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Posts in: January 2009

The Fake Fiancé 2: Fake Harder

When we last left off, more than a year ago, I was desperate for advice on how to solve the problems with my friend Kelly. None of you jackasses came through. I did try Lucy’s suggestion to grill Kelly hardcore about the wedding details, and she immediately changed the subject to her teaching job. The only thing I could think to do was just back off. I’ll be honest: we’ve only talked two or three times in the whole of 2008.

Why did this happen? The answer happened in December of 2007. I never blogged it because, at the time, I was embroiled in a bunch of job bullshit that prevented me from blogging as much as I would have liked. God, what a pain in the ass. I hate that I’m making no money, but I’m so fucking glad I got out of that goddamn sty, and I’m so glad that—even though it took a year—my “replacement” has fucked up so hardcore that she’s gotten the attention of the man who runs the entire corporation. That’s an epic level of retardation.

What was I saying? Oh right, December. I hadn’t talked to her for awhile because, she explained, she got busy teaching by day, pursuing a Masters at night. Combine that with the various after-school activities she was involved with, and she had zero time for me. Or to plan her made-up wedding or ensure her made-up relationship stayed healthy. Nonetheless, when I did talk to her, she mentioned something very, very confusing and important: she and her fiancé were moving to an apartment in Lombard. Now, for people who didn’t go back and read the original post, here’s the thing: she already told me she bought a house.

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Bad Twist

I just finished a script with one of the stupider twist endings I’ve seen. Leading up to the twist, the script told a serviceable but unexceptional story of a clever high school student tracking down an unusual serial killer. Also on the case is her father, the local sheriff. The killer has a strange M.O.: he goes to his victims and gives them a torturous choice, with either option generally resulting in the victim’s death. For instance, he offers a struggling pianist this choice: he can either never play music again (meaning he’ll chop off the pianist’s hands), or he can never hear music again (meaning he’ll deafen the pianist in some way).

I want to ridicule the script’s twist ending for undoing the goodness coming before it, but first of all, it wasn’t that good. Secondly, this M.O., and the father-daughter relationship that drives the rest of the script, both come into play in this twist. Here’s what it is: the killer turns out to be the protagonist’s BAD TWIN. No, really. The classic schlocky soap-opera twist becomes the stuff of 2009 horror-thriller denouements.

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Gift Giver

In the halcyon days of, let’s say, 1997, I didn’t mind that my sister got me terrible Christmas gifts. It didn’t thrill me, particularly, but it didn’t make me angry, either. We’ve never gotten along, we’ve never been close, so it didn’t surprise/upset/disappoint me that she was always so thoroughly off-base when it came to buying gifts for me. Most of my gifts, I’m sure, were equally bad and unsuited to her tastes. We could only solve this problem by having conversations and bonding, and we both knew that would never happen. It left us at a stalemate of mutually bad gifts, a nuisance neither of us wanted to acknowledge, except in the form of shoving each others’ gifts to the darkest, dankest corners of our respective closets.

As time passed and we both got credit cards and accounts at various online stores, it should have made life easier. Nearly all of them have wishlists and/or registry services. However, Tracey is resistant to this technology. When she registered for her wedding, buying gifts was a snap. Everything else has been a pain in the ass for me, made worse by the fact that she lives 2000 miles away (so I can’t even absorb her likes and dislikes through osmosis, and vice-versa). I, on the other hand, have had an Amazon wishlist for years. Every year, around the time of my birthday, she asks my mom for the wishlist link. My mom provides it, and… Inevitably, Tracey refuses to buy me an item I actually want in favor of something she thinks I want.

On a general level, I can understand the thought process at work here. Picking items off someone’s wishlist requires no thought or effort. Gifts become apathetic exercises in one-click shopping instead of bold, personal statements. The problem I have comes from my belief that she has opted for mulling over a personal statement about herself and her own tastes rather than what she thinks, knows, or assumes I’ll like. On one level, she sometimes tries to share things she loves that she wants to believe I’ll enjoy, too. Often, though, her gift selections just seem half-assed.

