Wednesday, March 31, 2010

American Idol: Top 10 results

Quick "American Idol" results spoilers coming up just as soon as I point out that, again, an overly-padded show wound up running past 10 o'clock, which means anyone who DVR'ed won't know if the judges bothered to use their stupid Save...

So, Katie Stevens, Tim Urban and Did Benami were the bottom three, Katie was sent to safety first, and the voters sent Didi home. She did a very strong reprise of her "Rhiannon" from the semi-finals, but the judges sure weren't going to use the Save on someone who's just been kind of hanging on since the semi-finals began.

I liked Didi a lot in Hollywood, and while she wasn't the best of this season's doll-voiced singers (that would be Lilly), she was still distinctive enough that I'd have liked to see her go longer - and certainly longer than the likes of Tim.

Meanwhile, for all of the talk that this would be a season for the ladies, we've had women eliminated every single week of the finals. We haven't had an all-female final 2 since Fantasia and Diana in season 3, and we haven't had a woman in the finale at all since Jordin Sparks won it three seasons ago. Is that just a fluke, or a sign that the "Idol" audience is trending towards people who will throw more support behind the guys, all things being equal? And if the latter, I'd say the odds of a Crystal/Siobhan finale (which weren't that great to begin with, given Siobhan's polarizing nature and recent struggles) just got lower.

What did everybody else think? And how was the results show (which I didn't put on for good until Diddy turned up) overall?
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Firewall & Iceberg podcast, episode 10: Treme, Miami Medical and the V countdown clock

Another installment of the Firewall & Iceberg podcast is up, with Dan and I jumping the gun on "Treme" due to the likelihood of me being off next week (and also because it gave me the chance to tell one David Mills story that I left out of the earlier post). So stream, download, listen, etc. (the link has all the relevant details, including the rundown) Click here to read the full post

David Mills, RIP

David Mills died last night. He was an Emmy-winning writer and producer who'd worked on shows like "NYPD Blue," "Homicide," "The Corner" and his own "Kingpin," and who was helping to run the writing staff of HBO's "Treme," which debuts in a week and a half. He was also a kick-ass blogger who ran the very entertaining Undercover Black Man blog.

He was also my friend, about whom I'll have much more to say after the jump.

Mills was, in fact, the very first friend I made in the TV business, and one of the few for whom I wouldn't have to put quote marks around the word. When I was in college running my "NYPD Blue" website, he was an up-and-coming writer on staff at that show, and he e-mailed me to tell me how much he liked the site and appreciated my work. I don't think he knew what he was getting himself into when he reached out like that, because I became an incredible pest to him over the next few weeks and months, asking him for inside dope on how the sausage got made, about his journalism career(*), about what it was like to work in television, why Sipowicz said such-and-such in this episode, etc., etc., etc. David was always patient and generous with his time, and through him I developed my earliest understanding of all the real-life factors that can affect the scripted narratives I was obsessed with.

(*) Mills was, like college classmate and "Treme" co-creator David Simon, a former newspaperman, having written for the Washington Post and Washington Times. His most famous moment as a reporter came in an interview with rapper Sister Souljah, in which she infamously said (as part of longer and much more involved discussion about the Rodney King riots), "If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?".

When I got my job with The Star-Ledger a few weeks after graduating, and found myself going to my first TV critics press tour in LA a few weeks after that, David invited me down to the Fox lot to meet him, and he set up interviews with both Steven Bochco and David Milch, which was a big deal for me as both a novice TV critic and devout "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue" fan. (Milch actually wound up taking Mills and me to the racetrack with him, with much of the "interview" taking place in the car. The tape is unfortunately lost to history, which is just as well, since Milch was in particularly esoteric form that day.)

From that day on, it became a ritual that Mills and I would go out for a bite (albeit not at the track) whenever I was out in LA, or on the rare occasions when he was on this coast. (I remember we once trekked 20 blocks through a New York snowstorm because I wanted to introduce him to the 2nd Avenue Deli; the picture above is us on a quest to find somewhere good to eat on Rodeo Drive, just cuz.) He was, as he had been from the start, always very helpful if I had a technical question, and very encouraging of my career.

Mills was tenacious, and he knew what he wanted. After Simon helped him break into the business by inviting him to co-write the script for "Bop Gun," a season 2 "Homicide" episode with Robin Williams that remains one of that great show's best episodes, Mills bounced around a few other jobs (including a brief "Picket Fences" stint where he and the other staffers sat around while David E. Kelley wrote everything), then read a newspaper account of a speech Milch gave about the lack of African-American TV writers. Mills was so irked by Milch's comments that he wrote him a letter objecting to much of the content of the speech and its assumptions about black writers. Milch was impressed enough that he commissioned Mills to write an episode for late in season two, then hired him for a staff job in season three.

Though Milch tended to heavily rewrite the scripts of his staffers, a Mills "NYPD" script always stood out to me as being uniquely his even after Milch had taken a pass or three. As the only writer of color on the show, he tended to deal with race more: in one episode, Sipowicz got in trouble for using the N-word in front of a black community leader, while another had Lt. Fancy seeking revenge on a bigoted patrol cop who humiliated him during a traffic stop. But it wasn't just the subject of race that made him stand out. Because he had been a newspaper writer with a good set of eyes and ears, his scripts tended to be richer in detail than the ones from many of his colleagues. There was more of a sense that the characters were people, and not just servants to a plot, whether they were supporting characters or minor guest stars.

After "NYPD Blue," he spent some time on "ER," where he created the character of Rocket Romano (and left before later writers turned him into a two-dimensional clown, then cut his arm off, then dropped a helicopter on him). He won a couple of deserved Emmys for collaborating with Simon on the moving HBO miniseries "The Corner," then spent a long time developing his own shows for different broadcast networks.

Only one ever made it to air: "Kingpin," a kind of Mexican spin on "The Godfather" with Yancey Arias as the head of a drug cartel. (Mills talked about the show, and embedded a few video clips, here, here and here.) Though Mills would later write for "The Wire," "Kingpin" was a very different kind of drug war story, more pulpy by design. I loved it, but felt a bit too close to the creator by that point to review it, and asked Matt Seitz to write that column: Matt called it "fiendishly entertaining" and said, "the series is a triumph for Mills, who has always been respected for his intelligence, but rarely for his showmanship. 'Kingpin' has both qualities in abundance."

NBC didn't order a second season of "Kingpin," giving its token low-rated critical darling renewal slot to "Boomtown" (which they then canceled after two episodes), and none of Mills' other pilot scripts went very far. (Here's an excerpt from "Mayor of Baltimore," a script he wrote for CBS.) He started up the blog(**) in part because he wanted a creative outlet during those years when he wasn't otherwise writing very much. The scope was pretty varied, from archival interviews from his reporting career, to long conversations with people like Simon, to streams of whatever music Mills was listening to (David was a devout funk fan, and tried and failed on several occasions to educate me on the genius of George Clinton), to funny but cutting racial commentary like his periodic Misidentified Black Person of the Week posts and one of his favorites, Attack of the Giant Negroes!!.

(**) The name came from a handle Mills used to use in one of his favorite pasttimes: posting on the message boards of white supremacy websites to see if anyone could give him a coherent argument justifying their racism. He told me he wanted to call himself "Undercover Negro," but the name would get rejected, because many of those sites have filters to prevent people from using racial epithets, because they feel it puts the wrong face on the movement.

Mills was incredibly proud of "Treme." He'd written for "The Wire" in its later seasons, but here he got to be part of a show being built from the ground up, got to spend a lot of time in New Orleans (this post has perhaps my favorite Mills photo ever), and was as excited about it as I'd heard him since "Kingpin" was about to debut.

I was pretty excited myself about the April 11 premiere of "Treme," not only because I think it's a terrific show, but because it would give me an excuse to be in more regular contact with Mills after we hadn't talked much in a while, due to the usual distractions that come with any adult life.

Last week, I e-mailed him to say I'd seen the first three episodes (including the third episode, which he wrote), and said that I really liked them.

"I'm relieved to hear that, Alan," he wrote back. Mills chose his words carefully, and his use of "relieved" made me smile; even though we hadn't seen each other in a couple of years (he was always out of town when I was in LA), he was reassuring me that my opinion, and our friendship, still mattered to him.

That was the last of many, many e-mails I would ever get from him.

Mills was in his 40s, too damn young to die, and it feels a particularly cruel twist of fate that it would happen so close to the premiere of a project he cared so much about.

