Wednesday, December 31, 2008

I've got a good feeling about 2009

I may have mentioned a time or 17 that my every waking hour these days is consumed with watching DVD screeners of shows that are premiering next month, and/or shows that will be paneled at the upcoming mid-season TV critics press tour. And, as I was swapping e-mails with Mo Ryan about our respective thoughts on Showtime's "United States of Tara" (Mo disliked it, I was hot-and-cold to it), she sent back a note that I think nicely captures my feelings about this screener marathon, and my hopes for the new year:
God, just in the last few days I've felt more energized to do this job than I have in a while. Been writing up S2 of BSG, watching Scrubs, Lost, Damages... I mean, damn. However I felt about TV in September, when it was such a chore to trudge through those pilots, I don't feel that way (ask me in two weeks, when I'll probably be losing my mind with all that'll be going on then). I'd much rather feel charged up about an interesting misfire like Tara than be watching just about any new show the networks have come up lately....
I'm right in with Mo on this. "Damages," a show I didn't really enjoy when it debuted, and about which I still have ambivalent feelings this year (the first two new episodes were really starting to hook me in before they did something that continually drove me nuts last season) is still a lot more intriguing to me than most of what I was writing about back in September. I still only like parts of "Big Love" (primarily the stuff with the wives, and not anything to do with the compound or with Bill's business), but I feel passionately about those parts I like.

And those are just the shows I'm not over the moon about. Coming up over the next few weeks are a whole host of goodness, from "Scrubs" to "Flight of the Conchords" to "Lost" to "Battlestar Galactica" to (for those of you without DirecTV) "Friday Night Lights." (Ellen Gray has a nice rundown of all the January premieres.)

Despite all the shows I praised in my recent columns on the best shows and best episodes, 2008 was in many ways a rotten year for television. It started off in the middle of the writers strike, and even though a lot of shows were back on the air by April, we got fewer episodes of most series, while others (like "Conchords" and "Big Love") stayed off the air altogether. And the lack of anything really pulse-quickening in the fall premieres didn't help the business shake off the year-long strike hangover. And two of the best shows -- "The Shield" and "The Wire" -- were brilliant in part because they were ending.

But looking at all these returns and debuts over a short period of time has me pumped up for the new year. Now, some of the upcoming stuff will be ending, too ("BSG," possibly "FNL," definitely the current incarnation of "Scrubs," if not the series as a whole), but as I said in my review of the "The Wire" series finale, I remain an optimist that other great things will rise up to replace the ones we're losing.

When you get paid to watch TV, it would be obnoxious to say your job isn't fun, but I have to say that the last few weeks of 2008 -- and what they mean for the early part of 2009 -- have been the most fun I've had doing this job in quite a while.

Happy New Year, everybody. Stay safe and, as I used to joke every December in elementary school (in a joke that never, ever got old, no matter what the other kids from Hilldale School tell you), see you next year.
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Me want Jon Stewart!

I don't have Time-Warner Cable, but for those of you who do, prepare to go Stewart-less, and MTV-less, and entirely Viacom-less tonight at midnight if Time-Warner and Viacom can't reach an agreement on a new deal. My daughter and I were watching "Backyardigans" this morning and had to suffer through an extended crawl warning parents (and, in my daughter's case, precocious early readers) that they were about to lose Dora, Diego and all their other Nickelodeon friends because the people at Time-Warner were being stupid-heads. (Or words to that effect.) Given the number of different constituencies served by the Viacom channels, and the number of major markets served by Time-Warner (including Stewart's home turf in NYC), this could get ugly. Click here to read the full post

Me want food!

I don't watch a lot of food-related shows, even though I almost never regret the occasions when I sit down for an episode of "Top Chef," or "No Reservations" or "Feasting on Asphalt." I guess my love of fictional narrative TV overwhelms my love of food and the cranky people who make and/or eat it.

But during this slow period, I've been watching a lot of Travel Channel's "Man V. Food," in which a guy named Adam Richman tours comfort food joints around the country to find out how they make their delicious (and, admittedly, artery-clogging) signature dishes. (Here he is at Primanti Bros. in Pittsburgh.) And at the end of every episode, he attempts to win a notorious eating challenge in whatever city he's in: eating a 7-lb. burger, consuming three overstuffed sandwiches in under an hour, etc. He's not a competitive eater and doesn't always beat the challenge, but it's impressive (and sometimes gross) to watch him try.

It ain't deep, and it certainly ain't healthy (I could feel my arteries clog just from watching), but it's fun.

There's a mini-marathon today from 5-8 p.m., and you can find a full schedule at the official site. Click here to read the full post

Sepinwall on TV: TV people we lost in 2008

Today's column is the annual look back at notable TV folk who died in the last year. (And the more I look at that subject line, the more I realize how much it would annoy George Carlin. Sorry, George.) Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Speaking of pure evil... I've seen new 'Lost' episodes

So I just got done watching the first two episodes of "Lost" season five, and I can tell you the following three things, in the hope that none of them will spoil your enjoyment of what's to come when the show premieres on January 21:

• They're really good, in terms of keeping the momentum from last season going, servicing the characters and their emotions, and providing an appropriate number of "Whoa"s per hour.

• At one point, a character is told, "Look, everything's going to make sense. I promise."

• Hurley heats up, but does not eat, a Hot Pocket.

Okay, so maybe that last one's a spoiler, or maybe it's just an excuse to link to this. Either way, you have at least one thing to look forward to in the new year. Click here to read the full post

Pure evil

Just because I can link to it, and because I unfortunately don't have time to watch it myself. Click here to read the full post

Summer Burn-Off Theatre in winter: To Love & Die

If you've been reading me in The Star-Ledger long enough, you may know of my deep affection for Summer Burn-Off Theatre, that increasingly rare practice wherein networks run unaired episodes of canceled shows in the summer to help recoup their costs. Burn-Off Theatre is how I originally saw the "Freaks and Geeks" finale, how season two of "The Loop" wound up airing, and how I got to see one of the worst teen dramas ever made in the WB's "Young Americans." As a student of TV, I enjoy the bad burn-off shows almost as much as the good ones, because they prove instructive in demonstrating how something could be appealing enough to be ordered and then bad enough to get dumped into the July or August schedule.

The networks do less and less of this stuff with each passing year, because the amount they recoup on the initial investment isn't worth the potential lost ad revenue, or the amount of money that would be needed to promote a project with no future. In recent years, shows that were canceled in mid-season only get one or two shots in the summer before being pulled again, or just don't get shown at all. Sometimes a network will sit on an entire season of a show until summer and then pretend it's a big event instead of a burn-off (see also NBC's "Windfall" or the CW's "Hidden Palms"), but even that's getting rarer.

So it's an odd but pleasant surprise to see USA devoting one of the last (and least-watched) nights of 2008 to digging up the pilot for "To Love & Die," which was produced more than two years ago and ordered to series a year and a half ago, then never mentioned again. (Like Dan Fienberg, I remember seeing clips at the July '07 press tour and being intrigued.) It's got an interesting, USA-appropriate premise (directionless young woman meets the father she never knew, finds out he's an assassin, and decides to join the family business) and has the always-watchable Tim Matheson as the dad (plus the iffier Shiri Appleby, pictured above, as the daughter).

If I wasn't so swamped with press tour and January premiere screeners, I'd be all over the premiere tonight, if only to try to figure out why USA wound up passing on it. As it is, I'll record it to the DVR and try to find some time for it after I put a serious dent into the DVD pile. But for those of you who don't have several dozen hours of screeners to get through, it might be worth a look tonight at 8. Click here to read the full post

Monday, December 29, 2008

Sepinwall on TV: Best (episodes) of the rest

Today's column, as promised on Friday, is my look at some of the best episodes from shows that overall weren't strong enough to make the Top 10 but had great individual moments. Lots of video clips in this one, too, including "Dr. Horrible" in its entirety. Click here to read the full post

Friday, December 26, 2008

Sepinwall on TV: Top TV shows of 2008

Today's column features my annual top 10 list -- which, as always, has me cheating with a tie at one spot near the end. The list:
  1. "The Shield"
  2. "The Wire"
  3. "Mad Men"
  4. "Chuck"
  5. "Lost"
  6. "The Office"
  7. "Battlestar Galactica"
  8. "In Treatment"
  9. "Breaking Bad"
  10. "Burn Notice" & "The Middleman" (tie)
To read the full column with flowery praise of each choice -- plus embedded video of memorable moments from each show -- click here.

