Friday, November 21, 2008

Trailer Curmudgeons, Vol. 7: No one cares what a wiener cat thinks

(Tonight, we will be featuring special thoughts from our cat, Wiener Cat, who is short and enormous. Also, she is a cinephile.)

This time on Trailer Curmudgeons, we're looking at the big, Oscar films. And the films you'll probably actually SEE instead of the big, Oscar films. Don't lie.

Australia (Wednesday)

Quicktime. Check out the Web site here. You can explore the eight themes of Australia, which include land, fire, water, Aborigines and Nicole Kidman.

Todd: Seven years after his Moulin Rouge! was a sensation and kicked off the musical boom of the early Aughts, Baz Luhrmann has returned with a movie that looks like every other movie ever made. It's as though the sheer act of not making a movie created a huge pressure that built and built and built within him until he was sitting at his screenwriting table and just frantically tossing nouns onto sheets of paper. "COWBOY! FIRE! ABORIGINE! BOMBS! LADY! HOEDOWN! TUXEDO! BOAT! UMBRELLA! Good God, Baz, the magic just never left!" In short, this will either be completely ludicrous or COMPLETELY LUDICROUS.

Libby: This looks like Nicole Kidman trying to one-up the entire filmography of Meryl Streep in a single film.


Milk (Wednesday)


Todd: Recent events being what they are and that whole, "Let's give the Oscar to Crash for no reason!" thing of a few years ago being what IT was ALONG with the Academy's recent trend of giving Oscars to long overdue directors like Scorsese and the Coen brothers, this seems like it could be a sleeper winner for Best Picture, since it takes all of the gay themes that frighten Academy members and couches them in a familiar setting (ah, the sweet, blessed biopic, nectar to an Academy member's soul). This is pretty obviously Gus Van Sant, mainstream director, instead of Gus Van Sant, indie wunderkind, but that's a helluva cast, and Victor Garber should pretty much just get it written into his contract with Hollywood that he gets to play all mayors from now on. INCLUDING Marion Berry.

Libby: I like that big rainbow flag.

Wiener Cat: You realize making me comment on every entry is a really stupid idea, right? I'm just gonna fall asleep anyway!

Cadillac Records (Dec. 5)


Todd: Here's ANOTHER biopic, but this one apparently stumbles into a lot of potholes the genre holds for people: famous people introducing themselves to other famous people ("We named our band after one of your songs!"), having a white guy be our window into the world of a minority group that he is exploiting and having slightly talented singers with terrible acting skills play much more talented singers of the past. Also, having Beyonce sing Etta James' "At Last," instead of just lip-synching it, like a GOOD actress would have the common sense to realize was the right course of action is, I'm sorry, Andy, blasphemy.

Libby: Listen. We're going to have to give Beyonce an Oscar. Otherwise, she's going to keep making movies. This is a sacrifice I'm willing to make.

Todd: You're not scared she'll be encouraged and make more movies?

Libby: Who, then, would run the Dereon jean empire, Todd? WHO?

Wiener Cat: Wiener Cat has discovered a fun bit of carpet fluff and is on strike.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Dec. 12)


Todd: Fox has, apparently, taken one of the great, cerebral SF films of all time and turned it into a movie where football stadiums are destroyed. Because that's totally what they were going for in the original. This might be OK if the destruction looked at all cool, but it looks kind of half-assed, and the storyline is apparently something cooked up by Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio while they were on a retreat to help Hollywood figure out how to stop climate change (by, apparently, making multi-million dollar movies that use lots of fossil fuels, I guess). But, hey, Jon Hamm! Whoo!

Libby: But, c'mon! Casting Keanu Reeves as a robot/alien/whatever is definitely a step in the right direction!

Wiener Cat: nb b nnnn.vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvyu7bhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh5

(That's how the neighborhood reacts when they see Wiener Cat a'comin'.)

Gran Torino (Dec. 17)


Todd: That sound you just heard? That's the sound of everyone drawing Social Security stirring excitedly (well, as "excitedly" as they do anything) in their La-Z-Boys and saying, "What's this? A movie that speaks to my everyday concerns and interests like kicking Koreans?" For real, though, I loved Million Dollar Baby. I completely bought into its weird blend of '40s Warner Bros. boxing programmer and '70s-era social message picture. But this movie looks like something Clint Eastwood dreamed up after a long night of watching Fox News. Shame he'll probably win Best Actor in one of those, "Hail the old guy!" wins instead of any number of other folks. And if Jasper Beardley doesn't win Best Supporting Actor for this, why, I'll shake my cane feebly.


Wiener Cat: hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

The Wrestler (Dec. 17)


Todd: I have this friend named Moses (who sometimes blogs here, actually), and this looks like a movie that he dreamed while sick with cholera or something, because it combines one of his favorite things -- PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING -- with something completely out-of-left-field -- Mickey Rourke? -- with a storyline that looks like every Oscar contender ever (seriously, take out the wrestling and wasn't this sort of the storyline of Jack the Bear or About Schmidt?). Darren Aronofsky, tired of having his phantasmagorical images of life and death dismissed by critics unwilling to just GO WITH IT in The Fountain, has turned, I guess, to Dogme 95-style affectations attached to what looks like a fine, if overdone, story, and, predictably, the critics are lapping it up. Still, I'll see this. Curse you, Bruce Springsteen.

Libby: Mickey Rourke's face looks funny!

Wiener Cat: Wiener Cat actually bolted at the sight of Mickey Rourke.

The Tale of Despereaux (Dec. 19)


Todd: The book for this was cute, but the movie is apparently one part Ratatouille, one part Dumbo, one part Shrek and one part mystical-properties-of-soup late-night infomercial, so I'm not so sure I'll be seeing this one, especially with a voice cast made up of the Most Annoying Voices in Hollywood (TM). Still, props (grudgingly) for making a non-Pixar, CG-animated film that ISN'T full of pop culture references.

