Wednesday, April 30, 2008

American Idol: Top 5 elimination

"American Idol" elimination spoilers coming up just as soon as I call my first crush...

She was, she said. Bye, Brooke White. Hopefully, the time away from the show will restore your emotional well-being so you can go make your inevitable Starbucks tie-in CD.

Though Brooke was my favorite contestant much earlier in the season (a position later assumed briefly by Chikezie, and now I guess by David Cook), she'd been melting down for weeks. It's a mild surprise that Syesha out-lasted her -- even though Syesha had the pimp spot and had whatever fanbase she has put on alert by Simon's comments last night -- but I'd rather discuss, however briefly, what the show had to say about Pauler-gate.

Or, rather, what the show didn't say.

Considering that, as mentioned earlier in the day, the producers felt the need last year to go all Zapruder on Simon rolling his eyes at Chris Richardson's VaTech shout-out, I thought for sure we'd get some elaborate, convoluted explanation involving dress rehearsals, David Cook and/or ear-wig medication. Instead, Ryan glossed over it altogether, except to say this that the judges were "thrown a curveball" on the live show, and that "Just for the record, the rumors, they're not true. She's part of our family, and we love her."

First of all, were there any actual rumors about Paula losing her job? Because that seemed to be what Ryan was implying. Beyond that, though, I'm amused that Nigel and company think this will all go away if they don't explain it any further on air. And maybe they're right; much of their audience can be fooled by shiny beads and such. But absent a shocking boot, or even a shocking person in the bottom two (say, Archuleta), the only thing "Idol"-related to talk about between now and Tuesday is Paula's time-travel, and I imagine the complaining and conspiracy theories will only get louder.

What did everybody else think? And is it wrong that I found the call from Simon's first girlfriend kinda charming?
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Buzz vs. blogs

I don't talk much about sports TV in these parts, but last night's special town-hall meeting episode of HBO's "Costas Now" was so memorable -- trainwrecky in spots, brilliant and insightful in others -- that I wanted to weigh in on it. If you didn't see it, HBO will be rerunning it a million times this week (starting tonight at 6:30 on the main channel), and if you're at all interested in the current state of sports media -- or in watching people get handed their lunch on live TV -- I highly recommend it.

Spoilers coming right up...

So, in the course of 90 very ambitious minutes, Costas attempted to tackle five different hot-button issues about sports media: 1)The increasing hostility of sports talk radio, 2)The rise of sports blogs, 3)The state of sports TV, 4)The increasingly strained relationship between athletes and the reporters who cover them, and 5)Coverage (or the lack thereof) of racial issues in sports.

That is a lot to deal with, especially since you could spend more than 90 minutes discussing each topic. In fact, when Costas had to cut short the racism discussion, just when things were really getting interesting, because they were out of time, he promised they would devote a separate show just to that subject in the near future.

Of the five, I thought the sports talk radio segment did the best job of covering all the bases in its allotted time -- or maybe I was just entertained by the spectacle of Michael Strahan owning local WFAN hyena Christopher "Mad Dog" Russo, with whom Strahan has been feuding for eight years. (Maybe the best moment: when Russo tried to ingratiate himself with Strahan by noting that he and Mike praised his play in the Super Bowl, Strahan shot back with, "You had no choice!") But it was a frank and lively discussion, and Russo didn't shy away from the fact that his show thrives a lot more on the negative than the positive. My only real complaint was that, in the clip package that set up the discussion, the talking head they used to decry the hostile state of sports talk radio was the odious Jay Mariotti, whose work -- which largely involves taking potshots at Chicago sports figures while avoiding the locker room itself -- is basically the newspaper equivalent of all that he's decrying about radio.

The blogging segment, not surprisingly, was the one everyone wants to talk about on-line today, both because of its subject and because it was such a spectacular, ugly, weird mess.

For this one, the panelists were Will Leitch, who runs Deadspin, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and sometime sports author H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger ("Friday Night Lights"), and poor Cleveland Browns wide receiver Braylon Edwards, who looked confused and terrified about how and why he got dragged into the middle of this.

Anyway, things didn't get off to a good start with Costas mocking/joking that he found Leitch "far more palatable in person." It went downhill from there, as not two minutes into the segment, Bissinger cut off Leitch and said, "I have to interject, because I feel really strongly about this. I think you're full of shit."

This the led to a long rant about legendary sportswriter W.C. Heinz -- which Leitch defused (not that Bissinger seemed to care) by pointing out that he knew of and had read Heinz's work -- and how blogs in general and Leitch in particular represent all that is evil and wrong. His evidence? Not any posts written by Leitch himself, but comments to posts, or excerpts from some of the other Deadspin contributors.

Now, I should say that I have some personal history with Bissinger, most of it not good, and I don't want to let my biases color my take on what happened. You can see the whole thing for yourself at Awful Announcing. And you can also read Leitch's own take on what went down.

But outside of whether Buzz was right or fair to pile on Leitch the way he did (and Costas didn't seem particularly interested in pulling him off), the segment suffered badly from its limited time and scope. To have Leitch up there representing all sports bloggers would be like having the editor of TMZ up there to represent all on-line entertainment coverage. There's a lot more out there than pictures of celebrities getting drunk and making fools of themselves, you know? Some of the best baseball stuff I read lately comes from blogs, whether it's from newspaper guys working on-line like Joe Posnanski or Peter Abraham, or non-pros like Alex Belth from Bronx Banter. There are sports gossip blogs, but there are also analytical blogs, beat blogs, and all kinds of other on-line sports coverage that does the job as well as, or better than, the traditional newspaper, radio and TV guys.

The clip package included some comments from Mike Schur, who when he's not writing for "The Office" (or playing Mose Scrhute) blogs under the name Ken Tremendous at, whose specialty is pointing out all the mistakes and hypocrisy you can find in the worst of mainstream sports media -- which, in its own way is just as bad as the worst of blogs. It's Sturgeon's Law at work: 95% of blogs are crap, because 95% of everything is crap. Had Schur not been otherwise occupied with his day job, it would have been interesting to have him up on the panel as well -- if nothing else, he could have agitated Buzz a little more by talking about that Tony LaRussa book Buzz wrote.

If Costas is going to do another 90-minute show just on race, he should see about also revisiting the Internet for its own show, because the way it played out last night left a bad taste in my mouth.

What did everybody else think?
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American Idol: Paula sees the future, take two

Oh, this gets more and more amusing as the day goes along. Continued thoughts on Paula Abdul's spectacular "American Idol" gaffe coming right up...

As discussed at length in last night's recap, the first round of performances last night went uncommented upon by the judges in the interest of saving time. Then, randomly (Ryan Seacrest later blamed it on Mike Darnell, Fox's head of reality programming), they brought all the contestants on stage midway through the show and asked the judges to offer quick comments on those first songs. Randy, in maybe the greatest Randy moment ever was forced to use all of his cliches in the same soundbyte. And then Pauler, beautiful, crazy, incoherent, wonderful Pauler, began runng through her comments about Jason Castro's first song, and then his second -- and it took Randy and Ryan a good 30 seconds to explain to her that Jason hadn't sung his second song yet.

You can watch this glorious fiasco for yourself on YouTube, and Entertainment Weekly's Pop Watch blog has a hilarious account of what this all looked like for the people in the studio. (I somehow imagine Nigel Lythgoe frantically waving his arms as we hear him yell "NOOOOO!!!!!" in slow motion.)

Immediately, the "Idol" blogosphere and message boards lit up with the same three theories I broached last night:
  1. Paula was whacked out of her mind on booze, or pills, or her own special brand of crazy and had no idea who had sung what, or maybe even where she was
  2. Paula had watched the dress rehearsal performances -- Nigel and the other judges have said in the past that they watch a feed of them from their dressing rooms, because it's too hard to hear anything in the actual studio -- taken notes, and got confused due to the aforementioned booze, pills or special crazy brand
  3. Paula has no idea what any of these people sound like and has her comments scripted for her by Nigel and company, and the last-minute switcheroo was too much for her to handle, so she kept on reading what they had given her.
Much as I love to be an "Idol conspiracy theorist from time to time, I'm inclined to go with a explanation #2. It's still problematic -- as we know, the dress rehearsal performances can vary wildly in quality from what happens during the live show, which gives the judges' comments a real disconnect from what we just heard, and again illustrates how useless the judges are -- but it's the simplest and most logical of the possibilities, and Paula's commentary is usually so rambling and pointless that I can't imagine anyone (even the people who thought back-to-back themes devoted to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Neil Diamond was a good idea) writing it for her.

