Posts in: August 2008

King Cobra

“Hi, my name is Creampuff. At least, that’s what they call me, anyways. And this is the story of how I ran away, lost my virginity, lost my virginity again, ran away again, got kidnapped by bikers and turned into a rowdy biker bitch. Hope you like it.”

When I heard Creampuff’s (Page Morgan) opening narration, I came very close to leaping to my feet and applauding. Why? Because that, ladies and gentlemen, is a brilliant premise. Imagine an exploration of a sheltered, naïve girl thrust (in more ways than one) into a world of debauchery and depravity rarely witnessed on film. Imagine it. Imagine the level of character depth and thematic insight required to do justice to such an ambitious concept.

Imagine it, because if you watch King Cobra, you won’t see any of it.

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Bad Education

One principle of medieval warfare I’ve taken to heart is, “Know thy enemy.” Since I am a seething cauldron of hate, I’ve gotten to know quite a few people. Since the advent of Google (I’m no search-engine Johnny Come Lately, but in the pre-Google days, Internet-stalking was little more than a recipe for failure; say what you will about their indexing algorithms, they have hit the chewy nougat center of information-gathering for future serial killers) and the increased popularity of blogs and social networking sites, I’ve gotten to know more about certain enemies than I ever thought possible. I once found Owen‘s DeviantArt page and, as such, was able to digest his alarming short stories. I’ve found more about The Manager than I ever thought possible. More importantly, I’ve dug deep into the world of the stupid blogger and have come out on the other side hating her more than ever.

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Mad Men and Eureka Return

Burn Notice (USA)—This episode gave us an interesting look at something that Burn Notice hasn’t explored much—Cold War-style spy games. Andrew Divoff (who appeared on Lost as Mikhail, the eyepatch-wearing immortal psychopath) lent support as the ring-leader of a sex-slave operation importing girls from Soviet countries. Michael, Sam and Fiona manufacture an elaborate ruse that convinces Divoff to trust Michael (who he thinks is a Ukrainian prisoner working for the same men he is).

One of Burn Notice‘s most admirable qualities is its ability to make spy tradecraft feel fresh, and it shines through here. In both the A story involving Divoff and the B story (in which Sam tries to schmooze an obnoxious businessman played by the inimitable Larry Miller), the writers give us those little moments showing that what Michael does is a specialized job, but a job just the same. The ability to create a seemingly elaborate CIA prison on a budget (and with only three people), having to endure crass chunkheads who are obviously spending your money and wasting your time—the writers approach this all from a very human level that separates it from more…let’s just say over-the-top spy series like Alias (I loved it, but even a die-hard fan can’t deny its ridiculousness), where we’re asked to ignore the finer details.

They’ve also continued to integrate the “who burned me?” subplots more fully into the stories. The subplots have not yet intersected with the main story, even in a House-like “what’s happening in the A story made me figure out how to solve my problem in the B story” way, but the writers have gotten closer to making the subplots more organic. Keep up the good work!

Eureka (Sci-Fi)—I’ll choose my words carefully because, despite what I’ll say in a minute, I love this show. It’s a season premiere and the first time I’ve properly written about this show in this column, so I hate starting off on a bad note, but… Remember how last season’s finale tossed about a thousand different balls in the air? Revelations about Kevin (Allison’s son), Beverly, Stark, the artifact, Henry, Henry’s love thang—they packed more information into that hour than into most of the episodes combined, and now…what? We get a vague reference to Henry being in prison and nothing else? I know Eureka tends to be a “slow-build” kind of show, but come on. Acknowledge the fallout before moving on.

Instead, we thrill as Zoe starts a job at Café Diem, Frances Fisher comes to town to act smug and threatening, Stark proposes to Allison (again) and characters we’ve never seen before play with Galaga-like defense ships. It wasn’t a terrible episode, but it did a much better job of setting up next season than it did resolving last season. Maybe this is by design, but I found it a little frustrating.

