June 2011

Catching Up: Brisco County, Jr.- Brisco For The Defense

In the review of its pilot episode, I categorized The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. as a comfort food show, a trifle with little ambition. Last week we saw how such a show can easily fail when it attempts to be smarter and more lofty than that. As a program from the last days of dumb-on-purpose TV, Brisco is best when it sticks to formula and even cliche. So, when the series trotted out a court room drama cum murder mystery around halfway through the first and only season, it executed the premise solidly without really doing anything unexpected. Brisco often dipped into genres outside the usual Wild West repertory, from science fiction to pirate adventure and even mob drama, and what all of these divergent outings lack in originality they make up in unabashed love for the tropes that inspire them.

Futurama, "Benderama"

Was this supposed to be the real season opener?


To better support his aging and decrepit body, Professor Farnsworth invents a machine that shrinks and duplicates anything. For him, that means two smaller sweaters to keep his shrinking frame warm. For Bender, it means two little Bender clones to do things he's supposed to do (like folding the Professor's new sweaters, or lighting his cigars). Introduce an ugly giant monster into the mix, and you have an episode that's truly worthy of Futurama.


Catching Up: Freaks and Geeks- Tests and Breasts

Puberty is brutal. It's so brutal, in fact, that even most TV shows and movies that approach the topic tend to exaggerate everything for the sake of humor rather than depict the experience as it really happens. In keeping with its philosophy of realism, Freaks and Geeks keeps things true to life in its many puberty-driven episodes, central among them being "Tests and Breasts". The episode also does a fine job of showing us how Sam and Lindsay function as two points in the same narrative. They're both teens but they're in two very different stages of adolescence. Sam is just barely starting to experience the changes in his life, both physical and social, while Lindsay is smack-dab in the middle, running headlong toward adulthood. So, Sam's stories give us glimpses into the last moments of childhood just as Lindsay's stories are about the more complicated, confusing parts of being a teen.

White Collar: The Dentist of Detroit

Only four episodes in, I'm a bit hesitant to make any broad claims about where Season 3 of White Collar is going. It usually takes around six episodes before most seasons of most shows settle into a rhythm. So, I'll only point out what patterns have emerged so far. In short, White Collar's third season seems to be pulling back from Neal and Peter to fill in some long-standing characters who have been in the background since the first season while simultaneously allowing the drama surrounding the central duo to simmer on the fringes. Last week we got to spend a lot more time with Agent Barrigan and this week is all Mozzie's. How much you enjoy the outing depends on how much you really want to see Mozzie filled in to begin with.

Catching Up: Aeon Flux- A Last Time For Everything

A rule for the wise in the world of Aeon Flux: If you want to live long and have a successful career, stay far away from anything involving both Aeon Flux and Trevor Goodchild. Humiliation, loss and even death are sure to follow. In the case of "A Last Time For Everything", this is even true for Aeon herself... well, sort of. As the opening subtitle card explains, Trevor has finally gotten around to developing cloning technology, as is the wont of every morally dubious scientist with unlimited resources, and it doesn't take him very long to try the tech on his object of obsession.

Futurama, "Neutopia"



Good news, everyone! Futurama is back - but the Planet Express crew find themselves on the brink of foreclosure. Desperate times call for desperate measures, including selling a pin-up calendar of the girls of Planet Express - even though there are only two women on staff. It's up to an alien made entirely out of rock on a lifeless, mineral world (and dangerously close to its sun) to teach the humans a lesson about gender equality, or something. I don't know, it wasn't that good an episode.



Catching Up: Brisco County, Jr.- No Man's Land

I wanna talk about Joss Whedon.

I know, I know. This is a column about The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., a show that was on the air when Whedon had one, severely tampered-with movie, a bunch of uncredited writing gigs and one regular spot on Roseanne on his resume, long before he would become a cultural icon. But I can't help drawing certain parallels between Whedon's pet themes and those running through "No Man's Land". See, this episode is the sort of high concept teleplay in which Whedon regularly indulges (when he has a TV show) and, most importantly, it uses genre to discuss feminist topics. That's practically Whedon's bread and butter. On its own, "No Man's Land" is a dusty relic of bygone (and not terribly missed) cultural hallmarks, but as a step along the way to sharper, more informed feminist television, it's damn intriguing.

