Tuesday, September 30, 2008

HIMYM Brings the Funny

After such a disappointing latter-half of the season last year, I have been pretty happy with How I Met Your Mother's two episodes thus far this season.  Last night in particular was hugely funny.  I spent a good long time thinking about exactly what it was so funny, and I think that the answer is that it was a small plot.  There wasn't much story to get out, so the show was able to concentrate on bringing the funny instead of exposition. 

It had the flavor of Seinfeld's Chinese restaurant episode, which for my money is one of the single greatest sitcom episodes ever written.  The basic plot last night featured the HIMYM gang helping Marshall on his quest to rediscover the greatest hamburger in the city of New York.  They were doing it not just for their own edification, but to help their friend cope with his depression over his unemployment. 

The audience was pretty much clear on the fact that Marshall took (or was going to take) a job at Goliath National Bank (which Barney's company had just purchased).  This allowed us to sit back and watch the goings-on with an air of amusement more than a sense of concern (always helpful in a comedy). 

The episode itself was full of fantastic one-liners as the gang ate hamburgers ate three different places in an attempt to find Marshall's burger.  Some of them were a bit more racy than I would have imagined that the producers could have gotten away with, but I was thrilled that they did. 

The episode was just chock full of goodness, which wasn't a sense that I got from the second episode of Boston Legal's final season.  I checked out the opening credits last night to see who was still there at the firm, and confirmed my suspicion that so many of the secondary characters from last year were in fact gone.  I didn't really care too much for many of the secondary characters, but the offices do seem empty without them.  Jerry and Katie are great as secondary figures, but the lack of other associates I find perplexing.

Trying to find the silver lining about the cast, I decided that a paired down cast will mean that John Larroquette's character ought to get more storylines and more screen time.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with that.  It's actually a little amazing if you think about it – Boston Legal may not have a huge secondary group of characters anymore, but they have an absolutely incredible set of main actors.  Consider it, they have James Spader, William Shatner, Candace Bergen, and John Larroquette.  That's a pretty impressive roster for a show on its last legs.  I guess most of the money on the production is going to those folks' salaries, which is why there isn't much to spare for anyone else. 

Finally, and briefly, Heroes seems to be on a good track so far this season.  The Sylar-HRG relationship is an odd one, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how that plays out.  I don't imagine that they'll remain cordial very long (even one can consider them cordial right now), but we'll have to see.  Maybe I'm wrong, maybe HRG will decide that Sylar's "methods" of eliminating the villains are more important than what Sylar did to his daughter.

Nah, that's not believable even for superhero-based show.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Desperate Housewives' Leap into the Future

Okay, last night Desperate Housewives premiered.  That means today we need to talk about this five year jump that the show is doing – is it the last gasp of a desperate series or a genius way to reinvigorate it?

I honestly don't know. It feels as though it's a last gasp, but I didn't think that the show was gasping its last. I hate to use the phrase, I disagree with the phrase, but I need to ask, did our friends on Wisteria Lane jump the shark last night? Why, I ask you, would they jump the show five years into the future? Why?

I'll give you that last night's episode was fun to watch (everything but Gaby's storyline anyway), but I really only found it fun because I was curious about what happened during the five years we didn't see, not what was happening right then.  And, from what we saw, not much of interest happened during those five years.  Here's what I got - the twins' disobedience only got worse, Susan sabotaged her relationship with Mike in a way that couldn't be repaired, Gaby had kids, and Bree lost the baby that wasn't hers anyway. 

I guess that if the producers were dead set on those being the big events over the course of the five years we missed, it was better that they skipped them, but I have the nagging sensation that they could have come up with a little bit more. 

Plus, you didn't actually think Mike was dead because of the accident, did you?  No discussion of a body and no discussion of a funeral meant that Mike wasn't dead.  Sure, there's a story about Orson getting taken back by Bree (and presumably it involves his going to jail), but I'm betting that was her first grasp at rebuilding her life after losing the baby that wasn't hers.  And, as for Gaby, I'm not sure where they think they're taking that story.  If the whole story about her daughter's weight is transformed into the story of how Gaby gets her body back I think it might make me ill.  The message that would send is horrific.

The Amazing Race also started up last night, and at this point I remain unconvinced that I can root for any of the teams.  I found something moderately objectionable about each group, and, a bunch of them don't seem that smart.  There were two occasions last night where at least one group didn't bother to go to follow race flags, opting to do their own thing instead.  Okay, I can understand the mistake getting made once, but it occurring a second time, even if it was to a different team is just plain foolish. 

I still think it's consistently one of the best reality shows on television, but what we saw last night makes me think we may be in for a lackluster season.  Sure, there will be some truly outstanding bits, and I'll eventually find some group to root for, but right now I'm kind of low on candidates.  The frat boys top the list right now, but not by much. 

How about you?  Housewives go too far?  Race get too foolish?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Thursday Night TV - It's Like a Cadbury Creme Egg... Sort of

So, what did television have to offer us last night? Well, if you're like me, you watched two episodes of Kitchen Nightmares, two episodes of My Name is Earl, and then washed it all down with a deliciously long hour of The Office. If you are really me you also ate your last Cadbury Creme Egg until the day after Easter 2009. Really, they go on sale the day after Easter and I stock up with enough to last me months on end. In 2007, when I moved across the country, I packed some so that when my furniture finally I arrived I could celebrate properly.

Okay, you may think all of that irrelevant, but it's not. Capping the night with the premiere of The Office was kind of like capping my move with a Cadbury Creme Egg. The shelf life is just incredible. So many of Michael's references are hugely dated, so watching the show years from now they'll seem equally dated. The Pam and Jim love story is a classic, as is the delicious mix of milk chocolate and liquidy pretend egg. And, just like Dwight Schrute, a Cadbury Creme Egg is… well never mind, enough foolishness.

Seriously though, The Office seemed like it was on last night, and it really did give me some hope for the year as a whole. I think that it was smart of them to break the hour long episode into discrete week-by-week segments that followed the Scranton branch's summer doings. Some of the hour-long episodes last year lagged, and I didn't feel that about last night.

The fact that The Office and Earl both went for an hour, just like they did last year, did cause me to fear for NBC's schedule. It feels like they're riding the series that they do have a little too hard, what with Heroes doing two episodes when it premiered also. But, I guess that if the choice is more stuff like Knight Rider, they may not have made the wrong decision.

Did you watch that show on Wednesday? Even I felt embarrassed for everyone involved. From the opening taking place at "Foreign Consulate, USA" to a Michael-seeking missile to the genius idea of stripping naked so as to remain cool when KITT was on fire to umpteen other ridiculous moments, I was shocked by the show. Literally shocked. I'm all for goofy fun, and this seems to be attempting to go into the goofy fun mold, but it kind of failed on both the goofy and the fun.

As for Earl? I liked to seeing him back to trying to fix mistakes over the course of a single episode as opposed to last season's horrific prison followed by coma followed by marriage multi-episode story arcs. Why anyone thought those were a good idea I can't fathom and I was really pleased that they don't seem to be going that direction this year.

Instead, last night featured some good storytelling, some interesting mistakes and truly Earl-like ways of fixing them. It was back to the show's bread and butter, and definitely a good thing.

If you watched you know that the highlight of the night was Randy. In the first episode, he showed that he, Randy, can act (and did a really good Buffalo Bill from The Silence of The Lambs). It could be a new thing for Randy to do this season and I'd love for Randy to actually do something he's good at. He has a tendency to be just a little too dumb to be believed, so if the show can give him a talent, it'll help ease the dumb stuff. In the second episode Randy had a swell doll named Milo who insisted on always telling the truth, it was kind of like Randy's conscience. Sure, it got decapitated and then burned, but that doesn't mean it wasn't like Randy's conscience. So, there you have it, My Name is Earl is just like a Cadbury Creme Egg – ooey, gooey and just a little bit odd.

