Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pilot Review: Glee

It’s extremely rare if not unheard of for networks to premiere pilots for shows months in advance of their actual first runs. “Glee” was heavily promoted and glowingly reviewed before its late May premiere, and it won’t bow again until the fall, airing after FOX’s “So You Think You Can Dance” results show. The posters for the show were a bit misleading, featuring its characters making the universal symbol for “loser” above the tagline “a biting comedy for the underdog in all of us.” After seeing the first installment, I think the latter description is appropriate, whereas the show’s focus on its characters being losers isn’t really its strong suit.

What “Glee” has going for it is a strong ensemble that really shines when its members are coming together and performing. The musical sequences, spotlighting Lea Michele as amusingly self-absorbed perfectionist Rachel and Cory Monteith as jock Finn. The show’s best moments showcase the glee club’s teamwork and unlikely success. It’s also satisfying because they’re actually quite talented, and a show with a glee club as its focus will obviously have some terrific musical numbers. From what I’ve seen in the pilot, the music and dance will be this show’s ticket to glory.

Where the show falters is its emphasis on its characters as losers. It’s not quite as bad as I had feared, picturing a sequel of sorts to the horrific FOX spring comedy “Free Ride” from a few years ago that should never have seen the light of day. Watching slackers continue to be slackers while succeeding against all odds isn’t terribly exciting, and it’s only occasionally effective, most notably on “Freaks & Geeks.” Here, seeing newly enlightened Finn protect a kid in a wheelchair from being tortured in a porter-potty isn’t terribly entertaining or remotely funny. Maybe glee club isn’t cool, but this show won’t be either if it remains caught up in portraying its main players as the high school idiots who are the subject of everyone’s mockery.

The main cast members are great fits for the various personalities of the glee club. I’m especially happy with the two arguable leads, Michele and Monteith. Michele is so into herself and Monteith has the greatest blank stare on his face that you can’t help liking these two kids just insistent upon singing their very best during extracurricular hours. I’m not as moved by the unenthusiastic performance by Matthew Morrison as the glee club’s head cheerleader, and just like on “One Tree Hill” I’d rather have a much less prominent focus on the “adults” of the story. Jane Lynch, recently featured on “Party Down,” has too much of a distracting role as a particularly abrasive faculty member, and I still think she’s best suited for recurring comic relief roles on shows like “The L Word” and even “Two and a Half Men,” if need be. The sweet surprise when it comes to the faculty is the adorable Jayma Mays, so great in her arc on “Heroes” and in the 2005 film “Red Eye,” whose role as a germaphobe guidance counselor should provide much of the non-musical dramatic heart of this show.

How will it work as a series? I imagine that, despite their excellent Journey rendition at the close of the pilot, it will still take a whole lot of practicing and episodes for the glee club to actually achieve true success, and that could extend the life of this show a lot. This does feel a bit like it could be a one-shot wonder type, where the pilot feels fresh and creative but its run isn’t nearly as promising or fulfilling. I think it will be a mix of the two, and I think it should be able to coast on its musical greatness for a while.
How long will it last? Continuing along the lines of my above comment, I’m not sure there are many places for this glee club to go once they inevitably come through and win the national championship, or whatever highest level choral equivalent exists. I imagine that the alternative, which would mean repeated failures for the glee club in their quest towards glory, would be simply demoralizing and make this show unappealing. I’m sure the ratings will be good in the fall, but I feel like this show only has one good season in it. I definitely don’t think it has more than two seasons left in it.

Pilot grade: B

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Finishing Up The Season: NCIS

I decided last fall that I would give up “NCIS” when I went abroad, mostly because it’s the only procedural drama I watch, and it’s really not worth keeping up with on a regular basis. When I returned home and realized the finale was soon to air, I decided I wanted to catch up. I sped through eleven episodes of the series over a few days to get up to speed, and I must say that this is not a show meant for being watched in marathon form. Catching up on “Desperate Housewives” over seven consecutive hours was fine, but “NCIS” just doesn’t offer enough continuity to make it appropriately engaging and exciting. It’s odd to me, since I know that the “Law & Order” series is presented almost exclusively (well, not quite) in endless back-to-back marathons. I guess the difference there is that the main characters aren’t as interesting, so the extremely varying cases will be, whereas achieving the balance between a central cast and their cases often compromises one of them – or both.

It’s hard to diagnose exactly what’s been off about the show this year. The main characters are all still pretty great, and the necessity of a spin-off episode to launch “NCIS: Los Angeles” didn’t even feel out of place, since it was incorporated into the show’s main continuing storyline. What struck me as very much peculiar was the show’s extensive focus on Israel. I suppose the presence of a Mossad liaison officer at NCIS never really made much sense, but the connections between Director Vance and Director David and the fact that a Mossad agent was operating so extensively on American territory didn’t make much sense. The most jarring thing is that the show went to the trouble of filming part of an episode in Tel Aviv, taking little advantage of its look or exteriors, and didn’t bother to hire a single Israeli actor to portray any one of the four Israeli characters prominently featured in this season (Rudolf Martin, who played Ari, also isn’t Israeli). It just makes it all feel terribly unreal, and all the more bizarre and unexplained. “NCIS” continually makes fun of the fact that no one seems to know about their agency, and I think the show’s rating success has gone to the writers’ heads. Gibbs is shocked that NCIS wasn’t invited to a card game with the FBI and the CIA, but he really shouldn’t be. Why is it that they have such a major relationship with Israel? It just doesn’t make a lick of sense. I’m not suggesting that Ziva depart the show, and I’m glad they left the door open for her coming back (I imagine she will). I just think the show would be better off keeping her in the United States, unless they plan on hiring some Israeli actors and explaining why it is that NCIS has so much to do with Israel. I’d love to see Israel featured prominently, but not like this.

The other main problem with this year was Director Vance. Alan Dale departed the show years ago to go play the most powerful character on every show imaginable (“Lost” is just one of the many), but he was a great initial director who Gibbs seemed to respect and who appeared to know what he was doing. Lauren Holly’s Jenny Shepard may have been a bit less effective but understandably more fun, especially in her interactions with Gibbs. Vance, by contrast, has nothing to offer. He’s a thorn in everyone’s side and doesn’t really get much done, plus he has some secrets buried that, if Gibbs and Jude Ciccolella’s Secretary of the Navy can dig enough up, could bury him. Rocky Carroll is one of the most monotone actors I’ve ever seen, who could be perfectly matched with Glenn Morshower (Aaron Pierce on “24”) in a contest for the least enthusiastic performance ever (I happen to like Morshower just fine, by the way, though maybe not as much after his annoying behavior this season). Gibbs certainly shouldn’t be the director, because as much as it’s fun to see Tony lead the team occasionally, Gibbs is perfect where he is. For next season, I’d like to see much, much less of Vance and far more of the team working together, fleshing out some of the relationships that haven’t been explored as fully yet, like Ziva and Abby. I imagine I’ll continue watching it in the fall unless the pilot season presents many exciting options.

Season finale: C+
Season grade: B-
Season MVP: Michael Weatherly

Friday, May 29, 2009

Finishing Up The Season: 24

Talk about a ridiculous show. I consider the first season of “24” to be my favorite season of television ever, and the subsequent second, third, and fourth seasons were compelling and entertaining if a bit flawed. The fifth and sixth seasons were devastatingly terrible, and I couldn’t understand how anyone still liked this show. What made it so original, its unique time-stamped format, was disregarded in favor of cheap thrills that happened far too quickly, and I thought it was beyond hope. I was pleasantly surprised at the start of this season, when it seemed that its entertainment value would overshadow its blatant idiocies. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long.

Knowing before the season started that a dead character we saw die on screen would be returning, and as a villain, I was skeptical. Otherwise, the direction of the show seemed to be headed somewhere good: CTU was abandoned in favor of introducing new characters and trying to reboot this series stalled in its own tangled web of impossible plot twists. In the two-night four-hour premiere extravaganza I started to watch during my flight to Italy, I was primed for a surprisingly decent season based on the somewhat fresh, very engaging premiere installments. Unfortunately, I was soon let down, and before I knew it, refugees from South Africa were tunneling into the White House, made all the more shameful because “24” pulled that same stunt last year when the Chinese tunneled under CTU. There’s not even a remote sense of plausibility here. “24” has lost all claims at being a legitimate dramatic series. Early on, like when Renee was buried alive and the end of the episode left her fate open, things were okay, but then it was all about providing preposterous twists for viewers to fawn over and placing an undue emphasis on Jack’s torturing. The initial premise that Jack was on trial for torturing people was intriguing, but then everything with Renee suddenly being unable to resist the idea of torturing someone was just silly. It’s not some sort of irresistible innate craving. I know that my mom got very excited when Jack faked being unconscious and single-handedly took down all three doctors (like when he bit someone’s neck while tied to a chair at the start of last season), and that’s cool to be sure, but Jack’s not some sort of ferocious monster, he’s just a federal agent performing way beyond the level he should be.

