Monday, March 31, 2008

HIMYM, "The Bracket": No bets, just slaps

Spoilers for tonight's March Madness-themed episode of "How I Met Your Mother" coming up just as soon as I prepare some ribs for bedtime...

As we started running out of episodes of scripted series back in December and early January, I felt like I had to grade a lot of them on a curve, because they were clearly put into production without the usual polishing you would get if the writers were around to make changes. Everyone's back at work, but based on these early post-strike "HIMYM"s, I feel like a curve is still necessary. The episodes have been good -- this was actually one of the best of the season, pre or post-strike -- but in watching each one, I can spot certain elements that would have been fixed if Bays, Thomas and company weren't racing to get as many episodes on the air as quickly as they could.

Specifically, while the show has come back with its attention to structure and continuity intact, it feels like the writers' dialogue muscles atrophied during those three months on the picket. There was so much to love about "The Bracket," and yet periodically there would be these punchlines that made me cringe like I was watching an episode of "George Lopez" or something. I think of a line like Barney the master perjurer not wanting to talk about work, or even the payoff to the "aura of self-loathing and despair" exchange (the set-up was funnier than the punchline, because why would Barney be asking that question if it would apply to every woman he ever slept with?) and I imagine there was a lot of "We'll just leave that in until we come up with something better" talk in the writers room.

Fortunately, most of the hack-y stuff was finished by the time the opening credits rolled, and from then on I could focus on the good things about "The Bracket."

Specifically, I loved the focus on Barney -- and a triumphantly evil Barney, at that. When "The Yips" aired shortly before the strike, a lot of friends complained that a sensitive, emasculated Barney isn't remotely as funny as a Barney who does terrible things and gets away with it, and "The Bracket" was a superb argument for that point of view. Barney has done terrible things to all of these women -- and most of the bracket debates sounded much worse than anything he did to the Final Four -- and the complete lack of consequences for that behavior is a defining, memorable quality for the character. The way Barney always gets away with this stuff -- and that he can suck otherwise decent people like Lily, Marshall and Robin into his web of deceit and sleaze -- never gets old. One of the episode's many highlights was the competition to guess the reasons why Barney would view a museum as a great pick-up sight, and then that was quickly topped by the list of reasons why each woman on the bracket hates him. (Girl Who Thought I Was Jorge Posada may be my favorite, if only because I don't think Neil Patrick Harris remotely looks like Jorge.)

Some specific thoughts:
  • Yes, I'm one of those "Simpsons" nerds who always has to do freeze frame or slo-mo through things like Barney's mental montage of past conquests, and so I caught that one of the women was Madeleine Albright -- a callback to a line from "The Yips" about Barney's inability to talk to women he doesn't intend to sleep with.
  • As you would expect it to be, is a functioning website, and features another callback, to Ted's porno doppleganger.
  • Did anyone take the back-to-back discussion of karma and lists as some kind of "My Name Is Earl" reference? I kept expecting Barney to make a mustache joke.
  • "Have you ever fallen asleep while eating ribs?" is funny on many different levels at once. First, as an illustration of how well Ted knows Robin. Second, ribs are an inherently funny kind of food, because they're so messy. Third, the concept of eating them and dozing off while covered in rib goo is funny. Fourth, Robin's stupid giggling was also funny. I'm sure there are more levels to it than that, but the great thing about a Barney-centric episode is that he can carry most of the laughs and allow the writers to focus on one or two really funny bits of business for the other characters who may not be as hilarious when the spotlight's on them for the whole show.
  • Another great throwaway gag: Marshall's inability to behave normally during the fake conversation at MacLaren's. ("Here are words... Laughter!")
  • I've somehow missed nearly every second of the tournament this year. Do they still actually play "One Shining Moment," or has it been replaced by some equally coma-inducing bit of treacle? Maybe one of the "American Idol" coronation songs?
  • Fifteen years -- and one career-redefining role in "Harold and Kumar" -- later, I'm glad Neil Patrick Harris is okay with a "Doogie Howser" joke. (For you young'uns, the music being played as Barney typed his blog at the end was the "Doogie" theme; every episode of that show would end with Doogie typing some earnest new life lesson in his electronic journal. You see, back in those days, we didn't have fancy things called blogs. We had word processors! They had blue screens and lousy Graphic User Interfaces, and we liked them! We loved them! Flibbledy-floo!)
What did everybody else think?
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Mad Men redux: Good vibrations

(Note: Because AMC is rerunning the first season of "Mad Men" every Sunday at midnight, and because a lot of people missed the show the first time around, I'm reposting my blog reviews for each episode the morning after. These are written as they were back in the summer/early fall; if I feel differently about anything in retrospect, I'll mention it in the comments. Also, while comments from both newbies and people who watched the first time are welcome, if you've seen these episodes before, please be vague about events in later episodes so as not to spoil things for the newcomers.)

Easiest post title ever (though I was briefly tempted to go with "It's my ID in a box!"). Spoilers for the latest "Mad Men" coming up just as soon as I enjoy some Yankee BBQ...

One of the running -- and oft-disputed -- themes of my "Mad Men" reviews is how little seems to happen in each episode in terms of actual storylines. That's never been a complaint -- I view this show as an atmospheric first, a character piece second and an ongoing narrative a distant third -- but it's definitely not a comment I could make about episode 11, "Indian Summer."

Let's see, what happened? Well, Don's half-brother Adam, hung himself (no doubt feeling low from his brother's rejection and cold pay-off), and before that sent a mysterious package (labeled "personal") to Don's office. Roger returned to work far too soon to put on a show for the Lucky Strikes people, but instead suffered another heart episode that probably signals the end of his active role at Sterling Cooper. Bert Cooper promoted Don to partner and put Don in charge of finding Roger's replacement as the head of accounts -- a job that Pete has his eye on, and may now have the blackmail ammunition to get, as he intercepted the mysterious Adam Whitman package.

As Andrew Johnston noted in his episode review over at The House Next Door, Matt Weiner studied at the foot of David Chase, and "Sopranos" seasons tended to have all the big events take place in the penultimate episode (as well as the one before). If Weiner holds true to that form, expect even more chaos next week -- much of it, I'm sure, revolving around that package -- followed by a more contemplative final hour more in the vein of Don's night out with Midge and her beatnik pals.

I hope this isn't, in fact, the last we'll see of Roger, because John Slattery continues to play the hell out of this oily charmer. I don't know how much of Roger's ashen appearance was the makeup team and how much was Slattery, but I almost felt for the bastard in his time of weakness -- until, of course, he confessed to Joan that his great near-death revelation was that she was "the finest piece of ass I've ever had, and I don't care who knows it." You stay classy, Roger Sterling. (LIke Andrew Johnston -- and, at this late date, I'm half-tempted to just tell you to go read his fine review, because we're in such synch on this episode -- I did wonder why Cooper felt compelled to trot out Roger for this dog and pony show, given that the Lucky Strikes guys didn't seem all that concerned about his absence, so long as Don could be kept in the fold.)

Meanwhile, in the character-over-plot portion of the episode (sort of), Peggy and Betty both discovered the pleasure of things that vibrate, albeit for different reasons: Peggy while testing out a "weight-loss" belt that's really a precursor to modern feminine sex aids, a sexually frustrated (and literally overheated) Betty while leaning against her dryer while in the midst of another stultifying day as a domestic goddess.

I'm assuming, at this point, that the speculation about Peggy being pregnant with Pete's demon-spawn was incorrect, that her weight gain (and here I absolutely have to credit the makeup department, because the facial prosthetics looked seamless) is simply a reaction to the stress of her job and the mind games Pete's been playing with her. Regardless, it's interesting how Weiner and the writers are showing Peggy make genuine progress in her copy writing career -- to see even self-interested Ayn Randian Don treat her as a colleague in need of support and encouragement -- while also showing her becoming just as awful in her own way as Paul and Kenny and the rest of the guys. Her behavior on the date with the outer borough guy couldn't have been more condescending, and while some of that can be ascribed to the period -- there's no roadmap for how a woman like Peggy should respond to succeeding in a man's profession -- she was still quite awful. Maybe she and Pete do deserve each other, after all.

Betty's acknowledgement of her sexual needs -- to a point, anyway, as she seemed to get off the dryer before, um, getting off -- was interesting, and served as a fine illustration of all the things that Don isn't thinking about when he's with Rachel. My wife was of the opinion that she told Don about the A/C salesman because she wanted to gauge his reaction, to see if he still cared about her, but if that was her intention, I don't think she understands her husband well enough at all. Don didn't get mad because of the notion of his wife being around another man; he got mad because another man was around his "property," both his house and the wife he considers as housekeeper and nanny and not much more.