That said, watching Pauler and team "Idol" scramble around to explain this has been very funny. Last night, Paula told the syndicated infotainment shows (including "The Insider") that her mistake was in reading her notes on David Cook and applying it to Jason. One problem: her comments on Jason song #2 began with her complaining that he wasn't trying hard enough, and moments later, she said that David Cook was wonderful. You can't really reconcile the two, and anyone who watches the show -- even the idiots in the studio who boo Simon even when he's trying to say something nice -- can tell that Paula's lying.

And then, today she went on Seacrest's radio show for phase two of the damage control -- phase three will no doubt come tonight during the results show, in a segment so long and contrived and awkward that it'll make the Zapruder film of Simon rolling his eyes at Chris Richardson last year feel natural -- and came up with a different explanation. Now even Paula's going with theory #2, that she took notes on the dress rehearsal -- but, somehow, only saw Jason perform at that rehearsal -- and got confused because of the curveball that Darnell forced on the show.

Again, I don't want to be a conspiracy theorist, but what's the explanation going to be by tonight? Will she be blaming her ear medication? Simon playing a practical joke on her by slipping in some forged notes that she read by mistake? Aurora borealis? If she really just got confused because she had been to dress rehearsal, why didn't she -- or Ryan, for that matter, who's usually good at smoothing over this stuff -- explain it at the moment it happened? And why did she give the bogus David Cook explanation to the infotainment shows, then switch to the rehearsal theory today?

Conspiracy theory or not, here's a more pressing question: what happens if Jason's the lowest vote-getter this week? Do they send him home even though he was forced to perform his second song only moments after he had been told the judges were going to hate it? I don't even like Jason, but that's not cool. Might we get some kind of non-elimination, followed by double-elim next week?

Even by "Idol" scandal standards, this is a weird one.
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Reaper, "Coming to Grips": Handy Andi

"Reaper" spoilers coming up just as soon as I put Sue Grafton's "X is for Xylophone" on my Amazon wishlist...

Dammit, why must so many rookie shows this year get their acts together right when they're about to be canceled?

Now, I don't know for sure that "Reaper" is doomed, but given that The CW is a complete Nielsen disaster area, and that they've already renewed "Gossip Girl" (slightly lower ratings, much bigger buzz), I'm not optimistic. And, as with the fate of "Journeyman," I'd be much more at peace with it if the producers hadn't made a significant course correction in recent episodes.

Because this? This was easily the best hour of "Reaper" since the pilot, one that mixed in an interesting Soul of the Week with the rebel demons story arc (glad to see Ken Marino's not gone yet), plus a major breakthrough in the Sam/Andi relationship and some good side comedy from Ben, with a bonus helping of the always wonderful Lucy Davis from the British "Office."

So now Andi's in the loop, but at the cost of Sam -- gullible and short-sighted as always (if there's one area where the show could still stand to improve, it would be making Sam less of a mush-head) -- having to betray Tony and the other peacenik demons. And just as Ben finds the potential girl of his dreams (played by Kandyse "Dualla from Galactica" McClure) but finds he's trapped in his own deal with a different kind of devil. Good stuff -- entertaining here, and with myriad possibilities for down the road. This is much better than those bland episodic Soul-hunting episodes they kept giving us pre-strike.

What did everybody else think?
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My meme is my meme!

Coolest link of the day: comic book artist Steve Lieber drawing characters from "The Wire" in the style of "The Simpsons."

Hat tip to The Onion A.V. Club, who also came up with the perfect "All in the game, D'oh" headline that I was really tempted to steal. Click here to read the full post

All TV: Post-strike ratings dips, 'Farmer Wants a Wife' review

Today's column looks at how other shows besides "American Idol" are having some Nielsen problems of late, plus a brief review of the CW's "Farmer Wants a Wife." Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

American Idol, Top 5: Neil Diamond Night

Spoilers for "American Idol" coming up just as soon as I review the future...

How much do I love Paula Abdul right now? Her complete mental breakdown in the middle of this chaotic, ineptly-designed episode, was the highlight of an otherwise bland hour. When she started critiquing Jason Castro's second song before he even sang it, and it took Randy and Ryan a good 30 seconds to realize what she was doing... live TV, ladies and gentlemen!

The beauty of Paula's brain spasm is that it illustrates just how scripted and ill-informed the judges' comments are. No doubt she had scribbled some notes in advance, either based on the dress rehearsal (when, as we know, the performances never quite match up to what happens on the live show) or on the advice of Anne Heche's alter ego Celestia, or on Paula's memories of a conversation she once had with Keanu Reeves while filming the video for "Rush, Rush," and it just didn't occur to her that Mr. Castro had only sung one song at that point in the show.

And it became clear that Pauler's not the only judge whose comments are prepared in advance of the live show, or else Randy, for instance, might have pointed out that strangled cat note in the middle of David Archuleta's performance of "America" instead of raving about how comfortable our young presumptive winner seemed on stage.

Given the utter uselessness of two-thirds of our judges, I thought that not having them immediately critique the first performances would be an improvement. A half-hour of "Idol" that was completely Randy-free? Sign me up, I thought. But the first half of the show didn't flow at all well without them, and it only played up how brief each song is. I know Fox has been doing market research about ways to change the show next year, and one of the questions asks whether viewers think the judges get too much airtime, but this was too big an over-correction. I think the solution is to get better judges, not to shove them out of the way to help squeeze 10 performances into an episode that still had time for the padding of Neil Diamond's mentorship, two soft drink-sponsored Seacrest-erviews, etc.

And if I'm going on so much about the judges, it's because "the most talented group of finalists ever" once again gave us a pretty underwhelming show. I would have thought that the diversity of the Diamond catalog -- and its adaptability to limited voices like Jason and Brooke -- would have led to something good, but other than a couple of performances in the back half, it was just as dull and forgettable as every other graybeard theme this season.

In fact, I cared so little for most of these performances that I'm going to talk about each person's two songs together, rather than going 1-5, then 1-5 again. In order...

Jason Castro, "Forever in Blue Jeans" & "September Morn": Again, this theme should have been in Jason's comfort zone, but it mainly just gave him an excuse to hide within his three-note range (or, in the latter song, one-note), let the string section make him seem more impressive than he actually was, and hope that his smile and dimples would carry the rest. "Forever in Blue Jeans" wasn't bad as a bit of busking (and damn/thank you, Simon, for making me unable to see Jason as anything but Glen Hansard at the end of "The Commitments"), but he wasn't even trying on "September Morn." Maybe he was just freaked out by Paula's psychic criticism?

David Cook, "I'm Alive" & "All I Need Is You": I also figured big David would knock this one out of the park, but while he was arguably the best of the night, there wasn't anything particularly memorably by his own pre-established standards. "I'm Alive" reminded me of his first few semi-finals performances, before he realized that he needed to stand out by rearranging these oldies in a contemporary alt-rock way. (He also struggled to be heard over the band for the first time all season.) "All I Need Is You" sounded more like the post-makeover Cook, but I can think of at least three or four performances of his that were clearly better. Also, I don't know the song at all, and am only judging based on a 30-second iTunes snippet, but it didn't sound to me like David re-arranged the song as dramatically as Simon tried to suggest.

Brooke White, "I'm a Believer" & "I Am, I Said": Brooke's take on The Monkees' signature hit was every bit the disaster Simon proclaimed it to be. No one should look as terrified -- even with a smile plastered across her face -- as Brooke looked throughout this up-tempo, campy number. Like Jason's second number, the degree of vocal difficulty was almost nil, and yet I kept worrying that Brooke was going to burst into tears at any moment. "I Am, I Said" was a vast improvement, both in terms of the actual singing and her showcasing vulnerability in a way that didn't make me fearing for her emotional well-being. Neil's suggested lyric change from New York City to Arizona didn't exactly work for a song about bi-coastal blues, but I doubt Brooke understood the lyrics any more than she has for the rest of the season. Like Syesha, the emotions she displays are contrived; she just fakes them more plausibly.