The presence of Tony was good once he was revealed to be secretly working with Bill and Chloe, and Carlos Bernard was actually the strongest actor of all this season. Once he double-crossed Jack and killed Larry, however, his character went straight downhill. It’s just too much to take, to believe that Tony could be such an effective triple agent. Additionally, the writers made the same mistake they did with Nina in season one, showing Tony get tricked into getting that Starkwood guy a deal, even though he should have been in on it all along. Tony’s ultimate motivation, revealed in the final episode, seems far too trivial. Tony wouldn’t go to all that trouble just to kill one person and not worry about any mentalities along the way, and those ruthless turncoats in the government wouldn’t let him help them unscreened, and the death of Michelle would certainly have come up once or eight thousand times. Tony definitely should NOT be back in future seasons, because there’s absolutely no way anyone should trust this guy. Trust was a big deal for everyone in this season, as a matter of fact, with President Taylor constantly flip-flopping on whether Jack and Tony deserved eternal condemnation or devoted praise.

President Taylor herself didn’t bring much to the table. The president’s-inner-circle conspiracies have gotten progressively worse, starting out at good in seasons one and two with Sherry’s meddling and then Mike Novick’s ultimate betrayal. Season three took Sherry too far, though season four wisely left the president’s advisors out of the picture and instead went directly after the president himself, shooting town Air Force One with him aboard. Season five was thoroughly unbelievable, with the President himself as the mastermind behind all evil in the world, and I’m glad we’re done with the stupid rivalries between the incompetent Wayne Palmer and the seething Noah Daniels. This season presented a middle-ground; a scenario that wasn’t interesting at all but also wasn’t as completely despicable as in recent years. Ethan was a pretty good character, a million times better than Peter MacNicol’s Tom Lennox, and the fact that he wasn’t actually a bad or corrupt guy made things better. All the stupidity with the bumbling Henry early on was a waste of time, and Cherry Jones, superb stage actress as she may be, wasn’t very compelling or impressive. The introduction of the talented Sprague Grayden as her daughter mid-season seemed to signal a good turn of events, but her character’s stupidity (calling from her phone, leaving records of transactions, talking to Aaron) completely contradicted her cunning cutthroat sensibilities (recording herself having sex for blackmail purposes). The whole character of Aaron Pierce, whose presence was unexplained and pointless, clearly due only to him being a fan favorite, made little sense, and I didn’t know whether he wanted to protect Olivia from harm or actually seek justice. I guess making him wait outside the hotel room for half an hour probably pissed him off a bit. If Taylor is still President next season, which I hope she’s not, then I at least hope that Henry won’t be back in tow, since he’s really a waste of space. I still think there’s no reason the President even needs to be a part of the show, since I doubt that Obama gets updates every twenty minutes from the FBI and actually picks up the phone to debate semantics and offer immunity deals. David Palmer was a player in season one because his plot intertwined with Jack’s, and that’s why he stuck around. “24” still seems to be experimenting with where it’s headed, jumping from place to place and dragging characters and agencies around with it. Who knows if the President will remain germane? I think next season could benefit from a fresh start, minus characters like Taylor, Chloe and Renee, and certainly Kim, and focusing instead on Jack starting anew somewhere, as this show might hopefully be able to do.

Season finale: F
Season grade: F
Season MVP: Carlos Bernard (though he wasn’t superb)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Finishing Up The Season: Desperate Housewives

While I was away in Italy, I dropped this show from my weekly schedule. Realizing the finale was right around the corner, I hastily decided to watch the seven episodes I’d missed since the one hundredth episode with the guest turn by Beau Bridges as the handyman whose death impacted all of the housewives’ lives, even though the episode didn’t progress terribly much and it felt a lot like treading water. The second half of this season leading up to the finale didn’t accomplish a whole lot more. The best way to really see how this season fared is to ask the question the show itself posed with its five-year time jump at the conclusion of last year – are these characters any more interesting five years later?

Two of the main characters had remarkably different lives, while the other two hardly saw any true changes. Gaby was probably most changed at the start of the season, with two kids and some added baby weight. Carlos quickly regained his sight, however, and therefore this notion of Gaby having to compromise her lifestyle and subsist on minimal income was made ineffective, since we didn’t really get much of a chance to feel her burden. With Carlos’ eyes back in play, things immediately were back to normal, with Gaby showing her shallow side at almost every occasion, and even new directions, like her jealousy over Carlos’ robust underling and her coup at the gardening club, didn’t do much to enhance a shallow character who is still played fairly well by Eva Longoria, though the writing for her really has gone downhill. The same goes for Susan, whose comedic mishaps were sidelined to make room for dramatic tension with Mike, and the addition of Jackson, one of the most useless characters in television history, only made Susan seem more three-dimensional next to his transparent woodenness. The time jump made it so that little kids like MJ and Juanita were the focus instead of the far more intriguing older generation which included Julie, Danielle, Dylan, and Andrew. The Scavo twins do not count, because they’re younger and also infinitely boring. Lacking those crucial child elements (Andrea Bowen as Julie was one of the best parts of season one, now she’s relegated to a one-episode guest appearance) clearly hurt this season.

Bree and Lynette, despite the appearance of new arcs, very much led the same lives and faced the same problems. Bree is still a stuck-up perfectionist housewife constantly being sabotaged by members of her family. I was especially disappointed with the way Orson’s character went, since Kyle Maclachlan is such a talented actor and having Orson as a nice, friendly, good guy was a real boon for the show. Unfortunately, now he steals trinkets and acts disturbingly possessively. Bree’s character didn’t grow one bit, and it’s only in the final episode that anything was actually accomplished that could have some lasting meaning for her character (more on that later). Lynette, similarly, didn’t have anything new happen to her. While plotlines like Lynette going to work with Carlos and hopping on a Facebook clone to pose as her son’s girlfriend might seem fresh, they’re simply rehashes of earlier stories the show explored. Lynette’s trip to the doctor in the finale meant one of two very bad things for her character’s going-nowhere story – either she had cancer again or she was pregnant again. The latter is unlikely to be pleasant in season six, especially because no one in Lynette’s circle was ever really happy this season. It’s a shame, considering that Tom wasn’t always a sad sack, and he in fact used to be a terrific character. The fifth housewife, Katharine, managed to do pretty well for herself sticking around, especially since she likely could have been dismissed like Alfre Woodard at the end of her yearlong role as the center of the mystery. She didn’t have to much to do besides fall in love with Mike, but hopefully she’ll have a renewed purpose in the next season. I do hope that Mike is marrying her, because he really needs to get off the ground and have his character accomplish something.

Then there’s the real star of this season, who managed to out-act every single player on this show and keep an occasionally less-than-engaging mystery going for the entire season. Neal McDonough, whose turn on 2002’s NBC series “Boomtown” should convince anyone that this man is a superb actor, carried this entire season as the suspicious Dave Williams. He was the source of any new directions or plotlines, be it with his much-postponed camping trip or the delightful guest appearance(s) by Lily Tomlin. The plot did take the whole season to materialize, but it provided a decent end for Edie, as well as a way to make her relevant for her final days on the series. Compared to previous mysteries, figuring out what Dave was doing was actual pretty easy (Mike was clearly his target early on), but knowing that he was the father and husband of the people who Mike and Susan killed was a bit of a surprise. Dave finding out at the last minute that Susan was the driver and not Mike was far too reminiscent of the Edie-Mrs. Huber confusion in season one. The whole plot was a decent effort, but the show still has trouble balancing its status as a dramedy. One place in which the show excelled in that department, however, is the return of Richard Burgi as Carl, Susan’s first husband. He is delightfully sleazy, and may be the only person to actually ever change Bree. We’ll see in the next season, which I would consider not watching, but I had a feeling I’ll probably end up checking back in, even if it’s not right at the beginning.

Season finale: C
Season grade: C-
Season MVP: Neal McDonough

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Finishing Up The Series: Prison Break

When Michael and the rest of the gang signed their immunity deals that finally left them free and clear of all their accused wrongdoings, I felt a tiny bit satisfied. But only seconds later, I realized that this exact same set of circumstances could have happened infinitely earlier. This is a show that had a surprisingly entertaining first season and an even more surprisingly decent second season. It stretched the boundaries of believability in its first year, but came back with one of the most thrilling and fantastic finishes I’ve ever seen. The second season started off with a bang, and the addition of William Fichtner’s Agent Mahone was a tremendously smart decision. Things sort of went downhill by the beginning of the second half of the season, and it became clear that things needed to be wrapped up. I was devastated when the completely odd group of Michael, Bellick, T-Bag, and Mahone all ended up back in prison at the conclusion of the second season. At that time, I thought the show could have ended perfectly with Mahone going on the run with the brothers and Sara, providing a fitting and appropriate end to the show.