Also, haven’t we seen the “your organization is comically inefficient,” all-business characters threaten to shut down just about every TV ensemble in history? I find this subplot disappointing in part because of the cliché, but mainly because it’s another excuse to dump on Carter. How did Sheriff Guy-from-WarGames handle the town before him? Without knowing what makes him so bad, I’m more inclined to think the residents have gotten significantly worse—more competitive and petty than they were in the past. But hey, what do I know?

Flashpoint (CBS)—This is a general comment, directed at one of this week’s guest stars, Trevor Hayes: you made such a great impression as Tony on IFC’s The Business, I find it impossible to take you seriously in any dramatic role. This isn’t because you’re a bad actor—in fact, quite the opposite. I have a hard time separating you from this role, and every time I see you, I wait for that annoying ringtone, followed by a suave “You’re with Tony.”

With that out of the way, this episode surprised me in a lot of ways: the backstory of this week’s hostage scenario, the fact that the hostage was a cop, the fact that on a certain level he deserved to be held hostage. On one level, I sort of thought the episode’s setup would be a great idea for a raucous comedy: a group of SWAT officers, sent out on beat-cop patrol, end up escalating minor domestic disturbances as a result of their aggressive tactical training. They managed to keep it intense and surprising enough that I didn’t distract myself with too many “here’s how this scene would play as a comedy” thoughts. It was, at least, interesting to see what the SRU does when they aren’t quelling hostage situations. Toronto can’t have that many of these scenarios.

Mad Men (AMC)—Here we are, 15 months after last season’s finale, and I’ve had a hard time absorbing all the changes. The easiest to digest are also the most obvious: after Betty’s blossoming last season, she now takes charge of the Draper household with a combination of assertiveness and passive-aggressiveness that have forced Don into a much different, more sheepish role. I won’t use the word “cuckold” because that’s a little extreme, but considering Don’s, ahem…”performance” on Valentine’s night, maybe it’s appropriate. The real question is, how will this new dynamic inform Betty’s increasing independence? Are they headed toward a divorce, or will she simply start giving Don a taste of his own medicine by cheating?

Speaking of big, mysterious changes—remember how Peggy dropped a baby in last season’s finale? I know the writers haven’t forgotten it—Pete asking her if she wants kids was quite a moment—but they won’t divulge all the answers right away. And lastly, Duck Phillips (the guy they hired toward the end of last season) has decided Sterling Cooper needs young blood. He’s not wrong, but as the sniping copywriters observe, their youngest is 20. I don’t know what the writers have planned for Duck and his rivalry with Don, but if they give him enough depth, he could become a perfect foil for Don’s outmoded 1950s thinking.

The Middleman (ABC Family)—I’ve waited for this since the start: now that they’ve established the bizarre tone and acquired-taste sense of humor, the writers are moving on to pathos. The long-percolating flirtation between the Middleman and Lacey try to go on a first date, which ultimately leads to a depressing ending at the yacht party. More than the basic “Middleman can’t date Wendy’s best friend” dilemma, the Middleman’s inability to see Ride Lonesome all the way through (after seeing the beginning 16 times) speaks volumes about his life—and volumes about what Wendy’s future. And yes, the trust breakdown with Wendy and Lacey is a little dispiriting. I hope she reveals her secret identity sooner rather than later.

Monk (USA)—Despite welcome guest appearances from Greg Pitts and Malcolm Barrett, this week’s murder mystery was kind of bland and obvious, a surprise considering the quality of the mysteries has improved in the past couple of years. On the plus side, they kept it in the background (which likely explains its relative lameness) and made this a showcase for the Natalie-Monk relationship, which has gotten more complex and verges on romantic (as much as Monk ever makes room for romance).

The writers did a good job of making Monk’s real conflict subtler than usual. On the surface, his usual self-absorbed nature and utter fear of change causes him to downplay and belittle Natalie’s job as the Lotto girl. In reality, he fears losing yet another strong relationship. He made a couple of offhanded references—including a surprise shout-out to Sharona—that allowed us to see how important she really is to him, but they didn’t overplay their hand.

