Friday, April 30, 2010

Party Down, "Precious Lights Pre-School Auction": Rumpled Stiltskin

A review of tonight's "Party Down" coming up just as soon as you know the difference between you and James Van Der Beek's parrot...
"You'll never work in this town again!" -Leonard Stiltskin
"I know." -Henry
Rob Thomas(*) has told the story many times of how he, John Enbom, Dan Etheridge and Paul Rudd pitched "Party Down" to HBO, only for the HBO execs at the time to decide that they had conflicting visions of what a Hollywood comedy should be. And so HBO ultimately gave us "Entourage" (about Hollywood insiders who get everything handed to them on a silver platter) and Thomas and company eventually found a home for "Party Down" (about Hollywood outsiders who struggle for everything and fail far more often than they succeed) at Starz. And an episode like "Precious Lights Pre-School Auction" - which namechecks "Entourage"(**) while featuring the return of JK Simmons as foul-mouthed movie mogul Leonard Stiltskin - is a reminder of why the outsiders' perspective is so much more fun.

(*) Rob, by the way, spent a year at the start of his career writing for "Dawson's Creek" and has taken opportunities in the past to have fun at the expense of The Beek, here with the phrase "James Van Der Beek's parrot."

(**) Love that Roman is a phony who will say "F--k 'Entourage'" while at the same time knowing and caring about the show enough to be indignant at Kyle's suggestion that Roman would be Turtle, when Roman clearly knows, "I'd be E, and you'd be Turtle."

So here we have the members of Party Down once again attending a function they'd never be allowed into as guests in a million years, though Casey comes closest by running into a comedian-turned-mom who's basically Casey a few years down the road. (***) Stiltskin and his wife are there to taunt them about how far all the characters haven't progressed in the last year: Henry never got to play Young Abe Lincoln, Kyle is still nowhere (and, unsurprisingly, Mrs. Stiltskin has chosen to forget their time together), Roman is at best proprietor of a a prestigious blog, etc.

(***) And in a meta touch, the character was played by Andrea Savage, who played Casey in the original homemade pilot shot in Thomas's backyard. Savage couldn't do the series because, appropriately enough for this character, she got pregnant.

Kyle's still trying, and still believes in himself enough as an actor to enjoy gaming Roman, while Henry is slipping so deeply into his new manager job - with the Taco Bell view that accompanies it - that he tears into Ron with the kind of speech he'd have laughed at a year earlier. (He tries to play it off as acting, but you can see the self-loathing on his face afterward.) But they're all running in place, and Ron, with his disgusting 'pit stains and loss of his barely-legal girlfriend, is actually going backwards.

But for once we get a small victory, as Casey nails her audition for a small role in a Judd Apatow movie(****), dissuading her from following Savage's path for at least a little while.

(****) Between Lizzy Caplan's early role on "Freaks and Geeks" and the amount of crossover between the Thomas and Apatow repertory companies, what other director could it be?

Structurally, "Precious Lights" didn't have the comic build that the best "Party Down" episodes do, but it still had plenty of great one-liners, whether it was Stiltskin explaining that he once drank ape sperm to get a game with Tiger Woods, or Roman's line about The Beek's parrot, or Casey lamenting all her bad auditions, including the time she was told she was "'too Jew-y'... and I was reading for 'The Diary of Anne Frank.'" And the tip jar gag was a nice role reversal from the episode last year where team leader Ron insisted on putting out the tip jar over everyone's objections, only for the partygoers to cheap out on them.

What did everybody else think?
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The Office, "Body Language": Kiss me, stupid

A review of last night's "The Office" - and this week's bit of potentially huge "Office" news - coming up just as soon as I reanimate a bull...

The internet briefly freaked out earlier this week when a radio clip turned up of Steve Carell saying he intends to leave "The Office" when his contract ends. Everyone calmed down quickly once they realized two things: Carell's contract runs through next season, so we still have a while to go; and chances are high that over the next year, NBC will find a way to keep Carell around, whether that requires more money, a more flexible schedule that would have Michael largely absent from some episodes, or what have you.

Now, I think most of us are in agreement that this hasn't been a particularly strong season for "The Office," and that's led many of you to declare that the show needs to end soon. Even with the Carell situation, that ain't happening. "The Office" is one of NBC's few success stories, and its only real comedy hit (the other three Thursday sitcoms are largely being buoyed by its wake), and while a network's fortunes can change in a year, I have to believe the show is too valuable to let go. And I do think, as I've said before, that whatever problems there have been this year, the show can rebound, because I've seen it happen to great sitcoms that have had off years.

And in watching an underwhelming, Michael Scott-centric episode like "Body Language," I almost wonder if an arrangement where Carell isn't around as much might be beneficial.

Look, I love Steve Carell. Funny man, talented man, kind man, and the show would not exist without him. He's been at the center of most of the funniest moments and episodes of this show's history, as you'd expect from the leading man. But despite being at the center of the show, Michael has always been the character the writers have had the most trouble getting a handle on. Some weeks, he's the 8-year-old who never grew up. Some, he's got Asperger's. Some, he's just a normal guy who isn't as funny as he thinks he is.

The inconsistency, and the writers' tendency to fall into the trap of highlighting Michael's worst qualities (writers on "The Simpsons" fall prey to the same thing with Homer), can make me really dread Michael-centric episodes sometimes. "Body Language" wasn't nearly as bad as this season's "Mafia" - nor was Michael as idiotic in this one as he was there - but it was still a fairly uncomfortable, airless outing, one where nearly all the laughs could be found in the Dwight/Daryl/Kelly subplot.

Given the choice between more episodes like this or occasional episodes where Michael's on the road and Dunder-Mifflin has to get by without him, I think I might take the latter. That way, perhaps the Michael-heavy episodes might be more focused.

I know there can be a danger in trying to elevate supporting characters above the lead, but "The Office" has always been structured in an odd way, where Michael is the main character in terms of screen time and his importance to the plot, but where he's otherwise written like a supporting character while Jim and/or Pam are written as more traditional leads. So I think an "Office" with Carell's reduced participation might actually work, and perhaps work better than what we've gotten this season.

But again, that's a year away, at a minimum, and hopefully the series can rediscover some of its juice before then.

What did everybody else think?
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Parks and Recreation, "94 Meetings": But a rich ain't one

A review of "Parks and Recreation" coming up just as soon as I alter a gazebo...

Ron Effing Swanson hates meetings. I know that. You know that. April Ludgate certainly knows that. But you can only put off the thing you hate for so long, and "94 Meetings" had a lot of fun with the idea of Ron trapped in a hellish day of meetings (and dragging April, Andy and Ann along with him), while at the same time doing some nice character work on both the budding April/Andy romance and the sweet, paternal relationship developing between Ron and April.

The meetings were a nice mix of the absolutely ridiculous (the purple bikini man, the guy who yells at 5-year-olds for lack of talent), eminently reasonable ones made absurd (Andy being unable to say yes to the woman) and unlikely left turns (Ann spending her day diagnosing moles). And perhaps the funniest part of all was Ron describing the situation as "a blood-saked, nightmarish hellscape. However, to Leslie Knope...," followed by the abrupt cut to a giddy Leslie declaring, "Oh, how fun!"

Leslie's own plot, however, didn't quite click for me, in part because they didn't tie the gazebo situation strongly enough to Leslie's fear of Mark and Ann getting married, in part because the show has been a little vague about where Leslie stands on that relationship, anyway. We've mostly moved past the idea that Leslie is crushing on Mark, but when she claimed to feel nauseous over news of a possible engagement, I began to wonder if she still had feelings for the guy that she's suppressed all this time for the sake of her friendship with Ann. Instead, it turned into a commentary on Leslie's fear of being a single person in a world of couples, but the idea was introduced too late in the episode, I think, for it to have worked.

On the other hand, Leslie chained to the swinging gate? Oh, how fun!

And any episode that can give us both Ron whittling a duck and an introduction to April's parents (who couldn't be less like her) and sister (who couldn't be more like her) is an overall winner.