Libby: I just want to punch Matthew Broderick's voice in the face.

Wiener Cat: TTTTdddddddddddddddddddd

Todd: That's cute! She's trying to spell my name!

Libby: Ugh. This is how annoying people are with their babies.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Dec. 25)


Todd: This movie looks like it could be really sad. It also looks like it could be really boring. It also looks like David Fincher apparently said to the production designer, "Let's make every scene look like it was shot inside of a Dickensian village snowglobe you might find in an old gay man's curio cabinet." Still, Zodiac was one of the great, unheralded films of last year, and this is a great IDEA for a movie, even if I'm not sure they actually made a great movie. Probably the movie I most want to see of the big Oscar contenders, even if about 75% of me is sure it will be awful.

Libby: Sorry. I'm distracted by the thought of Brad Pitt Dickensian snow globes. Sounds like a mid-morning QVC show if ever I've heard one.

Wiener Cat: Wiener Cat is asleep on the Sour Patch Kids, but hopefully she can be roused for ...

Marley and Me (Dec. 25)


Todd: Every Christmas, there's one movie the studios throw out there because they know your grandma won't see any of the Oscar movies or action-heavy franchise movies. This year, they're betting this movie will be that one your Grandma loudly demands to see when you're holding up the line and you have to buy 16 tickets anyway and everyone's sick and tired of being around each other and, "TODD, CAN WE SEE THE MOVIE ABOUT THE DOGS ALREADY? I HEAR THERE ARE SOME LAUGHS IN THAT ONE!" Fine. All right, Grandma. You win, Owen Wilson.

Libby: Also starring Jessica Rabbit as the dog trainer. Great.

Wiener Cat: ` asssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssas

(I ... didn't know she felt so strongly about dogs.)

Revolutionary Road (Dec. 26)


Todd: As recently as five years ago, Revolutionary Road was one of those great American novels no one but English majors had ever heard about, so depressing was it. And now it's been turned into one of those movies your grandma is going to refuse to see in favor of "THAT MOVIE WHERE THE DOG DOES THE THINGS AND I THINK THEY RUN AROUND SOME?" It appears like this has been turned into a movie pretty faithfully, and I'm one of the few who thinks Sam Mendes has, generally, gotten STRONGER as a director since American Beauty (Conrad Hall totally held his hand through that one), so this, of course, means that Leo-maniacs everywhere are going to be disappointed to find out in VERY GRAPHIC DETAIL why, exactly, it was a GOOD THING that Jack froze to death in the North Atlantic instead of settling down with Rose and crankin' out a coupla kids.

Libby: I can feel our marriage dissolving as we watch.

Wiener Cat: 4fvgr/................,


Thursday, November 20, 2008

A modest proposal in re: '80s workplace dramas

(Sorry, Jennifer! Saw your request for a Fringe review after I had already started this post. I'll get up the Fringe piece tomorrow. --ed.)

I don't think it's an overstatement to say the networks are in turmoil. The writers' strike accelerated the erosion of ratings that were already under siege. The seeming promise that serialized dramas held in 2004 ended up being a false one, as viewers were willing to follow only so many serialized dramas at any given time and eventually just gave up on most of them. The only network that doesn't seem to be in imminent danger of failure is CBS, and that's largely because virtually every show they have could be swapped with just about any other show they have. And as much as the other networks try to copy the CBS brand, they just can't make it work because if I want to see rigid, procedural cop dramas, I'll tune into CBS, where at least they know how to make them, thank you very much. (Weirdly, TNT and USA have managed to capture some of the CBS audience with their dramas, but neither network goes in for series as obsessed with procedure as the CBS shows -- something like The Closer is far more about the people solving crimes than the crimes being solved.) ABC's funtime brand of big ensemble dramas full of goofy laughs and heartwarming moments was the most hurt by the strike (faretheewell, Pushing Daisies), The CW discovered that basing its entire future on a poorly conceived 90210 remake was a bad idea, Fox blatantly fails (running Prison Break into the ground) as often as it succeeds (Bones!), and NBC just really has no idea what it's doing anymore.

One of the things I like best about TV is that it almost never really completely reinvents itself. It runs in big cycles. This is why I've been saying for several years that sitcoms would break out in a big way in an upcoming season, and, indeed, sitcoms are on their way up this season, especially on (sigh) CBS. Comedies really seem like they're one Cosby Show or Roseanne away from being the next big thing again. But if that's true, what of the drama? Might I suggest it's time, high time, in fact, for the resurrection of the '80s workplace drama?

Now, the '80s workplace drama never really went away. ER is still chugging along, and it was one of the last successful examples of the form (along with NYPD Blue and The West Wing). Now, ER ceased to be relevent some time ago, but it's still a fun show to dip in on from time to time, particularly in this final season, when they're trying to tie up years and years of storytelling (when the show started, I wasn't even in high school yet, fer goodness sake). You can sort of see in it how a proper spiritual follow-up might come along sooner, rather than later.

