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Dropping Like Flies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Striking Gold

This week, I played a little game, which I will continue to play in the coming weeks. It goes like this: watch a television show, try to consider when it was filmed (how near to the strike it was), and based on the episode’s quality, try to determine whether or not the writers are going for quality or quantity.

Aliens in America (The CW)—I can’t track down any reliable information about how many episodes of this series have been shot. Do people really care so little about the season’s best new comedy? Considering it’s on the CW, it’s not a leap to guess “yes.” It’s quite a shame, too, because Aliens in America took a slight gamble this week. For the first time in its brief history, the episode concentrated not on the potential conflict between Justin and Raja, but between Justine and his sister, Claire.

Though this gamble left Raja and Justin’s parents stranded in a funny but kind of pointless subplot (all three get re-addicted to smoking and have trouble quitting), it allowed for great development in the sibling relationship here. Ignoring all the episode’s incest jokes, the writers did a really nice job of showing us something that felt emotionally really in the midst of the show’s over-the-top hyper-reality.

In its effort to create a universe of cartoonish absurdity, on the level of Arrested Development or Malcolm in the Middle, this show could have gotten everything wrong and turned into a disaster by week two. Instead, the writers are clever enough to take real situations to their logical (or illogical) extremes, and it pays off. Have you ever seen a high school where Veteran’s Day has turned into a poor-man’s Valentine’s Day because the students have forgotten what a Purple Heart is? The comedy is less the truth of this concept than the truth that many high schools do have similarly bizarre traditions that have come about as a result of misguided students eroding the original intentions. As long as these characters keep their emotional depth, the writers can make their surroundings as outlandish and insane as they want to.

Bones (Fox)—At the end, their faces hung a little too close with a little too much intensity in their eyes. They could have leaned a few inches further and kissed, right then and there, and completely ruined the show—but they didn’t. What allows Bones to continue to work is its writers know exactly where that line is, and they take us right up to the edge of it, but they never cross it. At least, they haven’t yet. And they had better not, because honestly, the friendship—yes, friendship—Booth and Brennan share make this show worth watching. Do I care about their romantic chemistry and their almost-kissing? Yes, I do, but only because I don’t want them to.

It’s like any other friends you care about—you know there’s probably something there, but it’d ruin the friendship if they went any further. So here we are, the audience, the third wheel, knowing things will be awkward if they get together, but also knowing you can’t say anything because—well, aside from them being fictional characters and us watching them on television—you can’t let them know that you see the chemistry, because all they’ll do is deny it. And then start thinking about it. And then, maybe, act. The problem here is, their friends keep bringing it up to them. As does their therapist, played by Freaks & Geeks‘ John Francis Daley. It’s harder to ignore the elephant when it keeps shitting on your coffee table, that’s all I’m saying.

Dirty Sexy Money (ABC)—Remember how last week I said I didn’t care at all about the romantic triangle (let’s face it: Freddy wasn’t even a part of it even when he was) between Nick, his wife, and Karen? Let’s ignore that these shows are shot weeks in advance so I can bitch that the last thing I wanted or expected was an entire hour devoted to this misguided triangle, and the threat that the storyline’s next phase will have Karen fighting even harder for Nick. I enjoy every other character on this show, including the vapid and bratty twins, but no joke: somebody in this triangle needs to get flattened by a bus so it can end. Please?

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—The subplot with Julius accidentally driving a mad robber across the country didn’t do much for me, but I really enjoyed the A story. Greg is usually underused, so it was nice to give him a little more focus and character development. Even with the prominence of Greg, it didn’t shake out to much more than a solid episode—not truly outstanding. Because the quality of a “solid but not outstanding” episode of this series is still so high, I can’t tell whether or not the writers are coasting.

Heroes (NBC)—Is it just me, or should “Four Months Ago” have aired…four months ago? I have enjoyed significant portions of the season so far, but the revelations and ass-kickiness of this episode should have come much, much sooner. It felt more like a season premiere than the “already in progress” premiere we got. Although “Four Months Ago” didn’t answer all our burning questions—it answered enough of them to satisfy me, but not quite enough to justify the lumbering pace of previous episodes.

It’s been officially confirmed that the December 3rd episode will wrap up the strike-truncated season, but considering the pace they’ve set this season, I can’t see how they can do it satisfactorily with only three episodes left (and only one episode significantly altered as a result of the strike).

