Monday, 3 December 2007

These Weeks in TV: Week 9-10

A week in the US threw our viewing habits out of whack, but then we were having too much fun to care. Who'd have thought that going out and doing stuff was somehow different than staying in and watching TV? Upon our return, we went crazy catching up, focusing solely on the good stuff (ignoring ChuckleFree, Bionical Lady of the Lowlands, and the now possibly dropped due to overwhelming dreadfulness Dirty Slimy Moneypit). As a result, only one show made me wince in embarrassment, and everything else shone like a gleaming diamond of televisual niceness. Sadly, I will probably go back to the crap, because I have a masochism problem, but for now, I bathe in good TV, and dry myself off with this blog. (These metaphors sound so cool in my head, but...)

Least Subtle Reference to the War on Terror of the Week(s):

Love 30 Rock though we do (so much so we both watched our favourite episode Fireworks on the plane to and from the US even though we've both seen it a dozen times), warning bells flashed during the most recent episode's sub-plot about Jack and Kenneth getting involved with Tracy's community service. Tracy is doing a serviceable job of teaching underprivileged kids living in a hellish neighborhood to play baseball, though his goals are not very ambitious (he just wants to get them outside for a change, as they've never even seen the sun). Jack thinks they can go further, and with military precision he hijacks the project, getting them to bring down a statue, Saddam-style, and teaching them about Churchill. It also featured this on-the-nose image.

Funny enough, but it's not the most topical joke. And why is Jack wearing those clothes? They're there for one shot, gone the next. Yes I want 30 Rock to be fearless with their commitment to comedy and satire, but the illogicality of this moment rang false, and for the first time ever I thought the show writers had made a horrible miscalculation.

Thankfully, the conceit plays out as you would expect, and then goes further, with jokes about surges and changes of administration, bringing the joke right up to date. The wealth of detail and jokes in the scenario saves it, and by the end I was mostly satisfied no sharks had been jumped. Jack's get-up still bugs, though. Oh 30 Rock, you beautiful creature, you have to be better than that! You're not Family Guy, okay? Run free with your imagination, but know your limits! There's a good boy.

Musical Moment of the Week(s):

The first episode of the Pushing Daisies twosome we watched recently ended with a song; not a first for the show, and a harbinger of what's to come with the mooted musical episode in the pipeline. Swoozie Kurtz (as the dour Aunt Lily) finally caved in to her emotions under an onslaught of uppers dripped into her pies by her niece Chuck, and began to "cry" with the help of a downpour outside.

At this point Aunt Vivian, played by croak-voiced chanteuse Ellen Greene, bursts into an emotional rendition of Morning Has Broken, prior to them both returning to the water to swim, synchronisingly, at which point the screen becomes a gorgeous and abstract wash of colour and movement.

It's rare that a visual effect or graphic touch on TV looks like nothing that has been attempted before, with the hectic production schedule meaning innovation takes a back seat to getting the show finished on time, but some remarkable thinker on staff came up with a series of images that I've never seen attempted before. Matching up perfectly with the song, it was a powerful moment. Getting past the early Sonnenfeld episodes, this show goes from strength to strength, so much so that I don't want to mention its ever-present flaws (the good parts of the show easily make up for them now).

Most Frustratingly Overdirected Episode of the Week(s):

The first of two Heroes provided the best hour of the season so far, with no dwelling on the less interesting characters (Peter, Niki, Sylar and the Goopy Twosome), a major twist in Matt's plot (looks like the evil Matt of the future might be inevitable), and even a little action. Not to mention lots of hott hostage bondage action.

In structure it borrowed from last season's superb Company Man, focusing almost exclusively on one now condensed plot, which allowed for what felt like more forward momentum than the rest of the season put together. So why am I bitching about it?

The episode was directed by TV director Greg Yaitanes, who has worked on many of our favourite shows (House, Lost) and some of our least favourites (Prison Break, Drive).

