Friday, March 21, 2008

"Carpe Threesome" - Lipstick Jungle, episode 1.7

So this was the season finale. I'm not sure what made me think last week's Lipstick Jungle was the first season finale but I'm glad we got this episode, it followed up on the big plot points of last week and - in a way - brought things back to the beginning.

Last week's meltdown between Nico and Wendy over the former's affair with Kirby is still simmering. Nico has begun to realize her feelings for Kirby may be more than just physical, and she shows no sign of slowing things down. We get a montage of Nico and Kirby in the shower, in bed, etc. to let us know the affair is still going full-bore. But why does Nico's cell phone keep ringing?

Nico husband Charles has had a heart attack and she predictably leaves Kirby and rushes to his side. We don't much about the lives of Nico and her friends before the show started, but we have been told that Nico fell in love with Charles after being his student. We don't know enough about Charles to guess how he may have played Henry Higgins to her Eliza in the early days of her marriage, but it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume a certain dependence may have existed. As Nico grew older and more accomplished that naturally faded and may have sent Charles looking for something else, and that led to Nico's affair, etc. etc. Psychoanalysis aside, Nico's feelings for Charles are rekindled after his hospitalization. She guiltily confesses her affair with Kirby to Victory and then goes one step further by ending it. Is Charles having an affair with perky grad student Megan? We still don't know, but even if he is there's a desire on both sides to return to the passion and deeper feelings of his and Nico's early years together.

Wendy and Victory took second chair this week, but Wendy's storyline was one of the most interesting she has had. From the pilot, a centrai issue with Wendy has been balancing work, motherhood, and the needs of husband Shane. Now Shane is an in-demand film composer and Wendy is still as busy as ever. When a famous screenwriter (well played by Marsha Mason) is late with a Meryl Streep script Wendy must practically squat in the woman's apartment to produce a finished product. The writer tells Wendy she's terrified that if she finishes the script she'll never get another job due to ageism in the movie business. Wendy's response is to essentially write a blsnk check for a future script, and I couldn't help but wonder if she did so because she saw her own future to a degree.

This episode may have been the first time that I wished for more of Andrew McCarthy's Joe. Victory is mostly on her own this week, fending off Joe's attempt at reconciliation and almost getting caught up in a threesome. A stylish character played by Bobby Cannavale asks Victory to dress him and his wife for a magazine shoot; she quickly realizes that their interest isn't just professional. I think Cannavale's character is supposed to be a hockey player, and while Cannavale is a good actor he's entirely physically wrong if that's the case. This is one storyline that might have worked better on cable, sincde we aren't even allowed to know how Victory really feels about the idea of the three-way. Whole episodes of Sex and the City were constructed out of much less. Since this is a season finale we need one cliffhanger; when Victory finally does call Joe he has got someone else in bed.

So what do we make of Lipstick Jungle? The show is undoubtedly fluff, but watchable fluff. While the characters have few economic worries, there are enough professional challenges in their path to give things some kind of urgency. I'd argue the characters could actually have a bit more fun. Thanks, Lipstick Jungle, for giving me a new TV crush in Lindsay Price and a show good enough (but there's still work to do) to make watching a show about New York high society not seem like a waste of time. Until next season......


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ten things you might not have known about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, gleaned from PaleyFest '08

PaleyFest is a wondrous thing, falling somewhere between a serious chance to discuss some of the more important television of our times (and the past), a journalistic attempt to get inside these shows and complete, utter, insipid fan service for the very fanniest of fans (and if you've never met Buffy fans, hoo boy). It's the sort of event where the theme songs that play endlessly before the show get scattered applause, and the clips played of the various shows that will be appearing before the event also get applause (most popular with the Buffy crowd? Chuck, The X-Files, Pushing Daisies, Friday Night Lights and Gossip Girl in that order. Sadly, only Libby and I were cheering for Mad Men).

