Posts in: September, 2007

A New Day Dawns?

Both this week and last, the new pilots lambasted us with focus-grouped mediocrity or even-more-focus-grouped outright badness, fighting as hard as they can to grab the brass ring of cancellation as quickly as possible. Who will go first? Who will repeat the un-success of last year’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip by forging a labyrinthine contract that makes it more expensive and complicated to get canceled than to just burn off in a late-spring programming vacuum? We’ll find out in time. While I had the misfortune of watching some new shows, I’m more interested in…

Returning Shows

Bones (Fox)—Bones crept on me. I hate most procedurals, especially in the general CSI vein of “confusing yet implausible technical wizardry and serious logic gaps will triumph over every villain who is not skilled in making miniatures” storytelling. I’m a big fan of character-driven stories, which is why The Rockford Files will reign supreme over any other standalone mystery show until the end of time. It’s the series that proves you can make a show that has compelling characters, complex mysteries, car chases, and shootouts—a lesson current procedural producers ought to learn. Or maybe they shouldn’t, since CSI still crushes the competition for some reason.

Bones had a rocky start as the writers tried to find its tone and (one assumes) appease their network, Hart Hanson has molded Bones into a show Stephen J. Cannell could be proud of. The characters have gradually revealed themselves to be much more interesting and layered than they seemed in the first few episodes, and by about halfway through last year’s season, the crimes generally took a backseat to the characters’ personal problems. The writers struck an appropriate balance between crime and character, one that continues with this premiere. I’m not sure if they’re trying for a season-long arc or if this “bank vault in the basement of the Jeffersonian” storyline will play out in an episode or two, but it’s an intriguing development that will allow each character to shine.

Heroes (NBC)—In terms of its quality as a season premiere, it worked pretty well—we saw some new characters but not too much of them, a few shocking moments (I hope Hiro’s dad isn’t really dead), and some nice character-based weirdness. Matt and Mohinder starring as Paul Reiser and Greg Evigan in an off-off-Broadway production of My Two Dads? Awesome. Still, it focused more than usual on setup, so the quality might seem a lot better in retrospect, once we’ve seen the payoff, but for now it’s just “pretty good.”

House (Fox)—Oh, the irony. House goes and creates one of the most interesting characters in some time (played with aplomb by Hugh Laurie) and yet, they’ve managed to do almost everything wrong—but it’s still compulsively watchable. I can’t figure out its secret; maybe Hugh Laurie really is that good. Good enough to make us forget the baffling and tedious “Tritter arc” from last season, ignore how whiny and useless his team is, stop wondering why the medical mysteries are so poorly constructed. None of it matters when House is being House.

This season’s premiere is no exception. The episode, overall, suffers from a “Poochie the Rockin’ Dog” syndrome. Clearly, Fox sent the writers a note saying, “Whenever House’s team does not appear onscreen, all the other characters should be asking, ‘Where’s his team?'” With Chase getting fired and Cameron and Foreman quitting in support of him, we’releft with only House, Wilson, and Cuddy. That would automatically qualify this as the best episode ever—if not for the endless whining of “You need a team, House! You can’t do this alone!” So, um…what did he do three years ago when he didn’t have a team, yet was miraculously still a brilliant diagnostician? How do they intend to justify the team’s existence when they can’t come up with a better reason than “he likes to bounce ideas off of other people”? They’ve each solved, like, two cases apiece. Out of, what? Sixty-six? Why can’t he just keep bouncing ideas off Wilson while Wilson mocks him? There is nothing better on the show than that.

“The team” will return next week. Let’s hope their new jobs make them less irritating.

King of the Hill (Fox)—Yes, The Simpsons‘ underrated bastard stepchild has quietly begun another season after rumors of cancellation and rapid, confused resurrection. I’m not sure if Fox is burning off a football-preemption stockpile like they did with Futurama a few years back, or if they’re actually producing new episodes. All I know is: while it may not have the same respect and recognition as The Simpsons, King of the Hill stands out as one of the very few shows to make it past 10 seasons without having an obvious decline in quality. Sure, some episodes have stranger premises than others (Hank entering a dance contest with his dog? John Redcorn founding an illegal casino to promote his confused metal band?), but King of the Hill still has it where it counts—it’s still hilarious and, unlike The Simpsons, it still has heart.

The premiere focuses on Hank’s realization that Bobby is interested in football. To capitalize on this before Bobby’s short attention span moves on to something else, Hank and the boys decide to take Bobby to a college football game. When they unwittingly cause Texas’s loss, Hank tries to sneak everyone out of the game without Bobby realizing what has happened (fearing the impending violence will cause him to hate football). The storyline reaches some bizarre heights, but at its core—like many of the show’s better episodes—it’s about a father trying to connect with his son, and vice-versa. The only downside this week was an unnecessary subplot with Peggy as a crazed superfan and Luanne as her confused enabler; while it led to a hilarious closing line, it didn’t do much for me. Still, it’s good to have King of the Hill back.

My Name Is Earl (NBC)—I’m afraid last year’s satisfying season finale has backed the writers into a corner. Sure, they got a lot of mileage out of “Earl in prison” gags, but how long can they keep this up? One of the small joys of the show has been gradually learning the bizarre nature of Camden County; limiting the setting to prison won’t do them any favors, even if they start a running gag where everyone Earl has wronged has somehow ended up in prison as a result. He needs to get out, in some way or another, within a few weeks. The hour-long premiere episode actually felt like an hour (unlike last year’s “super-sized” trip to Catalina’s unnamed home country, by far the funniest episode they’ve ever done), an average episode with a few laugh-out-loud moments. Free Earl!