As is often the case, his style is often dictated by the visual template of the show, not to mention the budget, though I do remember Drive having some flashy moments, undermined by the shoddy writing, casting, and again, budget.

That's all par for the course, but sadly for the viewer, this week Yaitanes and Kring went crazy with the duality theme, and therefore the screen became filled with mirror images and clumsy compositions expressing the similarities and differences between Noah and Bob aka Evil Ned Ryerson, and Noah and the increasingly hapless Mohinder, though kudos for accidentally casting two actors (Jack Coleman and Sendhil Ramamurthy) who would not look amiss in a Jack Kirby comic.

It became more like a horribly misjudged running joke than a dramatic or artistic choice, not helped by the godawful melodramatic Act!Ing! filling the screen. There were so many "Noooooooo!" moments in it that I lost track of who was grieving for who.

Any emotional power the episode might have had was buried under waves of over-direction and incompetently handled performances, and as such represented a turning point in my attitude towards it, as exemplified by the smirk I wore throughout the next less flashy but equally silly episode.

Whereas before I might have forgiven the odd lapse of quality in the show, until it gets its supergroove back I will be forced to treat it with mockery and disdain. Pretty easy to laugh at it when the show features such badly written and delivered lines as "Lock him up. And throw away the key!" and "You've gone native!!!" (a line reading from Jack Coleman that is too entertaining to really hate on). I mean, who "dies" in slow motion like this anymore? And why the orange palette? Is it in danger of becoming ::choke:: CSI:Miami with superpowers?


Most Beautifully Directed Episode of the Week(s):

In contrast, the first of the two CSIs was gorgeous, haunting, subdued and perfectly judged. As revealed way early by the network, Sara Sidle finally took her leave of CSI: Vegas after slowly coming to the realisation that she could no longer cope with the misery and horror she witnesses every day (a nice touch, as not only has Sara been affected like this before, but Jorja Fox has said one of her main reasons for leaving the show is her growing dislike of the ghoulish nature of police procedurals). We first see her surrounded by darkness, headphones stuck in her ears, oblivious to everything around her.

Slowly the lights come up around her, revealing her to be at work, and for the rest of the episode she is either coldly indifferent to everything around her, or furiously involved, a state catalysed by the return of Marlon West, the "one that got away" as Gil puts it. Played by Big Love's Douglas Smith, he first turned up in the excellent episode The Unusual Suspect, where his crime was covered up by his hyper-intelligent and deluded younger sister Hannah, played with chilling brilliance by the amazing Juliette Goglia. This time Hannah taunts Sara enough to drive her to distraction trying to prove her guilt.

The episode ends with a mirror of an early scene of Brass resolving to tell the parents of the murder victim of her death. This time Sara goes to Hannah to tell her her brother has killed himself, and though the evil brat is responsible for the episode opening murder, Sara finds no satisfaction in telling her about the suicide, as the cocky young girl breaks down in front of her. In an amazing episode, this was possibly the most unnerving and superbly acted scene.

Although she had probably already made the choice to leave before this, it certainly seems to set her choice in motion, and the final scenes show her removing her name from her jacket and leaving it for new CSI Ronnie Lake, and then leaving the building. Gil finds a note from her, and as he reads it we see Sara leaving the city in a cab, her face drawn, as the colours of the strip wash over the window, obscuring her. Only at the end do we see her properly, and her sadness is heartbreaking. Meanwhile, Gil remains at the lab, reading Sara's unsentimental but emotional goodbye, and the lights around him dim, leaving him in darkness.

The whole episode was directed with a sure and stylish hand by Homicide veteran Kenneth Fink, but the final scene was what did me in. As I sobbed bitter tears over her departure, I crossed my fingers that Fink gets a movie career even better than that of Gregory "NYPD Blue, Fallen" Hoblit. It was a season highlight, my favourite hour of TV this week(s), and a prime example of the possibilities of TV. Kudos also the the stellar writing team of Sarah Goldfinger, Allen MacDonald, and Naren Shankar.

