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A Smattering of Fall Premieres

The new fall season is upon us, with the return of Bones, and the premieres of cable shows Raising the Bar and Sons of Anarchy. Me? I think of cable as a summer venue, so cable shows announcing themselves in fall or midseason makes me a little uncomfortable. Not for fear of them occupying too much time—this fall, very little appeals to me, and that includes a plethora of returning shows. Some of them (Pushing Daisies, Dirty Sexy Money) I will watch, with the attentive eye of a ruthless cop who’s just waiting for his drug-addicted, petty-criminal cousin to slip up; others (House, My Name Is Earl), I’ve already discarded in my personal trash bin of failed dreams and wasted time.

Bones (Fox)—With a big two-hour premiere set mostly on location in London, it appears Fox considers Bones a hit (finally?). Or maybe they just spent the entire season’s budget, and we’ll be left with a series of episodes in which Booth and the squints get trapped in the Jeffersonian. It’s like how every year the terrorists on 24 infiltrate CTU and hold everyone captive for five straight hours so they can afford the big explosions and helicopter chases in the season finale.

Anyway, I hate to sound like a negative nelly, but the premiere—while compelling in the usual way—frustrated me a little bit for concentrating way, way, way too much on the forced “will they or won’t they?” pseudo-relationship between Brennan and Booth. Normally, I don’t mind brief flirtations with this, but the writers really laid it on thick in this premiere. And here’s the thing: David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel do have chemistry, but it’s like…sibling chemistry. They are hilarious together, as friends. As lovers, it’ll be like every single show that went to shit after the two stars hooked up. So the writers are prolonging what they seem to think is inevitable, but it’s evitable. Very, very evitable. Don’t go there, Bones writers. Keep them colleagues and friends. Brennan is like Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, learning to understand humanity by her interactions with Booth and these crimes. So I know there was that one where Data gets “drunk” and does it with Tasha Yar, but they killed her off, like, three episodes later, so it was not exactly an epic love.

If you think that’s the only rant, think again. Attention, Bones writers: for a show loaded with pithy pop-psychology jabbering (related mini-rant: use John Francis Daley in every scene, if possible—he’s a great addition to the show), what the hell was up with that subplot with Angela, Hodgins and Angela’s mystery husband? I can deal with Saroyan jumping his bones (multilayered pun intended), but that whole “fight for her honor”/”I’m bailing on this engagement because you obviously don’t trust me” thing—what a bunch of bullshit. Angela got mad at Saroyan because it’s a shitty thing for a friend to do. What kind of friend is like, “Oh dude, I slept with your ex-husband, and it was awesome,” and expects the friend to be cool with that? Even with the “history” of Angela’s odd relationship with her husband, there’s no reason for Angela to just roll over and be happy, and there’s every reason in the world for Hodgins to feel a tinge of jealousy—it has something to do with trust, but not in a significant, “I don’t trust you one iota” way. The execution of this subplot didn’t work at all.

But, um…the crime subplot was pretty good, as was the random newbie who bailed because of the over-the-top soap-opera nature of the squints. Well played, Bones.

Mad Men (AMC)—I chided Mad Men for making Duck into an unsympathetic, one-dimensional “villain” for Don, in stark contrast to this show’s usual fully realized, multidimensional characters. Now, they’ve finally ladled on some real development—but they’ve forced me to absolutely hate him. I know I was supposed to feel, in some way or another, sorry for his struggle, but the only people I have less sympathy for than drunks are drunks who abandon their dogs to go tie one on. I’m sure it was hard to be a full-blown alcoholic in the ’60s, especially working at Sterling-Cooper, but I don’t care what era you’re in: you don’t bail on your dog. Come on!

Now that that‘s out of the way… I love seeing the way Peggy progresses. I know many of these characters have taken on archetypal roles, but I guess I didn’t see Peggy as emblematic of the rise of feminism. In retrospect, it seems so obvious, but I didn’t see it coming until last week, and now—wow, she’s really learning. The great thing about this progression is that it feels natural, but they don’t quite beat us over the head with any of it. Okay, maybe the whole Playtex thing could have been subtler, but it all sort of worked to illustrate the way Peggy’s environment is forming the woman she’s becoming. I’d give large sums of money to see the expression on her sister’s face if she had seen Peggy walking into that strip club. Good times!

The Middleman (ABC Family)—Well, this may have been The Middleman‘s last episode, so I guess we can take comfort that it was a good one. References abound, as usual, most notably Escape from New York. The alternate universe’s Snake Plissken-looking Middleman might have been the series’ funniest sight gag to date, but what really got to me is the way Wendy learned the value of her real-universe friends from this experience. Here, she sees them all at their absolute worst, but she understands that there’s some kind of inherent, a priori goodness in them—they’ve all been wounded by their experiences, but deep down, they’re the same people she knew.

One thing I questioned—and this is one of the many things that makes me hope the show gets renewed—was the fall of Manservant Neville in the alternate timeline. There, Evil Wendy froze him because he intended to change the company into something good and positive. So, does that mean that at the same time, in Real Wendy’s universe, the kind and benevolent Manservant Neville turned evil? They didn’t portray this like a cliffhanger, but it became one in my mind.

ABC Family, renew this show or I will dedicate long-winded special-edition columns to libel Kyle XY, GRΣΣK and The Secret Life of an American Teenager.

Monk (USA)—Monk‘s 100th episode was fun, with some nice trips down Memory Lane and a spectacularly over-the-top guest appearance from Will & Grace‘s Eric McCormack, but it didn’t meet the expectations the show has forced me to have with its late-in-the-game quality improvement. I understand that the mystery took a backseat to the retrospective idea, which is fine. Why not just allow the In Focus mystery be the week’s mystery, instead of double-layering it with Monk trying to re-solve the solved case? It seemed like it spread the story too thin, when I would have been more than happy watching “In Focus” for an hour instead of giving us the bookends with everybody gathered for the premiere. Still, a fun episode.

Psych (USA)—I give the writers credit for not completely swiping the plot of Point Break, although inexplicable identity theft (one assumes to steal money/credit) comes about as close as one can without actually involving surfing. I can’t get too frustrated with this show, because it’s still laugh-out-loud funny, but the first two seasons had some pretty solid mysteries. This season has felt like nothing more than joke plots and movie spoofs, which is fine—they just took an unexpected turn, and I have to give a pop-culture-laden show like this a hard time for ripping off Point Break without even making a glib reference to it.

Raising the Bar (TNT)—I feel like I have to take on a defensive position after seeing a few other reviews of this show. Some were flat-out negative, but most of them just argued that this show redefines mediocrity and isn’t worth the time when there are better shows out there. I’ll agree that it won’t exactly spark a TV revolution whose lasting effects will still reverberate decades later (like Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law), but it’s certainly not a “pass,” either.

All of this is coming from somebody who pretty much hates legal shows, all of which play courtroom scenes as over-the-top melodrama and either paint lawyers as corrupt and contemptible or insightful and messianic. The only legal series I’ve enjoyed was The WB’s comically short-lived Just Legal, effectively an action-comedy starring Don Johnson (Miami Vice) as a grizzled, bottom-feeding lawyer and Jay Baruchel (Undeclared) as an idealistic legal prodigy who can’t get a job anywhere else.

It might be a bad omen to compare Raising the Bar to a show that lasted two weeks on The WB*, but they have a lot of common ground that appeals to me. Both shows tackle this insane idea that, in this particular arena, everybody knows everybody else. Raising the Bar‘s young attorneys all went to law school together, and now they’re on opposite sides. Jane Kaczmarek, as a public-defender-turned-embittered-judge, provides the Don Johnson-style crustiness, and the conflict between characters is rooted in the same themes Just Legal tackled: how do you separate personal from professional, and how do you try a case fairly in a system where everybody knows everybody else? The lawyers know the judges’ strengths and weaknesses, the judges form grudges against attorneys based on earlier cases, the law-school buddies find themselves lashing out because they’re on opposing sides of the same case. Not exactly an enviable career.

Raising the Bar has some weak spots, don’t get me wrong. Some of the aesthetic choices are a little iffy (the idea of showing empty courtrooms and offices, then dissolving to populated versions of the same settings, did nothing but make me think of how awesome a show about ghost lawyers would be), and… I don’t know, part of me thinks this is too mean to even say, but the sets looked really cheap in HD. But think about it: I have to dig pretty hard to criticize when all I have is, “The sets on a low-budget cable show look cheap.”

I have to dig less deep to crush the show’s real weak link: I don’t know if it’s the actress or character, but Melissa Sagemiller is not exactly selling her role. Shaggy-haired Zack Morris delivers “credible attorney” better than I ever could have imagined, and the other cast members—some of whom I haven’t seen before—did equally decent-to-admirable work. Sagemiller stuck out big-time, and shoving her into a “conflict of interest” relationship Mark-Paul Gosselaar doesn’t help. I hope this doesn’t last, because Raising the Bar has a lot of potential, and I hate to say it, but it would have a lot more without her.

Sons of Anarchy (FX)—I find it a little difficult to describe how I feel about this show, because it’s designed as a serial show and didn’t have much in the way of traditional dramatic structure—not that I’m calling that a bad thing. Rather, the progress from beginning to end only gave us resolutions of the kind that leave us wondering what will happen next week. Which is all well and good, but it’s less like Bones than Rescue Me. The question I have, right now, is: will this unfold like Rescue Me, having several good seasons before becoming a bit of a trainwreck, or will it be more like The Wire, telling great stories with a rich sense of place and character and coming and going without a visible decline in quality?

The series I hear it most often compared to is The Sopranos—mostly in the form of “Sopranos on motorcycles”-type comparisons. As an rabid, unabashed hater of The Sopranos, I can only say, “I hope that’s not what it becomes.” For other non-fans of The Sopranos, let me offer a few morsels explaining what I saw in Sons of Anarchy that gives it heft without leaving the HBO hit’s distinctive residue of tedium and pomposity. It offers something truly unique in the television landscape: has there ever been a weekly series that really dug into biker culture? Sons of Anarchy goes one better than that by having Jacks (Charlie Hunnam, another Undeclared alum) uncover his deceased father’s hippie manifesto, setting the stage for a battle between modern pragmatism and outdated idealism. The series may not be realistic, but like The Wire, it gives us vivid characters in a setting that makes it believable. The sheer number of “Hey! It’s that guy!” character actors populating the supporting roles gives the show a feeling of density that could be a slippery slope—it may all end up being surface gloss.

I’d like to think a little better of it. Aside from a few missteps—my personal aversion to anything hypodermic-related is only one of the things that makes me say Jacks’ pregnant, heroin-addicted ex-wife was an extraneous character and subplot—Sons of Anarchy sucked me into its universe and into its primary conflicts: Jacks versus Clay (Ron Perlman), with Gemma (Katey Segal) playing both sides like a twisted hybrid of Gertrude and Lady Macbeth. All of this, in 75 minutes, proved more compelling than the first 10 hours of The Sopranos. Whether or not it will all pay off remains to be seen, but I urge fans of ultra-depressing crime soaps to check this out. FX reruns the premiere on Sunday after The Shield.

*The WB burned off the nine or so remaining episodes late in the summer of 2006, and I assure you guys, you don’t know what you missed.

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Changing of the Guard

As fall shows continue to premiere, cable shows conclude. This week saw the premiere of Fringe and the return of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, while Monk and Psych have ended their abbreviated summer runs.

Bones (Fox)—Well, I got one of my wishes (amazing considering this episode was produced at least a month before I rambled about the premiere’s problems). The writers dealt as little as possible with fallout over Angela and Hodgins—probably for the best, although it struck me as a tad unrealistic. And yes, the writers continued to keep the Booth and Brennan non-romance in the forefront, which is horrible despite the amusing banter.

But the show did two huge things right: they stuck John Francis Daley into a prominent role, even putting him in scenes where he didn’t seem to belong, because the writers clearly recognize what he’s bringing to the table. He’s like the Fonz of Bones, and for the moment, too much of him is never a bad thing. They also added Undeclared alum Carla Gallo in what I sincerely hope will be a recurring role. She played a hyper, annoying (but in a funny way) intern who may have a blossoming relationship with Daley’s Lance Sweets. I can’t imagine this being anything less than awesome, and if all goes well, I look forward to them retitling it Lance Sweets’ Bones in the ninth season after David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel leave to pursue successful feature-film-directing careers.

Oh yeah, this show has a mystery component. This week’s was more disgusting than usual, as it involved wading through drums of liquefied outhouse sludge. It looks like the writers are doing a better job reducing the predictability. They’ve eliminated the “obvious sociopath” tell that most procedurals have, and they spent more time giving each character both a clear motive and a clear out (except, of course, for the killer). They sorta fell into the “eleventh-hour suspect” trap, but he didn’t come completely out of nowhere, so they don’t get bonus points, but no points off, either.

Burn Notice (USA)—This episode marked a definite return to form. Expanding on the previous episode’s idea that people from Michael’s past remain in his orbit (and remain just as dangerous), Tim Matheson showed up as a pseudo-mentor from Michael’s spy days. He’s supposedly been dead for several years, which helps him in his current occupation (hit man). You know what else helps? Roping people like Michael into doing the job for him, allowing him plausible deniability. Matheson plays a slippery, sociopathic weasel with gusto, and both he and Jeffrey Donovan did an excellent job of selling their shared past.

I also love the writers for turning Matheson into a father figure. They’ve established—more than once—what an asshole Michael’s father was (or, at least, that’s the way Michael sees it), so it’s natural for him to seek someone who could inhabit that kind of role. The writers addressed this with subtlety, never beating us over the head with the psych-101 aspects of the relationship. They left the psych-101 insanity for Michael’s subplot with Madeline, who is still seeking a worthwhile counselor.

I should also mention that Amy Pietz (from the late, lamented Aliens in America) guest-starred as Matheson’s hit target, and Zachery Bryan (from the late, unlamented Home Improvement) played her obnoxious, rich-kid son. Both of them did reasonably solid work in their roles, but I have to give the writers guff for one thing: they could have done a better job of establishing the conflict between Pietz and Bryan. Greed is one thing, but the guy put on a contract on her life—there has to be a little more to it than inheritance. If there isn’t, they did a sloppy job with Bryan’s character—referring to him in a title card as a “spoiled punk,” without backing that up at all. As written, his role is that of a scared little kid. One would think the kind of rich, spoiled punk who hires hit men to reclaim a small amount of his inheritance might not be so intimidated by Michael. The kind of smart-dumb characteristic that would prompt him to hire multiple hit men would kick in, making him blustery and confident, and he’d offer to throw more money at the situation and/or try to play the tough guy until Michael puts him in his place.

I know, in dealing with a crime-of-the-week format, the writers have to find economic shorthands to establish these people, but a scene or two of Pietz and Bryan together would have shed enough light on their antagonistic relationship, making the hit man premise more believable.

Eureka (Sci-Fi)—This show came so close to getting some legitimate praise out of me. They almost went a full episode without mentioning the disastrous Carter-Allison romantic subplot, but of course, they had to go and screw it up with a single tense moment. Alas… Nonetheless, although this show has lost quite a bit of its luster, this was quite an improvement over the last new episode, despite defying the usual “less Zoe = better episode” correlation. The “superhero” trying to impress Lexi was sufficient to keep my interest. I knew it’d be the ecology guy the second they showed him, but the story did what Eureka used to do best: absolute ridiculousness turning to tragedy. I’d call this the best of the season so far, but that just kinda shows how uninspired this season has been so far.

Fringe (Fox)—Although it contains a few too many shades of Tim Minear’s short-lived summer burn-off The Inside (which would have made a star of Rachel Nichols if Fox hadn’t botched the whole thing), Fringe had a lot to love. Joshua Jackson surprised me as the sarcastic super-genius, John Noble was appropriately ridiculous as his mad-scientist father and the very concept—“fringe science” and “The Pattern” and Massive Dynamic—got me going. Lance Reddick is a great bad-ass, Blair Brown… I don’t know what the hell she’s doing, exactly, but she did it well.

Still, it had enough troublesome elements to make me worry. Notice, in what I liked, I mentioned nothing about the storyline, the love story or Anna Torv. That’s just it—they didn’t sell me on the romance at all. I loved Mark Valley on Keen Eddie, but he spent most of his time here in a coma. They put the romance on the shoulders of Anna Torv, the anchor of the series, and she didn’t make me believe that everything she did—everything—was motivated by that love, which in turn diminished the impact of his betrayal and pseudo-death. The supporting cast can prop her up for so long before the entire series collapses. This series requires a strong central figure—and she didn’t bring it in the pilot. If she couldn’t bring it in the pilot, I have to wonder about her abilities in the future. Will inhabiting this world on a regular basis help her to improve, or have we seen the best of her thanks to the benefit of longer schedules and more time for reshoots?

Mad Men (AMC)—Sometimes, Mad Men hums along unnoticed, and I start to get a little restless or frustrated—and then an episode like “The Golden Violin” comes along. When this show fires on all cylinders, it’s just about the best thing on TV. But even beyond the sheer quality, the dramatic momentum kicked into overdrive. So many revelations: Jimmy Barrett knows everything—and tells both Don and Betty; Jane turns into a pawn of Roger and Joan; Ken writes a new story, and Sal’s crush on him blossoms even further, although Ken is oblivious again; and the “young guys” develop a bizarre, calypso-cum-Phil Spector song-jingle giving the “mood” of what the young, hip folks want in their coffee. Oh, and let’s not forget the symbol of the Cadillac, and possibly the greatest ending in Mad Men history: Betty tossing her cookies in the brand new, untainted car.

