…and not because of the writers’ strike, which won’t take effect until tomorrow. No, I’m speaking more of the shows listed below, many of which have made me a bit weary. Perhaps it’s having to think about them more, but I’ve begun to realize that much of what I watch…isn’t worth watching. Do I really have time to waste on mediocrity or worse? Should I devote an hour of my life to a extended episode of My Name Is Earl? I would have thought so on Thursday, but considering the poorly edited laugh-vacuum we got in lieu of an entertaining 30 minutes, I’ve reconsidered how I spend my time. Don’t be surprised if half (or more) of these shows disappear by next week.
Aliens in America (The CW)—In last week’s special edition about saving the CW, I lamented the longevity of this show (along with Reaper), but this episode allayed those fears. I’ve mischaracterized what this show wants to be as some sort of wacky, Perfect Strangers-esque comedy, which is maybe because, deep down, doesn’t everyone want Larry and Balki back on TV? Just me…?
This episode made me realize that Aliens in America has never wanted that. Sure, its premise is founded on the “ethnic mismatch comedy” formula and a few storylines have tackled Raja’s unusual “foreign” behavior—at its core, though, this is a show about best friends struggling through high school. Rather than uniting against common enemies, Justin and Raja find themselves pitted against one another when Justin wants Raja—who has gotten a job in a convenience store—to sell beer to the “cool kids” so they can be a part of the “in” crowd. This exact same scenario could occur with any two high school aged friends of any ethnicity anywhere in the country. That actually makes me think the show can overcome the potential problems (Raja assimilating too quickly, the duo going off to college, etc.).
I haven’t even mentioned the subplot involving Gary getting laid off. This show handles dark comedy (or at least, comedy with a nice underpinning of utter sadness) better than anything else on television, and this subplot is just more evidence of that. Gary’s struggle to maintain dignity in the face of the “new economy” managed to hit a lot more emotional levels than I would have thought, including the sweet ending where he finally stops hiding the truth from his wife. Well played, Aliens in America.
Dirty Sexy Money (ABC)—And so the problem typical of soap operas finally hit Dirty Sexy Money. The problem? It sets up a variety of storylines and, if you find one tedious or don’t care about a particular character’s struggle, the entire episode falls apart. The twists and turns in Nick’s efforts to find out who killed his father (and/or why) fell flat, yet they took up most of the episode’s focus. Then again, another subplot I wasn’t particularly enthralled with—Brian’s illegitimate son—is starting to give Brian much more emotional depth than he’s had so far. I’m now enjoying that, but again it’s like a plate-spinning act: if they can’t make the audience care about every storyline equally, the whole thing falls apart. As if the Karen “she really loves Nick awwww” subplot hasn’t gotten creaky enough, now we have an ex-husband telling her in blunt terms that she really loves Nick (duh!), and wow do I not care.
Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—Chris accidentally inherits a bachelor pad when his family—sick with the flu—quarantines their apartment and forces him to stay with Roger Thomas—er, Mr. Omar. Mr. Omar won’t give up his somewhat disturbing bachelor lifestyle, so he’s not home a lot—leaving Chris all by himself. In a bachelor pad. Chris invites over his crush, but it ends as badly as you’d expect (see the title for details). One of the strengths (and joys) of this show is that it remembers the confusion and cluelessness of teenage years. Chris bumbles through this situation without understanding anything that’s happening, which makes it that much funnier when everything goes wrong.
Heroes (NBC)—Like Dirty Sexy Money, Heroes has to contend with the soap opera problem. Despite a few rough patches last season, I never had any real problems with the way the story progressed on Heroes (except for the Niki/Jessica thing, which was always interminable, though I did admire the way that whole family situation contributed to the demise of Linderman). I didn’t even have much trouble this season, until the repetitive nature of each storyline finally got under my skin. Much as I like Hiro and Ando (and Sark!), dude needs to get back to the present ASAP. Running around in feudal Japan, finding out the horrible truth behind the legendary figure who made Hiro who he is—fun for a few episodes, in small doses. Not so fun when it seems like he’ll be spending the whole season in the past, using the following formula: an incident reminds him of a future legend involving “Kensei,” Hiro explains the significance to Kensei, Kensei wants to drink and steal, Hiro explains heroism can lead to even greater wealth, Kensei’s in, they beat people up, both of them make moon eyes at the swordsmith’s daughter. Rinse. Repeat. Give us some variety or give up this storyline.
