Friday, September 28, 2007

Jim and Pam and The Office

Jim and Pam! Jim and Pam! Jim and Pam! Say it with me one time, people – Jim and Pam!

Of course, we always knew those crazy kids would get together, and we knew from the first two minutes of last night’s season premiere of The Office that they had in fact done so. But is it any less worthwhile for knowing that it was going to happen? Of course, there is the big issue, which hopefully the producers have figured out: how to stop it from getting all Sam and Diane or even Sam and Rebecca. It’s a problem that so many shows seem to face – they set up these characters that the audience roots for to end up together, drag it out over several seasons, and then when the characters do get together not only is the audience no longer interested, but they liked the earlier dynamic better. Of course, if you don’t get the characters together then the audience complains too.

You people are so fickle. It is as though you never heard the saying that the grass is always greener on the other side. Or, maybe you heard it and decided that this time it would not be the case, this time the grass not only appears to be greener on the other side, but it will in fact be oh-ever-so-luscious and you won’t for one single minute regret your wanting to be on that other side.

Well, I’m going to stick my neck out (sort of) and I’m going to say that the producers of The Office are going to make this whole thing work. The Jim and Pam relationship may or may not succeed, but the show will be no less quirky and wonderful for their relationship moving forward (or abruptly ceasing). You heard it here first (or maybe second or third, but you did hear it here). As proof I lay out the fact that last night’s episode was absolutely fall down on the floor, doubled over laughing hysterical. The 5K run? Hysterical. Michael running over Meredith? Hysterical (oh come on, I’m not morbid, you know you laughed when she went flying across the windshield, don’t lie to me). Dwight euthanizing the cat? Hysterical (seriously, I’m not morbid at all, it was the producers that came up with the funny).

Then, sadly for me, the only other show I watched last night (besides Wednesday’s Kid Nation, which we can’t discuss because I won’t speak badly of children no matter how badly they need to be spoken of and even if they are placed in “Town Council” positions of power and in desperate need of one or more comeuppances, which I would deliver were it not totally and completely immoral for me to say bad things about the children) was My Name is Earl.

The unquestionable highlight here was Randy and his stupidity. I tend to think usually that his character is slightly too over the top to be funny, but last night he was so far over the top that he became hilarious. Am I wrong here? Do we disagree on this? Seriously, tell me, because I thought that licking the bug zapper was one of the greater comedic moments I have seen on television this season. I wonder if the producers recognized just how funny his parts were last night, because the double episode ended with him stealing a car and announcing to everyone that he was doing as much so he could get thrown in jail with his brother. It was easily the topper in Randy’s idiosyncrasies last night. If the show goes for a whole comedic Prison Break thing this year I think they could have a winner on their hands.

And tonight we get to see the fate of Ed Deline on a two-hour Las Vegas. I love premiere week.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

If Back To You Fries a Fish is That a Kitchen Nightmare?

Heaven help me, I think Back To You is funny.  Not fall down on the floor hyena-laugh funny, not Britney Spears comeback train wreck funny, not NY Mets preparing to bow out of the playoffs during the last week of the regular season funny, but funny.  And, perhaps more scarily, I thought last night’s episode was actually almost clever.

They took a premise I have seen on television a hundred times before and actually did not follow the standard plot.  Chuck Darling (Kelsey Grammer) gets a fish, which he promptly kills.  He does not want co-anchor and mother of his child Kelly Carr (Patricia Heaton) to know the fish is dead, so he gets the news director, Ryan (Josh Gad) to go and buy him a new one.  Now, at this point I am thinking to myself that he gets the new fish and Kelly looks at it and knows that it is not the original.  We have all seen that one before, whether it is with a fish, a bird, a dog, or a parent, the old switcheroo failure plot.  I sighed and figured that it was late in the evening and I could go to sleep, but I would let the show unspool, and see what happened.  Well, I was hugely impressed to see that my fears were not realized.  Kelly had no idea that the fish had been replaced, the show never got to that old standby plot, as Chuck killed new fish after new fish after new fish before Kelly could ever see any of them. 

Not only were the ways in which the fish died funny – pouring coffee on one; dumping another into cold water, causing a deadly shock to the fish’s system; and, the coup de grace, death by electrocution, but to top it all off, Chuck heartlessly tosses each fish into the garbage under his desk.  No ceremonial burial for these bad boys, no moment of mourning, no “aw shucks.” Sure, it all sounds perfectly ghastly, but I was incredibly pleased not to see the plot go saccharine and end up with some tra-la-la message.  Death to the fishes, I say!

Speaking of the dead, apparently the old Dillons Restaurant in New York was awfully close to killing people.  Between the green chicken wings, green and moldy burger patties and all other manner of disgusting thing (roaches and rats anyone?), I’m surprised that no one ever got sick.  Well, thinking about it, no one seems to ever actually have eaten at the old restaurant and it is kind of hard to give people food poison if they won’t eat what you’re serving. 

No joke, if Gordon Ramsay didn’t have to fix the restaurant in Kitchen Nightmares, if the entire show was simply him pointing out the most disgusting aspects of a restaurant, be it a rotten tomato, a green burger patty, or meat in the vegetarian dishes, I think this could be the best show on television.  It all falls down because the structure of the show mandates that Ramsay fix the restaurant in a sort of miraculous turn around over the course of the week.  It’s completely improbable and not terribly realistic.  The disgusting areas of the restaurants however are both highly probable and, sadly, hugely realistic.  The show ought to be more akin to a health inspector going to the dingiest dives and exploring them in nauseating detail.  Sure, it would turn some people off, but imagine the wonderful visuals of it.  If it could only be done in Smell-o-vision.

Then, completely separately, I’d like to point out that tonight is premiere Thursday on NBC.  Man, I remember when I waited for this night for a whole year, when I wanted to watch ER.  When Friends was still on.  When the 3 hour Thursday block was just the be all and end all of television.  I still like the comedies, but, as I’ve said before, ER has been recycling for years now, and dark lighting does not make up for a lack of drama.  Maybe I should ask the people at NBC about this all, after all, they will be doing live blog events following My Name is Earl, The Office, and ER tonight, one for each show.  The ER one even has Parminder Nagra.   All times Eastern on those chats.  I’ll be watching two of the three hours and will let you know my thoughts on the morrow.  Until next time. 

Shining The Harsh Light Of Day On Moonlight

Watching the new CBS vampire show, Moonlight, one gets the sense that the resurgence of science fiction/fantasy shows on broadcast networks may prove short-lived. It is a truism for television that when something works on one show, many shows and networks aim to copy it. Some of these shows will work and be successful, others will not, and eventually the networks will move on to the next thing. So, sure, Heroes is out there and great fun, and Reaper is a good time, but CBS’s Moonlight could signal the beginning of the end of the resurgence.

The show stars Alex O’Loughlin as Mick St. John, a man whose wife turned him into a vampire 60 years ago (unbeknownst to poor Mick apparently, his wife was a bloodsucker). Mick is a private eye in Los Angeles who takes cases as they come, and sometimes, for reasons of his own, gets involved even when he doesn’t have a client.

The latter is the case in the pilot episode, where Mick catches up to young Beth Turner (Sophia Myles), a young adult who is trying to make a name for herself as an “Internet investigative reporter.” Mick also happens to have saved her life many years ago when she was but a wee kidnapped lass. There are “twists” involved with that, so I will not say more about it.

Now however, Beth finds herself in trouble again, following the story of a murdered co-ed, who, it appears, may have been murdered by a vampire. Mick knows better, as the bite marks on the co-ed’s neck are made to look like vampire fangs, but clearly are not (kind of a “takes one to know one” moment). Beth does the good “Internet investigative reporter” thing, going where she is not particularly wanted, lying about who she is, and getting into all sorts of trouble.

Along for the ride with Beth is her cameraman, Steve Balfour (Kevin Weisman of Alias), who is one of the few characters in Moonlight to be enjoyable enough to prompt a second viewing, but he is only listed as being recurring, not as a series regular. The other interesting character is Josef Konstantin (Jason Dohring), who plays a vampire who looks younger, but is in fact far older than Mick. The audience is supposed to find this "looks younger but is actually older" thing clever presumably. Josef dabbles in the financial markets and is consequently incredibly wealthy, which is not used to any effect in the pilot, but hopefully will play some sort of role in the future.

