Heroes & Villains

Bones (Fox) — This week, the writers redeemed last week’s lackluster effort — just in time to go off the air for a month!

This week, Bones tries to tackle religion and faith through the prism of its characters. They’ve done shows like this before, but the attempts to tackle issues miss more often than they hit. (The show’s worst episode remains one in which they find the burnt corpse of a soldier and each character unconvincingly meditates on the Iraq War.) This episode was a solid base hit, offering a complex — but not ridiculous — mystery with an untidy but satisfying solution. More than that, it allowed us to gain a deeper insight into both Brennan and Booth, and it gave Brennan an understanding of what drives the human desire to believe in otherworldly control.

The only downside? This intern-of-the-week gimmick was funny at first, but the joke’s worn thin. Maybe they need to give the interns more interesting quirks, or maybe they just need to hire Carla Gallo or Michael Badalucco (the only interns who made an impression) and get it over with.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW) — This episode had a couple of excellent twists reminiscent of the late, lamented Freaks & Geeks. In the first, Chris is conflicted about befriending “androgynous” peer Angel, but when he decides to put his fear aside and hang with him in public, Angel is the one who’s humiliated and begs Chris to leave him alone. In the second, Greg becomes the king bad-ass of the Bronx Academy and walks around with a whole new (hilarious) attitude. The writers have, so far, done a better job of mining the trials and tribulations of high school than they did with junior high, so I hope they keep this up.

In some discouraging news, Tisha Campbell (Martin, School Daze) had what one can only hope was a one-off guest spot as Tasha’s mother. She’s as shrill and talentless as I remembered, so I sincerely hope they bring back Whoopi Goldberg as Tasha’s angst-ridden grandmother and send Ms. Campbell-Martin back to prison. This subplot only had two bright spots: the brief, hilarious return of Malvo, and Tichina Arnold’s incredible facial reactions to the insanity surrounding her. She is consistently the funniest part of this show, so it disappoints me to see her mired in such an annoying subplot.

Oh, I should also mention that Tanya’s Danny Glover crush, while a little more absurd than her Billy Ocean crush, is very funny. I can’t wait to see how she reacts when Lethal Weapon comes out.

Heroes (NBC) — I’m sick of spewing vitriol in the direction of this show, so instead I offer a series of questions this week’s episode raised that need to be answered within the next two weeks, or I walk:

I want to go back to loving this show. Remember how Lost had a bit of a quality/focus problem in the second half of its second season and beginning of its third, then they pulled their heads out of their asses and made it nonstop awesome again? Why can’t Heroes’ writers do that? I’m afraid I won’t stick around long enough to find out.

King of the Hill (Fox) — This week, the writers did a terrific job of tying all three stories together. They’ve always done this consistent effortlessness, allowing even weaker subplots (like Dale’s carbon-offset business) to rest on the backs of better material, thereby elevating the whole thing. I also love when an episode revolves around Hank’s misguided respect for Mr. Strickland, who had the amazing task of undermining everything about the “go green” initiative at Strickland Propane — even though he single-handedly made such an initiative necessary. Still, probably my favorite part of the episode was Peggy’s efforts to get Bobby to eat a healthier, more natural diet. Maybe the ending doesn’t reflect kid reality, but it showed a surprising outcome that I hope they do something more with in the future.

Mad Men (AMC) — I risk outing myself as an ignorant rube with the following confession: I don’t have any idea what happened at the end. I understood and enjoyed the dense layering of family issues — Betty and her diminishing father and her sibling/stepmother issues, Harry’s bundle of joy, Pete’s lack thereof and pressure from his wife to adopt (and pressure from his family not to), Don’s hilariously bland interaction with Betty’s family and, most especially, Glen Bishop’s running away. So much went on in this episode, it kind of made my head spin, but that ending — did it signify Don’s intention to abandon Betty and his children, to reinvent himself yet again? Does this tie into Betty’s father’s paranoid distrust of Don’s lack of “people”? Is he untrustworthy because he shed his family the way a snake sheds it skin? Or is he untrustworthy because of, you know… All the lying and cheating and stuff?

Maybe the show wants us to believe he’s better than the rest of them. All around, we see portraits of kids trying to imitate their parents — either because they were bred to (Pete) or because they’re eager to please (Betty) — and then there’s Don, who was more eager to get out while he could and remake himself in the image he wanted. So at the end of it all, he decides to do what he’s going to do, heading off to Pasadena in place of Paul (who, ironically, gets stuck doing something he doesn’t want to do) to prove to himself — and anyone paying attention — that he’s his own man. Gotta love a show that portrays selfishness as a virtue!

The Office (NBC) — I get what I want, and I’m still not happy. They’ve finally stepped back from the excessive couplings and love triangles I’ve complained so much about, instead concentrating on legitimate office struggles, and… I don’t know what to say. For pure laughs, it’s easily in the top five. At its best, though, The Office delivers more than laughs. The writers find the pathos in these absurd characters. This week lacked the usual insight and depth, aside from a cringe-worthy scene in which Amy Ryan’s HR rep gets chewed out by corporate. I have faith it’ll bounce back next week.