What did everybody else think?
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Community, "The Art of Discourse": See if you can guess what I am now

A review of last night's "Community" coming up just as soon as I meet Sting at a Cracker Barrel...
"Ridiculous situation descending into heavy-handed drama for the illusion of story... check." -Abed
After last week's all-out "Goodfellas" parody, "The Art of Discourse" confines most of the meta/pop culture humor to the Abed and Troy subplot, while going more straightforward in showing Jeff and Britta, and also Pierce and Shirley, dealing with being the old men (and women) out on campus.

Jeff and Britta's conflict with the high school kids was played entirely for laughs, as we once again see that those two are more entertaining when they join forces for some ridiculous goal than when we're supposed to care about the simmering sexual tension between them. This was a really strong episode for Gillian Jacobs as Britta let herself get sucked into trying to pwn the three Schmitty kids, whether pathetically trying to defend her life choices (invoking Winona Ryder and wearing a Discman) or going pure evil in that moment when she had the brainstorm to send Jeff to have sex with Lisa Rinna.

The Pierce and Shirley plot, meanwhile, did a nice job of balancing laughs (Pierce being oblivious to his racism, the gang all turning on each other in the search for New Pierce) and some more genuine character moments about Shirley and Pierce's feelings about each other and their respective places in the group. Unlike the scenario Abed described in the quote above, this felt like actual story, and like something the show's been building to for a while. If the series wants us to care about this community and its characters beyond their role as avatars of pop culture gags - and it clearly does - then sooner or later Pierce's treatment of Shirley in particular and the group in general had to be addressed, and in a mostly heartfelt, sincere manner. Some very nice work by Chevy Chase and Yvette Nicole Brown in this one, and ultimately their moment of bonding climaxed with a nice callback to the pantsing joke that started the whole mess - and by the time we got to the food fight and the extended riff on the end of "Animal House," it felt okay to go whole-hog on the parody, and I look forward to seeing Troy and Abed in "College Cut-Ups 2: Panty Raid Academy."

What did everybody else think?
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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cougar Town, "Letting You Go": Sail away

A quick review of last night's "Cougar Town" (which, if I haven't said it enough lately, has been vastly improved since the start of the season) coming up just as soon as I use my mouth vacuum...

I haven't written much about "Cougar Town" lately, but it hasn't been for lack of watching/enjoying. It's just that between vacation time and the crunch of Wednesday programming, something's had to give, and this show has settled into a nice, strange groove that doesn't always leave me a ton to say by the time I have time to say it.

But "Letting You Go" was a very strong episode on several levels. It kept up the goofy enthusiasm of Jules and her cul de sac crew to find ways to fight boredom by trying to start new rituals, first with morning drinking, then with the late night Enya parties. The entire cast is really game for this stuff, and here I want to single out Josh Hopkins, who came across as a total stiff in nearly everything I've seen him do in the past, and is completely loose and fun and fearless here as Grayson.

The episode also did a good job of pushing the Jules/Travis relationship back to the forefront, after letting it slip away at various points this season. Jules is, on many levels, a sad character (again: morning drinking), and I like that the writers have found ways to acknowledge that quality, and the clinginess of her relationship with Travis, without undermining the humor of it all. And it also makes sense that Travis's impending departure (from her home, if not the show) would finally send Jules towards Grayson.

One question: is the mention of Winston University (home of the med school affiliated with Sacred Heart on "Scrubs") the first sign that "Cougar Town" and "Scrubs" are part of the same fictional universe, even with Christa Miller playing different roles in each? Or was there an earlier one I've forgotten?

(And second question: funnier Bill Lawrence show dog? Rowdy or Dog Travis?)

What did everybody else think?
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Modern Family, "Travels with Scout": I am not left-handed, either

A review of last night's "Modern Family" coming up just as soon as I lose the deposit on that fog machine...

I often have less to say about the episodes of "Modern Family" that work than the ones that don't, and since two and a half out of the three main stories this week were very funny, I'm going to be brief.

Cameron's brief drumming career was a nice example of the writers striking gold with an unexpected character crossover, with Dylan and his bandmates briefly being awed by Cam's stick skills, and Mitchell and Hayley bonding over their totally rockin' boyfriends. Jay's fiasco with the slasher film was a good story where good intentions (and a mental image of Mitchell's friend as a sweet kid who would never star in such a movie) led to increasingly bad consequences (and which gave Rico Rodriguez his usual chances to shine as Manny), and in the main plot, I enjoyed both Claire's growing affection for Scout and Luke unintentionally acting like a dog.

But as to the main part of the main plot, I think I find Fred Willard a little too perfect in his casting as Phil's dad, if that makes sense. If you wanted to cast someone who'd be Phil plus a few decades, you go get Willard, who's made a career out of playing men who think they're much funnier than they actually are. But the idea that Phil is the way he is because his dad is exactly like him, while logical, was maybe too on-the-nose to click for me, and I spent a lot of the Willard scenes waiting for the episode to swing around to someone else's story.

Still, very funny overall ("What's up with 21 Jump Street?"). What did everybody else think?
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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

American Idol: Top 6 results

Quick spoilers for tonight's "American Idol" elimination show coming up after I laugh about how the show actually ran short tonight, forcing Seacrest to vamp...

So, bottom three of Big Mike, Siobhan and Casey. Big Mike sent to safety, commercial break, then Siobhan goes home.

Early in the finals, Siobhan was the only contestant I cared about other than Crystal. But as I said last night, I grew tired of Siobhan's one not-so-great trick, and also of her endless babbling whenever the judges criticized her (she was at least 40 percent responsible for a lot of the overruns). I'm more bored with Aaron, but she was one of two who most deserved to go home.

Question: when is the last time someone in the finals went home after getting the pimp spot? I know Melinda Doolittle did in season 6 (but in the Top 3 show, which doesn't quite count), and I know Lilly went home despite being pimped in the semis this year, but has it happened in the finals in recent years before this week?
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Firewall & Iceberg podcast, episode 14: Happy Town, Breaking Bad, and more

Wednesday brings with it another episode of the Firewall & Iceberg podcast, this time with Dan and I (with no new "Lost" episode to dissect) trying to muster some enthusiasm to talk about "Idol," teaming up to slam "Happy Town," discussing our divergent paths with this season of "Survivor," checking in on the awesomeness of "Breaking Bad" this season, and more.

Fienberg has all the relevant links and times up at his blog, and if you subscribe via iTunes or RSS, it should be all ready to download. Click here to read the full post

30 for 30, "Run Ricky Run": The spliff myth?

A quick review of "Run Ricky Run," the latest "30 for 30" film, coming up just as soon as I put on a wedding dress...

After last week's unsurprisingly polarizing "Silly Little Game" (which I liked even with the wacky re-creations of events), "30 for 30" is back on firmer documentary ground with "Run Ricky Run," Sean Pamphilon and Royce Toni's extremely personal portrait of Ricky Williams. Though Pamphilon's perspective was more inside than, say, Steve James's on Allen Iverson, I appreciated that this wasn't a one-hour apology for Ricky. It looked at his failings, but also at the potential causes of those failings (being molested by his father, anxiety disorders) that go far deeper than the easy media "He just likes smoking pot too much" narrative.

(On the one hand, I found it a nice touch that they kept showing "PTI" clips to see how Tony and Wilbon's take on the guy changed over the years. On the other hand, I'm angry that I was forced to watch even a few seconds of Skip Bayless, after going out of my way to avoid him for several years now.)

I watched this only a few days after a Tribeca Film Festival screening of Ice Cube's "Straight Outta L.A." (it airs May 11), and it's hard for this more low-key story to live up to seeing Al Davis's terrifying face in HD on a giant movie screen. But "Run Ricky Run" did its job in showing me a side of a story I only thought I understood.

What did everybody else think?
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American Idol: Can't anyone here produce a TV show?

Okay, this is just getting stupid now. After everyone got so angry last week about "American Idol" running five minutes long (despite only having seven performances to stretch out over an hour) and cutting off people's DVR recordings of "Glee" (and after people were torqued that the "Idol" Gives Back results show ran 17 hours long and prevented part of America from enjoying Tim Urban's elimination), the show somehow ran long again last night. It was only by a minute or two, but once again people watching "Glee" on a DVR delay lost part of the final musical number.

