With a Whimper

The season is ending with unusual abruptness; unlike the glorious olden days, when pretty much every show ended within the same two-week period, networks have staggered season finales like madmen. These days, it’s at a point where some series end as early as March, while others run to mid-June.

Thanks to the writers’ strike, we get a little hint of nostalgia as our shows — for the most part — come to a crashing halt. Some ended this week; the rest end next week. The big holdout is Lost, whose two-hour finale is preempted for a week to make room for Grey’s Anatomy’s two-hour finale in two weeks.

Aliens in America (The CW) — This episode’s premise — two characters competing for popularity as victims of a staged car-wreck and funeral showing the perils of drunk-driving — was a comic goldmine, exploited well by the writers. I’ve noticed the writers have taken the tactic of giving both Justin and Raja certain obsessions, and allowing one character to act as the other’s moral compass. They could portray Raja as a magically perfect kid, but one of the reasons this show works so well is the fact that none of them are perfect, including Raja.

If I sound a little glum, it’s because the CW announced their fall schedule, and Aliens in America got the ax. Watching it hover down there as the least-watched show on network television made this a given, but I guess I had some small hope that the CW would stick with it. After all, they stuck with Veronica Mars and Everybody Hates Chris. But hey, it’s not all bad news: they picked up Stylista, a reality companion to America’s Next Top Model that answers the question, What would happen if The Devil Wears Prada and The Apprentice had a shrill, unpleasant child? Well done, CW.

Bones (Fox) — First, a rant: I know Bones isn’t an enormous hit like House, but what was with Fox forcing them to plug for American Idol nonstop durin this week’s show? American Idol’s ratings are down from last season, but it’s still by far the highest rated show on television. If anything, Ryan Seacrest should be plugging Bones every chance he gets — not the other way around. Why do networks always seem to think a tactic to save low-rated shows is to have them talk about high-rated shows? It’s as bad as that one post-Hesseman Head of the Class where they decide to stage fake accidents for ratings champ (at the time) America’s Funniest Home Videos. I apologize for reminding readers of that episode, but it scarred me — it hadn’t dawned on me before that how shamelessly networks plug their own shows within other shows.

The plot of the episode is a pretty straightforward whodunit: some American Idol guy is popular at a glorified karaoke bar, winds up dead, and everyone there could have a motive. I’ll give Bones’ writers credit for making the shabby plugs work pretty well without letting them dominate the episode. Brennan’s total ignorance of pop-culture opened up the door for explanations and some jokes at her expense. Aside from the “synergistic” Fox self-promotion, the episode was up to the show’s usual standards — twisty, witty, with an inevitable but unpredictable killer. In fact, this guy was more unpredictable than usual — he didn’t appear to have a motive at first, and he didn’t act like a sociopath.

But the real meat of the episode happened in the last 30 seconds. The episode featured a subplot — utilizing Sweets quite well, yet again — in which the singing victim’s stalker/possible-murderer developed a crush on Booth. After spotting him with Brennan more than once, the stalker decides to take action. She attempts to shoot Bones, but hits Booth instead. Fade to jarringly loud previews telling us to catch next week’s exciting conclusion. I’ll be there.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW) — Buying knockoff gifts for Mother’s Day feels like a plot from Full House, so Everybody Hates Chris gets credit for taking a routine idea and making it into something more interesting. Chris had the best of intentions, and he didn’t buy the knockoff out of ignorance (he knew better), like Stephanie Tanner, or thriftiness (he would have paid more if he had the money), like Cousin Larry Appleton. Chris wasn’t trying to get away with anything — he just couldn’t afford the real deal. Chris learned the usual valuable lesson — she’d rather have a bunch of useless junk made from macaroni than something that costs a lot, because it’s the thought that counts — but it didn’t come across as treacly or heavy-handed.

House (Fox) — I’ve complained in the past about House’s ineffective attempts at getting “arty.” It often results in muddled, ambiguous endings or characters doing irrational things (like sticking forks in electrical sockets) that never get mentioned in later episodes.

This time, they attempted “arty” and did a pretty good job. I felt pretty dumb about for not picking up on the Amber twist. I honestly didn’t see it coming, even though the necklace hint was pretty big (especially for Jurassic Park nerds like I once was). I’m still not sure of all the details — the “arty” ending was ambiguous as usual, but at least next week’s previews promise some kind of fallout during the officially sanctioned season finale. I know House writers generally like to cure the patients, but I could see them killing off Amber for the DRAMA. I hope they don’t, because she’s vastly more interesting than any of the other supporting players not named Wilson. And speaking of Wilson — I was really looking forward to him getting more screen time thanks to the Amber relationship. Maybe this isn’t what Robert Sean Leonard wants (he’s expressed in interviews that he loves being on a hit show but only having to work a few days a week), but he’s awesome and should embrace the extra screen time. We’ll see what happens next week.

