Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving from South Dakota Dark

The highlight of a storied career.

We'll be back with posts later in the weekend. For now, we're going to celebrate the greatest holiday of them all -- Thanksgiving.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

“Don’t look at me like that…three million was more than fair.” – Dirty Sexy Money

Last week, there existed the potential for Dirty Sexy Money to run off the rails with an ill-guided love affair, but like any good relationship I was willing to stick around to see how they handled it. My greatest concern was not the relationship itself, really: rather, I was concerned that the Karen Darling we know and love would be lost.

The answer is a resounding “no” on that front, at least for a majority of the episode. The scenes in which she interacts with Nick and Lisa? I despise that Karen Darling, all she’s doing is being wholly delusional. It’s in direct opposition to her other character, a delightfully sardonic and acutely aware but slightly naïve wit factory. Luckily, the writers seem to know this: we got mostly the latter this week, with the former making only a brief appearance. If this is the balance they’re setting, its impact on the show as a whole should be limited.

While “The Country House” was the real title of the episode, referring to (what else?) a trip to the country house, I figure the real title should be “Three’s Company’. The episode was structured around a series of three-person relationships, and I’ll start with the one which was most isolated and, more importantly, gives this post its title.

Brian’s actions in this episode delighted me, because they managed to strike the perfect balance between his love for his son and his corrupted morality. Fighting for custody of Brian Jr. with Angela (Threesome #1), Brian was his usual bitter and jaded self as the Gustav period came back to haunt him in the arbitration hearing. A conversation with Brian’s mother sends him to God…who he asks for assistance with letting the arbitrator accept his bribe (This was after he had tried to buy Brian Jr. from his mother). And really, while his actions are sketchy at best, he needs to save Brian Jr. – going from Casa le Darling to Football curtains is no way for a 7-year old to live. [Also: I’d pay four million for Brian Jr., personally…which, you know, sounds really sketchy. Anyways…]

Meanwhile, Patrick Darling was dealing with a mediation of his own – the custody of Patrick’s company between Ellen, his wife, and Carmelita, his lover (Threesome #2). They haggle back and forth, but it is clear that there is no easy resolution to this particular problem. This was especially clear when, after Patrick turned to his transsexual lover in a time of personal struggle, Ellen shoots him in the leg with a hunting rifle Cheney style. This ripped from the headlines development provided a great act break, although I thought they over-played the allusion as a whole.

Speaking of overplayed, let’s stop for a moment and consider our most serious ménage a trios (Threesome #3): Tripp invites Simon and Patrick to the Country House, with Nick present, in order to have a “sit down”. This sit down starts off easily enough, but then Tripp reveals the nature of their feud: turns out that Elder’s parents were employees of Tripp’s father who were reported to authorities and exported to the Soviet Union, where they ended up in Siberian work camps. I missed part of this, but that part of the story is ridiculous enough as it is. Still, I like it, mostly because of my love for all things Gulag (This is a purely scholarly fascination, I swear). Elder destroys Darling Plaza (The building he won two episodes ago) as retaliation for Tripp digging up this dark past, but the fact that Dutch was the one who ratted them out (To McCarthy? I missed a few minutes) certainly gives him some motive for that pesky murder we’ve been ignoring for a few weeks.

The episode did make some move on the Nick/Lisa/Karen triangle (Threesome #4), along with Tish playing the role of instigator. In short: Tish tells Lisa about the kiss while they’re at the country house (Proving very much her daughter’s mother), Lisa gets pissed off at Nick for not telling her (Why didn’t he tell her? Honestly, Peter Krause would never do such a stupid, stupid thing), she storms off and Nick has to spend Thanksgiving away from his wife who feels he is spiraling out of control (Really? I don’t see it.)

The other threesome is a bit more existential, but I’m totally shoehorning it in: Jeremy’s chivalry manages to score him a date with Ms. Sofia Montoya, but he poses as Jeremy Babeson (There’s Threesome #5 here, I swear). To make this a threesome, we have two choices: either Jeremy Darling and Jeremy Babeson are made distinct entitites, or we include consistently awesome Limo Driver Clark who poses as Jeremy’s father and discusses the porn stache. The storyline was just really fun overall, even if his lie is going to get him in a lot of trouble in the future.

