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Fall Pilots I Won’t Watch Spectacu-Jamboree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A New Day Dawns?

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

Returning Shows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Shows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Some Actual Good New Shows!

This was a pretty good week in TV land. We had some great new shows—Aliens in America and Pushing Daisies—and some improvements over last week’s premieres and pilots. At least one show has already fallen off my “must-view” list, with more to follow if they continue to rile me. You hear me, Dr. Gregory House? If you want me to keep watching, you have to solve a medical mystery that involves your entire former team dying. That will finally prove to me that anything can happen.

Aliens in America (The CW)—The CW proves its commitment to not being a laughing stock by producing yet another great show. Along with Reaper and Gossip Girl (which is apparently quite good, though you couldn’t pay me to sit through it), Aliens in America stands out as the best new comedy of the season, by far; it also proves itself as one of the best new shows of the season.

The concept is fairly simple: Justin (Dan Byrd) thinks senior year will turn things around and he’ll finally get some popularity, until he’s voted the #8 “most bang-able chick” in school. This doesn’t do much for his self-esteem, so his mother (Amy Pietz) finds the solution: host an athletic Swedish foreign exchange student to essentially become Justin’s best friend. Instead, the exchange program sends Raja (Adhir Kalyan), a Pakistani lad. This doesn’t go over well with anyone in their provincial community, and Justin’s parents want to send Raja back—until the two boys forge the unbreakable bond of mutual loserdom.

This show could so easily fall into the trap of racial stereotypes (of both American small-towners and Pakistani Muslims), yet it manages to sidestep all of that by playing on the stereotypes and making the story more about misconceptions on both sides, and about discovering similarities, than it is about differences and intolerance. Also: it’s really, really funny, in a way that resembles the cartoonish-ness of Malcolm in the Middle but retains some of the grounded, awkward humor of Freaks & Geeks.

The Bionic Woman (NBC)—So, here’s the thing: this show sucks. A lot. Last week, I said I’d check it out again and hope that it’d focus more on action and intrigue now that we’ve moved beyond a pilot front-loaded with exposition. But what the fuck was this episode? Why did they make Jaime go on this mission? When did her bionics prove essential (or even useful) at all?

On the plus side, with the quarantine and poison gas stuff, it felt like a leftover script from NBC’s late, so-bad-it-was-great series Medical Investigation. The downside? It lacked Dr. Stephen Connor and his mysterious visions of plagues.

I’ve officially given up on The Bionic Woman. Neither Michelle Ryan nor Katee Sackhoff can act, the supporting cast doesn’t exactly prop them up (though Miguel Ferrer, after sleepwalking through the pilot, actually seemed to try a little this week), and the writing is just so, so awful. I find it difficult to believe that Jason Smilovic made something as brilliant as last season’s Kidnapped (a series cut brutally short but thankfully released in full on DVD), but I guess maybe he decided making a total, network-approved pile of shit is a lot easier than fighting them every step of the way to make something great. I can’t say I blame him.

Bones (Fox)—My suspicion that this show would shift its focus to the mystery safe seen in the premiere was wrong. Granted, they played around with the artifacts from it, so I know they’ll continue to mine it for stories, but as far as a single, 22-episode arc about a safe—not gonna happen. I suppose I’m okay with that.

As far as the content of the episode goes, the subplot with Hodgins, Angela, and the “super-hot” consultant didn’t work for me at all. The rest of the episode was pretty decent—parts of it were a tad predictable, but I pegged the FBI agent who’d worked the case as the killer, and I was way off there. I still admire the show for maintaining consistent characterizations and not abusing the usual procedural rule of forcing each case into “personal” territory by revealing bizarre new hobbies, past professions, former lovers, etc., week after week.

Dirty Sexy Money (ABC)—In its second week, I still don’t know what to make of this show. It tossed some interesting monkey wrenches into the storylines it established last week, and I suppose it’s allayed my initial fears that it’s a dramedy version of Arrested Development, but I think maybe Nick (Peter Krause) needs to be more of a dick. He makes it clear he doesn’t like the Darlings, their lifestyle, or the various things they do that require his legal services—but couldn’t he be blunter about his reasons, or maybe act like a hypocrite once in awhile? It’s only the second episode, so maybe those shades of gray are coming. They aren’t there now, and after awhile the show may suffer as a result.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—Well, I’m glad this show’s back. It’s still very funny and well-written, but the Chris Rock cameo did nothing for me. I love his narration, but did he need to appear in front of the camera? Really? Was this, like, a “Do this or you’re canceled”-type thing? Otherwise, the episode worked pretty well. I liked the overall message that hey, he’s not even in high school yet: he doesn’t need to know exactly what he’s going to do with the rest of his life.

Heroes (NBC)—After complaining last week that the show meandered a bit, Heroes really stepped it up with an episode that went deeper with everything established in the premiere, with laser-precise focus on guiding the story on its path. I…still have no idea what that story is, how the various subplots will intermingle, where anything will lead—but now I’m hooked. Right around the corner, though, I know more characters—old and new—will pop up with their own storylines. I don’t know if this will affect the momentum, but I do have a lingering fear that the show will become so overstuffed it’ll implode.

House (Fox)—After a lackluster season and the awful tragedy of last week’s episode, I considered dropping House from the must-watch list. I decided to give it a few more weeks to show off the new blood and see if maybe they can shake up the stale formula a bit. Answer: maybe. I guess the problem here is, with the new blood coming in, why keep the old blood around? Say what you will about the Law & Order franchise (and I will say a lot of unpleasant things, trust me), at least Dick Wolf knows the economy of character introductions and exits: one day they’re here with a two-line explanation, the next day they’re gone with a half-assed justification (or none at all). Does House need to have three characters who are no longer diagnosticians? Are we working with an arc where House “misses” his team so much that he’ll end up firing the new team to bring back the old? Just get rid of them. I’m liking the new people and am extremely tired of the old team and their wheel-spinning storylines. Okay, Foreman still has some potential, but they’ve squandered it so far.

Journeyman (NBC)—This week shares the same problems as last week—not enough focus on Dan’s purpose for time-traveling, too much focus on everything else—while managing to add a potential new one: Livia (Moon Bloodgood) is also a time-traveler. That’s right, she didn’t die in the plane crash all those years ago. She time-traveled out of it. We don’t have any idea how long she’s been traveling, why her present-day self manages to pop up in the same time periods as Dan (Kevin McKidd), or what purpose she’ll serve. Will she become his Al? Can she somehow control where and when she travels? It’s a very interesting twist that could go so, so badly if they do it wrong.

As for the rest of the episode, they did do some things right: they injected much more wit and humor into an already-humorous show, which makes it easier to gloss over its problems. While Dan didn’t really commit to the job of getting to know the people he needed to save, his traveling to these different times served a higher purpose (and got more screen-time) than the pilot. I’m still not quite sold on it, but this episode improved on an already-interesting pilot, so if they keep going this way, the show might turn into the best new show this year.

King of the Hill (Fox)—Looking at the episode last week along with this one, it would appear the real weakness this season is in the subplots. The A story—Bobby’s hilarious efforts to impress a girl by protesting, then growing horrified as it spirals out of control—was top-notch, but the B story of Dale starting a quote journal in the alley was drastically underdeveloped and had nothing to do with the rest of the show. At least last week’s “Peggy as superfan” B story tied into the overall football theme.

My Name Is Earl (NBC)—Wow, Craig T. Nelson! And that guy from According to Jim! And…other people! This was a fun episode that put the prison setting to better use than last week’s opener. I still think the prison storyline should end sooner rather than later, but if they mine the setting for comedy like the warden’s “sentence reduction certificates,” it won’t wear out its welcome as quickly as it seemed.

Numb3rs (CBS)—I enjoyed Traveler quite a lot this summer, so it was nice to see Aaron Stanford again, but…the episode fell a bit flat. I guess an L.A.-based show can only go for so long before acknowledging the city’s status as the hub of the film industry, rather than focusing on gritty “Any Metropolis, U.S.A.” criminal activities. Still, the whole pseudo-Entourage thing, plus the “big twist” at the end that Stanford killed his brother, kind of ruined the episode. The dead girl in the bathtub, the prostitutes cut to look like twins, and the math involved in finding the killer were all reasonably interesting. The subplot where Colby (Dylan Bruno) tries to integrate back in the unit was a nice bit of character development for him, Warner (Aya Sumika), and Sinclair (Alimi Ballard), but it didn’t quite make up for the lackluster A story.

The Office (NBC)—Well, this episode came a lot closer to “The Negotiation” than last week’s, but we’re not there yet! The return of “wunderkind” Ryan (B.J. Novak) as the boss who wants to bring Dunder-Mifflin into the 21st century, his unresolved issues with Kelly (Mindy Kaling), Toby (Paul Lieberstein) discovering Jim and Pam’s “secret” relationship—all of that was gold. The A story, which had Michael Scott (Steve Carell) resenting the changes to the business model and taking it to insane extremes, shared the same kind of pacing and build that “The Negotiation” had, but forcing a former client to return his gift basket doesn’t quite have the same humiliating, pathetic effect as wearing a women’s suit.

