Sunday, 19 October 2008

This Week In TV Year II (Week 6) Part 1

Illness has struck with the force of Hawkmonkey's fearsome mace, and both Canyon and I are punctuating our gravelly, barely audible conversations with noseblowing and low-decibel groaning. As a result, this week's post has gone horribly awry, so I'm pushing this out with proper proofing or editing or even thinking before it gets any later than it already is (and I've still got more to moan about tomorrow). Apologies for any inconvenience. Blame bacteria!

Highlight of the Week:

Mad Men (or Magnificent Men, as I'm thinking it should be re-titled) might have been especially strong and startlingly different than usual this week, but despite that brilliance, it doesn't take the top spot this week because...

WILSON'S BAAAAAAAACK!!! And yes, I'm aware it was only a matter of time before our favourite oncologist got over his fury at House, but to have it happen in such a wholly satisfying stand-out episode was a double pleasure. Though their relationship had seemed to be broken forever, the showrunners came up with an elegant solution, by showing the rift between them is not borne of Wilson's anger over House's involvement in Amber's death, but is rooted in Wilson's own insecurity. His reflexive need to run away from things before they can run out on him is what finally pushed him into falling out with House, at the same time that it has been the foundation of their friendship (House will never leave, and thus represents the only sanctuary Wilson has from that fear).

It wasn't all about Wilson coming to terms with his demons. Personal growth for House doesn't necessarily mean fixing his bitchy attitude, and this week saw him coming to terms with his bitterness over his genetic lineage by realising that it makes no difference in the end. He is who he is no matter what his DNA says, a rare instance of nurture winning out over nature in a medical show like this. Either that or House's final epiphany, "My dad is dead," is just him being finally hit by the news he got at the start of the episode. Either way, it was a beautifully realised moment, making me wonder if his superb eulogy was partially genuine too (I keep forgetting how great Hugh Laurie is).

Of course, parenthood was at the heart of the unusually compelling Disease of the Week thread too. An adopted Chinese woman with addiction problems and abandonment issues seeks out her original parents, who deny she exists. Encountering a magnet, a rash of unpleasant symptoms threaten her life in classic House stylee, and eventually we find out that an attempt on her life by her father while still a baby is responsible for her illness. In a straight-from-the-headlines plot twist, her brain was pierced by needles, which were moved by the magnet, causing a cascade of symptoms through her body. Though using the over-familiar Chinese one-baby rule as a plot device pissed me off at first, at least this was based on a real and very depressing case.

Thematically the show was so tightly bound that it could very well have seemed contrived, but with the focus aimed at House and Wilson's hugely entertaining bickering those connections between the A, B and C plots didn't come together until the final act, though I appreciate that could be a subjective thing, especially as I was so happy to see my favourite sparring duo together that I wasn't in the mood for splitting hairs.

I even forgave Kutner's announcement that the needles in the patient's head were pressing on her "addiction centres", as, even though this is total horseshit in medical terms, it mirrored the solution to House and Wilson's relationship problems. Now that Wilson recognises what has been causing his destructive tendencies, the grief needle has been removed and we can get back to normal. It's the best present the show could give me.

Baffling Turn of Events of the Week:

A couple of years ago, David Milch's perplexing John From Cincinnati diverted my attention for a few weeks, just as I once went crazy for Sudoku and Limines for Xbox 360. Trying to unravel the meaning of it almost made up for the utter tedium of it all, as characters paced around rooms (to denote boredom), spoke cod-Shakespearian (to denote eccentricity, which I actually enjoyed a lot), and screeched at dolphin frequencies (to denote furious anger, which I most certainly did not enjoy). In the middle of all this laboured weirdness, John (aka Surf Jesus) delivered his Sermon from the Mount, 21st Century Style, which was the one scene in the whole sorry exercise that I loved unreservedly.

I didn't watch further (the axe had pretty much fallen by the time I got around to it, so I knew it was pointless to keep watching), but I was impressed by how much it changed the direction of the show, dropping a moment of such batshit oddity into the proceedings that it now lives on in my memory as a completely different thing than it would have if I'd stopped watching just before it happened. This week, Mad Men did something similar, and it is taking me some time to assimilate it.