What is an '80s workplace drama? It's kind of a blend of the serialized soap operatic storytelling you might see on a Dallas or a Desperate Housewives (only more low-key, like on, say, Brothers & Sisters or Family) and the social-issues based dramas of the '60s and '70s (we really don't have a contemporary example of this, but if you ever watched The Defenders or Marcus Welby or Lou Grant, there you go -- Judging Amy, of all things, was vaguely similar as well). The height of the form probably came in three series that aired on NBC in the '80s, starting with Hill Street Blues (which pioneered the form), leading into St. Elsewhere, and concluding with LA Law, which segued into a particular SUBSET of the '80s workplace drama, the David E. Kelley Whackazoid Workplace Jamboree (currently exemplified by Boston Legal and reaching its peak in Picket Fences -- ALSO a quirky small town show -- and The Practice). Broadly, the '80s workplace drama is about a group of dedicated professionals who may not like their jobs, per se, but work hard at them. These professionals have deeply interconnected personal lives (in most modern examples of the form, this means they sleep around a lot), and their home lives often interfere with their work lives. Finally, they're always confronting the prominent Issues of the Day, which have a tendency to walk straight through the door of their workplace.

I can see you saying that Grey's Anatomy does a lot of this stuff, and it's sort of fallen apart in the ratings (I would say it was back together creatively, but then they brought in zombie Denny, which, while awesome in an unintentional comedy sense, really doesn't make a lot of sense), but Grey's has always put its thumb a little too heavily on the soap side of the scale to be a true workplace drama (it also rather steadfastly avoids serious issues in favor of cool medical stories). Plus, most of the characters only sleep with each other, thus keeping their family lives out of the storyline proper (when they've tried to mine drama from the Chief or Bailey's marriages, it got pretty boring pretty quickly).

You can see bits and pieces of a show LIKE this all over the dial (again, those TNT shows come pretty close from time to time), but you never QUITE see a show put it all together. Since TV tends to move in cycles and since we've been riding this never-ending wave of '70s-style cop dramas and soaps, it really feels like it might be time for another workplace drama or two to raise its head. Just taking a look at what's coming up, I wonder if The Unusuals, a cop drama on ABC from some of the producers of Rescue Me, won't live up to some of these specifications. But we needn't ONLY see shows set in law firms, police precincts and hospitals! Let's see something set in the halls of government (even local government) or a newspaper office or, heck, a nursing home (though that sounds pretty depressing).

If we're looking for places to go with workplace dramas, here are some episodes to check out (these are all Hulu links, so they won't work for you non-U.S.icans):

It's not a bad idea to pick up with the '80s workplace drama where it all began, so here's the pilot for Hill Street Blues, Hill Street Station. The first two seasons are available on Hulu, and the second season, in particular, is worth a watch. Hill Street was famous for how it created a whole NEIGHBORHOOD that its precinct was at the center of, and you start to get a sense of that neighborhood in this pilot, as well as for the terrific characters the show boasted.

I go back and forth on whether or not Hill Street or St. Elsewhere is my favorite of the '80s workplace dramas. While Hill Street was obviously more influential, St. Elsewhere has always been a show I've cottoned to more PERSONALLY (though, obviously, I think the world of both shows). This episode shows how St. Elsewhere integrated serious issues of the day (homelessness in this one) rather organically. The whole first season is available on Hulu.

Finally, because Hulu has no examples of LA Law, here's a pretty good episode of The Practice -- its first season finale, in fact, wherein David E. Kelley set aside most of his showy tendencies to just sink his teeth into a meaty story. Granted, as the show went on, it got more and more ridiculous, to the point where it spun off Boston Legal, but in its first two or three seasons, The Practice was solid television.

So which workplaces would you like to see dramas set in? And are there any series on TV today that seem to borrow this template more thoroughly? Or am I the only one longing for the return of the '80s workplace drama?

Tomorrow: Why Fringe needs more commercials.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"Who says the Easter Bunny's not real?": NCIS and The Mentalist

NCIS is a cool TV show for people who've never seen cool TV shows. In the manner of all CBS shows, it's endlessly, endlessly competent, and when you watch an hour of it, that hour passes as quickly and painlessly as possible, but none of this explains why the show has randomly become one of the biggest on television, bested only by Dancing With the Stars, CSI or 60 Minutes in any given week. What's more, the show is basically not watched by anyone in the 18-49 demographic (it finished FOURTH IN ITS TIMESLOT in that demo this week, while it looks likely to be the second or third most watched show overall!), which means that you almost never hear about it unless you go home for Thanksgiving. Still, the show continues to grow from year to year in a time when every other show is dropping, due to the general slump in network TV ratings. But WHY is the show so huge? I think you can only answer that by analyzing how the show appropriates a lot of hip elements from OTHER shows and sands them down until they're basically palatable to a more mass audience.

The first thing you need to know about NCIS is that it was created by Donald P. Bellisario, who's created five huge, hit dramas (which is nothing to sneeze at) but had only one attain success in mass pop culture. Magnum P.I., his first big series, made Tom Selleck a household name and was all over the culture in the mid-80s. He followed that up with Airwolf, a series I really only know of because it was the favorite of most of the guys in my kindergarten class. Quantum Leap was his next hit, and it was actually kind of a critical smash and garnered a number of Emmy nominations, though it was never a huge hit in the ratings (its cult, however, starved for science fiction, was sizable). Bellisario's next big series was JAG, which was canceled by NBC but picked up by CBS and then ran for millions of years in what seemed to be a parallel universe where everyone was really obsessed with JAG and wanted to know if the two lead characters would get together. NCIS, similarly, seems to run in a parallel universe where everyone is obsessed with NCIS, but it actually has the monster ratings to support this theory (the show has been huge IN RERUNS on Fridays, and its replays on USA also do very well). Despite that, media attention for the show is practically non-existent, and every article written about the show is mostly about how the media never writes articles about the show.