Pushing Daisies (ABC)—This has all the style but less of the manic brilliance of Wonderfalls and The Tick. Some of the whimsy feels a bit forced, to the extent that it falls in the trap of “let’s talk extremely fast because it’ll make the material seem funnier than it is.” Which is not to say it’s not funny or whimsical—just not quite as much as the producers clearly think it is. Like Wonderfalls, it has more style than anything else on television. However, beyond the initial setup, the narration gets to be a little too much. The narrator’s constant reminding of how events in the story parallel famous fairy tales, thus reminding us that we’re watching a big syrupy fairy tale, is thoroughly unnecessary.

On the plus side, Lee Pace, Anna Friel, and Chi McBride give remarkable performances, and the show has loads of potential—more than I can say for most shows. Perhaps most fortunately, Kristin Chenoweth barely appeared in the episode. Keep her role this small, and I’m guaranteed to keep watching!

Reaper (The CW)—A peculiar step back from its pilot, but nevertheless it maintained the dark comedy and action. I’m actually glad much of the action was confined to the Work Bench, because so many shows establish a character in a workplace and then…you rarely see them there. The Work Bench was established as an ingrained part of the show, so I’m glad they didn’t just drop that in favor of setting the story out of work. The goofy dialogue and situations—and performances—continue to be the best part of this show, but I guess I’m just not as enthusiastic about this week’s lightning killer as I was about the pyromaniac fireman.

Stargate: Atlantis (Sci-Fi)—I’m still where I was last week, for the most part. Weir (Torri Higginson) has been left behind with David Ogden Stiers and the rest of the Borg—er, replicator—collective to make room for Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping) to…I don’t know, act smug? Seriously, why is she here? More importantly, why should I care? Say what you will about Spike leapfrogging from Buffy to Angel—at least they made him an important part of the story and took the time to re-establish his characters for non-Buffy fans. I’m pretty close to done with this show. I’ll give it another week for Carter to prove her usefulness, and if she doesn’t, I’m out.

Supernatural (The CW)—This show managed to become much better than it had any right to during its second season, and it continued the trend with this premiere, which reminds us of last year’s opened gateway to hell and shows us right off the bat that we’re going to be dealing with some different, unusual villains this year. Although it takes us away from the original “ancient myths and urban legends are real” premise of the show, it’s probably a good move to avoid that formula getting stale. Producers have added to female demon-hunters to the cast, but so far we’ve only seen one of them. I don’t have much of a reaction to her either way, though I did admire her magic knife of doom. It’s a bit more visceral than the rock-salt shotguns the show loves.

Well, there you have it. I’ll be back next week, hopefully with some more rage directed at House and Stargate: Atlantis.

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Why Haven’t They Canceled Anything?

Legend has it that an upcoming writer’s strike has made networks a bit gun-shy about yanking mediocre underperformers (like The Bionic Woman) and flat-out bad underperformers (like Moonlight). Honestly? I’d wager it has more to do with the total lack of clear hits than the possibility of a strike.

From my perspective, nothing has made an obvious mark as a loser in terms of ratings, though sharper-than-expected viewership declines from pilot to episode two have made some shows look the part. Quality-wise, we have a pretty huge crap-heap all over the network landscape, but we all know a network won’t cancel (or renew) based on quality. Ignoring quality, nothing is doing so egregiously awful that it merits immediate cancellation, especially when the network can’t offer any quick replacements. Well, okay, maybe Friday Night Lights doing “good for the CW” numbers will head it toward cancellation, but you never know. NBC is hurting for critically praised dramas, so it might stick around the Friday night wasteland the way Homicide did.

I could be wrong, but I’m going to offer up Moonlight as the first scripted casualty of the fall season. It’s pretty much a ratings vacuum between the middling Ghost Whisperer and surprisingly strong Numb3rs. Also, since its premiere it’s been the butt of nearly every critical joke regarding the fall TV season, widely reviled as the worst drama in years. While many (but not as many) critics suggest Women’s Murder Club gives Moonlight a run for its money, quality-wise, it trounced Moonlight in the Nielsens.

Aliens in America (The CW)—An improvement over the already-funny pilot. The story took the characters a few steps forward, showed us a little more of the high school hierarchy, and revealed that they’re definitely going more for a Malcolm in the Middle vibe rather than a Freaks & Geeks vibe. They made Raja (Adhir Kalyan) a little more culturally ignorant this week, which I think will benefit the show. Remember how in the last few seasons of Perfect Strangers, they couldn’t really mine the “wacky foreigner” comedy anymore? Balki had become too acclimated to his surroundings, so they moved on to domestic wackiness with Larry, Balki, Jennifer, and Mary-Ann all living in one giant, Victorian house in the suburbs. I know way too much about this show. Anyway, it kinda started to suck. A lot. Aliens in America will head down the same path if Raja assimilates and is accepted too quickly.

Bones (Fox)—I know they want to give Angela (Michaela Conlin) and Hodgins (T.J. Thyne) a meaty/wacky romantic storyline, but this whole “I got married in a drunken fit and can’t remember the husband’s name” thing needs to wrap up ASAP. I liked the trippy hypnosis effects, and I guess I still like them as a couple, but the subplot doesn’t do anything for me. Also, they kinda ditched the giant safe o’ secrets, to my unending disappointment. I found this week’s crime interesting (although, thanks to the “meat,” it was also more disgusting than usual), but I sure did like the vault.

Dirty Sexy Money (ABC)—I hate to sound like an asshole, but I kinda don’t care about who killed Nick’s (Peter Krause) dad, if anyone did. I get that that’s supposed to be the hook, but why do we need this murder mystery? Why can’t it be a dramedy soap about a guy whose dad died under non-mysterious circumstances? I don’t need Nick’s lack of trust in the Darlings restated multiple times in every episode; their very behavior is cause for mistrust. Other than not caring about the subplot, this episode worked pretty well—it’s probably the funniest episode so far, but the writers keep revealing more depth to the characters. They’ve gone from modern wealthy stereotypes to real people.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—Both the A and B stories had great comic setups ingrained in the established characters—a runt uses karate to crush Caruso (Travis T. Flory), who turns docile. At first, Chris (Tyler James Williams) is elated—until he realizes it’s opened the floodgates for dozens of bullies, so now he has to turn Chris back into a bully in order to stop anarchy at Corleone. Love that! Meanwhile, Julius (Terry Crews) is forced to take a vacation, but he sneaks and gets a job for the week. This episode stands out as an instant classic. But just a little note of negativity, because I’m that kinda guy: they need to dial down the “wacky plucked-strings” music. It’s funny without the music!

Heroes (NBC)—Sylar returns, and…I dunno, I’m starting to think last season’s underwhelming finale should have been a bloodbath. Do we need Niki (Ali Larter)? Do we need…whatever the hell Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia) is doing in Ireland? Do we even need Sylar? Don’t get me wrong; I like all three characters, but I couldn’t be less interested in what they’re doing right now. New season, new heroes, new villains. Oh yeah, and the actual new heroes—the Central Americans of indeterminate origin whose names I don’t know? The black shit gushing out of their eyes is pretty disgusting, but otherwise their storyline has turned repetitive. We get it: something about them being apart makes her lose control and kill everyone with…black shit powers. Whatever, man. I hope they get to New York and get interesting.

House (Fox)—Still liking the new people. Still liking the attempts to shoehorn the old team into the proceedings, because the failure to do so in any natural way makes me laugh as much as House’s dickishness. What I’m not liking: what the hell was the deal with the sticking-the-knife-into-the-light-socket subplot? I mean, I get that it was House’s curiosity (or obsession with proving others wrong) getting the better of him, but it was…pretty stupid. Like, a little beyond House’s normal recklessness. It also didn’t fit into the overall episode. A good subplot usually provides a counterpoint to the main action. They tried that by having House yell at the Victim of the Week that there’s nothing after death. So did he want to prove himself wrong, or did he want to prove himself right? More importantly, why should I care, and what impact does it have on House losing the patient in the end? If the writers tried to show us any of that, they lost me.

Journeyman (NBC)—Ginormous, historically memorable earthquakes tend to make the drama a little more compelling, so I liked this week’s struggle between saving one dude from addiction and suicide and trying to save an entire city—or, at the very least, one man’s sister—from the earthquake. The episode had its share of problems, but it did a fairly nice job of showing how this series should work: it didn’t overdo the “where does Dan keep disappearing off to?” present-day stuff, it didn’t underdevelop the storylines in the past, and it maintained human drama over whiz-bang sci-fi crap and leftover 10.5: Apocalypse special effects. A few things that, after a few weeks, I’ve started to lose patience with: why does Dan (Kevin McKidd) have no curiosity about what has caused him to travel through time, or why Livia (Moon Bloodgood) also travels, and how she seems to control her traveling as opposed to his randomness? I’m sure they want to go for an overarching mystery with that storyline, which I like. I’m not saying he needs to figure all of this stuff out ASAP; he needs to wonder and ask questions. He’s supposed to be a reporter, for crying out loud. Why does he store all the nuggets of information about people he needs to help instead of asking Livia what the hell is going on?