David Archuleta, "Sweet Caroline" & "America": David badly needed to do some more uptemp songs -- the last non-ballad he sang was in the first week of the semis -- and yet he found a way to turn "Sweet Caroline" into another inspirational tune about the importance of touching other people and being touched in return. Even with the faster pace, it's amazing how much it resembled every other Archuleta performance. As for "America," I mentioned the cat strangling already, but I'll give him credit for doing something that didn't remind me of all his previous performances. Maybe I was just dazzled by the American flag display and him doing the "My Country 'Tis of Thee" portion of the lyrics, or maybe I just hypnotized myself into imagining the song as sung by Michael or Carly if they were still around, but at least it didn't put me to sleep.

Syesha Mercado, "Hello Again" & "Thank the Lord for the Night Time": Having discovered last week that she's much better when she indulges her theatrical side -- not that it helped her with the voters -- Syesha acts her way through a sensitive ballad, then a soul-spiritual joint. Her "Hello Again" was technically good but left me cold, but I quite enjoyed her "Thank the Lord for the Night Time." Again, Syesha never lets you forget that she's playing a character -- in this case, a young Aretha/Tina type -- but when the song is this fast-paced and feel-good, it becomes less bothersome.

Best of the night: Again, David Cook, but that's as damning with faint praise as Randy and Simon's "that could have been in a play" comments for Syesha's second performance.

In danger: Every previous season when they did a Top 5 show (not counting last year, when we got two Top 6's), the person singing second went home. But I don't expect Cook to go anywhere -- if Jordin could survive the "going first on top 3 night" curse, he should be fine. Even though she was probably second-best, I'm afraid for Syesha. I still don't think she has much of a fanbase, and she wasn't so brilliant as to overcome all the Brooke, Jason and Archie die-hards. I suppose the death slot could claim Jason, or the voters could decide to put Brooke out of her misery. All I know is that the Davids ain't going anywhere.

What did everybody else think?
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Biff, babies and blonde Morlocks

Since I hit "HIMYM" and "House" last night, I thought I'd weigh in quickly on a couple of shows I watch semi-regularly but don't often blog about. Spoilers for "Big Bang Theory" and "Bones" coming up just as soon as I see if Pottery Barn Kids sells a metal detector wand...

I flat-out hated "Big Bang Theory" when it debuted in the fall, and softened on it somewhat when it returned last month with the rest of the CBS comedies. Mainly, though, I watch it because my wife likes it, and she takes enough for the team that I have to yield the remote to her when the Chuck Lorre comedies come on each week. But credit where credit's due: last night's episode, with Leonard buying a life-size replica of H.G. Wells' time machine (I'm guessing it was a prop from "Time After Time"), was pretty funny, particularly the sequence where the other three nerds moved around the apartment at high speed to simulate the effects of time travel.

My primary complaint with the show, as mentioned in the March review, is that the writers can't decide whether they feel affection or contempt for the geeks, and I think the show works much better when it's being slightly affectionate. This was an episode that, in theory, was about the guys taking their nerd obsessions too far, but that was really just Penny venting. The whole time machine purchase was presented as harmless and entertaining for the guys.

That said, I think the writers need to be really careful with how they're writing Sheldon. Jim Parsons is the best thing about the show, and I appreciate that his character's borderline-Asperger's difficulty in understanding normal human behavior is a big part of the comedy, but they've made him so hostile about it that it's starting to grate.

Just compare the way the "Big Bang" people write Sheldon versus how team "Bones" writes Dr. Brennan. She's equally clueless about how people are expected to interact with one another, and often puts her foot in her mouth, but it's rarely as aggressive as Sheldon is every week.

By now, the "Bones" writers have recognized that the plots matter much less than placing Temperance in various situations where her reaction will be unusual, and so they barely even bothered with the mechanics of how she and Booth would be allowed temporary custody of the baby. The point was just to see how she would act around a baby, and it was as amusing as expected. The mystery itself went according to Most Recognizable Guest Star Syndrome, where as soon as Thomas Wilson showed up, I knew he dunnit. (Though it gives me yet another opportunity to link to the never-not-funny Biff's Question Song, and I ain't gonna complain much.)

What did everybody else think?
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Monday, April 28, 2008

House, "No More Mr. Nice Guy": Strikes and spares

Spoilers for "House" coming up just as soon as I throw out all my ketchup...

Quick medical question: does having a smile plastered across my face for nearly the entire episode mean that I have syphillis? Could I have contracted chagas without going to South America? Or was that just a really good episode of "House"?

I like to think that while David Shore and the other "House" writers were walking the picket line, they weren't just thinking up a clever in-joke to start their next new episode with, but that they were thinking about how to make sense of the enormous cast they had built by the time Wilson and Amber started dating. Earlier in the season, even after House finalized the new team, the show seemed overcrowded, with certain characters (Chase and Cameron in particular) being marginalized or vanishing altogether. But this episode somehow comfortably fit in a standard (and entertaining) medical mystery, tensions between Foreman and the new team, the House/Wilson/Amber triangle, House using Chase as a substitute Wilson, Chase and Cameron bickering about the elephant in the room of their relationship (House), and even the usual power plays between House and Cuddy. And none of it felt rushed. Nice. I don't know if they can juggle the whole ensemble this well every week, but this one at least made me think they don't need to do a cast purge at the end of the season.

Couple of questions:
  • I continue to love House vs. Cutthroat Bitch, especially now that Amber has given up any pretense of liking or respecting House, but I'm confused about her job status. Did she get a job in another PPTH department (which would be wonderful), or did Cuddy just force her to do a shift changing sheets as punishment for breaking the Wilson rules, even though Amber's not technically on the payroll?
  • Was the House blood sample lying around the lab solely as part of the practical joke on the team, or was he testing himself for something? What other conditions would yield a positive on a test for syphillis? Or did House take a syphillis-positive blood sample and put his name on it? I don't really care that much about the mechanics of it -- the results were too funny, regardless of how it happened -- but my brain tends to lose the plot with this show sometimes.
  • Was the nurse's strike, in addition to being a reference to where the show has been, supposed to be some kind of meta comment on how the PPTH nursing staff is all but invisible on this series?
What did everybody else think?
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HIMYM, "The Goat": Bros before goats?

"How I Met Your Mother" spoilers coming up just as soon as I cancel my trip to Lisbon...

"Robin wasn't living here on my 30th birthday? When did this happen? Oh, wait, the goat was there on my 31st birthday. Sorry, I totally got that wrong."

Wait... what what what?

Are we to take Future Ted's closing lines of the episode as Bays and Thomas just trying to duck having to come up with a payoff to the goat joke (which was set up a long, long time ago in a previous reference to Ted's 30th) because they knew nothing they had could live up to the anticipation? Or will Robin and Ted be living together in time for his 31st birthday? Will they be roommates, or could the whole "Aunt Robin" thing be yet something else that Future Ted totally got wrong? Will Robin somehow be living there but Ted won't? Or have I put a lot more thought into that narration than Bays and Thomas did?

Why are they messing with my head like this?

Up until they wimped out and/or tore apart the show's space-time continuum at the end there, "The Goat" was another superb episode in this wonderful post-strike stretch. There are still those moments of creeping sitcom-ism (Lily buying the goat from Farmer Frank could have been handled better), but the overall intelligence remains at the forefront, and the writers stay true to the characters.

After we all jumped the gun and assumed that the end of "Sandcastles in the Sand" meant Robin and Barney would become some kind of couple, "The Goat" quickly throws out that idea (for now; I still believe we'll see more of them in the future) to deal with a more pressing problem: how will Ted react to this news?

While I've objected in the past to episodes that seemed to defang Barney (notably "The Yips"), Barney's guilt here was different, because it flowed with everything we know about him, instead of going against the grain. Barney may be a player and a cad and a jerk, but if there's one thing he holds sacred, it's his friendship with Ted (and with Marshall and Lily), and his obsession with inventing and following new rules for society. By having sex with the chick from Metro News 1, Barney betrayed both Ted and his own rules. Why wouldn't he freak out about that?

I also liked the way Barney's guilt manifested itself, with impulse purchases from Sky Mall. I've always wondered who actually shops from those overpriced catalogs; now I know. And Barney's own panic in turn gave us Marshall's panic at not wanting to hear the secret -- after being locked into Barney's office -- and the priceless bit of physical comedy where Barney threw the vase (or whatever that was) at Marshall to get Marshall to uncover his ears, followed by the timely popping of the hot dogs.

And I especially like that Ted didn't let Barney off the hook about this. We know this is something Ted will eventually forgive -- Future Ted refers to him as "Uncle Barney," and the producers aren't dumb enough to get rid of Neil Patrick Harris -- but this is something that should take some time to heal, and no doubt many funny things will happen as Barney tries (or doesn't try) to get back into Ted's good graces.