I've only seen a handful of NCISes over the years, but I do think the show has improved substantially since its first season, when it was known as Navy: NCIS and when the crime-solving was clumsily integrated with action sequences. The series has developed a nicely quirky sense of humor, and it has a variety of characters whose interplay is more enjoyable than something you might see from, say, the supporting stiffs on Cold Case. While the plotting is standard-issue CBS "guess the killer from the variety of guest stars" stuff, it at least offers some level of complexity beyond that of some of the other CBS shows. Indeed, the episode I watched this week mostly ditched the mystery of the week (some guy who was found dead in a box) to focus on an elaborate plot to out a mole within the NCIS unit (plus, it was a to-be-continued, which is something you rarely see on the serial-terrified CBS). I suspect that a large part of NCIS' popularity is that it has a kind of conviction in its characters, so it knows the audience will follow an off-template hour that's less about crime-solving and more about how the characters come together to solve a mutual problem (and, in fact, the mole was ONE OF THEIR OWN). It really strikes you as you watch NCIS that for all of CBS' blathering about creating its own hit serial and its attempts to make shows like Without a Trace or CSI into serialized entertainments, NCIS has actually pulled off the difficult transition from procedural show to limited serial.

And that's a part of its appeal -- people really dig the characters, and they're interested in seeing how they work together and banter among themselves. Nothing here is as complex as what you might see on, say, Lost or even House, but it's just complex enough to feel satisfying while not being so inscrutable as to lock out those who haven't ever seen an episode before. Plus, it takes a lot of elements of other, better and cooler shows and tosses them into its template. There's a cool, nerd girl. There's a guy who seems to ONLY make pop culture quips (rather insufferably, I might add -- he's easily my least favorite character). The camera occasionally swoops around. Something like a cool, techno throb beats on the soundtrack. And the Bones-y sense of humor is ever-present (NCIS predates Bones, of course, but the sense of humor came along over time, so I feel comparing the two makes sense). Every so often, the show combines all of this into one scene, and it becomes well-nigh impossible to watch, but most of the time, it's very carefully making itself SEEM cool without ever actually BEING cool. I don't think I'll ever quite bring myself to LIKE NCIS, but I can definitely see why it's become the favorite show of everyone in America who's over 50.

I'm less sure on The Mentalist, which is the biggest new show of the year by far (Fringe, which is second behind it, draws just over half the audience). The series seems to be justification for CBS' seeming obsession with turning Simon Baker into a TV star over the last ten years, and Baker's pretty good in the lead role. But it's hard to shake the feeling that the series is just USA's Psych played straight, and the premise -- super smart guy with one particular gift (in this case, the ability to pay really close attention and figure out when people are lying) helps the government solve crimes -- is straight out of the CBS playbook. The Mentalist could be the greatest show this side of Mad Men, and it would still seem tired.

Unfortunately, The Mentalist is NOT the greatest show this side of Mad Men. The writing is all right, but it feels the need to hammer home every plot point (like most CBS shows). There was a seance in the episode I screened that played like basically no seance ever would (I'm not saying that the show has to respect mediums or spiritualists, since the whole premise is that they're charlatans, but making them THIS BIG of charlatans lets everyone off the hook too easily). In addition, the show has some of the same affliction that House does in that it always feels the need to soften its main character's harsh stance against the unknowable in an attempt to keep itself from isolating the millions who DO believe in that which you can believe in only through faith. CBS has succeeded through making lots and lots of shows like The Mentalist, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that yet another has succeeded, but it's still just a little disappointing that the network has such a stranglehold on what people are willing to watch.

One of the other things that's interesting about NCIS and The Mentalist is that The Mentalist, like most CBS shows, makes its main character a crime-solving machine. While he has the obligatory sadness about his dead wife and daughter, when it comes to solving a case, he's all business. NCIS, meanwhile, at least tries to give its characters points where they're sort of weak. The woman who's the mole is working because the bad guys have her daughter, and the main character worries this is all a trap for him since he would uniquely be affected by a story like that, having faced similar trauma with his kid. The whole CBS formula is based around the crime solvers being impossibly perfect machines. It's part of what makes the shows so comforting to so many (the bad guys are always going to get theirs), but it's also what makes the network so hard to take in so many ways. The only show OTHER than NCIS where the characters find themselves personally torn up by cases on a week-to-week basis is the generally solid Without a Trace (CSI also dips its toes into these waters), but the other shows fall too easily into a staid formula. I'd rather spend time with imperfect crime solvers like Charlie Crews on Life or the gang on House. The CBS supermen just hold so little interest to me anymore.

(Here's a random thing I noticed watching this much CBS that wasn't How I Met Your Mother -- have you ever seen how DIFFERENT the commercials on CBS are from the commercials everywhere else? They all seem pitched at a small town in Nebraska -- ads for K-Mart and for Glade air fresheners and not a cell phone or iPod ad to be seen anywhere.)

Tomorrow: Taking a look at Fringe, a review of Mad Men season two or a request for the return of the workplace drama. Speak up as to what you'd like to see in comments.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Piling on Mondays at 8

Every year, the networks seemingly decide to put all of their good and/or promising shows in the same time slot for no discernible reason. A couple of seasons ago, it was Tuesdays at 9, which had the first seasons of Veronica Mars and House, Scrubs when it was still mostly enjoyable and some other show (maybe The Amazing Race?). That was followed up with a season where Thursdays at 8 boasted Alias (in its bizarre but oddly compelling final season), Smallville when it was still worth paying attention to, Everybody Hates Chris when it was on the pop culture radar, The O.C. when people still felt obligated to pay attention to THAT and Survivor.

This season, four of the major networks have tossed high-quality programs on Mondays at 8, a point in the week when it's entirely too early to be making major decisions like this. The only show that's really NOT worth watching in the hour is the one, natch, nearly everyone is, Dancing with the Stars, which was once a cheesily enjoyable curio but has long since passed the point where it's at all worth watching (even AMERICAN IDOL has more variety built into its template). It doesn't help that all of these shows, save one, are series in their second seasons and that most of them are hugely, greatly improved. Let's take a look, network by network.