The real problem with the series is that it is an entirely sanitized version of old material. Vampire as detective and do-gooder has been done numerous times, even on television; see Forever Knight among other things as examples. And our pal Mick is such a goody two shoes that he cannot even bring himself to drink directly from humans (see Louis in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles), so he buys blood from a friend at the morgue.

Though we do not see much of her in the premiere episode, Mick’s ex-wife, Coraline (Shannyn Sossamon), does have a regular role on the show, and one can imagine that their backstory does inject a little bit of evil into Mick’s past.

How exactly the producers managed to drain all the life and remove all the fangs from a vampire tale one cannot say. What the audience is left with in the case of Mick St. John, outside of a ridiculous name, is a terribly bland character, who may have lived a long life, but not one the audience is particularly excited to find out about.

Will Moonlight signal the death-knell of science fiction-fantasy’s resurgence on primetime network TV? Is the cold, cruel light of day about to shine down upon the genre, cruelly dusting everything that stands in its way? Oh, wait, in Moonlight, vampires do not like sun, they do not do well in it, but they do not burst into flame either. Is the cold, cruel light of day about to shine down upon the genre, making everything in its way feel kind of icky? Only time will tell.

Moonlight premieres September 28, at 9pm ET/PT on CBS.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Don't Fear The Reaper, Do Lose Your Cool With Denny Crane

I have already discussed elsewhere much of my feelings about last night's Boston Legal, but to recap: frankly, I felt cheated. Actually, the TV I watched last night was entirely about being cheated, wasn't it?

On Boston Legal the new folks pushed out the old folks with nary a mention of what happened to them. Well, there were one or two mentions for some of the people, but the vast majority got nothing said about them. Nothing on the disappearance of Claire, nothing on the disappearance of Paul, no reason why Brad became an ADA. It all sort of just was.

Then, there was the true cheat. Alan won his case last night (wherein Shirley wanted to rescind a donation to Stanford University) because the old fogey judge didn't understand the argument. I know that the show isn't a straight-up legal show, and that even legal shows don't necessarily follow the law, but this was a complete cop-out of a result. It was, simply put, cheating. The lawyers at Crane, Pool, and Schmidt need to win the case for something they did, not because the judge simply doesn't understand the facts of the case. The show can function as a decent soapbox for the producers' beliefs (and does regularly), but those beliefs need to be borne out through the result of the trial and not be a completely different entity.

Speaking of different entities (you know you like that transition), I watched Reaper last night, and boy, did I have fun. I didn't particularly think the show was terribly brilliant and unquestionably expect more out of Tyler Labine than I got last night, but it was funny. Labine plays the same irreverent social outsider that he usually gets to be, but his Bert "Sock" Wysocki seemed more sad and pathetic last night than the usual outsider. I don’t think that was intended, maybe it means I'm getting old, which would be a huge disappointment. Or, maybe the irreverence will increase and sense of patheticness decrease in the future

Of course, as everyone is saying about Reaper, the standout here is Ray Wise as the Devil. He was absolutely hysterical. No joke, there were moments that I thought to myself "Hey, I know he's the Devil and all, but I totally want to go and work for this guy." None of those moments were during the scene when the Devil had the Zamboni driver get run over by the Zamboni, but virtually every other time we saw him. One wonders how long it will take for our "hero" Sam (Bret Harrison) to ask the Devil to help him get Andi (Missy Peregrym). Andi does seem to be throwing herself at Sam, but he looks like he could use the Devil's help anyway if he wants to date her.

But, I promised you that there would be cheating with Reaper, didn't I? Well, isn't it obvious? Sam's parents have cheated Sam out of a normal life, what with selling his soul and all to the Devil prior to Sam's even being conceived. It's an odd concept for a show, but it works really well. The show also definitely had that Kevin Smith feel. I wonder if that was just because Smith directed the pilot, or if it had that sense before and will have that sense in the future. I'll be tuning in next week to find out, because despite my already being terribly over-burdened on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights with shows, I'm adding Reaper to my TiVo Season Pass list.

No? Did you watch? Did you have thoughts? Don't you like that Devil guy?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Slap Countdown Is In Effect, Will Heroes's Hiro's Hero, Takezo Kensei, Get Some?

To say that I am thrilled with the return last night of Heroes and How I Met Your Mother is to totally and completely misunderstand who I am. I am not thrilled. I am not happy. I am not overjoyed. I am completely and totally over-the-moon with excitement. No joke, I worry about having a heart attack.

It’s not even that I thought either show was that brilliant yesterday, it’s that there is the promise of oh so much more coming. It’s just like the Slap Countdown website Marshall set up -- it’s good now, but as that clock ticks down to zero you just have the sense that it is going to be legendary, it has to be.

You see, we now know what show the slap is going to occur in, so Carter Bays and Craig Thomas (the men in charge) have to do something incredible to make it funny. Even Barney knows when the slap is coming, so what does Marshall have up his sleeve? I have to assume, because I am such a fan of the show, that they would not have clued in the audience unless they knew where they were going to end up with the slap and that it is going to be, in their minds, spectacular. Well guys, impress me, because that clock is ticking down to the November Sweeps episode awfully quickly.

As for Heroes… I guess it was interesting, I just kept sitting there thinking to myself “they only have 24 or so episodes this season, did they really think this was a worthy use of the first one?” I’m just not sure it was. How did Claire magically end up talking to a guy who has superpowers? Why has Parkman done nothing substantial to help Molly? Comforting the poor child is all well and good, but if she is seeing this bogey man every night in her dreams, and he has been haunting her for over four months, it seems to me that Parkman should stop messing around with Mohinder. Why are they spending their time trying to infiltrate The Company instead of, you know, helping the girl who so desperately needs it? No, am I wrong? Am I crazy? Am I out of line?

What about Hiro, did he not realize that everything he knows about Kensei may include more than what Kensei has yet accomplished in his life? Seems logical to me. Did this nerd fan-boy not figure out that that revealing someone’s future to them is a huge danger of time travel (see Back to the Future for examples)? I know that even Hiro’s vaunted Star Trek explored such things, he should have been far more careful in his dealings with Kensei right off the bat.

But both shows are laying the groundwork for the season, aren’t they? I might complain if they jumped right in that they are not allowing new viewers the opportunity to catch up and thereby making a huge mistake. And, I’m not particularly distressed with either show, my main problem is that I want more. I need to know more about what is happening. I need another installment. I want them to go Jack Bauer-style (no, not drive under the influence) and get through four episodes in two days, really throw the audience into the season.

Speaking of throwing people into the midst of things, how about Law & Order: SVU throwing their newest cast member to the wolves tonight? Apparently following the premiere this evening new cast member Adam Beach and executive producer Neal Baer will be taking your questions on the SVU blog.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Arnold Goes Commando

By 1985 Arnold Schwarzenegger had already starred in two Conan movies and the original Terminator. He was delivering solid action performances and had not yet reached a self-aware, post-modern stance that would require himself to wink at the camera before performing over-the-top stunts. However, he had already begun to deliver funny one-liners, but they had not yet become a parody of themselves. It is in this time period that Schwarzenegger, producer Joel Silver, and director Mark L. Lester (Firestarter) released Commando.

A completely unapologetic action film, Commando finds Schwarzenegger as a retired colonel, John Matrix, who once completed, with a team of men, numerous special-ops assignments. Those men are now being murdered and Matrix is drawn back into the world of covert ops when his daughter Jenny (Alyssa Milano) is kidnapped from under his nose by the killers. They inform Matrix that he must travel to South America and murder a president that he helped install in order for the lead kidnapper, Arius (Dan Hedaya), to be able to take the president's place. Matrix is told that once he accomplishes this mission he will be given back his daughter.

