Friday, March 31, 2006

When Captain America failed


(It occurs to me that, since we all watch TV on our own schedules these days, I should say up-front what shows I'll be talking about so people who are saving that Very Special Episode of "According to Jim" won't have it spoiled for them here. This morning's shows, in order, "Survivor," "Lost" and "Scrubs.")

I've seen some dumb "Survivor" moves in my time, with Lex saving Amber in All-Stars the dumbest by far, but last night featured the dumbest move by a contestant I liked and respected since Colby picked Tina over Keith back in Australia.

Okay, here's Terry, coming into the merge at a 6-4 advantage on paper, but one that could probably be swung to 5-5 thanks to Bruce's unhappiness, and all he has to do is give Bruce an incentive to jump. And what does Terry have hidden in his pack? The Immunity Idol. He knows he's the biggest target on his side, so all he has to do is lose the Immunity Challenge by a hair, draw all the votes from the other side, and then whip out the Idol and send Shane home to his nicotine fix -- at which point Bruce has no reason not to change sides, since he likes Terry a hell of a lot better than anybody from Casaya.

Given the numbers, there is going to be no better time in the game for Terry to use the thing; if he uses it now, it swings the numbers back in his favor, and the combination of a majority alliance and his own challenge bad-ass-ness should send him very far. So what does he do? He refuses to drop from the pole, beats Nick and keeps the damn thing in his pocket so that suddenly his alliance is down 6-3. Now, even if he brings the thing out at the next Tribal Council, all it does is save him for a week and give him no winning strategy other than pulling a Tom Westman-esque streak (and remember, Tom lost two individual immunities and was lucky to not get targeted either time).

Dumb, dumb, dumb -- and that's not even counting his lame-ass sales pitch to Shane and Cirie. To get people to give up a power position, you have to offer them an even better one, and much as I hate Shane, I had to laugh at his incredulity at Terry's "no one has to worry for two whole weeks" line of crap. If that's the best he's got, mentally, he deserves to go home the first time he loses a challenge. And now the previews suggest he's going to offer the Idol in trade? Awful, awful, awful. The only value of letting people know you have the Idol is to scare them into not voting for you as long as they can avoid it; give it up, and I don't care what promise they make to you, you're too big a threat for them to keep you around a second longer than they have to. I guess I'm rooting for Cirie to win now. Go, you leaf-phobic straight-shooter!

Meanwhile, on another miserable island, "Lost" had its first good episode in... how long has it been since the Mr. Eko show? Six months? Ten? Hard to tell. The more shows on network and cable that manage to air all their original episodes in a row, the less patience I have for the traditional rerun-heavy stretches in March and April on the networks, especially on a serialized show like this.

The point is, this was a great improvement over the rest of the Henry Gale arc, because stuff finally happened: Sayid and company found the balloon, we learned definitively that "Henry" was lying, there was some action in the hatch (even if that black-light diagram is just another tease that will get less and less interesting the more we learn about it), and there was a good flashback story. Yes, we already knew that Locke was hungry for his daddy's love above all else, but Terry O'Quinn is still the best actor this show has, and it's good to see him let loose, especially in an arena separate from the monotonous faith vs. science pissing contest he's been having with Jack all year. When I talked at the start of the season about being able to enjoy the show as long as I can divorce myself from any desire to have any major mysteries solved anytime soon, this was the kind of episode I was talking about.

Finally got around to both this week's "Scrubs" and the one from two weeks ago that I missed, thanks to the wonders of iTunes. They're already starting to blend together in my mind the way those back-to-back originals at the start of the season would, but I'm pretty sure the watchie-talkies were from two weeks ago and The Janitor's hurdling career was last night. (Janitor+mustache+'80s athletic gear+cigarettes=genius) Other good stuff from last night: Laverne getting banished to the roof and Keith practicing his winking in the background while Cox told Carla to punish him. Some questions: what the hell accent is Dr. Cox using these days? Because his pronunciation of the word "not" makes him sound like Charles Emerson Winchester by way of Wisconsin. Why was Jordan so giggly and enthusiastic at the party at the end? So not her at all. Can anyone recommend a good brand of pizza rolls? And is it just me, or has Turk become the main character this season?

I'll get to "Chris," "Earl" and "Office" tonight, but may not be able to blog about them until later in the weekend. Click here to read the full post

Thursday, March 30, 2006

I wish I could go back to college...

Now that's more like it, "Veronica Mars." A good self-contained mystery, a suggestion that the show could do okay once Veronica leaves high school, a gratuitously awesome "Arrested Development" double-cameo, the biggest spotlight yet for wisecracking Cliff, and a fine showcase for Jason Dohring, who's becoming so good that Veronica may need to investigate a case of show-stealing.

First, let's consider "Veronica Mars: The College Years." Really, there are only four essential characters to this show: Veronica, Keith, Logan and Wallace. Veronica and Wallace are already going to be Hearst together (Veronica getting some kind of scholarship is a fait accompli), and Keith will be just at the other end of town, with Veronica no doubt still helping out around the office. Logan could decide to straighten up, fly right and go to school, and I'm sure a hefty donation could grease his admission into Hearst. Or, if the show wants to avoid the "90210" syndrome where all the characters miraculously wound up at the same school, Logan could keep living off his trust fund, hanging out with the college kids without actually bothering to take classes. I like Weevil, and he could pop up from time to time as a townie. And as much as I love Dick (feel free to quote that out of context far and wide), he and Beaver are expendable; there are at least as many asshole rich kids in college as there can be in high school -- not to mention twice as many cliques and weird societies as you can find in high school. So college wouldn't automatically spell creative doomsday for this show the way it did for "90210," and "Buffy," and "Gilmore Girls," and... shhh. I'm having a moment.

I wasn't exactly holding my breath for the return of Troy, but he served a useful purpose as a character whose involvement in the rape story would move Veronica to be involved, but who was sketchy enough that we could have some doubt about his innocence. I like that the rapist didn't go to jail, as that creates a nice parallel with no one really getting punished for what happened to Veronica. As cool as it was to see Michael Cera and Alia Shawkat only slightly out of Bluth character, I couldn't shake the feeling that he was the rapist -- not only because it felt weird that one of them was central to that story while the other was basically a walking in-joke, but because it would have been a twisted adaptation of George Michael's obsessesion with Maebe. Ah, well. Marian had the best suggestion of the night: "They should have gotten Ron Howard to narrate this one." ("And that's when Veronica realized she had made a terrible mistake.")

Cliff and Lamb are my favorite non-Keith adult characters, so any subplot that has one busting on the other gets the Sepinwall seal of approval. Best part of that entire story: Keith's "Gone on a puzzling errand" note for Veronica.

And jack-rammers, but Jason Dohring is good. Veronica as a character is great because she'll never change much from her post-rape personality, but Logan is still a work in progress, which gives Dohring more chances to stretch than Kristen Bell. I know the Felix subplot was cooked up to give Kristen a break from her crushing season one workload, and Dohring and Enrico Colantoni are the only other actors on the show who could shoulder this much non-Veronica screen time. The only problem, as Matt pointed out in yesterday's column (and as posters on forums throughout creation have been saying for months) is that it's kept Veronica and Logan apart for most of the year, and whether they're dating or just trash-talking each other, the show's not nearly as interesting without some major Veronica/Logan interaction.

Elsewhere in TV land (and did anybody catch the "Inside TV Land" special with William Shatner? because that guy may be stranger in real life than Denny Crane, and I love it), I haven't watched "Lost" yet, but "South Park" was an inevitable let-down after last week. Other than the George Clooney Oscar speech joke -- which was funny both because it was true and because it showed Trey and Matt aren't afraid to fuck with anyone, including the guy they owe their careers to -- the hybrid/smug joke felt labored, so the only fun was listening to Ike talk about being baked.

And only a week late, I was proven right about Lisa getting bounced from "American Idol." Again, didn't see the results show, but I doubt I would have been that shocked by Kat being in the bottom two. Weird shit happens on nights when everyone is good or everyone sucks, and she doesn't have the obvious fanbase that people like Taylor, Chris and Pickler have. (Guys generally don't power-vote for this show, so being a smoking hottie will only carrie you so far.) I suspect, however, that this should galvanize anyone afflicted with the McPheever to get off their ass and dial a few times next week (Undercover Black Man, this means you), so I'm not worried yet. Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Elsewhere around the dial...


... and how badly am I dating myself by referring to a "dial"? I'm at the tail end of the last generation to remember life without cable, VCRs, CDs and most of the other entertainment technology we take for granted, and it makes me feel very, very old sometimes. Anyway...

First of all, "Thief." Matt did the review yesterday, and I pretty much agree with him. I like the fact that the show's willing to be emotionally cool where all the other FX dramas are hot, but that understated quality also kept me from getting as into it as I was at this stage with "The Shield" and "Rescue Me." Great freakin' cast, though, and I like the dynamics between Braugher and Egg from "Arrested Development" ("Her?"), plus the Parkinson's-afflicted assassin, so I'll be around for a while.

