Tuesday, 11 December 2007

This Week in TV: Week 11 (Part 1)

Considering there were less shows on TV this week, I actually have more to wonk on about than usual, what with the "volume" finale of Heroes, the reunion of To Live and Die in LA legends Billy Peterson and Billy Friedkin, and two episodes of Ugly Betty (not because two were aired, but because we missed one). So, I'm splitting this in two, so I can finish the rest of it tomorrow and get to bed (I have no choice; Man-Thing is on Sky Movies and I can't find the remote). Anyway, let's get this out of the way right now, because I bet the suspense is killing you.

Grin of the Week:

Ray Wise!

That's never changing. Get used to it.

Canyon's Highlight of the Week:

has gone from being our favourite new show of the season to a show we greatly enjoy but tend to forget about not long after, but this week saw all of the elements fit together pleasingly, with the non-female cast at their best, the female cast finally getting suspicious of Sam and his reaping buddies (though it took a ridiculously long time to happen, at least it finally is), Donavon "Ted the douche" Stinson getting a finger broken by an angry bookie (funnier than it sounds), and an interesting new plot element coming into play; Sam's new girlfriend Cady, played by Jessica Stroup.

Is she the Devil's daughter? As she seems to kill everything she touches, including the doomed goldfish shown above, it seems like that might be the case. It's hard to say too much about the show most of the time, as what it does well is play off the chemistry of the leads, with a lot of the heavy lifting done by Tyler Labine. Sock is one of the most appealing characters of the new season, a cross between Shaggy and Jack Black, which is enough to make many people stay away. A shame, as his timing and delivery is pitch-perfect. As good as Bret Harrison and Rick Gonzalez are (and even though they're improving every week), they are still straight men to Labine, who controls the screen every time he's around.

Only Ray Wise is more lovable than him, but that goes without saying.

My Highlight of the Week:

Controversially, it was the "volume" finale of Heroes, which was packed with plotholes and tonal errors and silly dialogue and silly deaths and all sorts of nonsense, but was much more propulsive than the rest of the season put together, and managed to make the first season finale look even worse than it already did. Though the show is seemingly broken beyond repair (unless a new writing team is brought in, and sharpish), this did have its good points. Hiro's revenge on "Adam Monroe" was excellent, Sylar's Popeye moment was hilarious, and Elle's realisation that she can be a good person if she tries hard enough was nicely handled. It's the first time this entire season that I've been glad Kristen Bell has been around.

Partially, my heightened enjoyment was attributable to my new relaxed approach to watching it. Knowing it will probably suck has made it a more entertaining viewing experience, as I have now stopped trying to compare it to season one's highpoints (which, as Canyon pointed out during this episode, were actually fewer than I remember). It's a fun show, but it's not ever going to compare with our real favourites. I remain fond of it, though. Canyon, on the other hand, seems to actively dread it now, and while my mocking is affectionate, hers has become ruthless. She even dissed Matt and Peter's think-off, which I loved, silly expressions, fish-eye lenses and all.

Bzzzzzzt! I'm thinking the hurty words at you! With my face!

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzing! I'm thinking them right back, two times! To the bridge!

Lowlight of the Week:

Due to our trip to the US, we dropped the ball on what was screened each week, meaning we missed an episode of Ugly Betty (this strike isn't helping matters. With The Office gone for a while and other shows reaching the end of their runs, we don't know what's going on). Upon realising this we were overjoyed. Ugly Betty! We love it! Silly transitional wipes and all! And then we watched the missed episode, and our hearts sank. Truly, this was a fresh hell. How bad? Trying to make Alan Dale the comic relief. He's a fun serious actor, but even The O.C. knew not to do that.

Though it might sound like I've completely lost all perspective and entered the world of the Internet Crazies when I say this, it is scary when a beloved show misfires so completely that there are no saving graces left. Case in point: Alias was, for two seasons, one of the best shows on TV. It had some problems, but often they were fixed quickly, and each week offered something of quality. The first season was especially good, as good as any network show I've ever seen. Even the show reboot that happened midway through the second season worked well, and was kicked off by possibly the best Alias episode ever, Phase One. And then the third season started with a two-year leap forward that removed all dramatic tension from the show, added a multitude of dreary questions, and changed every character into a blander version of themselves. It was catastrophic, and even though I tried, I just couldn't muster any further interest in the show. (I know, I was talking about Ugly Betty. This will all make sense soon, I promise.)