The Office (NBC)—Last year’s “super-sized” “The Negotiation” had an energy and pacing that made it the best episode the show has ever done. Unfortunately for the writers, that episode will be my baseline for comparison until they top it. They can and will, but they didn’t do it with “Fun Run.” Don’t get me wrong—funny episode, great re-introduction to the characters after the summer break, but it didn’t match the energy of “The Negotiation.” The Meredith hit-and-run story spiraling into a charity fun run, while a funny premise, couldn’t quite sustain an hour-long episode. Some of the gags, such as Andy’s fear of nipple chafing, fell flat—a rarity for The Office. I looked forward to the longer episodes when I heard the announcement in May. Now, I’m cautiously optimistic.

Numb3rs (CBS)—I don’t know what to make of the premiere. I barely knew what to make of the finale, in which Colby (Dylan Bruno) gets a bit of character development for the very first time—only to be revealed as a spy for the Chinese. What an interesting twist, and the writers blew it in the premiere. Turns out: he wasn’t a double agent, he was a triple agent, a CIA operative undercover with the Chinese, who planted him with the FBI to gain secrets, which he faked. The episode had impressive twists and turns, and a creepy but ultimately pointless cameo by Val Kilmer (I could have sworn I read he’d be recurring, and then he got his head blown off), but I’m not sold on the triple-agent “oh gee, he was a good guy all along—sorry to leave you hanging all summer.” Despite his alarming resemblance to Vanilla Ice, I like Dylan Bruno and am glad to see him back. Still, morphing into some kind of arch-villain role could have been fun, too.

Stargate: Atlantis (Sci-Fi)—Atlantis, why have you forsaken me? I started watching Atlantis when it debuted because I’m a sci-fi nerd but I missed the boat on SG-1—I didn’t like the movie, didn’t like MacGyver, and didn’t get Showtime. By the time my nerdy friends had me interested enough to check it out—it was, like, season seven. I’d never be able to just jump in and understand all the mythology, but I thought maybe this spinoff would be all right. I’d get introductions to new characters, a new mythology—right?!

I had enough familiarity with SG-1 to understand the occasional crossovers, but now? They’re replacing Elizabeth Weir (Torri Higginson) with Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping) from SG-1, a character who apparently needs no introduction. Also, some random guy has joined her. To begin with, I wasn’t huge on the replacement of Higginson. I was no fan of her use of random eye bulging to express emotions, but once she toned that down the character and actress grew on me. It seems unfair to take the established character from this show and replace her with someone a character from a different show because, what? She has a bigger following? She’s under contract but they can’t afford to pay for two actresses?

The content of the episode itself was more of the same, in both strengths and weaknesses. I like this show when they hatch schemes based on their already existing knowledge of the city, its technology, and the people inhabiting it. I liked the plan to have inexperienced pilots fly puddle jumpers through the asteroid belt because they had no choice. I’m less fond of the regular deus ex machina of “Well, gee, the city can do this mysterious thing we never knew about before, so let’s harness that and save the day!” I’m just glad it didn’t work this time. Next week’s apparent heist on the replicator city sounds interesting, but I don’t look forward to the inevitable “resurrect Weir to kill her tragically” storyline.

Despite my occasional whining, I’m glad all my old favorites are back. I’m also glad most of the new shows kinda suck, because that means I can stick with these old favorites instead of trying to spend my entire weekend watching television instead of doing something productive, like watching movies.

New Shows

Back to You and K-Ville (both on Fox)—So Arrested Development “fails” and Fox decides the best solution is to abandon any attempt at “edgy” programming in favor of turning into CBS? While I like the procedurals House and Bones (but shun most of Fox’s other programming), Back to You and K-Ville continue the trend of Fox’s new, toothless programming plan, with mixed results.

Back to You‘s main drawback is its lack of laughs. In a sitcom, that’s a huge drawback. It has a great main and supporting cast, but every joke felt strained. It’s surprising, considering the pedigree behind the camera (Steve Levitan, creator of the underrated-until-it-got-really-bad Just Shoot Me, and Frasier executive producer Christopher Lloyd), but here’s the main problem: Fox wants to be CBS, but they also want to be Fox. Rather than the clever double entendres often employed on their previous shows, Back to You has mastered the single entendre. Think pronouncing “Latina” to rhyme with “vagina” is comedy gold? This is the show for you. But not for me. It’s too bad, because I love Kelsey Grammer and Fred Willard.

K-Ville gets an A for effort, but a C for execution. I like Anthony Anderson, and I like him in this role, but the show, overall? Not very good. Somebody forgot to tell Fox that you need more than New Orleans location shooting to make a good cop show. Then again, somebody forgot to tell CBS you need more than sunglasses and hands-on-hips to make a good cop show. I really wanted this to be good, but FX’s short-lived Thief (starring Andre Braugher) did a much better job of capturing the post-Katrina zeitgeist in New Orleans than K-Ville does. Aside from the setting and Anderon’s performance, it’s a dud.