After the jump, I look at who's potentially to blame, and what can be done to fix things...

Okay, so our candidates for blame, in no particular order:

Bruce Gowers: He's the director of the show (Emmy-winning director, no less, even though they can't bring it in on time and the cameras are never where they should be), so on one level the buck stops with him. By now, he should have realized they're having trouble with time and ordered some things cut, whether it's judge talk, or Ryan Seacrest chatting up Shania Twain to fill time that ultimately didn't need to be filled, or what have you. Keep the show lean and mean for the first 2/3rds, and if it looks like there will be time, you can do a little padding around the last few performances. In a live telecast, the director is calling the shots, and Gower has failed miserably in this area.

Ryan Seacrest: Keeping the trains running on time has always been one of Seacrest's specialties, but he's been flaky in a lot of ways this season, including this one. If Gowers isn't telling him to cut the judges off when they start to bicker, or to go straight to the phone numbers once Simon's done talking, then Seacrest needs to take that initiative on his own and get things moving. Again, save the contestant-judge dialogue for late in the show if it's abundantly clear you have time to spare.

Four judges: It still boggles my mind that it occurred to no one on the show last year that bringing in a fourth judge would consume air time, and that something else would have to give. What's given, for the most part, is the number of songs - we're only going to get 5 next week, when in the pre-Kara days, we would have gotten 10 (two from each contestant) - even though that's the whole point of the show. But even when stretching 12 songs over 2 hours, or 6 songs over 1, the judges still consume way too much air and airtime. And it isn't just that there's an extra judge, but that Kara and Ellen are both chattier than Paula was (Paula, for all her insanity, seemed aware that she should stop talking after a while). So by the time we get to Simon (the other major reason for watching), the other three have gone on so much that the show is running long, and Simon gets cut off abruptly more often than not. They all need to be given earpieces so that Gowers (or, hopefully, someone more competent) can tell them to wrap it up and hand things off to the next judge. That, or they need to be given shock collars that go off if they run over their allotted time.

The producers: Again, four judges is too many. They either needed to not replace Paula when she left (and I was saying that even before Ellen turned out to be a complete waste of time), or they needed to be willing to sacrifice some other part of the show. I don't care if that's the mentor clips, or the Seacresterviews (which, admittedly, Coke sponsors), the introduction, or what have you, but something had to give, and nothing has. And as the bosses of the judges, Seacrest and Gowers, they should have authority to speed things up. But they don't seem to care.

Fox: The sense I get from talking to people at Fox is that they're as annoyed by this as the rest of us - several "Fringe" episodes got messed up this way last spring, and now it's happening to "Glee," a much more important piece of the network's future - but they have no control over the "Idol" producers. When a show is as big a hit as "Idol" is - single-handedly carrying Fox to a first-place Nielsen finish season after season - the producers realize that the network needs them more than they need the network, and they can do what they want with impunity. What's Fox going to do? Cancel "Idol"? Cut off the telecasts at 9 no matter what? (That would anger even more people than are being irked about the "Glee" thing.)

Basically, until Ken Warwick and company decide they care about ending on time, we're stuck with this mess. So if you watch "Idol" and/or "Glee," make sure your recordings are padded by a minimum of five minutes every week. And even that wouldn't have helped you with last week's results show. Sigh...
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Parenthood, "Perchance to Dream": It's tricky

A review of last night's "Parenthood" coming up just as soon as I unleash the fever...

Parenthood (whether the concept or the TV show) isn't a competition, but I couldn't help noticing that the parent doing the best job in "Perchance to Dream" is Crosby (and Jasmine, too). Adam freaks out over Haddie's sexuality, Sarah again tries to project all of her regrets onto Amber, and Julia took the broken mug issue way too far to overcompensate for the old lawyer=liar saw. Crosby, meanwhile, had no problem interrupting his date with Jasmine to help Jabbar through his fear of pooping in strange places, and he and Jasmine both recognized that they don't want to send the wrong message to the kid if their attempt to go from co-parents to couple doesn't work out.

Now, I'm not complaining about any of the others this week. Some of the most interesting stories on this show involve parents screwing up, as we saw with the scene where Haddie called Adam on his double-standard treatment of her. But just as no one would have expected Dax Shepard to give one of the best performances among this cast, who would have thought after the first few episodes that we might get a night where Crosby was so much more on his game than his siblings?

I don't want to give short shrift to Kristina's decision, by the way. The whole work/kids dilemma is a familiar one, in life and on TV, and Kristina has the added complication of a special needs kid. As much as she enjoyed her time back in grown-up world, I can understand her reluctance to go back full-time not long after finding out about Max's Asperger's (and not long before Haddie goes to college). And it was interesting to watch Adam throughout that scene, because you could tell he was trying to do right by his wife even as he very clearly didn't want her to go work for Sundra from "Survivor: Cook Islands."

"Perchance to Dream" was one of the show's more thematically and tonally consistent episodes. It was also a fairly light one, not only with Adam's goofy dancing, but Sarah and Amber listening in horror to Mike O'Malley's poems about Sarah's va-jay-jay, everyone else's reaction to Julia's cordoned-off area, and Drew's reaction to Haddie taking off her bra in the kitchen. Plus, Run-DMC! (Which gives me an excuse to link to the original video, with Penn & Teller.)

What did everybody else think?
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'Happy Town' review: Sepinwall on TV

In today's column, I review "Happy Town," which premieres tonight on ABC. Not a fan, and it won't be part of the blog rotation as I move over to HitFix (nor would it have been were I staying here). Feel free to discuss the premiere here if you watch it tonight. Click here to read the full post

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Justified, "Blind Spot": Don't make me a target

A review of tonight's "Justified" coming up just as soon as you think we're going to banter here...
"You think there's never going to be any consequences for this?" -Art
Raylan Givens began this series as a man in control - of his emotions, of predicting the actions of his opponents, and of winning any and every fight. As we enter the second half of this first season, his return to Kentucky, and the various headaches from his past that have come with it, now has him as a man in control of very little, save for his usual good aim and skill in a fight. He can keep it together when dealing with the amateurs and low-level thieves and killers he's faced in recent episodes, but put him in a room with Boyd Crowder as Boyd goes on about the Good Book, and all of Raylan's cool, all of his training, goes out the window, and he becomes every bit a 21st century Seth Bullock. His relationship with Ava has opened up all kinds of blind spots - to how he's risking his career, and to the dangers still posed from the Miami mob over his shooting of Tommy Bucks - and all of a sudden, Raylan looks less a superman than a mortal, fallible one.

After last week's episode tried to split its focus between a routine Raylan case and all the ongoing storylines, "Blind Spot" was devoted entirely to the various messes Raylan finds himself in, with Art, with the Crowders, and with Miami. And while I've quite enjoyed a bunch of the self-contained stories the show has done, there's no question that it's more intense, and more fun, when we're dealing with stories and characters continuing from week to week.

Walton Goggins was tremendous tonight (as was Timothy Olyphant at showing Raylan losing his cool). Goggins can go pretty broad at times, as he did in the series pilot, but ever since Boyd had his jailhouse conversion, he's been doing some really small, interesting work with the character. As Goggins plays him, you're never quite clear how much of the born-again thing is real and how much is Boyd just playing an angle. After all, Raylan told us in the pilot that Boyd was too smart to buy into the white supremacy nonsense, and was just doing it as a way to get over. It's entirely possible that's what he's doing here - that he knows it gets under Raylan's skin, and even that he knows he can survive whatever the other prisoners throw at him - but there's also a weird conviction to it. If it's all an act, would he really let things in the prison laundry go that far, not knowing his father was nearby and ready to save him?

And speaking of big, bad Bo Crowder, give a big welcome to Mr. M.C. Gainey, boys and girls. When I said a few weeks ago that the producers had to get a really imposing actor to play Bo after the off-screen build-up, Gainey (aka Tom Friendly from "Lost," among many, many bad-ass roles) was the kind of guy I had in mind.

We're very clearly pushing towards some kind of ultimate confrontation between Raylan, the Crowders and Miami in the second half, and I'm looking forward to every minute of it.

