Thursday, January 17, 2008

"Dangerous Liaisons" - Cashmere Mafia, episode 1.3

PhotobucketLast week I wrote about the "spreadsheet" - the ladies' methodical search for a "revenge lover" for Juliet after her discovery that husband Davis had been having an affair with Cilla Grey (Noelle Beck). To me, the spreadsheet was just the sort of plot we don't need from Cashmere Mafia; that is, one that makes them look like man-hungry, control-freaky harpies. So I'm happy to report that Juliet's search for a get-even fling is resolved this week....

Davis is pulling out all the stop in attempt to get back in Juliet's good graces. He organizes a family trip to the theater, surprises Juliet at work, and even suggests a return trip to a favorite resort. Although Juliet is still planning a rendezvous with old business school chum Bobby (Bill Sage, unconvincing as a corporate titan), she's beginning to wonder if her time wouldn't be better spent working on her marriage.

There's a heartbreaker of a twist at the end of this episode. It appears that Juliet has vanquished Cilla by promising to put in a good word with the co-op board regarding the penthouse Cilla was after in the pilot in exchange for Cilla's shutting down an anonymous blog that has outed Caitlin as a lesbian. But what if Cilla was more than just a fling to her husband? That's what Juliet has to face
going forward. I think anything that complicates the emotional terrain of these ladies' lives and stays away from a kind of "Sex and the City"-ness ("Hey, it's Manhattan! It's crazy! I'll sleep with him if you sleep with her!") is a good direction for the show.

But there's much more fertile storytelling ground over with Zoe, who travels to Boston with her annoying subordinate Katherine (Kate Levering) and a male colleague to close a deal. The conflict between two generations of professional women is something we haven't seen explored much on TV. Zoe is horrified to discover that Katherine is sleeping with the guy on the business trip; the relationship leads to Katherine giving away a piece of the firm's profits in order to close the deal. Zoe orders the guy to end the affair. When Katherine threatens a lawsuit she winds up with a barely deserved promotion. We don't see enough of Katherine to know how aggressively she pushed the relationship, it could of course be argued she's the victim. But I did like the way this part of the episode ended (Zoe jumps into bed with her husband); the takeaway from Zoe this week is that women can be fulfilled keeping personal and professional separate, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, Mia must decide whether to approve a splashy magazine cover (which shows a man being "eaten for breakfast" by a woman) that was the last project of her ex-fiance Jack before he quit and called off their wedding. We know Jack returns next week, so I'll have more to say on Mia next week. All I can say for now is that this episode seemed designed to show Mia's vulnerability, and that high-powered corporate women really do want to "have it all." Nothing new there, but we'll see where it goes. Caitlin spent most of the episode worrying about being outed and dealing with an untimely zit on her forehead, but she did have a sweet moment with would-be girlfriend Alicia. Next week a man appears, and Caitlin's new relationship is threatened.

All in all an improvement on episode 2, and I now like all these women a good bit more.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"I'm gonna drive away now, if it's okay with you two suckholes.": The Wire

(Another delay. Sorry. I was thinking I might write about this episode -- with its big closing reveal -- in tandem with next week's, which puts it in SOME context and which I've seen on demand, but I had too much I wanted to say about this one in particular, so here are some quick thoughts on this week's episode. I promise more contributions to this blog, but I've been busy. An explanatory post will occur at some point. -- ed.)

One of my favorite things on The Wire is when a bunch of the different worlds the show covers suddenly conflate into one, when we see all possible angles on the same story. When Snoop and the others closed in and killed the people in that house, the gun shots were horrifying, but the later moment when the police showed up to look at the crime scene (Kima leading the charge) and had to fend off Alma, that reporter we met last week, not only showed the awful aftermath of what Marlo's crew had done but also threw things we've seen a million times before into a new context. Of course it's the media's job to get in the way of these cops at a crime scene, even if it's only briefly when the cops are entering. It was still possible to sympathize with Kima resenting Alma's presence, but now that we know the person behind the blunt questioning, it's easier to see that in another situation, another world, maybe, Kima and Alma could be good friends, drinking buddies even.

Now, I'm not going to argue that some of this doesn't result in a little structural clumsiness. There are moments in the show when it seems as if David Simon and his writers are going to take compulsive pains to show that all institutions are similarly dehumanizing, that we all have to put up with the same stupid stuff, etc. Great pains are taken to draw these parallels, but the show's greatest success comes when it shows that these parallels don't always hold true. There was a great comment here last week about how the show is taking pains to show that something that might be a noble pursuit in journalism (bringing down a corrupt politician) can have a place in the world of the police but might not be as important as shutting down a serial murderer who's on a rampage among people no one can really bring themselves to care about.