Instead, the series has been incessantly awful since that moment. Looking back over my reviews, I’m shocked to discover that I was once optimistic about the show’s future and even gave it the benefit of the doubt. I’ve become much more pessimistic after this dismal fourth year. The first problem was, of course, that no one was in prison. The show was titled “Prison Break: On the Run” in Australia during its second year, and I think that’s commendable. The fourth season was all about the battle against the Company, the most poorly conceived fictional organization ever. Not one single thing that happened made sense, and the plethora of unintimidating villains, led by General Krantz and Christina Scofield, just added to the inanity. I never cared about what happened to the brothers or any of the other fugitives because I knew that it would go wrong instantly. This is the kind of show that was handicapped by its necessity to create problems for its characters and always end on a forced cliffhanger. This season epitomized that structure, and it was painful to experience. I found myself wishing that characters would get killed off because the show would be so much better without them. When Bellick was killed off, he wasn’t missed. The same goes for Gretchen (though she’s still alive, I suppose). Had two of the show’s most useless characters, Self and Sara, been dismissed, it would have made the show a lot stronger. The same is true for the series’ worst character, Lincoln Burrows. The show only ever needed Michael, Mahone, and T-Bag, and overstuffing the show’s final few episodes with dozens of new, pointless personalities alongside all the already obnoxious ones didn’t do the show’s legacy any favors.

The show does deserve credit for its persistence and ability to drag itself out. I was shocked to discover the characters (and more impressively, actors) who returned for the show’s series finale. I have no idea why Sucre, and especially C-Note, was needed or even desired for a return appearance, but it was cool and slightly satisfying to see them again. The pretense under which they returned was wholly foolish and stupid, but regardless, it is great to see two characters that really were pure good (and ended up in maximum security prison for preposterous reasons). The return of Kellerman was especially strange but served as a fun surprise. The fact that the government – that is, its few legitimate members, trust any one of these people, especially the duplicitous, murderous Kellerman, is astoundingly dumb. It’s a pity that the show couldn’t maintain the same level of entertainment value it possessed in its first two seasons to accompany all of this stellar ridiculousness. It’s not even worth discussing the actual events of the finale, since there’s no sensible reason any of them should have occurred. The resolution of the show, finding almost every character blissfully happy, was generally expected. The central character, however, is no more. After successfully breaking out of two different prisons and managing to evade authorities for months, Michael dies from a life-threatening disease he didn’t actually inherit from his mother. It’s not too terrible, I suppose, since the legacy of “Prison Break” is now finished, and it feels like an unkind tug on emotional heartstrings that wasn’t really called for or necessary. “Prison Break” was a decent show that had a good year or two in it, but after the show’s plot subsided, the show should have as well. This is a perfect example of dragging a show out well beyond its potential. I stuck with it in the hope that it would one day improve, but it looks like the first season and a half are really allthere was to this show. I suppose that’s something.

Series finale: F
Season grade: F
Season MVP: William Fichtner
Series grade: D (Season One: B+)
Series MVP: William Fichtner

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Finishing Up The Season: 30 Rock

Reviewing my old posts, I was surprised to discover that, due to its late premiere date in October, I had only written about the first two episodes of the just-wrapped season of “30 Rock.” In order to recap this past year, I went through each episode’s description to refresh my memory. I’ll try to provide brief commentary on what I liked and disliked, and then a general overall picture of why “30 Rock” is still alright but wasn’t awesome overall this year.

To begin, Steve Martin’s episode, “Gavin Volure,” was a highlight, without question the best episode of the season. The guest turn by the always great Peter Dinklage as a problematically petite companion of Liz’s was also fun. Some episodes, like “Flu Shot,” were wastes of time, and others, like “Reunion” and “Retreat to Move Forward” (the titles pretty much describe the plots), as well as Jack planning his own 50th birthday party, were unfocused and unrelated to the grander scheme of Liz, Jack, and TGS. Jon Hamm’s guest spot was well played-out, starting with Liz’s probing into his mail, leading to their dates gone wrong, and ending with him unwittingly coasting through life on his good looks. Salma Hayek’s arc was decent, but it never really got off the ground. “30 Rock” was funny this year, at some times flat-out hilarious, but it continues to feel devastatingly random more often than it should. Sending Kenneth to Queens to get Liz’s phone back isn’t terribly interesting, exciting, or explainable, and worse still, it’s awfully reminiscent of the far more supreme hunt for the elusive mystery sandwich shop from last year.

Characters like Jenna and Kenneth felt hopelessly forced and seemed to be inserted into the main storyline only to garner attention, as both of their characters try to do on a regular basis, be it through nagging whining or dim-witted omnipresence. Kenneth being suspected as a serial killer and Jenna’s boring Janis Joplin ordeal were among the poorer choices plot-wise this season. Tracy, by contrast, was actually a much better character than he’s been up until now, and his craziness was fully fleshed out and wonderfully wacky. Some of the show’s gimmicks like the Funcooker were pretty funny, and that’s where the show still succeeds best: one truly hilarious plot point every once in a while. This year, it wasn’t on fire as often as it was last year, but it’s by no means become a substandard show. Taking the characters out of their usual surroundings too much is possibly the lead detractor from the show’s typically great quality. Liz’s time spent getting to love a leisure group that turns out to be a fight club is mildly amusing, but it pales in comparison to her interactions with everyone at TGS, namely not our two resident attention-seekers (Kenneth and Jenna), but instead Tracy (who is more of an attention-seeker, true, but he doesn’t hide it) and the writers. Experiments like having Liz and Tracy treated equally worked pretty well, and I think that’s the direction “30 Rock” should strive for in its future years.

The second-to-last episode of the season proved much more focused and full than the rest of the season, with an amusing plotline involving Tracy’s illegitimate son and the questionable age of black people, and an appearance by Alan Alda as Jack’s kidney-seeking father. The “Mammia Mia” parallel was great, and perfectly fitting for the show and its two lead characters. I could have done without the benefit concert in the final episode as well as the stretched-out “That’s a Dealbreaker” sketch, but at least the flurry of guest stars isn’t getting obnoxious, like it did on “Will & Grace.” While Jennifer Aniston and Megan Mullally proved to be completely uninteresting, their star status didn’t impinge on the show’s trademark off-kilter sensibility, and it’s a tribute to everyone involved in making the show that it’s maintained its uniqueness despite so many famous people stopping by on such a regular basis. And while the show hasn’t been quite as strong as it was last year, it’s never been bad, and I think it’s easily possible that it can start off strong again next year. The closing line of the finale is a hopeful sign: Jack’s response to Liz’s declaration that it’s been a great year, “What are you talking about Lemon? It’s only May.” This show still does know what it’s doing, I’m pretty certain of that.

Season finale: B
Season grade: B/B+
Season MVP: Tina Fey

Monday, May 25, 2009

Finishing Up The Season: The Office

I’ve heard rumblings that people are displeased with “The Office” and that perhaps it has overextended itself. In its infancy, it was placed side-by-side on a continual basis with the British original in much the same way that “Parks & Recreation” is currently being put up against this very show. “The Office” proved in its second season that it was headed somewhere different from the British version, the question now remains, where exactly is that? This season provided only one conclusive answer, and that’s the Michael Scott Paper Company.

When “New Boss” ended and Michael told David Wallace that he wasn’t going to take being sidelined anymore, I didn’t put much weight in Michael’s words. He doesn’t exactly follow through on most of his promises, usually trying to change the original terms he was dealing with and convincing whoever he’s talking to that he’s delivering just what they ordered. In this case, however, he really left, and this was somewhere the show hadn’t really gone before. Bringing Ryan back into the fold and giving Pam some newfound confidence coupled with dramatic material created a great enduring legacy for the Michael Scott Paper Company. The episodes themselves were somewhat unproductive, just like the MSPC itself, but it was a fun arc. By far the best part of it was Michael’s surprisingly effective bartering at the conclusion of the plotline, and it provided a nice defense for why someone would actually keep this crazy guy around.