What did everybody else think? How much trouble is Pete going to cause in the final two weeks of the season?
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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sepinwall on TV: 'Battlestar Galactica,' king of the remakes

Today's column was originally planned as a review of the fourth season premiere of "Battlestar Galactica," but for reasons too complicated (and boring) to get into here, it morphed into a think piece about the difficulty of pulling off a remake. You can read it here.

I don't know if I'll write a proper review of the premiere before it airs -- the short version, as discussed previously, is that I was very happy with it, even though it doesn't majorly advance the plot -- but I'll definitely have something ready to post as soon as it ends on Friday night. Click here to read the full post

Saturday, March 29, 2008

In Treatment week 9 open thread

And so we head into our final three episodes of "In Treatment." No Monday or Tuesday shows this week, but we're sticking with the usual pattern of respecting the airing schedule. We can talk about Sophie tonight, Jake and Amy after tomorrow night, and the whole shebang on Friday. Click here to read the full post

Friday, March 28, 2008

Reaper: Boys and girls... ACTION! ACTION!

Spoilers for last night's "Reaper" coming up just as soon as I grease up a chair...

First, I know the photo above wasn't in last night's episode, but A)the CW press site didn't have any pictures for this show, and B)Michael Ian Black trying to sand off his demon horns is a funny image.

If you've been reading me for a while, you know there's always a risk, whenever more than one alum of The State appears in something, of me going off on a long tangent about my love of the group. To save time, I'll just link to a handful of State sketches (featuring Black and/or Ken Marino) that have yet to be pulled off of YouTube or MySpace TV: "Pants", "The Barry Lutz Show", "Porcupine Racetrack" and "Father-Son Race" and express my frustration that MTV has once again delayed the release of the DVDs (which is the whole reason all the other sketches have been scrubbed off of YouTube).

Beyond any college age nostalgia for the likes of Louie or Barry and Levon, I was glad to see Black and Marino show up last week because "Reaper" has been badly in need of a comedy injection for a while. To keep alive the "Chuck" comparison a little longer, "Chuck" was able to get by a lot of weeks with iffy plots and guest villains simply because it was funny. "Reaper" has tried to be funny, but most of the time the jokes felt exactly like that -- someone trying to be funny, and not succeeding.

Sam and the guys' interaction with their new gay/demon neighbors carried last week's otherwise forgettable invisible soul storyline. So those scenes were added to an episode like last night where things actually happened, you got a show that sort of resembled the one we all liked so much way back when the pilot aired.

Part of the problem with "Reaper," other than the low laugh quotient, is that Sam is such a passive, sad sack character. The idea that Sam is somehow special to the Devil, and that there are other Hellspawn who might want to take advantage of that link to get back at Ol' Scratch, gives both the character and the show some actual direction. We know Sam's not going to get out of his contract before the finale, but this other story idea could be promising. (Plus, it suggests that Black and Marino will be around for a while.) And the writers needed to get off the pot already with Sam and Andi; the Peter Parker, "Anyone I get close to will be in danger" approach isn't the most original, but at least it should (I hope) put a moratorium on all those lemon-sucking scenes where Sam pines after her.

What did everybody else think?
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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Sucked in by Schlesinger

"Do you want to go see Cry-Baby the musical?" my friend Steve asks me.

"They're doing Cry-Baby on Broadway?" I ask, trying to remember if I ever actually saw the Johnny Depp/John Waters movie, or if I just read a really long article about it in Premiere in the spring of 1990.

"Adam Schlesinger is doing the music," Steve says -- and that's all I need to hear.

I don't go to Broadway shows very often -- I'm not positive, but I think my last one was "Spamalot" two and a half years ago -- but as soon as Steve mentioned Schlesinger was involved, I was in.

You see, Schlesinger is one of those automatics for me. He's one of the frontmen for Fountains of Wayne, probably my favorite band (I'm a sucker for catchy power-pop). You might know them from the ubiquitous 2003 video for "Stacy's Mom".

He wrote the title track from "That Thing You Do," and it requires a special kind of genius to craft a song that's going to play, in full or in part, nearly a dozen different times in the space of a two-hour movie that not only doesn't drive you crazy, but actually sounds better each successive time you hear it. (The movie itself is fun, but if it wasn't for that damn song, I doubt it would be on so many people's lists of Movies You Must Always Stop And Watch When You Stumble Across It On Cable.) He performed a similar feat with "Way Back Into Love," the song at the center of the Hugh Grant/Drew Barrymore romcom "Music and Lyrics" (YouTube has both an early version from the film and the polished final version), which is another tune that burrows its way into your brain in the least annoying way possible.

(Note: Schlesinger did not, in fact, write "Pop Goes My Heart," the hilarious Wham! parody that's the other key song from that movie, but the video is worth watching anyway just to see Scott "Street from Friday Night Lights" Porter as the George Michael of the group.)

I'll even listen to other bands if I hear they're playing a Schlesinger-penned tune, like the Click Five's "Just the Girl," which somehow straddles the line between Fountains of Wayne and Backstreet Boys.

Now, "Cry-Baby" is still being tinkered with in previews, so I shouldn't say much about the show, save that I had a good time and spent the trip home humming several of the songs (which were co-written by "Daily Show" head writer David Javerbaum).

But I bring this up not only because I've been wandering around the house most of today singing snatches of "Way Back Into Love," but because I know that everybody has their automatic pop culture people, the sort where, if you here they're involved in a project, you're going to check it out, no questions asked. It can be a big star or a director or a band, or it can be somebody less obvious. I have a friend who's a cinematography buff who will slap down 10 bucks to see any movie Roger Deakins has photographed, for instance.

Since we're in a bloggy lull while we wait for the TV season to come fully back to life, I figured it was time for another open thread, so who gets your money, every time?
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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

American Idol: Top 10 results

Uber-brief "American Idol" spoilers coming right up...

Razza frazza sonuva... Chikezie's gone, and a week before he could have rocked the hell out of Country Night. I feared this was coming when he went back to the boring balladeering (and after Kristy Lee figured out a way to jump the queue), and he had no chance of winning, but this is still a bummer.

I was working on my taxes and fast-forwarded through almost the entire show -- though I somehow stopped at the exact moment when Carly denied the pregnancy rumors -- so I have no comment on anything else (the rest of the bottom three, for those who didn't watch, were Jason and Syesha). Fire away on anything I missed.
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This, that and that other thing

Blogging activity's been pretty minimal of late, I know. The end of "The Wire" took a lot out of me (and also robbed me of the most-commented topic each week), and I'm hoping to start the season one rewind soon. (I'll provide plenty of advance warning before I do, so people can dust off their DVD sets.) I also got wrapped up in a long story for this Sunday's paper that started off as a review of "Battlestar Galactica" season four and turned more into a think piece on remakes.

So with no column in the paper today or tomorrow, and no "Lost" tomorrow night, I figured I'd browse TV Tattle and provide some belated thoughts on items in the news or on my desk. Bullet points to follow after the jump:
  • Most optimistically-titled DVD set to arrive in the mail in months: "Bionic Woman: Volume One," as if there's even the slimmest chance of there being a "Volume Two." On the plus side, I just got my review copy of "Friday Night Lights: The Second Season," which is out on April 22.
  • We should know the fate of "FNL" itself well before the DVDs come out, as NBC is holding its upfront more than a month early than usual, a week from today. Given how the strike messed up development season, my guess is they're mainly going to be pushing pre-existing series (get ready for a "Knight Rider" pick-up!), and that they'll take the Fox route of presenting five different schedules for different parts of the year, all of which will be torn up within a few months (if not by the time the other networks do their upfronts in mid-May).
  • Carolyn Strauss is out as HBO entertainment president as the channel tries to define itself post-"Sopranos" and "Sex and the City." I like Carolyn and like some of the channel's recent output (you know I've been obsessed with "In Treatment," and she was always one of David Simon's biggest champions), but I also understand the desire for change after so long. I do wonder whether HBO brass are kidding themselves about replicating the success of the turn of the millennium. "Sopranos" and "Sex" were both lightning in a bottle shows -- highbrow enough to draw in the "Oh, I don't watch television" crowd, but with subject matter lowbrow enough to draw a mass audience as well -- and that's going to be hard to pull off again.
  • The first post-Strauss change came quick, as HBO dumped Linda Bloodworth Thomason's "12 Miles of Bad Road." Thomason and husband Harry quickly mobilized to send copies of the show around to TV critics in hopes of drumming up support for another network to pick it up. (I got my DVDs last week but haven't had a chance to watch yet; admittedly, I've never been a huge Thomason fan, even with "Designing Women.") This isn't the first time someone's tried this tactic; when TNT realized it made better financial sense to turn "Breaking News" into a tax write-off than to promote and air it, its producer started slipping copies to critics, and eventually Bravo picked it up and aired the completed season (though no new episodes were made.)
  • Rob Thomas is living a charmed life; in addition to the previously-discussed "Cupid" and "90210" remakes, he has a third pilot in the works, a remake of the New Zealand dramedy "Outrageous Fortune," for ABC. Watch: somehow, none of the three will get picked up.
  • Continuing last week's Paley Festival discussion, Futon Critic recaps of the panels for "Friday Night Lights," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Gossip Girl," "Dirty Sexy Money" and "Damages."
  • As if Hulu wasn't a bad enough procrastination tool, Trey and Matt have now put every "South Park" episode ever made (including last week's extremely disturbing Britney episode) online at Better bad day pick-me-up: Gob Bluth doing the chicken dance, or a Mr. Hanky song?
  • Fox canceled "Jezebel James" after three episodes, moved "Canterbury's Law" to Fridays after two episodes and renewed "Prison Break." I know Fox had been talking about a women's prison-based spin-off for "Prison Break," but as the original show is now going to need a storyline for season four, why not combine the two and have Michael get in drag for a while? My wife is convinced that if you slapped a wig on Wentworth Miller, he'd be a dead ringer for Jennifer Aniston. (Or vice versa, if you shaved her head.)

