Wednesday, 7 November 2007

This Week In TV (Week 6)

As has been noted everywhere on the TV-watching net, the WGA called for a strike this week, but even though it's only now begun, it's been looming for so long now that the shows we're watching now were made in full knowledge of the eventual disruption. I'm sure I'm not the only person who is not looking forward to week after week of ineptly written filler, as CSI and Ugly Betty showed. We're big fans of both shows here at Shades of Caruso, but they were at their very worst.

Ugly Betty was especially bad, a rare mis-step for a show that is so often sheer joy to watch. From the frustratingly busy plotting (the on-again-off-again Henry and Betty love affair crammed in months of annoying back and forth into one episode, creating an apathy in us that otherwise would have only been a problem next year) to the truly obnoxious Wicked promotions (there is no way we're going to see that crapfest now!), it was full of clunking failed moments. Only Marc and Wilhemina worked well this week, with the former treating the awesome Cliff horribly and the latter binge-eating. Of course, what starts out light turns sad by the end, and the scene with Marc being shunned by both his boyfriend and boss was heartbreaking. Every week it's obvious that the decision to change Marc from mere comedy relief to proper 3-D character was a brilliant one, and Michael Urie was great throughout (as was a hilarious Vanessa Williams). So why am I placing a picture of America Ferrera here? Because her "Hero Worship" joke was adorable, of course.

Almost as bad was an ill-judged comedic CSI, involving the accidental death of a horror movie siren and the subsequent disastrously managed cover-up, though at least there wasn't about twenty references to Wicked in it. There are always going to be jokey episodes of CSI, and we grin and bear them. Not so much because they aren't very good, but mostly because the coating of wacky "comedy music" obscures everything. Gil's little moues and expressions of annoyance are infinitely more amusing in the regular episodes than they are with comedy horns playing in the background, and if only the showrunners realised that, we could enjoy the experience more. This time around the only real enjoyment to be derived from the episode was watching new character Ronnie Lake (Jessica Lucas) play through and subvert horror movie conventions.

For the first thirty minutes those conventions were explained for the nuns in the audience in boring detail, including a bizarre scene showing lab tech Liz Vassey proudly show off her own appearance in a slasher movie. That paid off with a finale featuring Ronnie being similarly terrorised, for "real". I issue a Dwight-Schrute-style demerit for the early comment on how low-cut tops are de rigeur for distressed horror damsels, included just so Jessica Lucas could run around exposing a Pushing-Daisies-esque cleavage for most of the episode. Gratuitous boobage is sometimes just gratuitous boobage, no matter how hard you try to legitimise it. In fact, the attempts at being post-modern made it seem creepier than it should. However, I take back that demerit because for the first time Ronnie was shown to be competent and level-headed in a crisis, which bodes well for future appearances. It also called back to the death of Holly Griggs from the first episode, and that tension was played on nicely. Sadly, there were too many annoying sub-characters in it for the episode to work properly.

Reaper was not anywhere near as bad as that, and offered much entertainment, especially with Ray Wise griping about Halloween holidays and Donovon Stinson as uptight boss Ted. It's a horrible show cliche to have a tyrannical humourless boss, and this season we've already had one in Chuck and in Heroes (though thankfully Noah Bennett opened up a can of horn-rimmed whup-ass on him). Thankfully, Stinson has turned out to be Reaper's secret weapon, slowly stealing scenes without drawing too much attention to himself. This week he flourished, with an excellent Captain Jack Sparrow costume followed by an eye-watering King Leonidas, complete with cape flourish.

Each week we love him a little more, especially the pissy conversations between him and Tyler Labine. That said, the problems with Reaper were never about the cast. Other than the wasted Missy Peregrym (who can still improve. I'm sure of it!), everyone is lovable and amusing. However, this week I realised what has been niggling at me about it for the last few weeks; it's got a bad case of Futurama syndrome. I love that damn show, and was despondent when it got cancelled before its time (though of course I'm thrilled that it's being disinterred as we speak), but way too often the show had a hilarious twelve minutes followed by a laugh-free second act that undid the good will generated in the first. To this day I cannot understand why this happens. Sadly, Reaper looks to be doing that as well. By the time of the final fifteen minutes, any energy generated at the start dissipates, and the episode grinds to a halt not long afterward. Perhaps we're seeing some unpolished scripts going to air, in which case it's rectifiable, but it's been going on for a couple of weeks now, and it's starting to annoy. I'm sure things will improve though. Ray Wise's Grin of the Week give us confidence. It's so reassuring!