King of the Hill (Fox)—Another solid episode I can relate to more than I’d like to admit. I can’t be the only one who has friends or acquaintances who find certain things hysterically funny, while I just sit and ponder the nature of existence. It’s very difficult to explain what makes something funny to one person but not to another, especially when you’re trying to explain it to the person who finds the subject hilarious. Bobby trying to worm his way out of the Powder Puff football cheerleading squad because he thinks the humor is incredibly lame (P.S.: he’s right!) hit me close to home. I also loved Landry’s principal acting the part of slimy bureaucrat, unwilling to make any firm decisions because he’d rather ride the tide of popular opinion.

My Name Is Earl (NBC)—Here’s a nifty way to get around the Earl-in-prison storyline: have the entire episode be a flashback to Earl’s malevolent, pre-List days. They’ve done episodes like this in the past (notably in the Cops episode) so it’s not unprecedented, but it still feels like a cheat. I will beat this horse until they finally do something about it: get Earl out of jail. On an unrelated note, with the recent appearances of According to Jim‘s underrated Larry Joe Campbell and The War at Home‘s Michael Rapaport (as well as last season’s appearances by such actors as Yes, Dear‘s Mike O’Malley and Saturday Night Live‘s Norm Macdonald), it appears the show has become a haven for actors who deserve better material than they’re usually given.

Numb3rs (CBS)—I admire the gumption of Numb3rs. I admire the producers’ transparent desire to be the network TV answer to HBO’s incomparable The Wire. Despite the fine cast and solid writing (for a network cop show), it fails with such regularity I kinda wish they’d give up trying. They won’t, so they’ve cast yet another Wire alumnus in a key supporting role. Add Chris Bauer (who played Frank Sobotka in The Wire‘s second season) to a list that already includes Wendell Pierce (in a recurring role), Lance Reddick, Deirdre Lovejoy, Wood Harris, and probably others I’m forgetting. Bauer plays a mechanic-turned-physicist who helps Charlie (David Krumholtz) with computer simulations of the crime of the week, a street-racing accident that results…in murder!

I’ll stop making fun of the show. I like it quite a bit, but like every cop show that isn’t The Wire or The Rockford Files (Becker’s a cop and Rockford is jailed in nearly every episode, so it counts!), I have to take it with a grain of salt. Alongside moments of solid characterization and fun but probably implausible (again with the grain of salt stuff) crime-solving math, it still features moments of thunderous stupidity and specious reasoning. When they discover 260-pound weight discrepancy that leads them to the “obvious” “conclusion” that a fairly large man was in the car. It’s a reasonable assumption, but wouldn’t two scientists pooling resources maybe consider alternative possibilities? It could have been two women or a man and a kid or a woman and a small man or—what it turns out to be—a second car hitting the first. Each of the possibilities could have led to drastically different assumptions about the nature of the crime, the motives, and the suspects.

Alas, it’s a decent show, but The Wire it ain’t. At the very least, while I didn’t enjoy the “he-was-a-spy/oh-wait-no-he-wasn’t” cliffhanger resolution, I’m glad they’re giving Colby (Dylan Bruno) and David (Alimi Ballard) something interesting to do. Not a lot, but they create palpable post-“you’re-full-of-shit” tension that I look forward to watching boil over as the season progresses.

The Office (NBC)—This episode really gave last season’s “The Negotiation” a run for its money in terms of comic insanity and presenting the sheer tragedy of Michael Scott (Steve Carell), a manager who has been in over his head since day one and can’t climb out of that hole. It doesn’t quite capture the magic of trying to assert masculine authority only to be outed as wearing a woman’s suit, but the kidnapping of a pizza delivery boy as a result of Michael’s own existential angst came very, very close. This was The Office at its best: awkward but not mean-spirited humor (even the IM prank on Dwight dovetailed into something sweet), moments of real drama and suspense, humbling stupidity, and finally, a moment of redemption. The wonderful thing about Michael Scott redemption is that it’s often the very, very small moments where he reveals his humanity and dusts off the embarrassment of his own existence. Taking Dwight for “authentic New York-style sushi” so Michael could feel like the VIP he so desperately wants to be—sad, pathetic, but somehow triumphant.

Pushing Daisies (ABC)—So here’s the thing: I can’t stand Kristin Chenoweth. At all. I don’t like her as an “actress,” I don’t like the supposed “cute little pixie” roles she often plays, I don’t like her singing voice—I like nothing about her. With that said: is she going to be singing every week? Because honestly, I love watching a show as good-looking as this in HD, but I’d rather tape it on my crappy old monaural VCR so I can fast-forward through her musical numbers. Otherwise, this episode did a better job of extending the “mythology” of the series, elaborating on the romance between Ned (Lee Pace) and Chuck (Anna Friel). Chi McBride continues to surprise and impress me as a comic actor; I’ve only seen him play humorless (on Boston Public) and humorless and malicious (on House).

While the story got a little bit, er…excessive in the “whimsy” department (seriously, butterfly catching as a hobby? That makes a car that runs on dandelions seem realistic), this episode solidified the show’s ability to balance the black comedy and relationship drama with the odd procedural element.

Reaper (The CW)—The show bounced back from a “meh” second episode. Not quite as good as the pilot, but a vast improvement over episode two. I like that they’re giving Ben (Rick Gonzalez) more to do than get hurt. With Sock (Tyler Labine) as the larger-than-life goofball friend and Andi (Missy Peregrym) as the romantic interest, Ben didn’t come into his own until tonight. Also, the mystery had a little more challenge to it, both for the gang and for the audience. Everything hummed nicely in this episode, so I hope the writers keep it up. The only downside? Not enough Ray Wise and not enough parents (who didn’t even make an appearance).

Stargate: Atlantis (Sci-Fi)—The writers finally shoehorn an awkward introduction of Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping) into episode three. Is it too little, too late? I don’t know—I want to like her. She’s a little more hands-on than Weir, a little more sarcastic, and the semi-legendary (even on Atlantis) crush McKay (David Hewlett) has on her has reared its goofy head. It could lead somewhere interesting down the road, but I hope it’s way down the road. I also hope they aren’t trying to build some kind of demented triangle between Sheppard (Joe Flanigan), McKay, and Carter. That’s just stupid.

I liked this episode, overall. Anything that gives stoic Ronon (Jason Momoa) something more to do than beat people up is okay in my book. The downside? Maybe some time has passed, though nobody made mention of it, but remember how last week they left Weir to possibly die at the hands of the replicators? Everyone was a little too chipper this week, all things considered. Carson Beckett, a genial but fairly useless sideliner, got a better, more emotionally solid send-off. I can’t say Weir was anywhere close to my favorite character, but come on!

Supernatural (The CW)—Pretty solid. I liked the idea of Dean (Jensen Ackles) possibly discovering a lost son, having to deal with the consequences of his roguish lifestyle. The monster-of-the-week was both interesting and disgusting, so bonus points on that. They didn’t quite sell me on the new girl (Katie Cassidy) revealing herself as a demon. While I like shades of gray to the demon world (one thing that made Angel a little more interesting than Buffy), I guess it would have surprised me more if they had waited a few more episodes for the reveal. We don’t know her at all, she drops into town with some mysterious information, so it would actually have surprised me less if she weren’t a demon. We’ll see what the writers have in store.

After all that, if I had to pick three shows, couldn’t watch anything else on TV, the three I’d choose don’t even start until next year: Lost, The Wire, and Medium. Huh.

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Sink or Swim

For shows both new and old, the new-car smell of the season has officially given way to the spicy-almond stench of curly fries and Youth Dew—it’s time to go from tedious scenes of exposition and/or reminders of last season’s cliffhangers and start moving forward. Which shows hit their creative stride already? Which still look promising even though they’re having a little trouble? Which shows flat-out suck?

Aliens in America (The CW)—The pilot gave us a nifty, slightly cartoonish world for its offbeat characters to inhabit, while the second episode upped the ante on nearly everything and showed that while it wouldn’t shy away from taboo subjects, it refused to use American ignorance or cultural stereotypes for easy jokes. The third episode has revealed the show as an insane work of genius. It’s been walking a fine line just based on its premise, but it managed to play the “suspected terrorist” card and come out unscathed. It’s also rare that a show can balance this storyline with endless masturbation jokes, teenage mischief, and parental mistrust with genuine heart.

If they can sustain the no-punches-pulled, no-taboo-left-untouched humor, Aliens may rival Arrested Development in terms of quality and comic fearlessness. Unfortunately, like Arrested Development, Aliens in America will struggle in the Nielsens because of its network, its subject matter, and the CW’s comically inept promo department.

