Thursday, April 30, 2009

Jack McCoy gets Political on Law & Order

The original Law & Order has succeeded for years on end with a revolving door cast. Sure, there have been names and faces that we came to know and love (we still miss you, Jerry Orbach), but even their leaving the show has caused little more than a ripple. The cast is interchangeable – pull one A.D.A. and pop in a new one, pull one detective and pop in a new one. No mess, no fuss, and the audience simply accepts it and moves on. While the characters have had some of their personal stories told, those tend to be few and far between; the exception, not the rule.

Well, for one character that’s become less and less true. But, that’s kind of understandable, after all; the thought of the show losing Jack McCoy is almost too much to take. I know, “rotating cast,” but Sam Waterston leaving the show would not be cool. Consequently, ever since his promotion to interim D.A. – a role that got about 30 seconds of screen time in the past – they’ve been finding more for him to do, more stuff for him to stick his nose into, including politics, which is a place where – till now – he has deftly avoided venturing.

Over the course of this season we’ve gotten to see Jack ever so slowly get sucked into the art of the possible, most notably with his deciding to seek out the D.A. position on a permanent basis (or at least until the next election). That decision has managed to alter some of the ways he’s ordered his underlings to act in prosecuting cases. It hasn’t affected all of his decisions, but it’s certainly begun to creep in around the edges. But, somehow, he’s managed to still be the same character underneath it all. There’s always the sense that he’s doing what he’s doing so that he can regain the moral high ground later (I’m not saying he’s right, I’m just saying he’s doing it).

With the election getting closer and closer on the show, Jack seems to be struggling less with his decision to run and more with the consequences of his running, and last night he hit a major potential hazard – apparently he and his now ex-wife employed an illegal alien as a nanny for about a year. He said in a private conversation in last night’s episode that once they learned about the nanny’s status they fired her, and it’s a claim that I believed, but one that I’m pretty sure wouldn’t hold any water with the average voter.

The illegal alien-nanny thing is something that we’ve seen derail many a political confirmation in the past (probably an election or two as well, though none spring to mind quite as quickly). I wonder now how exactly Jack is going to overcome the issue. It’s entirely possible that it will just blow over, the press in the show will decide not to run with the story, but that seems terribly unlikely.

So, how precisely is the show going to have Jack overcome the difficulty? Or, is Jack even going to be able to overcome it? Maybe he doesn’t and he loses the election in the season finale and then we, the audience, learn that the season finale was in fact the series finale – after all, as goes Jack, so go we all (not that he was on the series when it began).

There aren’t all that many episodes left this season, so hopefully we’ll find out soon, but who knows, maybe Dick Wolf and company will hold the election in November, maybe there won’t be an answer till then. I’m hoping that’s not the case, but it’s possible.

Whatever happens with Jack, I’m still impressed by the show – Law & Order has created a really great, true to the show, true to life, multi-episode arc. It’s very outside the box for them, but it’s terribly fun to watch.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Last Look (for this Season) at Last Restaurant Standing

BBC America’s Last Restaurant Standing wound up it’s second season last night. I found it quite interesting to watch Raymond Blanc have to make his decision about with whom he wanted to go into business.

On one side of the equation was Alasdair and James. James was a very good chef who had proven himself utterly horrific with his communication skills and as having a high-degree of tunnel vision. Alasdair, James’s friend, was one of several front of house people this season who clearly had no idea what they were doing. It seems to me that the show placed a heavy premium this year on casting couples where one member could cook well and not on finding teams where one person people who could actually do the job of running a dining room, or necessarily even wanted to run a dining room.

That tactic made total and complete sense, it takes skill to run a dining room, but it seems as though much of what’s required there can be taught, while being able to cook is an art that some can never master. So, I understand where the show was coming from, but Alasdair was out of his depth all season and James was no help whatsoever, he only made Alasdair’s problems worse because he, James, spent the vast majority of the season only being concerned with his fiefdom and not with the other tasks that the teams had to handle. And, to make matters worse, not everything James did in the kitchen actually panned out.

The two of them managed to avoid elimination in round after round after round because James’s cooking was usually brilliant and always had the potential to be brilliant. To say that he carried the team may be true, but his not helping his partner nearly helped bury the team repeatedly.

On the other side of the table was the team of Michele and Russell. They did well all season, but one never really felt that they were doing brilliantly. They were successful, certainly, but watching the show I always felt as though their success was based more upon their not doing anything wrong rather than truly being exemplary. They may have had great moments, but they seemed very workmanlike.

I don’t mean that as an insult, think about it, consistency is key when you go to a restaurant. You’re not going to go somewhere that has the best food in the world and great service one week and the next week seats you outside by the dumpster and gives you a bowl of Puppy Chow. Sure, you had a great meal there, but the bad experience is going to stop you from coming back. No, you’re going to repeatedly visit the place where the food is pretty good, the people are nice, and you have a basic idea of what to expect. You may try the Puppy Chow place every now and then, but you won’t be frequenting it.

And now we discuss the results…

So, Alasdair & James got by on flashes of brilliance and Michele & Russell on consistently doing their job pretty well. To me, the choice then became the team that could create a spectacular restaurant or a huge dud or the team that you knew would deliver something respectable. Alasdair and James squeaked through for weeks on end with the promise that they could be great, but consistency won out, it had to. Unless Raymond was going to be with Alasdair & James every night to watch every step, there was no way he could open a restaurant with them. He let them continue in the competition hoping that they would learn consistency, but they didn’t, which made Raymond’s final choice that much easier.

I might be more interested in Alasdair & James’ menu, but Michele & Russell’s restaurant is the one I’d rather go to. For my money, Raymond made the right choice.

But, go ahead, tell me I’m wrong and that Michele and Russell were just as mercurial. If you saw something I didn’t, speak up. If you don't I can only assume that I'm right.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Chuck-ing it All Into the Season Finale

Last night NBC aired what might – but hopefully won’t – be the series finale of their grossly underrated Chuck. The series, starring Zachary Levi, focuses on an average guy who just happens to have all the top secret intel the government has downloaded into his brain. Naturally, he becomes a top asset for the government and is forced to foil baddies while hiding his identity on a regular basis.

Actually, his identity has been so well hidden that no one knows who he is. Seriously, no one watches the show… well, almost no one. The numbers generated by the show last night weren’t very good. Which is such a shame, because the majority of the episode was utterly and completely fantastic.

Spoilers are about to abound, so if you don’t want to know what happened last night, odds are you ought to not read any more.

The two weddings of Ellie and Awesome played out beautifully, particularly the utterly brilliant performance by Jeffster and the Back to the Future reference therein. The second wedding was purely the sappy necessary bit, but the first wedding really showed how well the show combines action and humor and drama. There was Ellie, all happy about her wedding, but Chevy Chase showed, demanded the Intersect cube, and Morgan had to stall the wedding. Casey parachuted in and saved the day, or at least the world; he didn’t so much save the wedding which was destroyed by Jeffster’s shenanigans.

There was so much packed into the wedding scenes, all of which highlighted just how good the show can be. There was Chuck’s struggle with his family, Chuck’s struggle with his relationship with Sarah, the world ending, and the clowns from the Buy More. There was enough in there for an entire episode of television, and the show packed it all in and left time for more.

Okay, maybe that last bit was a mistake, because I wasn’t really a huge fan of the ending. Those of you paying attention to the show know that Chuck had the Intersect taken out of his head last week. It made Chuck’s government position unnecessary and provided the show with no reason for Casey and Sarah to be sticking around and getting into trouble on a weekly basis. Consequently, the last act in the finale was entirely about making Chuck important again, and I’m just not sure I like the results.

Chuck ended up downloading a new-and-improved Intersect into his head. It makes complete sense that Chuck had to end up with intel in his brain again, but the fact that the new Intersect made him into a superhero is a bit much to take. Chuck, just like Neo, now knows kung fu (and he probably knows a lot more than that too).

How does the show possibly proceed from that point? Chuck doesn’t need Sarah and Casey to protect him anymore, Chuck’s subconscious will just kick in anytime he gets into trouble. He can now protect Sarah and Casey as well as, or maybe even better than, they can protect him.

