This week, I played a little game, which I will continue to play in the coming weeks. It goes like this: watch a television show, try to consider when it was filmed (how near to the strike it was), and based on the episode’s quality, try to determine whether or not the writers are going for quality or quantity.
Aliens in America (The CW)—I can’t track down any reliable information about how many episodes of this series have been shot. Do people really care so little about the season’s best new comedy? Considering it’s on the CW, it’s not a leap to guess “yes.” It’s quite a shame, too, because Aliens in America took a slight gamble this week. For the first time in its brief history, the episode concentrated not on the potential conflict between Justin and Raja, but between Justine and his sister, Claire.
Though this gamble left Raja and Justin’s parents stranded in a funny but kind of pointless subplot (all three get re-addicted to smoking and have trouble quitting), it allowed for great development in the sibling relationship here. Ignoring all the episode’s incest jokes, the writers did a really nice job of showing us something that felt emotionally really in the midst of the show’s over-the-top hyper-reality.
In its effort to create a universe of cartoonish absurdity, on the level of Arrested Development or Malcolm in the Middle, this show could have gotten everything wrong and turned into a disaster by week two. Instead, the writers are clever enough to take real situations to their logical (or illogical) extremes, and it pays off. Have you ever seen a high school where Veteran’s Day has turned into a poor-man’s Valentine’s Day because the students have forgotten what a Purple Heart is? The comedy is less the truth of this concept than the truth that many high schools do have similarly bizarre traditions that have come about as a result of misguided students eroding the original intentions. As long as these characters keep their emotional depth, the writers can make their surroundings as outlandish and insane as they want to.
Bones (Fox)—At the end, their faces hung a little too close with a little too much intensity in their eyes. They could have leaned a few inches further and kissed, right then and there, and completely ruined the show—but they didn’t. What allows Bones to continue to work is its writers know exactly where that line is, and they take us right up to the edge of it, but they never cross it. At least, they haven’t yet. And they had better not, because honestly, the friendship—yes, friendship—Booth and Brennan share make this show worth watching. Do I care about their romantic chemistry and their almost-kissing? Yes, I do, but only because I don’t want them to.
It’s like any other friends you care about—you know there’s probably something there, but it’d ruin the friendship if they went any further. So here we are, the audience, the third wheel, knowing things will be awkward if they get together, but also knowing you can’t say anything because—well, aside from them being fictional characters and us watching them on television—you can’t let them know that you see the chemistry, because all they’ll do is deny it. And then start thinking about it. And then, maybe, act. The problem here is, their friends keep bringing it up to them. As does their therapist, played by Freaks & Geeks‘ John Francis Daley. It’s harder to ignore the elephant when it keeps shitting on your coffee table, that’s all I’m saying.
Dirty Sexy Money (ABC)—Remember how last week I said I didn’t care at all about the romantic triangle (let’s face it: Freddy wasn’t even a part of it even when he was) between Nick, his wife, and Karen? Let’s ignore that these shows are shot weeks in advance so I can bitch that the last thing I wanted or expected was an entire hour devoted to this misguided triangle, and the threat that the storyline’s next phase will have Karen fighting even harder for Nick. I enjoy every other character on this show, including the vapid and bratty twins, but no joke: somebody in this triangle needs to get flattened by a bus so it can end. Please?
Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—The subplot with Julius accidentally driving a mad robber across the country didn’t do much for me, but I really enjoyed the A story. Greg is usually underused, so it was nice to give him a little more focus and character development. Even with the prominence of Greg, it didn’t shake out to much more than a solid episode—not truly outstanding. Because the quality of a “solid but not outstanding” episode of this series is still so high, I can’t tell whether or not the writers are coasting.
Heroes (NBC)—Is it just me, or should “Four Months Ago” have aired…four months ago? I have enjoyed significant portions of the season so far, but the revelations and ass-kickiness of this episode should have come much, much sooner. It felt more like a season premiere than the “already in progress” premiere we got. Although “Four Months Ago” didn’t answer all our burning questions—it answered enough of them to satisfy me, but not quite enough to justify the lumbering pace of previous episodes.
It’s been officially confirmed that the December 3rd episode will wrap up the strike-truncated season, but considering the pace they’ve set this season, I can’t see how they can do it satisfactorily with only three episodes left (and only one episode significantly altered as a result of the strike).
House (NBC)—Speaking of not truly outstanding: despite being the best episode of the season, I’m still getting tired of the format. When will the writers learn that more characters won’t improve this show? If they renamed it The House-Wilson Comedy Hour and fired everyone whose character name isn’t in the title, this show would be the best on television. I will never, ever tire of their banter, and don’t try to tell me it’s just because they use it sparingly. Even in episodes that have featured Wilson prominently, the banter doesn’t get old.