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Television Returns

According to last night’s Golden Globes broadcast, people are no longer allowed to criticize Tina Fey (and, one assumes, 30 Rock) because she won a major award. I know Fey was speaking about anonymous Internet nerds, but it kinda chapped my ass. Not just because I don’t like 30 Rock, or because Fey is the primary reason why I don’t. It’s mainly this notion that nobody’s allowed to criticize anybody else for [insert reason].

I understand the difference between “I don’t like 30 Rock, and here’s a 30-page explanation of why,” and “OMG I H8 TINA FAY HER SHIT SUX!!!!” But is it really that difficult to separate valid, well-written criticism from trolls and flamers? It’s entirely possible that the 30-page explanation might be a rambling, incoherent mess about the problems plaguing industrial societies. That, too, can be dismissed as bad, invalid criticism. If, however, it’s well-written and/or thoughtful, does that mean those receiving the criticism should automatically dismiss it because some random, anonymous or semi-anonymous person on the Internet wrote it?

24 (Fox)—I gave the prequel movie, Redemption, a major beating on account of 24‘s increasing emphasis on the political potboiler elements of the show. This has been a slow build since episode one, but if Days Three, Four and Six taught us anything, it’s that 24 is a thriller with elements that affect the political world. This should not make it a “political thriller.”

That’s why Sunday’s episode, the first night of this season’s two-night premiere, worked so well. It didn’t eliminate the political elements completely—and it shouldn’t—but it downplayed them to something like a scene out of a goofy action movie like Executive Decision or The Sum of All Fears. They haven’t repeated last season’s big “nothing but political yammering” mistake, even though Redemption insinuated that this year would feature more of the same. The Oval Office scenes were minimal and relatively subdued, while the subplot with First Husband Colm Feore focuses on the personal instead of the political—the very reason Days One, Two and Five succeeded.

But we didn’t come here to talk about Colm Feore or President Cherry “Sinister Horror-Movie Grandmother” Jones. What’s Jack up to?

Starting where Redemption left off, we first see Jack in the midst of a grilling by That ’70s Dad, Kurtwood Smith, veteran bad-ass second-banana villain in no fewer than 80,000 great, schlocky action movies. I’d like to believe he’ll be around more, but I have my doubts. Nonetheless, it was fun to see him here, but the FBI whisks him away from his hearing almost immediately because Tony Almeida is back from the dead and trying to do…something…with planes. I don’t really understand it, but he kidnapped Dr. Phlox and forced him to rejigger…something to take over air-traffic control. One of the nice things about 24 is their technobabble barely makes sense, but you never have to understand anything beyond, “He almost made two planes crash into each other.”

Consequently, the bulk of the two hours is spent introducing us to the FBI crew before Jack wanders off to track Tony with his new pseudo-partner, Renee Walker. I don’t know how I feel about this. I was a big fan of Jack’s one-man army. A two-person army could be a hinderance more than a benefit, although it might give Kiefer’s material some extra heft now that he’ll spend his time yelling “Dammit!” at someone in the room instead of just yelling “Dammit!” into his cell phone as he stabs the OFF button.

Unlike previous seasons, these two episodes didn’t quite start with a bang. It had a cool car accident and some nice shootings, and they managed to keep the pace up despite the lack of thrilling action scenes. The fistfight with Tony near the end was pretty well-choreographed, and the occasional location shooting in Washington, D.C., is integrated pretty seamlessly. I guess now’s the time to mention my thankfulness for a location change. The Los Angeles setting was never the worst part about 24, but it does kind of feel like a breath of fresh air to see something a little different.

Still, for all its good points, I’ve come to expect more manic craziness and explosions from a 24 premiere. Maybe we’ll get that with tonight’s episode.

