Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Goodbye, Aliens in America

After a strike-shortened development season where many networks were forced to just put really brief teasers of their pilots up, sans footage (since their pilots hadn't even been fully cast, much less shot), pretty much every show that showed any promise from last season was picked up, barring Journeyman and (sigh) Moonlight. Some stuff was canceled, but the world is not weeping for Big Shots or Cane, I don't think. Beyond that, if you were a fan of a marginally rated critical hit, you were in luck. Chuck? Pushing Daisies? Dirty Sexy Money? REAPER? All renewed.

So it was a pretty good year for renewals. Well, it was if you weren't deeply enamored of the sweet-tempered and wholly Midwestern treat Aliens in America, one of the best teen sitcoms ever and the latest in a long string of unappreciated teen shows that don't find their audience until DVD. (I wrote about the show and did a more proper review earlier in the season here.)

Obviously, being in the company of Square Pegs (newly out on DVD and kinda disappointing, if Alan Sepinwall is to be believed), My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks is a good place to be, and I think that while Aliens isn't quite up to the level of the latter two, it will certainly be regarded warmly as a sweeter cousin to all three (if not an outright male-centric remake of Square Pegs with a small-town show wrapped in there as well). It's hard to explain what, precisely, Aliens in America did so well -- it's just another show about geeky teenagers, at its base level, and audiences have always firmly rejected those -- but, like all great shows, it's about that subject matter in an incredibly specific WAY.

I think what I like best about the show is how it nails the Midwest so perfectly. There are very few small towns on TV that feel at all like the small town I grew up in, but Medora, Wisconsin, comes close. The range of people who attend Justin Tolchuk's high school are pleasingly accurate, and the humor, gentle as it is, has a pungent undertone that keeps the show from getting too wistful. Aliens in America wraps up every episode with a moral of some sort, but on the way there, it remembers that being a teenager hurts, and it hurts in a different way for everyone who does so. Justin is ostracized at his school and has to deal with having a best friend that is shockingly different to everyone in his town, but the popular Claire has to deal with an incredibly testy relationship with her mother that threatens to break at any point.

Aliens didn't arrive fully formed like MSCL or Freaks and Geeks, and it spent its first handful of episodes nailing down its characters, particularly the parents (the part of Justin's dad was recast after the original pilot, which meant that the jock-like Scott Patterson spent a few episodes playing a nerd before the writers realized he made more sense as a Midwestern macho man -- perhaps a cliche, but it worked better than watching him strain). The premise also tried too hard to exploit the culture clash at the center of the show (the Tolchuks take in a Pakistani exchange student named Raja) before realizing that just writing Raja as another member of the family would work much better than forcing lots of jokes about Midwesterners hating Muslims (one of the few times the show didn't nail its milieu).

One of the other things that was most impressive about the show was how honest it was about religion -- how big of a part it plays in American society but just how little of a part it plays in Americans' private lives fairly often. Raja, as a devout Muslim, is often surprised by how little the U.S. lives up to its self-professed status as a Christian nation (and how often xenophobia is hidden behind a cross), and some of the show's best episodes confronted directly some of these hypocrisies, particularly the Christmas episode, which leveled amusing satire at megachurches even as it showed the place they play in society.

The show was remarkably fair to Raja and his faith as well. Raja was a great character, an open-hearted and eager young man who was just thrilled to be a part of American society but refused to compromise himself or his beliefs in any way to better assimilate. Aliens occasionally got a little too cute with its idea that we're all outsiders in modern society, but Raja was an outsider in ways that extended beyond his nationality and religion -- his desire to just do good work and enjoy life put him at odds with most everyone at Medora High.

As good as the whole cast was, Dan Byrd deserves special mention as the central character, whose limbs often seemed as if they were all attached to different bodies. There have been a lot of great awkward teen performances on TV, but Byrd's is one of the best, as much a work of physical deftness as a work of the writers putting the character into weird situations.

Aliens certainly wasn't perfect -- the show relied too much on Justin's voiceover, and some elements of the show's premise eventually receded into the background -- but it was the sort of show that was on its WAY to becoming something very special, and there were episodes in the show's run that I would stack up against any other comedy from the last year. I don't blame The CW for canceling it (I'm pretty sure I was the only person in America watching the finale), but I am sort of sad that there isn't room on television for something this warm and open. Here's hoping everyone involved goes on to do great things.


Too Beautiful for Me: One Tree Hill

This week's fifth-season finale of One Tree Hill found morose basketball coach/young novelist Lucas Scott (Chad Michael Murray) at a crisis point. In the previous episode, Lucas had (after learning that ex-fiancee Lindsey was seeing another man) assaulted a rival player during a critical Tree Hill basketball game. Tree Hill won the game, but no matter. Depressed over the end of his relationship with Lindsey, Lucas goes on a bender and is eventually suspended for ten games. The cliffhanger ending finds Lucas at the airport, armed with two tickets to Vegas and proposing to either Brooke (Sophia Bush), a besotted Peyton (Hilarie Burton), or a newly interested Lindsay over the phone.