And, it wasn't even a bad night of television.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Leatherheads - A Not-So-Hard-Hitting Football Comedy

Some movies just scream out "Love me! I need you to love me!" Watching a comedy that falls into this trap is grossly disappointing. Not only do the vast majority of the jokes tend to fall flat, but the performances, which are meant to be ingratiating, prove little more than grating. One of the most recent Hollywood films to fall into this trap, Leatherheads, arrived on DVD this week.

A period piece that plays out in the 1920s, the film stars and is directed by George Clooney. The story follows Jimmy 'Dodge' Connelly (Clooney) as he tries his best to turn professional football into a major sport instead of a minor attraction. His plan is relatively simple: collegiate football is hugely popular so by recruiting the game's biggest star and a hero of World War I, Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), Connelly believes that professional football will become popular as well. When he is promised a significant amount of the box office take, Rutherford - or more precisely his leech of an agent, C.C. Frazier (Jonathan Pryce) - accepts Connelly's offer.

Connelly's troubles don't end there, however, as a newspaper reporter, Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), is trying to find corroboration for a tip she received that Carter's status as a war hero is undeserved. As Lexie pursues her story, Connelly and Carter pursue her, and both pursue dreams of football, and financial, glory.

The film not only takes place over a half-century ago, it also attempts to revive a style of comedy - screwball comedy - that was popular over a half-century ago. Leatherheads certainly attempts to infuse itself with elements of screwball comedy -- there are attempts at witty repartee and slapstick, and the film certainly revolves around courtship -- but all of these elements fall exceedingly flat. Virtually no joke in the film is funny, the "witty repartee" more often than not lacks any form of wit, and the courtship is both obvious in where it is heading and wholly unbelievable.

The three leads in the movie - Clooney, Krasinski, and Zellweger - are all hugely talented and have all performed far better in comedic roles in the past. Krasinki's performance is the best of the three, and much of that is due to the fact that his character is the most strait-laced. His main job is to be young and earnest and to let everything else happen around and to him. It was not his fault that he was made into a war hero, he can't help it if everyone in the country wants to see him play ball, and he's not orchestrating the various advertising campaigns that picture him. All of that is being done for and to him. He is just young, earnest Jim from The Office, except here he doesn't play as many practical jokes and can catch a football. Jim may be funnier than Carter, but the two are very similar.

Clooney and Zellweger have also played similar roles to the ones they have here, and to far greater effect. They have both proven themselves capable of playing fun, clever film leads, and thus their not doing so here is a disappointment. Clooney's Dodge Connelly spends far too much time mugging for the camera and those around him, trying to get by on his movie star looks and smile. Without much of a script behind him however, his looks and smile only carry him so far and the same is true for Zellweger.

In the end, there are better football movies, better George Clooney movies, better Renée Zellweger films, better romantic comedies, and better examples of the screwball comedy genre. And, while the film certainly wants us to love it, there is little here to truly allow it to endear itself to an audience. Looking at the basic notion of the film and its cast, one expects much more than what ends up on the screen.

The DVD release of Leatherheads features the usual assortment of deleted scenes, a feature commentary with Clooney and producer Grant Heslov and making-of featurettes. The look at the effects sequences is enlightening, particularly with its split screen between the original footage and final look at the film, but the feature itself disappoints so greatly that I can't imagine many people will want to watch how it was made.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fringe Goes a Little (Anti-)Psychotic

Out of all the things that Eureka does well, and there are several, multi-episode story arcs aren't  among them.  Season one was a disaster in terms of that, they seemed to have a vague idea from time to time about some sort of hidden long-term plot, but didn't go very far with it.  They improved upon that last year, but this year they came up with a whole new problem. 

While they certainly seemed to know where they were going the whole time, but the time they got there it was all rather disappointing.  They spent tonight, the season finale, exploring the season-long plot and, when it came right down to it, they could have done the whole thing in a single episode rather than dragging out the story over the course of umpteen episodes. 

The thing of it is, while that may sound distressing, it wouldn't have made for a bad season finale if it had been a self-contained episode.  It was only disappointing because they dragged it out over so many episodes to wind it up without having a serious punch.  Any story dragged over so many episodes ought to have been far more nefarious than what we were given tonight.

Now, as for Fringe, I just don't know what to tell you.  If you were watching show you almost certainly remember the diner scene just after the first commercial break.  Crazy Walter Bishop is sitting there with his son, Peter, who notes Dad putting powder into his iced tea.  Peter assumes that Walter has brought his own sweetener, but it turns out that Walter is just self-medicating with some homemade drugs.  Walter then lists the drugs he's dropped into the tea to Peter who remarks that they are all "psychotics."  And this guy, Peter, is supposed to be some kind of super genius.  Walter, who is also supposed to be a super genius, doesn't disagree with his boy (in fact the opposite happens, he agrees wholeheartedly). 

What then is the problem? 

Well, you see, those drugs Walter listed are not in fact psychotics (which isn't even a real group of drugs). As any medical student worth their salt could tell you, if you're going to group them all together they're best described as anti-psychotics.  Those would then in fact not be the same thing, but you probably don't need to be a super genius to figure that one out. 

The thing about the mistake is, that this is, purportedly a science-based show.  The title relates to science, two of the three main characters are scientists, the whole thing pretty much revolves around science.  But, they still messed this up… badly.  Anyone doing a modicum of fact-checking should have picked up on the error.  Clearly someone researched the drugs enough to be able to use their names and to make sure that they all went together.  So, research was done, but either it was done half-heartedly or was used half-heartedly.  Either way it doesn't make me feel good about the episode, which, I otherwise liked.  It was a creepy and weird and perfectly interesting case.  It's just too bad that they destroyed it for me before it the episode really got started. 

How does a science-based show mess this up?  Are they just assuming that we're all too foolish to figure it out?  There's nothing else to call the mistake except massively disappointing.  The producers are of course playing fast and loose with the "fringe" science, but they're staying in the audience's good graces with the frings stuff is at least partially dependent upon their correctly stating real science.  Otherwise it's like they're trying to build the fifth layer of a house of cards without bothering to do the first four.  It can't possibly work. 

And, consequently, I just don't know where that leaves me and the show.  Maybe I'll figure it out next week, but I'm not holding out much hope.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The New Season of Monday Night Television is Officially Open for Business

Oh man was there a lot of television on last night, I don't even know where to being.  We had two hours of Heroes, Top Gear, Terminator:  The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Boston Legal, and How I Met Your Mother.  And, Chuck and My Own Worst Enemy didn't even air last night.  Things are going to get awfully busy on Mondays this fall.

So, let's start with the end, Boston Legal.   When production wrapped at the end of last season, Boston Legal still hadn't been renewed for this season, and consequently the season finale was meant to serve, if needed, as a series finale.  Denny and Alan finished the season by going fishing and there was a great scene of the empty offices at Crane, Poole, & Schmidt.  It was more serious than Boston Legal usually gets, but it worked wonderfully. 

Consequently, they got renewed for this season and had to start the whole thing up again.  It was not really a problem in terms of story, as all that had to happen was for Denny and Alan to come back from their fishing trip, but it did mean that the great last season in the season finale wouldn't close the show.  They now are left with needing to find something better to do this year. 