Making Chuck into a superhero may open up new avenues for the series (if it gets renewed, fingers crossed), but I hope he doesn’t end up taking on the Joker or Lex Luthor next season. For me, that’s not what the show has been about; it’s been about the characters and this average (even if he knows some secrets) guy being tossed into situations he can’t handle. Now, it looks like he can handle all those situations and more.

Okay, deep breath… I actually believe that Josh Schwartz, Chris Fedak, and the rest of the gang over at the show have already considered these issues, and that if the show gets picked up will have a solution. I really can’t wait to see what it is.

C’mon, NBC, you know you want to keep the show going, even if it’s a 13-episode mini-season.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Choosing Sides on The Celebrity Apprentice

One of the critical things to making a reality show successful is providing the audience with contestants to root for and against.  Think about it, if you're watching a reality show you constantly wish to see some people win and, if you're like me, some people go home.  You may call it very negative of me, but I often find the latter more interesting than the former.  Consequently, when I'm faced with a choice of two people I want to see leave – as I was on last night's The Celebrity Apprentice – I find myself torn. 

Early in the season I was wholly anti-Melissa Rivers.  I love her mom, but something about Melissa has always rubbed me the wrong way – probably it's been the sense I get from her of riding her mother's coattails, but maybe not.  In any case, Melissa was at the top of the list of people I wanted to get fired from the start.

That may have been because I had no idea who Annie Duke was.  If I'd had any idea that Annie Duke existed and what her personality was, she'd probably have rated higher on my "get fired" list.  She certainly found her way to the top of it after the first few episodes this year, and last night I found myself watching the boardroom and debating (by myself) whether I'd rather see Annie or Melissa go home.

No, it wasn't mean and vindictive and awful of me, I employed true reality show strategy in my thinking.  You see, I knew that if Melissa got fired, Joan would make some huge dramatic proclamation about quitting the show and storm out.  Plus, there was no way that Melissa herself was going to go quietly into that goodnight.  I have been waiting weeks on end to see both of those things go down, and I simply didn't want to wait any longer.

On other hand, there was no one on the show I'd like to see win less than I wanted to see Annie Duke win, and as much as I dislike her, she's been an incredibly strong contestant.  Last night was, perhaps, the last, best, opportunity to get rid of the two-faced poker player forever. 

So, I had to think like a reality-show contestant – I had to weight the joy of seeing the blow-up that would occur if Melissa got fired (nothing would be better than that), against my not wanting to see Annie Duke win.

I – wisely, I think – went with wanting Annie to get fired.  Brande Roderick, who was the person who could have swung Trump from Annie to Melissa or vice versa, didn't think that far away.  Brande claimed to want to win the show, but couldn't work out that she ought to have Annie get eliminated last night, clearly she lacks the necessary killer instinct, or, using one of her words, she "forgoo" using her killer instinct.  Brande chose to keep her chum, Annie, on the show, despite the fact that having Annie there greatly lessens her own chances of winning. 

It was a move that may have been the right real world choice, but was certainly not the right reality show choice.  It had me yelling at my television screen and instantly contemplating whom I should rest my "fire Annie" hopes on next. 

Jesse James.  I'm going with Jesse James for that.  He's quiet, but he's smart and I think he may be the last hope.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Salma Hayek's Triumphant Return to 30 Rock

Being that you're a dedicated, devoted, virtually obsessed fan of this column and that you not only read it on a regular basis, but pass it along to all of your friends (something for which I thank you greatly), I know that you know what I'm going to talk about today.

Okay, you know that I know that you know what I'm going to talk about, but let's face it, I know that you know that I know that you know and I'm going to do it anyway – that's right, Salma Hayek returned to 30 Rock yesterday! Look at that, you were right, that's what you get for reading the column on a regular basis.

I don't know, to me it felt as though they'd actually pretty much ended her story arc the last time she was on the show, what with her character running away from New York and all, but I guess they were able to entice Hayek back one more time. It did make some narrative sense, after all, Jack was still in love with her (who isn't?), but the way they ended – or didn't – the storyline last night certainly made it feel as though if they can get her to sign on to do any more episodes in the future they will. And, who wouldn't want to see her… I mean that… no, I don't, I mean her, I do.

Even Liz Lemon wants to see more of Elisa (Hayek's character). Elisa asked Liz point blank that very question, "Do you want to see me naked?" and Liz admitted she kind of did. The show's not on Cinemax, so the bit didn't progress, but it existed and that was enough for me.

I don't tell you that last bit solely to express my love for her – that's been well documented – I tell you it because I'm certainly not the only person who finds her attractive, and the show unquestionably recognizes that fact. They were making an obvious reference to it, and I appreciate them knowing their audience. Don't think that's what it was? If 30 Rock wasn't smart enough to recognize their audience, they wouldn't have had Hayek wear a "what the frak" shirt in one scene. They know their audience – people like me who used to be Kenny, are smitten with Salma Hayek, and quite like Battlestar Galactica. Sure, that may not speak very well of me, but it also explains the fact that the show isn't the ratings smash-hit I really feel that it should be. If there were only more people like me in the world everything would be so very much different…

As for the possibility of Hayek returning in the future, the story arc didn't really close, did it? It just sort of ended. Jack is still in love with Elisa and Elisa is still in love with Jack, it's just that she might kill someone because of her. Obviously that sets me up as the perfect replacement for Jack – Elisa doesn't love me and therefore wouldn't go crazy and try to kill people she may be jealous of – but I'm not on the show (except that Kenny stole much of my Page Program life). Ignoring me though, there's clearly still a world, one with a few small tweaks, that could cause the two of them to decide to try the love thing again.

So, fingers crossed people, fingers crossed. There's always next season.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

An Open Letter to ABC Re: Lost

Dear ABC,

Ow!  Ow!  Uncle! Uncle!  We give in, whatever it is that you want, we’ll happily do.  Whatever it is that you need, we’ll accomplish.  Just tell us what it is that you’re looking for and we’ll give it our best shot.

You see, ABC, we have to assume that you want something from us, otherwise you wouldn’t lie to us, otherwise you wouldn’t subject us to so many Lost clip shows and, this season, a repeat!

A few seasons ago, you promised us that you wouldn’t air any more Lost repeats.  You explained to us, calmly, sedately, that the show would no longer air September to May  because it led to the show needing repeats and that you didn’t want to do that to us.  Many of us were upset, but the idea that we’d get to see a new episode every single week starting at some point in January and going until some point in May was enough to have us get over it.  You made us a promise and we accepted it.

You then kind of, sort of, cheated… repeatedly.  You opted to air goodness knows how many clip shows during that January to May time period.  Yes, the clip shows started airing back in the days when the series aired September to May, but that was more understandable than airing them in this abbreviated season you’ve given us.  Essentially, airing a clip show is the same as airing a repeat.  You may have rejiggered the order of events and compressed time for a clip show, but that doesn’t make the content new – and, no, giving us some sorry voiceover doesn’t make for new content either.  Clip shows are repeats.

This season though you’ve gone past just giving us clip show repeats, you actually gave a real repeat… an actual, factual, honest to god straight-up repeat.  You may have been able to tell yourself that clip shows don’t count as repeats, but airing an episode that already aired instead of airing a new episode definitely counts as a repeat.  If you were giving us one of your “enhanced” episodes at 8pm and a new episode at 9pm we wouldn’t be upset, but just airing a repeat at 9pm and no new episode is not okay.  It’s a betrayal of our trust.

Promises were made.  Promises should be stuck to.  Promises are important.  ABC, you’ve broken your promises. 

That is how we have come to our conclusion, our inevitable conclusion -- you want something from us, you want us -- as a people -- to stand up and do something or sit down and do something or dance around and do something. 

Here’s an idea -- rather than just being passive aggressive about the situation, why not actually stop and tell us what it is you want.  If we all need to call up two friends who aren’t watching the show and tell them to watch, I think we’ll probably do that… but only after you swear to The Others to fall on your sword before you give us a clip show or a repeat instead of a new episode ever again.

Maybe that’s not what you want, maybe you want us to go around wearing our shirts inside out one day, maybe you want us to… oh heck, we have no idea and we’re not going to bother to guess anymore. 

We can make this work, we can try to get you what you want, just stop holding new Lost episodes hostage.


Some Other Others

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Television Celebrates Earth Day?!?