And yet, balancing all of these storylines, the episode moved briskly – for better or for worse, this overly hectic and insane structure seems to work with the show’s actors and writers. I think there’s still some areas for concern, but at the same time I think my greatest fears have been largely turned aside: I can ignore a few threesomes when there’s always another enjoyable threesome around the corner.

Other Notes

- There were a lot of fantastic one-liners in the episode – from “We Babesons don’t shake, we hug” to “Ellen? Also doped up on sedatives,” it seemed like everyone (In this case, Clark and Nick) were getting in on the game.

- Karen’s ideal way for her and Nick to get together: Tripp ships them off to India, or Bali, has them set up an orphanage for “the really starving children” and then he strands them on a beach. Oh Karen, why can’t you be like this all the time? Although it was a bit more on her naive side, still damn funny.

- “So what, you’re going to knock her unconscious with your cologne and then, what: Shanghai her?” was a bit too long to make it into the title, but Karen did knock quite a few lines out of the park.

- So, uh, Juliet wasn’t in the episode. And, I really almost didn’t notice. So, can we send her on an extended vacation maybe? I think it’s for the best, even if I’d feel bad for Samaire Armstrong.


The Moon & Antarctica: Linking the words of The Hold Steady and The Mountain Goats

For no particular reason I’ve found myself tag-teaming my brain with equal doses of The Hold Steady and The Mountain Goats lately. Though, “no reason” isn’t really accurate. The two “indie” juggernauts are (not surprisingly) two of my favorite groups of the last six or seven years, respectively. I realize I may be running a significant risk of “dating” myself here (as neither artist has put out any substantial release since 2006), but the lingering nature of each group’s collective body of work lends itself to significant inspection. While their music almost completely appeals to different sonic mindsets, their link lies (quite obviously) within in the mouthpiece. I am definitely not the first to point this fact out, but there’s no harm in beating a dead horse this rich in depth.

While Craig Finn of The Hold Steady and John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats reside on separate sides of the musical spectrum in regards to taste, this odd couple (as it were) seems to employ similar methods to bring about reflection and life in their work. Though Finn and his barroom poetry style is most often compared to that of Springsteen (or viewed as the antithesis to someone like Colin Meloy of The Decemberists) his tenderness, matched with his curious narrative and story-telling style, seems inherently bonded with that of Darnielle’s. While the two artists (well known as friends) both understand that there is poetry in the mundane, they rely heavily on the power of saturation to illustrate this point to completion.

Darnielle’s methods can initially be passed off as melodramatic or perhaps self-indulgent, but closer examination will almost always find a stronger hand behind the wild emotion. John uses personal pain and stories of life to relay universal themes that are far more simplistic than they ever seem. There is a smallness to The Mountain Goats’ sweeping emotion that is almost inadvertently satisfying. You’d think it was all an accident if not for John’s smirking precision behind every large turn the group makes. He never seems to commit to one particular mindset, keeping you purposefully at bay. John perpetuates the idea of this weird marriage between quiet simplicity and grandness that is markedly effective in large doses. As he immerses himself in these vivid tales of seeming banality, one might find themselves lost within the particulars of each story. A maze is created and Darnielle is the only one to possess the map of escape. It’s within this abundance of sensation that The Mountain Goats are the most successful. He lulls you into a sense of calm, and then strikes at you with that soothing venom.

Finn, long referred to as indie rock’s own Poet Laureate, uses a marginally different method to inject the poison of time into his listeners--but the end results are largely the same. The Hold Steady infuse a classic rock platform with a decidedly cerebral personality to create a unique and satisfying blend of bounce and balladry. Finn, like Darnielle, likes to tell his stories with a distinct hint of pain and recognition. These sound like personal stories even if they are, in reality, not. However, whether or not they are linked to the actual life and times of Craig Finn is insignificant; they attach themselves to the listener and create a universal relation that makes the enjoyment all the more intense. Finn has a way of injecting life and hope--hell, even fun-- into almost any drunken junkie story that he tells. It is in this way that he and John Darnielle are the most alike.

Think about The Mountain Goats’ “This Year”; a song that uses a traditional folk pop aesthetic with maybe the most anthemic verse of the decade. However, the track is essentially about just how unhappy Darnielle is with the state of his life (at the time), and ends with him getting beaten by his stepfather. John guides the track in such a way, though, that makes it an uplifting song with uncommon strength and affirmation. Think about The Hold Steady’s “Killer Parties”; a song which, on the surface, is a bit of a laundry list of debauchery. Though, when the track unfolds, you begin to see the play on words used in the title. Ultimately, it points out the general need to escape things you surround yourself with, and the dangerous nature of a life of excess. The track is simply structured and is as fun as it is potent.

