Monday, March 31, 2008

Stepping Out of the Frying Pan and into Hell's Kitchen

Put a decent bottle of wine away for a long enough period of time and you may end up with something truly spectacular and wonderful. Upon opening it and letting it breathe you may have found something that truly delights your palate. The experience of savoring the bottle may be something that you hold onto for years.

You could also end up with vinegar.

The new season of Hell's Kitchen, now making its fourth appearance on the FOX schedule, seems to be heading down one of those paths; I just can't quite decide which. The show, which pits wanna-be executive chefs against each other under the ever-watchful eye, and exceedingly foul mouth, of Gordon Ramsay with the prize of running a restaurant at stake, has both wonderful and terrible moments in this season's premiere episode.

On the upside, mostly gone is the notion, which has existed in past seasons, that anyone can win the competition. The winner will, almost without a doubt, be someone who cooks for a living, and so gone are the vast majority of contestants who do not. Every season  has seen fewer and fewer non-professional cooks. This year the number has dropped to one, a stay-at-home dad (and from the premiere it appears as though he may have had more to do with cooking in the past). While the notion of some sort of equality in entering the competition was a nice one in the early seasons of Hell's Kitchen, it was silly to think that Ramsay would give a restaurant to someone with no training. Either the contestants or the producers have realized as much and it has changed who appears in the show.

What it has not changed is Ramsay's attitude towards the contestants. Whether the individual is the most seasoned veteran chef or a cooking student, Ramsay treats them with little more than contempt and spews vitriol at every opportunity. This season seems to feature just as many bleeps and half-heard epithets as those that have come before it. It is truly vintage Ramsay.

The odd thing is that a number of the contestants seem ill-prepared for Ramsay's boisterous criticisms. People seem truly befuddled at the notion that Ramsay would be upset with them, their cooking, or anything else about their character. Either that or they're hamming it up for increased screen time, which might be all well and good for five minutes, but won't earn them a restaurant.

The premiere episode however does also feature some out of place, terribly disappointing moments. From Ramsay going undercover to listen in to what the contestants think about him and the competition to making himself throw up a contestant's dish, the show does seem to be pushing a little too hard this time out. These moments, and a few others, feel too gimmicky and are a failed attempt at ratcheting up the excitement in the new season. Though it is important to introduce changes to keep a show like this fresh, these particular changes would have been better left out.

At its heart, the show is little more than an excuse for Ramsay to yell at people while they try to cook. It is far more a contest show than a cooking one, with the main goal of the contestants being to withstand the abuse that Ramsay heaps upon them.

However, for some, myself included, Ramsay's personality combined with the cooking that does take place (before Ramsay shuts down the kitchen without serving his customers) is enough to make the show fun. I have not yet decided whether the show will be a fine wine or the worst vinegar, but it is intriguing enough that I will be back for another helping.

The fourth season of Hell's Kitchen premieres Tuesday, April 1 at 9 p.m. on FOX.

Hitting the Road with Sam & Max: Freelance Police

Frenetic, fun, and terribly fast-paced, Sam & Max: Freelance Police – The Complete Animated Series has landed on DVD. Based on the Sam & Max comic book, the short-lived series follows the ludicrous adventures of Sam (a dog) and his good friend Max (a bunny-like thing) as they thwart all sorts of nonsensical crime.

Created by Steve Purcell, the cartoon characters are, more or less, detectives and do everything from venturing to other planets to raising alligators. A typical episode of the series will feature two shorter stories revolving around the detectives and their exploits. However, trying to explain, in detail, what a "typical" episode might feature is a rather difficult undertaking. The show jumps wildly all over the map (literally) and the actions of our detectives can best be described as supremely odd.

Sam and Max recognize themselves to be in a cartoon and to continually be doing weird, weird things, like having to consume a TV dinner that has gone bad, constructed an alternate dimension in a freezer, and has been sucking unsuspecting refrigerator repairmen into it. No, really, that's the first episode in the series, that's the introduction to the characters (for those who hadn't read the various comics they've appeared in or played the LucasArts game).

Future episodes are no less outlandish, but they are all equally hilarious. The show follows very little rhyme or reason or internal logic, but manages to, at every turn, be hugely funny. Sam and Max are entirely (almost) self-aware, they know that they are cartoon characters, that their cases are unusual, and that their solutions are equally... original.

It is precisely this irreverence, the penchant for non sequiturs, and the fact that the stories all somehow hold together that make Sam & Max: Freelance Police such an incredibly enjoyable experience. The animation isn't dazzling, the audio doesn't wow the viewer, but the oddness of it all makes it inimitably watchable.

The DVD set comes with the approximately five hours worth of the show as well as a bonus disc. Said disc contains several animated shorts, a series bible, a demo of a new Sam & Max game, and an interview with Purcell.

Though kids may be able to garner some amusement from Sam & Max, the series is not wholly geared towards them. There are enough jokes, notions, and references in it that will appeal to a more adult crowd (or, if not adult, somewhat older). Additionally, the wanton destruction and violence, while never realistic, may lead parents to reconsider showing it to younger viewers. Many adults, however, will find it endlessly amusing.

Friday, March 28, 2008

My Thoughts on The Celebrity Apprentice Finale

Today we're talking about The Celebrity Apprentice. I can't imagine that if you're at all interested in the show you don't already know who won, but we are going to discuss it below, so if you don't want to know, don't read this. If you continue reading and don't want to know you'll have only yourself to blame. Seriously, you're going to feel awfully foolish if you don't want to know who won but keep reading. It's a mistake, and I beg you to stop.

You know why else you might feel foolish? You might feel foolish if you actually thought Trace Adkins was going to win. The poor guy didn't stand a chance. He may be a better human being than Piers Morgan (who did win), but he wasn't better at the competition. I know, you wanted him to be better at it. He seems like such a nice guy that you were sure he'd be better at it. Yet that wasn't the case.

In fact, the only serious argument for voting for Trace was to vote against Piers. He rubbed people the wrong way. I'm sure he'd be the first to admit as much, too. But, as he wisely pointed out -- who cares? He raised the most money and he consistently won at tasks (whether they were Rolodex-based ones or not). Sure, he didn't make friends, but that wasn't the point of the contest. I'm sure that if the whole thing had been called the Make a Friend Celebrity Apprentice he would have done things differently.

Plus, how did anyone out there think that Trump, who at the very least poses as a ruthless businessman, was going to fire Piers for getting the job done in a gruff manner? There was no way that could happen. Trump is all about the money and not about the friends. To have selected Trace, who was all about the friends with money coming in second, would have been to disavow not just the contest, but his entire life. You didn't really think he was going to do that, did you?

Sadly, that was never, ever, going to happen.

Personally, I don't want to see nice guys finish last, but they ought not finish first just because they're nice; there needs to be more to it than that. Plus, before you go thinking that the nice guy did finish last, let me remind you that Tiffany Fallon finished last, the nice guy came in second. It was a respectable showing for the nice guy. He put in a solid effort, but didn't perform as well as the man who won.

Before I go, let me just put forward that perhaps - just perhaps - last night the old adage held true: first was the worst, second was the best, and third was Carol Alt.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Some Mountains are Awfully Steep

One man's idea of utterly insane is another man's idea of just an average day at the office. There are things that some people do on a daily basis that other people wouldn't ever contemplate doing in a million years. Just because someone won't contemplate an action, however, doesn't mean that it's not fun to watch someone else do it.