I tend to think they can manage to figure something out.  It is true that I'm convinced that the series' best days are behind it (and departed at around the same time as Julie Bowen, Mark Valley, and Rene Auberjonois), but the wind hasn't completely left the show's sails yet.  And, while I was happy to see the show return to my TiVo last night, I was moderately disappointed by the episode itself. 

First, there was only one case and it was a case the episode didn't go into great detail about.  Instead, we were left with the usual "Alan had a relationship with the opposing counsel" story, and Denny having Denny-type issues (in this case, his little soldier stopped being able to salute).  At this point I can't even suggest that they could have bolstered the episode with a second case taken on by some other attorney at the firm, because I have no idea who is still on the show.  Their revolving door of lawyers leads me to disbelieve anything I see in the opening credits about who is there, so I'm not even going to go by the names listed in them.

I still honestly believe, and maybe I'm only fooling myself here, that they can and will do better as this last season progresses.  I think that come the series finale I'm going to feel as though I'll miss the show, and I know that won't happen if the plots are as shallow as they were yesterday.

You know what, we're only going to talk about one other show from last night, I could do hundreds of words on my liking the Heroes premiere but also being pretty sure that the show will never recapture the first season's wonderfulness.  That one of the problems with the show disappearing for 10 months is that when it started last night I had no idea what was going on in anyone's life because I didn't remember last season's fine.  But, I'm not going to do that, instead, HIMYM.

I have to say, they have my curiosity piqued.  I'm not yet convinced that Stella is the mother of Ted's future children, but it seems like a definite possibility at this point.  She seems truly committed to Ted, and even if Ted doesn't know anything about her (as last night taught us), he seems committed to her too.  I'm a little ambivalent about whether or not she turns out to be the mother, I think the show can work either way.

My bigger problem is that I'm in no way ambivalent about Barney hoping for a relationship with Robin - I just don't know how I feel about it.  That's right, my feelings are strong, but I'm not sure what they're saying.  It seems to me like they could work as a couple, that there's actually some sort of logic there that makes sense, but I'm not sure that I want Barney to change his lothario ways.  If the show can make it so that Barney remains Barney and can still be with Robin, I think it'll be great, if they can't do that, I'd rather not see the relationship take place at all.  And, I can tell you with absolute certainty that I don't want Barney to spend weeks on end pining for Robin, that's not going to work for the series. 

But, enough about me and what I think, give me your thoughts.  Were you amused by anything last night or have you given up all hope on the season already?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Sony Breaks Out the Good Stuff for Some Martini Movies

This Tuesday, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is launching a brand-new line of DVDs.  Entitled "Martini Movies," the line is meant to, according to the press release, feature "hip and iconic films for the cool film lover."  The five films that will appear as part of this line at the outset are:  The Garment Jungle, $ (Dollars), The New Centurions, The Anderson Tapes, and An Affair in Trinidad.  As the lineup indicates, the films all really share no true similarities, they're spread across several decades, genres, and styles.  They are all, however, enjoyable to watch.

The true standout in this initial wave of Martini Movies is the Rita Hayworth-Glenn Ford drama Affair in Trinidad.  In this very Gilda-esque film, Hayworth stars as a nightclub singer whose husband apparently commits suicide.  Ford plays the deceased husband's brother, who was on his way to Trinidad after receiving a letter from his brother about a job opportunity.  Things quickly get more complicated as the suicide turns out to be a murder and Ford finds himself vying for Hayworth's attentions.  As with many a Hayworth film, it is her dance numbers which really make the film a standout.  Though she only takes to the floor twice in the film, both numbers are truly wonderful.

In fact, one of the few things that many of the films have in common the inclusion of one or two over-the-top centerpieces.  In the Sean Connery led The Anderson Tapes, the film culminates in an apartment building heist scene whereas in $ (Dollars), there are both a bank robbery and an incredibly long chase sequence.  In the former, the heist is a fantastic scene, and as with much of the film, it cuts back and forth between the action itself and people outside the action either commenting on or listening in on what took place during the heist. The film, which doesn't take itself seriously, keeps a light tone throughout even the more serious moments of the robbery.

On the other hand, while the bank vault robbery scene in $ (Dollars) works as well as the one in The Anderson Tapes, the extended chase that functions as the film's finale only serves to dampen all that came before it.  To that point, Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn both do a fantastic job of keeping the comedy on its feet, but the dramatic conclusion sucks the wind out of the whole affair.  Not only is the chase scene overly long, there is a lack of tension in it as there is no doubt how it will play out in the end.  As a comedy, there can be no doubt that our two heroes will win out before the final credits roll.

The same cannot be said of The New Centurions, which as a straight, somber, action drama about the lives of LAPD officers in the late 1960s/early 1970s, explores the darker nature of both the good and bad guys.  Starring George C. Scott and Stacey Keach, the film pulls no punches with its world view, from good cops going bad to the crumbling of our society.  More than any other film in the first five Martini Movies, The New Centurions views the world as a whole in a negative light.

Though equally serious, and with equally dark moments, The Garment Jungle, which focuses on the New York City garment district and efforts to unionize the workers, ends in a far more upbeat tone.  A lot of bad things might happen in the movie, but the viewer never doubts that the protagonist, Alan Mitchell (Kerwin Mathews), will both find love and success.

In order to try and make the DVD line more homogeneous, Sony has included as the only bonus feature (outside of theatrical trailers) something they refer to as "Martini Minutes" on each disc.  These incredibly short featurettes (something on the order of ninety seconds to two minutes each) purportedly teach one "How to Play the Leading Man" or "How to Hold Your Liquor."  In actuality however, they all start with the same introduction and rather than teaching the viewer anything are mainly just clips from several different films (presumably ones that will be released as Martini Movies at a later date in addition to clips from the current five) along with a sultry voiceover providing scant bits of jokey information.  In the end, they are little more than advertisements for other movies. 

Each DVDs also includes martini recipes.  Recipes are on both the face of the disc and at the tail end of the "Martini Minutes."  While I haven't tried any of them, they certainly do sound very good.

Certainly the entries in Sony's Martini Minutes are all worthwhile on their own merits, but there does seem to be very little logic to having issued them as a line of DVDs.  Perhaps as more DVDs are released some sort of grand plan for what makes a "Martini Movie" will become clear. As it stands the discs are worth purchasing only if you are interested in the movie, not for their inclusion in the series.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Burn Notice "Cliffhanger" Finale

Earlier during this season of Burn Notice, I complained that the plot was just a little too formulaic.  While I'm standing by that criticism, the show can overcome the handicap by having the specific elements in the formula be truly outstanding.  They had me last night right up until the cliffhanger ending.

Before we reached the ending I was invested in both the overarching plot and the one carved out for this specific episode.  The fact that the single-episode plot revolved around Fiona's boyfriend asking a favor worked for me.  Fiona is, if you ask me, just using the guy to get back at Michael and make him jealous, so her convincing Michael to do a job that could get him killed for her new boyfriend upped the stakes.  I was a little confused about why they used a shot where Gabrielle Anwar (who plays Fiona) flashes her underwear at the camera when Fiona is trying to convince Michael to take the job (it seemed a little to overt a way to attract Michael), but eventually wrote it off as something that no one noticed during the filming and post production.  Whatever the case, there were interesting motives pushing the single-episode plot forward last night.

The overarching plot, when they deal with it at all, is always interesting – I really want to know who burned Michael and why.  What didn't work last night though was the "cliffhanger" ending.  Carla, the evil person who is ordering Michael about (and this ventures into the spoiler arena if you haven't seen the episode yet), apparently tried to have Michael killed at the end of the episode.  She, we are to believe, had her people set up a bomb at Michael's apartment which went off when he opened the door to the place.  He had just been warmed about it by Sam though, so he was ready and tried to jump out of the way in time. 