At a time when cultural offerings for teens are as rich and broad as ever before, One Tree Hill operates in some bizarre alternate teen universe where joy, silliness, and irony in general have been banished for being too conventional. Of course, the residents of Tree Hill aren’t teens anymore. This season found the story jumped ahead four years and the characters college graduates. The leap brought the ages of the characters into line with the actors, but a boost in maturity was not forthcoming. No one, even the now-wealthy fashion designer Brooke (Sophia Bush, who’s the show’s most enjoyable actor) Brooke, finds the slightest pleasure in adulthood or even has the ability to function removed from Tree Hill. Emotionally, Brooke and her friends might just as well still be teens.

The overriding storyline this season revolved around whether Lucas would wind up with Lindsey, who leaves him at the altar, or longtime love Peyton. Flashbacks fill in the gaps; Lucas had published a successful novel, proposed to Peyton, and she had declined. For her part, Peyton is working a nothing job at a record label in L.A. when she moves back to Tree Hill to win Lucas back and make music she believes in. Like most teen shows One Tree Hill is loaded with music, but the music Peyton prefers could just as easily have come from the soundtrack of Grey’s Anatomy – safe, emo/singer-songwriter stuff, with an extended guest role from Kate Voegele and an unfortunate appearance by Kevin Federline. Having just read a lengthy New York Times magazine article about one-man bands like St. Vincent it takes a special kind of mediocrity to settle on a bland talent like Voegele, who provided one of the show’s frequent musical montages in the penultimate episode with the umpteenth cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Moody introspection is the order of the day on “One Tree Hill,” Lucas’s half-brother Nate (James Lafferty) wrestles with self-doubt after an injury derails his chances at the NBA. Nate’s wife Haley (Bethany Joy Galeotti) tries to balance motherhood with her own budding musical career. Peyton can’t seem to get happy about anything, while Lucas goes from writer’s block to alcoholic stupor. This despair feels entirely unearned for such an attractive and intelligent bunch, and I suppose the show’s success (it returns this fall for a sixth season) is due at least in part to creator Mark Schwahn’s desire to give his teen audience a version of reality that’s so emotionally fraught it feels exactly like their own despite being completely unrealistic. Indeed, one character’s difficulty earlier this season buying a Wii for Nate and Haley’s young son marked a moment of documentary-style realism for the show.

But for someone like me, who should have left teen soaps behind long ago, the appeal of One Tree Hill (I swear, I’m only an occasional viewer) is more cosmetic. There’s something irresistible about seeing impossibly good looking people go through emotional turmoil. I only feel a little bit bad about watching a show just for the looks of the cast (especially Murray and Burton, but the whole cast looks fantastic) because it provides a nice change from trying to unspool the conspiracy theories on Lost, for example. We all need guilty pleasures. My only request for the show’s writers is just a little bit of humor and fun as we find out just whom Lucas is going to marry.


Monday, May 19, 2008

"Elephants are not purple. This is wrong.": Finalerama!

Happy season finale season! Thoughts on the last few episodes of whatever I happen to think of after the jump.

I liked Casino Night well enough, and I thought The Job was pretty good, but Goodbye, Toby is probably the best season finale The Office has done yet, its only misstep an annoying contrivance in the Jim and Pam storyline (just a few weeks ago, Pam seemed ambivalent about a proposal, and now she's worried she's not getting engaged fast enough? I call forced cliffhanger!). It caps a post-strike run that totally redeemed the often frustrating fourth season, from that brilliant dinner party episode onward (though, OK, the last episode before the strike, where Michael had to give a deposition in Jan's case was pretty great too). A friend takes issue with the series becoming less and less of a comedy, but I disagree. The main reason I disagree is because I'm still laughing, but that's the shallowest reason to disagree ever. I do think that the sadness and desperation that's crept into the show in this past season is certainly NOT something that came out of nowhere, and while the series, yes, used to have its small victories, it feels more real to me that after all of these years of failed dreams, the characters would feel more and more trapped. Because desperation is the engine that drives so much of The Office's comedy (the other one being longing, which works well in tandem), this means the show is funnier to those of us who've always been on board with the core conceits of the show and harder to take for those who are just along for the warm and whimsical character moments that crowd the edges of the show. Put another way, The Office is the bleakest mainstream American sitcom to find mass success in ages, perhaps since Taxi.