As an example, look at the recent DVD release, Steep. The documentary traces the history of extreme skiing in the United States, and watching it makes this reviewer wonder why anyone would want to jump climb up a mountain (or be dropped on one by a helicopter), ski down a 50 degree-plus slope, and then maybe, just for kicks, jump off (while still on skis) the mountain, perform a couple of 360s, and then pull out a parachute. Seriously.

Beginning with the start of extreme skiing in this country, Bill Briggs skiing down Grand Teton, the movie chronicles the way extreme skiing has evolved from Briggs's run in 1971. Narrated by Peter Krause (Six Feet Under) and directed by Mark Obenhaus, the film makes it quite clear that extreme skiing took place in Europe well before Briggs's run, but marks the Teton descent as the first major example of it in the U.S.

Steep does a wonderful job of tracing a through-line from Briggs's run to the current state of extreme skiing in this country. The film is, as it would have to be, full of talking heads. Most importantly, it doesn't just feature expert observers, it features a number of extreme skiers who helped define, and then redefine, the sport.

It should be noted that I am not an extreme skier; truth be told, my one time skiing probably doesn't even qualify me as a basic skier. However, being an extreme skier and having the ability to instantly recognize the name of Anselme Baud as a French pioneer of extreme skiing when he appears in the film aren't necessary for enjoying Steep. The visuals of what these men (and woman) do is utterly unbelievable. As the viewer watches the various runs the film does a wonderful job conveying just what the skiers are experiencing and thinking. It is, I am sure, no substitute for actually performing some of the feats caught on film, but the healthy respect one has to have of the danger involved also makes it clear that the average viewer ought not attempt any of the runs. A significant amount of time is spent discussing the danger and death involved in extreme skiing, and one of the interviewees actually passes away due to a skiing accident prior to the completion of the film.

If the film has one significant shortcoming it is the audio quality of clips from other work. Every time a clip from another movie or show is put into Steep, even if the video is of good quality, the audio seems somewhat degraded and far, far too quiet. It is a huge shock when going from one of these clips back to the regular film as the audio level jumps dramatically.

That aside, the spectacular visuals and more than adequate storyline are enough to carry the day in Steep. The film fills the viewer with both awe and wonder at the cleverness, strength, and slightly askew mindset that the extreme skiers depicted in it possess.

The DVD contains a making-of documentary which focuses on some of the wonderful camera work involved in filming the ski runs, a Q&A with Ingrid Backstrom, Andrew McLean (two of the skiers in the film), and the director at a film festival, and two photo montages. It also contains a commentary track by Obenhaus and the skiers for the feature itself.

While the sport is clearly not for everyone, the film is wonderful to look at and the sense of love the skiers have for what they do is palpable. Everyone in the film seems truly in their element, and even if you or I think that element is odd, it doesn't make the film less interesting.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Alvin and the Chipmunks try to Rock the World

It may be hard to believe, but Alvin and the Chipmunks are a half-century old. They were created back in 1958 by Ross Bagdasarian Sr. The singing rodents have disappeared and reappeared a myriad of times in the last 50 years. Their most recent incarnation, in a theatrical film not so shockingly entitled Alvin and the Chipmunks, hits store shelves on DVD April 1.

Directed by Tim Hill (Muppets From Space) and starring Jason Lee as Dave Seville, the film is a re-imagining of how Dave, Alvin (voiced by Justin Long), Simon (voiced by Matthew Gray Gubler), and Theodore (voiced by Jesse McCartney) originally got together. The film combines live actors and CGI chipmunks in a way that, more often than not, appears believable (if chipmunks could talk, of course).

The basic plot is standard one which involves Dave as a struggling wannabe musician who, on hitting a low point in his life, meets three singing chipmunks. Dave is able to convince the evil music mogul Ian Hawke (David Cross) to take the Chipmunks on as an act and they become supremely successful. It's not long, however, before Dave and Ian clash, as Dave wants to keep the Chipmunks grounded and Ian is just after the next big song and will do whatever it takes to make the Chipmunks, who are child-aged, happy and turning out hits. The push-and-pull between Dave and Ian leads the Chipmunks down the wrong road before the inevitably happy finale.

Even with the rather bland plot, which does have the advantage of being a time-tested success, Lee and the voices of the chipmunks seem to give it their all. The film even updates the classic Chipmunk songs, "Witch Doctor" and "The Chipmunk Song," for an added bit of nostalgia for older Chipmunk fans.

The film does fall distinctly flat with the new Chipmunk music. As part of Hawke's plan for the group, he turns them into hip hop singers, and the songs they perform in that vein are less than fun. It is one of the points of the movie - the Chipmunks are not that sort of music group - but, those songs are still far less amusing than they ought to be. Yet, in one of the extras on the DVD release, Ali Dee, the executive music director, explains that he didn’t want to treat the "Chipmunks like they're three cool chipmunks," he "just wanted to make a great record." But, the musical genre chosen for the group is specifically chosen because it doesn't work for the group, it doesn't work for who Alvin and the Chipmunks are. Trying to tackle the songs in a serious way when they're supposed to fall flat (and yet be fun in their doing so) leads to music that doesn't work at all. That's not to say that all the music here fails. The update of "Witch Doctor" to a more current feel does work, but it works because the update is built on an original notion true to the musical group.

Despite the well-worn plot and some of the disappointing music, the movie still works. As odd as the notion of young singing chipmunks may be, it is truly entertaining. The film plays well for young children and yet has enough of a nostalgic feel to make older people who remember earlier incarnations of the group happy.

The DVD release has both a widescreen and fullscreen version of the film. It also contains a short, fascinating, featurette on the history of Alvin and the Chipmunks and the aforementioned featurette on the music.

Not everything about this big screen attempt at Alvin and the Chipmunks works perfectly. The chipmunks do, at times, look distinctly computer generated, the music is moderately disappointing, and the plot doesn't break any new ground. However, the feature is light-hearted and amusing enough to make one happy that the Chipmunks are back… again.

Photo Credits: Rhythm & Hues

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Is Dr. Reid Ted Mosby's Once-and-Future Wife?

Okay, there's really only one thing to discuss about last night's television (outside of the awesomeness of Top Gear, but I'll that slide this week) -- is Sarah Chalke Ted Mosby's future wife? Was she intended to be Ted's wife prior to the possibility that Scrubs was going to be picked up for another season? How has the writers' strike affected all these things? Does it matter? Was the episode good enough that we can all just sit back, relax, and let everything unfold?

Wow, apparently there's more than one question… who knew? But, I'm going to start with the last question first (and maybe only). I think that the episode was good enough that while we ought to be curious about the rest of the questions, they are not at the fore of the issue. Seriously, while the show wasn't quite back in top form last night (there was really nothing for the rest of the gang to do), it was a solid effort and certainly a better one than last week.

They even brought back Ranjit. Ranjit -- the taxi, and sometimes limo, driver that the show makes use of on an irregular basis. And, as an example, that's why the show is wonderful. Last night a recurring character recurred in order for him to have something like three lines none of which consisted of more than two words and he was never in a close-up. The show could have just as easily brought in a different driver and never showed his face at all. They didn't do that though, that's not the kind of folks they are (or maybe those aren't the folks I like to think of them as being). There's a level of dedication to the show on the part of the producers that I think really shines through, and that, my friends, is why it should be back next season.