So, do I still think Reaper is the best new show of the season? Until this week, no question. However, with my diagnosis hanging in the air, Pushing Daisies, aka Cleavage and Corpses, rushed right in and knocked me on my fat ass. This week was amazing. It still does a lot of things I dislike, and the narration rhymed badly this week (in a terrible Poe-style that grated terribly), but the arcs are moving faster than we ever expected, and the jokes came thick and fast, and the little details took on a life of their own (the candy-coloured morgue, which I'd not noticed before, made me chuckle). It was a huge triumph. Remember I said a few weeks ago that I might end up loving it eventually? If this week is anything to go by, it'll be sooner rather than later. Even the effects sequences made us laugh out loud, they were so endearingly awful. Best of all, Emerson's declaration of love to his shovel. Emerson + Shovel 4evah IDST!

While Pushing Daisies is moving faster than we thought it would (with plotlines such as Chuck and Olive's antipathy towards each other paying off much earlier than we thought), Heroes has only just gotten around to introducing the big threat on the horizon. And yes, it's a not very good special effect of New York deserted because of rampant superhuman disease! Okay, people are complaining that it's a lot like last year's exploding man plot, but this is a superhero tale, and New York is always in danger in Marvel comics. Asgard hovering over the city, Magneto destroying most of it after going insane, Hulk going on the rampage, the Civil War creating lots of off-panel destruction; this is just the way of things.

Okay, so in Marvel comics this stuff gets retconned very quickly (especially the Magneto thing, which apparently got swept up and ignored about two weeks later. Those New Yorkers sure are resilient). Heroes will doubtlessly not get to that point. Maybe there will be an anti-climatic fight scene in the quietest plaza in the city! The alternative (germy armageddon) would cause all sorts of logistical trouble, not least the amount of dreadful green screen work that will have to be done. Yes, the location budget of the show is still non-existent, so Peter and his Hoirhissshh girlfriend were ineptly pasted into a shot that made them look grey, shadowless, and strangely ill-proportioned, like they were humans standing in Hobbit New York. Unfortunately, whereas Pushing Daisies had the worst effects of the week in a funny way, Heroes' effects were less terrible but devoid of intentional comedy value. Please save the world so we don't have to see that again! ::sigh:: It was so not good, again, but one thing worked really well. Noah Bennett is a hardcore murderous badass! And we should never forget it.

He totally killed that Russian guy in the head, with a deadly bullet. More tetchy murder, please!

House was also a teeny bit off, but only because it did something it's not done before; invented a new affliction for the purposes of dramatising a conflict between the characters. Previously the show will exaggerate symptoms for dramatic effect (for more information check out the thoroughly excellent Polite Dissent), or rely on the old faithfuls of lupus, vasculitis, or respiratory failure, but this went an extra step, introducing someone (played by Robbie Krieger impersonator Frank Whaley) suffering from Giovannini's Mirror Syndrome. According to the now super-dishonest show, sufferers have a lack of personality or inner life due to some other illness getting in the way, leading them to cast about for a replacement personality. This means they will mirror the people they interact with, something supergenius House used to uncover Whaley's history (if you missed it, it involved getting infected during contact with cow shit) by becoming Whaley and setting up a feedback loop of Mirror Syndrome. Or something. Well, it made a kind of twisted sense on the show, and it let House flatten his high hair at last.

If all Giovannini's sufferers did was mimic the other persons body language, it wouldn't be so bad, but the writers thought it would be okay to make this illness equivalent to telepathy. Whaley's character saw into people with such piercing insight he practically became them, which may have allowed for some very amusing moments, but pushed credibility too far. Perhaps if they'd called it Zelig's Syndrome I might have appreciated it more. It's a shame, because otherwise the show remained on top form, with the triumphant return of Foreman.

Canyon may not be a fan of any of the Cottages, but I always had a soft spot for Foreman. Now back at Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital after a disastrous stint in New York, he's exhibiting House-Hole Syndrome, which causes the victim to be an insufferable prick with the brain of a diagnostic computer from Star Trek. Omar Epps did a good job of making Foreman seem a little awkward with his pissiness, but I say embrace it. The show is doing very well with more Cottages, and the original team are much more fun being nasty now, so let Foreman go all out to be a jerk. Goshdarnit, if only I could get the writers to hear me. Maybe I should be handing out leaflets showing our URL to those guys and gals on the picket lines.

