Changing of the Guard

As fall shows continue to premiere, cable shows conclude. This week saw the premiere of Fringe and the return of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, while Monk and Psych have ended their abbreviated summer runs.

Bones (Fox) — Well, I got one of my wishes (amazing considering this episode was produced at least a month before I rambled about the premiere’s problems). The writers dealt as little as possible with fallout over Angela and Hodgins — probably for the best, although it struck me as a tad unrealistic. And yes, the writers continued to keep the Booth and Brennan non-romance in the forefront, which is horrible despite the amusing banter.

But the show did two huge things right: they stuck John Francis Daley into a prominent role, even putting him in scenes where he didn’t seem to belong, because the writers clearly recognize what he’s bringing to the table. He’s like the Fonz of Bones, and for the moment, too much of him is never a bad thing. They also added Undeclared alum Carla Gallo in what I sincerely hope will be a recurring role. She played a hyper, annoying (but in a funny way) intern who may have a blossoming relationship with Daley’s Lance Sweets. I can’t imagine this being anything less than awesome, and if all goes well, I look forward to them retitling it Lance Sweets’ Bones in the ninth season after David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel leave to pursue successful feature-film-directing careers.

Oh yeah, this show has a mystery component. This week’s was more disgusting than usual, as it involved wading through drums of liquefied outhouse sludge. It looks like the writers are doing a better job reducing the predictability. They’ve eliminated the “obvious sociopath” tell that most procedurals have, and they spent more time giving each character both a clear motive and a clear out (except, of course, for the killer). They sorta fell into the “eleventh-hour suspect” trap, but he didn’t come completely out of nowhere, so they don’t get bonus points, but no points off, either.

Burn Notice (USA) — This episode marked a definite return to form. Expanding on the previous episode’s idea that people from Michael’s past remain in his orbit (and remain just as dangerous), Tim Matheson showed up as a pseudo-mentor from Michael’s spy days. He’s supposedly been dead for several years, which helps him in his current occupation (hit man). You know what else helps? Roping people like Michael into doing the job for him, allowing him plausible deniability. Matheson plays a slippery, sociopathic weasel with gusto, and both he and Jeffrey Donovan did an excellent job of selling their shared past.

I also love the writers for turning Matheson into a father figure. They’ve established — more than once — what an asshole Michael’s father was (or, at least, that’s the way Michael sees it), so it’s natural for him to seek someone who could inhabit that kind of role. The writers addressed this with subtlety, never beating us over the head with the psych-101 aspects of the relationship. They left the psych-101 insanity for Michael’s subplot with Madeline, who is still seeking a worthwhile counselor.

I should also mention that Amy Pietz (from the late, lamented Aliens in America) guest-starred as Matheson’s hit target, and Zachery Bryan (from the late, unlamented Home Improvement) played her obnoxious, rich-kid son. Both of them did reasonably solid work in their roles, but I have to give the writers guff for one thing: they could have done a better job of establishing the conflict between Pietz and Bryan. Greed is one thing, but the guy put on a contract on her life — there has to be a little more to it than inheritance. If there isn’t, they did a sloppy job with Bryan’s character — referring to him in a title card as a “spoiled punk,” without backing that up at all. As written, his role is that of a scared little kid. One would think the kind of rich, spoiled punk who hires hit men to reclaim a small amount of his inheritance might not be so intimidated by Michael. The kind of smart-dumb characteristic that would prompt him to hire multiple hit men would kick in, making him blustery and confident, and he’d offer to throw more money at the situation and/or try to play the tough guy until Michael puts him in his place.

I know, in dealing with a crime-of-the-week format, the writers have to find economic shorthands to establish these people, but a scene or two of Pietz and Bryan together would have shed enough light on their antagonistic relationship, making the hit man premise more believable.

Eureka (Sci-Fi) — This show came so close to getting some legitimate praise out of me. They almost went a full episode without mentioning the disastrous Carter-Allison romantic subplot, but of course, they had to go and screw it up with a single tense moment. Alas… Nonetheless, although this show has lost quite a bit of its luster, this was quite an improvement over the last new episode, despite defying the usual “less Zoe = better episode” correlation. The “superhero” trying to impress Lexi was sufficient to keep my interest. I knew it’d be the ecology guy the second they showed him, but the story did what Eureka used to do best: absolute ridiculousness turning to tragedy. I’d call this the best of the season so far, but that just kinda shows how uninspired this season has been so far.

Fringe (Fox) — Although it contains a few too many shades of Tim Minear’s short-lived summer burn-off The Inside (which would have made a star of Rachel Nichols if Fox hadn’t botched the whole thing), Fringe had a lot to love. Joshua Jackson surprised me as the sarcastic super-genius, John Noble was appropriately ridiculous as his mad-scientist father and the very concept — “fringe science” and “The Pattern” and Massive Dynamic — got me going. Lance Reddick is a great bad-ass, Blair Brown… I don’t know what the hell she’s doing, exactly, but she did it well.

Still, it had enough troublesome elements to make me worry. Notice, in what I liked, I mentioned nothing about the storyline, the love story or Anna Torv. That’s just it — they didn’t sell me on the romance at all. I loved Mark Valley on Keen Eddie, but he spent most of his time here in a coma. They put the romance on the shoulders of Anna Torv, the anchor of the series, and she didn’t make me believe that everything she did — everything — was motivated by that love, which in turn diminished the impact of his betrayal and pseudo-death. The supporting cast can prop her up for so long before the entire series collapses. This series requires a strong central figure — and she didn’t bring it in the pilot. If she couldn’t bring it in the pilot, I have to wonder about her abilities in the future. Will inhabiting this world on a regular basis help her to improve, or have we seen the best of her thanks to the benefit of longer schedules and more time for reshoots?