House (NBC)—Speaking of not truly outstanding: despite being the best episode of the season, I’m still getting tired of the format. When will the writers learn that more characters won’t improve this show? If they renamed it The House-Wilson Comedy Hour and fired everyone whose character name isn’t in the title, this show would be the best on television. I will never, ever tire of their banter, and don’t try to tell me it’s just because they use it sparingly. Even in episodes that have featured Wilson prominently, the banter doesn’t get old.

Here’s why: Wilson calls House on his bullshit, and he’s one of the few who can out-sarcasm the Maestro. On House’s team, you have a bunch of whiners and mopers wondering why House can’t be nicer to them, even though the three of them rarely have the balls to stand up to him. Now, we have an entire new crop of applicants—some more interesting than others—who are even more terrified because they haven’t actually gotten the job yet. Nobody but Wilson takes House to task, not even Cuddy, whose fluttering eyes and “gee I don’t approve, but I secretly have a crush on you so you can do whatever” demeanor suggest she’ll never truly stand up to him.

Did I mention House and Wilson both hilarious? Too bad the rest of the show—even the good episodes—have gotten so dull and repetitive. I can’t tell if this is a “quantity over quality” problem or if the writers are just content with the show that they’re making.

Journeyman (NBC)—Sources suggest that this series had a 13-episode order, all 13 of which have been completed. It makes me wonder, with no real evidence backing me up, if this was to be a midseason replacement last year (or perhaps this year), so its shooting schedule was different. If that’s the case, perhaps Journeyman will deliver a satisfactory season finale. After all, as it ladles intrigue onto an already-interesting premise, the show’s quality has only improved as the weeks have passed.

The Dylan MacLean story is now ratcheting up the intensity as an FBI man has decided to turn Dan’s life upside-down. On top of that, we’ve had another appearance by Elliott Langley, the mysterious quantum physicist who keeps looking at Dan like a proud father looks at a son—or a proud scientist looks at a successful experience. Is he the man behind the curtain, or just a nutjob? Who knows? What we do know: Langley quit his job because the USA PATRIOT Act opened up his research to any federal agent interested—and boy were they interested. In using his research into time-travel as a terrorist-fighting weapon?

Other plot-thickening revelations: Livia’s home is in 1948, not the present? Dan’s brother is accused of evidence-tampering when the FBI agent finds a present-day $20 bill (which Dan gave a cabbie in the past, just before his brother chased him down and took a report about the “counterfeit” bill) instead of whatever funny-money he was expecting. Will the agent put two and two together and decide he wants to harness Dan’s “ability” for the forces of…I assume evil, because it’s Big Government, but maybe they are trying to do the right thing here.

The direction I thought it was headed in—that Dan would start using all the “old currency” from the hijacking and would end up a fugitive across time—hasn’t happened. In fact, while they didn’t show it, we were led to believe that Katie burned all the hijacking money. Still, I like where the show is headed quite a bit more than my own idea.

King of the Hill (Fox)—The Simpsons killed off Maude Flanders for laughs (and failed-contract-negotiation bitterness), but King of the Hill doesn’t play that way. The impending death of Cotton Hill once again brings up Hank’s complicated, depressing issues with his father, and they didn’t pull any punches. TV deaths often leave me cold, but nothing was as wild as watching Hank first say hateful things while his father almost died, then Peggy say even more hateful things while he really died. You’d think after ten years it would stop amazing me at how much more interesting, nuanced and emotionally realistic this cartoon is in comparison to most live-action fare. I am really, really disappointed that it has so few episodes remaining.

Animation is kind of a weird beast, as most of the episodes need to be written (and usually recorded) 6-9 months in advance in order to have them animated in time to air. It’s hard to say if the writers of King of the Hill could make a bad or lazy episode even accidentally, but it’s an even harder call considering how long ago these episodes were written. It does make me wonder if the last-minute punch-ups they usually do before airing will affect the quality once the post-strike episodes kick in.

My Name Is Earl (NBC)—My vote: quantity. The two-parter over the last two weeks should have had the same mixture of oddness and sweetness that the original Liberty Jones episodes had, yet this episode fell flat. Maybe it was because Earl and Randy arguing the whole time was both out of character and annoying, maybe it’s because the show as a whole has fallen to pieces after they backed themselves into a corner in last season’s finale—or maybe the writers have just been trying to crank out as many episodes as possible before the strike. Maybe it’s telling that, unlike the other NBC single-camera series, My Name Is Earl supposedly has its entire 22-episode series completed already, while 30 Rock has 10, Scrubs has 12, and The Office is already on hiatus (as of next week).