ABC: As mentioned, all we see here is Dancing with the Stars. When I was working as a paid TV critic, I felt the need to keep up with this series, but now that I'm only doing this for the fun of it, I don't see why I should watch. I almost did, simply because of Chloris Leachman, but my Mary Tyler Moore fanboyism is just not that strong.

CBS: America's official network of staid consistency and enjoyment for old people (seriously, America, NCIS and The Mentalist?) boasts what is probably its best overall hour with the second season of nerdcom The Big Bang Theory and the fourth season of How I Met Your Mother, a series I've sung the praises of for many a year. The two series have been growing by leaps and bounds in the ratings from week to week, with HIMYM becoming a top-ten hit in the key demo after years of critics bemoaning how the show WOULD be a hit if it were just on another network. The performance of these two, along with the continued consistency of 9 p.m.'s Two and a Half Men and the 8 p.m. comedy hour on Wednesdays on CBS have garnered the attention of Hollywood, and I wouldn't be surprised if comedy comes back in a big way sometime in the next few seasons.

I wasn't a huge fan of The Big Bang Theory through most of its first season, when it was too cruel by half (as so many Chuck Lorre sitcoms have been), but it became clear that the show had a breakout character and star in the melding of the antisocial Sheldon with the acting of Jim Parsons. Parsons overcame the stereotyping in the writing to find the odd soul of the character, and the writers really responded to his performance, giving him more and more hilarious things to play and do. Oddly, the show isn't really ABOUT Sheldon; it's always, ostensibly, been about the odd friendship and courtship between Johnny Galecki's Leonard and Kaley Cuoco's Penny. This story never really went anywhere, and the undertone -- "How dare this nerd attempt to date this pretty girl!" -- was always a little disturbing. The show's made the wise decision to almost completely remove this storyline from its overplot (Leonard is now dating a fetching young lady played by Sara Rue, a fine actress who's always deserved better), but it HAS had the effect of making Leonard -- the lead -- the most boring character on the show, especially since the show's former weak link, Penny, is now sharing so many enjoyable scenes with Sheldon, where she pushes his buttons. Parsons is just terrific doing this sort of thing, and he deserves an Emmy nomination. The show itself, while very funny, still occasionally feels like it doesn't really want to BE a part of nerd culture, but would rather float above it and take potshots (notice how all of the nerds are pretty much nerds for everything and don't bother to differentiate or specialize), and the plotting is often a little too lackadaisical. It's not a great show, and it will probably never be one, but it's a very, very solid B+ sitcom (one of only two on TV, really, along with Old Christine), and that's something we need more, not less of.

HIMYM, meanwhile, is having almost the opposite problem. It hasn't been as funny this season as it has been in the past, but the plotting has been very strong, particularly in the Stella arc and in the story of how Marshall and Lily gradually sell out everything they believe in because of credit card debt. HIMYM, at its best, couches its comedy in the idea of how we tell stories -- embellishing and exaggerating and mixing things around. To that end, if the show is going to get too sitcommy, it usually is best if it does so within the confines of one of its storytelling devices. I thought it was fine when the Intervention episode earlier this season went in for hammy, over-the-top stuff, because it was clearly a part of Old Ted remembering some very silly things about his friends. But when, say, the gang disappeared under a table at a restaurant (in an episode that actually concluded quite movingly) to hide from Stella, who had ditched Ted at the altar, the whole thing felt too silly by half. At the same time, though, the drama in this season has been on, from Marshall realizing that the greatest hamburger in New York is REALLY about something else entirely to Ted telling Stella what he really thinks, then deciding not to in the end. Even the coulda-been-cheesy conclusion of the episode where Ted realizes he could be happy in New Jersey worked (even if that MIGHT have been due to my love for Bruce Springsteen). I'd say HIMYM is slightly better at this point than it was at this point last season (when the first half of the season had me worried I'd overestimated the show entirely), but it's only produced two episodes I'll probably stop to watch every time they come on in syndication -- World's Greatest Hamburger and Shelter Island (which may be one of the ten best this show has ever done), but the "purely for laughs" Wooooo!, which wasn't perfect but was at least very funny, feels like the show has turned the corner and decided, again, to focus on being amusing again.

The CW: Gossip Girl, meanwhile, has grown in the ratings quite a bit this season, though it seems to be slumping here in November sweeps. I'm also probably going to have to just realize that it's not a show that will ever be for me. While I can appreciate that it's very good for what it is (it's just about the best example of a pure teen soap we have), it's just not a genre that interests me unless it's indulging in achingly real portrayals of what it's like to be a teen (Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life) or mixing in elements from other genres (Buffy, Veronica Mars). The show looks incredible in HD, and I can get why everyone enjoys living vicariously in this world, but I find trying to figure out who's going to hook up with whom rather tiresome, and I do think the show is sort of underpopulated. Still, the girls on the show sure are purty. I guess this will just be another O.C. for me, though at least on that show I could enjoy the humor and the Seth character. (As a side note, the girl I worked most closely with on the campaign was OBSESSED with this show, as are many of my friends. When I say that I just don't get it, they all back away from me slowly, sad to say.)