There's one thing that Simon seems to care about at the expense of all else -- that those who have been put into the public trust do their best to be honest and do good work. When Gus wakes up in the wee morning hours in a panic about getting some small facts wrong in a story, his call to the copy desk to find out that he SHOULDN'T be panicked because he did, indeed, get the story right. Meanwhile, McNulty, a man we've been led to identify with in the past, invents a serial killer out of frustration, boredom and addiction (and probably in reverse order of that order), while a newspaper reporter appears to fabricate a story about a kid in a wheelchair who can't attend an Orioles game (we're never explicitly shown that the reporter makes it up, which strikes me as a master-stroke, placing us in the same head-space as Gus, who has to try to figure out a way to square his concerns with the fact that others are squarely in that reporter's corner). Neither lie is GOOD, exactly, but McNulty's comes from a place that I think Simon finds understandable, while the reporter's comes from a place that he finds rather odious. McNulty, ultimately, is trying to get people to care through a rather immoral fashion, while the reporter is just trying to get ahead. It's all about who you have in your head at the time. Even Bubbles is unwilling to own up to the extent of his addictions in the past, which dooms him to shamble through life, a ghost of himself.

Let's talk a little about McNulty's lie. I know it's caught a lot of guff (and it was why I wanted to delay this post), but I'm willing to ride with it and see where it goes. It's very obviously a plot device, and the truncated structure of the season means it comes out of nowhere much more than the show's other obvious plot devices (in other seasons, we'd have gotten a few more episodes of set-up, I think). Still, I think this could work, and it's always interesting to see McNulty trying to dance just ahead of those who would catch up with him. I'm willing to go with this for a little while, I think.

There's much more to talk about in this episode, including the return of Avon Barksdale, but I'm tired, and I'm trying not to get episode three mixed in here, so some broad thematic thoughts will have to do for now. Let's hash it out in comments, OK?


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

'One Tree Hill': Mother knows best?

Before this episode even aired, I just knew that all I would want to talk about here was K-Fed and his ridiculous guest appearance as the lead singer of a band Peyton wanted to sign. After seeing that ending, however, the Federline bashing is out the window because...holy cow! As that reveal shows, there are much more interesting things going on in Tree Hill than a wannabe rapper/actor with an all too familiar personal life.
Read the rest of the article here.


“Half an hour. One bag, plus the guns. I’ll make pancakes.”: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

As the strike continues and original material becomes thin on the ground, there is an inevitable desire to cling to what serialized television one can find. Perhaps this explains the oddly positive reaction to Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a Fox mid-season show which is certainly benefiting from the strike in terms of attention. It’s not the worst thing you’ll ever see, and even at its lamest moments it remains watchable. Consider, though, that these are the same characters Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong brought to life in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Or, more importantly, that James Cameron brought to life as part of said seminal masterpiece. In other words, consider the source, and the consider the result. It should be better.

Admittedly, the characters of Sarah and John Connor are not the first thing you think of when asked what you like about the Terminator film series. You’d sooner point out the well-crafted story, inventive universe, superb action – all qualities, I might point out, that Sarah Connor Chronicles does not bring to mind. Certainly you would think of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s screen-owning Terminator, who only Robert Patrick has yet come close to matching (again in Terminator 2) and here is only palely imitated. Sarah and John were central to the story, but not usually the appeal. Posing the question, do these two even deserve their own TV show in the first place?

Then again, I had always held a place in my heart for Sarah and John. Hamilton owned her role, from the wide-eyed innocence of the first film to the ball-busting intensity of the second. Lena Heady is fine as Sarah, but no more. While I see the idea behind examining Sarah’s parental anxieties within the wider context of 21st century paranoia, Josh Friedman seems more interested in statements than in the actual character. Sarah is a concerned mother, yes – but she’s also a completely badass fighting machine who could take a Terminator on any day. Friedman’s script tells us that, but neither his words nor Heady’s performance conveyed it. Sarah’s emotional side is present, but there is no balance between the vulnerable and the powerful.

As John, Thomas Dekker suffers from a similar problem. In all three of his incarnations, John’s portrayal has always been at odds with his eventual fate, to become the leader of the humankind’s resistance after judgement day. More than Furlong or Nick Stahl, Dekker makes no attempt at all to convey that John could one day have such strength in him. That’s okay – I can’t really expect Friedman to write a fifteen year old as if he’s a messiah, because lets face it, it can’t be done – and personally I like the idea of instead examining the effect John’s unstable lifestyle has on him, and how he gains strength from it, which looks to be what Friedman is going for. Why, then, the emotional makeover from the original pilot? In the original pilot, when John begged his mother to stop Sky Net, he properly broke down and cried. In the new version, this emotion is gone and instead he’s just moaning; this is even more true of his annoying antics in episode two. There’s potential for some really interesting character stuff mixed in here, but it looks to be wasted.