Some other thoughts:

• Better late than never, but I was glad to see Ava finally acknowledge that it's kind of a big deal, emotionally, that she killed her husband. Up until now, Ava's been temptress first, character second, and between the early scene in her bedroom and then her initiative in stopping the bad guys at the end, she seems both more like a real person and more like a good match for Raylan.

• And speaking of which, note Winona trying to mark her territory by going on and on with Ava about all the burdens of having been married to Raylan.

• Getting back to Seth Bullock, in an interesting bit of casting, the hitman from Miami was played by Ray McKinnon, who played the doomed reverend on "Deadwood" season one. Not only does he have history with Olyphant, but he and Goggins teamed up for "The Accountant," a 2001 short film that won both men an Oscar (and led to me sitting at home asking, "What on earth is Shane from 'The Shield' doing at the Academy Awards?").

What did everybody else think?
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American Idol, Top 6: Shania Twain Night

A review of tonight's "American Idol" performances coming up just as soon as I lament professional comedian Ellen DeGeneres' need to do two different "Shania Twain-as-train" jokes in one episode...

First of all, Shania Twain's Canadian-ness is one of those things I tend to forget (in spite of my own half-Canadian ancestry) for years at a time because I only hear her sing, and the accent only comes out in her speaking voice. Very unsettling to be reminded she could have played the love interest in a Bob & Doug McKenzie movie if the timing had been a bit different.

As to the show itself? Well, let's just say I find Shania's speaking voice more interest than a lot of what's in her songbook - and particularly the parts of her songbook that were performed this evening. (If only Big Mike or Aaron had come out and did "Man, I Feel Like a Woman"...)

Lee Dewyze, "You're Still the One": Every week, the judges completely ignore the number of outright horrible notes he lets into his performances. Until this week, those at least were the exception each week and not the rule, but tonight Lee sounded more off-key then on, while at the same time looking like he had just been up all night trying to recreate the "ADRIAN!!!!" scene from the end of the first "Rocky." I don't dislike Lee in general, but this was probably the worst he's been so far.

Michael Lynche, "It Only Hurts When I'm Breathing":
This is Big Mike doing his young Luther thing. Mostly sounded good - though the falsetto was oddly weak in spots - and passionate (the "wet" quality Simon was complaining about), but didn't do a lot for me.

Casey James, "Don't": Some other contestants this season have been ruined by inconsistent comments from the judges. Fortunately for Casey, the judges have all been telling him the same thing for weeks, and he finally listened. No pointless guitar mini-solos, no fixed half-smile; just his usual Bob Seger voice married to some genuine emotion. More vibrato than I would have liked, but overall his best since "Jealous Guy," and one of his strongest performances overall.

Crystal Bowersox, "No One Needs to Know":
After last week's powerhouse, tear-inducing "People Get Ready," Crystal takes it down several notches with a quirky alt-country performance that sounded very much like the sort of thing she might play at a concert five years from now in between two of her better-known hits. I liked the vibe of it, and the way Crystal sounded a bit like Neko Case when she went into the falsetto. The judges were clearly irked (though only Simon came out and admitted it) she didn't swing for the fences again after last week, but I'm fine with a Mama Sox double now and then.

Aaron Kelly, "You Got a Way": Aaron's voice has been pretty brutal the last month or so, but on a country-themed night he finally managed to grab hold of the notes and not sound like he was straining to reach them. But if he sounded better technically, he still put me to sleep, though I believe I woke up just in time to hear Kara accuse him of being a virgin. Is that about right?

Siobhan Magnus, "Any Man of Mine":
Okay, I think I'm done with her. All the usual Siobhan tics - dull, pitchy low notes at the beginning, building to a wail and an endless power note - and here we got the added bonus of her having major breath control issues as she tried to walk and sing at the same time, and then as she tried to deal with some particularly wordy verses. The judges were impressed by the big note at the end, but I've seen that trick too often to care when the rest of the song was so uninspired.

Best of the night: The Outlaw Casey James, followed a ways back by Crystal.

In danger: I'd be fine with either Siobhan or Aaron going, but he had the whole "I was singing it to my mom" moment, and she had the pimp spot, which is still mostly invulnerable, so... Lee, in spite of never being in the bottom 3 before? Big Mike, because his voters could get complacent twice? I'll be curious to see if Crystal goes bottom 3 after the judges finally criticized her, and also after a small-by-design performance, but I'd be stunned if she was in real danger.

Finally, as many of you know by now, I'll be blogging at HitFix starting next week, and in figuring out how the new job is going to work, I think "Idol" is one of the few shows I cover regularly now that won't get the weekly treatment in the new home.

Part of that is that it's been a real bear doing "Idol" and "Lost" live on the same night (which wasn't a problem this week), part is that I've been really uninspired by the cast this season, and part of it is that Fienberg has always been much, much better at writing about "Idol" (here's his review of tonight's show). When I was a solo act, it made sense for me to carve out time to do these weekly write-ups; when I'm at a place where another guy does it and does it better than me (and cares more than I do), it makes sense to focus time and energy elsewhere. I'm sure I'll weigh in from time to time, and maybe even do a weekly post where I link to Dan and invite you to comment, but at least until the finals, I'm out of the "Idol" reviewing game.

What did everybody else think?
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Lost: You (still) want answers?

Tonight's "Lost" is the only repeat of the season ("Ab Aeterno," the Richard episode), so I figured I'd use the opportunity to re-ask a question from the start of the season: which mysteries will you be most disappointed if they aren't answered by season's end?

And to that I'd now add this: based on how this season has gone, and how some mysteries like the whispers have been explained, have your expectations for the final episodes changed? Click here to read the full post

Monday, April 26, 2010

United States of Tara, "Torando": Beautiful disaster

A review of tonight's "United States of Tara" coming up just as soon as my anger is a very pretty costume...
"Group time. Who wants to begin?" -Shoshana
We're at the midway point of season two, so why not lock most of the regulars into the Hubbard basement for some bonding and uncomfortable truths?

"Torando" - named for the misspelling on the TV weather report that so unnerves Marshall - ultimately didn't go as full "Breakfast Club" as I was expecting once the Gregsons, Charmaine and Ted and Hanny(*) went into the basement together - but, of course, it couldn't. Still lots of season to go, lots more to be revealed about Tara's psyche, the childhood secret that she and Charmaine share (that fractured Tara's mind and made Charmaine afraid of basements), and the state of Tara and Max's marriage.

(*) But not, interestingly, Courtney, whom I would have pegged for a berth in the basement just so she could weird out Marshall and his new grown-up gay role models with her plan to be a "celibate power couple." Down the road, I guess.

But "Torando" still offered us plenty of revelations, including a lot more detail about Shoshana and Tara's relationship with her. I wondered all through last week's episode whether Shoshana knew she was an alter, and it becomes clear here that she does, and that this fact doesn't seem to matter to either her or Tara when it comes to their "therapy." (And it was also interesting to see Ted acknowledge how much she resembles the real Shoshana, other than the slight lisp - and then funny to see Max and Charmaine simultaneously tell him not to tell Tara that, lest the lisp become part of the character.) I don't know if there's an actual case of an alter being used as a healing tool like this, but as a dramatic device, it works, particularly in an episode like this where the other characters were all trapped with Shoshana and forced to listen to her psycho-analyze them. (And because Shoshana is an alter, with a slightly over-the-top Noo Yawk accent from Toni Collette, we can laugh a bit at her rather than feel uncomfortable that the show is using Shoshana to tell us things about the characters we should be able to figure out in less obvious ways.)

And in addition to Shoshana, we got rapid-fire appearances by Buck, and Alice, and even Gimme, as Collette got to prove once and for all how unnecessary last year's alter costumes were. She's good enough to tell you exactly who she's playing without the pumps and the ponchos and the hunting vests, isn't she?

And for all of Max's despair about the flickering light at the end of the tunnel, and Marshall's unease about what the "Torando" misspelling says about society, and everyone's fear of the storm's damage, in the end the Gregsons do what they usually do in these circumstances: they took pain (or, in this case, fear), and they (literally) danced around it. And in the final moments of the episode, Tara stepped out of the Hubbard house and into the wreckage of their neighborhood (in a sequence gorgeously shot by Craig Gillespie). Tara's as much a mess as that tornado-ravaged street, but in the end she and her family will have to pick up and start trying to patch things up again.