The only thing left hanging was that flashback. First, showing Don as a used-car salesman gave a very interesting glimpse into his “past” and, perhaps, hints at how he got into the ad game (it’s a lateral move, when you think about it), but what was up with the girl accusing him of not being Don Draper? We know he isn’t, but what’s her story? Are we going to get back to that?

Catching a glimpse of Salvatore’s hollow marriage with Kitty was very unsettling, one assumes by design. Much as I’ve been enjoying Peggy’s development this season, I’m glad they took a step back—she was barely in this one—and let some of the other cast members shine.

Each week, Mad Men veers between solidly good and pretty great, but when people rave about the show, it’s episodes like this that they’re talking about.

Monk (USA)—Not a bad episode, but haven’t we been down this road before? Remember the episode where Monk starts taking an anti-anxiety medication and starts acting like an asshole? This episode didn’t bring much more to that, except bringing forth the continuity-violating notion that Monk had a point in his childhood where he wasn’t a bundle of neuroses. (It contradicts Monk’s repeated statements that he remembers his own birth—a trauma because it was (a) messy and (b) naked.) It let Tony Shalhoub put a new spin on a familiar character, but the spin wasn’t that new.

Psych (USA)—This was the least ridiculous episode of this half-season, but not by much. Gary Cole and Alan Ruck were welcome additions, as always, but I found myself a little irritated by the “Juliet’s dating Gary Cole’s SWAT commander” subplot. My reasoning might be a little wonky, but the “relationship” between Shawn and Juliet is just so inconsistent—most of the time, it’s just goofy flirtation, but it randomly veers toward this idea that maybe Shawn wants more. They isolate these, for the most part, to individual scenes that let James Roday show he’s more than just a goofball, but in the next scene, he’s back to his goofball self and makes no outward sign of his affection for Juliet. I certainly don’t want Psych to turn into a romantic comedy, but the writers have missed several opportunities to have Shawn discuss his feelings with Gus—his best friend, confidante and conscience. As usual, it was a fun episode and worked well as a mini-finale.

Raising the Bar (TNT)—This episode impressed me more than the pilot. After the first week’s exposition, we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of what this show’s really about: the depressing ambiguity of the modern courtroom. Exemplified more by the subplot involving a teenager (Percy Daggs III from Veronica Mars) on trial for beating another student, I like that they’re tackling the notion that just because a person does something wrong for the (theoretical) right reasons…doesn’t mean he didn’t commit a crime. The main plot, in which Kellerman tries to fly in a witness from Guatemala, also underscored the theme. His accusation that Ernhardt is more interested in winning than in truth, while a little on the nose, underscores the similar—but much worse—problem of wrongful convictions. And even that leaves us with questions as to the Guatemalan’s credibility, although the show opted not to get into that. I do look forward to more challenging stories along these lines, though.

Also, good call on breaking up Kellerman and Ernhardt almost immediately. I just hope this doesn’t become an endless back-and-forth. To me, it feels like a mistake of the pilot that they corrected sooner rather than later, so kudos to that.

Sons of Anarchy (FX)—We might as well call this “Pilot Redux,” because this episode seemed to do a combination of course-correction and redevelopment. We got some new storylines—the corrupt police chief and non-corrupt deputy chief, for instance—while some of the more bizarre aspects (beating the hell out of the Korean Elvis impersonator, for instance) went unaddressed. All the corpse craziness in this episode made me wished they played this for pitch-black laughs, a la Breaking Bad, because something about the overarching seriousness in the face of ridiculous circumstances reminds me too much of what I disliked about The Sopranos. Still, I’m in it for the long haul as long as Hunnam, Perlman, Segal and the enormous supporting cast continue to deliver the goods.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox)—The scene with John, Cameron and the two trucks reminded me of exactly why I fell in love with this show last season. Creator Josh Friedman has delivered the most twisted family unit since The Addams Family, and man is he having fun showing us new ways to feel uncomfortable. Ellison’s story seemed a bit adrift last season, but his new…religious experience, for lack of a better phrase, with Cromartie makes me hope he’ll get a subplot worthy of Richard T. Jones’ talents.

On a less enthusiastic note, Shirley Manson has joined the cast as a ruthless exec looking to expand on the Turk technology, recovered by—holy shit, it’s Max Perlich, notable for his brief stint on Homicide: Life on the Street and as Whistler on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer! I’m a lot more enthusiastic about Perlich than Manson; even the world’s biggest Garbage fan (not me) has to acknowledge that she’s not what you’d call a great actress. However, the T-1000 reveal made me ignore any problems I had with her performance…for now.

I have many hopes and questions for the season. Top on my list right now is: why cast ringers like Andre Royo (The Wire) and Sonya Walger (Lost)? Their roles amounted to bit parts, but casting semi-well-known people made me assume there would be more to their characters. Time will tell, I guess.

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More Car Chases

The Burn Notice finale, combined with binge-watching The Rockford Files DVD, has made me realize something very, very important about the current television landscape: there is an alarming scarcity of car chases. Here’s the thing: car chases kick ass. They kicked ass in 1974, they kicked ass on the Burn Notice finale that aired this week, and they’ve kicked plenty of ass in between.

Although I want to believe the Los Angeles film community no longer supports weekly filming of TV-series car chases because their traffic is bad enough, I don’t think that’s quite it. I’ve driven around L.A.: if you avoid certain congested intersections and the freeways—which aren’t interesting chased locations, anyway—there’s hardly any traffic. Shut down the streets, Los Angeles. Give us the car chases we both desire and deserve.

Bones (Fox)—All right, let’s take a moment to ignore the ridiculous convenience of Booth and his son finding the finger in the birds’ nest. It’s about the journey, people, not the crappy, crappy setup, and this episode—while imperfect—had quite a lot to love. Michael Badalucco (The Practice, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) did a great job as this week’s lab assistant. Like last week’s appearance of Undeclared‘s Carla Gallo, I wanted him to stick around. Unlike Gallo, I don’t think he’ll make another appearance. He definitely made the best of what they gave him, though.

More “Hey! It’s that guy!” fun: of course “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan was around, but this week’s round of suspects included Dean Norris (the DEA brother-in-law on Breaking Bad, who was also on Terminator this week), Adam Rose (Dooley on The CW’s late, lamented Aliens in America) and Devon Graye (um…Teenage Dexter on Dexter). Bones has upped the ante in getting guest stars, which might explain why they have not yet fallen prey to the “cartoonish supervillain” ending that has plagued them (and most other procedurals). Kudos to that.

The dog-fighting component of the story unsettled me a bit—especially the tragic ending, which Emily Deschanel nailed—but one of the most useful aspects of procedurals, from a sociological standpoint, is its exploration of contemporary issues through the prism of a “good guys always win” format. It seems like every other day, a new dog-fighting ring is uncovered, so sometimes it’s nice to turn to a television show that tries to get at the uncomfortable truths while still giving us a good-guy victory.

The subplot involving Sweets, Hodgins and Badalucco finally gives us some closure and some insight into Hodgins’ feelings for the moment. I’ll reluctantly admit that I’m shirking my duty as a critic who commits to memory far too much inane television minutiae, because until they mentioned it, I forgot about the sweet friendship between Hodgins and Zack. I even forgot about “King of the Lab”—what the hell? Bringing it all back, and allowing Hodgins to deal with both that and the stupid collapse of his relationship with Angela, gave us several nice moments between Hodgins and Sweets. Sweets, himself, also had some engaging moments with Parker. He still brings the funny, but they’re allowing him to remain competent, as well. Nice job, Bones writers.

Burn Notice (USA)—I can’t believe they blew up Michael’s loft! I also can’t believe how much ass this finale kicked! I give the writers, cast and crew a shitload of credit for being able to make such a balls-to-the-wall action show with what must be a modest, basic-cable budget. The location shooting in Miami helps, but they’ve done great work choreographing stunt sequences, car chases, explosions (I know the loft thing was CGI or some other kind of special effect, but they’ve had other, real explosions in past episodes). I’m not convinced Tricia Helfer is a spectacular villain—Michael Shanks, playing a crony of hers, was much more entertaining—but her assassination plot, whatever it is, has been a compelling season-long arc, and I look forward to seeing both the conclusion and whatever the writers have planned to top it. January can’t come quickly enough.

Eureka (Sci-Fi)—I sort of like the idea of giving Eureka this detailed history that Eva Thorne wants to exploit (or explore), but something hit me like a ton of bricks during this week’s episode: I don’t care. I don’t care about what she’s looking for, I don’t care about whether or not she finds it, I don’t care about Jack preventing her from finding it, or finding it first, or whatever’s going to happen. This season, Eureka has sapped all the caring from me.

I have to think about why this is and how it happened. A big part of it, I won’t deny, lies in the disastrous decision to turn Stark into little more than a bland romantic foil, prompting Ed Quinn to bail on the show. More importantly, its characters have lost their quirk, or maybe they just haven’t developed new quirks to remain interesting. Eureka garnered some early—and, at the time, deserved—comparisons to Northern Exposure, a classic show about small-town eccentrics. But remember how, even in the fourth or fifth season of Northern Exposure, we were still learning new things about those old characters, or we were watching them grow and change in new, unique ways, discovering new things about themselves on their journeys through life?

Eureka is “just a sci-fi show,” but it’s lost that nuance. Every episode has become so plot-focused, even this week’s mayoral election had more to do with rounding up this week’s group of suspects than it did with tossing the characters into a new environment. Remember Northern Exposure‘s mayoral election, in which jailbird anti-establishment philosopher-poet Chris Stevens shows a surprising reverence for the democratic process? In which Holling begins to question himself, his competence and his desire to remain mayor? What did Eureka give us? The closest thing to character development came from Lexi, who is a new character we don’t know anything about. Showing Fargo scheming and Zoey being shrill and irritating? These are not new shades for them.

So the C story of What Thorne Is Up To intrigued me last week, with her curt “No,” in response to Carter demanding information. It was something unexpected, new, different. Now, I’m back to not caring. Unless it turns out to be an even goofier plug for Degree antiperspirant than this week’s “the sun’s melting—let’s use Zane’s magic cooling potion developed in the Degree-sponsored lab!”

Flashpoint (CBS)—This phenomenal episode, well-written by Tracey Forbes (who also wrote the bizarre but compelling teenage girl-game episode a few weeks ago), served as a textbook example of what this show does best—balancing heart-rending criminal portraits with action and the materials of a routine procedural. They did a better job of blending the “cop conflict” with the crime story than they have in several weeks, but the episode belonged to guest stars Tatiana Maslany and Peter Stebbings. Their portrayals lent an uncomfortable reality to the warped “family” unit the SRU stumbled upon. Then, they each went one better as their unit unraveled—Maslany grappling with the confusion of reality crashing in around her, and Stebbings feeling terror and panic as he attempts to flee. That’s not to say the regular cast brings the show down or anything, but Flashpoint has excelled in hiring exceptional guest stars, and none better than this episode. Excellent work all around. It’s so good, I can’t believe it’s on CBS.

Fringe (Fox)—I am very much on the fence, although a mild breeze could knock me onto the lawn of Sucks Ass Estates. Last week’s pilot spent much of its time establishing characters, overarching concepts and a hard-sell relationship between Olivia Dunham and John Scott (better known as Keen Eddie). The “freak-of-the-week” story, about Scott getting some sort of wacky freezing disease, took a major backseat. This is fine, until one realizes all the press has stated this show will be a standalone procedural—not driven by mythology or serialized stories. This worked for the first season of Alias, but here… It’s problematic, to say the least.

Unfortunately, I never say the least, so let’s keep rolling. Fringe has a lot of good elements, but the whole doesn’t match the sum of its parts. Much of this had to do with the plot, a generic rehash of 1960’s The Leech Woman that actually worsened that B-movie cheesefest’s plot. The Leech Woman tells the story of a depressed, middle-aged alcoholic who discovers a revolutionary—but murderous—way to make herself young again. She is driven not so much by vanity but by the psychological toll her abusive marriage has taken (the first line of the movie is her husband saying, “Well, that’s a novelty, your refusing anything with alcohol in it”). Obviously, this is filtered through the sexism and simple-minded reasoning of the era, but there is some real meat to the story, conceptually—ripe for a contemporary updating.

So what does Fringe offer? Some guy who wants to stay young for some reason, and he’s aided by his (possibly figurative) “father,” another mad scientist Walter coincidentally happens to have worked with. For all its good moments—all having to do more with character interaction and development than the failed freak-of-the-week story—this episode epitomized Homer Simpson’s observation that TV stories have no morals, they’re “just a bunch of stuff that happened.” Sometimes that’s true, but even CSI: Miami‘s most ridiculous episode (“Double Jeopardy,” season four, episode 18) didn’t leave me with such an empty feeling.

Oh, and Anna Torv still leaves plenty to be desired as the anchor of this sinking ship. However, I really enjoyed the strained father-son dynamic between Walter and Peter. Walter’s walking the fine line between the creepy/odd vibe and just flat-out becoming Futurama‘s Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth, but for the moment, they’re doing a more interesting job with Abrams’ “daddy issues” storytelling staple than Alias did (as weird as the relationship between Sydney and Jack got).

I’ll give it another week—two if it’s lucky—but this might be the quickest show I’ve ever willingly dropped off my viewing schedule.

Mad Men (AMC)—Although I feel bad for Joan, Mad Men took a surprising misstep in not quite showing us whether or not she had the aptitude for this job. They showed us that she enjoyed it, yes, and that the tongue-wagging Maytag sponsors enjoyed her, but they glossed over whether or not she was really good. I suppose the scene where she busts in on Harry’s suggestions to recommend the upcoming As the World Turns “must-see” summer storyline. Does that show her aptitude? I guess the fact that As the World Turns is still on the air and Love of Life isn’t shows the difference, but it’s not like Love of Life got canceled two weeks later—it last until 1980.

However, the fact that she enjoyed it and understood the function of the job—as opposed to the guy Harry hired, who seemed like a total jackass—made me feel bad. Much as I enjoy the show, they do need to iron out some of their “villainy” characteristics. Maybe the guy Harry hired will blossom into a rich character, but he seems to exist like Joan’s own personal Duck Phillips: a semi-competent boob who exists to make us align with the characters the writers want us to like. The thing is, I’ve never liked Don, Joan or any number of other characters. Fascinated by them? Sure. Like them? Well, the writers have given us enough empathy to forgive plenty of their foibles, but I wouldn’t define any of them as “likable.”

Speaking of unlikable, Don’s in the doghouse. Again. I didn’t expect Betty to confront him about it so quickly. I understand that roughly a month has passed since last week’s episode, but we didn’t get to see it fester, build and boil over. Or, if we were supposed to have seen that in this episode, we didn’t get enough of it. I’m a big fan of Betty, but last season she had an internal struggle that simmered until she took a shotgun to the neighbor’s pigeons. Part of this change made her more assertive, I understand, but I sort of enjoyed her sniping about everything but the real problem. She put the screws to Don too quickly, but I guess that shows some progression on her part. I can’t fault them, even if I can’t enjoy a weekly dose of Passive-Aggression Theatre.

Raising the Bar (TNT)—I know the main goal here was to tackle a variety of issues involving paranoid schizophrenics who commit crimes, but the only thing I really liked was the end: with a not-guilty verdict on one crime and a light sentence on the other, Will gets released without having to do any kind of treatment program (inpatient or out). It’s this kind of bittersweet pseudo-conclusion that will set Raising the Bar apart from other procedurals, but they need to work on the rest of it. I’m writing this section less than 24 hours after I watched the episode, and I had to look up a synopsis to remember the subplot that found Richard trying to work things out with the woman up against the welfare-office security guard. The Will story was more memorable and more fleshed-out, but with the exception of Kellerman, it didn’t have much effect on anyone else in the cast. I know Kellerman is the glue that holds the show together, but I believed it to be an ensemble show—this episode didn’t much to utilize the full cast, and the only instance where that made the episode better was in the reduced screen-time for Melissa Sagemiller.

I’ll go ahead and attribute this to early-episode jitters. Hopefully, the writers will find their groove and do a better job of giving everyone something interesting to do.

Sons of Anarchy (FX)—A massive improvement over last week, giving us a relatively self-contained plot—the story of the raped girl—while furthering the serial subplots, bringing us back to the baby and giving us a bit more depth on “the two women in Jax’s life,” Tara and Wendy.

They also added some dimension to the gang itself: first, that they aren’t all bad (willing to go after the rapist simply because he’s a blight on Charming); second, that they’re looked to for justice before the police. This continues to build the idea that we’re headed for a “bikers vs. sheriff’s department” showdown, but it also shows that the Sons of Anarchy have more going on than gun-running and drug-dealing. It also strongly hints at what the gang was in its early days—before it got corrupted in the usual ways “organized crime” does.

The episode did have a down side, though: how could a biker vs. carny brawl possibly be bad? Here are a few ways: awkward, stilted editing and poor blocking that makes it look more like homoerotic square-dancing than a bad-ass fight. If they’re going to continue to have fight scenes—especially big-group fight scenes—they need to hire a choreographer or find a director who can inject some cleverness into the staging.