Fox: I've caught up with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles on Hulu over the last few days, and I'm surprised by how much I enjoy the series, which is mired in fourth place in this timeslot and seems unlikely to turn into a hit anytime soon (especially with a move to Fridays in January). When the show debuted, I enjoyed it, but I wasn't going to start raving about it or anything, but now, I'm pretty convinced it's one of the better things out there at the moment. I'm not surprised that the show hasn't really caught on. It's decidedly hard SF, obsessed with discussing the ethics of AIs and the finer points of time travel, and it's dark, dark, dark. As we discussed here during the X-Files blog-a-thon, most science fiction shows that succeed on TV are built on top of other, durable templates so that the show doesn't go TOO out there, but, try as it might, Sarah Connor can't ever quite pull that off. It's too interested in figuring out how its timelines intersect or how one man's slightest actions can change the future or how a computer might try to tell a joke. While some of the overplot is too convoluted for even me to follow, the MOOD of the show is just terrific, as are the use of Southern California locations. Everything in the color scheme is brightly muted, so the series always carries the harsh look of a California winter, while the action sequences are maybe the best on TV right now, making a lot out of very, very little. The series has even figured out how to make Lena Headey a credible lead (even if she'll never be Linda Hamilton) and has mostly corrected the whininess of Thomas Dekker as John Connor, giving him a sense of not being able to stand the weight of his future responsibilities. Still, the best reasons to watch remain Summer Glau and Brian Austin Green, as two refugees from a wartorn future. The recent episode The Tower Is Tall, But the Fall Is Short is one of the best episodes of TV I've seen this young season, and I also really liked the goofy time travel logic of Allison from Palmdale. If you're a fan of good TV SF, you owe it to yourself to check out Sarah Connor now.

NBC: Meanwhile, Chuck is probably the MOST improved show on television right now, and that's accounted for in numbers that continue to quietly tick upwards week after week, even as the numbers for the show that follows it, Heroes, continue to plummet as more and more people realize just how pointless that show has become. It's impossible to exactly quantify what Chuck is getting so right from week to week, but the balance between goofy action sequences, emotional character moments and humor is reminding me of early Buffy. I don't think the show has it in it to EVER match the sheer emotional weight Buffy started to take on in the second half of its second season onward, but the kind of enjoyable trifle that Chuck is turning out from week to week isn't the sort of thing you can find just anywhere, and I don't think being so consistently entertaining should be a demerit against the show, especially when what comes on afterwards has become almost the opposite of everything "consistently entertaining" stands for.

Next: I'll either take on TV's newest big night (CBS Tuesdays) with one show I've rarely watched (NCIS) and one show I've never watched (The Mentalist) or revisit the second season of Mad Men, one of the best seasons of TV I've ever seen. Vote for your choice in comments!


All the ladies on House say yeah!

What was I hoping for from tonight's House?

After last week's episode in which Cameron treated an agoraphobic in his own home I was wishing for further development of Cameron as a more humane counterpart to her former boss. Jennifer Morrison, Jesse Spencer, and Omar Epps are in a curious position: their roles were reduced in order to keep the series from becoming stale but they weren't let go in order to prevent the show from becoming merely a carbon copy of itself with a different cast. Tonight's episode was good - Foreman strikes out on his own when he tries to take on another patient while working on a case for House. But there was a sense of "it's his turn." Will next week be a big Chase episode? Actually maybe not, the preview suggested a hostage situation with lots to do for Olivia Wilde's Thirteen. I'd love to see Cameron and Thirteen work together on a case against House's orders; I'm betting Olivia Wilde has more in her than she has been allowed to show. As far as the whole House/Cuddy thing, I've liked Lisa Edelstein since she begged Ben Stiller to punch her in the stomach in Keeping The Faith. Anything that gives her more to do is fine by me. Creepiness alert: on Facebook, you can become a "fan" of Cuddy. I don't mean Lisa Edelstein - though you can fan her too - I mean the fictional Dr. Cuddy.

Oh, and did you notice how much William Sadler's evil doctor on Fringe looked like the Anthony Heald character from The Silence of the Lambs?


"The Magnificent Archibalds" - Gossip Girl, episode 2.11

So here we are at the midpoint of GG's sophomore season, with an episode full of families trying to come together for a New York Thanksgiving. I'll propose a theory: the merits of an episode of GG are inversely proportional to the amount of screen time given to Lily, Rufus, Bart, and the other adults. Do you agree? "The Magnificent Archibalds" featured plenty of parents looking to connect with their children, and the result was an episode that dragged at times but still had a few moments of the old flash. Just don't get me started on Serena and that artist!

I said in an earlier recap that I thought Chace Crawford's Nate had gotten the short end of the writing this season. Nate has been moody and generally not very interested in maintaining old friendships, which isn't too surprising since his father is a fugitive from justice and his family is in the process of losing its money and good name. Still, it would be nice if Nate were given something to do other than mope - that thing with Jenny, I mean what was that about? Nate gets his chance when his dad ("The Captain") turns up from the tropics and urges Nate and his mother to leave New York and come with him. Even given this development, Nate remains in stasis until a meeting with an FBI agent organized by Chuck and Vanessa reveals the truth: The Captain is essentially bribing his in-laws to go away with a threat to take Nate and his mother out of the country. Nate must decide whether to flee or turn his Dad in; the decision he makes will make life easier in some ways at a cost to the Archibald good name. I'm still not wild about this character, but at least for the moment Nate seems to be back.

The discovery of Bart's files on Serena and Eric seems like a surefire way of pushing Lily back into the maybe-waiting arms of Rufus. Bart is a ruthless enough businessman to think that Serena's partying past or Eric's being gay might be used against him in a deal - so why did he so blatantly tip his hand regarding the existence of the files to Eric? As for Serena - did you know that she used to party and thinks if the men she dates know about her past then no one will like her? In trying to hide her past from Aaron Serena has landed right back where she was last year with Dan. With all due respect to Blake Lively, we want Serena happy or we want her miserable. Watching her fret about things she can't control makes for very dull GG. By the way, Bart seems poised to become the closest thing GG has to a villain. What do you think? Is his desire to control everything a sufficiently compelling reason for the other characters to unite?