Canyon's Highlight(s) of the Week(s):

With the axe hanging over our new favourite show Journeyman, the last two weeks saw our hero Dan Vassar travelling through time to save only one victim of a serial killer, Aeden Bennett, played with really really oily menace by Raphael Sbarge, who was memorably sleazy in one of our favourite CSI:Miami episodes, Backstabbers. So oily and sleazy! Once more, the limits of his mission frustrate him, and he shoots off to do his own thing and bring the killer to justice, despite the protestations of Livia, once more played with mysterious charm by Moon Bloodgood.

Dan prevails, and by the end of the first episode he gets the guy arrested and saves another victim. Hooray, right? Livia is not so sure, and warns him of a forthcoming test, which turns out to be the present-day release of Bennett, and his appearance on Dan's doorstep. The second episode begins with Dan getting shot by Bennett, prior to travelling back to Bennett's childhood, leaving the killer behind in the present, bemused but dedicated to making our hero suffer for putting him in jail by terrorising his wife, Katie.

Despite suffering from terrible blood loss and infection, Dan tries to complete his mission (helping young Bennett) before realising who he is. When he does find out, it seems like the show is going to explore the classic thought-experiment: if you went back in time and met young Hitler, would you kill him? As Dan is a good guy, it seemed obvious he wouldn't, choosing instead to save the boy or educate him somehow, but instead he doesn't just consider killing the boy, he seems about to go through for the longest time. Delirious and desperate to get back to the present he may be, but in the end his decency barely wins out (and in fact he might only prevail due to imminent unconsciousness). Kevin McKidd brilliantly communicated his frustration and anger, as always. Apologies for the crappy screencap here; that's a knife and not a really long booger coming out of Dan's face.

When this show started I thought it would be all about maintaining the episodic show template, with Dan hiding his power from everyone and getting into tedious and stereotypical scrapes instead of just coming clean. Perhaps this is one of the reasons many people avoided it, and if it had turned out to be that kind of show, it's understandable. Happily, it's much smarter than that. Dan doesn't fix the kid, and doesn't kill him either. It's not a show about retconning plot difficulties; it's a show about facing your troubles head on. Dan leaves the past alongside Livia (played by the moody Moon Bloodgood, in case you'd forgotten), and while he is getting treatment for his wound in a modern hospital, she finds his brother Jack, played by Reed Diamond, who has spent the past few weeks furiously accusing Dan of returning to his gambling ways, unable to accept the outlandish time-travelling excuse. Upon facing the supposedly dead Livia, he finally caves in and accepts what is happening, before resolving to help his brother save Katie (who, don't forget, was once Jack's lover).

Now the show is about all four members of the romantic quadrangle aware of the timeshifting situation, and I'm confident, after weeks of having my preconceptions shattered, that this amazing, unfairly neglected show will spend time exploring this new state of affairs in the same adult manner it has dealt with everything else. Knowing that the show is in serious danger of cancellation, I'm absolutely gutted. NBC have given full-season orders to both Life and Chuck. I've not seen the former, even though I like Damian Lewis (especially when he's possessed by upper-class British alien spores in the memorable Dreamcatcher), but commissioning more episodes of the pitiful Chuck instead of giving this exemplary show a chance makes me want to join some futile campaign and send food to heartless executives. ::sulks::

Best Character Development Moment of the Week(s):

Friday Night Lights' resident screw-up Tim Riggins has been spiralling downwards for weeks now. Following his noble effort decision to save his friend Street from getting pumped full of shark stem cells (his plan? Spend all of Street's stem cell money on booze), he has been kicked off the team, voluntarily exiled from his house after his brother hooks up with his overage paramour from last season, and forced to live with a redneck slob whose meth-lab is conspicuously hidden in a suspicious looking trailer in the back yard.