As for whether Dr. Reid is Ted's wife… I'm not even going to fathom a guess. The producers have certainly given us a bunch of breadcrumbs leading us to believe that she is (going out on St. Patrick's day, heading home early, and that kind of thing). But, I'm not ready to commit. It seems like the path is too well laid at this point for it to be right. I'm expecting more of a jarring "and that's how I met your mother" rather than a smooth linear story.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Hopefully the Next 30 Days of Night Will be Better

Being nearly as old as motion pictures themselves, vampire movies seem to always try and do something new and different in order to win over an audience. Filmmakers always seem to be on the lookout for a new hook to attract people to these movies. Enter 30 Days of Night, a vampire movie based on the graphic novel by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith.

The story's hook is that vampires come to destroy a town in northern Alaska, a town so far north that every winter it experiences 30 full days without the sun. Thus, the vampires have free rein of the town without having to worry about any pesky sunlight raining down on them.

Directed by David Slade (Hard Candy) and starring Josh Hartnett and Melissa George, 30 Days of Night, while an interesting concept, fails to truly deliver on excitement. Outside of its new and different hook, the film is nothing more than a series of clichéd storylines and lacks a villain of any depth or substance.

Hartnett is at the movie's center, as Eben Oleson, sheriff of the town of Barrow, and George is his estranged wife, Stella, who has moved away. Due to her job, Stella ends up returning to Barrow and then, due to bad luck, misses the last plane out before the place shuts down for the month without daylight.

Eben, Stella, and a rag-tag group manage to survive the initial vampire onslaught and end up trying to find creative ways to save other townsfolk and themselves over the course of the next 30 days.

Again, it's a decent enough, if generic, idea, but the film seems to lack any internal sense of logic. Cell phones are stolen and destroyed prior to the takeover (by a man who is aiding and abetting the vamps), but the power is cut anyway, rendering the cell phones useless even if they did exist. Why the plane in and out of the town stops flying during the 30 days of night is also never explained (planes seem to do okay in the dark), and why our heroes simply can't drive the 80 miles to the next outpost of humanity is also never discussed. Presumably a reason does exist, but said reason never makes it into the film.

Additionally, all too often the film eschews the need for darkness. The attic that the group of survivors spend much of their time in is so bright (despite the lack of power) that I was convinced that the vampires ought to know where the survivors were. It took a great deal of time to figure out that it wasn't really that bright, that the filmmakers simply hadn't bothered to film it at a light level closer to what it ought to have been.

These quibbles, however, pale in comparison to the fact that the vampires themselves are never truly explored. Some of them seem little more than zombie-like in intelligence, while others are, at times (but not always), shockingly smart. These differences are never delved into and leave the viewer wondering whether the differences are a conscious choice on the part of the filmmakers or the result of not thinking out the script.

Several vampires are even given names in the credits, but the names are not used during the film itself, which only heightens one's sense that that there is more taking place than what the viewer can possibly understand.

The DVD release of the film includes an audio commentary with Hartnett, George, and producer Rob Tapert as well as run of the mill behind-the-scenes featurettes explaining what went into making the film. It also includes the first episode of Blood +, a Japanese anime series revolving around a girl with amnesia which is to be released on DVD.

30 Days of Night is not without exciting moments and certainly contains enough viscera to keep genre fans amused. However, by choosing not to follow its own logic and choosing not to explore the villains in any but the most superficial way it ends up largely missing the mark. Watching the DVD one gets the feeling that all the elements exist to have made a far better film than the one that the audience is given. There is the sense that a vastly more interesting story is taking place than what ends up in the film.

Who knows, maybe it will all be in the sequel.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Lipstick Jungle Finale and a Somewhat Lost Apology

So, last night's season finale of Lipstick Jungle

Nico apparently felt bad that she was committing adultery while her husband was having a heart attack. Victory's response was that Nico should look to the future, not the past -- she should be sure to do the right thing from then on.

I disagree.

Nico ought to feel horrible. Nico ought to be ashamed. Nico ought to be terribly depressed. She was cheating on her husband. She chose not to answer his call because she was in the arms of another man. She should absolutely correct her mistake in the future, but she should also feel like a terrible person for what she did. Obviously she should.

The producers of the series however don't want the audience to feel that way. We're supposed to be happy because Nico is moving in the right direction, plus, they keep bringing up the fact that her husband may, I repeat, may, have had an affair. That fact is supposed to completely alleviate Nico's guilt. The basic assumption on the part of the producers seems to be that two wrongs do in fact make a right. People should do unto others as was done unto them. Television shows don't need to have a positive message, they don't in fact need a message at all, but sending out the message that it's okay to jump off a cliff if everyone else is doing it is probably not a good idea.

There are some out there who will tell me that I'm missing the point. The point is not Nico's adultery. The point is not what these people are doing with their lives. The point, the show's whole raison d'être is the clothes - one ought to just turn down the volume and see what the folks are wearing. While the clothes may make the man, alone they don't make a good television show.

While I'm not sad that Lipstick Jungle will be gone for a while, I'm moderately upset that Lost is disappearing for a few weeks. It's just another bit of fallout from the writers' strike, and it'll be back soon, but it's still disheartening, especially as last night's episode didn't really advance the story at all. The vast majority of it was spent on what Michael did in between his departing the island and showing up on Widmore's boat. It's a nice bit of backstory to have, but I want more. That, however, is one of the show's hallmarks, it always leaves the audience wanting more.

And, I will now do something I find myself doing too often (at least twice a decade) -- admit I was wrong. I stated on my radio show this past week that Aaron wasn't one of the Oceanic Six, that he couldn't be because he wasn't on the passenger manifest and the show wouldn't want to get into a discussion about when life begins. The tease for the rest of the season however informed me that I was wrong, that he is one of the famed Six. Thus, I apologize, I was mistaken. Look for my next apology in August of 2011.

Friday, March 21, 2008

I've Gone on Better Ones, But I Didn't Mind Tripping The Rift: The Movie

Whether one believes the restrictions are too tight or too lenient, it is undeniable that there are certain limits to what one can show on broadcast and basic cable television. Thus, it is not a surprise when television series that have a clearly more "adult" bent to them opt, when making a movie, to use copious amounts of profanity that would never make it into a traditional broadcast.

As an example, think South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. The newly released Tripping The Rift: The Movie does not take that route. It does have some profanity, but not as much as one would expect from the normally quite lewd series.

The film, as the series before it, takes place well in the future and follows the exploits of Chode (a purple alien blob) and his crew of misfits: Six (a sex slave robot, played this time around by Jenny McCarthy, but in the past by others, including Carmen Electra), Whip (a teenage slacker lizard), T'nuk (a cow-like, bug-eyed alien who is the pilot), Gus (a gay robot), and Bob (the ship itself). The basic plot, such as it is, has the crew trying to escape a robo-clown sent back from the future to prevent Chode from impregnating the bad guy's (Darph Bobo) daughter, Babette.

Just as the series did, the movie spends much of its time spoofing other movies, shows, and pop culture references. Thus, the robo-clown appears Terminator-style (naked and in a sphere), and speaks with a bad Arnold Schwarzenegger accent. Other moments in the film, harkens back to the Universal monster movies of the 1930s, the Indiana Jones films, Desperate Housewives, and Alien vs. Predator. Plus, as it's a space odyssey, there are Star Trek and Star Wars references thrown in as well (not to mention some more pornographic jokes).

The basic concept of the film seems to be to throw up as many jokes and references as possible over the course of the 75 minute run-time in hopes that a few find their mark. Happily for fans of the series, enough of them do. It's unquestionably not as smart or witty as some of the series' episodes that came before this, but there's enough there that pop-culture junkies will be amused.