I had intended to attend most of the PaleyFest events this year, but I'm going home for Easter (so, naturally, I won't be blogging much, just as I said I would be back and blogging hardcore again), and the tickets got more expensive this year. At any rate, I went to the Buffy event and will be attending the Mad Men event (look for me, fans!). I also might be at the X-Files thing, though I have yet to procure a ticket. Anyway, if you want more concrete tales of the Buffy event, you'll surely find them here, here, here or here. Or go check out TV Guide. Rather than take copious notes, I wanted to just enjoy an evening with some of the writers and actors involved with one of my favorite shows of all time. I'll try to get you more on the Mad Men panel, though, as I'm starting to think I'll be the only person at that session.

Moving on then. . .

1.) Buffy looks really fantastic on the big screen. I never got to attend the "Once More With Feeling" singalongs, so I was surprised the episode (screened before the panel discussion) blew up as well as it did. Most TV stuff feels static when sent to the big screen, but Joss Whedon's directorial compositions and use of primary colors in this musical episode made it feel almost as if it belonged there. The VFX were never the high-point of Buffy, and putting them on the big screen made them more cringe-worthy than usual, but the makeup (which the show won several Emmys for) looked terrific, even on the heavily prostheticed monster-of-the-week. Of course, the Whedon written and directed episodes were famous for their level of invention, so it's entirely possible any other given episode of the show would have looked fairly blah (and, as I recall, Buffy's direction -- outside of the Whedon episodes -- was rarely its strong suit). But watching one of the finest and funniest hours of one of my favorite shows with an audience that was really into it (and, mercifully, didn't sing) was an incredible treat.

2.) Whedon, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Marti Noxon all came to the same conclusion about season six at roughly the same time. While the panel was relatively free of the sorts of apocrypha students of TV writing (and most of the rest of the writing staff was there, whether on the panel -- as Noxon and David Greenwalt were -- or in the audience -- as David Fury, Rebecca Rand Kirshner, Jane Espenson and Drew Goddard were -- and there were others I missed) and fans eat up (I would have loved to hear Whedon explicate on the original plans for season four that had to be adjusted when they lost Lindsay Crouse), a story about how Whedon, Noxon and Gellar (the three primary creative forces behind the show at the time) all decided that Buffy had fallen too far down a pit of despair on the same day in separate conversations was interesting, primarily because the much-maligned at the time season six has become much more admired on DVD and with latecomer fans. Whedon felt the show had "lost Buffy," and Gellar, in particular, worried that the character had become less of a hero, thanks to being subjected to the ephemera of life (and, oddly, that's what I really like about the season). Whedon also had gone into the season with the goal of returning the show to its comedic roots, and, obviously, that didn't work out.

3.) Emma Caulfield finally nailed perhaps the series' most moving moment when she just really had to pee. Caulfield's monologue as Anya in "The Body," the season five episode where Buffy's mother dies, is one of the more moving explanations of the sad inevitability of death I can think of, but Whedon subjected Caulfield to take after take, wanting her to get just the right mix of humor, anger and grief. Caulfield, who had to use the bathroom and was really hungry, only got it when her sheer desperation to get off the set was funnelled into her performance. (Whedon also repeated the story of how Gellar inadvertently prompted the episode when she told him that she could hear where the music would rise in the scene she had just performed. To that end, he decided to do something more emotionally raw, with no music. In general, the discussion of The Body was the most interesting and thoughtful portion of the evening, particularly when Whedon and Gellar talked about blocking out the first-act scene where Buffy discovers her mother's body over the course of a half-day.)

4.) Whedon and Greenwalt used to call Gellar "Jimmy Stewart." Unbeknownst to her as well. The two producers were so impressed with Gellar's ability to channel emotions nakedly up on screen and still seem humane early in the show's run that they gave her a nickname after the famous actor, the one American actor most capable of going "dark" and still seeming likable at the same time. This came as news to Gellar and the other assembled cast members.