Finally, in case you missed the news earlier today, I'll be moving to in a week's time. While I've tried to get these "Tara" reviews up by the time the show finishes airing on Monday nights, I suspect the next week is going to be chaotic enough that my review of episode 7 will be one of the first things I post to the HitFix version of the blog on Tuesday, rather than one of the last things I post here on Monday. So I look forward to discussing "Department of (Bleeped)-Up Family Services" with you at HitFix next week.

What did everybody else think?
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Chuck, "Chuck vs. the Honeymooners": Sarah smile

"Chuck" is back after a couple of weeks off, and I have a review coming up just as soon as I pretend to be Canadian to be well-liked...
"But off the record, it's about damn time." -General Beckman
What she said.

I wrote a bit about this episode in today's column - specifically, about how happy I was to see the show not only not miss a beat with Chuck and Sarah together, but be even more fun in a number of ways.

So rather than rehash that point - or note, as Fienberg talked about on last week's podcast, what a refreshing change it was to have an entire episode with Sarah looking happy - I'll try to go a little more in-depth about why "Chuck vs. the Honeymooners" worked so well.

After so much darkness earlier in Season 3.0 (much of it effective, some of it not), it was a welcome change of pace to have a straight-up romp(*) with the two crazy kids enjoying the hell out of each other's company, being turned on by the idea of fighting evil together, trying on ridiculous cover identities (and Yvonne Strahovski adding another convincing, albeit exaggerated, accent to her repertoire with her Texas gal character), lying to each other for a good reason (and with relatively low stakes, since everyone watching knew they'd wind up staying in the spy game, and together) and kicking very much butt together.

(*) One false note, which we get in lieu of the "Chuck" Plot Hole of the Week: the (offscreen) murder of the two Interpol agents who were sent to clean up Chuck and Sarah's mess. Death isn't normally out of place on "Chuck," but it felt that way in the midst of a very light episode - particularly since it was Chuck and Sarah's foolhardy actions that led to those two deaths. I wouldn't have wanted to stop the hijinx for some "Oh my god, we got those two men killed!" angst but I'd rather the two characters (whom we never met, anyway) had just been taken out of the picture in a different way. A nice beating would have sufficed.

Between the introduction of Chuck Fu and the arrival of Shaw, Sarah was unfortunately on the sideline for a lot of this season, so it was a pleasure to see her as an active, super-capable spy and kung fu fighter, and then to see Chuck fighting right alongside her, with the two even punching in unison when the handcuffs got involved. As the two fought one-armed, back-to-back in the final fight in the cafe, I made a note that it reminded me of season one's "Chuck vs. the Undercover Lover," where Casey beat up the bad guys with Chuck strapped to his back, even using Chuck against his will to knock a few of their opponents out. "Only here," I noted, "Chuck can fight, too."

And then, of course, moments later, we got a more direct recreation of that fight, only with Morgan taking the place of Chuck as the hapless nerd strapped to Casey. And that scene capped a wonderful episode for the unlikely new Casey/Morgan partnership, and lived up to the promise of Morgan joining Team Bartowski. I'm 100% on board with the producers' desire to have Chuck get better at the spy game (in part on his own, in part with the new Intersect), because if the character didn't grow, the same jokes would get lame and repetitive. But by throwing Morgan - whose own brand of nerditry is a bit different and more aggressively ignorant of spy stuff than Chuck's - into the mix, those jokes get a fresh new life. (Along with hilarious new jokes like Morgan's sub-eating ID photo or his super-secret crotch money pouch.) And it's also interesting to see Casey showing more respect for Morgan's contributions upfront than he was giving Chuck at this stage of Chuck's spy career. I suppose the writers have to do some more finessing to justify Morgan's gig since he doesn't have an Intersect in his head (and since being "the Intersect of Chuck" is only useful on occasion), but the idea that the little bearded dude's outsider perspective has value in spy world is a promising one.

And after Ellie and Awesome didn't get a farewell in what was originally going to be the end of the season, the characters get a better send-off - for now, as I suspect Chuck and Sarah will wind up on a spy mission to Africa within an episode or two - and even get serenaded by Jeffster! (Unplugged!) Any episode with a drunken Ellie being flanked by Jeff and Lester in turtlenecks and wire-rim glasses singing "Leaving on a Jet Plane" is overflowing with goodness, is it not?

Some other thoughts:

• This week in "Chuck" pop culture references, so many memorable thrillers have taken place on trains that I'm not even sure what to list first: "North by Northwest"? "Strangers on a Train"? "Murder on the Orient Express"? "Silver Streak"? Regardless, lots of great movies (or occasionally great, like "Silver Streak") take place on trains - including John Frankenheimer's great, simply-titled "The Train," which Matt Seitz has often argued was "Die Hard on a Train" 25 years early - and any or all should be in your Netflix queue (start with "North by Northwest," then "The Train"). Meanwhile, Jeffster!'s folkie look resembled early Simon and Garfunkel (even as they sang John Denver by way of Peter, Paul & Mary).

• This week in "Chuck" music: "Holiday" by Vampire Weekend plays over the opening montage of Chuck and Sarah spending an awful lot of time in their passenger compartment, Polyphonic Spree's "Light & Day/Reach for the Sun" plays as Chuck and Sarah resolve to not quit the spy game together, and Chuck puts on the seminal Nina Simone version of "Feeling Good" as his choice for what will become Sarah's favorite song.

• In addition to CIA's hysterical photo collage of Morgan, I loved the stern caller ID picture of General Beckman that Chuck had on his iPhone. In general, the show has a lot of fun with those pictures (I recall Devon's was one of him kissing his biceps, right?), and this was no exception.

• Speaking of phones, Sarah's sure got a thing against iPhones, doesn't she? She threw hers into the pool in the season premiere, then threw Chuck's out of the train here.

• And speaking of Devon's biceps, loved his explanation for why he would pack dumbbells on a trip to Africa: pointing to his splendid torso and explaining, "This didn't happen by accident."

Finally, in case you didn't see the news this afternoon, this blog will be relocating in a little over a week to Assuming I get next week's "Chuck vs. the Role Models" in advance, that will be, somewhat appropriately, the subject of the last review on this version of the blog, and my write-ups of the season's final episodes will be over at HitFix.

What did everybody else think?
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Big news: I'm going to HitFix

Big announcement today, folks: a week from tomorrow, I will be leaving The Star-Ledger full-time and going to work at, and this blog will be going with me.

Please allow me to explain...

Here's the deal: on Monday, May 3, I'll say goodbye to The Star-Ledger newsroom, post my review of that night's "Chuck," and prepare to make the virtual move to HitFix (a great general interest entertainment site I've linked to a time or 20 because my old friend and podcasting partner Dan Fienberg is an editor and writer there). Starting Tuesday, May 4, this version of the blog will continue to exist as an archive of my writing from the fall of 2005 through now, but all my new material will be posted to

In many ways, not much will change. The blog there will work the same way it always has here, with lots of reviews of the shows I watch each night, plus column-style entries reviewing shows in advance, commenting on the news of the TV business, checking in on series midway through a season, revisiting old shows in the summer (up next: "The Wire" season 3), etc. But rather than splitting my online presence between this version of the blog and the one at (where all my Star-Ledger columns appeared), everything will now be in one place.

I've been given permission by my new ant HitFix overlords to import over the commenting rules I've used here for the last 4 and a half years. So while you'll have to register to comment at HitFix (or else use the option to comment via your Facebook account, if you want), the registration process is pretty easy, and the goal of keeping things civil and smart remains. What has made this site so special over the years is your presence and enthusiasm and cleverness, and I'd hate to set up shop at the new digs without you.

So why am I doing this? Several reasons. For one, The Star-Ledger is the only job I've ever had. I started there as an intern a week after I graduated college, backed my way into a TV critic position there within a few weeks, and have been doing the same thing for 14 years since. And while it's been a great home to me for all those years, eventually, a man's gotta try something different. I began my career writing about TV online with the "NYPD Blue" fan site in college, and even with the blog these last few years, I've still felt more print journalist than online guy. I like the idea of being at a website, and I've been really impressed with what Dan, Drew McWeeney and everyone else at HitFix have been doing over the last year. So when they approached me recently about the chance to join the team, I was excited.