Numb3rs (CBS)—I’m ready to pack it in. Granted, they haven’t done the old “it was a dirty cop” thing again—yet!—but last week’s episode about video-game players, a topic I actually know something about, was so poorly done it makes me question all the stuff I don’t understand. Friday’s episode, about a Paris Hilton-esque socialite who stages her own kidnapping in an attempt to get her father to dismantle his third-world operations. When that fails, she kidnaps her father, played by William Atherton from Ghostbusters (the highlight of the episode).

Unfortunately, you really didn’t need a masters in mathematics to figure this episode out. From the second we meet William Atherton, whose Walter Peck smarminess is in full effect, it was pretty clear the daughter kidnapped herself. Most of these procedurals are predictable in the what and how—it’s the why that’s supposed to make it interesting. Problem is, Numb3rs seemed to think the what was a real brain teaser. It just made Megan come across like a total idiot when she kept saying things like, “Look at that photo—she’s a scared little girl,” when all the “little girl” had in her eyes was fury. When your profiler looks stupid, it makes it a lot harder to accept her self-righteous raging against the Walter Peck machine. I really like Diane Farr, so this episode—the first of the season that let her do anything even mildly interesting—was a major disappointment.

The Office (NBC)—Wow. What a way to go on hiatus. The Office gives us an excruciating look at the Michael-Jan relationship as they depose themselves for her wrongful termination suit against Dunder-Mifflin. Michael tries, in his misguided way, to stand up for Jan, and then he’s forced to sit through a dissection of his own character intelligence and competence. The writers have done a fantastic job portraying Michael Scott as an endearing manchild. Everything he does is completely counterintuitive to adult behavior, and yet the audience becomes protective of him as we discover he just doesn’t know any better. When the tables turn and he’s betrayed by Jan, it’s horrible even though we know she’s dead right. And Michael’s monologue at the end, about expecting to get screwed by your company, but not expecting to get screwed by your girlfriend, was so profoundly pathetic and human…wow, I’ll miss this show.

Pushing Daisies (ABC)—It’s official: Kristin Chenoweth has finally stopped annoying me. Sort of. At the very least, she’s become a tolerable part of the Pushing Daisies universe. As long as they don’t let her sing again, I’ll stop griping about how shrill and forced her performance is. It’s not that it’s stopped being shrill or forced—it’s just stopped bugging me, for some reason.

With that out of the way, I’ll compliment the way the writers are able to take pretty simplistic mysteries (they’re not horrible, just typical of TV procedurals) and use them to deliver the fantastical weirdness we’ve come to expect: polygamy, dog breeding, cloning, coffee creamer. More than anything, I’m a sucker for the Ned-Chuck non-romance. The way the polygamy story reenforced and furthered that romance tied the dueling subplots together better than any other, so far.

Reaper (The CW)—Reaper, on the other hand, has given me some romantic subplot trouble. I have a hard time with Sam and Andi, but this week I’ve finally figured out why. It’s a strange time to figure it out, since this is the second time in the entire series Andi hasn’t felt totally extraneous, and I found myself enjoying and relating to the “more-than-a-friend gift” subplot more than any other Sam-Andi interaction so far. Yet, at the moment Andi started sobbing and told Sam he’s the most important person in her life, I thought, “Aww—wait, what?!”

Then it occurred to me: we know virtually nothing about Andi, except that she’s trying to go to college and she sorta has a thing for Sam. This is, fundamentally, the problem with the entire storyline. We barely know a thing about Andi, or her friendship with Sam, and in fact—we don’t even know that much about Sam. Bret Harrison is a likable actor who helps Sam coast a lot farther than he should, but if we don’t get a little more depth (how about some more scenes at home with the forgotten parents and brother?), this entire show may start falling flat.

More than that, though, we need to understand Andi: where does she come from, what’s her life like outside the Bench, why is Sam so important to her? By virtue of the point the show chose to start—the day Sam learns he’ll be the Devil’s bounty hunter—he’s only shown himself to be an awkward, unreliable cad who probably causes more heartache than happiness in Andi’s life. So…what was going on before the series started? She’s not part of the regular outside-of-work hangout crew, I don’t believe they’ve made any reference to them going to high school together, so as far as we know, their only knowledge of each other exists in a work setting. I want to know about this deep friendship.

