August 2010

Catching Up: Firefly- Heart of Gold

Chronologically speaking, "Heart of Gold" was the last episode of Firefly ever aired. It premiered on August 18th, 2003, the last of three episodes relegated to three distant summer slots after the show was canceled. Of all the summer episodes, or really of any episode in the series, "Heart of Gold" is the one that really should have been swept under the rug. Though it's the weakest hour of Firefly by far, I'm still glad it exists. From the removed, academic perspective of the series in retrospect, it's important to see what Firefly could have been, what it was arguably perceived to be by many of its initial viewers: A campy, hokey pulp show as forgettable as any other cut-rate action series.

Weeds: A Yippity Sippity

Well, it’d be hard after just the third episode of Weeds this season to condemn the entire thing. But that’s kinda how I feel. Has anyone laughed aloud at anything this season? Probably not. Is the plot line going anywhere? Don’t think so.

So, why keep watching?

Even the best shows wind up petering out. Seinfeld’s last episode was one of the worst things ever televised. But was the rest of its ninth season entertaining. Sure. Let’s hope that these first few installments into the Weeds canon are simply working on setting something interesting up.

Mad Men: Waldorf Stories

 Adding new characters to a successful television show is usually a sign of bad things on the horizon. With Mad Men, though, it’s usually an omen of dramatic changes – well, unless the new character is some random broad Don’s began toying with. With introduction of Lane Pryce, the show spun off into a completely new direction. So, we’ll see what happens with the introduction of Roger’s wife’s cousin into office life.

Aside from that weird out cropping of marrying a women thirty to forty years your junior, Roger and Don were necessitated to take a meeting while horrendously drunk. After winning an award for an ad – one which Peggy actually lays claim to – Life cereal execs show up and require being appeased.

The Philosophy of Game Shows: Deal or No Deal

Game shows are perhaps the most fascinating programs on television. Though they're designed to feel like inconsequential filler entertainment (an idea reinforced by their relative absence during primetime), they say more about society and indeed about human nature than any other type of show. They reflect the values of the culture around them, they bring in viewers with vicarious thrills and the fantasy of glittering success beyond imagination. Game shows are surreal, grotesque and irresistibly appealing. There's a strand of philosophy underneath their many layers of flash, an unmistakable needle of truth in a haystack of glitz and absurdity. No game show in recent memory has exemplified this more than Deal or No Deal.

Futurama: "Lrrreconcilable Ndndifferences"

Lrrr, the fearless and terrifying leader of the planet Omricon Persei 8, has a problem - his wife thinks he's useless. To shut her up once and for all, he leads an invasion of planet Earth, but declaring the conquest of the planet during a Comic-Con convention is probably not the best way to subjugate a planet full of nerds. Emasculated, he turns to the Planet Express crew for help, and the results turn out a little better than anyone expected - for Lrrr, anyway. Everybody else wishes he and Ndnd would patch up their "Lrrreconcilable Ndndifferences" and go home in the 11th episode of Season 6 of Futurama, and the 99th episode of the show produced and broadcast.

Rubicon: Look to the Ant

When I first started covering Rubicon I complained about the mundane dramas the show intersperses between bits of espionage and intrigue. My problem with those threads wasn't that they were poorly executed, just that it looked like the series was going to let them dangle without really relating back to its central themes. Perhaps that was the original plan, but now Rubicon is doing a much better job applying the little human quirks and weaknesses of its central cast to something larger and more meaningful. It still feels like three different shows running at the same time, though I'm warming to the idea of watching each of them.

Catching Up: Mad Men- The Wheel

The Season 1 finale of Mad Men is a pretty heartbreaking hour of television. Behind every personal triumph there's something deeper and darker waiting for each character, which puts a fine point on the show's running theme of the hard reality behind glamor and success. Mad Men is a show about a lost lifestyle, a period in our culture that broke down and transformed. More specifically, it's the story of why that lifestyle disappeared. Past all the fancy hotels, liquor-fueled brainstorming sessions and sexy after-hours parties, Mad Men is a deeply moralistic show. The way the Madison Avenue set conducted their lives, this show suggests, led to their downfall.