Feel free to opine on any other TV-related happenings not discussed her. Anything's fair game, except for Kristy Lee Cook or the works of Lee Greenwood.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

American Idol, Top 10: Songs from the year you were born

Spoilers for the top 10 performance show of "American Idol" coming up just as soon as I put some Groucho glasses on my daughter and get the camera...

If we're sticking with the Inevitability of Archuleta theory, then tonight's episode was about definitively establishing David Cook as this year's bit of Bo Bice-esque misdirection. Some middle of the pack people raised their game a bit, some others fell back, but get ready for a whole lot of Big David vs. Little David talk over the next few weeks.

In order...

Ramiele Malubay, "Alone": The songs of the sisters Wilson are generally money in the bank for Idolettes -- Carrie Underwood's performance of this tune is basically the only time I ever liked her on the show -- but nerves or illness or both overtake Ramiele, and the big notes are too much for her to handle. Going first in a long show, her only hope is a passionate fanbase.

Jason Castro, "Fragile": The first of several songs in this show I've never heard before in my entire life. (Not that this is a bad thing -- I'd rather hear something new than the 80th performance of "Overjoyed" or "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" -- but it's rare that I'm so in the dark on so many songs in a single night.) After treating the French-inflected "Michelle" last week as one big joke, Jason takes this Spanish-inflected Sting tune more seriously, but Simon's right on the money when he calls it standard busking. You could hear that exact performance on street corners around the globe. Seacrest tried to help Jason out afterwards with the interview, but Jason's perpetually-baked affect doesn't exactly help the cause of proving he's putting any effort into any of this. Still, he's purdy, and I suspect that's going to carry him a long way yet.

Syesha Mercade, "If I Were Your Woman": First of all, Syesha? Stop doing the crying baby thing. It's not endearing; it's disturbing. As for the rest of it, this was a technically strong rendition of an extremely boring song. Even with all the runs and big notes and falsetto -- all pulled off with aplomb by Syesha -- I would have changed the channel or fast-forwarded through it if I wasn't reviewing each performance.

Chikezie, "If Only For One Night": Why, Chikezie? Why? You seemed to have figured it out, seemed to realize that the sleepy ballad thing was going to get you sent home and that the way to stand out was by doing those energy-filled mash-ups, and then you go back to the ballad box? Why? And yet... if Ruben Studdard had given this exact same performance in season two, the judges would have prostrated themselves about how Ruben was a genius and the one true heir to the Luther throne. I guess it speaks well of the show that it's come far enough in the last five years for that sort of thing to seem passe, but I really don't want Chikezie to go home yet, and I'm worried.

Brooke White, "Every Breath You Take": Randy is such a mush-head that I hate to agree with him about anything, and about music (his alleged area of expertise) in particular, but I was thinking the exact same thing as him as that song went into the bridge: had Brooke done the entire thing acoustic, accompanied just by herself, it could have been something special, but once the band came in, it was a very ordinary Police cover. Also, she's lucky that she was going solo at the start, because had she messed up her cue while working with the band, no way she would have had the chance to start over, James Blunt-style.

Michael Johns, "We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions": After admitting last week that he peaked when he sang Queen during the semi-finals, Michael finally gets his mojo back by... singing Queen. Ah, well. At least it was a different song, as opposed to Kristy Lee having to sing "Amazing Grace" again that same week to save herself. After seeming lost and uncomfortable on stage for weeks, Michael finally had his swagger back and kicked butt. I don't know if the sound engineer helped him out or if he just instinctively knows how to work with a rock band, but I could see a lot of contestants, past and present, getting swallowed up by that arrangement and the band, and his voice rang out like he was the only person on that stage. He's long since lost his chance to play Young David's stalking horse, but if Michael can be this good doing something other than the Freddie Mercury catalog, he might just stick around for a while yet.

Carly Smithson, "Total Eclipse of the Heart": Weird that two different contestants sang Heart songs and neither was Carly, and yet this Bonnie Tyler cheese classic is even more in her wheelhouse than the Wilson sisters are. The thing about Carly is that, if you close your eyes and just listen, she usually sounds terrific (though that attempt to go for a big, Randy-flavored run at the end was way off key), but she always seems so labored when you watch her. The really big stars make it look effortless; Carly can't help but show how hard this is for her.

David Archuleta, "You're the Voice": I'll be honest: I spent half this performance Googling the lyrics to figure out what the hell Young David was singing (it didn't help that I heard Seacrest's introduction as "You're the Boss") and I really don't recall much of anything about the actual singing. But with Archuleta at this point, does the singing even matter? He's no longer a singer; he's a cult of personality. Every girl who wants him to ask her to his prom is going to vote and vote and vote tonight.

Kristy Lee Cook, "God Bless the USA": I don't know whether to boo and hiss over her choosing maybe the song I hate most in all the world -- a pandering, lowest common denominator patriotic dirge whose subtext is, basically, "If you don't like America, you can go *&$& yourself" -- or applaud her for, as Simon hinted, being savvy enough to recognize that this kind of song is going to get her mad, mad vote totals from the "Idol" audience. I think Kristy just guaranteed her first completely safe week of the competition, dammit.

David Cook, "Billie Jean": The show seems to have learned its lesson from the Chris Daughtry Live-gate, as Seacrest introduces this as the Chris Cornell version of the Jacko classic. Cook is actually doing a very faithful rendition of this untraditional cover (follow that link to hear Cornell kill with an acoustic performance of it), but what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in charisma, and one huge rock god note near the end. Again, I think all this talk of Big David having a chance to win this thing is misdirection -- no matter how good or creative or edgy he may be, "Idol" is the kind of show that rewards schmaltz above edge -- but I'm always interested to see what he's going to do next.

Best of the night:
David Cook, with Michael Johns a distant second.

In danger:
Ramiele (went early, tepid praise at best from Simon), Syesha (went early, not as good as the judges claimed, don't know if she has a fanbase), Chikezie (went back to being boring), and Carly (tepid praise, iffy fanbase) are my top candidates to hit the seal. I'm hoping Ramiele or Syesha goes home; I'm afraid it'll be Chikezie.

What did everybody else think?
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All TV: 'Jericho' ends, 'Autism: The Musical' review

Twofer column today, starting with a look at the end of "Jericho" (again):

Behold, "Jericho," the show so nice, CBS canceled it twice.

The first time was last spring, when the network left "Jericho" off its fall schedule, only to be overwhelmed by the best-organized Save Our Show campaign of all time. Fans deluged the CBS offices with phone calls (some network execs had to change their numbers) and peanuts -- 20 tons of peanuts in all, inspired by a line in the show's finale (which was, in turn, inspired by the Battle of the Bulge).

So all those nuts inspired CBS to uncancel the show for a make-or-break mini-season of seven episodes. But the numbers were even lower this time than they were last spring -- last week's episode drew 5.7 million viewers, as compared to the 7.7 million who watched the cancellation-level season one finale -- and CBS decided to cancel it again, and for good this time.
The second item, meanwhile, reviews HBO's "Autism: The Musical," which is very honest and very sweet and deservingly tear-jerking. To read the full thing, click here. Click here to read the full post

Monday, March 24, 2008

HIMYM: How to lose a no in 10 times

Spoilers for "Ten Sessions," the Britney Spears-eriffic episode of "How I Met Your Mother," coming up just as soon as I introduce Ted and Stella to a little movie I like to call "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes"...

