Posts in Category: Film Monthly

Good News and Confusing (Possibly Bad) News

The good: after 13 seasons, Fox has decided to pull the plug on King of the Hill. Again. Ratings aren’t down, the show’s writing is as strong as ever; Fox just wants to make room for yet another terrible Seth MacFarlane show. Good decision, Fox! Because American Dad‘s ratings aren’t low enough, they apparently want to see how close one of their Sunday animated shows can get to the bottom of the Nielsens and still survive. But there is actual good news here: ABC has mentioned that, if Fox doesn’t change its mind, they’ll pick the show up, just like they did with Scrubs. ABC doesn’t seem to mind being the dumping ground of other networks’ sitcoms, which is probably for the best. With the exception of 2006’s underrated Sons and Daughters, ABC hasn’t developed a good sitcom since Roseanne.

The confusing and possibly bad news: ABC’s funniest show, Pushing Daisies, is on the chopping block, along with Dirty Sexy Money and their Life on Mars remake. The network hasn’t confirmed any cancellations, but they released a midseason schedule with some noticeable absences. The rumor mill is abuzz with the notion that the three shows will be capped at 13-episode seasons and may return in the fall, introducing a new strategy of two shortened seasons in the fall and winter, rather than one long, rerun-packed season from September to May. Another rumor: this week’s Pushing Daisies is incredibly important, because if it doesn’t show an exponential increase in viewership, ABC will likely cancel it.

Now, I’ve leveled some legitimate criticism at Pushing Daisies before, but this season has shown a marked improvement. The ratings don’t quite match the show’s early success, but they’re steadily climbing. Maybe not as quickly as ABC would like, but it’s not exactly tanking. I’m finally liking this show well enough to make it appointment television, so I feel bad that ABC’s torpedoing it. On the other hand, as I’ve mentioned, the shaky quality of the first season drove a lot of viewers away (justifiably), which is something I have to pin on the writers, not the network. It’s not the network’s fault they can’t convince audiences the show is now better than the first few episodes of the first season.

Bones (Fox)—I liked Eugene Byrd’s earlier appearances well enough, but he didn’t make a big impression on me until this week. After the rotating group of Zack replacements, it occurred to me that somebody like Dr. Clark Edison is exactly what the Jeffersonian needs: a bitter straight man who just wants to work, dammit. In the first season, Dr. Goodman had this characteristic, so naturally they’d can him in favor of Dr. Saroyan, who is both a gossip and a woman who has a romantic past with Booth. Bones isn’t nearly as soap operatic as it could be, but it could use a character who is first irritated by their unprofessional behavior, then slowly gets sucked in.

My only minor nitpick—Edison made no complaints about going to Booth’s birthday party. Now, I’ve worked a few jobs where I haven’t gotten along with coworkers and tried my damndest to keep out of the personal drama. The easiest way to do that is to avoid any outside-of-work social functions. I know they’re supposed to build team camaraderie, but you know what? I’m not getting paid, it has nothing to do with the work—I’m not going to go. Edison should feel the same way, so it surprised me that they didn’t even have a throwaway crack about his annoyance.

Brendan Fehr from CSI: Miami and Roswell guested as Booth’s brother. I don’t think we’ve gotten quite so in-depth on Booth’s character since Stephen Fry stopped appearing as his court-appointed shrink, so that was refreshing. It also allowed Booth and Brennan to acknowledge their mutual feelings without actually acknowledging them—this is “will they or won’t they?” at its best, allowing characters to confront their feelings separately, then deny them while they’re together. But, as always, a plea to Bones writers: pick “they won’t.” Please.

Yet another fun guest star: The Cosby Show‘s Joseph C. Phillips, who deserves a better career than what he has. I don’t know, maybe he’s doing a lot of fulfilling theatre work, but he’s a good actor who could have been a major star. I blame Lisa Bonet for his lack of film and television success.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—I love variations on a theme. Everybody Hates Chris‘ writers are great because, more often than not, they take classic sitcom plots (kid sneaks out, sees something he shouldn’t have, is torn between getting in trouble and doing the right thing) and put a unique spin on it. What could have been an obvious plot—Chris confesses what he knows and his parents find out—gets turned upside down because his fear of snitching (not just for the parental repercussions) causes him to pay Jerome to confess for him, which gets Jerome arrested.

The show also went one better than usual by giving everyone else either entertaining subplots or funny character moments—Julius and Rochelle versus Show Dogs (a Cats spoof), Tanya’s bribery and Drew’s absurd quest to get on That’s Incredible! Even Greg, who’s been underused this season, had a couple of great scenes with Chris.

King of the Hill (Fox)—This is classic King of the Hill, a full-on satirical assault of the flawed and failed “No Child Left Behind” program. Forget The Wire‘s gritty, dyspeptic realism—nothing slices through the heart of an issue like sardonic mockery. In this episode, Bobby (among other Tom Landry notables) is stuck in a “special-needs” class so the school can raise their test scores and get more funding.

Over the past few years, they’ve developed Principal Moss as a character who both shies away from conflict and has a misguided devious streak (but only when it has to do with his school’s bottom line). Both of these aspects drove this week’s story, which focuses on the Hills but really tells the story of Moss’s downfall. In typical King of the Hill fashion, Moss is never portrayed as a truly bad guy. He’s just doing what he has to within a broken system, and he’s punished for it, seen selling “J-Bone” steaks at the end of the episode. I also love that, when he finally embraces Hank’s plan to just make the “special” kids work hard and study, the school’s average scores still go down. Ironies like that separate King of the Hill from the average sitcom.

The Office (NBC)—No more triangles! Seriously! (Okay, I like Kelly, Ryan, and Darryl.)

Supernatural (The CW)—Here’s my problem: I liked Katie Cassidy. She could handle the comedy-to-drama-to-horror tightrope as well as Ackles or Padalecki, without quite being as good as either of them. She fit the show, she fit the part of Ruby (or, at least, made it her own) and for her trouble, the writers killed off the actress but not the character. The character has returned in the form of Genevieve Cortese, and no amount of pouty stares and full-backal nudity will convince me that she’s any good. I don’t want to sound harsh, and maybe Cortese would be fine (or, at least, unremarkable) in another role. However, Cassidy and Cortese playing the same role—it’s a night and day difference.

I wasn’t exactly sold on Cortese in earlier Ruby appearances, but I let it slide since she was barely in the episodes. This week, however, concentrated pretty fully on What Happened to Sam, which means explaining What Happened to Ruby. The Cortese incarnation of the character actually has a rather interesting backstory, but she’s still just…not very impressive. Maybe she’ll improve, but in my mind, it’s like betting against a sure-thing because maybe the underdog will win this time.

As for the content of the episode itself—well, aside from Cortese dragging it down, it was pretty good. They’ve broken away from the light, funny mold of the past few weeks, which isn’t a bad thing. True to the show’s format, this week takes on the urban myth of the prophet-like folks who claim they can eavesdrop on angels. Sam and Dean end up seeking out a girl who knows all about them—because, since the day Dean was released from hell, she’s heard endless angel conversations about the upcoming war. Some demons may or may not be in pursuit, trying to use “Radio Girl” to find out what the angels have planned… Or maybe the demons are just Castiel and Uriel, who rush in just before the “To Be Continued…” and announce their intention to kill her.