Some other thoughts:
  • The writers need to make a decision on Robin's ability to lie and stick with it. In "Slap Bet," she was able to totally snow Ted on the idea that she was once married, and here she was doing much better than Barney at pretending their tryst never happened, but a few weeks back we were told she can't lie without giggling. What's up with that?
  • Ranjit! Every episode is at least 5 percent better with Ranjit!
  • "Barney, you want my X-Box?" "Ted, she has a name!" Shades of Michael on "Arrested Development" telling Gob to get rid of The C-Word, and Lucille telling them both that she'll leave when she's good and ready.
  • Was that Mr. Pitt from "Seinfeld" as Ben Franklin? And is it wrong that I found George Washington referring to our capitol as "Me, D.C." hilarious?
  • I like that both Robin (Canadian) and Marshall (Minnesotan) can automatically identify goat droppings (though Robin the Canadian briefly thought it might be from a musk-ox).
What did everybody else think?
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Scrubs: Outta here like Vladimir

Belated "Scrubs" spoilers coming up just as soon as I put on a fedora...

"Thanks for everything, Ted. Sincerely."

God, I'm going to miss Ken Jenkins -- who's been the "Scrubs" MVP for the last two seasons -- if, in fact, he's leaving the show.

I understand why Bill Lawrence wants to do a bonus final-final season on ABC next year. NBC wouldn't let him make the handful of episodes he needed to send the show off properly, and it wouldn't make fiscal sense for ABC to pick the show up for a half-dozen episodes or less. But episodes like "My Dumb Luck" -- funny and touching and classic "Scrubs"-ian though it was -- concern me, because now certain characters are getting their closure well ahead of schedule.

I imagine Jenkins will stick around with the show in some capacity -- Kelso could become a private practice doc based in the hospital (ala Elliot), or a member of the board (ala Jordan), or a pharmaceutical rep (ala Heather Locklear), to name just three possibilities -- and if Cox gets the chief of medicine job, there could be some entertaining role reversal in Cox having to make the unpopular decisions while Kelso needles him about it.

But part of what made this episode so good -- and what's made the last few so good after nearly two years of very uninspiring "Scrubs" -- was that knowledge that the end was in sight, and that the writers could pull out all the stops and give Kelso a proper farewell (from his job, if not from the series).

This reminds me of the last two years of "The Sopranos." Season 6 (or 6A, if you want; the one with the Kevin Finnerty experience) started off like gangbusters, because the writers at the time assumed this would be the last year. About halfway through the writing process, David Chase agreed to do one final batch of episodes, and they had to put the brakes on a whole lot of storylines. (That's why Vito's gay awakening got so much play, for instance.)

If "Scrubs" can be as good as it's been for the last few episodes for another year, then I have no problem getting another season out of the show. But if it's been this good of late solely because the finish line was in sight, then I worry about how much of the ABC season is going to feel like filler.

Oh, and was I the only one driven batty by every character mispronouncing Porphyria? It's poor-FEAR-ee-uh, not poor-fur-EE-uh.

What did everybody else think?
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The House gets remodeled

Matt Zoller Seitz, my good friend and former partner in crime at The Star-Ledger, has decided to get out of the criticism business. And as his swan song, he sat down with Keith Uhlich (the new boss at The House Next Door) for a long conversation about his lifetime as a fan, then critic, of the movies. Click here to read the full post

Sepinwall on TV: Fallon's the heir apparent, but does the succession make sense?

Today's column looks skeptically upon NBC's plan to have Jimmy Fallon replace Conan O'Brien when Conan replaces Jay Leno next year. Click here to read the full post

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Battlestar Galactica, "Escape Velocity": A perfect Six

Spoilers for "Battlestar Galactica" coming up just as soon as I get a wig...

"God only loves that which is perfect, and he loves you, because you are perfect." -Gaius Baltar

"Sometimes, the right thing is a luxury." -Laura Roslin

Oh, boy. This will not end well. But it's going to be amazing to watch.

After laying low or being absent in the last couple of episodes, the Baltar/cult storyline returned in a big, scary way in "Escape Velocity," as Baltar, with a lot of coaching (and physical support, but we'll get back to that) from Head Six, hits upon a seductive, dangerous philosophy for himself and his followers. Some religions draw in their flock by telling them everything they do is in some way wrong (control through fear), but telling people that everything they do is correct because God wouldn't allow otherwise is even more appealing. Look at how Tory's justifying all her current behavior under the "I'm perfect" theory. On the ragtag fleet, where life is so awful and there seems to be no end in sight, who wouldn't be tempted by an anything goes religion, even if it's run by Gaius Baltar? I actually think Baltar means well, for one of the few times in his life, but he's letting Head Six make him her puppet -- at one point in a literal sense -- and this is going to get bloody.

Now, about that puppet moment. There have been times in the past where it seemed like Head Six was pushing Baltar around, but it could always be rationalized as Baltar physically reacting to the picture his mind was showing him. For instance, there was one early episode where Head Six seemed to be yanking on his tie, but when we cut away to the non-Baltar POV of the scene, we saw he was just yanking it himself. But there's no explanation for him getting up off the floor, in that way, other than Head Six physically doing it somehow. I've never bought into the idea that she was a hallucination, but the idea that she's somehow tangible, but visible only to Baltar, is a new and mind-blowing idea.

Whatever Head Six may be, she and Caprica Six (and Natalie, and Gina, and all the other Sixes, I'm guessing) share in common that belief about learning through pain. While some of the other Cylon models are more cerebral, the Sixes have always been physical creatures, forever putting themselves in situations where they wind up either dishing out or receiving pain. So while Head Six is talking Baltar into playing bloody martyr in front of his followers, Caprica Six's in the brig delivering a loving beatdown to poor, confused, Saul Tigh. (Can you blame Tigh for revisiting the Ellen thing? Not only did he murder her for working with the Cylons only a few weeks before she would have been given amnesty, but now it turns out Tigh himself is a Cylon. Of all the Final Four members, I'm stunned Saul hasn't eaten his gun yet.) And then, as if the beatdown itself wasn't disturbing enough, Caprica goes and kisses Saul Mother-Frakking Tigh? Is there any chance Michael Hogan wasn't kidding in that Letterman Top 10 list when he said we'd see him naked this year?

I think I'm officially out of superlatives for the "Galactica" cast. James Callis (who looks 20 years younger without the beards and Jesus hair, even though he's now doing the whole Jesus routine, down to chasing the money-changers out of the temple), Michael Hogan, Tricia Helfer, Aaron Douglas, Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos (who doubled as director this week, with Jane Espenson on script) were all so far at the top of their respective games that I didn't mind in the least that we got nothing on the Cylon civil war, and only the briefest glimpse of the Demetrius. "Galactica" has always been a grim, ugly show, and its actors got to show off their ugliest sides this time out.

I've always loved Douglas and am glad that Espenson's script finally brought back the Boomer-Chief affair and its messy end. I know I said last season that I believed Tyrol when he told Lee he didn't think about Sharon anymore, but how could he not -- and how could he not be destroyed by the realization of what he and Boomer could have had had he known the truth about himself back then? This isn't a show that rewrites its own history. (See also Tyrol bringing up Adama's threat to kill Cally during the workers' revolt led by Tyrol.) Tyrol and Cally's relationship was always dysfunctional, and it was always clear he felt he had settled for second-best (if that), and though he said flowery words about her at the funeral, he let his real emotions come flowing out when he decided he was no longer fit to run the flight deck. You could see him staring at the defective Raptor part and its unused replacement thinking, "Did I just forget to swap these, or was I programmed to forget?"

Most of the central characters in this episode were facing some kind of identity crisis. Tigh and Tyrol can't deal with the guilt of being Cylons and how that reflects on decisions they've made in the past. Baltar, having finally developed something resembling a conscience, wants to be neither exploiter nor hero, but as always can't resist whatever Six tells him to do. And Roslin, her death so close that she's starting to plan her own funeral, is so impatient to get things done before she goes that she keeps undercutting herself with the rest of the Quorum. We know she has every reason to fear Baltar, and that's even before he gives his speech on perfection and we see how that concept's going to spread like a virus through the whole fleet, but she's going about things in a way guaranteed to make people like Lee and Zarek push back, and to make Baltar look every bit the martyr she doesn't want him to be.

