Monday, April 28, 2008

If Wishes Were Horses Bloodline Would be Factual

There is a proverb that begins, "If wishes were horses then beggars would ride." More or less, it is saying that wishes and reality are different things; just because someone wishes something to be true doesn't make it so. It is a sentiment that ought to be remembered when watching Bruce Burgess's new documentary, Bloodline.

Following the books Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code, the movie explores the possibility that Mary Magdalene and possibly Jesus went to France following the Crucifixion and that Mary may or may not have had kids with Jesus which she may or may not have brought to France with her. It's a lot of "if" and "maybe" and "possibly", and, unfortunately, the documentary never actually provides any answers.

Burgess, who plays a huge on-screen part as narrator and explorer in the film, interviews numerous people, some claiming to be affiliated with the Priory of Sion, which, according to some documents, knows the whereabouts of the proof that shows Jesus and Mary to have had kids and gone to France following the alleged Crucifixion. The basic problem is that the Priory is a secret society and that as such, one can't trust that the people Burgess meets who claim to be members of the group are members of the group. It is also never explained why a secret society would place letters and documents in public archives if they are, in fact, a secret society.

In a nutshell, that's the problem with the entire documentary, if the documentary is taken as fact – no proof of anything, whatsoever, can be offered the viewer. It's all a lot of fascinating supposition, and terribly intriguing for the majority of its nearly two hour runtime, but it offers no proof whatsoever.

Following his look at the Priory, Burgess goes to Rennes-le-Chateau, where, a hundred years ago, a Priest named Bérenger Saunière, according to legend, found out information that would crush the Catholic Church. Various documents indicate that Saunière's discovery was Mary Magdalene's body and proof of a Jesus-Mary bloodline.

In Rennes-le-Chateau, Burgess meets up with an "amateur archeologist" named Ben Hammott. According to Hammott, he has found a tomb near Rennes-le-Chateau with a body beneath a white shroud with a red cross on it (a Templar-looking shroud if you will). Hammott is on an odd search for glass bottles with notes from Saunière in them, and, apparently has found several.

The last portion of the film follows Burgess as he travels around with Hammott on his treasure hunt and stands guard as Hammott returns to the tomb with the shroud. Burgess does not actually get to go to the site of the tomb, but Hammott returns with video of him desecrating the site and body (and yet Hammott doesn't get enough DNA to date the corpse or determine any information beyond the fact that it is probably of Middle Eastern origin).

Burgess makes a point of stating that he does not necessarily believe Hammott, any of the alleged Priory members, or the Catholic Church's version of history. However, he does not offer more than token opposing viewpoints, and even those are full of maybes. 

Bloodline provides a fascinating look at a possible version of events.  However, there is nothing in the documentary that feels like any sort of proof.  There is nothing present in the documentary to make anyone with doubts about a Jesus-Mary bloodline believe in it.  There are just so many unanswered bits and pieces and the entire argument for the bloodline as presented in the documentary seem too far-fetched to possibly be believed.

As an entertaining pseudo-historical, pseudo-factual piece, Bloodline makes for a decent diversion, but as a hard-hitting, investigative, fact-finding, answer-getting, documentary, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Bloodline opens on May 9 in New York and a week later in Los Angeles.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Earl and Lost Leave Me Moderately Perplexed

Sometimes I don't understand television, I well and truly don't. Last night on My Name is Earl, Earl's "living in a sitcom in his subconscious while in a coma" continued. The show has been using this as a way of making fun of traditional sitcoms and the fact that they use the same plot lines over and over and over again. It's not a particularly smart or witty observation; all observers of television could tell you that sitcoms use the same story devices over and over again. But, I can forgive a show for pointing out the obvious, that's not my complaint; it's just the background information you need to understand my complaint.

Anyway, on the show last night, while Earl was in his mental sitcom, Randy was in the real world going around with his comatose brother. He placed Earl's unconscious body into tons of stupid scenarios. It was like I was watching a 22-minute version of Weekend at Bernie's.

So, what you have is a television show that has spent a lot of time in the last four or five episodes (excluding last week's) telling the viewer how traditional sitcoms do the same thing over and over again. Then, in the final episode where Earl remained in a coma (he woke up at the end of the episode), the show took well-worn plotlines from Weekend at Bernie's and Weekend at Bernie's II.

How are we supposed to accept that? Are the producers of Earl trying to tell us that their show is smarter than the average sitcom because rather than recycling old television shows they recycle old movies? That can't be the message they were trying to send, but it's certainly the one I, and I think a lot of the audience, got.

The other message I got last night was on Lost. I think, and I may be wrong about this, but I think Charles Widmore was in charge of the Dharma Initiative. The way Ben and Widmore's conversation went, with Widmore reminding Ben that Ben took everything he had from Widmore, certainly means that it's a possibility. I think it's a fascinating one and I wonder how it is that Desmond's ending up on the island relates back to it all. I refuse to believe that Desmond dating Widmore's daughter and then ending up on the island is simply coincidental.

I think Lost has done a great job constantly changing itself and reinventing the story as they go along. I can't imagine the show without Ben, and he didn't appear at all in the first season. I sincerely hope that the producers knew where they were headed when they started (that they knew things like the fact that The Others controlled the black fog). It would make it better for me knowing that there was a plan all along.

I was, sadly, troubled by one thing last night. Was it really necessary to have three unknown survivors of the Oceanic crash die last night in rapid succession? Sawyer seeing people get shot may have been traumatic, but it felt a little like the Red Shirts getting killed in the original Star Trek. They were present solely to be killed, and the second two peoples' motivation for running out of the house immediately after seeing someone get shot absolutely baffled me.

Maybe I was just more confused because I had already spent so much time contemplating Earl earlier in the night, but I don't think that's it. I think it was just a confusing night of television in general.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Robin Hood's New Season Hits the Bullseye

The legend of Robin Hood is one of those things that gets recycled over, and over, and over again in our culture.  The notion of taking from the rich and giving to the poor is one that most of us enjoy. It also doesn't hurt that he is often portrayed as a handsome rapscallion, who woos the heart of the lovely Maid Marian and has wonderful battles along the way.  In short, the legends have something for everyone.  The newest Robin Hood series, entitled simply Robin Hood, premieres its second season on BBC America this Saturday and too, has a little bit of something for everyone. 

Featuring Jonas Armstrong as the titular Robin, and Lucy Griffiths as Marian, season two picks up shortly after the end of season one.  Guy of Gisbourne (Richard Armitage) is still smarting from Marian jilting him at the altar, and the Sherriff of Nottingham (Keith Allen) has come up with a few more dastardly plans to kill Robin and takeover England. 

With the characters firmly established from season one, the first two episodes of the new season do little to reintroduce the main characters, opting instead to jump right back into the action.  That action has certainly been ratcheted up a few notches for the new season.

