September 2010

The Office: Counseling

Somewhere around the end of Season 3, quintessentially mousy receptionist Pam Beasley began a transformation. She decided to leave behind her passive persona for a philosophy of pursuing the things she wanted out of life. It started with the episode "Beach Games" in which she was the only person from Dunder-Mifflin to walk on a bed of hot coals, if only to do something thrilling and dangerous. Since then Pam has gotten incrementally stronger and more assertive. Of all the character arcs on The Office, hers is the most inspiring. Though her story in "Counseling" is the B-plot (or even C-plot), it was the strongest and most interesting part of the episode.

Terriers: Flustercuck

So, here's a question: What happened to the best new show on television (that wasn't recently canceled)? Last week Terriers was the most challenging, rewarding series to premiere this Fall and this week it was a mess of inexplicable plot twists and character inconsistencies. The show was working so well as a case-of-the-week dramedy filled out by interesting characters with intriguing backgrounds and powerfully compelling flaws. Why would it abandon that winning formula so quickly? "Flustercuck" was an episode dedicated to the show's long arc, the real estate conspiracy of rich bastard Robert Lindus and the murder of Hank's friend Mickey Gosney. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem if things didn't go from zero to ridiculous in the space of 15 minutes.

Running Wilde: Will Arnett Still Looks Like a Rich Guy

Will Arnett’s probably an extraordinarily funny guy in real life.

If he wasn’t, there’d be no way to explain his snagging gigs on Arrested Development, 30 Rock and finally on Running Wilde, his latest project alongside Mitchell Hurwitz. Each of those aforementioned shows has a dramatically different back story and focus on seeming unrelated places and cultures.

Glee: Britney/Brittany

Glee needs to stop doing gimmick episodes, or it at least needs to find a way to work the gimmick into some kind of coherent storyline. As fun as the Madonna episode was, it felt like a tangent rather than a regular part of the series. When they did a Lady Gaga episode it was so light on music that the theme was barely obvious. Honestly, I've been dreading the Britney Spears episode of Season 2 ever since it was announced over the summer. Now I'm just glad it's out of the way. "Britney/Brittany" started off strong but it went off the rails early and often. I have a notion as to why: Britney Spears doesn't actually stand for anything.

No Ordinary Family: Pilot

For two seasons, I had the unenviable task of watching every episode of NBC's Heroes and attempting to find any critical worth in it whatsoever. The longer the show went on, the harder that job became. In the end, Heroes was some sort of inverted guide to making a TV show about people with super powers. Aside from doing every conceivable thing wrong, I could never quite put my finger on why Heroes got as bad as it did. It took tonight's premiere of ABC's No Ordinary Family to clarify the central failing of Heroes: It was never fun. It's such a simple solution to that show's many problems. Everything on Heroes was in service to plot twists, melodrama and mystery but never in the name of actual enjoyment. Super powers are supposed to be fantastical and exciting. No Ordinary Family is a show that understands this and seems to have decided to make that its primary objective.

A Shoe for a Shoe: Weeds

Maybe the folks who conceived of this season’s plot for Weeds were intending to lull us all to sleep for the first month or so an then turn in an episode that had everything in it – apart from weed, which hasn’t really been a significant part of the plot for a few years.

Whatever Weeds decides to concern itself with, having the fuzz, swearing in sign language, kidnapping, a cross bow and an armed stand off run across the screen is a welcomed departure from what was going on before. Something happened, though, the Newman’s weren’t able to actually go anywhere.

Lone Star: One In Every Family

There's good news and bad news about the second episode of Lone Star. The good news is that it proves how the show will carry its tense, seemingly limited premise for an entire season. The bad news is that it's not likely to have a chance to do so. In an almost unprecedented display of business anxiety, Fox made it clear that the show will be canceled if this week's episode doesn't perform considerably better than the pilot. Last week's episode pulled in 4.1 million viewers, which is pretty abysmal for a network show during primetime. It's practically certain that Lone Star won't survive, at least in its current position. It's competing with Dancing with the Stars, The Event and Two and a Half Men, three shows that have audiences who probably wouldn't be watching Lone Star anyway but still dwarf Fox's 9:00 PM intake.