Goodbye, David. And thanks.
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American Idol, Top 10: R&B/Soul Night

Due to the Passover holiday, as well as my own disenchantment with this season, I took the no-frills approach to watching "American Idol" this morning: just the 10 songs (plus the judges' comments on Andrew and Crystal, because I was busy doing something else for a moment during each). Quick thoughts on how things went just as soon as I point out that the bumblers producing and directing this show somehow ran a minute or two long even though they had 10 performances to sprinkle over two hours...

After mentioning in the column linked to above that Crystal and Siobhan were the only real reasons to watch, Siobhan turned in a complete stinker, while a couple of other contestants stepped up. Still not a great night overall, though.

Siobhan Magnus, "Through the Fire": Starts off bland, then turns disastrous quickly. If some of her previous performances were about showing off the power of her upper register, the message here was "with great power comes great responsibility to find the damn key and stay on it." Terrible.

Casey James, "Hold On (I'm Coming"):
Once again, Casey James being Casey James (and sounding oddly more like Huey Lewis than on last week's "Power of Love"). He has his one thing, he does it pretty well, and he at least made an attempt to step away from the mic stand for a moment. Definitely his most energetic performance to date, but there's not a lot of variance to what he does.

Michael Lynche, "Ready for Love": The blinding white spotlights didn't really suit the vibe of this relaxed, intimate ballad, and the idea that he was performing behind the judges kept distracting me. (I know other performers have done parts of songs on that riser, but the whole thing?) Solid but unspectacular on a night you figured Big Mike would own.

Didi Benami, "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted": I've got a high standard for blonde women singing this song, which is Joan Osborne's incredible cover of it from "Standing in the Shadows of Motown, and Didi doesn't have the range, power or confidence to do something like that. Instead, it was her usual sultry thing, a bit sleepier than usual, and her attempt at a big note just seemed goofy - like it was something she felt she should try, but not something she was comfortable doing.

Tim Urban, "Sweet Love": I will confess I started fast-forwarding about halfway through this one, in part because I was creeped out by the stalker eyes, in part because it's yet another Tim Urban arrangement that strips away anything remotely challenging about the song so he can be sure to hit the notes. Zzzz....

Andrew Garcia, "Forever":
Much, much better. Like Casey, Andrew's only got the one trick, but he's very good at it (and for some reason has attracted the judges' ire for sticking to it, while Casey gets a pass). Not only was he much more comfortable with the acoustic guitar again, but his voice again sounded crisp and clear, where he's had a lot of pitch issues the last few weeks.

Katie Stevens, "Chain of Fools":
Speaking of high bars, this is Fantasia's song as far as "Idol" is concerned. (I wonder if the show should start retiring certain songs if a contestant does a definitive rendition of it, the way sports teams retire uniform numbers.) Katie's vocals were okay (if froggy as usual), but couldn't quite overcome the inherent goofiness of her trying to sing this song.

Lee Dewyze, "Treat Her Like a Lady": Lee has always had a good voice, but he's hit a lot of bum notes in past performances, and he wasn't particularly confident on stage the last couple of weeks. Tonight, though, he was strong vocally throughout, very energetic, very committed, and his voice was a great match for this Cornelius Brothers oldie-but-goodie. When I handicapped the Top 12, I said Lee was one of the few with a chance to win. If he can deliver a streak of performances like this one, he's got a definite shot.

Crystal Bowersox, "Midnight Train to Georgia": I appreciate the effort to not do the same thing every week - piano instead of guitar, high heels instead of Birkenstocks - and I suppose that's necessary to keep (some of) the judges and/or the audience from getting tired of her, but I'm with Simon: Crystal knows who she is and should do just fine sticking to that. This was one of the best of the night, but also probably my least favorite performance of Crystal's so far. The phrasing was great as always, but you could tell she was distracted by the piano-playing and then the move to stand up, and the falsetto wasn't that strong. A necessary gambit, but one I hope she doesn't try to repeat later on.

Aaron Kelly, "Ain't No Sunshine": Another snoozer, with Aaron, as usual, sounding strained in spots, passable in others.

Best of the night: I'd probably give it to Lee, followed by Crystal and then Andrew.

In trouble: Andrew could still be at risk, because you'll often see a singer who's been struggling but skating by finally get some compliments from the judges and then go home, because the fanbase gets complacent. My hope is that it's Tim (Fienberg suggested that Simon performed the famed reverse juju on him that he's used to eliminate the likes of Kevin Covais in seasons past), but I fear we're stuck with him and his stalker eyes for another week or two.

What did everybody else think?
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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lost, "The Package": Ticking clock... BERSERKER!

A review of tonight's "Lost" - and a rant about the ABC gimmick that tried really damn hard to ruin it - coming up just as soon as my brain takes a little stroll...
"Some people just aren't meant to be together." -Keamy
Okay, we have lots of things to discuss about "The Package." First, though, allow me a paragraph or three to be pissed off. Really, really, really pissed off that ABC saw fit to clutter the bottom corner of the screen with a "V" logo and a ticking count-down clock to point people towards tonight's return of that show.

On-screen clutter has been one of the scourges of television over the past decade, as networks think nothing of putting annoying flashing billboards all over their shows, sometimes for other shows, sometimes to remind you of the name of the show you're already watching. I remember writing a column way back in 2001 bitching about how NBC interrupted an episode of, I think, "West Wing" in order to use a bug to promote a new show called "First Years." I wrote that I was so irritated that I hoped "First Years" would fail just to prove the gimmick wrong. "First Years" did fail, quickly, but clutter has only gotten worse. I manage to avoid a lot of it because I watch so many shows on screeners (had I been forced to watch "Men of a Certain Age" on TNT, rather than on DVDs, I likely would have felt much more harshly about that show, knowing how much TNT loves its clutter). I, like the TV executives who approve crap like this, don't always watch TV the way regular people do (which is no doubt why said executives don't think it's a bit deal to approve it), so I manage to avoid the worst of the worst. (Matt Groening once said that he imagines a good chunk of people who buy "Simpsons" DVDs are doing it so they can see the episodes without all the clutter Fox inserts into the broadcasts.)

But because I watch "Lost" live like the rest of you, there was no way to avoid it, and it was ridiculous: between the large red "V" logo, and the ticking clock, it was impossible to not notice it, virtually ever moment it was on screen (which was everywhere except right before or after a commercial break), and in at least one case the stupid clock obscured the note Sun was writing to Jack. Well-done, ABC. Really freaking well-done.

Again, I accept that I've lost the clutter fight, but there are some shows and moments that should be above this junk. As Mike Schneider wrote, "this is "Lost." The final season of "Lost." It's sacred ground. You don't clutter the screen during one of the show's final, pivotal episodes. Or you piss people off."

Count me in among the pissed, and the only thing keeping me from going full-on ballistic is the fact that "The Package" was middle-of-the-pack "Lost" - an episode that's necessary because it moves a lot of story points along but isn't that thrilling in and of itself. Had they pulled a stunt like this during "Ab Aeterno," a shoe might well have gone through my flatscreen.

After last week's extended Richard flashback, the sideways universe returns, and once again we find out that things are different but in many ways better for two of the characters who have declined to take Smokey's side. Alt-Jin and Alt-Sun aren't married, but she's still carrying his child, and their relationship is much warmer without the stress that Jin carried as Mr. Paik's son-in-law. Of course, Keamy does try to kill Jin on Paik's orders, and Sun winds up getting shot during the battle with Bakhunin(*), but until that point, they're happier than they were in the real 2004, which certainly goes along with my epilogue-in-advance theory, where the people who go against Smokey get a happier ending than those who follow him. (Though at the moment, the only sideways we've gotten that qualifies as the latter is Sayid's.)

(*) And Bakhunin, of course, gets shot in the right eye, because some things have to remain the same from timeline to timeline. By the way, think we'll ever get any Patchy backstory from the real timeline - i.e., was he really a Dharma guy who flipped to Ben's side, or something more complciated? - or is that one of those questions Darlton don't want to/have time to answer?

Still, good as Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim are together - and this is the first episode where they've shared extended screentime together since the end of season four - this wasn't one of the more compelling sideways stories. Maybe, like the others, it plays better in a few months after the secret of this universe has been unlocked, but here it was a charming love scene and then a lot of Keamy hamminess. (I really liked Keamy's return in the Sayid-ways, but seeing him in so much of this episode made me realize the less-is-more nature of Kevin Durand's performance, you know?)