30 Rock was missing this week, causing immense sadness, but to make up for it The Office was directed by Joss Whedon, which is always a reason to celebrate. He did a great job again (his previous episode, with the bat, was one of season three's highlights), with the bold choice to stage the big comedy setpiece off camera, with Michael and Dwight infiltrating another branch of Dunder Mifflin and communicating to Jim via walkie-talkie. The entire episode was similarly funny, but all I can remember of it days later is Dwight's terrifying obsession with blinding any guard he comes into contact with. Sad that a lot of the cast wasn't featured though, especially Kelly (Mindy Kaling did write the episode, though, and was predictably superb) and Creed (because Creed is an essential component of classic Office, of course).

Guess it's time to admit something; we've fallen far behind with some shows, which will probably turn out to be a good thing when the strike starts to affect the amount of shows on (either I catch up with them or just go ahead and buy those Wire box sets I've been promising myself for so long). Right now we're behind on Journeyman, Chuck, Mad Men, Dexter, and Dirty Sexy Money, which I just couldn't face (though I will). Why should I be making an effort on shows that obviously haven't grabbed me enough to compel me to watch them immediately? Because we both once thought Tell Me You Choo-Choo-Choose Me was risible, and now we're beyond hooked (well okay, Canyon less so). This post is a couple of days late, and as a result we've watched the ninth episode as well, and both of them have continued the upward quality trend that has surprised the heck out of us. Sitting through the tedious and annoying first half of the season has really paid off. Of course, I'm not saying that Dirty Sexy Money or Bionical Woman will suddenly improve enough to justify the current risible status, which would surely be a task even Hercules would baulk at, but you never know.

As with Pushing Daisies, it still suffers from a lot of the stylistic touches that annoyed us at the beginning, though we realise the showrunners can't just drastically change course on these things in mid flow. At its worst, though, it retains that obnoxious self-satisfaction that makes me hate so much independent cinema. We're never getting away from that. Plus, now that Palek and Carolyn have moved out of their Icy Palace of Lovelessness there are no more cameos by the Predator living outside. I miss Petey the Predator (yes, in earlier episodes I was bored enough to add a bunch of sci-fi references to make it all go faster).

What it has done, though, is spend so much time adding layers of complexity to the characters that the dreary, lightly sketched stereotypes of the first few episodes now live and breathe. Just like they are real people in therapy, we begin to see all of the problems they had at the start of the season are the product of experiences in the past or fears in the present, and this filling in the blanks has been going on quietly while many viewers would focus on the many many many shots of Michelle Borth's boobs and Ian Somerhalder's balls. All of the miserable whining from weeks ago now seems like cleverly layered set ups for end-season fireworks, and we got some this week.

When I say fireworks I don't mean actual big drama, but the small events we got, in the context of the character's lives, were enormous. Dave and Katy having second thoughts about their marriage, Jamie realising she's going to be a slutty lush just like her odious, toxic friend Mason, and biggest of all, Palek having a panic attack and dumping Carolyn during therapy. All of these things seem like the meat and bones of a soap opera, but that stuff happens so often and for so little reason it doesn't have any effect. With Tell Me You Were Secretly Awesome All Along, we've been waiting so long and spent so much time with them all that it was significantly more dramatic. The final scene with Carolyn going from epic shrew to heartbroken dumpee was riveting. Similarly, Dave and Katy's growing realisation that there might be something unfixable in their marriage was difficult to watch. They're both so adorable, but perhaps those crazy kids just can't work it out. ((((Dave and Katy))))

All that said, will another season really work? I'd like to keep watching, but I'm not sure what else can happen here without the show becoming a straight soap. Keith Phipps on the AV Club hinted that next season will focus on different relationships, and that would work, I guess, but I'd miss these guys, even after all of the complaining I've done. Maybe the focus will fall on Sherry Stringfield, Kate Towne, and Jeremy London's characters (and their prominent genitals), all of whom have been hanging around in the periphery. If that were the case, this season's main characters would still be around to show us tantalising glimpses of the fallout from the season finale, though probably significantly less naughty body parts. I'm not kidding about the body parts. I've seen enough of Boone's heaving buttocks for this and the next seven lifetimes.

One character I definitely hope comes back is Rosalind Chao as Carolyn's boss. What a badass bitch! She is so awesome. I always liked her on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, so seeing her still getting work (for a little while as the principal in The O.C.) is always a good thing, but in this show we only got about three minutes of her over the last three episodes. But what a great three minutes. The catty exchanges between her and Carolyn were horrifying to behold, especially the first one, with Carolyn asking for a promotion and being denied. All of this is done with enormous tension between them, but still maintaining a veneer of professionalism, until Carolyn gets to the door and mutters, "Fucking bitch," to which Chao responds, "I heard that." GAH! It made both of us cringe for an hour, mostly because we have paranoid fear about making horrible gaffes at work. This week Carolyn quit by refusing to do any work and then walking out during a meeting, which was a pleasingly insane thing for her to have done, but I'm amazed she hadn't been fired already. Or sent for counseling. She's obviously having a nervous breakdown.