Mad Men (AMC) — Sometimes, Mad Men hums along unnoticed, and I start to get a little restless or frustrated — and then an episode like “The Golden Violin” comes along. When this show fires on all cylinders, it’s just about the best thing on TV. But even beyond the sheer quality, the dramatic momentum kicked into overdrive. So many revelations: Jimmy Barrett knows everything — and tells both Don and Betty; Jane turns into a pawn of Roger and Joan; Ken writes a new story, and Sal’s crush on him blossoms even further, although Ken is oblivious again; and the “young guys” develop a bizarre, calypso-cum-Phil Spector song-jingle giving the “mood” of what the young, hip folks want in their coffee. Oh, and let’s not forget the symbol of the Cadillac, and possibly the greatest ending in Mad Men history: Betty tossing her cookies in the brand new, untainted car.

The only thing left hanging was that flashback. First, showing Don as a used-car salesman gave a very interesting glimpse into his “past” and, perhaps, hints at how he got into the ad game (it’s a lateral move, when you think about it), but what was up with the girl accusing him of not being Don Draper? We know he isn’t, but what’s her story? Are we going to get back to that?

Catching a glimpse of Salvatore’s hollow marriage with Kitty was very unsettling, one assumes by design. Much as I’ve been enjoying Peggy’s development this season, I’m glad they took a step back — she was barely in this one — and let some of the other cast members shine.

Each week, Mad Men veers between solidly good and pretty great, but when people rave about the show, it’s episodes like this that they’re talking about.

Monk (USA) — Not a bad episode, but haven’t we been down this road before? Remember the episode where Monk starts taking an anti-anxiety medication and starts acting like an asshole? This episode didn’t bring much more to that, except bringing forth the continuity-violating notion that Monk had a point in his childhood where he wasn’t a bundle of neuroses. (It contradicts Monk’s repeated statements that he remembers his own birth — a trauma because it was (a) messy and (b) naked.) It let Tony Shalhoub put a new spin on a familiar character, but the spin wasn’t that new.

Psych (USA) — This was the least ridiculous episode of this half-season, but not by much. Gary Cole and Alan Ruck were welcome additions, as always, but I found myself a little irritated by the “Juliet’s dating Gary Cole’s SWAT commander” subplot. My reasoning might be a little wonky, but the “relationship” between Shawn and Juliet is just so inconsistent — most of the time, it’s just goofy flirtation, but it randomly veers toward this idea that maybe Shawn wants more. They isolate these, for the most part, to individual scenes that let James Roday show he’s more than just a goofball, but in the next scene, he’s back to his goofball self and makes no outward sign of his affection for Juliet. I certainly don’t want Psych to turn into a romantic comedy, but the writers have missed several opportunities to have Shawn discuss his feelings with Gus — his best friend, confidante and conscience. As usual, it was a fun episode and worked well as a mini-finale.

Raising the Bar (TNT) — This episode impressed me more than the pilot. After the first week’s exposition, we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of what this show’s really about: the depressing ambiguity of the modern courtroom. Exemplified more by the subplot involving a teenager (Percy Daggs III from Veronica Mars) on trial for beating another student, I like that they’re tackling the notion that just because a person does something wrong for the (theoretical) right reasons…doesn’t mean he didn’t commit a crime. The main plot, in which Kellerman tries to fly in a witness from Guatemala, also underscored the theme. His accusation that Ernhardt is more interested in winning than in truth, while a little on the nose, underscores the similar — but much worse — problem of wrongful convictions. And even that leaves us with questions as to the Guatemalan’s credibility, although the show opted not to get into that. I do look forward to more challenging stories along these lines, though.

Also, good call on breaking up Kellerman and Ernhardt almost immediately. I just hope this doesn’t become an endless back-and-forth. To me, it feels like a mistake of the pilot that they corrected sooner rather than later, so kudos to that.

Sons of Anarchy (FX) — We might as well call this “Pilot Redux,” because this episode seemed to do a combination of course-correction and redevelopment. We got some new storylines — the corrupt police chief and non-corrupt deputy chief, for instance — while some of the more bizarre aspects (beating the hell out of the Korean Elvis impersonator, for instance) went unaddressed. All the corpse craziness in this episode made me wished they played this for pitch-black laughs, a la Breaking Bad, because something about the overarching seriousness in the face of ridiculous circumstances reminds me too much of what I disliked about The Sopranos. Still, I’m in it for the long haul as long as Hunnam, Perlman, Segal and the enormous supporting cast continue to deliver the goods.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox) — The scene with John, Cameron and the two trucks reminded me of exactly why I fell in love with this show last season. Creator Josh Friedman has delivered the most twisted family unit since The Addams Family, and man is he having fun showing us new ways to feel uncomfortable. Ellison’s story seemed a bit adrift last season, but his new…religious experience, for lack of a better phrase, with Cromartie makes me hope he’ll get a subplot worthy of Richard T. Jones’ talents.

On a less enthusiastic note, Shirley Manson has joined the cast as a ruthless exec looking to expand on the Turk technology, recovered by — holy shit, it’s Max Perlich, notable for his brief stint on Homicide: Life on the Street and as Whistler on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer! I’m a lot more enthusiastic about Perlich than Manson; even the world’s biggest Garbage fan (not me) has to acknowledge that she’s not what you’d call a great actress. However, the T-1000 reveal made me ignore any problems I had with her performance…for now.

I have many hopes and questions for the season. Top on my list right now is: why cast ringers like Andre Royo (The Wire) and Sonya Walger (Lost)? Their roles amounted to bit parts, but casting semi-well-known people made me assume there would be more to their characters. Time will tell, I guess.

Posted by D. B. Bates on September 14, 2008 12:00 AM