Supernatural (The CW)—Supernatural proves, once again, why it is much better than most television-watchers think. This is one of the better premieres in recent memory, ably reestablishing characters and conflicts, solving mysteries, creating a new long-term arc, but containing all of that in the traditional freak-of-the-week formula. You might recall my biggest fear—keeping Sam and Dean separated for too long—was allayed within the first 10 minutes of the episode, so let’s hope they keep them together rather than finding ways to keep them apart. I also have to admit, it surprised me how much the “Angel of the Lord” reveal satisfied me. I love the idea of Dean (Sam, too, but mostly Dean) fighting for God. It can—and almost certainly will—bring fascinating shades to the characters and the Supernatural universe in general.

I’m a little disappointed that they decided to keep the character of Ruby but place her in a different body. I don’t know if Katie Cassidy quit or if they canned her, but if it’s the latter, it seems like salt in the wound to first fire her, then have her character killed in a rather grisly fashion, then have her pop up in a different actress’s body.

It’s a small complaint, though. Mostly, I’m amazed by how thrilled I am to have this show back—and the strength of this premiere has a lot to do with that excitement.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox)—Why can’t more shows be like this? I don’t have to keep beating dead horses with Sarah Connor Chronicles. Last week, I made an offhand mention of casting Sonya Walger in a role that amounted to little more than a cameo. This week, she’s back and integrated into a new Ellison storyline. That’s right: Ellison’s actually contributing something more than vague creepiness, which addresses another brief complaint from last week. And, of course, Shirley Manson had approximately four seconds of screen time, so all three of last week’s nitpicks have been addressed and corrected.

On to new developments: I was surprised to see Zack Ward in such a tiny role. He’s coming right off the “success” of over-the-top goof-fest Postal, but audiences know him better as Scut Farkus from A Christmas Story and Dave on Titus. Like the mysterious casting of Andre Royo last season, I have to wonder if there’s an overarching plan to cast high-quality actors in more future-set storylines. They’re dropping like flies in the present, but Derek’s flashback/forward suggests more is going on with the future than meets the eye.

The idea of Sarah and Cameron infiltrating the power plant works on paper, showing that the stakes will get higher the more Sarah/John/Cameron/Derek succeed in fighting Judgment Day. The execution faltered a bit, though. For all my praise last season of getting the technical science with the Turk and Deep Fritz right—well, I’m not a nuclear technician, but meltdowns are harder to avert on The Simpsons than they were in this episode. Maybe I should give them the benefit of the doubt, but it just seems implausible that closing a valve will save everyone.

Meanwhile, John got a girlfriend, and I felt a tinge of jealousy from Cameron. It’ll be interesting to see how this new addition (I noticed she’s a regular, out of the blue) will shake up the dynamic. Or maybe she’s secretly evil. With this show, it’s kinda hard to tell. On a related note, seeing the incredibly pregnant Busy Philipps as the Connors’ new landlord got me a little excited. I don’t know if she’ll appear in more episodes or not, but she’s still hilarious, so the more, the merrier.

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The Results Are In…

The Emmys were Sunday, and while the show itself was regarded as a disaster, I have to applaud some of the dark-horse winners: Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad and Zeljko Ivanek from Damages both did exceptional work, worthy of the accolades and awards they’ve received. Plenty of other winners deserved it, but they were mostly the obvious choices. I could go on and on about my issues with 30 Rock and disappointment with its truckload of awards, but what’s the use? If you like the show, I won’t change your mind; if you don’t, I’m the sympathetic shoulder to lean on.

Bones (Fox)—This episode marked the return of Zack, who I find I didn’t miss all that much. I liked the small amount of character de-assassination after last season’s rushed finale. I didn’t have as much of a problem with the Zack reveal as other Bones viewers—it surprised me, but it didn’t enrage me. Maybe it’s because I never had much fondness for Zack, or because they explained his motivation in a rational (but rushed) manner. And, again, because I’m not a big Zack fan, I found myself feeling sorry for the Benjamin McKenzie-esque new intern. He seemed like a nice guy, as smart and socially inept as Zack, but then he has his heart broken by Zack the Sociopath breaking out of the hospital (in a very poorly telegraphed way—sorry, Bones writers). At least they didn’t try to make us laugh or scoff at his misery, with the writers pointing out the insular nature of this group.

They’ve used Sweets as comic relief since he started, so it was nice to get a little bit of dramatic work from John Francis Daley—anyone who’s seen Freaks & Geeks knows he’s more than capable for this kind of work. That final scene with Zack was very effective, thanks to the writers not having Sweets fall back on his nerdy charm.

The mystery itself had some interesting moments—notably Brennan’s self-examination after talking to the obnoxious publisher—but overall, it returned to the show’s older mold of predictable criminals and took it one step further by even making the motivation for the murder predictable. I’m usually terrible at guessing whodunit and why, but this episode I had it called by the end of the first act—and I was right.

Eureka (Sci-Fi)—They had a decent finale after a crappy season, and they did a decent enough job of explaining What Thorne’s Deal Is, but I’ve had it with this show. The finale wasn’t bad, but it didn’t reaffirm my faith in the show’s quality, nor did it suggest any paths that would lead to its continued improvement. Sorry, Eureka. You had a good first and second season—too bad it had to end so soon.

Fringe (Fox)—This week definitely improved on last week’s colossal failure. It’s not enough to take me off the fence—for better or worse—but it combined passable entertainment with a plot that made a small amount of sense. Plus, while many elements of the episode are derivative, the aping wasn’t nearly as direct as last week’s Leech Woman, and it also wasn’t nearly as stupid…

…but it was still sorta stupid. I have to ding Astrid Farnsworth a little, because the first attempt at character development she gets—that she majored in linguistics—makes her seem like an idiot almost immediately thereafter. Seriously, she can parse Latin and come up with “South Street Station” immediately, but “hora” trips her up? “Hora,” or a variation on it, is “hour” in, like, five different languages. Come on! This might seem like a minor nitpick, but it represents of the sloppiness that’s plagued the show from the start.

Yes, sloppiness, Fringe‘s biggest obstacle. Look at the three episodes so far. One reason that Olivia Dunham hasn’t yet ingratiated herself as a character is that she doesn’t have a strong personality or, really, any sense of direction. Part of the dullness stems from Anna Torv’s still-awful performance, but after three episodes, I’m almost willing to swallow my pride and say she’d give a better performer if they wrote a more solid character. So far, Dunham has stumbled into the series’ premise by accident. She spends about two scenes per episode doing actual investigation, and after that she leaves it up to Wally and Peter. Olivia Dunham was presented in the pilot as our window into this world, but she doesn’t seem to actually care about this world. But, then, neither does any other character, with the possible exception of Broyles, who’s too closed off and “mysterious” to be bothered with. We’re dealing with the world of “fringe science,” so where’s the sense of wonder? I don’t see this show as a rip-off of The X-Files because that show gave us two very strong, forceful characters off the bat. One true believer, one skeptic, forced together. Everyone on Fringe believes, but none of them care. They just do what they do because the plot tells them they have to solve the mystery before the hour ends—that’s sloppy. Even if this slovenly approach to writing doesn’t destroy the show quickly, it still begs the question: if Dunham doesn’t care, and the writers don’t care, why should we?

Another hint of bigger problems down the road came from this week’s guest star, the tormented psychic tuned into the supposed “ghost network.” So far, he’s the most interesting and likable character in the show’s brief history—a problem considering he isn’t a series regular. This speaks well of Zak Orth, the actor who played Roy, but it signals a major problem in the show. I know it’s plot-driven, I know they’re trying to avoid the manic soap opera that Alias became and Lost and Felicity always were, but… What drives these people? Broyles is driven by an obsession with The Pattern, but his reasons for the obsession remain a mystery. That’s fine, but what interests do the remaining characters have? None of them seem to care about The Pattern one way or the other, so why are they even a part of this team?

I have too many questions, but these aren’t the Lost-style mysteries that keep me watching; these are holes in the writing that will most likely make me stop watching.

Heroes (NBC)—With so much hype surrounding the return of Heroes, which squandered both creative potential and audience goodwill in its disaster of a second season, the two-hour third-season premiere could only disappoint. I didn’t expect it to blow me away, and it didn’t. However, I also didn’t expect it to be a total disaster, and in many ways… It was.

The plodding pace and stupid, stupid decisions plaguing the first hour made me lose hope altogether, but I will reluctantly admit that things picked up in the second hour. However, both hours made me realize the exact nature of Heroes‘ problem:

Everyone needs to die.

Maybe that’s a little drastic, but at the very least, a significant amount of fat needs trimming. The show’s cast and number of storylines continue to bloat, while maintaining characters who have, at best, lost their initial intrigue and mystique or, at worst, have become so soul-crushingly moronic that they’re no longer relatable as humans. They’ve become pawns in slipshod, nonsensical stories. Here are a few random examples, taken solely from this third-season premiere:

Sylar—Sylar’s the poster boy for characters who should have died—and stayed dead—at the end of season one. The moment he slunk off into the sewer, I knew Heroes was worse off for it. I know Sylar has his contingent of cat-lady fans who believe, if someone just loves him enough, he’d stop being evil—but from a creative standpoint, he’s worn out his welcome. I liked him in the first season—an effective villain with a fascinating backstory. What was creepy in season one became tedious and one-note in season two, and now…

First off, the writers probably made the absolute dumbest decision by allowing Sylar to absorb Claire’s power. But they also take the blame for the character’s stupidity, as well. What kind of plan is this? “I’ll just walk into immortal Claire’s house and try to fuck with her.” Good call, dude! Also, Sylar, who has absorbed such a wide variety of powers, somehow can’t do away with the cheapest, ricketiest particle-board pantry doors ever displayed on television?

Claire Bennet—Big points off for succumbing to the following horror-movie clichés: running and hiding in an enclosed space with no other exits, stopping to admire her handiwork after stabbing Sylar (thus allowing him to get the drop on her before she could flee), not immediately killing him the instant she sees him. You might say part of her is scared, but I’ll go ahead and say another part of her is immortal. Just, like: Sylar. Ahh. Stab. Instead, she lets him do his James Bond villain routine as she backs away, terrified. None of this even approached the level of suspense of a D-list ’70s horror movie. Know why? It’s no longer the ’70s! We’ve seen it, and the poor writing and poor blocking made both Claire and Sylar seem incredibly dumb.

Peter Petrelli… OF THE FUTURE!!!—The full list of Peter Petrelli stupid moments would take up more space than this column, so I’ll pick my favorite. Try to follow this one. Peter Petrelli can travel through time. He uses this to travel back four years and shoot his brother to change the future. Then, he finds out he’s made things worse. And he just stares mournfully and lets his mother browbeat. Peter, you can still travel through time! Why not go and repair the problems he’s created, or go back to five minutes before the shooting and convince the other him to not shoot Nathan. It’s hard to argue with yourself from a day in the future.

Hiro Nakamura—Remember the ire I spewed at the House season finale, in which the writers decided to destroy the House-Wilson friendship (the only part of the show still worth watching)? It kills me to say this, but Tim Kring & Co. have done the same thing with my beloved Hiro and Ando. Worse than that, they’ve given Hiro the dumbest imaginable reason for distrusting Ando. “In a weird vision four years in the future, I see a version of you kill me with a superpower you don’t have.” In a world of shape-shifters and other deceptions, why automatically assume this is Ando? And why would this affect your present-day relationship with him? If anything, it might make Hiro work a little harder toward self-examination. “What is it about me that might make my best friend want to kill me? It couldn’t possibly be me dragging him on adventures, despite his unwillingness. Clearly he’ll just become evil one day.” And let’s not even get into the writers using the “apocalyptic future vision” crutch yet again.

Mohinder Suresh—Anyone who’s watched more than one episode of Heroes already knows that Mohinder is extremely gullible (not to mention the world’s worst “scientist”). He took it to the next level in this premiere, where he sucks some semen-resembling fluid out of Maya, analyzes it, and injects some magical fluid into himself to gain his own powers. Then he overdoes it, and if things play out the way it looks like they will, this whole subplot will devolve into a lame metaphor for addiction a la Willow’s magic addiction on the sixth season of Buffy. You guys didn’t need to give me another reason to dislike Mohinder.

And these are just the dumb characters. Don’t even get me started on the superfluous characters—Maya, Niki/Jessica/Tracy, Nathan, Micah… I’d even go so far as to say Elle Bishop is fairly pointless as a character. So if they’re going to continue me down a path of hating Hiro and Ando, if they’re going to make Claire stupid and separate her from Noah—all I have left is Parkman, who’s stuck on an African safari that may end up as this season’s “Hiro stays in feudal Japan way too long” subplot.

This is a show that’s dependent on being interested in at least some of the subplots happening. At the end of the day, it’s just another primetime soap: you have characters you love and hate, stories that are awesome and dull… After this premiere, I’m only interested in one story—Peter… OF THE PRESENT stuck in the body of Veronica Mars‘ Francis Capra, hanging around with a group of thugs that includes Jamie Hector (who played Marlo Stanfield on The Wire). Everything else? Eh.

What a disaster. I hope it gets better, but don’t be surprised if I bail in the next few weeks.

The Office (NBC)—For the most part, The Office has opted to ignore summers. It hasn’t bothered me, but I have talked to some people who are a little bothered by the show’s documentary conceit ignoring summers. After all, work goes on year-round. But, come on: much as I enjoy this show, it’s a sitcom. If you’re going to nitpick the realism of the documentary style, you also have to nitpick the realism of Dwight Schrute, and the whole thing falls apart. It’s my job to take this stuff too seriously (see Heroes above), and I’m telling you not to sweat it.

Nonetheless, this year The Office writers came up with a nifty idea to cover the summer quickly—with a Dunder-Mifflin weight-loss program of epic proportions. Although it caused a lot of great, in-character chaos—Kelly’s crash diet, Dwight’s hostility toward the larger people in the office, Michael’s horrible “Michael Klump” pep-talk—it almost felt like a subplot in comparison to the relationship drama unfolding around. Of the various stories they tackled, the one that most interests me the most is the Kelly-Ryan-Darryl triangle. Combined with Ryan’s enemies list, this could end up providing some of the funniest material in the upcoming season.

I’m a little less enthusiastic about the sheer number of romantic triangles in play: Michael-Jan-Holly, Dwight-Angela-Andy, Jim-Pam-???—if anyone wants to nitpick the realism, look no further than this. Four love triangles in one office that has maybe 20 people in it (including the warehouse)? I like all of these characters, and I don’t even mind the ideas contained in these triangles, but I do wish they could find more natural, workplace-related sources of conflict. Anything on par with Stanley’s classic outburst last season would be nice.

Raising the Bar (TNT)—This week, Raising the Bar took a pretty interesting idea—that of defending the killer of someone you’ve also defended—but didn’t do as much with it as they could have. I guess they had to make room for more exciting banter between Kellerman and Ernhardt. Still, this episode did have one big thing going for it: a recurring role for the awesome David Selby. He played several variations of Quentin Collins on Dark Shadows, the legendary ’60s soap whose mind-blowing greatness paved the way for shows like Kolchak: The Night Stalker (the original TV movie was actually directed by Dan Curtis, producer and creator of Dark Shadows) and, all the way down the line, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, whose combination of black humor and soap-opera histrionics bore more similarities to Dark Shadows than anyone wants to admit. It’s a great show, and Selby played the hell out of a character with Shakespearean complexity. He should have been a much bigger star, but alas… At least he’s on Raising the Bar now, however briefly.

Sons of Anarchy (FX)—I still don’t know where this show stands with me, but it’s compelling enough to keep me interested. Part of it is the difficulty of not having any idea where it’s going, long-term—running around trying to expand their territory is an interesting premise for an episode, but will this decision impact them in the future? Will the shootout? It had some great standalone moments—the entire subplot with Jax’s new “old lady,” feeding the dog meth—but this show rarely feels finished, operating more like a miniseries than an actual series. I don’t know why this bothers me. I guess it’s an act of endless plate-spinning that could come crashing down at any time, as opposed to plate-spinning for an hour a week, then winding it down and waiting for later.

I’ve seen too many shows sag under these conditions, which makes me appreciate shows that can balance long-term arcs with standalone episodes (Lost, Breaking Bad, Mad Men) and appreciate even more shows that can keep everything in play without anything collapsing (The Wire is the only show that did this with unwavering consistency for five seasons—every other show, no matter how good at times, has fallen apart or stayed past its expiration date). So, you know, I like this show, but it makes me worry more than it should. I guess creator Kurt Sutter’s description of the show as a modern Hamlet should give me some security that they know where they’re going, but I know Hamlet, and it doesn’t end well for anyone involved.

Supernatural (The CW)—Great job with the continuity and finding a decent motivation to have all these characters return. Meg, Henriksen, Ronald and some creepy Shining sisters (from Bobby’s past), all coming back as ghosts unleashed by… Well, Lilith, I think. They’re here to cause distracting havoc while Lilith breaks some seals that separate our wonderful, peaceful planet with an apocalyptic hellhole. Aside from my continuing doubts about Genevieve Cortese replacing Katie Cassidy as Ruby, this season will kick major ass if they stick with this arc and keep up the level of momentum.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox)—So Cromartie kidnaps Sonya Walger, who I’m tempted to call Penny because she played Penelope Widmore so memorably on Lost and has been less memorable here, as Michelle, but I’ve tried to impose a rule where I won’t refer to characters by their names from a previous show. I may not always stick to this rule, but feel free to point it out when I do. I’ve seen it on other television-related sites, and it bugs me. Anyway, Walger’s less-memorable role here is not really her fault, especially now that her character is dead.