Damages (FX)—So, we have new characters: William Hurt as a high-strung, possibly crazy scientist with a deep history with Patty; Timothy Olyphant as a mildly creepy, stalkerish dude from Ellen’s trauma support group; and Marcia Gay Harden’s as-yet-unseen Patty nemesis. We have a new “six months later” mystery: Ellen’s…somewhere (a bar? a fancy hotel room? somebody’s apartment?), with a drink and a gun and a lot of threatening words, talking to someone we’ve not yet seen. We also have new contemporary mysteries. It’s hard to talk about this episode because it revealed so much and yet so little—we have inklings of the story to come, but the bigger picture has yet to be revealed.

This will be the challenge of looking at a show like Damages, with its dense stories, complex characters, and nontraditional dramatic ebb and flow. Like The Wire, it has little in the way of a “standalone episode” component—nine times out of ten, individual episodes don’t stand out. Individual moments, definitely, but the episodes of a show like this function like chapters in a novel. It’s different from my other serialized favorites, Lost and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, in that those shows are more like individual issues of a comic book—each tells something akin to a short story while adding depth to more complex overall stories.

Shows like those bring out the nerd in me, and not just because of their sci-fi components. They raise questions that make me speculate on the answers; somehow, a show like Damages or The Wire raises questions in such a way that I don’t want to guess—I just want to breeze on to the next chapter and let the answers wash over me.

For instance, we’re shown Arthur Frobisher in a hospital bed, still possessing his toxic combination of desperation and arrogance. Ellen pays him a visit—pretending to be his wife—and silently contemplates killing him. I have no idea how Frobisher will tie into the new story, if he will get a story of his own, or if Ellen will get her revenge. Damages doesn’t drop hints that allow for speculation—it just shows individual pieces that will, eventually, add up to a greater whole.

For this reason, and the reason that covering The Wire turned into a major pain the ass (and a mild embarrassment, since I was wrong about nearly everything when I tried to make speculations), I may not cover Damages on a weekly basis. I’ll play it by ear; if it starts to decline in any significant ways, or if the story takes a turn that warrants something resembling insight, I’ll write about it. If not, just keep in mind that I’m watching (and probably loving) this show.

Flashpoint (CBS)—CBS’s Canadian-based surprise summer hit returned for a pseudo-second season. Like USA’s “chop a completed season in half” philosophy, this “premiere” didn’t quite feel like a premiere. It leaped somewhat recklessly back into the SRU, assigned to protect a successful international businessman (Colm Feore) from a fairly bizarre terrorist plot. This episode didn’t provide the usual level of empathy for the “villains”; instead, they concentrated more on the relationship between Feore and wife Wendy Crewson. It had a few absurd moments—Jules’ inept handling of Crewson, the fact that they couldn’t figure out the one Latino guy in a room full of whiter-than-snow Canadians might have something to do with a terrorist threat that ties back to Chilean nationals—but it was pretty solid and suspenseful. I want more episodes like last season’s finale, but Flashpoint is still a cut the other schlocky CBS procedures.

Leverage (TNT)—For all my past ranting, this show has started to jell over the past few weeks. I did notice that TNT has opted to play the episodes out of their production order, which might explain some of the wonkiness in terms of how the characters relate to each other—one week, they seem like effortless friends, and the next they seem distant and discompassionate toward one another. This show doesn’t rely on continuity or serialized storylines, but it would be nice to see a more natural build.

Last week’s bank-robbery episode might have been the series high point (so far), if only because it put the same characters into a different context. I hope they keep doing episodes like this once in awhile, to keep things fresh. I primarily liked this week’s issue-tackling Serbian orphan story because it went back to something that sort of frustrated me in the pilot. The joke about Parker blowing up her parents to keep a stolen teddy bear sort of amused me, but it spoke to…serious issues that have only been dealt with in a jokey way, until now. Parker finally opens up and cares a little bit about something other than money, stealing, and blowing shit up. It’s a nice, new dimension to a character who pretty much requires more depth. I’ve complained about this show and its throwaway jokes in the past, but it appears they’re going back and filling in the cracks. Well done, Leverage writers.