Psych (USA)—Another USA show, another Lost alum. Jeff Fahey, who had a recurring role as helicopter pilot Frank Lapidus during Lost‘s stellar fourth season, guest stars as an Evel Knievel-esque daredevil. When Shawn notices Fahey’s stunts look sabotaged, he enlists himself and Gus as stunt-testers to get into Fahey’s inner circle. (This led to what might be my favorite joke of the series so far: “I’m Die Hard. This is Die Hard 2. There are two more of us, but they aren’t nearly as good.”

Psych often makes their mysteries as ridiculous as possible, but this week’s worked pretty well on its own merits. It wasn’t complicated, and maybe it was hiring somebody like Fahey to play the daredevil role, but the more we understand about why his stunts are getting sabotaged, the more interesting the store becomes. The writers did a really nice job of structuring it, and veteran direct John Badham brought some interesting flourishes and intensity you don’t usually see in a comedy—and I mean that as a compliment.

Robin Hood (BBC America)—Wow, this week’s finale surprised me in a lot of ways. I was so convinced that Robin Hood‘s writers wouldn’t have the balls to kill off Marian, I still suspect she’ll come back next season. But, you know, I kinda don’t want her to. I’ve complained a whole lot about Gisborne’s brain turning to mush whenever she says a word to him, but I don’t think I’ve delved much into the fact that her romance with Robin always felt a bit forced, which is sad because as long as the story has been around, so has Maid Marian.

Perhaps the writers have recognized the need for new blood, allowing them to surprise us by killing off a major character and—as far as we know—leaving two others in the Holy Land. I didn’t quite buy the love between Djaq and Will Scarlet. I’m not saying I could never believe it; they just rushed it too much, without much build-up. I don’t know if BBC America cuts these episodes to insert more commercials, but if we’re getting the entire, unedited episodes that aired in the UK, then no, they didn’t do a successful job of building this romance in the background.

Lastly, the Sheriff has blown his wad, going all the way to the Holy Land to kill the king himself (okay, via minions), which takes me back to “the writers are cleaning house.” They recognized they’ve played out these storylines and some of the characters (or, at least, the conflicts) and have to move on to something else. So now they go into uncharted territory. Maybe Robin Hood lore is extensive and varied, but as long as I’ve heard the story, it’s always followed a pattern of Robin robbing from the rich and giving to the poor to undercut the wealth of a corrupt sheriff who exploits the situation when King Richard is off fighting the Crusades. Is there more to the legend? I’ve heard a rumor that conspicuously absent Friar Tuck will join the cast in the third season, which has piqued my interest.

Perhaps with the writers finding new stories to tell and new characters to take part in them, they’ll find a more consistent tone. This season had a lot of fine moments, but it also had more than a few duds.

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Last week, Amelia sent me a series of e-mails that went from interesting to scary faster than anything I’ve experienced recently. If you’ll remember, I’ve known her for awhile—so long, in fact, that she was a main character in this story before we were what you’d call friends, and definitely before she received an officially sanctioned Stan Has Issues™ fake name—instead, she got the less impressive Stan Has Issues™ generic description. Observant readers will also note that yes, we know each other personally, although obviously we haven’t seen each other personally in a few years. In fact, the bulk of our contact has been through e-mail, for no other reason than its convenience. We exchanged phone numbers while I was in L.A., we exchanged phone numbers once again when we reconnected after I’d love, and we exchanged phone numbers a third time that I don’t remember. So the phone never seemed like a scary thing…

…until now.

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Hollywood Endings

So, okay, this is kind of an oldie-but-goodie, and it’s not what I’d call a “real” review, but I’m putting it in that category, anyway, just because it sorta is. I watched the 2004 movie The Final Cut today. For those who don’t remember or haven’t heard of it, it takes place in a not-too-distant future where people have biomechanical implants inserted into their brains at birth (or possibly before birth—it’s kind of unclear, which is one of my complaints) that turns every moment of their waking lives into video. Upon their death, editors cut pieces of your life into a nice, feature-length “rememory” (this is the movie’s word for it, not mine) for grieving friends and family members.