Wilfred: Happiness

Slowly but surely, non-American television is starting to creep onto the US airwaves, either as regular programming on specialty channels or, more commonly, as adaptations. The success of Greg Daniels's take on The Office and the mass geek-love for the 21st century continuation of Doctor Who have proven that American audiences are keen on the best the UK has to offer, so FX has decided to try its hand at delivering an adaptation of a favorite from another Anglophone market in Wilfred. The original was an award-winning comedy in Australia with its bizarre premise and darkly humorous sensibilities. Given that the last Oz-infused TV show to do any business stateside was the cult sci-fi series Farscape, I'd say we're about due for another go. The question is whether Wilfred can get enough American viewers on board to allow more ideas to cross the Pacific.

Catching Up: Freaks and Geeks- Kim Kelly is My Friend

Every high school story has bullies, but only a fraction of them ever attempt to explain why the bullies do what they do. The closest thing we have to such today is the way Glee correlates anti-gay bullying with latent homosexuality, which as true as that can be is still rather pat for a TV show. In its early going Freaks and Geeks had its bullies who were little more than monstrous antagonists, but one episode in particular features the most jarring, visceral and ultimately relatable bullying story in the history of television. Too bad almost no one actually saw it. "Kim Kelly is My Friend" is only fourth in the production order of the series, but it was one of the last episodes to air and even then it was put in the basic cable ghetto of the Fox Family channel rather than airing on the Fox parent station. Given how raw it is, it's pretty clear why Fox swept the episode under the rug. More's the pity, as it's one of bravest hours of scripted TV in history with more than one stunning performance.

White Collar: Deadline

Because White Collar is so unabashed about its fun, if formulaic, foundation it gets something of a pass on its tendency toward cliche. It's still very much a comfort food show on a network that consists of nothing but comfort food shows, albeit a fairly fancy version thereof, like a pint of gourmet ice cream accidentally shelved with the generic store brand stuff. That said, White Collar is only ever as good as its clever con scenes and witty repartee, often suffering for its not-so-great guest stars. This week's guest is TV veteran Jayne Atkinson, cast as a stereotypical "Boss From Hell" character who also doubles as a stereotypical "Truth At All Costs" journalist character. Atkinson looks a little like Helen Mirren in a certain light, but she doesn't quite have the same subtlety or screen presence. As a result, her character comes off more like a machine designed to fabricate worn-out plot points than someone we're supposed to care about.

Catching Up: Aeon Flux- Thanatophobia

The physical proportions of Peter Chung's figures were always a strange point of controversy. The human forms in Aeon Flux are like Barbie dolls taken to a grotesque extreme. Their waists are ridiculously thin, their bodies elongated to the point that their legs are sometimes twice the length of the rest of them. Given how bizarre the people in AF look, it's hard to level complaints about over-idealized figures. They're physically impossible on purpose, meant to be as much unsettling as alluring. The third episode of the series, "Thanatophobia", comes the closest to addressing the weirdness of Chung's art, though it's certainly not the only episode that comments on issues of the body.

Game of Thrones: Fire and Blood

It wasn't until watching the Season 1 finale of Game of Thrones that I realized the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series ends with what basically amounts to a chain of powerful moments, each one fit to end a book on their own. The novel has the benefit of detailed description to slow the pace so this doesn't overwhelm the reader, but the TV adaptation is necessarily less capable of devoting so much time to padding the intensity. That's why "Fire and Blood" occasionally inserts a new scene with some humor or at least some low-key intrigue between the parade of stirring conclusions. We need scenes like Maester Pycell rambling to his whore about the nature of kings and Littlefinger verbally sparring with Varys again, otherwise the unparalleled collection of stunning scenes would be too much and numb the viewer to their power.

Catching Up: Brisco County, Jr.- The Orb Scholar

Science fiction and westerns are strange but frequent bedfellows. The combination works better than it would seem at first, but they're complementary all the same. Both genres involve high adventure, constant danger and an environment that can change to suit the needs of the story. In that vein, Brisco is something of a spiritual predecessor to another sci-fi western: Joss Whedon's late, lamented Firefly. Both star roguish fringe actors who know their way around an unpretentious quip, both delight in the boyish fantasies of cowboys and bandits, and both put their rag-tag heroes up against slim to impossible odds. The difference (other than the glaring fact that Carlton Cuse is no Joss Whedon) is that Brisco is far more western than sci-fi and at times suffers for it. Case in point, any plot revolving around the one and only season's MacGuffin, The Orb.