Speaking of Matt, he did a "Veronica Mars" column today that's mainly about the Logan-Veronica relationship but also touches on a lot of the problems with this season:

One aspect of the (Felix) subplot gets resolved at the start of tonight's episode, but that still leaves 623 other plot threads to tie up before the end of this season. Even if you admire series creator Rob Thomas' ambition, you've got to wonder if he's spinning too many plates. The show is still exciting and funny -- it makes me laugh out loud more often than most shows that bill themselves as comedies -- but it feels cluttered, and as a result, its emotional energy is dispersed.
I'm saving "Scrubs" to watch with Marian tonight, but we saw "House" last night and I watched "Amazing Race" this morning. "House" had fun with the inevitable "Odd Couple" jokes, though I would have admired it more if they'd just copped to it by having House make a Felix Unger joke (or, as someone commented on my last "House" blog entry 8,000 years ago, just have him recite the opening narration). The promos spoiled the big surprise in the poisoning case, so the only interesting things on the professional front were House playing world's worst marriage counselor and Cameron all but stripping and sitting in House's lap as she paid off the bet.

I'm not feeling the "Race" this time, even though they're back to the traditional format. Too many obnoxious teams and too many detours that follow the simple muscle-or-luck paradigm. Interesting that Lake didn't use the Yield the way you should (you Yield the last-place team to give yourself a cushion), yet it worked out anyway because the Pinks were so slow and Ray was so fast at assembling the statue. Who the hell is there to root for this time? Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

21st Century, boy

If there's been a worse night of "American Idol," I can't remember it. This was worse than Broadway night last year, worse than 21st Century Night last year, worse than any of the Burt Bacharach nights. This was a stinkeroonie, virtually from start to finish, where the between-song filler was more entertaining than most of the songs. In order...

Lisa Tucker, "Because of You": I had been joking with Fienberg that you could probably turn this theme into an "Idol" Salute to "Idol," with Kellie singing "Inside Your Heaven," Taylor doing "Invisible," Elliott doing "Flying Without Wings," etc., etc., etc. I just never imagined Lisa would be brave/dumb enough to pick a Kelly Clarkson tune. Very sharp all over the place and not that interesting. I know I said it last week, but she's going home.

Kellie Pickler, "Suds in the Bucket": The judges nailed it: a novelty song, and one that didn't even give Kellie a chance to show off her alleged personality, save for a wink in the middle. Much as I hate to quote an old line by the D-A-double-G, that whole performance was a non-event.

Ace Young, "Drops of Jupiter": The highlight of the show, by far, was Simon's scolding of Paula when she was having a Corey Clark flashback while fantasizing about Ace's scar. The arrangement was so modest and avoided all of the song's big notes, so I have no idea if Ace could sing the real thing. Snooze.

Taylor Hicks, "Trouble": Simon was right and he was wrong about the wardrobe choice. It didn't look like something Clay would wear, but the motorcycle jacket wasn't working for him at all. I like that he abandoned most of the tics and Pee-Wee Herman big shoe dancing in favor of doing a straight rendition (and I'm stunned that I agree with Paula on anything). Oddly enough, I think he could have made that ending bigger than it was, and I'm usually anti-belting for the sake of belting. One of the better ones of the night, but far from Taylor's best. And, of course, they cut to Taylor's season three doppleganger George Huff in mid-performance.

Mandisa, "Wanna Praise You": Prostelytising aside, this was energetic but not good. She was talk-singing the verses and shouting the chorus, and she always seemed like she was racing to keep up with the arrangement; don't know if that's how the actual song goes or if that's just the result of squeezing it into 90 seconds.

Chris Daughtry, "What If": Before Chris gets to sing, Seacrest has to come out to do one of his patented damage control interviews where he tries to defuse a controversy from the week before, in this case by not only crediting Live for Chris' arrangement of "Walk the Line," but inviting him to suck up to Live as much as possible. As for the performance? Bleah. I hate Creed to begin with, and this song was all shouting and growling, with Chris trying to look so hardcore that he might as well be singing "The Legend of the Rent." On the one hand, I'm glad Simon finally called Chris on being a one-trick pony, but wasn't he the same guy who last week was applauding Chris for refusing to step out of his tiny box?

Katharine McPhee, "The Voice Within": Earlier in the show, Marian dubbed her "the hot wedding singer," and this performance didn't exactly give me evidence to rebut the charge. She looked uncomfortable, was relying on way too much meliasma to compensate for her inability to hold some of those vintage Xtina notes, and it was easily the worst vocal she's done to date. And for all Simon scolds Paula for wanting to be inside Ace's heaven, the only excuse for him dubbing this almost as good as the original is if he wants to do the same with the McPheever.

Bucky Covington, "Real Good Man": Well, this is the most comfortable Bucky has looked and sounded so far, but I'm guessing that this kind of performance would land him in about seventh place on "Nashville Star." (Just like Chris would have struggled to go far on "Rock Star.") Nothing special, but on this night, nothing special is an accomplishment.

Paris Bennett, "Work It Out": Again, I don't have much to say that Simon didn't already put perfectly with his "A little girl pretending to be Beyonce" comment. Paris can sing and she can dance, but that entire performance had me wishing for the real thing.

Elliott Yamin, "I Don't Want to Be": He's growing leaps and bounds as a stage performer, but the vocals kept getting swallowed up by the orchestra and the backup singers, and the one spot in the song where they dropped out so he could go a cappella, he was doing the talk-sing thing. I'm happy to see Elliott showing some confidence (and the producers showing confidence in him by giving him the final spot), but it wasn't spectacular.

Prediction: I'm gonna keep saying Lisa is going home until she does, but this should be a telling bottom three. With everyone either sucking or being mediocre, the votes are going to depend entirely on fanbase strength. Is Pickler really as indestructible as Simon has been suggesting? Will Ace get bottom three'd again? Or does Bucky suffer the Kevin Covais fate of going home when he was slightly above average and his fanbase assumed he was safe?

Ugh. The only pluses were the no-nonsense pace and the return of "House." (More on that tomorrow.) Click here to read the full post

Gas, ex


Not a bad "24," though the is-she-or-isn't-she mystery about Audrey wasn't that compelling, both because the show's done it so many times in the past and because Audrey's not nearly as interesting as some of the previous characters they pulled this with. But when in doubt, this show always pulls out a kewl action sequence, and the shootout at the natural gas plant was pretty sweet. (On the other hand, a friend pointed out to me: burning the gas neutralizes it as a threat, but pretty much all natural gas is burned at the stove, oven, furnace or water heater before it enters somebody's home. I'm not enough of a chem major to know just what level I have to suspend my disbelief at this week.) Also, how long before Aaron the Super Secret Service Agent gets his own spin-off? Or, at the very least, how long before he and Jack are side-by-side again, kicking ass and not bothering to take names?

I saw "Prison Break" a couple of weeks ago; my memory of it was that I liked Michael's journey to the Whack Shack and subsequent char-broiling, but the rest -- especially the 11th hour appearance of Tony Denison as Michael and Linc's dad -- bored me the way the show usually does when Michael's not coming up with some ingenious solution for getting out. Next week: more narrative throat-clearing, disguised as flashbacks to explain how everyone wound up at this prison. Doesn't "Lost" waste enough time each week on this stuff?
Click here to read the full post

Monday, March 27, 2006

The sounds of Sepinwall

Archived audio of my KNBR interview is up here. My wife says I was great, and she's not at all biased. Click here to read the full post

Ahhh, Brent-ie


I was super-geeked at the prospect of Ricky Gervais both writing and appearing in an episode of "The Simpsons," until I read an article in the newest Entertainment Weekly where he listed his five favorite "Simpsons" episodes ever, none of which would be close to my top five, one of which -- "Homer's Enemy" -- represented everything I came to dislike about the later years.

Thankfully, that article helped me, to quote Tony Soprano's doctor, recalibrate my expectations. I came in expecting another Frank Grimes-esque celebration of Tony at his oafish worst, so the actual episode was a nice surprise. Not top 10, or even top 150, but by the standards of the last few seasons, pretty good.

The best part, by far, was Gervais writing and playing himself as David Brent: the career choice, the awkward flirtation, the inappropriate jokes that require five minutes to explain, etc. Plus, the visit to the Fox lot was pretty funny, especially a Mischa Barton statue that gave a much more convincing performance than the real Mischa ever has.

(By the way, when Paulie Walnuts took one in the walnuts on last night's "Sopranos," was I the only one who instantly thought of "Barney's movie had heart... but 'Football in the Groin' had a football in the groin"? Not just me? Good.)

The only other Sunday TV I finished was "West Wing," which was mostly campaign filler, other than the Toby scenes. My daughter's not a lot younger than Molly, and while I've never violated national security (not that I can think of), the notion of having to be away from Julia for a long period of time hit home for me. Plus, I much prefer Toby's ex-wife when she's not singing in front of burning cars. My prediction for next week, influenced by the least subtle preview reel of all time: Santos wins, but the victory celebration is ruined by the death of Leo. Click here to read the full post

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Wake up and talk

"The Sopranos," week three. I'll be on San Francisco's KNBR 680 AM today at noon Eastern, 9 a.m. Pacific, to talk about last night's episode, so if anyone wonders how basso profundo my voice sounds, now's your chance to listen live (their website has a link to that). In the meantime, here's the opener to my latest day-after review:
Let’s talk about Silvio on the toilet for a minute.