The same could be said of the storyline involving the Central American twins of indeterminate origin and Sylar, and Peter’s wacky misadventures in Ireland. They’ve gotten dull solely because it feels like a rehash of the same story every week. Even the more intriguing subplots (Parkman-Mohinder-Molly and the Bennets) feel like they’re spinning wheels a bit. The Claire-West “romance” tried to come into its own, but it failed because (among other things) it’s really stupid. The idea of a juvenile delinquent “hero” is mildly amusing, but West is hilariously miscast. When Claire has more romantic chemistry with her gay best friend, you know you’re in trouble. Either quit the romance or have West die tragically in some sort of 747-related accident. Or maybe it doesn’t matter since he’ll probably turn eeeevil.
Journeyman (NBC)—Two weeks ago, we had a D.B. Cooper-esque storyline (which I’m always a sucker for) that left Dan with $50,000 in 1970s cash—bonus! Except all the bills are marked, so if he spends them at all, he’ll be implicated in one of the great unsolved crimes. It also sort of ruined his career, considering he buried the story after their faux-Cooper turned out to be a sympathetic Army Ranger trying to smuggle a Vietnamese family out of Cambodia. It looked to me like this “windfall” would head us toward a grander story, and this week has possibly proven me right (sort of!). It deals with two brothers, sons of a Ukrainian immigrant who essentially ruined their lives with strictness and abuse. One of them becomes a Unabomber-esque brilliant physicist who begins bombing scientific organizations he feels has wronged him. With Dan helping the unfortunate guy’s brother, they manage to stop the bomber—
—and it turns out it wasn’t Daddy’s abuse that did him in (a television first): he recognized Dan as a time traveler and it apparently blew his mind. When Dan meets up with a slightly older non-bomber in the altered present, he confesses that time travel is completely impossible, but he sure sounds shady about it. Also implied in the episode: the scientist who gave Dan some advice about tachyons (theoretical particles that can travel faster than light, and therefore through time) knows more than he let on with Dan. I’m not prepared to say he’s the man behind the curtain, but I like that they’re heading in a direction with this. I don’t know that we should ever find out who/what/why Dan is traveling through time, and I’m also not convinced I like the attempt at a “hard-science” approach to it, but his investigation (whether it proves fruitless or not) has me hooked. That means it’ll be canceled before Sweeps ends.
My Name Is Earl (NBC)—The first season had a tedious episode in which Earl and Randy, for reasons I can’t full recall, get trapped in a water tower, suspended in mid-air over the water. It was boring, unfunny, awkwardly paced, and hands-down the worst episode the show had done…until now! “Our Other COPS Is On” has managed, far and away, to crown itself the show’s worst episode. The first COPS episode was pretty funny, giving us a nice, extended glimpse into the lives of the characters pre-List. This one, which takes place on the first Fourth of July after 9/11, was a total disaster. Some of the paranoia humor worked, but the hour-long episode had very little in the way of story. It relied mainly on gags involving its supporting cast, many of which were far too derivative of the previous COPS episode. On top of which—well, let’s just say I take back any complaints I have about the occasional padding or narrative shakiness with the recent Office hour-long episodes. This took things to a horrible new level, showing that the hour-long sitcom format really can be used for evil. Most of this season has fallen flat thanks to the oft-bitched-about “Earl in prison” story constraints, but nothing could have prepared me for this trainwreck of poor pacing (some of those scenes just went on for so long), awkward editing that reeked of a rough cut, relying far too much on a supporting cast that works better in small doses. Even the one redeeming quality of the episode—a little bit of satire mocking post-9/11 attitudes—turned into a disaster the more the throwaway gags developed into the flabby plot about Earl and Randy stealing fireworks.
I’m never one to declare “jump-the-shark” moments (you can usually only trace those after the show has ended), but there’s a first time for everything. Considering the steep decline in quality culminating in last week’s shocking badness, My Name Is Earl may have jumped the shark.