The kidnappers escort Matrix onto a plane, but he manages to escape before the plane gets too high in the air. This leaves him only eleven hours to find his daughter before the plane lands and it is found out he is not on board (these were the days before airphones). Roughly 75 or 80 bloody minutes later, Matrix is reunited with his daughter, having dispatched every bad guy that contemplated looking at him slightly askew.

Once the film gets going, about five or ten minutes in, it stops for nothing, not logic, not good sense, and certainly not any injuries Matrix sustains. He does, as is required by such films, meet a girl, Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong), during his mission, who tags along for the rest of the flick. She also just happens to know how to fly a plane, which becomes a crucial plot point. But, as logic in no way enters into the movie, this seems like a perfectly reasonable happenstance.

The film is fascinating when compared with today's action fare. In Commando, Matrix is a hero with no dark side; he may have done things he regrets during his missions, but they in no way cast a pall over his current life. He has no issues he needs to work through, and even the death of his wife when his daughter was born seems to be an upset he put to rest years ago. He is a single-minded, virtually one-dimensional character. The only way the audience knows that he loves his daughter is through an opening credit montage that features them doing father-daughter activities. For good or ill, such a character would never be allowed today. It is however a perfect character for Schwarzenegger, as he is in top physical form in the movie, as good at fisticuffs as he is with guns and explosives.

Commando requires the audience to do no thinking or contemplation whatsoever; we need merely watch Arnold beat people up and destroy things. Never for one second is there any doubt that Matrix will get his daughter back -- the only question is how many people will have to die for him to accomplish the feat.

Those looking for a deeper movie with a flawed hero at its core and some amount of introspection would do better to steer away from Commando. However, the film holds up just as well today as it did 20 years ago, providing an adrenaline rush to anyone who craves such things. It is incredibly clear watching the film why Schwarzenegger would go on to become one of the most successful action movie stars of all time.

The new DVD release of Commando features both the theatrical cut and a director's cut (it is slightly longer but contains no substantial revisions), audio commentary by Lester, two behind-the-scenes featurettes, deleted scenes, and photo galleries. The film both looks and sounds fantastic, each bone-crunching moment and neck snap is presented with clarity of picture and sound. The DVD is a must for any Arnold fan.

Looking For A Killer Time?

From the opening note's of Dexter's theme music, the viewer is made aware that they are in for a dark, yet somehow funny tale.  Starring Michael C. Hall (Six Feet Under) as the titular Dexter Morgan, the show focuses on Dexter, a blood-spatter expert that works for the Miami Police Department.  Beyond just working for the police though, Dexter happens to be a serial killer.

Don't worry though, Dexter only kills bad people -- he has a code.  The code, created and instilled by adoptive father, Harry (James Remar), is what Dexter uses to avoid getting caught by the police.  Though more rules to the code may be uncovered in the future, the few cardinal rules that are explored in season one deal with the aforementioned only killing bad people, and fully planning the capture of the individual.  It is an intricate process, and Dexter is usually meticulous in his planning.

After introducing Dexter and explaining who he is, the season quickly introduces the "Ice Truck Killer," a serial killer that is exsanguinating hookers and cutting their bodies into pieces.  The killer also seems to know who, and what, Dexter is.  For his part, Dexter is fascinated with the killer both admiring and being disgusted by him.

The show is able to handle the darkness inside Dexter's soul with ease, quickly moving from some of Dexter's darker deeds to lighter moments.  Perhaps one reason for this is that however much Dexter might tell us in his voiceover that he feels nothing, he is not being truthful.  Dexter's actions and attitudes, his reverence for Harry and his wanting to see justice done belie the notion. 

Numerous complications exist in Dexter's life, from trying to keep his sister, Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), close without revealing who he is, to trying to have a "normal" life with his girlfriend, Rita (Julie Benz).  Both of these women have numerous issues in their own lives and Dexter is constantly brought in (either by his choice or theirs) to help them out. 

The supporting cast of characters is deeper than just these two women.  The show also explores the lives of several detectives within the police department, as well as the politics of the department.  These additions help make the world Dexter lives in seem more real, and add a depth to the show that is beneficial. 

Much of the wit in the show seems to stem from the fact that Dexter is just this regular old, average guy, someone with all the trappings of a normal, ordinary life, he just happens to be a serial killer.  His love of blood spatter at murder scenes gives some of his "differences" away, but the show really works the dichotomy of average-Dexter versus killer-Dexter very well.

The mystery of the "Ice Truck Killer" is also a good hook for the 12-episode season.  Once the killer is revealed (and the audience ought to know who it is about two episodes before anyone on the show figures it out), the story becomes no less interesting.  Again here the show works the "two sides of the same coin" premise wonderfully, exploring the "good" serial killer, Dexter, with the "bad" serial killer, "Ice Truck."

The first season DVD also comes with a handful of special features.  There are a couple of featurettes, one on an actual case in which blood-spatter analysis played a crucial role, and two episodes of Showtime's Brotherhood TV series.  When used on a computer there are also downloads available, including an episode of The Tudors and two chapters of a new Dexter novel.  There are also audio commentaries for some episodes. 

Dexter's new season starts on Showtime September 30, but the Season One DVD set is available for purchase now, and it is a darkly good time. 

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Kids All Lived, But Will Frasier?

What an odd, odd night of television for me yesterday, but it was network television, and there is just something wonderful in that feeling.

It all started out simply, and mundanely enough, with the premiere episode of the new Kelsey Grammer/Patricia Heaton show, Back to You. This little newsroom comedy has Chuck Darling (Grammer) returning to his TV roots in Pittsburgh after blowing it in Los Angeles. Despite having left the city ten years ago, there are still numerous familiar (I won't say "friendly") faces at the station, and Darling begins reconnecting. His co-anchor, Kelly Carr (Heaton), is one of those faces, but in the ten years that have passed she decided that she didn't have to accept pomposity from a co-anchor, particularly Darling. She also happens to have given birth to Darling's kid, unbeknownst to Darling of course.

And now we see exactly where the show is headed. The only question is if the trip will be fun. Back to You does certainly have enough good actors in it, but can they make a newsroom fresh and exciting and different? Can they do it using this old standby plot of guy coming back into town and finding out about a kid he fathered? That's a little tougher to say. What about Grammer playing a lothario? Is that something we can believe? The pilot was amusing enough, but it's really not a "FOX" show, is it?

Of course, its lead-out, 'Til Death, isn't really a FOX show either. Somehow renewed for a second season, this comedy follows two married couples, one older, one younger, as they explore the ins and outs of relationships and life. At least last night, Brad Garrett and Joely Fisher (they play the old couple) were far funnier than Eddie Kaye Thomas and Kat Foster (the young couple), which means that this also skews a little old for FOX, no?

Maybe not, maybe I'm just thinking this all skews old because I also watched Kid Nation, CBS's "let's throw some kids into a deserted town and see what happens" reality show. Sadly for the viewer, but a positive for the parents, everyone made it through the first few days without more than a few tears and a pulled muscle.

I know, more folks in the 18-49 age category watched FOX during the hour than CBS, but the CBS show still feels young, what with the exploiting of kids and all. And that really is the interesting bit about the show, isn't it? It's not so much what happens to these kids, it's looking for whether or not CBS put them into a situation that was unsafe. I would have to say that they did not. Weird and a little under-supervised, probably, but not patently unsafe. Right now I'd have to assume, after all their little friends watched last night, those kids might be less safe than they were in the desert. There were kids I detested on the show, and I imagine there are schoolmates of some of those kids that feel the same way. I understand that the kids as they appeared on the show have no correlation to the kids as they are, so while I can accept what I saw, other children may not be able to. That's a story I want to hear more about: did any child that appeared on Kid Nation get beat up due to their appearance?