Last year, the top 10 list ran on the same day as my list of the best episodes for shows that didn't crack the top 10, but this year that second list won't run until Monday. So feel free to grouse about the absence of "30 Rock," "Friday Night Lights," et al between now and Monday, when I give 'em nice plugs. Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Chrismukkah to all

Happy holidays everybody, no matter what you celebrate. I'll be off the grid for a couple of days and back on Friday with the Top 10 column. Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Leverage, "The Miracle Job": Don't blink

After all the grousing in today's thread about how there's no new programming on TV during Christmas week, I should probably be grateful there's an original episode of "Leverage" and go hog-wild reviewing it. But even if I wasn't preparing to see friends and family, I wouldn't have a lot to say about this, the last and easily the weakest of the four episodes I've seen. Gina Bellman's identical-sounding accents are a particular problem here, and the solution to the miracle problem seemed far too simple.

But talk about it if you want to, and I look forward to having something new to watch a week from tonight. Click here to read the full post

Welcome to *^&@ Deadwood and The Wire on DVD!

Mo Ryan's comment in the previous entry about Amazon selling "The Wire: The Complete Series" for $89.99 (64% off the retail price) was a good enough pointer that it deserved its own post (even though Amazon's temporarily out of stock, it's a hell of a deal if you don't mind waiting), especially since Amazon also has "Deadwood: The Complete Series" for $74.99 (58% off).

With "The Wire," you're largely buying it if you don't already have the previous DVD sets, as the only notable new features are the three prequel films (with Young Omar, Young Prop Joe, and the first meeting of McNulty and The Bunk) that were made before season five, plus a gag reel. But that's a great price for the single greatest drama in TV history, and even if there were no special features, I'd want to own it if I didn't have the season-by-season sets.

"Deadwood," on the other hand, has an extra disc with brand-new features, which I'll talk about after the jump...
"The biggest lie is the idea that we are entitled to a meaningful and coherent summarizing, a conclusion, of something which never concludes. In that regard, this is the lie I'm telling myself so I don't set fire to anything." -David Milch
That quote's from the highlight of the bonus disc, in which the creator of "Deadwood" tours the old sets and talks about where he might have taken the show in the fourth season, or in the movies that are now never going to be made.

I know a lot of "Deadwood" fans still blame Milch for bringing the show to a premature end, even though everything I know about the situation says that Milch was the fall guy in a financial dispute between HBO and Paramount, and that the whole "He was so excited to begin work on 'John From Cincinnati' that we had to put 'Deadwood' on hold" was a lie agreed upon so that at least Milch could have something on the air where he could employ a lot of the "Deadwood" cast and crew.

But regardless of your feelings for Milch and whatever role he played in the show's sudden demise, there's no denying his passion for the project as he walks through the ghost town, admits to feeling depressed being there, and does one of his patented stream-of-consciousness monologues about the nature of endings. (See above.)

The Milch featurette makes a wonderful double feature with one of my favorite DVD bonuses of all time. Titus Welliver, who played Al Swearengen's protege Silas Adams, turns out to be a brilliant mimic, and he tries to imagine Milch meeting with various classic '70s actors (Pacino, DeNiro, Walken, Duvall) to see if they would want to play Swearengen. Even though Welliver is in full "Deadwood" costume, complete with beard, he nails all five impersonations, particularly Milch's crooked posture and leisurely syntax. It's hysterical.

There's also a half-hour feature on the real Deadwood, a tour of the set, and an hourlong conversation with the cast and crew from 2005. Plus, the packaging makes the whole thing roughly the size of any of the single-season sets, which is good for those of us with limited shelf space.

Christmas is almost here, but if you need a last-minute gift idea for the TV lover, here you go.
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Things to watch on TV when it's dead?

Chris Littman at The Sporting News got to the bottom of why so many "Chuck" villains are being named after '80s pro athletes. I feel much better knowing that it wasn't completely random.

As this is an extremely slow stretch on TV, it's gonna be a slow stretch on the blog. Most of my time is occupied with working on my two best-of columns (coming Friday and then Monday), plus diving deep into my pile of review screeners for shows premiering in January and/or being paneled at press tour. Most of last night was devoted to the start of "Damages" season two, which so far I'm enjoying a lot more than what I watched of season one.

So, today's open question for those of you whose TV addiction is strong enough that you'd frequent a blog like this: what do you watch during this barren period before the first week of January? Or do you simply (gasp!) not watch that much TV? Click here to read the full post

Monday, December 22, 2008

His site is his site!

Dan Fienberg, referred to around these parts alternately as "my buddy Fienberg," "my evil twin Fienberg," "my bastard son Fienberg," "Mini-Me," etc., has left Zap2It and is now executive editor and all-around TV guy for a new entertainment news site called HitFix, which just launched in beta today. Among the other talent assembled: Drew McWeeny (aka Moriarty from Ain't It Cool?) as movie guy and Melinda Newman from Billboard as music gal.

Dan has migrated his Check the Fien Print blog and has been a posting fool of late, with thoughts on how the SAG Award nominations are the last time any awards show can ever snub "The Wire," and his desire (shared by me) that the phrase "ducking the shoe" work its way into our cultural lexicon.

Dan's a great writer and all-around swell guy; basically, a thinner, hairier version of your host. So give HitFix some clicks, eh? Click here to read the full post

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Skins series 2 in review

If you're a fan of "Skins," you probably noticed the lack of posts after the second season premiere. What happened was, I got several episodes behind, and would always get a few sentences into a multi-ep review post before I got sidetracked. Eventually, I decided to just wait until the season was over, especially since so many of the commenters were people who had seen the whole thing ahead of me. So, after the jump, some general thoughts on the final storylines for Tony, Sid, Chris and company...

I'd heard and read so many vague but ominous warnings about the direction of series 2 that my expectations were sufficiently lowered for me to enjoy most of it. But I can see where the complaints were coming from, as the show takes a turn into much more adult territory. That's not "adult" as in "adult content -- how much more adult could "Skins" get after the sexcapades of the first series? -- but as in the characters all started acting like adults. Parents either died, ran off, or proved themselves so oblivious that most of the kids had to grow up in a hurry and fend for themselves.

Between the abandonment issues, several tragedies (particularly the death of Chris) and the introduction of the very troubled Sketch (whose brief imprisonment of her ill mother saw the show veering into Stephen King territory), this was a much bleaker series than the first, with the carefree moments far less frequent and usually interrupted by another piece of bad news.

Now, there were times when all the misery felt like piling on -- the death of Sid's dad in particular triggered an "Oh, come on!" reaction -- but I thought it was all wonderfully played by the young ensemble. I thought Hannah Murray was especially great as this dark and bitter new incarnation of Cassie, and Joe Dempsie and Larissa Wilson made Chris and Jal's attempts to play house seem somehow fitting in this world.

But I'm glad that the producers chose to do two years and out with these characters, and to re-set with a new batch of kids a few years younger, using Tony's sister Effy as the bridge point. We all know how much trouble American teen dramas run into after the characters go off to college, and the change in tone and substance in "Skins" series 2 suggests that the writers were running out of material for this gang. Better to remember them as they were, for the most part, then to see them hang around past the point of being interesting.

What did everybody else think? And are you looking forward to the new Effy-centric incarnation of the show?
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Sepinwall on TV: It's Festivus again -- and boy, are we disappointed

Today's column is the annual Festivus list, where I air all the grievances I have against the members of my TV friends and family who disappointed me in 2008. Click here to read the full post

Friday, December 19, 2008

Pushing Daisies, "The Norwegians": Skubbe Do, where are you?

Spoilers for Wednesday night's "Pushing Daisies" -- which may or may not be the last episode to ever air on ABC -- coming up just as soon as I take a DNA swab...