As for the island material, we at least got that great moment where Widmore shows Jin the pictures of Ji Yeon(**), and we got a bunch of questions answered: Widmore says he's working to stop Smokey (when there was some ambiguity in his reaction to Sawyer's belief that this was his goal in "Recon") and has a plan that involves the island's electromagnetic anomalies (as mapped by Jin and the rest of LaFleur's crew back in the '70s), Desmond is revealed (as many of you guessed) as the "package" inside the locked room on the sub, and Smokey needs Jacob's remaining candidates to get off the island(**). And we got a reminder of what a good duo Jack and Sun were back in the day. (Seriously, that final scene was the most likable the real version of Jack has been in many, many seasons.)

(**) Daniel Dae Kim absolutely killed that scene, and between that scene and Jack's promise to Sun at episode's end, I think I may be just as invested in seeing the Kwon family get their happy ending as I am on guard that Desmond, Penny and baby Charlie sail off into the sunset.

(***) And because the list on the cave wall differs from the list in the lighthouse - specifically, in that Kate's name is not crossed out in the lighthouse - Smokey appears to be making a big mistake in giving Claire permission to kill Kate once she helps them reassemble the remaining candidates.

It wasn't all thrilling, but there was at least a sense of the story moving forward, my man Desmond is back in play, Sayid's soul is gone (but he looks really cool coming out of the water at night), and Richard finally has a plan for Team Jacob, even if Jack seems determined to not let it happen. There are a lot of agendas at play now, a lot of weird moving pieces, and if "The Package" didn't get my blood racing (though the stupid "V" clock got it boiling in spots), it at least has me interested to see how what happened tonight plays into the bigger picture.

Some other thoughts:

• I wonder if there's going to be a larger plot point to Sun's temporary loss of her English, or if it's there to create a parallel to season one, where when the Kwons finally reunite, Jin will speak English and she won't.

• It occurs to me that Jack and Sawyer now seem to be occupying the same moral space on their respective sides; seeming to play along but really only concerned with getting their friends the hell off Craphole Island; imagine what they could accomplish were those two crazy kids to join forces!

• So part of the "cork" properties of the island seems to prevent Smokey from using his powers to get off it, but doesn't keep him from hopping on an outrigger to row over to Alcatraz. Hmmm... Seems an odd loophole. (And, once again, someone with a gun takes an outrigger but does not shoot at Sawyer's season five group. Sigh...)

• Nice to see the return of the weird indoctrination/rave room that Karl was locked in during Kate and Sawyer's escape from Alcatraz in season three. If that place was just another Dharma experiment, as Zoe claimed, why exactly would Ben stick Karl in there? Just as punishment for annoying him?

Finally, a programming note: I'm due to take a couple of weeks family time starting either next week or the week after (a couple of pieces are still being moved around), which means I may either skip over two of the next three episodes, come to them very late, and/or touch on them very briefly and then open up the conversation to you. Sorry for the inconvenience, but the timeframe only has so much wiggle room, and can't wait until after this season. I promise that as soon as I see each episode during the time I'm off, I'll get up some kind of quick post; I just might not see each one right away.

Ticking clock-related rants aside, what did everybody else think?
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Justified, "Fixer": Straight outta Lexington

A quick review of tonight's "Justified" coming up just as soon as I second-guess your neck hair...

FX actually sent "Fixer" out for review a few weeks after I'd watched the 1st, 2nd and 4th episodes, and there's always the worry that the odd episode out was held back because it wasn't very good. But I'm told the issues here were just post-production-related, and I found "Fixer" to be quite a bit stronger than last week's "Riverbrook."

As with the Elmore Leonard books (and the many crime authors influenced by Leonard), the style is going to be to split the action between Raylan and his quarry. I didn't think it worked last week because the bank robber and his motley gang weren't all that interesting. I liked this combo of inept, backstabbing thieves much more, particularly David Eigenberg as the titular fixer and Page Kennedy as one of those classic Leonard-style bad guys who becomes obsessed with living up to some pop cultural ideal of violence (in this case, dying because he's too distracted trying to prove himself as a quick draw artist).

The parallels between the Fixer and Raylan in their desires to get out of town, ASAP, weren't overdone, and the theme gave us some extended quality time with an off-duty Raylan flirting with, and eventually succumbing to the charms of, the lovely Ava. I like to joke that Timothy Olyphant plays every role like he can't wait to put a bullet through his co-stars, but he's doing very well in Raylan's more relaxed, charming and, yes, romantic moments.

One question: this is now two bodies that Raylan's dropped in three episodes (and he just barely avoided killing Body). Are you okay if the series maintains (or even accelerates) this body count rate? It's one thing for Raylan to get chewed out for his supervisors about this over the course of three books published many years apart, but as an ongoing part of a weekly series? I don't mind it (certainly, plenty of TV show heroes have racked up an even bigger/faster kill rate), but I wonder if anyone does.

What did everybody else think?
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V, "Welcome to the War": Pick up the pieces

Because every episode of "V" is so heavy on special effects, ABC couldn't make a completed version of tonight's return episode - the first in months, and the first under new showrunner Scott Rosenbaum - available for review until late last night. So I couldn't write about it for today's column (that, instead, became a collection of "American Idol" gripes), but I'll have a few non-spoiler-y thoughts on it after the jump, and feel free to use this post to discuss "Welcome to the War" after it airs tonight...

Rosenbaum has worked on two of my favorite shows ever in "The Shield" and "Chuck" (where he most recently wrote "Chuck vs. the Beard"), and so I was hopeful he'd be able to turn around the drab, pointless remake that "V" was during its brief fall run. And there are definite improvements in tonight's episode: more of a sense of forward momentum from the human resistance (and a more plausible sense that they actually have a chance against the Visitors), some more emotional resonance for several characters who had previously been paper-thin, and a few very creepy reminders of how un-human the V's are.

The problem, though, is that Rosenbaum has to mostly play the hand he was dealt by the previous creative team, and there's only so much he can fix at once, especially since "Welcome to the War" also has to serve as a kind of refresher course for the series after the long time away. So we're still stuck with Elizabeth Mitchell's annoying teenage son getting played by the V's, still stuck with a cast that isn't terribly charismatic outside of Elizabeth Mitchell and Morena Baccarin, still going through the motions we expect from this story, whether we saw the '80s show or not.

I'm going to give Rosenbaum time, since you can't turn a freighter around on a dime, and it would be hard for him to come in and immediately ditch all the elements that weren't working. But you may want to manage your expectations for tonight's show.
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Life Unexpected: Checking in on Lux and company

Due both to the timeslot crunch and my waning interest in the show, I haven't written about "Life Unexpected" lately. But last night, I caught up on last week's episode and this week's, and I was pleased (moreso with the first episode than the second) to see the stories start to move along, and to see the show go more in-depth with Lux's history as a foster kid.

That said, I'm not crazy about where we seem to be heading with the wedding, Baze's rekindled interest in Cate, etc. Cate and Ryan have already broken up once over Baze, and if it happens again - and in such short order - it's going to even more annoying than starting off the series with so many episodes in a row of "Ryan and Cate screw up, Lux runs away, then they win her back with a big speech."

Who's still watching? What do you think of the show's progress heading into the final episodes of the season? Click here to read the full post

There is a new blog logo. Discuss.

Passover prep distracted me from posting the new logo yesterday, but it's up now. This week's theme was suggested by reader Mike Willis.

And, as always this post contains links to, and explanations for, all the previous logo themes. Click here to read the full post

Monday, March 29, 2010

United States of Tara, "Trouble Junction": Wake-up call

A review of tonight's "United States of Tara" coming up just as soon as I literally have my mind blown...
"I'm trouble. I am trouble." -Tara
Oh, indeed you are, Tara. And at the moment, you're the only one who knows it.

Last week, we found out that Buck was back in the picture, and this week Tara finds out, too, repeatedly - first regaining control of her body in a strange neighborhood while wearing Max's clothes(*), then being confronted by Pammy in the supermarket parking lot, and then waking up naked(**) in Pammy's bed after another night of wild passion between Pammy and Buck.

(*) Because they threw out everything of Buck's - except, for some reason, the glasses. As I said in my preview of the season, ditching the alters' costumes is a nice touch - Toni Collette's too good to need the crutch, and on a character logic level, it feels like having that stuff around just enables the alters to feel like they should be in charge. So why keep Buck's specs?

(**) Toni Collette's a fearless enough actress that I'm sure she's been nude on-screen before, but it was still a jolt to see her topless here, even on pay cable. I guess the idea is to emphasize Tara's femininity after she's woken up from another Buck episode?