What is memorable is how stupid and avoidable her death is. I don’t know if it’s a positive or negative that Michelle’s death is her own stupid fault. Sarah didn’t exactly force her Bataan death march through the desert; in fact, Sarah told her to stay behind until they found transportation and/or help, but Michelle refused. Was this cheap ploy by the writers to kill her Michelle off without putting the blood on Sarah’s hands? It would disappoint me if that were the case, because the writers haven’t pulled many punches so far, but it does strike me as a bit of Character Assassination Theatre to have this person barely exist, then bring her in the forefront only to be tortured by Cromartie, then die of her own stupidity.

They could have had Cromartie kill her—his “mousetrap” ruse still could have worked, if he knows of the human desire to bury loved ones. Charley would still want to take her, there would still be a bomb, it would prompt similar arguments, but the killing would make Michelle seem so dumb or, I don’t know, jealous? (Her decision to go with them definitely seemed motivated by something resembling fear of Charley and Sarah gallivanting off together.) Or maybe they could have had her, you know, wait but still die. It provides the exact same conflict with Charley and Sarah: “You never should have made me leave her alone.” Instead, it’s “You never should have let her come with us.”

On a more positive note, Cromartie’s plans are becoming a bit more sophisticated. In fact, if you look at it, he may have engineered this “mousetrap” ploy going all the way back to Ellison. Cromartie’s interactions with Ellison led him to confess to Michelle, which led her and Charley to leave town, which led them on a predictable path that the cyborg exploited. Related to that, the imagery of Charley abandoning Ellison’s Bible, while rushed a bit, was pretty effective. I don’t know if the character’s role is expanding, but this is a good setup for the future.

Similarly, I enjoyed the pier chase with John. We’re learning more about these terminators—and they’re learning more about themselves. I’m pretty sure Cromartie won’t fall for the old “dive into the ocean” routine a second time. They’re also giving us an odd “jealousy” type of angle with Cameron and Riley might not work in the long run, but in the short-term it’s a very intriguing idea, integrating this “normal” girl into the Connors’ warped family unit. I just hope they don’t make her “evil.”

Speaking of villains, relegating Shirley Manson to one short scene per episode is an excellent creative decision. I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but I think the character of Catherine Weaver has potential—maybe Manson will grow into the role over time, but for now, her acting leaves a bit to be desired. But commissioning Ellison to seek out some other terminator—goldmine. Continuing him on his warped religious quest while deepening the terminator mythos? What’s better than that?

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Diminishing Returns

Everyone, I have some shocking news: ratings are down. In a trend blamed largely on the writers’ strike, second-year shows are especially down, but all television shows are down overall. Networks want to blame the strike, citing the apparent no-brain that when the shows went off for too long, it didn’t occur to viewers that they’d come back this fall. Thanks for treating TV owners like a gaggle of simple-minded rubes, networks! That’ll really draw in the viewers!

Look, in the day and age of TiVo, thousands of free online TV guides, digital downloads, streaming and the thousands of other ways people can find out about—and watch—their favorite shows, it’s asinine to suggest nobody realizes the shows have come back. It’s asinine to suggest that maybe viewers forgot these shows’ alleged greatness. For the past three or four years, 24 has aired in a five-month shot from January to May, leaving a seven-month gap in between—yet it still manages to find an audience. Same deal with Lost and Medium, both of which recently attempted the same airing pattern. Basic-cable shows often air in the same way, in 13-week chunks with a nine-month break in the middle, and while they never managed the ratings of the networks, they don’t lose viewers who just forgot the show existed.

Most of the articles referencing this alleged decline use season averages—for instance, ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money had 7.1 million viewers for this week’s premiere, down one million from last season’s average, but up from its finale in December (6.5 million); Pushing Daisies did see a sharp decrease, but not as sharp as they’d like you to think. While it lost around three million viewers from its average, the premiere (6.8 million) dropped around half a million viewers from its December finale (6.3 million). However, while Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles—last season’s best new show—performed reasonably well last season, (averaging eight million and scoring slightly above average in its season finale), it debuted to 6.33 million viewers and has seen a drop of nearly one million viewers since then.

You might think that proves the network’s case—viewers just plain forgot about it. Except for one thing: Terminator started its run in January and ended in March.

I’d put it down to the quality of the shows, except Terminator is still great (and getting better), while I saw the Pushing Daisies premiere as a bit of a disappointment, and I’ve already lost interest in Dirty Sexy Money (see below). I could chalk it up to Fox’s notoriously bad promotion of its own shows, or their bastard-stepchild treatment of it, or the fact that sci-fi is a hard sell (even if it comes packaged with the Terminator brand).

The fact is, I don’t know why people aren’t watching. Maybe they don’t see what I see. Whatever the reason, it’s not because they forgot about it.

Bones (Fox)—What a lackluster episode. A nonsense story about Booth wanting a chair, making the Angela-Hodgins breakup even stupider by having Angela conflicted about the awkwardness and a meager mystery enhanced only by casting a guy who acted guilty as a ruse. Bones set itself apart from usual half-assed procedurals with strong characters and amusing writing. After last week, I guess I expected too much. I’d like to think of this as a craptacular cool-down. Hopefully they’ll put more thought into next week’s episode.

Dirty Sexy Money (ABC)—I figured its second-season premiere is the best time to let you all know that I’ve bailed on this show. Although it’s not a bad show, it started to make creative decisions that made me less and less enthusiastic about it as the weeks went by—mainly the emphasis on the Nick-Karen relationship nobody cares about. The final nail in the coffin actually came during the hiatus, when ABC announced that Samaire Armstrong’s real-life shenanigans forced them to reduce her from a regular to a recurring character until such time as they can write her off the show completely. Armstrong didn’t make or break the show, but the twins’ relationship was one of the highlights.

At the end of the day, I just watch too much TV, and this was at the bottom of the list of shows I would watch if I had more time. But I don’t, so I won’t.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—Paul Ben-Victor (who memorably played Vondas on The Wire but has been in no fewer than 800,000 other TV series and movies) joins the Everybody Hates Chris as a new foil for Chris; unlike Ms. Morello, he’s bigoted out of dickishness, not ignorance. The story did little more than establish new ground for Chris, so I don’t know where they intend to take the conflict, but let’s hope they give his character some more dimension (as they did with Ms. Morello). On other fronts, I’m glad to see Greg’s still kicking around, and Tanya’s subplot working in the beauty shop was pretty amusing for what little screen time it got. This was a solid, funny episode, but because of the natural focus on Chris, we didn’t get quite so much of the sharp, well-observed comedy from the vast supporting cast. But hey, there’s time for that.

Fringe (Fox)—Let me start, as Fringe often does, by laying down a straightforward idea in the most confusing possible way: for many of the same reasons, the past week’s show was both Fringe‘s best and worst episode.

The good: details on “The Pattern,” giving one of the characters (Peter) a legitimate conflict to work through and resolve by episode’s end, the creepy hairless guy, the “good” vs. “bad” mind-readers. Even the overall plot, as nonsensical and unresolved as it was, kept me more interested than the usual “new spin on a shitty B-movie” storytelling.

The bad: thanks to the details on “The Pattern” and the introduction of the creepy hairless guy who may or may not be an alien or a time-traveler or something otherworldly, Fringe won’t shed its “X-Files Lite” image any time soon. Living in the shadow of such an iconic show is a double-edged sword: The X-Files‘ best material makes Fringe look like something written in crayon by Young Authors participant; The X-Files‘ worst leads me to assume Fringe will succumb to an enormous decline in quality and coherency, making it seem like a wasteful time investment. (The fact that Alias suffered the same fate doesn’t help Fringe‘s case, either.)

The ugly: Walter’s monologue. More interesting than anything ever featured on the show, achingly delivered by John Noble, this could have been Fringe‘s defining moment. But the underlying ideas—that Walter met the Observer once before, that he saved both Walter’s and Peter’s lives, and that one day he “might need” Walter—undid the good things brimming to the surface in this episode. Peter accepting the notion of The Pattern was enough; we don’t need to put these two main characters at the center of The Pattern. It makes everything both too neat and too convoluted…

Then again, that’s pretty much Fringe in a nutshell.

Heroes (NBC)—My heart sank when I saw the promo pairing Noah Bennet and Sylar. After my enormous disappointment with last week’s premiere, I wondered how much further the show could sink. That promo answered the question.

So it surprised the hell out of me that I didn’t hate the episode. Granted, I still didn’t like the Bennet-Sylar team. I don’t like anything about Mama Petrelli being Sylar’s mother, either. Christine Rose brought an alarming, incestuous quality to their scenes together that made the whole concept much more interesting than anything in the writing—but I’m still not on board. None of it’s as terrible as I expected, but it heads all of these characters down roads that will get worse before they get better.

The disappointment train continues in the Hiro/Ando subplot. Thankfully, they ignored the premiere’s “Hiro no longer trust Ando” conceit until the end of the episode, which returned us to a bit of the old-school fun and charm of their friendship. However, the Flash girl—whose name I haven’t committed to memory—managed to drag the subplot down with her. When will television producers (and actors, for that matter) realize there’s very little cuteness to smug, obnoxious characters? If they’re trying to set up a possible romance between Hiro and the Flash girl, they need to try much, much harder. Even the tedium of his romance with the Japanese princess was more rewarding.

Meanwhile, the writers self-corrected some of their mistakes pretty quickly—yanking Nathan off the crazy train (sort of), yanking Peter out of Francis Capra’s evil, shout-powered body, and letting the two villains escape. The bank-heist subplot, rote as it was, actually worked for me. The writers showed more skill in presenting these new villain characters, even the ones that died, than they have in giving new twists on characters we already know. Even Parkman’s African safari has already come to the point and will, hopefully, end within the next episode or two. Most surprisingly, the storyline with “Tracy Strauss” got suddenly and surprisingly interesting. Her sad scenes with Micah were very affecting, but the “crazy ol’ doctor” stuff is what really piqued my interest.

I’m still not sure how I feel about this show, but unlike last week, the good outweighed the bad.

King of the Hill (Fox)—I tend to like Bill-focused episodes. Although he is, by far, the most tragic character in the Hills’ universe, his unbridled, misguided optimism always dulls the black-edged comedy of his existence. In this case, he’s diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes, and a hostile, House-like doctor browbeats Bill into buying a wheelchair, which convinces everyone he knows he’s disabled. Greedy for the attention, he lets them think this, befriends some actual disabled people—and, well, it gets kind of ugly from there.

One of the great things about the way the writers attacked this episode is that it doesn’t rely on humiliating Bill repeatedly; he makes a drunken mistake (by getting up and walking in front of his new, wheelchair-bound friends) and has to pay the price, but nobody laughs at him, nor does he laugh at anyone. He wants friends, he wants attention and—in one of the show’s funniest ironies—he really did have a problem, but hanging with the athletic disabled guys got him into the shape to keep his diabetes under control. They don’t vilify Bill or his new friends; in fact, Thunder (voiced by Jake “Body by Jake/Big Brother Jake” Steinfeld) works with Hank and the alley boys to pull Bill out of his post-humiliation funk.

They also did a good job of tying this into a Peggy-Bobby subplot in which she wants him to eat healthy so he doesn’t end up like Bill. It didn’t get much screen time, but it had a surprising—and satisfying—resolution. It offset Bill’s more-obvious “beat up Dr. House” ending.

Mad Men (AMC)—A friend once grumbled that he won’t watch Mad Men because he doesn’t like the idea of 21st-century writers saying “that’s how people were” in the ’60s. I could have mocked him for coming to this conclusion without ever seeing the show. I could have mocked him because, even if nobody on the writing staff was alive in the ’60s (which might not be true—I honestly don’t know), neither was my friend. Instead, I tried to reason that this isn’t a show about “the ’60s.” It may use the period to reflect on contemporary society, but it’s not trying to say, “This is how all people were at this time in history.” It’s saying, “This is how these people were at this time in their lives.” If he forced me to cite an example, this is the episode I’d choose.

So Freddy Rumsen pisses himself just before an important pitch, leading Duck and Roger to decide he has to go. It’s interesting, again, how they use Duck as a glowering villain—he’s a teetotaler!—instead of making him into a compelling character. Granted, I love the irony of calling him a teetotaler when he’s an ex-drunk, but he does nothing here but make Don angry, and we’re forced to pick Don’s side.

Freddy, Roger and Don go for one last night on the town before they send Freddy away for “the cure” and a six-month leave of absence, which even Freddy knows is a permanent vacation. With the exception of the high theatrics of Don slugging Jimmy Barrett, it was pretty much just a depressing, quiet night between three sad drunks. And yet, I’d wager it was a pivotal night for each of them—for Freddy, the change is obvious; for Don—well, I can’t imagine punching Jimmy will end well for either of them; and Roger, after listening to Don’s drunken ramblings justifying his own amoral behavior, decides to leave his wife… For Jane. I gotta say, I didn’t see that one coming, especially after Roger’s scene with Joan. And yet, you watch the scene again and realize it makes perfect sense. Well played, Mad Men.

Pushing Daisies (ABC)—The return of Pushing Daisies marks the return of my doubts about the show continuing its success in the long term. I still love the cast (Chenoweth excepted, though she’s 10% more tolerable when I can skip through her song-and-dance crap), they have great guest stars, and this week’s mystery might have been the most well-crafted since the pilot—

But they can’t keep up the pace. At a certain point, the “talking quickly = hilarity” formula will stop paying dividends. By the end of the first season, cracks formed in the cutesy façade. They started taking it into a character-focused, soap-opera direction, which normally I like but, for some intangible reason, it just didn’t work for me. Maybe it’s because these characters are so far from reality, I have a hard time feeling the empathy. Maybe it’s because the depressing moon-eyes between Ned and Chuck got less effective each time they repeated it. It’s telling that the only character whose story remains interesting is Emerson Cod’s. He’s the closest thing to a grounded, real character they have, and the pop-up book he’s designed to help his estranged daughter find him is as depressing as it is sweet. Will they abuse this the same way they abused Ned and Chuck?

I haven’t stopped watching, but I fear Pushing Daisies‘ future.

Raising the Bar (TNT)—Raising the Bar may not be the best show on television, but this week offered a textbook example of what the show wants to do—and, unlike last week, they did it pretty well. The closing bar scene between Jerry and Bobbi might have taken it from subtle to obvious, but the he finally articulated the difficulties of the criminal justice system without coming across like a whiner. The writers also focused more on this complicated case—and Jerry’s complicated defense—than on the interpersonal shenanigans. Ernhardt barely appeared in this episode, and the awkward “Bobbi’s married but flirting with Jerry and her husband’s kind of a dick” subplot actually worked for me. It was marginal enough to not distract from the cases, but it also didn’t feel extraneous. Well done.

Sons of Anarchy (FX)—I realized something about Sons of Anarchy that doesn’t bode well for its future, unless the writers get their acts together. Creator Kurt Sutter has fashioned a modern-day Hamlet story from this biker gang, but I find the story of recent ex-con Opie (Ryan Hurst) and his put-upon wife, Donna (played by Jericho‘s Sprague Grayden), much more compelling than storylines that get infinitely more screen-time.

The other characters do interest me, but the situations the writers have put them in, so far, have not piqued my interest. Some subplots have worked better than others, but it shouldn’t be such a crap-shoot. More than that, they shouldn’t keep the most interesting story and character relationship on the furthest back-burner—even in an episode that featured Opie prominently, his actual conflict took a backseat to the way the others felt about Kyle coming to town.

I have the patience to see the season through, but this episode just underscored all the mistakes the writers have made thus far, and it didn’t declare any intentions of repairing them. I don’t know how I feel about that; if they don’t want to improve the show, why should anyone keep watching it?

Supernatural (The CW)—Sometimes I’m shocked by how good this show is. Actually, it shocks me more often than I’d like to admit. I always want to lump this show in with middling sci-fi/horror fare like Charmed and The Ghost Whisperer, what with its pretty-boy cast and its EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: McG credit. Over the years, though, it’s grown into something great, and episodes like this week’s remind me of just how far it’s come since its pilot.

Aided by a thoroughly bad-ass guest appearance by The X-Files‘ Mitch Pileggi (who seems to be everywhere these days—not that I’m complaining), the episode took Dean back in time and explored the unusual history of the Winchester brood. They packed a whole lot of revelations into this: turns out, the Campbell side of the family were all hunters. The Yellow-Eyed Demon—who will kill the boys’ mother and torment them—comes prowling around Lawrence, making unfair “deal-with-the-Devil”-type trades to build some sort of half-human, half-demon army. That’s right, Sam’s psychic powers came straight from him and suggest he’ll go bad. Oh, and John Winchester knew nothing of the hunter ways at all, making it depressing and ironic that the lifestyle consumed him after her death. Also, the Yellow-Eyed Demon killed both of Dean’s grandparents, but not before letting Pileggi rock out as the demon-possessed old man. Then Dean’s mother had to make the deal to bring John back to life.

Got all that? In between, they shoved in a complex mystery, a metric ton of Back to the Future references, more conflict with Castiel the Bad-Ass Angel—and they kept Sam and Dean separated but it didn’t bother me a bit. I don’t know how I’ll feel if this season is all about Sam going to the dark side, but if they keep up the top-notch writing, I’ll probably love it.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox)—I want to knock some points off because of the writers’ reliance on “Cameron has a glitch, does something weird” plots, but they always handle it so well, I can’t complain.