The Event: To Keep Us Safe

If a plane crashes in the desert on a sci-fi conspiracy TV show, does it automatically invite a comparison with Lost? If said conspiracy revolves around non-humans living among humans for some mysterious and likely nefarious purpose, is it automatically a ripoff of V? If Jason Ritter shaves his horrible facial hair, will he automatically become a more compelling protagonist? These are the questions that kept popping up for me in the second episode of The Event. While the show has already demonstrated its ability to advance its plot faster than other woogy mystery series, right now it just seems like a grab bag of twists and surprises purloined from other stories. We have a secret agent plot, a man falsely accused of murder plot, a sci-fi "others" plot, a hostage scenario plot and a government cover-up plot all vying for the same hour of television. I've seen this situation before and I can already tell that The Event won't be able to keep this up.

Hands and Knees: Mad Men

After a few weeks lulling its audience into a smug stupor, the comedic undertones Mad Men trucked in all but fell away last week. Even as death had previously been toyed with as something to be transformed into a joke, the complete unveiling of truth was too much for just about anyone to handle.

As the ad agency continues to work towards stability, maintaining accounts while brining in new ones is set to be under constant discussion. This week, though, Lucky Strike pulls out and Roger doesn’t let anyone know. Of course, the public announcement in thirty days is likely to clue everyone in.

My Bad: Dexter

At this point in the history of television – and media in a general sense – it should be relatively difficult to plain ole surprise an audience. Even while Americans are generally thought of as a lumpen mass of slovenly fast food eaters, we posses a sort of sophistication when it comes to our entertainment. That’s not to figure Bieber as a critical theorist, but his fans understand more things about that single person than they do about government. That’s important.

So, for the last episode from Dexter’s fourth season to be just about the biggest shock I can recall from countless years of watching TV means that these folks not only have a specific narrative in mind, but also a way to keep the most drastic twists undercover.

Bored To Death: Escape From The Dungeon

Even though I mostly enjoyed Season 1 of Bored To Death, I don't think it really came into its own until the very end. It began as a gimmicky show about an effete New York writer who moonlights as a private detective but it gradually transformed into something else entirely. At its best it was a highly literate stoner comedy that drew its greatest moments from the funny, if inconsequential, banter between its three male leads. Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson and Zach Galifianakis struck a strangely inspired band of lovable losers. By the end of the first season, Bored To Death seemed more or less retooled to revolve around those characters while the detective plots did little more than augment their discussions. The formula worked and it seems like that'll be the name of the game from now on.

Rubicon: In Whom We Trust

Rubicon's ratings have been fairly anemic and they're only getting worse. Last week the show barely managed to pull 1 million viewers. The only reason it's still around is probably because it's airing on AMC, one of the recently minted "prestige" cable channels that is generally more willing to give a good show the benefit of a full season than the networks ever will be. Though a second season isn't out the question, I'm going to approach the show's last few Season 1 episodes as if they're the last episodes of the series. Honestly, that wouldn't be so bad, at least from a storytelling perspective. "In Whom We Trust" highlights a theme that I think is Rubicon's strongest. Namely, that personal problems often distract people from what's really important in their lives.

Boardwalk Empire: The Ivory Tower

They'll probably take away my pop culture critic's card for this, but I'm pleased as punch that Martin Scorcese didn't direct the second episode of Boardwalk Empire. "The Ivory Tower" played so much more smoothly than the pilot, eschewing cinematic bombast for the kind of even pacing and well-crafted scenes that better suit the TV medium. I understand that the pilot had to do a lot of work establishing the central characters and high stakes of the series, but all in all I prefer the slower burn of tonight's episode. I think it gives a better indication of what Boardwalk Empire will be on a week to week basis.

