Posts in Category: Reviews

Poirot: The Classic Collection 2 (1992-1996)

But fundamentally it is the same careful grouping of suspects, the same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poniard just as she flatted on the top note of the “Bell Song” from Lakmé in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests; the same ingénue in fur-trimmed pajamas screaming in the night to make the company pop in and out of doors and ball up the timetable; the same moody silence next day as they sit around sipping Singapore slings and sneering at each other, while the flatfeet crawl to and fro under the Persian rugs, with their derby hats on.—Raymond Chandler

Like the late Mr. Chandler, I take serious issue with the inconceivable, deus ex machina resolutions to many classic English detective stories. This is not a reflection on Agatha Christie specifically (although she was, in her apparent quest to write no fewer 40,000 books per year, at least occasionally guilty) or on the English in general; after all, the story that arguably invented the “goofy, inconceivable detective story solved by a man with OCD and way too much time on his hands” genre was written by an American, Edgar Allan Poe. Yes, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” where the genius Dupin solves the improbable murder by identifying orangutan hair on sight.

My bias against this type of story prepared me to dislike Poirot. However, it surprised me to discover how many movies on this Poirot set had complex storylines with satisfying—but not baffling or inconceivable—conclusions. True, there’s the occasional “he created a fake pattern of serial killing, killed three extra people and would have kept going if he hadn’t been caught, tried to pin it on someone else, all so he could inherit an estate from his brother” solution, but many of the mysteries rely on complicated relationships and motives rather than convoluted schemes with thin motives. I’ve read some of Agatha Christie’s short stories and novels, though I am not familiar with the sources of any of these particular mysteries. I don’t know if the adaptations are revisionist tales that differ wildly from the source to fit the post-hardboiled world, or if the more famous Christie stories are famous solely because of their preposterousness. While it at least seems Christie told the same story over and over again (nearly every mystery revolves around self-absorbed rich people killing over inheritance), the level of quality and satisfaction in the resolutions vary wildly from story to story.

The success, even in the goofier mysteries, likely comes from the grounded performances of the usual supporting cast—David Suchet, of course, as M. Hercule Poirot; Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings; Philip Jackson as Chief Inspector Japp; and Pauline Moran as Miss Lemon. Suchet, in particular, has a knack for playing Poirot as fastidious and uptight—but not arrogant and condescending (in contrast to his portrayal in many of Christie’s stories). With one exception—Murder at End House, where Poirot spends much of his time mocking Hastings’s lack of instincts, intelligence, and refinement—he plays Poirot as a pleasant fellow fascinated by a good unsolved crime and obsessed with finding the culprit. The cast members have a great rapport with one another, and each uses his or her skills to contribute to the ultimate solution of the case. Oftentimes, the strange cases take a backseat to entertaining subplots involving the characters (such as Japp staying with Poirot while his wife is away).

The Classic Collection 2 contains nine feature-length movies based on Agatha Christie novels (Classic Collection 1 features 36 50-minute episodes), each of which shares a strong attention to detail in evoking 1930s London. If you like Agatha Christie or the character of Poirot, this DVD set won’t disappoint. If you, like me, have some reservations about the qualities of the mysteries, the movies featured on this set will surprise you.

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Slings & Arrows: The Complete Third Season (2006)

I feel no shame in saying the first season of Slings & Arrows struck a serious chord with me, so serious in fact that I’m willing to declare it a perfect, if truncated, season of television. Perhaps the perfection comes from its abbreviated episode count; where other shows might have a few more episodes to breathe, every single second of Slings & Arrows counts. Overstuffed with entertainment and insight, the six episodes feel like 13 or even 22. Funny, heartbreaking, well-acted—I can’t say enough about the quality.

Setting the bar so high with the first season could only lead to disappointment in the second, and it did—but not by much. It had a few missteps, like the lack of development on the couple playing Romeo & Juliet and Richard’s misguided subplot at a cutting-edge PR firm (which started funny but went a little too long and broad for my tastes), but in the end it came pretty close to capturing the genius of the first season.