It's kind of like the idea that Peter of Peter's Italian Restaurant, the hothead manager that Gordon Ramsay gave a tongue-lashing to last night on Kitchen Nightmares, may find people gunning for him. The biggest problem with Kitchen Nightmares' premiere episode is that they made the entire thing look too easy. Here is Gordon Ramsay, he takes a look at a failing restaurant for a day or two, pinpoints THE PROBLEM and a few problems that stem from THE PROBLEM, fixes them over the next couple days and the restaurant becomes a huge success. Last night's problem was the aforementioned Peter, a guy more interested in fighting and looking good (in his opinion) than doing right by the restaurant. Consequently the kitchen has fallen into disrepair which makes the chefs unable to do their jobs correctly. The fact that their ravioli isn't strictly speaking their ravioli - it was bought elsewhere and they're just boiling it - is completely irrelevant. But, this complaint of mine completely ignores the fact that I enjoy watching Gordon Ramsay yell at people, and seeing how disgusting some restaurant kitchens are is a good time too (though you wouldn't think that to be the case).

Man, am I happy that the new fall season is upon us. It's at this point in September that even watching bad shows is fun.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Negotiating A New Take On Damages

Something became abundantly clear to me last night while watching Damages -- Ray Fiske (Zeljko Ivanek), the lawyer for Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson), has never, not once ever in his entire life, conducted any sort of negotiation. We know this because Frobisher has a man on the inside who was able to, allegedly, get the amount Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) would accept to settle the case. Fiske then offered that exact amount to Patty Hewes.

One would think that someone who has performed a negotiation before, knowing what price the other side would settle at, would not go to the opposition and immediately offer up that price. Clearly that would make the opposition push for an even better deal for themselves. No, an experienced negotiator, someone who had at least a rudimentary understanding of how a negotiation takes place, would have tried to finesse the amount. Fiske ought to have offered a price that was more favorable to his side (in this case that would be a lower amount), and then allowed himself to be dragged to what he knows Patty will accept. To immediately offer up Patty her absolute minimum acceptable offer tells Patty one of two things: 1) she can get more and/or 2) Frobisher's side is getting insider information. It was an incredibly stupid mistake, one that I cannot imagine Fiske would actually make. Thus there is only one set of possible culprits, and I have blamed them several weeks in a row, so rather than my calling them out again, check out last week's article.

At this point I think that the best solution for the show may be to have Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) confess to her lawyer that she has been lying about absolutely everything -- there was no man in Patty's apartment, she never took off her engagement ring, her recollections of the events leading up to the murder are mainly lies, she did not in fact ever actually graduate from law school, and perhaps a half-dozen other things too. Perhaps it should go as far as a total and complete repudiation of everything the show has put forth as fact. I know, it sounds like an awful long trip, and the false flashback thing is used very, very sparingly in this world, but this may be an appropriate time to go for it. If the false flashback is good enough for Alfred Hitchcock and Keyser Soze I see no reason Damages cannot employ the same trope.

Think about it for a moment. It allows the show to wipe clean the entire slate. Did something happen? Did it not? What of what Ellen said was the truth? What wasn't? When did she lie? Why did she lie? It goes on and on, and, it could make for an absolutely fantastic, completely out of the box second season. When the show returns they could show us what actually happened and how it differs from Ellen's lies.

There is just no way that Fiske and Frobisher would be so bad at negotiating. It has to be lie. The other plot holes, flaws, and silliness from earlier episodes are lies too. It all makes complete sense now -- everything we have seen is what Ellen has told us and she is lying.

I think I finally get it and I really like it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

This Journeyman Time Travels To See Moon Bloodgood

NBC's new time travel epic, Journeyman, is a show so overloaded with backstory that much of the time one spends watching the pilot is used deciphering the interactions rather than focusing on the show itself. This might be a more fruitful exercise if the romantic story arcs were not so clichéd. The show definitely has interesting elements to it, but too much of it seems focused on soap opera-type romance.

Journeyman centers around Dan Vasser (Kevin McKidd, Rome). Dan is a newspaper reporter who happens to get swept up in a huge ball of light that sends him back in time, but just a few years back. After getting his bearings (at least a little), Dan saves a man who is about to kill himself, and soon jumps back into the present. Throughout the rest of the pilot, Dan jumps to different moments in the past, continually interacting with the same man and his wife, and meets up with a few people from his own past. He quickly learns that time in the present does not stand still when he is in the past, nor does the amount of time he was in the past directly correspond with the amount that elapses in the present.

Back in the present, Dan's wife, Katie (Gretchen Egolf) becomes increasingly distraught with her husband's disappearances. It becomes abundantly clear that Dan has had some sort of problem in the past, presumably, though not definitely, alcohol addiction or another type of addiction. Additionally, his marriage to Katie has been going through a rough period which has just gotten back on track prior to Dan's disappearances. Thus, Dan skipping out for days at a time wreaks havoc in his marriage.

Making the whole thing that much more complicated is the fact that Dan keeps seeing the ex-love of his life, Livia (Moon Bloodgood) when he goes back in time. Livia, it seems, was last seen by Dan as she was getting in a cab to go to the airport years previously. Though the show does not state as much till more than halfway through, the audience quickly perceives that the plane Livia was on crashed. Dan's seeing Livia in the past causes his unresolved feelings for her to resurface, creating an odd sort of love triangle with his wife.

Or, maybe it is a love rectangle because as if that was not enough, there is also Dan's brother, Jack (Reed Diamond), who is a police detective. Jack happens to have, at one time, dated Katie when Dan was with Livia. Jack still talks to both Katie and Dan; one can only presume that enough time has passed to heal that wound, or at least allow it to scab over.

The who, how, and wherefores of this time traveling are left up in the air in the pilot, although it does seem clear that Dan has some Sam Beckett-Quantum Leap-style work to do in the past, in the case of the pilot, with the man he saved from committing suicide. Dan is actually told as much, sort of, but by whom I will not say. It should be terribly obvious early on in the show, but I will not divulge secrets anyway at this time.

It is also fairly obvious that Dan's feelings for Livia and either Katie's for Jack or Jack's for Katie will be resurfacing on a fairly regular basis as the show progresses. It is all very soap opera-esque, and without the addition of the time travel story would undoubtedly fit into the "primetime soap opera" category.

What then to make of the show?

There is certainly enough there to keep viewers returning for at least a second, and possibly third helping of the series. However, the hackneyed romantic backstory needs to take a backseat to new and different interactions at some point. What is laid out in the first episode is neither subtle nor terribly clever, yet it locks the producers in to a such a rigorously defined romantic world early on, that to see the elements play out will not be interesting to the viewer. Hopefully the producers will find a way to get past the romantic history of the characters and move the story and the people forward in interesting directions as the show progresses.

Monday, September 17, 2007

With an Office Like This, Who Needs Enemies?

So much is being said about the death of the sitcom. It seems as though the death knell of the sitcom has been sounded repeatedly for the past three or four years as some older show airs its last episode and the networks fail to develop interesting new ones. Or so we are told. Do not believe a word of it, it is simply not true.

Sure, there may be fewer sitcoms on television today than there were five years ago, but that does not mean the form is dying out. I have in my hand right now proof of that; I have The Office: Season Three on DVD. It may not follow the traditional notion of a sitcom (multiple cameras and a laugh track), but it is hysterically funny and a sitcom.

Just released at the beginning of September, a few short weeks before The Office begins its fourth season, the show highlights all that is right with the situation comedy genre. The workplace comedy follows the team at Dunder Mifflin's Scranton branch, as they do their best to sell paper. It is a mundane field to be sure and the vast majority of the workers know it. But, presumably because they need to eat, they do it anyway.

Making life all the more difficult for the employees is Michael Scott (Steve Carell) who is the manager of the Scranton branch and usually completely out of touch with reality. Scott, who views himself as the life of the party, tells the most insensitive and inane jokes that could ever be allowed on network television, much to the shock and chagrin of his underlings. He has absolutely no sense of what is appropriate. However clueless he seems though, he is still always able to come through for his employees when necessary. Played to perfection by Carell, Scott, we are often reminded, is the best salesman in the history of Dunder Mifflin, and somehow every time it looks as though he has finally gone too far or done something too stupid, he manages to save the day.

Surrounding him are characters that may be less offensive but are no less interesting. There's Pam the receptionist (Jenna Fischer) who has to try and keep Michael in check all the while pining after Jim (John Krasinski) who has transferred to the Stamford branch. Jim left because Pam was engaged to someone else and Jim could not handle it. Happily for him though, in Stamford he meets Karen (Rashida Jones), with whom he begins a relationship despite not being over Pam.