Today is, my television has repeatedly made me aware, Earth Day.  What does that mean from a televisual point of view?  Let's figure it out together…

Nickelodeon and some of the Nick channels will apparently be going dark for a minute at 9pm tonight in an attempt to show kids that it's okay if the television is off, and Disney Channel has a green Mickey silhouette for their logo instead of the white one that is usually up.  NBC has a green peacock, and I know I've seen a green FOX with some sort of leaf in the "O."  But, outside of that, it's all about commercialism isn't it?

Lewis Black pointed out the other night on The Daily Show that a new Elmo DVD about the environment not only comes in the traditional DVD case, but around it is one of those completely useless cardboard sleeves.  Yes, they may look nice, but I'm sure that, even if they're made using recycled materials, they're not as good for the environment as not having a useless cardboard sleeve at all.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not some sort of eco-nut  --I won't pay more for organic food and I don't go around in hemp clothing -- but some of the things that get done for Earth Day are rather silly, like the aforementioned Elmo DVD with a cardboard sleeve.  That's just a great example of someone not taking a step back and thinking.

But, importantly, there is something to be said positively for television networks taking a minute out of their day or using a green logo this week.  It actually does, maybe, make people stop and think for a minute about what they're doing in their own lives.  It's the change that might -- at least momentarily -- spur people to action. 

Yes, you're absolutely right, the Earth is something that we ought to think about on a daily basis, but if you head down that path you're making a big mistake.  Don't be one of those environmentalists that looks at a Prius, shakes their head, and tut-tuts about how you have a car that uses no gas and can do all of 45mph as long as you can move your feet as fast as Fred Flintstone moves his.  Be proud of what you do, that's fine, but do give people credit for doing at least a little.  Be proud that websites like are going out and building cars for $7,000 that can do 70mpg and go 0-60 in seven seconds (I nitpick the idea of a free Rabbit shell, but the heart of the idea is what we're looking at).

There might be an argument to be made that all television networks ought to shut down because of the amount of power they consume daily and that we consume watching them, but that's just not going to happen.  I tend to think that we should be happy with what we've got – networks going out and reminding people that today is Earth Day, that we really have to think about what we're doing to the environment. 

In the end, we're all being "sold" the concept of Earth Day. If television networks have figured out not only how to sell the concept but sell some of their programming as well, more power to them.  After all, the guy who installed the solar array on your roof made a profit while helping the world, why shouldn't networks be afforded the same opportunity?

Plus, let's face it, some of the stuff is kind of nifty.  Just check out this cute little widget (I highly recommend the trailers bit):

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Top Gear Comes to DVD!!

BBC America isn’t in every home in this country, it’s not even in every home that has cable.  Additionally, not everyone has the internet and therefore not everyone can download BBC America shows from iTunes.  Those are, perhaps, the only possible satisfactory explanations for not having seen Top Gear at this point in time.  Well, the excuses are quickly disappearing because Top Gear – Season 10 is available on DVD as of April 21st.

Okay, I will grant you that not everyone has a DVD player, but I have to imagine that between cable, iTunes, and now DVD the vast majority of the population has the ability to watch an episode of Top Gear.  It’s not even that expensive, it lists for $39.99 and can easily be found for $10 less than that.

What do I think of Top Gear?

Well, season 10 of Top Gear was the first that I watched, and you’ll note that I truly enjoyed the first episode.  A few episodes into the season I had declared it “quite possibly… the best show on television,” and at this point in time I’m pretty convinced that it is the best show on television.

Season 10 of the series features what might be the best episode the show I have watched (and it’s highly touted on the box art for the season ) – the Botswana special.  That episode, like all the rest, are, I was very pleased to find out watching the season on DVD, very rewatchable.  Even though Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May (the presenters) tell numerous jokes which don’t change when the show is watched again, they manage to impart tons of facts about the cars they’re reviewing (which is, ostensibly the purpose of the show). They give far more facts than one can possibly take in on a single viewing, so watching again there is more to learn, and even if the jokes are old they still work.

The other thing I noticed once more watching the show on DVD is that it’s terribly well executed.  It’s shot and edited beautifully, a lot of time has to go into not only pre-producing and shooting pieces for the show, but editing them in post-production as well.  Having an HD television and without BBC America having an HD feed (at least where I am), I’m constantly subjected to seeing a letterboxed show put into a 4:3 box inside my 16:9 television.  I could zoom it, but then I’d lose some quality and some of the image as well.  Watching the show on DVD, even though it’s not in high definition, it does at least take up the entirety of my screen, allowing me to see the show in a way I haven’t before.

Are there disappointments to the boxed set release of the 10th season?  Yes, there certainly are, two of which are quite prominent.  First, the are no extras included on the release, no “behind the scenes, how did they do that” bits and pieces or anything else, it’s the show and nothing but the show.  Second, and I’m not quite sure what they could have done to fix this problem, the season ends.  Yes, the entire season is included here, but sadly the entire season is only 10 episodes, and I promise you, 10 episodes of Top Gear simply isn’t enough.  Ten episodes of Top Gear is simply an amuse bouche, a little something to whet your appetite. 

It should also be noted that this seems to be the first complete season of the show made available on DVD.  One can only hope that not only do future seasons of the show appear on DVD but past ones do as well.  Those who are willing to give it a chance -- even if they aren’t car fanatics -- will find much to love in this intelligently produced, witty, fun, and funny series.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Closer Look at Last Night's Reality TV

I don’t really watch that much reality television… okay, yes, I watch some, but I watch way less, I think, than the average television junkie. Anyway, Sunday night is quickly becoming my favorite night of reality television (Top Gear being on hiatus). Last night featured a fantastic set of fights, one on NBC, the other on CBS.

First up, there was The Celebrity Apprentice, with the ongoing feud between Joan and Melissa Rivers on one side and Annie Duke on the other. Obviously Melissa and Joan shouldn’t be working together against anyone as they’re still on opposite sides, but you have to almost forgive them as Annie Duke is kind of a wretched human being.

I’m not quite sure why she rubs me the wrong way, but she does. She’s even made Melissa seem like a rational, competent, person, and that’s saying something. Every time Annie opens her mouth something more and more ridiculous comes out of it. Last night she actually put forth the idea that she was the perfect woman for, among other reasons, being able to give a great “bleep-job.” I think we all know what she was saying before the show bleeped her out.

Think of the children! This woman has four kids, the eldest a teenager. This child could very easily be watching mom on TV. I ask you, if you were watching your parents on national television would you want to hear that? Think of the psychiatry bills involved.

Joan and Melissa have ended up going after Annie full force. Joan still seems to have a problem with Clint Black, but she’s put that on the back burner in order to take down Annie Duke.

Normally I would say that Joan didn’t stand a chance -- Trump wants as the winner the person who raises the most cash, and Annie has done a great job thus far of doing that. However, Trump likes Joan, possibly more than he likes Annie, and if he wants, Trump will find a way to make sure Annie gets fired. After all, Joan ought to have been fired last night for managing her team poorly and she wasn’t only because Trump likes her. That just might give her a leg up on Annie, that is, if Annie’s team ever loses again.

Then there was The Amazing Race, where Jen and Luke bumped into each other at a clue box, which led them to bumping into each other again at another clue box, which led them to yelling at each other on the mat. Now, the whole thing started innocently enough -- it was definitely an accident that they ran into each other the first time, but it was less of an accident the second time (I think they both wanted it to happen). It was one of those “heat of the moment” things that got made that much worse when Lakisha smiled and giggled when Luke signed that it was his turn to “talk” at the Pit Stop when Phil asked what had happened.

Obviously, the ultimate question here is whether Lakisha was laughing at the notion of a deaf person “talking” or whether she was amused by the situation and fight or just trying to cut the tension. Frankly, I don’t know. We don’t know enough about Lakisha, we don’t know enough about her history, and we certainly don’t know what the show didn’t show us. We don’t know if anything was edited out or certain camera angles not shown which put the whole thing in a different light. Lakisha certainly didn’t come out looking good, but that doesn’t make her guilty.

I have to wonder what happens next week on the show. Does the fight continue in other ways? How does the animosity -- and I have to believe animosity will remain -- affect the way the race is run?