The Bionic Woman (NBC)—Remember how it took 30 seconds to summarize the original Bionic Woman? Why did it take a whole hour to say the exact same thing? Oh, wait, there was some new information: we have an irritating sister/expert “computer hacker” and an even more irritating second (technically the first) Bionic Woman played by Katee Sackhoff, and some kind of goofy romantic stuff or something. NBC wanted the new Bionic Woman to go dark, but it feels like they want it both ways: the evil Bionic Woman tells me they were too afraid to have a morally gray Bionic Woman, and the sister issues make me think they want some kind of family angst to make the half-man, half-machine character more relatable. Although this pilot did nothing but establish a bunch of characters and storylines I’m not interested in, I’ll be nice and give it another week to show nonstop ass-kicking, or else I’m out. Why would I tune in to The Bionic Woman to see sister drama and a hero-villain relationship with alarming sexual undertones?

Dirty Sexy Money (ABC)—I watched this show solely for the people involved. Nothing about its premise or “controversial” subject matter (i.e., tranny hooker!) appealed to me, but with a great cast and a skilled behind-the-scenes team, I had to at least give it a chance. I’m glad I did, although I don’t know if I quite have a feel for what the show wants to be about. It feels like a dramedy version of Arrested Development; I hope they don’t take this route, because they’ll never match that show’s genius. If it deviates from the “guy forced to hold a goofy, wealthy family together” setup and shows a little more of who these people are, it could turn into a very worthwhile show.

Journeyman (NBC)—I don’t know what to make of this one, either. On the surface, it’s good—interesting premise, great acting, writing that lets us know they know how ridiculous the time-travel setup is—but just underneath I see things waiting to go wrong. Right now, though, its main problems fall into two categories: too much soap opera, not enough…whatever the hell it is he’s doing in time. The soap opera elements crop up in both present and past, as we learn Dan (Kevin McKidd) married Katie (Gretchen Egolf) after his fiancée Livia (Moon Bloodgood, the only weak link acting-wise, though she’s much better than she was on last season’s unjustly canceled Daybreak) died in a plane crash. Doesn’t seem like a big deal, right? Well, Katie planned on marrying Dan’s cop brother, Jack (Reed Diamond). Jack’s not exactly thrilled with the current circumstances, while in the past the brothers were best friends.

Dan manages to convince his wife, at least, of his time-traveling abilities, meaning the domestic angst will get dialed down for a little while. Still, I can’t help feeling the characters’ drama will dominate future storylines. I wouldn’t call this bad except the main narrative thrust of the show—Dan travels through time, seemingly at random, to nudge ordinary people into the right direction—gets the short end of the stick. In this episode, we get almost a throwaway explanation for why he kept interacting with this mysterious man who looked startlingly like a grown-up version of Jamie’s best friend, Reggie, on Small Wonder.

I can’t talk about this show without comparing it to Quantum Leap, because it’s one of my all-time favorite shows and it has a few things in common with Journeyman. In Quantum Leap, Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) is a multitalented scientist (it’s hard to pigeonhole him as a physicist since he has seven doctorates) who entered the quantum leap accelerator…and vanished! He leaps into the bodies of various ordinary people at pivotal points in their lives, effecting change for the better. He doesn’t know who’s sending him to these people or why—all Sam knows is he’s making a difference.

Journeyman operates on a similar principle: Dan has no idea why he’s traveling through time, but there’s definitely an external force sending him to certain places at certain times for very specific reasons (unknown to us). Unlike Quantum Leap, where all the information about future events was provided by friend/hologram Al (Dean Stockwell) and a goofy pre-PDA handheld named Ziggy, Dan has the luxury of returning to the present and using a generic, faux-Google search engine to track down information about the people he encounters in the past.

In some ways, Dan’s ability to research his own information in the present and interact with more than one person (though admittedly, the Sam-Al relationship is what made Quantum Leap so great) improves on and modernizes the formula, but as creator Kevin Falls has implemented them, they also hinder the show’s success. Dan has so much going on with his family and love life, in both the past and present, that the actual purpose for his time-traveling this week—saving a father and son—took a backseat. Maybe part of this has to do Dan’s seeming lack of concern with saving these people. He’s far more interested in getting back with Livia. I’d like to think it’s just pilot-episode jitters that will iron themselves out as the show progresses.

Reaper (The CW)—Hands down, the best new show of the season. I say this without having seen a great many new shows. Does that make my assertion unrealistic? I don’t know, and I don’t care. I only know that I haven’t seen a show since Angel left the air that managed to combine humor and pathos, action and goofiness, and real humanity (in this case, the vague tragedy of our main characters’ until-now wasted lives). I laughed out loud more during this hour than I do during most legitimate comedies. Kevin Smith, who has never been a director with much visual style, somehow pulls off the action deftly. His usual forte, scenes of people standing around talking, hold solid. I’m looking forward to next week’s episode more than any other show, including old favorites.

That’s it for this week. We still have some shows, old and new, on the horizon, but we’ll have to wait. Until next time…

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Funereal Disease

One of the arcs on the Abysmal Crucifix blog focused on Girth’s misguided attempts to cure his ex-fiancée’s cervical cancer. Needless to say, he doesn’t succeed, so he writes a mourning song to play at her funeral. It’s…a little uncouth.

This song was supposed to have been recorded live at a funeral, so again I tweaked the EQ and added some natural ambiance to give that illusion. I don’t know how well it comes off.

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Fall Pilots I Won’t Watch Spectacu-Jamboree

We’re just now coming down from one of the best cable summer seasons in history. We’ve seen the debuts of Mad Men, Damages, Burn Notice, and tremendous second seasons from Psych, The Business, and The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman. We’ve even seen a remarkable season of Monk, a series that has shown (and still shows) its age, but thanks to an apparent focus on quality mystery writing for the first time in the show’s history, it experienced a renaissance this summer.

Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. The Dead Zone, once among my favorite shows, continues a heartbreaking downward spiral into Shit Town (though I’ll admit its last three episodes this season tried to turn things around, so maybe there’s still hope), and Rescue Me… I still love the show for its assured characterization and demented comedy, but did anything happen this season? Aside from a few existential crises at the beginning of the season, and a lot of petty squabbling, few coherent, compelling storylines surfaced. If this was by design—taking a few breaths after several seasons of insane, Shakespeare-on-acid dramatics—then perhaps it was a noble failure; otherwise, it was just kinda dull.

But now, we look ahead to… What, exactly? This is the most buzz-free season in several years; unfortunately for me, what little buzz exists revolves around shows in which I am patently uninterested. This column will mostly feature currently airing shows on a weekly basis, checking in to see how the stories and characters progress throughout the season—where things might go, and whether or not it’s working. I checked out a few new shows this week, and I’ll tune in to some other new ones as they air, but I will tell you right now which shows I won’t watch:

Gossip Girl (already premiered on the CW)—I never fell for The O.C. Sure, with that initial buzz from the abbreviated “summer season,” I felt compelled to check it out and found…nothing worth continuing to watch. So yes, my most active impulse (schadenfreude) allowed me to snicker and mock when everyone who watched it grew more and more disenchanted with the writers squandering the initial promise I never saw. Gossip Girl looks, sounds and smells like a remake. Even if I liked the first few episodes, I know the road ahead and don’t feel like getting on it.

Chuck (premieres 9/24, 8 p.m., on NBC)—It physically pains me to deny a show featuring Adam Baldwin (Firefly, Angel). I even watched the bizarre miniseries remake of The Poseidon Adventure for him and The Guttenberg, and neither disappointed. I can’t abide Chuck, however. It’s pretty rare to see as blatant a rip-off of a previously unsuccessful show as you have here. Four short years ago, Jake 2.0 took all 11 UPN viewers by storm with its combination of action, comedy, spy thriller and drama. After some good initial buzz, UPN committed to a full season, then canceled the show after 14 episodes (leaving two unaired until Sci-Fi Channel started playing reruns in 2006).

Let’s see how the two compare: geek gets into a far-fetched accident that leads a government agency to train him as a spy? Check. Surround him with competent agents who will prop him up as he geeks and mugs his way through exotic missions? Sounds about right. A superficial romance with another agent? Yeah, it looks like it’ll have that, too.

I loved Jake 2.0, so I feel the need to protest Chuck. It’s too bad, because I could grow to love it. I know that because I already did once. And yes, one could argue the same Josh Schwartz “lots of promise, little payoff” rule I applied to Gossip Girl will eventually apply to Chuck, as well, but I’m protesting, dammit!

The Big Bang Theory (premieres 9/24, 8:30 p.m., on CBS)—Former Roseanne collaborators Chuck Lorre and Johnny Galecki have forsaken me by involving themselves in this series. Here’s the premise: two nerds have a hot neighbor. Wait, let me check my notes, there has to be something more to it than—no, no, that’s it. I’ll strain myself in assuming they’re socially awkward and she’s not, so to learn the ropes of the female form, they need her guidance. Will Kaley Cuoco provide wacky hijinks by giving them horrible, skank-tested advice? Will the nerds humiliate themselves repeatedly and publicly? Now’s the time to let everyone know, upon watching the entire series run of Roseanne no fewer than 4,000 times in syndication, I’ve decided David moving into the Conner basement was the show’s ultimate “jump-the-shark” moment. There, I said it, and thanks to this show, I don’t feel bad.

Rules of Engagement (season premiere 9/24, 9:30 p.m., on CBS)—Wait… This isn’t a new show? It was on last season? H…uh. I do like Patrick Warburton, though.

Cane (premieres 9/25, 10 p.m., on CBS)—I like Jimmy Smits. I love Nestor Carbonell (BATMANUEL!), even though I’m bitter that he’ll no longer be on Lost. I just wish I could muster the energy to watch this show. I can’t. Sorry.

Private Practice (premieres 9/26, 9 p.m., on ABC)—I don’t watch Grey’s Anatomy, so I won’t watch this. I will, however, shake my fist at ABC for botching Tim Daly’s Eyes and Taye Diggs’ Daybreak, then forcing them both to do this show because they’re under contract with the network.

Life (premieres 9/26, 10 p.m., on NBC)—I hadn’t even heard of this show before writing this article. That’s probably a bad sign, huh?

Big Shots (premieres 9/27, 10 p.m., on ABC)—I dunno, man. I’m liking this cast, but not liking the warmed-over American Manchild vibe, especially since Showtime is working on a proper American Manchild remake starring John Corbett, who is better than all four of these cast members combined. I still miss Titus, though, so I hope this show works out well for him.

Moonlight (premieres 9/28, 9 p.m., on CBS)—I was so into this show when they hired former Angel showrunner David Greenwalt (also runner of last year’s fantastic, unjustly canceled NBC series Kidnapped). Now that he’s quit and CBS has described it as a “companion piece” to The Ghost Whisperer, I don’t know how I feel, except “not interested in watching it.” Not even the late addition of Jason Dohring’s self-conscious, tortured bad-boy act will convince me to watch this. It had already worn out its welcome when Veronica Mars wound down last season. Wait! Kevin Weisman (Alias) is in it?! I may have to rethink this.