And because Tara and her family have just been through such a golden, alter-free period - as exemplified by that splendid duet of "All Out of Love" she and Max perform at the Hubberd house (before a cover of the song plays over Buck and Pammy's foreplay) - and because she's still fairly ashamed of her condition and the things her body does when the alters are in charge, she doesn't tell anyone. Not Max, not Pammy (who could have used a much sterner, more explicit warning than the one I quoted above), not Charmaine nor anyone else. And that should be bad for Tara and a lot of people around her, shouldn't it? Sometimes, the cover-up's worse than the crime.

It's clear Tara's relationship with the alters - or, at least, the show's approach to depicting them - is different this year than before. Not only are the costumes gone, but we see Tara and Buck interacting even while Tara's in charge, in a mental state that's known as co-consciousness. And Collette's terrific not only at playing against herself (or, rather, at giving two separate performances in a vacuum that can be spliced together), but also at Tara's dawning horror and shame at discovering that she's not better - that she's stuck with Buck and the rest of them. I'd forgotten that a number of episodes last year featured Tara keeping video diaries of her blackouts, but the "Blair Witch"-style flip-phone confessional after she talks to Pammy in the parking lot was a great moment. Watch her be that scared and angry and ashamed, and you understand exactly why Tara would keep this mess to herself for as long as she can.

As Max starts pondering the idea of buying, renovating and flipping the Hubberd house, his plumber buddy offers to "Sully-rig" the pipes, coming up with a fix that won't be permanent but will last long enough to push the problem onto the next owners. By not fessing up to everyone that the DID is back in effect, Tara's trying to Sully-rig her own life.

Some other thoughts:

• While Tara's body is being used against her will to have sex with a woman, Marshall backs off from his big political statement last week and lets himself become Courtney's gay boyfriend. Everyone on this show knows Marshall's gay, Marshall included, but he's a teenager, and he's freaked out - and intimidated by Lionel, who's unapologetic and confrontational about his own sexuality - and he's experimenting.

• The debt collection office is still too broad (particularly when Kate's male coworker slobbers over the pictures of Princess Valhalla Hawkwind), but the job sort of turns into a means to an end, which is introducing Kate to Lynda P. Frazier, played by the wonderful character actress Viola Davis. Lynda, like Tara, is an artist, and she also has something of a more manageable alter ego in Princess Valhalla Hawkwind ("I will always be her... a little"), so she could prove to be a kindred spirit to either Kate (who'd love to be around someone similar to her mom but less crazy) or Tara herself.

• Charmaine's re-virginization plan suggestions a Bridezilla-in-the-making, but moving her into Max and Tara's house should be good for the character (and for people like me who are fans of Rosemarie DeWitt).

• Fynder-Spyder is usually the fake search engine name of choice for movies and TV shows that don't want to give Google free advertising. Here, Kate uses "Sirchbot," which I haven't seen before.

• Between "Breaking Bad" last night and Courtney and Marshall's make-out session tonight, it's been a good week for ouija boards on cable, hasn't it?

What did everybody else think?
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Nurse Jackie, "Twitter": Are you there, God? It's me, Zoey

I said last week that I'm both too busy and too underwhelmed with "Nurse Jackie" season two to review every episode, but as tonight's was the best of the 8 I've seen, I wanted to at least mention how good both Merritt Wever was (Zoey and "God" make a great comedy team) and how much I love the idea of Coop getting his own Twitter account, not only because Peter Facinelli himself has an insane Twitter following, but because Tweeting his innermost thoughts seems exactly like the sort of thing Coop would think the world would want.

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

Chuck, "Chuck vs. the American Hero": Love is a battlefield

A review of tonight's "Chuck" coming up just as soon as I fill out a pair of slacks...
"What are you even doing here?" -Sarah
"I'm here for you." -Chuck
"Chuck vs. the American Hero" was designed to be the penultimate episode of "Chuck" season three, before NBC ordered six more episodes. And as such, comparisons will be inevitable to season two's next-to-last installment, "Chuck vs. the Colonel." "American Hero" actually holds up better to the comparison than I would have thought - it's one of the strongest episodes of this season, up there with "Chuck vs. the Beard" and "Chuck vs. the Tic Tac" - but it does illustrate some of the larger flaws that have kept season three as a whole a notch or two below last year.

Some of the problems couldn't be helped, like the reduced budget. It's kept the supporting characters shuttling in and out (which becomes particularly noticeable in contrast to an episode like this that features everyone but Big Mike and uses all the characters well), and it's reduced both the scope of the story and the coolness of some of the action. "Colonel" climaxed with a bunch of planes bombing the hell out of Ted Roark's would-be Intersect army at the drive-in; here, we get a lone stealth bomber dropping a single bomb on a small warehouse, creating an explosion so small that Sarah, Chuck and Shaw are unharmed standing only a few feet away.(*) Meanwhile, Chuck's commando assault on the Ring base went fairly quick and easy (even if it was supposed to be a temporary place set up to mess with Shaw, you still would have seen more bad guys and/or a longer fight scene a year ago). I appreciate that they don't have the money to work with that they had last season, but it's been unfortunate and noticeable.

(*) That lack of scale, coupled with the fact that until this week the group never seemed to do anything but try to kill Shaw, has led to The Ring thus far seeming less imposing than Fulcrum, even though we keep being told it's the much bigger, more dangerous threat.

But I also think there have been a few miscalculations on the part of Schwartz, Fedak and company. Shaw has been a misfire, less because he's been an obstacle to Chuck and Sarah getting together than that he's been an obstacle to Team Bartowski working well together. It's not a coincidence that two of the season's stronger outings ("Nacho Sampler" and "Tic Tac") both had Shaw absent so we could watch our three leads interact. Even if they weren't all getting along splendidly (Sarah didn't approve of Chuck's handling of Manoosh in "Nacho Sampler," and Casey was rogue for much of "Tic Tac") the three actors/characters have such chemistry and such history together that Shaw often seemed like a buzzkill.

I had begun to hope, like some of you, that Shaw was going to be revealed as a Ring mole, and/or that Sarah - whose character arc this season has at times been compelling, and at others felt like it was serving the whims of the plot - was playing him to find out. Instead, it turns out that what we saw with Shaw was what we got, but also that Shaw's obsession with avenging his wife's death was so great that he's now looking to do something very bad to Sarah, who doesn't realize that Shaw's wife was the victim in her own "red test."

But if the way things ultimately played out don't give Sarah back some of the agency her character has lost this season, it at least sets us up for what I hope will be a very strong close to Season 3.0, with Chuck having to save Sarah from Shaw - and, maybe, get his first kill for real in the process?

What was so satisfying about "American Hero," though, is that Chuck has already defeated Shaw in one way: he got Sarah back.

Sure, there's still the matter of rescuing her from Shaw's insane clutches, blah blah blah, but the woman made her choice. She was packing a bag, and I feel confident her destination was going to be Union Station even before Casey stopped by to confess to killing Hunter. Chuck (sometimes with the aid of the Bizarro Team Bartowski of Casey, Morgan and Awesome, sometimes by himself) put on such a charm offensive with Sarah and got to be a more overt hero in carrying Shaw out of the exploding building (remember, Sarah has a type) and laid his heart bare for her about the train station(**) and their future together that she had to have thrown in her lot with our man. The smile on Yvonne Strahovski's face when Casey told Sarah the truth didn't so much read as "Yay, now I get to change my mind," but "Yay, I made the right call."

(**) In a bit of symmetry from the season premiere conversation in Castle about meeting at a train station.

So, in effect, Chuck and Sarah have finally chosen each other at the same time, and all that's holding it up is a temporary plot complication (Shaw's desire to kill Sarah) rather than a character one. Whatever missteps the creative team may have made, they're not stupid enough to end what was supposed to be the whole season with Chuck and Sarah still not together. I don't know everything in life, but I feel very confident in this.

And we can argue not only about whether this took too long, but about whether the characterizations were consistent (I, frankly, would have liked some clarification on whether Sarah was simply turned off by Chuck-as-killer, or if she felt guilty that she had helped make him into one), about whether there's been too much focus on the relationship, not enough, whether the darker tone worked, whether the government would really risk the Intersect as a run-of-the-mill spy, etc., etc., etc.

But here's the thing: when "Chuck" is good - and budget issues aside, "Chuck vs. the American Hero" was very good - all the questions and complaints have a way of not mattering as much. I don't mind the plot holes (though I will still list some of them below), nor the idea that certain character or story arcs haven't played out as smoothly as anyone might have liked. When I watch a sequence like Chuck making his move at the restaurant while Bizarro Team Bartowski attempts to back his play from the van - with Morgan and Awesome(***) both accidentally saving Shaw from being kidnapped - or when I watch Jeff and Lester prove their epic stalking powers to Chuck, or when Chuck keeps saying "I love you" to Sarah just because it feels nice to say, everything else goes out the window. This is the show I fought to save last spring, and even if parts of this season have been bumpy, I can deal with those bumps when we get to moments like the ones that we got in abundance in "American Hero."

