Friday, 28 November 2008

That Week In TV Year II (Week 10)

The things that delayed the completion of this post include:

  • The nineteenth century stylings of London Underground
  • Doing overtime even though all I wanted to do was stay home and play Civilisation Revolution
  • The UNBELIEVABLE series finale of The Shield
  • David Mamet's incredible Redbelt
  • Repeated listens to Deerhunter's Microcastle and Bonnie "Prince" Billy's Lie Down In The Light
  • Seeing The Dark Knight on IMAX one more time before it disappears
  • Plumbing emergencies
  • A hellish visit to the soul-chasm that is Westfield in White City (though it was for a good cause, so that makes up for it)
  • Compiling a list of mundane events that are of no interest to anyone, even The Blog Gods who watch over bloggers and follow our every word with rapt attention. Sorry, Blog Gods.

  • Enough of this list-compiling shit. Let's get this fucker rolling!

    Week 10 (10 - 16 Nov):

    The Shield 3:11 - Petty Cash
    America's Next Top Model 11:12 - Good Times & Windmills
    Friday Night Lights 3:07 - Keeping Up Appearances
    CSI 9:06 - Say Uncle
    The Office 5:07 - Business Trip
    House 5:07 - The Itch
    The Mentalist 1:06 - Red Handed
    Heroes 3:08 - Villains
    Fringe 1:07 - In Which We Meet Mr. Jones
    30 Rock 3:03 - The One With the Cast of Night Court

    Highlight of the Week:

    Debate rages about whether The Office has become too broad, deviating so far from the template created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant that is no longer relevant as a comment on the drudgery of office working and how it can bring out the worst in people. Having Michael drive his car into water, or making Dwight clamber over the top of a house to check how sturdy it is, or any number of oddities, has turned some fans off for being too wacky.

    Two defences spring to mind, the first being, if it's funny (which it very nearly always is), who cares? The other is that is still able to reveal subtle truths within the context of a broader show that features Dwight hiding weapons around the office, or Creed hinting that he might be a murderer. This episode, set on a feeble business trip to Canada for some of the Scranton crew, featured an alcohol-fuelled Andy trying to get Oscar laid before phoning Angela to demand sex (which she is having with Dwight right at that moment), and Michael becoming convinced that the female concierge of their hotel was like a Geisha. Both plot threads were pleasantly farcical, but become part of a thematic trend when linked to Jim and Pam's relationship woes, or Ryan's attempt to woo back Kelly to restore what he sees as tarnished honour, inadvertently freeing Darryl. (Side-note: Craig Robinson has been great all season, and possibly the one thing that saved the previous episode, Employee Transfer, from becoming too uncomfortable to watch.)

    The original show kept the office relationship thread restricted to just Tim and Dawn (with David's woes coming later in the series), as there was more than enough horror to document already. The US version, while still dealing with the horrible mundanity of office work, has definitely branched out to more outlandish plots (while keeping the characters internally consistent), but slowly a noose has tightened around many of the characters' necks.

    What could be considered an over-reliance on soapy relationship drama still feeds into the central theme, that the drudgery of office work is a living hell from which there can be no escape, a miserable fate that, until this episode, was made funny by Michael's (and, in the original, David's) obliviousness to this fact. Of the main characters, the number of characters who appear to have a social life outside Dunder Mifflin is shrinking. Angela and Dwight and Andy are in a love/sex/emotional torture triangle, Pam is unable to complete her course and fulfil her dream, Ryan is playing some weird game with other people's feelings, and for a while now Phyllis has been married to Bob Vance of Vance Refrigeration, who works in the same building, and has his own bizarre and seemingly unbreakable connection to his job. The office has taken over their lives over time, and while I'd agree that it's debatable whether that theme in the show is intentional or merely a side-effect of the emphasis on relationship plot threads, it is there nevertheless.