Some other thoughts on "Escape Velocity":
  • I loved the moment when Laura suggests she might follow Bill's example and not read the last chapter of his favorite book, only to remember that -- oh yeah! -- she's dying.
  • This episode didn't have the same nightmarish look as last week's "The Ties That Bind," but the image of Ellen-as-Six is going to stick with me a long time, even though I know it was just Kate Vernon in a platinum wig.
  • Speaking of wigs -- and of characters morphing into other characters -- it can't be a coincidence that Laura's is cut in the same style that Helena Cain wore, can it? In her dying days, Laura's become just as ends-justify-the-means as ol' Cain used to be. How frakkin' scary is that?
  • The Sons of Ares looked a little too much like the bandits from the Mad Max films, I think. Took me out of that scene.
  • What kind of airbags do Raptors have that Racetrack and her navigator would emerge from that crash without a scratch on them?
What did everybody else think?
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Friday, April 25, 2008

Doctor Who, "Partners in Crime": Mime is money!

Spoilers for the proper fourth season premiere of "Doctor Who" coming up just as soon as I polish my telescope...

(And please note, "Battlestar Galactica" fans, that my review probably won't be done until sometime tomorrow.)

I'm sure it's tempting to spend the entirety of this evening discussing the unexpected appearance (and then disappearance) of Rose Tyler at episode's end -- even if you knew Billie Piper was coming back, I don't think anyone expected it to be this soon -- but that would be to shortchange the heart of "Partners in Crime," which was the reunion of The Doctor and Donna Noble.

(Also, as a new season begins, let's once again remind everybody that we're following the American broadcast schedule, so no spoilers, or hints, or any other cutesie stuff about episodes that have already aired in Britain. The fact that we're only a few weeks behind instead of several months is a big plus compared to last season, but I don't want anybody to get spoiled.)

As a sketch comedienne, Catherine Tate doesn't do a lot for me, and while her over-the-top shrieking in "The Runaway Bride" fit the storyline, I don't think anybody would have tolerated that version of Donna as The Doctor's ongoing companion -- least of all The Doctor himself. But time and the realization that she should have accepted The Doctor's travel offer has mellowed Donna somewhat, and by the end of "Partners In Crime," she stands as someone I'm going to enjoy having around for a while.

I think it would have gotten tiresome quickly if Martha's replacement were yet another pretty girl with a crush on The Doctor. The tradition of the original series had great companion diversity, and I'm glad to not have three in a row of the same type. Donna isn't worldly, and she can be a brat, but she's also mature enough to see The Doctor through unfiltered eyes, and to be able to call him on his bad behavior in a way that Rose never was, and that it took Martha forever to do. This should be a lot of fun -- as suggested by the hilarious pantomimed reunion scene through the two windows. (This was, I know some fans have suggested, a spoof of the much more dramatic scene from "42" where The Doctor and Martha were trapped on opposite sides of an airlock, but I didn't catch the parallel and still found it a scream.)

What I found especially interesting about the episode was how, with one exception, what the alien nanny was doing wasn't so terrible. Yes, that one woman died, but that was an accident -- and the result of Donna looking into the company in the first place. Perhaps things might have become more nefarious had the plan not been disrupted by The Doctor and Donna, but thus far it was pretty much a win-win: the fatties of Earth got to lose some weight, and the aliens got to breed more cute marshmallow-y babies. In my column last week, I noted that this story was similar to the alien cola plot from the "Sarah Jane Adventures" premiere, but there the aliens' intentions were completely evil; here, they were (for now) simply exploiting an unneeded Earth surplus.

Looking forward to how this season plays out, and how many times David Tennant is asked to give the same expression that one of the "Arrested Development" characters did whenever they declared they had just made a terrible mistake. Arrogant god that he is, he had forgotten altogether about inviting Donna along on the TARDIS party, and the princess luggage didn't exactly have him feeling he had made a wise choice by extending the invite a second time.

What did everybody else think? And are you happy that Rose is going to come back in some form?
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Grey's Anatomy: It's okay. I won a contest.

Quick spoilers for last night's "Grey's Anatomy" coming up just as soon as I pet a cub...

Why am I still watching? Somebody want to tell me that? With Thursday night as packed as its going to be from now through the end of the season, and with "Grey's" giving us episodes like this on a regular basis, what masochistic urge still has me giving up an hour of my life a week for it?

Shonda Rhimes said in several interviews that the strike gave her time to step back and re-assess some things, and has implied at the very least that she realizes she has to put Meredith and McDreamy back together once and for all. But even if "Where the Wild Things Are" started to hint at the latest reconciliation for primetime's mopiest couple, it still bore the hallmarks of a show that Just. Doesn't. Get It.

One of the overwhelming problems of the series was the way each character had drowned in her or his own narcissism, and how each of them gave no thought to how their selfishness hurt the people around them. So what's our first post-strike episode about? The interns having a contest that drives them -- most notably the loathsome Izzy -- to sacrifice their patients' physical and emotional well-being for the sake of a nebulous point system.

Look, I get that the competitive nature of a surgical residency is one of the key components of the series, and in general I like those moments when Cristina or Karev treats the latest case as nothing more than another rung on the ladder. But between Izzy torturing Cheech and Meredith taking out her own romantic hang-ups on her patient and his poor wife (even though she was right), I feel like Shonda took things too far. There's passive disinterest in your patients as human beings and then there's actively causing them harm because of your own neuroses, and the latter just makes me hate these people even more, whether or not they appeared to learn their lesson at the end.

On the plus side -- I think -- was the graphic nature of the bear-mauling injuries. They were gross, but at least when Clea Duvall took her hat off and we saw her brain exposed for all the world to see, it at least took my mind off of how little I can still tolerate the regular characters.

What did everybody else think?
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30 Rock, "Succession": Too many notes

"30 Rock" spoilers coming up just as soon as I hit the vending machine...

Okay, they're back.

Aside from the ongoing one-note-ness of Will Arnett as Devin Banks (and it pains me to speak ill of Gob), "Succession" was a fabulous episode, at once a great showcase for Tina Fey as an actress, an inspired riff on "Amadeus," and maybe the funniest Dr. Spaceman appearance ever.

After once more having fun with Liz's low self-esteem (she wants to go live with gorillas) and expectations for her future (she thinks she'll be teaching improv on cruise ships in five years), then helping Jack by kissing Devin ("I pretended he was a sandwich!"), we had her wholeheartedly embracing the world of the suits, with their slap-worthy salaries (a fever that Pete also caught), their Business Drunkenness, scapegoating, etc. And then she gets too Business Drunk to remember to keep Don Geiss out of his coma and... Blergh.

Meanwhile, Tracy as Amadeus and Frank as Salieri, on the subject of pornographic video games and The Uncanny Valley, was brilliant in its combination of high and low culture. If it had just been Frank's growing jealousy of Tracy, that would have been enough, but to then have Dr. Spaceman arrive with a billowing black cape? I had to pause the show for a good two minutes to regain control of my senses after that.

The rest of Spaceman's house call was amazing as well, as the guy continues to be Jack's biggest blind spot. He gives a placebo injection to a coma patient to see if he's faking, doesn't know where the heart is ("It's different on every person"), and can't remember the difference between 411 and 911. (Based on his phone request for "Diabetes repair, I guess," I'm assuming he wound up calling 411.) And yet Jack still trusts the guy. I love it.

Again, I wish that Jack's adversary was a more complex individual, but beyond that, "Succession" was so superb that I'm once again reduced to just listing other things I liked:
  • "Eureka!" "What is it, Tracy?" "We should call Eureka! She always has good ideas!"
  • Jack is uncomfortable with hugging, because "It's so ethnic."
  • Liz offers to give up Kenneth to get Devin to stop attacking Jack
  • "Hey nerds, who has two thumbs, speaks limited French and didn't cry once today? This moi!"
  • Both Business Drunk and Rich Drunk mean it's legal to drive a car
  • "My genius has come alive, like toys when your back is turned!"
  • "You've got the charm and spark of a young Leona Helmsley."
  • Liz hands Jack a tampon after he's too sympathetic towards Devin
Oh, one other complaint. This is the first post-strike episode I watched live, and now I understand the overwhelming hatred people had towards last week's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" promo. Because when the "Baby Mama" ad took over a third of the screen -- in the middle of the otherwise genius Mozart montage of Spaceman's arrival and Frank's descent into madness -- I wanted to drive to NBC/Universal corporate headquarters and start slapping everyone there out of existence.