During this time he's used his normal empty smarm and little-bad-boy-lost charm to try to improve his lot, but no one buys it. Finally, this week the full horror of his fate (slobbery, meth labs and all) came home to him, and in desperation he throws himself at the mercy of Coach Taylor, who wants nothing to do with him. At his wit's end, Tim finally drops the obnoxious pride that has held him back since the beginning of the show, and apologises to the entire team for letting them down. Even better, what could have been a cloying moment is played for laughs, walking a fine line between being moving and being silly.

Such care not to unbalance the show is nothing new. One of the best things about FNL is the effort it makes to keep the previously established tone at a constant level, which is something that Heroes would do well to consider. Okay, that show has always had to be more fantastical than the gritty FNL; that's a given. However, when Heroes started it had more in common with Unbreakable than Batman and Robin, but slowly the performances have become broader, the dialogue more corny (seriously, "You've gone native!!!"? Who says that?), the plotting more needlessly over-complicated and nutsoid. On the other hand, FNL has often introduced plots that teeter on the edge of absurdity, but the actors, writers and directors (not to mention the photographers) have ensured the material is handled in as realistic and unmelodramatic a manner as possible. It's not worked all the time, but the success rate is still significant. The character arc of Riggins has been one of the best examples of that, and this moment was one of the highlights of the show. Even better was Coach's reaction; grudging acceptance and pissiness. Of all the shows we watch, this is the one that feels like it lives and breathes even when we're not watching.

Oddest Character Trait Reveal of the Week(s):

Before Journeyman Dan Vassar met 1940s time-traveller Livia, it seems she partied hard in the 90s. OMG she's gone native!!!

Ain't no party like a five-decades-in-the-future party, it seems. The moment is discombobulating. Why is Livia being such an oblivious idiot? Why is she not helping Dan? Of course, this Livia (played by Maxim favourite Moon Bloodgood) doesn't know him yet, which bent our heads around. The Livia we've been introduced to is super-serious, so knowing she was once happy-go-lucky and able to enjoy her time-travelling is a lovely touch, deepened by her realisation in the next episode that her main time-travelling mission might not have been to save miscellaneous lives, but might have been to meet Dan, fall in love with him, and then break his heart by "dying", which ensures he gets together with his current wife Katie and leads to the birth of Zack. Yet another awesome character moment in the most underrated show on TV that isn't CSI.

Shocked Expression of the Week(s):

Pushing Daisies' death-defying hero Ned finds out he's about to die at the hands of a nefarious olfactory murderer, and this is the reaction.

Shocked Reaction of the Week(s):

Prior to finding out he's about to die at the hands of a nefarious olfactory murderer, Ned is shocked by the springing of the trap, and wheels around in confusion and does this bizarre move, all flailing hands and legs.

For weeks now Ned has been endearingly reserved, shy because he is scared of getting too close to anyone, and tensely holding back his arms so that he doesn't accidentally brush Chuck and kill her. He's already a gangly presence, but his ramrod stance and clenched body language has made him seem like a stick onscreen. This is not a criticism. It's in keeping with his character, and his calm has made up for a lot of the craziness going on elsewhere in the frame. However, this burst of physicality made us laugh so much that we now want to see more of this. I'm seriously beginning to think Lee Pace is a big damn deal, and even if I wasn't already falling hard for Pushing Daisies, I'd make an appointment for it just to see his performance (and Chi McBride's, as he has been never less than amazing all season).

Chase Scene of the Week(s):

I've been waiting for FNL's Smash Williams to have a more prominent role, and while the current plot (which university is he going to attend so that he can get sexxed up and neglect his education) is pretty much the same as his main plot last year, at least this week he got to sleep with very much the wrong girl, which leads to him being chased off campus by her enormous and genuinely terrifying boyfriend.

I'm sure there are other things that can be done with the character, but it made me laugh anyway. Again, the show manages to make something stupid work brilliantly, especially when he is rescued by the ever-more cocky Matt Saracen, taking a break from ineptly stalking his magical Latina maid, who doesn't miss the opportunity to bust Smash's chops about his escapade.