(My bosses at The Star-Ledger, by the way, have been very gracious about this, and in fact we've arranged for some of my column-style HitFix stories to appear in the paper on a regular basis. So those of you who live in New Jersey and have gotten used to reading me in the paper can still do so over your morning bagel.)

The goal is to make the transition as seamless as possible. There's of course going to be an adjustment period, but I hope HitFix will feel just as homey as this place in short order.

In the meantime, I have a sign-up form below for an e-mail alert telling you when new posts are up on HitFix, and you can also go to sign up to comment at HitFix. My new e-mail address, meanwhile, is

One more week here, then exciting new adventures. I can't wait.

Find out First

A new era begins on Tuesday, May 4 when Alan Sepinwall's What's Alan Watching moves to HitFix. Enter your E-mail address to get instant alerts for the latest posts at his new home.

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There is a new blog logo. Discuss.

Another week brings with it another logo, this one with a theme submitted by reader Bryan Farris.

As always, this post has links to, and explanations for, all the previous logos. Click here to read the full post

'Chuck' finds love, and is better for it: Sepinwall on TV

Haven't written about "Chuck" in the newspaper in a while, so I devoted today's column to previewing tonight's episode, in which Chuck and Sarah are finally together, and all remains awesome with the world.

Back tonight with a spoiler-y review covering some specifics of this one. Click here to read the full post

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Treme, "Right Place, Wrong Time": Are you in, or are you out?

A review of tonight's "Treme" coming up just as soon as I have a rhythm and blues intervention...
"People want to see what happened." -The bus driver
James Poniewozik and I both cited the scene at the end of this episode in our initial reviews of "Treme." I said that Albert's dismissal of the tourists, safe behind their tinted glass, was reflective of David Simon's full-immersion approach to portraying cities, where Poniewozik found it a bit on the nose and said, "It also raises a question: why are we watching, and why did HBO pick up the show, if not to 'see what happened'?"

Jim has a point (and later got Simon to expand on the purpose of that scene), in that no matter how deeply "Treme" goes into showing us New Orleans and its people, viewers like me who've never been there will remain tourists, watching through our own kind of glass. But I guess there are varying levels of tourism, and varying levels of authenticity, and "Right Place, Wrong Time"(*) is all about characters coming into conflict over who is and isn't a true son or daughter of New Orleans, with the rights and privileges some believe that allows.

(*) With a teleplay by the late David Mills.

Davis confronts his neighbors about trying to gentrify the neighborhood and is stunned to discover that they're natives who know almost as much about Treme and its music as he does. Ladonna gets frustrated in dealing with her Creole in-laws because she thinks they find her beneath them. Dr. John leads Delmond and the other session musicians in a performance of the Mardi Gras Indian anthem "Indian Red," with Dr. John saying he intends to do the song with love and respect for the traditions, even as Delmond acknowledges that men like his father - who himself sings "Indian Red" at the memorial for Wild Man Jesse - wouldn't see it that way.

And Davis and Creighton - two men who would seem to be kindred spirits in many ways, including how each views himself as a guardian of the city and its culture - meet and fall into instant loathing, though that has more to do with Creighton's dislike of having this doofus around his teenage daughter than Creighton finding Davis to be pretentious.

So the question, I guess, is what level of authenticity should be considered acceptable? Or, rather, is it stupid and self-defeating to devote time and energy trying to stratify this - to suggest that I'm somehow superior to a passenger on a "Katrina tour" bus, or that Dr. John (himself a native of the city) doesn't have the right to sing "Indian Red"? Or are these distinctions important? Albert seems to think that if the city is rebuilt without Mardi Gras Indians, or with the Lower Ninth given over to developers, then there isn't much point to it, where Delmond finds the insularity of the city so frustrating that he understands why so many of its musicians have to leave to succeed. Maybe both father and son have a point; maybe neither of them do. Maybe Simon, Overmyer and the rest of the writers expect us to find Davis's self-righteousness charming, or maybe they intend for him to be insufferable.

Only way to find out for sure, I suppose, is to spend a lot more time pressed up against the looking glass.

Beyond that issue of authenticity, "Right Place, Right Time" brings more characters together, deepens our understanding of them, and moves stories together a bit, before climaxing with that beautiful, haunting memorial for Wild Man Jesse.

Toni winds up getting both Davis and Antoine out of jail for running afoul of the cops (though Davis' arrest was more deserving, whereas Antoine was just drunk and clumsy), and Davis in turn becomes Sofia's piano teacher. Antoine, who's been trying to be more faithful to Desiree, gets into his scrape with the law(*) in part because he stopped for an impromptu jam with Sonny and Annie, and as we follow those two on their own, we learn that there's an unspoken tension in Sonny and Annie's relationship because Sonny resents Annie's superior talent. Ladonna again gets screwed over by her roof contractor and also strikes out in her attempt to get her stuck-up in-laws to help search for Daymo. And with the state of the restaurant growing more dire, Janette even consents to let Davis take her out for an expensive meal to repay her for the wine he drank in the pilot, and then goes to bed with him(**).

(*) And the idea that the cops may have either broken or lost his trombone is no small plot point on a show about broke-ass musicians. Without that horn, Antoine is in big trouble.

(**) The cast is wall-to-wall terrific, but my favorite acting moment here was Kim Dickens showing us the long moment of thought required by Janette before she decided that, yes, she was going to have sex with Davis again.

And, of course, Albert's search for Wild Man Jesse ends in tragedy, as he and Jesse's son Lorenzo make the unfortunate discovery of his body, trapped under the canoe he was presumably going to use to ride out the storm. And where Delmond has no use for the Indian tradition, Lorenzo is right there to chant and sing as Albert and his fellow chiefs gather to say goodbye to Jesse, only to have the beautiful ritual interrupted by the tour bus.

Those tourists are sent away by Albert, Robinette and the others, but we tourists at home are invited to witness the whole thing.

Some other thoughts:

• As always, be sure to check out Dave Walker's "Treme" blog for the Times-Picayune for explanations of all the local color. Dave pointed me to this site for some more background on chiefs, wild men and "Indian Red."

• It's not TV, it's HBO, which means we get to open with Antoine having his way with one of the strippers (going on, of course, about how his instrument is called a 'bone), and then get another priceless look on Wendell Pierce's face when Desiree resolves to remind him what good loving he gets right at home.

• Though "Treme" takes place several years back, the first time it really felt like a period piece was the brief scene where Creighton and Toni watch Sofia's YouTube video, and Creighton has to explain the concept of YouTube (then relatively new) to Toni.

• The real Davis, by the way, has taught piano (including "Tipitina") to David Simon's son.

• In last week's episode, Davis mentioned that all crime had left the city after the storm, and here Sonny tells his friend that all drugs are gone, too - and we learn that Sonny was forced by the storm to clean up his own habit.

One word of caution: as of now, this was the last episode I received in advance. I'm hopeful that I'll get more soon, but sometimes the production schedule doesn't allow for that. So there's a chance these reviews might relocate to Mondays in the future unless more screeners turn up.

What did everybody else think?
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Breaking Bad, "Sunset": Partners in crime

A review of tonight's "Breaking Bad" coming up just as soon as I do a riverdance...
"Please tell me you got something!" -Jesse
Walt spends much of the first half of "Sunset" in the company of Gale, his new lab assistant in the Walt-cave, and a nail-biting chunk of the second half trapped in the RV with Jesse. And while Walt and Gale seem a perfect match on paper in nearly every way, it's clear by the end of this gripping episode that for all their flaws and incompatibilities, Walt and Jesse are, much to both their chagrins, made for each other.

After Walt tried to ban Jesse from the meth business last week, I assumed it might be a long time before the two might work together again. I of course neglected to factor in two things: 1)Walt and Jesse's tremendous capacity, both separately and together, for screwing up; and 2)The weird gravitational pull that RV held over their relationship.