Unfortunately, those not familiar with the television series will be lost for a significant portion of the film's 75 minutes. There's little given in the way of explanation and backstory, and almost no character development. Why exactly Darph Bobo's hatred of Chode is so deep-seated (before Chode sleeps with Bobo's daughter) is never explained in the film (although it had been discussed in past episodes of the series).

That is not the largest problem with the "all-new" film, though. Watching Tripping the Rift: The Movie, one cannot escape the feeling that the producers simply took a bunch of episodes (or ideas for episodes) of the series and strung them together. Yes, there is a thru-line (the Terminator story), but it is a weak one.

A check of the franchise's website confirms this episodes-changed-into-a-movie fear. No fewer than three of the episodes of the show's third season seem to have made it (with some additions) into this "all-new" film. It may be that the third season, at least in the U.S., never aired, but questions to the publicist went unanswered and the website is unclear.

That aside, the animation is computer generated and wonderfully fun to look at. Stephen Root, who voices Chode, explains in the one extra (outside of the trailer) included on the DVD that it was the look of the series that initially attracted him to it. The imagery may not have the depth of a Pixar feature, but it is still (usually) bright and well done.

Root, McCarthy, and the rest of the cast, to include Maurice LaMarche, John Melendez, Gayle Garfinkle, and Rick Jones, seem more than game to utter any insanity the writers put before them, and move the film along well. Tripping the Rift: The Movie will most likely not enlarge the franchise's fan-base, but those familiar with the series will find enough there to leave them wanting more.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

How Celebrity Casting Ruined Law & Order's "Shocking Twist"

The Kidnapped reunion continued last night on Law & Order. It's one of those things that amaze me. There I was last year watching this fantastic show, but I was the only one. Now, the actors from the show (and the producers) are appearing in tons of different projects, including the aforementioned Law & Order.

Jeremy Sisto and Linus Roache are already regulars on the show, but last night Will Denton guest starred. Well, maybe he's not a big enough actor to be a guest star, but he certainly appeared on the show. For those not quite sure who Denton was on Kidnapped, that's easy enough to answer: he was the kidnapped one.

Now, Denton, as he's not that recognizable (unless you're Kidnapped-obsessed like some of us) was fine to have appear out of nowhere as the returned-from-college son of the murder victim. One didn't instantly know he was the culprit. The same was not true of the show's bit of stunt casting last night and the appearance of Sean Astin.

If Sean Astin is appearing in an episode of Law & Order, it's because he's the bad guy. There's no other reason for him to be there. It's certainly not going to be that Astin appeared to play a bit role, and that his youth minister character was only going to appear in one scene. Yet, the show took forever to build up to the arrest of Astin's character.

The storyline was interesting, but Law & Order is all about the shocking twists, and arresting Astin wasn't a shocking twist, even though the script was written with it as one. It's just a bit disappointing. Thus, I caution all you TV producers, think before you stunt cast (just like you need to think before you give those "previously on" bits that giveaway things that are going to happen that episode because you showed a character in the "previously on" that hasn't appeared in two and a half seasons).

Going beyond the "bit disappointing," and I know I'm behind a day on this one: Miss Guided. Did you watch that? Judging by the ratings, you didn't. I know, it's from the mind of Ashton Kutcher, so I should have expected just what I got. Watching the premiere (and can we stop calling them "special previews" when a new show is placed in a different timeslot from what its regular one will be?), I think I counted no fewer than three other (better) shows it was either lovingly borrowing the style or the content from.

I'm normally not one to delete a Season Pass from my TiVo after just one episode (and a "special preview," not even the series premiere at that), but Miss Guided is gone. It disappeared from my TiVo's To Do List as soon as the episode ended. I like the cast, I don't mind the premise, but the execution - well, it would be like having Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie appear on an episode of Law & Order in what seem to be bit parts and have the shocking twist be that they did it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

HIMYM & Top Gear - A Wonderful Combination

Last week I suggested to you that Monday, March 17 might represent a true night of televisual bliss. I was not wrong. Top Gear last night was bloody brilliant, and even if How I Met Your Mother did not reach the dizzyingly funny heights of some episodes, it was certainly a solid effort in the writers' first episode back from the strike.

Even better than that, however, was the fact that despite being moved from the 8:00 timeslot to the 8:30 timeslot, HIMYM performed above its season average in the 18-49 demo. Plus, it built on the numbers delivered by The Big Bang Theory, and was up against the season premiere of Dancing with the Stars. CBS ought to get off the fence and declare that HIMYM is no longer "on the bubble," but squarely placed in the "renewed for next season" category. Do you hear me CBS? Renew the show for next season. Renew it now. It built on the numbers from its lead-in, and was up against the highest rated half-hour of DWTS. Not to mention, and this is the kicker, the show is actually good. It's funny. It's got a heart. And, if some effort was put behind a campaign, it could get an Emmy for Neil Patrick Harris.

Like I said though, it wasn't quite as funny as it could have been, there was something off last night about the narrative structure of the show. They often do stories from multiple points of view and fact versus fiction kind of stuff, but that switch happened so late and so quickly last night that it hardly seemed worth the effort of putting it in. I don't know how the story could have been retold so as to not have the switch be so jolting and so brief, but something needed to be done differently to really have the piece work as a whole.

I wouldn't, on the other hand, change a thing about last night's Top Gear. Absolutely bloody brilliant (I'd use a different adjective, but every time I say "bloody brilliant" I do it with a British accent and it just sounds so right). Last night Clarkson, May, and Hammond had to each fly to Botswana, buy a car (not a 4x4) for less than 1,500 pounds (about 3,000 US dollars), and drive the car across the country. Oh sure, it sounds easy, but they were going over the Makgadikgadi salt flats that have never been traversed in a car, and then across the Kalahari Desert. It was not easy, even if they did have a huge crew and mechanic with them.

More to the point, it was utterly hysterical. The situations our three presenters found themselves in, whether they were of their own making (like Clarkson and Hammond trying to put a cow's head in May's tent in order to attract flies and wild animals only to find out they were in Hammond's tent when some hippos approached) or not (getting repeatedly stuck in the guck of the salt flats) left me rolling on the floor. Better than that however, they left my wife, who is not a Top Gear fan, laughing too.

As I haven't said it yet this week, let me close with it -- Top Gear may just be the best show on television.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Do The Riches Just Get Richer?

Everyone has their price. So argues Wayne Malloy (Eddie Izzard) at the outset of the second season of the FX show, The Riches. As the audience quickly finds out, that "everyone" includes Wayne himself.

The Riches follows the Malloy family - Wayne, Dahlia (Minnie Driver), Di Di (Shannon Marie Woodward), Cael (Noel Fisher), and Sam (Aidan Mitchell) - a group of Irish Travellers who have taken over the lives of the recently deceased Doug and Cherien Rich and their nonexistent children. As season one progressed, the Malloys found it harder and harder to maintain the ruse, and at the close of the season they were forced to try and run.

The second season picks up right where the first one left off, with the Malloys about to make their escape from Eden Falls and the lives of the Riches. However, after successfully disappearing, Wayne convinces the family they need to return. If the family can keep the con running just a little bit longer, Wayne, working as Doug at a real estate development company, stands to make 13 million dollars in a huge deal. The money is more than he can possibly ever pass up. As Driver explained on a recent conference call:

...it's a really Machiavellian idea, it’s the first time you’ve seen… Wayne operating outside of the unit. He’s doing something for the good of the family, but it’s not a familial decision. It’s something that he’s decided. I think that is a huge turning point. I think it says a lot that we go along with it… It’s setting up the season, because you’re basically going to see that spiritual and moral compunction unit come under even more fire, or you’re going to see kind of the true expression of who these people are I think this season, and I think it begins with that $13 million.