I felt myself looking forward to the third. Would it match the consistent brilliance of the first season, fall just under with the second, or slip even further?

Turns out, it bounced back pretty seriously, doing what Slings & Arrows does best: counterpointing the real lives of the actors, technician, and administration of the fictional New Burbage Festival with the play they are putting on this season. Even more than that, they counterpoint the Shakespeare group’s King Lear with an original musical called East Hastings, a mutant combination of the unbridled optimism and grunge of Rent and the goofy “urban” theatricality of West Side Story.

Riding high on the success of last season’s Macbeth (which, as we begin, has just finished a successful run in New York), artistic director Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) wants to put on King Lear starring legendary actor Charles Kingman (the late William Hutt). The only problem? Kingman has brain cancer and a heroin addiction. When Geoffrey learns this, he’s put into a difficult situation: shut down a production that rapidly becomes a trainwreck, or continue it to fulfill the wish of a dying man. Geoffrey keeps Kingman’s secret at the expense of nearly everything—the actors’ and technicians’ increasing frustration when Kingman blames them for his own line and blocking mistakes, executive director Richard Smith-Jones’s (Mark McKinney) increasing apprehension in light of Kingman’s erratic behavior, and Geoffrey’s relationship with Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns).

Of course, the relationship with Ellen is already complicated by another problem Geoffrey faces: the emotional issues stemming from his brief insanity and his seeing the ghost of Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) have led to impotence. Combined with Ellen’s annoying TV star friend Barbara (Janet Bailey) moving in, Geoffrey decides to leave.

Meanwhile, Richard teams up with notoriously difficult Darren Nichols (Don McKellar) on East Hastings, while three newcomers (Sarah Polley, Melanie Merkosky, and David Alpay) fight over housing arrangements and become embroiled in a romantic triangle and an endless “Shakespearean actor” vs. “musical actor” argument. These younger characters get much more development than last season’s Romeo & Juliet stars, but they aren’t nearly as well-drawn or interesting as the first season’s Kate McNab (Rachel McAdams) and Jack Crew (Luke Kirby). It’s a pretty minor nitpick, though—their storyline falls flat once or twice but ultimately matches the quality of the rest of the show.

The DVD includes special features: interviews with Paul Gross and Susan Coyne (Anna), extended scenes of King Lear, a blooper reel, deleted and extra scenes, a trailer, production notes, a photo gallery, song lyrics, and cast filmographies. The interviews and production notes are nice, but a few episode-length commentary tracks would have been nice.

The third season stands higher than the second but doesn’t quite match the first—of course, it’s comparing apples and apples. The three seasons, combined, form one of the best shows ever aired on television. It also builds to a difficult but satisfying conclusion to the series as a whole. When we’re given characters as rich and interesting as the men and women of Slings & Arrows, it’s difficult to say goodbye, but the finale serves as an emotional, well-earned capper for an excellent series.

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Cracker: A New Terror (2006)

Perhaps wanting to distance himself from international success as Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies, Robbie Coltrane returns to his other famous role, Dr. Eddie Fitzgerald, an abusive, insecure, alcoholic forensic psychologist. A New Terror takes a “ripped-from-the-headlines” approach by drawing parallels between America’s War on Terror and the terrorist acts in Northern Ireland and England. I know some about this political situation, but not much, and that’s kind of the point.

Like A Touch of Frost, Cracker: A New Terror cuts between Fitz’s domestic woes (he’s come back to England from Australia, where he and his wife have lived for 12 years, for his daughters wedding) and getting roped into a murder investigation, and the life of the soon-to-be murderer, a former British soldier named Kenny Archer (Anthony Flanagan) who suffers from post-traumatic stress in the wake of his own involvement in quelling Northern Irish terrorist forces. He plays Russian roulette while on the phone with suicide hotlines, saying things to the social worker like, “If I don’t kill myself, it’ll be somebody else.”