However, as great as that was, and as funny as Pushing Daisies turned out to be, highlight of our week was a barnstorming Friday Night Lights, confidently pushing aside previous concerns and criticisms like William "The Refrigerator" Perry used to knock down running backs in the 80s. Without any effort, it ran our emotions up and down for 45 minutes, a perfect example of what TV should be.

Coach and Tami's marital problems provided a light A-plot, but in the background there was hardship for almost everyone. Matt telling Julie he doesn't want her back was as satisfying as Tyra telling Landry she was repulsed by him was horrifying, but the masterstroke was having both of those things happen at the same time, i.e. during the aftermath of their football triumph. The shot of them walking back into the diner, surrounded by cheering fans, with heartbreak sketched on their faces, was one of the most resonant moments of the entire series. Everyone involved gave 110%, acting-wise. Erm, did I just succumb to the temptation to resort to a sporting cliche in an FNL review? Oh teh noes!

Even more entertaining was goody-two shoes Lila in Mexico, nagging at Street and Riggins during their intervention to try to stop their injured friend have shark DNA pumped into his spine. The plot seemed to have annoyed fans for being too unbelievable, but it always seemed reasonable to me, knowing it would pay off well (look at that for faith in a showrunning team). And pay off it did, with Street hurling himself into the ocean and sinking to the bottom while his friends panic. I'm not totally sure what his motivation was, and the look on his face as he floated near the sea floor was ambiguous, but that uncertainty powered the scene and made you genuinely believe one of the main characters was about to die.

His "rebirth" was subsequently all the more moving, but the best moment came during the final Jules et Jim scene, with Lila foolishly getting drunk and being rather less Christian than usual, woozily dancing with both men, kissing on them both with some considerably lusty abandon, and then guiltily saying, "I gotta go pray." Even in the face of Emerson's shovel love and Dwight's desperate blinding pleas, this was the line of the week.

If I have any criticism with it, it's a very small one, but hopefully something that will be rectified soon. Smash was one of my favourite characters in the first season, but so far this year he's had very little to do other than be a jerk to Matt, which is nothing new. He had actually grown a bit as the first season went on, and I'd hoped that could continue. There was some good stuff between him and Matt (and an especially good scene having some of Coach's chili), but he's being underused, though that might just be because the show is loaded with plot right now and there's not really any room for anything else yet.

Next week, the return of 30 Rock with an appearance by Al Gore, if TV Guide is to be believed (yay!), Bionical Woman (retch), and probably many more rushed scripts that will be filled with empty dialogue, clumsy exposition, and continuity-shaking errors. Join us! [/Alan Partridge]


sjwoo said...

Even though you guys have skipped a bunch of shows, I'm still plenty impressed. It's like a marathon, this TV season, and at this point, I've crested the first big hill. What remains is The Office, House, Californication, 30 Rock, and I think that's about it. This is the first year I'm no longer watching every episode of The Simpsons. I still haven't seen the Treehouse ep!

I think it makes sense that the Kaling-scribed episode would feature little of her. I can't imagine what it would be like, to write yourself into a show -- I think Tina Fey talked about this in an interview I read a while ago for 30 Rock and discussed the difficulties of managing your own ego.

Speaking of 30 Rock, I must say that I've been pretty disappointed with it so far. Don't get me wrong, there have been great moments like "Me like food!" and Baldwin doing all those impressions, but overall, I feel as if the show isn't quite hitting it like it did last season. I recall Fey saying how she wanted to let the jokes "breathe" more this year, and I'm afraid maybe it's time to starting choking them a bit. I feel the show was more relentless, faster paced, etc., last year. Maybe it's just that awful Seinfeld episode that I still can't get over.

That House ep was maybe the worst I've seen in a while. Last night's was much better, even if Wilson is still being underused. I still have great respect for David Shore for adding the new cottages this season. The show was a legitimate hit, but he still felt compelled to throw a hefty monkey wrench. High risk, high reward. It's what good TV is all about.

sjwoo said...

30 Rock is back on track! This last episode was absolutely hilarious, especially the party scenes. Sometimes the show reminds me of a cartoon, which is a very good thing.

Admiral Neck said...

I still think the episode with Will Arnett was the best one of the season so far, but this week was still magnificent. The aftermath of the party was just inspired. Liz loves Griz!