After Michael, Pam, and even Ryan the permanent temp were effectively phased back into Dunder-Mifflin, things became a little more unclear. The lack of punch in the season finale is tremendously telling. Season one isn’t applicable because it was when the show was so young and riding on the British series for story ideas, but all the other seasons culminated in major events. Season two saw Michael having not one but two women forcefully interested in him and Jim telling Pam how he felt, season three found everyone applying for new jobs and Jim deciding he really knew where he belonged, and season four sought to see off Toby (temporarily, at least) and introduce a wonderful new love interest for one Michael Scott. The season five kicker, set at a company picnic of all places, doesn’t really have a center. Michael’s reunion with Holly is awkward, and while his later interactions and end monologue are charming, it’s a reference that doesn’t relate to the whole series. Holly should have stuck around, but because her arc only lasted a few episodes, it feels like she’s really not the one for Michael, and thus shouldn’t be given this star treatment (though Amy Ryan really is tremendously talented and should be the focal point of every episode of any TV show). Pam’s pregnancy is a great supporting point, and the volleyball games are quite fun, but the episode, and the season as a whole, lacks a clear center. I have no idea where season six is headed, and besides the potential reconciliation between Angela and Dwight, there’s not much more I can look forward to. Spotlighting the minor characters would be a good place to start, but otherwise, this office has gotten considerably less interesting this year.

Season finale: B+
Season grade: B/B+
Season MVP: Amy Ryan

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Finishing Up The Season: Parks and Recreation

This season’s best new comedy has been criticized by some for essentially being a copy of “The Office” from the same creators. Friends of mine have cited originality as their prime need for new series, but I think that this one has been able to survive and endure despite what some might consider its handicap. Amy Poehler’s Leslie Nope is not Michael Scott. She’s a similarly dim-witted character who speaks to the camera like she’s the center of attention all the time, but she’s definitely different. She’s a more genuinely kind and motivated public servant, who wants to do her best to make her mark on the world. And Amy Poehler is the perfect person to play that role.

She’s surrounded by an excellent cast who work stunningly with her. While “The Office” initially had a mere five central characters, there were tons of smaller players who came along as the show progressed. It’s possible that the same could occur here over time, but the tight net of personalities on “Parks & Recreation” has allowed, for its brief six-episode run, its characters to be fleshed out in wonderful and surprising ways. Leslie’s boss Ron, for instance, seemed like he might just be a grumpy talking head without anything to offer, but his affection for Tom’s suck-up routine and that curious unhealthy snack in the finale have been pleasant, hilarious treats. April hasn’t really had a chance to shine, but like Ryan on “The Office,” I think that’s something in store for her later on in the show’s run. Rashida Jones is a good serious counterpoint to everyone else, but I think she has a funny bone in her somewhere yet to be seen. Aziz Ansari, fresh off an overdone recurring arc on “Scrubs” that I imagine would have been longer had he not been cast in this series, is terrific fun as the obnoxious but very funny Tom. The way he reacts to Leslie is just spot-on and I think that’s my favorite character interaction of any duo on the show. Then there’s Mark Brandanowitz, who’s a likeable enough character with more than a bit of shallowness buried beneath the surface, as touched upon in the finale. He’s a superb character with a lot more to reveal, and I’m extremely happy to see the talented Paul Schneider, who appeared in several supporting roles a few years ago in buzz-worthy films (“The Assassination of Jesse James” and “Lars and the Real Girl”), in a regular role that allows him to display his emotions and be funny at the same time.

And then there’s Leslie. Poehler is absolutely hilarious, and here she’s the bushy-eyed, hopelessly na├»ve (or is it naively hopeful?) lead character in a show about small-time government. Thus far, she’s had some great interactions with her co-workers, most notably in the pilot episode and the season ender. Some things haven’t worked tremendously well, like her Hilary/men’s haircut, but for the most part, the writing has been great and all of the cast, especially Poehler, has been adept about making this show endearing and still pitiable enough at the same time. I’m thrilled that it’s been picked up for a second season, since that other show people always compare it to also had a six-episode first season and then came into its own and seized an Emmy for best comedy series for its sophomore run. Here’s hoping this show follows a similar trajectory, and that Poehler can make it onto Emmy’s radar much quicker than Carrell did. She deserved commendation for her comedic work this year, and only former SNL costar Tina Fey should be a legitimate obstacle in her way.

Pilot: B+
Season finale: B+
Season grade: B+
Season MVP: Amy Poehler

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Finishing Up The Season: Smallville

“Smallville” has the unique distinction for me as the longest-running show that I’ve been watching live since its pilot episode aired. The first two seasons were great, and I gave up on it after the fifth year when three seasons in a row had been devastatingly awful. The sixth season, which I later caught up on during summer repeats, represented a major reboot of the show, not perfect by any means, but definitely a step in the right direction. It’s hard to believe that this most recent year was the eighth season, though it’s refreshing that the show focused on improving itself and met with mediocre to good success.

The most shocking and gratifying aspect of season eight was the transformation of Lois Lane. For her first few years on the show, Erica Durance was the most obnoxious actress ever and her character was impossible to endure. Yet something happened this season. Her budding romance with Clark had always been forced, coming off as some desperate attempt to instill nostalgia among diehard Superman comic fans. This season, at the same time Clark was growing up and getting a real job, Lois scaled back a little and showed her softer side instead of just her army brat karate-skilled side. The chemistry between Clark and Lois (as well as Welling and Durance, for that matter) was appropriately awkward but equally touching.

New characters provided a real boost to this season. The departure of Lex and Lana was immediately forgotten and swept under the rug by the introduction of Tess and Davis, both of whom were fascinating and worked so well to enhance the preexisting characters (I’m thinking specifically of Oliver and Chloe, respectively). Tess made for a great semi-villain and the same certainly goes for Davis. Both Cassidy Freeman and Sam Witwer did a great job of conveying their often questionable and morally ambiguous decisions. The return of Justin Hartley as Oliver was another wise choice, since he was the main reason season six bounced back from three bad years. Teaming Oliver up with Clark, Chloe, and all the other superheroes wandering around Kansas was cool too.

The focus this season on Clark as Superman, or rather the “Red-Blue Blur,” was a great theme for the series. Welling’s Clark has always been a bit too boyish, and it’s about time he grew up, pulled himself together, and started trying to be a superhero. His concurrent battle with Doomsday provided a nice backdrop and subplot for the season. “Smallville” no longer felt aimless this year, and while some episodes and plotlines (most things involving Jimmy, overlong monologue speeches by Chloe, the murder of Lex Luthor) fell flat, this season was light-years ahead of anything the show had achieved recently. It’s nice to know that “Smallville” is headed somewhere, and even though Clark and Lois aren’t together yet, and she doesn’t know his secret, there’s still progress being made on an almost episodic basis. That’s something that definitely couldn’t be said about the show up to this point – every episode felt like it took a step backward. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case.

The finale was a good episode where Doomsday was finally dealt with in a manner that wasn’t too far-fetched, and a character that didn’t turn out too well and had become a nuisance (Jimmy) was written out without much to-do or uncalled-for trumpeting. While all the pink and purple swirling around Tess is getting a bit tiring, the upcoming ninth season should have somewhere interesting to go, exploring Clark’s heritage and superheroic identity. The episode that really defined this season, and far outdid any episode since the show’s second season premiere, was the mid-season cliffhanger, “Bride.” I had meant to devote a post to it back in December, but I never got to a chance. “Bride” was a fantastic combination of all the elements that make “Smallville” great, focusing on two true romances (Chloe and Jimmy, Clark and Lois), introducing a new major villain in a way that didn’t seem forced (Doomsday), bringing back a character in dramatic style (Lana), utilizing cool techniques to frame its events (flashbacks, video camera footage), and ending on a shocking, suspenseful note. Episodes like that make me glad that I stuck with this show, because, more than anything else, this series has come through for me every once in a while, and I feel like my investment in this show has been worthwhile. It’s nowhere near the regular quality that it used to be, but when my pick for Worst Actress one year turns into a Best Actress contender the next, I think I’m starting to get close to satisfied. Ninth season; I’m in.

Season finale: B
Season grade: B
Season MVP: Justin Hartley/Sam Witwer

Friday, May 22, 2009

Finishing Up The Season: Lost

I love time travel. I think it’s one of the most exciting things there is, and I think this season of “Lost” utilized it wonderfully. From the premiere episode where flashes of light would transport those left stranded on the island through time, I loved every moment of it. This was a terrific season for all those characters, starting with the dearly departed Charlotte and Daniel, and fellow marooned islanders Miles, Jin, Juliet, and Sawyer. The dualistic setup of following those trapped in time on the island and those trapped in unfulfillment off the island was incredible and worked wonders. My complaint about previous seasons that episodes rarely included more than two or three characters and left the group feeling extremely disjointed wasn’t an issue at all here – each episode addressed a bunch of characters grouped together, allowing insight not only into their individual lives but into their group dynamic as well.

