Gossip Girl, 90210

Via an article in the print TV Guide, the CW has announced its intention to turn themselves into the all-Gossip-Girl-and-America’s-Next-Top-Model network. Not too long ago, I mentioned that the network gave early pickups to every one of their shows except freshmen shows Reaper and Aliens in America, both of which have shaped up to place among the funniest shows on TV, and by far the best the CW has to offer (I like Everybody Hates Chris and Supernatural, but they don’t compare). At the time, I wasn’t worried about their future prospects. Neither show had come back from its long strike hiatus, so it made sense that the CW would want to see how they performed this spring.

Well, now I’m worried. The network has dismantled its comedy development department, while Dawn Ostroff runs around telling everyone they want to saturate the teen-girl demographic. First on the agenda: a suspiciously promising remake of Beverly Hills, 90210, which will be helmed by two former Freaks & Geeks writers and star Jessica Stroup (Reaper), Tristan Wilds (The Wire), and Jessica Walter (Arrested development). Jeff Judah and Gabe Sachs also teamed up for the short-lived Life as We Know It, a show I never took the time to watch but have since heard developed from focus-grouped teen-angst to something a little more interesting and substantial — approaching the quality found in my all-time favorite Freaks & Geeks episode, “The Garage Door,” which the team wrote.

I want to be outraged and offended that the CW dares to cancel its best shows in favor of a remake of a show that kinda sucked in the first place. It’s among the small group of shows that put fledgling Fox on the map, generating a great deal of buzz in its first season. After that wore off, Beverly Hills, 90210 coasted on its camp value more than anything else. Yet, I can’t get too outraged because it looks like the CW…kinda wants it to be good. Before hiring Judah and Sachs, they hired Rob Thomas (of the late, lamented Veronica Mars) to write the pilot and develop the show. Though he stepped down, it’s not like they replaced him with a couple of hacks. They’re trying.

Like everything else the CW does, they manage to do “half-assed” exceedingly well. Why take people (both cast and crew) affiliated with some of the best television in the past decade…to remake something that isn’t worth remaking? Worse than that, they’re remaking something that isn’t worth remaking as an identical twin to a moderately successful show already on their network. Usually knockoffs come from competing networks, and they’re almost never successful. Banking on the 90210 brand-name recognition might sound like a smart move — it worked when adapting the popular Gossip Girl teen novels to television — it will end in tears, or possibly with Dylan McKay’s criminal dad getting blown up in his car in the school parking lot.

Aliens in America (The CW) — “We thought about burning them but thought that was too Nazi.” To me, there’s really nothing funnier than pearl-clutching parents trying to get literature banned in schools. Recently, a school district where a friend of mine teaches had a mother who tried to have a variety of classic books removed from the curriculum. Many of them had been on district-approved lesson plans for decades, but this parent wanted them banned because of context-free excerpts she read on the Internet. She was literally laughed out of the school board’s office. Aliens in America riffs on this familiar (and, it seems, increasingly common) idea, but the real meat of the story is in Justin’s rabid obsession with drawing women. Especially women with gargantuan breasts. Especially when they’re nude. Inspired by an assignment to read Madame Bovary, a disgusted/terrified Franny decides to join up with the book-banning cause.

What made this episode great is that it would have been out of character if Franny just deciding, at random, to help a group of parents get books banned. Reenforcing the show’s strangely positive family values, she only does this out of concern for her son. Then, the writers wisely but subtly undermined the mob-mentality belief that banning books with sexual content and profanities will prevent their kids from having sex or using profanities. Franny actually dares to read the books — rather than a few out-of-context quotes — and realizes they aren’t harmful. How’s a kid going to learn to make a choice if they don’t know anything about the world in which they live?

As they have done a few times, the show wrapped with a nice bonding moment between man’s-man Gary and artistic weirdo Justin. It’s great that they’re able to find common ground, even though neither full understands where the other comes from. Don’t cancel this show, CW. Turning your entire schedule into Gossip Girl clones won’t save you.

Bones (Fox) — Hands down, the series’ best episode. Coming back to a long-term arc involving Brennan’s father (played by Ryan O’Neal in probably the best role he’s had in 20 years) standing trial for the murder of the Deputy Director of the FBI, it tears the Bones universe apart — Booth and Brennan can’t work together, they have to drop Sweets as their shrink, everyone at the Jeffersonian is working for the prosecution (while Bones recuses herself), and Angela stands up by refusing to testify against O’Neal. It amazed me that they took a murder that occurred at least a season ago and made the audience question it — did he really do it? They leave it as kind of a gray area; obviously, the verdict is “not guilty,” but it wasn’t so much proving he didn’t do it as proving someone else could have done it. Well, did they?