A nice concept with a shitload of moments that kinda rip off The Conversation, but at least they’re ripping off a good movie in the service of an interesting sci-fi premise. Unfortunately, as stated above, writer/director Omar Naim could have done a better job fleshing out the conceit of the film. He gives us the impression these chips are implanted after birth, yet on multiple occasions he treats us to footage of births (from the point of view of the baby). Although he shows us that the implant categorizes life moments (in helpful folders like “sleep,” “hygiene,” and “masturbation”), I found myself wondering how Robin Williams’ “cutter” character dealt with people’s faulty memories. Early in the film a grieving brother asks Williams to make sure to include a particular fishing trip. Is there a “fishing trips” category? All the brother can say is the summer the trip occurred. This isn’t like a three-month film shoot, which might yield 100 hours of footage; excluding eight daily hours of sleep, Williams would have to wade through about 1500 hours of footage to find this one particular trip

You’re lucky I watched this movie a week ago and don’t remember much more to nitpick about; I remember feeling a lot of frustration, but I can only distinctly remember one more nitpick with the premise. And that is: we know these chips are very expensive, but we never get a reason why Williams’ parents would take out a loan to pay for one for their son. We don’t get enough of the outside world—aside from some cartoonish protesters—to understand how this implant has changed things. Aside from a few vague references (like a hellion who turned her life around the day she found out Someone Would Be Watching), we never get a sense of this implant as a status symbol or that it’s perceived as so useful that a middle-class family would go into debt to buy one. Him having a chip is portrayed as a Big Twist (even though it’s obvious from the first scene), but nothing about the movie convinced me that he would or should have one.

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Oh No! There’s a Negro in My Mom!

After having extensive practice with their Cuckold series, the blood-brother team of Grip and Cram Johnson have perfected the awkward three-person adult film with Oh No! There’s a Negro in My Mom! Equal parts character study, race-relations exploration and full-blown (pun intended) comedy, the film’s assured direction and improvised dialogue make it quite an achievement, both artistically and commercially.

A study in contrasts, the Johnsons have decided Oh No! There’s a Negro in My Mom into an anthology of four parallel stories. In each, a shocked young-adult child discovers his mother in a compromising position with an African-American “gentleman caller” (as Vanessa Videl euphemistically refers to partner Byron Long). The shocked offspring watch with a mixture of horror and fascination as the Nubian princes ravage their mothers with aplomb.

Having one of the three members of the scene remain fully clothed and able to shine as an actor or actress, the Johnsons step up the inherent drama of forbidden sexual liaisons. The dialogue, improvised by each actor (who were clearly given little more than character “types” that they flesh out on the spot with unparalleled brilliance and wit), ranges from laugh-out-loud funny to heart-wrenching. The reactions of the sons and daughters, and the interaction between them and the mothers and “Negroes,” make the film worth watching.

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Trip to the Post Office

I had to go down to the post office to mail a small package. What should have been a 10-minute errand (including drive time) turned into a 30-minute disaster, the likes of which haven’t been witnessed on this planet since the sinking of the Lusitania.

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Minor Nitpicks

Burn Notice (USA)—Last season, I had a minor quibble with this otherwise excellent show: their reliance on have pat, unbelievable resolutions to the problems-of-the-week. They stick Michael with these bad-ass, take-no-prisoners criminals, and then by the end it’s all, “Oh, they’ll be hiding out of state until the heat dies down.” The show hasn’t been on the air long enough to answer the question of what happens when one of these criminals comes back with a vengeance, but that question ignores the tiny problem of mass-communication. These big-shot criminals have no contacts or minions in Miami, and/or no way to contact them? I know Michael assumes fake identities in nearly every episode, but it’s still hard to believe nobody can track him…

…which is why, this season, they’ve solved these problems by, for the most part, killing everyone off. Last week, Andrew Divoff’s human trafficker met a grisly demise at the hands of his former-Soviet comrades—none of whom had seen Michael (the only ones who did see him didn’t live to tell the tale). This week’s arch-criminal—a master thief (Oded Fehr) trying to pull of a big heist—met a similar end at the hands of a surprisingly terrifying Robin Givens, as a gun-nut munitions expert. All of this came as a result of Michael convincing them that Fehr screwed them all over, meaning nobody in the crew has any reason to come after Michael.