The first half of the season was great in the way it developed the relationship between the on-island characters. Daniel was the real star, and actor Jeremy Davies did a great job of keeping him awesome and crazy at the same time. Charlotte was good enough while she lasted, and she’s just the latest addition to a list of characters I’d love to still have around and see where they would be at this point, like Shannon, Boone, and Mr. Eko. I suppose they weren’t fated to get this far and to experience all the time-jumping. I like the fact that the cast was really whittled down to the bare essentials, and it was cool that everyone was still incorporated. Spotting Rose and Bernard in the finale was a great recognition of the fact that the writers are still on top of everything even though it seems like things are out of control with everyone in different time periods. I loved learning more about Richard, who’s awesome in every time period. I really like how Nestor Carbonell sounds exactly like Michael Emerson. All Others talk alike, it seems. Although that’s really not true, because there’s one Other no one quite expected: Widmore. The moment it was first revealed that he was on the island was just superb, and moments like that (and basically anytime Sayid shows up unexpectedly and saves the day) make this show feel just as fresh as everyone thought it was on day one.

The best part of the season is when everything came full-circle and the castaways ended up back in time as part of the very Dharma Initiative they always found so mysterious. Jin running into Jack, Kate, and Hurley in a Dharma jumpsuit was a nice way to start to reveal things, but the true moment for me that sealed the deal was the opening sequence of “LaFleur.” I’ve never been a huge fan of Sawyer until this year, and now he’s my favorite character. Josh Holloway was excellent as the still disgruntled but newly reformed and optimistic Sawyer. His romance with Juliet was a pleasure to see, and her character was terrific this year, especially in the finale. Great performances all around from everyone, even weak link Matthew Fox. Dharmaville was made all the more fantastic by the revelation that Dr. Chang was Miles’ father and that Eloise, Daniel’s mother, was an Other. Ben’s presence was a great treat as well. Patrick Fischler, recently Jimmy Barrett on “Mad Men,” was a great Dharma employee, and all the small characters, like Horace and Radzinsky contributed to a great supporting ensemble that made the 70s seem like the place to be. I loved the “thirty years later” fadeout and thought that it made everything seem so wonderfully mystical.

The season finale was terrific. The opening sequence was mind-boggling, with two great actors, Mark Pellegrino and Titus Welliver, introduced as part of a completely new, never-before-explored plotline. The instant identification of Pellegrino as Jacob was fantastic, and his continued appearances throughout the two-hour episode were amazing. It’s always great to have flashbacks which take viewers back to the origins of the series, and inserting this previously fabled character into key scenes of each of the major characters was truly cool. The insanity later on when Jacob revealed that Locke was actually that second man changed everything – these people have been on this mystical island for centuries just playing games with each other. It’s simply incredible. There’s so much more to all this “Lost” mythology now. Tying the Ajira flight passengers into Jacob and Richard was pretty awesome as well. On the thirty years earlier side of things, the attempt by Jack, Hurley, and others to change history was entirely compelling. Sawyer’s crack about not being at LAX opens up a whole new door for season six – what happens if the bomb going off did in fact change things and time starts over at the moment when Oceanic 815 does NOT crash, and they land in Los Angeles with scattered memories of knowing each other. I’d love to see that, although I’m not sure how well it would work, especially because I’d have lengthy conversations with people about how time travel works in theory, citing “Heroes” as an example of senselessness and “Back to the Future” as the ideal sensibility. The closing moment with Juliet desperately trying to set off the bomb was a great closing moment, and season six (coming in 2010!!!) is going to be a great thrill ride. There’s much more to say about this season of “Lost,” so offer your thoughts in the comments section!

Season finale: A-
Season grade: A-
Season MVP: Josh Holloway

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Finishing Up The Season: Scrubs

I consider the first two seasons of “Scrubs” to be among the best television I’ve ever seen, and after that, the show went downhill. It never got back to its original constant excellence, but there were ups and downs along the way. It’s hard to believe that the season of the show that’s just ended is the eighth. Not much has actually happened since those first two brilliant years, and the past six years have felt repetitive and often stale. This year, however, represents the first effort to move past the sameness of the show and actually get somewhere. What I feared, however, and what has been confirmed by the show’s renewal last week for yet another season, is that the show will cycle endlessly just as “ER” has done and the cast will be continually replaced, and by show’s end in season fourteen or thirty-five, none of the original cast, spirit, or critical praise of the show will be left.

This season worked desperately hard to both spruce up and phase out its original players and introduce a whole host of new characters. Dr. Kelso stuck around catching muffins and drinking even after his retirement. J.D. and Turk raised their babies while becoming the definitive heads of their respective departments. J.D. and Elliot got back together, remarkably easily in fact, and opted for romance over constant fighting. Dr. Cox stayed exactly the same as he always was, perhaps toning down his aggressive insulting a bit too much for my taste. The Janitor and Ted entered into new relationships with bizarre women who actually liked them, and while it was all just a bit peculiar, it worked well.

Then we have all the new interns. Some didn’t last long, like Aziz Ansari, whose obnoxious Ed left so that the actor could star in “Parks & Recreation,” where he’s created a far more balanced and less annoying character. Some, like Howie and Katie, need to either discover more neuroses or strengths before they become truly compelling. Denise and Sunny are both pretty good, and though he hasn’t featured prominently yet, Derek balances them out well. I also enjoyed his less than romance with Denise, because it was reminiscent of another couple on the show, dare I say – J.D. and Elliot?

The real problem with this year that showed with certain episodes was the uneven balance between the old and the new. One J.D.-less episode found Turk and Elliot babysitting the interns during their first night on call. Unfortunately, it didn’t feel like a smooth passing-the-torch (which J.D. would have loved), but instead the absence of the show’s lead actor was really felt, and the transition felt forced. Along the same lines, placing J.D., Elliot, and Turk somewhere between the new interns and Dr. Cox was a tricky battle that the show couldn’t really win. If the show is going to continue, which it is, then it would be better to think of it as something completely different, sort of like a reboot with all-new characters, at least the interns, who establish themselves as individual, separate people, rather than ones shaped by these semi-stale characters that have been around for eight years now.

Next season will likely not be able to solve this problem, mostly due to contractual issues. It sounds like Zach Braff will in fact be back for a few episodes, which is a real shame because his character was so well wrapped up in the finale. The writers did leave it open for his staying or leaving by making the wonderfully impressive final montage an imagined projection sequence. The news about his staying is made even more problematic by the absence of one of the interns. Last I heard, Eliza Coupe, who plays Denise, had been cast in a pilot for next season and probably wouldn’t be able to come back to the show. I hope that’s not true, because all of the other characters are a bit too ridiculous (Sunny) or boring (Katie). Therefore, I’m not too hopeful and I’m not sure “Scrubs” will be of very much interest. I imagine it will be like this season, decently entertaining but hardly original or must-see.

Season finale: B+
Season grade: B
Season MVP: John C. McGinley

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Finishing Up The Season: Better Off Ted

My feelings toward this freshman show at the time of its pilot weren’t overly favorable, since I have a long history with short-lived ABC comedies. It’s been a few years since I truly liked and appreciated two ABC shows that faded quickly and were canceled just as quickly (“Sons and Daughters” and “Crumbs”). Since then, I’ve gotten attached to shows with pilots that surpassed my expectations in that they weren’t terrible, like watching “Carpoolers” because its pilot made me laugh a few times after “Cavemen” set my face in a permanent cringing imprint. In any case, “Better off Ted” was far more charming than I thought.

I have continued to enjoy the premise of the series more and more as it went on over its first set of seven episodes. The focus has very little to do with the show’s title, and Jay Harrington really serves only as the narrator and the straight man, which is a very appropriate role for him. I’ve watched Mr. Harrington for a while, predating his arc on “Desperate Housewives” as a doctor trying to woo Susan, going all the way back to his serious role as a hardworking federal agent husband on “The Inside.” He’s not terribly funny, but he’s appropriately goofy and a good fit for the lead role in this show. His part didn’t seem to have been ironed out or finessed fully for most of the season, but they really got it right in the season finale. Ted’s desperate, yet still casual, wish to be liked by everyone resulted in him taking everyone out and goofing off until things got too unserious. His flirtation with Linda is another great aspect of his character. Then again, it’s really not the main point of the show.