Now, the bleakness can get to be too much when the show either forces Michael to be stupider than he is (like when he drove into that lake early in the season) or when the show forces drama (as it did in the Jim and Pam plot in the finale), but I don't think the show has reached the point of misery porn just yet. The show's writers have heaped plenty on Michael over the show's run, but there's always a sense that, karmically, he sort of deserves some of it, if not ALL of it. His connection with the Amy Ryan character (so great is my love for Ryan that I do not care to remember character names) is real, but he's also going to "sort of" be a dad. This has been read as the writers roping Michael back into Jan's twisted web (after all, who's a regular and who's not), but I see it as the latest small step Michael takes toward decency. Libby and I were arguing about whether or not David Brent or Michael Scott was the more believable character, and while Brent was probably more fully realized from the first (he was never as blithely unaware as Michael was), Michael is a character who's seemed capable of change. If the British Office was about a whole host of characters forced to confront something akin to a force of nature and try to take away a tiny piece of happiness from it, the AMERICAN Office is shaping up to be about how that force of nature is slowly altered by everything around it. It's a distinctly American spin on the idea, and the cynic in me insists it's not plausible. But, if it turns up episodes as good as Goodbye, Toby, I'm fine with that.

While we're sort of on the subject of karma, My Name Is Earl was on notice with us and about to be dropped from the rotation until it came up with a finale that wasn't terrific but also wasn't terrible. I still don't like the blatantly misogynistic ways that they dealt with the Alyssa Milano character, but it feels like the writers have rediscovered the voices of Earl and Randy, and as long as the show is getting those two right, it'll be good for a chuckle or two.

How I Met Your Mother's last few episodes weren't as good as some of the heights the show hit right after it came back from the strike (breaking up Barney and Ted allowed both characters to hit some different notes, but it also presented a real problem structurally, as the gang had basically nothing to react to), but I quite liked the finale, which didn't make me laugh a lot, but did a very good job at reminding us of the surrogate family at the center of the episode and all of the ways they cared about each other. The slow-motion race of everyone to Ted's bedside in the hospital grew maudlin after a while, but the mix of the characters and the song "Nice Dream" was a good one at first, and it was genuinely moving to see, say, Marshall run to the hospital with his guitar from his video game still around his neck. And if the miracles device never quite took off, it still allowed for some pretty funny flashbacks (especially that pencil one) and let the show cram in some exposition in a not-too-painful way. Obviously, since Ted has now proposed to Stella, she cannot be the mother, but I liked that Barney clearly cares for Robin. That seems like a good way to go in season four -- Ted coping with an engagement he wasn't prepared for (unless Stella says no) and Barney trying to cope with real feelings of romance for once. Here's hoping for a more-even season four, though I'll take an uneven one if it hits heights as high as "How I Met Everyone Else" and the March Madness episode.

And, hey, what the hey is up with Bones? I've really been enjoying the show this season, not really caring that they don't bother with plots that make sense, since it's more fun just to see Bones wander around and be thrust into situations that make no sense to her. But that season finale was just trying way too hard. From the bizarre fake funeral scene to ZACK BEING THE KILLER (or, rather, Gormogon's assistant), the episode just seemed intent on introducing big twists for the sake of introducing big twists. I wasn't a huge devotee to the Zack character, but this just seems mean, especially as there was very little build to this reveal. This is just another example of how big season finales are seriously throwing off the balance of television, which is something I keep planning to write about. One of these days. (While we're at it, the Fat Pam character was pretty stupid too. Bones, I guess, angers me because I like it so much, but then find something irreparably stupid in every episode.)

Meanwhile, over on House, they know how to write out a semi-regular. The first part of the season finale was kind of stupid, with its over-obvious clues and anvils to the heads of the audience, but the second part was a pretty aces episode, the sort of thing you might see on ER back in the '90s, when the whole team would band together to SAVE ONE OF THEIR OWN and fail. The episode literally trotted out every '90s drama death cliche (right down to the person who is on the verge of death but can have cogent conversations with all of the regulars and the weird mass-transit system of the afterlife AND the note left for the beloved that contains a portent of doom). And guess what? Because these cliches were retired for so long, it WORKED. The whole episode was a pretty terrific goodbye to Amber, played memorably by Anne Dudek, who deserves her own series at this point.

But, anyway, I'm going to go listen to the new Hold Steady song a few times and head for bed. I'm trying to clean out my DVR before moving, so I'm up for talking about anything. What are you guys interested in?


BSG Saturdays, Season Four, Episode 7, "Guess What's Coming to Dinner?"

After a string of relatively contemplative episodes, Battlestar Galactica’s seventh episode of its fourth season, “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner?,” zips along with verve, finding little time for the character moments the last few episodes have been filled with, and concluding with one of the show's better cliffhangers. Written by Michael Angeli and directed by Wayne Rose, the episode must have been manna to fans who’ve been distressed by some of the more philosophical stones the show has overturned this season, especially one that made such excellent use of the entire cast. While there are a few points where the plot takes easy shortcuts instead of doing something more complex and interesting in the interest of time, the episode is another strong one for a season that is shaping up to be one of the show’s best.
Plenty more here.