Oh, twee little show, how I'll miss you.

It's still unclear whether ABC's going to run the remaining three episodes (maybe on a Saturday night in January?), just put them on their website, or make people wait for the DVD, but in a way, "The Norwegians" feels like as appropriate an ending point as any for the series' network run. It gave us yet another wacky world with the detectives from the land of Norwegia (including Orlando Jones, and I like that his blackness was never commented on, in the same way that nobody ever asked about Emerson Cod having a white mom), had Olive officially folded into the new Scooby gang as much as is possible without telling her about Ned's powers, finally showed us George Hamilton as Ned's dad (which is the kind of thing I like better as an image than I think I would if I had to watch Hamilton acting in several episodes), and featured possibly Jim Dale's best moment ever when he declared "Oh hell no!!!" at the sight of Olive in a Norwegian uniform.

With the series essentially at an end, I'm still trying to figure out what it is about "Pushing Daisies" that made me love it when I was ambivalent at best about Bryan Fuller's previous two shows. I know that I get paid to explain these differences, but I'm stumped, other than the possibility that the sheer sarcastic genius of Chi McBride (who got to talk 'bout Shaft here) effectively counter-balanced certain aspects that I found too annoying on "Wonderfalls" and "Dead Like Me." For those of you with a greater love for the Fuller ouevre, how would you characterize the differences between "Daisies" and the earlier shows?
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From the NY Times: Extinction-Level Television Event

In an odd turn of events, I find myself with a byline in today's New York Times Opinion section, with an op-ed about about NBC's Jay Leno deal and how it could point to a day when the broadcast networks will become indistinguishable from cable channels. Click here to read the full post

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Life, "Trapdoor": Russian underground

Spoilers for last night's "Life" coming up just as soon as I get some more pie...

That? That was 44 minutes or so of concentrated awesomeness.

Obviously, you can't do an episode like "Trapdoor" -- one with seismic shifts in virtually every corner of Charlie Crews' world -- every week, but on those occasions when you do make a show like this... damn.

"Trapdoor" is one of those episodes where I have to invoke my "dayeenu"(*) rule, which comes from a traditional Passover song about all the wonderful things God did for the Jewish people during the story of the exodus from Egypt. If God had only freed the slaves, you sing, dayeenu (it would have been enough). If God had only freed the slaves and taken us out of Egypt, dayeenu. If God had only freed the slaves, taken us out of Egypt and parted the Red Sea, dayeenu. Etc., etc.

(*) Pronounced "DIE-ay-noo" for our non-Semitic friends.

I invoke the dayeenu rule for episodes like this because if it had just featured the return of Garret Dillahunt as the pure, concentrated evil that is Roman Nevikov, dayeenu. If it had only featured Reese finally entering Charlie's house, or finally meeting Rachel Seybolt, dayeenu. If it had only had Reese falling off the wagon, dayeenu. If it had only finally introduced us to Crews' dad -- and had Crews accidentally shoot his dad and not feel bad about it -- dayeenu. If Charlie had only gotten shot at the end, dayeenu. Any of those elements on their own would have led to a memorable episode. All of them together? Sweet.

Really, the only thing that could have possibly made the episode better was if Christina Hendricks had actually been one of the many people at the door before Crews got shot and woke up in whatever the Zen equivalent of Limbo is.

One question: is this the first time this year that we've seen the documentary crew? And are you glad to have them back to help glide over expository bits like Stark explaining who Nevikov is, or would you rather not see them again? (Okay, so that's two questions, but they're related.)

What did everybody else think?
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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Flight of the Conchords season two sneak preview

I'm tied up trying to get the Festivus column done on an early deadline, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that the "Flight of the Conchords" season two premiere is temporarily up on Funny Or Die. So watch, enjoy, and I'll do a proper review of it after it airs on HBO on Jan. 18.

Cheer up, Murray. Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Leverage, "The Two-Horse Job": Don't mess with Romo Lampkin

I'm a little too swamped right now to go into any real detail about tonight's "Leverage," except to say that, while the job itself really didn't interest me, seeing the crew have to work around the insurance investigator played by Mark Sheppard was a lot of fun. Fire away with your own thoughts. Click here to read the full post

The Big Bang Theory, "The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis": The search for Spock

So, a bunch of people in the "HIMYM" post started going on and on about the wonderful final scene from last night's "Big Bang Theory," with some going so far as to discuss certain elements of it in such detail that I worried the joke had been ruined. Turns out, the moment was so expertly-played by Jim Parsons that no amount of advance knowledge could have spoiled the gag. Alas, "Big Bang" isn't available anywhere on-line, but feel free to discuss the joke -- and the episode -- in the comments. Click here to read the full post

Terminator, "Earthlings Welcome Here": Gender bender

Brief spoilers for the last episode of "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" until February coming up just as soon as I take a shower...

I watched "Earthlings Welcome Here" last night, and for the better part of a day I grappled with what to write about it. Every time I got done with some other job at work, I'd load up the blog software, stare at the blinking cursor, and... nothing. I still have nothing, but it's already primetime on Tuesday and I want to let the handful of "Terminator" fans around here start talking already.

Now, there are times when I judge these kind of mid-season finale episodes differently from a regular show because it has to tide me over for several months and make me want to come back after the hiatus. But I think I would have found this one frustrating even if I knew there was another episode to follow in a week. Despite having her name in the title, Sarah remains the weakest character of the main ensemble, so an entire hour of her exploring her shifting identities with a transgendered robotics expert wasn't my idea of a riveting outing. Yes, the character could use some fleshing out the way John has gotten in recent weeks, but this didn't really work; it felt like the writers recently had a viewing of the original "Terminator" film and were so taken with the image of Sarah the meek diner waitress that they tried to build a whole episode about the transformation from her to the current version of the character.

The flashbacks to Riley's arrival in the present day were more effective. She's the first of our time travelers to have never known a world before Judgment Day; in many ways, the culture shock would be even worse than bringing ahead someone from, say, the 19th century (where at least they knew about running water). But they're taking a very long time to get to the point of her mission, and what side Shirley Manson's on, and all the other factions that have materialized in LA 2008. And because there are so many time travelers in our midst, the cliffhanger of a wounded Sarah staring up at what looked like a SkyNet hovercraft wasn't as mind-blowing as it could have been.

By all means, I'm going to be ready for the show when it comes back on February 13, but after being really strong for much of the fall, I wasn't in love with either of the last two episodes.

What did everybody else think?
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He's totally in my Facebook!

There's now a feed of this blog over on Facebook, so if you prefer to follow me that way, as opposed to RSS or XML or just starting at the blog itself, have at it. Click here to read the full post

Heroes, "Dual": Lock 'em up and throw away the key

Spoilers for the finale of the third "volume" of "Heroes" coming up just as soon as I rip up some paper...

Gosh, where to begin? How about the way that, after last week's episode ended by trying to present Ultra-Marine as the scariest man in town, Knox snaps his neck about five seconds into U-M's appearance in this one? Or what about Sylar having apparently stolen the abilities of the world's greatest travel agent when we weren't looking, given his ability to get from Costa Verde, CA to Ft. Lee, NJ to Odessa, TX so quickly? Or that they brought back George Takei just to show him use his katana as the world's greatest baguette slicer? (Could that be his power? Bread-Slicer Man?) Or that it only just occurred to Knox that Arthur Petrelli's plan would give abilities to other people? Or that Sylar uttered a line like "That's the thing about the truth, Claire: it stings like a bitch!" and it was supposed to sound menacing?

But here's really all that I want to say: when Nathan was done telling the president (played by Michael Dorn, which gave us Sulu and Worf in the same episode), all I could think was, while Nathan's motives may be suspect, he's absolutely right that every single one of these characters, whether they're "heroes" or "villains," needs to be put away forever. Despite the show's title, nobody ever does anything good for the world at large, other than solve problems that wouldn't exist without their particular subculture. Yeah, the X-Men spend a lot of time battling evil mutants, but they do occasionally help people. What we have here is a bunch of incredibly powerful, and incredibly stupid and easily persuadable, people who spend all their time fighting other parts of their insular world, not really worrying about collateral damage.