Otherwise, I enjoyed this episode quite a bit. Who doesn’t love A.D. Skinner jumping into the fray as SuperCop? The big twist at the end actually caught me off-guard, so bravo on that. The subplot with Sock and Gladys was really entertaining, so all in all, nice job. Although, I can’t help finding myself waiting for something bigger to come along—for Satan to show us a little more evil, for Sam’s dad to finally reveal what he ripped out of the contract and why. The standalone format is working well enough for me, but those little moments of overarching story have left me wanting to know where they’re going, stat.

Stargate: Atlantis (Sci-Fi)—I’m retiring this show as of this week. I may keep watching it, and it may return if it undergoes vast improvements, but right now it’s feeling a little repetitive to keep saying “this show is inferior to Farscape and Firefly, two shows it obviously and desperately wants to be.”

Supernatural (The CW)—I don’t know how to feel about this episode. Sterling K. Brown as Gordon Walker is always a welcome presence, and the partnership between his psycho-hunter and Michael Massee’s crazed religious nut intrigued me quite a bit, but now they’re both dead, so…what was the point of all that? Overall, the episode felt a little too derivative of Angel (not that that’s a bad thing), and the vampire thing took me by surprise. I don’t claim to remember everything that’s happened in the history of the show, but I could have sworn they made at least a few references to vampires not existing—something about how they were a myth to distract from the real demons. In light of them possibly dusting off an unused Angel script, I’d give this a “quantity” rating, but considering it was a pretty decent Angel rip-off, I’m torn.

Next week: some rote Thanksgiving episodes about complicated family politics, I hope!

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The Eroticist (1972)

Do you like your sex comedies both stilted and over the top? If so, legendary horror directory Lucio Fulci has the movie for you! The Eroticist stars hammy Lando Buzzanca as presidential candidate (and sitting senator) Puppis with a bizarre sexual compulsion—namely, a desire to grab the ass of any and every nearby female. When a priest captures such an act on film a threatens to expose him (I think—plot isn’t one of this film’s strong points), Puppis goes on a “religious retreat” to a monastery, so he can overcome this unusual predilection.

What follows is basically Fellini Lite™, with Fulci cramming the thin premise full of characters an plot twists to pad the story out to feature length. Cluttered with papal and Italian political satire, much of which flew straight over my head (as I imagine it would most Americans), The Eroticist lurches along whenever Puppis isn’t onscreen. This is not a result of Buzzanca’s goofy mugging so much as the fact that his story has an endearing, relatable quality to it that the other subplots lack. Unfortunately, his struggle to overcome this sexual problem devolves into a door-slamming farce as characters from each subplot enter Puppis’ home and he has to keep each hidden from the others. All this lurches toward an end that will provide erotica fans with a lot of much-desired nudity, but it’s not nearly as satisfying as the first 45 minutes or so.

The humor is hit-or-miss at best. As mentioned, part of this stems from a culture barrier, so maybe those more familiar with the intricacies of Italian politics will enjoy the satire. However, much of the problem with the comedy is Fulci’s tendency to get way too broad. One example comes in the middle of the film, when Puppis has exiled himself to the monastery (which is filled with the sexiest nuns in the history of Catholicism). While he discusses his problems with Pietro Fornari (José Quaglio), the old monk makes the mistake of bending over in front of him. Buzzanca lets out a groan, which is funny—then Fulci takes it too far, having Buzzanca grab Fornari’s behind and leaving the old man to struggle to remove it. What started as a funny, subtle moment turns into a plodding, beat-the-joke-to-death scene.

Once in awhile, a few legitimately funny moments and one-liners escape Fulci’s ham-fisted treatment. At the beginning, Fulci shows us the televised political discourse, and then we hear shouts—thinking citizens are swept up in the election. Then he reveals the men shouting at a soccer match. At one point, an embittered police captain declares, “This is the first time in political history that someone has held a coup without alerting the generals!” I laughed at moments like these, but there aren’t many, so the product as a whole is unsatisfying and overlong.

While it will not suit fans of comedy, fans of erotica fare even worse; aside from a few dream sequences and one extended nude scene near the end, there’s little excitement to be had. The plot deals with a man whose sexual repression threatens to ruin his political career, so it probably won’t surprise anyone to find out that it’s filled mainly with discussions of sex rather than graphic portrayals.

The transfer on Severin’s DVD release is really sharp. I’ve reviewed several releases, all of which look better than older VHS releases but still suffer from heavy grain and the occasional washed-out image. The Eroticist looks great, however—it looks about as good as most mainstream film restorations from the same era.