Look, I know you’re dying to talk about what the monks represent, or Carmela’s therapy session, or Little Carmine’s triumphant return, but I think we need to start with Silvio on the toilet.

Okay, so Tony didn’t make his traditional season-opening waddle to the end of the driveway for his copy of The Star-Ledger. It hurt, but I moved on and was rewarded with the sight of acting boss Silvio conducting business from a hospital men’s room stall while thumbing through a copy of this here newspaper. If I didn’t know that HBO refuses to accept product placement money for the show, I would assume my bosses slipped them a small fortune for that primo advertisement.

The toilet scene was also important because it was funny. While the season’s first two episodes had plenty to offer - religious imagery, award-worthy monologues, prolonged hangings - the laughs had mostly been absent from a show that often plays less as a drama than a black comedy about America’s moral decay.
To read the rest, click here, then come back to comment. Two things I didn't have room to mention: 1)It was really the all-scumbags, all-the-time hour, wasn't it? I'm glad the show does this from time to time to remind the audience that these "lovable" mobsters are really awful people. 2)So what the hell do the monks represent? Maybe the idea that this isn't the exact Catholic Purgatory, but some kind of omnibus spiritual way station to the afterlife. Had Tony/Finnerty stayed there another episode, maybe he'd have run into some Muslims next. Click here to read the full post

Friday, March 24, 2006

More this and more that


Comments about the last post reminded me of a bunch of other things I watched this week, including:

"24": A friend tried to kill my rediscovered buzz for "24" by pointing out that it's a show that plays much better in DVD-style marathons than on a weekly basis. This is the first time I had to wait more than a few hours to watch a new episode this season, but I still enjoyed it for the most part. The thing is, I've been watching "24" for so long that I feel like a magician's assistant who knows how all the tricks work. It's really hard for the show to surprise me, so the entertainment comes from the presentation and the forward momentum of the story. So when they dropped that big twist about Audrey allegedly selling the blueprints to the French hottie, it wasn't exactly a shocker. Nina turning traitor-- that was a shocker. This was more of a mild "Huh? Wonder where they're going with this?" But I enjoyed the rest of the episode, particularly Jack finding a method other than kneecapping someone to get the info he needed. Plus, the presence of Desmond from "Lost" as the German spy guy had my mind wandering to all kinds of potential Jack lines on Craphole Island: "TELL ME WHERE THE BALLOON IS!" "TELL ME WHERE THE GUNS ARE!" "TELL ME WHAT THE POINT IS!"

"Everybody Hates Chris": Not the funniest episode they've done (even the montage of Rochelle yelling at everyone up to and including herself wasn't that hot), but the inherent sweetness and honesty of the show buys it a lot of points from me even when I'm not laughing. Plus, who doesn't love to see Jimmy Walker die while eating porkchops?

(Speaking of Jimmy, a pointless biographical anecdote you can skip if all you care about are the TV reviews: During one Social Studies class late in 12th grade, our teacher Mr. Lucibello was explaining the LeCompton Compromise or some other kind of historical pact, and, as it often does, my mind started to wander from one vaguely-connected subject to another, until finally, for reasons I can't remember, I was thinking about Jimmy Walker. I started to laugh, and Mr. Lucibello asked me to tell the rest of the class what was so funny. "You don't want to know," I said, which he took as a sign that it was something that would really embarrass me, and since we'd been trading sarcastic barbs all year, he insisted I tell him and the class what was making me laugh. So I told him, in exhaustive detail, how I got from the lesson to Jimmy Walker, and by the end of it, his face was buried in his hands and he said, "You're right; I didn't want to know that." So now, whenever Marian or I start laughing at something only tangentially connected to what we're talking about, we just say "Jimmy Walker" to explain it. Anyway, back to TV...)

"The Loop": Is it bad that the funniest parts of the show tend to be the made-up profanity ("Jack-rammers!")? And why did all the commercials promote an entirely different episode (with Thesis dressed in some dorky cowboy outfit) instead of this one? And is it possible for Philip Baker Hall to swing a samurai sword around and grunt in every episode? Please? And why am I still asking questions? I don't know, do I? .... ahem... Sorry. I think I still like what the show's trying to do -- the fast pace, the use of music, the work vs. play theme -- more than I like the show itself. Brett Harrison, Mimi Rogers and Hall are all great, but the non-work scenes are really hit or miss. The sandwich storyline never really clicked until they found a way to tie it into the Hong Kong plot.

"The O.C.": After forgetting to record it last week, I figured we were quits for good; I had only been watching out of habit and old loyalty, and once the run got interrupted, I had an excuse to stop. But since I was taping "The Loop" in another room already, it was easy to let the VCR keep going for an extra hour and watch "O.C." in the background while I was doing something else. As multi-tasking wallpaper, this episode wasn't too bad, I suppose: Kirsten and Ryan actually interacting like family, Seth doing sand-floor to block Summer's punches, Ryan figuring out that he needs to stop playing white knight, and, especially, Marissa stuck in her own subplot that none of the other characters wanted any part of (which meant I could fastforward through all those scenes without worry of missing a good Summer one-liner). Maybe this'll turn out like me and the later years of "NYPD Blue," where I'm watching to be a completist and grading on a big curve.

"Saturday Night Live" repeats on E!: They've been showing the later parts of the Hartman/Carvey/Myers years, so I've gotten to see classic sketches like Chris Farley auditioning for Chippendale's and Michael Jordan doing advertisements for his own brand of hardcore porn and something to help girls with that not-so-fresh feeling. My only complaint: due to music rights, they had to remove Van Halen's "Beautiful Girls" from the immortal Schmitt's Gay commercial parody, and it's not nearly as funny with generic Van Halen-sounding guitar riffs. It's an outrage. An outrage! Click here to read the full post

This and that

Sorry for the delay: been slammed at work today, and, frankly, haven't had much enthusiasm for the last few night's worth of series TV. The Gonzaga choke was much more dramatic than anything that happened on "Lost or "Veronica Mars." Quick hits, in no particular order:

"Scrubs": Ehh. This has been a brilliant season overall, but other than the peek inside Turk's sex dreams ("One time, you were skinless!") and Dr. Cox reading lines from "Streetcar," not a lot there. And would it have killed Zach Braff to shave his head? His "Garden State" girlfriend could do it, why not him? Even if they needed J.D. to be back to the bushy cut in the next episode, they already have a wig from the episode where Elliott turned into J.D. to smooch with Mandy Moore.

"Veronica Mars": Two duds in a row since they came back from hiatus, though I hear the next two are supposed to be really good. (Speaking of shaved heads, it took me forever to figure out who the girl in the preview was until I IMDb'ed it and realized it's Maebe Funke.) The episodes where Veronica tackles adult cases almost never work, and the bus crash clues are pointing so furiously at Woody Goodman that I'll be bored if he did it and annoyed if he didn't. Two bits I liked: Kendall vamping it up for Beaver, Aaron and Logan with varying degrees of success; and Logan realizing that even he has levels he shouldn't stoop to.

"Lost": Why has it taken me three episodes to realize that Balloon Guy was one of the evil genius serial killers from "The Practice"? Maybe because every scene in the hatch tends to put me to sleep these days? (Plus, didn't they eat all the food already in the "Everybody Hates Hurley" episode? Where did those Dharma-O's come from?) Other than some good performances from the underused Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim, plus Ana-Lucia meta-ing that nobody (including the audience) likes her, not a lot here.

"My Name Is Earl": I want to love this show, really I do. I watch episodes like last night's Y2K flashback, I see scenes and jokes that I know I should be laughing at, and yet the most it usually coaxes out of me is a smile. Early in the season, I complained that they didn't think the jokes through far enough, but last night felt pretty thorough to me, and yet I didn't laugh more than once or twice. I appreciate what the show's doing enough to keep watching, but I can't put my finger on what's holding me at a distance from it. Is it just me? Click here to read the full post

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Bwahahahahahahahaha!


Revenge is a dish best served with cold cuts. Or something like that. And last night I got to see two masterful bits of revenge on my TV screen.

Well, technically, I only saw one of them, because I refuse to watch the "American Idol" results show unless every other channel on my cable system is blacked out and my eyelids have been clipped open. But you have to love the way Simon engineered Kevin's exit.

Simon's been doing this a while now. He knows when his criticism is fueling protest votes for contestants he doesn't like, and he knows how to turn that around and stick the knife in when the audience least expects it. After Kevin didn't so much as make the bottom three last week, Simon decided to damn him with faint praise. He sat through a passable, in-tune rendition of "When I Fall In Love," recognized that the worst thing an at-risk contestant can do is to just be a'ight, and paid Kevin the mild compliment of saying that his fans probably enjoyed that song. In Simon-speak, that roughly translates to "See ya! Wouldn't wanna be ya!"

Frankly, I'm disappointed in myself for not seeing that coming. I was as confident that Lisa was going home as I've been about a boot at least as far back as Anwar in the middle of last season. I should have recognized the power of killing with kindness.