That's where the problem comes in – Burn Notice didn't show us that Michael was still alive at the end of the episode, thereby implying that he might not be.  The cliffhanger ending is the question of whether or not Michael survived the explosion.

What kind of cliffhanger is that?  Let's see, the show is all about Michael and Michael trying to find out who put the burn notice out on him.  I'm betting that they don't kill him when we know that more episodes are coming in a few months.  I guess they could do some silly amnesia story arc, but they're not going to kill him.  Consequently, I don't understand why the show implied that he might be dead.  Frustrating.  I find it very frustrating.

I find it even more frustrating than last night's Kitchen Nightmares, wherein Gordon Ramsay purportedly fixed a sinking restaurant and the family that owned the place.  He had initially been under the impression that all that needed fixing at the restaurant was the family, not the food.  Upon eating there, he quickly realized that both areas needed work.  He then proceeded to spend the entire time fixing the food and not the family.  All he really did for the family was to have them write letters to each other about their real feelings.  If that works, if that family is as strong and cohesive now as they need to be, not just for the restaurant, but to be happy and harmonious, I'll eat my hat.  He may have pushed them on the road towards happiness a smidge, but he really didn't work any sort of magic. 

Sure, sure, you could argue that there's really no magic that Gordon could work in the amount of time he was there and with the background and resources that he has at his disposal.  You'd certainly be right if you argued as much, but you'd also be denying the whole point of Kitchen Nightmares which is that Gordon Ramsay can do anything. 

In the end, I guess, it's all just a question of disbelief.  One has to be able to accept that Michael Westen just might be dead and that Gordon Ramsay could, if he was in Miami, bring Westen back to life. 

I guess it could happen, I just wouldn't put any money on it.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

"Meeska, Mouska, Mickey Mouse!" More Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Comes to DVD

Mickey Mouse, created back in 1928, is now an enduring icon.  Despite being 80 years old, the character remains as popular today as he has ever been. Recognizable the world over, the animated character has starred in a number of movies and television series, the most recent being Disney Channel's Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.  The computer animated series starring Mickey and his friends recently released their latest DVD,  Mickey's Storybook Surprises.

The DVD features four episodes of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, all of which have their roots in the written word - three in fairy tales and one mystery (this last episode, "Minnie's Mystery," is the only one not to have aired on TV).  As with every episode in the series, these feature Mickey and the gang trying to accomplish a single main task over the course of an episode, with several different smaller tasks being required in order to complete the larger one.  In addition to having the help of Donald, Daisy, Minnie, Goofy, and Pluto, Mickey has a new helper in the series - Toodles.  It is the job of Toodles (who is best described as a robotic entity which has the classic Mickey shape of one large circle with two smaller ones on top) to carry the various tools that Mickey will need to perform tasks during the episode. 

Save for "Minnie's Mystery" which is more Sherlock Holmes-like, the episodes on the disc overtly play off of old fairytales, such as "Sleeping Beauty," "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Rapunzel."  Of course, while the original Grimm's fairytales often featured terribly serious, dark moment, there is nothing of the sort to be found here.  Though the stakes are sometimes large -- in "Sleeping Minnie" if Mickey and company are unable to successfully complete their goals Minnie will sleep for 100 years -- there is never any real sense of danger.  Mickey might momentarily be unsure of what his next step is, but such a moment is unfailingly followed by the answer being provided by one of his friends or a request for the viewer's help (which leads to a momentary pause and the show then assuming the viewer gave the correct response). 

Though I find it shocking, there is a segment of our population who dislike Mickey and nothing in Mickey Mouse Clubhouse will do anything to convince them they are wrong.  However, anyone who can still sense the child inside of themselves (or who watches with a child) will be able to delight in the wonder and amazement of what takes place.  Over the course of the 25 minute runtime of each episode there are songs, games, mirth, and a sense of accomplishment by the end. 

It should be noted that the episodes on the disc either aired or were seemingly produced for the first season of the show.  Consequently, longtime fans of the series will note that Mickey refers to the dance at the end of the show as the "Mouskedance" rather than the "Hot Dog!" and while he introduces Toodles in every episode he does not sing about Toodles in the "Mouskedoer" song. 

The opening theme and "Hot Dog!" (which is still the name of the song even if not the dance) were written by They Might Be Giants, and enhance the experience tremendously.  They fit perfectly with the overall jubilance of the series.  They are, in short, just one more great aspect of the well-crafted series. 

Watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse - Mickey's Storybook Surprises makes it quite clear why Mickey is so enduring, and even if somehow happen to miss it on the screen, you will see it on the face of any child who watches.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fringe Once Again Enters The X-Files' Domain

Let's say, strictly hypothetically, that I was producing a television series about an FBI agent who was tasked with investigating weird scientific occurrences.  Let's further state that my show was airing on a network which for nine seasons had a different series that featured an FBI investigating tasking with weird scientific occurrences.  Now, if I wanted my show to be seen as different from the other show, if I didn't want to have my show seen as the poor step-child of the other series (which is widely recognized as one of the best Sci-Fi shows of all time), I don't know that I would have filmed the episode of Fringe that was on last night.

Back in 1993, in their third episode ever, The X-Files introduced a serial killer known as Eugene Victor Tooms (affectionately known to many as "The Liver Man").  In order to survive, Tooms (who was born in 1903) had to eat people's livers every 30 years or so.  Hey, it's just who he was.  It kept him alive (and is similar to an episode of Kolchak:  The Night Stalker where a killer needed blood to stay alive).  It was a fantastic episode, truly a highlight of the series, and the character actually reappeared later in the season.

Flash forward to last night's Fringe, only the series' second episode and where a serial killer needs to take people's pituitary glands out and eat them in order to stay young.  Sure, maybe the killer's origin was different on Fringe, and the length of time he could go without killing was certainly shorter, and they might have been thinking back to the Kolchak episode, but it still seems like a bad idea for their second episode. 

If I wanted to differentiate myself from a different, hugely popular show, if I didn't want people to have to keep drawing parallels between my series and The X-Files I wouldn't mimic (whether intentional or not), one of the most famous episodes of The X-Files.  There have to be people sitting in the writer's room at Fringe or working on the show for FOX that have a vague recollection of The X-Files and they should have made them do something different in their second episode.

Don't get me wrong, after being disappointed with the series premiere, I went into last night's episode of Fringe with severely diminished expectations and ended up really liking the episode, but it was impossible to watch and not think X-Files.  I simply don't understand why Fringe would want to draw that allusion… again.  It doesn't make Fringe feel like a revamped or reimagined or reenvisioned X-Files, it makes the show feel like a retread X-Files

If an oldish guy shows up in the secret evil corporate entity meetings next week speaking in hushed tones and with a cigarette hanging from his mouth I'm only going to be more upset about the whole thing.  It also won't help if we learn that Olivia has a long-lost sibling who mysteriously disappeared.

Fringe doesn't have to be like The X-Files. There is enough new there that it could, successfully, carve out a wholly different identity for itself.  It could create a new mythology and a new dynamic amongst the characters.  Tweaking old serial killers from The X-Files really isn't the way to go about it though.  I half expected Mulder to show up last night and reference the Tooms case to point Olivia in the right direction. 