One of the few criticisms the show has received, along with "the pace is too slow," (which is bullshit), and "the symbolism is too obvious," (which strikes me as occasionally accurate) is that there is very little plot momentum. As the show's stock in trade is incremental character revelation, I don't see that as a problem, and in the moments where plot does move forward, even small things (like Roger leaving Mona) are like explosions. This episode did big plot and small character work, but the character work was utterly unlike anything yet experienced on the show, and the plot stuff has the potential to completely change the template of the show. In other words, it was a headfuck.

What initially seemed to be an opportunity to show Don and Pete in a new environment, and what I had thought would be a "road trip" plot along the same lines as this week's House, became a baffling journey into super-liberal European-style hedonism, with Don the Reluctant Square cast into a world of sex, booze, and loucheness that had nothing to do with the world of sex, booze, and loucheness that he already occupies.

I will admit that I totally misunderstood what was going on at first, but I get the feeling that was the point. After Don and Pete are shown a presentation on MIRV warheads and imminent nuclear destruction - which, incidentally, is not a good thing to show someone in the midst of a decade-long existential crisis - Don is approached by a dandyish European Viscount doing the European Viscount version of "My mate fancies you!" (The difference between this version of that chat-up line and the more common version is that in this version it's his daughter with the crush. Those Europeans!)

Of course, when Don sees who fancies him, he is instantly entranced. Joy, who could only have been more obviously named if she was called "A Balm For Your Troubled Soul, Don Draper", drives him into a confused frenzy of lust, hope, and confusion, and despite his sadness over Betty kicking him out of the house, he follows her to a swish pad across town, where he promptly drinks something unusual, faints, and wakes up on a couch, surrounded by weirdos, with one sinister looking chap on the verge of sticking a needle in his arm.

I mean, who wouldn't think something was up? Don, of course, doesn't realise he looks like a handsome film version of a spy, and is not aware of the filmic conventions of that genre. Getting abducted and drugged is par for the course for a spy, and with Cold War technology and paranoia entering the plot, it was hard not to suspect something was up.

Of course, Don was actually just hanging out with some decadent Eurotoffs, getting laid, and feeling all funny when a copy of The Sound and the Fury gets waved at him (remember my theory that culture is Don's Kryptonite). That he looks like Matt Helm or one of the Men from U.N.C.L.E., or that the dinner scene reminded me of the moment in On Her Majesty's Secret Service where an undercover James Bond has dinner in Blofeld's mountaintop hideaway, is neither here nor there. Luckily Don didn't end up hunted by assassins and forced to watch his wife get killed on their honeymoon, but sadly he did become more lost than he already was.

It's fair to say that since embodying the American Dream, and realising that it doesn't solve the problems he has been battling his whole life, the beatnik, cultural, European lifestyle has been appealing to him. He has been involved with a hipster poet (Midge), a Jewish entrepreneur (Rachel), and a brassy managerial sassmouth (Bobbie), and seemed most intrigued by the first two mistresses (actual or potential). They hinted at a world outside the one he finds himself trapped in, and Bobbie was just someone he shtupped out of habit, all the while feeling unfulfilled because she offered him nothing but empty sex.

As a result, being offered a good time by the alluring and unfamiliar Joy was exactly what he had been hoping for, and for the first time this season actually seemed momentarily happy. It was only after seeing a young boy made miserable by the actions of his father that Don realised not just that he had a obligation to his own children, and not just that he had once been the lonely child in a screwy family, but that if he had, in the past, lived the same life as his benefactors/captors, he probably would have been in the same boat anyway.

With the European dream dashed, he phones someone and identifies himself as Dick Whitman (which deserves a ZOMG for being so unexpected), and seems to be on the way to meet them soon. I had a hunch it would be Midge, having realised he was happiest living the hipster life with her (plus knowing she could score some weed for him), but if he's calling himself Dick Whitman, it's probable it's not someone we've seen before. With all other options exhausted, all he has is the past.