True to his word, he kills an American stand-up comic who makes a series of obscene, on-the-nose jokes comparing al-Qaeda to the Northern Irish. Archer is, by coincidence (I assume?), in the same bar getting trashed, and he decides it’s an appropriate time for murder. But the plot thickens: Archer is a cop, and the stand-up comic is the son of a wealthy American businessman and his socialite wife. Let the commentary begin!

Yes, Cracker: A New Terror features an overwhelming amount of angst over American foreign policy: globalization, the War on Terror, our cultural ignorance about happenings abroad. It’s pretty harsh, and unfortunately pretty true, but let this serve as a warning for folks who might not take criticism of our country lying down: watching this won’t make you happy.

Archer’s actions excel, especially when he’s assigned to protect the wealthy American family. He kills the father, tries to make it look like a robbery, but it strikes Fitz as a little too suspicious. It’s perhaps inevitable that Fitz will get his man, which is why the writers pad the episode with trouble involving his wife. I’ve never seen the original Cracker series, but it appears his wife wanted Fitz to retire for a reason; she’s not pleased about him getting dragged back into the underworld of murder and depravity when he’s supposed to be spending time with his daughter and grandkids. The conclusion of the procedural aspects probably won’t surprise, but the ending of his domestic woes are a bit more shocking.

Fans of the Cracker series regard this as a mediocre-at-best “episode” of the series, but I found myself enjoying it quite a bit. If this is mediocrity, I look forward to checking out the original Cracker series.

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Chancer: Series 1 (1990)

For the first three episodes of Chancer, I listened to a great deal of high-finance jargon and dry British wit, witnessed obscene actions of manipulation and deceit, but if asked to explain the story I would have stammered and stumbled and given up. I had no clue what was happening or why. I had to plunge forward for the sake of the review, however, but if it had just been me, catching a marathon of reruns at 2 a.m. on BBC America, I would have shut it off in frustration.

I couldn’t tell you if the show made sense to British audiences in 1990; maybe the intrigue and confusion of the high-finance world appealed to that post-Wall Street era more than it does to a person living in the collapsed rubble of the e-Conomy bubble. But as the characters formulated and as the dust and debris of the machinations of the first three episodes settled, Chancer turns into an enjoyable epic of corporate corruption, city “ethics” versus country morality, and globalization.

The story begins with a fire at Douglas Motors, a small company that manufactures luxury Leopards (I assume this is a play on Jaguar) selling for ridiculous amounts of money. Each Leopard is hand-crafted, but decades of automation and decreasing car prices are leading Douglas to collapse. To the bank, the fire is the last straw. Robert Douglas (Benjamin Whitrow, giving perhaps the strongest performance on the show) refuses to let his company die like this. His son-in-law, Gavin (Matthew Marsh), offers to talk to his business consultant friend in London.

Enter Stephen Crane (Clive Owen), a manipulative risk-taker who somehow manages to come out on top, every time. Even after some light insider trading during the first few episodes, Crane joins up with Douglas Motors and offers himself a huge salary to consult without having anything like a business model, a strategy to cut the competition, or investors. Who needs them?

The first half of the series revolves around Stephen Crane’s brash, citified business anti-ethics getting in the way of Robert Douglas’s close-knit, family-operated motor company. When Douglas finally accepts that Crane has the best of intentions, the series shifts more to focus on how Crane will manage to keep the company afloat by doing fairly illegal things while trying to avoid getting caught. It’s especially difficult when business rival Piers Garfield-Ward (Simon Shepherd) and former boss Jimmy Blake (Leslie Phillips) are out for blood.

The story builds to massive payoffs in the last three episodes. Each is constructed as a nearly standalone thriller as Stephen Crane’s past misdeeds catch up to him, and he has to deftly maneuver to stay ahead of businessmen who share his craft and cunning but have the added emotional investment of crushing Crane, and by extension Douglas Motors. The angst boils over until the series froths to its depressing, existential conclusion.