The writers are still keeping with the trend of giving the overarching “who burned me?” story more screen time. The closest they came to intertwining it with the heist story is when Michael is pulled away from infiltrating the office of “Carla”—the mystery woman played by Battlestar Galactica‘s Tricia Helfer—to go back to his safe-cracker cover. I’m still looking forward to the day an entire operation is compromised because of Michael’s obsession with “Carla,” but at least they’re no longer relegating these subplots to the opening and closing scenes of each episode.

Once again, one of the most entertaining aspects of the show is Michael’s voiceover on spy tradecraft—the utter boredom of a stakeout, the complexities of “cramming” to fudge your way as an expert safe-cracker—and they gave a fairly routine heist plot a fresh coat of paint.

Eureka (Sci-Fi)—Even though it did very little to continue storylines from last season, I consider this a massive improvement over last week in almost every way. Okay, maybe the “sleazy dude turns into a snake” metaphor was a little on the nose, but they resolved Henry’s prison problems, so that gets a thumbs-up from me. Also, I found the mystery a tad less predictable than the premiere’s lackluster effort. They gave us a more interesting mystery to ponder, then offered more characters to suspect. The “never-referenced-before biosphere-as-reality-show” subplot kinda reeked of “we have nothing for these characters to do this week, so let’s stick them in a room and make them the Greek chorus,” but otherwise, the episode worked pretty well.

Flashpoint (CBS)—I refuse to go on and on about the nitpicky differences between Americans and Canadians as individuals, but I love Canadian storytelling for including amazing nuance and subtlety (a rarity in American shows, especially non-The Wire cop shows). How many times have we seen the “shrill feminist life-destroying corporate succubus” character portrayed as a ghastly villain? It amazed me, in the best possible way, that Flashpoint‘s succubus actually broke down and, with great sincerity, felt a mixture of horror and sadness when she realized she had caused all of this. More than that, the episode’s biggest shock was that the bank-robbing ex-guard and the succubus found some common ground; he realized what a mistake he had made, and she made the rather logical argument that she worked her ass off to save all the jobs, “but it wasn’t enough,” and at least six fired workers was better than 40.

Honestly, we hardly even needed the SRU in this episode. These two guest stars drove so much of the action, and were written with so much depth, that the cops almost feel like a distraction. (I felt the same way about the episode a few weeks ago that guest-starred Jericho‘s Erik Knudsen as a recovering addict who ends up getting mistakenly pegged as a narc.) I don’t know if that’s a criticism or not, because I do like the actors portraying the negotiators, and I admire the writers for trying to develop them in organic, interesting ways—they just always take second-fiddle to the “criminals.” That’s not a criticism, either.

To sum up: watch this show if you aren’t already.

Mad Men (AMC)—Perhaps I’m misremembering, but I don’t believe we’ve seen Pete’s family before—and jeez, does it ever explain a lot. Granted, they’re grieving the loss of Pete’s father, but wow… What an unpleasant bunch. I’d say I respect him a bit more, but he hasn’t exactly overcome their legacy of dickishness.

In other news: Peggy is both a tease and a horrible mother. We now know what happened to the baby—her mother and/or sister is/are stuck raising him. I almost wish she’d given him up for adoption; at least whoever got him would want him. Theoretically.

