March 2011

Stargate Universe: Hope

A while back, I had a column elsewhere called "Anime Friday" dedicated to analyzing the appeal of anime as a genre. In one entry, I coined a term called "The Neat-O Factor". Put simply, it's the part of any speculative fiction story that's fun or interesting just because it's clever and fantastical. Really, the entire Stargate franchise depends on The Neat-O Factor more than most sci-fi, if only because the experience of the characters is especially similar to the experience of the viewer. They're constantly interacting with technology they don't understand, stuff that's so advanced it might as well be magic. This is why a lot of the most blatant plot devices on SGU are tolerable. It's easier to excuse a bald-faced attempt to bring back dead characters when the tech behind it is so, well, neat-o. So, "Hope" actually comes out as a pretty strong episode even though it flies in the face of one of my personal pet peeves: Shows that are afraid to permanently remove a character.

Lights Out: Sucker Punch

This past week, FX passed on the option for a second season of Lights Out. Like Terriers before it, the show never quite found its audience despite being top-notch television. It's impossible to really say why Lights Out didn't ever grab the numbers it needed to carry on, just that quality isn't the reason. We also can't blame FX's marketing. They promoted Lights Out well enough and they gave it a proper time slot. All we can say now is that the show gets to walk away with one mostly excellent season that looks like it'll have the chance to end properly. In fact, it would be a real problem to sustain the first season's amount of tension without a historically heavy adversary like Reynolds. A lot of this show's drama has come from elements of the past resurfacing in a desperate time. "Sucker Punch" doesn't stand out in this regard. After hearing bits and pieces about her all season, Patrick's mother, Mae, shows up out of nowhere, creating several stripes of chaos as she tries to re-integrate into the family.

The Event: Face Off

In writing about The Event I've mentioned another mostly failed NBC sci-fi show, Heroes. While the comparison between the two is usually apt, there are a few things that set The Event several notches higher than its spiritual predecessor. One is generally better acting, thanks to the likes of Clifton Collins Jr. and Zeljko Ivanek. Another, especially in the second half of the first season, is that stuff actually happens. While every season of Heroes was basically about a bunch of characters scrambling around to make sure something big and interesting didn't happen, The Event has mostly been okay with calling its own bluffs from time to time. Case in point, much of tonight's episode. The only downside is that "Face Off" rids us of one of the show's best character/actor combinations.

Being Human: Going Dutch

Nothing says, "We're abandoning the source material of our adaptation" quite like killing off a bunch of recurring characters. Also, nothing says "We needed to manufacture some plot for this go-nowhere character" quite like a TV pregnancy. We got all of that and more in this episode of Being Human. Instead of working from last week's mostly functional premise of bringing all three central characters into the same story, "Going Dutch" flings them once again into three separate shows with three dramatically different tones. While I'm glad Being Human got renewed for a second season, I can't imagine the show continuing on like this, or maybe I just don't want it to.

...And Justice For All: Californiacation :: The Finale

What a feckless piece of trash. What an utter abomination. The final four episodes of this forth series of Californiacation could have been, at most, forty minutes. To draw out such an utterly worthless plotline – one that we should have all guessed the conclusion to – should be seen as effrontery on the schlubs who pay for premium cable stations. Sure, we can all hear Hank Moody say ‘fuck’ or ‘shit,’ but removing that verbal proclivity wouldn’t do much to the show’s general trajectory.

Bob's Burgers: Spaghetti Western and Meatballs

Heart was supposed to be one of the big selling points of Bob's Burgers. It's what was supposed to set it apart from the rest of the Fox Sunday animation block. It's been a long time, maybe a solid decade, since The Simpsons had any real claim to family sentimentality and none of Seth MacFarlane's shows have ever even attempted to coax genuine emotion out of their characters. Bob's Burgers had the chance to make something warm and calculatedly quaint out of the Belcher family, but it's been a difficult process finding a foothold for such sentiment. "Spaghetti Western and Meatballs" is really the first time that the series has felt like it has a real handle on the love between the central characters. Combined with last week's incredibly funny episode, it looks like Bob's Burgers is starting to hit its stride. The show is currently carrying an average of 4-5 million viewers a week, so it's doing well enough to hold out hope for a more fully-formed second season.