See, two shows, two different fights, two-and-a-half hours of pretty good television. Yes, I know that the shows aired for a total of three hours, but let’s face it, some judicious cutting and it could easily have found its way to 90 minutes or less. I still tend to prefer scripted to unscripted stuff, but not all unscripted television is bad.

And, yes, I watched Desperate Housewives too, but I can't even discuss it. The Wisteria Lane women drove Edie's ashes up to her son and then almost forgot to give him the ashes. Right... sure... that's some great scripting!

Friday, April 17, 2009

NBC - Comedy Night Done Not-So-Right

Has NBC just stopped trying with their Thursday comedies?

Okay, clearly they haven’t, but I’ve noticed things these past two weeks which have disturbed me mightily. They’re things that one wouldn’t think that NBC would let pass, and the fact that they’ve appeared makes me wonder if there’s been a slip in quality from the network that once prided itself that “the quality shows” were on NBC.

Last week, NBC premiered their latest comedy, Parks & Recreation. It was a show that they touted heavily for weeks – if not months – on end, and, I’m sorry, it wasn’t all that funny. It was okay, it’s certainly compatible with The Office, but it wasn’t all that funny. Worse than that though, this show which takes place in Pawnee, Indiana featured a palm tree in the background of one scene. I was completely unaware that there were palm trees in Indiana. I was there once and certainly didn’t notice any.

The scene in question featured Amy Poehler’s character walking into a government office building. It was a wide shot done from far away so as to better stick with the fake documentary style. Poehler, walking up the steps to the building, went right past a palm tree. Now, because the show films in L.A.. and they were on location somewhere and trying to utilize a consistent style we got the tree; if they’d been up close or in a more controlled environment it wouldn't have been there.

The real question though is why they didn’t fuzz it out, shoot from a different angle, do a closer shot, forgo the shot altogether, get rid of the tree in post, or any other of a million things they could have done to eliminate the tree. I think that the answer is probably that they either didn’t see it (troubling) or didn’t care that it was there (disturbing). This was their series premiere, it was the show that they had the longest to work with, and the one that should show the most effort. What happened?

Then we had last night’s My Name is Earl. Randy was in a physical fight in the Crab Shack, taking on last night’s list character. The fight was perfectly fine, with Randy seeming to do much of his work… except for when his body double was clearly doing the work. They barely even tried to hide it, giving us a shot of someone who didn’t appear to be Randy dressed in Randy’s clothes, standing where Randy was standing, pretending to be Randy. Yes, I know that Randy is fictional, but normally Randy is played by Ethan Suplee; in some of these shots he wasn’t, and it wasn’t well covered.

On the upside, and proving that my assessment is overly harsh, we had last night’s The Office. They did a ridiculous thing involving throwing cheese puffs into various mouths. That takes effort, lots and lots of effort. As someone who has thrown their share of cheese puffs, I can tell you that sort of thing isn’t easy. They did an incredible three-person toss involving Michael, Pam, and Ryan (all the puffs involved them) each throwing a puff to someone else who caught it in their mouth all at the exact same time. That’s skill, people. That’s effort. That’s incredible.

It’s also the sort of dedication I like to see. Now, if they could only provide examples on how to learn cheese puff tossing I’d be thrilled.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Harper's Island & Southland - No Good Choices

I find myself, on this Thursday night, faced with a choice, a choice I’m not entirely sure that I know the right answer for.  On the one hand tonight, I could watch Southland at 10pm, on the other, I could watch Harper’s Island.  I’m quite convinced that I have to watch at least one, and that I will end up watching both, I’m just not sure if there’s one that I should be watching tonight and one which I should be watching tomorrow.

I’m certainly far more interested in Harper’s Island. I’m still not in love with the show, but I very much like the idea behind it, but that’s not enough to convince me that it’s the right choice.  See, Harper’s Island is a “scary” show, or, at least, it’s scary for me.  I’m not  much into horror films, slasher movies, or crazed killers.  So, if I watch CBS’s mystery tonight, I’m not going to sleep very well.  Yes, you’re very funny, I could watch Harper’s Island and then watch Southland because I won’t be able to sleep, but the problem is that I may not even be able to sleep after that.

Southland might actually be a better show, but I think the jury’s still out there.  The real problem is that for a network that has aired stuff like L.A. Law, Hill Street Blues, and ER in that Thursday, 10pm timeslot, to see Southland in that time is something of a disappointment.  Seriously, tell me that it isn’t, tell me that in your mind, Southland seems like the sort of show that’s going to stack up to one of those three titans.  You can’t, can you?

Hence my problem – how am I going to sit around tonight at 10pm and watch NBC when I’m far more interested in what’s on CBS?  How am I going to watch CBS knowing that I won’t be able to sleep later?   What does that leave me with, because I’m certainly not going to skip watching television completely at that hour, I’m not going to turn on ABC, and I’m not going to be watching local news.

Odds are that I should suck it up, ignore my fear and just watch Harper’s Island, after all, while it might not be the better show, it’s the show I’d rather watch.  Add to that the fact that I’ll probably only ever be able to watch Harper’s Island after dark and therefore always have issues falling asleep afterwards, and the choice seems even more clear.  But, for all that, I can’t just accept that as a conclusion. 

Now, Harper’s Island does have another advantage to it -- it was really pretty clear who was going to die and when in the premiere, so I could easily skip those bits, or just build up my courage as those moments approach.  I’m pretty convinced that won’t work, but odds are it’s exactly what I’m going to try to do. 

Yup, the more I think about it, the more satisfied I am that the correct call is exactly that one -- watch Harper’s Island and close my eyes during all the scary bits.  It’s probably not a method that will work perfectly, but at least I’ll have the feeling that even though I might not be able to sleep brilliantly tonight, I’ll have watched the right show. 

That’s probably the most important thing.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

All ABC on Wednesdays? Okay...

Looking at my viewing schedule for this evening I realized something terribly interesting – I'm going to be watching three hours of ABC.  This occurred last week as well (the lineup was the same), but outside of sports and awards shows I'm not sure that it's ever occurred before that.

Oh sure, I used to watch the entirety of TGIF back in the day (pre-Family Matters), but that was only ever two hours of shows, not three.  I have no idea what ABC aired in the 10pm slot, but I know that I didn't watch.

I know what you're thinking at this point (I say that a lot, but this time I really do) – "what does ABC even have on tonight… hmmmm… Wednesday… that means Lost is on, but what else?"  See, that's exactly what makes my watching all of ABC's primetime tonight so weird – most people probably couldn't even tell me their lineup, and even I didn't realize that it was all ABC tonight until I really thought about it.

For the record, they're airing Scrubs, Better off Ted, Lost, and The Irregulars.  And that's just another reason my doing this is weird – I'm actually watching Better off Ted.  It has to be a weak night of television, otherwise neither Ted nor The Irregulars would be on the viewing schedule (NBC is airing a Law & Order repeat).

Now, if you're really up on ABC's lineup, you'll note in the above paragraph another issue, but you have to really know their lineup – there is no show called The Irregulars, it's not like there's a Sherlock Holmes-spinoff, although that would be pretty cool.  No, the show is actually called The Unusuals, but The Irregulars, or The Oddities, or Those Weird Cops That We've All Seen on Other Shows Before would work just fine as a title, too.  That last one can even be shortened to the too-cool moniker of TWCTWASOOSB.

I don't mean to denigrate The Irregulars – I actually do like the actors and didn't think the first episode was half-bad, and the show really has an ABC feel to it (as discussed on this past week's Screen Time), but…I don't know.  It seems like a poor way to be spending my Wednesday 10pm hour. 

It's actually a very blah night of television in general, even on ABC.  I have no idea what's going on with Scrubs this season, main characters regularly fail to appear in episodes – there's even been more than one without J.D.  Has the budget been slashed to such a huge degree that they can't even have all the actors appear in every episode anymore.  I understand people missing episodes due to illness or pregnancy or goodness knows what else, but unless half the cast of Scrubs has had the flu all season and they're just passing it back and forth, there's something else going on there.

But, good, bad, or ugly, I'll be watching it and the rest of the ABC lineup tonight, even if the only show I'm really looking forward to seeing is Lost

Wednesday - clearly it's hump day.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hey, son, how’d you like to go fishing this weekend?