Pushing Daisies (ABC) — I have no problem ridiculing this show when it does things I dislike, but I want everyone to know it comes from a place of love. When the show debuted last fall, it was pretty great — lots to love about it, and an endless mine of potential. But it began to falter after a few episodes, starting an outright decline that lasted all the way to last week’s premiere. Seeing that initial promise fizzle as the writers settled into an apparent complacency disappointed me big-time. I get angrier with shows that waste potential than I do with shows that are flat-out bad…

But I’m pleased to report that this week’s episode marked a surprising, glorious return to form. Even the circus stuff, which veered on the edge of the “quirky for quirky’s sake” territory in which the writers have fully mired previous mysteries, worked for me. They wrote a compelling, complex mystery and did a terrific job of relating it to Emerson’s continued struggles with his estranged daughter. As I remarked last week, this struggle has become the best part of the show for me, so I’m glad to see them finally do it justice.

Speaking of justice, I also love the writers for stranding Kristin Chenoweth in subplots separate from the main stuff. It’s much easier to fast-forward through her stuff! Okay, I don’t actually do that — because then I’d miss great stuff from Swoosie Kurtz and Diana Scarwid, in addition to further shirking my critical obligations — but I feel more comfortable knowing that I can. “Emmy nomination, schmemmy nomination,” I would say to myself, then hit fast-forward while cackling maniacally. Good times…

I’ll admit some minor disappointment in the Ned-Chuck material. After glossing over the fallout over Ned’s refusal to bring Chuck’s dad back to life, they’ve shifted the conflict to Ned’s separation anxiety, a much more generic conflict. They wrote it well enough in this episode, but I think giving Lee Pace and Anna Friel meatier material would benefit the show a great deal.

Nonetheless, I still thought they did a great job this week and hope this marks an uptick in quality so I can start to be outraged by its declining ratings.

Raising the Bar (TNT) — This week’s contender for “best and worst” episode did so many things right — nicely tying Bobbi’s domestic-abuse case with her marital problems, constructing yet another solid edition of Moral Gray-Area Theatre with McGrath “deciding” the couple wasn’t fit to live together — that I almost want to forgive them for the ridiculous subplot wherein Bobbi’s husband shows himself as a giant drug addict, does a variety of crazy things, then immediately acknowledges the problem and checks into rehab. Also, this subplot allows Bobbi to leave and, one assumes, find herself in the consoling arms of one Jerry Kellerman. I don’t mind much about any of this conceptually; it was just the rapid character assassination and redemption of Bobbi’s husband, within the same hour. I know they want this show to work as a “standalone,” but some of its continuing stories should take time to germinate — this addiction storyline is one of them.

Nonetheless, there was a lot to love here. Jerry’s story included a wonderful guest turn from Page Kennedy (Weeds, Desperate Housewives) as a man repeatedly getting jerked around by the system while awaiting his trial. We also got a little glimpse of Richard as protector, deftly trying to keep Bobbi and Gavin separated during his unannounced, coked-up visit. I’m sure, in time, this show will get the balance right and become appointment television.

Sons of Anarchy (FX) — In one of my life’s many mysteries, the episode that does the best job of probing the complex psyches of its characters also introduces one of the silliest, least convincing characters in recent memory, played by Ally Walker (Profiler), whose scenery-chewing didn’t blend terribly well with the moody, subdued performances from the rest of the cast. Of course, the writing didn’t help her much. I admit, with some reluctance, that I missed her name and, shirking my critical responsibilities, didn’t feel much like rewinding until I found it out. Instead, I attempted to look it up online and found her credited in a variety of places as “ATF Chick.” This doesn’t surprise me too much, because while Gemma especially deepened in this episode, “ATF Chick” burst on the scene spewing artificial “tough-broad”/”runnin’-with-the-big-boys” clichés that, I assume, were written by a man whose closest contact with a woman involves a pair of binoculars and a crusty tube-sock.

The rest of the episode fared much better. When one factors the irritating and unconvincing “ATF Chick” into that equation and the episode still holds the “best episode so far” title, it just shows the leap ahead. I spent a few days wondering what made this episode different — why did it suddenly leap from an inconsistent heap of intriguing ideas and sloppy writing to a rock-solid character study? The obvious answer: they shoved the AK-47 plot into the backseat and took time to dig deep into these characters and their relationships — and the writing soared, proving the writers really understand these people. Their strengths clearly lie in writing this type of material, because the show mainly stumbles when they overstuff it with plot. This time, they balanced a variety of stories — but all of them except the AKs had to do with the way these characters relate to one another. The AK-47 issues got the ball rolling on some of these stories, but the actual core of that remained in the background, essentially acting as a bookend for the episode. It worked. I hope the writers learn a thing or two from this episode.