The fact that the points of these songs are both not quite on the surface as well not really difficult to figure out perfectly captures the true nature of both writers. They take the mundane and make it special; they take the pretentious and bring it to earth; they take the simple things and make them poetic. But they are still simple. It is a really uncomplicated process. The realization that the two really aren’t trying all that hard to do this--eliminating the hindering nature of indie posturing--is what makes their work so satisfying.

John and Craig apparently argue regularly over the merits of Death Metal vs. Punk Rock (I’ll let you pick who falls where), and I think this is a wonderful window into the differences and similarities of both artists. Death Metal and Punk Rock (and we are talking about old school punk here) are about as far removed as you can get from either writer’s particular musical style. However, the two genres, like Finn and Darnielle, share similar methods to reach their points. They appear and ARE quite different on the surface, but possess passion and purpose which sustain them. Each formula is easy to recognize, but it takes nothing away from the blood coursing through each vein. As 2008 approaches, both The Hold Steady and The Mountain Goats have promised new albums. Whether or not they remain true to their successful formulas on these new LPs remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, however: whatever direction these frontmen take their respective groups in the coming future, I’m fairly certain that there hasn't been this much potency in self-indulgence since...forever.


“Didn’t I kill him?”: Chuck

Wow, this show is crazy good lately. As in really, consistently satisfying. ‘Chuck versus the Imported Hard Salami’ was another fantastic slice of Chuck pleasure, mostly revolving around Chuck’s doomed relationship with Lou the sandwich girl (the ever lovable Rachel Bilson). Sarah suddenly becomes the jealous ex, which is interesting since her and Chuck were never in an actual relationship. I’m sure she’s just keeping up her cover though OH MY GOD DID SHE JUST KISS HIM?

Whew. Okay, first of all, Chuck and Lou. Sweet couple, great chemistry, and two clearly well-matched actors. They were almost a little too good, actually. If I hadn’t known from the beginning that they were only supposed to be a two-episode thing, Bilson’s departure might have come as a surprise – not only because she was a good love interest, but also because Chuck goes through so much trouble throughout the episode to hold onto her. This aspect of the story was the only thing that bothered me. Why go through all the will they, won’t they dramatics if she’ll be gone by next week anyway? I also tired of Chuck’s constant need to apologise to Lou for some new mistake. This is an inevitability in a long-term TV relationship, but he begged forgiveness like three times over the course of ONE EPISODE. Annoying.

However, in the face of such an unashamedly fun forty minutes, this is a minor gripe. The writers didn’t go overboard with Sarah’s jealousy like so many would have, instead choosing a subtler path (trying to scare Lou off, constantly chasing after him on missions involving Lou etc.). Strahovski was at her best, especially in her barely-concealed pleasure at Lou turning out to be a possible suspect. Casey was as brilliant as ever, if for different reasons: he seems to actually like Chuck lately. Or maybe he just enjoyed torturing Sarah by taking his side. Either way, funny is funny. And finally, there's that kiss. An obvious move, but a great moment nonetheless. I'm completely sold on the idea of Chuck & Sarah by now, and for that I can only credit good writing.

Not much to say about the Buy More plot. I think they’re inserting these stories in the right way, keeping them simple so they don’t take up much screen time but not so simple that they become pointless. It’s still a weakness of the show that its supposed primary location now feels like little more than a place to cut away to. But it’s a weakness I can live with, partly because it provides that homeless guy from The O.C. with regular employment.

The capper on this already excellent episode was the excellent cliffhanger. Sarah and Casey open up the mysterious cargo container they’ve been chasing to find…Bryce Larkin! I already knew he was returning from spoilerific plot summaries, and I think it’s a great move. I hope Bryce sticks around even after he’s stopped acting as an obstacle to Chuck and Sarah’s relationship. Oh, and I hope he and Casey fight at some point. My wants are few and simple!


