After seeing promos for Bionic Woman every time I went to the movies for what seems like months, I'm happy to say that the show's pilot is actually pretty good. I was impressed with Michelle Ryan, who plays crash survivor Jamie Sommers. As Jamie adapts to her new body, Ryan's performance gives a sense of someone realizing just how much they're capable of. As you may have guessed from my post yesterday, I'm a huge fan of Katee Sackhoff. Best known as Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, Sackhoff plays fellow Bionic Woman Sarah. The pilot gives us just enough information about Sarah to make us want more; she goes on a killing spree at the supersecret government facility where she's being kept. She also seems to have some emotional issues and definitely has a grudge against the people who turned her into Bionic Woman 1.0.

  • Episode 1.2 - "Paradise Lost" - Jamie allies herself with Will's old employers, the Berkut Group. Berkut is a sort of freelance anti-extremist organization led by Jonas (Miguel Ferrer). For her first assignment Jamie accompanies Ruth Treadwell (Molly Price) to a small Idaho town that has been wiped out by a chemical attack. It's never made clear who is behind the attack, but Jamie and Ruth gather intelligence that leads to Berkut catching the bad guys and foiling their next move. Jamie also begins intense physical training with Jae Kim (Will Yun Lee), a Berkut employee whose loyalties to Sarah are made clear when the two hook up at a hotel. The episode ends with Jamie making it home just in time to see her younger sister Becca (whom she cares for) perform in a talent show.

    I'm guessing there's a central enemy out there we haven't met yet, perhaps involving scientist Anthony Anthros (Mark Sheppard). We saw Anthony getting sprung from prison in the pilot, he's the father of Jamie's late fiance Will.

    There's a fair bit of interaction between Jamie and her sister Becca (Lucy Hale), who is still feeling ignored and threatening to move out. Hints are also dropped regarding Jae Kim's lingering feelings for Sarah; they hook up at a hotel and someone even refers to Sarah as Jae's "wife." Entertainment Weekly points out that Katee Sackhoff threatens to overpower Ryan in their scenes. Next week's episode suggests a possible alliance between the two, but we'll see.

    So far, so good. Jamie is both emotionally vulnerable and still not quite sure of her powers. Sarah's presence suggests a dangerous path if Jamie doesn't embrace her new life with rigor.

  • Episode 1.3 - "Sisterhood" - Anthony Anthros urges Sarah to reach out to Jamie in an effort to understand how the bionics might be changing Sarah's mental state. Jamie is sympathetic, but Berkut wants Sarah taken out and their paramilitary efforts to capture Sarah lead to a breach of trust between the two Bionic Women. Jamie is distressed to learn that Berkut is tracking her movements with an "optical tracker" in her eye; Sarah shows her how to disable the device at will. Jamie is assigned to guard the obnoxious daughter of a visiting defense contractor. When gangsters threaten the girl Sarah comes to Jamie's aid, but Jamie still refuses to help. Sarah threatens Becca, but Jamie is able to summon help in time. In flashbacks it's revealed that Sarah was the driver in an accident that killed her own sister.

    Katee Sackhoff owned the third episode of Bionic Woman. "Sisterhood" gave us much-needed information about Sackhoff's Sarah, the first Bionic Woman now being driven insane by the shortcomings of the technology inside her. As the only other person alive who understands what Sarah is going through, Jamie Sommers (Michelle Ryan) is put in the difficult position of having her uneasy relationship with her employers at the Berkut Group put directly at odds with her humanity.

    Forgive the self-indulgence of quoting from my earlier writing. I've tried to hit the major plot points and give a little of the week-to-week flavor at the same time.


  • "Where on earth did you get skates in a convent?": Desperate Housewives

    Once again nothing of consequence happened in this episode, so instead of recapping last night's events as a whole I'm taking this opportunity to talk about something that's been bugging me throughout the first three episodes of season four: the complete wasting of Nathan Fillion.