I know I praised Robert Wisdom during his first appearance, but it’s time to lavish praise on Misha Collins. His performance kind of snuck up on me, but last week I started noticing how good he is—and this week, even though he was hardly in the episode, the pure scary bad-assiness of his performance made me realize this guy is great. He’s been around the block, but I’ve never really committed his name to memory. Now, he’s on my radar. I hope Supernatural doesn’t make the same mistakes they made with Katie Cassidy.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox)—Attention, rabid Sarah Connor naysayers: Cromartie isn’t dead!

I’ve read so many people, from professional bloggers to actual journalists to fans on message boards bitching about how lame Cromartie’s death is. He’s a goddamn terminator, and last time I checked, we did not see him get doused in phosphate or lured into a tarpit. The obvious speculation is that naïve/goofy Ellison will inadvertently lead Catherine Weaver to the body, not realizing this is a Bad Thing.

I liked this episode a lot—the “[Character Name’s Story]” structuring was nifty, they’ve finally gone back to making John feel like a real (if bratty and troubled) teenager, John’s finally brought Riley in on the secrets (sort of), each of the characters had some nice moments to shine. I even liked the heavy-handed Christ imagery with Cromartie at the end. (And hey, that’s likely a not-so-subtle implication of Cromartie’s imminent resurrection.) Because I’ve continued to like this show—in fact, I’ll argue it’s improved steadily from day one, aside from a few shaky elements (notably Shirley Manson, whose awkward performance has grown on me)—I feel like I’m becoming defensive after reading others’ reactions. Although I’m a fan of dissenting opinion, I don’t want to come across like a whiner every week, so hey, I’ll just stop trolling the message boards.

(Also, I have to note that it was a little jarring to see that they filmed this episode in the same generic backlot Mexican town so memorably utilized on Arrested Development. Way to plant, Ann!)

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Heroes and Dipshits

So, Heroes is terrible. Nobody disputes that. But the plot thickened this week when creator Tim Kring spoke at a screenwriting expo and said the following:

It’s a very flawed way of telling stories on network television right now, because of the advent of the DVR and online streaming. The engine that drove [serialized TV] was you had to be in front of the TV [when it aired]. Now you can watch it when you want, where you want, how you want to watch it, and almost all of those ways are superior to watching it on air. So [watching it] on air is related to the saps and the dipshits who can’t figure out how to watch it in a superior way. [Source: IGN]

Okay. It sounds like he tried to say the current problem he and his writers are having is merging the old model of serialized content designed for a once-a-week audience—which means, among other things, excessive previouslies plus repeated scenes and poorly written exposition to remind audiences of what happened last week—with the new way of watching. He calls these new methods “superior to watching it on air,” followed immediately by the now-infamous “saps and dipshits” remark—which refers to “on air” viewers.

I won’t deny it’s horribly stated, and I also won’t deny that it’s very difficult to parse and find the meaning of what he said. It’s a series of contradictions: DVR and streaming make serial shows harder to watch, but it’s the superior way to view it? Serial shows are modeled for “on air” viewing rather than collecting a big clump of episodes and watching in a marathon over Thanksgiving weekend?

Was this merely an excuse for low ratings or an excuse for bad writing? The show would seem quite a bit better watched in a marathon. It’s having a week between episodes to let the show fester that you realize how awful it is. For the record, I TiVo the show but—by necessity of this column—I watch it each week. I guess this makes me a sap but not a dipshit? Or vice-versa?

Time‘s James Poniewozik has some pretty good insight into the ratings aspect of Kring’s comments, while the Chicago Tribune‘s Maureen Ryan spews a lot of bile about the creative direction of the show. While I don’t disagree with their points, I do feel like both of them misinterpreted Kring’s comments and overreacted. But then, I’m still puzzling over what the hell he meant by them, so I can’t blame them for ascribing meaning that I don’t see.

24: Redemption (Fox)—I wish this show’s writers would realize that 24 doesn’t work as a political thriller. In the first season, the hook that Jack Bauer had to save Senator David Palmer from an assassination attempt worked not because of the politics surrounding it—which, “first black presidential candidate” aside, were marginal at best, serving only to create a very public, very difficult to stop assassination—but because they took action-movie archetypes and made them into interesting people. I can understand why the writers shifted to Palmer’s presidency in the second season—because Dennis Haysbert and Penny Johnson-Jerald made the characters compelling, the writers anticipated audiences wanting more of them.

They weren’t wrong, but from the second season on, it’s been The Jack Bauer Show—the writers have never even come close to giving the supporting characters stories as interesting or intense as what Jack has to go through. I can understand the lack of intensity, but it’s the lack of interest that bugs me. When I stopped caring about what would happen to Palmer, Tony Almeida and Kim, I started wondering why they occupied so much of the show’s time. Other than the practical explanations—if he were the only character, Kiefer Sutherland couldn’t keep up that much intensity on a weekly basis, and most TV budgets can’t afford the type of action he finds himself embroiled in each hour—there is rarely a dramatic purpose to the other characters’ subplots. They don’t intersect or fold in on themselves the way they did in the first season, and aside from the typical “Jack calls Chloe and begs for help” scenes, he hardly even interacts with any of these characters anymore.

The CTU soap opera is a little more palatable than 24‘s increasing emphasis on White House politics. I know the show wants to tackle issues, but they just take it too seriously. Most action movies include some kind of political-potboiler element, but it’s always the MacGuffin, alluded to but rarely dwelled on or taken seriously as political issues; when 24 tries to make the MacGuffin a central storyline, it leads to a shitload of goofiness like Wayne Palmer’s truncated presidency and the goofy pseudo-coup. The fifth season contained the show’s only decent political storyline—as with the rest of the show during that glorious season, I thought the writers had learned from past mistakes and figured out the formula that made the first season so great. And then the sixth season showed me how wrong I was.

So, Sunday night gave us a fresh start with the seventh-season “prequel” “movie” Redemption, which—true to the show’s formula—gives us a compelling Jack Bauer story and a metric assload of people and problems I don’t care about. I know it’s a prelude to what’s coming in the seventh season, but notice that Bauer’s story had a complete arc: he’s in hiding in the (fictitious) African nation of Sangala, ducking a subpoena that would force him to return to the U.S. He’s preparing to flee again when a group of militants attempt to kidnap a group of children. These children attend a school run by his ex-Special Forces buddy (the awesome Robert Carlyle) and a creepy Charles Bronson lookalike, so Jack’s convinced to stay long enough to get them to the Embassy and out of Sangala. At every opportunity, he tries to ditch them, but after enough setbacks, he ends up leading them straight to the embassy. “Redemption” comes when Jack gives himself up to U.S. custody so the kids can get out of Sangala.

That’s what people in “the biz” call an “arc.” Both the story and Jack’s character growth have distinctive and complete changes over the course of the two hours. It’s not without its flaws: these militants have planned a hostile coup to assume power in the country and transform it into a dictatorship, so what about all the other people clamoring to get out? Eh, we don’t have time for them—also, they aren’t adorable little kids. Really, though, the biggest problem was the poor introduction to a variety of dull new characters in a grouping of subplots that had nothing to do with Jack’s story and had no distinctive, compelling arcs of their own. They’re what longtime 24 viewers derisively refer to as “filler”—not the best way to introduce new characters.