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

Sepinwall on TV: 'Carrier' review

Today's column is a review of "Carrier," the five-night, 10-hour PBS documentary chronicling a six-month deployment for the USS Nimitz. It's terrific. Click here to read the full post

Lost, "The Shape of Things To Come": Smokey and the bandits

Spoilers for "Lost" coming up just as soon as I get my dry cleaner to remove the blood and sand from my parka...

As the Jewish people are still in the middle of Passover, it's time to apply the concept of Dayenu to "Lost." Dayenu, for the gentiles among you, is a song sung around the Passover seder table listing all the things we have to be thankful for in the Exodus story: if God had only freed us from slavery, Dayenu (translate, "it would have been enough"); if God had freed us from slavery and taken us out of Egypt, Dayenu; if he had only taken us out of Egypt and fed us manna, Dayenu; etc.

With "The Shape of Things to Come," if Lindelof and Cuse had only given us the amazing, half-CGI, half-implied nighttime rampage of Smokey, Dayenu.

If they had only given us Smokey's rampage and clarified that Ben can teleport off the island and travel through time, Dayenu.

If they had only given us Smokey's rampage and the teleportation issue, while explaining why Sayid works for Ben in the future, Dayenu.

If they had only given us Smokey's rampage, teleportation, the Sayid explanation and Michael Emerson playing Ben's reaction to Alex's death, Dayenu.

If they had only given us Smokey, teleportation, Sayid, Ben's reaction, and Jack using Bernard to outsmart Faraday, Dayenu.

If they had only given us all of the above, plus tying Ben to Penny (and therefore Desmond), Dayenu.

Yup, "The Shape of Things to Come" was overflowing with manna from post-strike heaven: lots of action, lots of intrigue, the odd answer or three, and Michael Emerson again demonstrating why Lindelof and Cuse essentially turned the show over to a guy who was only supposed to be around for two episodes.

That isn't to say it was perfect. For starters, there's the matter of the redshirts among the Locke/Sawyer/Ben group. The matter of the lostaways who aren't regular castmembers (or at least recurring figures like Bernard and Rose) has always been a sticky one for the show. The producers tried to address the problem last year with Nikki and Paolo, but did it so clumsily that the entire audience cheered their deaths. The massacre in Other Town was the opposite extreme of that. Sawyer's really concerned about getting Claire into Ben's house as quickly as possible but doesn't have a plan for the other people who followed Locke in the premiere (for reasons unknown, because they hd no personalities) other than to tell them to get back in the house. And so, of course, the only people killed during the assault are the handful of non-regulars, while Claire survives a house blowing up around her. That sequence with Sawyer dodging bullets was supposed to be tense and frightening; instead, it was funny.

Meanwhile, between the last pre-strike episode and this one, I feel like the writers really dropped the ball with Alex and Rousseau. I understand the show has too many characters, and has enough trouble servicing the people in the main cast, but as I said six weeks ago, they spent the better part of three seasons with the matter of Rousseau's missing child hovering on the periphery of things, they finally had the two of them meet and learn each other's identity in the finale, and then they had no meaningful interaction with each other until Rousseau died, with Alex following quickly behind her. Between the flashbacks and the time travel and mysticism of the island, dead doesn't always mean dead on "Lost" (see Tom Friendly's recent re-appearance), but at this point in the story, I can't imagine them taking the time to go back to that relationship to fill in the scenes we should have seen between those two after their reunion in the season three finale. Seems like a waste.

But back to the good stuff. As said above, Smokey picking apart the mercenary unit was worth the price of admission. By now, we've seen enough of the monster to know what it can do and what it looks like doing it, and so having it go to town at night was a brilliant idea; not only did it no doubt save some money on the CGI budget, but it let our imaginations fill in the blanks on what it was doing to the bad guys. Lindelof likes to say, while trying to manage expectations for the eventual revelation of what the island is, that our imaginations are always going to come up with something better than what's in the actual show, and that sequence was a nice illustration of that. I don't think it would have been half as exciting or scary if it had been in broad daylight and we had seen every single thing Smokey did to those guys.

Meanwhile, we now know that Ben does have some control over the monster (and that it involves going into his Magic Box room to do it), that he can travel through time and space (and, based on him asking the hotel clerk for the date, doesn't always know where and when he'll be landing), and that he's a better hand-to-hand fighter than anybody left on the island save maybe Sayid and Desmond. We don't know any details beyond that, or what exactly the "rules" are between him and Widmore regarding who can be killed ownership of the island, etc., but the episode was exciting enough, and offered just enough information, that I continue to feel confident we'll find out more as we go.

(To be specific, I don't know that the writers are ever going to satisfactorily tie up every loose end from the early years, but I do believe that everything happening from now to the end is being done with a plan, and that all this stuff with time travel and the Oceanic Six and Ben's glove-trotting adventures will make sense, even if we never find out about the four-toed foot, or why Dharma keeps doing food drops, or how Mr. Eko's brother's plane wound up on the island, etc.)

While we didn't get any freighter time this week, and therefore can only guess who slit the doctor's throat and why the freighter people are playing dumb about it to Faraday (maybe the doctor gets killed in the future, and this is another time travel phenomenon?), we did get to fill in most of the blanks with Jarrah, Sayid Jarrah, as well as put a tragic bow on his search for Nadia, which was the running thread of nearly all his flashbacks in the early seasons. Poor guy finally finds her, and not long after, Widmore's people kill her for reasons unknown, and then Sayid lets Ben manipulate him into turning into an instrument of his vengeance. Nice. Might we reach a point where Sayid is trying to kill Penny (not knowing who she is), while Desmond (somehow back in the real world) has to stop him?

I could write more about Jack's sudden health issues, or Faraday not being bright enough to think that the guy who suggested the telegraph plan might know Morse code, but it's late and I have 70 other shows to watch and blog about tomorrow morning, so for now... Dayenu.

What did everybody else think?
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Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Office, "Night Out": All in the game, yo

Spoilers for "The Office" coming up just as soon as I book a flight to Costa Rica...

Not as brilliant as "Chairmodel," but "Night Out" was another very funny episode. If you take away the whole "first episode after the long hiatus" issue I had with "Dinner Party," then they're three-for-three since the return, and the post-strike portion of the season is looking to be much stronger than what we got in the fall.

I love the direction they've taken Ryan as the season has gone along. He's got the stupid suits and the stupid face scruff and all the d-bag accessories. He's tossing around meaningless management buzzwords and coming up with predictably hip and edgy new business strategies that completely miss the point of what still sort of makes Dunder-Mifflin work. And now we find out that Dunder-Mifflin Infinity is a complete fiasco -- sexual predators! identity theft! -- that Ryan's fabulous place in the city is a tiny studio that probably eats up most of his salary, and that he's developed a drug habit that no doubt eats up the rest.

The conference room scene was a little masterpiece. We had Ryan ordering the staff to cover for his mistakes in a way that's only going to cut their own throats (see Stanley's complaints about losing commissions). We had Michael giving a slow-clap and discussing all of Infinity's failings in such great detail that it was hilarious whether you believe he was trying to support Ryan in his usual oblivious way or was trying to mock him in his usual unsubtle way. And we had Kelly's question, "Number one: how dare you?" (Oh, and we had Creed not understanding what the fuss was about all the pedophiles on the site.)

Then we had Michael's ongoing quest for aesthetically-pleasing companionship (Sort of; he was considering sleeping with Meredith) crossing with Ryan's downward spiral. B.J. Ryan played Cokehead Ryan very well; I love that being under the influence is the only way Ryan can tolerate Michael or Dwight's company, and his reaction to Michael wanting to undress him. Mindy Kaling also did a good job playing with our perceptions of Michael's perceptiveness when Ryan asked about his "friend" with the drug problem; for a minute there, you start wondering if Michael might understand that Ryan's talking about himself, and then all of a sudden Michel goes off on a tangent inspired by his viewing of "The Wire" ("I don't understand a word of it!"), and you remember that Michael's powers of perception can only go so far. Remember, he's the guy who calls his mom when he's striking out at a hot club.

I'll admit that you have to overlook a metric ton of contrivances to buy into the locked-in storyline. Why wouldn't Hank the security guard have noticed the lot full of employee cars? Why couldn't anyone call a locksmith? Or the cops? Or have Phyllis call Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration, who almost certainly has a key? There were plot holes you could have driven Hank's SUV through, definitely. But I still liked it. This is the second time this season they've done the "Jim is the new Michael" story, and while the birthday party subplot from "Survivor Man" was funnier and felt more organic, this one had a number of brilliant moments: Creed (Creed!) being the only one who knew Hank's name, Pam throwing a football in Meredith's face, Toby taking his crush with Pam too far in full view of anyone and (after invoking his Costa Rica dream from "Branch Closing"), leaping over the fence to escape the humiliation. (If you're Toby in that situation, what else are you gonna do?)