I've seen a few recappers complain that Kevin's early exit is going to make this season less fun, because each year needs that one annoying person who sticks around much longer than they have any right to (Nikki, Carmen, John Stevens IV, Savol) and causing the premature exits of better singers. To that, I say Hong Kong Phooey. Kevin was an easy target, so obviously out of his league and so obviously mocked by the judges (even Paula!) that the joke would have worn thin very quickly. But there are still several people who suck left in this competition, and at least two of them (Ace and Pickler) keep getting overpraised by the judges, either because they fit some obvious mold, because they're doing so well in the votes that the judges don't want to look stupid, or both. When the Pickle outlasts someone like Elliott or Mandisa or Katharine, that's going to be a much bigger outrage than if Kevin had outlasted Lisa or Bucky. A prolonged run by Kevin means that American's are naive but nurturing. A long run by Kellie means that Americans are stupid.

And speaking of easy targets, I wrote last fall that the "South Park" Scientology episode "could have been a lot savager and funnier than it was," since mocking the CoS has become like a turkey shoot. I wanted savage? I wanted funny? I got 'em both by the barrel last night, with the whole Scientology=Super Adventure Club=child molestors bit, the Frankenbiting of Chef's dialogue to make him sound like a pederast, the helpful appearance of a psychologist, etc., etc., etc. That first act may have been the funniest thing I've seen since the opening 20 minutes of "Bigger, Longer and Uncut." I laughed so hard and so long at those early scenes that I think Marian may have already visited a divorce laywer this morning. The episode sagged a little in the middle, but around the time we got the "This is what Super Adventure Club really believes" subtitle (a callback to the best joke of the Scientology episode), it was brilliant again.

Two things I especially loved: 1)The jokes were structured in such a way that even the most litigious people on earth couldn't find grounds to sue, and 2)Through Stan and Kyle, Trey and Matt made it clear that they weren't mad at Isaac Hayes, just sad at what they felt had been done to him (whether the stroke story is true or not).

I won't get to watch "Veronica Mars" and "Lost" until sometime this afternoon at the earliest, so I may not be able to blog about them and "Scrubs" and other stuff until tomorrow morning. Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Letters, I get letters

Been a helluva day in the ol' snail-mail bag. Our office spam filters are pretty good, and most of the real whack jobs tend to prefer pen and paper (or a Smith-Corona), so opening physical mail can always be a real adventure. Started off today with this bit of Air Mail from Ghana:

Dear Sir/Madam,
I am very, very gratefull and thankful to you - what you have done has wonder me very much and please Ihope you are all well with good condition as we are in Ghana.
It goes on from there to pitch me on sending money for school supplies. What I particularly admire, beyond the spelling and grammar errors, is that apparently I have done a wonderful thing for this person but they don't know my gender. Moving on, I got this type-written postcard with no name or return address:
Dear Mr. Sepinwall: Please stop writing articles that glamorize "Sopranos." All Mafia are terrorists, and should be treated like they are terrorists. Thanks for considering this possibility.

Then, I got an oldie-but-goodie, which was written in all-caps that I'll spare your eyes from:
Dear Alan Sepinwall & Matt Zoller Seitz: I don't know if this problem has been addressed in your column. I like to watch shows like CSI, CSI Miami, NCIS, but I find that some genius has decided to interject "background" music which is so loud, I can't hear what the actors are saying. What a waste! Can anything be done about it? Has anyone else written to you about this?
Only about a million people, ma'am, all of them using almost the exact same phrasing, with the occasional naive use of "can you please use your influence," implying that I can just get Les Moonves on the phone and order him to dial down the score so people can hear David Caruso pretend to emote.

And, finally, the piece de resistance (excerpts only):

Dear Mr. Sepinwall: I recently read in the STAR-LEDGER your article on the SOPRANOS, which I enjoyed. I compliment you on your excellent reporting.

The reason for this letter is the fact that I've recently completed a novel (factually based) about organized crime that takes place in the Belleville/Newark area...

My question to you is do you know of a publisher who might be interested in the book? As you probably are aware, rarely will a publisher accept a book from a prisoner. It appears that you need an "in" just to get an editor to read the material. I've queried a couple of literary agents and their response has been in thenegative, solely because I'm in prison.
I then noted that the return address included the phrase "Lock Bag," and looked up the guy's name in our archives, where I learned that he's a convicted cop killer who's been in prison for decades. I actually gave some thought to writing back to the guy until one of our columnists mentioned that she's been getting increasingly stalker-ish letters from one of her fans, who has gone so far as to mail her print-outs of his web searches for her home address. The moral of the story: it doesn't pay to be nice to people. Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Hot in the 50s

"American Idol" finals week two: a vast improvement over Stevie Wonder Night, though should that be much of a surprise? These decade themes always allow the finalists to stay in their comfort zones with their blanky and their favorite teddy and a cup of warm cocoa, but I heard at least five performances that had me thinking that singer could win and I wouldn't complain in the least. In order...

Mandisa ("I Don't Hurt Anymore"): Holy shit, that was sexy. Obviously, you look at Mandisa and that's not a word that automatically comes to mind, but that's how amazing that performance was. Vocally in command from first note to last, making love to both the camera and the audience (and not in a smarmy, Guarini/Constantine/Ace/Pickler way, but something authentic), just great all around. Best of the night by far, and one of my top 10 "Idol" performances ever. Usually, going first in a two-hour show can be trouble (see Ace in the bottom three last week), but I doubt anyone who watched is going to forget that one for a long long time.

Bucky Covington ("Oh Boy"): Mumbled lyrics and notes that disappeared somewhere inside his facial hair, redeemed only partially by an upbeat stage presence. Worst vocal of the night, though I don't think he's going home.

Paris Bennett ("Fever"): A 17-year-old shouldn't be able to pull this one off and make it feel as lived-in and sultry as Paris made it. I wasn't having inappropriate thoughts about her or anything, but I believed her performance in a way I usually don't when the teen queens try to sing grown-up love songs. Only quibble: the rendition would have been a lot more interesting if it had ended quiet instead of with that belty note, but this ain't a competition that rewards subtlety.

Chris Daughtry ("Walk the Line"): One of the things I really enjoyed about "Rock Star" was that the singers weren't just allowed to rearrange the songs, but encouraged to do it. The "Idol" judges always talk about not being karaoke and making it your own, but what they really want most of the time is a note-perfect copy of the original with the singer's personality injected a little bit. This is easily the most radical reinterpretation of a song anyone's done since at least John Stevens IV trying to croon "Lately," with one difference: this didn't suck. (Also, I think Chris probably could have done the original up right if they'd made him do it.) Yes, Chris is determined to stay in his little Creed/Nickelback/Live box as long as he possibly can, but this was a very cool version of Johnny, and considering the heavily-modified covers from the "American" albums, I think the Man in Black would have approved. (UPDATE: Matt Hunter pointed out in the comments section that this was a straight rendition of the Live cover of "Walk the Line." I listened to a sample on iTunes, and that's exactly what it was, in which case I'm much less impressed. Not a bad performance, but not much imagination.)

Katharine McPhee ("Come Rain or Come Shine"): Katharine, Paris and Mandisa wouldn't seem to have a lot in common other than being women with good singing voices, but that's three very sultry performances in a row by the ladies. Like Marian said last week, she looks like a cross between Katie Holmes and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and it's funny to see her transition from sweet, all-American Katie in her interviews to naughty sexpot Catherine when she sings. Maybe the second best of the night after Mandisa, though the last note wavered more than I think she wanted it to.

Taylor Hicks ("Not Fade Away"): An off night from one of my favorites. Yes, it's a repetitive song, but you can give it personality and variation within those lyrics. After Taylor finished, I fired up iTunes and played both the Buddy Holly version and a Rolling Stones cover from their "Stripped" album, both of which were much livelier and rougher than Taylor's Pat Boone performance (right down to the shoes). And while his dancing is entertaining, it's not exactly good, so when the vocals aren't there, he really does seem like the drunk dad at the wedding. I did appreciate Simon's first big verbal smackdown of Paula in this year's finals.

Lisa Tucker ("Why Do Fools Fall In Love?"): She's going home. She's going home. She's going home. Is there anything else to say? No, she wasn't the worst singer tonight (that would be Bucky), but the vocals were ordinary, the stage moves too pageanty, and I think whatever fan base she might have had jumped ship weeks ago to vote for Paris. The judges telling her to be "young" and "fun" was possibly the most misguided advice they've ever given to a promising finalist. As a torch singer, Lisa was at least interesting in the same "old soul" way that Gedeon was; as a peppy, smiling dance machine, she's a snooze. Nice knowing you, say hi to Melissa for me.

Kevin Covais ("When I Fall In Love"): Okay, I yield the floor to Fienberg on this one. He's not punking the show, he's not amusing himself, he's sincerely trying to win. If I heard this at a high school talent show -- say, after Meadow Soprano's solo -- I would have smiled and said that was pretty good. For a nationally televised singing contest, it was average at best. I do appreciate that he followed Manilow's advice about being understated, a quality you don't get very much of on this show.