Life Is Wild (premieres 10/7, 8 p.m., on the CW)—In this remake of a popular BBC series, a family moves from the U.S. to South Africa. This has some interesting elements—filmed on location, will deal as much with the tumultuous political situation as the “nature” elements, solid premise—but I don’t think it’ll be my cup of tea. I have a sinking feeling the CW will somehow manage to turn it into a teen soap.

Women’s Murder Club (premieres 10/12, 8 p.m., on ABC)—A D.A., M.E., reporter and detective—all women, as the title suggests—band together to form an unstoppable crime-solving force. Apparently based on a series of novels by James Patterson, this could be another Bones (itself based on a series of novels by Kathy Reichs), which has snuck up on me as one of the better (hell, one of the only good) procedurals out there. Unfortunately, nothing about it appeals to me enough to give it a shot.

Viva Laughlin (special preview 10/18 at 10 p.m., premieres 10/18, 8 p.m., on CBS)—Cop Rock in Las Vegas. Even if it intrigued me (it doesn’t), it won’t last. At all. No kidding. Not even Hugh Jackman’s executive producer/recurring role status will keep this on the air.

The Next Great American Band (premieres 10/19, 8 p.m., on Fox)—American Idol with bands. I don’t do reality TV at all, and if the bands have as much “talent” as the top-12 American Idol contestants, we’re all in trouble.

Cashmere Mafia (special preview 11/27 at 10 p.m., premieres 12/4, 9 p.m., on ABC)—Sex and the City, only snottier and without nudity? Does the fun ever start?

That wraps up the Fall Pilots I Won’t Watch Spectacu-Jamboree. If you see a new show missing from this column (like Reaper or Journeyman), it means I’ll be watching it and will review it on a weekly basis (unless it really sucks), along with returning shows like House and Numb3rs.

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A Touch of Frost: Seasons 11 & 12 (2003-2006)

The one and only CSI: Original Recipe episode I watched all the way through featured a series of serial killings of women in restrooms. The killer would paint messages in blood on the stall doors, and the big third act twist had Gil Grissom (William Petersen) figure out some important facts: all the stall doors came from the same manufacturer, because they were from the same chain of department stores in the Southwestern United States, meaning (somehow) the killer was a trucker who delivered to these stores. But how could he figure out who the trucker was? They needed to find his route, but how? Then Gil gets that steely, studly look on his face, and with a flourish of editing and awful music he whirls around all the stall doors into geographical order—and there’s the route, complete with a superimposed map of I-15. This is portrayed as utterly mind-blowing brilliance on the part of Gil Grissom, even as the brains of every single audience member repeat, “Duh, duh, duh,” the tragic mantra of moronic American police procedurals.

I’d never seen A Touch of Frost before receiving my review copy. David Jason’s performance struck me like an embittered barfly after a Cubs loss, all surprising toughness and intense focus. The remarkable thing about Jason as Detective Inspector Jack Frost is the apparent personal derision he has for the perpetrators of crimes. Sure, plenty of cop shows feature men and women who want to stop murderers, kidnappers, and thieves—but Frost isn’t angry about the crimes, isn’t mad about the victims. David Jason plays Frost who is personally offended that someone would commit a crime and try to cover it up. He wants to solve the crimes not for the sake of justice, but for the sake of saying, “You’ll never get one over on me.” He delivers most of his lines with a sort of exasperation and disappointment that sloppy criminals think they can get away with anything. They always make mistakes, and Frost will always be waiting in the wings until it’s his turn to uncover the mistakes and pounce.

The writing of the series operates in a similar fashion, cutting between Frost’s criminal investigations and subplots with never-before-seen average Joes. You know they’re up to something, you know it has to connect with the crimes—but it takes quite awhile to put together the relationship. Even when the relationships and motives are dredged up early, one of the nice things A Touch of Frost portrays that very few American cop shows won’t, is more frustration: Frost knows who did it, the audience knows who did it, we all know why they did it—but the evidence just isn’t there. If Frost arrested them, they’d go free. He has to spend more time uncovering dirt just to prove what he already knows through instinct and/or circumstantial evidence.

A Touch of Frost shows a nice balance of character development, showing Frost’s life as a humdrum cop, spending more time filling out paperwork and yelling at subordinates than investigating. In fact, sometimes his personal life even helps him solve the case, as when he uses a lollipop to tie several clues together and discover a motive. It also makes us sympathize a bit with the guilty by showing us their lives, their motives, what they’d gain by committing the crime and what they’d lose by getting caught. This is the kind of thing Americans, right now, can only get on HBO’s The Wire. Others have attempted, with varying success, to show the criminal perspective—NBC’s Boomtown and Homicide: Life on the Street, for instance—but it’s a rare thing. Maybe it’s rare in the UK, as well, and maybe that’s why A Touch of Frost is (according to the packaging) their #1 detective series.

The writing is satisfactorily twisting, David Jason’s performance is top-notch, and every supporting character (cops and criminals) gives it their all. Did anything about this DVD set disappoint me? Only this: it only contains three episodes. It did, however, encourage me to load up seasons 1-10 on my Netflix queue.

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Slings & Arrows: The Complete Third Season (2006)

I feel no shame in saying the first season of Slings & Arrows struck a serious chord with me, so serious in fact that I’m willing to declare it a perfect, if truncated, season of television. Perhaps the perfection comes from its abbreviated episode count; where other shows might have a few more episodes to breathe, every single second of Slings & Arrows counts. Overstuffed with entertainment and insight, the six episodes feel like 13 or even 22. Funny, heartbreaking, well-acted—I can’t say enough about the quality.