Monk (USA)—I love Steve Zahn, but I’m not sure Monk needs more family members coming out of the woodwork. I was half-convinced he was making up the family angle just to get Monk to help him, but I’m glad they didn’t. I don’t mind them mixing up the formula once in awhile, either, but did they forget this was a pseudo-premiere? The episode had barely a speck of Natalie, Stottlemeyer, or Disher (was Disher even in the episode)—not exactly a warm return to characters we know and love. Don’t get me wrong; the episode worked pretty well, but it just didn’t feel like a premiere. By this point, the writers should realize that USA splits up their seasons and should write something resembling a “second” premiere.

Psych (USA)—It started to occur to me with this episode that Psych has just gotten sort of bizarre. It’s clever, fun and funny, but the plots this season have been weird—ghosts, treasure-hunting, daredevils, a spoof of ’70s cop shows, a roller-derby episode… And now, they’re solving the murder of a sea lion. I don’t know what to make of it, because the inconsequential nature of the plotting allows for an entertaining hour to drift by, but I still can’t ignore the fact that the plots are inconsequential. How do you analyze something like that? It’s like writing a Masters thesis on “Weird Al” Yankovic lyrics—funny, occasionally brilliant, but not really amounting to much.

I don’t mean that to sound harsh to Psych or Weird Al, but doesn’t it feel like the tone of the show has changed? Last year had some ridiculous stories (Shawn starring in a telenovela, for instance), but the show still seemed to take itself seriously. Now, it’s like anything goes. I don’t know if I like that, even though the show is still funny and the cast is still great.

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The Merry Prankstress

Since our initial, awkward phone conversation, Amelia and I have talked on the phone a lot. She still sends e-mails when one of us gets too busy, but mostly, we’re yammering at each other via cell phone. I feel better about things because, around 80% of the time, she instigates contact. In general, I have a tendency toward clinging, but since I’ve tried hard to deny my attraction to Amelia, I’ve avoided clinging by almost never calling or e-mailing (except in response to one of hers). I don’t know what kind of sign that sends to her. I don’t know if she even cares about signs, but hey, she’s the one who brought the word “relationship” into it, and ever since then I’ve felt like Wile E. Coyote on the edge of a cliff. I can either skitter off or wait for the thin chunk of rock to snap.

More recently, though, it’s occurred to that I’ve already skated past the cliff edge and am currently hovering in mid-air, unable to fall because I haven’t looked down until…

…now.

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First Impressions

I’ll never forget the first time it really dawned on me what an impact the first ten pages could have on a script. I’d heard adages about the importance of those pages from the moment I developed an interest in screenwriting, and all the reasoning behind it made perfect sense. Maybe it’s just my learning style, but for me, no description of the pitfalls and problems of the first ten pages could compare to seeing good and bad examples in action; unfortunately, you can’t truly understand their effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) without reading more than just pages.

The best opening I’ve ever read was probably right out of Field or McKee or some other guru—it lasted for exactly ten pages, and it had a damn near perfect setup. A dorky “regular guy” makes googly-eyes at an attractive woman inside a diner. He watches as a different woman walks by and lifts her purse. Wanting to play hero, the dork gives chase, manages to catch the thief and get the purse back. When he returns, the attractive woman has gone, so he decides to “innocently” dig through her purse to find an ID with an address or some way to contact with her. Instead, he finds a gun, $10,000 in cash, a pair of airline tickets to Bangkok, some unlabeled CD-Rs, and dozens of vials of blood that obviously came from a a clinic of some kind.

The dork finally finds her address and seeks out her apartment. He finds it empty and freshly repainted, and uses the cash in her purse to bribe the landlord into letting him rent the vacant apartment on the spot.

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The War Room

Things went sideways on Monday night. You see, my old confusing pal Laurie crept out of the woodwork for her annual attempt to throw my life into upheaval. Technically, this time I invited the upheaval. I’m sure that doesn’t say anything good about me, but I just don’t know what the hell is going on anymore. I need to blog, because then maybe someone will drop a mocking comment explaining why I’m such an idiot.