That can't be what the producer of Fringe want.  It just can't.  Can it?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Top Gear Walks on Water While Sarah Connor Blazes a New Trail

I know that you've disagreed with me some about this, I know that you think I'm not right, but today I come to you with proof. Not only is Top Gear the best show on television, it walks on water… literally. Last night's episode actually featured two separate vehicles, a modified Jeep and a snowmobile, traversing a lake. That's right, a Jeep, complete with wheels, and only wheels, on the bottom crossed a lake without sinking. That's right, the car walked (or rode) on water. Are you still going to argue with me about the series?

You are, aren't you? That's not fair. The show walks on water and you're still not convinced?

Okay, how about this – last night's episode not only featured a car and a snowmobile traversing the top of a lake, before Jeremy Clarkson went in-depth on the engine of a BMW, he split the screen in half. He stayed on one half of the screen discussing the engine and on the other half he put a bunch of cuddly kittens for the non-engine interested folks.

See? The show has something for everyone and yet you won't watch it. I find that curious. I'd find it more curious if you got BBC America (many of you probably don't), but I find it curious that more people don't get BBC America, so I find it all curious.

I'm also rather curious about Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Last night's episode pushed John Connor way off to the side… way off to the side. I understand that the show is given Sarah Connor's name, but it still seems odd. I liked the episode, I thought it was not only fun and lively, but progressed the overarching plot, too. It's not always the case that episodes of a TV series are able to do both, so I applaud Sarah Connor for that. At the same time however I worry about its portrayal of John. Eventually John has to become the leader of the resistance, the savior of humankind, the man with the plan. Right now, though, he's little more than a petulant teenager. Yes, he does go out and save people and fight others occasionally, but it's not often and that's where the "little more" comes in.

I don't want to complain too much though, you'll get the wrong opinion. I'm excited by the show thus far this season. I don't know about its vision of the future and how there are now so many Terminators and resistance fighters to send back in time, but I want to learn. They're creating a whole new Terminator universe, and, I'm not sure that they were comfortable with that last season, but they do seem comfortable with it now. They now have me curious about their new look at the Terminator universe. They're expanding the mythology and making it their own, they're willing to accept losing some diehard Terminator fans here and there for their changes, but they're doing it anyway.

I'm finding the show fun because I want to know where they're going, because I want to see more of how they view the universe they're building. Who knows, maybe my faith is misplaced, maybe the journey won't be worth it, but for the time being I'm willing to travel with them.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The New TV Season and the Power of the Remote

If my calculations are correct, and I believe they are, while the television season has started to some extent, it's a week from today when things really get going. It's a week from today when shows like How I Met Your Mother begin and Heroes come back and Boston Legal begins its final season. It's a week from today when I'm really going to have to buckle down and get serious about my TV watching.

It feels like this moment has been a long time coming, like it's been way too long since the last TV season ended. Some of that is definitely due to the writers' strike, but I don't know that all the blame belongs there. However, we're not here to play the blame game, are we? We've come together not to look to place blame, but to search for hope. We've come together not to worry about the past, but to think towards the present and the future. The lessons we can learn from the past ought not be ignored, and they must not be forgotten, but they should not cause us to lose sight of our future either.

It's this moment in time when we have to think back to the good of last year, Pushing Daisies, and forget the bad, Bionic Woman. It's time for us to forget about how bad some of the season-long story arcs were, My Name is Earl and Heroes, and to remember that next Monday is the day we all get to start fresh.

Sure, some of it has started already, but it really all begins in earnest next Monday. Change is coming. The future is approaching. That can't be helped, that can't be altered, but we do get to choose what that future will be. We all get to vote, and, unlike some other elections, here we get to vote more than once. We get to vote minute-by-minute (okay, quarter-hour by quarter-hour), and, interestingly, not all votes are created equal here.

There is a power elite. There are a select few who have Nielsen boxes (or "People Meters"), and it's really those people who count more than the rest of us. Those are the people who rule our televisual destiny. Those are the people you and I must influence. Those are the people you and I must find and cajole and convince and brow-beat (but never physically harm) until they watch what you and I want them to watch.

Find these people, talk to them about your hopes and dreams. Explain to them why Chuck deserves to be a Top 20 show. Tell them how swell it would be if Scrubs manages to live on for yet another year. Show them just how good one man's pies can be.

There may be a power elite, but that doesn't mean that you and I have to simply sit back and accept their choices. Talk about your favorite show at the water cooler, get a TiVo Season Pass for your favorite shows, post little stickies all over your office with the names of your favorite shows on them.

The time is now (or, more accurately, next Monday), the place is everywhere, and your viewing future is in your hands.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Kitchen Nightmares Could Be Changing Me

I don't know, maybe I'm getting old.  Maybe I'm not who I used to be.  Maybe I'm just getting a little too soft for my own good.

I was watching Kitchen Nightmares last night, and the owner of the restaurant in question, Billy, was clearly way out of his depth running the place.  I'm pretty sure he didn't have any experience as a restaurateur (he used to work construction), and he was running the place into the ground.  Well, he says it was better when Gordon Ramsay showed up than it had been before he took it over, but who knows if that's the case.  Whatever the case, the place was a disaster and Billy wouldn't take any responsibility for the issues.  Much to my surprise - and dismay - I felt bad for the man.  I did.  I felt bad that he was so clearly in over his head, there may even have been a part of me that felt bad that he could lose everything including his house.  That's not a reaction I would normally have watching such a program. 

Normally I would think to myself "well, you made your bed, now you have to lie in it," or, "what kind of fool were you for buying a restaurant when you didn't know the first thing about running one?"  I may even, at one time, have though "you moron, you deserve to lose everything.  I don't think you're smart enough to learn from this mistake even if you do, but you still deserve to walk away from the place with nothing." 

What's wrong with me?  Why the change of heart?  Was it a tinge of hiomesickness for the NY tri-state area?  I tend to think not because the show took place on Long Island and I've never been a fan.  Was it Billy's mustache?  He did have a pretty rockin' one, and I am envious of people who can grow mustaches, but I don't imagine that was the case either?  Was it Dee Snider's appearance at the restaurant?  Nope, never been a Twisted Sister fan.  Was it that I thought Gordon was too hard on Billy?  No, that can't be it, Gordon was actually too easy on him.  Maybe that's what did it.  Maybe I felt bad for him because Gordon went easy on him. 

That actually makes some sense.  Gordon is usually incredibly hard on incompetent owners, always urging them to do better, to be better.  There was some of that last night, but certainly less than there used to be.  I'm now wondering if maybe Gordon went easy on Billy because he knew that no matter how much yelling he did, Gordon would never make Billy into a true restaurateur.  Gordon spotted that the battle had been lost before it had even begun, and so he wasn't going to drive himself, and everyone else, crazy trying to accomplish the impossible. Gordon didn't even work with Billy on his management skills, and as we saw throughout the episode, Billy didn't have management skills to begin with, which further helps my supposition.

I think that Billy may be able to keep the restaurant running now that Gordon has left. We saw that his waitresses were willing to go all out and perform duties outside their normal purview in order to keep it going, which will help him be successful.  His chef finally likes cooking and his wife (who also has a full-time job) helps run the place as well.  Billy has tons of support which may make him successful even if he doesn't have the inherent skills one would normally associate with his position as owner/manager of a restaurant. 

Still though, I feel bad for him.  I don't think he realizes, even now, how much trouble he was in before Gordon came, and that makes me a little sad.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

She's Back, but is she Bettyer? Ugly Betty Season 2 on DVD

Usually, television comedies focus on either the workplace or the home. There is always a little bit of crossover, but a show tends to stick to one or the other. There are of course some notable exceptions to this rule, and one of them, Ugly Betty, just released its second season to DVD this week.