We got to meet the new President (Cherry Jones). I’d call her bland, but she has a grinning-so-wide-she’s-probably-evil air reminiscent of Imelda Staunton in the last Harry Potter movie. Still, she did very little but whine that Powers Boothe wouldn’t include her in his decisions regarding military support in Sangala. Meanwhile, the President’s dopey son (Eric Lively) and his super-hot girlfriend (Carly Pope) deal with his drug-addicted investment-banker friend (Kris Lemche, doing his best to channel Heathers-era Christian Slater), who’s stumbled across some information about Jon Voight doing…something for…some reason? He doesn’t know much, but we find out Voight is funding the coup in Sangala. I’d say this wraps everything up in a neat little bow, except the references to Sangala in these subplots occupy maybe 30 seconds of the 75 years these people are on the screen.

I know I’m supposed to be cautiously intrigued by these new characters, but the only two who really grabbed me were Carlyle (who died) and Hakeem Kae-Kazim as the thoroughly bad-ass colonel pursuing Jack (who presumably also died). This doesn’t bode well for the new supporting players, but like I said, the show usually makes CTU a few shades more interesting. I’ve always like Colm Feore, but he was hardly around enough to make an impression (beyond “Wow, he looks emaciated—has he been sick?”).

So there you have it: a perfect example of 24. Solid, action-packed Jack story; half-assed everything else. Can’t wait for January!

Bones (Fox)—The plane story tore me because I wanted it to have a Murder on the Orient Express-style “everyone’s a suspect” concept, but they only introduced us to a select few passengers and crew members. On the plus side, from this limited group, they did create a compelling mystery—even guessing early that somebody from the fractured family did it, they kept us guessing who did it. I also like that they brought back a conflict that hasn’t reared its head in awhile—Brennan’s secret desire to do “serious” work instead of investigating murders. I’m obviously not a big fan of the Angela/Hodgins/Roxy pseudo-triangle, but the writers wisely kept the subplot as close to the sidelines as possible. All in all, a good episode with a lot of funny material, but not as great as it’s been lately.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—I only had one problem with this episode, which had a great concept and was funny as ever. Nina Mansker, who played “Big Bird,” is (1) obviously about 10 years older than everyone else at Tattaglia, and (2) was clearly a model of some kind. I wonder when TV producers will realize that simply making a woman wear glasses and pull their hair into a bun doesn’t make them ugly. I did like the fact that they didn’t mock her for the glasses or the bun or the hideous clothes—true to high school kids everywhere, they picked the most obvious “flaw” (her runway-model height). Despite all the good things in this episode, the ending was obvious from the moment Big Bird stepped onto the screen.

King of the Hill (Fox)—I like Bill-focused episodes because he’s the most lovably pathetic character on TV. However, Bill episodes have a tendency to stick the rest of the Rainey Street crew into the background while Bill develops alternate interests or new friends and realizes he needs his real friends to clean up his messes. This one worked a little different, playing up Bill’s pathological need to be liked, which leads to the Peggy/Dale/Minh stock-market subplot, which leads to the Hank/Bobby HDTV subplot. (As a side-note, I love it when Dale is portrayed as a “house-husband”—he’s such a nut, it makes coffee klatches with Peggy and Minh strangely incongruous.) And, of course, things go wrong when Bill realizes people are finally listening to him—and he begins to change, losing the essence of what made the others follow him around in the first place. Bill’s fundamental lack of understanding why people might like him—or, in this case, why they might be exploiting him—is one thing that makes him a compelling character.

The Office (NBC)—See how much better this show works when they concentrate more on dynamics within the office rather than romantic relationships? As I’ve said, I don’t mind Jim and Pam (especially now that it’s stopped being a Jim-Pam-Roy triangle), but dividing everyone up into relationship subgroups just doesn’t work for me. But Ryan and Kelly work, and even the triangle with Darryl made sense with this group of characters. It’s just, on some levels, impossible to believe that nearly everyone in the office would have some sort of romantic alliance. Unrequited crushes, like Toby and Pam? That works. Having them all dating or fooling around doesn’t. I was thrilled that they made the central conflict between Michael and Toby, leaving the cute Jim-Pam house subplot and the irritating “Schrute Farms” subplot on the sidelines. The show should always be like this.

Pushing Daisies (ABC)—Man, Stephen Root and Fred Willard? They have to start letting Kristin Chenoweth sing again so I don’t miss this show so much after its inevitable cancellation. (Yeah, yeah—I know ABC’s spin is that they’ve simply “opted not to order more episodes at this time,” but I think that’s the new and more cumbersome “on hiatus.”) Admittedly, the magic-show setting was a little too cutesy (not unlike the circus setting from a few weeks back), but how can I complain when the setting gave us Fred Willard and Kerri Kenney-Silver.

Supernatural (The CW)—After this episode, I’m a little irritated that this show’s going off the air for two months. They did a terrific job of expanding the current “angel vs. demon” mythology while piling new layers onto Sam and Dean (and to a lesser extent, Castiel, Uriel, Anna and Ruby). Even the “grace” thing with Anna, which could have ended up being very, very silly, worked. I don’t know where they’re going with it, but I’m hooked…and now it’s going away for the holidays. Good planning, CW.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox)—Wow. I admit I’m not always the best at predicting the course an episode will take, but this one threw me more surprises than usual.

In the first place, I assumed the future-tormenter played by the unparalleled Richard Schiff (The West Wing) would actually turn out to be sincere in his pleas that he’s just a regular old watchmaker. Anyone who has read this column before knows that I don’t trust Jesse at all, and I had a sinking suspicion she had lured Derek into the “let’s kill this future guy—together” to further solidify their connection and allow her to manipulate him. I figured she just pulled a random dude off the street for this purpose, but it went in a totally different direction. That in mind, I still don’t trust her. In fact, I find it more suspicious that they’d introduce the idea of “grays” (humans who work for the machines) in a subplot prominently featuring Jesse—to me, it reeks of foreshadowing.

The other big surprise was the outcome of last week’s speculation that Ellison would unintentionally tip his hand about what went down in Mexico, which would lead Weaver to nab Cromartie’s body. I thought this was all but confirmed with Ellison’s surprisingly believable denials. The fact that he had the body in his trunk amazed the hell out of me—first the surprise factor, then the fact that Ellison was lying. Last season, I found his character a little, er…tedious, and it seemed like this season would continue that trend. Instead, they’ve fleshed him out while making him even more of an enigma. (As a side-note, I loved Cameron’s flipping Ellison onto his back to relieve his pain.)

This isn’t quite a surprise, but I liked that the writers are getting back to addressing what’s going on in Sarah’s head. After all, the show has her name in the title—it’s gotten away from her (admittedly annoying) voiceovers, and she’s basically turned into an emotionally numb sourpuss. The symbolic but (thankfully) not weird for weird’s sake dream sequences, and her visit with Dr. Sherman, let us know that she isn’t numb—by the nature of what they have to do, she just has to put things aside and let them fester. This might assuage some of the criticism that Lena Headey doesn’t play Sarah as intense as Linda Hamilton did in T2 (which would be virtually impossible on TV schedule). I think Headey (and the writers) are hitting the best of both worlds—the middle-ground personality that we never saw in the movies because everything happened between the events of the first two. The backstory has her as a caring but troubled mother who was doing the best to “train” John for his future until she snapped. Ostensibly, the events of T2 helped her realize what she needs to do to get control over her life: she has to put everything aside for John’s sake. How long can she keep it up before she snaps again? I think this is ground the writers will address with if the show lasts long enough.