Setting the bar so high with the first season could only lead to disappointment in the second, and it did—but not by much. It had a few missteps, like the lack of development on the couple playing Romeo & Juliet and Richard’s misguided subplot at a cutting-edge PR firm (which started funny but went a little too long and broad for my tastes), but in the end it came pretty close to capturing the genius of the first season.

I felt myself looking forward to the third. Would it match the consistent brilliance of the first season, fall just under with the second, or slip even further?

Turns out, it bounced back pretty seriously, doing what Slings & Arrows does best: counterpointing the real lives of the actors, technician, and administration of the fictional New Burbage Festival with the play they are putting on this season. Even more than that, they counterpoint the Shakespeare group’s King Lear with an original musical called East Hastings, a mutant combination of the unbridled optimism and grunge of Rent and the goofy “urban” theatricality of West Side Story.

Riding high on the success of last season’s Macbeth (which, as we begin, has just finished a successful run in New York), artistic director Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) wants to put on King Lear starring legendary actor Charles Kingman (the late William Hutt). The only problem? Kingman has brain cancer and a heroin addiction. When Geoffrey learns this, he’s put into a difficult situation: shut down a production that rapidly becomes a trainwreck, or continue it to fulfill the wish of a dying man. Geoffrey keeps Kingman’s secret at the expense of nearly everything—the actors’ and technicians’ increasing frustration when Kingman blames them for his own line and blocking mistakes, executive director Richard Smith-Jones’s (Mark McKinney) increasing apprehension in light of Kingman’s erratic behavior, and Geoffrey’s relationship with Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns).

Of course, the relationship with Ellen is already complicated by another problem Geoffrey faces: the emotional issues stemming from his brief insanity and his seeing the ghost of Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) have led to impotence. Combined with Ellen’s annoying TV star friend Barbara (Janet Bailey) moving in, Geoffrey decides to leave.

Meanwhile, Richard teams up with notoriously difficult Darren Nichols (Don McKellar) on East Hastings, while three newcomers (Sarah Polley, Melanie Merkosky, and David Alpay) fight over housing arrangements and become embroiled in a romantic triangle and an endless “Shakespearean actor” vs. “musical actor” argument. These younger characters get much more development than last season’s Romeo & Juliet stars, but they aren’t nearly as well-drawn or interesting as the first season’s Kate McNab (Rachel McAdams) and Jack Crew (Luke Kirby). It’s a pretty minor nitpick, though—their storyline falls flat once or twice but ultimately matches the quality of the rest of the show.

The DVD includes special features: interviews with Paul Gross and Susan Coyne (Anna), extended scenes of King Lear, a blooper reel, deleted and extra scenes, a trailer, production notes, a photo gallery, song lyrics, and cast filmographies. The interviews and production notes are nice, but a few episode-length commentary tracks would have been nice.

The third season stands higher than the second but doesn’t quite match the first—of course, it’s comparing apples and apples. The three seasons, combined, form one of the best shows ever aired on television. It also builds to a difficult but satisfying conclusion to the series as a whole. When we’re given characters as rich and interesting as the men and women of Slings & Arrows, it’s difficult to say goodbye, but the finale serves as an emotional, well-earned capper for an excellent series.

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Poirot: The Classic Collection 2 (1992-1996)

But fundamentally it is the same careful grouping of suspects, the same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poniard just as she flatted on the top note of the “Bell Song” from Lakmé in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests; the same ingénue in fur-trimmed pajamas screaming in the night to make the company pop in and out of doors and ball up the timetable; the same moody silence next day as they sit around sipping Singapore slings and sneering at each other, while the flatfeet crawl to and fro under the Persian rugs, with their derby hats on.—Raymond Chandler

Like the late Mr. Chandler, I take serious issue with the inconceivable, deus ex machina resolutions to many classic English detective stories. This is not a reflection on Agatha Christie specifically (although she was, in her apparent quest to write no fewer 40,000 books per year, at least occasionally guilty) or on the English in general; after all, the story that arguably invented the “goofy, inconceivable detective story solved by a man with OCD and way too much time on his hands” genre was written by an American, Edgar Allan Poe. Yes, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” where the genius Dupin solves the improbable murder by identifying orangutan hair on sight.

My bias against this type of story prepared me to dislike Poirot. However, it surprised me to discover how many movies on this Poirot set had complex storylines with satisfying—but not baffling or inconceivable—conclusions. True, there’s the occasional “he created a fake pattern of serial killing, killed three extra people and would have kept going if he hadn’t been caught, tried to pin it on someone else, all so he could inherit an estate from his brother” solution, but many of the mysteries rely on complicated relationships and motives rather than convoluted schemes with thin motives. I’ve read some of Agatha Christie’s short stories and novels, though I am not familiar with the sources of any of these particular mysteries. I don’t know if the adaptations are revisionist tales that differ wildly from the source to fit the post-hardboiled world, or if the more famous Christie stories are famous solely because of their preposterousness. While it at least seems Christie told the same story over and over again (nearly every mystery revolves around self-absorbed rich people killing over inheritance), the level of quality and satisfaction in the resolutions vary wildly from story to story.