Here’s why: Wilson calls House on his bullshit, and he’s one of the few who can out-sarcasm the Maestro. On House’s team, you have a bunch of whiners and mopers wondering why House can’t be nicer to them, even though the three of them rarely have the balls to stand up to him. Now, we have an entire new crop of applicants—some more interesting than others—who are even more terrified because they haven’t actually gotten the job yet. Nobody but Wilson takes House to task, not even Cuddy, whose fluttering eyes and “gee I don’t approve, but I secretly have a crush on you so you can do whatever” demeanor suggest she’ll never truly stand up to him.
Did I mention House and Wilson both hilarious? Too bad the rest of the show—even the good episodes—have gotten so dull and repetitive. I can’t tell if this is a “quantity over quality” problem or if the writers are just content with the show that they’re making.
Journeyman (NBC)—Sources suggest that this series had a 13-episode order, all 13 of which have been completed. It makes me wonder, with no real evidence backing me up, if this was to be a midseason replacement last year (or perhaps this year), so its shooting schedule was different. If that’s the case, perhaps Journeyman will deliver a satisfactory season finale. After all, as it ladles intrigue onto an already-interesting premise, the show’s quality has only improved as the weeks have passed.
The Dylan MacLean story is now ratcheting up the intensity as an FBI man has decided to turn Dan’s life upside-down. On top of that, we’ve had another appearance by Elliott Langley, the mysterious quantum physicist who keeps looking at Dan like a proud father looks at a son—or a proud scientist looks at a successful experience. Is he the man behind the curtain, or just a nutjob? Who knows? What we do know: Langley quit his job because the USA PATRIOT Act opened up his research to any federal agent interested—and boy were they interested. In using his research into time-travel as a terrorist-fighting weapon?
Other plot-thickening revelations: Livia’s home is in 1948, not the present? Dan’s brother is accused of evidence-tampering when the FBI agent finds a present-day $20 bill (which Dan gave a cabbie in the past, just before his brother chased him down and took a report about the “counterfeit” bill) instead of whatever funny-money he was expecting. Will the agent put two and two together and decide he wants to harness Dan’s “ability” for the forces of…I assume evil, because it’s Big Government, but maybe they are trying to do the right thing here.
The direction I thought it was headed in—that Dan would start using all the “old currency” from the hijacking and would end up a fugitive across time—hasn’t happened. In fact, while they didn’t show it, we were led to believe that Katie burned all the hijacking money. Still, I like where the show is headed quite a bit more than my own idea.
King of the Hill (Fox)—The Simpsons killed off Maude Flanders for laughs (and failed-contract-negotiation bitterness), but King of the Hill doesn’t play that way. The impending death of Cotton Hill once again brings up Hank’s complicated, depressing issues with his father, and they didn’t pull any punches. TV deaths often leave me cold, but nothing was as wild as watching Hank first say hateful things while his father almost died, then Peggy say even more hateful things while he really died. You’d think after ten years it would stop amazing me at how much more interesting, nuanced and emotionally realistic this cartoon is in comparison to most live-action fare. I am really, really disappointed that it has so few episodes remaining.
Animation is kind of a weird beast, as most of the episodes need to be written (and usually recorded) 6-9 months in advance in order to have them animated in time to air. It’s hard to say if the writers of King of the Hill could make a bad or lazy episode even accidentally, but it’s an even harder call considering how long ago these episodes were written. It does make me wonder if the last-minute punch-ups they usually do before airing will affect the quality once the post-strike episodes kick in.
My Name Is Earl (NBC)—My vote: quantity. The two-parter over the last two weeks should have had the same mixture of oddness and sweetness that the original Liberty Jones episodes had, yet this episode fell flat. Maybe it was because Earl and Randy arguing the whole time was both out of character and annoying, maybe it’s because the show as a whole has fallen to pieces after they backed themselves into a corner in last season’s finale—or maybe the writers have just been trying to crank out as many episodes as possible before the strike. Maybe it’s telling that, unlike the other NBC single-camera series, My Name Is Earl supposedly has its entire 22-episode series completed already, while 30 Rock has 10, Scrubs has 12, and The Office is already on hiatus (as of next week).
Numb3rs (CBS)—I’m ready to pack it in. Granted, they haven’t done the old “it was a dirty cop” thing again—yet!—but last week’s episode about video-game players, a topic I actually know something about, was so poorly done it makes me question all the stuff I don’t understand. Friday’s episode, about a Paris Hilton-esque socialite who stages her own kidnapping in an attempt to get her father to dismantle his third-world operations. When that fails, she kidnaps her father, played by William Atherton from Ghostbusters (the highlight of the episode).
Unfortunately, you really didn’t need a masters in mathematics to figure this episode out. From the second we meet William Atherton, whose Walter Peck smarminess is in full effect, it was pretty clear the daughter kidnapped herself. Most of these procedurals are predictable in the what and how—it’s the why that’s supposed to make it interesting. Problem is, Numb3rs seemed to think the what was a real brain teaser. It just made Megan come across like a total idiot when she kept saying things like, “Look at that photo—she’s a scared little girl,” when all the “little girl” had in her eyes was fury. When your profiler looks stupid, it makes it a lot harder to accept her self-righteous raging against the Walter Peck machine. I really like Diane Farr, so this episode—the first of the season that let her do anything even mildly interesting—was a major disappointment.