King of the Hill (Fox) — We have another new character trait — this week, it’s Hank’s fear of bats, which Hank discovers after he and Bobby spot one in the garage. As usual, the writers take it back to the Hank-Bobby dynamic, cleverly twisting our conception of their relationship. While Hank’s — gasp! — flaw shatters his confidence, Bobby gains confidence and takes charge of the duo’s boat-building project. Of course, confidence leads to arrogance, so Hank has to save Bobby when the boy takes the boat out before it’s ready. Hank helps Bobby by guiding the sinking boat under a bridge filled with thousands of bats. A convenient and inevitable conclusion, but the big Shyamalan twist is that Hank isn’t over his fear — he’s just going to try to hide it.

Lost (ABC) — This season, one of the best unanswered questions — and the writers, obviously aware of this, have made it a big pain in the ass for us to figure out — has been “why are these people the Oceanic Six?” This week’s flash-forward, reminiscent of the first-season finale’s flashbacks of everyone heading to the airport to make Flight 815, suggests that maybe we really are on the precipice of the Six leaving the island — but how, why, and what happens to everyone else?

The writers wisely separated everyone — Sun and Aaron are on the freighter, Kate and Sayid have been kidnapped by Alpert’s group of Others, Jack’s at the helicopter, and Hurley’s at the Orchid — making it an even bigger puzzler. I have no idea how any of this is going to play out, and since this is part one of a two-part, three-hour finale, the episode feels more unfinished than the usual cliffhangers.

Medium (NBC) — A great season-finale antidote to last season’s ultra-depressing three-parter, in which Neve Campbell’s sleazy reporter befriended and betrayed Allison, taking her story public and causing Joe, Allison, and Devalos to lose their jobs (and Scanlon to take a degrading demotion). The characters have spent the entire season trying to recover, and it’s nice to end on an “up” note.

Turns out, Joe getting out of his deal with Special Guest Star Kelly Preston wasn’t the challenge I expected after last week’s episode. She’s a shady dealer — a legitimate con woman who finds people with ideas like Joe’s, sleazes all over them to make them uncomfortable, sells the ideas to big corporations for huge sums of money, then buys out the weary idea men for a fraction of her payday. It seems like that should be illegal, but hey, that’s the fun of capitalism! And on the plus side, she sold it to a big corporation developing a similar project — and the head of the company preferred Joe’s idea to his own. So Joe’s set — $250,000 in the bank and what’s effectively a job promotion.

Meanwhile, both Allison and Devalos get their jobs back in a bittersweet plot development that finds jerky D.A. Van Dyke afflicted with cancer. Hey, this show can’t always be sunshine and roses.

Oh, and speaking of that, I sort of ignored the A story: Allison dealing with a haunted house that, it turns out…well, maybe it’s haunted and maybe it’s not, but it’s all an elaborate ruse perpetrated by a bitter daughter whose father had two families. She marries her unsuspecting half-brother (shudder) and forces them to move into her childhood home — the place where her mother killed another daughter. The always-reliable Geoff Pierson steps in as the conflicted double-dad. Even though he’s basically the bad guy, you still feel pretty bad for him. Despite that, the writers did a nice job of ensuring this season ended on a series of positive notes. I’m looking forward to next season and hoping NBC’s moving it to Sundays (again) won’t kill it like it nearly did the last time.

The Office (NBC) — I’m disappointed to see Paul Lieberstein’s Toby go (legend has it that he’s been promoted behind-the-scenes, giving him less time to commit to a recurring role) because he’s really funny in a dry, sad-sack kind of way — and also, Michael’s irrational hatred of him has made for some of the funniest material in the show’s history. They did a great job of undercutting that animosity by introducing Amy Ryan (Oscar nominee for one of 2007’s best movies, Gone Baby Gone; also, Beadie on The Wire) as Toby’s replacement.