The last scene, and the previews for "Fugitives," suggests that Nathan's supposed to be the villain of the piece. When I'm rooting for the bad guy to win, something's gone horribly awry.

And yet the knowledge that Bryan Fuller is coming (albeit not until episode 19 or 20) is going to keep me around, which makes me just as big a sucker as Peter Petrelli.

What did everybody else think?
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Monday, December 15, 2008

HIMYM, "Little Minnesota": Who's afraid of the dark?

Spoilers for tonight's "How I Met Your Mother" coming up just as soon as I bang my fist against the table in memory of the Giants' 1997 playoff loss to the Vikings...

In the spirit of the holiday season, I'm tempted to just point out that Marshall karaoke'd "Let's Go to the Mall" and call it a day. Any episode with such an unexpected, hilarious, and completely plot-appropriate callback to the greatest "HIMYM" moment of all time -- not to mention a running gag (Canadians' alleged fear of the dark) that started off deliberately juvenile and then paid off brilliantly (turns out they are afraid of the dark) -- and assorted other Canadian references must be an all-timer, right?

Well, no. If the episode had been entirely about Marshall taking Robin into the bowels of Little Minnesota, it would be. Even if it had predominantly been about that with a little sprinkling of Barney's attempted seduction of Ted's sister -- renting a swivel chair was a distinctly Barney touch, I thought, and the dirty Christmas and Chanukah carols have forever ruined those songs for me(*) -- it would have been great.

(*) In much the same way, this scene from "The Naked Gun" has ruined the National Anthem for me, to the point where me and my friend Mike are incapable of attending a sporting event without slipping in Frank Drebin lyrics like "bunch of bombs in the air!" under our breath. Every now and then, somebody will notice and glare at us, but we can't help ourselves.

But I really, really didn't like most of the interaction between Ted and his sister, and the way that story had such a pat ending, and I felt like Lily's inability to keep a holiday secret was too broad by at least half.

But the Minnesota/Canada stuff was marvelous, and, dammit, Marshall sang "Let's Go To The Mall" and got the entire Hoser Hut to sing it along with him! What the hell: totally awesome!

What did everybody else think, eh?
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Chuck, "Chuck vs. Santa Claus": Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho.

Spoilers for the last "Chuck" of 2008 coming up just as soon as I ask Walter Sobchek to get Casey a toe...

"What do you do when you see your girlfriend do something so horrific it gets permanently burned into your brain?" -Morgan

I still think NBC is being short-sighted in its decision to bench "Chuck" for the next six weeks (it returns the night after the Super Bowl with a 3-D episode), given how the ratings suffered after its last (albeit much longer) hiatus, but if they have to go away for a while, at least they're leaving us with one of the series' best episodes to date.

"Chuck vs. Santa Claus" was moving along amusingly enough when it still seemed like Ned Rhyerson was just a hapless criminal with the bad luck to crash into a store built above a top-secret government intelligence facility, but the surprising left turn it took when Chuck flashed on Lt. Mauser took things to another level.

On a lot of other shows, I would have out-guessed that particular twist, especially since Michael Rooker is usually cast as the heavy, but "Chuck" is exactly the kind of show that would have devoted its entire Christmas episode to a light-hearted "Dog Day Afternoon" parody (with a liberal sprinkling of "Die Hard") where nothing's at stake but Casey's dignity. Plus, Rooker has done at least one other comedy set in a mall. So I was floored when the danger turned out to be very real.

Because Zachary Levi is so good at navigating the show's odd mix of tones, I immediately bought the shift from goofy to deadly serious, that Ned with a jacket was a bumbler who didn't know how to work a gun but that Ned without his jacket was a guy who knew exactly what he was doing when he shot Casey's toe off and sent Casey and Sarah to safety. And because Levi and Yvonne Strahovski are both so good at wearing their characters' hearts on their sleeves, I was just as shaken as Chuck when I saw Sarah kill Lt. Mauser in cold blood to protect Chuck's secret. (She was also protecting, of course, his ability to live a normal life instead of being locked away forever in a CIA safehouse). We know why Sarah did it, but I take it from the way the scene was shot -- and the way the situation was paralleled with Morgan's, where he saw Lester kiss Anna but not the immediate aftermath -- that Chuck didn't hear what they were saying. And even if he had, I still suspect he would be wrecked by what he saw -- maybe even moreso. Chuck's gotten much better at living in spy world, but he doesn't want to be there, doesn't want to face the deadly stakes and moral complications that Sarah and Casey grapple with daily. Knowing that the woman he loves -- and the two actors made it clear in this episode that neither Chuck nor Sarah are in denial about their feelings, not deep down -- murdered a man, even a very bad man who threatened Ellie's life and was prepared to lock Chuck away forever, all for Chuck's sake...

...well, that would mess me up if I was Chuck, especially after Sarah smiled so sweetly and lied so easily to me about it. Even more than the "our relationship is jeopardizing both our lives" argument from "Chuck vs. the Break-Up," this is the kind of romantic complication that doesn't feel the least bit contrived, that could plausibly postpone the inevitable for a long time and not get old.

Chuck witnessing a side of Sarah he usually tries to forget the existence of was the emotional heart of "Chuck vs. the Santa Claus," but this one was clicking just as well on the comedy and action fronts -- the action in particular because, like the centrifuge chase in "Chuck vs. the Gravitron," it didn't skimp on the comedy. Yes, Morgan gets his big "John McClane pulls the gun off his back" moment when he helps take out Ned, but he's dressed as the world's hairiest elf, and he's blasting the bad guy with fake snow.

And speaking of the world's most bad-ass barefoot supercop, the episode made its inspirations plain with the casting of Reginald VelJohnson in his old "Die Hard" role as Sgt. Al Powell, who turns out to be cousin to the similarly round, jolly and snacktastic Big Mike. I would've liked to hear VelJohnson utter one of his lines from the movie (maybe asking Lt. Mauser if he wanted a breath mint), but it was all worth it for the edit from Powell scarfing down a Twinkie to Big Mike doing same, and for the shot of the cousins running to embrace each other to the strains of "Ode to Joy."

(And here are two links for anyone who wants to keep that wonderful Yippee-Ki-Yay feeling going: a minute-by-minute analysis of the first film -- including the first time I've ever heard it suggested that McClane isn't the one shooting at Al's car -- as well as the original version of Guyz Nite's "Die Hard" rock anthem.)

In addition to throwing a huge monkey wrench into the show's central relationship, "Santa Claus" also creates a whole lot of story possibilities for the back half of season two. You knew it was only a matter of time before Fulcrum or some other evil spy organization noticed how much action was going down in this one Burbank mall, and from there it was only a hop, skip and a jump to realizing that one of this mall's employees used to room with Bryce Larkin. Mauser's dead, but Ned's only locked up, and even if Fulcrum never gets to him, they have to realize they struck a nerve with their plan and will redouble their efforts to infiltrate this wacky electronics store. The only reason Chuck still has to work there is because the CIA feels it's a good cover, because who would think to look for the world's greatest intelligence asset at a Buy More? What happens now that the bad guys knew to look, and will probably know to keep looking?

How soon until February 2nd, anyway?

Some other thoughts on "Chuck vs. Santa Claus":

• I'm thinking I need to turn the "Chuck" Plot Hole Of The Week into a more prominent recurring segment, maybe with a sponsor and a theme song (preferably one whose lyrics explain that, while I like to point out these plot holes, the show's too good overall for them to bother me). Any potential advertisers, please get in touch. This week's candidate: when you assume Ned is just a bumbler, it makes sense that he would allow the hostages to roam free through the store, but once he reveals himself to be Fulcrum (to us, if not to the hostages), why would he keep letting them wander around to plot the exact kind of uprising that Awesome led?

• In addition to the triumphant return of Al Powell (last seen cameoing in "Die Hard 2"), our other two guest stars were well-cast and named. Jed Rees, whom I like to think of as one of the aliens from "Galaxy Quest," played a character named after (with a slight change in spelling) the funniest part of "Groundhog Day." Meanwhile, you really have to hand it to the writers' obscure '80s fetish for naming Lt. Mauser after the villain from the second and third "Police Academy" movies, whom nobody remembers because G.W. Bailey came back starting with the fourth one. (Yes, I've seen at least six "Police Academy" movies. I had HBO in the 1980s. What do you expect?)