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NBC to Viewing Public: “We’re Clueless”

Man, NBC has officially made The CW look like a well-structured network founded on excellent decisions. Today they announced that Jay Leno will remain with the network…in primetime. While I’ve never been a fan of Leno, I don’t begrudge viewers who love him. Still, I can’t help wondering why the hell NBC would consider this a good decision. I know their scripted programming is a disaster area (they’ll cancel every new show this season, and thanks to this switch, middle-of-the-pack performers like Medium and the beleaguered, unwatchable Heroes may find themselves on the chopping block in May), but can you remember the last successful talk show to air five nights a week in a primetime slot? Me neither.

The problem here is that, for his entire run, Jay Leno has had one competitor—David Letterman. Leno may beat Letterman in the ratings, but do they really think he can beat CSI: Miami, Without a Trace or any of CBS’s 10,000 other awful procedurals? If you think the answer is “yes,” you’re either insane or employed by NBC-Universal. Man, revenge will be sweet when CBS finally has the opportunity to trounce Leno. Even ABC will probably get in on the action—I’ll laugh if they slide Lost into the 10PM slot or do a bunch of two-hour Dancing with the Stars episodes from 9-11PM. I mean, why wouldn’t they? Fox and The CW don’t program the 10PM slot, so as far as ABC’s concerned, they only have to worry about CBS.

That’s not it, though—what does this mean for Conan O’Brien, who’s been groomed to take over the coveted Tonight Show slot? He’s moving from New York to Los Angeles to accommodate higher-profile guests—the same guests Leno has made comfortable for more than a decade. If Leno keeps snatching those guests, and obviously NBC’s not going to want them repeating the same people on both shows, what does that leave Conan with? A watered-down version of his old show sandwiched, once again, between two unfunny hosts. Instead of Carson Daly, Conan’s Tonight Show will be followed by a sure-to-be-disastrous new Late Night hosted by ex-SNL cast member and one-man comedy vacuum Jimmy Fallon.

The only good things about this decision are how it affects NBC: they don’t give up Leno to ABC or Fox, and they don’t have to program any more failed dramas in the 10PM hour. It’s telling that the only drama worth watching on their network is Medium, which they’ve tried hard to bury and will likely axe to make room for The Jay Leno Show. Does anyone at NBC realize this decision has already made them a laughing stock? Or that it’s sure to get worse as the 2009 fall season gets closer?

The whole situation speaks to a larger problem with NBC. When I read that the network greenlit Rosie O’Donnell’s unwatched-by-millions-who-immediately-regretted-missing-out-on-something-so-bad live variety show because of their faith that live TV will defeat the curse of the TiVo, their cluelessness washed over me like a cold sitz bath. You know what will defeat the curse of the TiVo? Programming shows people want to watch. I have a TiVo, but I still watch most things live. Partly for this column, mainly because the shows I watch, I actually like. I want to watch them live. The hilarious belief that the TiVo is the first and only method for—gasp!—skipping precious commercials will never stop puzzling me. Commercial breaks exist only as a handy break period to get a snack, go to the bathroom or do any number of other activities that involve not watching the commercials. The only enhancement the TiVo provides is the ability to pause and/or rewind if your commercial-break activities run over.

What difference will championing live variety shows make? Even if people go to great pains to watch it live—which I doubt, because the TiVo still records it, and you can excitedly rush home if everyone at work the next morning describes it as a trainwreck)—their attention won’t be so rapt that they forget why they used to rush out of the room during commercial breaks in the old dark ages of 1999. Live TV won’t solve the TiVo problem—good TV will. NBC needs to give viewers something they want to watch; Jay Leno in primetime isn’t it.

Bones (Fox)—Man, I really like this show, but I can’t let them off for having two sociopath-kid killers in a row. November 19th’s episode, in which a crazy kid kills a woman to (theoretically) save his family unit and his parents’ marriage worked decently well, but this week’s “sinister rich girl whose mother covers up murder” did not work nearly as well. It’s an off episode, but a disappointing one since the show won’t return until mid-January.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—Okay, the “Brother from Another Mother” program made me laugh out loud, but otherwise, the main story was fun but forgettable. If the writers aren’t careful, this could turn into another That ’70s Show, where the parents end up getting more interesting (yet marginalized) subplots than the kids. More than a week later, I can say Julius’ Oprah fixation, and Rochelle’s subsequent anger/jealousy, was a much more entertaining and memorable subplot. Not that I’d mind that, necessarily, but the writers usually do a great job with the kids’ stories—I’d hate to see that fall by the wayside. Hopefully a great subplot took shape the same week as a bland main plot.

King of the Hill (Fox)—It’s funny to me that November 30th’s episode was essentially a hybrid of this series’ first and third episodes—you have the overly sensitive idiot clashing with Hank, and you have the Order of the Straight Arrow theoretically teaching Bobby the things every young man needs to know about life. If King of the Hill wants to recycle storylines, I’m glad they’ve gone all the way back to the beginning instead of picking something from last year. Still, I couldn’t help feeling like we’ve been here before, and despite the hilarious mace scene, it doesn’t reach the “classic” heights of the first Straight Arrow episode’s snipe hunt/Wimitanyae/whooping crane hilarity.

Leverage (TNT)—TNT’s new show has a lot going for it—great cast, good use of its Chicago location (for the pilot, at least; legend has it that subsequent episodes will be shot in Los Angeles), a nifty premise and style to spare. It’s not quite as effortless or well-written as USA Network’s Burn Notice, but this pilot did a whole lot of (largely clunky) setup and, I hope, will get into a groove in the coming weeks. Essentially a heist show, it brings together super-criminals to do a little Robin Hood action after getting burned by Saul Rubinek (and, let me tell you, nobody plays “obnoxious businessman” like Rubinek). Thanks to Rubinek, the entire team becomes independently wealthy but, rather than than retire, they decide they’ve had too much fun and agree to keep doing work for the little guy getting squashed by the rich. A timely yet timeless message.

Yet, it goes a little overboard. Nothing was less convincing than the absurd/disturbing moment where the “crazy” woman flashes back to blowing up her house (one assumes with her parents still inside) to keep possession of a stolen stuffed bunny, or the laugh-out-loud-but-still-ridiculous moment where super-bad-ass Christian Kane presents himself as an IT nerd. Somehow, the earnest goofiness made me want to like the show, even when I was rolling my eyes. Despite its implausibility, it showed more spark and imagination than the repetitive, on-the-nose dialogue constantly reminding us of each character’s specialty and motivation.

Where the show really shines, though, is with the heist and the triple-cross—the twists and surprises worked, and the writing exhibited the same level of imagination but in a more grounded way. I hesitate to say “believable,” but it certainly didn’t cause any heavy eye-rolling. It’s escapist fun, and with a cast this good, it may turn into something more. Surprisingly, a second new episode airs Tuesday night. Keep your eyes peeled.

The Office (NBC)—I’m still hating the Dwight-Angela-Andy triangle, despite the actors’ efforts to make it work. (In particular, Ed Helms did a great job with the anger-management-repressed rage regarding wedding delays.) I’ll just ignore that subplot and concentrate on the surplus. I can’t quite ignore it, though, because it occupied enough screen time to make the surplus story less effective than it could have been. Who hasn’t been in an office situation like this? It’s the vaguely creepy, depressing time where factions form and everyone’s at each others’ throats—and even though you say it’s all about chairs versus a new copier, deep down it’s all about a dislike of certain coworkers for certain reasons. You can’t get into fistfights at the office, so you let it stew and bring it out during the very few sanctioned intraoffice conflicts. This episode didn’t exploit that subtext at all, because it spent too much time at Schrute Farms. See what love triangles do to your show, Office writers? Do you see?!