Also, how can you go wrong with something resembling a terminator Ark? Am I crazy? I saw a bunch of caged humans—but, more importantly, a bunch of caged animals—on a big-ass boat. What are those future terminators up to? What is Shirley Manson up to? What does she really want with Ellison? What’s the deal with her “daughter”? Could she have sent herself back in time to protect the person whose identity she will steal in the future? Or are they actually going for the “Terminator Baby” thing? Busy Philipps’ pregnancy has turned into an important element in the show thus far, and I can’t imagine it ending well for anyone involved. But what’s the deal? Is her ex-boyfriend some kind of special machine? An Impregnator?

So many questions, so few answers. On to the matter at hand—the fascinating story of Cameron forgetting herself and believing she is the girl whose DNA she effectively “stole” in the future. Teaming up with guest star Leah Pipes (former star of the late but unlamented CW series Life Is Wild), who did a pretty good job as a rebellious street urchin. This might sound weird, but my one complaint about the episode is that Cameron didn’t kill her. They just had to give us the shot of her regaining consciousness, gasping for breath. It would have been much more ballsy to off her, but I’m guessing the network had some problems with that.

As for Future Cameron (or, um… Past Cameron, considering in her “lifetime,” these events took place earlier), they still managed to answer a couple of questions about her while still keeping the overall agenda mysterious. Did Future John reprogram her, or did they dig up more dirt from the machines? Time will tell…

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Heroes & Villains

Bones (Fox)—This week, the writers redeemed last week’s lackluster effort—just in time to go off the air for a month!

This week, Bones tries to tackle religion and faith through the prism of its characters. They’ve done shows like this before, but the attempts to tackle issues miss more often than they hit. (The show’s worst episode remains one in which they find the burnt corpse of a soldier and each character unconvincingly meditates on the Iraq War.) This episode was a solid base hit, offering a complex—but not ridiculous—mystery with an untidy but satisfying solution. More than that, it allowed us to gain a deeper insight into both Brennan and Booth, and it gave Brennan an understanding of what drives the human desire to believe in otherworldly control.

The only downside? This intern-of-the-week gimmick was funny at first, but the joke’s worn thin. Maybe they need to give the interns more interesting quirks, or maybe they just need to hire Carla Gallo or Michael Badalucco (the only interns who made an impression) and get it over with.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—This episode had a couple of excellent twists reminiscent of the late, lamented Freaks & Geeks. In the first, Chris is conflicted about befriending “androgynous” peer Angel, but when he decides to put his fear aside and hang with him in public, Angel is the one who’s humiliated and begs Chris to leave him alone. In the second, Greg becomes the king bad-ass of the Bronx Academy and walks around with a whole new (hilarious) attitude. The writers have, so far, done a better job of mining the trials and tribulations of high school than they did with junior high, so I hope they keep this up.

In some discouraging news, Tisha Campbell (Martin, School Daze) had what one can only hope was a one-off guest spot as Tasha’s mother. She’s as shrill and talentless as I remembered, so I sincerely hope they bring back Whoopi Goldberg as Tasha’s angst-ridden grandmother and send Ms. Campbell-Martin back to prison. This subplot only had two bright spots: the brief, hilarious return of Malvo, and Tichina Arnold’s incredible facial reactions to the insanity surrounding her. She is consistently the funniest part of this show, so it disappoints me to see her mired in such an annoying subplot.

Oh, I should also mention that Tanya’s Danny Glover crush, while a little more absurd than her Billy Ocean crush, is very funny. I can’t wait to see how she reacts when Lethal Weapon comes out.

Heroes (NBC)—I’m sick of spewing vitriol in the direction of this show, so instead I offer a series of questions this week’s episode raised that need to be answered within the next two weeks, or I walk:

  • How will Sylar’s power help Peter figure out how to fight the future? On paper, the move seems incredibly stupid, but I guess it’s no stupider than anything else Peter has done. What knowledge or insight will he gain from this?
  • Related to the above: since we now know two of Angela Petrelli’s secrets (she has the “power” to see into the future and give birth to Sylar), we have to ignore plenty of the retroactive continuity errors that have cropped up as a result. Putting them aside, let’s concentrate on the fresh continuity errors. To wit: she knows and has interacted with “Future Peter,” who we discover by the end of the episode “went bad” as a result of absorbing Sylar’s power, which gives him “the hunger” she is—in the present day—trying to eliminate in her li’l black sheep. She understands what this will do to the current Peter, how this change will affect the future, how it will destroy her son and… She doesn’t care? She’d rather try to “cure” Sylar than prevent Peter from suffering the same fate? From the more pragmatic stance that she wants to “cure” Sylar to remove his threat level, and she knows Peter will end up an equal threat—what the hell? Why did she do nothing to stop Future Peter when she had the chance? Instead, she just sniped at him for messing things up and told him to get Peter back, theoretically knowing that this meeting of minds will destroy her son’s life. So, again, why doesn’t she care?
  • Much as I want to respect the writers for attempting to present a future of moral gray areas (and cinematographic gray tones), I don’t follow the delineation of “heroes” versus “villains.” So Claire and the others are fighting fire with fire because Peter is so evil, nobody can reason with him? Future Peter acted as dumb as usual, but he had a bit of reason left; he realized he’d already changed enough to render killing Nathan futile. He knew where he had to send the present-day incarnation to get What He Needs. Sylar had the ability to feign relative normalcy (taking his “creepy” factor down to “meter-reader” levels, instead of the usual “raging sociopath”), but I got no sense that Peter was faking. Which leads to the inevitable conclusion that these former heroes have gone rogue… To what end? Because they’re bitter more people have powers? Maybe if they had shown examples of these people using their powers to inflict harm on one another, I could have accepted this fringe group of folks who only wanted to use them for good. Instead, they showed us the “fringe” group committing wanton acts of violence, while the rest of the future people just wanted to fly around so they didn’t have to cab it. Eeeevil!
  • Speaking of those people, the writers made very little effort in establishing a coherent “ability-having” infrastructure for the future. In the present, it’s been implied that powers crop up at random and are, in their way, as unique as a fingerprint (although some people do have the same abilities). In other words, you can’t inject someone with “the formula” and give them the convenient ability to fly. They may end up with Maya’s annoying black-mascara massacre power. In this episode, the writers made it seem like the future population had a big interest in beneficial powers—like flying—but zero interest in malicious powers, then immediately doubled back to say abilities were now the “weapon of choice.” So which is it, how does it work, and why do so many people have the ability to fly? I’m not saying the writers have to take us step by step through the future ability-getting market, but they should at least map it out for themselves so they can present it to us in a consistent way. I like it when a show makes my head spin for non-stupid reasons. Heroes used to do that. Sort of.
  • Why did Parkman have to see all of this, or any of this? I don’t want to sound all anti-Parkman, because he’s one of the few characters I can still tolerate, but why did he need to go on a vision quest to tell him the future ain’t pretty? It gave him some specific details but is he really going to remember them four years down the road?
  • Will any of it matter? Showing us the future has turned into a part of this show’s formula, but it does very little except say, “If you don’t do X, the future will turn out like Y.” Duh? I know Peter and Mohinder aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer, but the rest of these guys ought to have a handle on it. Sylar’s a bad guy; Adam Monroe’s a bad guy. They do things that would make anyone with common sense think, with enough power, they’d kill a lot of people—for the fun! We have new villains, but we don’t need to see the tricky gray areas of their lives in the future; why not show us more of who they are in the present?

    If I can nerd out a little bit, it all reminds me of a movie called Soultaker, featured in the 10th and final season of the classic, Peabody Award-winning show Mystery Science Theater 3000. The “timeline” that provides “suspense” in Soultaker revolves around the female lead’s parents’ decision whether or not to pull the plug on her comatose daughter at midnight. Her “soul”—thrown clear of the body in a car accident—must return to the unconscious body and “wake up,” or else she’ll die. Meanwhile, the blue-collar father of her across-the-tracks boyfriend, faced with the same decision about his de-souled son, convinces the star’s crusty parents not to pull the plug. Although the two out-of-body leads don’t know this, the midnight deadline no longer has relevance—yet the director chooses to keep showing close-ups of the clock as if it matters. In Heroes, the glimpses of the future have become clock close-ups: effective at first but more nonsensical each time we see them.

    If that metaphor is too convoluted, here’s the short version: future stuff = stupid.

I want to go back to loving this show. Remember how Lost had a bit of a quality/focus problem in the second half of its second season and beginning of its third, then they pulled their heads out of their asses and made it nonstop awesome again? Why can’t Heroes‘ writers do that? I’m afraid I won’t stick around long enough to find out.

King of the Hill (Fox)—This week, the writers did a terrific job of tying all three stories together. They’ve always done this consistent effortlessness, allowing even weaker subplots (like Dale’s carbon-offset business) to rest on the backs of better material, thereby elevating the whole thing. I also love when an episode revolves around Hank’s misguided respect for Mr. Strickland, who had the amazing task of undermining everything about the “go green” initiative at Strickland Propane—even though he single-handedly made such an initiative necessary. Still, probably my favorite part of the episode was Peggy’s efforts to get Bobby to eat a healthier, more natural diet. Maybe the ending doesn’t reflect kid reality, but it showed a surprising outcome that I hope they do something more with in the future.

Mad Men (AMC)—I risk outing myself as an ignorant rube with the following confession: I don’t have any idea what happened at the end. I understood and enjoyed the dense layering of family issues—Betty and her diminishing father and her sibling/stepmother issues, Harry’s bundle of joy, Pete’s lack thereof and pressure from his wife to adopt (and pressure from his family not to), Don’s hilariously bland interaction with Betty’s family and, most especially, Glen Bishop’s running away. So much went on in this episode, it kind of made my head spin, but that ending—did it signify Don’s intention to abandon Betty and his children, to reinvent himself yet again? Does this tie into Betty’s father’s paranoid distrust of Don’s lack of “people”? Is he untrustworthy because he shed his family the way a snake sheds it skin? Or is he untrustworthy because of, you know… All the lying and cheating and stuff?

Maybe the show wants us to believe he’s better than the rest of them. All around, we see portraits of kids trying to imitate their parents—either because they were bred to (Pete) or because they’re eager to please (Betty)—and then there’s Don, who was more eager to get out while he could and remake himself in the image he wanted. So at the end of it all, he decides to do what he’s going to do, heading off to Pasadena in place of Paul (who, ironically, gets stuck doing something he doesn’t want to do) to prove to himself—and anyone paying attention—that he’s his own man. Gotta love a show that portrays selfishness as a virtue!

The Office (NBC)—I get what I want, and I’m still not happy. They’ve finally stepped back from the excessive couplings and love triangles I’ve complained so much about, instead concentrating on legitimate office struggles, and… I don’t know what to say. For pure laughs, it’s easily in the top five. At its best, though, The Office delivers more than laughs. The writers find the pathos in these absurd characters. This week lacked the usual insight and depth, aside from a cringe-worthy scene in which Amy Ryan’s HR rep gets chewed out by corporate. I have faith it’ll bounce back next week.

Pushing Daisies (ABC)—I have no problem ridiculing this show when it does things I dislike, but I want everyone to know it comes from a place of love. When the show debuted last fall, it was pretty great—lots to love about it, and an endless mine of potential. But it began to falter after a few episodes, starting an outright decline that lasted all the way to last week’s premiere. Seeing that initial promise fizzle as the writers settled into an apparent complacency disappointed me big-time. I get angrier with shows that waste potential than I do with shows that are flat-out bad…

But I’m pleased to report that this week’s episode marked a surprising, glorious return to form. Even the circus stuff, which veered on the edge of the “quirky for quirky’s sake” territory in which the writers have fully mired previous mysteries, worked for me. They wrote a compelling, complex mystery and did a terrific job of relating it to Emerson’s continued struggles with his estranged daughter. As I remarked last week, this struggle has become the best part of the show for me, so I’m glad to see them finally do it justice.

Speaking of justice, I also love the writers for stranding Kristin Chenoweth in subplots separate from the main stuff. It’s much easier to fast-forward through her stuff! Okay, I don’t actually do that—because then I’d miss great stuff from Swoosie Kurtz and Diana Scarwid, in addition to further shirking my critical obligations—but I feel more comfortable knowing that I can. “Emmy nomination, schmemmy nomination,” I would say to myself, then hit fast-forward while cackling maniacally. Good times…

I’ll admit some minor disappointment in the Ned-Chuck material. After glossing over the fallout over Ned’s refusal to bring Chuck’s dad back to life, they’ve shifted the conflict to Ned’s separation anxiety, a much more generic conflict. They wrote it well enough in this episode, but I think giving Lee Pace and Anna Friel meatier material would benefit the show a great deal.

Nonetheless, I still thought they did a great job this week and hope this marks an uptick in quality so I can start to be outraged by its declining ratings.

Raising the Bar (TNT)—This week’s contender for “best and worst” episode did so many things right—nicely tying Bobbi’s domestic-abuse case with her marital problems, constructing yet another solid edition of Moral Gray-Area Theatre with McGrath “deciding” the couple wasn’t fit to live together—that I almost want to forgive them for the ridiculous subplot wherein Bobbi’s husband shows himself as a giant drug addict, does a variety of crazy things, then immediately acknowledges the problem and checks into rehab. Also, this subplot allows Bobbi to leave and, one assumes, find herself in the consoling arms of one Jerry Kellerman. I don’t mind much about any of this conceptually; it was just the rapid character assassination and redemption of Bobbi’s husband, within the same hour. I know they want this show to work as a “standalone,” but some of its continuing stories should take time to germinate—this addiction storyline is one of them.

Nonetheless, there was a lot to love here. Jerry’s story included a wonderful guest turn from Page Kennedy (Weeds, Desperate Housewives) as a man repeatedly getting jerked around by the system while awaiting his trial. We also got a little glimpse of Richard as protector, deftly trying to keep Bobbi and Gavin separated during his unannounced, coked-up visit. I’m sure, in time, this show will get the balance right and become appointment television.

Sons of Anarchy (FX)—In one of my life’s many mysteries, the episode that does the best job of probing the complex psyches of its characters also introduces one of the silliest, least convincing characters in recent memory, played by Ally Walker (Profiler), whose scenery-chewing didn’t blend terribly well with the moody, subdued performances from the rest of the cast. Of course, the writing didn’t help her much. I admit, with some reluctance, that I missed her name and, shirking my critical responsibilities, didn’t feel much like rewinding until I found it out. Instead, I attempted to look it up online and found her credited in a variety of places as “ATF Chick.” This doesn’t surprise me too much, because while Gemma especially deepened in this episode, “ATF Chick” burst on the scene spewing artificial “tough-broad”/”runnin’-with-the-big-boys” clichés that, I assume, were written by a man whose closest contact with a woman involves a pair of binoculars and a crusty tube-sock.

The rest of the episode fared much better. When one factors the irritating and unconvincing “ATF Chick” into that equation and the episode still holds the “best episode so far” title, it just shows the leap ahead. I spent a few days wondering what made this episode different—why did it suddenly leap from an inconsistent heap of intriguing ideas and sloppy writing to a rock-solid character study? The obvious answer: they shoved the AK-47 plot into the backseat and took time to dig deep into these characters and their relationships—and the writing soared, proving the writers really understand these people. Their strengths clearly lie in writing this type of material, because the show mainly stumbles when they overstuff it with plot. This time, they balanced a variety of stories—but all of them except the AKs had to do with the way these characters relate to one another. The AK-47 issues got the ball rolling on some of these stories, but the actual core of that remained in the background, essentially acting as a bookend for the episode. It worked. I hope the writers learn a thing or two from this episode.

Supernatural (The CW)—As a pseudo-continuation of last week’s mythology-fest, it surprised me at how much of the “old” Supernatural permeated this week’s episode. Aside from keeping the conflict between Sam and Dean alive, it followed the “freak of the week” formula that they’ve gotten away from over time, and it brought back the old “shades of gray” dilemmas that drove season two but was largely absent from season three.

Also, just like last week’s amazing turn from Mitch Pileggi, Canadian actor Dameon Clarke gave a tour de force as a man trying not to succumb to his secret demon nature. Clarke brought a wonderful gravitas to this struggle, making it more than just an apt metaphor for Sam’s own plight. See, as we found out last week, the yellow-eyed demon made a deal with the Winchesters’ mother to imbue Sam with his demon blood (and, therefore, demon powers). Sam wants to use this power against the demon forces, but Castiel warned against that, which drives this week’s brother-against-brother conflict.

Although I believe this show continues to improve with each passing week, I complained a fair amount last season about driving Sam and Dean apart. Last season, much of the “apart” was literal, physical distance. Since the chemistry between Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki drives the show, I felt like this was a mistake. Now, they’re together and sniping at each other—and maybe it’s another mistake. I want these brothers to go back to trusting each other. They have fundamental differences, but at the end of the day, Sam has Dean’s back and vice-versa. I hope the flame-throwing awesomeness of this week’s resolution will restore a bit of that trust, because I’d rather have them apart from each other than together in a nonstop whinefest.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox)—I sure hope I’m not the only one who wanted a glistening, enormous Dodge Ram after watching this episode? The combination of “limited” commercial interruptions—all of them promoting the Dodge Ram via hilariously over-the-top “reality show”-style shorts—and featuring the truck prominently within the show itself almost makes me forget that it’d probably cost $60 a day to drive that thing. But hey, if ridiculous product placements will keep this show on the air, I’ll put up with it.