Patricia Belcher, Loren Dean, and the underrated and underused (in a general sense — people need to hire him!) Ernie Hudson reappeared, each offering top-notch performances despite fairly small roles, enhancing the solid writing in this episode. Bones may not be the best show on television, but this was a great hour of a good show. Well done, guys! The vastly more popular House could learn a thing or 30 from you.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW) — Just when I thought Chris would have a happy ending…

Aside from a wide variety of “here’s how black people are disenfranchised by whites” jokes, they haven’t dealt with any real race conflict in ages. As a result, I found myself impressed that they tackled race issues with an even but not heavy hand. It actually sort of painted Chris as the bad guy, or at least as the tricky-gray-area guy. He made a bad decision to protect his prospective date, which was nice. The problem was discussing his dilemma with everyone except his date. Of course, he gets in one good dance before she goes back to treating him like dirt.

House (Fox) — A massive improvement over last week, this episode still had one of the lamest sitcom plots of all time: how will the hospital pass the inspection with House being wacky and felonious?! Are they kidding with this shit? I’m just glad they redeemed themselves with an interesting mystery and a surprisingly decent Wilson-Amber subplot. I still see them struggle to integrate Cameron and Chase into the plot in an organic way, so I’ll reiterate an old complaint: either fire them or fire the new team. You can’t have it both ways.

King of the Hill (Fox) — Last week’s episode provided a textbook example of how to add new twists to long-running series. This episode, while hilarious, gave us a different spin on the long-running series: an episode with three far-fetched subplots colliding in the weirdest but funniest ways possible. Remember in the final few seasons of shows like Married… with Children and Frasier where they strained for new ideas and, as a result, concocted episodes that were just zany and weird. It happens with nearly every long-running show, comedy or drama, and King of the Hill has had some strange episodes over the past few seasons. Remember the one where Hank enters a dance contest with Ladybird (his dog, for non-viewers)? Or the one where John Redcorn founds an Indian casino because he can’t book his band anywhere in Arlen? Still funny, but just…kinda out there.

Hank accidentally mugs a nebbishy man, prompting the victim to become obsessive and violent, in a Taxi Driver kind of way. Bobby gets assigned to follow around the school police officer (Fred Willard, reprising his occasional role). Dale decides to scam a Hooters-like restaurant so he can sue them for discrimination, then is horrified when they hire him to avoid said lawsuit. All three of these strange stories converge at the Bazooms restaurant, each having both weird and satisfying payoffs. While I enjoyed the episode, it didn’t have the usual emotional resonance, but then, it’s still a comedy — not every week has to feature the death of a loved one or a deep, unspoken understanding between two adversarial characters.

Lost (ABC) — Although it’s rare, Lost has had episodes that work on their own merits without having much to do with the overall mythology (season one’s “Walkabout” is a prime example). They sometimes have episodes that are brilliant despite being a total mindfuck, dependent on the mythology without us knowing how or why (this season’s “The Constant”). And then there are episodes like this — packed with new revelations and insights that satisfy us, despite the fact that nearly every answer raises a dozen or more questions. It wouldn’t be Lost if it didn’t.

Among the insane answers:

The freighter:

I haven’t nerded out over Lost in awhile, so I apologize for the length and I swear I will avoid trying to get this swept up in it. Then again, this week was prelude to the two-part, three-hour season finale that starts next week, so chances are more big answers (and big questions) will show up in those episodes.

Medium (NBC) — Last week, I noticed they appended a TO BE CONTINUED… title at the end of the episode. I didn’t mention it in this column because, frankly, between the time the episode ended and the time I wrote about it (roughly 12 hours), I had already forgotten. It felt like a complete episode and, really, it was. Though this week continued the intrigue between Joe and Special Guest Star Kelly Preston, it’s as much of a standalone as one could expect. (Besides which, the issues with Preston still aren’t resolved, yet I didn’t exactly see TO BE CONTINUED… this week.)