The show is actually about Veridian Dynamics, a humorously awful company which could have, and I fully expected to be, a one-line joke. Somehow, the writers have managed to keep it fresh (or rather, never fresh because they don’t use real stuff for their products). I really enjoy the Veridian Dynamics commercials that air midway through the episode. I like that the episodes don’t start off with the commercials but they rather serve do drive home the theme of the episode. I hope that this doesn’t fade away like these kinds of gimmicks (as used in the pilot of “Six Feet Under,” for example) often get tossed out after first attempts. Then again, shows like “NCIS” add in their own special brand of uniqueness later in their seasons, so perhaps next season “Better off Ted” will have even more tricks up its sleeve.

The cast as a whole is terrific. I’m become increasingly impressed with all of them as I’ve realized that there isn’t even one series regular who bugs me, or fails to sufficiently entertain me. Lem and Ted are great, and while they started off being pretty annoying and the cryogenic freezing plotline didn’t bode well with me, they’ve come into their own and I enjoy their constant bickering. Andrea Anders has finally found a role that fits her talents, after starring in two extremely poor temporary comedies (“The Class” and “Joey”). Her role as Linda, and her chemistry with Harrington, is both endearing and funny. The real star of the show, however, is Portia de Rossi. Don’t hate me, but I’m not an “Arrested Development” fan, though I am happy to see all the alumni (namely movie stars Jason Bateman and Michael Cera, “Chuck” player Tony Hale, and “30 Rock” guest star Will Arnett) doing so well. De Rossi is great here as the dry, emotionless Veronica, whose sensibilities perfectly complement Ted’s eternal laidback optimism. This is a much greater cast than I would ever have expected. Wonderfully, “Better Off Ted” has been given a renewal for a second season, and my hope is that its second go-round allows it to come into its own rather than fail because it can’t sustain additional episode plotlines.

Pilot: B-
Season finale: B+
Season grade: B
Season MVP: Portia de Rossi

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Spring Pilot Reviews: Part Three

This spring included a flurry of pilots, some of which faded immediately and others that soared with impressive ratings. To play catch-up, I’m going to forego my usual pilot reviews and offer brief thoughts on all of the pilots in three segments. I’ll try to group them by my general feelings towards their quality and enduring possibility.

For my third go, I’ll look at the pilots that just couldn’t capture my attention. Most of them lost me halfway through the pilots, and in some cases, they’re just not the type of shows I’d likely watch. That’s certainly the case for Lie to Me, which despite having a fun concept, doesn’t seem to have any special kind of hook to draw viewers in to its weekly procedural nature. I thought it could have been more like ABC’s “Eyes” from a few years ago with Tim Daly, and a more enthusiastic, capable ensemble might make it work a whole lot better. Tim Roth is pretty cool, no doubt about it, but Kelli Williams isn’t a great co-lead. The show itself isn’t terribly inventive, which is a real shame because a series about lie detectors should be inherently fascinating. No such luck, for me at least, but its second season pickup this week means that its loyal fans (including my roommate) will have many more lies to detect in the future. ABC’s Cupid is another show that just didn’t spark. Actually a remake of a 90s show with Jeremy Piven and Paula Marshall, this series doesn’t provide much of a makeover. While comparison isn’t always the fair way of judging a show’s potential (and I made sure to watch the 2009 version first), the new incarnation doesn’t improve at all upon a show that didn’t quite click in the first place. Bobby Cannavale is a lot of fun (his turn as Will’s cop boyfriend on “Will & Grace” won him a well-deserved Emmy), but he’s playing too broadly and freely here, whereas Jeremy Piven had the role more under control. Sarah Paulson, great as she was on “Studio 60” a few years ago, isn’t quite bristly enough, though that is something Paula Marshall specializes in (see “Gary Unmarried” and “Californication”). “Cupid” has the same kind of aimless feel “My Name is Earl” introduced in its pilot – this show could go on forever without ever going anywhere. I feel like I can accomplish a whole lot more in my life before Trevor makes some so-so surprising matches. HBO’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is quite an unusual offering, with each episode deep and extensive like other HBO series, but with a bizarre twist. Unlike past series like “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under,” “Carnivale,” and “Deadwood,” just to name a few among the many, there isn’t a tremendous ensemble here. It’s just one woman, hanging out in Botswana solving cases with her energetic but relaxed approach. It’s not a show made for me, and I don’t think I could handle any further installments, but to its credit, it’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. Jill Scott, though it’s not type of my performance, does do a great job and carries the show along with her obnoxious secretary.

Three other shows left me disappointed because they’re the kind of fare I might typically enjoy. A&E’s The Beast, starring Patrick Swayze, had terrific advertisements trumpeting its premiere, and I got excited about the gritty feel that would make it irresistible, as an ideal kind of improvement on A&E’s other currently-running drama, “The Cleaner.” Swayze’s pretty intense, that’s for sure, though I’m considerably less impressed with his rookie partner and the rest of the governmental players. The main logic that kicks in while watching this show is that there are only so many times that corrupt cops going over the line can be shocking or even interesting. Maybe this one’s gone too far, and there’s little unexplored territory it can cover. The exact same logic rings true for NBC’s Southland, which got picked up for a second season almost right away. It’s another cop drama that seeks to be controversial in its graphic depiction of real life. Ben McKenzie (Ryan from “The O.C.”) does a good job actually acting (!) but we’ve seen this story play out before. Young rookie cop arrives and works with a disgruntled training officer, and both come out of the experience changed. Given how long John Wells’ last NBC drama, “ER”, lasted, this show could have some potential to go further, but I’m not up for sticking around to see if it pans out. Michael Cudlitz, who I recognize from bit parts here and there, isn’t really the lead type, and I think that calling on him for a show of emotion someday will likely disappoint. The final show that left me wanting a bit more is Starz’s comedy Party Down. A great cast of very funny actors, namely Ken Marino, Lizzy Caplan, and Jane Lynch, just isn’t very…funny. Or interesting for that matter. Marino is talented, but his part just never allows him to be funny unless he’s being stupid, and Lynch, usually a hilarious recurring player, has too much of a big part which results in her overdoing it all the time. Caplan didn’t have a chance to be more than just a depressed sad sap in the pilot, and given her recent insanely great performance on “True Blood,” I’d hope to see her talents used far more shrewdly. I’d like to try and get back into the show, but episode two didn’t really do much for me either.

There were, however, two pilots that I did enjoy a lot: ABC’s Better Off Ted and NBC’s Parks and Recreation starring Amy Poehler. I’ll offer my thoughts on their recently wrapped, shortened seasons in my forthcoming posts on their freshman years. Fortunately, they’ve both been renewed for another season, and everyone will have plenty of time to get into them.

The summer should offer some new pilots, and fall is only a few months away! In the meantime, check back daily for season recaps of all the shows I’ve been watching.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Spring Pilot Reviews: Part Two

This spring included a flurry of pilots, some of which faded immediately and others that soared with impressive ratings. To play catch-up, I’m going to forego my usual pilot reviews and offer brief thoughts on all of the pilots in three segments. I’ll try to group them by my general feelings towards their quality and enduring possibility.

For my second pass, I’d like to analyze those pilots that just didn’t quite work for me. I actually kept watching several of these shows to try to get a better grasp on them. Two shows didn’t interest me right from the start, partially because they weren’t what I expected. Showtime’s The United States of Tara was a wacky comedy-drama with a fun premise that I knew would be difficult to execute. Toni Collette, a very gifted actress, plays multiple roles as a woman with multiple personalities. The show just doesn’t have a proper tone, and all the skills Collette possesses can’t make her part any more balanced or focused. A show centered around multiple personalities is almost guaranteed to have multiple personalities of its own, but the way it jumps around so unsubtly makes it impossible to get into, even for its first half hour. The unhelpful John Corbett and the talented Rosemarie DeWitt round out the cast, adding a little here and there, but it’s a show that doesn’t seem to know where it’s headed. Another show that didn’t do it for me is ABC’s The Unusuals. From the advertisements, I expected a serious drama akin to FOX’s brief summer show “The Inside” from a few years ago, with a very dramatic tone and a real-life gritty feel. This show is nothing like that, and while expectations shouldn’t dictate reality, the end result isn’t terribly impressive. Amber Tamblyn, an expert at playing moody, is the lead woman among a cast of mostly men goofing around. Having Adam Goldberg as a series regular recommends the show strongly as a comedy, but I had trouble understanding what exactly was so “unusual” about these cops, other than being somewhat less than effective at their job and bickering a lot. It looks like “The Unusuals” has had just as hard a time finding an audience and a timeslot as it has finding a tone, and it likely won’t be renewed for next year.