If there's a problem with these episodes, it's that the writers are squeezing 14 episodes of story into a 6-episode bag. We had to quickly gloss over the details of Michael's split with Jan so we could get into the dating story, there wasn't time to drop a few hints about Ryan's coke use, and even Jim's struggles with being Michael's number two man haven't gotten as much play as they probably could. But Mindy Kaling is such a funny writer that she was able to overcome a lot of the logic leaps.

Some other random thoughts:
  • Dwight's always in danger of being a cartoon, and I can't always put my finger on what separates Funny Dwight from Annoying Dwight, but I got a kick out of him throughout the episode, whether he was accusing Ryan's short friend of being a hobbit ("Do you have powers?") or being so stand-offish with the basketball-playing hottie that she desperately wanted him.
  • Speaking of the basketball team, wasn't the fictional Jersey State also the home of the women's basketball team from that "Flight of the Conchords" episodes where the guys go on a road trip?
  • I liked the moment where Ryan called out Jim for complaining to David Wallace about D-M Infinity. We know Jim no longer has any designs on that job, but Ryan -- especially coke-using, paranoid Ryan -- absoutely assumes Jim's gunning for him.
What did everybody else think?
Click here to read the full post

Survivor: Chocolate! Chocolate! Chocolate! Ack!

Quick "Survivor" spoilers coming up just as soon as I enjoy a steamy bowl of bat soup...

After last week's masterpiece (by "Survivor" standards, anyway), this one was kind of unsatisfying. First, there was so much repeating of the plan over and over and over again, and Jason was so stupid, and James was so clearly unable to mount a counter-offensive against the women, that there was no suspense whatsoever to the latter half of the episode. Second, the one doing all the repeating was Natalie.

I'm sorry; was there a Natalie on the show before this week and I just missed her? This was, like, the first time she had spoken all season, and she got more talking head interviews than every other contestant combined. That's just bad narrative on the part of the "Survivor" editors. I don't care if she was the most boring, anonymous, doormouse of a human being for the entire pre-merge phase of the game; if they knew she was suddenly going to become a power player at this stage (even if it turns out to be for just this episode), they should have searched through every frame of film they shot to find something, anything, showing her having a personality before tonight. It's hard for me to get wrapped up in Natalie's big moment of triumph if I was spending the whole time wondering who she was.

I don't feel especially bad for Jason, as he is dumb as a lox, and as he was such an ass to the older members of the "fans" tribe early on. (He was the one who wouldn't let Chet or the others sleep in the young people's cave, and then I believe he started taking parts of the much better shelter that Tracey built.) But in terms of rooting interest, I'm kind of down to Erik, whose dumb exuberance has grown on me (him paying to lick Cirie's fingers was one of the weirder moments in show history); James, who's not the challenge god Probst always sells him as, doesn't have many options strategy-wise, and also has an injury that could lead to a Penner-esque evacuation; and maybe Cirie, who's about half an episode away from becoming insufferably smug again. (She may already be there, but whatserface with the implants was doing all the talking tonight.)

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

Watch your cigarettes with this guy, Jack!

As I've previously professed my undying love for "Midnight Run," I thought I should make note of this item from The Hollywood Reporter about Larry the Cable Guy being sued for hiring Yaphet Kotto to play his "Run" character, FBI Agent Alonso Mosely, in his movie "Witless Protection" -- without getting permission from Universal, which owns the rights to all the characters in the original film.

And, while we're on the subject, here are six sublime seconds of Kotto as Mosely. Enjoy. Click here to read the full post

Top Chef: The missing ingredient?

I haven't blogged on "Top Chef" at all this season, even though I've watched every episode. Mainly that's because, though the show still succeeds in making me hungry at 10:30 at night each week (particularly during last week's tailgating challenge), the contestants and the drama haven't really engaged me. This is only the second season I've watched, so I thought I'd ask the more veteran "Chef" fans: is it just me, or has this season been pretty bland? And what do you think the difference is between this one and one of the better earlier seasons? Click here to read the full post


Big night of TV coming up, with the return of the ABC line-up ("Ugly Betty"/"Grey's Anatomy"/"Lost") going up against the rejiggered NBC line-up ("Earl"/"Scrubs"/"Office"/"30 Rock"/"ER"), plus new episodes on CBS ("Survivor"/"CSI"/"Without a Trace"). So, simple question: what are you going to watch, and in what order? Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

American Idol: Top 6 eliminations

"American Idol" elimination spoilers coming up just as soon as I watch the "Take On Me" video on YouTube...

What's my first rule of "American Idol," boys and girls? It's always better to be bad than to be boring. Tonight brings us a slight addendum to that rule: when the number of contestants gets small enough, it can be better to be bad than good, so long as the good people aren't the best.

We have to remove Young David Archuleta from any equations, because he defies all reason and logic. He simply is, and for his acolytes, that's enough. Now, of the other five, you had David Cook going in the pimp spot and killing with an unexpectedly traditional performances. Even if he hadn't been building momentum for weeks, he'd be safe under those circumstances, as he'd be drawing on not only his fanbase, but the casual voters.

Then we had Jason, who got dog-piled by the judges and Brooke, who looked like a candidate for heavy pharmaceuticals (legal or otherwise); both were lousy but had big fanbases from week's past who knew to mobilize at danger signs like that. Meanwhile, we had Carly and Syesha each delivering strong performances and getting their best praise in a while (for Syesha, her best praise ever), but who had never really connected with the audience and had made several trips apiece to the bottom three. Their fans, whomever they may be, may have eased off the throttle, especially given all the scorn heaped on our two singer-songwriter types, and that's how Jason and Brooke wound up on the couches of safety, Carly and Syesha wound up on the seal, and Carly wound up going home.

I never really warmed to Carly, either -- largely because of the naked desperation dripping from nearly all of her performances (except, ironically, "Jesus Christ Superstar" this week) -- but I'm going to miss what I'm sure would have been her inevitable performance of "Coming to America" for Neil Diamond Night. But considering how badly she seemed to want/need this second chance in the music biz, she seemed surprisingly, reassuringly at peace with her boot. Earlier in the year, I was worried that if she went home before at least top three, she might stick a shiv in Randy on her way out. (Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing.)

One other thing to keep in mind about Jason and Brooke's survival: Neil Diamond's songbook is going to be far better suited for them than any of the last several themes have been. Barring something weird, I figure Syesha goes next week, then we lose our two coffee house types in random order, setting up the pre-destined David v. David finale.

What did everybody else think?
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Reaper, "Rebellion": The phone number of the Beast

Spoilers for "Reaper" coming up just as soon as I choose between the tacos and the mail...

Farewell, "State" alums. I'll miss you and your fussy bickering and the way you actually gave "Reaper" direction for a few weeks.

I don't know whether the Demons Next Door storyline was always planned to be this length, or if Ken Marino and Michael Ian Black were only available for a few episodes, or if the strike changed the initial plan, but I think we could have gotten more mileage out of the whole deal. Black's plan for the demons to conquer Satan by being nice was really funny (as was the demon-guilt over their backsliding with the human sacrifice), and the storyline allowed the writers to backburner the Soul of the Week.

But if the storyline ended before I would have liked, at least it went out with a really strong episode. It gave Ray Wise opportunities to play so many shades of Satan (lonely, passive-agressive, then evil). It gave me the first Sock storyline since the Gladys episode that I enjoyed unreservedly (maybe the key is to have Sock get lucky as often as possible), and the first time ever that I haven't minded Ted.

One minor complaint: the previous episode (which I believe was the last one written pre-strike) ended with Sam making the Peter Parker choice of not wanting Andi to get too close to him, and all of a sudden he's fine with her asking him out on a date? Did I miss something?

What did everybody else think?
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All TV: Leaving 'Law & Order': Memorable exits

Today's column, noting the imminent "Law & Order" departure of Jesse Martin, looks back at some of the best and worst departures from seasons past. There's also news on "Sarah Connor Chronicles" getting renewed and "Scrubs" and "30 Rock" swapping timeslots. Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

American Idol, Top 6: Andrew Lloyd Webber night

Spoilers for "American Idol" coming up just as soon as I tell the band to start over...