There were no warning signs that Alias was about to spin off the tracks, but suddenly it was a shadow of its former self. Did the show fall asleep next to a pod and wake up with no emotions? What's scary is that this can obviously happen to any show we like, and this episode of Ugly Betty, filled with dead lines, shameless mugging, desperate plotting, obvious tricksiness, and Dirty-Sexy-Money-level writing, made us fear for the worst. I just checked the credits of the horrid episode again, after IMDb conflicted with my memory. The show credits say the writer is Charles Pratt Jr., a veteran soap writer who worked on General Hospital among others, but IMDb is telling me it was Bill Wrubel. Whoever it was, I can't imagine them wanting to own up to having written this. Joke after joke fell flat, to the point that we could barely watch actors we enjoy trying to find the laugh. It even unfunnyised Amanda. Amanda for God's sake!

It was so wrong and Bizarro-World inept that it made us think the show was broken. Stupid really, considering the writer's strike has meant they're dragging in producers to write episodes (the same thing happened with the dreadful Wicked advert they aired a few weeks ago), but for a moment, it was as if the show was never going to get back to its normal self. And it upset us. Yes, there are far worse things in the world than a show going bad, but one of the things I love about TV shows is realising the showrunners, the producers, the writing staff, and sometimes even the network execs, have reached a point where they know exactly what kind of show they're making, what stories they can tell, what points they can make.

Suddenly a show that's good reaches the next level, with jokes and plots written for the actors, arcs clicking into place, continuity increasing in complexity; it can be really satisfying. Classic example: the arrival of Spike and Angelus in Buffy turned it from a diversion to the best show on TV (EVER!!!). Journeyman started off okay, but when Dan's stash of stolen money started to play a bigger part in the show, it leapt to that next level, and became our favourite new show of the season. Pushing Daisies has done the same recently, and is a huge joy.

Sadly, the opposite is also true. A good writer leaves, a new producer comes on, cast members fall out or get big heads, networks start to fiddle with the format. When Bryan Fuller left Heroes, it hobbled it. When Ron Moore began developing Caprica, his focus left Battlestar Galactica and the show began to fall apart. When Josh Schwartz began developing new shows for Fox (on their say-so, the big jerks) and took his best writers to help him out, The O.C.'s third season became an endurance test, haemorrhaging viewers and good will. Goddamn, that show sucked for 25 whole weeks, improving only once Marissa died a horrible death, and that was in the very last scene of the whole season. Dammit Fox, just let your showrunners do one show at a time! Slavedrivers!!!

So, was this the beginning of the end for Ugly Betty? Can you bear the suspense? Of course not! The following week, written by reliable writers Jon Kinnally and Tracy Poust, was not the best episode ever, but it had some amazing moments, tons of laughs, and a paintball sequence that featured Rebecca Romijn-Stamos-O'Connell dressed like a cross between Barbarella and Tina Turner in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. It was top notch.

So I worried for nothing. And wrote about it at length. Please believe me, I do have some perspective on things. I'm not one of the Crazies. For instance, I do not wish death on Jennifer Garner. This exempts me. Because I say so.

Performance of the Week:

Not much to say, really, other than that Jesse Plemons is bringing it every week, and the murder storyline, created by the showrunners to showcase his talent, is justified for that reason alone. He has been staggeringly good.

And Glenn Morshower, as his father, has been every bit as good. That said, no one else on TV this week has done anything as heartrending as Plemons' final scene, with Landry not charged for the murder of the evil rapist, but still haunted by his guilt. Impressive stuff.

Most Badass Moment of the Week:

Striding into Primatech Paper HQ, Pisspoor Peter Petrelli and Sark (sorry, David Anders is so linked to that role in Alias that I can't separate him from it) chewed bubblegum and kicked ass, sans bubblegum. Peter fired lightning bolts and telekinetically hurled previously unseen Company henchmen around, and Sark tripped some guys up with Hiro's sword. Even the potentially moment-ruining sight of a stuntman ineptly bracing himself for a telekinesis-caused somersault for a good few seconds before leaping into the air didn't ruin things.

In the scheme of things it was not the most nerdcool moment ever, but it did what this show should always be doing; having the superpowered people do superpowered things. As a kid I would despair when Lou Ferrigno only got a couple of minutes screentime in The Incredible Hulk, or KITT didn't even do a big jump in Knight Rider. Now that I'm older I understand about budget constraints and how cool moments mean nothing without good writing and well-developed characters, but my God, we're talking about a show with about a dozen superpowered navel-gazers moping about. Surely one or two of them could do something fun or badass each week. I'm not even talking about my previous rant, where I called for more heroics (though that's still a valid complaint). If you can't have the characters saving others or helping them out, just have them doing wacky powery stuff. This action sequence was hardly the most complicated thing to shoot. Just throw a couple of people at a wall, blow up a couple of small objects, add a CG effect or two, and the viewers will be happy. Damn, if a little thing like that can make Milo Ventimiglia and David Anders look like the coolest motherfuckers on the planet, it's worth the expenditure and effort.