Though the show starts the season with two very different locations, Stamford and Scranton, everything quickly folds back into one, but not before the differences between the two Dunder Mifflin branches are fully explored (it mainly comes down to leadership).

The show manages to hit pitch perfect notes of humor and heart; anytime they seem to go overboard in one direction, things quickly swing back the other way. The addition in the third season of Ed Helms as Andy Bernard and Rashida Jones to the cast helps bring new blood and comedy to Dunder Mifflin.

The third season also more fully explores the lives of and careers of the smaller players in the cast, including (but not limited to) Toby (Paul Lieberstein) the put-upon HR representative, Kelly (Mindy Kaling) the ditsy customer service representative and her relationship with Ryan (B.J. Novak), the rookie salesman, and Oscar (Oscar Nuñez) an accountant who happens to be gay.

Plus, there's Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson), who defies any and all categories except that of "weirdo." Happily, one of the extras on the season three DVD is a Dwight Schrute music video which features clips of some of Dwight's more odd moments as well as exploring his character via the lyrics.

The extras do not stop there however, as the DVD contains approximately three hours worth of deleted scenes, plus episode commentaries, bloopers, and a brief Joss Whedon interview where he discusses the episode he directed during season three ("Business School"). Additionally there are excerpts from the 2006 NBC Primetime Preview, some wraparounds with Toby, winners of a "Make Your Own Promo" contest, the full "Lazy Scranton" video that aired in one episode, part of Conan O'Brien's intro to the Emmy Awards, and a hilarious bit entitled "Kevin Cooks Stuff in the Office," which features Kevin (Brian Baumgartner), an accountant in the series, making some absolutely disgusting foods using the at-hand supplies in the kitchen and break room.

This last extra, which is utterly absurd and ridiculous, is a perfect example of why the series is so funny. Other series have found humor in dysfunctional workplaces, but The Office offers up an utterly unique perspective, mining comedy from heretofore unimagined aspects.

The next time someone tells you that the sitcom is dead just point them to The Office and let them see how wrong they are.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

I Want A New Chuck, One That Makes Me Feel Like I Feel When I'm With You

Reading about this fall's television lineup, one often finds a phrase akin to "the geeks shall inherit the earth."  With new shows like NBC's Chuck airing this fall, it's not hard to see this statement coming true. 

NBC, having achieved success last season with Heroes and it's breakout character, the nerdy Hiro, is trying to duplicate the results in several new shows.  One of them comes from creators Josh Schwartz (The O.C.) and Chris Fedak and is the tale of Chuck (Zachary Levi).  This nerd, who prefers that to geek, works for an electronics retailer and ends up with all of the intelligence secrets of the United States in his brain when he opens an e-mail sent by an ex-roommate. 

This prompts the CIA and NSA to launch separate investigations into Chuck's life, attempting to determine whether he is working for an enemy of the country.  The CIA sends Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski), who seduces Chuck in order to find out more about him.  The NSA sends John Casey (Adam Baldwin), who takes a more lethal approach.

The show is fast-paced, foolish, and a lot of fun to watch.  The basic concept is, of course, completely outlandish and so the show requires, more than some others, much suspension of disbelief.  In order to watch the show one first has to either accept or get past the fact that simply by watching an e-mail that contained hours and hours of still images changing on a computer screen at a phenomenally high rate of speed that Chuck can remember them all.  And, not only does Chuck have to remember them, he has the ability to associate the image with what it actually represents, as these images are, according to the show, how the United States stores all of its intelligence data.  Happily, the pilot does manage to gloss over the absolute foolishness of this conceit relatively quickly and get back to having fun, which is something it excels at. 

However, still always at the back of one's mind is the idea that everything on screen is built off this ridiculous state secrets concept. Thus, even when Sarah is dancing with Chuck, and, unbeknownst to him, waylaying members of the NSA with throwing knives, the viewer never quite escapes the idea that the basic notion of the show is silly.

Amazingly, the show somehow still works.  This is at least partially because the show understands how absurd the very concept is and just goes with it -- which makes it easier for the audience to do the same.  Levi, Strahovski, and Baldwin are all sufficiently tongue-in-cheek in their roles, and everyone that appears on-screen seems to be having a lot of fun.

Whether or not Zachary Levi truly looks and acts like a nerd or geek is wholly debatable, and, if the nays win, excusable.  As with the intelligence data, the show is not concerned with how true it is to the life of nerd-dom. It is about comedy combined with over-the-top action. It is about having fun and making sure that the audience has fun. 

McG (Charlie's Angels), is an executive producer on the show and directed the pilot.  He keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, ably balancing both the comedy and action moments. 

Chuck is supported in his trials and tribulations by his sister, Ellie (Sarah Lancaster), who, seemingly wants nothing more than for Chuck to find a nice girl and ditch his best friend, Morgan (Joshua Gomez).  Morgan, who functions as comic relief in the pilot, is Chuck's co-worker and playmate in nerd-land.

The dichotomy of Chuck's normal life and friends, versus his new work life and friends, will almost certainly be a recurring theme throughout the series. Hopefully this will work better than it did on Alias.  There, never quite finding the right balance between home and work, all of Sidney Bristow's friends somehow found their way into her work life or found themselves off the show.    

There are several different, difficult balancing acts the producers will have to face as the season continues -- action versus comedy, straight versus over-the-top, Chuck's work life versus Chuck's home life.  It will not be an easy task, but if things continue in the same vein as the pilot, they have a better than even chance of success.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

It's Always Sunny Even When You Find a Dumpster Baby

There is something about FX's comedy series It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia that is just plain wrong -- in a good way.

The show is produced by, and stars Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Glenn Howerton, as Mac, Charlie, and Dennis, respectively. These three are ne'er-do-well friends who co-own a bar and constantly find themselves in trouble of their own creation. Along for the ride, as co-owners of the bar, and causing trouble themselves are Dennis's sister, Dee (Kaitlin Olson), and father, but not biologically, to Dennis and Dee, and maybe, biologically, Charlie too, is Frank (Danny DeVito).

Just reading that last sentence ought to provide one with a pretty good idea about the show. It is a comedy where absolutely nothing, except common sense and moderation, is taboo.

The first episode of season 3, premiering Thursday September 13 at 10pm, is entitled "The Gang Finds a Dumpster Baby." Predictably here, the gang hears some crying coming from a dumpster and finds a discarded child. Rather than give the child to the authorities and have the child get lost in the "system," they bring the baby back to the bar, and Dee and Mac decide to raise it.

The two eventually get the idea that the baby could become a child star and begin shopping it around to talent agencies only to find that the child is not ethnic enough. Not to worry though, Dee and Mac have a plan to fix this. The rest of the group is involved in various other shenanigans during the show, from pretending to be an environmentalist in order to avenge an insult, to turning into overly enthusiastic recyclers that sleep on the street.

DeVito was added to the show in its second season, and while the character fits in persona-wise with the other wretches on the show, it does smack of stunt-casting and feels rather forced. The four younger members of the gang do not seem the type to hang out with any father, no matter whose father he may or may not be. Even so, DeVito is game and appears not to mind the utter lunacy that his character continually spews.

The best thing that can be said about the show is that it finds humor in absolutely everything, from babies left in dumpsters to the death of parents. The show is neither for the high-brow nor the weak-stomached. It is, on other hand, far smarter than it may initially appear. It has a distinct point of view, and makes no bones about the fact that the characters are not role models. If one is trying to equate it with other things on TV, the most apt comparison would be that It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is Seinfeld crossed with South Park. The characters are narcissistic and shallow, make a lot of poop jokes, and yet there actually sometimes seems to be a message or meaning behind it all.

Even so, there are many moments when the show does seem to defer to frat boy humor over a larger meaning or message. These are the times when the viewer feels dirty for ever having turned the show on, and they happen a little too often. By no means do all television programs have to have a message, but if It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia eschews giving an episode meaning, then all it is left with is a couple of off-color jokes about putting a dumpster baby in a tanning bed.