Fall 2010 TV Preview: Cable, Part 2

Though cable has a well-earned reputation as the place where more risky, genre-specific shows thrive, that doesn't mean that cable stations don't follow the same self-preservation instincts as the networks. Over the past decade a lot of the heavy hitters have more or less figured out what works for them, so they're mostly filling the 2010/2011 season with familiar, though not necessarily boring, material.

Catching Up: Firefly- The Message

"The Message" is the last episode of Firefly ever committed to film, a fact that lends an extra bit of gravity to its melancholy tone. Joss Whedon and Tim Minear were the two chiefly responsible for the episode and those two tend to make a pretty stunning team. Dramatically, it's the strongest episode in the series, giving at least one memorable scene to each of the principle players and showing just how tight Firefly's approach to episodic television could be. Not that many people got to see it the first time it went to air, getting stuffed into a slot in the middle of July long after the series had been canceled.

Weeds: Felling and Swamping

With Weeds’first episode being such a drab affair, it’s certain that many people figured the effort simply as a place keeper or some sort of backwards gaze. Viewers obviously needed to be reminded about what was going on last season. Even if that appraisal was appropriate, the fact that the season’s second episode, “Felling and Swamping,” didn’t seem too distant than its predecessor is a troubling sign.

Fall 2010 TV Preview: Cable, Part 1

Ever since cable channels like HBO and AMC started putting more energy into original series they've been home to some of the best scripted programs on television. The nature of how money gets to cable stations (less about advertising, more about subscription fees) has allowed these channels to foster higher-brow, more cinematic shows than usually find their way onto the networks. Fall 2010 looks like it won't be changing that trend. There are a slew of new cable shows slated to premiere between September and January. Here are the first few.

Rubicon: Connect the Dots

Rubicon was created by Jason Horwitch but, as is often the case in the TV business, he was pushed out of showrunning duties fairly early on. This has led to a lot of critical speculation concerning just what elements of the series are the result of production notes and what's just the last remnant of Horwitch's original idea. I think (and strongly hope) that Ed Bancroft, Rubicon's requisite old conspiracy nut, is just such a remnant and that we won't be seeing much of him after "Connect the Dots". He's easily the most ridiculous, least interesting character on the show and every scene with him feels like it was pasted into the episode from a bad movie. Roger Robinson, who portrays Bancroft, isn't a bad actor, exactly, he's just a stage actor. Rubicon gets a lot more mileage out of the understated, subtext-driven performances of its principle cast than it ever will out of an exaggerated character like Ed. His wiggy speech in the middle of this episode was his worst moment yet, bad enough for me to wish that Will would find Ed's corpse before the hour was over. Alas, Ed Bancroft lives, though there's reason to believe he won't be a part of the series from now on. Robinson is listed as having a three-episode contract. If that proves true, then "Connect the Dots" is the last time we'll have to deal with his stupid rants and wild mannerisms.

Futurama: "The Prisoner of Bender"

Futurama coming back to the airwaves has got to be one of the biggest things the human race has gotten right. Don’t get me wrong; we’ve had the criminalization of institutionalized racism, the decriminalization of homosexuality, women’s suffrage, incredible developments and advancements in the fields of communication, healthcare and space flight - all of which, broadly speaking, have advanced the standard of living on this pale blue dot we call home. The missing piece of the puzzle, though, was Futurama, long condemned to wander the wilderness while lesser animated comedies fought each other for bragging rights at the bottom of the barrel. Think I’m speaking out of my shiny metal ass? Then watch “The Prisoner of Benda”, the 10th episode of the 6th season of Futurama, and you’ll know why Futurama is one of the best shows ever.

Death Comes to Town: Episode 1

For a lot of

people watching TV today, Lorn Michaels's Canadian sketch comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall was once something of a pop culture underground entity. They consisted of an all-male group of improv performers out of Canada and between 1989 and 1995 they provided a thoroughly surreal alternative to Saturday Night Live. The show was, without a doubt, the strangest comedy show on TV in the 90's, but it had an especially subversive appeal due to its overtly homosexual content, among other things. While SNL has long enjoyed its tenure as a late-night weekend show on NBC, Kids in the Hall came to America exclusively on HBO where its considerably more controversial content would escape the rampant censorship of American network television. The show was always weird and had no obvious obligation to the mainstream, which set it apart from most televised sketch comedy of the decade. After the troupe's wantonly weird feature film Brain Candy, a satire of the pharmaceutical industry and its effects on modern society, breezed through theaters, Kids in the Hall more or less disappeared from pop culture. Earlier this year they resurfaced for a miniseries called Death Comes to Town for Canada's CBC network, eventually finding its way to the premium American station IFC this weekend.