Supernatural (The CW) — As a pseudo-continuation of last week’s mythology-fest, it surprised me at how much of the “old” Supernatural permeated this week’s episode. Aside from keeping the conflict between Sam and Dean alive, it followed the “freak of the week” formula that they’ve gotten away from over time, and it brought back the old “shades of gray” dilemmas that drove season two but was largely absent from season three.

Also, just like last week’s amazing turn from Mitch Pileggi, Canadian actor Dameon Clarke gave a tour de force as a man trying not to succumb to his secret demon nature. Clarke brought a wonderful gravitas to this struggle, making it more than just an apt metaphor for Sam’s own plight. See, as we found out last week, the yellow-eyed demon made a deal with the Winchesters’ mother to imbue Sam with his demon blood (and, therefore, demon powers). Sam wants to use this power against the demon forces, but Castiel warned against that, which drives this week’s brother-against-brother conflict.

Although I believe this show continues to improve with each passing week, I complained a fair amount last season about driving Sam and Dean apart. Last season, much of the “apart” was literal, physical distance. Since the chemistry between Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki drives the show, I felt like this was a mistake. Now, they’re together and sniping at each other — and maybe it’s another mistake. I want these brothers to go back to trusting each other. They have fundamental differences, but at the end of the day, Sam has Dean’s back and vice-versa. I hope the flame-throwing awesomeness of this week’s resolution will restore a bit of that trust, because I’d rather have them apart from each other than together in a nonstop whinefest.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox) — I sure hope I’m not the only one who wanted a glistening, enormous Dodge Ram after watching this episode? The combination of “limited” commercial interruptions — all of them promoting the Dodge Ram via hilariously over-the-top “reality show”-style shorts — and featuring the truck prominently within the show itself almost makes me forget that it’d probably cost $60 a day to drive that thing. But hey, if ridiculous product placements will keep this show on the air, I’ll put up with it.

For the first time in the show’s history, the Ellison subplot did not qualify as a weak link. I hate bashing the Ellison stuff, because Richard T. Jones is a fine actor and, at times, they do a decent job with him. Mostly, though, the character is adrift in a sea of backstory and exposition. They keep him separated from the main action, other than looking on from a slight distance, but now… Shirley Manson has sent him hot on the trail of the Connors. He investigates the nuclear plant from a few weeks ago, which confirms Manson’s indications that machines exist. He also gets confirmation that Sarah is alive. To thank him for helping Ellison, the dude who runs the nuclear power plant gets iced in one of the most disturbing possible ways: a hot chick starts making out with him, then her tongue morphs into a giant knife, then into Shirley Manson. Shudder. This unholy alliance is starting to pay dividends, so I hope they keep it up.

Is it just me, or did Marty seem like an awfully agreeable for a kidnapping victim? Granted, we know the terrible truth behind his kidnapping, and we know Sarah and Cameron are good people who have his best interests at heart… But Marty just kinda rolled with the whole thing. “Oh, an unkillable machine is after me, my parents might be in danger, and you guys are holding me for an undetermined period of time until you can destroy it? Wanna help me with my book report?” I kept waiting for him to try to escape, and it seemed a little odd that he didn’t. Maybe having a gun-toting cyborg after you forces rapid Stockholm syndrome.

On the plus side, this gave us a glimpse into Sarah that we haven’t seen before — the nurturing, compassionate mother. We have a sense of her caring deeply about John, but even in the movies, you’re left wondering if she cares about him as a child or a human being — or merely as the messianic figure he will become. The pseudo-philosophical, T2-esque voiceovers always have to do with her gloom-and-doom perspective on the future, so we almost never get any kind of insight into her perspective on child-rearing. We also never see her as a mother to a young child — The Terminator ends with her pregnancy, and T2 picks up with John Connor as an 11-year-old punk in the foster-care system. The only hints we get about her maternal instinct involve her taking John to Mexico for weapons training. I liked the opportunity to see Sarah trying to act as a mother to this kid.

But on to the main plot… One of the reasons I love this show is its odd ’70s-throwback vibe. You don’t have too many shows that play it straight with the idea of going undercover in various forms. Almost every episode of this show has seen the characters seeking out targets that require them to befriend specific kids at school, date computer genius cell phone salesmen, take temp jobs at a nuclear plant, etc. It’s spy games as performed by people with little to no competence as spies, so although they play it straight, their ineptitude makes the whole concept a little less cliché-ridden. This week, they made it a little more interesting by sending John and Derek “undercover” into an area of expertise — a military reform school, to protect the “Martin Bedell” this machine is really after.

The method for killing the T-888 might have struck some — including me — as obvious, but hey? They can’t always stick it in a bathtub and pour acid over its remains. Some nice, movie-style melting in flames works wonders once in awhile, even if it’s telegraphed. Plus, they tossed in Cameron skulking in the woods, another of many “Is she evil or not?” moments the show likes to play with. If she’s evil, I have to wonder why this particular situation matters to her. Is she programmed to feel pain at her fallen brethren? Did she not think they’d kill the guy? Or was she really there to protect them “just in case”? Time will tell, but Sarah Connor Chronicles may not have much time left, so let’s hope they get to it…

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