Pushing Daisies (ABC)—Thank you, writers, for answering my desire to love your show less by first giving us the world’s crappiest Eva Gabor impersonation (last week), then ending this week’s episode with a heaping dose of Kristin Chenoweth’s nasal bleating. Here I was, loving the show for bringing back Chuck’s father “permanently”—and casting Ed‘s great Josh Randall in the role—and making Dwight Dixon more sinister, and then more dead, and bringing in Beth Grant and Patrick Fischler as Ned’s cooking rivals… I found myself enraged that ABC has already canceled this great show. And then Chenoweth started squealing, and I realized there are worse things than the show’s cancelation. But, come on, couldn’t they compromise by turning the murder of Olive Snook into a new, multi-episode arc? I hear Knight Rider is staying on the air solely because of a Ford subsidy. Maybe the twin revenue streams of Bakers Square and my own Remove Kristin Chenoweth from Television Club can afford to keep this show afloat for another season or three. ABC, call me.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox)—The November 24th episode, in which Sarah’s obsession with “the three dots” leads to her getting conned by the vaporware-selling father of a super-nerd, showed me something this show really ought to show more often: stupidity and emotions getting in the way of the mission’s “success.” Granted, the writers haven’t made it easy for them to succeed, and the characters make a wide variety of stupid decisions—but they don’t often acknowledge the connection between failures and human foibles. This time, they did, and it paid off. The emotional core also paid off nicely in a subplot I didn’t want to like—the Turk killing off Dr. Sherman far too quickly—but I did, because it offered a counterpoint to Sarah’s “weakness” by showing the machines’ weakness, its total lack of emotions. Also, Riley’s nuts and from the future… I didn’t really see that coming, but the idea that her “mission” is to keep John away from Cameron certainly makes things more interesting. Oh, and attaching Cromartie’s body to the Turk? Kick ass!

This week’s episode… I know people give this show shit for not being all action all the time, but I thought it was just about brilliant, aided in no small part by yet another stellar guest appearance by Todd Stashwick. The man is everywhere these days, and much as I’d like to see him get another regular gig—look, in the span of six months he’s played a crazy grifter, a cowardly middle-manager, a zombie, a Bela Lugosi-inspired Dracula and a Terminator—and that’s just on the shows I watch. So yes, Stashwick plays a sinister machine apparently sent to the wrong time and driven to insane lengths in order to complete his mission. It’s an interesting side-note to learn that their time-traveling equipment isn’t exactly foolproof—I hope this will play a role in later episodes.

I should also point out the equally great guest appearance by Billy Lush (Generation Kill) as a wheelchair-bound cancer patient (in remission) who befriends library-dwelling Cameron. She’s the one digging into Stashwick’s story—she’s obsessed, because apparently her mission is more than just protecting John. She needs to both learn everything she can about humanity and stop Judgment Day. That’s a lot of weight to carry, even for a machine. The creepy ending where Cameron couldn’t be bothered to find out what happened to Lush (I thank the writers for leaving that ambiguous, too), because her goal is to gain secret, late-night access to the library.

One final note: much as I love Lost, the creepy Dharma Initiative film-strips and videos suffer from using cheap, basic filters to make them look grainy. I don’t know what the cinematographer, editors and/or visual effects people did, but the newsreels of Stashwick in the ’20s looked much more authentically old. Same with the narrators (on both the films and the radio broadcast)—too often, “old-timey” narrators merely sound like parodies; whoever they had doing the narration did a great job capturing the sound and cadence of those old recordings without overdoing it. Well done.

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Holiday Cheer

Most of the shows have already left the air to make way for holiday specials and assorted crappy movies, but we still have a few left…

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—Strangely, this episode didn’t do much for me. Maybe because Julius talking down a suicidal bridge-jumper reminded me a bit too much of the overly absurd episode where Julius becomes the unintentional wheelman for a cross-country crime spree, maybe because I’ve never much cared for the New Year’s tradition of dropping the ball in Times Square. Whatever the reason, the episode left me feeling a bit empty, even though I laughed nearly as often as usual.

Leverage (TNT)—I enjoyed this episode nearly as much as the first, but here’s something that already drives me crazy: the brief flashbacks that explain how they pulled off the job at the end. In the pilot, they used a rather complex plan; in this episode, the plan was incredibly simple. It didn’t require explanatory flashbacks to spell out every little detail. It’s fun, light entertainment, so there’s not a lot worth nitpicking and the actors all have great chemistry. Just stop the flashbacks, please.

The Office (NBC)—Man, I loved the way Phyllis treated Angela when she had the upper hand. I loved that she actually did reveal the secret. I think I just love Phyllis and may have to steal her away from Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration.

Meredith, on the other hand, doesn’t do much for me. While sporadically amusing, can they give her a little more depth than “office drunk,” please? Every episode that focuses on her seems to involve a disaster that has at least something to do with her alcoholism. I did enjoy Michael’s inept handling of the situation, but it’d be nice if they dug a little deeper, maybe probing what drove her to drink in the first place.

And then there’s the oft-ridiculed (by me) Angela-Dwight-Andy triangle. It came to a head this week and will, if there’s any justice in the world, come to some sort of conclusion in the next episode (after the holidays). Please, please, Office writers, don’t linger on this. I’ll buy every episode from iTunes, along with the DVDs and BluRays and whatever else. I’ll buy every product advertised during the show and double up on the product-placement items featured prominently in the show itself. Just make all these romantic triangles go away. Please.

Pushing Daisies (ABC)—Have I mentioned my love of Ed‘s Josh Randall, who plays Charles Charles? I’m not a big fan of them killing off Stephen Root, but at least they found a worth replacement. Except for the part where he drove off in Ned’s car at the end. I assume he’ll be back, because Pushing Daisies doesn’t have much time left to wrap up this storyline.

The lighthouse story… I don’t know. I’ll always welcome a Mary Kay Place guest appearance, but the mystery didn’t have the spark and intrigue this show has exhibited this season. Pairing up Olive with Emerson made her infinitely more tolerable, but please stop her from singing. It’s the holidays—can’t you let one of my Christmas dreams come true?

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox)—This week’s framing structure didn’t work at all. I typically love this show, so it disappointed me to find a legitimate failure of an episode after two (short) seasons of steady improvement. Look, we have the present-day story with Derek and the teenage girl (Lauren) trying to make sure the mother’s baby gets born. Then, we have “six months earlier” flashbacks to the Connor Crew saving Lauren and her family from a Terminator attack.

Careful viewers will note the problem: from the beginning of the series, we’ve spent a great deal of exclusive time with the Connors. No big gaps in time and no indication that they fend off cyborg attacks that are too dull to dramatize on the show. So when, exactly, did this happen? Why didn’t we find out about it earlier? If the show had done a better job of implying these people have rich lives outside the confines of the show, I could have bought it. So far, everything has seemed to go pretty much week-to-week, with episodes often resuming right where the previous one left off. I’m guessing if I tabulated a timeline and ignored inconsistencies, this entire series has only taken place across the span of maybe six weeks.

That’s just an educated guess, mind you. From where I’m standing, they’d have to make “six months ago” the present in order for this episode to work. A little not-too-distant future timecard opening the episode: SIX MONTHS FROM TODAY. Then: TODAY. I could be alone, but that already makes me feel a more significant glimmer of foreboding than the foreshadowing in the actual episode.

I still love this show, but I wish they had put more thought into the timeline problems. This show has been on the air for longer than six months, but that doesn’t mean the dramatized timeline matches realtime.