Elliott Yamin ("Teach Me Tonight"): Even if he'd stunk, he'd get major brownie points for having the guts to say he didn't like Manilow before he met him. Fortunately, he didn't stink. Yes, he cheated the theme the same way Chris did last week by singing a much later cover version, but he has the most versatile, interesting voice of anybody this season, and he's slowly learning how to be a performer in addition to a great singer. The stylists are still struggling with what to do with him, and I don't think the goatee is it. Would it be too mid-'90s to dress him like a Rat Pack'er?

Kellie Pickler ("Walking After Midnight"): Her pronunciation of the phrase "searching for you" sounded like it was run through a vocoder by way of Inspector Clouseau trying to pronounce either "bomb" (Sellers) or "hamburger" (Martin). Other than that, it was a'ight-blah, but no more, and I don't know what the fuck Simon's talking about when he said how sexy it was. Wait, I know exactly what he's talking about, because in Simon's world, a skinny blonde in tight jeans will always be sexy no matter how sleepy-eyed and dull she seems while singing. Paula called it "a true authentic Kellie Pickler performance," which sounds about right. Considering how often Simon's called her a frontrunner in interviews, I have to assume she's getting tons of votes, which makes me sad but doesn't surprise me.

Ace Young ("In the Still of the Night"): Ah, the inevitable "Ace is back" storyline, in the tradition of "Bo is back" (and, I vaguely recall, "Ruben is back" and "Justin is back"), where an early frontrunner winds up in the bottom three, then gets the pimp slot at the end of the next episode, followed by a tongue bath from Randy and company. Only difference is, Bo was "back" the week he sang "Vehicle" and deservedly put distance between himself and everyone else but Carrie, whereas I don't think Ace was a hell of a lot better than he's been for the last three or four weeks. Yes, he's more comfortable when he doesn't have to move, and, yes, he's pretty, and yes, his falsetto sometimes doesn't make my ears bleed, but I was checking my watch through half that performance. (During the other half, I was noticing that, during parts of the song, his mouth looked like Hank Azaria when he plays Chief Wiggum.) The producers want him to do well because they think a non-threatening hunk will be good for the ratings and/or album sales, but Ace missed the boy band train by half a decade and he's not a good enough singer to stand on his own.

Bottom three: Lisa and Bucky for sure, with Lisa going home. The other member? I'm stumped. The other people who sucked either have strong fanbases (Covais, Pickler) or got favorable comments and placement (Ace). Maybe Elliott? I love his voice, but we all know that's not what most people vote on. Click here to read the full post

Spoiled by 'The Shield'


SPOILER WARNING: I'm going to discuss the finale of "The Shield" in a lot of detail, so turn away now if you haven't seen it yet.

Speaking of spoilers, sometime spoiler hints aren't such a bad thing. Michael Chiklis did a lot of press in the last few weeks suggesting that one or more regular characters were going to bite it by the end of this half-season, so when we got to that scene with Shane and Lem, it was pretty clear what was going to happen, if not how. But that assumption actually made the scene work better I think, then if it had been an out-of-the-blue shock. Because I suspected what was coming, I could see Shane agonizing over what he felt he had to do, trying desperately to get Lem to say something, anything, that would make him change his mind. I know Chiklis and Forest Whitaker are getting all the acting hype this year, but hot damn was Walton Goggins good there. He actually made me feel sorry for dumb, racist, selfish, remorseless Shane even as he was preparing to murder one of his best friends to save his own ass.

I e-mailed Shawn Ryan to ask whether the viewer was supposed to realize Shane was going to cap Lem long before he did it, and this is what he wrote back to me:
I knew that advance publicity might "color" that big scene some, but I figured we'd concentrate on the process, not the shock, and try to keep it as real as possible. I always had the feeling that the audience might think two or three times in that scene that Shane might pull a gun, and then, as he continues not to, maybe they'd figure it wasn't going to happen, but we'll see how people react.

Felt like the "surprising, but inevitable" conclusion to this season and we tried to plant clues and hints all the way through the season. We knew as far back as July of last year that this was what we were going to build to, so if you go back and watch the season and see the Shane/Mara scene in Episode #503, it would seem like an obvious setup, or if you watch the music montage at the end of last week's episode, the lyrics "The Killer in me is the killer in you" hit right over Shane and Lem in a way I think is very prophetic now.
While I'll miss Lem, this murder had to happen, not just to keep Vic on the streets until the end of the series, but to begin the massive karmic payback he's deserved since he murdered in the pilot. He's always taught Shane, by word and by deed, that the ends justify the means, up to and including murdering a fellow cop if he's threatening your livelihood. He's had this coming for a long time, and I cannot wait for the scene where Vic finally finds out what happens and confronts Shane about it, and Shane pulls the "I learned it from watching you!" card.

And now, of course, Shane is going to have Dutch and Claudette on his ass (Billings, too, but he's a waste of donor organs), not to mention Kavanaugh, Aceveda and Vic himself -- each investigator with his or her own agenda, which could make for some strange bedfellows next year. Again, I cannot wait.

Some other thoughts on the finale to the best season of "The Shield" to date:
  • So Vic is Danni's baby daddy, huh? It seemed so obvious that I figured it couldn't be him (maybe Ronnie?), but they do have the history together, and it means that Kavanaugh was dead-on when he told Corinne about it. And speaking of the ex-Mrs. Mackey...
  • The unofficial on-set motto of the show is "The Shield: It's so wrong." Maybe a sub-motto should be "Nepotism: It's not so wrong." Obviously, Shawn Ryan's wife Cathy has been around from day one, and she's done a much better job than you would expect from the boss' wife; she actually held her own in that scene where Kavanaugh stayed in her kitchen just a little too long. And on top of that, we got Ally Walker -- aka Mrs. John "President of FX" Landgraf -- as the world's highest-class low-class ho. After she left/got dumped from "Profiler," Walker all but gave up acting to raise her kids, but she's been doing a few guest spots lately, and Ryan got a great, creepy performance out of her. Plus, as Shawn says, "How many showrunners ever get the chance to 'turn out' their network's president's wife?"
  • Claudette as captain works really well. Other than maybe Monica Rawling, she's the only person to ever occupy the job who Vic's respected and/or feared, and she knows enough about how Vic does business to cause him a lot of problems. And it now makes Dutch the wise and mature member of his partnership. Also loved Dutch once again trying to pattern his behavior after a sociopath. First he strangles cats, now he's trying to pimp out the precinct cutie. I know he's not the main character, or even the audience identification character like Bayliss was on "Homicide," but what are the odds that the ol' Dutchman turns serial killer before the series is over?
So, what did everybody else think? Click here to read the full post

Waves of psychetude

So, the Shawn Ryan interview is in today's paper. In addition to reprinting the exchange I already put here, this was the most interesting thing he said:
"I spoke with the writers at the beginning of the year and I said, 'Let's not save anything,'" Ryan explains. "Most TV shows that are successful, you don't want to do anything that will risk the long-term viability of a show, and I gave my writers permission for the first time to ignore that. We're telling a story that the viewers can tell we're not going to rewind the clock back to midnight. This thing is moving forward; there are going to be complications, repercussions."
The 90-minute finale is so awesome that even Barney from "How I Met Your Mother" wouldn't need a custom-made motivational poster to get psyched for it. And speaking of which...

Really strong "HIMYM" last night that, not coincidentally, focused mainly on Barney and Marshall, while Ted and Robin were left to do the latest iteration of their Ross 'n Rachel dance in the background. Any episode that lets Jason Segel dance automatically gets the Sepinwall Seal of Approval, with bonus points for pop-locking, but this was the first time we've seen the show's two least-similar characters play off each other much. Question: is it wrong that I both loved Barney's karaoke AC/DC, and that I desperately want to work "steak sauce" into a conversation today?

I'll get to "24" later today. I have, however, already seen the first three post-hiatus episodes of "Prison Break," and I've been underwhelmed. Like I said in this column that ran over the weekend, the show has now gone into full-on stall mode until the real escape happens, presumably at the end of the season. This show is a classic example of why the 22 episodes per season model isn't right for every series.

Other stuff I watched in the last couple of days:

Take Your Daughter to Work Day on "The Office" featured almost too many highlights to list here (Stanley giving Ryan a hellfire-and-brimstone verbal beatdown, Angela blowing off Toby's daughter, Toby's daughter calling Phyllis "Mother Goose," Dwight reading those horrific German fairy tales to the kids, Pam's desperate attempt to connect with the kids), but the highlight by far had to be the reaction of Edward R. Meow to young Michael's comment about having 100 kids so he'd always have friends. That's the saddest, funniest bit of puppetry I've seen outside of Jim Henson. In general, shows about adults have a hard time incorporating kids without getting either too sappy or too mean, but I thought this was dead-solid perfect. Now that "Arrested Development" is gone, "The Office" is the only comedy on TV I feel the need to watch over and over to catch things I missed.

"Grey's Anatomy" was a'ight-blah, but the thing that entertained me most were the scenes where Sara Ramirez was in the same frame with either Ellen Pompeo or Sandra Oh and looked to be about three times either of their size. (And that's not a knock on Ramirez, who's gorgeous and voluptuous as all hell, but on two actresses who are reaching Danni Boatwright/Calista Flockhart levels of scary thin.) If the writers can't conspire an excuse to have Ramirez sing, could they at least have some kind of fight scene where she and Addison mop the floor with Meredith and Cristina?