Not that I expect the ratings to be notably higher than usual -- stunt-casting stopped moving the ratings needle years ago -- but if new viewers tuned in to see Britney(*), I wonder what they made of this one. As an example of story construction and grand romantic gestures -- two of the things that make "HIMYM" great -- it was a triumph. As an example of laugh-out-loud comedy? Meh.

((*) Before we go any further, might as well get this out of the way: Britney was fine. Not great, not awful; fine. She has plenty of experience at doing sketch comedy with her version of the Mickey Mouse Club, and she's been a pretty good "SNL" host -- albeit not as good as fellow MMC'er Justin Timberlake. She was overplaying a little bit here and there with the wide eyes and big smile, and I imagine a more trained comic actress could have done more with what was really a minor character, but she was fine. She did nothing to detract from my enjoyment of the episode, and hopefully this will be one step of many on the road back to mental health.)

Anyway, I was so busy admiring all the clever things in "Ten Sessions" -- how the writers were able to cram in distinct feelings for all 10 (and bull sessions at McClaren's after most of them), how the script kept looping back around to reveal that Barney was the rude guy on the phone and Marshall was the guy who left the book in Stella's office (the latter felt very much like a time travel movie punchline, like Marty McFly teaching Chuck Berry how to play "Johnny B. Goode"), how awesome and sweet Ted's two-minute date was (complete with Ranjit the cabbie from the pilot) -- that it took me a while to realize that very little of it was ticklin' the ol' funny bone. I laughed a few times at throwaway jokes (Lily giving Barney a time out, Robin admitting that she suffers a little from the mustache thing), but more prominent gags like the game of Telephone at the movie theater or Marshall forgetting where he left the memory book felt very bad sitcom-y to me. When "HIMYM" is really clicking, it's both smart and funny. "Ten Sessions" was mostly just smart.

And, man, am I still annoyed by the Silverstone/Chalke/Spears kerfuffle. If I had any doubts before that the role of Stella (originally written for Alicia Silverstone, who bailed when Brit-Brit got cast) was originally planned as The Mother, they're gone now. Between Stella's reference to going out to a lame St. Patrick's Day party (no doubt where she lost her yellow umbrella) and the perfection of the two-minute date, everything about her smelled Mother. And unless Bill Lawrence's plans for the bonus final season of "Scrubs" (whether it airs on NBC or ABC) don't involve Sarah Chalke, it won't be logistically feasible to make her be the woman of Future Ted's talky dreams.

(I did briefly wonder how Stella's 8-year-old daughter fit into the world of Future Ted, but then realized that she'd be an adult by the period when Future Ted is boring his biological kids with this neverending story. Problem solved.)

What did everybody else think?
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Mad Men redux: Doublemint Don

(Note: Because AMC is rerunning the first season of "Mad Men" every Sunday at midnight, and because a lot of people missed the show the first time around, I'm reposting my blog reviews for each episode the morning after. These are written as they were back in the summer/early fall; if I feel differently about anything in retrospect, I'll mention it in the comments. Also, while comments from both newbies and people who watched the first time are welcome, if you've seen these episodes before, please be vague about events in later episodes so as not to spoil things for the newcomers.)

Spoilers for the 10th episode of "Mad Men" coming up just as soon as I sit through a Billy Wilder movie marathon...

Boy, I wish AMC had scheduled this show so that its run would have wrapped up before the network season began. It's not that I'd be torn between watching it and the rotting corpse of "ER," as "Mad Men" would beat almost every network drama head to head for me right now (and I see most episodes in advance, besides), but because each episode is so dense and layered that it deserves a deeper analysis than I'm capable of giving it now that I'm blogging 17,000 other shows. So I'm going to hit this episode bullet-point style, and trust you very smart people to cover everything I miss. Based on the comments for the recent episodes, I think the show's in good hands.

So, breaking it down story by story:

Roger's twin trouble: Boy, John Slattery has no problem playing appalling creeps, does he? I thought his golden shower-loving comptroller from "Sex and the City" couldn't be topped, but the entire sequence with the twins made me feel very dirty. Comparing Mirabelle to his daughter and sugggesting he wanted to suck her blood like Dracula was bad, but the squirmiest moment for me was when he asked them to kiss, and Mirabelle sadly noted that everyone asks them to do that. You want the perfect way to destroy a girl's self-esteem so she'll sleep with your ancient WWII veteran behind? Convince her that she's worthless except as part of a matched set.

Now, do we think the writers will actually bump off Roger? I know there's been a lot of speculation that Slattery isn't long for the show based on his "Very Special Guest Star" designation, but that's not unheard of treatment for the biggest name in a cast of unknowns (see Heather Locklear on "Melrose Place," to name one precedent). Roger dying would open some interesting story possibilities -- Cooper looking for a new partner, Don perhaps being considered, the jockeying by the chipmunks to move up the ladder, Joan trying to land a new semi-steady man -- but I would hate to lose the oily, entitled charm that Slattery brings to the role. And his loss would in turn deprive Jon Hamm of the opportunity for great moments like Don's half-angry, half-kind, "Mona! Your wife's name is Mona!" while the paramedics were (slowly) wheeling Roger out of the office. (My favorite Don moment since his Jesus/kabuki sales pitch to the Belle Jolie people.)

Joan's roommate trouble: Speaking of annihilating a woman's self-esteem, how about Joan's poor roommate Carol? On the one hand, Carol has no one to blame but herself for trailing after the obviously hetero Joan like a lovesick puppy for so many years, hoping against hope that Joan might one day decide to switch teams and notice the knock-out blonde in the adjacent bedroom. On the other, it was still heartbreaking to watch Joan completely dismiss her declaration of love like it never happened, and then to see Carol give in and tell her lame middle-aged suitor to do whatever he wanted to her.

That Joan somehow didn't recognize Carol's deep and obvious love for her suggests either a willful blindness, a sign of the social mores at the time (it never would occur to Joan in the same way that the chipmunks have no gaydar about Salvatore), or that she's not as good at reading people as she suggests. Whatever the reason, it's a shame she probably doesn't recognize that Salvatore's queer as a three-dollar bill (though he was trying awfully hard to seem not while hitting on the various twins), because if ever there were two characters on this show who could really offer something to each other as friends/sympathetic ears, it's Carol and Salvatore.

And yet Joan gets her own tragic moment as she has to hold her head up and act professional in front of Mr. Cooper -- not realizing that he's sharp enough to know who's doing who in that office -- after hearing of Roger's heart attack. For a man who sold himself to Don as inherently self-interested a few episodes back, Cooper had himself a selfless moment when he advised Joan she could do better than Roger. (Or was it selfless? I suppose you could argue that he thinks Joan will be a better secretary to him if she were in a happier relationship, but I doubt that.)

Pete and Peggy's sexual harassment seminar: Only one real scene 'twixt these two, but a good one (and you know I'm generally ambivalent about them), as Pete -- Pete! -- accuses Peggy of acting unprofessionally when in fact she's going out of her way to be professional to him in the face of his constant advances and retreats. I usually have an issue with Vincent Kartheiser's delivery seeming too mannered, but there was genuine cruelty in Pete's retort to Peggy referencing their wild romp on the couch: "That's some imagination you've got. Good thing you're a writer now. What do you need me for?"

The truth about Dick Whitman, part one: When you have a fundamentally mysterious central character like Don/Dick, you have to walk a very fine line between revealing enough of the mystery to help the audience understand him (and keep them from getting annoyed at your evasiveness) and giving so much away that the mystery disappears. Nearly two weeks after I first watched this episode, I still can't decide whether Don's confession to Rachel falls too far on the latter side of that line.

Sure, we still don't know the reasons and mechanism for his transformation from Dick to Don, but that scene spelled out everything else we needed to know, including some things that were so strongly implied in "The Hobo Code" episode that further elaboration was unnecessary. Now we know the exact translation of "I'm a whore child," why his stepmom clearly hated him so, the identity of "Uncle Mack," etc. We even had more clarification than was needed of Don's attraction to Rachel. We already knew he was drawn to her as a fellow outsider and independent thinker; did they have to share the mom dying in childbirth thing as well?

And yet, damn is Jon Hamm good. He'll never get within sniffing distance of an Emmy nomination, but there are very few dramatic actors on television at the moment whose work I enjoy as much or more. (Hugh Laurie, Kyle Chandler, Michael C. Hall, and...? I think that's it.) Even as Don is spilling his guts and eliminating some of his mystique, I'm fascinated by the guy.