For the first time in the show’s history, the Ellison subplot did not qualify as a weak link. I hate bashing the Ellison stuff, because Richard T. Jones is a fine actor and, at times, they do a decent job with him. Mostly, though, the character is adrift in a sea of backstory and exposition. They keep him separated from the main action, other than looking on from a slight distance, but now… Shirley Manson has sent him hot on the trail of the Connors. He investigates the nuclear plant from a few weeks ago, which confirms Manson’s indications that machines exist. He also gets confirmation that Sarah is alive. To thank him for helping Ellison, the dude who runs the nuclear power plant gets iced in one of the most disturbing possible ways: a hot chick starts making out with him, then her tongue morphs into a giant knife, then into Shirley Manson. Shudder. This unholy alliance is starting to pay dividends, so I hope they keep it up.

Is it just me, or did Marty seem like an awfully agreeable for a kidnapping victim? Granted, we know the terrible truth behind his kidnapping, and we know Sarah and Cameron are good people who have his best interests at heart… But Marty just kinda rolled with the whole thing. “Oh, an unkillable machine is after me, my parents might be in danger, and you guys are holding me for an undetermined period of time until you can destroy it? Wanna help me with my book report?” I kept waiting for him to try to escape, and it seemed a little odd that he didn’t. Maybe having a gun-toting cyborg after you forces rapid Stockholm syndrome.

On the plus side, this gave us a glimpse into Sarah that we haven’t seen before—the nurturing, compassionate mother. We have a sense of her caring deeply about John, but even in the movies, you’re left wondering if she cares about him as a child or a human being—or merely as the messianic figure he will become. The pseudo-philosophical, T2-esque voiceovers always have to do with her gloom-and-doom perspective on the future, so we almost never get any kind of insight into her perspective on child-rearing. We also never see her as a mother to a young child—The Terminator ends with her pregnancy, and T2 picks up with John Connor as an 11-year-old punk in the foster-care system. The only hints we get about her maternal instinct involve her taking John to Mexico for weapons training. I liked the opportunity to see Sarah trying to act as a mother to this kid.

But on to the main plot… One of the reasons I love this show is its odd ’70s-throwback vibe. You don’t have too many shows that play it straight with the idea of going undercover in various forms. Almost every episode of this show has seen the characters seeking out targets that require them to befriend specific kids at school, date computer genius cell phone salesmen, take temp jobs at a nuclear plant, etc. It’s spy games as performed by people with little to no competence as spies, so although they play it straight, their ineptitude makes the whole concept a little less cliché-ridden. This week, they made it a little more interesting by sending John and Derek “undercover” into an area of expertise—a military reform school, to protect the “Martin Bedell” this machine is really after.

The method for killing the T-888 might have struck some—including me—as obvious, but hey? They can’t always stick it in a bathtub and pour acid over its remains. Some nice, movie-style melting in flames works wonders once in awhile, even if it’s telegraphed. Plus, they tossed in Cameron skulking in the woods, another of many “Is she evil or not?” moments the show likes to play with. If she’s evil, I have to wonder why this particular situation matters to her. Is she programmed to feel pain at her fallen brethren? Did she not think they’d kill the guy? Or was she really there to protect them “just in case”? Time will tell, but Sarah Connor Chronicles may not have much time left, so let’s hope they get to it…

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The Go-Getter (2007)

In a 2007 reflection on Cameron Crowe’s 2005 film Elizabethtown, A.V. Club film critic Nathan Rabin coined the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to describe Kirsten Dunst’s character: “That bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Many of us have seen them before, in films like Garden State and Almost Famous (another Crowe film—coincidence?!), though the A.V. Club staff acknowledges the archetype has existed at least since the heyday of the screwball comedy. Although a long-standing crush on Zooey Deschanel caused me to beg for the The Go-Getter assignment, I feared it would succumb to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trend plaguing indie cinema. I was half-right.

In Mercer’s world, Kate (Zooey Deschanel) exists as nothing more than a voice on a phone and a spirit firmly entrenched in his fevered imagination. The film opens with Mercer (Lou Taylor Pucci) stealing her Volvo from a car wash in Eugene, Oregon; when she calls up her own cell phone to yell at him and ask why, he finds himself entranced. He’s taken her car to find his estranged half-brother. His mother has died, his father was never around to begin with, and Mercer’s desperate and alone. Hence the theft.

What follows is essentially The Catcher in the Rye redux, a storyline that plenty of indie filmmakers have pilfered (Igby Goes Down, Charlie Bartlett) with moderate success. Writer-director Martin Hynes makes the movie work by introducing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl fantasy in Mercer’s mind… And then the actual Kate shows up, forcing Mercer to reconcile his fantasy with reality. It adds an interesting layer to both characters and allows Hynes to have his cake and eat it, too.

Along Mercer’s journey across the American West, he runs into a variety of odd characters played by ringers like Judy Greer (Arrested Development), Maura Tierney (ER—it’s great to see her doing comedy again), Julio Oscar Mechoso (Grindhouse) and Bill Duke (who I saw last weekend in a Universal HD rebroadcast of the 1986 Carl Weathers classic Action Jackson). Perhaps the most compelling is Joely, played by Jena Malone (Saved), a girl Mercer hasn’t seen since junior high who, like Kate, injects an unfortunate dose of reality into Mercer’s misguided assumptions about women.

Mercer’s interactions with this menagerie of oddballs turns this into a story told in vignettes, but Hynes strings them together in such a way that his full journey packs a nice emotional punch (not to mention a few physical punches). Pucci (Thumbsucker) does a terrific job of anchoring the film with a performance that allows us to see the confusion hiding behind the wannabe-macho bravado. Deschanel (Bridge to Terabithia) has her work cut out for her, since much of her role is in voiceover, but she breaks the Manic Pixie Dream Girl mold by letting her voice reveal damage and vulnerability Mercer’s too naïve to hear.

I enjoyed this film quite a bit, but Hynes does work some directorial mojo that I didn’t care for. First, relying on the “shaky-cam” effect, which has become a cheap shorthand for “gritty,” to add intensity where none exists didn’t quite work for me. It would have been effective in a few, isolated scenes, but it’s used throughout, which I take to mean it either symbolizes Mercer’s frazzled state of mind or Hynes wants to create a “vérité” look. Either way, it doesn’t work.

Hynes also inserts a couple of fantasy sequences that are supposed to really show what’s going on in Mercer’s mind. I don’t know if Hynes lacked confidence in his script, his directing, or Pucci, but these sequences just sap the subtlety right out of his writing. It’s a shame, because he wrote a sharp, nuanced script, and everything gets across well without these scenes.

Nonetheless, these minor issues didn’t prevent me from enjoying the movie. The acting is great, and aside from the quibbles above, so is Hynes’ screenplay and directing. It’s an exceptional antidote to the usual indie relationship dramedies. I look forward to seeing what Hynes and Pucci will do next.

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Must-Miss TV

Baseball playoffs have preempted about half the Fox shows I usually cover; in their place, I offer longer, less coherent rants about old favorites Heroes, Fringe and Pushing Daisies!

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—I admired this episode’s attention to continuity: Julius reading Soap Opera Digest, Drew’s knowledge of feng shui (stemming from his obsession with Asian culture), Tanya’s general brattiness. This episode got a little more absurd than usual—what with the Say Anything and Cosby Show spoofs, not to mention Greg’s instantaneous transformation into a pathetic hobo—but the writers wisely built the weirdness on a solid foundation of real human emotion. Chris’ conflict with Greg was so well-developed, I didn’t mind the tacked-on Drew and Tanya subplots.

I do have a mild complaint about Orlando Jones as “Clint Huckstable.” I’ve actually loved him since his days as the “Make 7-Up Yours” spokesman, and he took what could have been a great, dead-on Bill Cosby impersonation and went a few steps over the top with it, turning it into a ridiculous caricature. As a result, it kind of dulled the sharp, somewhat aggressive satire of the Rocks versus the Huckstables. Still a very funny episode, and Jones wasn’t terrible or anything—he just went a little overboard with the Cosby-isms.

Fringe (Fox)—Poor Fringe. I’ll go a little easier on it than maybe it deserves, because I have such ambivalence. When I look at it objectively, I can say, “Yes, it is improving in both the ‘standalone’ crimes and the overall mythology.” So people who liked the show and keep liking it, I hope, will stay happy with it. Just me, though? I don’t like where it’s headed.

Two weeks ago, they dropped some mildly interesting science on us regarding The Pattern and The Observer, only some of which was pilfered wholesale from classic X-Files episodes. It ended with a cliffhanger in which creepy undead John Scott returns from the grave to kick it old-school with Olivia. In this episode, the writers provided the lamest cliffhanger resolution this side of Heroes: turns out, he’s probably still in a Massive Dynamic lab somewhere, and what Olivia keeps seeing is some sort of leftover flotsam from their dream-sharing activities in the pilot. He keeps appearing to her throughout the episode, eventually leading her to a secret office/janitor’s closet filled with notes from his own, private investigation into The Pattern.

I didn’t like one bit of this. It all makes a twisted kind of sense and furthers The Pattern while de-assassinating Mark Valley’s character, but this show has taught me that “logical” doesn’t always translate as compelling drama. Abrams and his writers should stick to their comfort zone, in the realm of wildly incoherent; it works for Lost. The story of Electro-Boy Joseph Megar was a bit more engrossing, but it still felt like some of kind of generic, rehashed comic-book plot. In the end, it didn’t do much for me, so I’m left with the same thought I have every week: I like Peter and Walter and couldn’t care about everyone and everything else.

Next week is the last new episode before baseball forces Fringe off the air; it is also, most likely, the last episode I’ll watch.

Heroes (NBC)—Stupidity, thy name is Heroes.

In the first season, the writers led us to believe the rather cool notion that natural evolution created these people’s abilities. Now, we’re finally told that the Company has developed its “synthetic” ability drug, which they used on Tracy, Niki and the never-before-seen Barbara, as well as Nathan (and probably others—I’m thinking Claire, but do I really care enough to find out?). Here’s why it approaches the stupidity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s late-in-the-game “slayers were created via demon rape!” retroactive continuity: pretend these guys are tree-trunk-armed baseball players who can bat, pitch and field like nobody you’ve ever seen in the history of time. Truly phenomenal athletes whose stories unfold in a weekly, hour-long drama. One week, the writers give an offhanded, “Oh, by the way, these guys have been on steroids the entire time” explanation for their athletic skills. They go from amazing to “who gives a shit?” You lose interest in watching the outraged athletes trying to identify and expose the nefarious men who have caused them to unknowingly juice.

But wait, it gets worse. Angela Petrelli continues the explanation: the “formula” they used, while effective, could have dangerous consequences, which the company saw. She says something like, “We knew it couldn’t ever be used again—that’s why we divided it in thirds!” What?! I won’t waste my time diagramming the sentence to chart the full extent of its idiocy, but I will start speculating that Peter’s stupidity problem is genetic.

Remember my endless bitching about them repeating the time travel thing, how what was once very effective has had diminishing returns because they’ve used it so many damn times, and how if the writers want to solve the show’s problems, they’d stop simply repeating themselves? Insert the Pinehearst Company, a Primatech Paper for “villains” run (apparently?) by the ghost of Linderman. Gee, a mysterious company with a vested interest in ability-possessing people? Shocking new plot twist! Remember how it was kinda cool when they dropped weird Primatech hints in the first season? Diminishing returns.

Remember the devastation you felt the first time a major character was killed at the end of the episode? I do not have total recall of all things Heroes, but I distinctly remember the first couple of “oh shit, they just killed them!” cliffhangers having a visceral impact. Here’s what I thought when Hiro stabbed Ando through the chest: “I wonder how he’s going to use time travel to solve this problem.” I would ignore the ineptitude that prevented him from using time travel before having to stab him, but at this point, he may have and they’ll reveal his deception next week. I don’t know, but after the legitimate hilarity of their “we’re the worst heroes ever” conversation—the first time this season I remembered why I loved these characters—it disappoints me that they’ve headed in this direction; even when Hiro saves him, as we know he will, the rift between them will get bigger, ruining the show even more.

What about repetitive powers? Adam Monroe, introduced last season, is immortal like Claire. This season, we’ve met Tracy, whose “Ms. Freeze” ability mirrors a similar power Sylar possesses. (It’d also be a lot more fun if she said things like, “Let’s kick some ice!” or “Chilled to perfection!”) We have Usutu, who has Isaac’s “paint the future” power. Knox gains strength by feeding on people’s fear; the fear thing is reminiscent of Peter’s early ability to absorb the powers of people near him, while the super-strength is no different from Niki/Jessica. “Eric Doyle” is a puppeteer, like Parkman and his father but without the mental invasion (I guess?). The hilariously named “Flint” can create fire, just like Claire’s mom only blue!. In theory, Daphne’s Flash power is kind of cool; in practice, it’s virtually identical to Hiro’s ability to slow down time and disappear from difficult situations. I don’t know what Robert Forster’s power is supposed to be, but Angela’s dream made him look a bit like Sylar redux, just like his son Peter! Finally, Mohinder has inherited little more than super-strength with an alarming ability to cocoon people in a terrible “homage” to either Alien, The Fly or both (it comes across as more of a rip-off than an homage, I have to say). So the only reasonably interesting and unique powers are short-lived Jesse Murphy’s “yell loud enough to do damage” thing and Stephen Canfield’s black-hole-making awesomeness. Both of these characters are now dead, leaving us with no unique or interesting abilities from anyone. Thanks, Heroes!

Ready for the low point of the episode, possibly the nadir of the entire series? Wasting a fantastic guest spot from The Wire‘s Andre Royo (playing the above-mentioned Canfield) in one of the most incomprehensible and moronic episode storylines in the series’ history (and that includes everything involving Mohinder and/or Maya!). So, Claire is trying to hunt down “villains.” She steals a glimpse at Noah’s file and pursues him. Then she turns into a puddle of tears upon realizing he’s not such a bad guy (this is after she tasers him for fun). This is when Noah and Sylar show up, causing Claire to rage against Daddy for working with such a horrible, horrible monster while persecuting a fairly nice guy.

Canfield creates a black hole and bails while they try to get out of it, which is awesome, and when it dies down—after Sylar “saves” her—Claire scampers away. She meets up with Canfield at the Griffith Park Carousel, and within seconds Noah shows up. Rather than explaining the nature of Sylar’s particular evil—which might have motivated Canfield to help—Noah pulls a gun on him and says he’ll shoot him if he doesn’t make a black hole that they can shove Sylar into. Suddenly, Claire is on Sylar’s side—how dare Noah try to kill such a horrible, horrible monster while offering to let a fairly nice guy go free in exchange for his help? Canfield makes a black hole and throws himself in, destroying the only interesting new character to pop up on this show since the first season. Enraged, Claire rides home with Noah and Sylar, and Sylar gives her an anti-Noah pep talk that she buys into fully, then Noah gives her the “everything I do is to protect you” speech, which has no effect on her. I guess we’re supposed to buy her sudden change of heart because he helped her earlier, but come on. Everything about this was terrible.

I don’t even have the energy to get into the ghost of Linderman talking to Daphne. Who cares? I would like to mention, briefly, the inexplicable, future-mandated luvvv between Daphne and Parkman. One of the overall themes of season one is this idea that the future has no mandate—those trying to control it for selfish reasons (like Linderman and Angela Petrelli) will always be thwarted by people who just want to do good (like Hiro, and to a stupider extent, Peter), so, just as Doc Brown says at the end of Back to the Future Part III, the future is what you make of it. The writers have since forgotten this theme; every future flash-forward is followed by characters saying, “This will happen!” and twiddling their thumbs until they can accept their fate. (Hiro and Ando are the exceptions to this rule, and the only characters who have remained likable. Coincidence?)

I promised I’d give it another week, but I don’t know if I dare. At this point, I no longer have any faith that it will get better; I’m just seeing how much worse it can get before NBC cancels its low-rated ass.

Mad Men (AMC)—They’re veering off the beaten path with Don, and I’m not sure where the writers want to go with this story; maybe they aren’t sure, either, but I like to think they’ve just done a good job of hiding it. On the plus side, his California adventure featured a hefty dose of Pete being incompetent and a surprising guest turn from Laura Ramsey (from ABC’s short-lived The Days), fresh from horror-movie purgatory. Now, back in 2004, I admired Ramsey primarily for her hotness, so it’s nice to see she’s matured into a good actress. Even if I’m too dumb to understand the secret symbolism of The Sound and the Fury or the importance of Don hanging with some creepy California bohemian intellectuals, I can say she did a good job. And is still hot.

Back at the office, Duck finally made a move after Roger’s blistering—and hilarious—evisceration of his supposed job skills. I have a bit of a better understanding of what’s happening here, although I’m not look forward to Don coming home to a brand new Sterling-Cooper. But hey, it appears he’s not coming home any time soon, so who knows? Anybody want to take any guesses as to who Don intends to meet as “Dick Whitman.” Does it have anything to do with the woman from the flashback a few weeks ago, or the person he sent the book to in the premiere?

The Office (NBC)—This is the show I fell in love with. That might sound inconsistent coming from a guy with a well-documented dislike of the sheer volume of romantic couplings (and trianglings) this show has created.

What made it work this week? The Michael-Jan relationship clicks for me, and I guess the explanation goes all the way back to Michael’s pow-wow with the office ladies a couple of seasons ago: he’s an emotionally stunted idiot-manchild who got in way, way, way over his head. He’s stumbling through a relationship with a woman who clearly dislikes him and puts up with him for her own damaged reasons, so this relationship allows them to explore more of Michael than we’d ever see if he remained single or in a relatively non-abusive relationship.