    Most poignantly of all, Michael, who has considered his job to be the second most important thing in his life, has just seen that job ruin the actual most important thing: finding a partner to have numerous kids with, an obsession he has had since childhood. If his delusional attitude to the realities of working life has kept him happy in the past, it probably won't for much longer. Given a shitty business trip as a sop to his upset over Holly's departure, and feeling lonelier than ever after a depressing tryst from which he expected more, Michael snaps and bitches out David Wallace.

    For the character, and this show, it's a dramatic (and beautifully performed) moment that's on a par with Michael Corleone deciding to kill Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey. That's not hyperbole, my good friends. After all, I could have said it's on a par with him ordering the hit on the heads of the other four families and Mo Green while his nephew is baptised, but I didn't. I'm not that crazy.

    While Michael (Scott, not Corleone) had a depressing epiphany (which may or may not play out in coming weeks), we also got to spend a lot of time with Andy, a prospect that made me miserable. I loved Ed Helms on The Daily Show, but when introduced to The Office, I was disappointed that I couldn't get a bead on who Andy was. Other than some odd belligerence and insecure Ivy League posturing, I didn't believe in the character, especially after he became deferential to Dwight. I understand that was a consequence of his anger management training, but at the time it seemed too drastic a change, and rendered the character kinda pointless. Surely there was a place in the show for someone with an anger problem. As long as it didn't flare up too badly, it could have been a new and interesting dynamic to have on the show. As it is, we're just waiting for Andy to have another nervous breakdown, and as his wedding to Angela is not going to be a harmonious affair, it sometimes seems like we're on a straight course to it. Maybe this expectation is why I've been bored with Andy, as I've been unable to see what else his character is there for.

    Thankfully, this episode showed a new side to Andy, given his own plot instead of being a featured player in The Dwangela Show. His successful attempt to bond with Oscar over many strong drinks, and his endearing insistence on trying to hook Oscar up with a couple of heterosexual businessmen, went a long way to giving Andy a real personality at last. It also meant we got to see Ed Helms and Oscar Nunez playing drunk, which was surprisingly funny (playing drunk can go wrong so often). It was a total pleasure seeing them becoming friends, as well as getting more screentime for Nunez, who is often regrettably sidelined.

    Most surprising of all, at least to me, is how the showrunners have managed to keep the Jim/Pam story going for so long without running out of ideas. It's especially gratifying for me as, in direct contrast to the original series, Tim/Dawn was my favourite thing about it, whereas here I often tune out as they flirt. No offence to Krasinski or Fischer, who do a great job, or to the writers, who have managed to make their characters fun and flirty, as well as slightly tragic (both of them are doomed to never live up too what they think their potential is, providing much bittersweetness to their romance). I just have more fun watching the other characters, and think their low-key comedy moments are less amusing than Creed's occasional utterances, or Dwight's epic delusion.

    This week made me care about them. In a scene as well acted, written, and directed as anything in the entire run of the series, Pam phones Jim to tell him she has failed her course, and will have to stay in New York to retake her exams. Both actors do amazing work conveying the misery of that moment. As I've said, the US version of the show is still doing what the original did, i.e. showing how office work can kill the soul unless you're careful. It also shows that life can throw you terrible curveballs outside work, and this cruel event was a perfect example of that. Of course, that was, thankfully, not the final word (see below).

    Almost Highlight of the Week If Only It Hadn't Fallen Apart At The End:

    Coming hot on the heels of the exceptional Leave Out All the Rest, this episode looked horribly like a CSI:Miami-esque cultural embarrassment, as a shooting in Vegas' Koreatown is covered up by the locals who are distrustful of the police force. I seem to recall an episode of some procedural show about Korean gangs and the Omerta-like silence of the Korean residents, but I can't remember which show it was in. Whatever it was, this vague recollection made me more than a little uncomfortable with the portrayal of Korean immigrants as skittish, incomprehensible, and ignorant. Seeing this episode open with the shooting made my heart sink.