Once the show lays down its business ground rules and gives the impression of what it will be about, Chancer is a wildly entertaining, unpredictable series. However, it has the occasional misstep in the form of soap-opera subplots that go nowhere. Perhaps this is what audiences went for at the time (maybe it’s what audiences still go for now, if the popularity of Grey’s Anatomy is any indication), but it mars an otherwise complex, interesting show. We have the mysterious story of the prodigal son, Jamie Douglas (Sean Pertwee, giving an alternately bizarre and irritating performance), returning to the family for the first time since his mother’s death four years earlier. Other than giving Benjamin Whitrow some great material to work with, it doesn’t add up to much, and Jamie’s pretty much forgotten by the writers a few episodes after he leaves.

There is a similar preoccupation with romantic entanglements. Gavin cheats on his wife with a store clerk in town (among others); Stephen Crane dumps kindred spirit Joanna Franklyn (Susannah Harker) for Robert Douglas’s tedious, egotistical daughter Victoria (Lynsey Baxter). Joanna gets involved with Crane’s rival, Piers. At best, these tacked-on stories reveal new insights into the characters. I still wish they’d done more to justify their existence, considering the way many of them peter out without satisfactory conclusions. Victoria simply waltzes off to a new job in America and Crane forgets her almost immediately. Gavin’s story leads to a lot of melodrama and goofiness.

Joanna’s relationships with both Piers and Crane are probably the most interesting, nuanced, and necessary romantic stories. Her father is a tycoon investing in Douglas Motors whose role grows more and more prominent as the show progresses. Joanna is also a co-conspirator in Crane’s insider trading early in the series. She shares a chemistry with Stephen Crane unmatched by Victoria, who wants to while away the hours arguing with Crane while a “look how cute I think I am” smile creases her face. I’d rather have the histrionics of selfish Gavin shouting at his wife Penny (Caroline Langrishe) than that.

Still, these subplots can’t keep Chancer down. They pad the proceedings a bit, but in the end it’s a series well worth watching, especially for Clive Owen fans. Although Benjamin Whitrow’s Robert Douglas has King Lear-esque shades of depth and vulnerability, the show belongs to Owen. He starts the series as an unabashedly unpleasant grifter, but by the end, audiences will find themselves cheering for him and his misanthropic actions. That’s no small feat.

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A New Day Dawns?

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

Returning Shows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Shows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Some Actual Good New Shows!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Haven’t They Canceled Anything?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sink or Swim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s it for this week.

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The CW: Free to Be… A Real Network!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: Boffo: How I Learned to Love the Blockbuster and Fear the Bomb (2007) by Peter Bart

Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart’s latest book takes aim at blockbusters—but not just any big hits. The eclectic selection of movies, television shows and stage plays that he has focused on often have only one thing in common: an epic struggle to exist. From The Best Years of Our Lives to The Godfather to the unstoppable CSI juggernaut, Bart chronicles the difficulties that almost prevented them from making it to the stage or screen.

In the introduction, Bart chronicles the history of Variety, from its early days as a vaudeville gossip rag printed by Sime Silverman, a street hood who bought a used printing press and recruited his barely literate friends to write for him. The plainspoken, streetwise writing effectively invented the “Variety jargon”—boffo, payola, sitcom—that has made its way into the lexicon. The history of the periodical is laugh-out-loud funny and a great primer for Bart’s unusual selections.

I have a strong interest in movie history, and Bart’s book stands out from others in two ways. Reflecting each of his selections through the prism of Variety‘s day-to-day reporting, he does an exceptional job of bringing us into the mindset and business climate of the times (necessary since some of his selections date back to cinema’s infancy), giving us a full understanding of the risks taken and the success (not just financial) achieved for each profiled project. Bart also dredges up a few nuggets of information that I’ve never heard before, despite my familiarity with many of these films. For projects I knew much less about—like Mamma Mia! and Baywatch—I found myself admiring the passion and sincerity of its champions despite my total lack of interest in them as entertainment.

Bart’s writing style is a bit dull, which might put off some readers initially. I’d encourage them to stick with it, because his thoroughness makes the overall reading experience rewarding. If you’re looking for exposure to some classic (and not-so-classic, but popular nonetheless) film/TV/theatre history, you can’t do much better than Boffo.

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