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.

Posted by D. B. Bates on December 2, 2007 12:00 AM