Every year, I always keep watching a few shows after not really loving the pilot episodes, and usually drop most of them somewhere along the way. This spring, I made it only to the third installments for three shows I wanted to explore. NBC’s Kings was, hands down, the most gallant, far-reaching, epic drama that was a mismatch with its network from the start. The incredibly intimidating Ian McShane, of “Deadwood” fame, chews a bit too much scenery as the ruler of a certain kingdom, and the David-Goliath parallels are a bit too blatant. NBC, more so that other networks, has tried gambles like this before, with shows like “Book of Daniel,” where a grand, sweeping premise fails to create enough actionable plots that aren’t too grandiose or manageable. It didn’t seem like there was anywhere to go after episode three, and clearly NBC agreed, banishing it quickly to Saturday nights, and then the summer. TNT had a failed venture that got axed at the end of his 13-episode run that was hardly as ambitious but just as starved for direction. Trust Me starred Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) and Tom Cavanagh (Ed) as advertising agents. They’re best friends whose back-and-forth is like a nonstop audition for “The West Wing.” The banter is amusing, but it’s also extremely obnoxious, and the presence of supporting actress Monica Potter, quite annoying by herself, doesn’t help matters. The show’s advertising gimmick and the tied-in glimpse into McCormack’s character’s life in the pilot is cool, but the show just isn’t interesting or engaging enough. Even the presence of Sarah Clarke (Nina from “24”) doesn’t make any of its elements wholly engaging. Both McCormack and Cavanagh are great actors, but the show around them just isn’t completely terrific. The show with the most promise, and the most potential to grow because of its recent renewal for a second season, is FOX’s Dollhouse. I’ve become a big fan of creator Joss Whedon in the past year due to “Firefly” and “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” and wanted to give “Dollhouse,” which genre-wise is my ideal kind of show, a chance. The pilot was very intriguing, to be sure, but it wasn’t quite right. It was far more focused and compelling than “Fringe,” but I didn’t have a good sense of where it was headed. Eliza Dushku is not a good actress, and having her pretend to be someone every episode isn’t the best use of her limited acting talents. The supporting cast includes great actors like Tahmoh Penikett, Harry Lennix, and Amy Acker, and them being used more instead of the annoying Fran Kranz would certainly help set this show straight. What made me stop watching the show just a few minutes into the fourth episode was seeing Dushku’s Echo delivering a baby. The show was very interesting, but mostly in the way it utilized its ensemble and progressed its episode-to-episode plot. Getting a kick out of all Echo can do only goes so far, and its repetitiveness is made less bearable by the ineffectiveness of Dushku as an actress. I just can’t believe that she’d be all these people, and while a sci-fi show like this calls for a lot of suspension of disbelief, this works to cancel out the impressive fantasy elements of the series. I have heard that the sixth episode is pretty great, and I know that the show getting renewed is a good sign and that clearly the fan base is behind it, so I haven’t completely ruled out picking the show back up again. I’m thinking that perhaps I should skip episodes four and five and just start back up with number six. Any suggestions?

Coming up tomorrow: the pilots that just didn’t interest me, like Cupid and Southland.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Spring Pilot Reviews: Part One

This spring included a flurry of pilots, some of which faded immediately and others that soared with impressive ratings. To play catch-up, I’m going to forego my usual pilot reviews and offer brief thoughts on all of the pilots in three segments. I’ll try to group them by my general feelings towards their quality and enduring possibility.

I’ll begin with the four shows that are truly unbearable and should never have to be suffered by any unsuspecting viewers. ABC’s Castle is a complete waste of time, though clearly the general public disagrees, as the show got insanely high ratings and just got renewed for a second season. Nathan Fillion is a terrific actor whose role on “Firefly” will likely carry him to eternal success as an actor, and he’s the only thing worth watching here. The plot device of his famous author helping the police catch killers because he knows how criminals think is somewhat interesting, but the unenthusiastic Stana Katic lost my respect (at the same time the show did) when she grabbed Fillion’s character and pulled him by the nose. Having real-life famous authors like James Patterson guest-star in the first-ever episode feels especially desperate. Another ABC show, In the Motherhood, was equally insufferable. Luckily, it was pulled from the schedule early on and the remaining episodes are being burned off this summer. Don’t watch them, though. Megan Mullally (Karen from “Will & Grace”) and Cheryl Hines (Cheryl from “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) have officially found the worst roles of their respective careers as different types of mothers who try to make jokes that just aren’t funny. The pilot is predictable and entirely impossible to get through. Someone else pointed out that the only impressive thing is how much weight Horatio Sanz lost. That’s about all there is to say about the show. The last two of this crew never really had much going for them, and I imagine most people assumed they’d be pretty awful even before they aired. Winning this contest by miles, ABC also produced Surviving Suburbia, starring Bob Saget, who is by no means a good actor, and hardly an effective lead to carry a show. “Full House” was an ensemble comedy for kids, which is why it worked, and Saget had little if anything to do with that. Here, he’s just a jerk, and the show’s lack of creativity leaves nothing else to pick up the slack. It’s obvious only minutes in that it’s a supreme waste of time. The final tragically awful show was the most obviously bad from before it even started: CBS’ Harper’s Island. This hapless murder mystery drama had absolutely nothing too recommend it. Every actor was terrible, the plot was entirely uninteresting, and it was devastatingly boring. Fortunately, CBS saw that no one was watching the show and quickly banished it to Saturday nights, where it will die a slow and painful death.

If you’re unconvinced by my panning of these shows above and feel the need to watch one of them, please watch “Castle” and stay far, far, far away from the rest. Luckily, the other three will likely not be returning next year, despite not having officially been cancelled. The outlook, however, is appropriately bleak. There are always a few shows each year which just shouldn’t have been made, this is that crop!

Coming up tomorrow: the pilots that didn’t quite work, including Kings and Dollhouse.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Finishing Up The Season: Heroes

Is this show still on? Really? I've grown devastatingly tired of it, and can hardly believe I'm still watching it. Perhaps I should give up, but I feel compelled to acknowledge just how awful it is. It used to be a good show, though it should not be seen as ever having been a great show, but now it's almost as bad as "Prison Break." Nothing makes sense, everything's laughably bad, and it's painful to get through some episodes.

This new "Fugitives" volume, which in December I forecast would turn the show into a failed imitation of "Brazil," did absolutely nothing, just like the volumes before, to progress the story at all. Supporting characters with no real purpose, like Daphne, were killed off, while others who just don't seem to die and really should, like Nikki/Tracy and Sylar. Zeljko Ivanek, quite the hot actor these days after this Emmy-winning turn on "Damages," was a great choice to play the role of Denko, but his material got progressively worse. The idea of him working with Sylar to fulfill his vengeful hunt for the heroes was intriguing, but ultimately just got in the way of legitimate storytelling by having Ivanek and Zachary Quinto try to do their best impressions of each others' snarls. Denko's continuing agreement to give Claire immunity didn't make an ounce of sense, and I've never hated her more than I did this season.

Claire interviewing for a job at a comic book store, much as it caters to the comic book fanbase who likely account for a major portion of the show's audience, was simply ridiculous. I couldn't care less about her trying to protect the fish-breather, and the revelation that the elusive Rebel was actually Micah was pretty dumb. The fact that an entire episode basically focused on Ando making faces at a baby shows that the writers are truly straining for ideas, and they're coming up very short. The directions all the characters went in are senseless and incoherent. The horror episode "1961" was an odd break from the rest of the series, but in my mind, a failed experiment because it didn't really add anything to the show other than the insertion of forced connections between the heroes' families that don't really align properly. And then there's that finale, where once again, we're back where we started.

Seeing Sylar go on TV as Nathan was random as anything but got me a little excited for a return to those "Five Years Gone" days of intrigue and possibility for the show. It quickly went downhill when Sylar used his shapeshifting ability to deceive everyone and then killed Nathan. The end truly perplexed me, and not in a good way. If Matt could so easily convince Sylar he was someone else, why not do this earlier? Sure, it's not a completely foolproof plan, but at least he won't be killing people for a while. This whole "moving the spot where he can get killed" thing doesn't impress me. The writers are stretching things, and I don't buy it. Sylar's a villain, but the show's had equally impressive ones, like Elle, or, I suppose, Arthur Petrelli. Regardless, nothing has really changed in this show now other than the threat of Sylar being a bit less actively potent but much more threateningly dangerous. I can't imagine what's possibly in store for next season. I'm sure it will be a preposterous snooze.