A few quick points: Blair was adrift this week, waiting for what turned out to be the big reveal of her dad's blessing of her mom's remarriage. Jenny, Rufus, and Dan do have a sweet reunion, but I sort of wanted Jenny to keep the fight she has displayed the past couple of weeks. When Nate tells Vanessa that there's nothing going on with him and Jenny,did he forget the letter? How will Vanessa use it? Forgive the brevity of this post but "The Magnificent Archibalds" seemed to be pretty blatantly about winding down certain plots and winding up others before the big "There's been an accident" episode two weeks from now. Everyone's at dinner with their family as the episode closes. If ever an episode of GG deserved close scrutiny, this one isn't it.


Monday, November 17, 2008

Why you probably don't want to get those politics in your sitcom

One of the things you'll occasionally hear TV comedy creators bemoan is the fact that they can't do politically-oriented sitcoms anymore. Some of the best sitcoms of the '70s (often considered to be the golden age of the form) were heavily centered on political issues, particularly Norman Lear's All in the Family, which often seemed to tackle a hot-button issue in every single episode. You'll also occasionally hear this from TV viewers or from their increasingly ineffectual proxies, the critics. "Why can't sitcoms tackle more serious issues?" they ask. "Whatever happened to THAT?" And, indeed, the success of the BLATANTLY political Daily Show and Colbert Report in the comedy field would seem to prove their point -- politics can make for good comedy, and, indeed, SHOULD make for good comedy. But, let's face it, that's not really the way it turns out most of the time. (If I were at all a good blogger, I would link to a few examples of this, but I'm lazy, and you should be glad to have me back, so you're not getting anything except my own personal recollection that American Dad was launched as something Seth MacFarlane insisted would be less like Family Guy and more like, you guessed it, All in the Family. While the show maintains a BIT of political edge, it does so only in the sense where it will make an occasional Family Guy-style cutaway political gag -- and this is coming from someone whose feelings have warmed considerably towards the show and is inclined to be generous.)

In a way, those who wish that sitcoms would tackle more serious issues are talking out of both sides of their mouths. Sitcoms used to ALL have sort of an "issues" base. Even Mary Tyler Moore has been hailed as a triumph of using the sitcom to show how single women were going to make it after all in the workplace (even if most single working women didn't have things so easy in the '70s). All in the Family, of course, was the top of this type of programming (heck, Edith was once almost raped), and it somehow managed to wring laughs out of everything from the burgeoning quest of homosexuals to be recognized by society to Archie's fights with the union (in episodes that are among the show's most dated now, in an age of diminished labor importance in the U.S.).

Really, if one wants to look at a post-70s history of the sitcom, one could hardly do worse than tracing the writing staffs of Mary Tyler Moore and All in the Family. The two staffs would go on to populate almost every other staff with either themselves or the people they trained (the first real writing staffs to be largely staffed with people who hadn't grown up in the MTM or Lear programs came with The Simpsons and Seinfeld's Ivy League writers -- and even Simpsons was heavily influenced by the MTM gang). By and large, the shows from the MTM school (shows like The Bob Newhart Show, Taxi, The Cosby Show and Cheers) were shows where there might be a political subtext (both Taxi and Cheers did pointed shows about homosexuality), but the overriding sentiments came more or less from our interest in seeing these characters interact with each other in their world. The All in the Family lineage was far more scattered (containing shows as diverse as the All in the Family spinoffs, Soap, The Golden Girls and Roseanne), and it HEAVILY emphasized the "sit" in sitcom, often putting the characters in BLATANTLY political situations simply to wring laughs from the issues of the day (what are the early seasons of Roseanne but a chronicle of the desperation of the working class in the late '80s and early '90s?).

Hollywood, of course, being what it is, shows like All in the Family or, say, Murphy Brown often got plenty of acclaim simply BECAUSE they dealt with political issues, rather than due to their actual quality. And that led to the Very Special Episode, which pretty much assured that shows could never, ever tackle issues-heavy subjects ever again (I think the last show to do VSEs on a consistent basis was Home Improvement, which typically did about one per season, but I'm willing to be proved wrong here). VSEs tended to pop up in shows that were based more in the MTM style of comedy, and the sudden insertion of the jarring real world into the hermetically sealed universes of these sitcoms often disrupted their rhythms. A good example of this is The Cosby Show, which, as the most popular show on television and a show that was written about in a scholarly fashion a lot in its heyday, often took on issues of importance to African Americans or to families with teenagers (as in the famous episode where Vanessa goes to a party where there's drinking). While some of these episodes were quite good, when Cliff Huxtable just went back to telling goofy stories the next week or having dreams where he got pregnant, it had the effect of making the VSEs feel even more jarring, which, ironically, diminished their impact, making it easier to make fun of them (indeed, the term "Very Special Episode" is something that almost everyone recognizes and not as a good thing).

Whereas Archie Bunker was always blathering about the issues of the day (as were Roseanne Connor and even the Golden Girls, in their own way), most of the popular shows of the '80s and '90s grew out of that character-based, MTM style of comedy, and this led to a lot of issues-based comedy being kind of gutless, simply because no one wanted to trivialize teen drinking or something like that. And so sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond just never even TRIED to deal with politics beyond the very superficial. Even The Simpsons, which always had its pointed, satirical side, has mostly left that by the wayside when it comes to political issues in recent seasons.

(I freely admit a lot of the above is oversimplified, but the point of this post is not to write a complete history of the American sitcom.)