• I think we're starting to take for granted just how good Strahovski is at the emotional scenes, but take another look at her during the sequence where everyone at the Buy More is calling their loved ones and Sarah realizes she's got nobody to call. Man. And Chuck's attempt to get her into the holiday spirit -- which we know Josh Schwartz has no shortage of -- felt very similar to Seth Cohen trying to get Ryan into the Chrismukkah spirit. Chuck is obviously Seth, which I guess makes Sarah into a very femme Ryan.

• The song playing over the final sequence is "Christmas and Me Are Through" by Your Vegas.

• I think the writers are still struggling to nail Millbarge; he was very funny bonding with Big Mike over the price-gouging early on, but his attempt to promote the store after being released fell flat

• On the other hand, General Beckman is starting to get a personality. I liked her giving Casey grief for getting paper cuts at the gift-wrapping station: "It's an electronics store, Major, not Basra. Get it together." That also nicely foreshadowed that Casey would suffer the first permanent injury in his career later in the episode.

• This week's Disturbing Jeff Fact (also a potential destination for some lucky sponsor!): he only has eight toes. I don't even want to think about what happened to the other two.

• During the phone call montage, we find out that Casey's close enough to his mom that he lets her call him "Johnny Boy," and that Jeff's mother is Prisoner 27318 at Lompoc.

• We all know about the brilliance of the picket fence when played in Indiana high school basketball, but is there really a football version of the play? Or was Captain Awesome's play-diagramming just shameless pandering to me and Bill Simmons?

• One missed opportunity: given that Chuck had already begged Devin to not be awesome (i.e., don't try to jump Ned), and given that Mauser and Ned were watching him closely to make sure he didn't warn his friends, it would have been much cooler if he had told Devin that now was exactly the time to be awesome.

What did everybody else think?
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Sepinwall on TV: 'American Idol' plans some changes

In tomorrow's column (available online today!), I look ahead to some of the proposed format tweaks for next season of "American Idol" -- which, on paper, sound like a step in the right direction. Click here to read the full post

In which Jeff Zucker ducks the shoe again...

Friend of the blog Ken Levine lists "The Simpsons" among his list of classic comedy writing credits (he's and partner David Isaacs gave us Dancin' Homer), and so he tries to reimagine NBC's decision-making process on the Jay Leno thing as a conversation between Smithers and Mr. Burns. Click here to read the full post

SNL: Blinded by the light?

Spoilers for the Hugh Laurie/Amy Poehler "Saturday Night Live" extravaganza coming up just as soon as I put the finishing touches on my Chanukah letter...

It's funny what happens when you don't get around to watching "SNL" for about a day. Had I watched the thing live, or even Sunday morning, I would have reviewed the episode as a whole: how disappointing it was given the brilliance of Hugh Laurie's first appearance(*), how the Digital Short was the worst ever (yes, even worse than Daiquiri Girl), how I was glad to see one final edition of Really? with Seth and Amy before Amy Poehler left the show for good, etc.

(*) I don't know if Hugh had as big a hand in sketch-writing as he did last time (which gave us brilliant bits like The Queen's Advance Man), but he definitely seemed willing to take a back seat to the cast this time. One of the few memorable moments of the episode, outside of Weekend Update, was seeing master sketch comedian Laurie struggling to keep a straight face as Poehler and Maya Rudolph kept riffing off each other in the final installment of "Bronx Beat."

But that was a whole news cycle ago, and now the only question seems to be whether the Governor Paterson sketch was insensitive to the blind.

And to that, my answer is this: Yes, and...?

It's a comedy show. At times a good comedy show, at times bad, but a comedy show. It makes fun of people for all sorts of reasons, some in good taste, some not. Hell, they've mocked the blind before, whether it was Ray Charles thinking he was hosting the show at Carnegie Hall, or the legendary Stevie Wonder camera commercial.

You could argue that those previous sketches featured actual blind people poking fun at themselves, where this was Fred Armisen playing blind, in the same way he plays black as Barack Obama. But where Armisen's Obama isn't funny because the writers don't know what to do with the character, his Paterson impression was a scream, possibly the funniest thing Armisen has ever done on this show. (Him disrupting Amy's goodbye was the highlight.)

It was absolutely, 100 percent mocking a man's disability (though they took other non-blindness pokes at Paterson), but I could name a half-dozen sketches off the top of my head that were just as vicious in mocking public figures, whether it was Claudine Longet accidentally shooting a bunch of skiiers, Belushi as Liz Taylor eating an entire chicken leg, Linda Tripp having lunch with Monica Lewinsky, Bob Dole on "The Real World" or basically everything they did to and with Sarah Palin this season.

Hell, I'd argue that if "SNL" isn't offending people at least once or twice a season, it isn't doing its job right.

What did everybody else think?
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Dexter, "Do You Take Dexter Morgan?": Nice day for a red wedding

Spoilers for the "Dexter" season three finale coming up just as soon as I break my hand...


The worst part of this season was that there were a few really strong episodes late in the year that seemed to reverse all the slack pacing and dull storytelling from earlier on. Because of those episodes, I got my hopes up that the early duds were misdirection, or a slump that the production team pulled themselves out of, and that the end of the season would be much closer to season one (Dexter kills his brother) than season two (Lila goes insane and has to be put down). And so when we got to this underwhelming finale, it was a lot more disappointing than if I had just written off the season as a misfire a few weeks ago.

Having bumped off Miguel last week, the show spends most of "Do You Take Dexter Morgan" on quiet reflection, sort of following the pattern of shows like "The Sopranos" and "The Wire." The problem is that Miguel's death felt abrupt, and very little of the reflection felt earned. There were a couple of strong scenes -- Dexter taking the thorn out of Ramon's paw, Dexter forgiving Harry and committing himself to being a better father -- but overall it was a fairly aimless hour.

Among the missed opportunities from this episode, and from this season:

• How do you put Dexter in the clutches of another serial killer and allow him to escape so quickly? That should have been an entire episode right there, and now they can't even go there again because they did it here.

• Whatever happened to the idea of Dexter exploring what it means to kill outside the Code of Harry? Again, because they introduced the idea and then abandoned it so quickly in favor of having Dexter and Miguel get involved in their father-son/mentor-protege relationship, the writers really can't go down that path again.

• What exactly was the point of all the Quinn/IAD nonsense if it was never going to go anywhere? I suppose it was to show us that Deb earned her shield the right way, as opposed to taking Yuki up on her offer to rat, but that was an awful lot of time spent on an irritating character who wound up being a red herring.

• This isn't a missed opportunity, but it bugged me just the same: what was up with Miguel's wife's total lack of reaction to his death? I get that they were separated at the time and that she thought he'd been stepping out on her, but that is one cold fish if she's going about her business like the man she was married to for years wasn't just garrotted and skinned(*) to death.

(*) Speaking of which, given what a high-profile case this is, don't you think the coroner's going to notice that Miguel got skinned post-mortem, which doesn't match King's MO?

Really, if it hadn't been for that lovely shot of the blood dripping onto Rita's wedding dress -- a symbol of what this marriage really means for her, as well as something that felt like it should somehow be incorporated in the opening credits -- I think the episode would have been a total loss. As it is, I want to hope that his season was just a misstep for the "Dexter" creative team, but I've been worried for a while now that there's only so much life in the concept, and it feels like they've run out.

What did everybody else think?
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Friday, December 12, 2008

The Office, "Moroccan Christmas": Tra la la la la, ka-ching

Spoilers for last night's "The Office" coming up just as soon as I pour myself a One Of Everything...

"I think I know what I need to do at this point. I need to find ways to push Meredith to the bottom. I think I can do it. I did it with Jan." -Michael

"The Office" didn't do a Christmas episode in its brief first season, which debuted in the spring, and it didn't do one last year because of the strike. But man oh man oh man, the three times that they've been able to do a Christmas episode, they killed it.