In fact, where most things in the first season, save Robin's marksmanship with a bow, seemed vaguely plausible, the second season opts to go far over the top.  The first two episodes show Robin's escapes to be more daring and, frankly, way more complicated than reason and logic would dictate.  The Sherriff's plans, traps, and general cruelty have also be made that much more dastardly.  He has, the audience learns early on in season two, always been planning on using the huge taxes he levied in season one, to help fund a secret society which plans on killing King Richard should Richard ever return from the Crusades. 

The first two episodes of the second season show a tendency towards an excess that was not present during the first season.  It is as though the creative team was specifically told that everything had to be bigger, better, louder, and more dangerous for the second season.

However, despite pushing the bounds of credibility, the show remains as fun as it was during season one.  The themes are still universal, and the added action, provided one can suspend their disbelief upon seeing a huge fiery pit going down multiple stories in the middle of a castle, only adds to it all.

Despite the show doing little in the way of recapping the first season, viewers unfamiliar with the current incarnation have little to fear about being left behind, as most everyone is familiar with the legend and can easily identify Robin as good and the Sherriff as bad.  Plus, the creators of the series have made it quite easy to identify the bad guys as they tend to wear, almost exclusively, the color black. 

The dynamic between the Sherriff and Robin, one of the strongest elements of the first season, is equally good here.  Allen is wonderfully good as the Sherriff, positively oozing evil from all his pores, and steals the vast majority of scenes he is in. 

The Robin-Marian story continues apace as well, with the two clearly in love and yet unable to reconcile their various outlaw ways.  Armstrong and Griffiths' discussions about the best way to help the country, the people, and each other not only make their interest in one another palpable, but bring up salient points about power, right versus wrong, and gender relations.

It is entirely possible that as the season continues, the show's tendency towards excess will go to far and alienate viewers, such a possibility is definitely hinted at in the first two episodes.  However, if the producers manage the right mix of over-the-top action with quieter moments between Robin and Marian and Robin and his men (and woman), all of whom return in top form for this season, the season could be far better than the first one.

Robin Hood's second season premieres on BBC America Saturday, April 26 at 9pm, and fans of the legend or swashbuckling and derring-do would do well to tune in.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Alan Shore Takes on the Supreme Court

Every week I sit down to watch Boston Legal (well, every week there is a new episode, anyway). Sometimes I love the soapbox they choose to stand on, and other times I'm miffed by it. Sometimes I think the extraneous shenanigans are great, and other times I'm hugely disturbed and disappointed by them.

Last night was one of those nights where the show seemed, to me, to work wonderfully. Probably that's because I lean more to the left than the right. The show doesn't just lean to the left, it tends to fall over to that side, but last night Boston Legal and I had a meeting of the minds.

Alan was arguing a case before the Supreme Court, trying to defend a man who had been sentenced to death in Louisiana for raping (but not murdering) a 7-year-old. It was a heinous crime to be sure, one that the individual, whose IQ was a mere 70, claimed not to have done.

Standing before the nine Justices, Alan, who had been prepped not to, flew off the handle, ranting and raving against the Justices and their insanely political bent. He argued that it wasn't the history of the court to be quite as political as they have been recently, and whether or not that's accurate, they certainly shouldn't be.

Alan's tirade was mainly focused on the conservative Justices and the fact that they, in his mind, have not only acted almost solely on ideological grounds over the past few years, but that they have refused to recuse themselves when they face a clear conflict of interest in a case. Here they almost lost me as I'm quite sure that the liberal Justices have equally strong failings, but, it was still great to watch him rip into the highest court in the land.

It was, in fact, more fun than watching Gordon Ramsay rip into the contestants on Hell's Kitchen. I feel as though he needs to come up with new and different ways to humiliate his contestants in order for the show to remain interesting, and so far he just hasn't done that this season. Week in and week out the show relies on virtually the exact same epithets, complaints, and challenges that appeared last year and the year before. I'm still enjoying it, but I'd like to see something more, too.

Maybe that's why I enjoy Last Restaurant Standing so much, it's the same… but it's different. The show operates, usually, in a much more genial way than American reality shows; there seems to be little to no backstabbing, it's all about each team doing their best.

Actually, that's exactly why I felt like last night's episode took a weird, slightly disturbing, turn. When Raymond Blanc fired Lloyd and Adwoa, he explained, quite clearly, that Adwoa was fantastic, that she was a great cook and managed the kitchen beautifully. He then said that Lloyd was the weakness of the team, that he did, to put it plainly, a bad job managing the front of the house. If Adwoa was working with someone else, not her fiancé, it's entirely possible she could have won the competition.

I just wonder where they go as a couple now. I would hope that I would be a big enough person that my fiancée crushing all my hopes and dreams wouldn't cause me any sort of resentment, but that's kind of hard to take. I know I'd get over it eventually, but in the short term I think I'd be pretty angry. If the person you loved most in the world caused you to lose your dreams, you'd probably be angry, too.

I can't figure out why Raymond would frame his dismissing the couple from the competition in quite that way. It may have been truthful, but surely it should have been couched in more diplomatic terms, terms that may not have had the ability to create such a negative impact on the couple.

No? Am I wrong? Speak up if you think so.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"Sandcastles in the Sand" Leaves me Wanting to go to Back to the Mall

Sometimes it's the little things, the bits and pieces, that matter most. Everything in an episode of a show can be working perfectly, and then there's a snag. There's something, some little thing, that throws the show off kilter.

That seems to be what happened last night on How I Met Your Mother. It was the funniest episode in a long time, and then, all of the sudden, there was a moment that should have been great… but it wasn't. The new Robin Sparkles video, "Sandcastles in the Sand," her follow-up to "Let's go to the Mall" a video which should have been utterly fantastic, simply didn't click as well as the original. Granted, Robin explains in the episode that the follow-up was a disappointment and flop, but it simply wasn't flop enough to be really funny. Or, possibly, it was funny, but simply couldn't match the hilarity of the original video.

Here, you check them both out (original first, new song second), and you tell me what you think.

Sandcastles in the Sand

Sure, sure, that's Tiffany, Alan Thicke, and Dawson (the kid from the creek) in the second video, but maybe that's part of the problem too. Maybe they were trying just a little too hard to get that '80s vibe going. Maybe it was all just a little too forced.

The rest of the episode was funny; Robin's revertigo and wanting to hook up with Simon (Dawson) despite the fact that he was a complete loser worked, as did Barney's obsession with finding the new video. Plus, the episode didn't focus on Ted and his searching for his future wife, a storyline that, while crucially important, desperately needs to take a backseat from time to time. Heck, I didn't even mind the "surprise," although telegraphed, ending. I just wanted more out of Sparkles.

I also wanted more out of Top Gear, but I want more out of that show every single week. Oh, I don't mean that they don't deliver a great hour of television on an almost weekly basis, I just want it to be two or three hours of great television. I don't want the season to be ending. I want Hammond, Clarkson, and May to be in my life with new episodes all the time. I want every episode of Top Gear ready to go on my TiVo every single moment of the day.