Dirty Sexy Money (ABC)—I don’t know what to say: I like this show, but I didn’t really care about it much—until tonight. After a pretty good pilot and some decent episodes, this one finally hooked me. However, they overplayed their hand on the former relationship between Nick (Peter Krause) and Karen (Natalie Zea). I liked the subtle touches in the pilot, but this week Karen reached heights of ridiculousness that makes the rest of the Darlings seem normal. Maybe she’s supposed to come across as a needy borderline stalker, but come on.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—This week, 15-year-old Chris (Tyler James Williams) is entrusted with parking his dad’s car across the street. He ends up parking across the borough, at Corleone, to impress girls. And then the car dies. Combined with a subplot that finds Rochelle (Tichina Arnold) waiting all day to fight a speeding ticket against a corrupt judge (Dwayne Wayne!), the episode reigned in the over-the-top (but funny!) cartoonishness of the first two episodes and reminded me why I love this show: it has an uncanny deftness at taking minor character struggles to logical-but-outlandish extremes.

Heroes (NBC)—Bennet (I refused to call him “Horn-Rimmed Glasses” or “HRG”—seriously, the dude’s had a name since, like, the third episode, so I think it’s time to put this “clever” nickname to bed) struggles hard to save himself from an unfortunate fate painted last season by Isaac—his own death, at the ends of a mysterious teenage suitor of Claire (Hayden Panettiere). Yeah, that dorky kid is going to ice Bennet! Did anything else worth mentioning even happen in this episode? No joke: everything on this show that involves the Bennet family is nonstop gold, even the chemistry-free romance between Claire and West (Nicholas D’Agostino)—if only because it leads to Jack Coleman continuing his streak of awesomeness.

All right, credit where it’s due: the twist (which I didn’t see coming because I’m an idiot) that the mystery man in Molly’s (Adair Tishler) dreams turns out to be Parkman’s (Greg Grunberg) dad—awesome. The new hero(?), Monica Dawson (Dana Davis) looks like she’ll contribute a lot more than those Central Americans of indistinct origin, who have somehow managed to make Sylar boring, too. Either way, if this show were retooled into The Bennets, it would kick so much more ass.

Journeyman (NBC)—I liked this show a lot better when Katie (Gretchen Egolf) had the role of “sarcastic but supportive wife.” All this angst with Livia (Moon Bloodgood) is a little soapy for my tastes. I like time travel, I like sarcasm, I like the idea of moral grayness involving Dan (Kevin McKidd) and Livia in the past, I even like Livia taking on the role of Al, guiding Dan through his time travel adventures. I wish she was a hologram in flashy clothes, though. They just have to get over the hump (if you’ll excuse the unfortunate phrasing) of Livia-related marital drama, because it’s boring. The “will Dan show up to this event?” drama—good stuff. The “I’ll take Dan’s brother/my ex-boyfriend because of how unreliable Dan is”—also good. I don’t care about the present-day angst over Livia, though.

They did a much better job with the past mystery this time, and in fact struck a perfect balance between present issues with the past storyline. More tension, more intrigue, moderately interesting characters. I also liked using a dot-com startup as the central conflict. The nostalgia factor of only a decade ago makes me feel ancient, but there it is. If they can keep this up while downplaying the Livia stuff, this show will make it.

King of the Hill (Fox)—This episode shows why it may surpass The Simpsons‘ reputation in future generations. Sure, it’s gone 11 seasons without any truly atrocious episodes (not even The Simpsons managed that), and chances are it won’t continue for another 11 seasons of episodes ranging from just-above-mediocre to terrible. More importantly, however, when King of the Hill shows characters in anguish—they aren’t afraid to play it straight. No laughs, and more compelling drama than many actual dramas can pull out of their asses. Boomhauer’s struggle with aging this week managed to come across as sad—tragic, even—without ever trying for funny. Even its funniest moment—Boomhauer wiggling his ass in front of some hot women, only to have them laugh at him and continue on their way—wasn’t really played for laughs. It came across as pathetic as the rest of his story, leading to an inevitable satisfactory triumph at the end.

Classic Simpsons episodes contained more pathos and moments of legitimate human drama than most shows, but they never fully abandon the comedy in the way King of the Hill does. It’s riskier, but it pays off.

My Name Is Earl (NBC)—Well, I liked the first and last two minutes of this episode and not much else. The wacky fantasies of each characters’ creative writing didn’t do much for me. It had some smile-worthy moments, but mostly it struck me as trying too hard for absurdity. I enjoyed the setup of the episode, with the little-old-lady teacher in riot gear, and Earl describing the only seven seconds of his day he enjoys. I loved the wraparound ending where Earl finally finds his inspiration in the mundanity of everyday life. I wanted to love the rest, but I just didn’t. Oh well. Hey, can we get Earl out of prison now?

Numb3rs (CBS)—This episode was wildly overdirected (even the premiere, helmed by Tony Scott, didn’t have quite so much frenetic, pointless camera movement), but Numb3rs has finally hit its stride. Though the story had its share of hokey moments, it never turned into a full-on Da Vinci Code rip-off. It also had some mildly surprising twists. Also new for this season: the bad guy doesn’t always turn out to be a corrupt cop or soldier. This time, he was a psychotic ex-soldier. Totally different.

The Office (NBC)—It finally happened, and I might shut up about “The Negotiation” now. “Money” finally made a truly effective use of the hourlong format by realizing the biggest advantage of more time: breathing room. “Money” had moments of characters in quiet contemplation, sorrow, and even derailing a meeting by discussing when to properly use “whom.” These moments would end up on the cutting-room floor in a 30-minute episode. A comedy as dark and rich with characters as The Office almost requires an hourlong format, so I’m glad they’re finally putting it to good use.

Pushing Daisies (ABC)—Well played, Pushing Daisies. I quietly pondered the ethical dilemmas upon which Pushing Daisies is based—that as a child, Ned (Lee Pace) allowed Chuck’s (Anna Friel) father to die so his mother could live, and years later he allowed a funeral-home owner to die so Chuck could live. Ned justified this (pretty well, I thought) by arguing the victim of his “gift” valuables from coffins and was, therefore, a bad man. Well, this week Ned has to pay the piper: the owner’s brother has hired Emerson (Chi McBride) to investigate the owner’s death. This leads Chuck’s turning-point revelation that Ned’s gift comes at a price and that when he wants something badly enough, Ned is capable of going to a pretty bad place.

This is revelatory both for Chuck and the audience. It finally reveals the true magic of Bryan Fuller. While detractors of the show complain about the “whimsy,” they either ignore or disagree the counterbalance of dark satire and weighty moral and ethical issues. If the show continues to add such heft to the storylines (and I suspect it will), I’ll quit my mild griping about how quickly I fear the premise will wear thin.

Reaper (The CW)—Reaper has also allayed my fears and complaints about its repetitiveness. Granted, they need to throw a few more peppers in the chili before it gets stale, but this episode took the show to a new level—one I hope it stays at until it takes us even further. First, we had the Devil (Ray Wise) doing some legitimate evil for the first time since the pilot—better yet, he made Andi (Missy Peregrym) the target of his scheme. Second: last week’s hot wasp lady soul was clever and interesting, but this week’s Criss Angel soul was wall-to-wall gold. Finally, this show continues to capture the mid-20s underarchiever zeitgeist better than anything I’ve ever seen. I hope it maintains that and gives Sam (Bret Harrison) a slow—very slow!—development into a mature adult. It’ll lose most of its magic if Sam actively attempts to succeed in life.

Stargate: Atlantis (Sci-Fi)—Nightmare crystals? Pseudo-clones buried in the subconscious? Atlantis takes another stab at trying to be Farscape and falls dismally short. It’s a good enough show; it just needs to be itself. On a related note, Carter (Amanda Tapping) would annoy me less if she didn’t keep referencing her previous series.

Supernatural (The CW)—So we’ve finally met the second new girl, Bela (Lauren Cohan). They’ve also decided to show us a few more shades of gray in the demon-hunting world: Bela is a thief and con artist, stealing occult artifacts and selling them to the highest bidder; meanwhile, that psychotic hunter from last season (whose name I can’t recall) has enlisted the help of an ultra-religious hunter (Michael Massee) who, as a result of this episode, believes he’s on a mission from God.

He’s not, though. This week, Sam (Jared Padalecki) finds a cursed rabbit’s foot that gives him extraordinarily good luck—until Bela steals it from him, at which point his luck turns so hard he can’t even walk without falling down and/or losing a shoe. Lighter in tone than most episodes, the pratfalls and goofy physical comedy worked better than I would have expected, especially considering how humorless Sam usually is. I guess Jared Padalecki really is a good actor. Supernatural has laid the groundwork for an interesting season. I hope it pays off.

That’s it for this week.

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The CW: Free to Be… A Real Network!