"Breaking Bad" always seems to find a higher gear whenever those two are in the RV together, and so it shouldn't be a surprise that their final time in that accursed but useful vehicle/domicile would be one of the most memorable yet. I've loved every minute of season three so far as the show has gone in an even darker direction, but the climax to "Sunset" felt very much like old-school "Breaking Bad": Walt and Jesse finding a way to make a bad problem worse, stuck in the RV together, Jesse waiting for Walt's great brain to find a way out of the mess.

From the minute Walt pulled onto Clovis's lot and started barking orders about destroying the RV, I knew things would go pear-shaped, and they did. Where Walt feared that Hank might have tapped Jesse's phone and hung up without explaining the situation, what he should have feared was the exact reaction Jesse had when Badger told him Walt was taking away the RV (Jesse's entire business) to destroy it. And so Jesse led Hank right where Walt didn't want him to be, with those scenes feeling oddly like a desert twist on "Jaws," with Hank as the shark circling the boat, looking for a way in to devour the lives of the men inside. So intense, so well-acted by Cranston and Paul and Dean Norris, and so well-written and directed by John Shiban (behind the camera for an episode of TV for the first time since a 2002 "X-Files").

Walt ultimately recognized the three words that have saved his hash so many times before - "better call Saul" - but the look on Hank's face in the hospital (confusing, then relief, then complete and utter rage) suggests that the hunt from Heisenberg has turned from an excuse to avoid El Paso into an absolute vendetta.

Of course, Hank is now the target of a vendetta himself, as Gus has decided that the headache of a murdered DEA agent is less vexing than losing Walt's genius too soon. (Even though I believe Gus is going to use Gale to copy the Heisenberg formula so he can produce it without this egomaniacal loose cannon.) Hank may be able to win the day in a bar fight, but the only thing that has thus far been able to stop the Cousins is Gus himself. I've been worried for a while that Hank might not survive the season, but is he even going to make it deep into the second half of it?

And what happens to Walt and Jesse now that the RV is gone? Does Walt take pity on Jesse and offer him either money or a job (assuming Gus would allow this) to make up for the mobile meth lab's destruction? Or, without that vehicle to hold them together, will the rift between the two grow wider and nastier?

Incredible episode. My jaw was on the floor for large chunks of it.

Some other thoughts:

• Loved Walt insisting on taking the model home, and then going through a morning ritual (the shirt, and the brown bag lunch with his name on it) as if he were going to a real punch-the-clock job. It's a fake life he's living, and so he needs all the accessories to make it look (and make himself feel) good.

• Badger returns to New Mexico after fleeing the state late last season after Walt and Jesse's business got him into legal trouble. And he busts a few fancy dance moves upon returning.

• Lots of great, off-beat music throughout the episode, but particularly the use of some of Vince Guaraldi's "Peanuts" music for the meth-cooking montage in the Walt-cave.

• You can find the full text of "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" here.

• Two notable guest stars: David Costabile (recently a villain on "Damages," but also the "more with less" newspaper editor in "The Wire" season 5 and Mel's husband on "Flight of the Conchords") as Gale, and Larry Hankin (who, to me, will always be the Kramer from Jerry and George's sitcom pilot on "Seinfeld") as the legally-wise junkyard manager.

• As I watched the Native American cop head towards his demise at the hands of the Cousins in the prologue, I again thought to myself that someone is missing a golden opportunity at giving a spin on the cop drama series by setting one on an Indian reservation. "Mystery!" did a few adaptations of Tony Hillerman's Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee novels in the early '00s, and at one time there was talk of DC Comics trying to turn "Scalped" into a TV show, but that world feels like it has so much untapped potential for a weekly cop show. Am I alone on that?

What did everybody else think?
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The Pacific, "Part Seven": My father's gun

A review of tonight's "The Pacific" - the most intense, harrowing, and best installment yet - coming up just as soon as I hit the driving range...
"You don't wanna do that." -Snafu
I complained in the early "Pacific" reviews that vignettes of Sledge back home in Mobile were sometimes a distraction - that I would have rather stayed with Leckie and Basilone in the field than to keep coming back to the kid who wouldn't be seeing combat for until the miniseries was almost half over.

But ultimately, those scenes turn out to have been essential. Because we spent a fair amount of time with Sledge as a naive kid eager to go to war to prove himself, it's far more striking to now see him as the veteran who leaves Peleliu haunted by what he saw and did there. The Sledge of Mobile would have looked at those women in white and then sheepishly averted his eyes when called on it; the Sledge of Peleliu was able to scare off another man in uniform with his stare. Terrific work by Joseph Mazzello throughout.

After being horrified by Snafu's amoral attitude and tooth-scavenging in Part Five, Sledge is ready to follow suit here - and in a wonderful moment, so ambiguously-played by Rami Malek, Snafu gets him to stop, perhaps because Snafu means what he says about germs, or perhaps because Snafu's not so far gone that he recognizes there's some part of Sledgehammer that should be protected from becoming like him. Of course, that he does it only moments after we see him casually dropping pebbles into a dead man's open skull cavity - a horrifying image that's not going to leave my brain anytime soon - only adds to the ambiguity(*), and the dark comedy of it all.

(*) Also ambiguous, and horrific: Snafu killing the wounded soldier whose teeth are being excavated by another Marine. He says he did it because it "makes it easier," but you could also read it as Snafu putting the poor bastard out of his misery.

By spending three episodes on one island, and most of that time with Sledge, this stretch of the miniseries feels a little more focused than some of the early episodes on Guadalcanal. By the time we leave Peleliu, I felt like I understood not only Sledge, but Snafu and Gunny Haney and the late Ack-Ack, where Leckie and Basilone were the only men in their respective stories who got much characterization. "The Pacific" was designed as a three-character piece, with each man trading spotlights, but given that they barely cross paths with each other, it helps if they have other people to react to, and Sledge in this Peleliu sequence has by far the richest supporting cast. Hell, Snafu alone is such a weird, compelling figure that this episode feels less a Sledge solo than a Sledge/Snafu duet.

There's more action at night than there was in the previous two episodes, and in general, director Tim Van Patten seems content to let things seem as chaotic and blurred together as it does to Sledge, whose only real way to differentiate the days is with the tally he keeps in his Bible-cum-journal.

Ultimately, nothing seems to matter on Peleliu except the chaos. Ack-Ack is killed by sniper fire (and his body is given a touching impromptu honor guard from the gathered Marines), Gunny Haney finally cracks under the pressure of a very different war from the one he fought as a young man, and the island itself turns out to have no military value. At episode's end, Eugene runs into the water on Pavuvu to get clean, but there are some thing you just can't wash off.

Some other thoughts

• In a role reversal, now it's Basilone as subject of a few random trips home while we follow Sledge in combat, with the hero of Guadalcanal miserable as a celebrity back in America while his buddies are getting chewed up overseas.

• Speaking of which, we get a couple of cameos from characters from earlier in the series, as Chesty Puller limps past Sledge while Leckie's pal Chuckler is carried off in a stretcher, wounded but alive. Bruce McKenna said he would have loved to feature more of Chesty, particularly after he saw William Sadler's performance; the problem was that after Guadalcanal, Chesty was never geographically all that close to the events our main characters were involved in.

• But if Chesty is largely absent, Scott Gibson got to do some nice work as Ack-Ack Haldane, who gets to show the kind of subtle leadership that Leckie never really seemed to witness during his time in action. Here, we see him distracting Sledge with talk of home, and then with a very important, but safe and easy to perform, task: waking him from a 20-minute cat nap.

• McKenna wrote the "Bastogne" episode of "Band of Brothers" that focused on combat from the point of view of the company medic. Here he echoes that idea with the sequence where Sledge has to serve as a stretcher bearer, running frantically through the field of fire, in as much danger as the other Marines but not in a position to fight back.

What did everybody else think?
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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Doctor Who, "The Beast Below": Thar she blows!

A quick review of the second "Doctor Who" episode of the Matt Smith/Steven Moffat era coming up just as soon as I abdicate...

Even more than last week's "The Eleventh Hour," "The Beast Below" was a clear sign Moffat isn't throwing out most of what Russell T. Davies did. As Davies so often did around this point in the season, we travel to a far future version of Earth (or, here, a temporarily nomadic Earth civilization traveling the galaxy while waiting for their planet to stop burning).