Catching Up: Freaks and Geeks- Beers and Weirs

To be a teenager is to be in a near-constant heightened state of reality. Because everything is so new and life is so full of limitations, every little rebellion is thrilling. So, as rote at it is for Lindsay to throw a house party when her parents go out of town in "Beers and Weirs", that doesn't take the power out of the episode. Just like a lot of the familiar tropes that constitute the average episode of Freaks and Geeks, the illicit high school house party works because it's true to life. That's really the core of what makes Freaks and Geeks work as a show in general. Most of the people playing teenagers really are teens or at least look the part and the adventures they have aren't especially outsized. The characters are gawky, awkward and insecure, their behavior typical and familiar. For the purposes of this episode, it's important that the party Lindsay throws looks like an actual party and not one of those crazy, once-in-a-lifetime bashes we're used to seeing on TV.

White Collar: Where There's a Will

There's a scene early in "Where There's a Will" in which Peter barely contains a flash of excitement when Neal indicates that there's much more to a millionaire's will forgery case than just a couple feuding brothers. The case involves anagrams, treasure maps and the eccentricities of Tycho Brahe. The prospect of all this intrigue has Peter hot in the biscuit to do some unusual detective work. It's encouraging that White Collar has been consistent in portraying the ways that Neal and Peter influence one another. Neal has developed a passion for getting the bad guys and using his skills as a con man to save lives, while Peter has come to rely on his legally gray adventures with Neal to get away from the inherent boredom of white collar crime. In one of Season 2's better episodes, Peter revealed that he was once on track to become an accountant, but the allure of FBI work was too strong to let him settle into a more profitable but ultimately more boring career. This background gives some weight to Peter's positively giddy behavior in "Where There's a Will" and it also asks us to consider the consequences of Neal's career trajectory.

Doctor Who: "A Good Man Goes To War"

It's the beginning of the end on Doctor Who


With Amy Pond - and her newborn daughter - held prisoner thousands of lights years away, the Doctor calls in a few old favors to save his companion and her child. But the Battle of Demon's Run heralds his greatest fall, as armies from across time and space walk into a trap designed to harness the ultimate weapon against the Doctor.



Doctor Who: "The Almost People"

Doctors and Amys and Flesh, oh my


The Rebel Flesh have come alive, determined to wage war on their human controllers. But with two Doctors - one Time Lord and one Flesh - no one is sure of who's on whose side anymore. Which Doctor will Amy trust? Which one can she trust? And what does he mean, "push" and "breathe"? Things are about to get very real for Amy Pond, as she becomes one of "The Almost People".



Catching Up: Aeon Flux- Isthmus Crypticus

Aeon Flux, underneath the science fiction and surrealism, is truly a romantic drama. Pretty much every episode of the long-form series is a commentary on love and relationships, the way we long for what we can't have and the way we hurt each other in the pursuit thereof. Some episodes are more clear than others, though. The debut episode that we covered last week was more on the obscure side of the spectrum, but "Isthmus Crypticus" is fairly straightforward, or at least it is after you get past the beautiful man-bird creatures and the giant robot tentacles.

Game of Thrones: Baelor

The death of Eddard Stark is the first truly shocking moment of the Song of Ice and Fire novels. It's the kind of unexpected, heartbreaking moment HBO's best series rely on. Ned has all the makings of a hero, all noble and fixated on justice. For George R. R. Martin, killing Ned was a way to communicate the unpredictability and brutality of his story, and just as importantly a way to diverge from the conventions of fantasy fiction. For HBO, though, this plot twist is more problematic. Sure, it's a memorable bit of screen time for Joffrey to go against everyone's wishes, even his mother's, by ordering Ned executed even though he confesses to crimes he didn't commit. But it's also worrying from a TV perspective. Game of Thrones has plenty of good actors but few true stars. Sean Bean was the biggest name attached to the project and maybe only Lena Headey, Maisie Williams and Peter Dinklage have really carved out roles of equal power. Season 2 is going to rely on a lot of actors who have, until now, had second-string places both on screen and in the show's billing.