The CW rose from the ashes of the WB and UPN’s decade-long struggle to get attention. Because that never happened (despite some critical favorites like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, surprising “hits” like 7th Heaven, and UPN’s headline-making annihilation of the Star Trek franchise), the two failing networks merged into a single entity, a superpower promising real competition for the Big Four while quietly implying that it would require Big Four ratings to support itself. Thanks to a combination of poor marketing (the slime-green FREE TO BE… posters plastered all over the place did the network no favors), incomplete market saturation, and…just offering really shitty programming, the network got neither the recognition nor the ratings it wanted. Instead of banking on new, daring programming (like Fox did in its infancy) and hoping the audience would follow, the CW offered…a hodgepodge of dinosaur acts from their previous networks. In fact, with the exception of The Game, the CW didn’t air a single new series in its first season.

The CW did, however, have quality. The merged forced the cancellation of weaker offerings and, while some of its shows could be generously described as mediocre, it did have the impressive slate of Veronica Mars, Everybody Hates Chris, Supernatural (which improved significantly in its first CW season), and Gilmore Girls. It also had 7th Heaven, the logic-defying hit whose day had come and gone long before it creaked toward its eleventh and (second) final season after impressive ratings for its first series finale caused the network to rethink its cancellation.

Then it got canceled again, despite remaining the CW’s highest-rated show for some reason, because it had already proved too expensive. Salary negotiations, annual union-mandated budget increases, and the show’s ever-expanding cast led to the (one assumes) reluctant decision to put the show out of its misery. Since the series hit creative exhaustion right around the time they had Jessica Biel sent to a Dickensian private school “upstate” for drinking half a beer, the few CW-scoffing viewers who were aware of the show applauded with great zeal.

Gilmore Girls, too, got the axe for contract- and budget-related reasons. The Girls lobbied for more money, and the CW—already struggling for ad revenue—simply couldn’t afford it. Also on the chopping block: Veronica Mars, the lowest rated show on dramatic television during all three of its seasons. Though the show had brilliant first and second seasons (some would dispute the brilliance of the second, but I maintain it was even better than the first), the quality of the third eroded with a rapidity that could only indicate network interference. Either that, or creator/showrunner Rob Thomas really, really lost focus and control. Considering the low ratings and the “subtle” changes largely occurring in the form of teen-soap-friendly clichés, blaming the network feels like the right call. While I liked the show and rooted for it to bounce back in a fourth season, both UPN and the CW gave the show every possible chance to strike ratings gold, and it just wasn’t going to happen.

This season, their development slate was rife with creativity: Aliens in America, both the best new comedy and the best comedy on TV; Gossip Girl, has a lot of dangerous, sexy adventures in the colorful backdrop of a Manhattan prep school; and Reaper, a show that has the potential to become the next Buffy the Vampire Slayer but has, as of this writing, slacked off as much as its protagonists. How long can these shows last, though? Creatively, they’re doing fine for now, but will Reaper start paying off if they introduce long-term character and story arcs that take its established mythology to a new level? Will it feel like a knockoff or a fresh take on the puny-human-versus-supernatural-creature genre?

A question applicable to both Aliens in America and Gossip Girl: what the hell happens when these people go to college and everyone officially stops caring? At least Aliens has the potential for restaging the show in a “high school with ashtrays” community college, which will continue the same loser high school characters in a similar setting. Can anyone imagine the the characters of Gossip Girl all somehow managing to end up at the same college facing the same angsty problems? The inherent limit with these high school shows is four years: without exception, college ruins them. Even if they somehow pulled some magic out of their respective asses, what happens when Aliens in America‘s Raja becomes more assimilated to American culture and conversely, the students grow accustomed to his quirkiness? What will Gossip Girl do when its characters grow too old to gossip about (sex, drugs, and alcohol in college?! Alert the authorities!)?

The solution to the inevitable budget problems and eventual creative bankruptcy of the entire CW slate, from now until the end of time, is deceptively simple: limited series.

You’ve heard the phrase before, applied to failures like ABC’s Kingdom Hospital and FX’s Thief to justify the fact that nobody’s watching them. “Nobody has to watch them—they’re only around for a season.” The CW could have an endless supply of fresh, interesting shows—far more intriguing than what the Big Four offer—by going into it with a game plan: 22 episodes to tell a complete story. Writers won’t pad the series with “filler” episodes to draw out storylines for a few years. The limited commitment and emphasis on quality over quantity may lure bigger names to the projects, which would in turn lure viewers. Saving money is a sub-goal, which may not lure bigger names, but FX got Glenn Close for Damages, so how hard could it be?

The implicit promise that these shows won’t be yanked in January—after all, advertisers only have to muddle through until the spring—might encourage viewers to stick with the CW over certain other axe-happy networks (Fox and CBS, I’m looking at you). Another nice thing about the idea of a “limited series”: you can limit it however the hell you want. If a show is a bona fide hit—a real hit, comparable to a hit show on a real network—why not keep it going? If another show is a marginal hit but the showrunners have a second-season plan that sounds better than the first, who says it has to go? Okay, I did earlier, but arbitrary rules are made to be broken.

So there you have it: a focus on quality (something the CW already appears to be working on), keeping the budgets down by making sure the show doesn’t last so long it becomes too expensive for a marginal network to produce, luring stars and viewers with the promise of a commitment to a complete story? It works for basic cable, it works for the BBC—why wouldn’t it work for the CW?

Snooty viewers will scoff and moan, “But there’s no such thing as high-quality television on a network.” Bullshit! To anybody who says networks will never manage cable-level quality, I point them to Veronica Mars, a CW show, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a refugee of both the WB and UPN. Comedy? Arrested Development and The Office. And those examples are just from the past few years. Whether or not TV snobs want to admit it, we’ve been in a golden age of television for the past decade or so, across the board—it’s not just HBO and FX turning out great television. The manic genius of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s first five seasons absolutely destroy the entire run of The Sopranos.

The CW might say, “Gee, a batch of one-season shows every year until the end of time? Even with the provision that they can last longer if they yield qualitative or financial results, how will we build loyalty scheduling like that?” Loyalty comes from quality. And maybe controversy. If you want to rival the major networks, you have to offer something they can’t—consistently excellent, bar-raising television. Networks attempt boldness and innovation every year, sometimes with surprise successes (Lost and Pushing Daisies are two recent examples) but often with dismal failures. They’ll yank a great low-rated show in favor of another CSI spinoff in a heartbeat—and that’s what can give the CW an edge. They can offer substantive programming than forensics investigation—IN A DIFFERENT CITY!!!

Hell, even if it doesn’t, at least the shows won’t hemorrhage money as viewers and ad dollars go down while production costs go up. If the CW wants to see the end of this decade, they need to consider real boldness in the face of adversity, real innovation in a network landscape that is sliding further and further away from its golden age each time a celebrity-focused reality show premieres.

I want the CW to succeed. It has made a few missteps in its brief history, like squeezing all the quality out of Veronica Mars to make it fit the teen-soap mold, or tarnishing an otherwise exceptional development season with Life Is Wild, a great concept with great location shooting marred by an emphasis on teen soap operatics performed by an iffy cast. Despite that, The CW has a proven ability to recognize quality even if it doesn’t always showcase it. The network can take what it has and turn it into a viable, attention-grabbing network if its executives take bigger chances and shake up the network-television model.

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Dropping Like Flies

…and not because of the writers’ strike, which won’t take effect until tomorrow. No, I’m speaking more of the shows listed below, many of which have made me a bit weary. Perhaps it’s having to think about them more, but I’ve begun to realize that much of what I watch…isn’t worth watching. Do I really have time to waste on mediocrity or worse? Should I devote an hour of my life to a extended episode of My Name Is Earl? I would have thought so on Thursday, but considering the poorly edited laugh-vacuum we got in lieu of an entertaining 30 minutes, I’ve reconsidered how I spend my time. Don’t be surprised if half (or more) of these shows disappear by next week.

Aliens in America (The CW)—In last week’s special edition about saving the CW, I lamented the longevity of this show (along with Reaper), but this episode allayed those fears. I’ve mischaracterized what this show wants to be as some sort of wacky, Perfect Strangers-esque comedy, which is maybe because, deep down, doesn’t everyone want Larry and Balki back on TV? Just me…?

This episode made me realize that Aliens in America has never wanted that. Sure, its premise is founded on the “ethnic mismatch comedy” formula and a few storylines have tackled Raja’s unusual “foreign” behavior—at its core, though, this is a show about best friends struggling through high school. Rather than uniting against common enemies, Justin and Raja find themselves pitted against one another when Justin wants Raja—who has gotten a job in a convenience store—to sell beer to the “cool kids” so they can be a part of the “in” crowd. This exact same scenario could occur with any two high school aged friends of any ethnicity anywhere in the country. That actually makes me think the show can overcome the potential problems (Raja assimilating too quickly, the duo going off to college, etc.).

I haven’t even mentioned the subplot involving Gary getting laid off. This show handles dark comedy (or at least, comedy with a nice underpinning of utter sadness) better than anything else on television, and this subplot is just more evidence of that. Gary’s struggle to maintain dignity in the face of the “new economy” managed to hit a lot more emotional levels than I would have thought, including the sweet ending where he finally stops hiding the truth from his wife. Well played, Aliens in America.