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Kia Maniacs!

There’s this Kia commercial playing endlessly on every network. Have you seen it? A sweaty, doughy car salesman dances to “Maniac” in the most uncomfortable parody of Flashdance of all time. Let me ask Kia and/or their ad agency something: do you honestly think anyone anywhere on this planet wants to imagine their sweaty, doughy car salesman doing anything close to a semi-erotic Jennifer Beals dance because of his excitement over the newest Kia car? Check it out on YouTube if you’re confused.

As an emissary of the car-buying public, I can tell you the answer: NO. Nothing appeals to me less than having a car company tell me that, what? This is funny? This a mental picture that won’t give me more nightmares than the image of Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown in 1990’s miniseries epic, It? Even if I had intended to make my next car purchase a Kia (which may have been the case, since I am the cheapest person alive), I will avoid every Kia dealership in the country. In fact, I will plan the most inconvenient routes possible just to avoid coming within a five-mile radius of any Kia dealership, for fear that I may drive by one and bear witness to a cavalcade of salesmen having buckets of water poured on them by glum-looking secretaries.

Change your advertising tack, Kia. Everyone loves those VW ads where bland, inoffensive yuppie couples saying pithy things gets intercut with shiny shots of the car in action.

Aliens in America (The CW)—How is this show on the air? Is the CW really so low-rated that they know nobody will be offended by the rampant, hilarious religious-bashing cluttering this Christmas episode of Aliens in America? It doesn’t matter to me as long as they keep delivering the goods.

In its funniest episode to date, Raja makes casual note that the Tolchucks’ Sunday ritual of going to a big box store is like their version of church, Franny takes offense and decides the family should go to actual church. From this comes 22 minutes of satire of mega-churches (the ironic juxtaposition of the Tolchucks trading a shopping trip for the gift shop/coffee bar/Christian CD store at church), the holiday spirit, birth-control, and the power of prayer.

That’s right, Claire makes a deal with Franny that she can go on the pill as long as she participates in an abstinence class at church; meanwhile, Justin and his friends start fighting via prayer when Justin prays to have sex with a classmate. When Raja sees such a sacred act defiled by Justin’s total lack of religious foundation, he’s horrified; however, Justin’s other friends also decide to use the power of prayer to get women.

And then, the lifeblood of Aliens in America‘s enduring quality, the Tolchucks manage to do everything wrong, and yet, in the end, they’re better people for it.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—The subplot that found Julius supporting Kwanzaa because it’s cheaper, and Drew getting way into the “black power” elements of the power, might be the funniest B story the series has ever done. It balanced well with an A story that, while typically entertaining, moved at a slower pace and didn’t have quite as many laughs as a typical Everybody Hates Chris A story. Although, I must admit, this episode (and this A story) contains the show’s funniest exchange to date: “What would you get your mother for Christmas?” “Diamonds and a white man.”

Journeyman (NBC)—Dan saves Christmas with the power of time-travel-based extortion? Are we supposed to be happy about this? From the beginning, Dan’s been portrayed as a reluctant time traveler, more concerned with his present-day family and obligations than with his “calling” in the past. Some may consider this a flaw, but the fact that Dan doesn’t truly want to help—or, at the very least, has slowly learned how rewarding selflessness can be, even when it’s not voluntary—has turned him into the most interesting character of the fall season.

However, turning Dan’s forced selflessness into unchecked selfishness takes things to a new realm. It’d be one thing if the show acknowledged Dan’s morally gray actions, as they have in the past, but here we have a boss who lays off half the paper on Christmas Eve and won’t relent until he’s backed into a corner by Dan. Even with the Scrooge mentality applied to the owner of the Register, it’s impossible to believe something like this could happen at a major metropolitan newspaper. Yes, layoffs are becoming a reality in print journalism, but on Christmas? What a public relations nightmare. I guess the one advantage of owning the newspaper is, you can make damn sure the people left working for you won’t cover the story.

It also strikes me as odd, although in an interesting way, that whatever force has chosen to hurl him through time and space actually threw him a bone and let him change his own reality. Will the show ever address the question of why this happened?

Elsewhere, Jack and Theresa are pregnant. Yeah, that’s a storyline I’m not looking forward to. Also, Katie’s having some unresolved post-traumatic issues regarding last week’s shooting/hostage-holding/other shooting. It might have taken things into an unusual direction, but it sounds like her issues have pretty much resolved themselves this week.

King of the Hill (Fox)—Wow, a rare Minh-focused episode that explores the oft-referenced but rarely seen Arlen Gun Club. One of my favorite running gags on this show are the Souphanousinphones’ desperate attempts to impress Ted Wassanasong and get into Nine Rivers Country Club. This time around, the ladies of Nine Rivers suggest that having a special skill—skeet shooting proficiency, perhaps—it might put them over the top and get them into the club.

It takes an unexpected turn when Minh joins the Arlen Gun Club for practice—and finds herself getting along with the “stupid rednecks” more than she ever thought possible. With unusual self-awareness, Minh notices the artifice of Nine Rivers and embrace the kindness of the guys at the Gun Club. Yet, in the end, while she supports Dale and his gun-loving friends (who break into Nine Rivers to watch her competition), Minh doesn’t turn her back on Nine Rivers.

It’s sometimes a treat to see King of the Hill play on certain sitcom-formula expectations. I really thought it would end with Minh turning her back on Nine Rivers for good, but no—the best they could offer was Minh not having Dale arrested. It’s much more consistent with her character than taking the obvious sitcom route. The mere fact that the “hillbillies” made a dent in her superiority complex is a more believable and subtle change. There are plenty of reasons why I ramble about King of the Hill sometimes having the best writing on network television, period, and keeping its characters consistent—while deriving laughs from who they are instead of twisting their characters to fit the joke—is high up on that list.

Numb3rs (CBS)—Worlds collide when two of television’s great fake sheriffs bust into this week’s episode. First, Enrico Colantoni reminds us that he can really act the shit out of things when given the opportunity (sadly, the third season of Veronica Mars wasted his talents). We also got a nice appearance from Chris Bruno (who played the late, great Sheriff Bannerman on The Dead Zone, killed off at the start of this season because the show has been “retooled”) as a SWAT leader arguing with Charlie about…whatever the fuck Charlie was on about in this episode.

The big surprise—in a good way, for once—is how little math was involved in the episode. Charlie has his esoteric ideas, whines because he’s such a super-genius he can’t communicate it to the puny brains of his gun-toting colleagues, and meanwhile Alimi Ballard is given one of his rare chances to shine. Even rarer, he’s shining in an episode that doesn’t tackle African-American issues. Sharing tense scenes with Enrico Colantoni, holding his own—it proved, once again, that these writers need to bust his role wide open. He often gets the least screen time, dialogue, and character development. How many sterling performances is he going to give before the writers balance that out?

Pushing Daisies (ABC)—This show’s really towing the line, and it almost lost me this week with the overly cutesy handling of Ned dropping the “I killed your Dad” bomb on Chuck. She’s mad, won’t forgive Ned, wants to stay mad, but everything about the story was artificial. Every moment led to the obvious “Oh gee, I can’t stay mad at you moment,” whether it came in this episode, or three from now, or a season from now—we know she’ll forgive him, so why draw it out?