Gotta go pay the bills with a review of "The Evidence," which made me feel like a kid again -- in that I was just as bored watching it as I was watching mediocre '70s cop shows. Click here to read the full post

Monday, March 20, 2006

You can check out any time you like...

Ahem... so... "The Sopranos" episode two. Not exactly a variation on the formula, was it? Here's the opener to my day-after review:

IT'S NOT a dream. It's Purgatory.

When I had my annual summit with "Sopranos" creator David Chase a few weeks ago, I complimented him on having the onions to put a major dream sequence like this so early in the season, considering how many fans complain about the dreams.

"I, frankly, would not call those (episode two scenes) dreams," he said, which sent me scurrying back to watch my DVD over and over again, until (with some help from my wife) I got it.

Here Tony's stuck in Orange County, quite possibly the most personality-free corner of the world, with no way to leave (a k a Purgatory). On one end of town is a shining beacon (Heaven), on the other, a raging forest fire (Hell). Over and over, he stops to assess the worth of his own life, asking, "Who am I? Where am I going?"

Then he steals the identity (sin) of Kevin Finnerty -- a heating salesman who lives in one of the hottest states of the union (Arizona) -- checks into another hotel, and falls down a red staircase, at which point he learns he has Alzheimer's (eternal damnation). And while Carmela's busy in the real world telling him he's not going to Hell, Tony's in Purgatory debating whether to tell his wife this is exactly the fate he has in store.

To read the rest of the review, click here, then come back to comment. I'm a lot more curious about reaction to this one than I was about the premiere. Click here to read the full post

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Kill 'em all and let God sort it out

I was interviewing Shawn Ryan yesterday for a story to run on Tuesday to coincide with "The Shield" season finale and episode three of "The Unit" (which looks, like "NCIS," to be one of the few "Idol"-proof shows on TV), when we had the following exchange:

Me: "I would have to say that what Vic did last night was the most heinous thing he's done since he shot Reed Diamond in the pilot."
Shawn: "Which thing are you referring to? I can think of at least four off the top of my head."
Me: "Leaving Kearn to die in the warehouse."
Shawn: "Oh, I thought you were going to say sleeping with the mentally unstable wife of the guy who's trying to put him away."
Me: "Well, that too."
It was a good interview -- Ryan went on a long, funny rant about how the fans have Stockholm Syndrome with Vic, and that no matter what the writers make Vic do, the fans adore him -- and it's been a great season, possibly the show's best ever. Ryan said he told his writers at the start of the year, "Let's not save anything (for later seasons)," and I think that go-for-broke mentality is the reason why it, and "Galactica" and "Sopranos" are all in such great form this year.

The problem with series television is that too many sacrifices have to be made to preserve the franchise, which makes shows duller than they could be. (That's why I've always loved the British model; do as many or as few episodes as you feel the story deserves, then move on.) The "Sopranos" and "Shield" writers know the finish line is in sight, so they don't have to worry about scorching the earth. And Ron Moore was so frustrated by the reset button mentality on the "Star Trek" spin-offs that it looks like he'll be scorching the earth at the end of every season; it wouldn't stun me if season four takes place underwater, or in Victorian England, or somebody's fridge.

I'm supposed to get the "Shield" finale in advance, so I'll have a nice long blog post ready to go up late Tuesday night or first thing Wednesday morning. Click here to read the full post

Neptune Beach

First of all, I am shocked -- shocked -- to learn that Melissa got the boot last night on "Idol." Except, not really. Enjoy your time in Julia D'Amato-ville. Nor am I super-surprised that Ace and Lisa were the other members of the bottom two. Say it with me: on "Idol," it's better to blow chunks (Kellie, Kevin) than to be mediocre.

Meanwhile, "Veronica Mars" didn't exactly blow my doors off in its first episode back from that unplanned hiatus. The bus crash and Felix arcs got nudged forward, but the Mysteries of the Week didn't do much for me, other than Corny's Drew Carey in "The Aristocrats"-style snap at his "master bait" joke. This is the second time Rob's been forced to accomodate a reality show blonde with minimal acting skills, and while Kristin was a slight improvement on Paris Hilton, that's like saying the stomach flu is a slight improvement over botulism.

This year's big arcs still lack the simplicity that made Lily's murder and the rape such involving mysteries, and the Felix arc in particular seems to be running out of story. Barring a rug-pulling twist, we already know the how, what and why, so all that's left is Logan clearing his name. As for the bus crash, I'm now hoping it's not Woody Goodman, because the clues are so blatant (warns his daughter off the bus, and the explosives were found in one of his airplane hangars, even though Veronica forgot that little detail) that it won't be remotely surprising if it's him. Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Uptight (Everything's A'ight)

We are a Stevie Wonder family. "Ribbon in the Sky" was the song Marian and I danced to at our wedding, and Julia's been getting a steady diet of "Innervisions," "Songs in the Key of Life," "Talking Book," etc, since she was in the womb. So it's always painful when an "American Idol" contestant butchers one of Stevie's tunes -- which they do with stunning regularity, considering the number of times that Randy and Simon have told people to stop freaking singing Stevie.

But Stevie Wonder Night wasn't nearly the ordeal I expected when it was announced last week. There were some bad performances, but there were four great ones and, as for the rest, well, that's what TiVo's are for.

Since we're now into the finals, I suppose it's time to start giving comments on each performance. (Keep in mind that I'll have nothing to say about the Wednesday show, because I refuse to watch the thing.) In order...

Ace Young, "Do I Do": Meh. Simon was right; it was pretty frantic. Uptempo songs that require a lot of movement don't play to Ace's strengths; unlike his spiritual father Guarini, he hasn't yet mastered the art of sexing up the camera unless he's standing lock-still and emoting a ballad. (If he ever gets a record deal, I'm guessing there's gonna be a Wilson Phillips cover on there.) Ordinarily, being mediocre at the very start of a long-ass show could be the kiss of doom, but his looks and the fact that several people were clearly worse means he should be just fine.

Kellie Pickler, "Blame It on the Sun": Maybe it's time to retract that whole "Kellie Pickler is going to win 'American Idol'" column, huh? As we've all been saying, she's Carrie with twice the sass and half the voice. Like Carrie, she looked damned uncomfortable singing a song so far outside her chosen gendre. Unlike Carrie, she doesn't have the pipes to distract people from the deer in headlights stage presence she had going on tonight. I'll give her points for her retort to Simon's Dolly Parton comparison: "Without the assets."

Elliot Yamin, "Knocks Me Off My Feet": Easily the best of the first hour, but probably only fifth-best overall. I really like the tone of Elliot's voice, and this was right in his wheelhouse. On the other hand, starting a song on a stool has never done a favor for any contestant in this show's history, and he didn't really get going until the last third.

Mandisa, "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing": A real disappointment. I figured she was gonna tear the roof off the dump with this theme, but the non-belty parts were just ordinary, and the belty sections were too shouty in spots. One of the many things that makes Stevie such a brilliant singer is that the quiet sections are just as beautiful, just as exciting as the parts where he gets to show off.

Bucky Covington, "Superstition": Better than it had any right to be, given how far removed the song is from anything Bucky's ever tried to sing in his life, but still nothing special. When I saw him line-dancing at the start, I assumed he was gonna pull a John Stevens IV and just turn it into his chosen specialty, but that was relatively straight. Frankly, I would have been more interested if he'd tried to Southern fry the song a little.

Melissa McGhee, "Lately": Okay, so nobody expected her to make the finals, she's choosing a song and a look that are a 180 from the slutty rocker thing that allowed her to squeak past Ayla last week, and she messed up the lyrics besides. When Katharine performed later in the show, Marian said, "So there's a McGhee and a McPhee?" I told her, "Don't worry. There won't be a McGhee for very long."

Lisa Tucker, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered": A classic case of the judges being so hypnotized by the stage presence that they didn't pay much attention to the vocals. Lisa moved really well, albeit in a programmed, DeGarmoBot2000 way, but there was nothing remotely special about her singing. She's a ballad girl, and she's going to have to stay in her ballot box for the rest of the season if she wants to go far.

Kevin Covais, "Part-Time Lover": Early in the season three finals, my friend Dan (whose recaps are now being posted on Zap2it) and I had a running debate over whether Jon Peter Lewis was a subversive comic genius (my take) or just a spacey kid without much brains or talent (Dan's). The longer the pen salesman stuck around, the less confident I got in my theory, until at last I had to admit that he wasn't so much punking the show as just sucking. With Chicken Little, I may have finally found my merry prankster. This kid clearly knows that he doesn't belong here, that he's going to be the butt of everyone's jokes, that he has no chance in hell of winning or even getting a record deal from an obscure label, so he's decided to screw around and amuse himself until it's time to go home. Listen to his pre-performance interview with Seacrest and then watch those dance moves and then tell me he's not in on the joke. I love that the bar for him has been set so low that Randy and Paula were wildly praising him for being in tune. Not good by any means, but damned entertaining.