The show focuses on Betty Suarez (America Ferrera), and her attempts to juggle the insanity of her work life at a fashion magazine with the innumerable personal dramas that take place in her home life. It's a mix that doesn't always succeed as the over-the-top intrigues that take place at her office are no match for the everyday problems she faces at home.

Though she gets into trouble herself, Betty is a sane, calming influence in an insane -- at home and at work -- world. Her own personal troubles tend to erupt from her doing things to help others rather than to help herself. Her relatively selfless do-gooding is a trait that makes her far more accessible to the audience and so she functions as a great character through which the audience can view the Ugly Betty universe.

At work this season much of what Betty witnesses features Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa Williams), the creative director of MODE, doing her best to take over both the magazine and the parent publishing corporation, Meade Publications. It is here where many of the soap opera-type plots can be found. Wilhelmina attempts to get into the family, and therefore a part of the fortune, in a number of ways (it would spoil the fun if I delved too deeply into her evil plans), and does her best to separate the Meade family itself. Slater is the main villain on the show and not only are her plots outlandishly evil, but the very way the show divulges her plots is over-the-top and silly. Due to this, while her evil is apparent, she never really appears menacing to the audience.

She does, however, appear hugely menacing to much of the Meade family: Daniel (Eric Mabius), Alexis (Rebecca Romijn), Claire (Judith Light), and Bradford (Alan Dale). Wilhelmina's main rival is Daniel, the editor-in-chief of MODE, and Betty's direct supervisor. His main job this season is to keep both the family and the magazine together; it is a task not made terribly easy as his sister, Alexis, who used to be his brother, was in an accident with Daniel at the end of season one, and has lost some of her memory. Daniel's father, Bradford, sees his son as something of an incompetent freeloader, and his mother, Claire, begins the season as an on-the-run, jail escapee/murder suspect (she killed Bradford's lover and the previous editor-in-chief of MODE).

Unquestionably, one of the true highlights of the show is the pairing of Marc St. James (Michael Urie) and Amanda Tanen (Becki Newton). Marc is Wilhelmina's assistant, Amanda the receptionist at MODE, and together they provide the best comedy on the show. They are Ugly Betty's equivalent of Will & Grace's Jack and Karen -- the chemistry between the two of them is great, they are able to take serious plots (like the ongoing one this season in which Amanda is searching for her biological father) and make them funny, and they are better as a pair than separate. Though it is possible to over-utilize such characters, more often than not they are underutilized (as a duo) in season two.

Additionally, Rebecca Romijn's portrayal of Alexis at the outset of the season is wonderful. Alexis's amnesia has caused her to not remember her sex-change surgery and everything that came after. Watching her try to rediscover her womanhood makes for a number of funny moments. She is both funny and convincing in the role.

All of the above plots during the second season of Ugly Betty made for incredibly fun viewing. Far less enjoyable were the stories surrounding Betty's family, home, and romantic life. The main plot here was Betty's relationship with Henry (Christopher Gorham), who, before he fell in love with Betty, got another woman pregnant. The mother of his soon-to-be child has moved to Tucson, leaving him with the tough decision of what to do. While it is a serious, difficult situation, it goes on for far too long during the second season, and is made all the more odious with the introduction of an alternate suitor (played by Freddy Rodriguez). Unlike the workplace plots, the ones in Betty's personal life move far too slowly to remain interesting.

The show definitely loses its wonderful, soapy feel when it delves too deeply into its main character's life, and that seems to be a huge problem with the second season. There seems very little that is either interesting or fun for her family to do this season.

The DVD release of Ugly Betty - The Complete Second Season features all 18 episodes as well as a number of bonus features. There are several behind-the-scenes featurettes as well as deleted scenes and terribly disappointing bloopers. As with the first season's DVD release, the bloopers in particular are disappointing as there seems to be a lot of funny things that take place during the filming, and yet none of them actually make it into the blooper reel. The bloopers seem to all take place after the funny has already occurred.

Ugly Betty - The Complete Second Season is currently available on DVD.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Fringe Gets all Spooky (Mulder)

As I promised yesterday, today we talk Fringe. I'm just not sure how I feel about it yet. There's so much potential there, there's so much possibility for the show to be great, but it wasn't great in its premiere. I wanted it to be, but it wasn't.

First, let's face it, it's very The X-Files. No, it's not an exact copy, but it is still very similar and certainly seems heavily influenced by The X-Files. It's just impossible to watch Fringe and not think "I wonder if that's what Mulder and Scully would do," or "Mulder totally would have solved the case a half-hour ago," or "Scully would definitely synthesize the reagent faster than that."

Unfortunately for Fringe, comparing it to The X-Files is not good for the show. The X-Files wasn't always spectacular, but there were definitely some truly outstanding episodes. The show was a part of our popular culture for an extended period of time, and even if the most recent movie failed, people still look back on the show with fondness. The mythology surrounding The X-Files was mammoth. There were plots within plots, evil groups, good aliens, bad aliens, and the Cancer Man (you might call him Cigarette Smoking Man, but to me he'll always be Cancer Man).

There's no way that Fringe could possibly establish such a deep mythology in such a short period of time. The X-Files was on for nine seasons and had a major motion picture under its belt by the time it went off the air. The mythology didn't spring fully developed from the pilot episode a la Athena from Zeus. The groundwork was established in the first episode, but it took years to fully explore it. Fringe comes up short though, because it's so easy to look at The X-Files now and see the fully formed mythology, and Fringe isn't as deep… yet.

Fringe could end up with an overarching story as, or more, compelling than The X-Files, but those are some pretty big shoes to fill. Only time (if the show lasts) will tell if that happens.

As for the pilot itself, no comparisons to other shows, it was good but not great. The "fringe" science was completely ludicrous, and I think the show figures that it can get away with foolish science simply because it refers to the science as being "fringe." It felt like they were using fringe as an excuse, and that I didn't like. I also wasn't terribly fond of our crazy scientist, Walter Bishop. Maybe it was the rapidity with which he seemed to return to the normal world, maybe it was his interactions with his son, Peter, but I definitely wanted him to be more normal. Olivia is probably going to get told week after week not to pay any sort of attention to anything Walter has to say because Walter is crazy, and that will not be enjoyable.

While Peter's interactions with his dad weren't great, I did like him talking to Olivia. Their dynamic wasn't new either, but it was at least fun. The way she was playing him at the beginning of the episode was easy to see coming, but at least she copped to it early on, she didn't let him go and think forever that she had the secret scoop on him. From there, the two were interesting. He was put in a hard place, trying to help her and help his dad in order to help her, but it worked.

Finally, Olivia herself. I'm sorry, but I have to say this, she seems like Scully a couple of seasons in – she's seen enough already to know that the truth is out there, but she's not quite ready to accept everything on face value yet. That's a problem. That's just too similar. I assume that as more episodes air this will change, but it just wasn't a great way to start things off.

Where will it all go from last night? Only time will tell.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Terminator Gets All Hot and Liquid Metal-y

Are you feeling the excitement of the new TV season yet? I certainly am.

Last night we got the season premiere of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and tonight J.J. Abrams and FOX are going to be delivering Fringe. It's another fall and the sci-fi fanboys are still in control. I love it.

I wouldn't refer to myself as a "fanboy," but I do like my sci-fi programming and I like to see it delivered on the major networks in all of its big budget glory. Think about it, Sarah Connor is adding a liquid metal Terminator this season (technically, people, due to upgrades I don't know, it's a T-1001, not a T-1000) and that's not cheap. Those pointy liquid metal spikes going through people's foreheads aren't free nor are the various morphs that we all expect a liquid metal Terminator to perform.