Here’s how things went down: I’ve been on Facebook for awhile, and I’ve been “friends” with a few ex-professors for awhile. So I happened to notice, on Monday night, “[Laurie] and [two of Stan’s ex-professors] are now friends.” Now, I’d searched for her on Facebook before—around the time she added me on MySpace—but I didn’t find her. Now, she was very clearly there. I debated for a few minutes, then decided, “Okay, I’ll add her.” I figured, at best, she’d take a week or two to add me, maybe write something polite on my wall, and then I’d never hear from her again (true to the pattern).

Instead, there was a flurry of activity that, I shit you not, reminded me of that first-season episode of The Wire where they get the murder of Brandon (Omar’s love thang) via pager and pay phone intercepts. Probably not a good sign, but that’s how my mind works, I guess.

I don’t check Facebook much, so I just added her and clicked off the site. As I trolled the Internet for the freshest and finest pornography, I noticed two e-mails pop up instantly: first, a confirmation from Laurie, then a seemingly sincere, apologetic comment on my wall about how we used to be really good friends, and we should bury the hatchet and start over. I got back on Facebook and stated the obvious: okay. She invited me to do a Facebook chat, which I’d never done before (and was a little creeped out by, to be honest), and we ended up talking for over an hour.

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Re-Premiere Week

Last week saw the return of CBS’s Flashpoint and USA’s Monk and Psych. In all three cases, I griped that the episodes—while good—didn’t feel like premieres. They focused on all the wrong things—special guest stars, poor/minimal use of the full ensemble—and suffered from sloppy plotting (especially in the case of Jules “protecting” the wife on Flashpoint).

So why is it that this week, the episodes of each of these shows felt like premieres? Even Monk, which had not one but two special guest stars (The West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford and noted cartoon voice actor Pamela Adlon, most famous for providing the voice of Bobby Hill), still managed to do a great job of highlighting Monk’s foibles, give us a nice Monk-Natalie problem and make better use of Stottlemeyer and Disher than last week. What’s going on here? Who’s scheduling these episodes?

24 (Fox)—So 24‘s writers have finally become aware enough of the outside world to understand torture is controversial and have inserted this conflict into the show, but they haven’t become aware enough to realize that, time and again, the science comes down on the side of it being an ineffective method for gathering information? Last Monday’s half of the premiere left me with the cartoonishly misguided message that everybody’s wrong except Jack (and Renee, who instantly adopted Jack’s methodology)—torture works as long as you do it right!

I’m not even annoyed by the torture angle for humane or political reasons. I always think it’s moronic when 24 tries to tackle issues, because they never do a good job, but I don’t care about the writers’ overall stance on torture so much as the fact that, after six seasons, it’s gotten stale. Doesn’t Jack have anything else in his bag of tricks? Don’t the writers of 24? The botched attempt to escape from FBI HQ was one of the better action set-pieces this show has done in awhile, combining the suspense of whatever might lurk around the corner with some well-choreographed shootouts and crazy car stunts.

Let’s talk about the conspiracy for a minute. So, Tony’s working deep cover on behalf of Buchanan and Chloe, a three-person operation with no funding or recognition from the government (and speaking of which, where is Karen Hayes, Bill’s wife?!). What’s their aim? I don’t know. They’ve infiltrated a group of thugs working for the mysterious South Afr—er, Sangalan regime that’s slaughtering people and causing President Creepy Grandma endless anxiety. According to Jack, the FBI is compromised. According to Buchanan, so is the President’s inner circle. I can’t wait for the surprise reveal of the Chief of Staff’s betrayal!

I don’t mean to get sarcastic. I like the show a lot, but I can’t help wondering if all the changes they’ve made (relocating to Washington, disbanding CTU, bringing in yet another First Family, giving Jack a theoretical partner in Renee) won’t get rid of the flaws that made last season such a dud: ridiculous plot twists (Tony’s alive!), obvious villains (the Chief of Staff! The shady FBI boss!), ham-fisted political rhetoric (foreign policy is scary!) and filler (Colm Feore!). I thought the point of having a year off was to regroup, restructure and solve the problems that have plagued this show—tightening everything up and making sure everything is as taut and suspenseful as whatever is happening to Jack. I’m sure First Husband Feore’s subplot will lead somewhere, at some point, but that won’t make up for the fact that it feels like wheel-spinning now.