The Office (NBC)—Wow. What a way to go on hiatus. The Office gives us an excruciating look at the Michael-Jan relationship as they depose themselves for her wrongful termination suit against Dunder-Mifflin. Michael tries, in his misguided way, to stand up for Jan, and then he’s forced to sit through a dissection of his own character intelligence and competence. The writers have done a fantastic job portraying Michael Scott as an endearing manchild. Everything he does is completely counterintuitive to adult behavior, and yet the audience becomes protective of him as we discover he just doesn’t know any better. When the tables turn and he’s betrayed by Jan, it’s horrible even though we know she’s dead right. And Michael’s monologue at the end, about expecting to get screwed by your company, but not expecting to get screwed by your girlfriend, was so profoundly pathetic and human…wow, I’ll miss this show.
Pushing Daisies (ABC)—It’s official: Kristin Chenoweth has finally stopped annoying me. Sort of. At the very least, she’s become a tolerable part of the Pushing Daisies universe. As long as they don’t let her sing again, I’ll stop griping about how shrill and forced her performance is. It’s not that it’s stopped being shrill or forced—it’s just stopped bugging me, for some reason.
With that out of the way, I’ll compliment the way the writers are able to take pretty simplistic mysteries (they’re not horrible, just typical of TV procedurals) and use them to deliver the fantastical weirdness we’ve come to expect: polygamy, dog breeding, cloning, coffee creamer. More than anything, I’m a sucker for the Ned-Chuck non-romance. The way the polygamy story reenforced and furthered that romance tied the dueling subplots together better than any other, so far.
Reaper (The CW)—Reaper, on the other hand, has given me some romantic subplot trouble. I have a hard time with Sam and Andi, but this week I’ve finally figured out why. It’s a strange time to figure it out, since this is the second time in the entire series Andi hasn’t felt totally extraneous, and I found myself enjoying and relating to the “more-than-a-friend gift” subplot more than any other Sam-Andi interaction so far. Yet, at the moment Andi started sobbing and told Sam he’s the most important person in her life, I thought, “Aww—wait, what?!”
Then it occurred to me: we know virtually nothing about Andi, except that she’s trying to go to college and she sorta has a thing for Sam. This is, fundamentally, the problem with the entire storyline. We barely know a thing about Andi, or her friendship with Sam, and in fact—we don’t even know that much about Sam. Bret Harrison is a likable actor who helps Sam coast a lot farther than he should, but if we don’t get a little more depth (how about some more scenes at home with the forgotten parents and brother?), this entire show may start falling flat.
More than that, though, we need to understand Andi: where does she come from, what’s her life like outside the Bench, why is Sam so important to her? By virtue of the point the show chose to start—the day Sam learns he’ll be the Devil’s bounty hunter—he’s only shown himself to be an awkward, unreliable cad who probably causes more heartache than happiness in Andi’s life. So…what was going on before the series started? She’s not part of the regular outside-of-work hangout crew, I don’t believe they’ve made any reference to them going to high school together, so as far as we know, their only knowledge of each other exists in a work setting. I want to know about this deep friendship.
Otherwise, I enjoyed this episode quite a bit. Who doesn’t love A.D. Skinner jumping into the fray as SuperCop? The big twist at the end actually caught me off-guard, so bravo on that. The subplot with Sock and Gladys was really entertaining, so all in all, nice job. Although, I can’t help finding myself waiting for something bigger to come along—for Satan to show us a little more evil, for Sam’s dad to finally reveal what he ripped out of the contract and why. The standalone format is working well enough for me, but those little moments of overarching story have left me wanting to know where they’re going, stat.
Stargate: Atlantis (Sci-Fi)—I’m retiring this show as of this week. I may keep watching it, and it may return if it undergoes vast improvements, but right now it’s feeling a little repetitive to keep saying “this show is inferior to Farscape and Firefly, two shows it obviously and desperately wants to be.”
Supernatural (The CW)—I don’t know how to feel about this episode. Sterling K. Brown as Gordon Walker is always a welcome presence, and the partnership between his psycho-hunter and Michael Massee’s crazed religious nut intrigued me quite a bit, but now they’re both dead, so…what was the point of all that? Overall, the episode felt a little too derivative of Angel (not that that’s a bad thing), and the vampire thing took me by surprise. I don’t claim to remember everything that’s happened in the history of the show, but I could have sworn they made at least a few references to vampires not existing—something about how they were a myth to distract from the real demons. In light of them possibly dusting off an unused Angel script, I’d give this a “quantity” rating, but considering it was a pretty decent Angel rip-off, I’m torn.
Next week: some rote Thanksgiving episodes about complicated family politics, I hope!