And that is just a little too wrong -- not in a good way.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Seriously, What Exactly Are Their Damages?

It seems as though week after week I choose to criticize and complain about the same shows. I see absolutely no reason to break this trend.

Can anyone out there watching Damages take a few minutes to explain some things to me that I simply do not understand? Last night, Ellen (Rose Byrne) explained to her lawyer that prior to finding her fiancé, David (Noah Bean), dead, she had been at Patty Hewes's apartment where someone attacked her. Her flashbacks of this event show the fight with her attacker, the attacker ending up dead with a knife in his or her chest, and explain that this is how Ellen got blood all over herself. She did touch David's body when she found it, so there is some blood from him, but the vast majority of blood on her person is from the unknown attacker. The police have checked Patty's apartment and finding no body they dismiss Ellen's claim of being attacked there. They do however arrest her because her fingerprints are on the murder weapon.

I understand completely how damaging it looks to have her fingerprints on the murder weapon, but do the police not care that the bloodstained clothes they are in possession of do not, for the most part, have David's blood on them? Is this just completely irrelevant? Are the cops actually going to wholly dismiss Ellen's claim despite the fact that her clothes are drenched in blood that is neither hers nor David's? Are we to believe that the police are just that bad at their job? Or, is this the producers assuming that the audience watching the show is not clever enough to figure out that the police ought to realize that they have some unknown person's blood on Ellen's clothes? Is this going to be some sort of amazing reveal later that gets the charges against Ellen dropped? Because, if it is, I feel insulted.

Actually, I feel more insulted by that than the other gaping plot hole from last night's episode. Ellen believes Patty (Glenn Close) to be responsible for her getting attacked in Patty's apartment because Patty was the only one, Ellen says, that knew Ellen was there. Now, the show does seem to want the audience to believe that the attacker was after Ellen, which would implicate Patty; however, why is it never floated as an idea that the attacker was after Patty? Surely that could be reasonable; there is nothing to argue against it at this point, then, once the attacker saw Ellen decided that she had to die because she could testify against the attacker for the break-in and a whole huge plot to murder Patty could be revealed? Why is this never dealt with as a possibility? Why are we led to assume that Patty is behind this attack? It really boils down to the same question asked above: is this a case where the producers are leading us down a less than intelligent road assuming that we will be impressed when they reveal how we were misled, or are the producers fumbling around in the dark not realizing their mistakes? Are we going down this path not because the producers are trying to fool us, but because they simply do not see the error of their ways?

I also have to ask how much the answer to the above questions matter. It seems to me at this point that either the audience is smarter than the producers because the question of the blood and the attacker do not fool us, or the audience is smarter than the producers because these are plot holes that we see a mile away even if the producers do not. Whichever answer the correct one turns out to be, the audience is still unable to maintain the suspension of disbelief necessary to watching the mystery unfold.

I am going to continue watching Damages, because I could be wholly off-base here. It could be that everyone involved knows way more than I do and I am supposed to notice and be disturbed by the above things and question everything. I don't think that is the case, but it is a possibility.

Dear reader, what say you?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Bionic Woman: Now 100% More British!

David Eick, who brought the reimagined and incredibly successful Battlestar Galactica to the SciFi network is bringing to SciFi’s corporate older sibling, NBC, another 1970s remake this fall, Bionic Woman. Airing on Wednesday nights at 9pm, Bionic Woman hopes to help rehabilitate NBC’s ailing lineup.

As with Battlestar, Eick and his team have only taken the most basic outline of the plot from the original series, creating an entirely new vision for the updated series. Gone are elements like the cheesy bionic sound effects and the lighter campy moments of the original Bionic Woman. In their place is a far darker, more serious show. 

In this darker take on the idea, Jaime Sommers (Michelle Ryan) is a 24-year-old bartender who takes care of her younger sister as she struggles with her own life. One of the few apparent bright spots in that life is Will Anthros (Chris Bowers), Jaime’s college professor boyfriend. Will has not been completely open and honest with Jaime as to who exactly he is however, as he works for a secret government organization doing bionic research.

Suffering a mysterious car accident with Will, Jaime is left hugely injured and in danger of death. Her boyfriend opts to, without her knowledge, perform surgery on her, giving her bionic implants that will allow her to live. While these moments in the show are rather predictable, they are necessary as well -- after all, Jaime has to be grossly injured in order to get the bionic surgery, and without the surgery there is no show. 

Jaime struggles greatly with the changes in her life and body, and is given an ultimatum by Will’s boss, Jonas Bledsoe (Miguel Ferrer), about working for him and the U.S. government. Jaime, unwilling to suddenly turn her life over because of an operation she did not ask for, initially refuses. It is clear early on however, that while Jaime may be reluctant, she will end up working for the government eventually.

Where the show does get a little silly is with the addition of Sarah Corvis, played by Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica). Sarah is the first woman that the bionic surgery was performed on, and has since gone rogue. Corvis seems out to destroy the people that gave her the bionic abilities, and wants to help “educate” Sommers as to her newfound strengths. Sackhoff is the brightest spot in pilot in this role, which at this time is a recurring one, not a permanent one, but the storyline feels thin. It almost seems to reference a different television show entirely, Knight Rider, with its KITT vs. KARR dynamic. Like KARR, KITT’s predecessor, Corvis was thought dead only to reappear and seek revenge on those she believes wronged her. 

Also lining up on the side of evil is Will’s father, Anthony Anthros (Mark Sheppard), who invented the bionic technology. Since his invention Anthros has been locked away in a special “supermax” underground prison in California for as-yet-unknown to the viewer, but probably some sort of attempted “take over the world” crimes. 

The pilot does have all the makings of an interesting television show. While the dynamic at this time between Corvis and Sommers does feel like a retread, with time (should Sackhoff become a permanent fixture), it could be made into the most interesting aspect of the show. Michelle Ryan is good as a bewildered Jaime Sommers, and Miguel Ferrer is always good as the tough-as-nails-on-the-outside-but-really-not-a-bad-guy boss. 

As of right now however, it seems as though much of the show's potential is unrealized. Will that change as the series progresses? Time will tell. 

Monday, September 10, 2007

Personally I Don't Need It, But A Lot Of Folks on TV Require Redemption

I wonder if I've ever had a more disparate night of television watching. It all started simply and logically enough, with the NY Giants being unable to provide any sort of defensive support to their offense's efforts. From there, it moved on to The 4400, as good a summer sci-fi drama as there is; Curb Your Enthusiasm's season premiere; and the season (and I hope series) finale of The Two Coreys.

Actually, it is a little funny, now that I look at that list of programming -- they do all have one thing in common: the quest for redemption.

The Giants, looking to make up for last season’s backing into the playoffs actually proved that they could run a good offense without Tiki and then without Brandon Jacobs. The offense was a huge success, except for that whole injury thing. The defense, however, looked more than a little shaky. So, in terms of redemption, it was a toss-up; the offense redeemed itself, the defense didn’t, and the coaches and their conditioning methods were a huge, disastrous failure.

Thankfully, The 4400 is better when things are left murky. Will Tom Baldwin ever be Tom Baldwin again? Will Isabelle be able to once again come back from the side of future evil (it is, after all, evil from the future that is currently controlling her)? How can she make up for kidnapping Jordan Collier? Last season I really did not enjoy her character, her evil was far too over the top without her ever having been truly established as anything more than evil. However, now that she is a “good guy” or at least was until evil Tom Baldwin forced her to do things she ought not, she is far more interesting. For her the entire season has been about trying to fix things she did in her past. And, just when she was getting a little too syrupy sweet, along comes evil Tom Baldwin to make her interesting once more. Boy, does Isabelle have a lot to try and redeem in her future.

As for Larry David, I think the genius of the show is that while Larry has a lot that he has to be redeemed for, he has absolutely no interest in garnering redemption. Nor does he necessarily believe he needs it. It is precisely Larry’s willingness to go out and do and say whatever pops into his head at any given second and not care about the results, not in any way feel as though he needs redemption, that makes him funny. It is not that Larry does not care what people think about him, it is just that Larry cannot understand why people do not see things the exact same way he does. What a wonderful world that would be.