I can’t quite recommend The Eroticist, but I think maybe even the over-the-top humor can be attributed to a cultural problem. Maybe this just isn’t a great Italian film to release in the U.S., or maybe American fans of Italian cinema will love it.

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Black Emanuelle’s Box Volume 2 (1976-1979)

On November 13th, Severin released volume two of the Black Emanuelle box set. It includes Black Emanuelle 2, Black Emanuelle/White Emanuelle and Black Emanuelle and the White Slave Trade. One of the more intriguing and worthwhile curiosities of the collection is Black Emanuelle 2, the only film of the series that does not star the gorgeous Laura Gemser. Even more curiously, star Sharon Lesley (also known as Shulamith Lasri) never appeared in another film. I found myself more intrigued by Lesley’s story than by anything offered in the films themselves. Unfortunately, none of the collection’s supplemental features gave any explanation of where she came from or where she went.

Each film suffers from simplified plots, mediocre acting (made worse by truly atrocious dubbing—both poorly translated and poorly recited) and a low-budget verité style that doesn’t quite match the content. If you enjoy mid-’70s music, the score for each movie is pretty good (although some of the songs with lyrics are sung in Italian). Each film boasts some impressive locations, although they aren’t exactly served well by the sloppy guerilla filmmaking.

But you didn’t come here for the traditional merits of cinema, did you? The sex scenes (all simulated) range from poorly blocked to surprisingly erotic, and one of the highlights is the sheer number of beautiful women. Laura Gemser, of course, might go down in history in the top 10 all-time beauties, but supporting actors—like Annie Belle, Susan Scott, Ziggy Zanger, Danielle Ellison, Dagmar Lassander and Elly Galleani—round out the cast in more ways than one. Sharon Lesley, too, is quite beautiful, but she can’t hold a candle to Gemser.

Almost as importantly, Severin did a very nice job with the DVD transfers. Anybody who saw a Black Emanuelle movie on VHS or cable (or on bootleg DVDs prior to Severin’s U.S. releases) is aware of how fuzzy and washed out these films can look. Here, they probably look as well as they did in theatrical release—not great, thanks to the rushed and amateurish production, but serviceable.

If you like the Black Emanuelle series, this set is a no-brainer. If you like beautiful women getting the softcore treatment and don’t mind the usual trappings of erotica, you might like it, too.

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Finale Fever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: Nothing’s on.

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The Closer / Saving Grace (2007)

Tonight, cable’s most popular show returns with a Christmas special. Riding hot on its coattails is cable’s somewhat-popular show, which begins a four-episode arc held back from its summer run for reasons I can’t explain.

Frankly, with both series I’m at a loss. I’ve never seen either show before, and neither takes the time to re-establish regular and recurring characters. I tried to leap into the fray but found both shows left me cold. Since I don’t exactly have the time to rush out and rent DVDs of The Closer or track down episodes of Saving Grace, I did the next best thing: I read episode synopses. Very unhelpful episode synopses.

I’d ignore all the stuff I didn’t understand about either show and try to concentrate on everything else, but the problem is that these shows stories are so tied into characters I’ve never met, all I can do is try to grope in the dark and hope I get some things right. If I don’t, you can blame the show’s writers for not giving even small hints of the characters’ relationships to one another.

I guess, at the end of the day, that qualifies as the major drawback of each show: the supporting actors in both shows don’t do much more than prop up Kyra Sedgwick and Holly Hunter. Even in their own subplots, none of these characters showed any real spark. The best thing I can compare it to is Monk, which very much exists as a vehicle for Tony Shalhoub, leaving even seasoned pros like Ted Levine in the background more often than not. It’s a disappointment that The Closer has J.K. Simmons and Jon Tenney and Saving Grace has Leon Rippy and Laura San Giacomo, but their roles feel nonexistent.

It becomes a more significant problem when the cop-show plots’ rote nature reveals itself. These should be shows about the characters above anything else—and by that, I don’t mean “main character.” Why have an ensemble if they only exist to further the plot? One-man shows are cheaper to produce.

Maybe The Closer served itself better by only offering one (two-hour) episode. Kyra Sedgwick’s Brenda Johnson may have the least convincing Southern accent in the history of television, made especially bad next to the vastly superior Barry Corbin and Frances Sternhagen (guest starring as her parents), but Sedgwick is solid enough as a lead. The storyline was a little humdrum—especially the machinations of getting her to fly to Georgia under dubious circumstances—but it does contain a few legitimate surprises. Above all, this is a story of Johnson’s strained relationship with her parents. Since guest stars are required by law to dive into heaping helpings of backstory and exposition, this journey was more palatable than the subplots in which Johnson’s unit…sat around until she got back.