Numb3rs (CBS)—Numb3rs is back to the “everyone on the planet who isn’t a regular or Lou Diamond Phillips is a dirty cop” storyline. At least they’re trying to shake things up a bit—first, they led us to believe it was U.S. Mashal Erika “Cousin Pam” Alexander. When she turned up clean, attention turned to James Morrison, who apparently hit the skids HARD in the 24 off-season. Dude needs a shave and a haircut, or at least a comb. Or maybe “disheveled hair and goatee” has become CBS shorthand for “dirty cop.”
The Office (NBC)—The Office works in both hour and half-hour formats. Each has its own unique qualities, and the writers are smart enough to give us an obvious distinction between the styles of the two forms. Still, I couldn’t help thinking maybe this week’s would have worked better as an hour-long episode. The Michael-Dwight-Jim “road trip” felt a little rushed, as did the re-introduction of Karen and all the goofiness at the Utica branch. We got just enough of the Finer Things Club for it to be gold, though, so maybe I should accept it. Ken Levine recently suggested hour-long sitcoms don’t work because the writers usually only have 45 minutes of material, so they end up tacking on filler and/or pointless subplots to pad the run time. This episode would have been perfect at 45, but probably overkill at an hour. I’m so torn. I’ll just accept the half-hour episode. It was a strong episode; I just would have liked a little more.
Pushing Daisies (ABC)—At this point, the fact that Pushing Daisies doesn’t look or act anything like a television show functions as its greatest strength. Because, really, most of the storylines it uses are pretty routine; you just have to ignore zany, out-of-left-field twists and larger-than-life, quirky characters. What happened in this week’s “Halloween” episode followed a pretty routine “ghost killer who isn’t really a ghost, duh!” story without tossing many surprises at us, but it didn’t need them. It had: romantic moonlight gravedigging, a murderous conspiracy involving jockeys, and Ned’s most tragic chunk of backstory to date.
Yes, the most affecting chunk of the episode happened during the first few minutes, as we discover Ned’s father moved away with no forwarding address—just a picture of the house on a generic WE’VE MOVED!! postcard. I love that the world of Pushing Daisies has generic, holiday-themed cards that simply say WE’VE MOVED!! Ned sneaks out of his boarding school to find the house on the picture. He dresses up like a ghost to hide himself and finds his father has a new family and doesn’t even recognize his son, not even through the sheet with eye-holes cut out. He simply gives the anonymous boy a candy bar and pats him on the head. Damn!
I still don’t care for Olive or Kristin Chenoweth, but I did almost respect her for allowing the show to mock her diminutive stature. Making her character a former jockey may not have been the show’s boldest or most surprising moment, but the story they weaved around her previous occupation made it work.
Reaper (The CW)—I’m beginning to worry about this show. It’s still very funny, it’s still slowly but surely improving the quality of its demons and the complexities of how its fantasy world operates. I like that they want to head us in the direction of long-term story arcs, but my concern right now is: how much do we know about these characters? Right now, the characters coast on the strength of the affable performances, but as far as actual depth—we don’t get much from the writing. We know more about Sam than any other character, and all we really know about him is: he’s an unassertive underachiever with a relatively stable home life aside from that whole “Sorry, son, we sold your soul to the Devil” thing.
Each of the general character traits assigned to the three main characters (I exclude Andi because we know even less about her—just that she’s in college and seems interested in Sam) are pretty relatable to people in this highly coveted demographic: Sam, who knows what he wants but doesn’t have the guts to fight for it; Sock, who pretends to be a high-and-mighty go-getter trying to show Sam the light without acknowledging that hey, there’s a reason why he also works at the Bench and lives with his parents; we know less about Ben, but he fits the mold of a guy who tries to get along with everyone at all costs. Yet, beyond these general traits, we don’t get much more insight into the characters. Sure, they’re trying to establish a demented mentor relationship with the Devil, which will hopefully give Sam some long-term development, but will it matter if we never find out more about him?