Season finale: F
Season grade: F
Season MVP: Kristen Bell

Friday, May 8, 2009

Finishing Up The Season: Chuck

I'm confident in my assertion that "Chuck" was the best comedy on television this year. This show which started off with a strong pilot and wrapped up its first season well with a few back-to-back great episodes got so much better this year. Zachary Levi is a perfect geeky hero as Chuck, and this season the show managed to utilize all its supporting players excellently. I never imagined that the Buy More employees could actually be great dramatic elements of the series. Chuck's excellent use of Morgan to falsify a massive assault team on its way and the incorporation of characters like Jeff and Lester into Chuck's spy plotlines were completely unexpected and terrific. I've never liked Adam Baldwin more, and he was absolutely hilarious as Casey in every episode this year (think him almost shooting Ronald Reagan, and being sad about not being asked to tag along). Yvonne Strahovski, who was one of the best parts of the show last year, was also incredible as the relationship between Chuck and her intensified. The second half of the season which has aired since I've last written was, all in all, superb. The standard of excellence set by the show, however, is best demonstrated by the final two episodes of the season.

"Chuck Versus the Colonel" was probably the best episode of "Chuck" ever. Sarah being faithful to Chuck explicitly against the orders of her superiors is what makes the show intensely interesting. Their relationship has always been the best thing about the series, and seeing her truly fall for Chuck is wonderful. Scott Bakula's initial appearance in the previous episode as Chuck's dad and the revelation that he was Orion seemed a bit strange and random, but this episode set it all right. Everything worked out, and Orion set things up so that Chuck would no longer be the intersect and everyone would be safe. Seeing how these characters have truly developed and become three-dimensional from their already impressive first incarnations is so rewarding. Having Awesome discover Chuck's secret was hilarious and a great fit for his character, one who has been underused and deserves far more screen time. The fear that "Chuck" will be canceled and not renewed for a third season is a legitimate one, since it got so good this year, really coming into its own, and especially after the end of the finale episode, I need more right away.

The finale followed up on that tremendous penultimate episode and managed to still come out strong. Chevy Chase's appearance at the wedding could have been a corny plot device, but it was both dramatic and funny. It's the ultimate example of a setup that brings all the characters together in one big setting - the wedding - and utilizes them to amazing effect. Jeff and Lester, who I had always found extremely annoying, weren't so bad as they took the stage to distract Ellie from all the gunfire. The friendship between Chuck and Morgan is front and center here, and it's clear that both are very dedicated to each other. The second-best scene in the episode is actually, quite surprisingly, one with Morgan. His triumphant, heroic storming out is such an amazing character turn, and the way he does it shirtless just underlines the wacky but oddly cool nature of his character. Bringing Bryce, a character who has never really added too much to the show, back was a proper idea, especially because he went out heroically and his character arc is satisfactorily complete. The last scene of the finale is, of course, the most shocking and, well, awesome part of the episode. Chuck's brave split-second decision to become the Intersect wasn't altogether unpredictable, but the new side effects were. The ridiculously cool abilities that now come with being the Intersect will make Chuck a fascinating and truly awesome character in the third season.

It's hard to put my feelings about "Chuck" into words since I've really enjoyed pretty much the whole season, and I'll simply recommend that you check it out if you have not yet seen it. To the folks over at NBC, I really hope this show comes back. This shouldn't go the route of "Firefly" or "Jericho," going off the air just as ardent, supportive, Subway-eating fans want to gobble up more.

Season finale: A-
Season grade: A-
Season MVP: Adam Baldwin

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The End of: Battlestar Galactica

It's been a long while since this finale aired, but I've had a busy semester abroad and want to try to check in with every show as they wrap up their seasons. Thus, it's only fair to go chronologically and begin with those shows that checked out for good.

***SPOILERS below for the entire series of "Battlestar Galactica"***

The final season of "Battlestar Galactica," officially considered the second half of the fourth season, was all-around pretty damn great. There were a few weak spots to be sure (the Tigh-Ellen-Caprica dynamic didn't do it for me, Hot Dog's paternity, also some of Baltar's stuff earlier in the season), but overall it was a whole lot of fun. The first episode, "Sometimes a Great Notion," was a terrific start to the season, and Dualla's suicide in particular was a strong sign of the fact that this season was going to be really intense, and not everything was going to be gloriously happy. The end reveal that Ellen was the fifth Cylon was extremely cool, especially because, even though I read this was never the intention, the writers actually left the door open for Ellen to be the fifth. In the first season, Gaius tests Ellen's blood or DNA with his Cylon detector and whirls around on his chair at the end of the episode and says, "I'll never tell..." I love that her being the fifth Cylon actually works. Her return worked wonders for the Cylon side of the story as well, but first - my favorite episode of the season.

"The Oath" was possibly the best "Battlestar Galactica" episode I've ever seen. The end of the previous episode revealed that Gaeta, the number one fan-loved character, was planning to conspire with Tom Zarek to mutiny. I loved the times that came up on screen to mark the progression of the rebellion, and it was all done so well. Tom Zarek has always been one of my favorite characters, and I'm so glad they gave him so much to do here. Adama was awesome, and Edward James Olmos was a huge asset of this season. Everything just got so intense in this one episode, and provided for an incredible ending I won't forget: Tigh and Adama make a last stand and shoot at the door in order to protect the departing president. Part two of that same episode, Blood on the Scales, was also excellent. Zarek's cold-blooded assassination of the entire Council of Twelve, Adama reassembling his forces was a particularly great moment, and the ending with the execution of both Gaeta and Zarek were pretty mind-blowing. The best part of the episode, however, is the scene that in my mind should win Mary McDonnell an Emmy. I go back and forth on her performance, but seeing her get so angry and determined and threaten Tom Zarek was more than convincing, and quite moving. These characters have come so far from the start of the series, and I've loved the progression.

The Cylon element of the final season was quite intriguing. I was confused at first with the whole business with Cavil and the final five's actual origins. Once Sam started remembering things, it became much clearer and I enjoyed it all a lot better. The time when things really got heated started with Boomer helping Ellen escape, but really blew up when Tyrol let Boomer go. The last fifteen minutes of that episode were immensely suspenseful, and seeing Boomer appeal to Tyrol through Cylon projection, get revenge on Athena, and jump within the ship were simply incredible. There's something about series finales being "events" that often put undue weight on some arbitrary plotline which has suddenly become major, but has no clear relevance to the series as a whole. Here, that wasn't really the case.

The show has always been about the war between the humans and the Cylons, and about the quest for Earth. Both were resolved in the finale. Rescuing Hera was not too tangential from the main themes of the show, and uniting Cylons and humans for a greater good was also important. I loved the first part of the three-hour series finale. I was into it from the first moment, when flashbacks to "Caprica before the fall" provided some wonderful context for the development of these characters. All the tension building up in the finale led up to an awesome ending to the episode, with Starbuck and Adama taping a line down the middle of the deck for those who wanted to participate in the mission to get Hera back. The second hour was also great, especially in its revelation of Roslin's often-seen dream. I've read about how Roslin is so weak and unstable compared to how she looks in the dream, and that's certainly true, but for me the best part was Gaius and Caprica, reunited one last time in their unlikely heroism. The ultimate resolution of the conflict with Tyrol killing Tory and thus ruining any chance of an alliance was probably inevitable, but it was all so worth it for the whole episode and its battles, particularly the ones between the human-loyal Centurions and the Cylon-loyal Centurions. This show really evolved from what used to be a much more black-and-white picture of the Cylons.

Part three of the finale was a bit different. I'd sort of rather not acknowledge that they just landed on a planet and settled among the tribal peoples and the gazelles, especially since I never really found the "search for Earth" element terribly interesting, as compared to the other themes of the show. Kara's disappearance was also rather hokey, and I was more impressed by the send-off for Roslin. It's just somewhat underwhelming for a science fiction show to end on such a non-science fiction note. The flash-forward to present-day Times Square tries to put things in perspective regarding the show's timeline that I don't think really need to be addressed. I'd be happy ending in the middle of the action, knowing that they're still struggling to survive. The journey was pretty cool, but I'd rather the episode have ended before the third part. Nonetheless, it was a pretty great ride.

This season was really good overall, and performances from Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, James Callis, Jamie Bamber, Katee Sackhoff, Tricia Helfer, Alessandro Juliani, and Richard Hatch were all excellent and deserve those elusive Emmy nominations. I think McDonnell is the only one who could manage it, and hopefully the expansion of the categories to six nominees should allow her to get in, and represent the show well. How cool would it be if she actually won? I think I'll have to settle for having enjoyed the show tremendously. I still haven't watched the pilot of "Caprica," but I will soon, and look forward to a show that's hopefully as good as this. Farewell, "Battlestar Galactica."

Series finale: B (1st part: A-, 2nd part: B+, 3rd part: B-)
Season grade: A-
Series grade: A-
Season MVP: Tricia Helfer
Series MVP: Tricia Helfer