    Luckily the gang plot turned out to be akin to a red herring, with the murders caused by familial strife over a series of clinical trials performed by an unethical pharmaceutical company on a very young HIV-infected boy. Introducing this plot element defused some of the uncomfortable events that had occurred by that point, most notably one elder Korean woman's panicked near-shooting of Nick, thinking he was going to abduct the boy and perform more experiments on him.

    Even better, it served as a metaphor for the dismissive attitude of mainstream (and corporate) America towards its working class immigrants, seeing them as dehumanised, manipulable resources and not as individuals, which was a bold narrative stroke that I did not expect, and echoed last season's episode about the consequences of costcutting at a water treatment plant. The other great thing about this plot is that Gil gets screentime wearing his scrupulous scientist hat and not his forensic investigator one (and by hat I don't mean this one).

    Right now, with Eleventh Hour and Fringe dealing with bonkers pseudo-science, it's great to have a show present both good and bad science in this sober way. Well, I say sober, but that's probably too generous. If Big Pharma fudges the statistics on their clinical trials, it's probably more insidious and subtle than just ignoring a couple of days of results, but it's satisfying to see the show address the issue from the point of view of someone the audience trusts. Even better, it's also a great character moment for Gil, coming so soon after Sara's message from a scientific expedition. While she left the team due to the psyche-wrecking stress of working in such miserable conditions, Gil is slowly realising that there is more to life than sitting in a sexily-lit office and eschewing real research. His natural curiosity, that was once one of his more endearing qualities, has become a curse, and maybe now he realises that Sara has found a better way. It's likely this will be the thing that makes him leave the team.

    As I've said before, I'm looking forward to the arrival of Morpheus as Dr Raymond Langston, because that voice is like the planet itself intoning profundities and, if that photo is anything to go by, he will look motherfucking sharp, as ever, but I will miss Gil's socially awkward alpha nerdery, and his belief in the power of science. Perhaps Langston will be like that too, though the early talk of him having a psyche similar to that of a killer not only smacks of gimmickry, but drags the show into Will Graham territory (ironic, as the early seasons of the show, with Gil more outgoing and lean, brought back memories of Michael Mann's Manhunter). I've got no problem with that per se, but I'll miss Gil's positive perspective on science, and besides, Cracker did forensic profiling definitively, so this can only suffer by comparison.

    So why is it not the highlight of the week? Partially because The Office was so great, but also because the killer turned out to be the HIV positive child. While this was a great way to explain away the silence of the Korean community, which naturally wants to protect the child from the deadly consequences of defending himself and his uncle from his greedy and unscrupulous mother, it sadly joined the long line of episodes where the killer turns out to be the child. Though this stopped shy of the bad seed explanations used in the past, it's still an over-used tactic, so much so that we can now add "It was the kid that did it!" to "It was the guest star that did it!" as probable third act reveals. In individual cases there's no problem with this; this episode was generally terrific, and both Hannah West episodes were superb. It's just becoming formulaic, and is used too often as a way to illustrate the generally awful state of the world, and can smack of "Save the Children!" handwringing, which ticks me off.

    Directorial Excellence of the Week(s):

    Since the pilot episode, helmed by TV vet Clark Johnson, The Shield has always been strongly directed, with a roster of in-house talent making TV gold out of their low low budget and crazy shooting schedule. On top of such fine directors as the late Scott Brazil, D.J. Caruso, Dean White, Guy Ferland and even Michael Chiklis, the show has featured some classy guest directors, with Frank Darabont and David Mamet providing two excellent episodes.

    This week's nerve-shredding installment of The Best Show On TV™ was helmed by Craig Brewer, aka the Southern Douglas Sirk. As a big fan of Hustle and Flow and Black Snake Moan, I was particularly thrilled, and this episode was a perfect fit for him, with quirky moments like Shane and Mara's inept hold-up, and Vic's drug deal, complete with panicky money transfer. It was terrific stuff, as always, and made me eager for his next movie.