Some of this has to do with the divisive culture we live in. Even though Barack Obama's recent win was the most decisive we've seen since the '90s, 48% of the population still voted against him, with 46% of the population going for his main opponent. And the issues that there IS a broad consensus about are hard to work into something in a humorous context. Most of the American public is against the Iraq war at this point, but who wants to write a funny show where people deal with the toll of said war (not to mention the fact that the lack of a draft has meant that a surprisingly small number of Americans have had their lives directly affected by the war)? Similarly, while the economy is in shambles, it's much harder to write comedy about someone losing their home when they can't make mortgage payments or about the perils of the commercial paper market.

Certainly, one can do South Park or Sarah Silverman-style flaunting of sacred cows, but it's not enough to simply thumb one's nose at both sides of the abortion debate and declare both of them wanting. At the same time, could you imagine an episode of How I Met Your Mother where Robin got pregnant and considered whether or not to have an abortion? There's simply no way it would get on the air -- not because of the issues it tackled but because of just how much of a Very Special Episode the premise would dictate it would become. The HIMYM gang is made up of five vividly realized characters, but not a one of them has expressed even an inkling of a political viewpoint beyond Marshall's vague appreciation of wanting to practice environmental law. To suddenly toss them into an abortion debate would feel about as jarring as that Scrubs episode a couple of years back where everyone debated the Iraq War, then forgot about it the next week. There's some feminist snark coming out of 30 Rock on a pretty regular basis, but it doesn't really add up to a coherent political viewpoint just yet, and the characters on that show are probably not deep enough to sustain anything so pointed anyway (much as I love it).

So when someone says, "Oh, we're going to do Family Guy, only it's going to have politics in it, and things like that," it seems fairly unlikely, because part of the point of Family Guy is that the characters are not really characters -- they're blanks, capable of taking on any joke that might need them. Similarly, when someone says, "Sitcoms need to be more like The Daily Show," it's completely missing the point. A sitcom is designed to be something that will be syndicated for decades and decades. The Daily Show is designed to be ephemeral. It's funny now, and it'll be funny in six months, but what about in six years? Will we still remember why we were all so worked up about lipstick on a pig then? (Heck, do you remember what that was all about NOW?)

Here's the thing about most political humor: It instantly dates. Look at Murphy Brown. It's borderline unwatchable now, because who really remembers all of the salient points of the Contract With America or all of the stupid things Dan Quayle did? Even Soap, a show I still kinda like, can be hard to take when it veers into the political, to say nothing of its more blatantly political spinoff, Benson, which is also pretty dated.

But all roads lead back to the gold standard: All in the Family. All in the Family is perhaps the most political sitcom of all time, and the show is surprisingly undated. Even when Archie is blathering about whipping inflation now or whatever it was people got worked up about in the '70s, it's compelling watching. And, oddly, the reason it is goes back to the MTM style of comedy writing: The characters on All in the Family are just really, really tight. (A similar example of a show that bridges this gap is Family Ties, which I watched a lot of over the summer and found surprisingly impressive, even if it's not an all-time great like many of the other shows in this post. Still, on that show, while the idea of political conflict is built into the premise, the characters were strongly conceived enough that the show ended up mostly ditching the political conceit beyond having Alex say, "William F. Buckley!" or something in every episode.)

What it all boils down to is this: All in the Family was about politics, yes, but it was only about politics insofar as they applied to the four characters at its center, who had specific POINTS-OF-VIEW on those politics. We watched Archie and Michael argue about something, and we could SYMPATHIZE with both of them. It wasn't about agreeing with either or finding one side of the argument more compelling than the other (Crossfire-style). It was simply about liking both of these characters, even if we maybe found some of their views loathsome. (It also helped that many of the issues the characters argued about were fairly deep-seeded. Something like race is a lot more lasting in the culture than something like Reaganomics.) Too often, when you read a proposed sitcom that has politics at its center (like that ABC one that almost got picked up a few years ago where one brother was liberal and the other was conservative), the characters ARE their politics. If you have no reason to exist beyond those politics, you don't make a very compelling character. Archie Bunker had so much more to him than his conservative viewpoints, and that's why he remains compelling. And yet, as simple an answer as this is, it seems so hard to learn. Look, again, at Murphy Brown. It's a pretty good show, with some sharp writing, and it's certainly engaged with the culture it was a part of. But who are its non-Murphy characters beyond a collection of tics and types, designed to heighten the humor in the easiest and least challenging way possible. The politics of the show have aged poorly because the CHARACTERS on the show have aged poorly. Take a look at a similarly issues-based DRAMA from the period, like, say, NYPD Blue, and it's infinitely more watchable because the characters on that show were carefully thought out. Even Roseanne is more watchable because of how that show's politics snuck up on you slowly, growing out of the established characters.

As we should have found out from that weird stint when Fox News was trying to create a conservative Daily Show, any time you create comedy with the express point of expressing a political point-of-view, it's almost destined to fail. The Daily Show works because it's written by people who have a strong concept of delivering their own brand of truth to power and people who have little patience for blowhards in the media. The Fox News comedies DIDN'T work well because they were simply reactionary pieces in response to The Daily Show. All in the Family works well because it's a real and measured attempt to recreate discussions millions of Americans have around millions of otherwise loving dinner tables. But Murphy Brown doesn't work because it's more about creating liberal characters than about creating real characters or funny characters.

What it all ends up being comes down to one of those iron-clad rules of television: If all your character is defined by is X, you've probably got a pretty boring character. And you can only hide that with good writing for so long. (I should really call this VanDerWerff's Will and Grace Law, but I don't think I will.)

(That was really rambly and digressive, but I've been on the campaign trail and thinking about how to turn politics into compelling television for a while now. At some point, I'll do a similar post on dramas. For now, though, just know that I'm back and I'll be posting at least five times a week and usually more. Tomorrow: What's up with Mondays at 8, and how did EVERY show in that timeslot randomly get REALLY GOOD at the same time, with the exception of that Dancing Stars thingy?)