To a certain segment of the population 53° 52' North/ 166° 31' West means more than just a random latitude and longitude, it means the return of one of the Discovery Channel's flagship series, Deadliest Catch. The show returns for its fifth season on April 14 at 9pm ET/PT and is promising to deliver to viewers even more real-life drama.

For those not in the know, the series focuses itself on four fishing boats that sail out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska (that would be the location of the aforementioned latitude and longitude) and the crews who sail the boats and fish the waters for crab (that would be the aforementioned catch). And, as with all good reality shows the series does its best to mix the human tales with tales of the world.

This season of the show promises to show the stories of the health of two of the ship captains, Phil Harris and Keith Colburn. Phil finds himself dealing with more issues from his leg embolism which occurred last season, and as the season opens Keith is waiting on an important diagnosis from his doctor.

The film crews were also present for the Coast Guard's search and rescue operation involving the Katmai, an event in which seven fisherman lost their lives. That episode certainly ought to be one of the highlights of the season.

I find myself rather late to the party with Deadliest Catch, not having seen any previous episodes despite its popularity. While the 20-minute screener I received of the show certainly isn't enough to review the show, I can happily state that there does seem to be fishing, catching, and deadliness involved, which, my understanding has it, is exactly what the show purports to deliver.

Seriously though, having no attachment to the personalities not having watched the previous four seasons I still found it very easy to figure out what was taking place with the various ships' crews. Even so, it was the aspects of the fishing and preparation for the fishing which I found the most interesting in the preview I received. However, that wasn't what the preview found itself focused on. As it was the beginning of the fishing season it makes complete sense that it wouldn't find the ships out at seas, but that is exactly what I wanted to see, the deadliest catch.

I guess that maybe I should be tuning in when the show returns.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Nepotism Much? Last Night's Celebrity Apprentice

How quickly things change. Last week on The Celebrity Apprentice, Joan and Clint were at each others’ throats. This week, they weren’t quiet friends, but they worked together on the task. Joan had a good idea about including the celebs’ faces on the display they were building, but only Clint realized that it would require rejiggering of the size of their display. They may have been in different places when they were figuring it out, but figure it out they did and neither yelled at the other and refused to listen when the other spoke. See, the two can work together, even if they smiled at one another through clenched teeth later in the boardroom.

I actually thought that, despite their working together one of them would end up going home, that the other team, Athena, had an advantage going into the boardroom. Athena used the CEO’s picture in their display, carrying over what the company, LifeLock, had already established as their advertising campaign. The LifeLock execs even seemed happy earlier with the idea of just expanding the current advertising ideas they were working with.

So, to me, it seemed that fitting in with the LifeLock brand was a good thing for Athena. The execs disagreed, they apparently wanted different and went with Kotu. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised -- Kotu had not one, not two, not three, but four celebrity endorsements on their display, but it absolutely went against what the LifeLock folks initially said they wanted.

If you're keeping track, this sort of thing has now happened two weeks in a row. Last week, All was way off on what they wanted from the teams by asking for a viral video when they really wanted a minute long commercial and now this week LifeLock was less than accurate about the parameters as well. To me, that's distressing. I don't know whether the executives just have no idea what they're looking for in advance or if they don't care what they get as a result because simply having the product on the show is enough for them. Neither of those seems like a really good answer, does it?

I think I know what you want me to say next though, and I absolutely will -- the worst thing about last night's episode wasn't LifeLock not knowing what they wanted, it was the second task which smacked of nepotism. The teams were tasked with running a charity auction featuring Ivanka's jewelry. Hmm… I can't imagine why the Ivanka Trump-based task got split over the course of two episodes which will give it nearly three hours of screen time, can you? It certainly couldn't have anything to do with Ivanka being on the show and being Donald's daughter, now could it? No. Certainly not, that's not the kind of thing anyone would organize to highlight their daughter's other interests, is it?

Oh no, wait, it totally is, isn't it? That's the exact sort of thing we ought to have expected. It doesn't make it any less disappointing, but it was completely to be expected. Clearly there are some perks being Trump's daughter and this is just one of them.

I'd like to think that if I had a TV show I wouldn't act in the same manner, but let's be honest, we probably all would to a greater or lesser extent.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Tigger & Pooh and a Musical Too: I Say "Not Bad," How About You?

Disney's latest direct-to-DVD release, Tigger & Pooh and a Musical Too is a moderately enjoyable trip back to the 100 Acre Wood, even if the title and box art is a tad misleading.  The hour-long film is based on the CG-animated Playhouse Disney series My Friends Tigger & Pooh, which means that playing the role of human counselor to the animals in the Wood s a young American girl named Darby, and not the traditional Christopher Robin.  If that's the sort of thing an adult can learn to accept they might be able to have fun with the film; for children, I don't imagine that it makes much of a difference.

Despite what the box art implies – it shows Darby, Lumpy (a young Heffalump), and Pooh performing on a stage –  and title corroborates, no musical is put on any sort of stage in the 100 Acre Wood.  Instead, it is the film itself which is a musical and features seven new songs. 

The story finds Rabbit being made mayor of the 100 Acre Wood for his brilliance in organizing a picnic.  Rabbit is, by nature, an officious and efficient organizer, and while he may have done an excellent job with the picnic, the power of being mayor goes straight to his head.  Rules are created for everything and begin to govern even the smallest part of all the animals' lives.  Hardest hit by the rules is Tigger, whose bouncing is strictly limited. 

When things between Rabbit and Tigger erupt, the 100 Acre Wood is split in two (oddly, no mention is made that there are now two 50 Acre Woods, a point I surely would have highlighted).  Rabbit rules one half and the animals who live there, while Tigger takes on the other half.  Things become bad in both parts and – this really isn't giving away any sort of surprise – by the end of the film the halves are reunited and everyone has learned a valuable lesson.

Pooh aficionados will instantly recognize that Rabbit has long had issues with Tigger's bouncing and has before now attempted to curtail it.  In the original Pooh movie, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (still the high water mark for the series), Rabbit attempts to make Tigger get lost in a misguided attempt to curb Tigger's bouncing.  In this film Rabbit seems to have forgotten the lesson he learned there – you just can't take the bounce away from Tigger. 

Despite Rabbit's amnesia, the Tigger & Pooh and a Musical Too is a moderately enjoyable little visit back to the 100 Acre Wood.  The story feels a lot smaller than some of Pooh's big screen films, and personally I would rather it was a Christopher Robin containing work, but the "Super Sleuths" – Tigger, Pooh, & Darby tend to solve problems as a group of detectives –  which take up a big part of the Tigger & Pooh series are kept to a minimal amount of screen time here, which is for the best.

In terms of bonus features, the disc contains a sing-along version of the film, a Rabbit-based game (which does feature a musical and clearly is where the box art picture of a stage comes from), and a Kenny Loggins video, "Underneath the Same Sky," which is a song featured in the film.  None of the bonus features are terribly intriguing, and while some of the songs are enjoyable, I don't see very many people (even children) wanting to sing along using the subtitles.

Anyone going into this movie with the expectation that it will be anything more than an extended version of an episode of the Tigger & Pooh series will be sadly disappointed.  However, taking the series as a benchmark for what to expect, many will actually finish watching this quite pleased.  The movie certainly has some very enjoyable moments, even if it doesn't fully have that Pooh magic.

Here is a clip of perhaps the best (and certainly the most musical-like) song in the film:

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Visiting Harper's Island

Tonight at 10pm (9 if you live in one of those weird time zones) CBS is premiering its newest drama.  I'm not afraid to say that I've been excited for the show ever since I first heard of it oh-so-many months ago.  The show, Harper's Island, is one you can't have escaped seeing previews for if you have watched CBS even a little in the past month (maybe more).

The show is a 13-episode mystery featuring a series of vile, disgusting, despicable murders.  Sure, it's possible that the story may end after 13 episodes, but you and I both know that if the series is a massive success they'll work out a way to bring it back for another season.  I don't know if I'm rooting for a second season yet, but I'm definitely hoping the first one is a success.  Here's a little snippet CBS sent explaining the show: 

27 miles off the coast of Seattle seven years ago, six people were murdered by John Wakefield.  They were the first murders in the history of the island… they will not be the last…
See?  Doesn't that sound intriguing?  Doesn't that sound like it could be great fun?