Actually, this episode did a solid job of reminding me how awful everyone is—okay, Paul seems like a nice enough guy, but his African-American girlfriend brought out the absolute worst in Joan. Betty revealed herself to be a mildly terrifying mother. The only one who came out of this episode almost unscathed was Don, but lucky for us, we already know he’s incredibly unpleasant—he just possesses a few noble qualities, like not wanting to sell Mohawk Airline up a river because they can catch a bigger fish. I guess this really is the new central conflict: the way Don does things versus the way Duck does things. I feel like an idiot for just noticing “Donald” and “Duck.”

The Middleman (ABC Family)—After last week’s surprising, poignant ending, we’re back to comic-book insanity—not that I’m complaining. In fact, The Middleman may have hit a stride of sorts. We understand our characters, their connections to one another, and everything that’s at stake. Now it’s time to dilly-dally with relationships (the return of Tyler) and dig deeper into who these people are.

The writers chose an ironic method to reaffirm The Middleman and Wendy’s characters—this week was effectively “opposite day,” as Wendy is forced to impersonate a sorority girl and The Middleman is possessed by an evil mad-scientist-in-training (played in normal form by Growing Pains alum Ashley Johnson, most recently seen in the awesome-sounding horror-comedy Otis). Watching them behaving in such uncharacteristic ways, it hit me how well-developed (and well-acted) these characters are.

Unfortunately, this ton-of-bricks reminder made it even harder to believe the conflict between Wendy and Lacey. Would they really need to fight over Tyler? I don’t think Lacey would go for him in the first place, but to think that she’d take Wendy at her word that it was okay to pursue him? That’s less plausible than thinking Lacey would be rebounding a week after The Middleman ripped her heart out. This was still a fine episode, and they did the best with this conflict that they could, but the whole subplot rang false.

Monk (USA)—The writers did a terrific job of tying A story to B story this week. In fact, it occurred to me that they’ve done a fairly good job of that in each episode this season, but it was especially apparent this week, since the entire climax relied on Monk’s central problem at the start (his fear that he won’t pass the police department physical). Add to that some game guest stars (Robert Loggia as Burgess Meredith in Rocky, and James Lesure from Rocky as a refreshingly pleasant, dignified boxer—a rarity in a post-Tyson world) and an engaging mystery, and it makes for a solid episode. Also, Tony Shalhoub doesn’t get enough credit for his broad physical gags. Every moment of his exercise attempts was laugh-out-loud funny, but not in the usual “nervous-Monk” way, and he never took it over the top (as he has in the past). Well done.

Psych (USA)—I am an unabashed fan of Steven Weber, especially in crazy long-haired Brian Hackett mode. As Henry’s black-sheep brother, he blended right into the Psych ensemble. On a deeper level, the writers did an admirable job of exploring Shawn’s fascination with “cool” Uncle Jack, to the point of pretending Jack was his own father. After meeting his mother, we didn’t have a proper explanation for Shawn’s wild-child attitudes until now. This just continues a trend of quality father-son relationship exploration that the writers have played with this season more than they have in the past.

The treasure-hunting story had plenty of funny and surprising moments, but I’m not sure about the flashback structuring of the episode. I don’t know if I should be impressed that they didn’t do it Rashômon-style or disappointed at the missed opportunity. Oh, and if I’m going to nitpick, what the hell was with the shameless Red Robin product placement? This ranked up with the Dead Zone episode where they did an extreme close-up on a Tylenol bottle while Johnny Smith described how much he loved it as a cure for vision-induced headaches. I don’t mind product placement (it often lends a verisimilitude that can’t be found with fake product names), but don’t draw attention to it.

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Fresh Outta High School 9

I can’t deny the high expectations built up from the first eight in the Fresh Outta High School series, but I still tried to maintain objectivity when I popped the DVD in my player. I don’t intend to sugarcoat my opinions, so if you consider yourself a fan of this series, you might want to sit down. Fresh Outta High School 9 might be the biggest disaster of 2008.

What an absolute embarrassment for all involved, from the cast to the production crew. Everything that made the previous films special, different, innovative—up in smoke. What remains is a horrific amalgam of poor direction, fresh-off-the-street (or -boat) acting and shoddy production design. I’d like to try to find an explanation for what went wrong.