(***) I thought it was a very nice touch to have Devon once again mistakenly tackle the good guy, just like he did to Casey in "Chuck vs. the Angel De La Muerte" - only for it to mostly work out here.

One episode to go of this original batch of 13, then two weeks off for repeats (which should coincide with some time off I'm supposed to take in early April), then Season 3.1 starts. I'm assuming next week's semi-finale will clear the decks of a lot of elements from 3.0, and I can't wait to see what the team has in store for the final push. And I'll sweat renewal later.

Some other thoughts:

• I always enjoy those rare instances of General Beckman interacting with Chuck one-on-one, in person, because she has much less patience for his "process" than Casey or Sarah do. I still have a hard time believing that, even with the Intersect 2.0, anyone considers Chuck qualified to be a spy, but it was at least smart to suggest he'd have his own team around him (even if said team almost certainly wouldn't include either Morgan or Casey).

• Also, I kind of wish that Morgan didn't have a selfish reason for wanting to help Chuck. I know it created a thematic symmetry with Casey and Awesome, and I also get that Morgan's life would be extremely empty without Chuck in it, but at the same time, I like those moments where Morgan just has Chuck's back because that's what best friends do.

• This week in "Chuck" plot holes: a bunch to choose from, but primarily that Beckman would be willing to send a bomber into a civilian neighborhood with no more intel than that Shaw's tracker had stopped moving for a while and gone underground. That's more a hole in Shaw's plan than in Beckman's reasoning, I suppose, but either way, the idea seemed awfully thin. Anything could have been happening at that bunker. (And what, for that matter, would have happened if Chuck hadn't picked up the tracker and it had remained under the overpass? Would the military have blown up a bridge by mistake?) Also, what happened to the fellowship Ellie got that was going to force Devon to abandon his Doctors Without Borders scheme? And while I understand Devon spending the night in jail, what exactly were Morgan and Casey charged with? And why does the Castle electrical grid somehow affect one of the displays at the Buy More? And how does Casey get back into Castle so easily, when presumably the access codes got changed after Beckman gave him his burn notice? And if Shaw's wife was killed five years ago, are we supposed to believe Sarah had only been an agent for two years when she met Chuck?

• This week in "Chuck" music: only one song (bizarre for a Josh Schwartz show, I know), with The Temper Trap's "Down River" playing both as Chuck invites Sarah to meet him at Union Station, and again as Casey tells Sarah the truth about who really shot Hunter.

• This week in "Chuck" pop culture references: Morgan's "Love is a battlefield" line is, of course, a reference to the iconic early '80s Pat Benatar song and video, and the "Dr. Jibb" soda machine as entrance to the Ring underground HQ could be read as yet another "Spies Like Us" homage, as the military guys accessed their own base via the Pepsi machine at an abandoned drive-in.

• This week in recognizable "Chuck" guest stars: sci-fi/action-caper show Hey It's That Guy! Mark Sheppard played the mysterious Ring director, while Roger Cross (one of Jack Bauer's longer-serving sidekicks on "24") was Sheppard's henchman.

• Ellie hasn't been a particularly well-serviced character this year, and at times comes across as way too controlling about Chuck's life, but her speech to Chuck about getting Sarah back - "You're a Bartowski, Chuck. Start acting like one." - was a very nice moment for Sarah Lancaster.

• Ultimately, Casey's refusal to let Chuck tell Sarah what happened at the train station wasn't that satisfyingly resolved. They needed to show some kind of Chuck/Casey interaction later in the episode where we saw Casey change his mind, and/or his conversation with Sarah needed to come across like a much bigger gamble than it ultimately became. Casey knows Sarah well enough to know she would never tell anybody else, so his earlier reluctance just became another plot device - albeit one that put Casey in a van with Devon and Morgan, so I'm okay with it.

• My head scratched when I saw the subtitle pointing out "DNI" headquarters, until I noticed a comment in last week's discussion that referred to Beckman working for the "Department of National Intelligence." Have we ever heard this name/acronym before? When the series started, Casey and Beckman were NSA, Sarah and Graham (Tony Todd) were CIA, and Operation Bartowski was a joint agency task force. Did I miss some administrative change after Graham blew up in the season 2 premiere?

• I pointed to the flash-grenade scene from "Chuck vs. the Beard" as an example of rookie director Zachary Levi showing off a bit too much, but veteran director Jeremiah Chechik largely went with the same style for the flash-grenade scene here, so either that was something other forces (maybe the DP?) cooked up in "Beard," or else Chechik liked it enough to make it part of the series' house style.

• Interesting: Chuck can shoot someone (with a tranq gun) without having to flash. Is the "Duck Hunt" really paying off, or are some of the Intersect skills starting to become part of Chuck's muscle memory?

• If Jeff is, indeed, the Picasso of creepiness, and this is his blue period, would you pay to own any of his work?

Finally, everybody did a great job of staying civil and rational in discussing the episodes after the Chuck-pocalypse that was "Chuck vs. the Mask," but last week we got into the crazy/obnoxious territory again, and I had to delete some comments. Let me remind you one more time of the single most important part of the commenting rules: Be nice. TALK ABOUT THE SHOW, NOT EACH OTHER. If you can't find a way to disagree without attacking the people who disagree with you, DO NOT COMMENT.

This shouldn't be hard, and I appreciate that for most of you, it's not. But for the small handful of you who are having trouble here, please relax, or else find some other place to discuss the show.

What did everybody else think?
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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Breaking Bad, "Caballo Sin Nombre": House hunters

A review of tonight's "Breaking Bad" coming up just as soon as I get dipping sticks...
"I can't be the bad guy." -Walt
An episode after "No Mas," Walt still isn't ready to take Jesse's rehab revelation to heart. He's still denial about how bad he's become, how much he's hurting the people he cares about, and how his actions will be received by the world around him. He's oblivious to how the cop will respond when Walt gets out of the Aztek and begins ranting and raving about his civil rights. He's oblivious to how much he's hurting Skyler by letting her become the bad guy in their separation, when if anything Skyler's doing him (and their children) a kindness by not telling the world that he's a meth cooker. He's oblivious to the fact that the cartel might still be angry with him, and to the presence of the Cousins sitting in his bedroom with an ax, and that his life is only spared because Saul's PI buddy Mike has a direct line to Gus Frings. Walt begins and ends the episode with chemicals in his eyes (first the pepper spray, then the shampoo), but even cleaned up, he's really not seeing the picture of his life very clearly.

We can, however, and "Caballo Sin Nombre"(*) gives us a very vivid picture of how bad Skyler has it because she won't tell the truth about Walt. (And I should say her reasons aren't entirely selfless; as Saul points out to Walt, the truth would have huge blowback for Skyler, too.) While she stays silent, her son turns against her - even ditching the "Flynn" nickname to go back to being Walter Jr. in a show of solidarity with his pop. Hank seems ready to dismiss Walt's mystery transgression as an affair and take Walt's side in what looks from his point of view to be a disproportionate response from Skyler. (Kick the cheating bastard out? Sure, but don't keep him from his kids.) Marie has more suspicions, but that's all she has.

(*) The episode's title is Spanish for "Horse with No Name," which is the song Walt's singing along to when the cop pulls him over.

And because Skyler's out on an island, emotionally and financially, she finds herself forced to become Saul Goodman to Ted Beneke's Walt, showing him how to more effectively cook the books. She doesn't want to, but she doesn't seem to have a choice - which, interestingly, is the justification Walt used for getting into the meth business in the first place. Hmm... Maybe Walt's not the only one too blind to recognize his own badness.

Jesse, as we know from last week, has embraced his own villainous side, not in any kind of cackling, over-the-top fashion, but in a much more compelling, disturbingly matter-of-fact way. He is what he let Walt turn him into, and so he has no problem using Saul to hustle his parents into selling him back his aunt's house at a rock-bottom price. Not only does this give him revenge for how unfairly he feels they've treated him in the past, it allows him to get back at two of the parties who helped contribute to the death of Jane (and then of the people on the planes). If his parents don't kick him out of aunt's house, Jesse doesn't move in next door to Jane, doesn't drag her off the wagon, etc., etc., etc. Aaron Paul's had to play a lot of different faces of this character (clueless comic relief, tragic victim of Walt's greed, etc.), and he's been really good as this empty, evil incarnation. What he does to his parents (and, unwittingly, to his kid brother, whom he does like) is cruel, but unlike his partner, Jesse has no illusions about who he is and what he's doing. He's bad, but he's not a hypocrite.