    Also pleasing was the chance for ace director of photography Rohn Schmidt to direct an episode two weeks earlier. His contribution to the show (and to Darabont's The Mist, which looked way more expensive than it actually was) is such that it was nice to see him get a chance to step up. It was a decision in keeping with the rest of the season, which has seen several characters come back, sometimes to wrap up loose ends. That the showrunners are eager to honour the road they have taken by giving us one last look at the rich tapestry of characters they have created to populate Farmington is one of the things I love most about this season. This is how you end a show.

    Best Use of the Golden Hour of the Week:

    The Office, as well filmed as it is, cannot be said to be a pretty show. The cast are mostly believably plain, though the rabid internet fans of John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer might disagree. The palette of the show, all greys (grays) and... well, greys (grays), is hardly easy on the eye either. It's all in the service of the bleak tone, and so please don't consider this a complaint, just a statement of fact. However, this week we got to see a little colour, used to great effect, as Pam returns to Scranton just as the sun is setting behind her. The result, all lens flares and backlighting, was beautiful.

    It felt like a different show for a couple of minutes.

    Personality Overhaul of the Week:

    Remember when I said Marjorie was an annoying skittish bird of a woman whose fear of everything made it hard to connect with her? Well, seems she agreed, because this week, to paraphrase Dr. Evil in Goldmember, she went men'al on account of the booze.

    And yet, following all of that madness, this is how her photoshoot ended.

    Oh Marjorie, your crazy European mind is a source of constant mystery.

    Improvement of the Week(s):

    What is depressingly stupid, peppered with plot holes and narrative contrivances, woeful performances from a bunch of lucky amateurs, distrust of logic, a total lack of embarrassment when it comes to retconning continuity problems, and a perplexingly huge fanbase? Obviously, it's world's worst sci-fi show Torchwood. But what has all of the above minus sexual progressiveness and plus Robert Forster and Malcolm McDowell working hard(ish) to get that kidney-shaped swimming pool they always wanted?

    Yes, it's the Metahuman Family Variety Hour, with laughs (see Suresh buy "something to take off the edge" from a drug-dealer with a plummy British accent), thrills (will a major character get killed and/or brought back to life this week, before being resurrected and/or killed again the week after?), and suspense (how much can the showrunners ruin the character of Sylar this week? Quick answer, quite a bit, if they're going to trap him on a bed that he can just walk out of even without powers. Look at his hands! They're not even tied down!).

    The episode entitled Villains spent much of its running time showing how Sylar, who was introduced in the first season as an evil bastard, took a momentary retcon break in the middle of his bastardiness to sappily regret his first murder (David Berman from CSI!) while hanging out with Elle after a meet-cute involving attempted suicide. That this remorse makes a mockery of the entire first season is possibly the most infuriating thing that has happened in the whole show, made worse by the "reveal" that Sylar ended up being re-evilled by HRG, manipulating Elle into throwing some hipster douchebag into his line of sight, which triggers his hunger and makes him super-extra evil.

    Poor Sylar! HRG was the real villain all along! At least, that's the big narrative conceit there, that the characters we thought were heroes and villains were all vicey-versa. King Kring and his Krazy Kronies in the writers room may have thought that this was a promising direction to take the third season, but all it's done is waste our time. Did any of the Peter-bad, Future Sylar-good stuff mean anything, especially now Peter has no powers? If Kring is so in love with this idea, wouldn't it have been cheaper and simpler for him to just play Dungeons and Dragons instead? If you want your characters to change alignments in that game you just reach for another character sheet and scribble in Chaotic Evil instead of Lawful Neutral.

    There were other things happening this week. Having Meredith and Pyrokinetic Man turn out to be siblings was simultaneously annoying (is this just one big incestuous family by now?) and gratifying (for the first time in a long time it felt like the showrunners had planned something ahead of time instead of giving the impression the script was rattled out by someone who had never attended a script meeting to date). That didn't change the fact that even the momentary return of Eric Roberts didn't make that plot interesting.