As for the first episode itself?  Well, I may be rooting for the show, but if I were betting (and I don't bet with my heart), I'd be betting against it.

In looking for something to compare the show to, the most obvious choice is Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. After watching the pilot however, I'd like to suggest that it veers slightly more into Murder in Small Town X territory. The thrills present in the first episode are certainly more of the cheap variety.

The storyline revolves around a couple returning to this cute little island to get married. The girl, Trish Wellington (Katie Cassidy), is the daughter of a rich family who summered there, while the guy, Henry Dunn (Christopher Gorham), worked on the island during the summers. Rich daddy is unamused with his daughter's choice, but that hasn't stopped her from going after what she wants.

I will not reveal any death or deaths that occur in the first episode, but all the characters are pretty stock ones and it's not to hard to pick out who will be picked off. And that, even if it is just the premiere, is a massive disappointment. On the upside, if the killer continues to go about his/her task in future episodes as he/she did in this one, we are in for some pretty swell killings.

Perhaps I shouldn't complain about the stock nature of the characters as they were clearly intended to be stock –- the info sheets CBS sent about the show not only give the characters' names (and who they're played by) but also handy little identifiers so that they can easily be figured out. For instance, the other man, the one Trish's dad would rather her marry, he's titled “The Other Man.” He has a name too, but it's easier just to call him “The Other Man.” It's not to hard to work out these titles without them being provided, but that fact does give the show more of a dime-store pulp mystery feel than the feel of a show that has been well-crafted.

I am, however, a reader of cheap dime-store novels. And, taking this television series as a 13-chapter novel, while the first chapter wasn't quite as gripping as I would like, I am very curious about whodunit, and if the show can have the characters and mystery grow into something more. The show has enough creepy backstory and a big enough oddball assortment of characters that with some judicious murdering we could be left with a truly fascinating plot.

Just remember, some dime-store novels can be great, exciting reads. This too could be a very exciting show.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

It's Like 70 Proof Fruit Punch!

Some people like to go out and get drunk without ever feeling the burn of the alcohol; a strong drink is just fine as long as it doesn't taste like a strong drink.  I can then wholeheartedly recommend that you enter the world of Three Olives Cherry Vodka.  The cherry-infused liquor may not be their best, but it does make for a very solid mixed drink.

I wouldn't suggest drinking the 70 proof vodka straight, either neat or on the rocks.  If one does they will note the flavor is more of a tart cherry (like a real maraschino) than anything else.  The cherry flavor hits almost instantly and slowly dissipates rather than having a strong cherry aftertaste.  While the vodka may smell overly sweet upon opening the bottle, it happily is nowhere near as sweet as one might first suspect.  Even so, drinking it straight isn't the most enjoyable of experiences.  The taste is definitely cherry-like, but the tartness makes it less than enjoyable by itself.

I still can, quite happily, recommend the vodka as one to be mixed in other drinks.  At that task it excels.  Substituting this vodka in cocktails in which one would normally place an unflavored variety usually has excellent results.

The best of the cocktails I tried with the vodka was a Vodka Cranberry (I like mine with a splash of orange juice).  Rather than having the usual sort of vodka cranberry taste, the effect was much more like a fruit punch, akin to -- but not wholly like -- Minute Maid Fruit Punch.

Another favorite of the people I tried it amongst was a traditional screwdriver.  Apparently using the cherry vodka in any drink that contains orange juice is a winner. 

The one disappointment I had in the mixed drink category with the vodka was a simple Vodka Tonic.  Something slightly sweet may be necessary to counteract the tartness in the liquor itself.

In the end, given the choice, while I enjoy the Three Olives Cherry Flavor vodka, I would still choose Three Olive's Triple Shot Espresso in its stead.  It is certainly true that one generally wouldn't use the same mixers with the Cherry one as they would with the Triple Shot Espresso one, but the fact that the Triple Shot Espresso can be used straight or in a cocktail gives it a leg up.

It is also true that James Bond still wouldn't be caught drinking any of these flavors, even if one can make a Cherry-Tini with the cherry vodka.

As a side note, Three Olives is currently running a contest asking drinkers, "What's your O-Face?"  The website calls for drinkers to enter by uploading photographs of themselves with "the look of surprise one has after tasting a shockingly delicious Three-O Vodka drink."  Submissions are being accepted until May 31, 2009, after which five finalists will be flown to New York for a photo shoot, following which a single winner will receive $10,000 and be featured in an advertising campaign for the drink.  One only need visit the Three Olives website to enter.

The website also contains a downloadable PDF featuring cocktails that can be made with a variety of flavored vodka.  It's the sort of thing that is terribly useful in the case of the cherry vodka should one decide that alcoholic fruit punch isn't quite their thing.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Oh, to be a Slumdog Millionaire

There are some films one doesn't expect to walk away from the Academy Awards with an armload of Oscars. Such is certainly the case for Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, which has just hit Blu-ray and DVD. Stickers added to the cases after production may indicate the movie's success with the Academy, but nothing on the Blu-ray's actual printed cover (at least the ones sent out to reviewers) indicates that it won eight Oscars, though a Golden Globe for Boyle is mentioned on the back. Ironically, the film itself is about an underdog going all the way.

Starring Dev Patel as Jamil Malik, the film follows a young man in Mumbai whom no one thought had a chance at anything. Malik, however, has managed to make it onto the Indian version of Who Wants to a Millionaire, where he actually knows the answers to all the questions.

The film itself is told as a series of flashbacks, opening with Malik being tortured in a police station after his first night on Millionaire. Everyone involved thinks Jamal has cheated to get as far as he has – one question away from the big prize. He is questioned throughout the night by a police inspector (Irrfan Khan), who takes Jamal through the questions he was asked on the show and learns all about Jamal's life story and how Jamal knows the answers to some impossibly difficult questions.

The inspector – and the audience – learn all about Jamal's growing up in the slums of Mumbai with nothing; Jamal's sometimes rocky relationship with his brother, Salim (as an adult portrayed by Madhur Mittal); and Jamal's pursuit of the love of his life, Latika (as an adult portrayed by Freida Pinto). Though depicted as a harsh and gripping reality butting heads with the possibility of salvation and fantastic wealth, the film is, quite clearly, a fantasy. It is a good fantasy, one that completely envelops the audience and has them rooting for Jamal and Latika throughout, but upon finishing it one can't help but get the sense that this fantastic fairytale is in fact nothing more than that.

As Jamal is questioned in the police station about knowing the answers, the audience is taken through his life in an almost perfectly linear fashion. Amazingly, the questions Jamal does know the answer to, starting with question number one on the show, take Jamal from his childhood straight through to his present life without jumping around in time. He doesn't go from being five when he learned the answer to the first question to being 18 for the third and then back to nine for the fifth question, no, he grows as the questions continue. It is certainly a device that makes it easier to tell Jamal's story, but it also makes the entire story less believable.

The film tries to get away with this by suggesting that Jamal's getting these questions and reaching the last one on the show happened because "it is written." However, in a life and a world where Jamal makes his own way, to suggest divine intervention to have him win money is a difficult concept to swallow. It may have been harder for Simon Beaufoy – who won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay here – to write a tale that would hold together jumping around more in time, but it would have added something of value as well.

While Slumdog Millionaire tells a great a story, and is most certainly a wonderful and wonderfully engrossing film, it is clearly just that, a film. But, what's more, no matter how much it depicts Indians, it is a film made by and for westerners.

To hear Beaufoy and Boyle discuss the making of the film in some of the extras included on the DVD makes one occasionally cringe. While the two clearly have a certain amount of reverence for India and Indians, they from time to time toss off statements that sound condescending and/or offensive (depending on one's point of view). I do not for a single minute believe that their intent was anything less than honorable and honorific, but it doesn't always come out that way.

Beyond that, there are several other instances in the film that exist solely for western audiences. The fantastic and incredibly memorable scene in which young Jamal jumps into feces in order to get out of an outhouse so that he can get Amitabh Bachchan's signature stands out as one of them. The first question Jamal gets on the show is who starred in the 1973 film Zanjeer. As Jamal eventually points out to the inspector, everyone in India knows Amitabh Bachchan, but it takes an awful long time to get there, to explain the reverence for Bachchan (arguably the biggest star in Bollywood to this very day). And, more importantly, the film makes no acknowledgment that it was Bachchan who hosted Who Wants to be a Millionaire when it first came to India. Surely Jamal would have mentioned that in his discussions with the police. Omissions like these, and other oddities in the film, like showing something that looks far more like bhel poori on screen when pani poori is discussed, only further serve to hurt the film's authenticity. Again, do not mistake what I'm trying to say – the film is a wonderful fairytale and a great love story; there are, however, moments of concern.