And I see I somehow didn't even manage to discuss the series' first references to "The Apartment," which has a lot of relevance for both Joan and Peggy. What did everybody else think?
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Saturday, March 22, 2008

In Treatment, week 8 open thread

And here things get very interesting with various patients on "In Treatment." Same rules as always: I'll do my best to remember to bump this post up every weeknight at 10, and in turn you only comment on the episodes as they air on HBO (i.e., no talking about Sophie until Wednesday night at 10). Click here to read the full post

Friday, March 21, 2008

Lost, "Meet Kevin Johnson": Ready to die

Spoilers for the "Lost" mid-season finale, "Meet Kevin Johnson," coming up just as soon as I go download Mama Cass' "It's Getting Better" from iTunes...

Well, I'm glad that the strike ended in time for there to be more episodes this season (starting on April 24), because Damon and Carlton were absolutely right: this would have been a terrible season finale. Lots of balls up in the air but no immediate peril for anyone but a minor character like Alex, and a cliffhanger ending that felt rushed and very un-"Lost"-like. (The shocker endings -- good or bad -- tend to focus more on characters doing something we don't expect of them, or us learning something we never would have suspected.)

That said, as an episode in a vacuum, "Meet Kevin Johnson" was quite good. While Michael was never my favorite character, his story was an important part of the show. His struggle to deal with the guilt from his Faustian bargain to save Walt was another moving example of how the writers this season are really trying to build on the emotional impact of everything that's happened before. We also got some intriguing hints about the big picture -- notably that the island's power can, in fact, extend to the mainland (which might explain a lot about Charlie visiting Hurley in the premiere) -- and a fine performance from Mr. Perrineau that was largely free (other than the "previously"s) of "WAAAAAALTTTTT!!!!!"

But it's clearly a show that was designed to be a middle chapter. I can deal with waiting a month to see the story continue, but if the strike had kept new episodes from being produced until next season, it would have been the most disappointing "Lost" finale since we didn't get to see what was in the hatch.

Because I fell asleep shortly after the episode ended and want to get discussion going quickly (for those of you near a computer on Good Friday), I'm going to go straight to bullet points:
  • I'm trying to decide whether the timeframe of Michael's life back on the mainland is supposed to connote more time/space oddness or just the writers assuming that we wouldn't notice (or mind) that, in the span of a month (he was on the island for two and back by the time everyone else had been there for three), he had time to sneak back into America undetected (since he's still pretending to be dead), get to New York, alienate Walt by blabbing about the two murders, reach a suicidal level of depression, completely heal from an airbag-less car crash, and get all the way to Fiji. I'm not saying all of those things couldn't happen within four weeks (except maybe the healing, though you can attribute that to some weird island power), but it's an awfully tight squeeze.
  • Also a chronology question: even if certain Others have the ability to get off the island quickly and go wherever they want, exactly when in the season three timeline would Tom's New York trip fit? He was with Jack for much of the season, and if we didn't see him during every episode while Locke was hanging with the Others, he was there for a lot of them, and then he died (after Naomi was on the island and therefore well after Michael had already gone to the freighter).
  • One of the unfortunate casualties of the show's format, where most episodes are dominated by one character's story, is that other characters tend to get, well, lost for long stretches. Even if they're on camera, we don't really know what's going on with them. The Alex/Rousseau relationship definitely fell victim to that. After waiting most of last season for someone to put the two of them in the same room and explain their relationship, we got that exact moving moment in the finale (courtesy of Ben, of all people), but ever since, we've had to fill in the blanks on how they've been relating to each other. After spending her whole life thinking Ben was her dad and not knowing her mom, how was Alex responding to the knowledge that this strange, crazy woman was her real parent? During their time in Other-town, did the two of them bond? Did Rousseau struggle to pack away the crazy now that her daughter was back? Unfortunately -- but somewhat understandably, given the show's format and the fact that these two are really far down the character food chain -- there was never a chance to show any of that, so when Rousseau died (I'm guessing in a Ben-designed ambush), I felt like the show had wasted an opportunity to make that death far more powerful. Yes, it sucks that Danielle died shortly after finding her daughter, but I wish there was some way we could have gotten a glimpse of their relationship during their brief time together.
  • Fisher Stevens got a bit more to do in these flashbacks, but no sign of Zoe Bell. I guess they really did just hire her to do the jumping off the boat stunt. Ah, well.
  • I hope these appearances of Libby as a figment of Michael's guilt-ridden imagination aren't the only time we'll ever see Cynthia Watros again. It's not super-high on my list of Questions That Must Be Answered, but eventually I'd like to know the point of the "Libby was in the mental hospital with Hurley" reveal from "Dave."
  • I've given up trying to guess (or, really, caring) whether Ben or Mr. Widmore is the real bad guy here, but I can't in any way fault Sayid's actions at the episode's end. The last time Michael was working for Ben, he murdered Libby and Ana-Lucia, and Sayid at this point in the chronology has no reason to trust Ben.
  • The promo for the April 24 episode definitively identified Aaron as one of the Oceanic Six, so unless this is another case of the marketing people acting independently of Damon and Carlton -- and I don't believe they would allow that to happen with something this important -- then we have our answer, once and for all.
What did everybody else think?
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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Survivor: Cleanliness is next to quitty-ness

Spoilers for last night's "Survivor" (one of two episodes each year to get bumped to Wednesday nights because of the NCAA tournament) coming up just as soon as I pay for some tree-climbing lessons...

What a weird stretch of the season. The James and Eliza-led tribe is dominating, but because of Jonathan's injury and then Kathy's incurable homesickness, they're only up by one player. And yet, without the two unplanned exits, I imagine we would have had at least one, if not two, double-eliminations by now, simply to fit one of the show's larger casts into the usual number of episodes.

(Other than maybe Jenna leaving All-Stars I to go be with her dying mom, this was probably the kindest Probst has ever been to a quitter. I guess his expectations for Kathy were so low that it didn't offend his sensibilities the way it did when, say, big beefy Osten bailed. That, and he figured she was probably going to go home later in the episode in the event of a double-elim.)

It was interesting that Kathy talked about how different it is to watch the rainstorms at home versus having to actually endure one of them, if only because it was one of the few times this season that one of the "superfans" seemed like someone who had actually watched the show. The deeper we go into the season, the more I have to believe that after Burnett nixed the idea of a proper All-Stars II, they had to scrounge up 10 civilians quickly, and this is the weird group they got. Tracy was at least playing the game -- and playing about as well as she could, given the various holes she got dropped in -- and now she's gone, and I honestly couldn't tell you which one is Natalie and which one is Alexis. (Is there even an Alexis? Or am I thinking of someone on "Top Chef"?)

The super-hot shower scene that Probst had been promising finally materialized but wasn't all that hot. Amanda gets blurred in pretty much every episode, anyway (as does, oddly, Eliza, even though they're not built remotely the same), and it was clear that these were three filthy people who cared more about getting properly cleaned up than in having a fun sexy time.

I figured there was no way Ozzy would actually go home -- it feels like this is going to be one of those things they tease before every Tribal Council, while Ozzy manages to go a very long way -- but I like that Cirie was actually able to plant a seed of doubt in Amanda's mind about the downside of having a showmance with one of the biggest challenge bad-asses of all time.

What did everybody else think?
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And here with number six, it's... Number Six

In case you missed it, the cast of "Battlestar Galactica" were on Letterman last night, in costume and in character (except Jamie Bamber, who stuck with his native accent) to present the top 10 list. You can watch it over at the official CBS site.

Meanwhile, I've seen the season premiere (which airs April 4), and I'm pleased -- but also reluctant to say anything more, given all the things left up in the air at the end of last season. It's going to be good to have these people back. Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

American Idol: Top 11 elimination

Very, very quick spoilers for the latest "American Idol" results show coming right up...

Well, nertz. Amanda had no prayer of winning, she had a three-note range and consistently looked as uncomfortable as I've ever seen a contestant during the group medleys (I'm pretty sure they didn't even turn her mic on tonight until she got to sing, fittingly, "The End"), but y'all know that I dug her. I got far more entertainment value out of most Amanda performances than I do out of much more polished singers like an Archuleta or a Carly. Not that I would ever buy tickets to the "Idol" tour (at least, not until my daughter's old enough to drag me to go), but I imagine she'd be a lot more fun in concert than the likes of Kristy Lee or Ramiele. But she was doomed by going first in a two-hour show, and by getting faint praise, at best, from the judges, and from being a lightning rod contestant who attracted just as much scorn as affection.

Getting back to Carly, interesting that she got a bottom three placement so early in the finals. On the one hand, it's not a shock. She really took the brunt of the outrage over the ringer issue, and even beyond that, she doesn't seem like the kind of contestant who's going to arouse a lot of passion one way or the other. Technically, she's great, but she's on the dull side. But on the other hand, it's rare that you see a contestant who's been this heavily pimped (by both the producers and the judges, especially Randy) hit the seal before we've even gotten to single digit finalists.