Neither, of course, is Saul Goodman, with Bob Odenkirk making his very welcome first appearance of the season. As Walt and Jesse's consiglieri (even if the business isn't active at the moment), Saul has clearly moved up in the world. He's dressing better, his combover isn't as tacky, and he has a Bluetooth, status symbol for d-bags everywhere (and fashion accessory for the guy whose car Walt blew up back in season one). But he's still a low-rent lawyer at heart; his glee at getting over on Mr. and Mrs. Pinkman's high-class attorney was palpable. If Jesse's resigned to being the bad guy, Saul loves the role.

While Walt and Jesse are both concerned with getting back into their homes (Walt breaks in via the trap door he made while battling mold last season, while Jesse gets in via more legal means), the Cousins are coming - with a big assist from Tio, whose mind remains sharp and focused even as his body betrays him. The scene in the nursing home where the Cousins realize they can use the ouija board to get the relevant information from Tio left me grinning from ear to ear, it was so diabolical, even as I worried about what hell these two are going to unleash on Walt - or, worse, on the loved ones Walt has exposed to such danger with his second career.

Some other thoughts:

• In more practical terms, Jesse had to move out of his aunt's house because the home's real-life owners sold it. The new owners wound up remodeling it, then agreed to let the show use it again, and so Mr. and Mrs. Pinkman's renovations were written into the script.

• That was one shiny ax the Cousins bought, wasn't it? Also nice to know they have access to the same kind of shiny suits north of the border as they did down in Mexico.

• Saul gives Walt a piece of advice that could pay huge dividends down the road, in pointing out how Hank's career would be ruined if his brother-in-law were discovered to be the area's biggest meth manufacturer. I don't think Walt's yet at a point where he would exploit Skyler's affection for Hank, but that moment's probably gonna come, isn't it?

• Of course Saul's vanity license plate is "LWYRUP." Of course it is. is still an active website, and still contains a link to the National Cancer Coalition if you want to make a donation to help real (and less despicable) cancer sufferers.

• Walt's so anal and controlling that he has to go and skim the pool at his apartment complex. (And that, in turn, gives the production team an excuse to trot out the pools-eye-view camera again. I love that camera almost as much as they obviously do.)

• God, Mark Margolis is good as Tio. Tio hates Walter so, so much, and it looked like half the veins on Margolis's body were fit to burst as he silently communicated with the Cousins.

• The song playing as Walt breaks back into his own house is "Magic Arrow" by Timber Timbre.

• Walt's flinging of the pizza onto the garage roof seemed so impressive that I asked Vince Gilligan if there was any special work by the crew to aid its flight. Here's what he said:
Our special effects expert did indeed work up some mechanism for getting the pizza out of the box and onto the roof, using fishline or somesuch. However, to the best of my knowledge, his rig was never used. What you see in the finished episode is take one, in which Bryan basically just did a Hail Mary toss and got it up there in one try!
What did everybody else think?
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The Pacific, "Part Three": My big fat Greek shore leave

A review of "The Pacific" episode three coming up just as soon as I read you the articles of war...
"You have to go away, Bob." -Stella
After the intense combat action of the first two episodes, "The Pacific" chapter three comes as something of a jarring change. Like Leckie and the other puzzled Marines trying to make sense of the enthusiastic greetings of the Melbourne women, it's hard to fathom that this place is part of the same planet, or miniseries, as what we saw on Guadalcanal.

But if "The Pacific" aims to tell the entire story of the 1st Marine Division's time over there, then a Melbourne stopover is a necessary one - as head writer Bruce McKenna notes, "The 1st Marine Division spent more time in Australia than Easy Company did in Europe" - and one that begins to expand the scope of the series. It's not just about grimy men in foxholes before, during and after combat; it's about the emotional cost of war, not just on the men who fight it, but on those who care for them.

In real life, Leckie never had a great romance with a Greek-Australian girl and her family (he mostly spent his time Down Under having affairs with a variety of women), and you can kind of tell. (I suspected it was fictionalized even before I started reading up on Leckie.) There's a difference between compressing events (or assigning moments one character had in real life to another character in the film) and inventing things out of whole cloth, and it sticks out in the middle of a production that's largely so committed to fidelity.

Which isn't to say that I disliked the story of Stella and her family. I liked the writing and performances. I liked what it told us about Leckie, who got to open up to Stella about his family and background(*) in a way that wouldn't be plausible with his fellow Marines. And Stella's fear of falling for a man she assumes will be killed in combat rang very true as something that many real girlfriends of Marines and soldiers felt, even if the sentiments had to be placed in the mouth of an obviously fictional character.

(*) And the talk about being the unwanted final child of a large family kind of puts a new angle on his goodbye scene with his father in the debut, doesn't it? at the time, I watched that and read it as his father talking so much about his car because he couldn't deal with the thought that Bob could die soon. Instead, maybe it's just as Leckie tells Stella: his dad didn't much care about him.

Leckie took a backseat to Basilone in the second episode, and James Badge Dale did really well with the renewed focus on his character here. I really only knew him as Chase on "24," and he's very impressive throughout this hour, whether he's showing Leckie letting himself fall under the spell of Stella and her family, Leckie starting to go native enough that he begins to resent being back training among the men, and, especially, Leckie's simmering anger after Stella not only dumps him, but does it in a way that amplifies the sense of impending doom that comes with serving in this theater of operation. Leckie's kind of a broken individual to begin with, and what he's witnessing in both war and relative peace is only making him worse.

Because we spent so much time on combat in the first two hours, Part Three provides some much-needed characterization not only of Leckie, but of Basilone. Episodes like this one are essential for keeping our investment in the hours that are largely about action, particularly since there are only three characters to zero in on, and one of them's headed back to the States for the forseeable future.

I knew nothing about Basilone going into the miniseries, save that he's from Jersey and beloved in his hometown of Raritan. When Chesty mentioned in Part Two that he felt Basilone's actions deserved a medal, I began wondering what it might be. To bring it back to "Band of Brothers" for a moment, Dick Winters somehow didn't get the Medal of Honor for leading Easy Company's attack on the guns at Brecourt Manor on D-Day, so the bar's pretty high. (The Medal can also be a very political thing; as I understand it, only one was going to be awarded to someone from the parachute infantry on that day.) But if a man like Basilone can't get one for what he did on October 24, who can?

As I've said before, I never much liked Jon Seda in previous roles (his arrival on "Homicide" really accelerated that once-great show's decline), but whatever direction he's been given here is really working. It's a very minimalist performance, but when he hears Chesty tell him about the medal, or when he has to receive it, or says goodbye to J.P., his eyes say everything that's needed.

And even before the Pentagon sends him home for a war bond drive, we get to see how the responsibility of the Medal is starting to weigh on him. Basilone may have deserved it, but he was also a carouser not prepared to suddenly become a role model, and some of the episode's lightest, most memorable moments, come from seeing what a party-hound he was.

The peaceful time in Australia eventually comes to an end, as the men (and the series) prepare to return to action. It will not be pretty.

Some other thoughts:

• This is the first episode with a script not credited to McKenna, with novelist and "Wire" veteran George Pelecanos sharing credit with Michelle Ashford.

• The series rotated between two different directors of photography: Remi Adefarasin, who did the first two episodes, and Stephen Windon, who does this one. Windon and director Jeremy Podeswa were really on their game in making the scenes at Stella's home, particularly in the backyard garden, look more and more idyllic as the affair went on. By the end of it, I wanted to move in with that family.

• No combat, but still room for some really graphic imagery, here with Leckie and some of the other guys having to cut blisters off their feet from all the rocks getting in there during the march back to town. Ugh.

• More good comic relief: Sid listening patiently to the old man's lecture about the three simple rules (which he would later break) for dating his granddaughter.

Finally, let me again repeat how the No Spoiler policy is going to apply to this series. History on a big scale is not and should not be considered a spoiler. If you don't know the larger points of World War II and/or the Pacific campaign, then you and your high school history teacher need to have a chat. But the lives and military careers of Basilone, Leckie and Sledge, for our purposes, will be considered spoilers. So if you know more about one or more of them going in, or read up on them over the course of the miniseries, do not share any of that info in your comments, okay? We were able to get through the "Band of Brothers" reviews without giving away who lived, who died, who got promoted, transferred, etc., and I'm sure we can do that here as well. So until we get to the final episode in 10 weeks, no talking about anything that took place after the events depicted in a given episode. Okay?