The Malloys, as a family of con artists, are not above taking money from people, but that 13 million is, as Izzard said "just more than he’s [Wayne] ever fathomed." He's willing to do whatever it takes to get that cash and then get away, and he's willing to sacrifice his family in the present in order to get the cash with the hopes of piecing them back together later.

Unlike the recently returned FX series, Dirt, which lightened up in tone for the second season, The Riches seems to have gone darker. Though the Malloys ran into a lot of trouble during the first season, the con, more often than not, seemed like fun to them. That sense is completely gone. Izzard explains the tone shift in this way:

I think the tone is more locked down…. I think we ended up at the end of the [first] season with this tone. It’s somewhat darker. Some of the episodes in the first season were slightly funnier, and they’re not [anymore], the funny comes out at very dry and bizarre circumstances in this season. It’s a drama with some quirky things going on in it. It’s just very sure and it’s dark and compelling, and it’s a train ride.

One of the things that has remained consistent from the first season to the second is the stellar acting. Both Izzard and Driver are truly compelling in their roles, and, very importantly, all of the younger actors (Fisher, Mitchell, and Woodward) are as well. Though the show revolves around a con that the Malloys are trying to pull, it is, very much, a family-centered drama. It's not family viewing material necessarily, but the show's best moments, its most intense moments, are all centered on how one of the Malloys' actions affect the rest of the unit.

That being said, the added darkness this season is something of a disappointment. One of the reasons the show worked so well last season is that there were moments of truly dark and disturbing things that were tempered by lighter riffs. Though some funny material does seep in this year, and the second episode of this season is a perfect example of that, the general lack of humor does bog down the series. There are however still numerous wonderful moments and scenes in this second season (at least the four episodes of it that I've watched), such as Dahlia's struggle with her own personal demons, and Cael's upset at returning to Eden Falls and the lives of the Riches, but it's all even more difficult to accept this season.

The basic problem with the "everyone has their price" notion in this context is that it feels like little more than a ploy on the part of the producers to have the audience accept the Malloys remaining in Eden Falls. Last season there was no compelling reason for them to stay when the going got tough, but there's something about the ploy this year that doesn't quite ring true. Thirteen million dollars is certainly a lot of money, but the hoops that Wayne and his family have to jump through to get the cash make it seem too hard.

If Izzard, Driver, and the rest of the cast didn't have the chemistry that they so clearly do, the plot by itself would not be enough of a reason to tune in. It was during The Riches' first season, but this year it's starting to feel a little stale. The Malloys are a family of Travellers, and they ought to do just that. And, failing that (which I'll grant is difficult if the show wants to keep calling itself The Riches), perhaps they shouldn't be so quick to abandon the moments of levity that helped make season one so much fun.

The Riches premieres March 18 at 10 p.m. on FX.

Friday, March 14, 2008

A Question About Oceanic 815 and Jin

Today we start off with the big question from last night's Lost episode. Does Jin die on the island or does he just remain behind?

I'm sure that the vast majority of folks out there believe Jin to have died, but there's no real evidence of that. Yes, Hurley said that they were going to go see "him" and that they went to a tombstone with, presumably, Jin's name on it, but I'd bet, whether or not Jin died, there's no body in there.

The date of death given on the tombstone is 9/22/04, the date Oceanic 815 crashed. We already learned during Kate's court case that the Oceanic Six have pretended as though the vast majority of people died in the crash, that only the six and a few more survived the crash, and that the survivors of the crash, save the six, all succumbed to their wounds shortly after the crash. For there to be a body in the grave probably would mean that the story Sun and the rest of the Six told was that Jin was buried on the island (they wouldn't have left a rotting corpse out for months), and then exhumed once they were rescued.

How could that possibly be the case? It simply can't be that Oceanic (or whomever helps rescue them) would exhume all the dead bodies and transport them back to their homeland. This is especially implausible if we accept the notion that some of the survivors of 815 opted to stay on the island -- it would require all the survivors to dig multiple graves, grab the old Dharma initiative bodies and place those bodies into the graves as stand-ins for 815 passengers. It seems like an awful lot of trouble to go through.

Thus, I firmly believe Jin's grave in Korea to be empty. And if Jin's grave is empty, Jin might still be alive. Discuss.

The only other question worth asking from last night's slate of TV, because I simply can't fathom discussing Nico and Victory's various idiocies on Lipstick Jungle (people that act in such an incredibly stupid fashion and yet manage not to routinely get hit by buses crossing the street bother me), is who the final two Celebrity Apprentice candidates are. To be sure, I don't think Lipstick Jungle is that bad, and I really like Kim Raver and Lindsay Price (who play Nico and Victory, respectively), I just don't accept the actions they took yesterday as remotely plausible, so, The Celebrity Apprentice… I have to imagine Piers is one of them, and I'm going with Trace for the other. It could hypothetically be Carol Alt; she's done a good job, but she hasn't been the leader that Trace has. Lennox, the fourth person still in it, while the celebrity that a multitude of campaigns were built around, hasn't really shown the leadership the others have. Trump does like women however, so I could be wrong and it could still be Carol, but I'm thinking not.

No? Am I wrong? Am I missing something in Trump's decision making process? Again, discuss.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I am Hereby Enchanted

Spoofing one's self is always a dangerous proposition. If you don't poke quite enough fun at yourself you will be seen as soft; poke too much at yourself and you risk destroying all your previous work. Magically, wonderfully, Disney managed to get the balance just right in one of their latest releases, Enchanted.

Directed by Kevin Lima (Tarzan), the film stars Amy Adams as Giselle, a cartoon woman from a fairy tale, who, naturally, is destined to marry a prince (James Marsden). The prince's wicked stepmother, Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon), fearing loss of control of the kingdom, sends Giselle to the real world.

After some misadventures in New York, Giselle is found by Robert (Patrick Dempsey) and his daughter, Morgan (Rachel Covey). Reluctantly, Robert takes Giselle in and tries to help her find her way in the wiles of New York City. At the same time that Giselle learns about this new land, she tries to explain to Robert and Morgan they way things are where she comes from. The more the two explain of their various worlds, the more the other grows confused.

For his part, Prince Edward heads to New York and attempts to find and rescue Giselle. By the time he does find her, she isn't quite sure she wants to leave anymore; she likes this new world and Robert. At the end, of course, everyone finds a way to live happily ever after (save the wicked stepmother).

Enchanted is huge, fun, Disney-style fairy tale making, which manages to spoof itself and the fairy tale tropes Disney films helped create. The film works on both an ironic and straightforward level, providing amusement for many age groups.

Unquestionably, a large part of why the film works so well is Adams herself. She is tasked with the immensely difficult job of portraying an over-the-top, syrupy-sweet Disney fairy tale princess, yet her ignorance of the real world and ever-present bliss has to be endearing instead of sickening. With her wide-eyed stare and huge smile, it is a task that Adams is more than up to. She is charming and witty, and even after she learns to love the real world, manages to maintain a fairy tale sheen.

The film also contains three prominent musical numbers (all three songs were nominated for Academy Awards this past year). Even within these songs, the film manages to both find humor in subverting classic Disney moments and notions while never truly refuting them. This is best seen in the generically titled, "Happy Working Song."

The number that accompanies this song features Giselle in Robert's New York City apartment getting the various animals of New York to help her clean. From mice and birds to cockroaches, every creature does their part. The lyrics feature the various animals doing their bits to clean the apartment as Adams sings such wonderful verses as "And you’ll trill a cheery tune in the tub / As we scrub a stubborn mildew stain / Lug a hairball from the shower drain / To the gay refrain / Of a happy working song." In just one brief song, the film manages to recall numerous Disney pictures, not-so-subtly mock them, and yet reinforce the very notions and ideals behind them.