Dirty Sexy Money (ABC)—And so the problem typical of soap operas finally hit Dirty Sexy Money. The problem? It sets up a variety of storylines and, if you find one tedious or don’t care about a particular character’s struggle, the entire episode falls apart. The twists and turns in Nick’s efforts to find out who killed his father (and/or why) fell flat, yet they took up most of the episode’s focus. Then again, another subplot I wasn’t particularly enthralled with—Brian’s illegitimate son—is starting to give Brian much more emotional depth than he’s had so far. I’m now enjoying that, but again it’s like a plate-spinning act: if they can’t make the audience care about every storyline equally, the whole thing falls apart. As if the Karen “she really loves Nick awwww” subplot hasn’t gotten creaky enough, now we have an ex-husband telling her in blunt terms that she really loves Nick (duh!), and wow do I not care.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—Chris accidentally inherits a bachelor pad when his family—sick with the flu—quarantines their apartment and forces him to stay with Roger Thomas—er, Mr. Omar. Mr. Omar won’t give up his somewhat disturbing bachelor lifestyle, so he’s not home a lot—leaving Chris all by himself. In a bachelor pad. Chris invites over his crush, but it ends as badly as you’d expect (see the title for details). One of the strengths (and joys) of this show is that it remembers the confusion and cluelessness of teenage years. Chris bumbles through this situation without understanding anything that’s happening, which makes it that much funnier when everything goes wrong.

Heroes (NBC)—Like Dirty Sexy Money, Heroes has to contend with the soap opera problem. Despite a few rough patches last season, I never had any real problems with the way the story progressed on Heroes (except for the Niki/Jessica thing, which was always interminable, though I did admire the way that whole family situation contributed to the demise of Linderman). I didn’t even have much trouble this season, until the repetitive nature of each storyline finally got under my skin. Much as I like Hiro and Ando (and Sark!), dude needs to get back to the present ASAP. Running around in feudal Japan, finding out the horrible truth behind the legendary figure who made Hiro who he is—fun for a few episodes, in small doses. Not so fun when it seems like he’ll be spending the whole season in the past, using the following formula: an incident reminds him of a future legend involving “Kensei,” Hiro explains the significance to Kensei, Kensei wants to drink and steal, Hiro explains heroism can lead to even greater wealth, Kensei’s in, they beat people up, both of them make moon eyes at the swordsmith’s daughter. Rinse. Repeat. Give us some variety or give up this storyline.

The same could be said of the storyline involving the Central American twins of indeterminate origin and Sylar, and Peter’s wacky misadventures in Ireland. They’ve gotten dull solely because it feels like a rehash of the same story every week. Even the more intriguing subplots (Parkman-Mohinder-Molly and the Bennets) feel like they’re spinning wheels a bit. The Claire-West “romance” tried to come into its own, but it failed because (among other things) it’s really stupid. The idea of a juvenile delinquent “hero” is mildly amusing, but West is hilariously miscast. When Claire has more romantic chemistry with her gay best friend, you know you’re in trouble. Either quit the romance or have West die tragically in some sort of 747-related accident. Or maybe it doesn’t matter since he’ll probably turn eeeevil.

Journeyman (NBC)—Two weeks ago, we had a D.B. Cooper-esque storyline (which I’m always a sucker for) that left Dan with $50,000 in 1970s cash—bonus! Except all the bills are marked, so if he spends them at all, he’ll be implicated in one of the great unsolved crimes. It also sort of ruined his career, considering he buried the story after their faux-Cooper turned out to be a sympathetic Army Ranger trying to smuggle a Vietnamese family out of Cambodia. It looked to me like this “windfall” would head us toward a grander story, and this week has possibly proven me right (sort of!). It deals with two brothers, sons of a Ukrainian immigrant who essentially ruined their lives with strictness and abuse. One of them becomes a Unabomber-esque brilliant physicist who begins bombing scientific organizations he feels has wronged him. With Dan helping the unfortunate guy’s brother, they manage to stop the bomber—

—and it turns out it wasn’t Daddy’s abuse that did him in (a television first): he recognized Dan as a time traveler and it apparently blew his mind. When Dan meets up with a slightly older non-bomber in the altered present, he confesses that time travel is completely impossible, but he sure sounds shady about it. Also implied in the episode: the scientist who gave Dan some advice about tachyons (theoretical particles that can travel faster than light, and therefore through time) knows more than he let on with Dan. I’m not prepared to say he’s the man behind the curtain, but I like that they’re heading in a direction with this. I don’t know that we should ever find out who/what/why Dan is traveling through time, and I’m also not convinced I like the attempt at a “hard-science” approach to it, but his investigation (whether it proves fruitless or not) has me hooked. That means it’ll be canceled before Sweeps ends.

My Name Is Earl (NBC)—The first season had a tedious episode in which Earl and Randy, for reasons I can’t full recall, get trapped in a water tower, suspended in mid-air over the water. It was boring, unfunny, awkwardly paced, and hands-down the worst episode the show had done…until now! “Our Other COPS Is On” has managed, far and away, to crown itself the show’s worst episode. The first COPS episode was pretty funny, giving us a nice, extended glimpse into the lives of the characters pre-List. This one, which takes place on the first Fourth of July after 9/11, was a total disaster. Some of the paranoia humor worked, but the hour-long episode had very little in the way of story. It relied mainly on gags involving its supporting cast, many of which were far too derivative of the previous COPS episode. On top of which—well, let’s just say I take back any complaints I have about the occasional padding or narrative shakiness with the recent Office hour-long episodes. This took things to a horrible new level, showing that the hour-long sitcom format really can be used for evil. Most of this season has fallen flat thanks to the oft-bitched-about “Earl in prison” story constraints, but nothing could have prepared me for this trainwreck of poor pacing (some of those scenes just went on for so long), awkward editing that reeked of a rough cut, relying far too much on a supporting cast that works better in small doses. Even the one redeeming quality of the episode—a little bit of satire mocking post-9/11 attitudes—turned into a disaster the more the throwaway gags developed into the flabby plot about Earl and Randy stealing fireworks.

I’m never one to declare “jump-the-shark” moments (you can usually only trace those after the show has ended), but there’s a first time for everything. Considering the steep decline in quality culminating in last week’s shocking badness, My Name Is Earl may have jumped the shark.

Numb3rs (CBS)—Numb3rs is back to the “everyone on the planet who isn’t a regular or Lou Diamond Phillips is a dirty cop” storyline. At least they’re trying to shake things up a bit—first, they led us to believe it was U.S. Mashal Erika “Cousin Pam” Alexander. When she turned up clean, attention turned to James Morrison, who apparently hit the skids HARD in the 24 off-season. Dude needs a shave and a haircut, or at least a comb. Or maybe “disheveled hair and goatee” has become CBS shorthand for “dirty cop.”

The Office (NBC)—The Office works in both hour and half-hour formats. Each has its own unique qualities, and the writers are smart enough to give us an obvious distinction between the styles of the two forms. Still, I couldn’t help thinking maybe this week’s would have worked better as an hour-long episode. The Michael-Dwight-Jim “road trip” felt a little rushed, as did the re-introduction of Karen and all the goofiness at the Utica branch. We got just enough of the Finer Things Club for it to be gold, though, so maybe I should accept it. Ken Levine recently suggested hour-long sitcoms don’t work because the writers usually only have 45 minutes of material, so they end up tacking on filler and/or pointless subplots to pad the run time. This episode would have been perfect at 45, but probably overkill at an hour. I’m so torn. I’ll just accept the half-hour episode. It was a strong episode; I just would have liked a little more.

Pushing Daisies (ABC)—At this point, the fact that Pushing Daisies doesn’t look or act anything like a television show functions as its greatest strength. Because, really, most of the storylines it uses are pretty routine; you just have to ignore zany, out-of-left-field twists and larger-than-life, quirky characters. What happened in this week’s “Halloween” episode followed a pretty routine “ghost killer who isn’t really a ghost, duh!” story without tossing many surprises at us, but it didn’t need them. It had: romantic moonlight gravedigging, a murderous conspiracy involving jockeys, and Ned’s most tragic chunk of backstory to date.

Yes, the most affecting chunk of the episode happened during the first few minutes, as we discover Ned’s father moved away with no forwarding address—just a picture of the house on a generic WE’VE MOVED!! postcard. I love that the world of Pushing Daisies has generic, holiday-themed cards that simply say WE’VE MOVED!! Ned sneaks out of his boarding school to find the house on the picture. He dresses up like a ghost to hide himself and finds his father has a new family and doesn’t even recognize his son, not even through the sheet with eye-holes cut out. He simply gives the anonymous boy a candy bar and pats him on the head. Damn!

I still don’t care for Olive or Kristin Chenoweth, but I did almost respect her for allowing the show to mock her diminutive stature. Making her character a former jockey may not have been the show’s boldest or most surprising moment, but the story they weaved around her previous occupation made it work.