Boy, that makes me sound weird and more than a little bit obsessed with the genius that is Top Gear, and yet, I think I am. I've called Top Gear "quite possibly the best show on television," and with every episode I watch I'm closer and closer to removing the "quite possibly" bit of that quote. It's funny, it's smart, and though the presenters are silly, they clearly quite love what they're doing.

Please, if you haven't checked out Top Gear yet, you need to before the current season ends. You just need to. It airs Mondays at 8 p.m. ET, and as far as I can tell, BBC America only has an East Coast feed, so you need to adjust for your time zone.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Nova Searches for the "Car of the Future"

This week, in its latest episode, Nova opts to deal with its serious subject in a somewhat more humorous manner.  In a cross-promotional effort, Nova has Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the hosts of NPR's Car Talk off searching for the car of the future (which also happens to be the episode's title).  They are, the show would have us believe off searching for a new car for Tom as his ancient Roadster is in need of serious repair.

During the episode, Tom and Ray search high and low, hither and yon, and just about everywhere in between in their search for what motor vehicles will be like in the future.  Along the way John Lithgow narrates the brothers' search, informing the viewer about the larger picture of what is taking place.  Said "larger picture" mainly deals with the environment and how our world's use of gasoline in the engines of cars is destroying it.

Not surprisingly, the episode premieres on April 22, 2008 – Earth Day.

Tom and Ray look at numerous different forms the "car of the future" might take, from fully electric, to ethanol hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and really, really small cars that operate on gas engines but are so tiny they get great mileage.  The brothers also check at the fare being offered by the huge car makers at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. 

The episode is huge in scope, as it attempts to point out the advantages and drawbacks of a multitude of different possible replacements for our current crop of cars as well as make Tom and Ray interesting, funny characters.  It is far more successful at the former than the latter, though even there it is, at times, a little weak.  A portion of the problem may be not just the fact that there are too many possibilities to be fully considered and there are some rather glaring problems (e.g., what will happen to food costs with if corn kernels are used to produce ethanol).

Of course, part of what the documentary is quite clearly saying is that there is no easy answer for how we are going to travel from one place to another in the future.  However, the episode does seem to be certain about one thing – it will take a lot of effort, and quite probably a lot of pressure from multiple sides, to move car makers in the direction of more "eco-friendly" vehicles (they give good lip service to their "green" efforts, but the piece makes it appear as though Detroit offers little more than lip service). 

Tom and Ray, the centerpieces of the show, are, more often than not quite genial and vaguely amusing.  The main downfall of the episode though are the handful of moments where it seems as though the Magliozzis are reading scripted dialogue… badly.  They may be witty and know a lot about cars, but the episode does make it clear that they are not actors.  I should also state, in all fairness, that Tom and Ray also provide many of the episodes amusing moments and, in their spontaneous moments, are great fun to watch. 

Even if the episode provides no firm answers (and there really are no firm answers it can provide), it does cause one to think about our future and what we might do to rectify our mistakes.  And that, it seems to me, is the purpose of Earth Day.

Nova – "Car of the Future" airs April 22 at 8pm, though, as always, one should always check their local listings. 

Friday, April 18, 2008

NBC Scrubs and Polishes up Thursday Night

I'd like to, just for a minute, thank NBC. Last night's comedy lineup was… funny. I didn't laugh out loud a lot, but I did once or twice, and I certainly felt a little jubilant watching the shows. Maybe it was just a little nitrogen narcosis from practicing my scuba diving a little earlier in the evening, but I don't think so (my understanding is that nitrogen narcosis disappears as soon as one goes to a lesser depth).

My Name is Earl didn't feature the titular Earl waking up from his coma, but it managed to be funny nonetheless. The vast majority of the episode took place in the past, when Earl was still in his "very bad things" phase. His father, played by the funny Beau Bridges (who knew?) was present and remembering just how Earl ruined his vacation to American Samoa by stashing a duffel bag full of Mendocino Greeno in his house. While I don't advocate the smoking of Mendocino Greeno (or any of its close relations), simply having it present apparently does make for funny television.

Funnier still was The Office, which is one of the few shows on television that has successfully been able to negotiate the pitfalls of having a will they/won't they romance go to the will they side and, hopefully, stay there. Now that Jim and Pam are together the whole thing feels so… right. That could be because we've known that they were always really together in their souls even if they weren't together in their lives. It makes the transition to actual romance go smoothly. Plus, so much of the best comedy on the show has always come from the two of them working together against someone else, and having their relationship succeed doesn't preclude those comic gems.

And then, Scrubs... ah, Scrubs. It's a show that I've always watched; in fact, I remember watching the pilot for the show back when I was interning on a studio lot one summer. From the first time I saw it I knew that I would continue to watch the show for the course of its run. I do, however, now feel like the show has run its course. There are babies running all over the hospital, Kelso needs to retire, and Cox hasn't had a good outburst in about a season. J.D. and Turk talking every week about how they're older now and have to grow up isn't the same as the two of them actually growing up, and their having children hasn't changed them either (even if they give some lip service to saying that it has).

NBC has said the show won't be back on their network next fall, but there is still some talk of ABC salvaging the show for another season. It's produced by ABC Studios, so that does make some sense, but I can't think of an historical example of a show, late in its run, changing networks and becoming a massive hit. If it ends up on ABC, I can't imagine it'll be there for more than a season and for any other reason than to fill a timeslot and sell another season's worth of DVDs. Don't mistake me, I'll be sad to see Scrubs disappear from television and it upsets me that if this is their final season it wasn't a full one, but if it goes to ABC I'm worried it'll just have the feeling of them staying at the party too long.

So, prove me wrong. I'd love someone to stand up and explain to me how it'll be pure genius to have the show come back on a different network next year.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Why Can't All Wars be Like Charlie Wilson's War?

One of the many war-related films to fall by the wayside last fall, Charlie Wilson's War hits the DVD shelves next week and, if the world is remotely fair, will garner more notice now than it did in the theaters. Directed by Mike Nichols with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, the film boasts the acting talents of Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Based on a real story and a book by George Crile about the real story, the film follows Charlie Wilson (Hanks) as he somehow, some way, manages to continually increase a covert operations budget that funnels money and munitions into the hands of Afghan freedom fighters. Wilson is spurred on in his efforts to support the anti-Russian Afghani forces by Houston socialite and ultra-right winger Joanne Herring (Roberts), and CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman).

Pushed into taking a trip to Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan by Herring, Congressman Wilson takes up the cause of the Afghani people trying to stem the Soviet invasion of their country. Wilson, as a member of the United States House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, had an inside track on being able to raise the amount of money going to support the Mujahedeen, but his plans are initially met with resistance from the CIA.