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Attention, Readers: Watch The Middleman

I’m not kidding. It’s hilarious. ABC Family, Mondays, 10PM Eastern.

Burn Notice (USA)—They’re just toying with me now. My long-desired body-slam of the crime-of-the-week and overarching “who burned me?” storylines might be right around the corner, but now they’re teasing me. They brought in Stargate SG-1‘s Michael Shanks (because apparently Tricia Helfer was busy and they sent out a casting call for another cult sci-fi star?) to give Michael another one of these nefarious submissions, but because Michael Westen decided to make his crime-of-the-week priority, Shanks wandered in and almost blew the whole deal. We haven’t come closer to a full-blown intermingling of stories, but it’s not there yet. I still wait for the day Michael’s brain explodes when he discovers his weekly “client” is actually working for the Helfer/Shanks deathsquad, and he has inadvertently helped their cause. It’ll happen, I’m sure.

I don’t know what I’m bitching about, though, because this was a solid, fun episode in which Method Man (most recently seen as Cheese on The Wire) guest stars a hip-hop mogul who suspects one of his entourage is embezzling—but he suspects the wrong person. Aside from the moderately Scooby-Doo ending, in which the real culprit is kept talking while Method Man listens from another room, the story functioned pretty well.

Eureka (Sci-Fi)—I like Alan Ruck, but seeing him as a slightly eccentric goofball of a seismologist made me wonder what the hell happened to Matt Frewer. Ruck played basically the same character, albeit with a slightly different scientific specialty, and if Frewer decided to bail, I don’t mind the replacement. Just seems odd to introduce him without any acknowledgment of what happened to Jim Taggart.

Here’s where I get hostile, though: I do not like the Carter-Allison-Stark triangle. Never bought it, probably never will. This episode, with its wedding-dress shenanigans and Carter’s sad-sack facial expressions, has solidified my intense dislike of both the triangle and of the writers’ insistence on ramming it down the audience’s throats. This feeling does not stem from the fact that the whole “will-they-or-won’t-they-keep-them-apart-before-bringing-them-together” storyline is played out on TV and just needs a rest. The problem lies in chemistry.

I don’t want this to sound like a criticism of Salli Richardson-Whitfield, who is a fine actress, but she has no visible chemistry with either Colin Ferguson or Ed Quinn. Ironically, the men have really great “we can’t stand each other” chemistry—I just wish they gave us a better reason for this than “we’re both in love with this woman.” I just don’t buy it, and no amount of robot dogs, diamond microprocessors or any other awesome plot stuff can distract me from the colossal failure of this TV triangle.

Flashpoint (CBS)—I want to know something: do gangs of angry, gun-toting, Avril Lavigne-looking girls really stalk the streets of Toronto? Does that happen in the States? Anyway, this week’s episode continues the sad trend of getting to know our wacky criminals, though they took a different tack with this scenario. Rather than continue with the hostage-taker-of-the-week format, they’ve utilized the SRU in a different capacity. I like that—it keeps the formula from getting stale.

I have one “if they could do it over” wish: develop the gangster girls a little more. The notion that the leader of this pack refused to believe Tasha’s rape story piqued my interest, but they didn’t do much to explore that. She’s out for revenge, but I wanted them to fill in a few more details about her refusal to believe the truth. More to the point, I’d like to believe one reason for her homicidal tendency is that she did believe the truth, and it enraged her—making this less an overreactive avenging than a very personal jealousy. They hinted at this but didn’t explore it with the level of depth Flashpoint often gives to its “villains.”

Lastly, I know I’m a little slow on the uptake, but I didn’t realize until this episode that each show so far has concentrated on a different member of the SRU. This week, it’s Amy Jo Johnson’s Jules lending an understanding ear to suicidal Tasha Redford. All’s well that ends well, but another mild wish was that they show the “girl”‘s strength in a non-girly situation. I guess you can’t have everything, though. At the very least, she showed a combination of femininity and brass balls that isn’t often portrayed well on television. Writers usually either take it in a “total shrew” direction or instill the character with bizarre, male-fantasy notions of a strong woman.