On Blu-ray, Slumdog Millionaire it looks and sounds utterly spectacular. After seeing it in the theater and then at home, I think the quality of the video and audio is better on the Blu-ray than what I saw on the big screen. The colors and sights and sounds of India come across brilliantly. Some of the shots at the Millionaire game show did appear slightly more grainy than I would have expected, but that issue is a minor one. A.R. Rahman's Oscar-winning music is pumped out of the speakers loud, clear, full of bass, and really helps center the audience in the story.

The release is loaded with special features including deleted scenes, music videos, an audio commentary with Boyle and Patel, the usual assortment of "making of" documentaries, and a short film called Manjha (the less said of which, the better). However, the way the disc is organized, only one special feature title is shown in the menu at a time, forcing the viewer to keep scrolling while never being quite sure of what they're going to see next (and then getting awfully confused when the reach the end of the list and it starts from the beginning again with no warning). There is also, as I always enjoy seeing, a digital copy of the film provided on a second disc.

In the final summation, Slumdog Millionaire's story, like its main character, triumphs over all its shortcomings and pitfalls. It is however, far from perfect and perhaps not always as authentic as it should be. The film's ending (like the final question Jamal will eventually get) is obvious from the first 10 or 15 minutes of the film, but the fact that it keeps the audience entranced throughout anyway is a testament to the job Boyle, Beaufoy, and everyone else involved accomplished.

Monday, April 06, 2009

All's not Well Over at The Celebrity Apprentice

As you know, I watch The Celebrity Apprentice with great regularity.  There are many reasons for my doing this, but quite honestly the biggest is that I have a good time watching.  I don't always agree with the decisions made by Trump or the teams, but they're often quite fascinating.  Even with celebrities in the place of real people, it's still an interesting social experiment (it's just a different society).

Normally, the promos for the show touting big boardrooms or crazy goings on are incredibly misleading.  The one for last night's episode suggested that there would be a "celebrity mutiny."  That certainly didn't take place, but it was a wild and crazy boardroom.

You may recall that last season on the show, Gene Simmons suggested that perhaps, just perhaps, the client was wrong, that the client didn't know what they wanted.  That's a tough sell, particularly when the client decides who wins and loses.  However, All, who was pitching their new detergent this week, certainly seemed like they didn't know what they wanted.  They suggested that they wanted a "viral video," but they wanted a squeaky clean one that would be passed on by moms to one another.  They certainly didn't want the little people Athena used and the dirty joke Kotu told.  They actually decided to not have a winner (I seem to recall such a thing happening with Dove or some other shampoo/body wash company early on in the show's run).

Fine though, let's assume that the client was right, that the viral video they wanted could exist and that both teams failed the task, Kotu definitely did.  It really doesn't excuse what happened in the boardroom.

Kotu should be embarrassed.  Before the winner was announced – or not announced as happened – they all went on the attack against each other.  It was mostly centered on Joan and Clint hating one another, Joan made it personal, but Clint didn't.  I appreciate Clint for staying – as best he could – above the fray directed at him, but he was still in the wrong about the entirety of his actions during the shoot. 

If Clint was in the wrong though, Melissa Rivers was so far beyond wrong that she couldn't even see wrong anymore.  Even though she wasn't there, jumped in to defend her mom.  Seriously.  I guess she actually figured that she knew her mom well enough to know what had taken place despite not being there.  At one point Donald Trump actually asked Melissa if she thought she was sometimes obnoxious.  He did it in that "I'm saying this in a joking fashion, but we all know you are" kind of way.  Melissa shrugged that one off, but then Don-Don jumped in and asked the question again.  He said it in that "no, really, you are obnoxious and we all know it" kind of way.  I can't believe Trump didn't fire his boy right then and there.  I guess there are perks for being the boss's kid.  At least Don-Don's remark shut Melissa up.

While I think that at first blush Trump moving Joan and Melissa to different teams seemed to setup an interesting battle between Joan and Melissa, it really didn't.  In fact, I tend to think that moving them to opposite sides was the safe move for the show.  I mean, I would have loved to see Melissa and Joan go at it in the boardroom if they were on the same team, each battling for their life, but I have to imagine that never would have happened with them on the same team.  Moving them to opposite teams, while they're ostensibly fighting against one another none of it is really face-to-face so it's not really a battle.

Of course, then Trump went nuts (here's the spoiler people), firing Tionne for volunteering to come back to the boardroom and Khloe for getting a DUI before the show began filming (perhaps before she even agreed to do the show).  Trump was at least consistent with a season two episode when he got rid of Tionne, but the Khloe thing was way out of line.  If Khloe had gotten a DUI while working on the show that would have been one thing, but this occurred before the show took place, and it's not like this is American Idol, pushing for some squeaky clean pop star. Allowing Khloe to stay on the show is not the same as condoning her actions.  Jesse James got to stay even though he admitted to having had a drinking problem in his youth.  One wonders if Trump will now dig into James' history and find something he doesn't like there. 

Enough of that though (end spoilers), the funniest thing, truly, that comes out of all of this is All's position in it.  They wanted a viral video and got nothing they felt they could use.  Consequently, the show has gone and made them a couple of videos, one with Joan and one with Melissa (they don't stick to the one minute they allotted the teams however). 

I guess they ended up creating their own viral videos.  I'm not really sure that I'd classify them as "viral," but you watch and be the judge.  If you visit the All website you can even enter a sweepstakes and if you pass on the videos they'll also donate money to Melissa & Joan's respective charities.  Here's a little teaser of both the videos (full versions over at All).

Friday, April 03, 2009

ER Finishes, "And in the End..."

I remember the series premiere of ER.  I remember anticipating it the whole summer.  I remember getting antsy about it as the date approached, and I certainly remember the first time we saw John Carter, medical student.  The staff at County General instantly knew he came from money because it was the first time that they'd seen a tailored white coat instead of a regular one.  I remember Hathaway attempting suicide.  I remember Ross showing up drunk.  To this day I remember storylines from more than a decade worth of seasons.    ER was a show I followed religiously, and even if it didn't go out with a big bang last night, as a devoted fan for more than a decade and a scholar of television I think it went out the right way.

Essentially, there are two ways that a series can choose to end – the cataclysmic "things will never be the same" way or the "life goes on" way.  If you try, without much effort you can come up with examples of both.  The best of the "things will never be the same" variety is, I think without question, the greatest television series finale that ever aired and (for what it's worth) the highest rated – M*A*S*H.  We've talked about it before, but "Goodbye, Farewell & Amen" is, I think, a perfect finale.  I'd be hard pressed to imagine something ever equally its greatness.  It had great writing; wonderful acting; was a show everyone loved; and very importantly, the perfect out.  How to end the series?  Just have them reach the end of the Korean War, no more war, no more M*A*S*H.

To choose the greatest of the "life goes on" finales is far more difficult (M*A*S*H is a very safe choose), but, the ER finale is a perfect example.  We got to catch up with old friends, we got to see where people are, and, at the end of the night, life for County General continues.  Life at County General had to continue, short of a budget crisis closing the hospital forever or a bomb destroying the place, there was no way to for the hospital to shut its doors.  And, if you've been paying attention over the years you know that budget crises have threatened to close the hospital and that any number of things have destroyed parts of County without the place shuttering permanently.  Life had to continue there, and that was the message we all got.

Plus, the series really focused on what it needed to focus on, the two main characters that existed during the run of the show – John Carter & Mark Greene.  The show initially centered around Greene, but once he left, it was Carter who took up the main character mantle (something he would relinquish in the last few seasons of the show).  The Greene moments were handled perfectly, Rachel came to interview for medical school at County.  Perfect and cyclical, who could have asked for more.  Mark has, of course, passed away, so it would have been foolish to bring him back again (we had that flashback thing earlier in the year), so to have Rachel there as his proxy was the right way to go.