I literally didn't watch anything but the medley and the last few minutes, but feel free to comment on The Pickle, the call-in questions, or whatever other cultural atrocities took place while I was fast-forwarding.
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How to confuse people from 3,000 miles away

One of these years, I'm actually going to head out to Los Angeles in mid-March to attend the Paley Festival, an extended love-in for various beloved TV shows and figures. This year's festival already included a Judd Apatow tribute and a "Pushing Daisies" session that took a "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" twist halfway through, and tomorrow night there will be the mass hysteria of a reunion of the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" cast.

Last night was a night for "Chuck," and even though I was here in Jersey, I accidentally found myself participating. The panel discussion was being moderated by "Lost" co-creator Damon Lindelof, who you may remember referred to me (with affection, he says) as "a pain in my ass" shortly before season four began. Since that interview ran, Lindelof and I have reached a detente, and as a joke, I bet him five bucks if he would ask Josh Schwartz the same kind of "When are you going to give us some answers, man?" questions that people like me are always demanding of Lindelof himself. One of those suggestions was "What's the hidden meaning behind the Wienerlicious uniform?," and Damon agreed to ask it, but only on the condition that I offer up my own theory. This is what I came up with, which I understand was read verbatim last night:
To me, it's obvious. Chuck, like Seth Cohen before him, is the central character in a Jewish assimilation fable, grappling with his place in a secular, Gentile, post-Holocaust world. The CIA (or NSA; I can never remember who works for whom) has obviously done deep psychological profiling on him. Having read the works of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, they understand his neuroses and ambivalent feelings towards his heritage, and have decided to tap into those fears and keep him off-balance by placing their operative in a chain restaurant whose uniform invokes the deepest traditions of the culture that gave rise to Hitler, and, in turn, the formation of the Jewish state.

That, or someone thought Yvonne Strahovski would look good dressed like an Oktoberfest wench.
Not surprisingly, everyone on the panel went with theory #2.

Now, as Bill Cosby once said, I told you that story so I could tell you this one.

Later in the session, Schwartz turned the tables on Lindelof and asked him whatever happened to the four-toed foot statue from the "Lost" season two finale. Lindelof's reply (and you may want to take it in the spirit of an evening in which he was willing to ask the Saul Bellow question), per a very detailed account of the event over at Futon Critic:
"That's actually a great story," Damon responds. "We did the four-toed statue on the show and basically we got a note back from the network, which was, 'This is too weird.' We're like, 'Do you watch the show? This is too weird?' And essentially they said, 'Could it be a six-toed statue?' If someone could explain why a six-toed statue is less weird than a four-toed statue, that's exactly what we will do."
That silly foot may be my favorite unanswered "Lost" mystery, so I hope he and Carlton and ABC can come to a peace accord on that.

To see a clip of the event, click here.
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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

American Idol, Top 11: Beatles night, take two

Spoilers for Beatles week, part deux, of "American Idol" coming up just as soon as I blow my mind out in a car...

"I'm not sure it was such a good idea doing Beatles again. We had such a good memory from last week, and this is all getting a bit strange."

Truer words may never have been spoken on "American Idol," a show that has never grasped the concept of too much of a good thing. Last week was one of the best "Idol" performance shows ever. This week was a mess. I don't know how much of that was the best songs (for the most part) being used up last week (even though they apparently expanded the list this week to include George Harrison-penned tunes, in addition to the Lennon/McCartney stuff), but after paying money to download several of last week's performances from iTunes, I can only think of one performance from tonight that I ever need to hear again, and it wasn't even that great.

In order...

Amanda Overmyer, "Back in the USSR": Leave it to Pauler to provide the most cogent critique (don't worry; she'd make up for it later) by noting that it took Amanda nearly a third of the song to get in sync with the band. It was hard to tell early on whether she was off the beat because she was trying for a dramatic effect or if she just couldn't keep up, but by about the 30 second mark, she had the timing down, and I think it was just a mix-up. That said, within Amanda's extremely limited range, this was another very entertaining performance; I'm not sure any contestant feeds off of the larger crowd as well as she does. I know the judges want to see her stretch herself, but I suspect that the second she follows their advice, they'll slam her for seeming uncomfortable outside of her comfort zone.

Kristy Lee Cook, "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away": For the second week in a row, Kristy Lee goes for a radically different interpretation of the original. The Beatles version (from the "Help!" soundtrack) is the most overtly Bob Dylan-ish song they ever did, where this started off as some kind of Shirley Bassey number (it was very "I (Who Have Nothing)"), then drifted into this monotonous, melody-free thing that she tried to bail out in the end with a power note. Simon's right: the only time Kristy Lee has been memorable was when she was terrible last week. This was just dull enough to put her in danger again.

David Archuleta, "The Long and Winding Road": I figured he'd sing "Yesterday," but I knew that any song he chose would be a ballad, and one that he would knock out of the park for the inevitable "David Archuleta is back! We got a hot one here tonight!" narrative from Randy. I'm not a huge fan of young David -- even if he arguably has the best voice of any finalist, there are a half-dozen other contestants whose performances I look forward to more -- but this one was a fastball down the middle for him, and he knocked it out of the park. It's one of the schmaltziest songs in the Beatles catalog -- especially done up with the string arrangement that Phil Spector slathered on the original recording version (I much prefer the "Let It Be... Naked" remix), and with David's unfailing sincerity and clear, powerful voice, it was a natural fit. The kid's gonna win. No question. Ya think the producers wish they had saved his first pimp slot for this performance instead of last week's faceplant?

(Oh, and Randy? Shut up about your stupid love of stupid runs. Some of us just like to hear the notes as written, without all those Mariah vocal gymnastics inserted.)

Michael Johns, "A Day in the Life": Oh, Michael, Michael, Michael... I want to like you. I do. Your Hollywood performances (what we heard of them) were so strong and distinctive, but you coasted through the semi-finals, were good but unmemorable last week, and then tonight you go and give us this disaster. There's just too much going on in "A Day in the Life" to try to squeeze "the best parts" into 90 seconds. Beyond that, he messed up the high note going out of the first John Lennon passage (and you can see him, even from the distant camera angle, flinching at the sound that had just come out of his mouth), and he mashed up the lyrics of two different verses at the very end so that one line didn't rhyme with the next (and you could see him flinch again, too). The judges keep talking him up like he's one of the contenders, but it's been a long time since he's shown anything worthy of that status. I don't think he's in trouble of going home just yet, but his margin of error is getting awfully teeny.

(Also, on the list of all-time on-screen gaffes for Paula -- as opposed to whatever she did or didn't do with Corey Clark -- where do you rank her 18-hour rambling monologue about Michael's difficulty in adjusting to an ear monitor, given that Michael was not, in fact, wearing an ear monitor?)

Brooke White, "Here Comes the Sun": Brooke's been my favorite contestant this season, but I think we finally discovered her Kryptonite: she can't move. At all. Her four previous performances before an audience had her rock still, either playing the guitar or the piano, or one time perched on the edge of the stage. This was Brooke trying to dance around and be all flower child, and it was awkward. Beyond that, the song isn't very challenging vocally and also doesn't have any kind of dramatic hook to make up for that. It's just Brooke White smiling about how much she likes the sun. Bring back the piano or the guitar, stat.

(Also, she needs to be careful about interrupting the judges. At first, it seemed like she was trying to quiet the crowd from booing Randy -- you know, "It's okay, audience. The judges are right to criticize me." -- but she Just. Kept. Doing it, to the point where it seemed like she was trying to shut down Simon before he could say anything more brutal. Not cool.)

David Cook, "Daytripper": On the one hand, I appreciate a clip package that actually credits the artists who came up with a different arrangement from the original. On the other hand, Whitesnake? Really? I'm 100 percent with Simon on this one; the novelty of what David's been doing the last few weeks is starting to fade, and then you can't help but notice the self-satisfied smirk, or how shoehorned in the vocoder stunt was. I like David the singer, even though I suspect David the person would be insufferable, but unlike Amanda, I feel like there's more he can show us, and I'd like to see that soon. Also, the judges need to start calling the contestants on using their instruments as a prop. David barely touched those guitar strings (Brooke had a performance like that in the semis, too), but he gets away with standing still at the mic stand, where a non-instrument guy like Michael Johns has to struggle with moving around on stage.

Carly Smithson, "Blackbird":
First, a bit of housekeeping from last week. I gave Carly points for not making the "holds you in his armchair" lyric flub -- when, in fact, that's the actual lyric of the song, in keeping with all the other nonsense lines. So deduct points from me, if not from Carly.