The success, even in the goofier mysteries, likely comes from the grounded performances of the usual supporting cast—David Suchet, of course, as M. Hercule Poirot; Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings; Philip Jackson as Chief Inspector Japp; and Pauline Moran as Miss Lemon. Suchet, in particular, has a knack for playing Poirot as fastidious and uptight—but not arrogant and condescending (in contrast to his portrayal in many of Christie’s stories). With one exception—Murder at End House, where Poirot spends much of his time mocking Hastings’s lack of instincts, intelligence, and refinement—he plays Poirot as a pleasant fellow fascinated by a good unsolved crime and obsessed with finding the culprit. The cast members have a great rapport with one another, and each uses his or her skills to contribute to the ultimate solution of the case. Oftentimes, the strange cases take a backseat to entertaining subplots involving the characters (such as Japp staying with Poirot while his wife is away).

The Classic Collection 2 contains nine feature-length movies based on Agatha Christie novels (Classic Collection 1 features 36 50-minute episodes), each of which shares a strong attention to detail in evoking 1930s London. If you like Agatha Christie or the character of Poirot, this DVD set won’t disappoint. If you, like me, have some reservations about the qualities of the mysteries, the movies featured on this set will surprise you.

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Chancer: Series 1 (1990)

For the first three episodes of Chancer, I listened to a great deal of high-finance jargon and dry British wit, witnessed obscene actions of manipulation and deceit, but if asked to explain the story I would have stammered and stumbled and given up. I had no clue what was happening or why. I had to plunge forward for the sake of the review, however, but if it had just been me, catching a marathon of reruns at 2 a.m. on BBC America, I would have shut it off in frustration.

I couldn’t tell you if the show made sense to British audiences in 1990; maybe the intrigue and confusion of the high-finance world appealed to that post-Wall Street era more than it does to a person living in the collapsed rubble of the e-Conomy bubble. But as the characters formulated and as the dust and debris of the machinations of the first three episodes settled, Chancer turns into an enjoyable epic of corporate corruption, city “ethics” versus country morality, and globalization.

The story begins with a fire at Douglas Motors, a small company that manufactures luxury Leopards (I assume this is a play on Jaguar) selling for ridiculous amounts of money. Each Leopard is hand-crafted, but decades of automation and decreasing car prices are leading Douglas to collapse. To the bank, the fire is the last straw. Robert Douglas (Benjamin Whitrow, giving perhaps the strongest performance on the show) refuses to let his company die like this. His son-in-law, Gavin (Matthew Marsh), offers to talk to his business consultant friend in London.

Enter Stephen Crane (Clive Owen), a manipulative risk-taker who somehow manages to come out on top, every time. Even after some light insider trading during the first few episodes, Crane joins up with Douglas Motors and offers himself a huge salary to consult without having anything like a business model, a strategy to cut the competition, or investors. Who needs them?

The first half of the series revolves around Stephen Crane’s brash, citified business anti-ethics getting in the way of Robert Douglas’s close-knit, family-operated motor company. When Douglas finally accepts that Crane has the best of intentions, the series shifts more to focus on how Crane will manage to keep the company afloat by doing fairly illegal things while trying to avoid getting caught. It’s especially difficult when business rival Piers Garfield-Ward (Simon Shepherd) and former boss Jimmy Blake (Leslie Phillips) are out for blood.

The story builds to massive payoffs in the last three episodes. Each is constructed as a nearly standalone thriller as Stephen Crane’s past misdeeds catch up to him, and he has to deftly maneuver to stay ahead of businessmen who share his craft and cunning but have the added emotional investment of crushing Crane, and by extension Douglas Motors. The angst boils over until the series froths to its depressing, existential conclusion.

Once the show lays down its business ground rules and gives the impression of what it will be about, Chancer is a wildly entertaining, unpredictable series. However, it has the occasional misstep in the form of soap-opera subplots that go nowhere. Perhaps this is what audiences went for at the time (maybe it’s what audiences still go for now, if the popularity of Grey’s Anatomy is any indication), but it mars an otherwise complex, interesting show. We have the mysterious story of the prodigal son, Jamie Douglas (Sean Pertwee, giving an alternately bizarre and irritating performance), returning to the family for the first time since his mother’s death four years earlier. Other than giving Benjamin Whitrow some great material to work with, it doesn’t add up to much, and Jamie’s pretty much forgotten by the writers a few episodes after he leaves.

There is a similar preoccupation with romantic entanglements. Gavin cheats on his wife with a store clerk in town (among others); Stephen Crane dumps kindred spirit Joanna Franklyn (Susannah Harker) for Robert Douglas’s tedious, egotistical daughter Victoria (Lynsey Baxter). Joanna gets involved with Crane’s rival, Piers. At best, these tacked-on stories reveal new insights into the characters. I still wish they’d done more to justify their existence, considering the way many of them peter out without satisfactory conclusions. Victoria simply waltzes off to a new job in America and Crane forgets her almost immediately. Gavin’s story leads to a lot of melodrama and goofiness.

Joanna’s relationships with both Piers and Crane are probably the most interesting, nuanced, and necessary romantic stories. Her father is a tycoon investing in Douglas Motors whose role grows more and more prominent as the show progresses. Joanna is also a co-conspirator in Crane’s insider trading early in the series. She shares a chemistry with Stephen Crane unmatched by Victoria, who wants to while away the hours arguing with Crane while a “look how cute I think I am” smile creases her face. I’d rather have the histrionics of selfish Gavin shouting at his wife Penny (Caroline Langrishe) than that.