Grin of the Week(s):

For the first time this season, the flashes of menace exhibited by Reaper antagonist Ray Wise every so often expanded and deepened, with the Devil threatening Sam and toying with his earthly girlfriend Mimi, played by Melinda Clarke (sadly not reaching her potential, though that's going to be hard to do after playing a character as richly entertaining as Julie Cooper on The O.C.). As a result, it looked like this would be the first week where Ray Wise didn't win Grin of the Week, but then, right at the end...

...Booyah! How do you like them tempting apples from the Tree of Knowledge? Bear in mind this is his reaction after telling Sam he had killed Mimi just to prove a point, which turned out to have just been a sick joke. That kidder! The episode wasn't as funny as previous weeks, but the new, pissy Devil upped the stakes enough that it became one of the season highlights just by showing that there was some toughness in reserve for later episodes. Reaper wears its darkened colours very well.

Best Hitchcock Reference of the Week(s):

Except for when she kiiiiicks, and stretches, and kicks, I've not been a fan of Molly Shannon in the past, but her appearance in Pushing Daisies gave us some memorably bitchy asides, and a lovely pastiche of The Birds.

Of course, now I'll never be able to watch Tippi Hedren's performance again without thinking of Shannon's horrified vogueing, but hey, I've seen the damn film about twenty times. It's not like I'm going to go back to it that often. Yeah Hitchcock, what have you done for me lately? Huh?

Regrettably Spoiled Resolution of the Week(s):

After weeks of show-transforming shenanigans, House finally got off the pot and selected his final three students / colleagues / victims, removing Amber the Cutthroat Bitch from contention. Sadly, a spoiler on Michael Ausiello's TV Guide blog alerted us to the final Cottages 2.0 line-up weeks ago, so we've just been waiting it out. Even knowing it would come down to snidely Taub, pointless Kutner and the ever-intriguing 13 (Olivia Wilde, proving to be a much more interesting actress now she's not asked to play a Marissa-kissing ratings-baiting lesbian as in The O.C.), there was no point to having Amber on the team.

Her bitchery only existed because of her desperate need to win, and if she had, her defining characteristic becomes at best useless and at worst a liability. The winning trio might be more bland than her, but that never seemed to stop Cameron and Chase, now relegated to cameo status. Right now the only hope for those characters is to fill the gap left by the loss of House's game, otherwise they should just get quietly dropped. Though sad to see the end of this glorious golden period, I'm eager to see how it all shakes out next year, especially if they stick to the humorous format they have now.

Note that I couldn't be bothered to find a picture with all of the group. Kal Penn is being almost as underused as he was in Superman Returns, where he seemed to have been hired merely to balance out some of Bryan Singer's careful compositions. Time for him to shape up, now he's going to be getting more screentime.

Most Justified Hissyfit of the Week(s):

Considering the amount of time I go on about her, it should be obvious by now that FNL's Tami Taylor is one of my favourite TV characters ever, though in the past she's been awfully perfect while hubbie Eric bumbles around and makes various social faux pas that only she can resolve. This week, she got to screw up, big time, and end up in everyone's bad books. Getting Eric jealous by hanging around with another man, upsetting her sister by treating her as inferior due to her childlessness, and best of all, humiliating stroppy teen daughter Julie by accusing her favourite teacher (played by Surfing Jesus) of trying to groom her, while several students stand around in shock and then spread rumours about them around the school. Julie of course hears about this, and descends upon her mother like a swarm of flesh-eating flying piranhas like in that James Cameron film that one time.

The fury that pours off Julie is memorable, and for once, pretty justified. Though I love Tami (and the ever-awesome award-worthy Connie Britton), it was thrilling to see the showrunners put her in a position where her moral superiority is shot to pieces by a bratty teenager. Will Tami's tirade against Surfing Jesus land her in hot water with the principal? Will Julie forgive her if SJ turns out to be a pervert? Will either of them GO NATIVE!??!?!!?!? I can barely wait to find out.

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