    When I first heard that Fillion would be playing Dana Delaney's husband, I was ecstatic. Delaney's stellar turns on
    Pasadena and Kidnapped have quietly turned her into one of my favorite television actresses, and I thought the blending of her unsettlingly controlled demeanor with Fillion's deadpan sarcasm and perfect comedic timing would be a recipe for something great in season four. Unfortunately although Delaney is thriving so far, Fillion has been left to dangle in the breeze, looking lost in a part that just doesn't suit his talents.

    Since he's arrived on the scene poor Fillion has had nothing to do except carry on expositional conversations with Delaney and wear dorky clothes, but I'd been reserving full judgment on his character until he'd had a chance to interact with more of the cast. This finally happened last night due to Susan's annual (and annually hated) charades party, and how does the show take "advantage" of his talents? By once again placing him on the receiving end of a situation instead of letting him instigate one, this time when Gabby intentionally flirts with him in order to make Carlos jealous. In his every scene on the show so far he's simply been a set piece for the scene to revolve around rather than a real, actualized character, and he literally gets nothing to do in any of his own scenes. This causes him to just sort of look like he's standing around, bored and waiting for his next line.

    The sad thing is that the storyline he is involved in isn't all bad. Yes, it feels like a retread of things the show has done before, but with Delaney at the helm it's turning into something at least mildly interesting. Fillion's character simply seems to serve no purpose yet, and as someone who knows how dynamic he can be it is rather frustrating. I'm sure people who have never seen his other work don't even notice he's there, and that's just wrong. Wrong, I say, because he's the sort of actor that should be allowed to do work that makes people stand up and take notice.

    This isn't Fillion's fault. This is the fault of a writing staff that has no idea what a gem of an actor they have on their hands, to which I say go forth and NETFLIX, writers! Watch Firefly, Serenity, and Slither! See the comedic potential you're wasting! Your viewers will thank you.


    “I blame it on magic mushrooms”: two weeks of Torchwood

    Probably the worst episode of Torchwood’s first season, ‘Small Worlds’ is an amateur and disappointing story that exemplifies all of Torchwood’s usual problems while throwing on a few more at the same time. What’s most disheartening is that ‘Small Worlds’ reveals a lot of important backstory that is integral to both Jack’s development and the show as a whole. Yet this information is conveyed lazily and with minimal dramatic effect.

    I’m talking, of course, about what we learn of Captain Jack’s past. Jack brings Gwen along to visit an old friend of his, Estelle, who is showing off pictures of fairies to a pretty meagre turnout. Jack obviously has great affection for Estelle, and believes in the existence of something akin to fairies. However, he shakes his head disapprovingly at her insistence of the fairies’ good nature. According to him, fairies are evil and dangerous. How does Jack know this? As we are shown via flashback, he once lost an entire squad of troops (in Lahore, 1909) to the fairies after they ran over a ‘Chosen One’. Hold on though – surely Jack wouldn’t even have been born in 1909? Yes, the most important reveal in ‘Small Worlds’ is that thanks to his inability to die, Jack has been living on this Earth for far longer than is typical. The script only brushes on the very surface of this information, offering frustratingly little in the way of explanation or exploration. His scenes with Estelle are well-played by Barrowman and Eve Pearce, but frustratingly, we only get a hint of their relationship before she is needlessly killed-off.

    Estelle’s sidelining would have been fine if it was in exchange for an increased focus on Jack. Instead, ‘Small Worlds’ places an inexplicable level of emphasis upon an uninteresting B-plot that practically becomes the A-plot. It revolves around Jasmine, the latest ‘Chosen One’ (a human seen by the fairies as one of their own). When a paedophile tries to persuade her to get in his car, strong winds knock him away and he subsequently chokes to death. When other girls bully her at school, the fairies try and kill them too. When her horrible step-father is horrible to her, they kill him too, in an unnecessarily graphic fashion. Jack’s attempts to save the girl fail, and the story ends on a unsatisfying, depressing note with her mother crying first over her husband’s corpse, and then at losing her daughter. It’s a perfect example of Torchwood’s irritating tendency to gravitate towards the dark without any thematic justification.