The Office: Garage Sale

The Office has always had an emotional core that has felt remarkably genuine despite the weirdness of the rest of the show. Though Michael Scott's insistence that his coworkers are his family has mostly been played as a running joke about his hopelessly unrealistic view of the world, seven seasons of hanging out with these people has basically made it true. They're invested in one another just as we at home are invested in them. That's why it (usually) feels meaningful for the Dunder-Mifflin team to attend one another's life cycle events and be concerned about each other's travails. For the past several episodes we've known that Michael's proposal to Holly was coming sooner rather than later, it was just a question of how he was going to pull it off. Appropriately, he does so with the help of his work-family.

Stargate Universe: Alliances

SGU has always struggled with what it wants to be. Does it want to be a high sci-fi adventure show like the other series in the Stargate franchise or does it want to be a brooding, existential drama like Battlestar Galactica? Is it a survival narrative, a spiritual narrative, a character-driven society play, or some combination of the three? I'm not saying the show should have picked one and stuck with it, or that many of these themes can't improve one another, just that SGU has rarely ever mixed its thematic components well. We'll get an adventure episode, then a drama episode, then a philosophy episode. So, when an hour like "Alliances" comes around, it's a rare treat. The episode coaxes some long-overdue social developments from a fairly grounded sci-fi plot and even generates a rare, meaningful cliffhanger.

Lights Out: Rainmaker

"Sometimes you do the wrong thing for the right reason."

This is what Lights tells Daniella when he learns that she told Margaret about the pugilistic dementia diagnosis. That's not only the key line of "Rainmaker", it's also the proper tagline for Lights Out as a series. Patrick Leary isn't exactly a bad person, he just belongs to a social realm that doesn't handle things in a civilized way. The difference between Lights at the beginning of the series and Lights today is that he seems to have learned how fight with his mind as well as his fists. There's no telling what his justified paranoia and moral flexibility will do to him in the long run, but they're keeping his head above water for today.

Chris Elliot Had a Life

Chris Elliot’s a weird dude. And so is Adam Resnick and so is David Mirkin. For that reason, Get A Life wound up being a bizarrely naïve failure of a television show. Not that the show was a failure itself, but it just wasn’t able to find an audience even as In Living Color and The Simpsons and a wealth of other Fox programming was being hailed as new and edgy. Elliot must have just been too bald for sitcom stardom. Or something.

Being Human: Dog Eat Dog

After ten episodes of Being Human dividing itself into three different shows, "Dog Eat Dog" attempts to throw all three of the central monsters into the same story, but it really comes out as an example of how Aidan's story is the only one with any momentum. Perhaps this is a problem inherent to monster mythology. Vampires are just more interesting than ghosts and werewolves because they necessarily have a lot of history and interact with recognizable elements of humanity, even if they aren't human themselves. Ghosts are stuck being ineffective things of the past who can only ever move away from this world and werewolves spend 29 days a month just being scared of the 30th. Aidan is interesting because his archetype is interesting, so even if "Dog Eat Dog" is an hour of solid supernatural drama, it's still basically The Vampire Politics (and friends) Show.

The Event: A Message Back

Maybe it's a case of TV Stockholm Syndrome or maybe I've just come to enjoy writing about bad shows, but lately I've been looking forward to each new episode of The Event. It's safe to say now that it's better in this back half of the season than it was for the majority of the first half, but that it's also never going to be a particularly good show. I doubt I can (or should) convince anyone to watch The Event unless they really enjoy stupid stuff for the comic irony. Given the steady drop in ratings, it wouldn't even matter because The Event isn't likely to get a second season. For now, it's just my hope that these write-ups can be entertaining for those who don't even watch the show. I maintain that, in a perverse sort of way, The Event is relevant to the state of modern television, if only because it's an elegantly appointed disaster. Even when it's at its worst, as it often is in "A Message Back", it's slick and expensive-looking. If there's a more apt example of the empty excesses of network television, I can't think of one.

The Last Supper: Californiacation

I’m actually glad that the writers on Californiacation are so predictable. If viewers are aware of that, it eventually becomes relatively easy to guess what episodes are gonna be solipsistic nonsense. And yesterday’s “The Last Supper” was certainly that.

Feeling bad for watching the show might be peeking as the show has been forced to included more and more heartfelt moments (read: bullshit contrivances) ahead of Hank’s eventually incarceration. Granted, real life provides for these occurrences, but they’re usually not soundtracked by cheesey eighties hard rock. And while cock rock may well still be on the rise, the women’s haircuts on the show need to be addressed. Of course, Hank still wears a ring in his index finger, but the ludicrous bouffant topping not just Karen’s head, but Hank’s attorney seem pretty out of touch with modernity. Modernity, though, allowed for “The Last Supper” to occur.