5.) The Buffy set was probably a fun place to be. While there have been assorted stories over the years of rifts between some of the major players in the cast, it certainly seems as though the cast members had a good time together. Seth Green, in particular, had a nice interplay with Nicholas Brendon (who frequently made jokes no one in the audience or on stage could understand) and James Marsters, though even the relatively reclusive Amber Benson got involved at one point, giving a long answer on why she didn't return to the show that basically boiled down to her desire to sit by the bedside of her dying lover, Marlon Brando (Green seemed sort of blown away that she came up with a comic riff of that caliber).

6.) If Angel had failed, Charisma Carpenter would have returned to Buffy. When Whedon and Greenwalt decided to spin off Cordelia to the series Angel with the titular character, Whedon took Carpenter aside (usually a bad sign in Buffy world) and told her that he was going to send her to the new show. When Carpenter asked what happened if Angel failed, he assured he she would "always have a net at Buffy." Considering Carpenter reportedly parted the show under rather bad terms with Whedon, the story seemed rather poignant.

7.) That "monsters as metaphors for real-life problems" thing was perfected by David Greenwalt. Whedon and Greenwalt were breaking the third episode ("Witch") when Greenwalt came up with the idea that the mother of the character Amy was stealing her daughter's youth (by switching bodies with her). Whedon seized on it as an example of the metaphors and darker things the show could do and made it the series calling card, going well beyond what was accomplished in "Witch."

8.) Similarly, composer Christophe Beck inadvertently prompted season two's finale, "Becoming, Parts 1 and 2." Whedon and the other writers were having a hard time coming up with what, exactly, would happen in the season's two-part finale (one of the more epic finales in TV history when all was said and done). While doing the final mix on the episode "Passion," Whedon listened to Beck's music from the episode and began to see what would happen in the finale -- how Buffy would gradually have absolutely everything stripped away from her in a devastating fashion. From there, he knew how to make the story work.

9.) Oz will be in the comic books. The shows "season eight" was a big topic of conversation (particularly when it came to Buffy's fling with a fellow slayer -- something moderator Matt Roush seemed more interested in than any panelists -- particularly Gellar, who found out about it five minutes before the panel) for a short while, and Whedon assured a fan that the character of Oz -- whom Whedon specifically left the door open for a return for -- would be back in the comics.

10.) Michelle Trachtenberg is the palest person on the face of the Earth. Nona Mecklenberg, what on Earth has happened to you?!

There was a lot of other stuff covered, but this was what interested me enough to keep it in mind. For a really detailed rundown, go to one of the sites above. We'll see you next week!


Monday, March 17, 2008

"I'm awesome.": How I Met Your Mother and the return of TV

For a variety of reasons, I haven't really been active around here since the top 100 list, but part of that is that TV (or any, really) criticism is a grind, and if you're not cranking it out all the time, you get out of your rhythm, and it's easy to be lazy and. . .(well, to be honest, I was cranking it out somewhere and that contributed to my absence here as well, but circumstances intervened -- I'll tell ya about it sometime, but if you want to know, Google me). The strike made it harder and harder to do the kinds of things I wanted to do here, simply because you'd go through a whole week with no new episodes and then you'd hit "The Wire" or something, and you'd be gobsmacked by just trying to push the rock up the hill. I thought about doing In Treatment, but that show manages to somehow fall exactly in the gap between substantive enough for episode-by-episode commentary and not substantive enough for that sort of commentary (look for my thoughts, at least, at the end of the first season).

Oh, I know, poor me.

Anyway, I had sort of toyed with the idea of shutting this place down or turning it over to my faithful cohorts, but tonight, I watched a new How I Met Your Mother and a new Aliens in America, and I could feel the old wheels clicking into place. And, to be honest, neither episode was the height of televisual excellence, but both made for enjoyable time-waster TV -- stuff that makes you feel like you're not wasting your entire life, even as you're aware it could be slightly better. But you don't care. It's been a tough day at work, and all you want to do is watch Neil Patrick Harris mug it up.