Sure, the show could go cheap on us and have our T-1001 not do neat-o spikes and morphs, and probably they won't be a weekly thing, but I have more faith in the show than that. I don't why, but I do. Sometimes that faith is betrayed (like last night when Cameron was dumb enough to get herself electrocuted and John was stupid enough to reactivate her), but the show is still enough fun that I can overlook such moments.

My biggest disappointment last night was the introduction of the new Terminator. I don't want to get into who exactly our liquid metal friend is, but if you watched the episode it should have been obvious from every early on, and I thought that was kind of sad. The actual scene where the character reveals itself to be a liquid metal Terminator was great, I just wish that earlier scenes hadn't made it clear that an important reveal along those lines (that the character was some sort of Terminator even if not a liquid metal one) would be coming down the line. Am I wrong? Do I just watch too much television? It was pretty clear who the new Terminator was from the moment they appeared, wasn't it?

I hope things aren't quite so obvious tonight on Fringe. Actually, I'm really nervous about Fringe. It has so much going for it, from being a creepy, weird sci-fi show to coming from J.J. Abrams to airing on the network that let The X-Files live on well past its prime. I'm all ready for tonight's premiere, I've invited friends over, I have some popcorn sitting ready to go, and beer on ice. I'm, inevitably, going to be disappointed. I fear as though I've set my expectations far too high for this series. I know I shouldn't have; despite it being all over our TV screens in primetime, sci-fi shows don't have a terribly good track record over the past few years. Yes, there are some major notable successes, but the failures are more numerous. For every first season of Heroes there is a second season of Heroes and a Threshold.

I have my fingers crossed though. And, not to worry, I'll report my findings, that I promise.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Hole in the Wall Nothing But a Big, Empty Space

I come to you today to talk about a national tragedy.  No, strike that, apparently it's an international travesty.  I sat down last night after Mad Men to watch a game show on FOX called Hole in the Wall.  To be kind, I'd rather put a hole in my head than watch it again. 

The game play is pretty simple, and while that's not always a bad thing, it hasn't done this show any favors.  The game features two teams of three players each.  The teams take turns contorting their bodies into odd shapes in order to pass through holes that are situated in a wall that moves towards the players.  Some walls are meant for one player, some two, and some three.  But, every time, it's pretty much the same exact thing… over, and over, and over again.  Whichever team scores more points over the course of the incredibly short match (there were only four walls per team before the winner was determined, though that may be because this episode was a mere half-hour instead of airing for the full hour the regular show will) wins $25,000.

And then, there's the bonus wall, the Blind Wall.  Yeah, after the winning team is determined, one member of the team puts on goggles that blind them, and their teammates have to verbally tell them how to make it through the a wall.  Make it, and the team wins an extra 100,000 dollars.

The show is quick to remind us (they did so several times) that this show is terribly successful in Japan (where it apparently originates) and in many other countries as well.  And here I thought that we, as a nation, were an embarrassment.  I'm going to have to radically alter my worldview if this show is a worldwide success. 

No, seriously.  The show features people trying to contort their bodies through holes in a big yellow wall and they end up in a pool of water if they don't make it.  That's supposed to be compelling television?  People all over the world are shocked and impressed and in love with it?  Really?

Did you watch it?  Did you enjoy it?  Come on now, be honest.

Frankly, I wonder if the people working on the show even believe in it.  Last night was their first episode (FOX says that it wasn't the premiere as the premiere is this Thursday when the show airs in its regularly scheduled timeslot), so one would think that they wanted the whole thing to be perfect.  One would think that they would want to put their best foot forward.  One would not expect there to be typos in the graphics.  And yet, there were typos.  In back-to-back graphics giving the stats for two members of one team, they misidentified the players as being on the opposite squad.

You might not think that's a big deal, but it is.  Imagine if you were watching the first football game of the season last week and when they showed you the stat cards for Eli Manning and Plaxico Burress, they misidentified them as being on the Redskins.  What would you think?  You would, rightfully, think less of the production.  If they don't care enough to get the facts right, why should you?  Why should any of us? 

At the end of the day all that we're left with is a bunch of grown people embarrassing themselves on (inter)national television and not even for very much money.  It's fast without ever going anywhere, loud without ever saying anything, and will never clog my TiVo again.

Thank goodness True Blood and Entourage both aired after Hole in the Wall, or I might have gone to bed with a bad taste in my mouth.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Ramsay's Nightmares Not Quite Scary Enough

Maybe I shouldn't be, but I am. I am excited, and there's very little you or anyone else (save the television gods) can do it about it. Last night, for me, the television season truly began. Last night Kitchen Nightmares aired its season premiere, and while the show is by no means my favorite show, it is the first show that I watch regularly to return this season. In general, it makes me smile. It makes me feel as though everything is right with the world. If only everything (or even most things) had been right with the episode.

The whole point of the premiere was to have Ramsay go back and revisit some of the places from least season (six of them to be exact) to see if the changes he'd instituted had stuck. In all six cases, they had. For each of the six restaurants, the things Gordon had done to change the restaurants for the better - from the menus to the décor to adjusting the attitudes of the staff - had worked perfectly. Gordon Ramsay was shown to be wholly infallible.

We really didn't need two hours of TV to show us that. What was the point in it? I absolutely refuse to believe that every restaurant the man went to had miraculous turnarounds. He may be very good at what he does, but last night's episode seem to indicate that he was perfect. That, I simply can't believe.

Frankly though, it was wrong of the show to suggest that he was perfect for a reason I'm not sure that they've contemplated. Showing Ramsay as perfect actually gives the impression that the restaurants were specifically selected to prove as much, thereby undercutting the argument. If they'd done snippets from all the restaurants and Ramsay had improved, say, 8 out of 11, that would have been wholly believable and quite impressive. Eight out of 11 is nearly 75 percent. If the man had a 75 percent success ratio, I think we would all applaud that and agree that it was impressive. Instead, we were shown that he has a 100 percent success ratio, and that's not believable. That's so far gone as to imply to the audience that we're being manipulated.

The whole thing last night could have even worked if all six restaurants were shown as successes, but Gordon showed that there were ways that they could still improve, that there were bits and pieces here and there that could still be made better. To have shown the process of improvement as an ongoing one would also have shown us that Ramsay is good, but not a miracle worker, and it's the miracle worker message that ruined the episode.

The British version of the show (also starring Gordon Ramsay) revisits the restaurants for the last 10 or 15 minutes of each episode, and there the audience get to see that things don't always pan out. Sure, everything is still tilted somewhat in Gordon's favor (at least in every episode I've seen), but it's a far more realistic picture. And that makes me feel insulted. Does someone out there really believe that we, as Americans, can't handle the truth, that we need things sugarcoated? I don't buy that.

As Gordon Ramsay himself would say, "Grow up, big boy."

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Samurai Girl Isn't Heaven in My Book

Coming of age stories, no matter the medium, always seem to be terribly popular.  The transition from childhood to adulthood is something we all go through.  It's a hard enough time in all our lives, but, in order to make a tale worthy of screen or book, there always needs to be more added to it, the ante needs to be raised.  Families must be dysfunctional, friends over-the-top, and the teenager's problems superhuman and virtually insurmountable. 

Enter ABC Family's miniseries adaptation of Carrie Asai's Samurai Girl novels.  Airing this Friday thru Sunday from 8:00 to 10:00, the miniseries follows Heaven Kogo (Jamie Chung) as she learns deep, dark secrets about her family. 

It all starts off simply enough, with Heaven being forced to marry a man whom she does not love in order to secure her family's business.  When assassins break up the wedding and murder her brother, her quest to find out why leads her to new truths about herself and her family.