Now, the triangle with Holly doesn’t exactly work, but that hug did—big-time. Because it wasn’t about her, and if she hadn’t been around, it probably would have been Pam or Kelly or… Well, not Angela, but somebody. Ryan? It’s not about him realizing his undying love for Holly; it’s about him needing to feel comfortable and loved in some way. I am sure everything will go to hell with Holly before too long, and I look forward to the uncomfortable ride along the way.

Dwight’s stroller subplot was funny and pointless, but I really enjoyed the Jim-Pam “out of sync” stuff. In a way, it’s a little too cutesy and “perfect couple”-y, and if I worked with people like that it’d annoy the crap out of me, but I think they threw in enough of a dark edge to it to make it satisfying. Maybe it’s my bleak worldview, but I enjoy these romantic stories as long as they’re incredibly depressing or hint at a layer of tragedy beneath the bubbly surface. When everything’s fine, that’s when it drives me nuts.

Pushing Daisies (ABC)—You might expect me to complain about this week’s Olive-focused outing on account of my intense dislike of Kristin Chenoweth. It might surprise you to know that, while I still dislike her with the same approximate level of intensity, I enjoyed this week’s episode almost as much as last week’s. The writers have actually dug back into the characters’ foibles and concerns and did a better-than-expected job of using that to generate the conflict of the episode; as I suggested, if they have a half-assed mystery, they should relegate it to the background, and that’s just what they did. They kept the mystery simple, opting instead to examine the abandonment issues that, in some ways, bond Ned and Chuck. I’m also very, very glad they didn’t try to string us along with the “Will Ned tell Chuck about ‘Aunt’ Lily’s secret?” question. A lesser show would use that conflict to generate subplots for weeks, but they came out with it almost immediately—well done! Also, just like last week, they allowed Emerson to investigate a different sort of case; it was still a murder, but because the victim provided almost no information, he actually had to be a detective. Everything’s humming along, and I have to admit, the writers have renewed my faith in this show. I hope its ratings reflect the quality improvement.

Raising the Bar (TNT)—Tempestt Bledsoe is still alive and not in jail? Who knew? Seriously, thought, it was a bit of a pleasant surprise to see her back on TV. They might have relegated her to a tiny role, but it’s better than not working, I guess.

On to the actual content of the episode—I have to say, even having characters comment on the implausibility of its conclusion didn’t make it any less of a cheat. The main thing that drew me to this show was the notion that the criminal justice system is screwed up and messy, and for the first time they expanded to show the external effects on a judge. It would have been ballsy and awesome to have such a heartbreaking ending after Kellerman’s machinations and, of course, “the wink”—a slap in the face showing us the real problems that result when the bench becomes politicized. Instead, the writers deliver a charmless happy ending that frustrated me to no end. Come on, guys… I’ve cut you slack for playing the “everyone’s innocent” card every week, but this is too much.

Sons of Anarchy (FX)—This week’s episode made me realize something that might force me to go easier on this show that it deserves: I like these characters, and this setting. From the start, I liked the acting, but the writing (and fight choreography) often left me cold. The writing improved greatly last week, and is still good here, but I think we got more opportunities to see these guys just hanging around, enjoying each others’ company. Without the usual angst and sloppily constructed crime stories, we could just relax and take it all in, and I liked it. For drug-dealing, gun-running, murdering thugs, they’re fun to be around.

If the ATF stalker thing is over, though, I will be very disappointed. Not because it was such great drama, but because if that was it, what was the point? It didn’t have much build, and Jay Karnes didn’t exactly have the menace or oddness to make him a memorable short-term villain. He just came and went. If he comes back to cause more trouble, more power to him; if that was it, ugh. I have to go back to complaining about the writing.

Supernatural (The CW)—If I wanted to prove to naysayers that Supernatural rises above people’s preconceived notions as a mediocre horror show, I’d probably play them this episode. It shows off one of the show’s best qualities—its sense of humor—but it also creates an inroad for outsiders by paying homage to at least a dozen classic horror films. The problem with introducing friends to Supernatural is that the earlier episodes are a little too cutesy, but the later episodes—despite improving with each passing week—rely far too much on a mythology a first-time watcher won’t understand. This hits the sweet spot, minimizing the mythology but retaining the basis of the show—brothers hunting demons.

It also featured yet another amazing turn from Todd Stashwick, formerly of The Riches. That show just got canceled, but will it matter for Stashwick? He’s popped up in no fewer than 500 guest parts over the past few months—apparently he saw the writing on the wall—and each time, he creates a unique and compelling character. Even here, channeling Bela Lugosi, he does a spot-on imitation layered with pain and sadness. This provides an example of another thing Supernatural does well—taking the old horror myths and giving them a nice twist. It’s not as good as Buffy or Angel, but I’d argue pretty vehemently that it’s the best sci-fi/horror show on the air right now (screw Battlestar Galactica).

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No More Heroes (or Fringe)

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—Not their strongest effort. Not bad, but they didn’t sell me on the powerful effect this teacher had on Chris. I wouldn’t nitpick that so much if Adult Chris hadn’t called her the best teach he’d ever had—where did that come from? They really should have taken the time to build that relationship over several episodes. Bringing her in, then carrying her out, caused the whole episode to suffer.

Fringe (Fox)—So, okay, I’m done. Last week, I said that I don’t hate this show, I don’t wish it any ill will nor do I hold a grudge toward people who think it’s the greatest thing ever to air on television, but… I’m just not feeling it. I gave it a few weeks to grow on me, and while in some ways it got better, the writers continued to introduce story ideas that I disliked. Anna Torv has gotten worse, not better, in the lead role. This week, for the first time, my biggest fear came to fruition—they’ve started writing Walter as a goofy, joke-dispensing caricature instead of a brilliant, haunted man whose vague creepiness is undercut by his absurd statements. I’m out. That’s all there is to it. I won’t even say I expected more from J.J. Abrams and his pals, because I honestly didn’t… But I still don’t like the show.

Heroes (NBC)—For those sick of me railing against this show’s relentless awfulness, you’re in luck. Even if I hadn’t repeatedly trumpeted my plans to stop watching the show if things didn’t get better this week—if I’d kept quiet or decided to give it more of a chance, let’s say—I would have deleted the episode from my TiVo in disgust and never watched the show again. It was that bad.

Let’s start with the ending and work our way backwards, shall we? First, I have to say that I love Robert Forster. I was thrilled to hear he’d have a recurring role this season, but that was back when I still had hope the show would redeem itself for the second season. His swiping of powers was appropriately bad-ass, but it takes me back to one of my many complaints about last week’s episode (which, more generally, criticized the series as a whole): he has the exact same power as Peter. Yes, he takes powers, rather than merely absorbing them, but at the end of the day, his “power” is still “the ability to absorb others’ powers,” just as Parkman’s father had the ability to control minds in addition to just reading them (an aspect Parkman himself learned to use). Another problem with the power absorption: he steals Adam’s ability to heal rapidly, then steals all of Peter’s powers—which include the power to heal rapidly. Don’t try to sell me on the notion that he “needed” strength in order to handle Peter—bullshit. It was just sloppy writing attempting cleverness (giving Adam a “cool” death by calling back to the earlier notion that all of these people were part of the conglomerate that founded The Company).

So then there’s Peter and Sylar. Last week’s stupidest line came from Angela Petrelli, and it bears repeating: “We knew [the formula] couldn’t ever be used again—that’s why we divided it in thirds!” This week’s stupidest line comes from Sylar, about Angela. In the midst of his incoherent, labyrinthine explanation for why he needed to release Peter, the Heroes world’s second-dumbest Petrelli asks why he should save her, to which Sylar says, “She’s the only woman who ever accepted me for who I really am.” Careful viewers will note that, from the start of this season, all Angela has attempted to do is change who Sylar really is. Which, I guess, is evidence that Angela really is Sylar’s mother. You don’t get to be that stupid without genetic help.

The crap with Mohinder, Nathan, and Tracy was just godawful filler. I’m disappointed to report that so was the stuff with Parkman and Daphne. Now, I still like Parkman—sort of—but I seem to remember Tim Kring, reflecting on last season’s failed attempts at coupling, said something like, “Maybe we just aren’t that good at relationships.” He should’ve stuck with that opinion of himself and his writing staff, because nothing about this is working for me. The chemistry’s not there, which might be the 15-year age difference between Greg Grunberg and Brea Grant… Or it could just be the latter’s grating performance leaving me mystified as to why anyone would be smitten with her. Then again, maybe it all makes sense: he’s not in love with her so much as trying to recapture something he felt in a “pre-cog” hallucination.

Are you ready for the worst part of this week’s episode? If you watched it, you already know (and not just by process of elimination): Claire and her two mommies versus “sinister” puppetmaster Doyle. It’s time for a hypothetical. Say you’re a slovenly, misogynistic ape who has been blessed with the ability to control humans like puppet. Fate brings you an attractive woman that you once knew, who you turn into your personal love slave. Two other women come to rescue her. You mistakenly assume the teenage girl is your love slave’s niece, and the older woman is the niece’s mother. So you make the girl play a game of Russian roulette, using your puppet powers, and force her to aim the gun at your love slave and kill her, and if she actually died, you’d lose that love slave forever.

Did any part of the Russian roulette scene make sense? Seriously… At first, I thought, “Okay, no biggie—the gun’s obviously not loaded. He’s just bluffing to scare the shit out of them.” And then the gun is loaded. The gun that Doyle forced Claire to aim at Meredith—his love slave!—and pull the trigger. Maybe if we knew something about Doyle’s backstory, we’d know that he’s had plenty of love slaves, that they’re a dime a dozen, whatever. Since we know nothing about him, and frankly, the dude looks and acts hard up, he shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth by possibly making someone else shoot her to death. For no discernible reason.

On the one hand, the writers tried to ramp up the struggle Claire has been dealing with all season—will she choose the cool real mom who’s never been there for her, or will she choose the uncool stepmom who’s an actual parent? The writers dropped the ball in two ways: first, they stripped the choice right out of Claire’s hands, and second, it makes absolutely no sense for Doyle to force this choice upon her. Again, maybe if we knew something about him—that he’s some kind of sociopath who gets off on causing harm to women, for instance—they could have made this subplot plausible. Knowing nothing, left with what we do know, it’s perplexing at best. At worst, it’s just shitty writing—somehow even shittier than last week, which is why I was surprised to read on so many TV-commentary blogs and message boards that Heroes has “suddenly” redeemed itself with its first good episode of the season.

It did have one redeeming subplot, though. Aside from the tedious (as usual) time-travel explanation for Ando’s non-death, the Hiro/Ando/Usutu subplot was pretty much the only thing that went unscathed. As I said during the premiere, this show’s success depends on how well they handle each of its many subplots. When only one per week works—out of five or six, usually—that’s a big problem. One that has, at long last, made me give up this show for good. Sorry, guys, but I’m pretty sure you’ll get canceled long before you come close to being good again.

King of the Hill (Fox)—I usually like Kahn-focused episodes, especially when they involve his man-crush on Ted Wassonasong, but I have to confess that this didn’t do much for me. The alley gang’s struggle against poorly built McMansions, while funny, fell square in the center of the formula that’s kept the show running strong for 13 years—the modern world encroaching on the lives of old-fashioned rednecks. However, unlike instant classics like last season’s “Raise the Steaks” (in which Hank runs a hippie co-op because it’s the only place in town with good meat/produce), this week’s didn’t put a new or unexpected spin on the characters. Even the episode from two weeks ago, about Strickland going green, took each character to their illogical extreme. This time around, they were the straight men to crazy Ted Wassonasong and the absurd loophole finder.

Mad Men (AMC)—Okay, so the writers finally decided to address some of the weird—but believable—issues with “Dick Whitman” and “Don Draper,” and it did tie into that mystery flashback from “The Gold Violin.” Their relationship is so bizarre and interesting, it could almost make for a compelling season of television unto itself. Instead we have a depressing, deliberately paced (very similar to last week’s) take on Don’s various issues. His identity crisis, if you want to call it that, has finally come to a head, and I hope he’ll move past it. I assume Don stepping into the ocean and letting the waves crash over him symbolizes some sort of renewal or rebirth and not something annoyingly over my head.

In other news: hey, Pete’s a dick. Who saw that coming? Although I don’t mind Pete as a character, I found myself drawn more to the stories of Joan and Peggy. Although their subplots were relatively separate, the two characters have had uncomfortable parallels since the beginning, but more in this season. Joan appears to be suffering from a Don-esque identity crisis of her own and has been ever since she got a taste of Peggy’s glory when she helped out in the TV department. Suddenly, she had a purpose, a launchpad for a career—but it was yanked out from under her. Instead, Joan tries to create her identity in the usual way for women of the era: through marriage. And, of course, the disturbing “office sex” scene showed that even that isn’t working out for Joan. Meanwhile, everything’s coming up Peggy—landing the Popsicle account and a classy new office (courtesy of gone-but-not-forgotten Freddy Rumsen).

I can’t leave this without also mentioning Betty. She’s become unpleasant on so many levels, yet they’ve managed to keep her sympathetic. Maybe more empathetic than sympathetic—I certainly understand why she is the way she is, but I’m not exactly rooting for her to keep up the behavior. I still wish we could return to the halcyon days of her firing a BB gun at her neighbors’ pigeons, a cigarette dangling from her lips. Assertive Betty is fine but not when she’s entrapping “friends” into sleeping with guys she wants for herself, then chastising her for going through with it.

The Office (NBC)—Am I wrong in feeling like something was off about this episode? The setup of all the major stories—the robbery/auction, Jim bumping into Roy, etc.—was fine and dandy, the episode was funny as ever, but something just didn’t feel right. Was Michael acting too stupid? Did they spend too much time on Angela, Andy and Dwight (who, no offense to the actors involved, are just bogging down the show)? Was Jim’s behavior unbelievable even with Roy planting seeds of doubt? I’m supposed to be the one providing the insights here, but I just can’t put my finger on what didn’t work about the episode. I just know that when the credits rolled, I had kind of a blasé feeling about it, which rarely happens with me and The Office.

Pushing Daisies (ABC)—Another great episode—there’s hope for this show yet. Loved Emerson’s mother (Debra Mooney, most recognizable to me as Mrs. Wellman on Roseanne, but she’s been in a ton of stuff, notably a recent stint on Everwood) and an overly-perky Dana Davis as the Frescorts receptionist. For those keeping score, she played Monica Dawson on Heroes last season—the only tolerable new character, and therefore the only new character destined to disappear without a trace for no good reason. Lucky for her, she got out while the getting’s good, and if she can find a role where she doesn’t die midway through the episode, she ought to go far.

Going into the episode, I was slightly less enthusiastic about David Arquette. Knowing this show’s zany enthusiasm for going over-the-top, I assumed it would play to Arquette’s major weakness (going way, way, way too far to get laughs), but he was remarkably restrained. I also loved the way they tied together Ned’s struggles for friendship and acceptance paralleled Arquette’s, and their scene at the end was…much more touching than I would have believed possible. Beyond that, the way they built the entire episode around Ned’s jealousy over Chuck and Olive just clicked in ways the show hasn’t since early in its first season (with the exception of last week). I’m willing to admit the writers’ strike might have been good for these guys. They seemed to have spent the off-time really getting into the nitty-gritty of these characters. Good times!

Raising the Bar (TNT)—I pretty much watch this show for scenes like the one on the rooftop, between Kellerman and Charlie, but I have to reluctantly admit that scenes like this have been few and far between. The show tries to do some good with its stories, exploring the problems with the system and how to manipulate its broken parts to achieve real justice, but its strengths lie in its characters, which the writers forget too often. Courtroom histrionics don’t make the show good. Kellerman sitting in his apartment, poring over precedents and loopholes until he has that “Eureka!” moment—that’s what makes the show work.

Oh, and Richard’s “mad crush” on Rosalind? I’m warning you, show—I like you and all, but do not go down the road of intra-office hook-ups. Please, please just let these people work together like normal people. Remember when The West Wing tried that? Just, please, writers, go back and watch that show so you know how much better it is when these people are just friendly colleagues. Nothing kills a show faster than far-fetched romances like this.

Sons of Anarchy (FX)—Roger Ebert’s law of conservation of characters could apply to this week’s ambulance. In another of this show’s (many) sloppy moments, we had a clunky ambulance theft followed by much mockery. Anybody who’s ever watched an episode of television in their lives knew instantly that the ambulance would come in handy later in the episode. Sigh. On the plus side, they made the DEA agent creepy for the first time ever—just in time to be killed by Jax, which will create a fun rift in his relationship Tara. And they brought in Francis “Awesome” Capra as one of the Mexican gang leaders. So, while I didn’t think this was a particular great episode, I do think it’ll lead somewhere… Maybe not great, but somewhere more interesting.

Supernatural (The CW)—I’m not sure I like Supernatural setting two “light” episodes back to back, but maybe the CW is airing them out of order for some reason. This was another really funny episode with some great work from Jensen Ackles. Unlike last week’s greatness, this one won’t work as a “standalone” to bring mystified friends on board with Supernatural‘s awesomeness; while hilarious, it’s much too dependent on a knowledge of Dean’s character. If you don’t know he spends most of his time as a bad-ass, most of his ‘fraidy-cat material will fall flat.

I loved that they allowed Sam to show how much he cares about Dean. As I mentioned quite frequently last season, the writers forcing rifts between the brothers (especially by physically separating them) has annoyed me. They’ve continued the trend a little bit this season, but an episode like this lets us know that they may fight, but they still care about each other. Also, special shout-out to Jack Conley, notable to Buffy/Angel fans as werewolf-hunter Kane and ridiculous demon Sahjhan (also memorable as Kim Kelly’s stepfather in one episode of Freaks & Geeks). He added an extra layer of intensity to this week’s creepy sheriff.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox)—Good news, everyone! Fox picked up the back nine. Knowing them, this means the show will get canceled after episode 14 airs, instead of after episode 10. Yay!