Hank, Karen and the pseudo-Runkles along with the Moody kid settle up for a farewell dinner before the mater’s sentenced. It’s pretty likely he’d get years – in real life – but that would spell the end of the series. And there’re enough saps, myself included, that are gonna keep watching for at least another year or two.

Bob's Burgers: Art Crawl

I prefer cartoons to be a little on the insane side. There's no point in animating a series of calm conversations between normal-looking people. If it's in the conceptually pliable medium of ink and paint, it should take advantage of every opportunity to be weird and inventive. That's why last week's episode of Bob's Burgers didn't work very well and why this week's was so much fun. "Art Crawl" uses every surreal option and content loophole inherent to animation to deliver an episode that hits its stride early and doesn't slow down until after the ending credits finish. Tragically rare as it has been, the craziness that pervades the majority of "Art Crawl" comes from the best, most interesting aspects of this series.

Dr. Katz: Neurotic Jews with Advanced Degrees

I kind of have no idea how Jonathan Katz wound up getting his own cartoon on Comedy Central back in the day. Dr. Katz was a pretty funny concept – and the neurotic main characters only served the initial idea perfectly. We’ll just forget about the fact that no one was really objecting to a twenty five year old dude living with his father and not trying to find a job.

Either way, before Katz landed that gig, he was a ping pong champ, sometime’s playwright and all around funny guy. Oh yeah, and he fronted Katz and Jammers, which explains all the musical interludes on Dr. Katz. Regardless of that, the squiggly line cartoon, which aired from 1994 through 1999 with a few stray episodes surfacing later, followed the daily travails of a licensed psychologist.

The Cape: Endgame

Hair. That's what was keeping Vince's secret identity. Not his eyes, not the structure of his face, not his voice or his mannerisms. His hair. I can think of no better way to describe just what was wrong with The Cape than such a ridiculous, poorly executed bit of drama. The 2010/2011 TV season has been downright awful for new shows, but The Cape may just be the worst among them. It stands as a ten-episode heap of terrible ideas, horrible acting and a script that could only charitably be called hackneyed. It's fitting, then, that the series went out with a boring, stupid and all-around unsatisfying episode.

Doctor Who: "Space and Time"

Things are about to get interesting in the TARDIS

While helping the Doctor repair the TARDIS, Rory accidentally drops a thermal coupling while distracted by his wife's legs. The mistake causes the TARDIS to materialize in the nearest-available safest space - itself. As the Doctor morosely notes that nothing can ever exit or enter the TARDIS ever again, the crew are surprised to see Amy walk through the doors of "their" TARDIS. And that's when things get very wibbly.


NBC Renews Its 3 Good... er, Best Shows

If American Idol ever goes off the air (which is still a question considering the huge numbers it still pulls in despite getting worse every year), Thursday nights are going to get very interesting for network television. Really, Thursdays have been extremely competitive for a long time now, but that's just a nice way of saying that Thursday primetime has been the domain of one monolith or another for ages. From the mid 90's until relatively recently NBC had hegemony thanks to a stellar comedy block that ran unbroken since the likes of Mad About You and Friends dominated not just the ratings but the very style of modern sitcoms. Then the network stumbled into a game-changer by taking a chance on a weird midseason replacement in The Office. Honestly, The Office is the only scripted NBC series to weather the storm of the network's fall from grace. It maintains high ratings and critical acclaim, so there was no doubt that it was going to get picked up for an eighth season. The pleasant surprise is that it's keeping all of its current mates on the block.

Stargate Universe: Twin Destinies

Time travel, doppelgangers, wormholes, exploding space ships-- This episode is a solid chunk of sci-fi. Even more delightfully, "Twin Destinies" had the guts to kill off a named character, even if it was a non-regular recurring character. The themes in this episode feel especially important now that it's certain SGU won't be getting a third season. The gut punch of Destiny's most likely method of getting back to Earth failing lends an especially heavy fatalism to the story. This show has always had an existentialist bent to it, but there's something particularly malaise-inducing about watching a bunch of desperate people pick over the bones of an exact copy of their home just to survive.

Doctor Who: "Spearhead from Space"

Doctor Who returns with an old friend...and a new Doctor


My ongoing tribute to Nicholas Courtney (1929 - 2011) sees Doctor Who enter a new era. While many things about the program changed in this one serial, Courtney remained as the unflappable Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart, and was now a regular cast member. It was a partnership that would come to define Doctor Who for literally decades and generations to come.