Lastly, The Two Coreys' entire season has been focused almost exclusively on redemption. These two ex-teen heartthrobs have spent eight episodes - well, seven plus a clip show - trying to apologize for bad behavior that began almost 20 years ago and prove that they still ought to be in the national spotlight. The coup de grâce here is the final fight between Haim and Feldman, which is a result of Haim daring to insult the honor of Feldman’s wife by referring to her as a “bitch.” Haim’s only goal in the fight was to do everything he could to resurrect his career, which he believes to be inextricably tied to Feldman. Haim knows he has made a multitude of errors and feels the need to pounce on anything that might allow him to prove to Hollywood that he is a viable entity once more. Haim was defending his own personal, newly found honor, and felt his chances being wrenched from him by Feldman’s wife. One can understand his use of language as well as Feldman’s defending his wife (if only the entire episode were not a complete setup by the producer).

It makes me wonder, how much television is about redemption? Once a character achieves redemption are they uninteresting? And, looking beyond Larry on Curb Your Enthusiasm, who on television requires redemption the most?

Saturday, September 08, 2007

I Find No Flash In This Gordon

Every so often I sit down and watch something on television, like I did last night, and think to myself: "I should like this show, this sort of thing is right up my alley," but I don't. And that is when I start to wonder. Is it me? Is the show good and I'm just not seeing it? Is it good and I just don't care that it is? Or, is it them? Did they take a premise that I should like, a genre that I do like, or something else to otherwise enthrall me and then not deliver? Where exactly does the problem lie?

Last night, watching SciFi's Flash Gordon series this distressing problem reared its ugly head. It is a genre I like, a character I like, and a story I like. I have watched all the episodes that have aired so far (just a handful, but enough) and there is something there that just doesn't work. This time out, I don't think it's me, I think it's them. I think that the problem is that the show simply does not go far enough. The characters are all rather one-dimensional at this point and there are no clever plots, twists, or goings-on to make up for that.

The show continually has the sense that it's building to something, which is why I stick with it, but how much longer that will continue I can't say. There is going to be a moment, one hopes, when Flash is able to go back and forth between planets Mongo and Earth at will, and maybe that's when it will be fun. There certainly will be the opportunity at that point for the show to more fully explore the differences between Mongo and Earth and for Flash to get himself into all kinds of problems. But, right now, week after week, something from Mongo comes to Earth and Flash has to send whatever it is away, while making sure that no one finds out about what's happening. Not a terribly original idea the first time the show used it, but by the third and fourth time the episode follows this same formula it gets terribly dull.

Then there is Flash's would-be love interest, Dale, who just happens to be engaged to someone else. Again, not so creative. And the fact that the fiancé is a detective and Dale has to worm information out of him week after week without telling him what's happening? Yup, not so creative. It creates tension, which is why they must be using the device, but there's nothing to it that we have not seen a million times before, which makes it a dull sort of tension.

But still, I tune in week after week. Why? Because, one day, Flash will start spending more time in Mongo and the show will have to get at least a little creative. It really is only in the moments that the characters are not on Earth that there is a spark to the show, a flash of what could be.

So, I sit, and I wait, and I hope. One day, if the budget allows and if the show doesn't get canceled first, Flash will spend a lot of time on a different planet, Dale will dump the fiancé (or the tension between her and Flash will disappear), Ming the Merciless will be a real character, and maybe, just maybe, fun will be had. That will be a good day.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

It's Alive... Day

The perception of an event can be almost as important as the actual event itself. This may be most true during war and is certainly evident in HBO's new documentary Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq. The documentary, which comes from James Gandolfini’s production company, features Gandolfini interviewing 10 different soldiers who have returned home from the Iraq War, all of whom have different thoughts and feelings about what happened to them.

In the very first interview, the notion of an "alive day" is explained. This is the day that a soldier's injury occurred -- it is the day that the soldier did not die (though they may have come close). As the notion of an "alive day" is explained, the first interviewee, Sgt. Bryan Anderson, states that he dislikes the term. He, quite understandably, has no wish to celebrate the day he nearly died. It is not that he thinks living is bad, but he has lost so much and suffered so greatly because of what happened on that day that he is not happy to celebrate a day he thinks is one of the worst of his life.

Other people interviewed feel differently. Some like the idea, and some are thrilled to celebrate their “alive day.” Some would go back to the war if they could, some would never have joined the army in the first place if they were again given the chance.

It truly is all about how people perceive the world around them and their part in it. One of the returned soldiers explains that he joined the army because he saw movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, which, he says, glorify war. The vast majority of people who watch either of these films walk away with the message that "war is hell" and is not something to be glorified. Who is right? If he went to war because he saw something in the films about the glory of it, the good of it, is he necessarily wrong for that opinion?

Making judgments about people and ideas can be quite difficult. Having to support an opinion that will upset a multitude of people requires a certain amount of strength and conviction. Alive Day Memories eschews any notion of passing judgment about the soldiers and the Iraq War, except in Gandolfini’s thanking the soldiers for their efforts. He is not saying by his thanks that he necessarily supports the war, rather that he supports the troops (he is not saying that he does not support the war, either).

The only takeaway message that the film leaves the viewer is that a far greater percentage of people fighting the Iraq War survive their injuries than have ever survived war injuries before. It has left our society with an entirely new segment, one whose opinions must be heard and considered. Of course, the segment in question has no cohesive viewpoint (nor should they necessarily), so it makes the task far more difficult; how can our society celebrate people’s “alive day” if some of them do not wish to celebrate the day they almost died? And that is the most basic of the questions that can be asked.

Without an overarching message, the documentary tends to be nothing more than loosely connected interviews with soldiers along with interspersed videos of the soldiers at home and in the battlefield. There are even videos of vehicles blowing up that have been released by the “insurgents” in Iraq. Some of it is gory and much of it is touching, but without a more defined, overarching message the viewer is left with little to remember other than distressing stories of war. And, as the documentary clearly shows, the viewer can take those stories and create any meaning they want from them.

Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq will air repeatedly on HBO and HBO2 in the coming weeks, with the first airing this Sunday, September 9, at 10:30pm.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Damages Works On Bunny Boiling

Before I begin, let me just remind everyone that we hurt most the ones we love…

I watch Damages every week, and every week it just baffles me more and more. Last night, it was implied that Lila, the girl that David (Noah Bean) is having a relationship with behind the back of Ellen (Rose Byrne), his fiancée, may be the murderer. I absolutely refuse to believe that. Sure, she could have done it, but how disappointing would it be plot-wise for her to be the murderer?

The show is centered around the Frobisher case; for the murder to be this extraneous thing committed by an uninvolved nut would be a hugely unsatisfactory solution. Why waste the audience's time showing how volatile Frobisher is and, for that matter, how willing everyone involved in the case is to do anything to win if they are all irrelevant? Rather, it seems as though the producers have made Lila into a nut not just to throw out a red herring to the audience, but to not-so-slyly give a little nudge-nudge, wink-wink too. After all, who watching last night didn't expect to see David enter his apartment to a little bunny stew, Fatal Attraction-style? And, who provided the boiled bunny in Fatal Attraction? That's right, Glenn Close, star of Damages.

So, it’s inconceivable to me that Lila could be the murderer. Sure, she is a liar, a thief, and clearly unstable, but to have her be the murderer would be unsatisfying to the audience for multiple reasons. Unless, of course, Lila is somehow tied to the Frobisher thing, which seems like just the sort of twist the producers would throw in to the show. That would bring up a multitude of problems though, including, but certainly not limited to, how she was able to make sure that David was the doctor who was assigned to the case that brought her to the hospital.

Leaving aside this stretch of a possibility, I’m left disappointed with the entire notion of using Lila as a red herring. Why spend so much time dangling this possibility before the audience if having it be true would ruin the show? Are they just out of ideas? Do they know where they want the season to end up but not how to get it there?