Katharine McPhee, "Until You Come Back To Me": Okay, here's where the show really got started. I made the same Kelly Clarkson comparison the other day that Simon did tonight (though I have to give credit to Dan for suggesting it), and I think she could actually wind up outdoing Kelly some day. She's got that same mix of sweet personality and big voice, but she's also more self-aware and, as Marian points out, she looks like a cross between Katie Holmes and Catherine Zeta-Jones. I hate to use a Randy-ism, but that was hot.

Taylor Hicks, "Living For the City": I know the judges went apeshit for Chris, but this was the best of the night for me. First, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by the magical powers of the show's stylists, but they found a way to make Taylor presentable; with that haircut and that suit, I could actually see him as an adult contemporary star. Second, even though he committed the "Idol" sin of smiling through a dark song (Taylor would have a hard time not smiling at a funeral, he's so exuberant), his voice did all the heavy lifting the emotions of the song required. I liked Chris' "Higher Ground" and all, but if I was buying a recording of any number from tonight's show, it'd be this one.

Paris Bennett, "All I Do": Because I skipped everything prior to the semi-finals, I had a hard time understanding why so many people labeled Paris the favorite, much less why they compared her to Fantasia, who's still my favorite "Idol" winner. Tonight, I saw it. Energy, command of the vocals on both the small and big moments and tremendous stage presence. I don't usually love it when a contestant chooses a song where the backup singers take the chorus while they randomly belt, but she was so good on the verses that I let it slide.

Chris Daughtry, "Higher Ground": Look, Chris is one of my favorites, and I'd love for a rocker to win, but that was freaking ridiculous to suddenly trot out the strobe lights, turn on the fog machines and crank the band's amplifiers to 11 to make it seem like Chris was head and shoulders above everyone else tonight. It was a really solid vocal, and he's mastered the Bice-ian art of using the microphone stand as a dance partner, but it wasn't deserving of the fellatio coming from the judges. As they were slobbering over his originality, all I could think was that it was a very faithful rendition of the Chili Peppers' version. Again, I like Chris a lot, and he was probably the second or third-best performer of the night (after Taylor and maybe Paris), but it annoys me when the show makes its agenda this blatant.

Who's going home?: If people voted strictly on the quality of the performances (I know, I know... please control your laughter), Ace, Kellie and Kevin would be in some trouble. Since we all know that's not the case, I figure Simon will be proven right a week late when Melissa gets her ticket home. When you're a marginal finalist without an obvious fanbase, you need to kick ass every week or you'll get sent home to hang with Vanessa Olivarez, Amy Adams and Jessica Sierra.

What did everybody else think? Click here to read the full post

Oh my God, they killed (fill-in-the-blank)!

It takes a big man to admit that he's wrong. Conveniently, I'm a big man, in stature if not maturity, so I can admit that I was wrong to dump "24" this year. Thanks to a friend at Fox, I was able to catch up on the entire season over the weekend, and it's been a lot of fun.

Part of my enjoyment, I think, is simply that I didn't watch much of the previous two seasons, so I've had some time away from the show's bag of tricks. So when a presidential aide turns out to be a traitor or command of CTU changes three times in as many hours, I don't immediately feel compelled to do a shot.

But at the same time, it feels like the writers have finally figured out what works and what doesn't over the course of this one long day -- ironically, at a time when even they admit they're maybe two episodes ahead at any given point. They know that this show burns through plot quickly, and they've turned it to their advantage; as soon as a crisis or a character has outlived its usefulness, it's gone. Bye-bye airport hostage crisis. See ya later, Connie Britton. Presidential assassination? So five minutes ago.

At the same time, it feels like they're letting the major characters feel the weight of everything that's happened. There's at least one scene in each episode where someone, whether it's Martha Logan or Chloe or Audrey or even Jack, rattles off a list of all the crap that's been piled on them throughout the day, and it seems like they're genuinely traumatized by it all. There's real emotion here in between the explosions and gas attacks, whether it's Mrs. Robocop's disbelief that her husband doesn't care about her or Jack realizing last night that he has to send two men to their death. It's the "Die Hard" effect: no matter how ridiculous the plot is, if you have a few good actors in the center of it who are taking it seriously, you can get away with anything.

(By the way, is there anything Sean Astin can't do? He sacks the quarterback, carries Frodo up Mt. Doom and then saves CTU. Rudy! Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!)

I'm assuming Tony's kaput, but with this guy, you never know. Didn't he get shot in the head one year and have his heart yanked out of his chest in the next? I can't remember. Still, I'm glad they kept Carlos Bernard around long enough for him to react to Michelle's death. Maybe they can hang his soul patch on a wall at CTU like the Galactica shrine.

Elsewhere around the dial (and how many years are we from having to erase all uses of "dial" from the vernacular for being outdated?), Stern on Letterman was underwhelming. But then, I've never been a huge fan of radio's biggest ego. Maybe if I'd been listening to him when he was just starting out and his entire shtick wasn't about how awesome he is, I'd find him funnier, but that ship sailed a long time ago.

"Grey's Anatomy" was decent, but not great. This was one of those in-between episodes where all the story arcs get advanced but nothing actually happens. And if you look at Kate Walsh and Catherine Deneuve side by side, there really is a resemblance. Weird. Never would have thought of it on my own.

Finally, my thoughts on "Big Love." I've seen the first two, and I'm weirded out by it in a way that I've never been by "Sopranos" or "Six Feet" or "Deadwood." I can relate to sociopathic mobsters and emotionally-repressed morticians, you know, but this polygamy culture is so alien to me (not just the three wives thing, but the lack of swearing and the general primness of everyone) that I have trouble relating. It's well done enough that I'll probably give it a few more shots, but I don't want to feel this uncomfortable when I'm watching TV. Click here to read the full post

Monday, March 13, 2006

I never clone alone

Meanwhile, in an attempt to prove I can still occasionally write about shows that don't involve mobsters eating sushi (is that anything like gay cowboys eating pudding?), I finally put some "American Idol" thoughts into print, mainly focusing on the eerie similarities between this year's finalists and past contestants. Here's the opener:

KELLIE PICKLER is going to win "American Idol."

Or maybe not.

At this point, I should probably give up guessing how 12- to 14-year-old girls are going to text- message for two hours straight. But with this year's "Idol" finals kicking off tomorrow night at 8 on Channel 5, I feel like I have to make some kind of prediction. Kellie's an easy one, because she already won last year.

Of course, her name back then was Carrie Underwood, and she had a stronger voice but wasn't quite as willing to play up the farm girl in the biiiiiig city shtick. But essentially, you have two smiling, shiny, wholesome blondes with twang in their voices and inoffensively bland personalities.

To read the rest, click here.

Click here to read the full post

Woke up the next morning...

UPDATE: Well, that was fast service. Though my day-after "Sopranos" review hadn't been posted to NJ.com when I woke up at the crack of dawn, it showed up 10 minutes after I e-mailed my bosses. So here's the beginning of the column, and remember, if you haven't seen the premiere yet, make like a Knight of the Round Table and run away, fast as you can.
The moral of the story: always keep your cell phone charged.

Wowzers. Where to start? Even if you might have predicted that Tony was going to take a bullet, would you ever have expected it to happen in the first episode of the season? And in such a stupid, pathetic fashion? This wasn’t Tony getting shot by Phil Leotardo, or one of his own captains, or anyone else who should pose an actual threat to him, but by a frail, senile old man in a ratty bathrobe.

And then that crawl into the kitchen! If the episode had closed on the gunshot, it would have been a great shock ending. But to dwell for so long on Tony’s attempt to make a phone call (as a terrified Junior scrambles to hide in an upstairs closet) took it to a whole different level of gut-wrenching.

Whether Tony lives or dies, comes back to full health or walks around with a colostomy bag, I won’t even speculate - mainly because I already know and don’t want to spoil it. But the interesting thing here is how Tony’s past is catching up to him in dangerous ways...
To read the rest, click here. Then hurry back to comment. After sitting on this one for weeks, it's about time I get to hear some other thoughts on them.

Click here to read the full post

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Woke up this morning...

I'll post a link to and an excerpt from my "Sopranos" day-after review as soon as it's posted tomorrow morning (sometimes, NJ.com can be slow to load new stories). In the meantime, anybody who wants to comment immediately after the premiere airs can feel free to comment here.

One-stop linking for all the stories I wrote in the last week:
  • My spoiler-minimal review from Friday;
  • A guide to all 65 previous episodes;
  • The cast and crew preparing for this to be over;
  • David Chase talking about the music;
  • The hows and whys of whacking (the Washington Post also has a great story on this subject);
  • A profile of James Cozzarelli Jr., the eccentric man who runs the real-life funeral parlor where all the dead characters get laid out;
  • Chase and Terry Winter talking about the dream sequences;
  • Chase and Winter looking back at season five;
  • And, of course, Sopranos Sudoku, which I can't stop playing, even though it's too damn easy.
So crank up the A3, light up a stogie and let's get ready to tour some garbage dumps. I've been waiting weeks to hear what other people have to say about this. Click here to read the full post

Saturday, March 11, 2006

A whole new world

So, "Battlestar Galactica." If you haven't seen the finale yet, go away and don't come back until you have. And if you don't watch the show at all, I am very, very disappointed in you.