But "The Beast Below" was also reminiscent of many Moffat-scripted episodes from the Davies era, not just with the "Everybody lives!"-style ending in which both the star whale and the ship were saved, but in the way it was overflowing with creative ideas: Starship UK itself, the Smilers and the weird martial law they practiced, Liz 10 and her hooded guards, the memory-erasing vote, etc. Some became strong parts of the climax, while others (mainly the martial law and the depressed, frightened populace) were largely forgotten. (Though an argument could be made that the horrible practice of torturing the whale led to all of society's problems, and that people would be happier now that the whale was free and a volunteer.)

This was a good Amy episode, establishing some limits in her relationship with The Doctor and also letting her save the day instead of him. And it moved along the season's continuing threads (Amy as runaway bride, the cracks in the universe appearing on the side of Starship UK).

Very solid second effort. "The Eleventh Hour" was no fluke.

Keeping in mind that we will not discuss anything that happens in episodes that have yet to air in the US, what did everybody else think?
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Friday, April 23, 2010

Party Down, "Jackal Onassis Backstage Party": Really Roman

I wrote about the new season of "Party Down" in general in today's column. Some quick thoughts on the season two premiere coming up just as soon as you have a conversation I'm not going to participate in...

As I said in the column, the two real issues I had with the season is that Megan Mullally takes a while to fit in, and that Henry becoming team leader seemed like one of those ideas that seemed better as a season-ending cliffhanger rather than a season-starting status quo. TV shows like to do these "everything you know is wrong!" finales and worry about the consequences later, and the consequences tend to be 3-5 episodes spent/wasted on returning things to exactly the way they were before (because, after all, we liked things the way they were). Henry running the team - and being in a relationship with Uta just as Casey returns from her cruise ship gig - does have some promise that pays off in spots, but the balance of this episode felt off.

So because I didn't love the new arrangement, and because Mullally was largely off to the side, it was left to the Roman/Kyle duo to largely carry things. And, fortunately, Roman's complete and utter loathsomeness was up to the challenge, as he discovered that women preferred Kyle to him even when he was disguised as a popular, lady-killing Marilyn Manson-type rock star(*).

(*) Played by Jimmi Simpson, aka the lead McPoyle on "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia."

Nice cameo by Danny Woodburn (aka Mickey from "Seinfeld") as the waiter fired to make way for Casey's return, and while I prefer my Ron Donald to be uptight and oblivious, Ken Marino did have fun playing a drunk, self-destructive Ron.

This is definitely the weakest of the season's 10 episodes, and I know some of you who already streamed it on Starz's website said that means the rest of the season must be pretty great. And it is.

What did everybody else think?
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Gravity: I watched so you don't have to

Fienberg and I spent a decent portion of this week's podcast bashing the hell out of "Gravity," the heinous new non-comedy that Starz has for whatever reason decided to pair with "Party Down" tonight at 10:30. For those of you who read but don't listen, here's the gist:

It was created by and co-stars Eric Schaeffer, an actor/writer/producer who specializes in making incredibly uncomfortable films ("If Lucy Fell") and/or TV shows ("Starved") in which he plays completely loathsome human beings surrounded by broad caricatures. Here, he's a cop who somehow becomes connected to members of a support group for suicide survivors (including Krysten Ritter, Ivan Sergei and, given nothing to do in the episodes I've seen, Ving Rhames).

I actually vaguely liked "Starved" (about a support group for people with eating disorders) when it debuted, in part because it seemed to have a point-of-view about its subject, in part because I thought some of its comedy bits were, while gross, kind of funny. (They did an episode where Schaeffer's character had a mishap while getting a colonic.) Here, I have no idea what the point of anything is, nor what exactly I'm supposed to find funny (other than, again, a bunch of broadly-drawn stereotypes about gays and other minorities). Nor do I have any idea why Schaeffer's character is on the show, save that Schaeffer likes to put himself in the things he does.

It's not funny, it's not engaging, it's not in any way, shape or form a good match with "Party Down," and I would advise those of you watching that show tonight to change the channel abruptly as soon as the end credits are done rolling.

That is all.
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Community, "Contemporary American Poultry": Rags to riches

A review of last night's "Community" coming up just as soon as throat surgery humanizes me...

I talk a lot in these reviews about how much pop culture referencing is too much, and "Contemporary American Poultry" took the idea about as far as it could go with an extended, marvelously-executed homage to "Goodfellas." We got Abed-as-Henry-Hill voiceover, push-ins, doo-wop on the soundtrack, freeze-frames, the extended piano coda to "Layla" accompanying a massacre of sorts, and even a brief homage to the end of the famous tracking shot of Henry and Karen at the Copa(*). There was also a bit of "The Godfather" thrown in, with people kissing Abed's ring, while the door was closed on Jeff as if he were Kay Corleone.

(*) Poniewozik wondered why they didn't do a full-on tracking shot, and the answer to that is that they take forever to shoot, and no weekly sitcom has that kind of time in the schedule.

All of that was very well-done, and appropriate for an Abed spotlight episode, in that Abed tends to relate to people through popular culture. And it led to a very nice character moment between Abed and Jeff in the kitchen, and it's the show's commitment to its characters, and also to showing how a community works (here with the chicken taking on too much currency) that makes it something far richer and more interesting than just a live-action "Family Guy." And because the "very special episode" conversation between Jeff and Abed felt earned and true to both men, it then gave the show license to throw in the "Sixteen Candles" gag at the end.

Some other thoughts:

• The "streets ahead" running gag is apparently Dan Harmon getting one final bit of revenge against some guy who attacked him on Twitter. I'm sure others of you can fill in the background on this.

• A monkey with the name Annie's Boobs was just the comedy gift that kept on giving, wasn't it?

• Add Alison Brie to the list of sitcom actors I want to see dancing as often as possible, after she busted out both The Running Man and The Robot in celebrating her new backpack.

• Shirley had a great line about Abed stealing Sexy Dreadlock Guy and how Tyler Perry has made a lot of movies explaining why that's wrong.

What did everybody else think?
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30 Rock, "Lee Marvin vs. Derek Jeter" & "Khonani": Nerds!

A quick review of last night's "30 Rock" double-feature - and why I may be taking a break from reviews for a while - coming up just as soon as Santa Claus takes a shower...

There was a time when getting two episodes of "30 Rock" in one night would have been the highlight of my TV week. The way this season has gone, though, seeing those two episodes on my DVR's list of scheduled recordings only filled me with dread. Watching only one "30 Rock" has felt like a chore lately, and two in short order - both featuring plots where Jack tries and fails to choose between Avery and Nancy - was even moreso.

And where I was able to say earlier this season that even the weak episodes had enough funny jokes on the side to make the viewing time worth it, I mostly spent this combined hour saying to myself, "Okay, I recognize what joke they're going for here" - case in point, both Jack's situation and the janitor spat as Conan/Leno parody(*) - but never actually laughing.

(*) A few weeks back, some of you convincingly argued that the Tracy-as-Bizarro-Tiger-Woods story worked independently of the ripped-from-the-headlines aspect, since it was also a nice role reversal for Tracy (and since plenty of other celebrities have also gotten in trouble for stepping out on their wives). With Khonani, there was no way to view it as anything but Conan, and yet it already felt dated, since the actual mess happened months ago, and since Conan ultimately chose TBS over Fox. The speed with which "South Park," "The Daily Show" and some other series can respond to events in the news like this has made it a lot tougher on shows like "30 Rock" that work on a more elongated schedule.

I don't want to be the crank making the same complaints about episodes week after week, and it's entirely possible that if I can step away from having to write about each episode - a process that requires me to figure out what worked and what didn't, and why - I might start to enjoy "30 Rock" again. (That plan worked wonders for me and "Grey's Anatomy," where I still watch it most weeks and can focus on the parts I like, since I don't have to write about the parts I don't.) So until we get a "30 Rock" episode or two that makes me laugh early and often the way the show used to, I think I'm hiatus'ing it from the blog rotation. Happier for everyone that way.

But for this week, what did everybody else think?
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