At this point, are the producers messing with the contestants, or are they just trying to tick off the judges? This is two weeks in a row now where we've had a theme designed to play into a classic "Idol" judge's trap. First the people who always tell contestants not to sing Mariah had to judge Mariah Carey Night, and tonight we got Broadway-hating Simon having to judge the contestants singing the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

This wasn't quite as excruciating for me as Mariah week, but it still wasn't good, and has as little bearing on the show's alleged mission as a Gregorian Chant Night would have. But at least Webber himself was a good mentor; more people need to tell these kids to actually read the lyrics and try to figure out what it is they're singing about.

In order...

Syesha Mercado, "One Rock 'N Roll Too Many": She cribs from Michelle Pfeiffer by starting in a slinky red dress on top of the piano, eschewing the roller skates of "Starlight Express" in favor of bare feet (had she worn roller skates on the piano, I can only imagine the entire performance turning into some kind of Fonzie stunt), and she eschews her usual imitation diva persona for imitation cabaret. She's an actress, and you can tell she's faking it by the way she naturally snaps into the cabaret persona when she's rehearsing with Webber, but she fakes this far more interestingly than she ever did the imitation Whitney. Given that Broadway is turning out to be the best employment opportunity for most non-winners (or even winners, in Fantasia's case), this was a nice showcase for Syesha. I can imagine hundreds of out of work New York actresses doing the same or better, but compared to what Syesha's done in the past -- and compared to the two performances to follow -- this wasn't bad at all.

Jason Castro, "Memory": Proof once again that Jason is dumb as a box of hammers: he picks Webber's aging diva classic not because it in any way fits his voice, but because he's heard of it. The arrangement basically guts the song to accommodate Jason's complete lack of range, and if Archuleta's going to keep his eyes open this week, then, by gum, Jason will go through a whole song with his shut. Boring, and I'm not even sure you could call it music.

Brooke White, "You Must Love Me": This is the second time now that Brooke has had to start and stop a song -- and, unless I'm going as nuts as Paula, I could swear that Paula actually praised her for doing it the last time, on "Every Breath You Take." While I agree with the male judges that she did the right thing rather than follow Paula's idiotic advice to make up words until she found her bearing, Brooke seems to be in the middle of a prolonged nervous breakdown the last few weeks. It becomes hard to tell whether she's trying to tell the story of the song, as Webber told her to, or if she's just freaking out because she flubbed the opening again. She at least attempts to stretch herself vocally in a few spots, but I feel uncomfortable watching her lately.

David Archuleta, "Think of Me": Again, am I going nuts, or did David completely muff several lines in the middle without any of the judges noticing? If so, maybe they didn't notice, because his attack of the mumbles didn't derail his performance the way it did on "We Can Work It Out," or the way Brooke's problems affected her. But if David's regained his confidence, he still functions as sonic Tylenol PM for me. I can barely remember the performance 20 minutes after I watched it.

Carly Smithson, "Jesus Christ Superstar": The happiest, most comfortable and confident Carly's seemed in weeks, maybe all the way back to "Come Together" on Beatles Night, Vol. 1. I like her so much better on slightly up-tempo rock numbers than when she's trying to be a balladeer, and good on Webber for teling her to change her song choice to match her strengths. There were some rough patches in the middle, but overall I really enjoyed her tonight.

David Cook, "Music of the Night": Doing the song perfectly straight was a brilliant strategic choice -- I think. David gets to show he's not a one-trick pony who just re-arranges every song to fit his style, and that he has a very versatile, powerful voice -- the high note on "Where you long to be" was killer. At the same time, when Daughtry did this exact route -- doing a faithful, non-rocking version of "What A Wonderful World" -- he wound up in the bottom three, because his hardcore fans apparently wanted him to do the Nickelback thing 24-7. Will Big David be rewarded for taking a real risk (as opposed to Cook-ifying "Always Be My Baby"), or punished for stepping out of his box?

Best of the Night: Cook, again. I still stand by my Inevitability of Archuleta theory, but at this point it's on personality and fanbase, because talent-wise, Big David's been mopping the floor with Little David for weeks. Who would have thought, on Andrew Lloyd Webber Night, Big David would be the David to get the pimp spot -- and deserve it?

In danger: Jason was the worst by far, and Brooke was a mess, too. On the other hand, even though Syesha was the best she's ever been, she wasn't the best of the night, and she went first, and the Castro/White fanbases could mobilize while whoever's been voting for Syesha all these weeks could get complacent.

What did everybody else think?
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Monday, April 21, 2008

HIMYM, "Sandcastles in the Sand": Re-vertigo-go

Spoilers for the latest episode of "How I Met Your Mother" coming up just as soon as I wave some kids through the waterslide...

Those bastards. Those magnificent, clever bastards. Those prestidigitating, misdirecting, clever SOBs.

They knew we'd all be focusing on the sequel to "Let's Go to the Mall" -- and, therefore, the half-sequel to the series' all-time high point, "Slap Bet" -- and they suspected they couldn't live up to expectations. And so just at that moment when everybody in the audience would be saying, "You know, that wasn't as good as the first Robin Sparkles video," they had Robin and Barney make out -- resolving a bit of Unresolved Sexual Tension that's been lingering since way back in season one's "Zip, Zip, Zip." (That's the one where Robin and Barney have a bro's night out of cigars and Laser Tag, and when Barney tries to put the moves on Robin, only to be told she still has feelings for Ted.) If one of the chief rules of spin is to create a new story to take people's minds off the one you don't want them discussing, then Bays and Thomas and company did one hell of a job spinning here.

Now, I should say that "Sandcastles in the Sand" the episode was quite good. Not "Slap Bet" good, but very little in the series comes close to that level. The idea of Revertigo, and seeing it in practice with both Robin (pathetic lovestruck girl with thick Canadian accent) and Lily (homegurrrlll!!), were vintage "HIMYM" (as was the fast-forwarding through all the Canadian insults) and I thought James Van Der Beek was quite good and self-deprecating as Simon. He may have sounded Irish half the time, but he threw himself into the part in a way that went beyond the hair and makeup choices. When he was re-enacting his life-saving gig at the water park with Ted, I didn't for a second see Dawson Leery.

It was really only "Sandcastles in the Sand" the video that was a disappointment. Because Bays and Thomas are part-time musicians, their past song parodies have been wonderful: "The Slapsgiving Song" (with a pained Barney doing the "whoa-oh-oh"s), "Ted Mosby Is a Jerk" and, especially, the original "Let's Go to the Mall," which was hilarious as both song ("I'll rock your body till Canada Day!") and video (the robot!). "Sandcastles in the Sand" was... okay. It totally worked as the sort of overwrought ballad the likes of Tiffany and Debbie Gibson tried in a bid for artistic credibility. It just wasn't very funny, and the cameos by Alan Thicke and Tiffany herself weren't enough to save it.

But then, just as I was trying to convince myself that I knew the sequel wouldn't be as good as the original and therefore shouldn't act disappointed, Future Ted kept talking about how Barney and Robin kept watching the video, and Barney and Robin kept moving closer together on the couch, and then they totally made out, and all was right with the world.

In a lot of cases, when a veteran show paired off its two remaining single characters, it would smack of creative desperation, but "HIMYM" has been building to this for a while -- from the bro's night out in season one all the way through the two of them sharing cigars and ice cream last week(*) -- and it makes sense for the characters. They're both control freaks about their living spaces, both commitment-phobic to the extreme, enjoy a good smoke and a good firearm, and they both dig the company of Ted Evelyn Mosby. Add to that the great chemistry between Neil Patrick Harris and Cobie Smulders, and I see this as a terrific coupling, the sort that's going to be completely different from Ted and Robin, or Marshall and Lily, or Ted and The Mother (Stella?), because I expect Robin and Barney will attempt to keep this on a superficial level. That, or I expect them to try and, to their shock and dismay, realize they have something resembling real feelings for each other. Either way, awesome.

((*) Said cigar/ice cream scene had a number of "HIMYM" fans believing that Barney and Robin were already together, in secret, and that we would find out about it at a later date, ala Ted and Robin breaking up several episodes before the other characters, and the audience, found out about it. Guess not.)

What did everybody else think? Does the prospect of Robin and Barney sucking face make up for the shortcomings of the second Robin Sparkles video? Or am I being too tough on our resident Canadian teen pop sensation?
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