Overly Delayed Plot Resolution of the Week:

I love FNL's Smash Williams, and have been rooting for him to succeed in his mission to buy his mother a house since episode one, but I'm about done with that plot now. In the past, Smash has been hotheaded and cocky, with only the occasional impediment to his success getting thrown into his path. Now that he only has a few season three episodes before disappearing for good, we've had three episodes of him having second thoughts about pursuing a football career only to be brought around by someone else.

Don't get me wrong, each time this has happened it's been dramatised with the usual high FNLian standards, but even so, "I can't do it," "Yes you can," "No I can't," "Yes you can," ad infinitum gets boring way before I actually gets infinitum. Next week might see him get his wish, finally, which will suit me down to the ground. At least then I can relax about him and devote proper fretting energy to Matt Saracen and his doomed QB1 position.

Discovery of the Week:

It is actually possible to kill a man in the middle of Central Park in daylight and then drag him back to your top-floor warehouse/penthouse/loft apartment without anyone noticing.

It's also possible to kill your next door neighbour and never be interrogated by the police even though you have already beaten him up hours before right in front of his wife.

Really, if the Heroes showrunners aren't going to give a shit, why should the viewers?

Good Haircut of the Week:

Many internet people who watch Mad Men are offended that Kurt the European Homosexual is a hairdresser, thinking it an oddly stereotypical thing for the show to do, though really it is based around taking our assumptions about the 60s, applying them to well-drawn characters and showing why we have these assumptions. Even though we too thought it a bit obvious to make Kurt a hair stylist genius...'s great that Peggy looks so good now.

And she's going to see Bob Dylan too. Perhaps she will be the first Sterling Cooper employee to tune in, turn on, and drop out (Don's weirdness and sudden vanishing act to go find his outer Joy doesn't count).

Bad Haircut of the Week:

The godawful do foisted on Elina in America's Next Top Model in the recent makeover episode is a goddamn disgrace, worse than all of the previous too-tight weaves, bleach armageddons, or baldness experiments.

For once, the tears were well deserved.

Still, I may not like Elina much (her delusional, shallow crush on the awful, hypocritical Clark is the dealbreaker), but she's done some great work with this mop ever since, straightening it so that she doesn't look like a clown, and "owning it", as Tyra would say.

Overused Plot Device of the Week:

In three shows this week, main characters had visions of people from their past. In Mad Men Don was so disconjunctified by Betty's decision to kick him out of Casa de Draper that he's seeing her everywhere.

Of course, for we internet heathens who have committed the heinous act of blasphemy that is thinking that January Jones is not the most glorious and magical actress in the land, less Betty is not a bad thing, so the cameo was fine by us. How will her fans cope? Aiming yet more snotty abuse at the unbelievers who don't understand wot gud akting iz, I'll wager.

In Heroes, we finally found out the secret behind the appearances of Linderman, as shown above. Though, by now, we're watching Heroes for the unintentional comedy, it does crack out the odd surprise, and bringing back Parkman's dad was a big one.

It also put right one of the biggest problems of the second season, i.e. the huge build-up of The Boogeyman as the worst villain ever just for him to turn up in one episode and then vanish as if he'd never existed. Having him show up again and be responsible for one of this season's most interesting mysteries almost makes me think the showrunners know what they are doing. Almost.

Fringe featured the most bizarre hallucination moment of all. Olivia (aka Vanatron) is haunted by visions of her dead/undead lover John Scott, who keeps popping up to tell her he loves her as well as giving her clues to this week's Pattern mystery.

As we are unclear as to his actual status, what with him being in the hands of the possibly death-vanquishingly powerful MASSive Dynamic, this episode played with our expectations throughout, until Dr. Walter Bishop revealed that a piece of John Scott's consciousness had broken off inside Olivia's psyche during their mindmeld in episode one, and that his consciousness was communicating with her independently of the actual John Scott, who really is dead. Though he might not be. And Walter could be lying. We don't know anything, and cannot assume anything either. Five episodes in and this show is already a total mindfuck. That's some good going.