Well, they didn’t quite draw it out, and yet I’m not sure if that was a good thing. Many good things came from this episode, including an appropriately depressing ending for Ned and Chuck and the cliffhanger bombshell that Lily is really Chuck’s mother, but otherwise it felt a little bit mediocre. The quirks are slowly becoming more tedious than amusing, and that makes the routine mystery plots even more humdrum. Cracks in the façade, or just me getting cranky? We’ll see when it returns after the holidays.

Supernatural (The CW)—Wow. I was prepared to hate the flashbacks to a Christmas in Sam and Dean’s past, but they worked well at showing us perhaps the most traumatic moment in Sam’s young life (yes, more traumatic than watching his mother get flame-broiled by the yellow-eyed demon): the Christmas when Dean finally told Sam what his dad does, why they keep moving around, why they only stay in scummy motels…

Meanwhile, in the present, Dean wants to celebrate a good, old-fashioned Christmas, while Sam complains because he doesn’t have a single good memory of Christmas. The end, with Dean letting his guard down long enough to make Sam realize he wants to have a good Christmas because it’ll be his last, reenforced how well-developed these brothers are. I barely cared about the jokey “A story” about an “anti-Santa” demon—the real meat of this story came, as usual, from the brothers being brothers. It also reminded me that many episodes this season have had them more separated than usual. They need to stop doing that.

Next week: Why did Journeyman tank? I have a theory…

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Television Returns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Re-Premiere Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Idiot Boxing – 1/26/09

24 (Fox)—I’ve watched a plethora of terrible action movies chock full of incoherent plot twists and implausible developments. 24 has always done the job of both filling that mold and taking it a couple of steps further by attempting human drama. Jack Bauer might be a one-man army, but he’s tortured. Like John McClane in Die Hard, Mason Storm in Hard to Kill or Jason Bourne in the Bourne series, Jack has pain in his past that effects every move he makes in the present. The writers don’t always work this successfully—most evident in Jack’s conflicts with Kim any time after season one—but they put forth the effort.

So 24‘s an efficient, slick vehicle for action, better at delivering the “100% pure adrenaline” promised by Point Break than any TV series and even most current action movies. My one great wish for this season is that they shut up about torture. As I observed last week, the writers have finally figured out that people criticize the show for its irresponsible pro-torture stance. The question I’ve always asked is, “People think 24 is an accurate reflection of anything?” Nearly every action movie has gratuitous torture scenes where the heroes get exactly the information they need just in the nick of time. It works not because torture, in reality, is the best method to extract information, but because it provides a release for the audience. We’ve seen the hero get his ass handed to him for the whole movie, and finally he gets some payback. It has nothing to do with reality.

24 decided to make torture the big elephant in the room by having scene after scene of characters condemning torture. It kinda makes it more irresponsible when everyone condemns torture, then someone gets tortured and provides accurate information. Merely acknowledging the moral dilemma doesn’t fix the problem. They could stop torturing for information and just start beating the shit out of people. It provides the same basic emotional release for the audience with none of the ethical mess. So that’s it, 24 writers: either shut up about torture, or stop having characters torture villains.

That aside, this was a decent filler episode. I hate describing any episode of television as “filler,” but 24 is guiltier of this than most shows—one of the flaws of the format, I suppose. Just think about everything that happened between the end of last week’s episode and the end of this week and ask yourself if we needed an entire hour to get from Points A to B. I liked where we ended up—the First Husband drugged and passed out, the First Dead Son’s Soon-to-Be-Dead Girlfriend in an SUV on a collision course with wackiness, Jack grazing Renee and helping Tony bury her… At the end of the hour, the episode left me looking forward to next week more than thrilled about this week.

The Beast (A&E)—As an antidote to 24, The Beast works wonders. It combines a pointed—but not preachy—political agenda with a vast, shadowy conspiracy that makes very little sense right now but is incredibly intriguing. In between examining said conspiracy and handling the somewhat strange “assignment of the week” formula it has apparently adopted, The Beast provides balls-to-the-wall action, bizarrely Swayze-esque “existential philosopher meets gun-toting shit-kicker” characters and a “will they or won’t they?” romance that doesn’t quite work. Rose is smart, tough and attractive, but we’re in episode two and I’m already demanding that they shit or get off the pot. I did like Barker’s advice: give her up, because she’ll just distract him from the job, but Rose is a series regular. She’ll be back. Ellis’ internal struggle about whether or not to join up with Ray or stick with Barker also has a “will he or won’t he?” element, but it works a little better for two reasons: it’s not exactly a stale cliché, and it gives Ellis the conflict that will drive this series’ overarching conspiracy.

At the end of the day, all the nuts and bolts of the storytelling aside, The Beast is about ass-kicking, gunfights and explosions. It delivers on all those counts and more.

Bones (Fox)—I usually hate procedurals because of the typical plot-first, characters-never approach to storytelling. Bones reached a point about a year and a half ago where executive producer Hart Hanson and his writers realized they should make all these plots MacGuffins that allow the characters to reveal new information about themselves and how they interact with each other. The plots remain important only inasmuch as the characters have a drive to solve the cases. Sometimes the writers miss—the clumsy Iraq War episode, where each member of the team took goofy, out-of-character stances—but more often than not, they hit.

This week’s circus-themed episode had a very solid Booth-Brennan story. I liked everything about it, but I had a big problem with the latest nugget of character development regarding young Dr. Lance Sweets: he was adopted (not sure I like that), his birth mother happens to be a psychic (I like that) who works at a circus (uh-oh), which allows him all sorts of knowledge and access to the circus lifestyle (hate it!). He knows the language and customs and can guide Booth and Brennan through this strange world.

This development didn’t work for me for two main reasons. In the first place, I can’t stand it when procedurals try to do an episode like this—basically a “theme” show—so they pick a random character who just happens to be an expert or, at least, a hobbyist in whatever topic they’ve chosen. Law & Order seems to do this three out of every four episodes, and CSI has picked up the torch. Say, I almost wrote “torture” by mistake. Coincidence?

At any rate, the second problem is that this almost gives Sweets too much development. I like the psychic-mother angle because it reveals some kind of genetic link—most psychics, especially circus psychics, are frauds who use a combination of street smarts and instinctual empathy to read people. We already know Sweets’ intellectual capacity and interest in psychology is right in line with the mother’s occupation. To me, the “adoption” angle just feels like too much to drop into an episode as an “oh, by the way.” On one hand, it’s refreshing; on the other, it should have enabled him to be much more empathetic to Brennan’s abandonment issues with her own family. Maybe it’s unethical for a therapist to say, “Hey, I know what you’re going through,” but it seems odd that he’d never even mention it.

Burn Notice (USA)—Burn Notice is back, and unlike the other USA shows, this midseason re-premiere feels like a premiere. After ending on a cliffhanger that involved stopping an assassination attempt (maybe?) and Michael nearly getting blown up, the gang is back and trying to get deeper into the mystery of Carla. Of course, they’re also following the formula of the show by taking on a client. That’s sort of where the episode went off-kilter—granted, it was as sharp, entertaining, and ass-kicking as usual, but they didn’t sell me on Michael’s desire to work a “normal” case shortly after getting blown up. They tried to explain it away by having Michael want to focus on the work rather than the attempted murder, but come on—seriously?

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—I love the idea of a club populated entirely by underage kids with fake IDs. This show has had a lot of bizarre, absurd gags like this, but I don’t know… This might be the highlight for me, so far. The whole episode worked pretty well—the teenage quest to get a fake ID (followed by inevitable disappointment) is a staple of teen TV (and movies), but the writers loaded the episode with cleverness and defied expectations like the club full of kids aged 12-17. I also enjoyed the way Drew’s X-ray glasses subplot tied in with Uncle Ryan, provider of fake IDs and purveyor of all that crap kids get tricked into buying and ultimately screwed.