Once he meets Gust, everything starts to fall into place for Wilson. Well, everything save for a pesky little investigation being conducted by Rudy Giuliani (who is only mentioned in the film, neither he nor an actor portraying him is present) into purported wrong-doings on Wilson's part.

Hoffman, Hanks, and Roberts are all outstanding in the film, but the real star of the show is Sorkin's wonderful screenplay and his drawing of all the characters. He portrays Wilson as a deeply flawed man who drinks, womanizes, and may do some drugs too, but who essentially wants to do the right thing for the world.

Hanks, using both his dramatic and comedic skills, is more than up to the task of showing Wilson as a very smart, very funny, and somewhat troubled individual. The film may be slightly too forgiving of Wilson's shortcomings, but that is only because it is completely in awe of his ability to support the Afghanis through his myriad of contacts.

Hoffman, as Gust Avrakotos, brings to the role the complete dedication he seems to once again have for every part he takes (and this was noted in the myriad of award nominations he received for this part). Roberts' Herring isn't as fully fleshed out as the other two leading roles, but every time she is on screen her presence seems to move the whole focus of the piece to her.

Nichols is able to keep everything moving in the film at an incredibly brisk pace, never spending too much time in any single location or scene. However, due to this pace, time passes rather abruptly and the film does not do a very good job helping the viewer keep track of the year (the bulk of the film takes place between 1980 and 1989).

Between Nichols' direction and Sorkin's script, war never seemed like so much fun. The film is still very careful to, on several occasions, show the plight of the Afghan refugees, and while the size of the camp is staggering, the camp does not appear quite as terrible as one imagines it should.

Whether a true sentiment or a false one, the film is also very careful to point out that while we helped Afghanistan fight the Soviets, we completely failed them after the Soviet withdrawal. The film makes no bones about the fact that it was our failure to help build infrastructure in Afghanistan that would eventually lead to the Taliban's taking over the country and some of the problems we face in the Middle East today.

The DVD release of Charlie Wilson's War features both a behind-the-scenes "making of" documentary and a great look into who Charlie Wilson actually is. As with the rest of the film, both of these featurettes are wonderfully interesting.

In the final summation, Charlie Wilson's War may feature a somewhat simplistic view of politics and foreign policy, but rarely allows the time to contemplate these shortcomings. It is, very much, an Aaron Sorkin piece, and anyone who enjoyed his work on The West Wing or anywhere else will find something to like in the film.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Last Restaurant Standing Gets Truthy

For weeks I have been troubled by something on Last Restaurant Standing, only I had very little idea what it could be.  I knew that something was off, horribly, horribly off, but I couldn't quite figure it out.  Well my friends, I have solved the conundrum.  I have found my answer.  I realized why I felt so disjointed in the post-weekend service meetings Raymond Blanc.

The problem is that it's a weekend service.  The problem is that they discover the number of patrons the restaurants had on Friday and Saturday night.  The rest of the show however is made to make it appear as though it was all a single night's worth of service.  Everything is cut, right up until the meeting with Raymond, that the restaurants are only open for one evening, not two.  Bits and pieces of the two evenings, it seems, must be edited to together to form a single night in terms of the storytelling even though everything happens on two nights.

Now, that would be forgivable, allowing some narrative license is the norm on a reality show, if the judges didn't repeatedly reference the two nights of service when they talked with the couples at the end of the show.  If the show's desire is to make it appear as though there is only one night of service they have to stick with that, they can't make it appear as though there is only a single night of service and then suddenly talk about two nights.  It's just too confusing.

I like to think that I'm a smart person (occasionally I've been told otherwise), but it unnerves me to have this magic switch take place at the end of an episode.  Mostly I think that's because I can't tell whether the cameras are only showing a single night of service for each team and editing it alongside a different night of service for another team or whether they're cherry-picking the bits and pieces of each night for every team.  My problem is that I don't understand how I should see the episode, I don't understand how to backtrack and figure out what actually happened and not just what we're being shown.

We all know that reality television isn't really "real," it's highly edited and therefore lies some distance from the real.  It's important, I think, as with all television shows, to be able to differentiate between what we're being shown and what the "truth" of the situation is.  With Last Restaurant Standing opting to somehow, in a very unclear way, edit two nights of dinner service down so that it appears to be one night, I become lost.  I simply don't know how to work backwards and come to something closer to the "truth" of what happened. 

It leaves me very disjointed.  I enjoy the show, but I end up scratching my head trying to figure out what has taken place that I haven't witnessed.  A simple little explanation of how the elements are sifted in order to create a single whole or never, ever, referring to their being two nights of dinner service if I only see one, would go such a long way to making me feel a whole lot more comfortable.

I don't think that television should ever just be allowed to "wash over" you.  I don't for a moment think of it as a passive medium.  Good television is engaging, it causes viewers to think and wonder and contemplate.  I have a great deal of trouble when a show seems to, purposefully, make that contemplation more difficult.  Sure, I'm engaging with the show right here and now, but it's not the sort of fruitful discussion I would  have it be.  I'm not going to stop watching Last Restaurant Standing because of it, I just wish it were different.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

HIMYM Makes me go "Hmmmm..."

Sadly, at least in part, my televisual malaise continued last night.  The How I Met Your Mother episode we were treated to fell distinctly flat.  It should have been a good episode, it could have been a good episode, but, for some reason, it just didn't work out.

The episode featured one of the usual sure-fire paths to success for HIMYM, a brand new Barney-ism.  Virtually every time that Barney comes up with a new phrase or idea, or even puts a new spin on an old one the episode tends to be funny.  That just didn't happen with last night's "chain of screaming." 

The idea was simple enough (and I think that was the problem) – when a boss gets yelled at he tends to yell at those under him who yell at those under them and so on and so forth, thereby creating a "chain of screaming."  I remember the first paying job I had, where one of my bosses explained to me that "shit rolls downhill."  So I didn't really need Barney to explain to me, 15 years later, the exact same thing. And, Barney's notions about the world are funny when he is either wholly and completely wrong or shows us something that we never thought of before that is 100 percent right.  To have Barney state the completely obvious isn't funny or clever.

Perhaps that's why the show had Barney unable to truly name his idea, he couldn't decide whether it was a chain, circle, or pyramid.  But, I think it would be a bad sign if the show can no longer find the funny in Barney's ideas and has to resort to looking around the edges of them for humor. 

I was also distressed the mini-plot of Ted's having gotten a new car in no way referenced the fact that up until recently Marshall had a car (the poor Fiero).  It felt as though the writers completely forgot that Marshall had ever owned a vehicle (and yet an entire episode was centered on it) in New York City.  Last night's episode really needed one reference to Marshall's car and that old episode, one little nod to let us know that the producers remembered what they've done in the past.

It was actually terribly disconcerting that they didn't include such a reference, as one of the strengths of the show is its strong memory, they constantly reference old episodes.  To not have done so last night almost made it feel as though a completely different group of folks wrote the episode than the usual group.