Nerd Joke of the Week:

"I was not born in a manger. I was actually born on Krypton. I was sent here by my father Jor-El to save the planet Earth." - Sen. Barack Obama at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner earlier this week.

Thanks to Captain Snarky for posting that picture in another internet venue. It made the germs forget to make me feel like whipped shit for two minutes.

Previously on Angel Actor of the Week:

Snarky Sheriff Costello, who put House and Wilson through the wringer this week, was played by Jack Conley.

We Buffy fans who stuck with Angel, which became the equal of its magnificent parent but failed to win over everyone (the haters!), should remember Sahjhan, the demon who plotted against Angel in the third season, and combined pure evil with sarcastic wise-assery. Conley did a great job in that, and a great job this week as well.

Previously on Lost Actor of the Week:

Okay, Brett Cullen has been around for a while, with memorable appearances in Ugly Betty, West Wing, Friday Night Lights, and the lamentable Ghost Rider, but he'll always be Goodwin to me. Moral ambiguity is everywhere on the show, but Goodwin, the Tailie-murdering romantic, was one of the most compelling examples. I'm always glad to see Cullen around, and this week he was in full evil mode in The Mentalist.

With Gregory Itzin turning up as well, not to mention Xander Berkeley last week and Zeljko Ivanek in the pilot, the weakness of the secondary cast is beginning to worry us. Nothing against any of the actors (and hey, one of them is called Tim Kang, and reminding me of Kang the Conqueror is always a good thing), but we're worrying that the characters have interchangeable personalities and the actors are not distinct enough to be anything other than redshirts, especially when character actors as outstanding as these are being cast.

Previously on 24 Actor of the Week:

As mentioned above, The Mentalist gained 1000 cool points this week by featuring a potentially recurring role for Gregory Itzin, formerly Evil President Charles Logan on 24.

We adore him (and his TV-wife Jean Smart), and having him show up here as a bureaucratic ass-covering foil for our unorthodox and playful hero would signal an uptick in the potential of a show that is, despite its success and renewal, is still not clicking right. Part of it is the cast. We're ready for Robin Tunney (as grouchy cop Teresa Lisbon) to depart the show in the same way that Kim Delaney vanished from CSI: Miami with barely any excuse. Generating no chemistry with Simon Baker is one thing, but the bitchface... wearing on our patience. There needs to be a point to this character soon, because right now, all she is is a drain on the show's energy, which leaps back up whenever The Mentalist gets to mentalising his foes. More Itzin would help, and if he is going to be the pencil-pusher who stands in our hero's way, making Lisbon the ally of The Mentalist would go a long way to making her tolerable. I mean hey, this advice is offered for free, showrunners.

Mistake of the Week:

Broyles (aka Lance "Intensity" Reddick) calls on the Fringe team to investigate the case of a lift driving itself into the ground, killing eight people inside. The only problem with that is...

...there were only five people in the lift, and one of them, Joseph MEEEEEgar (as named by the ever-awesome Dr. Walter Bishop) survived using his powers of bioelectricity to levitate (which violates every law of physics, but whatever). Perhaps there is a reason for this that has yet to be explained, because otherwise, this is a bizarre error for a show that has spent so long getting the background details right.

Worrying Visual of the Week:

After Don calls the mysterious person and utters his real name, he writes an address on the last page of Joy's copy of The Sound and the Fury, rips it out, and then reclines in the opposite position to that of the title card chap, with the added symbolic value of Don being semi-nekkid instead of being dressed to the nines.

All very clever, but the news that Matthew Weiner is still not signed up to helm the third season (which was only this week greenlit) raises concerns that we are in the same boat as Joy; besotted with Don, and doomed to lose him and not know what happens at the end of the story. Was Weiner warning us? I'm so upset I'm adding awful alliteration (and assonance) to this post. I know AMC are developing other shows, a continuation of the life of Harry Caul from The Conversation (and scripted by Christopher McQuarrie) and an adaptation of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, both of which make me swoon with nerd joy, but I'd hate to think they are responsible for Weiner's urge to seek development deals elsewhere.

And on that potentially troubling bombshell, so ends part one of yet another way too long post. More as soon as disease lets me.

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