Catching Up: Mad Men- Nixon vs. Kennedy

I can really only respect a TV show that mines drama from a mystery if it demonstrates a willingness to solve the mystery at an appropriate time. Too many shows confuse plot twists with progress and secrets with character depth. The whole first season of Mad Men revolves around the question of who Don Draper really is. It's the central mystery that promises to unlock unspoken volumes about the show's main character and how he affects those around him. The season doles out bits and pieces of Don's real self over the course of thirteen episodes in a way that humanizes him without exactly diminishing his power and mystique. This method places just as much importance on who knows what about Don as it does on the content of the mystery itself. "Nixon vs. Kennedy" finally answers just how Dick Whitman became Don Draper and what, if anything, that means for the man as of November 1960.

Fall 2010 TV Preview: Fox

It's so strange to think of Fox in its current state. By several metrics it's the #1 network on TV today, scoring the highest ratings for unscripted programs by far and grabbing huge numbers for scripted shows. There's a pretty solid chunk of Fox's demographic that isn't old enough to remember the network when it was the scrappy, low-rent channel that survived by airing shows no other network would touch. It specialized in blue collar appeal, using occasionally grotesque American parodies like Married With Children and The Simpsons along with early reality series like COPS to grab those viewers who mostly weren't represented on the other networks. Fox has always been more willing to take on genre projects, doing science fiction long before the 00's obsession with serialized dramas like Lost. Along with its ever-more-interesting cable counterpart FX, Fox has somehow become the most interesting network on television. Given how many of the 09/10 season's shows are returning or continuing in the Fall on Fox, the network is only debuting three new series in September.

Penn and Teller's Bullshit isn't Bunk

I don’t really recall Penn and Teller not being around. I don’t remember them getting famous, they were just famous. For what? I kinda don’t know – Vegas? I suppose each knows more about magic or illusions then most folks being passed off on tv and such. But what makes the pair an appropriate choice for heading up what amounts to an investigative tv show?

Is it Teller’s adherence to a craft moving from Buster Keaton to Jacques Tati and Harpo Marx? Probably not. But since he doesn’t speak, and Penn’s a reasonably intelligent guy, that should be enough.

Catching Up: Firefly- Trash

The original televised run of Firefly ended December 20th 2002, ironically enough with the pilot episode. Three of the then-filmed production order didn't make it to the air until the summer, with one episode each airing in June, July and August. "Trash" was the first of the three to air and it tends to be a fan favorite. I can think of two reasons why. One, it's the second episode to feature Saffron, the con woman played by Christina Hendricks, and two, Nathan Fillion's backside gets a cameo. Still, I can understand why "Trash" didn't get to be part of the front ten schedule. It's a one-off heist episode that really shows what a limited budget Firefly was working with and it relies heavily on a guest star rather than giving a whole lot to the central cast. The biggest shame of losing "Trash" from the original run is that it has a few good moments for Inara, a character who never really got to be involved in the heists and battle scenes that make up so much of the series. In fact, Inara's biggest episode, "Heart of Gold", also got knocked back to the summer. Maybe that's why Morena Baccarin now works for ABC.

Weeds: Thwack

Well, at least the rest of the season has to have a bit more action in it.

“Thwack,” the first installment of Weeds’ sixth season served an important purpose – linking the final scenes of season five with whatever’s set to transpire now – but was one of the least entertaining episodes that’s been aired thus far. That’s a hefty criticism, yet warranted.

Last viewer’s knew Shane had just disposed of that venomous Pilar. The beginning of this season picks up, literally, where last season ended. Shane and Nancy are standing around the pool. A body floats in the water and everyone appears dazed. Unfortunately, it takes about fifteen minutes for the Botwins to escape the party they’re attending to get home and pack. That’s just about half of the episode.