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

"I'm sorry, I'm too disfigured to listen.": Two weeks of Men in Trees

There's always a bit of danger with a quirky show that the quirks might take over the characters and render them utterly divorced from reality, consequently robbing them of any of the humanity that kept people invested in their stories. Men in Trees has always toed the quirky line, sometimes crossing it to the detriment of the series but always finding their way back to reality just in time. The past two episodes, a two-parter surrounding the events of Patrick and Annie's wedding, illustrates this seesaw perfectly. However, even after it rights the ship it still ends on a troubling note that puts a bit of a pall on what has been an otherwise good season thus far.

This two-parter was originally intended to be the season ender of season one and therefore it has a cliffhanger feel that, while probably welcomed in May, feels downright strange stuck in the middle of November sweeps. Most of the first episode was spent stacking the deck against Annie and Patrick so thoroughly that Annie would feel the need to go so far as to call of her wedding in order to stop all of these bad things from happening. In the process, every single person in Elmo acted so damn quirky and so damn out of character and events felt so damn contrived that I wondered if I had stumbled into a different, bizzaro version of the show.

Also prevalent in the first episode was the highly factually inaccurate story regarding wolves invading Elmo and boldly threatening its denizens. Wolves don't do that, writers. Cut it out. Anyway, these wolves were obviously just a metaphor for Marin's fear of abandonment now that Jack has decided to take a job on the Bering Sea. Marin was another person acting out of character in this episode, suddenly turning into the sort of annoying, whiny, wishy-washy woman that populates other ABC soaps when she complained to Jack about his leaving but then refused to ask him to stay. The only good thing that came out of this story at all was the use of Josh Ritter's "Wolves" in the final scene, and even that felt way too on the nose. At least it sounded good.

Yet another story that felt off in the first episode was Pastor Eric's decision to choose Sarah over his judgmental church, and then ignore all of the vows he believes in so much and do exactly what the church was afraid of and immediately fall in bed with her. His struggle with the duties of his faith versus his love for Sarah is an interesting tale to tell, but having him throw it all away so easily felt insulting to the character and far too simplistic. Why not have him struggle a bit longer? I always find stories of faith on television to be compelling when done with care, and this just felt careless. Eric regrets his actions, but in the end Sarah makes up with him by convincing him that God would not be angry at him for falling in love, which...kind of misses the point. It's not whether or not God would be angry with him, it's whether or not Eric can be comfortable within this life he's chosen for himself and the sacrifices that come with that life. Oh, well. Hugs and puppies for everyone!

The second episode was generally back on track, with Patrick and Annie making cute again, Marin and Jack putting their differences behind them to enjoy their last night together, and the quirk dialed down about ten notches. Still, the show wouldn't be the same if something quirky didn't happen and this episode's whimsical (if grim) touch was Patrick being struck by lightning right before he and Annie exchanged vows. All because Mario Cantone couldn't keep his bobby pins out of Patrick's hair. Damn you, Cantone!

This is where the real trouble starts. The consequences of Patrick's lightning strike to the noggin? Amnesia, of course! Is it just me, or is amnesia completely DONE this season? Heroes had hottie amnesiac Peter, The Young and the Restless just wrapped up a big amnesia storyline, and freaking Samantha Who? has amnesia built into its premise, for goodness sake. Maybe I'm the only person with the perfect storm of television watching habits to catch all of these programs, but there it is. I have amnesia fatigue. Amnesia apathy. An excess of amnesia in my life. I don't want a Men in Trees with amnesia in it, even though previews of Patrick learning how "lame" he was in the past hint this story is taking a decent turn in the future. It just feels lazy, that's all. The writers were always successful in writing Annie and Patrick as a happy couple in the past, and I don't see why they needed to resort to such a hackneyed story device to keep them interesting. We'll see. Perhaps it will be genius! After all, I do enjoy Samantha Who?.

Next week: Jack meets a new woman on his Bering Sea job. This story definitely would have benefited from the summer hiatus, methinks. I'm not quite ready for Jack to be flirting with someone else yet.


"I wish you would drop the show and be my brother again, 'cause...just 'cause.": Supernatural

Last Thursday's stellar episode, "Fresh Blood," confirms I wasn't crazy in thinking the season so far hasn't been up to snuff, because it proved they still have it in them to achieve greatness. Ladies and gentlemen, forget most of what you've seen so far this season: this is Supernatural, and sweet Jesus, it is awesome.