In the end, I don't think the episode was a bad one, it just wasn't nearly as strong as it should have been and as the show usually is.  What with the strike and the shortened television season, I really feel as though every show needs to be firing on all cylinders all the time in order to make up for the minimal number of new episodes.

On the upside, and I'll just briefly toot my own horn here, Top Gear was not only new and wonderful, but their promo for next week used a quote from me.  Talk about genius…

Monday, April 14, 2008

Battlestar Makes Me Happy as the Housewives Leave me Cold

Maybe it's me, I don't know.

Last week I said that it felt like the return of NBC's Thursday night lineup was unimpressive. I felt the exact same way about the return of Desperate Housewives last night. Frankly, until the characters mentioned that there had been a tornado, I completely forgot. Carlos being blind felt like old news. Lynette's search for God after recovering from cancer seemed equally tired.

I don't know, I was so enthralled with the idea of the return of television following the writers' strike and now that stuff is back, I'm impressed by, at best, half of it. The television I'm most happy with isn't the stuff I was looking forward to when the television season began last fall, it's the stuff that was scheduled to start at a later date on cable (Battlestar Galactica, Monk, Psych, etc.) or the random stuff that I didn't know I wanted to watch that I found along the way (Top Gear).

Please, if you disagree with me, stand up and yell. If you were overjoyed with the return of Desperate Housewives last night, shout. If you watched the episode on the edge of your seat, simply too excited to contain yourself, I want to hear about it. I just can't fathom that anyone felt that way.

Yes, Desperate Housewives was the top rated show last night, it beat out everything else. But, if you watched, did you watch out of force of habit or because you were in love with it coming back?

Now, Battlestar Galactica -- that I watched this weekend because I was incredibly excited that it was on. Sure, I can accept that I may be placed somewhere in or adjacent to the "nerd" category because I'm excited for the final season of Battlestar Galactica, but that's a cross I'm completely willing to bear.

For a moment, just a moment, let's ignore the fact that the series takes place in the distant future and that there are robots that look like humans who want to destroy humanity and are willing to go to almost any length to wipe out the last remnants of their sworn enemy. The show is totally relatable. The situations and problems the characters deal with (save the near-extinction of the human race due to robots attacking it) are the sorts of things we, in our society, face all the time.

The series is about the search for home, the search for meaning, and the desire to find happiness and family. It projects problems that we deal with through this future-lens, but the problems are never so distorted that we can't see ourselves mirrored in the issues. Battlestar Galactica is one of those science fiction programs that does a brilliant job of creating a future that seems incredibly far off and yet speaks to our present problems.

And that is far more special, and far more fascinating, than whether Carlos Solis will ever get his eyesight back and if Gaby will leave him if he stays blind.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Looking for the Funny on Thursday Nights

NBC's Thursday Comedy lineup returned in full force last night.  It was the first time they'd had the full lineup on since early November.  Looking at the ratings, the country was singularly unimpressed with the return.

As for me, I don't know how I feel about it.  I have a soft spot for the network having worked for them for a few years and growing up during the heyday of "Must See TV."  Consequently I watch Earl, 30 Rock, The Office, and Scrubs even when they're not funny.  I wouldn't say that was the case last night, but it all felt far more like niche comedy than broader material.

At least the funny stuff seemed more niche.  Earl's more, for lack of a better word, broad humor look at the common tropes of the average old-school sitcom (Earl is in a coma and in his mind living in a '50s-style sitcom) was distinctly unfunny.  I'm not at all sure why the writers thought it would be clever to show us what happens in every single traditional family-based sitcom.  We know that already, don't we?  That's like me telling you that one plus one equal two.  It may be accurate, but you don't really need me to tell it to you.

I thought last night's The Office was incredibly funny, but it was all squirm-in-your-pants funny instead of laugh-out-loud funny.  Michael and Jan sucking everyone else into their deformed, dysfunctional relationship was funny because we've all seen similar things play out (though not to that extent) and can imagine ourselves there having to watch it all. 

It's certainly not everyone's brand of comedy, which is probably why The Office doesn't deliver huge numbers.  Sure, they're good enough and the show is liked critically, but it's no Friends or Cheers or Seinfeld.  How a spin-off of the show works (and there is one on NBC's lineup for next season) I'm just not sure.  Again, I'll be there and I'll watch it, but if it's the same sort of awkward humor that The Office revolves around, I don't know that it's really going to attract more viewers.  Maybe it'll be more broad, and maybe it'll have a greater mass appeal even if it's not.  I certainly hope it does (I don't root against too many shows).

With Scrubs and 30 Rock… those shows I watch much more for the characters than the funny.  They both have moments of greatness, but I think the characters on both shows are great.  How 30 Rock gets away, week after week, with making fun of television in general and NBC in particular I don't know, but I certainly love it.  Last night's show featured a hypothetical program called MILF Island, and I absolutely wonder if after watching 30 Rock some NBC development executive isn't pitching it to Jeff Zucker today as a real idea. 

Maybe, just maybe, MILF Island will put NBC back in the lead in the ratings game.  Stranger things have happened (but not by much).

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Tuesday Night Television Proves Itself Delicious

Yesterday I ate no solid food, so clearly I spent the entire night watching food-based programs.  Frankly, everything looked totally and completely delicious.

Last Restaurant Standing had the contestants in the challenge making -- or attempting to make, anyway -- microwavable meals.  The pictures on all the packages the teams came up with looked truly spectacular.  It didn't look quite as appetizing on the plates, but I think I still could have dug in to any of them quite happily, even the "healthy" stuff the women from Brown & Green (one of the restaurants) came up with.

The entire task actually helped highlight one of the big changes between British and American television.  The corporate folks judging the quality of the meals (as well as the packaging and sales pitch) had absolutely no problem telling the contestants exactly what they thought of the products.  There was no whitewashing of their opinion, and no holding back in order for Raymond Blanc to spring complaints on them.  A U.S. produced program would normally have had the special guest corporate-types straight-faced and quiet. 

The show did, however, fall into one of the traps that reality shows on this side of the pond frequently dip their toes in: they did not provide the teams enough times to actually do the task properly.  All the teams fared pretty poorly in one aspect or another of the challenge.  There wasn't enough time to cook the dish, or there wasn't enough time to truly research what was going into the dish, or there wasn't enough time to put together a semi-decent presentation.  There are always time constraints in producing a television show, but here the time restraints were simply too large for the teams to overcome.

My other food-based show last night, Hell's Kitchen, also had some pretty big challenges to overcome, but it was more successful.  This show, as I've said before, does the same thing year after year, and, amazingly, it still somehow works.  Last night, as happened last year, the contestants were forced to sift through garbage to see how much they wasted in the kitchen and to fillet fish. 