Reaper (The CW)—I’m beginning to worry about this show. It’s still very funny, it’s still slowly but surely improving the quality of its demons and the complexities of how its fantasy world operates. I like that they want to head us in the direction of long-term story arcs, but my concern right now is: how much do we know about these characters? Right now, the characters coast on the strength of the affable performances, but as far as actual depth—we don’t get much from the writing. We know more about Sam than any other character, and all we really know about him is: he’s an unassertive underachiever with a relatively stable home life aside from that whole “Sorry, son, we sold your soul to the Devil” thing.

Each of the general character traits assigned to the three main characters (I exclude Andi because we know even less about her—just that she’s in college and seems interested in Sam) are pretty relatable to people in this highly coveted demographic: Sam, who knows what he wants but doesn’t have the guts to fight for it; Sock, who pretends to be a high-and-mighty go-getter trying to show Sam the light without acknowledging that hey, there’s a reason why he also works at the Bench and lives with his parents; we know less about Ben, but he fits the mold of a guy who tries to get along with everyone at all costs. Yet, beyond these general traits, we don’t get much more insight into the characters. Sure, they’re trying to establish a demented mentor relationship with the Devil, which will hopefully give Sam some long-term development, but will it matter if we never find out more about him?

Patton Oswalt’s therapy-obsessed reformed-assassin tried to bring some new insights, at least into the Sam-Sock relationship, but again, it didn’t do much other than regurgitate what we already know in a psychobabble patois. Even though I’ll admit this is the best episode so far, I’m still looking for more dimension to these characters.

Stargate: Atlantis (Sci-Fi)—I’m a slave to the characters here. I acknowledge that as science-fiction it floats a few inches above “mediocre.” Most of its storylines have been done better elsewhere, including several first- and second-season episodes that directly ripped off vastly superior Farscape episodes. Lately, they’ve admitted the hackery in the form of Buffy-esque self-awareness. While that works to some extent, if you aren’t doing much to put a new spin on an old story (as Buffy almost always did), the admission doesn’t mean very much. It’s like saying you’re a drug addict in a crack den: nobody’s going to argue with you, and chances are nothing’s going to change.

Yet, the writers did one thing right: consistent characterizations fully realized by better actors than the show deserves. These people aren’t master thespians by any means, but the “let’s take a familiar idea and toss our characters into it” method of storytelling rests more on their shoulders than the writers, and the cast is more than capable of rising above the material. The problem is, as the show staggers forward without much in the way of improvement, cracks in the façade have begun to form. It started last season with the Replicators: now that they’re allowed to talk, the Wraith come across more as melodramatic drag queens than scary villains. Solution? Cast David Ogden Stiers as a menacing-in-his-politeness Ancient clone who wants to lead an army to re-take Atlantis. Not bad, but what about the Wraith?

Last week, they did a little Firefly homage with a painfully bad actress running a rag-tag crew in a delapidated ship. They kidnap Sheppard and force him to use his Ancient gene to help them repair an Ancient warship they’ve discovered, which they can use to fight—you guessed it!—the Wraith. Unfortunately, in his effort to send a distress call back to Atlantis, Sheppard unwittingly alerts the Wraith. Fair enough: the Wraith still exist, after they seemed to drop them completely for the season.

This week, we returned to goofy, low-concept rehashes. Remember that TNG where everyone lost their memories? Or that X-Files? Or the Buffy and the Angel that were basically the same episode? Here we have a disease—a new strain of a common, chicken-pox-like disease in the Pegasus galaxy—that causes everyone to get amnesia and sweat a lot. The entire city would have descended into a group of shrieking adults constantly wetting themselves if not for Teyla and Ronon, who are immune.

The episode features one of the worse deus ex machinas of all time. I know it’s trying to be hip, ironic, and surprising, but the “big solution” of memory-free McKay just needing to hit the ENTER key to solve all their problems struck me as incredibly lazy. They wrote themselves into a corner, and that was the best solution? It further reenforces another disappointment in the show: Rodney McKay is Wesley Crusher. For all his bluster and ego, he really does save the day, week in and week out. How neat would it have been to explore some new dimensions when Teyla and Ronon—the muscle—are forced to use science and technology they barely understand to save the day? Instead, Teyla just whines, “I don’t know how to use this,” and makes McKay do it. Lame!

Supernatural (The CW)—Is Sam going to the Dark Side, or does he just have low patience and an itchy trigger finger? This is the question posed by Supernatural this week. Last week, Bobby helped Sam fix the Magic Colt, and this week Sam decided to use it on the Crossroads Demon—you know, the one Dean made a deal with, exchanging his life for Sam’s. Sam wants Dean out of the deal, but when he confronts the Crossroads Demon, he’s shocked to learn that hell is essentially a bureaucracy with an endless array of middle-managers creating a smokescreen around the Big Executive (man, Hell would be some kind of giant, soul-sucking corporate environment, wouldn’t it?). Yes, the Crossroads Demon has a boss. No, she can’t personally override the deal. Please hold while she transfers Sam to a supervis—oh shit, he shot her in the face!

It would appear we have our season-long story arc. After all, Dean only has a year to live, so they pretty much have to resolve this story soon. Will Sam’s journey into the corporate underworld take him on the prophesied path to evil, or will he rise above it when he realizes what a load of crap it is. Find out, on next week’s Angel—er, Supernatural.

Next week: in-depth coverage of how the writers’ strike will affect you, the television viewer.

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Striking Gold

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!

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Finale Fever

Most shows are heading to “fall finale” land this week. For some, it’s disappointing that we’ll have to wait until January or February to see two or three episodes before a strike-induced hiatus; for the rest, good fucking riddance.

Aliens in America (The CW)—After ignoring it, we’ve returned to the “Gary gets laid off” story for two weeks in a row. It’s a funny and relevant storyline, and watching the ways Gary and Franny attempt to deal with it (in last week’s, Gary pretends to work at a hardware store and develops a surrogate family, and in this week’s Franny becomes addicted to selling all of their belongings on Craigslist) won’t stop amusing me any time soon. However, the meat of each story belongs to the kids.

As the story revolving around Claire and Justin two weeks ago, it looks like the writers are trying to throw characters together at random to see what kind of magic may happen. Fortunately, they have one of the most capable comedic ensembles currently on television, so every combination has yielded great results. It’s helped Claire develop into more of a nuanced character. I like that they’ve given her character some interesting dynamics with the others, because for the first few weeks it seemed like she’d just be a stereotypical nasty-yet-vapid sister character. While the meat of each story for the past two weeks has belonged to Justin and Raja, whose friendship continues to develop in odd, surprising ways, the strategy of giving each character face time with someone new It’s also led to oddly touching scenes like Gary, the former jock, trying to relate to a son who can’t even work up the nerve to be a mascot. Like Hank Hill, it’s not that Gary is disappointed or unloving; he’s just confused.

Bones (Fox)—Oh wow, John Francis Daley has gone from recurring guest star to series regular in about two months. It’s probably a wise decision. Brennan relies on hard data, Booth trusts his gut, but neither of them trust psychology. In their case, having a psychologist consult on murder investigations probably isn’t a bad idea. Beyond that, Daley is awesome and has been consistently great since his first appearance on this show.

Now, last week it seemed like the mystery vault story arc may be done, but I believe they still have all that evidence. It may become useful in the future, or maybe they are going to start doing House-style short arcs that only last for a few episodes. Either way, this story hasn’t been given much air time, but even if it had it’s not nearly as irritating as House’s attempts to do the same thing. I welcome changes like this.

Dirty Sexy Money (ABC)—So in the past two weeks, the best thing to happen on this show is Patrick getting shot by his wife for having an affair with a tranny hooker. Simon Elder is boring as hell, the only thing worse is the Nick-Karen fiasco, and even worse than that, they’ve gotten Karen together with Simon Elder as, I guess, a way to hurt Nick. I don’t really know or care what’s going on with them. Please, please, please focus more on anybody and everybody else. Don’t let this storyline drag you down, Dirty Sexy Money.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—Has Aliens in America spoiled me beyond the point of redemption? The CW’s other great comedy, which airs right after Everybody Hates Chris, has not only blasted out of the gate with a confidence and quality impressive of a freshman show—it’s managed to make its lead-in look bad in comparison.

“Bad” may be too strong a phrase. Everybody Hates Chris remains one of the funniest comedies on television, and it’s not like there was anything inherently wrong with the past few episodes. The retained the series’ typical sharp satire and comic insanity, and yet…Aliens in America has simply revealed itself to be that much better.

Maybe it’s not even that, though. Certainly Aliens in America is great, but perhaps the problem these past two weeks have been…well, everybody hating Chris. Two weeks ago, he got dumped on by both the owner of a Chinese restaurant and Doc after Doc refused to pay Chris minimum wage, prompting him to quit. This week, a new African-American student starts at Corleone. Chris is elated until he learns the new kid (Albert) is a thug, and when Albert wants Chris to help in his nefarious deeds, Chris refuses…but is blamed anyway.