Still, these subplots can’t keep Chancer down. They pad the proceedings a bit, but in the end it’s a series well worth watching, especially for Clive Owen fans. Although Benjamin Whitrow’s Robert Douglas has King Lear-esque shades of depth and vulnerability, the show belongs to Owen. He starts the series as an unabashedly unpleasant grifter, but by the end, audiences will find themselves cheering for him and his misanthropic actions. That’s no small feat.

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Cracker: A New Terror (2006)

Perhaps wanting to distance himself from international success as Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies, Robbie Coltrane returns to his other famous role, Dr. Eddie Fitzgerald, an abusive, insecure, alcoholic forensic psychologist. A New Terror takes a “ripped-from-the-headlines” approach by drawing parallels between America’s War on Terror and the terrorist acts in Northern Ireland and England. I know some about this political situation, but not much, and that’s kind of the point.

Like A Touch of Frost, Cracker: A New Terror cuts between Fitz’s domestic woes (he’s come back to England from Australia, where he and his wife have lived for 12 years, for his daughters wedding) and getting roped into a murder investigation, and the life of the soon-to-be murderer, a former British soldier named Kenny Archer (Anthony Flanagan) who suffers from post-traumatic stress in the wake of his own involvement in quelling Northern Irish terrorist forces. He plays Russian roulette while on the phone with suicide hotlines, saying things to the social worker like, “If I don’t kill myself, it’ll be somebody else.”

True to his word, he kills an American stand-up comic who makes a series of obscene, on-the-nose jokes comparing al-Qaeda to the Northern Irish. Archer is, by coincidence (I assume?), in the same bar getting trashed, and he decides it’s an appropriate time for murder. But the plot thickens: Archer is a cop, and the stand-up comic is the son of a wealthy American businessman and his socialite wife. Let the commentary begin!

Yes, Cracker: A New Terror features an overwhelming amount of angst over American foreign policy: globalization, the War on Terror, our cultural ignorance about happenings abroad. It’s pretty harsh, and unfortunately pretty true, but let this serve as a warning for folks who might not take criticism of our country lying down: watching this won’t make you happy.

Archer’s actions excel, especially when he’s assigned to protect the wealthy American family. He kills the father, tries to make it look like a robbery, but it strikes Fitz as a little too suspicious. It’s perhaps inevitable that Fitz will get his man, which is why the writers pad the episode with trouble involving his wife. I’ve never seen the original Cracker series, but it appears his wife wanted Fitz to retire for a reason; she’s not pleased about him getting dragged back into the underworld of murder and depravity when he’s supposed to be spending time with his daughter and grandkids. The conclusion of the procedural aspects probably won’t surprise, but the ending of his domestic woes are a bit more shocking.

Fans of the Cracker series regard this as a mediocre-at-best “episode” of the series, but I found myself enjoying it quite a bit. If this is mediocrity, I look forward to checking out the original Cracker series.

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The Fake Fiancé, or: Show a Little Faith?

I have an obsessive nature and a strong desire to turn into Jim Rockford. These personality traits don’t mesh well with my sea of largely dishonest friends. The fact that all but a small few of my friends are notoriously full of shit probably speaks more to my character than to theirs. Nonetheless, I want to trust my friends. It’s difficult when you catch them in lies; it’s even more difficult when you catch them in repeated lies, especially when they’re lying repeatedly about the same stupid things. However, I get some sick pleasure from grilling them on the lies and watching the whole fabrication spiral out of control until they either admit they are bullshit artists (but I’m better!) or run away. And by “run away,” I mean “hang up on me” or “sign off of Instant Messenger,” because many of them have a hard time lying to my face—that’s usually how I figure out they’re lying.

Such is the case with my old friend Kelly, who I’ve known since junior high, and since that time she’s been full of shit. On top of that, she’s loud and abusive, pathologically hostile and emotionally crippled. These things might make you wonder why I’d be friends with her, but if you’ve ever read this blog, you understand we’re two peas in a pod. Except for all the lying.

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Killer Bees!

Nothing terrifies me more than insects and spiders. Little creepy crawly piles of shit. You hear things like you swallow an average of five spiders a year (in your sleep), or that flies use you as a toilet, and it reduces my comfort level to 0. I know I shouldn’t be afraid of something tiny and mostly harmless, but you know what? I don’t like things touching me that I haven’t specifically asked to touch me. This isn’t limited to insects and spiders, but they seem to be the ones with no regard for other living objects, especially ones with rolled newspapers and fly-swatters. I’m pretty sure it goes deeper than that, though. Dogs jump on me and try to lick my crotch, and it doesn’t bother me. Cats look at me like I murdered their parents and will pay for my crimes, and it doesn’t bother me (P.S.: I no longer eat cats). Animals of all kinds have unusual perceptions of space (including humans—what is up with fuckers crowding you in line at the grocery store?), but most of the time if you do something like gently push a dog away from your penis so you can try licking it yourself, or saying to the guy behind you to take THREE FUCKING STEPS BACK before you stab him, they will take the hint. Not so with insects.

Also, every time I see one—even if it turns out to be a piece of lint, or something—I get a queasy “fight-or-flight” feeling, and my typical instinct is to RUN FOR MY FUCKING LIFE. From something 5000 times smaller than me. I may have had some insect-related trauma in my past, because that kind of instinct doesn’t even kick in when I see a vicious dog, foaming at the mouth, with no owner in sight and no fence to keep us apart. I get into my Mr. Furley karate stance and it’s fucking on.

A few years ago, I got stung by a yellowjacket. Shortly thereafter, I launched a misguided water-based assault while in a Vicodin haze. This hasn’t improved Stan-insect relationships at all.

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