    Actually, now that I think about it, is Eric Roberts interesting? He's kinda funny, unintentionally, and I do love him for being in Worst Movie of All Time contender The Specialist, but I think the casting of someone well known in this show I once liked has blinded me to the fact that we're talking about someone who is Roy Scheider, except not cool (N.B. I wrote this before rewatching The Dark Knight a couple of nights ago, and he's really good in that, so I think he is now hovering around the edges of cool).

    It's the same with Malcolm McDowell. It's impressive that he's in it, until you remember he's also been in Tank Girl and Fist of the North Star and any number of bad movies, and it's not like he was any good in them. Does he suck now? Was he only ever notable for being the anti-establishment poster boy in 60s British cinema? That dangerous young man is not who we see grappling with Patrick Stewart in Star Trek: Generations, or haunting Adrian Pasdar. Or is Heroes so bad now that it's infecting my memory of him as Alex the Korova-drinking asshole, or young H.G. Wells in Time After Time?

    It's not just him. Canyon and I were discussing Veronica Mars earlier this week, after I updated her on the terrible silliness Kristin Bell has to endure in this (falling for Sylar, being very very angry in almost every scene, wearing some really unflattering clothes). I committed the terrible sin of saying I don't even remember whether she was any good on that show, and Canyon justifiably chided me. Turns out the suckage of this show is so complete that I cannot remember how charming and intelligent and tragic she was in Mars. All I think about now when I see her is, at best, the hilarious deleted scene from Forgetting Sarah Marshall where she gets abducted by a horse, or, at worst, every single second she was on screen in this episode.

    Maybe that's the worst crime Heroes has committed, other than squandering a great premise, not to mention Tim Kring's insistence on insulting the fanbase. Dude, when Aaron Sorkin did it we forgave him because The West Wing was the shit. Your silly show hinted at impressive things for half a season, and has been a laughing stock ever since.

    So why did I call this Improvement of the Week? Because it was much less ponderous than the usual nonsense we have to endure, ignoring Suresh, Parkman, Peter (for the most part), "Tracy", Claire, and The Ridiculous Mr. Sniff. Some of the retconning was fun (Linderman's attack of conscience), and it temporarily fooled me into thinking the writers were interested in gathering up loose ends. So, possibly the best episode of Heroes since the penultimate episode of season one. It was still the worst thing I watched all week, though.

    Visual of the Week:

    This New Yorker piece (recently reprinted in the Daily Telegraph without acknowledging the originating magazine) paints Alec Baldwin as a tragic and miserable figure, wracked with self-doubt/loathing, overthinking everything, and seemingly suffering from anhedonia. But look at him!

    If only he knew how much joy he brings us.

    Voice-Off of the Week:

    Fringe returned this week, luckily being just good enough to erase the memory of the previous dire installment. It wasn't all (tolerably) good, though. Ever since seeing Jared Harris in the execrable Resident Evil: Bollocks Overload (I can't remember the proper title; it was the second one), I've been more than a little creeped out by his voice, which is almost exactly the same as his dad's, except higher-pitched. It's like English Bob during puberty, and it really irks me. Such a petty thing to be annoyed about, and I appreciate I must seem like a jerk, but it bothers me so much that I have no idea whether he is a good actor or not, as I concentrate so much on the voice that I don't pay any attention to what he's saying.

    This week's episode featured a Face/Off between Harris (as the predictably mysterious Mr. Jones) and Olivia, played by Anna Torv and her Amazing Voice of Amazingness. It was like matter and anti-matter colliding during the scene. Torv may still make some regrettable acting choices (her love scene with Billy Burke was tough to watch), but her voice is like angry chocolate. It makes up for a lot.

    Oddly Subdued Direction of the Week(s):

    I've railed against Greg Yaitanes many a time in the past, but to my surprise this week's episode of House was restrained, and all the better for it. Considering how annoying Deran Serafian's work on Joy was (see previous post), I'm wondering if the title cards were mixed up. Or their minds were swapped! That's much more likely.

