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.