As for her "Blackbird"... meh. Unlike Michael this week and Archuleta last, she managed to survive a lyric flub without completely losing her composure, and she's got a clean, powerful voice, but I could do without all the Celine flourishes, even though the crowd (and Randy) eats that stuff up. No idea what Simon was talking about with the song being self-indulgent; it's one of the prettiest that Paul McCartney ever wrote. I just would have preferred a simpler arrangement, and I think Carly has the voice to pull off a straight rendition. Also, she needs to have a talk with the makeup people, because I was afraid to look at her eyes whenever she was in closeup.

Jason Castro, "Michelle": This was the first performance of the finals (but not the last of the night) to remind me of a high school talent show performance in that very special Kevin Covais/John Stevens sorta way. The ladies love sweet, dopey Jason and his eyes and his dreads and all that, but I was embarassed to be watching him. Vocals were decent, but cheesey as hell.

Syesha Mercado, "Yesterday":
Who is this Syesha Mercado person and has she been on the show before? I honestly could not remember a single thing she's done previously, but this was arguably the best performance of the night (though not the one I'd want to hear again; we'll get to that in a moment). It was understated where it needed to be, but threw in just enough power notes to play to Syesha's strengths and get the attention of people like me who had no idea she existed.

Chikezie, "I've Just Seen a Face": Brooke better have a good comeback next week, because Chikezie is awfully close to becoming my favorite contestant of the season, if not one of my favorites ever. Yes, the Luther ballad into bluegrass jam transition was awkward and gimmicky as hell -- especially compared to last week's brilliant, organic bluegrass-into-rock version of "She's a Woman" (one of my favorite "Idol" performances ever) -- yet Chikezie's chutzpah and versatility again put an enormous smile on my face. He has a great voice (had he just stuck with the ballad arrangement, it still would have been one of the night's best), but he also knows that he has to go for broke every week or he's going to go home in a hurry. Previous borderline contestants who killed one week and then went back to mediocrity the next tended to go home immediately (think Amy Adams in season three), and Chikezie definitely doesn't plan on being forgettable again. And the deserved respone to last week's number has dramatically boosted his confidence. It may be gimmicky, but I want to see what trick he pulls out of the bag next week.

Ramiele Malubay, "I Should Have Known Better": The only thing I have to say about this performance (other than that it's the night's other high school talent show-level number) is to question how on earth it got the pimp spot. Has anyone ever gone home after getting the pimp spot? If not, Ramiele could potentially blaze a trail tomorrow night.

Best of the night: Chikezie, Syesha and Archuleta.

In trouble: My guess is a Kristy Lee/Michael/Ramiele bottom three, with hopefully one of the ladies going home. I'd like to see Michael get at least one chance to live up to the potential everybody saw in him, even though he's now in so deep a hole that it would take a miracle to get him into the top half of the finals.

What did everybody else think?
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DVR clean-up round-up

Since I had already watched the CBS comedies last week in order to write yesterday's column, I spent last night's viewing hours either giving another shot to some shows I was on the verge of abandoning, or watching shows from last week that had been sitting on my DVR hard drive. Brief spoilers for, in order, "New Amsterdam," "Canterbury's Law," "Reaper" and "Survivor" coming up just as soon as I work on my glove-slapping technique...

"New Amsterdam" remains a show with a couple of strong elements (immortal Manhattanite, Coster-Waldau's performance) floating in a sea of mediocre ones (the police procedurals, the chemistry-free romance). Even the flashbacks to Amsterdam's past adventures can be problematic. I know there's not a lot of time to do the earlier eras justice, but the flashback rapist was a Rollie Fingers mustache away from being a complete cartoon of a bad guy. The idea of comparing how attitudes have changed -- or haven't -- about rape over the centuries was an interesting one, but the execution was iffy.

And yet, I'm finding that I really like Coster-Waldau and the easy manner he brings to Amsterdam. What seemed like world-weariness in the first couple of episodes now feels more like amused detachment. I don't know if that's supposed to be thematic (now that he's found his one true love -- even if she's the most boring person in Manhattan -- he's stopped moping) or if the producers just realized that the initial portrayal of Amsterdam could drag the show down, but this guy is someone I don't mind spending time with. Oddly, given my dislike of the police stories, the best scenes in the episode featured Amsterdam bonding with the fashion designer victim. Those moments of the two of them talking did a much better job of showing how relaxed and confident and wise this guy is -- as he probably would be after 300+ years on this island -- than any of the gags where he solves a crime because he learned to lip-read a few centuries back.

In hindsight, I'm surprised Fox didn't send out last night's "Canterbury's Law" for review -- the screener disc had the pilot and episode four -- as it was much stronger than the other two. A minimum of the ZZ Top "Legs" video material (other than the opening credits, which I saw for the first time here), there was some humor to leaven the grimness (and without the psychic material getting too goofy), and I actually felt something for the Julianna Margulies character. It's still a formulaic lawyer show, but this was a better-done version of that than the two episodes I saw in advance.

Thank God for DVR season passes, or else I would have never remembered that A)"Reaper" was coming back with new episodes, and B)"Reaper" was moving to Thursdays after "Smallville." But the DVR saves me from having to remember stuff. Thank you, DVR. I'll even forgive the way you start to spazz out when your hard drive gets too full.

Decent episode, and a fair bit better than I remember the show being towards the end of its pre-strike run. (Though I believe this episode was one of a few pre-strike leftovers.) Whenever they make the Devil more menacing, it in turn gives his lighter moments more snap, so I liked seeing him blow off some steam at Sam -- and also seeing his maybe, maybe-not daughter threaten to cut Andi good. That said, the comedy factor is still lacking from the pilot level, and it was the laugh-out-loud moments that made the rest of the show work.

Finally, I watched half of last week's "Survivor" the night it aired, just so I could buffer enough of "Lost" that I could watch without commercials. Once Jonathan was evacuated from the game, my interest faded, and I didn't get around to seeing the rest of the episode for days. Jonathan happens to be one of my favorite "Survivor" contestants ever. I love his bitchy give-and-take with Probst, his insistence on playing a rational game and his constant struggles to present his rational arguments in a way that the other players could understand. (Every hero's gotta have a weakness; for Penner, it was his tendency to argue things too forcefully.) And I admired the hell out of him killing himself on that last reward challenge, given what we would find out about the state of his leg. (You could tell Probst, who always develops man crushes on the uber-jocks, finally let go of whatever issues he had with Penner after seeing that performance.) With Jonathan gone, with Yau-Man gone, and with Cirie (my other favorite among the "favorites") acting really smug this time out, I'm out of people I really care about.

I thought it was a shame that Chet was so mentally checked out of the game (and no doubt freaked out about his foot, given what had happened to Jonathan) that he refused to participate in Tracy and Ami's scheme to blindside Ozzy. The thing is, if I've done the math right, Tracy didn't even need Chet's vote to get rid of Ozzy. All they had to do was lie to Chet about who to vote for, then cast three votes (Tracy/Ami/Erik) for Ozzy while three other votes (Cirie/Ozzy/Amanda) voted for Chet. In the event of a tie, there's a revote where the two people who are tied are ineligible to vote, which means Tracy's crew could have gotten rid of Ozzy by a 3-2 margin. (Or, at least, they could have flushed out the hidden idol, had he been cautious enough to bring it to Tribal Council.) Anyway, I guess I'm with this season for a while yet, but a lot of the fun went out of it with Jonathan.

What did everybody else think?
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All TV: 'Miss Guided,' 'The Riches' reviews

Today's column reviews ABC's new sitcom "Miss Guided" and the second season premiere of "The Riches," neither of which I liked nearly as much as I wanted to:
"Miss Guided" (10:30 p.m., Ch. 7), a mid-season replacement sitcom that was completed before the strike and left on the shelf until now, is a bit like a new puppy that hasn't learned how to do anything yet. It's cute, and you're happy to have it around, but you're really waiting for the day when it picks up a few tricks and you can play with it, you know?
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Monday, March 17, 2008

HIMYM, "No Tomorrow": Kissing the Barney-stone

Spoilers for "No Tomorrow," the first post-strike episode of "How I Met Your Mother," coming up just as soon as I do some drunk pocket-dialing...

Ahhhh, "HIMYM." Sweet, delicious, chocolate-y "HIMYM." No, wait -- that's the chocolate chip cookie I just ate. (Who knew that the local liquor store would have the best cookies in the state?) But "HIMYM" was pretty sweet, too. Not the best episode of the season (that's still "How I Met Everyone Else"), but after three months-plus with no show, I would have taken a "We're Not From Here" right now. And "No Tomorrow" was a lot funnier than "We're Not From Here."