Let’s not forget I haven’t even mentioned Frobisher (Ted Danson) and his actions in last night’s episode. I think that Danson is giving a fantastic performance; he is, quite possibly, the best on the series. He may fly off the handle a little bit more than is plausible (was beating up the ghost writer actually necessary?), but if he’s some sort of psychopathic murderer, maybe not. Did he commit the murder (or pay someone to have it done)? Sure, that is sort of the straightforward solution to the crime, but I still think it is a good one. I think that Frobisher can be the culprit if the reasons for his doing it are more interesting than anything we have seen so far. It isn’t my favorite solution, but it works.

It works a heck of a lot better than Lila being responsible. Seriously, can we please either stop dangling that red herring or start explaining how she could be involved with Frobisher and set the whole thing up?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

She's Not Heavy, She's Ugly Betty

Watching an entire television season (23 episodes) over the course of three days can be an interesting experience. Getting to see so many episodes in such a short time gives a different view of the season than watching the same 23 episodes over the course of 40 or so weeks. The dropping of some storylines, the additions of new ones, things returning from an early episode in a later one all become much more apparent. When this type of viewing takes place for a show’s first season, the changes are highlighted in even more detail. The first season of Ugly Betty, just released to DVD, provides a perfect example of this.

Starring America Ferrera as the titular Betty Suarez, the show is a classic fish-out-of-water tale that thrusts Betty, an at best average-looking Latina woman, into the world of high fashion. Betty, who has always wanted to be a writer, lands a job at MODE, a fashion magazine, as the assistant to the new Editor-in-Chief, Daniel Meade (Eric Mabius).

Looked down upon by her ultra-thin (and often shallow) peers, Betty struggles to find her footing and to be accepted for who she is, and not who people think she should be. She continually butts heads with two of the funniest characters, or perhaps caricatures, on the show, the receptionist Amanda (Becky Newton) and an assistant, Marc (Michael Urie). As the season progresses, Betty proves herself over and over again, eventually winning the respect of Daniel and making a friend or two.

Alongside this story arc, the season also pushes a tale of revenge. The creative director at MODE, Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa Williams), upset that she did not get the job of Editor-in-Chief upon the demise of the previous one, has aligned herself with a mysterious, bandaged woman, who is plotting to take over the corporation that owns MODE (which just happens to be owned by Daniel’s father). Making matters more complicated, Daniel’s father, Bradford (Alan Dale) was having a decades long affair with the previous Editor-in-Chief, who just happened to die in a mysterious car crash… maybe.

And then, there is Betty’s family. Her father is an illegal alien, her sister has career problems, and her nephew has a struggle with being different. Somehow, Betty is able to hold everyone and everything together.

Ferrera and the rest of the cast play up the soapy aspects of the show every chance they get, and the Suarez household is constantly watching soapy telenovelas, like the one from which Ugly Betty was adapted.

While watching all 23 episodes in such a short time provided a couple of very amusing evenings, it is only after watching several episodes in a single sitting that one ever feels like the story has progressed. Each individual episode, though they do have self-contained arcs, seems to have very little substance. However, it is possible to be engrossed enough to watch five episodes in a row barely ever glancing up at the clock.

Even so, there are several multi-episode arcs that have a false ring to them. Salma Hayek, an executive producer on the show, appears in several episodes as Sophia Reyes, the editor of a different magazine within the Meade empire. She and Daniel end up in a relationship, which the viewer knows can never actually work because she is, after all, Salma Hayek, and is not going to end up as a regular on the show. Thus, while the arc was fun at times, and it was a great pleasure to watch Salma, having it last as long as it did, with the outcome being obvious, is disappointing.

The only reason that I can fathom for having it go so long is that the producers were desperate to figure out where they wanted the Fey Sommers/mysterious bandaged woman story to end up. While initially, clearly, heading in one direction, the plotline seems to take a couple of episodes off only to head in a totally new, and I cannot imagine initially planned, direction. By placing the Sophia Reyes plotline where it is, it allowed the mysterious bandaged woman plotline to take a respite in order for it to be retooled.

This same sort of tinkering is evident as early as the “previously on” recap at the beginning of the second episode. Despite the fact that at the time this recap is seen, only the pilot episode has occurred, the recap references some crucially important scenes that impact the rest of the season and that do not occur until the end of the third episode. This must mean that at one time the scenes were supposed to air in the first episode until some retooling took place.

Even with all these little quibbles and some others, such as the repeated use of shots where characters are positioned differently than they were in the previous shot, Ugly Betty is a fun show. Whether it reinforces or eliminates stereotypes and prejudices is a long enough discussion for another column and thus not dealt with herein.

Ugly Betty – The Complete First Season features commentary tracks with Eric Mabius and Salma Hayek as well as a couple of brief behind the scenes documentaries. Additionally there are deleted scenes and some rather unfunny outtakes (the funny seems to have occurred just before the outtake in many of the clips) included for the more intrepid Betty watcher.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

My War, Your War, Foyle's War: Set 4

For some reason that remains unclear to me, nobody does period drama on television like the British.  Recently released to DVD, Foyle's War: Set 4 proves to be no exception.

The series, which takes place during World War II, follows Michael Kitchen as Christopher Foyle, Detective Chief Superintendent in the town of Hastings on the British coast.  The secondary characters feature Foyle's driver, Samantha Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks), and Sergeant Paul Milner (Anthony Howell) as his second in command. 

A veteran of World War I, by the time Set 4 of the series comes around (covering Series 4 & 5), Foyle has more than accepted that he will not make it into the War Department to aid in fighting WWII.  However, every episode is not without its links to the war, either via spies, profiteering, the arrival of U.S. soldiers, or some other hook.  Due to Hastings's proximity to the Continent, none of the war elements of the plots feel in any way out of place.

The four feature-length episodes that make up Set 4 take place between 1942 and early 1943.  The episodes often make references to historical events so as to better establish when they are taking place. In the first episode, "Invasion," much time is spent on the arrival American GIs to England, and a base they are establishing outside Hastings.

One of the strongest of the four episodes, this one focuses extensively on Foyle being placed between the townsfolk of Hastings and the fish-out-of-water Americans.  The usually reserved Foyle is cajoled into helping the Americans understand differences between themselves and the British.  In the way that only fiction can make happen, Foyle's helping the Americans creates tension and awkwardness when a British barmaid just happens to be found murdered on the American base and Foyle wishes to investigate.  While the barmaid lived in Foyle's community, the American base is, technically, American soil, thus her death did not happen in his jurisdiction.  Foyle negotiates the difficulties with aplomb, which is just about how he seems to do everything, and manages to solve the case.

In fact, one of the few moments in which Foyle gets truly rattled is the fourth episode, "Casualties of War."  Here, though the case does get to him, it is the "B" story of Foyle's goddaughter and her son showing up unexpectedly at his home that truly puts Foyle off-balance.  Foyle's goddaughter, who disappeared a decade ago, miraculously resurfaces on Foyle's doorstep.  In tow, is her son who has been traumatized by the bombing of his school and who consequently refuses to speak.  Foyle has no idea how to deal with either mother or child and fumbles to get a grip on the situation before eventually doing his best with a tough situation.

As a whole, Foyle's War deftly manages to balance stories about the personal lives of the characters alongside stories about the war and various crimes in Hastings.  The main criticism of the series is that, a little too often, it has a "one man against the world" feel to it, despite the fact that Foyle seems to have quite capable help in the form of Sam Stewart and Sgt. Milner.  Foyle does not seem the sort to surround himself with less than competent people, but too often it is he that solves every little facet of the crime, prevents international incidents, and saves the world on his own. 

The visuals in the production are wonderful, everything and everyone looks like they have stepped right out of the early 1940s and, in one of the extras featured on the DVDs are notes on the historical truths behind the events depicted (cultural clashes, spying, women entering the workforce, etc.).  Reading these notes and watching the episodes it becomes clear that much time and effort was put into making everything as realistic as possible.

It is precisely this sort of attention to detail, coupled with Kitchen's superb portrayal of Foyle and some interesting mysteries that make Foyle's War: Set 4 truly enjoyable to watch.