The Beast (A&E)—I want to call this an interesting start, but I have no clue what happened in the last ten minutes. Every character pops up as part of an FBI conspiracy to take down Patrick Swayze’s über-badass, Charles Barker (a little too close to Barkley for me, I must say), who is apparently as corrupt as they come. Leave it to Neal McDonough lookalike Ellis Dove (Travis Fimmel) to do…something. They left it ambiguous as to whether or not he’ll help Barker or take him down, which is enough to keep me watching. Add to that great performances by Swayze (made all the more impressive by his cancer battle), Fimmel and The Wire‘s Larry Gilliard Jr., elaborate and confusing conspiracies, great use of Chicago locations (I certainly hope they don’t ditch it for L.A. like Leverage did) and craziness like shooting RPGs inside de-luxe apartments in the sky… I don’t know how this show will turn out, ultimately, but I’ll keep watching to find out.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—Wow, Everybody Hates Chris came back with a bang. This season, the show has occasionally suffered from servicing too many peripheral characters instead of concentrating on the family. Here, each member of the family got their own great subplots: Chris joins the wrestling team and becomes a hero when he keeps winning by default because no other school has a student in his puny weight class; Drew wants to make it big as a music video producer; Tanya wants to get into Drew’s girl group, then humiliates and undermines him at every turn; and Rochelle wants to diet, which forces everyone else to diet. Even the turning point in Chris’s story, in which his peers reward his success with baked goods, tied into with the overall dieting theme, which I liked—especially because they wisely underplayed the connection. Plus, this was probably the season’s most consistently funny episode. It’s never been anything less than “pretty damn funny,” but sometimes it rises to the cream of the crop.

As a side-note, I do have to mention Julius buying Chris Air Jordans. Was that really a believable development? That’s $150 worth of shoes!

Flashpoint (CBS)—This episode, which came close to the exceptional quality of last summer’s finale, delivered exactly the type of episode that made me love this show: a surprising, twist-filled hostage situation, sympathy on all four sides (the SRU, the hostage, the assailant and even—to a lesser extent—the cheating husband) and excellent utilization of every major character. This, for those wondering, is what a premiere feels like.

I only had one quibble: why did Sarah Scott (Kristin Booth) have to live? I’m not trying to sound callous, but for dramatic purposes, having her die would have made the debate that closed the episode so much more effective. Once in awhile, the team has to look in the mirror and realize what they have to do, and what it costs. They did for a moment, but then everyone breathed a sigh of relief when they found out she was stable and would be fine. Maybe I just like my characters grappling with heady moral and ethical problems, but it felt like they took the easy way out here, when this single incident could have spawned drama that continues to play out over the course of years—affecting the decisions made by the entire team. Am I expecting too much of a CBS procedural?

Leverage (TNT)—Not the strongest episode by any means, but it had some welcome guest turns from Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) and Nicole Sullivan (King of Queens) as a shady Mob couple in the midst of their daughter’s wedding, and Andrew Divoff (Lost) as a sinister Ukrainian looking for a payout. I found the jokes about the underfunded, incompetent FBI amusing, especially the gag in which Eliot sneaks into the FBI field office to steal their surveillance recordings and discovers shelves full of cassette tapes. Although equally cartoonish, it’s still a nice antidote to 24‘s all high-tech, all-the-time perspective on the Feds.

However, the idea that this crew could band together as a functional wedding-planning team left me a bit cold. I find it hard to believe that a Mob family—undoubtedly loaded with paranoia—would allow these people to just walk in off the street. The writers didn’t find a clever excuse—or, really, any excuse—for this lapse in believability. I find it harder to believe that this group of criminals could pull off this particular job successfully. I can believe them when their cover involves criminal activities; somehow, here, I didn’t believe any of them, not even Eliot’s spiel about his love of knives leading him to weapons proficiency and kitchen mastery.