    ‘Small Worlds’ also suffers from horrible effects on the fairies; an obvious and unsubtle Jack monologue which robs his story of any dramatic punch; some pathetic hokum about the fairies being evil creatures from the dawn on time…I could go on. Yet another promising idea bungled by horrendous handling.


    Following the muddled ‘Small Worlds’, ‘Countrycide’ at least appears a more appropriate story for the show. After a series of killings out in the middle of nowhere, the team drive to the particular area of countryside to investigate. They make some grisly finds, all the while unaware that they’re being watched. It’s a fine premise, and the first to believably service the writers’ constant desire for graphic violence and gore. It also means getting all the characters together for once (sure, ‘Cyberwoman’ was an ensemble piece too, but it didn’t allow for much interaction). All sounds like a step forward – at least instead of dressing itself up as something more than it is, Torchwood is going for the gross-out extravaganza it really wants to be.

    It starts out promising. The team set up camp, Owen whinges about how much he hates the countryside, there are some POV shots showing that they’re being watched; good so far. Then the team shares possibly the most awkward campfire conversation ever, thanks largely to Gwen asking everyone who the last person they kissed was. Apparently she’d forgotten her recent close encounter with Owen, who comes out with it gleefully. Toshiko admits that hers was also Owen, last Christmas, although he can’t recall it. Jack, for once the only one having some fun, asks if non-humans can be included. And Ianto, ever the moment-killer, says his was Lisa (aka Cyberwoman). Awkward glances are exchanged, and the audience wonders exactly how Jack managed to gather such a socially inept gang of misfits.

    It starts to go wrong when Gwen and Owen venture into the woods together. Shoving her into a tree, Owen growls at Gwen “When was the last time you came so hard and so long you forgot where you are?” Oh….dear. These two actually have chemistry, and the fact that their characters are so incompatible only makes it more interesting. But dialogue like that is what renders Torchwood so pathetically infantile.

    Upon first viewing, I tried to put this horrible moment out of my mind and just enjoy the full-on violence. Which worked – for a time. But devoting the bulk of a forty-five minute show to disgusting corpses, shadowy figures, close-ups of human body parts and shotgun action is not as assured entertainment as it sounds. Things get dull and we become bored, but never are there any of the necessary developments to keep it interesting. Writer/showrunner Chris Chibnall packs in as much stuff as he can: Gwen gets shotguned, Toshiko and Ianto become food, there’s a stand-off at a pub and then some running around in a dark woods. In the end, Jack bursts in to save everyone by blowing all the evil guys to hell with a shotgun. (Well, blowing their legs to hell.) This all sounds a lot better than it is. Gore, shooting and grossness for the sake of all these things is just not entertainment. It’s torture porn. And I hate torture porn. Down with Eli Roth!

    Anyway. The best and worst part of ‘Countrycide’ is the final reveal that the perpetrators are in fact not aliens, but humans (the evilest creatures of all, or so Chibnall seems to worry). Within the context of this story, it makes sense. Within the context of Torchwood, it makes no sense. Do we care about cannibals? No, we care about aliens. The only humans that matter to us are our credited cast members. ‘Countrycide’ sets a worrying precedent towards substituting fantasy villains for plain old humans. If ‘Countrycide’ were the only episode to do it, that’d be okay, but it’s an idea that Torchwood keeps coming back to. In principle it may sound okay, but on screen it’s uninteresting.

    Gwen is left sickened and horrified by what she has experienced. 'Countrycide' at least does well to advance her torturous journey, one aspect of Torchwood I have always found interesting. She can’t bring herself to quit, but at the same time she can’t deal with what she’s seeing. In the final scene of ‘Countrycide’, Gwen’s journey takes her to the darkest place yet: an affair with Owen. As much as I hate that final scene, in which Gwen basically explains to the audience why she’s having an affair as she does it, it’s an interesting plotline that develops well in future episodes. On a show that has taken so many interesting ideas and screwed them up, it’s a nice relief to see one progress so nicely.