The special features on the DVD include less-than-stellar bloopers, deleted scenes (Lima explaining exactly why the scenes were not included in the film), three brief behind-the-scenes looks at the musical numbers, and a game featuring the film's requisite animal companion, a chipmunk named Pip.

With an outstanding supporting cast (including Idina Menzel as Robert's girlfriend and Timothy Spall as the wicked stepmother's henchman), Enchanted is great fun for all but the youngest of viewers (there is a dragon present in the film). There are numerous overt and subtle references to past Disney works, which become more identifiable with repeat viewing, and a sharp eye (and ear) will have much to look out for. The biggest disappointment in the film is that Menzel, who has a spectacular voice, is never given the chance to use it. However, that is a minor complaint, and anyone who has ever enjoyed a Disney movie will find something to like in Enchanted. It is a fun family film well worth seeing.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Bugatti! I Like Top Gear

I know very little about cars, I can admit that. In fact, I happily admit it. I think there's no shame in not knowing about cars. I can drive a stick and have been known to go 88 MPH on occasion (just to see if it would work without a flux capacitor), but before last night I had no idea what a Bugatti Veyron was.

My life has now changed forever.

Not because I'm now aware (as Wikipedia informed me) that money is lost by Bugatti on every Veyron made, but because I watched a Bugatti Veyron go head to head with a Eurofighter Typhoon in a two-mile drag race on Top Gear. That's right, it's Tuesday so we're talking Monday night television, and Monday night television is Top Gear.

I don't know what I did before I became aware of Top Gear, and I certainly don't know what I'm going to do when its season ends. Sure, How I Met Your Mother is going to come back next week, and I can't express my joy at that, but Top Gear is, well, as I've said before, quite possibly the best show on television. In fact, I'm going to say that between Top Gear and HIMYM being on next Monday night, I just might experience the perfect night of television. It will be, I imagine, televisual bliss.

But, as for last night's bit of Top Gear-genius, they had this car, a Bugatti Veyron drag race against a Eurofighter Typhoon. You see, apparently, about a year ago they raced a Bugatti Veyron against an airplane from Italy to London and the Bugatti won. As the presenters on Top Gear explain it, the RAF was a bit miffed at the notion that the car beat a plane, and suggested that perchance, just perchance, if the Bugatti went up against one of their fighters the Bugatti would lose.

I don't want to tell you what happened, it would ruin the experience, but imagine the behind the scenes bits of what took place (and I assume that the challenge did in fact take place in the way were told). The RAF called the producers of Top Gear. The RAF put forward the notion that they had an airplane that could take out a car. The RAF spent the time, money, and energy required to make this showdown work. Plus, Bugatti was so scared about what might happen, that their car might fail, that they sent not one Veyron, but two. The seriousness with which these entities took the drag race is unbelievable, and it's all for a TV show. And this TV show also featured the smallest assembly-line built car ever. Plus, Ronnie Wood from The Rolling Stones was on, and they tested a brand-spanking new Ferrari (actually, they had two Ferraris, even if they pretended like they only had one). What more could you ask for?

Do you understand what I'm telling you? Top Gear. You people should all be watching Top Gear. Listen, BBC America has clips of the show on their website. Go and check it out, you won't be disappointed.

Monday, March 10, 2008

...And Justice For All? I'd Watch it, but I Wouldn't Believe in it

Perhaps at the time best known as the director of In The Heat of the Night or Fiddler on the Roof, in 1979 Norman Jewison directed Al Pacino in the legal drama …And Justice For All. The film, though at times very interesting, wildly oscillates between comedy and drama. While it succeeds at both, it doesn't always succeed at melding the two.

…And Justice For All stars Pacino as Arthur Kirkland, a defense attorney who tries to do his best for all his clients, no matter how rich or poor. The film follows Kirkland as he works on the cases of a myriad of clients, some guilty and some not. The film interweaves the stories of his various clients in an attempt to show how justice is, routinely, perverted. It's not just the rich who have an easier time than the poor; in this film everything depends greatly on the judge who tries the case.

The film also spends a good deal of its time and energy on the lawyers and judges who surround Kirkland. First, there is Jay Porter (Jeffrey Tambor), an attorney who, upon learning that a murderer whom he got acquitted has killed again, begins to lose his grip on sanity. Porter mainly provides comic relief as does Jack Warden's Judge Francis Rayford, a gun-toting, suicidal man, who is friends with Kirkland, despite Kirkland's best efforts to extricate himself from the relationship.

Other characters in the film, like Judge Henry Fleming (John Forsythe), have strictly dramatic parts. One of the main cases in the film has Kirkland defending Fleming, a judge he despises, for rape. Kirkland is blackmailed into defending Fleming for a minor past transgression that could still get him disbarred.

Added to the mix in …And Justice for All is a love interest for Kirkland, Gail Packer (Christine Lahti in her first big screen performance), who happens to sit on a committee that is purportedly trying to clean up the legal profession in Baltimore. The two, while romantically attached, butt heads about right versus wrong, good versus evil, and whether it is the letter or the spirit of the law that is most important.

The screenplay, written by Barry Levinson (Diner) and Valerie Curtin (Unfaithfully Yours), attempts the difficult task of balancing zany comedy with incredibly serious plotlines about the struggle for survival within our legal system. It is a balance that more often than not succeeds, but not often enough to make this an outstanding film. One of the plotlines introduced has a client of Kirkland going insane after a case of mistaken identity ends up leading to trumped-up charges that keep him in jail. There is nothing whatsoever funny about it, and having that tale exist in the same film as a played for laughs one with Judge Rayford's half-hearted suicide attempts often gives one the impression that they are watching two films simultaneously with a few characters overlapping from one to the other.

Jewison has to do slightly too much juggling of plotlines here, and consequently some of the stories never get fully explored, like that of Kirkland and his grandfather Sam, who is played by Lee Strasberg. The film still manages to pack a punch and make one think about our legal system (it also got Pacino an Oscar nomination), but it still gives one the distinct feeling that it could have been more.

The DVD release features commentary by Jewison as well as Jewison and Levin discussing, separately, the different elements that went into creating the film. There are also deleted scenes (one of which has been added to the cut of the film that appears), the pilot episode of the FX series Damages, and a "sneak peek" at Pacino's upcoming theatrical release, 88 Minutes.

While …And Justice for All is not the best work of any of the great names involved in its production, it still stands as an above average work. Despite being almost 30 years old, its complaints about justice and the legal system in this country are just as valid (and depressing) today as they were at the time of its production.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Which Old Witch? The Wicked Witch of The Celebrity Apprentice

I feel as though a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I woke up this morning and the air seemed fresher, the sky brighter, and all the birds were chirping. I felt as though I'd entered a new, better world today. Why is that? Isn't it obvious? Omarosa was booted off The Celebrity Apprentice last night.

Okay, that may sound like a small thing, and something that we all knew was coming down the line anyway, but it was still wonderful to actually see it happen. Just knowing that it was on the way wasn't really enough for me. I had to see her go down in flames with my own eyes. And it was even better because it was Piers Morgan, her nemesis, who helped usher in her firing. It was a beautiful thing.