Mad Men (AMC)—Patrick Fischler pops up on yet another show, playing a truly unpleasant Jerry Lewis surrogate. All hell breaks loose at Sterling Cooper when he insults the owner of a company during a commercial shoot for their product. As much as you can be a fan of a guy who only pops up in bit parts and guest appearances, I’ve admired Fischler ever since his insane Winky’s monologue in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive—a scene that almost single-handedly makes the movie worth watching. He can add another terrific role to his long, weird resume, and I hope we see more of him in this role.

Harry’s subplot involving The Defenders—a story that actually happened—had a poignant conclusion, in that Harry gets exactly what he wants in the most demeaning possible way. One of my mild complaints about the first season was that it didn’t emphasize these “smaller” roles enough. Since Harry will now spearhead a totally new branch of Sterling Cooper, I assume this will give him some more interesting work. Now, I just hope we see more from Ken, Paul and Salvatore.

That said, this might be the first episode in which Don wasn’t the most interesting character. He still had a central role in terms of screen time, but he didn’t carry the heavy load this time around. Could this indicate that, in a sea of Sterling Cooper power struggles and uncomfortable Betty teasing, the tide has shifted?

The Middleman (ABC Family)—Sorbo! Need I say more?

All right, I suppose I ought to say a little more. This episode came about as close to perfect as any show can expect in its first season. A great guest star, interesting personal conflicts tied into the central plot, a poignant ending—and more jokes per frame than a glory-years episode of The Simpsons. I’ve gone from enjoying this show’s humor to raving about it as a well-rounded, high-quality hour to pretty much everyone who makes the mistake of asking me about television. I hope that, despite its flagging ratings, ABC Family continues to support it.

Monk (USA)—I had an expectation that this episode, which takes place almost entirely on a Navy sub, would turn Monk into the butt of the macho-man naval officers’ jokes. To the credit of the writers—or maybe the actors or director Paris Barclay—they eschewed such cheap stereotypes in favor of…well, general annoyance from most people, but surprising sensitivity from prominent guest star Casper Van Dien. Much like Natalie, he treated Monk’s foibles and phobias with some respect and helped him to make the best of a bad situation. It was also a great idea to have Monk “solve” this crisis by hallucinating the presence of Dr. Bell, made even better by adding an amusing running joke where Monk lets Bell do the talking for him.

And, of course, I have to mention the presence of William Atherton as the murderous commander. Atherton has had a bit of an under-the-radar career since his Ghostbusters/Die Hard heyday, playing mostly bit parts or sleazy variations on his most prominent characters. He often brings an interesting quality to these characters, so it was nice to see him here even if it made the mystery a tad more predictable than usual. The law of economy of characters dictates that it was either him or Van Dien, and Van Dien just seemed too nice. Of course, that would have made it a big surprise, but the “too-nice killer” isn’t the type of guy to kill somebody, wait for the Navy to rule it a clear-cut suicide, then bring in the world’s best detective (according to the universe of the show) to “solve” the case.

I hope that didn’t sound like a complaint—I think both Van Dien and Atherton should be regulars. The former’s chemistry with Natalie, and the latter’s pure awesomeness, would make both valued additions.

Psych (USA)—Has Psych decided to dedicated an entire season to movie/genre/era spoofs? First we have haunted houses, then John Hughes movies, then Evel Knievel, then treasure-hunting adventures and now ’70s cop-shows. I’m not sure if I should complain or applaud the sheer hilarity of the convoluted ways the writers get us to the spoof (turning an old boat of a Pontiac into a major clue, having Shawn, Gus and Henry buy “disguises” from a thrift store, etc.). Also, I can’t complain about any show that includes Ted “Isaac the Bartender” Lange as a washed-up informant. Aside from the parodies, I continue to enjoy the way they’re developing the Shawn-Henry dynamic and integrating him into the stories more.

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