Dennis Gets Divorced: IASiP

The grand ennui of fall time scheduling has hit television screens. There’re old ideas repacked as new – in addition to some pretty simple retreads. And as we move through the first few weeks of ya’ll’s favorite shows, let us pray that small-screen writers are granted ingenuity that has seemingly passed them by during initial episodes for this 2010-2011 season.

I’m not a proponent of narcotics, but maybe writer’s rooms need something added in to get these things off the ground. Start sending your care packages.

My Generation: Pilot

I have to admit that I didn't go into My Generation expecting it to be what I wanted it to be, or even expecting it to be that good. Regardless of what the show would do with its premise, that premise alone makes it worth a look. And no, I won't be going back a second time because it truly isn't all that good. In fact, to be the kind of show it could have been, My Generation would need to be a much more ambitious undertaking than it is.

The Office: Nepotism

Ya know how when you're a kid it just doesn't feel like Fall until the leaves start to change color? In my adult life, it hasn't felt like Fall until The Office returns to the air. Really, that's what the show has become over the course of six seasons. It's still funny and creative, but it has transitioned into the role of reliable comfort TV from its origins as a hip comedy full of promising, young stars. Tonight's Season 7 premiere is a fun half hour that consists mostly of one-off jokes and character reintroductions.

Terriers: Change Partners

Traditional show business wisdom says that comedy is the hardest material to pull off, though in television that isn't necessarily true. Comedy is more common than anything on TV because it's the easiest stuff to sell. Network executives, sponsors and censors are usually okay with making people laugh. It's the dark territory they have trouble accepting. Few TV shows ever go truly dark. They make even their most reprehensible characters either somehow sympathetic or justifiable, or they make villains so flat and exaggerated that no one is surprised when they do something terrible. Terriers has been advertised as a buddy comedy, which it is, but it's also a daring, difficult program punctuated by moments of intense, troubled emotions. "Change Partners" is only the third episode of the series and it manages to turn a potentially hokey plot into one of the most disturbing narratives in modern television.

Undercovers: Pilot

You know those times when you have a sweet tooth and you're okay with settling for less than gourmet? Sure, an 80% cacao German chocolate bar with flecks of Earl Grey or a fresh creme brulee with a hint of sherry in the custard would be divine, but there's a vending machine just a few feet from your door and it has a plain Hershey bar with your name on it. It's not the best, it's not even what you really want, but it's cheap and easy to access and you know exactly what you're getting. That's the experience of NBC's new romantic espionage show Undercovers. If what you want is a thrilling, sexy spy drama but you're willing to settle for an unambitious though mostly competent rom-com with fight scenes, NBC's got you covered.

Glee: Audition

Glee has a lot to live up to in its second season. It went from an underdog series sliced in half by an unusual airing schedule to one of the highest rated programs on network television. By the time the last few episodes of the first season hit the air, the show and its stars were veering awfully close to an overexposure-induced backlash. Glee can't pretend to be scrappy anymore, which is probably why its Season 2 debut is a cavalcade of modern pop and pretty things. There's still a strain of wickedly funny dialogue and subversiveness to the show, but it's taking on its trendy sensibilities with a little less irony than it used to.

Boomerang: Weeds

If it’s sounds to me like I’m whining, then I’m, probably whining.

Weeds sixth season initially suffered from there being pretty much nothing going on over its first few episodes. Granted, the gang fled from Southern California and found new jobs, but it probably shouldn’t have taken the length of a feature film to dispense with that portion of the plot.

Two weeks ago, the family got settled in, worked jobs, pretended to go to college and hung out with hot, rich moms (of which there’s no shortage in Seattle) at a park (also something Seattle isn’t lacking). “Bliss” wasn’t the strongest offering of the series, but it did the job, maintaining a decent pace, tossing in a few laughs as well as enough drug stuff to sate the stoner fan base.

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