Leverage is ridiculous and fun by design; I just wish they spent a little more time making the ridiculousness a little bit plausible. I don’t think it’s too much to ask.

Monk (USA)—As I said in the preamble, I loved that this episode—much like the actual season premiere, which found Monk and Natalie trapped by in a house by a murderous Brad Garrett—managed to balance a great Monk-Natalie conflict with semi-glamorous guest stars. The mystery had its flaws (I had a hard time accepting that the bike lock wouldn’t make Whitford curious—I know he’s distracted, but come on!), but it made sense overall. Plus, it made so little sense that it was hard to predict. Putting Monk in that wheelchair could have made him more annoying, but when you add Natalie’s guilt—and Monk’s wholesale abuse—it turned into comedy gold. That sounds bad, doesn’t it? Moving on… I even found Disher’s obsession with a solid-gold bike basket easily as hilarious as his suggestion of The Terminator a year or so ago when everyone named “Julie Teeger” was getting killed. All in all, a very solid episode.

The Office (NBC)—I complained a lot about the Dwight-Angela-Andy triangle. I still think it went on far longer than it needed to, but this week’s episode did an excellent job of resolving it in unexpected but hilarious ways. I’m also sort of glad it ended with Angela left alone. If they hadn’t done such a nice job portraying her hypocrisy, I’d feel a little sympathy; instead, it feels like she just got what she deserved.

I also have to give props to the production design team for attempting to mimic the look of road-salt on the cars. They may not have the money (or inclination) to turn the Scranton Professional Building into a winter wonderland, but the small patches of snow and the salt stains make me more willing to forgive the fact that nobody but Michael had an overcoat. In Scranton. In January.

Psych (USA)—Using two of Lassiter’s most well-known traits—unhealthy obsession with his job and discharging his weapon—to force him in a situation where he needs help from Shawn and Gus? What a fantastic take on the “series regular is accused of murder” plot that has become a trope of cop shows. They did just about everything right here, except falling for the law of economy of characters (i.e., the one character, besides the regulars, who has any kind of screen time turns out to be the culprit). Plus, it was funnier and a bit less gimmicky than most of this season’s episodes.

Supernatural (The CW)—Wow, what a nice return. Supernatural served up one of its creepiest villains ever and had the balls to make her a straight-up, mortal human. They didn’t do the greatest job of tying this to Dean’s guilt about running around Hell torturing souls and enjoying it, but they get an A- for effort. Mainly, though, they just did a fantastic job of making a haunted house story—a subject that’s been done to death—somewhat unique and creepy as hell. Definitely the most twisted, skin-crawling haunted house story since Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves. Well done, Supernatural. Very well done.

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Spy vs. Spy

I’ve never been the biggest fan of espionage movies. In fact, I can think of only three that I really like: North by Northwest, Three Days of the Condor, and The Manchurian Candidate. However, if I were to shove everything into weird subgenres, then none of these would even qualify as espionage movies. True, they have all the usual craziness associated with spy movies—coded messages, shifty-eyed people in trenchcoats, elaborate conspiracies, possibly duplicitous love interests—but they don’t have what I typically associate with spy movies: the spy protagonist, or “spytagonist.” Okay, not spytagonist.

You know what I’m talking about: your James Bonds, your Ethan Hunts, your Jack Ryans, your… I dunno, does Jason Bourne count? They might get in over their heads and face dozens of double-crosses and explosions and inaccurate technobabble, but at the end of the day, they have the training and tradecraft to pull off the job. They almost rise to the level of “superhero” (especially Bond), performing extraordinary feats in order to save the planet.

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that I’d lump movies like North by Northwest and The Manchurian Candidate into the “conspiracy thriller” subgenre, not spy thrillers. Both focus on ordinary people trying to unravel elaborate conspiracies—both of which involve espionage—that are over their head. To some degree, the Bourne movies share this characteristic (especially the first one), but he still has that “spy superhero” quality, even if he can’t remember why. Either way, the “superhero” spy protagonist, in my mind, defines the distinction between the conspiracy thrillers I love and the espionage thrillers to which I’m fairly indifferent.

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