"Moroccan Christmas" not only featured what seemed like the best Dunder-Mifflin party of all time -- at least until Meredith lit her hair on fire -- but featured consistent hilarity mixed in with some of the sharpest emotion we've ever gotten from a non Jim & Pam story.

This was a triumphant episode for Phyllis and Dwight, and a humbling one for Angela and Meredith and, unbeknown to himself, Andy.

Phyllis got to prove that she deserved the Party Planning Committee leadership even without blackmail, and got to make Angela her prag (to borrow a bit of "Oz" slang), deliberately snuffing out all the parts of the Christmas party that Angela enjoys (the tree, the nativity figurines), and even forcing her to wear a hairnet. And when Angela attempted to call Phyllis' bluff, Phyllis hesitated for maybe a second before blurting out the news to the whole office. And then her moment of victory turned into a moment of great shame as she realized how badly she had just hurt Andy (again, not that Andy knows -- yet) in a very human moment that "The Office" does so well. I continue to be amazed that Phyllis Smith had no real acting experience before this show, other than reading lines as a casting director. She's wonderful, and every bit the equal of all the trained actors and comics in the cast.

Dwight, after falling victim to one of Jim's best pranks ever (more on that below), got to make a very tidy profit with his doll-hoarding scheme, had the entire office (save Andy, Michael and Meredith) learn of his cocksmanship, and got two of his better talking heads in a while (zombie-killing and the Schrute family "five-fingered intervention," complete with punching). Rainn Wilson's smirk as the office digested the news of the affair was superb.

Phyllis spilling the beans on Andy's cuckolding -- Should we start a pool on who breaks it to him, and when? -- upstaged the Meredith intervention story, but I loved that one, too. This was Michael dialed in just right: you could see that he really did care about getting help for Meredith, but that he was clueless about how to properly do it, and yet not so loudly inept that anyone other than Toby would have tried to stop him. And the foot chase in the rehab center parking lot, with Meredith screaming "WAIT A MINUTE! WAIT A MINUTE! WAIT A MINUTE!" over and over and trying to evade Michael's grasp, was a great piece of slapstick.

Some other thoughts:

• Poor Toby. Not only does Michael throw a pen in his face, but he winds up having to double-pay for a doll that his daughter might not want. True story: I took my daughter to Toys R Us a few months ago to buy presents for a classmate I didn't know very well, with the only instructions being "She likes Barbies." My daughter makes a beeline for the Barbie aisle, tosses a white Ken-as-groom doll into the cart, and then grabs an African-American Barbie-as-bride. If they were for my daughter, or for someone I knew better, I would have headed right to the register, but instead I had a Toby-by-way-of-Liz-Lemon moment, wussed out and swapped in a Totally Caucasian Barbie. Everyone's a little bit racist, sometimes, right? Right?

• So how long do you suppose it took Jim -- possibly with Pam's help -- to create a paper-and-cardboard gift-wrapped simulacrum not only of Dwight's desk, but of all the things on it, like the bobble-head? And should we be glad that he's gone back to these elaborate pranks, or sad that he's backslid after swearing a couple of seasons ago that he was done with them?

• Pam was mostly reacting to what was happening, but I loved her talking head insistence that she knew all along about the new Angela/Dwight affair, and that she had to invoke the Christmas spirit to get Jim to play along.

• Better throwaway moment during the party: Creed smoking a hookah, or Michael thinking he had invented the Screwdriver?

• Kevin's love of nicknaming other people -- and his lack of creativity in same -- goes on as he attempts to dub Meredith "Fire Girl" (in the grand tradition of Ryan as "Fire Guy," and then "Fired Guy," and then "Hired Guy"), only to realize that it might be too soon.

• Even before Phyllis revealed his humiliation to the entire office, I felt pretty sorry for Andy as he went through that talking head about his college years, which involved sneaking into frat parties, doing body shots off himself, and the ever-changing list of nicknames (Puke, Ace, Buzz), which sounded so made up on the spot that I'm now starting to doubt all previous Andy nickname stories. Is it possible that Here Comes Treble doesn't include someone named Broccoli Rob? That would make me sad. But kudos to Ed Helms and the writers for making a character who was so overbearing so sympathetic (largely by emphasizing the "pathetic").

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

Thursday, December 11, 2008

30 Rock, "Christmas Special": Back-up plan

Brief spoilers for tonight's "30 Rock" coming up just as soon as I ring for my other bell...

I dunno. Elaine Stritch is a showbiz legend, and a force of nature, and all those other superlatives I can truck out, but I haven't really liked any of her "30 Rock" appearances. Jack's fear and loathing of his mother just feels claustrophobic and uncomfortable instead of funny, and I'm as eager to see the end of her visits as Jackie-boy usually is.

And where the two previous Colleen episodes had other characters and subplots (Emily Mortimer and her hollow bones, Ludachristmas) that compensated to a degree, I feel like very little of "Christmas Special" worked, other than the throwaway jokes, like Dotcom reminding Grizz about boundaries, or Jack having a fall-out with the Postmaster General over the Jerry Garcia stamp ("If I want to lick a hippie, I'll just return Joan Baez's phone calls.").

I want to be in the holiday spirit, but this is two Christmas duds in a row from "30 Rock," and we can't even blame the looming writers strike this time around.

What did everybody else think?
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Life, "Canyon Flowers": Serial boxes

Brief spoilers for last night's "Life" coming up just as soon as I run a red light...

Charlie Crews is such an interesting character, and Damian Lewis such a compelling actor, that it's easy to ignore the basic procedural format of "Life." But if the crime story of the week isn't working, then the episode isn't working, and the story of the infamous killer and his descendants lost me about 10 minutes in and never got me back. Dutch's speech from "The Shield" finale about LA's celebrity serial killer culture should have had me primed for a story on this topic, but it just seemed flat and overly complicated.

In fact, I was tempted to skip reviewing this episode altogether, or just get around to it when I had a few other things backlogged for a grab-bag review, but I did promise to include a bit of William Atherton '80s movie dialogue in every review until he wrapped up his stint, so this week, I give you arguably the most famous scene of his career, from "Ghostbusters," with Atherton in the role of Walter Peck, and Bill Murray as Peter Venkman:
Dr Ray Stantz: Everything was fine with our system until the power grid was shut off by dickless here.
Walter Peck: They caused an explosion!
Mayor: Is this true?
Dr. Peter Venkman: Yes it's true. This man has no dick.
So there you have it. What did everybody else think?
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Pushing Daisies, "Comfort Food" & "The Legend of Merle McQuoddy": Cake or death?

So I'm finally caught up on "Pushing Daisies" and can pre-empt all the "No 'Pushing Daisies' review?" questions at least until next week, which could well be the final episode to air. (Cue the sighs.) Spoilers for the last two episodes coming up just as soon as I shut the a cappella up...

Because it took me so long to finish watching "Comfort Food" (this is a show my wife and I like to watch together, so we have to coordinate), I was able to essentially watch it and "The Legend of Merle McQuoddy" as a double-feature, and it proved enlightening. Both episodes split our four main characters up, the first time pairing Chuck with Emerson and Ned with Olive, the second time giving our lovebirds one story and the sidekicks the other, and I found that the "Comfort Food" recipe of providing equal parts sweet and salty to each story worked much better.

Lee Pace and Anna Friel are beyond adorable together (witness their various kisses through plastic last night), and in some ways Chi McBride and Kristin Chenoweth are even funnier together than separate ("Oh, hell no!" in stereo), but I really preferred the balance of the previous show.

That said, there were a lot of strong elements to both hours.

"Comfort Food" offered up the most confident and proactive Ned we've had in a while (keeping him away from Chuck probably played a role in that), actually used a great guest star (Beth Grant) instead of keeping her on the margins (see Dave Koechner last night for a more typical example), and was one of the best showcases Chenoweth has had to date (and I felt that even before she turned out to be a fan of The Bangles).