One of this show's bigger long-term storytelling successes has been the character of Gordon Walker. Initially brought on in season two as sort of a device to illustrate Dean's warped state of mind after his father's death, Gordon immediately became so much more. Most of the credit is due to Sterling K. Brown's excellent portrayal of a misguided, vengeful hunter who only sees the supernatural in black and white, with no room for gray. If it's supernatural, it's evil, and it must be killed. End of story. I would normally applaud this sentiment because killing evil things is fun, but this narrow-minded belief became complicated last season when Gordon learned of Sam's psychic ability and ties to Azazel, and convinced himself the world would be a better place with Sam not in it. This quest has shaped most of Gordon's story arc, and he has offered a very dangerous yet welcome antagonist for the Winchester boys. This episode represented the end of Gordon Walker but like all great villains, he went out in style.

On to the plot. Sam and Dean got the beat on a vampire that was turning young, blond girls to from his own sort of vamp-harem, but unfortunately for them when they tracked him down they also found something far more nefarious: Gordon, out to kill Sam. Brilliantly, though, they manage to slip away when the vamp they were chasing gets a hold of Gordon instead, takes him to his vamp lair, and TURNS GORDON INTO A VAMPIRE. It's so perfect it hurts, people. Gordon, who has now become the embodiment of everything he hates, decides to finish the job on Sam before he ultimately kills himself. It's a tragic turn, fitting for the character and completely morally interesting, especially when Gordon can't suppress his new vampire instincts and feeds on an innocent bystander.

Even though Gordon is a vamp, he's still a clever hunter and he ends up luring Sam and Dean into a trap, separating them by locking Dean into a storage closet with a newly turned vamp and stranding Sam in a dark warehouse by himself, with only a knife to defend himself. The ensuing cat and mouse pursuit is very reminiscent of The Silence of the Lambs, but instead of feeling like a rip off it feels almost as intense and scary as the original. In the end, Gordon and Sam get into a brutal fist fight until Sam finally finds a piece of barbed wire and viciously squeezes Gordon's neck until his head pops off. It's savage and necessary and gory and heartbreaking and amazing, and Jared Padalecki plays the moment perfectly. Goodbye, Gordon Walker. Your crazy ass will be missed.

Adding to the episode's punch was the wonderful interplay between the brothers this week. Dean has been a royal ass ever since he made the crossroads deal, and Sam finally calls him on it in the most poignant way, by flat-out telling him that he needs Dean to suck it up and be Dean, so he can be Sam again. Dean seems to finally take Sam's words to heart, and at the end of the episode even does the "big brotherly" thing of teaching Sam how to fix the Impala, since the car will be Sam's when he dies.

All in all, an absolutely pitch perfect episode, the first great one since "What Is and What Should Never Be" last year. If they can keep up this clip, we'll have a season.


"You just got slapped!": How I Met Your Mother

Slapsgiving was a pretty good sequel to last year's Slap Bet, an episode that used the promise of further slapulation to slip in some pretty good drama between Ted and Robin. The show knew that we wanted that next slap, so it used that as the Trojan horse to get us to dealing with what's been driving the first episodes of this season without us really even having to think about it -- the Ted/Robin breakup and how it's kind of turning Ted into a jackass and Robin into someone who feels slightly isolated from everyone else.

It's been kind of a dangerous trick HIMYM has pulled for the first third of its season (well, what WOULD have been the first third of the season). The show has asked us to invest in a constant stream of new girls for Ted, letting him be kind of callous with their feelings. It's also asked us to invest in a few tentative stabs at the dating pool by Robin. Obviously, the two can't be together, but the show felt so balanced with them together that spinning them off separately rather makes the show feel like it might come unhinged at any moment.

But I like that the show pushed all of this as far back as it did. It really did feel as though Ted and Robin might choke all of this back for the good of the group. But that always gave the group scenes an undercurrent of sadness (look back and see how sometimes Ted and Robin would meet each other's gaze and then quickly look away). And it certainly didn't make the scenes where the two were dating other people all that great.

So that's why the show needed to have those dramatic scenes where Ted and Robin confronted each other, forced each other to admit that there were still feelings there, still pieces of themselves scattered all over the place. While I wasn't wild about the continuity craziness that went into having them "always" do the dumb salute joke (wouldn't it have come up before this?), I did like how raw the scenes between the two felt. Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders have always had a nice chemistry, and that makes the moments when they're arguing always spark with something a little extra.