Patton Oswalt’s therapy-obsessed reformed-assassin tried to bring some new insights, at least into the Sam-Sock relationship, but again, it didn’t do much other than regurgitate what we already know in a psychobabble patois. Even though I’ll admit this is the best episode so far, I’m still looking for more dimension to these characters.
Stargate: Atlantis (Sci-Fi)—I’m a slave to the characters here. I acknowledge that as science-fiction it floats a few inches above “mediocre.” Most of its storylines have been done better elsewhere, including several first- and second-season episodes that directly ripped off vastly superior Farscape episodes. Lately, they’ve admitted the hackery in the form of Buffy-esque self-awareness. While that works to some extent, if you aren’t doing much to put a new spin on an old story (as Buffy almost always did), the admission doesn’t mean very much. It’s like saying you’re a drug addict in a crack den: nobody’s going to argue with you, and chances are nothing’s going to change.
Yet, the writers did one thing right: consistent characterizations fully realized by better actors than the show deserves. These people aren’t master thespians by any means, but the “let’s take a familiar idea and toss our characters into it” method of storytelling rests more on their shoulders than the writers, and the cast is more than capable of rising above the material. The problem is, as the show staggers forward without much in the way of improvement, cracks in the façade have begun to form. It started last season with the Replicators: now that they’re allowed to talk, the Wraith come across more as melodramatic drag queens than scary villains. Solution? Cast David Ogden Stiers as a menacing-in-his-politeness Ancient clone who wants to lead an army to re-take Atlantis. Not bad, but what about the Wraith?
Last week, they did a little Firefly homage with a painfully bad actress running a rag-tag crew in a delapidated ship. They kidnap Sheppard and force him to use his Ancient gene to help them repair an Ancient warship they’ve discovered, which they can use to fight—you guessed it!—the Wraith. Unfortunately, in his effort to send a distress call back to Atlantis, Sheppard unwittingly alerts the Wraith. Fair enough: the Wraith still exist, after they seemed to drop them completely for the season.
This week, we returned to goofy, low-concept rehashes. Remember that TNG where everyone lost their memories? Or that X-Files? Or the Buffy and the Angel that were basically the same episode? Here we have a disease—a new strain of a common, chicken-pox-like disease in the Pegasus galaxy—that causes everyone to get amnesia and sweat a lot. The entire city would have descended into a group of shrieking adults constantly wetting themselves if not for Teyla and Ronon, who are immune.
The episode features one of the worse deus ex machinas of all time. I know it’s trying to be hip, ironic, and surprising, but the “big solution” of memory-free McKay just needing to hit the ENTER key to solve all their problems struck me as incredibly lazy. They wrote themselves into a corner, and that was the best solution? It further reenforces another disappointment in the show: Rodney McKay is Wesley Crusher. For all his bluster and ego, he really does save the day, week in and week out. How neat would it have been to explore some new dimensions when Teyla and Ronon—the muscle—are forced to use science and technology they barely understand to save the day? Instead, Teyla just whines, “I don’t know how to use this,” and makes McKay do it. Lame!
Supernatural (The CW)—Is Sam going to the Dark Side, or does he just have low patience and an itchy trigger finger? This is the question posed by Supernatural this week. Last week, Bobby helped Sam fix the Magic Colt, and this week Sam decided to use it on the Crossroads Demon—you know, the one Dean made a deal with, exchanging his life for Sam’s. Sam wants Dean out of the deal, but when he confronts the Crossroads Demon, he’s shocked to learn that hell is essentially a bureaucracy with an endless array of middle-managers creating a smokescreen around the Big Executive (man, Hell would be some kind of giant, soul-sucking corporate environment, wouldn’t it?). Yes, the Crossroads Demon has a boss. No, she can’t personally override the deal. Please hold while she transfers Sam to a supervis—oh shit, he shot her in the face!
It would appear we have our season-long story arc. After all, Dean only has a year to live, so they pretty much have to resolve this story soon. Will Sam’s journey into the corporate underworld take him on the prophesied path to evil, or will he rise above it when he realizes what a load of crap it is. Find out, on next week’s Angel—er, Supernatural.
Next week: in-depth coverage of how the writers’ strike will affect you, the television viewer.