"The Legend of Merle McQuoddy," meanwhile, had Ned and Chuck's dad in the awesome broom vs. mop fight (reminiscent of the spork-off from the second-ever episode of "Chuck"), Emerson giving a whole new meaning to the phrase "Tap that!" (a runner-up to "Trip over the ottoman! Dick Van Dyke that ass!" for best line of the episode), and did a good job of using Chuck's dad to point out how many ways both Ned and Chuck would be better off apart.

(Does someone who knows anything about embalming techniques -- or who just watched a lot of "Six Feet Under" -- want to offer their opinion on whether Chuck's dad would be this relatively well-preserved after all this time? Shouldn't he just be a skeleton in a decaying suit?)

Ah, whatever the flaws, I'm going to badly miss this show when it's gone, and Disney had better rush out that season two DVD set so we can see whatever episodes ABC declines to show.

What did everybody else think?
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Soon the Super Karate Monkey Death Car will park in my space

Hulu has finally posted one of the two greatest "NewsRadio" episodes of all time, in which Jimmy James gives a dramatic reading of his newly-translated memoir. (The other all-timer would be "Arcade," IMO.) So if you need help getting through hump day, there's always this.

Hat-tip to Linda Holmes for this one. Click here to read the full post

Getting caught up: House & Terminator

Okay, a couple of side projects have gotten in the way of my TV-watching and blogging for the past week, so I'm going to try to catch up as much as possible today. I'll hopefully have a "Pushing Daisies" double-post on the last two episodes this afternoon (still need to finish last night's episode), and, if I have a chance, will watch and write about "Life." Meanwhile, after the jump, spoilers for, in order, last night's "House" and Monday night's "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles"...

As a sequel to one of this season's best episodes of "House" (they even gave it a similar title), "Joy to the World" didn't really live up to the original. Lisa Edelstein was outstanding again, but because the writers for once decided to serve as many characters as possible (the exceptions, as usual, being Cameron and Chase), the Cuddy/baby stuff got a little lost in the shuffle. And the other material (Wilson trying to make House's heart grow three sizes, House then using that as an excuse to invent a virgin birth, Kutner being unsurprisingly revealed as an ex-bully, etc.) wasn't so great that it was worth crowding out the A-story. And the less said about Thirteen and Foreman hooking up despite zero chemistry, the better.

"Terminator" was also fairly underwhelming, an episode that brought in bits and pieces of better episodes from this season -- a time-fractured narrative, Derek brooding over his post-Judgment Day life, civilians dealing with the weight of a future with Skynet -- and yet seemed disposable throughout. After being more than happy with the atmospheric character pieces they've been giving us for most of the season, I'm starting to get impatient for the plot to kick into gear, and we only have one more episode before the show sits on a shelf for two months, then gets banished to die on Fridays.

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

Golden Globe nominations: the TV side

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, that mysterious group responsible for the most meaningful meaningless awards show of them all, have announced this year's Golden Globe nominations.

Easy as the Globes are to mock as a whole, the HFPA has an odd history of being more open to new TV product than the Emmys. Sometimes, that's a good thing (Sarah Michelle Gellar was once nominated for "Buffy"), sometimes not so much (Keri Russell won for "Felicity"), but it's often nice to see some unusual suspects show up on the nominations list.

Not so much this year, where the only TV newcomer of note is "In Treatment," and where most of the nominees are either familiar ("House"), bad ("The Tudors," which gets love as a production with lots of international actors), or both ("Entourage," which inexplicably includes a nomination for Kevin Connolly as best actor in a comedy).

Feel free to discuss 'em if you want. I have some major blog catch-up to do. Click here to read the full post

Sepinwall on TV: Petersen prepares to exit 'CSI'

In today's column, I preview tonight's "CSI," which introduces Laurence Fishburne to the cast but is really all about saying goodbye to William Petersen. It's a really good hour, one of the better "CSI"s I've seen in a long time. Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Leverage, "The Homecoming Job": I'm just a bill, yes I'm only a bill

Quick spoilers for last night's timeslot premiere of "Leverage" coming up just as soon as I put one in the hopper...

That was another solid, albeit lightweight, episode, I thought. The pilot was more of a traditional caper story, where here we get our first extended look at how Leverage Consulting & Associates (founded by the late, great Harlan Leverage III, of course) does their Robin Hood thing.

I like how some parts of the plan are almost epic in scale (getting an appropriations bill rewritten to make the congressman look bad) while others are almost elegant in their simplicity (blowing open the container next door and counting on the bad guys not to notice).

There are still some flaws, notably the failed attempts to sell Christian Kane's bad-assery (other than maybe "Mission: Impossible," I'm having a hard time thinking of another caper series or movie that featured a muscle man in a key role), but it's been fun so far.

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

What the &*%* did I do?

A couple of days ago I chatted with the gang from /Film for an extended podcast about "The Wire." My segment's up first and runs about 45 minutes, and then I'm told the guys kept right on talking without me, resulting in a three and a half hour epic ode to the greatest show ever. Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Let's do it to them before they do it to us: Robert Prosky, RIP

Robert Prosky, who had a long and distinguished career in movies (he was the judge in "The Natural"), on stage (he was Shelly "the Machine" Levene in the original Broadway production of "Glengarry Glen Ross") and on television, has died at 78. To me, he'll always be Sgt. Stan "Stosh" Jablonski on "Hill Street Blues," where Prosky had the unenviable task of replacing one of the most indelible characters in TV drama history (Michael Conrad as philosophical Phil Esterhaus) and managed to carve out his own entertaining niche. Click here to read the full post

Sepinwall on TV: NBC has nothing but Leno left to lose

In tomorrow's column (available on-line today!), I go further in-depth into the mess at NBC that led to them giving Jay Leno the 10 p.m. timeslot five nights a week:
Midway through the press conference yesterday to announce that Jay Leno would stay at NBC and take over the 10 p.m. timeslot Monday through Friday, I asked NBC boss Ben Silverman what sort of domino effect devoting five hours a week to Leno would have on the rest of primetime.

Silverman, an excitable type fond of the latest aggressive management buzzwords - "killer app," "firepower" - rattled off an answer about "taking the swings we need to take" earlier in the evening, and said the deal's allure was "having the stability of Jay on every single night, on that lineup, driving what the NBC brand is, which is a comedy brand, and is a brand of true talent, and that's what Jay is."

"What Ben's saying is we barely have six hours of programming," Leno cracked.

The best comedy comes from the simple truth, and in that one line, Leno plainly laid out the real reason NBC is handing him the keys to more than 20 percent of its primetime real estate:

They've got nothing else.
To read the full thing, click here. Click here to read the full post

Heroes, "Our Father": The mother and child reunions

I had to take about an hour to sort through a mountain of paperwork on my desk this morning, and watching "Heroes" on Hulu to help pass the time seemed like an appropriate combination of drudgery and a show that deserves a whole lot less than my full attention. Some brief thoughts coming up just as soon as I eat some birthday cake...

So, it's still unimaginably stupid. We have to just take that as a given, along with the arbitrary shifts in allegiance, the stilted dialogue, wooden acting, etc. All the usual problems remain. I want to talk about two specific things in this episode, one good and one bad.

First, the good: Hiro's reunion with his dying mother, and, to a lesser extent, Claire getting to hang with younger versions of HRG and her mom. On the emotionally simplistic scale in which this show works, those sequences were very effective, and well-played by the actors, even the usually-problematic Hayden Panettiere. Nothing ground-breaking, but grown-up Hiro being the one to cry over his mother (because, of course, he knows what it's like to miss her for so long) was a nice human moment, the sort the show rarely pulls off anymore.

Now, the bad: now Sylar's the funny super serial killer? Really? This is the direction they want to take that character? Campy, quippy imitation Hannibal Lecter? Oy.

Beyond that, I got nothing. One more episode left in this "volume," then a hiatus until February, and we can't even rely on Bryan Fuller to save the day since he won't be coming back on the show until around episode 20 of this season.

What did everybody else think?
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Monday, December 08, 2008

HIMYM, "The Fight": That's my mama!

Spoilers for tonight's "How I Met Your Mother" coming up just as soon as I call timesies...