What it comes down to, though, is that Terminator has been pulled off too brilliantly on film for it to ever work on television. The action sequences in the pilot were perfunctory at best, while the second episode was devoid of any action whatsoever. A TV budget cannot cope with what people expect from the Terminator franchise, or at least what I expect. Nor has it made any signs of making up for this constraint with its characters. Even leaving aside Sarah and John, the supporting players are little better. Summer Glau is well-cast as Cameron, but intriguing hints of her being more emotional than other Terminators were barely touched upon in the second episode. As pursuing FBI agent James Ellison, Richard T. Jones is struggling to inject comic relief into utterly humourless scripts, and sadly failing.

I admit that I will give Sarah Connor Chronicles a couple more episodes, if only because there’s nothing else to watch; but every time I turn it on, I’m sure I will only be further reminded of how inferior and pointless it is. Those looking for mindless entertainment will be disappointed, as the show’s pacing is frequently off (literally nothing happened in the second episode). Even the tone is all over the place: after a pilot that made little attempt at depth, episode two delved awkwardly into political territory after Sarah learnt about 9/11. The cancer threat was a more plausible dramatic turn, although it requires substantial development. Right now though, the show works as neither a mindless actioner, nor a political piece, nor a character study. Bad start.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

“Finish your drink, Spunky. It’s milk.” – The Adventures of Pete & Pete

Here we are, in the penultimate episode of the first season of Pete & Pete, and the title characters have had, what, one episode (the very first, no less) where they spend a significant amount of time together? And now, when we get a second episode, it’s based around a feud! When Petes Collide is based on the premise that the brothers are best of friends, and I guess I know that they are, but the stakes would feel higher if, say, so much of the season hadn’t been built around Big Pete and ELLEN being the best of friends, or, I don’t know, if the Petes had had more than one episode where they actually talk to each other!

That’s not to say that it’s a horrible episode. The boys are feuding when they are offered the opportunity to inherit their father’s cherished and mystical bowling ball, Rolling Thunder. It’s news to me that Dad is such an avid bowler, but the concept of a bowling ball forged by Tibetan monks is a nice mix of suburban blandness and the fantastic. Rolling Thunder’s powers are at the right level of quirky too: it feels entirely weightless when in use, somehow returns to the house when Dad walks (yes, walks!) to the Canadian border to dispose of it and, best of all, defeats Artie in combat. Really, seeing Artie fight a losing battle with a bowling ball alone makes the episode worthwhile.

We also meet the Petes’ grandfather (played by late, great character actor William Hickey), who convinces the initially indifferent boys of Rolling Thunder’s power. I like that his appearance has a mysterious quality, and yet it’s excused by the fact that he simply lives far away from Wellsville, so isn’t able to visit often. What I like even better is that he treats Dad like he’s still a boy. Seeing as so much of the show is built on being in an insanely typical suburban universe, it’s great seeing Don Wrigley, who is very much a typical suburban father, have his life torn upside-down because he doesn’t get to read his paper and he’s chastised for eating too many cookies and not finishing his milk.

But that’s just the B-story. The central plot revolves around the Petes’ friendship (the one I said in the opening wasn’t properly established) being torn asunder as they each try to convince Dad that he should be chosen to receive Rolling Thunder. Again, I’ll complain about how I wish we had gotten more Pete and Pete time before we saw this episode, but we know the characters well enough that the acts of their feud somewhat make up for it. Having Ellen relay semaphore messages between the two is a nice touch. So is the feud being culminated in a winner-takes-all staring contest.

But, with the possible exception of the Artie vs. Rolling Thunder fight, the two greatest moments of the episode (and definite highlights of the season) come from the Petes’ attempts to sway Dad’s opinion. Little Pete winds up running an ad against Big Pete, pointing out such atrocities on Big Pete’s record like breaking a vase and only signing a birthday card for Dad instead of helping pay for it. Director Nicholas Jacobs does a great job of nailing the flavor of the aggressive, dirt-smearing political campaign ads that Little Pete’s ad is trying to emulate.

But Big Pete does Little Pete one better. He enlists no one less than John McLaughlin to aid his cause. Yes, at one point in the episode, Dad is watching The McLaughlin Group, when McLaughlin brings up the item of who should get the bowling ball. I don’t know how they got McLaughlin to agree to this, or how many kids knew who he was (I know that when I first saw the episode, I didn’t), but watching it now, it’s a great moment. He even ends the segment with his signature “bye-bye!” Oddly, enough, this might be the one time somebody clarifies which Pete is being referred to, speaking separately of “Younger Pete” and “Older Pete.”

Hopefully, I’ll be more punctual about posting the next recap – the season finale, Hard Day’s Pete is a great episode, and I’m looking forward to jumping into season two. Meanwhile, let me say that while I began by criticizing When Petes Collide’s premise, just writing this recap reminded me of how many great moments the episode had