That said, I wasn't wild about having the two sleep together. I understand that it would probably happen. And I understand that they would tell their friends. But it just felt like the most Friends-ish thing the show could possibly do, and the storyline that played out from it felt like the sort of thing where I could call all of the individual beats before they even hit. It would be interesting, I think to have Ted and Robin fall into bed together every now and again, but it's going to be hard for the show to find a new and original way to do it, so the show may just be better off not bothering.

I loved most of the rest of the episode, especially the slap countdown and everything leading up to that final slap, followed by the song (Libby didn't like the song, but I had gotten wind it was coming and found it amusing -- it's the sort of thing I would think myself clever enough to do). Somehow, having Barney dread the slap even more since he knew it was coming proved to be the right decision, and Marshall's casual tossing of the word "slap" into conversation was also funny throughout.

I also really liked the Orson Bean cameo. That guy was hilarious in Being John Malkovich, and hearing old people talk like young people is never not funny. Bring back, Bob!

So, next week, the Klum drops by HIMYM. The 50 people who are fans of both HIMYM and Project Runway cry out in joy.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

"Oh, honey, you are not using Jesus Christ our lord as an excuse not to help out your counselor, are you?": Friday Night Lights

Friday Night Lights spent most of this episode marking time while it waits to finish up most of its storylines in the next two episodes to come (if the press photos that were released are any indication). Fortunately, this gave Smash and his mother something to do, but it also meant that just about everything else was sort of boring. Now, I think I'll take boring Friday Night Lights over frightfully misguided Friday Night Lights, but it still wasn't optimal.

Like I said, Smash's recruitment possibilities made up the best storyline, especially as they put him into conflict with his mother. The portrayal of Smash as completely self-centered and ready to do whatever it takes to get to the NFL to help out his family. His ends are pretty great, but he's tearing up his family to get through the means. His treatment of the recruiter from Whitmore was pretty underhanded, and it angered his mother, forcing her to go to Coach Taylor. Kyle Chandler is at his best when he's talking to the boys on his team and standing in as a father figure for most of them, and he didn't disappoint here. It was just nice to get to see Smash do something, since Gaius Charles was so good last season and the conception of a self-aggrandizing jackass is one you don't usually see in sports series, where the kids who play the games are often near saintly.

Sadly, the rest of the episode didn't live up to the promise of the Smash storyline. Why, exactly, is it supposed to be kind of hot when Saracen kisses his maid or Riggins gets with the next-door neighbor, but we're supposed to view it as creepy when Julie and the newspaper advisor spend a lot of time together? It wouldn't be so bad if this were the first time this double standard had ever appeared, but it appears on literally every series ever. If we're going to be against adults and teens having relationships (and that's fine by me), why not apply it across all genders?

Anyway, lots has been written about this episode elsewhere, and I just can't bring myself to write more, especially as I'm still fighting off the last of this infection. So talk about what you did and didn't like in the comments and enjoy yourselves!


"You never expect to get screwed by your girlfriend.": The Office

Now THAT'S what I'm talking about Office. I knew you still had it in you. I could see flashes of it throughout the early going in this season, and I knew that you had another bleaker than bleak gem that still somehow managed to find the hope to go on in you. And here it was! And now you're going away for the foreseeable future. That's pretty lame, Office, but it's necessary, I suppose, and I won't blame you. I'll blame the AMPTP.

You'll notice our Office blogging has been sporadic this season. Part of that has been that it hasn't been clear who was doing what, which I apologize for, but part of it is just that the show's weaknesses and strengths are so remarkably similar from week to week that it's almost not worth writing about the show and endlessly reiterating what was going wrong with episode after episode and having it always be a slight variation on the same thing. There were only so many ways to say that an episode started out promisingly enough and then went too far. The problem extended beyond the rather simplistic "Oh, wow, the hourlong episodes are too much!" complaints you heard all over -- it was like the show had completely forgotten how to write Michael outside of a few telling moments (his conversation with Jan in the train yard; his second job). Without a strong sense of who Michael is, the show flails about in search of a purpose. The rest of the characters were pretty much spot-on, but Michael is the lead character. Without him there to stand against the other characters, we have less of a sense of who THEY are too. Even an episode with as wonderful of revelations as Survivor Man, where Jim realized he could very easily turn into Michael, had that perfect moment tempered by just how stupid the "Michael in the woods" plot was.