This episode featured a stellar guest spot by Miguel Ferrer, ably redeeming himself for costarring in the dreadful Bionic Woman remake earlier this season. Apparently, he’s still indentured to NBC, which is quite a coup for Medium. In this episode, he played identical twins — one’s impaired after getting shot in the head because the other was a criminal — and gave Allison quite a moral dilemma. One of the many reasons Medium stands out among other procedurals is its willingness to tackle the gray area. Of course, they do it in a typically strange way — the “evil” Ferrer was killed in the same incident that caused his brother’s bullet to the head, and he’s possessing his brother to get revenge.

Sound hokey or, at least, like a major violation of the show’s set rules? Well, they explain away the possession thing by reminding the audience of the close bond identical twins share and also imply some of the living twin’s newfound mental weakness might have something to do with it. In the end, Allison has to make a big choice — whether to rat out the innocent twin, because he did physically commit the crimes, or to allow the ghost to kill the man who put the hit out on the brother in the first place. It’s reasonably weighty territory for a show that’s basically a police procedural with a sci-fi/horror veneer, and they handled it well. Not as well as treading similar territory during the Cynthia Keener two-parter, but the fact that the writers continue to raise these big-dilemma questions gives me a lot of faith in its continued high quality.

The domestic subplot this week, as I mentioned, continues the angst between Allison and Joe, and Joe and Kelly Preston. Last week, Allison had a dream of Preston flirting and kissing, which conveniently cut off just before Joe shoved Preston away and ran out, then treated her like shit for days. Joe opted not to mention any of this to Allison, with the reasonable but still sneaky explanation that he didn’t want her worrying about something that meant nothing, when the family’s future is tied up in this company’s success. Then Preston sends him a gift — a $2200 silk robe. Joe, appropriately, freaks out, then chooses that moment to tell Allison what he doesn’t know. It doesn’t end well.

Allison and Joe have had their marital issues in the past — although nothing in the realm of spousal cheating — and they always bounce back. I hope this is no exception, although Joe’s decision to totally pull out of the partnership left things both bittersweet and, most likely, heading toward a clusterfuck considering the legality of the situation. Like many shows, next week is Medium’s finale, and I have to say that with the exception of Lost, I look forward to this one the most.

The Office (NBC) — I complained last week that Darryl hasn’t been around enough, so they toss him into the A story, and he manages to not really do anything. He had a couple of good lines, but if I had my way they’d retitle this show The Warehouse and have Craig Robinson just do his thing with all the other Office actors and some new warehouse cronies. NBC has talked about spinning this show off for some time — this is the way to do it.

Despite the underuse of Darryl, this episode featured some great moments from other supporting players: Oscar’s shocked “Why wouldn’t you say that to her face?” after Michael mentions Pam is a talented artist and a wonderful person, Dwight and Angela stuck alone in the office, Andy and Kevin nearly ruining everything for Jim — but, best of all, Jim getting some more interesting moments trying to woo a prospective customer. It’s interesting to see Jim, as he puts it, “try for the first time,” after the cabal of Ryan (who’s pissed because Jim went over his head to complain about the website) and Toby (who’s pissed because he’s in love with Pam) threatened his job last week. His success will create an interesting contrast to Ryan’s imminent failure. (That isn’t a spoiler, just a guess based on the frequent references to the shoddiness of the Dunder-Mifflin website and Ryan’s obvious affinity for the New York “lifestyle” rather than doing his job well.)

The scene with Pam and the design guy at the end was typically nice and heartbreaking, but I can’t help thinking this scene has already happened. Didn’t Pam already attempt to get some kind of graphic-design job, only to get shut down because she doesn’t know all the cutting-edge software. Whether it’s happened before or not, it’s a little hard to believe someone her age isn’t aware that you need more than an art background to get a graphic-design job; like every other industry, it’s all computer-based. Even if she doesn’t know the software, she shouldn’t act dejected or surprised when she gets shot down. I hate to sound hard on Pam, because this just feels like something that will lead us to season-finale conflict (Pam wanting to go to New York or Philadelphia for the summer to take some courses), and they just didn’t plan it out all that well. Surprising, considering the writing’s usual high quality.

Reaper (The CW) — Well, that was about the best episode the show’s done (so far). They did a great job with the Buffy-style task of having something Satan-related affect a secondary character (which, in turn, affects the primary characters), and Colby Johannson (playing Greg, Andi’s ex-boyfriend) did a great job as a guy who’s seriously in love but…maybe not that bright. The writers added more depth to the Hell-on-Earth underworld by introducing some new ideas — first adding a new Hell portal (a mini-storage facility), then introducing the idea that hell has folks like Everybody Hates Chris’s Risky. Sam convinces Gladys from the DMV to help them find a black-market vessel when Sam and the gang are repeatedly attacked by a demon without having a vessel to send him back to hell.