Anyway, very abbreviated thoughts after the jump.

How I Met Your Mother's increasingly complicated mythology is becoming one of the things I like best about the show because it's creating something very similar to the seasons-spanning mysteries of Lost entirely out of the stuff of real life. I mean, granted, some of it's heightened (it is fiction), but as crazy mythological elements go, a yellow umbrella is no tropical polar bear. But that, as I've written before, is part of the appeal of the show -- how it gives the feel of great fiction to a mundane life.

Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote (and I'm paraphrasing) that on one's death bed, if he looks over his life, it will have the appearance of a novel, with puzzle pieces fitting together, characters entering at just the right time (or foreshadowing their future usefulness to the story) and so on and so on (and if I'm mangling this, please let me know -- I haven't read the essay since Philosophy 101, and I may have even misremembered the name of the philosopher). I think this was used as proof of God or some sort of divine purpose, but I really think it just proves that humans are conditioned to look for the narrative arc -- we've been constructing fantastical stories about the most mundane of events for our entire history as a species. Set someone down to watch the setting sun, then force them to stay up all night until it comes up again, and they could very well turn the thing into a little story -- the sun went away, but then it came back. The answer to the obvious question "Well, where did it go?" gave birth to whole types of myth.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that HIMYM is, increasingly in its third season, about the puzzle pieces. This is the sort of thing that has felled other shows (Lost, in its second season, when it became almost entirely ABOUT puzzle pieces, was unwatchable if you had no investment in anything going on from the prior season), but it works on HIMYM, I think, because the puzzle pieces are so universal -- falling in love, taking a terrible job, getting married, etc. Lost has rejiggered its formula successfully by forcing us to ask, "How do they get there from here?," but that's always been the question at the heart of HIMYM in the first place -- except, we don't really have a specifically designed "there" (we just know Lindsey Fonseca is there). But we don't need a specifically designed "there," really, because we know what "there" is. Ideally, we know it from our own lives or from our parents, but we all know that happy nuclear family in SOME way.

So I think it was the right decision to come back with a "mythology-heavy" episode, even if it wasn't as funny as some others (there were still more than enough solid laughs to put it nicely in the middle-of-the-pack for this season). The moment where Marshall upbraids Ted works both because we know these characters and understand them, and also because we've seen the yellow umbrella earlier, and we know that Marshall has just put us on the path that leads to the "there" we know is the final destination.

To that end, I hope that the show (if it gets renewed for another season or two) lets us get to know the mother, if not toward the end of this season, then early in the next. The reason the first half of season three felt like such a comedown to so many, I think, is because the show's been charting, roughly, Ted's rise from mopey singleton to happily married man. His brief stint as Barney 2.0 may have been necessary for the story's conclusion to feel earned, but at the same time, it felt very fundamentally like a regression on a show built on the precept that the characters can grow and change in relation to each other (especially) and can keep secrets and take on new responsibilities. Even if it was essential to the over-plot of the show, it felt like we were just delaying the inevitable, which is all in the title.

Wow, that was a lot to write about this show. Guess I wasn't as blocked as I thought I was.

Anyway, I really have nothing to say about Aliens in America, which may end up being the only canceled new show I truly miss (I sort of enjoyed Journeymans, but I'm not clamoring for its return). I do hope it comes back, but I don't see The CW paying the money to bring it back. Anyway, I just wanted to write about it because Larisa Oleynik (Alex Mack, y'all!) has somehow morphed from the "cute girl" of my early pubescence into a genuinely appealing comic actress. I don't know how or when this happened, but it's a welcome development. Someone get her and The Chlum a sitcom now!

Later this week: Thoughts on the last three Losts and the final three The Wires (if I can overcome my fear that all I'll have to say is what all of you have said already).