Somehow, despite it being old, it works.  The show works.  Perhaps it's that the personalities are different every year, and this allows for the producers to do the same thing over and over.  Perhaps it's that Gordon Ramsay seems to spew the same (or similar) epithets week after week while making it seem like they're brand new that makes it fun.  I tend to think it's not the contestants' personalities, at least not at this point.  We still don't have a good feeling for who they are; Ramsay (and perhaps Jean-Phillipe) is really why I tune in and I imagine that's the case for most people.  The contestants will come into play down the line, when we know more about them and when Ramsay softens up a little (as happens every year), but right now they're not at the heart of it.

There you have it, cooking shows ruled my Tuesday.  Boston Legal came back, and that was fun too, but it was the cooking shows that really did it for me last night.  Dare I even ask you what you watched?  Wait, let me guess, American Idol, right?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Top Gear Still Egg-cites Me

Every Monday morning I tell myself that I will not be discussing Top Gear come Tuesday. I have talked about the program enough, I have discussed its ups and bigger ups, and  you're probably tired of hearing about it. Then, Monday evening rolls around. Monday evening I watch Top Gear and I think to myself that I just have to, one last time, talk about Top Gear. I have to, just one more time, delve into its wonderfulness. So, come Tuesday, you read another Top Gear article. Are you watching the show yet? Because the season is almost over and you really need to check it out. If you don't, you'll regret it in the morning.

The main portion of last night's show featured the presenters doing their best to prove to themselves, the audience, and their producers that British Leyland Motors did in fact, at one time, produce a decent vehicle. Now, apparently their producers didn't believe our heroes so the producers made them go out and buy, with their own money, British Leyland-built cars and try and perform certain tests on them in order to prove that the cars were any good.

The tests ranged, in true Top Gear form, from the sublime to the ridiculous. There were pretty standard things like can the car actually get somewhere without breaking down (they couldn't), time trials (the cars were awful) , and whether or not the hand brake worked (allegedly two out of the three were operable). Then, there were the absurd tests, like making the car travel on an uneven road surface with a colander full of eggs about the driver's head; if the suspension on the car was any good, the eggs wouldn't break. There was also a water test, wherein the car was filled to the top with water and the driver, in a dry suit with a snorkel, had to drive as far around the track as he could before the water level dropped below the steering wheel. The notion here was that a well built car would fit together precisely and little water would leak out, whereas a poorly built one would leak like a sieve and not be able to get anywhere (as happened with one of the cars).

And, it is these tests that prove that the show is brilliant. The tests were both run-of-the-mill and over-the-top, but the over-the-top ones still proved a good point or two about the vehicles. I've never heard of British Leyland Motors before last night, but I was pulling for them to have built a decent vehicle, if only so that Hammond, Clarkson, and May could stick it to their so obviously evil producers. They didn't, maybe save May, but it was a nice thought.

Upsettingly, I think the show fudged a little last night. When it was Richard Hammond's turn to drive his car on the uneven road surface, there appeared to be something leaking from the colander with eggs in it before he began. I rewound, watched again, and there was almost certainly something dripping onto his head well before any egg should have been broken. Was it just water? Was it egg? Was the audience lied to in order to produce the wonderful visuals of egg running down our presenters' heads? That I can't say, but I would certainly like to know more.

So, there you have it. It was great, but it wasn't perfect last night. The show is still utterly brilliant, and there may be a great reason for the odd visual, but we'll probably never know.

I'm still going to watch next week though, and you really should, too.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Walk Hard Hardly Works

Watch just a few musical biopics from recent years and you'll see that they all have the same basic narrative -- a troubled childhood, initial success, a facing of demons, and eventually (usually, but not always) an overcoming of the demons and acceptance of who the person is. It's a pretty tried and true formula, and one that easily earned Oscars for Ray and Walk The Line. In fact, the formula seems at times so generic that spoofing it should be incredibly easy.

Enter Judd Apatow and last year's Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Directed by Jake Kasdan (Freaks and Geeks) and written by Kasdan and Apatow, the film stars John C. Reilly. Reilly is the titular Dewey Cox, a boy from the south who grew up in the '30s and '40s and went on to music super-stardom only to see his life crumble due to his drug use and inability to get over killing his brother with a machete when he was eight.

Presumably it is this sort of moment in the film that is supposed to be where the humor is found. The macheteing of Nate, Dewey's older brother and the "good" son, is the sort of over-the-top, played for laughs moment that the film uses to differentiate itself from a true biopic. The basic problem with the notion is that as viewers have already seen an escalation in the heights musicians rose to and depths to which they fell in biopics through the years that very little that appears in Walk Hard seems overreaching. Yes, the unfortunately cut in half Nate probably would be unable to speak to Dewey after his macheteing, but that's about it.

From there everything that happens to Dewey follows an incredibly predictable path, with very few deviations. The jokes seem very - for lack of a better term - skit-based. As the story doesn't deviate from a well-worn path from scene to scene, virtually all the jokes are attempts to make a scene slightly more over-the-top than it would be in a true biopic -- Cox doesn't just have a pet monkey, he has a pet giraffe too -- but, while a joke, that's not actually funny. It's all too likely that a celebrity, and not just a Michael Jackson type, would buy a giraffe as a pet. The movie also has a running gag or two throughout, but the main one, with Tim Meadows' band member character, Sam, encouraging Dewey to not do drugs, falls very flat. It ends up like a bad Saturday Night Live skit where the actors repeat the same lines over and over hoping to, eventually, get a laugh, even if it's only from the awkwardness of trying to tell the joke again.

One saving grace of the film are the performances. John C. Reilly gives the role his all, pulling off the manic, dim-witted, Dewey with incredible believability (perhaps this is actually one of the film's problems). Reilly is fantastic on stage as Cox and actually almost manages to elicit sympathy in some of the film's more dramatic scenes. Without a solid script behind him, Reilly has to do far more heavy lifting here to make the film entertaining than ought to be required, and he almost manages to pull it off.

Reilly's supporting cast is also solid. Kristen Wiig as Dewey's first wife, the one that can't handle his stardom, is pitch-perfect in her role, as is Jenna Fischer as Dewey's second wife, the one with whom he finds true love before losing it and finding it again. But, even here, despite the fact that the characters are entirely believable, there's nothing funny for them to do.

In the end, the absolute best part of the film itself is the music. Dewey's songs successfully ape multiple styles of music, get one toe-tapping, and the vast majority of the funny lines appear within them.

The 2-disc DVD release of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story contains the theatrical version of the film, a grossly extended version entitled American Cox: The Unbearably Long, Self-Indulgent Director's Cut. This extended cut beats the 96 minute theatrical version by another 24 minutes. While it contains a few more laughs than the theatrical version, only diehard fans will be interested in spending the extra time with it. There are, however, numerable other, more interesting, extras included on the disc. From an interesting short "making of" featurette to a look at how a scene with a bull was filmed to a behind-the-scenes pseudo-mock featurette on a penis that appears in the film, it is quite clear that the production staff was terribly dedicated and talented.