Sadly though, I could imagine a scenario in which the firing would have been even better. Omarosa knew even before she entered the boardroom last night that she was going home. She didn't really try to fight it; she took a couple of shots at Piers and made a half-hearted attempt to see Stephen Baldwin fired. But it was, as I say, only half-hearted. She knew that the defeat was so massive that there was no way that she, as project manager, was going to get away unscathed. She was resigned to it and that upset me. I wanted to see her go out with a bang, not a whimper. I wanted to see her act shocked and aghast the notion that she was going home. Instead, she knew it was coming and watched it unfold. It didn't hurt her quite as much as I wanted it to.

The best part of the entire thing actually occurred once the episode was finished. During the promo NBC touted next week's episode, repeatedly, as being "Omarosa free." They actually recognize how much her antics and nonsense hurt the show, its reputation, and, quite possibly, its viewership. Omarosa was kept so long because the producers must have thought she was a boon, which simply wasn't the case. The woman is a loose cannon and the show trying to control her and thereby profit off of her backfired on them horribly. Of course, they deserved it, so how can anyone really feel bad for them?

It was really all so wonderful that it made every other show on TV last night pale in comparison. I know, Lipstick Jungle and Eli Stone always pale in comparison (and I'm not going to get started on Kim Raver's character's infidelity nonsense, I promise). Even Lost didn't shine quite as brightly due to Omarosa's firing. There was nothing huge in the episode last night for us to sink our teeth into and so, watching it following Omarosa being shown the door, it felt awfully small in comparison. Not bad, and it's certainly a better series than The Celebrity Apprentice; it just felt like a small episode. I like that Ben is still controlling things even as a prisoner, but it wasn't exactly a revelation. Next week does look like a pretty good episode however, what with them revealing the final members of the "Oceanic Six." I'm sure that without Omarosa getting fired across the dial at the same time it'll be even better.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

How I Met Your Mother is one of the Funniest Shows on TV... and You're Killing it

To clear up a misconception, not only do I watch an inordinate amount of television, I read an inordinate amount about television. After all, how can one fully stay up on the television news if one does not read about it as well as watch it?

Well, one of the things I've read recently has troubled me, troubled me greatly. One of the best shows on television, perhaps the funniest comedy on television, may not get renewed for next season; it is, as the people say, "on the bubble." I'm counting on you, dear reader, to watch the show when it returns next month, to get all your friends to watch the show, and to get all their friends to watch the show. A world in which How I Met Your Mother does not get a fourth season is not necessarily a world I want to be a part of.

Oh sure, you've heard me rant and rave before about How I Met Your Mother is one of the funniest shows on television, about how Neil Patrick Harris is deserving of an Emmy for his portrayal of Barney Stinson, and about how the cast, in general, is superb. But, talk is cheap -- now is the time for action. Now is the time for you to click your remote and watch CBS Monday nights at 8.

Sure, sure, some of the same pieces that state that HIMYM is on the bubble also state that the odds are good that it will get renewed because next year would be its fourth and it could then enter the syndication market, but that's not a risk I want to take. That's not a risk you should want to take. You should want, as I do, to protect HIMYM's run via its ratings, not just the possibility of copious amounts of syndication money.

The one show on television that might be able to rival HIMYM in terms of bringing the funny is The Office, but which is funnier depends on exactly what episode is being watched. If you're looking at one of The Office's episodes with "heart" and comparing it to the funny that is Robin Sparkles, Robin Sparkles (one of the characters' rock star alter-ego from back in the day) is unquestionably funnier. Here, watch Robin Sparkles's music video and see what I mean.



Genius, right? Pure genius. But the funny of HIMYM doesn't end there, there's also the famed "You Just Got Slapped" video.



Do you really want to let this sort of funny leave your television forever? Do you really want to pass up the chance to find out who exactly the mother of Ted's children is? Do you really want me to harangue you all next year about how you let one of the funniest comedies on television die out of your insistence on watching Dancing With The Stars or My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad? You know that you can miss one or two dances with the "stars" and still have a pretty good idea of what's going on in that show tuning in 30 minutes late. Plus, 20% of you have a DVR, so DVR Dancing and watch HIMYM. I promise you that it's not a decision you'll regret.

The show is legendary, and you're missing it.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Balki is Back as Perfect Strangers Comes to DVD

Everyone has their favorite television shows from years past. Some shows from our childhood will always hold a special place in our hearts. Watching some of these programs on DVD years later can be a depressing experience. Well, the television show Perfect Strangers, which has just released its first two seasons onto DVD, is just such an experience.

The show, launched as a mid-season replacement in 1986, was a success and aired through August of 1993. It followed the story of Larry Appleton (Mark Linn-Baker) and his (very) distant cousin, Balki Bartokomous (Bronson Pinchot). The show starts out with Larry, a mid-20-something man from Wisconsin having moved to Chicago to live alone and pursue his dreams of becoming a photojournalist. One day (the day the show begins) Larry answers a knock on the door to find out that a cousin he never knew, Balki, has arrived from the island of Mypos to live with him.

The culture clash is instant as Balki has little to no idea about U.S. customs other than the dribs and drabs of pop culture references that he is able to misuse (or sing) at a moment's notice. Larry, recognizing that Balki needs help, takes his cousin in. He also gets Balki a job at his current place of a employment, a discount store run by a less than reputable man, Donald Twinkacetti (Ernie Sabella).

Also present in season one is the quickly jettisoned character of Susan Campbell (Lise Cutter) who disappears after the first season. She is replaced by Jennifer (Melanie Wilson) and Mary Anne (Rebecca Arthur) who would become love interests for Larry and Balki, respectively.

The vast majority of plots in the first two seasons (and the rest of the series) take one of two forms. In the first, Balki gets into trouble due to his not understanding U.S. customs and Larry makes the problem worse before Balki is able to right everything through the same lack of understanding that got them in trouble in the first place. In the second, Larry wants to impress someone (often a woman) and declares that he can perform tasks he is in no way capable of and Balki ends up bailing him out. With Balki's naïve ways and Larry's high-strung attitude both of these formula led to some wonderfully funny moments.

Sadly, most of these funny things are just that, moments. There is a lot of slapstick and going for the cheap, easy laugh. And, while the show was most assuredly current back in the '80s and early '90s, the references it makes feel terribly dated (and Pinchot's mullet-esque hair doesn't help matters).

Worse than that, however, is the fact that it really isn't until about halfway through the second season that the show hits its stride. As a mid-season replacement, the first season was an abbreviated seven episodes, and while it sets up the later story and the two main characters, the show never seems to quite hit a rhythm until later.

Even so, despite its datedness and reliance on easy jokes, there are still a few laugh-out-loud scenes, including the classic two-part episode, "Snow Way to Treat a Lady," which features the cousins, Mary Anne, and Jennifer off on a ski trip that results in them being trapped in a cabin due to an avalanche. From Larry's foolish boasting about his ability to ski, to the disaster of the avalanche, to Balki's saving the day, the episode has all the hallmarks of what makes Perfect Strangers funny.

People looking for a bit of '80s nostalgia, or to relive memories of one of the better shows on ABC's TGIF lineup would do well to check out Perfect Strangers. People who think the '80s were better left 20 years ago will find little in the series to convince them that they are wrong.

The DVD release features little in the way of extras. There is a brief montage of some funny moments from the first two seasons which mainly focus on the "Dance of Joy," which is a dance from Mypos that people do when happy (as its name implies).

Perfect Strangers – The Complete First and Second Seasons is currently available on DVD.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Oh That Top Gear, I am Smitten

Okay, I've only seen two episodes so far, but Top Gear is quickly becoming my favorite show on television. I'm contemplating TiVoing the old episodes that BBC America is airing along with the new ones so that I can see more of it. Frankly, truth be told, I'm considering re-watching last night's episode because I enjoyed it so much.