    Tonal Victory of the Week:

    The Mentalist has got into a groove of above-average entertainment, despite the relative anonymity of the supporting cast, mostly because the showrunners seem to have found the right tone for the show. While it concerns murder and kidnap and other forms of criminal behaviour, the show is uncommonly genial, which is pretty much what creator Bruno Heller is aiming for.

    This week's installment showed Patrick Jane, super-handsome Mentalist Supreme, winning lots of money at a casino (in the line of duty), and sharing it with his colleagues and a woman trying to buy a new liver for her mother. It was playful and silly, with the murder mystery plot going unmentioned for a weirdly long stretch of the show, and when it re-focused on the murder, we ended up getting a ton of face-time with Gregg Henry, one of the most watchable and likable actors around. As most procedurals tend to be dour, it's refreshing to have something that is willing to strike a chirpier tone, and a lot of that is down to Simon Baker's wonderfully charming lead performance. His devilish grin and joie de vivre is the key to this show's success, and the news, from that link above, that we are going to see how much of that is a cover-up for his inner anguish, means there is enough depth to the character that we're not about to get bored of that multi-layered gregariousness any time soon.

    Disgusting and Confusing Imagery of the Week:

    Dear God, Fringe made me want to boak for reals, with this week's burst of Mad Science involving a weird worm thing wrapped around someone's heart and pushing tendrils into the guy's veins, eventually coming up through his IV drip. Seriously, I have a vivid imagination, but this is totally sickening. Problem is, when the guy's chest is cracked open, we see the worm around his heart...

    ...and for a whole minute I thought a big-lipped fish was growing in his chest with its mouth around his heart, which would have been gross, upsetting, confusing, and batshit insane all at the same time. Canyon thought it looked like Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, which is also regrettably true.

    Frustration of the Week:

    Watching America's Next Top Model and knowing McKey is going to win really got us down. Analeigh was, as ever, amazing during the challenge and her photoshoot and, outside the competition, protective of Marjorie and gracious and sweet throughout. It was bad enough seeing her sadness when Marjorie got kicked out, but knowing that she will lose to someone who can't even flirt convincingly...

    ...made watching this episode a chore, filled with much shouting at the TV. Again, this is why I don't watch reality TV. Its unreality makes it too real for me.

    Funny Expressions of the Week:

    What was up with Tina Fey this week?

    And no, this is not just a flimsy excuse to post lots of pictures of Tina Fey, and I'm offended you would suggest that.

    Fight of the Week:

    Friday Night Lights was, as usual, amazing, with several disparate plot threads coming to natural and satisfying conclusions during the final football game, but even though I was in my usual FNL-induced joy-fugue, it was sad to see Street fighting yet again with his obnoxious friend Herc.

    Their fractious relationship is one of the most fascinating on TV. Their bond withstands the terrible frustrations both feel toward each other, and this fight, one of many, was just as entertaining and touching as all the others. With Street's arc resolved in the next episode, I'm going to miss their bitchiness and semi-hostile supportiveness.

    Intensity of the Week?:

    Is this intensity?

    If you were to assume so because that's what I say every week, having never met a joke I can't beat into the ground like a tent peg, then maybe it seems that way. In fact, in context, Lance "Incredulity" Reddick is actually staring in baffled horror at Walter Bishop, who, at that point, is recounting a non-anecdote about eating a fruit cocktail once upon a time. To the hardcore Fringe-watcher it might seem like this is an easter-egg of some kind, like the appearances of The Observer (seen here at a German airport)...

    ...but to Broyles, it's an excuse to give Peter a lecture. As we're hugely bored by Peter's reflexive annoying sarcasm and exposition (sarcexposition?), we're happy either way.

    Can you believe we're still plodding through shows from week 11? We only just watched that week's Fringe and House (both very good), and even though Thanksgiving shrank week 12 (i.e. this week), we're behind on that too. I will get up to speed and talk about something else soon, I swear.

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