The writers packed this episode with revelations about every single character, which is great because while I tried to find positives in each of the Ellison/Weaver subplots, they felt directionless until this week. Now, we have expansions on her (and her “daughter”), Ellison, John, Sarah—even the damn Turk computer got some character development. Derek’s curious future lover has added even more meat to the pot, although she remains a mystery. My speculation? Just as the resistance fighters have gone to great lengths to capture and reprogram machines, the machines have gone to great lengths to capture and “reprogram” resistance fighters. For some reason, she’s working for them. I should also mention that I enjoyed the episode-ending irony that John disabled their recording device—just before Weaver ran in and made a deluge of secret admissions revealing who she is and what she’s up to.

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The Dollhouse Murder

It’s been a surprisingly busy news week for telephiles. NBC has carefully charted the Heroes downward spiral (in both creativity and ratings) and decided it’s time for some firings, starting with current showrunners Jeph Loeb and Jesse Alexander. The former is known primarily for his comic writing, while the latter’s biggest claim to fame is probably Alias.

I finally gave up on the show, long after I should have, in the last column. Despite the ranting and raving I’ve read on the Internet about how it’s wrong to fire these guys, I’m hard pressed to find a reason why they should stay. Maybe Loeb wrote some great comics; maybe Alexander wrote some of Alias‘s best episodes. Maybe they’re good writers who can’t oversee for shit. I don’t know what the explanation, but the show has gone into the shitter, big-time, and it’s a creative problem. NBC has basically given them creative carte blanche, a massive budget and a surprising level of faith and trust for a show that could so easily tailspin into oblivion. Maybe the network tampered—they usually do—and put restrictions on them, but you know what? Good television writers thrive under such restrictions. Heroes didn’t. End of story.

(Update, 11/10/08: The New York Times has made a number of unsettling statements regarding the level of involvement from creator Tim Kring in the third season (sole, uncredited writer of the first nine terrible, terrible episodes?) and that 20 of this season’s 25 episodes have already been written, so any creative changes won’t occur until May at the earliest. I’d say maybe they did fire the wrong person, but you know what? The show will probably end up getting canceled by then. Not even NBC can justify keeping this show on the air after critics and audiences have turned on it. They’ll never regain the audience they had, and to be frank, said audience was never that big in the first place.)

The other big news revolves around Fox’s midseason schedule announcement. The eagerly anticipated Joss Whedon nerdfest Dollhouse will suffer the same timeslot (and like the same fate) as his brilliant, short-lived Firefly. I can’t deny the greatness of Whedon, but I can deny the supposed greatness of Dollhouse. Here’s a little secret some people—especially Whedon—don’t seem to realize: Eliza Dushku… is not very good. She’s just not. Accept it. She can barely play the “tough but vulnerable” stereotype she’s nearly always cast as. While I tolerated her on Buffy and Angel (because, thankfully, she wasn’t in either very much, relatively speaking), building an entire vehicle around her—no matter how great the supporting cast or the writing is—isn’t where the smart money is. It’s only made worse by the description of the premise, which suggests Dushku will be “re-cast” in a variety of roles each week, like Alias, only 1000 times worse (and anyone who saw the third season of Alias knows the implications of that statement).

The real tragedy was Fox’s decision to pair up the sure disaster of Dollhouse with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Anybody who’s read this column knows my affinity for that show and probably realizes how disheartening this news is. It’s a typically predictable Fox move—every time they want a quick cancellation, it’s either Friday nights or the 7PM hour on Sunday (which virtually guarantees preempts during football season, justifying cancellations long before January).

Bones (Fox)—Yay, they brought back Carla Gallo! Boo, they devoted the entire episode to making her look like a total jackass to justify her not working with the Jeffersonian team. I’ve enjoyed everyone they’ve shoved into the “new graduate intern” slot, but Gallo had the most spark and the most interesting chemistry with the rest of the group. I’ve already grown tired of the revolving door, so why tease us? I’m sure she’ll be back, now that she and Sweets are officially a couple, but why can’t she just work with them full-time? Come on, Bones! What are you afraid of?

Another fun guest appearance came from NewsRadio‘s great Vicki Lewis, who hasn’t been around much since that show. I’m sure she’s been doing a lot of theatre, but it’d be nice to get her on a series that showcased her skills as well as that classic sitcom. This appearance, while refreshing, didn’t do her justice.

Also, I’m sorry I have to say this, but it seems like once a season they have some sort of artist-related murder that invariably has ties to Angela. Did she ever do anything that wasn’t art-related? I think it’s time to put the whole “artist” thing aside and give her more dimension, and I’m not talking about adding “lesbian dabbling” to her extensive resume of sexual peccadilloes.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—This is the first time in awhile that they’ve given Tanya a subplot that didn’t feel like an afterthought, so I applaud the writers for that. They also did a wonderful job of tying it to a Julius-Rochelle conflict—great work utilizing the ensemble in one subplot. Also, thumbs-up for taking a very common young-woman problem and making it as bizarre, irreverent and fresh as the common young-man problems Chris faces.

Robin Givens, who appeared out of nowhere on an episode of Burn Notice last summer, reappears here as Doc’s overbearing girlfriend. I have only the haziest memories of her from Head of the Class, and I’m honestly surprised narrator Chris didn’t make any Mike Tyson jokes, but I have to admit she impressed me. She played basically the same character Tisha Campbell did a few weeks ago, but about a thousand times better. I honestly hope she works her way into the recurring cavalcade of classic-TV stars alongside Todd Bridges, Antonio Fargas, Ernest Thomas and Jackée.

The writers took the rather interesting tack of showing Chris negotiating the strange world of adulthood without quite having the faculty to do so properly or maturely. Instead, he causes mayhem and chaos—and man did Fargas do a good job of selling the hurt after Givens dumps him—and, when he tries to clean up the mess, comes to the strange realization that adults are just as messed up as the kids at Tattaglia. Nicely done, writers.

King of the Hill (Fox)—Ah, corporate synergy. King of the Hill‘s focus on Fox-owned MySpace makes me as enthusiastic for the social-networking giant as Sarah Connor Chronicles does for the glistening, sleek 2009 Dodge Ram. Despite the obvious corporate mandate at work here, I don’t mind the product placement. I don’t even mind it when it’s as glaring as Sarah Connor‘s extreme close-up of the Ram logo. Use of actual products—especially in a satirical but not explicitly negative way, as here—lends a verisimilitude that most television shows lack.

My only real complaint about the episode, which was pretty funny and well-plotted, was the character of Donna. We’ve never seen her before, we won’t see her again. I know this is a sitcom with a very standalone nature, but it would have been nice to see a long-time recurring character like Joe-Jack or Enrique get hooked on MySpace. They could have also brought Donna on a few episodes earlier and subtly foreshadowed the upcoming MySpace meltdown. They developed the character well enough, and she’s eerily reminiscent of more than a few coworkers I’ve shared office space with, but I would have preferred to see a slow build rather than a random eruption. Donna comes out of nowhere and goes back to nowhere by the end of the episode.

Mad Men (AMC)—This season’s finale didn’t quite have the emotional impact of the first season, but it worked pretty well. Strangely, the season’s biggest emotional punch came not from the Don-Betty reunion (or Betty’s angst over her pregnancy)—the “confrontation” between Pete and Peggy actually hit me on a deeper level. I also found the angst over the merger more interesting than the Cuban Missile Crisis material that paralleled it. At least in that case, it seemed like an intentional move from the writers. I will say that I hope Don and Betty work all their problems out, but I’m honestly not looking forward to another kid.

So I’m taking bets. Who thinks they’ll be ballsy and skip 1963 the way they did ’61? Or will next season’s finale revolve around the Kennedy assassination?

The Office (NBC)—So last week, we had the breakup; this week, we (very briefly) have the aftermath, as Michael opens the show attempting to convince the others he’s engaged to Holly. Unfortunately, after that things veered quite a bit off the beaten path. I’ve bitched about the coupling and triangles before, and I have to admit there’s little I care less about than the Dwight-Angela-Andy cluster. I know the writers have to give them something to do, but they really can’t come up with any better, office-focused material than a love triangle? I never bought Andy as interested in Angela to begin with, so the fact that it’s gone this far irritates me to no end. Making their selection of Schrute Farms as the wedding location such a significant part of this week’s episode really bugged me.

Pushing Daisies (ABC)—If Stephen Root’s role pans out the way I hope it does, he will single-handedly obliterate my lingering Chenoweth hate. I will stop caring because everything Stephen Root has ever done or will ever do is great, automatically.

Although the show is starting to feel the lack of Lily and Vivian, this episode did a great job of expanding this strange hybrid world, which combines storybook fantasy and film noir, by staging most of the action in the Chinese restaurant under Emerson’s office. The writers also made me feel Ned’s pain in a way I haven’t since the first season. I don’t know where they’re headed with him, his half-brothers and Stephen Root, but I’m completely on board.

Unfortunately, the mystery went quite a bit off the rails in the last quarter. Tossing Chuck and Olive into the fray as new waitresses was one of the show’s most random moments, but it didn’t add much beyond an absurd visual—and as absurd visuals go, it couldn’t even begin to compare to loutish Chinese gangsters playing poker with food. I loved a lot about this episode, but it lacked the polish of the past few weeks.

Raising the Bar (TNT)—All right, I have to call bullshit on this season finale. There were a couple of things I liked—not coincidentally, all of them tied back into who these characters are: the Charlie-Kessler subplot, Kellerman getting advice from Bobbi and taking it, Bobbi not acting inconsistently because he took the advice but “it’s different” because it’s her (that’s the way it’d go on 90% of TV shows), Michelle actually trying to do the right thing when she finds out about Bobbi’s husband. I even liked the way the story of the old lady brings Rosalind and Richard together.

I didn’t like the too-easy portrait of Bobbi’s husband first as a drug addict, then as a drug addict who chases hookers. Maybe it’s because the bulk of their relationship has been presented off-screen, or maybe it’s the blinding hotness of Natalia Cigliuti making me wonder how anyone could prefer seeking prostitutes, but that whole concept was a major tough-sell, almost as tough a sell as the idea that a doctor could be dipping into his hospital’s own supply without anyone noticing (a) the inventory is off or (b) Dr. Gilardi is stoned out of his gourd. Only people who are high don’t think others notice. And, really, it’s quick-‘n’-easy character assassination to first cause a reason for Kellerman and Bobbi to be apart, then get together without the audience feeling guilty. I wish they’d done the job of making him a more interesting, nuanced “villain” that she maybe just doesn’t get along with. It’s strangely family-hour-friendly for a basic-cable show airing in the 10PM slot with controversy master Steven Bochco at the helm. Shouldn’t this entire show consist of infidelities and obscenities? Like Rescue Me for lawyers?

I like this show a fair amount, enough to consider checking it out next season, but I have some reservations. Too often, the show dips down toward mediocrity and/or cliché territory, and that’s the material that’s just not worth the time. Despite what certain whiny netizens think, there’s way too much good stuff on television to stick with something that doesn’t want to better itself. Two weeks ago, I mentioned we needed more scenes like the one with Kellerman and Charlie on the roof. I stand by that, but if the show doesn’t deliver, I’ll probably check out before season two ends.

Sons of Anarchy (FX)—Speaking of not rising to its potential… I’ve come to a rather unfortunate decision about Sons of Anarchy. We have three more weeks until the first-season finale, and while I intend to see it through to the end of the season, I’m going to drop Idiot Boxing coverage of it. If it does the job of changing my mind about the show, I’ll cover the finale and gladly indulge in the second season, whenever it airs. For the moment, it’s so ridiculously inconsistent that I just don’t think it’s worth sticking with.

I know I turned around on this show when I last wrote about it, but the problem is, the show turned back around on me. It finally reached heights of quality—and consistency—that made me want to embrace it, but the past two episodes have been lackluster at best. In fact, last week’s episode I’m willing to simply call bad, if only because I really, really can’t stand Agent Stahl. But the irritation of Stahl just points to the other problem—Kohn wasn’t scary until the episode where he got shot in the head. He wasn’t threatening or menacing; he was pretty irritating, too. Stahl is following in the exact same pattern—a bland, cardboard-cutout of a villain who doesn’t present anything close to a real threat. So basically, if the villains aren’t going to work, what’s the point of having them? Why not just stick with these bikers and the local authorities. Already, Deputy Chief Hale has proved more interesting and threatening than the “bigger” villains, yet they’ve relegated him to the background.

Jax and Tara share similar inconsistencies. One week, Jax is all into reading his dad’s book and using his head to solve their problems; the next, he’s as much a brainless, gun-toting low-life as the others. The writers don’t take the time to write in the internal struggle of running with the club the way he has for his whole life and trying to change it so it’s more in line with what his dad wanted and what he now wants for his own son. I guess they think this conflict is implied, and it’s hard to get taciturn characters to open up about their feelings, but it’s not really reflected much in the way he behaves. I don’t think this is so much a problem with Charlie Hunnam’s performance as a problem with the writers not making Jax question decisions—even if he’s doing it non-verbally and going along with it out of loyalty.

Tara, on the other hand… While it’s believable that the problems with Kohn would bring them together temporarily, it seems inconceivable that suddenly they’d be back in each others’ arms forever. Yet, this just underscores how little we know about her. I can’t say she wouldn’t behave the way she is, because I don’t know enough about her to speculate. Now that I think about it, I can say the same for nearly every other supporting character. They’re coasting on the charm of the performers and the micro-traits the writers have given them. At the end of the day, the only characters who have any depth or consistency are Gemma, Opie, Unser and Hale. Notice that three of the four are recurring characters with maybe 1/10th of the screen time of Jax, Tara or Clay.

It’s just shaking out that these people end up more interesting because they’re reacting to situations created by the main characters, which naturally brings out new aspects of the characters. The writers don’t feel the need to bring us into why the leads do what they do, and they’re acting instead of reacting. When they do react, it often undermines what we already know about them instead of enhancing it. (Much as I enjoyed Jax shooting Kohn in the head, nothing about his character suggests he’s that emotional. He’s the cold, rational one, who would be coming up with various plans rather than acting on whims. Maybe things are different because of his history with Tara, but again, we don’t know enough about their past relationship to make it believable.) There are some exceptions to this rule, but overall, we don’t know much about them, and I have the feeling that this is the main reason why they come across as so frustrating and inconsistent.

So there you have it. A rant and a half followed by silence. Sorry, Sons fans. I’m just not feeling this one. Maybe the next few weeks will change my mind.

Supernatural (The CW)—What is this? Three or four light-‘n’-fluffy episodes in a row? Granted, Supernatural does this kind of thing exceedingly well—although the characters aren’t as great and the dialogue isn’t nearly as sharp, they’re approaching a Buffy/Angel level of quality when it comes to balancing humor and horror. And yet… I don’t really tune in to Supernatural for comedy, whether they do it well or not.

This week’s episode was almost pure laughs, and the suicidal life-size teddy bear was hilarious, but I have to give more credit to the Halloween episode. While still funny, it featured some truly disturbing moments—the inside-the-mouth shot as the husband ate razor-filled candy was as amazing as it was disgusting—and did the job of expanding both the “Sam’s a crazy demon-queller” and Dean’s “The Trouble with Angels” subplots. In the latter category, they brought in Robert Wisdom (The Wire), in what I hope will be a recurring role, as the rare angel who out-badasses Castiel.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox)—As I’ve mentioned, this show is not long for this world. Shortly after the back-nine pickup (yay!), Fox elected to move this show to the Friday dead zone, starting in February (boo!). I guess we should enjoy it while we can. The writers make it easy, because with every misstep (Derek’s boring future-girlfriend) comes a new layer of intrigue (is she the never-before-seen human working for machines?). Unfortunately, it’ll be less easy to see it go, with the cast invariably driving off into the sunset in glistening, new Dodge Rams.

As nitpicks go, I have one that could be a doozy. So here’s the thing: Ellison is wrongfully accused of murder after a terminator clone travels through time and kills a man for clothes. As you might remember from the thoroughly disgusting bathtub episode in the first season, in order to match a person physically, the machines require a certain quantity of that person’s DNA (probably less in the future, with the advanced technology). So where’d Ellison’s DNA come from? Did they spare a sample clinic from nuclear annihilation? I admit, it’s somewhat intriguing to see that they want to replace Ellison for unknown reasons—otherwise, why go to the effort of cloning him?—but how’d they get that?

Even worse, when Catherine Weaver gets him out of jail by assuming the identity of the detective… What was going on there? One assumes she killed the detective, so wouldn’t somebody get suspicious once his body’s found? “What was he doing before he died?” “Interrogating James Ellison for murder.” Nothing suspicious there! I do like the uneasy alliance between Weaver and Ellison, though, and I have to wonder if he’ll start suspecting her now.

The rest of the show was just fine—no complaints, but I have to say, nothing exceptional, either. I liked them teaming up Cromartie and Jody, the fun irony of Sarah’s softness getting them into trouble (again!—this will end up being a crutch if they keep using it, though) and the return of Riley and Kim Kelly—er, Kacy. It seems like forever since we last saw them, because Fox keeps preempting the show. If it had run in succession, John’s outburst about Sarkissian would have been more effective, as well. I have a feeling the whole thing will flow better on DVD.

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