But this week fixed all of that by plunging Michael into what may be the bleakest storyline the show has ever done, as a deposition forces him to choose between the company he's given his life to and the woman he's slowly fallen in love with. By the end of the day, he'll have embarrassed himself (in excruciatingly funny ways) and been betrayed by both. Michael's desire here to just be liked is put to the test as he's forced to navigate the tricky waters of telling the truth and keeping Jan happy. It's the sort of situation he doesn't do well at, simply because his failure means that Jan will probably lose millions of dollars that could allow the two to retire forever. In the end, Michael's loyalty to the company wins out, and while he depresses Jan in that moment, the two are too committed to each other at this point to try something else ("Fast food it is"). They're stuck in a life of having to walk around each other and how their boss/employee relationship has come between them in every dealing they've had, even since Jan was fired.

It's interesting that Michael chose Dunder-Mifflin. Obviously, he would have to just so the show could keep going, but the writers were able to believably betray it as a situation where he felt less betrayed by his company than by his woman. In his own passive-aggressive way, Michael was getting back at Jan in the only way he knew how. I don't know whether this moment will show the later fissures in their relationship or not, but I think that it was an attempt at showing just how strong the relationship actually is, to tell the truth. That little moment where Michael angrily confronts her about stealing his diary and she confronts him back about his sending of a naked photo of her to the whole company (BEAUTIFUL callback, Office; brilliantly done) was a perfect example of a couple coming up to the edge of a breakup and then stepping back when they realize just how difficult that would be -- emotionally, psychologically, physically, economically.

It made the storyline even better that Toby went along to NYC. Toby makes a perfect foil to Michael for reasons that seem obscure at first but eventually fall into perfect place -- of COURSE Michael sees him as a stand-in for all the bullies that stood in the way of his young self doing what he wanted when he wanted. The scene where Michael was forced to sit with Toby (he literally could not trust anyone else at that point) and he found himself listening to Toby's heartbreaking story of being a child of divorce felt like one of those moments when The Office earns a reconciliation (no matter how short) between two characters. Instead, his anger was too fresh, and Michael pushed Toby's tray off the table (Toby got his revenge later when he heard the diary mentions of Ryan).

The episode wasn't the greatest of all time, and the B-story was a LITTLE inconsequential (though the ping-pong thing is in keeping with the best stories this season, which have tended to be about the people in The Office taking small steps to make their days a little brighter), but The Office is getting back to its basics by doing what made the second season and the first half of the third season so great -- workplace-based stories that carry an essential element of character and human truth. Good stuff that leaves me hopeful for the future -- whenever it comes.


“As any band geek could tell you, without a great dot out there, it didn’t mean diddly-squid” – The Adventures of Pete & Pete

“The Day of the Dot” is one of those episodes that is wonderful in concept, but a bit lacking in execution. Luckily, one of Pete & Pete’s charms has been its sloppiness, what creators Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi call “ragged glory.” Sure, a theme might be a little hamfisted or the acting might not be amazing or a story might be wrapped up a little too suddenly or neatly – it’s all a part of the Pete & Pete way.

For some in my generation Big Pete and Ellen were the first great will-they-or-won’t-they. Throughout the sixty-second vignettes and holiday specials, Big Pete would address how Ellen was just a girl who was a friend, while the viewer was made fully aware of Ellen’s true feelings. So, when Big Pete and Ellen kiss, it’s a moment worthy of being the episode’s big climax.

But the road there is a bit rough. The episode is roughly based on one of the old vignettes, with Ellen’s appointment as the dot in the “I” of “squid” for the school marching band bringing strange responsibility. Ellen becomes obsessed with the notion of being a dot, leaving Pete to realize that he must win Ellen back to his goofy world. It leads to some great moments, like when the snotty band member James Markle, Jr. decides that he and Ellen must learn to synchronize movements to improve their performance. When Markle puts his left arm around Ellen in an attempt to make a move on her and Ellen awkwardly wraps her arm around the air to her left, it’s gold. But when Ellen and Big Pete have a big argument, it becomes apparent that Michael Maronna and Alison Fanelli aren’t quite up to the scene as actors. Some nifty jump cuts try to help the scene, but when it gets down to it, neither actor brings the drama necessary.