Worst Guest Star of the Week:

Who was your favourite Slayer? Buffy? Hell no, go to the back of the class and suck an egg. Kendra? Nice try, but WRONG! The correct answer, of course, is Faith, the bad Slayer who tortured Wesley, killed a human, got stabbed by Buffy prior to throwing herself off a roof onto a barrel on the back of a moving truck, and begged Angel to kill during a fight in the rain in the finest moment of Angel season one. Eliza Dushku was so good in that role that it's probable she'll never get out from Faith's shadow. Though Buffy and Angel were shows that handled both drama and comedy brilliantly, she was almost exclusively asked to do drama. During the series-worst episode of Ugly Betty we found out why.

She cannot do comedy. At least, she can't do broad comedy. It was as if I'd finally achieved my dream of making my own film, and had kindly cast a good friend of mine for a lark, only to find that they thought the key to being funny is flapping their arms, rolling their eyes, and screaming their dialogue as if their vocal cords were on fire and only expelling a lot of air would put it out. I've slated Samaire Armstrong's obnoxious comedic performance in Dirty Sexy Money before, but Dushku made her look like Groucho Marx. Hopefully Whedon will be able to fix this, play to her strengths, and harness some snarky humour talent out of her in his new show Dollhouse, coming to a TV screen near you in a million years when the strike is over (blame the producers, who are assholes just like Will Graham said).

Nearly The Worst, But Ultimately Very Funny Guest Star of the Week:

When James Carville turned up to give Alec Baldwin advice on how to stay together with Edi Falco on 30 Rock, it felt like obnoxious and unfunny stunt casting, especially with his laboured and overused catchphrase "Cajun style!" Canyon has recently expressed some frustration with the show, thinking it a bit laboured, and this appearance threatened to make me agree with her.

Cut to the next scene, with Toofer and Frank imitating each other in a war of identity, and I had forgotten it already. And then, to my immense displeasure, Carville and his cadaver face walked past, and that catchphrase came up again and again, going from mildly funny to unfunny to desperate and then (thank Neo!), back to funny, and with his final shot, hand deep inside a vending machine, all the way up to hilarious (at least in my humble opinion).

Canyon did like Pete's special lunch treat to himself, though. Bento box, the lesbian scene from Mulholland Drive, and the office to himself. Until Kenneth invites his kids around.

Screen capture. Cajun style.

Best Guest Star of the Week:

As if to make up for making us temporarily hate Eliza Dushku (which, along with every other flaw in that terrible episode, ensured that episode of Ugly Betty gets onto the Worst of the Year Caruso Award shortlist), the next episode featured an inspired appearance by Betty White, playing off her positive public profile and gay fanbase by screwing over Wilhemina, bitching about Golden Girls lesbian fanfic, and fighting a rat for her severed finger (offscreen, sadly, but the imagination works wonders).

She was so natural and funny and charming it made Dushku's appearance seem even more wrong. Damn, I really hated that episode.

Okay, tomorrow, the best directed scene of the week, the most over-directed scene by a notoriously arrogant director of the week, and a glimpse at a sight no human can ever forget. And I'm not talking about Viggo Mortenson's balls (that's old news. Keep up, granddad).


Masticator said...

I didn't think the Betty episode you slate was as terrible as the egregious Wicked one. For a start, it didn't feature Freddy Rodriguez undoing five seasons of Six Feet Under goodwill with a performance of such grating irksomeness that it made me want to grab him by his previously adorable floppy hair and slam his face into a fridge door. Also, I rather enjoyed Jim Robinson doing his Tyler Durden I Am Betty's Guilty Conscience thing - at least he didn't try to do it "wacky". I just thought the episode was kind of blah, so I'm relieved to hear that the next one gets the show, if not back on track, at least in the vicinity of the track, perhaps able to get back on track if it waits eight minutes longer for the stopping train and changes at Woking.

But you are absolutely spot on about the Dushku cameo. Ye gods. It was almost like the showrunners realised, too. She didn't appear until halfway through the episode and even then she had only about one and a half scenes.

Let's agree to forget it ever happened.

Admiral Neck said...

Eliza will be so rockin' awsum when she's reunited with Whedon. All we have to do is pretend she hasn't worked since Tru Calling finished. Other than Jay and Silent Bob, of course (where she couldn't do comedy then, either. Damn, even Ali Larter was funnier!).

We hope you like this week's Ugly Betty, during which Canyon went from Benry-'shipping to Betrio-'shipping, or however the hell it is you do these couple joint name things. Henry turned poo and Freddy Rodriguez found his groove. Let us know how you get on. (Yes, this should be treated as homework.)