Early in the season, I gave Reaper a moderate amount of shit for being as slackerific as its characters, but I guess they spent the strike either examining the flaws in what they’ve done so far or reading the viewer feedback, and they’ve clearly made adjustments. Reaper has gone from funny-but-forgettable to one of the best sci-fi/supernatural shows on television. That’s no small accomplishment.

Robin Hood (BBC America) — This episode didn’t quite have the slickness of last week’s or the depth of the premiere two weeks ago, but it did shed some light on one thing: how the people of Locksley and the surrounding villages feel about Robin Hood. You’d think, on a practical level, that ordinary citizens wouldn’t be fans. Sure, he steals taxes and repays the villagers, but he and his men invariably destroy half a village during their battles. Wouldn’t they end up paying more for repairs than they get from Robin? I don’t know, maybe he pays for the repairs, as well.

Nonetheless, it’s kind of a moot point. This week, we’re introduced to a group of children, who let us know how well-regarded Robin and his men are. They’re first seen playing as Robin in the men, and when one of them actually ends up in their Sherwood Forest camp, he knows them all by name and defining trait (except Much, in a funny joke at his expense). Other than this, we’re treated to a fairly simplistic plot about the Sheriff trying to get some impenetrable armor made for his secret take-down-King-Richard army. The kids witness a test of this armor, and when Gisborne notices, he decides to enslave them in mines. The Sheriff, however, wants them dead. It’s up to Robin and his crew to stop both the slaughter of innocent children and the production of this armor. I don’t think you’ll be surprised to learn that they do.

This episode also left Marian’s character in a strange place. Future episodes will tell whether this will be a good move, a bad move, or a forgotten move. During a trade that goes bad, she attempts to save Robin’s life by threatening to kill the African man who knows the secret to making the special armor. Gisborne realizes this must mean she has some kind of feelings for Robin, and I’m not convinced he bought her denial. (I hope he didn’t, because Gisborne’s one-note character in the first season has become vastly more interesting since Marian’s betrayal in last year’s finale. Having him that easily duped brings him right back to that one note.) Meanwhile, the Sheriff finally decides to imprison Marian’s ailing father in a dungeon. All of this, I’m sure, will pay off in episodes down the road.

Supernatural (The CW) — Well done, Supernatural. You’ve successfully introduced the creepiest villains in the history of the show, and you used great makeup effects to pull it off (he looked great in HD, even). Yes, this week’s Supernatural focused on a man who found the secret to immortality without realizing the problem of bodily maintenance and upkeep — even though he can’t die, his organs can fail, his skin can wither away to nothing, he has to periodically kidnap people to steal whatever he needs to live comfortably.

The writers took this crazy villain and turned it into a great conflict for Sam and Dean: Sam thinks they can use the same spell to keep Dean from fulfilling his contract, while Dean obviously thinks that’s the worst idea ever. (A minor flaw in their disagreement: Dean seems to “win” the argument by saying if he reneges on the deal by living, Sam will die. Couldn’t they solve the problem by doing the spell on Sam, as well?) All of this was pretty excellent, but…

The episode also featured the return of Bela, who I think has only been in two other episodes, despite her status as a series regular. I’ve read a lot of…let’s say “impolite” things about Bela. I’m not saying I love the character, but I won’t spew vitriol as if she is single-handedly destroying the show; honestly, the biggest problem with her character is that she’s underused. We’re given her M.O. — a mysterious thief who knows about the demon world but uses it to make money rather than save the world — without much depth or dimension. When they finally decided to give us some shades of gray to make her a little more interesting, it’s too little, too late. I won’t exactly miss her, but I also don’t think this is some kind of show-saving act of brilliance on the part of the writers. They botched her from day one and are just cleaning up the mess.

Another, minor nitpick: I know midnight makes everything awesome, but if Bela did her deal in England, and they’re so strict about the 10-year deal that they start chasing her at 12:00 exactly…shouldn’t the deal have actually expired at midnight GMT, meaning they’d come around seven o’clock, since she’s in Pennsylvania?

Posted by D. B. Bates on May 11, 2008 12:00 AM