A nice B-story brings some levity. Damian Young is forever on my Awesome list for his portrayal of Stu Benedict, the lovelorn bus driver. His timing is perfect as he drives around town, giving the unfortunate souls (including Little Pete, who must wait until Episode Three to get some real screen time) stuck on his bus a tour of his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, pointing out the corner where she dropped her ice cream cone or the forest that produced the wood used to make her furniture. It’s rather basic humor, sure, but Young plays it at the right levels of pathos and hamminess that make the scenes work. In his little bit of screentime, Stu winds up representing what this show is at its best, where a concept is taken to its most far-fetched extreme, but roped in with that touch of sincerity, thus actually making it funny.

So, I’m glad that “The Day of the Dot” happened, in that it introduced a great tertiary character and brought a big payoff to the Big Pete/Ellen relationship, even if I wish it had all been done a bit more smoothly. But then again, when Ellen and Big Pete walk off into the sunset together at the end, does it matter?


"A Dog Took My Face and Gave Me a Better Face to Change the World: The Celeste Cunningham Story": 30 Rock

(Sorry this is so late. I've been busy at work and battling an ear infection. I'll try to get up a piece on that remarkable episode of The Office and the latest Friday Night Lights tomorrow. --ed.)

30 Rock broke out its political guns again Thursday night in a great episode that showed the places where conservatism and liberalism waver -- when it comes to impressing a pretty Democratic girl you're sleeping with or when it comes to protecting the lives of those you love from prospective Amazing Race contestants, respectively. It was another riotously funny episode for the show's young season, and it makes me all the more sad that 30 Rock will be leaving us shortly, as it runs out of new episodes to air. This feels like the start of an all-star season, and to see it cut short will be sad.

While this episode wasn't QUITE as subversive as Greenzo, it was in a rather nifty way. One of the most interesting character traits of Liz Lemon is that she's always been a bit of a racist, and situations seem to conspire to bring out this trait in front of people who would be offended by it (like Jack's assistant, Jonathan -- loved how Jack sidestepped her racial profiling while Jonathan was in the room and then immediately gave her the number of someone in Homeland Security after). What's interesting about Liz is that she considers herself a liberal but hasn't done a great deal of thinking about her positions, seemingly. She reacts to everything in a kneejerk sort of way. It's a great parody of what most Americans think of "limousine liberals," and it never fails to make me laugh.

30 Rock always has it more out for conservatives, though. This is not to say that the show portrays them as anything as simplistic as evil, though; clearly, the show's writers have a great deal of affection for Jack. They're just deeply skeptical of his "business at all costs and damn the consequences!" worldview. To a great degree, the central conflict of 30 Rock is the central conflict of American life since the 1980s -- many of us harbor liberal leanings, but changing the system is so hard that it's just easier to go along with whatever works and let men like Jack Donaghy make the hard calls. It'd be a tremendously depressing view of the world if it weren't so funny.

Anyway, the Liz plot was funny, but not half as funny as the plot where Jack (apparently an ex-liberal himself) fell in love, unknowingly, with a Democratic congresswoman who got into politics because a dog shot off her face (depicted, hilariously, as the plot of a Lifetime movie that both Pete and Jack sat down to watch at various points). It was a strange, strange plot, but Edie Falco has a gift for comedy that The Sopranos always utilized in a stealthy fashion, and it was great to see her cut loose. She and Baldwin had a rollicking chemistry, and that made their scenes together tremendously funny (especially when he told her she made love like an ugly girl). I'm glad she's (seemingly) sticking around, and I hope that we get more scenes where Tracy gets to comment on the relationship. One of the things that has made this season so good so far is that the show is just perfectly utilizing Tracy Morgan, and he's making the most of every line and every subplot he's given.

The C-story, where Kenneth tried to raise the money to buy Jack a new pair of pants to replace a pair he lost, was not quite as funny, but it did have a great moment where Kenneth put on an ape mask and attempted to terrorize Lutz (then was beaten with a golf club), so I'm willing to overlook it in the face of an episode that was otherwise so strong.

30 Rock may be our most subversive show right now, which is really saying something in a universe with The Colbert Report, but 30 Rock's sheer, goofy willingness to make everyone out to be a hypocrite is garnering lots of love from me. Here's hoping the show can finish out its abbreviated season strongly.