I’m a little concerned by some of the plot developments that will carry us through to next season. I enjoyed the Pam-Jim-Roy triangle of tension, and although I found Dwight and Angela a funny pairing, the Angela-Andy pairing doesn’t work so well for me, and trying to turn that into a love triangle may not work at all. Dwight’s furtive glances are amusing enough, but them getting steamy in the office is too much. I guess I’ve just had enough with the coupling. We’ve had Pam and Roy, Jim and Pam, Michael and Jan, on some levels Michael and Ryan, Kelly and Ryan, Kelly and Darryl, Dwight and Angela, Andy and Angela — you could even add Phyllis and Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration, and Toby’s crush on Pam. I’m even probably forgetting some permutations — oh yeah, Jim and Amy Adams and Michael and his condo salesperson. I’m not saying they haven’t done a good job with these couples; they’ve just gone to the well so frequently, I’d like to see some more interoffice dynamics along the lines of Michael and Darryl or anybody and Stanley. Creed hasn’t gotten much face-time since his total asshole move in the first season, convincing Michael to fire an undeserving employee to save his own ass. Since then, he’s gone from “conniving asshole” to “weird stoner.” Which is fine, but why not give him more layering by making him “conniving stoner”?

The abuse of pairing characters up in romance concerns me, but Michael and Jan were so funny together (especially in “Dinner Party”) that I’m sort of glad he’s going back to her, especially since it’s for all the wrong reasons. I even have the funny suspicion she’s not even pregnant. We’ll see.

Reaper (The CW) — I’m disappointed about Aliens in America’s unsurprising cancellation, but I’m really glad Reaper is getting a second shot. In retrospect, the early episodes — while funny — were pretty shaky, but the writers really got their acts together during the strike and have turned Reaper into a must-watch show.

Each week, we’ve gotten some new insight into the corporate disaster Hell has become; this week, the Devil fears he has a leak somewhere in his organization. Sam keeps reaping the same soul, who keeps escaping. Richard Burgi (who’s been in pretty much everything but is probably most widely known for The Sentinel or his recent stint on Desperate Housewives), playing this week’s soul as a carefree playboy, made him one of the goofiest and most memorable so far. They also made Gladys the leak, which continues to make her character more interesting and subversive. It also led to another choice where Sam has forced the Devil to help somebody else instead of himself.

But I might be ignoring the episode’s biggest revelation: Sara stole Ben’s money. Wait, that wasn’t it, although it was hilarious (and I do hope they have Lucy Davis back). Oh right, Sam’s the Devil’s son, and they finally answered the question of the page(s) torn out of Sam’s contract — his dad removed every reference to who Sam’s father was. I’d love to go back and rewatch the earlier episodes to see hints foreshadowing this. They spent all that time trying to make us think Cady was the Devil’s daughter, but I wonder if certain things (like “her” ability to cause flowers to shrivel and die instantly) were caused by Sam.

Robin Hood (BBC America) — The Sheriff of Nottingham has crossed the line from everyday villainy to cartoonish supervillainy. While I sometimes admire this show for its (probably inaccurate) efforts to draw old-timey parallels to the modern world (in this week’s case, chemical warfare), they went nuts with this episode. Testing a new, incurable poison on peasants in Nottingham Town? Killing Will Scarlet’s father right in front of all the townspeople? He’s always been a bit over-the-top, but this reached new heights of ridiculousness.

The episode itself was just fair — not egregiously bad, but not as good as the rest of the season to this point. The cure to the poison felt a little too easy, and while they did a somewhat unique variation on it, the episode still boiled down to last season’s pattern of “we have to storm the castle to save one of our own.”

Supernatural (The CW) — They actually sent Dean to Hell. Way to have balls, Supernatural! I figured we’d get some kind of eleventh-hour reprieve, and the writers seemed to be aware of that, since they crafted the episode to provide a dozen opportunities for Dean to maybe save himself, then having it be for naught.

The episode itself worked fairly well, though I have to admit it’s a shame to see Ruby go. Like Bela, they didn’t give her a massive amount of development or screen time, but Ruby — and the very idea of a demon who refuses to lose her humanity — was infinitely more interesting. Maybe she’ll be back next season, but it seems to me like Lillith killed her dead.

Speaking of Lillith, they did a great job with the creepy hilarity of Lillith’s “vacation,” in which she possesses a little girl and holds the family hostage. It had some shades of that Twilight Zone with Billy Mumy as an evil kid with god-like powers, but it came across more as homage than theft.

I don’t know what they have planned for next season, but I had some mild complaints this season about not having enough of Sam and Dean together. The main reason to watch Supernatural is for the natural, sibling-like chemistry of Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, so keeping them apart in many episodes this season is what I’d call a noble failure. They obviously wanted to shake up the formula, but it didn’t work. Of course, sending Dean to Hell keeps them about as far away from each other as possible. They need to rescue him ASAP in next season’s premiere, or the show may continue to suffer.

Posted by D. B. Bates on May 18, 2008 12:00 AM