Saving Grace, possibly because these shows were produced to run along with season one, suffers greatly in comparison. It tries to toe the line between dark comedy and brooding drama, with mixed results. Holly Hunter is a skilled actress, and she has (mostly) able support, but I was completely lost. Characters kept saying and doing inexplicable things. Episodes kept having subplots that, I assume, called back to previous episodes, but they made no sense to me. I usually like subtle writing, so I don’t want to complain, but I can say that what I did see hasn’t encouraged me to seek out reruns. Aside from self-conscious attempts to be risqué with language and sexual content, it’s a routine cop show.

Saving Grace‘s season finale contains a cliffhanger, which I will not spoil, but the episode illustrates exactly why I have a problem catching a show like this in the middle of its season: it brings to us a story that—one assumes—has been mentioned on the show in the past and has Holly Hunter doing things I’d assume are out of character (based on spending three previous hours with her). Whether it’s out of character or not, the surprise ending felt like the writers were merely continuing their uneasy quest to make the show edgy.

Overall, the inclusion of Earl the Angel and Hunter’s deep-seated lapsed-Catholic rage, Saving Grace feels like it wants to tackle heavy theological and philosophical issues without saying anything new. At least The Closer, while nothing special, doesn’t have such pretentious ambitious.

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57 Channels (and Nothing On)

What, you thought I was kidding last week? We got a pretty solid Heroes finale and perhaps the best Reaper episode of the series’ run (unfortunately, legend has it that this will also be the last episode until the strike ends), but otherwise? Damn you, television. I can’t write a weekly column if nothing’s on. The few readers who care about my opinions won’t stick around to hear me ramble about Mythbusters reruns.

Dirty Sexy Money (ABC)—So Karen and Simon are together and Nick’s jealous? Oh no, sorry, he’s not jealous. He just seems Simon manipulating Karen just like he manipulated Patrick—and, Nick fears, manipulated him. That’s right, no jealousy. You hear me, show? No jealousy! Because nobody cares about Nick and Karen.

In brighter news, I suspect Juliet’s new boyfriend is bad news. I suspect Jeremy and Lisa getting together (not like that…unless that’s where it’s headed!) is the show’s worst move since Nick and Karen, and not just because Zoe McLellan is shrill and irritating in the role. Did anything else happen? Oh yeah, Carmelita got kidnapped. I gotta say, it’s pretty sad that of the two relationships I’m most invested in, one is built on a foundation of hilarious lies (Jeremy and Sofia, although it appears that’s over) and the other is between a reluctant politician and his tranny hooker. Good times!

Heroes (NBC)—I wish I had more to say about this show than: it’s impossible to take any death seriously now that we have Claire’s blood as the easy cure for anything. I wish I could say I was interested in something as lame as the Shanti virus, but I’m just not. I still enjoy the show, but the only thing I’m curious about is why it looked like Bennet was Nathan Petrelli’s shooter. I know he’s back to working for The Company, but why do they want the “heroes” to remain a secret? I suppose they explored some of that last year, when we traveled to a dystopian future where heroes were freaks in the manner of the X-Men universe, hunted and imprisoned simply for being. But, um…I thought they only did that because the “heroes” were blamed for the nuclear attack on New York? Why would their outing get the same reaction?

My Name Is Earl (NBC)—Is he finally out? For real? It’s about fucking time!

Reaper (The CW)—Wow, this episode managed to take my minor quibbles with the show—lack of depth in its heroes, dull/repetitive villains, and not making the Sam-Andi relationship really meaningful—and managed to undo all the damage in one fell swoop. Thanks to this week’s stolen loot, we got more insight into the characters than ever before. It would appear greed really does bring out the best in people! Perhaps the most entertaining development: Ted, the manager of the Bench, as a recovering gambling addict.

Adding to this, it looks like Sam’s potential relationship with Cady will cause a little jealousy with Andi, easily the most interesting monkey wrench ever thrown into what has been, thus far, a fairly bland take on the will-they-or-won’t-they “relationship.” Similar, the Devil didn’t exactly act please about Sam dating her. He can deny his lovechild all he wants; all the wilting plants and dead goldfish speak volumes.