Lastly, I think that the story worked wonderfully because a lot of moments in it, a lot of shots that appeared, and some dialogue echoed the series premiere.  As with Rachel appearing, it showed how life is cyclical and that it continues no matter what.

No, there were no explosions, there were no bombshells, there was no "oh my god, I can't believe they did that!" moment.  It was contemplative and while not spectacular (if you ask me too much time was spent on the current cast and bringing Neela in via webcam as they did last week too was silly), had the right tone and feeling.

Southland has some pretty big shoes to fill.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Stay Where it's Pitch Black, No Chronicles Necessary

Bigger isn't necessarily always better. Following a successful low-budget film with a big-budget sequel isn't always the right way to go. No matter how often Hollywood is provided with examples of the lesson, it's one that doesn't seem to stick. As a case in point, look at two of this week's Blu-ray releases, Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick.

Pitch Black, released in 2000 and starring Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, and Cole Hauser, was produced for $23,000,000 (according to IMDb). It went on to gross significantly more than that which, as it often does, led the studio (in this case Universal) to ask director David Twohy about the possibility of a sequel (something he says in the Blu-ray release that he wasn't at all considering while making the low-ish budget original). Sure, the majority of the characters were killed off in the original, but one of the surviving ones, Richard Riddick, was portrayed by Diesel, whose star was clearly on the rise in Hollywood. So, Universal put the band back together and with a far higher budget ($110,000,000) released The Chronicles of Riddick in 2004. While the grosses may have been higher than for Pitch Black, the return on investment was not. Even so, the two films are now available on Blu-ray, both in "unrated director's cut" form.

The original film, Pitch Black, follows the crash landing of a spaceship on an unknown planet. Though the surviving crew members and passengers are initially worried about the ultra-dangerous convict who was aboard the ship, Riddick, it quickly becomes apparent that their true enemy is not human, but rather alien. The planet, it seems, is infested with deadly aliens with a taste for human flesh. While the survivors at first think they'll be okay as the planet has three suns and it's never night, which is the only time the animals feed, it turns out that once every 22 years there's an eclipse. Guess what? The unlucky survivors have landed just in time for that eclipse. As the world goes black, death ensues, and Riddick, who has special eyes which can see in the dark, becomes everyone's only hope.

It is, simply put, a ludicrous set of circumstances coinciding with one another. However, done in the dark with a small cast of characters it becomes a good sci-fi horror film. It never has any pretentions to being more than the B-movie that it is, and due to the low budget focuses itself on the human characters rather than the alien menace.

Without such constraints and without the attempt to remain in the sci-fi horror genre, The Chronicles of Riddick is left floundering. The film is only really a pseudo-sequel in that while it has characters from the first film it retains none of the hallmarks of that movie. Reappearing in this film, besides Riddick, are Jack (now played by Alexa Davalos instead of Rhiana Griffith) and Imam (still portrayed by Keith David). Gone are the evil aliens. In their place we get evil humanoid-types bent on ruling the universe. Gone is any examination of character. In its place we get special effects. Gone is the notion of a single world in darkness. In its place we get three incredibly different over-the-top worlds and even more special effects.

This time out, there is no doubt that Riddick is now a good guy (no matter how many times the movie tries to tell us that he might not be); he's hardly even reluctant about the role. Though he claims to be hesitant at first, he quickly finds himself enmeshed in a battle against the Necromongers (don't ask, they're looking for the Underverse which is a mirror image universe where death isn't such a big deal) fighting for Helion Prime and New Mecca, as well as a race of "elementals" who get Judi Dench to play one of their number. If the first movie was silly in its premise but not its execution, this one finds itself unintentionally uproarious on all fronts. The decent (and not better than that) action scenes only stop long enough for the speechifying required to move the shreds of a plot forward. The entire endeavor has the feeling of a film where the set pieces were created first and a plot which could incorporate the set pieces developed later.

That being said, it should also be noted that the entire thing looks and sounds spectacular in Blu-ray. The colors are outstanding, the picture sharp, and the bass rumbles magnificently. For Pitch Black, however, the audio mix is far less appealing. The original film still has excellent visuals and wonderful black levels where things are dark and yet a good amount of detail is present (thank goodness, as so much of it takes place in the dark), but the audio has issues. To hear dialogue spoken one is required to turn the sound up loud enough that any special effects prove nearly deafening.

Both features utilize Universal's "U-Control," which allows for viewing of behind the scenes picture-in-picture tracks during the films and have both unrated and theatrical versions. There are also a number of behind-the-scenes special features, everything from documentaries on how the films were made to "chase logs" which delve into the search for Riddick at various point in the timeline. There are also cast/crew commentary tracks on both films.

The Blu-ray releases – which are available for purchase either in a two-pack or separately – have been quite clearly and purposely meant to cross-promote one another, with special features on both referring to the other film. However, this is sometimes taken a tad too far in the set, as can be seen in Twohy's introduction of Pitch Black, which features him in an editing room where The Chronicles of Riddick is being worked on. The introduction itself then, rather than talking mainly about Pitch Black, spends the majority of its time discussing The Chronicles of Riddick.

As the Alien movies proved, a single sci-fi horror film which features the majority of the characters dying can be expanded into an incredibly successful long-running franchise. Pitch Black, which is very much in the vein of Alien, opted to go a completely different way for its sequel. While it is unquestionably possible to have made a successful sequel that would not be in the mold of Aliens, Twohy and company didn't do that. They opted to simply drop a few characters from one movie into a different one and cover any issues with a high-gloss sheen. Even in high definition it doesn't work.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Cupid Takes Aim

A writer I know and both greatly admire and respect recently wrote in a review of ABC's new (but old, sort of) Cupid (2009): "...pretend that you're not a TV junkie, that you aren't a pop culture maven. Pretend that you're just a person who likes to watch TV after a long day of work…" Quite happily, I'm completely a TV junkie and this is not a review.

See, if this was a review and I wasn't a TV junkie I wouldn't discuss (perhaps at length) how ABC's new Cupid is created and executive produced by the same guy who brought us ABC's old Cupid (1998). I then couldn't talk about how the guy in question is the same who brought to television fans the utterly fantastic Veronica Mars. Yes, the old Cupid and the new Cupid are/were created and executive produced by Rob Thomas.

Now, if I didn't know that, if I wasn't interested in such things, there is no way on God's green Earth that I would have bothered watching the new Cupid last night. I wouldn't have found the premise terribly exciting, the genre is certainly one that doesn't do it for me, and if I turned the show on I might have been forced to catch the tail end of Dancing with the Stars (something I'd love to avoid). In short, I would have been like the majority of the country and avoided the series. The show came in last place in both total viewers and adults 18-49. Not a good way to start, particularly as it squandered its Dancing with the Stars lead-in support.

On his website, Rob Thomas states that "he fully expects 'critical darling, commercial failure' to be etched on his tombstone." Well, I'm not quite sure that this show will be termed a "critical darling," although I'll admit to really enjoying it… a lot. If I were feeling foolish today I'd put down something like "I fell in love with Cupid," but happily I've drunk enough coffee to be able to convince myself that's a bad idea. Plus, for what it's worth, it may be more lust than love.

The series stars Bobby Cannavale as a man who claims to be Cupid (the claim may or may not be accurate) and Sarah Paulson (Studio 60) as possible-Cupid's doctor. The basic premise, simply put, is that Cupid claims to have been booted from Mount Olympus and won't be readmitted until he gets 200 people to make 100 truly happy couples. Or, if you prefer, until there are enough episodes to go into syndication.

The emphasis in this new series is more on the one-off couples than the long-term Cupid and Clair (Paulson) relationship, and that's probably why I'm more lusty than in love. I wanted that relationship developed more than it was last night. I have very little desire to see 100 couples fall in love, mostly because we know exactly where that's headed every week. What we don't know is the progression of the Cupid-Claire stuff. Will they? Won't they? Is he Cupid? Is she his mythological wife? What, precisely is their deal?

That's the interesting bit of the series. That's what I, a TV junkie, want to see. And, I have to believe that's what most people want to see, that is, if most people want to see it at all. It wasn't a success 11 years ago, and it wasn't a success last night.

But, don't count out the little deity yet, things can always change. Only time (and possibly Zeus) will tell.