Like I've been saying, Ron Moore put his money right where his mouth was. While I can see ways that the show could get back to the fleet-on-the-run premise sometime next season, Moore and company appear to have applied Gina's nuclear detonation to the entire structure of the show. Almost everyone's planetside, heavier and sporting unfortunate new hairstyles. And now humanity get to be the guests of the galaxy's swingingest resort/concentration camp, or, as Shannon from "Lost" would call it, Craphole Planet. This is not a dream, not an imaginary story, not something that Geordi and Data can reverse by switching some wires around in the warp drive and wrapping tin foil around the deflector dish.

That fucking rocked. When I saw the date stamp in Baltar's office, my jaw hit the floor and, much as I did when I got done with the new "Sopranos," I wandered around my house cursing up a storm for a good half hour.

I've seen other shows try to pull off this kind of massive time-jump, notably "Alias," and it never works. Either the whole thing is a cheat just designed to mess with the audience's mind, or a way to avoid dealing with the consequences of something the writers didn't think through all the way, or everything goes back to normal in about five seconds.

Not this time. There was a natural, logical reason to skip directly ahead: to make the settlement seem real, something that was tried, that changed both society and the characters down to their cores. I mean, they could have spent an episode or two showing the Chief supervising construction projects and somebody from Geminon officiating over Starbuck and Anders' wedding, and even Apollo scarfing down a lot of donuts, but after a few weeks, the absence of the Cylons would have been stifling.

Ditto the effects of Caprica Six and Boomer's peace movement among the Cylons. I'm sure at some point there will be explanations of how they pulled it off, and then what made them change their minds about the whole mutual non-agression thing, but I'm not sure I would've wanted to see a year's worth of episodes about this.

In the podcast, Moore mentioned that they're submitting Mary McDonnell for lead actress at the Emmys, which is the right category but the wrong year to be doing it in. Mary was amazing throughout, especially in the scene where she tried to talk Adama into letting her steal the election, but the combination of sci-fi's bad rep and presence of Edie Falco's JGHTDERN performance in "Sopranos" episode two will squelch any shot she would have of winning. (Assuming they can even get the Academy to nominate them; I wonder whether the retirees who will fill up the new blue-ribbon panels will take the show seriously.)

I think it's great that "Galacitica" is wrapping up its season just before "Sopranos" comes back, and when "Sopranos" goes, it'll be replaced by "Deadwood," which will be replaced by "The Wire." Those are the four best dramas on television by leaps and bounds, and it's great that I'll be able to see at least one of them in every week from now until the end of the year.

UPDATE: Since technical difficulties and time management problems kept me from posting until late yesterday afternoon, I rushed it a bit and left out commentary on some of my other favorite moments. So here goes...
  • I've seen some message board speculation on what happened to create this big rift between Apollo and Starbuck. I don't think we need to wonder. That scene where Kara did everything short of tying Apollo down, clipping his eyelids open and forcing him to watch her have wild, angry I Just Saved You From Extinction So Will You Please Help Make My Unrequited Lover Jealous sex with Anders. As with the vote tampering story, I love that the writers aren't afraid to make the heroes act very, very ugly.
  • Dean Stockwell, comic genius. Cavil's rapid gear shift from denial to resignation when he saw one of his duplicates was hilarious. And I've rarely seen an actor play two roles in the same scene so well. The timing between the two Cavils was so great I started to wonder if this was a Jill Hennessy/Linda Hamilton situation where Stockwell has an identical twin who's not in the business but shows up now and then to help out with scenes like this. (Linda and her sis obviously did that climactic scene in Terminator 2, and I remain convinced to this day that Jill didn't actually go to Baltimore for the Law & Order/Homicide cross-over.)
  • Traumatized, scarred, man-fearing Gina is so afraid of losing Baltar that she gives him the only thing he really wants out of her, in a scene as creepy as all the Caprica Six/Baltar sex scenes (both real and imagined) are hot and/or funny. And then, of course, she goes and not only kills herself but destroys the rag tag fleet's booze and hooker stockpile. Does this mean Lee's ho friend and her daughter bit it in the explosion? If she'd appeared in more than one episode, maybe I'd feel bad for him.
  • Speaking of Baltar, he was a large pile of blow from going full-on Tony Montana. I look forward to the moment when Gaius joins Kara and Tigh's resistance movement, whips out a machine gun and tells some Centurions (in a precise English accent) "Say hello to my little friend!"And does this mean that Laura is really Robert Loggia in drag? Not sure I want to contemplate that. So, to shake that image out of my head, I'll say that Baltar's realization that he had betrayed humanity again was perfectly played, and I can't wait for the scene next season when Caprica Six explains that she's the same woman he fell in love with way back in the miniseries -- preferably with the respective Six and Baltar hallucinations bantering with each other, like some kind of demented Al Calavicci/Zoey poetry slam. I mean, hell, they already have Dean Stockwell on board.
So, what did everybody else think? Great twist, or dumb cheat? Click here to read the full post

Friday, March 10, 2006

At last, at long last (part two)...

... our national nightmare is over: "Joey" is no more. From today's Variety:

Peacock was planning to air "Most Outrageous Moments" on Fridays, but the skein will now air Tuesdays from 8-9 p.m. -- the timeslot that was to have been occupied for the next few weeks by "Joey."

Opening for "Moments" appeared after NBC execs decided to again pull "Joey" from the lineup following the skein's disastrous return this week in the new Tuesday slot. Just 4 million viewers tuned in, with the half-hour skein averaging a stunningly weak 1.4/4 among adults 18-49.

"Joey," which had been struggling on Thursdays, will now return to Hiatusville and likely won't be back until summer, when NBC might opt to burn off the remaining originals. Net still hasn't confirmed "Joey's" cancellation, but the writing has been on the wall for some time now.

Meanwhile, "American Idol" results. I'm not enough of a masochist to sit through the results show, but I'm not entirely shocked at who went home. Kinnik and Peter Brady were easy calls, while Gedeon fell victim to Nikko Smith Disease (not a lot of pre-semis screentime and performances that were consistently in the middle of the pack, which always makes people forget to vote for you). And Ayla? Well, she was pretty mediocre this week, whereas Melissa looked so desperate to keep going that she may have gotten sympathy votes. Weep not for Ayla; now she doesn't have to give up her full ride basketball scholarship.

Oh, and when was the last time that Simon declared someone should pack their bags and they didn't go home? I'm sure it happened a few times in the first season, before he figured out the whims of American fans, but I can't remember it happening recently.

Click here to read the full post

At last, at long last...

... we're three days from "The Sopranos" premiere. My review ran today, but as you'll see from this excerpt, I had to do some fancy tap-dancing with it, so there will be another review on Monday where I discuss the episode in greater detail. Excerpting...

I CAN'T tell you anything.

Really, I wish I could. Here you've waited nearly two years for new episodes of "The Sopranos," and I'm holding back information about them like I'm a school yard bully playing keep-away.

You just have to trust me on this. I watched the first four episodes of season six in a state of total ignorance, so when things hit the fan -- and they hit it quick -- I was completely blown away. Whether you're going to love or hate the new season, you're better off going in with as little knowledge as possible.

Meanwhile, "Survivor." When I was a kid, my dream in life was to be an astronaut -- or, at least, one of those guys in Mission Control who gives the Go/No-Go call at lift-off. I read every book on Apollo I could find (I once gave an elementary school book report in a pair of imitation moon boots), watched every movie about space flight (even utter crap like "Capricorn One," starring The Juice), and did everything short of drinking Tang with every meal.

So it was a massive downer to see Dan Fuego get the boot last night, and yet really refreshing to see such an open, respectful Tribal Council. Probst was almost beside himself trying to figure out how to deal with these mature adults who understand that it's just a game. And the show's music guy went way out of control with that attempt to create suspense on what we all knew was a done deal.

Terry, who had been my favorite until now, made a really dumb decision here. The merge is coming within the next two episodes, and at this point keeping your team strong is a moot point. It's over; you lost. At this point, the goal should be to keep as many tight allies as you can in the event that someone on Casaya wants to cut a deal. Dan had sworn that he would never vote for Terry, and I believed that. Austin and Nick love Terry, but their first loyalty is to each other. If there isn't a merge in the next episode and La Mina loses again, I wouldn't be stunned to see Sally talk the two young guys into voting for Terry, either to eliminate their toughest individual competition or to make him cough up the Immunity Idol before it becomes a guaranteed ticket to the final four.

(And, yeah, I realize that the contestants are afraid of the Purple Rock of Doom and the possibility that they could go home even if they don't get voted for the first time, but again, Terry has that idol in his pocket for just such an occasion. If Casaya stays together post-merge and leaves Terry until he's the last La Mina man standing, all that idol will do is buy him another week until his lack of allies sends him home.)

Watched a few minutes of "The O.C.," in which entire scenes went on without any of the original characters, and where the Newport police department is once again proven to be dumber than Barney Fife with this investigation of Johnny's death. I'll get to the rest eventually, but it's not exactly a priority, y'know?

If you're a "Galactica" fan, check back over the weekend. Since I've already seen the finale, I'm going to write my blog entry in advance and post it either very late tonight or first thing in the morning. And with a kid who wakes up no later than 7, rain or shine, weekday or weekend, first thing in the morning is pretty damn early for me. Click here to read the full post