Flashpoint (CBS)—Does anyone remember Tino from My So-Called Life, the mythical cool kid who managed to have a monumental influence over every character despite few people ever actually seeing him (this includes the audience)? I sort of wish the ex-sergeant in this week’s Flashpoint had been this kind of character: oft-referenced, held in extreme high regard by the other characters. Maybe not referenced in every episode, but by the time he makes this appearance, we have an understanding of his influence and impact, making his downfall—and the foreshadowing of their potential downfalls—all the more tragic. I liked this episode a lot, but they shoehorned all the exposition into the first few moments. It left me thinking, “If everyone loves this guy so much, why hasn’t anyone ever talked about him before?” Still a good, solid episode, but it could have had more oomph if they’d laid down a bit of groundwork in earlier episodes.

Lost (ABC)—I love a good time travel story, and I’m glad Lost has finally veered in that direction officially. Faraday laid out some nice, solid rules involving a very rudimentary description of string theory and bringing up questions of fate vs. free will. According to Faraday—whether or not the show bears him out remains to be seen—they’ve become unstuck in time, but nobody can interact with their past selves because, essentially, what’s happened already happened. They can’t change it. None of the universe-destroying paradoxes of Back to the Future or any other mindfuckery. Unless it was destined to happen—as Alpert suggested to Locke—it won’t happen. Sawyer can’t warn anyone about the freighter; they can’t save Ana-Lucia, Libby or the endless litany of other victims; they basically have to hide.

While I love this development, I have to wonder about the future of the show. In one fell swoop, they’ve almost answered too many questions. There are still plenty of mysteries, but long-term mysteries like the whispers, the skeletons of “Adam and Eve,” the Others’ lists of “good people,” the Dharma Initiative’s overall goal, the “ghosts” appearing all over the island, why some people (like Alpert) don’t age, etc., etc… They can explain all of these with the phrase “time travel.”

In typical Lost fashion, they’ve loaded up the cannon with new questions: what the hell’s going on with the Oceanic Six, is Jin still alive, how many will die before the Six get back and “re-stick” time, do Desmond and Frank also need to return to the island, what the hell is going on with Ben’s creepy network of off-island pals who know things…? Despite the new questions, the writers have left me with a feeling like they’re ready to wind things down. Fewer questions will arise as they get closer to the end, which is kind of depressing. Not that their explanations disappoint—I just miss the sense of wonder.

Monk (USA)—TV shows always have a tell: when your special guest star is someone like Gena Rowlands, and the first 10 minutes present her as the idyllic mother Monk never had, you know things won’t end well and she’ll never return. It makes everything a little more predictable, but I guess the real joy of the episode came from watching Tony Shalhoub go through the transformations throughout the episode. We didn’t get much Natalie, Stottlemeyer or Disher, and the mystery was as predictable as something from season one or two. Shalhoub and Rowlands anchored the show this week, automatically elevating the material and almost—almost!—making me not care that Monk would screw everything up and we’d never see her again.

The Office (NBC)—The Office has always toed the line between comedy and tragedy, but I don’t think they’ve done an episode as bleak as this one—and the ending may have come a little too easily (and, I must say, cartoonishly) to make it satisfying. The A story featured Michael and Dwight on a recon mission from David Wallace, who wants to expand Scranton’s territory to destroy a literal Mom-‘n’-Pop business. After pretending to be, respectively, a customer and a job applicant, Michael and Dwight are handed the mother lode—a complete client list—and even get some help with Michael’s damaged car. Their kindness makes Michael change his mind about handing the list over to Wallace, but he has Dwight to contend with. After a chase around the office park—which has become somewhat of an overused tactic on this show—Dwight holds on to the documents, sends them to Wallace, and Michael gets praise for a job well done.

I have one problem with this resolution: it prevents Michael from having to make any sort of difficult decision. We all know Michael hates decisions like this and would rather buy everyone ice cream sandwiches than confront a problem. Yet, we know two more things about Michael: he’s a huge sentimentalist who would naturally love the idea of this kind-hearted family doing something they love together…but, on the opposite side of the coin, he has a near-pathological obsession with being well-liked. In the end, Michael should have to decide whether or not he needs to please Wallace more than he needs to appease his conscience. Dwight literally takes the decision out of Michael’s hands. Do you remember the difficulty and heartbreak that went into his decision not to lie for Jan? I think the writers were trying for something along those lines, but they missed the mark.

Meanwhile, the B story takes one of the most mundane topics of office conversation—the relative attractiveness of a celebrity—and brings it to its illogical extreme. It felt a little more like this subplot belonged in an episode of NewsRadio than The Office. Don’t get me wrong—NewsRadio remains my favorite sitcom of all time by a pretty wide margin, but it has a completely different style where the idea of a ridiculous office debate taken far too seriously by the staff isn’t out of place. I get the idea that it’s about frittering away an afternoon when the boss is away, but the broadness resulted in a story that didn’t quite capture office life as well as it could have. This debate could have functioned as an opportunity for everyone’s general annoyance with one another to manifest itself in a debate about whether or not Hilary Swank is hot. It becomes less about her than about their own angst, and they can blow off some steam and let it go. They did this a little with Angela, but it didn’t reach the level of poignance that it should have.

Psych (USA)—I know the basic formula of this show has been “Put Gus and Shawn into an unfamiliar scenario and let wackiness ensue.” I can see the logic in putting them into the firefighting arena—lots of comedy fodder to be had. Despite some clever, amusing dialogue (I particularly enjoyed the conversation about firehouses being dalmatians’ “natural habitat”), they didn’t quite exploit the new occupation to its fullest. In a rare change-up, the setting felt like the afterthought while the mystery took center stage. Despite game appearances from ringers like Richard Riehle, Bruce McGill and Milena Govich, the episode lacked the usual manic energy and exuberance.

Supernatural (The CW)—Casting ringers like Barry Bostwick (Spin City) and John Rubinstein (Angel) definitely elevated this episode. A story that could have been as ridiculous as you’d imagine something titled “Criss Angel Is a Douche Bag” would be maintained a certain air of gravity and tragedy as it painted a portrait of three pathetic, aging magicians. They’re overshadowed by glitzier but less daring “magicians” (like Angel), leading Bostwick to the verge of suicide. Our heroes arrive when they realize something is amiss—Bostwick’s increasingly daring, suicidal stunts have reclaimed his audience, but they’re also apparently killing younger, “rock-star” magicians.

When Rubinstein reveals his immortality (at which point he’s played by Rubinstein’s real-life son, Michael, who’s generally credited as “Michael Weston”) and offers Bostwick the chance to live forever—well, everything goes awry, resulting in Rubinstein’s death at Bostwick’s hands. This leads to a nicely ambiguous ending in which Bostwick wonders if killing Rubinstein—his best friend for decades—to save Sam and Dean, a couple of guys he barely knows, was the right thing to do.

The subplot with Ruby didn’t do much for me, although I suppose I like where it’s headed—and I liked that this particular “case” had a real impact on Sam, driving him to his decision to help her. Mainly, I think I’ve decided that I prefer Katie Cassidy to Genevieve Cortese. I don’t think Cortese is terrible, but I think there’s supposed to be something resembling a smoldering intensity whenever she and Jared Padalecki share the same space—and I just don’t feel it.

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