Ain't nothin' deep going on in "The Fight," but that's okay, because I laughed harder at the revelation of what Marshall's fights with his brothers really looked like than I have at the rest of this season combined. This was a fundamentally silly outing, and a well-executed one. Among the highlights:

• Barney's ability to fake conversation while citing the titles of '70s/'80s black sitcoms, and somehow always choosing the appropriate one ("What's Happening Now?");

• The guys imagining what fight night at the Ericson household must have been like, complete with cocoa breaks;

• Robin's pathological attraction to guys who get in fights -- complete with the filthy "I'm surprised to see you had it in me" -- well-played by Cobie Smulders and one of the funnier iterations of the Robin-as-Canadian joke;

• The run of Marshall-as-a-girl jokes, especially Marshall demanding a spoiler alert after the "Sex and the City" put-down;

• Mahatma Panda and Martin Luther Koala;

• The return, however brief, of Barney's lesbian get-up during the "Forest Gump" insertion of Doug into old scenes;

• Barney's girlish scream-and-run when Doug threatened to beat them both up;

• Ted having played the hammer dulcimer in college;

• Marshall with the light saber;

• Did I mention the heavy metal-scored glimpse of the real Ericson fight club?

Not deep, but damned funny. What did everybody else think?
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Is NBC about to make 10 o'clock the Jay Leno hour?

Oookay, this is just slightly jaw-dropping: NBC is on the verge of handing over the 10 p.m. timeslot, Monday to Friday, to Jay Leno. Some thoughts on the most unexpected chapter of the ongoing late-night wars -- or, in this case, primetime wars -- coming up after the jump...

I've been on record as saying that NBC was making a bad business decision to push Jay out the door so the could give "The Tonight Show" to Conan O'Brien. Even though I vastly prefer Conan's show, Jay is a proven commodity, a rare broadcast star in an age of ever-tighter narrowcasting. All along, NBC executives insisted they had a plan to somehow keep Jay in the fold even while giving his job to Conan, but I don't think anyone suspected they had something this radical in mind -- not even after Jeff Zucker said earlier today that he could envision a future where NBC programmed fewer hours per week in primetime.

Now, if the Leno deal happens (seems likely), and if he can bring his audience with him to primetime on a nightly basis (a big if), this could be a masterstroke by NBC. They keep Jay away from the competition, and they have fixed programming in the 10 p.m. hour, where they've been struggling recently, and where the networks have been struggling in general of late, since studies have shown that DVR users tend to use the hour to watch shows they recorded earlier in the evening. A Leno primetime show (shot in the traditional Burbank studio, but with a different name) with a stable audience would also be good news for the NBC affiliates, who make a good chunk of their money on the late local newscast. And even though Jay doesn't work cheap, I imagine that five nights of his show will still cost less than five nights worth of dramas.

But will people watch what sounds like it will basically be the Leno version of "Tonight" when it's on 90 minutes earlier, before it's time to get ready for bed? DVRs have rendered timeslots meaningless in many ways, but the late night shows seem more habit-driven than most. And does still having Jay on, doing more or less the show he's been doing for almost 20 years, in any way neuter Conan's big promotion to the 11:35 slot?

Whether it works or not, this feels like the latest in a long line of decisions by Zucker and Ben Silverman that are entirely about their failure as actual entertainment programmers. If Silverman had developed a single scripted success in his time at the helm, or if Silverman hadn't spent all his time either buying shows from his own production company or trying to recreate the NBC fall lineup circa 1983, then 10 o'clock wouldn't be such a disaster that they would need to plug Jay in five nights a week to potentially save their hash. This is yet another move along the lines of super-sized "Friends" or two-hour "Celebrity Apprentice." Even if it works, it's a Band-Aid on a very deep wound.
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Chuck, "Chuck vs. the DeLorean": When this baby hits 22 mph, you're gonna see some serious stuff

Spoilers for tonight's "Chuck" coming up just as soon as I buy the car from "Hardcastle & McCormick"...

"The bigger the lie..." -Jack Burton

I've been watching a lot of grifter stories lately. I had to watch the first four episodes of TNT's "Leverage" in a very short span, re-watched a bit of "Hustle" before doing the "Leverage" review, and keep stumbling across "Ocean's Thirteen" while channel-surfing. And because I have so many elaborate fictional con schemes rattling around my skull, it made the one in "Chuck vs. the DeLorean" seem a little thin in comparison. Yes, it's a wonderful grand gesture that Sarah's dad tries to get away with selling a skyscraper he doesn't own (the 21st century LA equivalent of the Brooklyn Bridge, I suppose), but the actual plan to get the sheikh to give up the $10 million -- and to give up the account numbers that would allow the CIA to freeze his assets -- struck me as very simple, and the kind of thing that would require a really gullible terrorist financier to fall for.

But if you're willing to file the entire scam as this week's gaping plot hole we have to ignore to enjoy the rest of the wonderfulness, then "Chuck vs. the DeLorean" was very much in form after last week's minor misstep.

Gary Cole is great virtually all of the time. That's a given. (The rare exceptions are roles like the one in "Pineapple Express" where he's not given anything to do, as if his mere presence will elevate material that isn't there in the first place.) He's so comfortable in his own skin, and in the skin of whatever character he's playing, that I bought him as a master con man even when the episode itself wasn't always giving me much evidence of that. And I thought Yvonne Strahovski again knocked a showcase episode right out of the park. She played so well off of Cole, and did such a fine job of showing how badly Jack has hurt Sarah in the past, that I just went with a lot of the material that was on the skimpier side.

It helped that, unlike last week, there were only two stories, and Morgan's purchase of the titular DeLorean took a decided backseat to the main action, which gave the A-story more room to breathe and more time for nice small moments like Jack dubbing Casey "Cop Face" or Jack swiping the victory cigar back almost immediately after giving it to Casey. And it was a nice tweak on the show's recent formula to have a spy world development (the sheikh stealing the DeMorgan) provide a solution to a nerd world problem (Morgan needing money to repay Captain Awesome), when it's been vice versa of late.

And the DeMorgan subplot provided more than our usual complement of '80s references, from the car itself to the use of Yello's "Oh Yeah" (famous from both "The Secret of My Success" and from the scene where Ferris Bueller admires Cameron's dad's Ferrari, which provided the model for Lester's dialogue here) to the General Lee punchline.

Good stuff. How can there only be one more episode this calendar year, and no more episodes of any kind until the day after the Super Bowl? Because, of course, the last time NBC decided to keep the show off the air for its own good worked out so well. (And that time it didn't have to worry about "House" moving into the timeslot while it's gone.)

Some other thoughts on "Chuck vs. the DeLorean":

• Is this the first time we've actually seen customers in the Orange-Orange? And since it's a CIA front for The Castle instead of a regular business where Sarah works, are there other CIA agents who have to man the counter when Sarah's off on a mission? Or does the place constantly have a "Back in 5 minutes" sign on the door?

• Along similar lines, what happens if the company changing the upholstery on the Nerd Herders finds all the extra bonus features in Chuck's car?

• One more probable '80s reference: the skyscraper is Nagamichi Plaza, which sounds an awful lot like John McClain's old Nakatomi Plaza stomping grounds. (Or is there a real Nagamichi tower?)

• Every time you think Jeff has reached a new disturbing low, the show manages to make him even creepier, this time with him saying he would use a time machine to witness the moment of Lester's birth because "I'd love to see the look on your face when you emerge from the vaginal canal." Ewwww...

• Hearing Devin propose such a high interest rate and threatening to pluck clean the very hirsute Morgan suggested an alternate nickname: Captain Shylock, anyone?

• So Chuck says his wayward dad was an engineer. Does that make it more or less likely that Papa Bartowski was really a spy?

• I am now convinced that there's some kind of contest in the "Chuck" writers room to see who can slip in the most obscure athlete name into their script. This week's contest entry: Guido Merkins, Jack's alias at the motel. Those of you attempting to establish a pattern based on the previous Guy LaFleur and Von Hayes references, get cracking with this new data.

• The end of "Chuck vs. the Cougars" made it clear that Sarah's real name is not Jenny Burton, which means Jack Burton isn't Jack Burton, and possibly not even Jack. Why's he still bothering to use that alias all these years later?

What did everybody else think?
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