What did everybody else think?
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Friday, March 26, 2010

Caprica, "End of the Line": She doesn't know her own strength

A review of the "Caprica" mid-season finale coming up just as soon as I chop some veggies...
"Now, I finally feel like things are getting on the right track." -Daniel
I was disenchanted with the last several episodes of "Caprica," but I had hopes that "End of the Line"(*) would pull the series out of its stupor. If there was one thing you could count on from Ron Moore and company on "Battlestar Galactica," it was that the cliffhanger episodes (either at mid-season or the end of seasons) tended to pack the strongest punch, even during stretches when the show overall was struggling. (Case in point: the visit to the algae planet after a really tedious string of episodes midway through season three.)

(*) The title has been alternately listed in some places as "End of Line," which was the Hybrid's catchphrase on "BSG," but my contact at Syfy insists that the official title adds the "the."

But "End of the Line" was just as uninspiring as the episodes leading up to it - if not moreso. After all, there were certain parts of recent episodes that might have proven interesting, depending on the payoff, like the identity of Joseph's mysterious guide through New Cap City. But when it turned out to be his lovestruck secretary, deliberately manipulating events to keep Joseph and Tamara's avatar apart and to drive Joseph into her loving arms, I rolled my eyes and mentally checked out on that corner of the series, forever. Wake me when Esai Morales and Eric Stoltz are going at it again, okay?

Other than Alessandra Torresani's work as Zoe, and the horrorshow scene where Zoe finally revealed herself to Philomon, then accidentally killed him in a moment of panic, there was very little to grab onto here in terms of compelling character or story moments. And the threat of Daniel erasing Zoe's personality from the chip made no sense. Even if Daniel has decided to take the dog-shooting test as proof that Zoe's not in there, he still knows that the anomalies are the only thing that make the chip work, given that the chip did not work for Vergis.

The whole hour felt like the writing staff needed to build to a series of cliffhangers and then worked backward to see how they could justify a lot of frantic explosions, shoot-outs and suicide attempts. And they didn't even have the courtesy to blow up Sister Clarice(**) when they had the chance to ditch a character who's not working.

(**) Though I would be very amused if Nestor were to somehow survive the car bombing, lose the use of his legs, and try out for the Caprica City wheelchair Pyramid team.

Ideally, a cliffhanger is supposed to make the viewer so invested in what happens next that they'll have trouble waiting for the next episode (either in a week or, in this case, several months). At the end of "End of the Line," though, I found myself not caring if Amanda managed to land in the river without breaking her neck, if Joseph will be able to kick his Amp addiction, who will win the war for the heart of STO, or any of the rest of it. That is not a good sign. I'll see how my mood is when the second half of the season begins, but right now I'm not sure "Caprica" is a show I need in my life.

What did everybody else think?
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See ya in the next life, Jack (Bauer)

A few weeks ago, I noted reports that Fox was leaning towards making this season of "24" the last one, after which Kiefer Sutherland might star in a "24" feature film.

Well, Fox made the news official a couple of hours ago, and Denise Martin talked to Kiefer and producer Howard Gordon about the last longest day of Jack Bauer's life. Click here to read the full post

30 Rock, "Floyd": Look at the truth you're trying to avoid, Floyd

A quick review of last night's "30 Rock" coming up just as soon as I'm no stranger to the art of japery...

There are episodes of "30 Rock" that manage to blend quasi-human plots about Liz or Jack with the zany antics of everyone else at "TGS" and make them all feel like part of the same show, but "Floyd" never quite pulled it off. The return of Jason Sudeikis as Floyd gave Liz one of her more down-to-earth and relatable stories in a while, but it felt like a complete tonal mismatch from the war between The Pranksmen and The Silver Panthers, and especially from one of the weirder (and dumber) Tracy/Jenna plots I can remember.

With "30 Rock," there will usually be enough good throwaway jokes to carry the day (Floyd's last name is DeBarber, Dave Coulier has been knighted in Canada, Liz can do a Christopher Cross impression), and I did quite enjoy the Pranksmen/Silver Panthers feud, as well as Pete's part of the Tracy/Jenna stuff. But overall, "Floyd" didn't really hang together for me.

What did everybody else think?
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The Office, "Happy Hour": Be gay with him, but be straight with me

A review of last night's "The Office" coming up just as soon as I whack some moles...

After a couple of episodes that finally recaptured the tone of the series but didn't bring a lot of laughs, the B.J. Novak-scripted "Happy Hour" was more of a mixed bag: very funny and/or on-model in parts, and then incredibly stupid in others.

Take, for instance, the use of Kevin. Kevin standing behind the windows making sex gestures and giggling while Andy and Erin talk about wanting to keep their obvious relationship a secret? Very very funny, and something Kevin would absolutely do. But Kevin repeatedly crying like a baby to make Pam lactate? Gross and weird and something where Jim and/or Pam would have slugged him the second time for sure, if not the first.

For that matter, I rolled my eyes at an awful lot of the Andy and Erin material. There comes a point where writing this relationship as Jim & Pam 2: The Dumbening stops being sweet and starts being, well, stupid, and I think we reached it here. Just because PB&J tried, and ultimately failed, to keep their romance a secret doesn't mean that these two have to automatically try the same gambit. Go somewhere else with it, please.

And yet the larger atmosphere of the Happy Hour night - and the idea that Oscar's attempt to ask out Matt the warehouse guy would lead to a really fun night for most of the office and warehouse staff - was really well-done and had a lot of nice moments for most of the ensemble. Darryl's new office is already paying dividends, as the "you can be gay with Matt but be straight with me" scene was a very dry, funny exchange between Darryl and Oscar. We finally got to see why Pam's friend Isabel might actually be into Dwight (she's a lot like him, just prettier), and we got some nice small moments like Phyllis's explanation of why she wears low-cut tops on nights out and Ryan and Kelly trying to concentrate on Dance Dance Revolution. And, of course, Oscar acknowledging Darryl's point that Matt isn't the right guy for him and then immediately running off to pathetically shoot hoops with Matt was a pathetic but believably funny moment.

As for Michael Scott as Date Mike? Another mixed bag. I get the joke - that when Michael's not trying to be charming and funny, he actually is charming and funny, and that his belief in himself as a performer always sabotages him - but Date Mike, like Prison Mike and some other alter egos before him, was just so over-the-top that it was painful to watch. And given that Michael was having some success with Pam's friend, and that Jim and Pam wanted to make this fix-up work, and that Michael has on occasion in the past been willing to listen to Jim's advice, I just didn't buy that Jim wouldn't have pulled him aside and been a lot blunter and more forceful about how badly Michael was screwing up what had been going so well only moments earlier. All the Date Mike shenanigans were a build-up to Michael forging a better connection with the bar manager (played by Amy Pietz), but I find less is always much, much more with Michael at his zaniest.

Overall, though, I'd say the good outweighed the bad in this one, but just barely.

What did everybody else think?
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Parks and Recreation, 'Summer Catalog': You're in the picture

A review of last night's "Parks and Recreation" coming up just as soon as I do a photo shoot about the dangers of undercooked chicken...

When "Parks and Recreation" started, one of the show's big problems was that Leslie's exuberance for her job made her come off as sad and delusional (and/or like a female Michael Scott). Season two has very smartly recalibrated things (less in the way Leslie herself is written than in the way other characters respond to her) so that her enthusiasm becomes something to be admired, not pitied.

"Summer Catalog" told us a story about the world not matching up to one of Leslie's beliefs, but it was one about an illusion, not a delusion. Leslie assumes that all the previous heads of the Parks Department view the job as the same noble calling she does (even though she has ample evidence in Ron F'ing Swanson that not all holders of the job share her worldview), and is disappointed to learn that Ron's three predecessors are a stoner(*), a smug careerist and a sexist jerk. But Leslie recognizes how wrong she was almost immediately with each man, and it's clear by the end that this is another one of those instances where Leslie's right and the world is wrong: the Parks Department should be run by someone with as much passion for the parks and can-do spirit as Leslie Knope, not by any of these jerks (or even by Ron, who lets Leslie do all the work for him).

(*) Played by classic '80s sitcom dad Michael Gross, kind of taking the Steven Keaton character to his natural conclusion.

And what also made the picnic disaster story work was that it came in the middle of an episode where all the characters got a new look at the picture of their lives. When Ann and Mark pose as a happy couple for the summer catalog cover, Mark looks believable and Ann looks miserable. Andy and April's flirting becomes so blatant and fun (playing with food, sweater-swapping) that even Andy finally recognizes what's going on here. And though he's briefly scared off by realizing the age difference (April's still 20, Andy's somewhere in his late 20s), when he sees the catalog cover photo of them as an actual happy couple, even he can't seem to resist the inevitable.