A few friends of mine who are fans of the show complained that Ted's transformation this season into a willing wingman for Barney made them like him a lot less. I didn't have that problem -- if anything, the schmoopie, self-righteous Ted of season one could be a lot more annoying -- and I thought it was a viable character arc to go in after the split from Robin. But that arc's over now, with Ted having hit rock bottom as a player after hearing all the pocket-dialed(*) messages. Between Future Ted's narration at the beginning and end of the episode and the return of the mother's yellow umbrella, the show seems to be moving quickly towards introducing the woman of Ted's dreams.

((*) I've never had the pocket-dialing problem, but rather deal with pocket-photographing. Every couple of days, I need to go in and delete a dozen or so completely black photos that were taken when the cameraphone button got accidentally pushed as I was walking. Anybody else have that problem?)

I do wonder, though, how this Britney Spears/Alicia Silverstone/Sarah Chalke kerfuffle will complicate matters. For those of you not keeping up with the latest, Silverstone was going to be in next week's episode as a woman Ted was chasing. Then the producers -- no doubt worrying about cancellation and desperate for anything to goose the numbers -- cast Britney to play a small role, and allegedly Silverstone and her people didn't appreciate being upstaged. So Silverstone bowed out, and the producers brought in Chalke at the last minute.

Now, I haven't seen next week's episode, but as soon as I heard they were casting Silverstone to play a potential Ted love interest, my reaction was, "Okay, that's the mom." Just seemed to click for some reason. But with "Scrubs" apparently returning for next season (either on NBC or ABC), Chalke's not going to be available for more than next week's show, even though tonight's episode implies Ted's going to meet the mom very soon, and... Okay, now my brain hurts a little, so let's get back to discussing "No Tomorrow" and deal with next week when it comes.

So Ted hits rock bottom, but I enjoyed spending most of the episode seeing Ted's beer goggle version of events, and of seeing Ted and, especially, Barney marvel at the laws of karma turning upside down. ("Shockingly deep bellybuttons" is just a funny turn of phrase.) The only thing the story missed, I think, was for the sober flashback version of events to be in even starker contrast to what we originally saw.

People have been asking ever since "Dowisetrepla" when Marshall and Lily would be moving out, and now we have our answer: not until the crooked floors get fixed, or until the producers contrive another systemic problem with that money pit to keep the living arrangements status quo. I was surprised that Marshall didn't start ranting about the smell on top of the floor problem ("First it reeks of sewage and now it's crooked!"), but the increasing tilt of the camera was a nice touch, as were Marshall's conflicting lies about the friendly but racist ghost.

One last point: Barney's area code monologue was maybe my favorite thing Neil Patrick Harris has said all season, and not just because I was once a possessor of a 973 number (and now have an area code so far removed from the city that it wasn't even worth mentioning).

What did everybody else think?
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All TV: CBS comedies return

Today's column looks at the beginning of the end of the strike drought:
The package arrived on my desk Friday morning like manna in the desert: new episodes of "Two and a Half Men," "How I Met Your Mother" and "The Big Bang Theory," the first scripted series to get back on the air since the end of the writers strike.

(The CBS comedies are several weeks ahead of the curve; most other network series' won't be back until sometime next month, so don't get too excited yet if you're dying for new "30 Rock" or "House.")

I'm a big fan of "Mother" and agnostic about the other two - sometimes they make me laugh, sometimes they make me cringe, sometimes both simultaneously - but by the time I finished all three, I had a huge smile on my face.

Sometimes, you just don't know what you've got till it's gone, do you?
To read the full thing, click here. Obviously, there will be a proper "HIMYM" review tonight at 9 (as mentioned in the column, it swaps timeslots with "Big Bang Theory" starting tonight). Click here to read the full post

Mad Men redux: Gianni on the spot

(Note: Because AMC is rerunning the first season of "Mad Men" every Sunday at midnight, and because a lot of people missed the show the first time around, I'm reposting my blog reviews for each episode the morning after. These are written as they were back in the summer/early fall; if I feel differently about anything in retrospect, I'll mention it in the comments. Also, while comments from both newbies and people who watched the first time are welcome, if you've seen these episodes before, please be vague about events in later episodes so as not to spoil things for the newcomers.)

Spoilers for episode nine of "Mad Men" (titled, appropriately in more ways than one, "Shoot") coming up just as soon as I start a diet...

How many different types of splendid was that final shot? Scary, funny, tragic and kinda hot, all in one. But we'll get back to that, after looking at all the forces that conspired to have Betty in her nightie (at 1 in the afternoon) casually shooting at her neighbor's pigeons.

Betty was a model, you know. She'll tell you (in nearly identical words each time) if you raise the subject. It's her crutch, her way of dealing with this desperate housewife life she absolutely doesn't want. In the back of her mind, she knows that she was once a model -- and still has the Grace Kelly looks to potentially be one again -- just as in the back of her closet she keeps the designer clothes given to her by "Gianni." (BTW, Gianni Versace would have been about 14 in 1960 -- and practically fetus-sized back in Betty's modeling days -- and it's a common Italian name, so I don't think the show was going there.)

Back in the day, modeling wasn't really something looked at as a long-term career. There were, as Betty notes, some women who became very rich and famous doing it, but the era of the model as routine celebrity was still a bit off in the future (thanks to Andy Warhol and Twiggy) and Betty no doubt looked on the profession as a means for landing a man just as obviously as Joan thinks Peggy should be doing. (More on that in a minute.) But the choice was also tied into her mother's "painting a masterpiece" philosophy expressed a few episodes back (when Joan looked even more Grace Kelly-ish than she did last night); Betty no doubt thought her mom would be pleased she chose a job that highlighted her beauty, but instead her mom called her a prostitute for it. (The more we learn about Betty's late mom, the more I think Betty isn't so much grieving as letting out a few decades of repressed anger.) So she modeled for a while until she got with Don and became trapped in suburbia.

Jim Hobart offers her a lifeline -- only as a means to get at Don, which Betty doesn't realize -- but I'm really fascinated by Betty's reaction to getting fired by the Coca-Cola people. She gets upset, but not in a defiant, "I'll show them" way where she intends to use those gorgeous photos to get another gig; she just gives up, surrenders back to her stifling life in Ossining, where she's bored but at least not subject to rejection. Don consoles her by telling her what an amazing mother she is -- and of course that's Don's chief attraction to her, given his upbringing and the fact that he seeks sexual and intellectual satisfaction from outside women -- and she responds by showing the neighbor what a real protective mama bear looks like, casually shooting away at his stupid birds in response to his threat to shoot her children's beloved dog Polly. She gets to show off her matriarchal side while also taking out her agression on the world that she feels has confined her to this house, this lawn, this life where she can still be in a nightie in the afternoon and it won't really matter. Ronnie, the Salvatore-esque art director for Coke, tells her that getting fired "has nothing to do with" her. The problem is, nothing has anything to do with her, and that's slowly driving Betty crackers.

Meanwhile, Don's reaction to all of this was equally interesting and unexpected. I just assumed he would be against the modeling thing from the start, want to keep Betty confined to her motherhood box, but he seemed genuinely supportive throughout, even after the incident with the kids and the neighbor suggested that Betty was falling down on her original job. Then Hobart made the mistake of sending over the photos and Don finally recognized that the whole thing was just another set of golf clubs. So if you're Don, what do you do? You do love your wife and want her to be happy (even as you pursue relationships with other women) and know how much she cares about this job -- which will disappear if you don't sign on at the bigger firm. But you also hate being manipulated by others -- if Hobart would pull this stunt with your wife now, what might he try in the future if you and he clash? -- and are, at heart, a selfish Ayn Rand man. I guess you do exactly what Don did; you finagle a ginormous raise out of Roger and tell Hobart to cram it. Still, it's really sad that Betty got turned into a pawn in all of this.

Some minor bits of business with Peggy, Pete and Joan this week. I really liked Joan and Peggy's talk about the dress and Peggy's motivations for doing the copy-writing thing, as it clarifies once and for all that Joan isn't jealous of Peggy, just confused. The notion of trying to play the man's game at Sterling/Cooper has never even occurred to her.

I also liked Pete repeatedly getting shot down in his attempts to celebrate his big triumph with the laxative/Nixon stunt, whether it was Don responding to Pete's "Are we done here?" with a simple "No" or Pete's poor secretary refusing to drink or even flirt with him and the other chipmunks. I don't read too much into him taking a swing at Kenny for trash-talking Peggy, as there was a definite "nobody picks on her but me" vibe to it all, as opposed to Pete realizing he had treated her like garbage last week. (Also, vis a vis Kenny's "lobster" description of Peggy, I suddenly imagined him as an old man today complaining that J-Lo and Jessica Biel are too fat because they have some junk in the trunk.)

What did everybody else think?
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