It is unfortunate that the talented cast and crew that were assembled here did not put together a better feature. While there are a few jokes, and certainly enough to sustain the amusement of some, the film has the feeling of something that should have been better. The observation that musical biopics tend to all have the same plot is a valid one, but not enough to build an entire film.

If it were possible to give the film a do-over, allow Apatow, Kasdan, and everyone else one more shot to make this a great movie, I think that they would be hugely successful. All the pieces are there, save a solid, funny, script, and it's clear from the songs (even if you didn't know their resumes) that the guys can write funny stuff; it's just that they didn't this time around. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is passable, but could, and should, have been so much more.

Friday, April 04, 2008

His Name may be Earl, but Where are his Numbers?

Last night My Name is Earl returned to the NBC lineup with a new episode for the first time since January.  And, let's face it, there shouldn't have been that one episode in January because it was the Christmas episode which the network opted to delay by a month. 

Sadly for everyone involved (including me, who watched the entire hour-long episode) it was not a triumphant return.  The show lacked a crucial, essential, ridiculously important element - humor.  The show was not funny.  There were a few moments here and there that caused a chuckle, but over the course of the hour there were fewer funny moments than one can find in a good sitcom episode before the first commercial break.  It felt like the episode was just slapped together and rushed into production (entirely possible depending on the state of the script prior to the strike), and the Jeff Zucker recap/introduction didn't help matters, as it definitely made it appear as though the show ran short, that there wasn't even enough unfunny plot last night to last for an hour.

Where does that leave us?  What should we, the viewer, be expecting in this post-strike landscape from NBC? 

I'm happy you asked that, because the network unveiled its schedule for the fall this week, and the answer to the question is:  not much.  Some shows are gone (Bionic Woman, Las Vegas, and Scrubs among others), and at least one other will be entering its final season (ER).  But, critical favorite Friday Night Lights will be back as NBC was able to work out a co-production deal with DirecTV to offset their costs (the deal allows DirecTV to air the new episodes before the network does).  There will even be a spinoff of The Office on the schedule.

I know I'm going to get hammered for saying this, but, why?  The Office is fun, and I enjoy it, but the numbers aren't huge for the series, why will the spinoff be a breakout success?  I get that Friday Night Lights has a terribly devoted following, and I'm not going to say anything bad about the show, but the fact remains that very few people watch it.  Then, the network is going to air stuff like a new Knight Rider series (remember that terrible TV movie from a couple of months ago, yeah, it'll be based on that). 

I could be wrong, but I just don't see the network pulling itself out of its ratings slump with its proposed programming lineup.  I'm absolutely going to be watching the new Merlin show (yes, it apparently takes place in King Arthur's court), but not everyone out there shares my sense of geekdom.  I'll also be watching Chopping Block come summer of 2009, but that's only because I currently watch Last Restaurant Standing on BBC America, and this seems like the same show, but done in New York City.

I hope for a breakout hit for the network, goodness knows you only need one or two new shows to hit in order to be successful again, and I have a soft spot for the network I once worked at.  I just don't see where the hit is.  All the shows feel like possible niche successes, but not mass appeal ones. 

Have you seen the schedule?  Do you think I'm wrong (and I hope I am)?

Major League Baseball 2K8 Swings for the Fences (and Ekes out a Double)

Sporting games in general, and baseball in particular, seems like a perfect fit for the Nintendo Wii.  The Wii's motion sensing controls allow for replication of the arm movements that allow pitchers to throw and batters to swing.  Nothing, save virtual reality or a rapid increase in skills, could better place a player within a game. 

Enter 2K Sports's Major League Baseball 2K8, the first full baseball sim game for the Wii (there are arcade titles and more niche stuff currently available too).  MLB 2K8 is, sadly, one of those games that promises much more fun than it actually delivers.  The basic elements are all there, and the game provides a decent amount of enjoyment, but there are a myriad of issues with the title that make it no better than adequate.  There is no single element in the game that one can look at without seeing problems accompanying it.

The majority of the gameplay centers on the "Franchise" mode, where the player selects a team and manages the team, including trades, contracts, and accompanying paraphernalia, over the course of several seasons.  However, without the addition of minor leagues (farm teams do exist but are not playable), and having to truly struggle with a budget and fan base, it really isn't that deep at all.  It is, however, the one mode in which you can select which team you wish to play as and follow the team for an extended period.

Even something that should be as simple as batting isn't not as clean as it needs to be.  Swinging the Wii remote (either righty or lefty) swings the batter's bat, and the harder the Wii remote is swung the harder, allegedly, the ball is hit.  Yet, all too often the game registers a full swing as a checked one, leaving the player shocked in dismay as their cleanup hitter allows strike three to pass by down the middle of the plate with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth.

Worse than that however is the fact that it is nearly impossible to load the bases.  Despite being a simulator- and not arcade-style game, it is far, far easier to hit a homerun than it is to string together a series of smaller hits to advance runners.  Even without trying the ball flies out of the park with ease.  That is, it flies out with ease except for numerable miraculous over-the-wall catches the computer makes on a regular basis.  Rarely do 9 innings pass where five or more homeruns are not hit and two or three wall climbs do not stop more.   It is true that I played as the near and dear to my heart New York Yankees, but expecting Jeter, Rodriguez, Abreu, Matsui, and Giambi to all hit more than 50 home runs in a season (with a bunch more players sitting at around 30)  stretches the bounds of credibility… if only slightly.

Base running is confusing at best, with a myriad of different buttons to push and places to point the Wii remote in order to advance single or multiple runners.  The manual included with the game is incredibly brief and does not delve into important points, like how to slide, leaving the player with no choice but to attempt to find the controls out for themselves or hunt through the tips and tricks available in-game. 

Defense is somewhat more straightforward and less frustrating.  The pitching mechanism is easy to understand and requires relatively little time to perfect.  The simulator does become distressing however with the incredible change of pace many pitchers have between their windup and stretch deliveries.  It may be that this is accurate, but the change is certainly jarring and leads to more than a few meatballs being tossed at batters with runners on base. 

This last problem would be far more forgivable if the instructions for the player to wall climb (or make a jumping catch) tended to result in a wall climb (or a jumping catch) and not one's outfielder diving head first into the wall.  There are moments when the game performing the move does result in a jump, but all too often the outfielder ends up splayed out on the grass as a ball just barely gets over the wall (this is made all the more frustrating by the computer's wall-climbing to save homeruns on a regular basis). 

As if those problems weren't enough, the graphics are distinctly disappointing.  It would be kind to call them "previous generation-like," particularly as players' faces were far more recognizable on All-Star Baseball 2003 on the Gamecube than they are here.