So "Summer Catalog" was a nice character piece for most of the ensemble, but it also had a lot of good jokes, from the easy (Ron's hunger and famous obsession with breakfast foods) to the strange (Clarence's sexist ramblings) to the silly (Tom as demanding fashion photographer). All in all, a very satisfying episode.

What did everybody else think?
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Community, "The Science of Illusion": Wunza housewife, wunza Girl Scout

A review of last night's "Community" coming up just as soon as you agitate my sciatica...

Last week, I complained that "Beginner Pottery" tipped the pop culture reference scales too far and threw off the show's balance. In many ways, "The Science of Illusion" was even more reference-laden, yet I enjoyed it a lot more.

Part of that is conceptual: Shirley as a salty sea captain seems incredibly random, whereas Shirley and Annie as buddy cops competing to be the alpha dog seemed both more potential-laden (Alison Brie totally went to town playing Annie as a snarling, toothpick-chewing renegade cop, just as Danny Pudi did a perfect Disapproving Black Captain impression) and because it seemed a bit more on point with the characters. Annie and Shirley are constantly trying to prove they're not the timid mouses people take them for, and it felt right to then place their police misadventure in an episode where Britta and Pierce and even Troy(*) are also taking ridiculous steps to transcend people's preconceptions about them.

(*) As I've said before, Donald Glover trying to talk while Troy weeps will never not be funny, no matter what he's saying, and it was especially funny here because the writers were acknowledging that Troy is too young to get the Cookie Crisp reference they were making. (Wikipedia has a good breakdown of the history of Cookie Crisp mascots.) Too often, the writers on shows try to apply their own tastes and references to characters who are younger than them, so I always appreciate a kind of meta acknowledgment like that.

The Britta story was also a good example of the "Community" writers continuing to turn into the skid with that character, rather than trying to fight it. Whatever the original conception of Britta was, it didn't really work. But because the show has embraced and acknowledged that she's the group's buzzkill, she's become more likable, and then jokes can be built around the difference between how others perceive her and how she perceives herself. Britta's self-deprecating knock-knock joke ("Cancer!" "Oh, good, come in! I thought it was Britta!") was a very sad, sweet, funny and charming moment for Gillian Jacobs.

There were a lot of funny jokes scribbled in the margins - old man Leonard as the most ruthless and vulgar prankster on campus, Senor Chang's fear of frogs, Pierce's gay psychic reading of Jeff - but the main jokes were even funnier. Annie doing a foot pursuit of Jeff and running through the pepper spray mist alone was worth the price of admission.

So, the big question is, which buddy cop spin-off would you rather watch: Annie and Shirley, or Sawyer and Miles from "Lost"? Could we combine them all? Or would Annie spontaneously combust if asked to spend a lot of time with a shirtless Sawyer?

What did everybody else think?
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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Modern Family, "Starry Night": Change of a dress

A review of last night's "Modern Family" coming up just as soon as I sfather you to death...

"Starry Night" was a very strong episode, one that provided a nice balance of nuclear family unit action (the Dunphy parents help their kids with homework) and intermingled groupings (Mitchell getting zing'ed by Manny and Jay, Cameron overcompensating with Gloria) and had a lot of funny moments throughout.

There was a stretch of the season where scenes of the Dunphys by themselves really dragged (that, as much as anything, was the main reason I kept pushing to see the families interact more), but the writers have gotten better at making Phil not just be the idiot, and at using all three Dunphy kids both as foils for each other and their mom and dad. Luke was on fire in this episode, from him misunderstanding the concept of noise-canceling headphones at the beginning to him delivering the requisite heart-warming speech at the end and then turning it into a paranoid screed about aliens halfway through. (At this point, the warmth of the show should be so obvious to anyone watching that the only time I want to hear those voiceovers anymore is when the writers have a joke ready to undercut it like here, or like the time Dylan sang his song about wanting to do Hayley.) And the slapstick bits with Phil going for his sunglasses and then Claire wiping out on the bad step were both very well-choreographed, and then played by Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen.

The astronomy storyline was a nice example of how well the show can transcend sitcom cliches. I can think of many comedies where I would have groaned the second a gay character wound up wearing a dress, but here the humor was dry rather than broad, with Mitchell's complaint about how the dress made his hips look serving as a nice rejoinder to Gloria's earlier comment that anyone would look fabulous in it. The idea of Manny being a stepbrother to both Mitchell and Claire hasn't been explored in a while, but the idea of the usually serious and mature Manny zinging his (much) older brother because Jay told him it's what siblings do was a good running gag (particularly Manny reverting to his old self to say, "There's a line, Jay") and then in turn led to a nice moment for the two where cross-dressing Mitchell gave him a pep talk.

The first Cameron/Gloria team-up of the series wasn't as fabulous as I might have expected, but that turned out to be the whole point of the joke: Cam assumes they should be BFFs, but then gets so concerned about not screwing up the possibility that he keeps making things worse. This was a different side of Cam than we've seen, and as well-played by Eric Stonestreet as in the character's usual pathologically exuberant mode.

I also thought "Starry Night" did a better job than usual of letting jokes carry from one subplot to another, not just with things like Gloria's dress, but the moment where Luke compares Van Gogh to an insane-looking Mitchell, followed by an immediate cut to Mitchell looking insane after getting sprayed by the skunk.

What did everybody else think?
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Reader mail: 'Sopranos' finale (3 years later), 'The Pacific' and more

Another reader mailbag column today, in which I again stand by my "Sopranos" finale theory, respond to complaints that "The Pacific" isn't really showing the entire story of the Pacific theater, and help out what must be one of The Star-Ledger's oldest readers with a bit of movie trivia. Click here to read the full post

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

American Idol: Top 11 results

Been otherwise occupied tonight (and try to avoid watching the whole results show anyway), but I have "American Idol" results spoilers coming right up...

So, bottom three were Katie, Tim and Paige. Katie sent back to safety quickly, Paige and Tim bottom two, Paige eliminated.

The part I did see, which was interesting, is that Simon didn't even bother trying to maintain the farce that is the Judges Save. Instead, he told Paige flat out that they weren't going to use it on her before the "sing for your life" portion, and we therefore got her goodbye speech and death montage before she finally struggled her way through "All Right Now," her voice completely shot.

I know Paige's exit goes against my "better to be awful than mediocre" elimination theory, but there are exceptions, and completely losing the ability to sing was one of them. At this point, I suspect even the Paige die-hards knew they were just prolonging her misery by keeping her there.

So we're stuck with Tim at least another week (if not longer), but the clear worst person from last night went home, and that's acceptable.

What did everybody else think?
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Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, "Banana Etiquette": Plan Voodoo child, please

A review of tonight's "Survivor" coming up just as soon as I slip on my Superman girdle...

Credit where credit is due: Russell is a smug, preening ass, but he foiled the hell out of Rob's attempt to run Plan Voodoo on him, and Tyson was unbelievably stupid enough to fall for it. (What was the risk, Tyson? In a 6-3 alliance where a tie is followed by a revote, no way Plan Voodoo should ever fail. Moron.) And some might argue that Russell's victory was a short-term one, in that he lost the idol and is still down 5-3, but his team could keep winning until the merge, and/or there might be a shuffle, and/or he might just keep finding hidden immunity idols. This was an easy shot to either get rid of him or get rid of his closest, most charming ally, and because Tyson was a putz(*), Rob's group accomplished neither.

(*) What was that Dark Helmet once said? "Evil will always triumph, because good is dumb"? Because the "Heroes" have been so inept and obnoxious, Tyson is part of what qualifies for "good" in this season.

As for the Heroes, meh. They made the right call, in that James is likely a liability in challenges, but this is two all-star stints in a row where Colby mentally checked out on the second or third day. Like Jerri, he keeps coming back because his acting career hasn't gone the way he'd hoped, but his heart's not in it, and it's hard to get the eye of the tiger back when you're cold and hungry and playing with a bunch of drips like Amanda and Rupert.

I don't like double-eliminations in theory, because they penalize a team that's kicking ass (Tom's Palau team also suffered one of those, though they just cut one of their deadweight players), but it's been so long since the Villains went to Tribal, or since we'd seen any major strategizing from them, that it was a relief for a week. I'm sure next week we'll be back to seeing the Heroes flounder while Russell wanders around gloating about his awesomeness, but at least this week he got to walk the talk.

What did everybody else think?
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