They were funny on the surface, but when you dig deeper, each episode was kind of a downer. Maybe the upcoming holiday-themed episode will be a little more uplifting…

Heroes (NBC)—If this show had killed Noah Bennet, it would have been dead to me. The season, so far, hasn’t been awful, but it has been disappointing. If the most interesting character they have had died, is it safe to say the entire audience would have fled en masse? Now, after a few lackluster storylines, everything feels too crammed together as they run toward the finish line. Why did we spend all that time in Ireland and feudal Japan? I hated the West storyline, but at least it’s paying off (sort of). I imagine the more tedious threads will pay off, as well, but enough to justify the interminable screen time they were afforded? Doubtful.

House (Fox)—I hate it when House tries for these artsy endings. More often than not, they come across as pretentious; more often than that, they end on confusing notes of ambiguity, and not in a good way. This week’s “fall finale” has House making his version Sophie’s choice, bringing his four remaining “contestants” down to two. He wants to hire three but can’t, so he goes with Taub and Kutner. Why? Was this some kind of weird strategy? Why did Cuddy tell him to keep Kutner when, last week, her choices for firing (as voiced through “Big Love”) were Kutner and Cutthroat Bitch? Why did House give that whole goofy speech about how he’d choose 13 if he had three available slots, but then he gets all defensive of Cutthroat Bitch? And then…did Cuddy give him three slots because he needed to choose a woman but refused to give up the two men, or does he have to fire Kutner now? What the hell is going on?

To sum up: stop trying to be artsy, House. You’re a barely-above-average medical-mystery series with delusions of grandeur. Accept what you are and write clearly. Thanks, and happy holidays!

Journeyman (NBC)—I hate to get down on a good show when it’s already ratings-challenged and, for the most part, critically lambasted, but…the second part of the last two weeks’ two-parter was quite possibly the worst and silliest episode in Journeyman’s brief history. Despite its flaws, this series usually has a confidence about it that unintentionally improves it. The confidence was still there, but it means less when it confidently plows ahead with a goofy storyline involving a shooting, a kidnapping, and melodramatic monologuing—all of it taking place in Dan’s house.

The first part of the two-parter was good, in a creepy/nostalgiac way. It was sort of interesting to see a time when child predators got excited about Windows 95 and America Online, because they could prey on children more anonymously than they could on 976 party lines (remember those?). Tracing Aeden Bennett (played with creepy aplomb by character actor Raphael Sbarge) from the mid-’90s to the present, with Dan ignoring whatever divine directive has led him to these time periods, worked very well. It tackled one thing Quantum Leap touched on a few times but never committed to: the idea of ignoring your higher purpose to go after something you want.

In Quantum Leap, it was usually reconnecting with a love interest. Here, Dan doesn’t care about making minor nudges in an average joe’s life. Like the earthquake episode a few weeks ago, he knows he can stop this serial kidnapper cold. He does stop him, but it creates two timeline-related problems: first, he fails in his “mission,” and even worse, Aeden Bennett remembers him. And he’s just released from prison in 2007.

This leads us to the second part, where Dan is shot by Bennett right off the bat, then travels to a young Aeden Bennett’s house. We get to see his creepy backstory: Mom left, Dad’s a crooked cop who locks the boy in his room constantly and, if he’s lucky, will give him special treats like ketchup sandwiches (or “pizza sandwiches,” as he calls them). He’s the serial kidnapper with a heart of gold, not wanting to kidnap them out of any meanness or weird power trip. He spots kids with lives like his and wants to “rescue” them.

Where did this episode go wrong? Taking Katie and Zack hostage? The killing of the FBI agent who has been hunting Dan for the past month (sealing up one of the more interesting continuing stories the show has given us)? Trying to humanize a child predator just enough to let Dan exploit that humanity and force him to give up instead of killing everyone and/or himself. It didn’t feel like a series of clichés—the story was a bit too weird for that—but something about it just felt a little too “happy ending”/”big reset button”-ish.

Journeyman probably won’t last much longer, so I hope they make the last few episodes count.

King of the Hill (Fox)—Wow, the first dud of the season. Not that it was horrible or unfunny, just not up to the unusually high bar of excellence set by King of the Hill (especially this season, during which the writers have had a huge winning streak). A sensitive tolerance coach, who makes the pilot episode’s DCFS counselor look nuanced by comparison, sees racial intolerance all over Tom Landry Junior High. He ends up making everything worse when he transforms Bobby’s carnival into a depressing tolerance-themed talent show. Meanwhile, Lucky and the alley boys are wasted in yet another pointless subplot, this one about ambushing Lucky and forcing him to go to the hospital after a serious injury.

Last week’s episode, in which conservative and easily frustrated Hank turns around a hippie co-op because it’s the only place in town with good meat and vegetables, was a near-masterpiece of character continuity and ordinary situations blowing out of proportion to such a degree that it ends with Hank receiving a Polaroid and semi-anonymous letter stating that the cattle he helped kidnap have returned to open range. It made this week’s “Bobby allows himself to be influenced by adult idiots” story come across even worse.

My Name Is Earl (NBC)—These sons of bitches. We finally, finally reach the precipice of Earl’s jail release, only to conclude the episode with Craig T. Nelson’s hilariously incompetent warden (currently the only redeeming part of the show) shredding Earl’s well-earned sentence-reduction certificates. Don’t tease me, you bastards.

Numb3rs (CBS)—Two weeks ago, we were treated to a dull, pandering-to-nerd-fanboys story whose only redeeming quality was the mini-reunion between Taxi alums Judd Hirsch and Christopher Lloyd (who guested as a legendary comic-book artist). If I weren’t such a fan of both actors and Taxi, I would suggest that this reunion was counteracted by the vast suckitude of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Wil Wheaton as a sleazy collector. It’s been 15 years, and the poor guy’s apparently too devoted to his blog to learn how to act.

I have to admit, it also disappoints me when Numb3rs tries to pander to what it believes is a fanbase of nerds when, in fact, its core fans are most likely middle-aged cat-ladies too fascinated by Rob Morrow’s choices in too-tight denim pants to properly enjoy the mysteries. I’m a nerd, but I don’t know much about math, which is probably the only reason I can enjoy the show.

I do, however, know a few comic-book nerds, and know enough about that goofy subculture to understand when an episode is loaded with clichés and implausibilities. So in this episode, an embittered artist draws copies of Christopher Lloyd’s rare comic in order to drive down the value, because he doesn’t like greedy “tycoons” like Wil Wheaton getting rich while brilliant artists like Lloyd can’t make ends meet. Except, when it’s explained that the thief only did it so he could present the comic back to Lloyd, the drawing of the copies doesn’t make much sense except to shoehorn in some more math (the forger hides his signature in some kind of crazy mathematical pattern that only Charlie can see). It also leads to a goofy auction scene where they catch the killer (of a security guard, which is arguably the least important part of the story even though it’s the only reason the FBI is on the case) because only he knows which comic is real, so he’ll keep bidding no matter what.

In the episode, we’re presented with three stereotypes: the poor, aging artist; the greasy, slobbering fanboy/artist who understands it’s all about the art, maaaan; and the greedy comic collectors ruining…something. I don’t understand how Wil Wheaton became rich because it doesn’t appear that he wants to sell any of his valuable comics; he just buys them. Is this like 19th-century England, where the upper-class could coast on theoretical inheritances they didn’t actually have because it was all tied up in chancery court for decades? The mere fact that he owns a bunch of comics grants him access to a secret society where he can get dapper suits and a private security force just by waving Action Comics #1 around?

At the end of the day, I guess I just wish these characters had transcended their stereotypical roles, and aside from the greasy, slobbering fanboy turning out to be behind the robbery (which was pretty much a “duh” moment from the get-go), none of them were given much dimension. That’s not going to appeal to the nerd fanboys.

Pushing Daisies (ABC)—Molly Shannon? Come on! If the past two weeks are any indication, I’m concerned the goodwill bubble is going to burst. Much as I enjoy the Ned-Chuck relationship, it has started to get repetitive. Beyond that, the basic demented cop-show formula the show follows is also in danger of either getting stale or become so precious it will turn from funny to stupid. Last week’s scratch-‘n’-sniff book explosion came dangerously close to stupidity levels, redeemed only by Paul Reubens’ sewer-dweling olfactory expert. This week’s candy store episode took things to a disturbing place, but Molly Shannon is no Paul Reubens.

Reaper (The CW)—One of my regular complaints has been a lack of real character depth from our stars. This week, things changed a bit as we got to know Ben and his family a little bitter; in fact, sad to say, at this point Ben has become the show’s most fully realized character. This was also one of the series strongest episodes, and it’s laying the groundwork for some interesting development with Sam: first, giving advice to the Devil’s girlfriend, then discovering she has a daughter who may be the daughter of Satan. I’m not sure where this is going, but I look forward to it.

Next week: Nothing’s on.

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