Things are not helped by the camera angles here, as catchable foul pop-ups are regularly made uncatchable because the game opts to show the ball going way up into the air as opposed to showing the field.  This makes it impossible to direct a defensive player to get underneath the ball because the defensive player is not visible (and there are no helpful arrows to point the way either).

As for the menus, the setup screens entering a specific game allegedly allow one to change the weather conditions and stadium, but no combination of button pushing in any combination seems to alter the conditions, or change the stadium (which the screen should do too).  The anemic manual is no help here as it does not even discuss the game setup screen and the in-game help is equally useless.  It also doesn't help that these game setup screens require the "+" button to advance where the rest of the game uses the "A" button.  It is almost as though the game shipped without the menus being made fully functional.

Joe Morgan and Jon Miller provide pretty solid play-by-play, though they do call the wrong player's name on a fairly regular basis (maybe five percent of the time).  The game also features a Homerun Derby and create-a-player section, both of which are amusing, but don't add terribly much depth to the title.

Somehow, for all its problems, and they are, as described above, legion, the game still has something going for it.  There are issues galore, but picking up a Wii remote and playing the game is still, undeniably, fun.  Getting a pitcher out of a jam with a well-placed curveball allowing for a 6-4-3 double play leaves the player with enough of a sense of accomplishment to put up with all problems.  Smacking that walk off homerun in the 10th inning of a tied ballgame is a great feeling, no matter how many other homeruns one has already hit that day. 

None of the issues the game presents are insurmountable, they are just discouraging (as is the fact that there is no downloadable roster update modifying the MLB teams to what they were at the start of this year's season).  Major League Baseball 2K8 is a solid first attempt at launching the franchise on the Nintendo Wii, but a lot of work needs to be done on it prior to the 2K9 edition. 

MLB 2K8 doesn't hit a homerun by any means, but it's a definite leadoff double.  Hopefully next year they'll hit it out of the park.

Major League Baseball 2K8 is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB.

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Serving up one Delicious Night of Television

Last night proved to be an all-cooking one for me. Not spending time in my kitchen (save for a trip to the fridge for a beer), but spending time in some television ones. First up, BBC's Last Restaurant Standing, a show I like but which doesn't always make sense.

The show is structured around having all the teams open their restaurants one week and then Raymond Blanc deciding which three of the teams performed worst and making them do some sort of challenge the next week to see who will be eliminated. It's a great idea, but Raymond's concerns and reasons for putting a team into the challenge aren't alleviated through the challenge.

Once again yesterday, Blanc told Jeremy and Jane that he was terribly concerned about the concept behind their restaurant, which revolves around a fixed eight-course menu. They offer a la carte items as well (or, they do now, because they didn't at first). Blanc, understandably is more than a little worried that this eight-course fixed menu is more than a diner wants. The entire notion of the restaurant, which is called "Eight in the Country" revolves around the set menu, so that can't really be changed either.

Blanc put Jeremy and Jane into the elimination challenge because he's worried about the branding of the restaurant and this eight-course thing. We won't find out about what the challenge is until next week, but as they all revolve around cooking and impressing a large number of customers I can't imagine that this time around it's going to be to create a PowerPoint presentation about why their restaurant concept is a good one. It probably won't even be about why the concept is good at all, as Blanc doesn't have the same fears about the other two couples in the challenge. And, without the challenge being to prove the restaurant's concept it won't alleviate Blanc's fears about Jeremy and Jane's place. So, why bother?

Of course, "why bother" is the exact same question I had about Dominic last night on Hell's Kitchen. He was the one guy without formal training as a chef, which meant that he could never win the competition. And, sure enough, he was booted last night in the first elimination of the season. Why did the producers bother bringing him on? Why did he bother going on? Surely everyone involved knew he couldn't win? Did Dominic do it because he wanted to be on television? Did the producers do it because they needed at least one person who didn't clearly have formal training as a chef?

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy Hell's Kitchen, heck, read my review of it. It's not brilliant, but it's good fun. I get that it's not all about the cooking, that it's somewhat about the competition and mostly about Ramsay hurling epithets at surprisingly unsuspecting contestants, but shouldn't all the contestants be viable candidates? Or, am I just making too much of it? Probably Dominic was just there for his 15 minutes, and, sadly for him (but not us as he wasn't terribly interesting), they're up.

It was kind of delicious to watch, though.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Top Gear Races off with my Heart

Last week I didn't focus on it, so this week I'm kind of required to.  It's not in my contract or anything, it's just in my soul.  It's a burning well of desire and utter happiness.  It's a shining little light somewhere deep in my gut which may be the reason I need a colonoscopy next week, but right now makes me overjoyed.  It is a little television show known as Top Gear

As Archie repeatedly told Edith, stifle.  If you haven't watched the show I'm not going to sit here and let you tell me that my exuberance is irrational.  My exuberance is not only well-grounded, but well-founded.  The more episodes I watch of Top Gear, the more convinced I am of the pure genius of the program. 

I've stated it before, but it may not be bad to reiterate, I'm not a gear head.  I couldn't explain to you the difference between an independent rear suspension and the apparently much cheaper torsion bar.  I couldn't tell you the horsepower of my car.  I can tell you that it has Michelin Energy MXV4 tires, but that's only because in the less than two years I've had the car I've replaced three of them. 

Sure, James May and Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond (the show's presenters) may think it horrid of me to not know these piddling facts about cars, but I don't care.  It's wholly irrelevant for liking Top Gear.  The genius of the program is that it stands on its own, it exists as spectacularly good entertainment without knowing these things.  If I did know more about cars it's entirely possible that I would be over the moon watching Top Gear, but as it stands, I've reached orbit.

Last night the nutters went out and created a motor home grand prix.  Hammond and May drove motor homes to a racetrack in Essex, and proceeded to race professional drivers (of real cars, not motor homes) around the course.  Sure, the rules stated that despite the fact that "rubbin' is racin'" no bumping would be allowed, but it didn't take too long before some jostling occurred and some motor homes got destroyed.  No one was hurt (presumably anyway), despite the fact that one motor home actually flipped onto its side, and even my wife (who claims not to like Top Gear, though I am quite sure she is lying) was laughing as the race proceeded.

The whole crazy thing was capped off by the even more ludicrous motor home Clarkson claims he would have raced had he been invited.  The home featured marble everything, a plasma TV, which as Joey Tribbiani would have it "appeared as if from nowhere" and a swell little two-seater sports car hidden underneath the motor home.  For those of you who are curious, Clarkson informed everyone that sans the sports car the mobile home cost 750,000 pounds.  Yup, 750,000 pounds.

The one thing I wanted to know that we weren't told is whether any of the homes have actually been sold.  I imagine that the people that have that kind of disposable income tend not to be buying mobile homes, but maybe I'm wrong. 

So, let me throw it out there… if you had 750,000 pounds lying around would you be buying some massive über-ridiculous mobile home?