I fear the hiatus created by the strike may cause Reaper to lose momentum, both in gaining audience members and retaining former audience members. Let’s hope the CW is smart enough to play some choice reruns before it comes back.

Next week: Even less is on. Imagine it!

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The Windy City Incident (2005)

What follows is the synopsis provided by Ariztical Entertainment, distributors of The Windy City Incident:

Chanel Puget resides in peaceful Olympia, Washington, and is frequently haunted by ghostly dreams. One evening, Chanel has a vivid dream and is “ordered” to travel to Chicago. Despite continual pressure from his boyfriend of two months (Randy), Chanel follows the message in his dreams and heads for Chicago, the “windy city.” Upon his arrival, Chanel wastes no time supporting his rent and daily expenses by hustling on the streets. One evening while visiting a drag bar, Chanel’s past history collides with the present. Mysteries begin to unravel as it becomes apparent that Chanel’s body and soul have become a vehicle for ghastly and vindictive apparitions. Only the viewer knows if Chanel will safely and sanely make it back to his home in Olympia, or be possessed forever in Chicago by the dreaded ghost, known as “Ant.”

This description left me with the foolish belief that I would be reviewing a bizarre, offbeat comedy, the kind of movie that sneaks in under the radar and slowly develops a cult audience of devoted fans.

What I received, instead, was the worst movie I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a shitload of bad movies.

I’m going to be nice and start with the editing, because it’s a huge problem that is easily fixed, all things considered. This shit needs to be tightened up. I imagine the editing is so poor because, at 71 minutes, The Windy City Incident is barely feature-length. Yet, every single shot in this entire movie starts three seconds too soon and lingers at least three seconds too long. It gives the entire movie the pacing of a bad 1970s melodrama.

This problem is most noticeable in the dialogue scenes, where, for some reason that I can only assume is a private joke, an adult male coos like a baby on the soundtrack to punctuate jokes that probably wouldn’t be funny even if the editing were tightened. But let’s pretend this is a film that can be saved. Get rid of the cooing, obviously, and make it appear as if each character is interacting with one another. The goal is to create the illusion that something one person says inspires the next person to speak. Instead, we are treated to shot after shot of actors staring off into space for far too long before delivering their lines.

On the subject of acting, I don’t want to denigrate the cast too much, but it reaches a point where it’s difficult not to. In many scenes, it’s abundantly clear that actors are either reading from cue cards or having lines fed to them by somebody offscreen. You’re shooting on videotape, and these are the best performances that could be culled from these actors? It’d be one thing if this had been shot on film, where every single frame is precious and expensive, but video? You could keep that shit rolling for hours until you get it right. I have my doubts that shooting time was limited by usual factors like lighting, costuming, set decoration (seriously, every set in this movie looks like a dorm room, a boiler room in an abandoned warehouse, or the director’s parents’ house), and sound recording, so why not spend time letting actors rehearse their lines? Or learn them?

With great difficulty, I tried to remove the story/dialogue aspects from the atrocious performances and the goofy pacing. I tried to objectively say whether or not this story would fly if it had been created by a group of competent individuals. Perhaps if the film had been written by the marketing team at Ariztical, we could have had a winner on our hands. Unfortunately, the movie we have plays like a series of loosely connected sketches that aren’t funny, interspersed with sex scenes as awkward and dispassionate as HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me, only more random and less relevant to the skimpy plot.

So what is this? A chance for some friends to fuck around with a camera they bought for $99 at Circuit City and edited in Windows Movie Maker? An opportunity for a sleazy director to tape a variety of starving-actor erections under the guise of making a “comedy”? I tried looking to the audio commentary for answers. In the two minutes I watched before shutting it off in disgust, all I heard was the lip-smacking of two men impolitely eating fast-food and making limp inside-jokes and giggling without letting the audience in on their “creative process.”

Maybe a braver soul will find this DVD and unlock the mysteries of why anybody would make a film like The Windy City Incident, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

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The Rise—well…Fall of Journeyman

This week, NBC unceremoniously burned off the last two episodes of its best new show, Journeyman. It probably won’t return after the holidays, or the strike—it’s unofficial, but it’s done. NBC gave full-season pickups to two dismal but slightly-more-popular shows, Chuck and Life (and if you don’t believe the latter is a bad show, just take a step back from your frothing e-mail and watch or re-watch this clip; no amount of arguing will convince me that Life isn’t a piece of shit), while The Bionic Woman and Journeyman will be left to die. The former deserves its fate, but I’d like to take an opportunity to explore the failures—both creative and commercial—of Journeyman.