But why is that? What about the show is just so wonderful that I'm falling in love with it? Well, it's not the supercharged cars. I'll give you that the cars are very cool, but I'm not someone obsessed with cars, so that's not why I'm tuning in. It's the hosts. It all comes down to those three brilliant, wonderful, wacky, zany men. For those of you who don't recall, they are Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond. I don't care what they pretend to be or not be, these are three smart men who go out and act like complete and total buffoons, and that's funny.

Last night the men were charged with repeating a task they had done in the past -- making an amphibious car. As explained to the audience, the producers didn't feel as though they had taken the task quite seriously enough the first time and they were to redesign their vehicles. Rather than watching the tedious work that goes into such a thing, they fast forward to the finished products and take a few moments to explain their designs as they read what their task will be -- to drive to Dover and cross the English Channel in these wrecks of car-boats.

And there it is, smart men doing stupid things. These cars were all designed in - excuse the language - a half-assed manner and now they'll have to navigate the English Channel, the busiest shipping lane in the world, in amphibious cars that don't drive particularly well and may or may not float. What's more, these guys actually go along with it -- it's brilliant television! The viewer is treated to a goodly long video of their mishaps on the highway getting to Dover and their misadventures with cars that turn out to make wretchedly bad boats. It was hysterical and had me laughing out loud on more than one occasion.

The thing of it is, however, they're clearly all smart men. They seemingly know all there is to know about cars and related items, and decide, repeatedly, in their tasks, to go way over the top. I've been trying to come up with a reference point on American television for these guys, and I think I've finally done it. They're smarter versions of Tim Allen's character from Home Improvement. They approach all their tasks with the same enthusiasm and desire to go all out. The difference is (outside of the brains), these guys are doing the stuff for real and he was just a character.

It's bloody brilliant and I love it. Of course, I've only seen two episodes and it may turn out that's just the same thing over and over again, but I doubt that.

The thing that did disappoint me last night, at least partially by being the same thing over and over again, was Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. They aired two episodes back-to-back and used the exact same trick in both episodes. Both times out the characters proceeded as though they knew who an unidentified individual was, only to be wrong. The first time around they thought they were watching a specific woman be murdered (turned out it was a different person) and the second time they thought they were dealing with a specific gangster (who turned out just to be a henchman). Why they didn't learn from their mistakes I can't fathom. Perchance it's because the series was rushed into production due to the writers' strike and the season had to be shot with what they had in terms of scripts and those weren't quite as polished as one would have hoped for.

That's also why the "cliffhanger ending" wasn't so much of a cliffhanger. Everything just sort of had a "to be continued" feel, without generating any real excitement about what had taken place in the final scene (which I won't ruin in case you haven't yet watched it).

I still hope that the series gets ruined for season two, and hopefully they'll have more time next season to polish the bits and pieces that go into constructing a Terminator.

Monday, March 03, 2008

I Hope Fox and The Simpsons Never Get Unhitched

I was sitting there last night watching The Simpsons, when a thought struck me (the same thought that usually strikes me when I watch The Simpsons) -- how have these guys been doing the show for so many years and still manage to keep it funny?

Do you realize that the show started in 1989 (and was on Tracey Ullman before that)? That is a long time. A long time. There are students in college who were born after the show started its run. Do you see what I'm saying? Bart has been in the fourth grade for 19 television seasons. Nineteen. Sure, he got moved back to third grade for one episode, but that doesn't really count (as it also doesn't count that Lisa advanced from second to third grade for that episode).

I know that there has been a huge turnover in staff, including show runners, the style of comedy has morphed repeatedly, and the animation has improved, but through it all it's still The Simpsons and that's truly amazing. Plus, they don't show any signs of slowing down; they have greater and lesser seasons and episodes, but on the whole the quality is still there.

I think the jury is still out though on FOX's newest addition to the Sunday night lineup, Unhitched. The show premiered last night and stars Craig Bierko, Rashida Jones, Johnny Sneed, and Shaun Majumder. Rather than following the typical comedy route of a new couple, an old couple, and a dating couple, the show follows four friends who have all gotten divorced (or are in the process of doing so). It's certainly a different way to look at the world, and being that the show is exec-produced by the Farrelly Brothers, I would expect nothing less than "different." The question is whether the show will be different like There's Something About Mary, which would be good, or different like Me, Myself, & Irene, which wouldn't be.

The pilot episode showed potential and definitely established a good dynamic between the four main characters: Gator (Bierko), the corporate guy; Kate (Jones), the lawyer; Tommy (Sneed), the lay-about; and Dr. Freddy Sahgal (Majumder), the Indian doctor. So, maybe the dynamic exists because the characters are all relatively stock ones. I've liked both Bierko and Jones in other work that they've done, so that augers well for my feelings towards this show, too. On the other hand, why is it that the Indian stereotype character is totally acceptable in this day and age? Why is it that so many shows, movies, ads, etc., feel as though the Indian stereotype is one that they can get away with whipping out any old time they want it and not have to worry about getting hammered for doing so?

Frankly, it makes me a little uncomfortable, and yet, I love the Apu episodes of The Simpsons, so maybe I'm part of the problem and not part of the solution.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

I Think The Celebrity Apprentice may be Lost

Ah Lost, how do I love thee, let me count the ways…

First, the intricacy of the plot amazes me.  In a world in which so many shows seem to operate on an episode-by-episode basis, where things seem to be invented from week to week and new links to old stories that don't really work are magic-ed into existence, I feel as though you have actually thought through in advance what you want to happen.  I know that sometimes that's not always the case, external factors are always a concern, but you guys seem to have it all planned out and I appreciate that. 

Second, you actually seem to answer questions in the series.  I know that it's true that you haven't answered the huge underlying questions of the series, and I actually don't hold out much hope for a nice pat resolution, but you have answered a ton of questions.  In season one everyone wanted to know what was in the hatch.  Now we know.  You've answered questions about the Dharma Project and The Others too.  Certainly we don't know all there is to know yet, but we're heading in the right direction.  Even better though, you've answered the little questions too, or at least pointed us in the right direction.  For instance, last week I most wanted to know why Faraday couldn't remember which cards from a deck he had just been shown.  Then, last night, you gave us the whole Desmond becoming unstuck in time thing and Faraday in the present sent him to see Faraday in the past.  Faraday in the present seemed not to know Desmond however, leaving me with the notion that Faraday has done something to himself to destroy his memory and doesn't remember having done it (hence the playing cards thing from last week).  Very cool.  Very well worked out.

Third… well… there are so many more things I could say, so much more I could talk about, but I think it all boils down to the fact that you, the producers, seem just as invested in the series as I do.  It seems as though as much fun is had coming up with single- and multi-episode arcs as I have watching them.  The series isn't just coasting, and I love that. 

There are so many other shows on TV, shows that air opposite Lost, that just don't feel that well put together, that well thought out.  So, while I continue to watch something like The Celebrity Apprentice, I never really have the sense that the producers are trying to do much more than combine corporate sponsorship with some sort of task for the teams.  Sure, it makes for some good episodes here and there, but there is such a capriciousness about the oustings and so little logic behind them, that I never really get the sense that there is a bigger picture (other than which person should stay to boost ratings) at work.

Okay, maybe it's not quite fair to compare a reality show with a scripted drama.  Both have their good points and their bad, but that's what I watched Thursday night, so that's what's on my mind.