    Sunday, October 14, 2007

    "You have no idea what to do with me, do you?": Brotherhood

    No, I don't, Brotherhood. I have no idea what to do with you at all.

    It's not that I'm not liking the show's second season; it's just that it's hard to write about a show this slow-moving on a weekly basis. Even on The Wire, a show Brotherhood clearly admires and emulates, there's a sense that things are cohering, adding up to something. Here, you get that sense as well, but you already know where everything is going, to some degree. The inevitability of the way this world will work is part of why it's effective (and probably part of why every episode has an almost biblical title -- this is a world of fate and predestination). The Wire also has a crushing sense of inevitability, but it will throw in occasional story turns that can be exciting, humorous or devastating. Here, we're just marching to the end. It's what keeps Brotherhood a very good show but prevents it from attaining greatness.

    It's also murder on your humble reviewer.

    This episode, in some ways, felt like it was all about breaking ties -- Tommy was ready to cheat on his wife (weirdly, to fix his marriage -- I actually think Taxi did this one), Frankie got himself killed, and Michael tried to figure out a way to maneuver these waters (and is it just me or are they mostly backgrounding the material where he's having problems mentally that keep him from bringing his A-game? Too bad. . .that kept his story interesting). We're seeing the long, slow march to the gang war, and the characters can't do anything to stop it. They're simply cogs in some sort of machine.

    There's something to be said here about how dramatic inevitability works on television. To some degree, all of television is based on dramatic inevitability -- House will save the day and be cantankerous; the CSIs will use lots of science to solve the case; the Big Love family will come through it in the end to get along. But that's just the basic step of setting up a template for a successful series. More and more shows are using the idea of dramatic inevitability to make some sort of commentary on The Way We Live Today (I think). We know that Patty and Ellen on Damages are going to do Something Awful. We know the Lost-ies (or some of them) are going to make it off the island (and we knew that Charlie would die before he made it in this season). We know that the changes of history are going to sweep the Mad Men aside. In this very real way, television alters the equation from being about WHAT happens to being about WHY it happens to WHOM or HOW the characters we know react to it. It's a tricky dance to pull off. Leave too much ambiguity, and you turn off legions of fans who may eventually decide you didn't have any sense of inevitability in the first place (hi, Lost). Answer too much, and you can effectively kill some of your series' mystique (a fate I fear for Mad Men in its second season, even if I was never the world's biggest fan of the Dick Whitman story). (Side note: How did The Nine become the most influential show on television? I mean, really?)

    Brotherhood belongs to a different sort of inevitable drama on TV, which is a rough corollary of the No, This Really Happened school (see: Rome and Deadwood). Brotherhood belongs to the You've Seen This All Before school, which is only as good as the characters residing in it. You can kill a show like this simply by making it TOO similar to everything that's come before (24 struggles with this every year and failed in this last season), so you'd better hope that people really enjoy the characters involved. Fortunately, Brotherhood is full of interesting people I want to get to know a little more, mostly in the Caffee family, though I don't mind Declan and Cassie either (I can take or leave pretty much everyone else). Dramatic inevitability only works if you can tell that the freight train coming around the bend is just going to decimate the ranks. Fortunately, we can hear the whistle here, and we're cringing already.

    I know this is a long-winded way of not writing anything about the episode in question, but there you go. I'm glad Brotherhood seems to be adding a LITTLE levity to the proceedings, and I'm happy to see Janel Moloney and Matt Servitto (you may remember him as the FBI dude on The Sopranos) getting work, even if it makes this show feel even MORE like Showtime's riff on Tony and the gang. And I really, really loved that scene between Eileen and Michael at Frankie's funeral, which didn't dare spell out just what she was feeling (after all, we had seen the previously ons).

    I'm glad the ratings are looking up now. I can't believe the Dexter fans are staying around for this, but I'm glad they are. I never know quite which strand of the tapestry I'm looking at with Brotherhood, but I want to see how it all comes together. Maybe it'll be disappointing. That's just the risk you take.