Given the sweet lead-in of Heroes, this seemingly compatible sci-fi effort should have retained that sizable audience share, and it did. For the first half hour of the first episode. Because, it became abundantly clear, the show NBC was selling is not the show that aired. Promos implied this would be a whiz-bang adventure staring that muscly guy from Rome and that hot chick from Daybreak, making out and traveling through time and beating people up and—we got a domestic drama about thirty-something yuppies struggling to adapt their semi-posh lifestyle to the economic realities of the modern, city-dwelling print journalist. We didn’t even get a depressed man yearning for a change from his increasingly tragic life, escaping into time travel to find fun and adventure. We got a guy who didn’t want to travel through time, who reluctantly made minor nudges to change average people’s lives.

Suddenly, Journeyman and Heroes didn’t seem quite as compatible. The misleading promos lured in an audience that never would have enjoyed the show, while at the same time pushing away an audience who may have embraced it.

Would they, though? Certainly, college students or recent graduates don’t want to watch a show that said, “Your future is nothing but financial woes and petty domestic squabbling.” Would an older audience, from the non-coveted slightly-above-34 crowd, enjoy this any more than their younger counterparts? It’s possible, maybe even likely, that they looked at a couple living in a gargantuan house, working fairly glamorous (if jeopardized) jobs, and either had a hard time buying their money problems or had a hard time caring. When you’re living in a saltine-box apartment, working as a bottom-feeding cubicle drone in an enormous corporation, and still can’t make ends meet, it makes the woes of the upper-middle-class a bit less relatable.

Who would this show grab? Hard to say. Nerds like me who enjoy time travel. Where I could easily imagine friends and coworkers getting annoyed or enraged by aging yuppies whining about money, I shrugged it off with a chuckle. In the reality of the show, it’s amusing to me that two journalists didn’t have the foresight to realize their industry was going down as they bought the gigantic house they could barely afford spreading it out across 30 years, rather than going with something a little smaller and more reasonable. It’s emblematic of our communal excesses. Why live within your means when you can get more on credit? Besides that, starting them on such a high financial plane can only mean high drama as they toboggan toward bankruptcy.

Commercially, focusing on a yuppie family’s domestic problems might have ruined the show. Creatively, I can’t imagine anything better. Here, you have a guy who’s job is constantly in question—and he suddenly starts disappearing for long stretches, with no control over it. You have a wife and son who have to make commitments and have to deal with the increasingly unreliable husband and father. It not only adds a layer of depth to Kevin McKidd’s Dan Vasser—it allows him to be the reluctant hero no matter what. “Gee, I could be stopping a liquor-store robbery in 1973, but my kid has a Cub Scouts thing…”

At first I was dubious about the family angle. It made me fear the show would tie him down too much and get bogged down in the strife of a failing marriage and a son who grows more and more detached. Thankfully, with a few Livia-related exceptions, the show never went down that road. Most of the problems within the family could have just as easily been unrelated to time travel. His lateness, lack of reliability—it’s the same as having a high-pressure job with a schedule that’s all over the map (like, for instance, being a newspaper reporter).

Despite doing some things well, Journeyman suffered from creative problems that it couldn’t recover from until the audience had already left. The biggest, perhaps, is leaving Dan so unconcerned with why he’s traveling through time—what’s causing it, what is he supposed to do, what happens if he fails? By the time he finally started asking questions—and getting creepy answers—it was getting numbers that would look low on basic cable.

It also had a major issue, especially in the first three episodes, of downplaying the time-travel elements of a show about time travel. While I didn’t mind the slow pace and concentration on building up its characters so we could really see how the time travel problem would affect them, it seems like a fair assumption that this was a poor creative decision for bringing in the audience and making them stick around. By the time they finally integrated more time-traveling exploits into the show, it was too little, too late.

The important thing here is that the writers recognized these problems and did something about them. NBC’s major crime is canceling Journeyman before it gets a chance to reach its full potential. It had an abbreviated season where it was clear the writers were trying to figure out how to pace their story, and when they finally started getting the mixture right—that’s it, they’re done. Nobody’s watching. When NBC and its notoriously horrific promo department are as much to blame as the writers, you’d think they’d at least suck it up, cut Journeyman some slack, pick up the back nine, and relaunch the show properly after the strike.

But hey, it’s NBC. They fell from #1 to #4 for a reason.

Next week: No columns for the next two. There is that little on TV. Have a good holiday!

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