If it doesn't sound all that original, that's because it isn't.  At the very least, the first two-hour episode of the miniseries progress exactly as one would expect, with nary a misstep.  There are training sequences, new friends with abilities that just happen to perfectly mesh with Heaven's needs, and a few "twists and turns."

Much of that is forgivable.  Every generation rediscovers the problems of transitioning from child to teenager to adult and every generation wants to see current coming-of-age stories, ones that reflect the specific issues they face.  However, the show is not without problems.  Most specifically, it fails to create any interesting characters.  Everyone that Heaven meets, from the man who becomes her trainer, to a couple of teens who inexplicably become her friends, are barely more than one-dimensional.  It is possible that during the final two parts of the miniseries the characters are more fully delved into, but the fact that they can't be established in an interesting manner over the course of two hours is disconcerting to say the least. 

At the forefront of Heaven's new found friends is Brendan Fehr as Jake Stanton, a man surprisingly young to be running his own dojo and with a "mysterious" past.  It is he who is tasked with watching over Heaven, aiding her in her quest for the truth, and training her to wield a samurai sword.  It is unclear whether the fault is Fehr's or the makers of the miniseries, but Stanton is dull, assuredly attractive to many people, but dull.

Heaven is certainly the most fully drawn of the characters, but even she lacks depth.  Her motivations from her first moment on screen are obvious, and while she learns new skills along her journey, like how to wield a samurai sword, her perception of the world seems to change very little no matter how many blows it takes.  She witnesses death and betrayals, and just keeps plowing straight ahead.  It takes her little more than a day or two to discover a way around any new obstacle.  Again, maybe in the second and third parts of the miniseries that will change, but one shouldn't hold their breath.

Stories of one's transition from youth to adulthood are, and will always be, relevant.  It's something we all go through.  Most of us don't have to learn to accept quite as much as Heaven does in Samurai Girl, but we all come to grips with our new reality eventually.  The basic problem then with Samurai Girl is that while the obstacles most people have to surmount to become an adult are far fewer than Heaven's, we all struggle far more than she appears to.  It may speak well of Heaven that she can overcome so much so easily, but it doesn't make for compelling television.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

What I Watched on My Summer Vacation

The new television season is almost upon us, and, quite frankly, I can't wait for it to commence. While some shows have premiered during the past two weeks, it is this week when "my shows" start premiering. We've already talked some about what I'll be watching this season, and we'll be talking more in the coming days, weeks, and months about them, so rather than focusing extensively on that, let's focus on what I did during my summer vacation.

Well… I watched a lot of Top Gear. I watched as much as I possibly could and always wanted to see more. I actually just watched another episode last night, and I'm beginning to really enjoy the show's digs at the United States. They point out a lot that is wrong with our country, from our inability to make cars to our foolish government. It's not just a genius, zany, comedic car show, it's a political and social commentary, too. Okay, maybe I'm a little too high on the show, but I'm definitely still high on it.

And, speaking of high, there's that swell doctor guy on FOX, House. He is, as you know, the titular character on FOX's medical drama, and, he would greatly appreciate my using the word "titular." That's totally his kind of thing. He's lewd, crude, a genius, and, most importantly, he doesn't care what anyone thinks about him (usually). He is solely out to find answers and he doesn't care whose toes he has to step on.

He's like me, or maybe I'm like him, I spent hours on the phone yesterday haranguing a company and several of its employees until they would agree to support their product. I didn't start with the harangue, but it wasn't until I raised my voice that I got results. House is smarter than I am, he starts off with the yelling and complaining. He would have accomplished the same task as I did, but he would have done it in three-and-a-half hours less time (we're similar, not identical).

Plus, Hugh Laurie is actually British, and if you've read other things I've written (like the second paragraph above), you'll know that I'm something of an Anglophile. I could move there if not for the weather.

But, that's getting far afield, isn't it? Back to the task at hand – what I did on my summer vacation.

I watched The Secret Life of the American Teenager (though I don't know why and didn't particularly enjoy it), The Mole (and I'm sad to see that show again disappear), Hell's Kitchen (good, but not great this year), Eureka (still liking it, but wondering what happened to Max Headroom), and Dragons' Den (another British show). I've complained, ad nauseum, about the Olympics, lamented In Plain Sight, and reveled in the return of Monk and Psych.

Let it not be said that I haven't had a productive summer. I have. I've been productive. I found ways to fill my time and commune with my television (I make room for the important things in the world).

But, I am so ready for the new TV season to start. I have high hopes. Some will be dashed by mid-October, others by December, and even more by next May. And a few, a precious few, will live on until next September.

I'm excited and I'm ready. Are you?

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Office Brings Its Fourth Season to DVD

It's a new rite of the end of summer – just before the new television season starts, a plethora of boxed sets from the last television season are released to DVD. One of the funniest of those series arrives on DVD today, The Office: Season Four. Despite having a shortened season due to the writers' strike, the series still managed 14 new episodes, several of which are a full hour in length.

The season picks up a few short months after the end of the third one. Karen Filippelli (Rashida Jones) has left Dunder-Mifflin's Scranton office, and Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer) may or may not be dating. Ryan (B.J. Novak) has also left Scranton, going to corporate, and is now Michael's (Steve Carell) boss. Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) is still looking for love and Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) is… still Dwight Schrute. Things change as the season progresses, but I don't want to spoil any of the twists, turns, or high jinx.

Ever-present during the show's fourth is the same brand of awkward humor that has made The Office one of the most consistently funny shows on television during its run. Leading that awkward charge is Carell, whose Michael Scott seems to always manage to say just the wrong thing at the wrong time. There are moments when Scott performs far above the expectations of those around him, moments when he shows himself to be far more wise than anyone might suspect, but they only seem to serve to make his failings that much greater.

Inspiring the awkwardness in others are, again, Jim and Pam. They are the two sane people living in an insane world. They are certainly the most well-rounded and most resemble people in the real world. During this season one of their key jobs remains, as it has been, to look the camera (and the audience) square in the eye and acknowledge the lunacy surrounding them. While they certainly inspire some of the foolishness with their practical jokes, this season they also prove once and for all that they truly care for, and do not wish ill upon, their coworkers, even Dwight.

This is an important acknowledgment on the series' part, and one that allows them to be more cruel in their jokes in the future as we know that they don't actually want to permanently harm anyone. It is harder to root for people who are truly cruel to others and knowing that Pam and Jim aren't keeps them in the audience's good graces and makes them more human.

The show's greatness however does not lie in the fact that Michael, Jim, and Pam are so well drawn and portrayed, it lies in the fact that The Office truly is an ensemble comedy. It is a show which has a myriad of characters who may not be its stars, but who are every bit as funny and nuanced as those who headline. It is the Oscars (Oscar Nuñez), Angelas (Angela Kinsey), Stanleys (Leslie David Baker), and other characters in the office who not only provide more plotlines, but make the office feel more real. The whole show is built around the notion that this small paper company's office in Scranton is populated with the biggest bunch of misfits ever put together (and yet it eerily reminds us all of every office in which we've worked).

The DVD release of The Office's fourth season features deleted scenes, a gag reel, outtakes, and several episodes with cast and crew commentary. There is also a panel discussion with the writers of the show which was filmed at The Office Convention. While some of what is said is interesting, the jerky camera and troubled audio often make watching the panel discussion far more trouble than it is worth.

The Office: Season Four is available on DVD September 2, and proves that the sitcom, though it have may changed, is certainly not dead. The show's ability to juggle work and relationships in an at once zany and endearing manner makes it one of the best shows on television today and a great way to spend a few weeks before the new season begins in earnest.