August 2011

Catching Up: Freaks and Geeks- Concluding "The Little Things"

Transgender issues are only occasionally tackled by TV shows. They're complicated, poorly defined and pretty muddy, politically speaking. Lean too hard on a transgender character to "pick a side" and the whole thing becomes an exercise in harsh gender role reinforcement, but turn the story into an up-with-people, everyone's special parade of feel-good claptrap and it diminishes the reality of transgender life. The only way to do anything with the topic, if it must be a topic at all, is to use it to highlight the subjectivity of identity. "The Little Things", as I've pointed out before, has perhaps too many hands in the story, so sometimes the drama of Amy, Ken's new girlfriend introduced in "The Garage Door", and her transgender identity feel shoehorned into the episode's too-busy plot.

2011 Fall TV Preview: ABC

Sometimes it's easy to forget that ABC is owned by Disney, the company that has been cynically exploiting the "family values" market for decades. The Fall 2011 TV schedule is not one of those times. Perhaps more so than any time since the TGI Friday lineup, the autumn slate of new shows is chock full of conservative ideals made into TV shows. That's one step above CBS's lack of ambition or NBC's anachronistic flailing, but it's still not the most endearing trend in the medium.

Catching Up: Aeon Flux- Video Games

At first glance, Aeon Flux seems like it's perfect for a video game adaptation for many of the same reasons it seemed like a can't-miss movie premise. It's about a scantily clad woman who uses guns and gadgets to sabotage the science fiction ambitions of a totalitarian villain. Likewise, the many attempted video game adaptations of the series failed for the same reasons that the movie failed. The truth is that Aeon Flux is only ostensibly about all the above listed things. As we've seen in this column, the show was always more about philosophy and romantic drama than action and science fiction. That and the highly surreal art style don't really translate to video games, or at least video games as they existed in 1996 when the first game adaptation was in development. So, too, the state of video games in 2000 when the second was in development. By time an Aeon Flux video game hit shelves in 2005, it was merely a movie tie-in game with no pretensions toward art or any real link to Peter Chung's art.

Doctor Who: "Let's Kill Hitler"

Something about Hitler



When the first half of Doctor Who's Series 6 concluded, we were left with our mouths agape for the following reasons: one, "A Good Man Goes To War" was a brilliant, powerful episode; two, we had one of the more interesting plot twists in the show's history; and three, the sequel episode was given the title "Let's Kill Hitler". That was all we had to work with in the three month break before Series 6 resumed, letting our imaginations boil for what Steven Moffat had in store.


And then we got "Let's Kill Hitler."


Torchwood, "Miracle Day: End of the Road"

A twist in the plan


It's an auspicious weekend in the Whoniverse, as both Torchwood and its parent show Doctor Who present brand new episodes. Of course, while Doctor Who returns for the second half of Series 6, Torchwood is in full swing with "End of the Road", the eighth installment of the 10-episode long Miracle Day series. And somehow, despite us being 80% done with the series, Russell T. Davies and his team (writers Jane Espenson and Ryan Scott) have managed to change the game yet again.



Futurama, "Cold Warriors"

Ich bin ein New New Yorker


Being technically over 1,000 years old, Fry is the perfect germ incubator, and his innocuous common cold can spell doom for the human race of the future. The only cure lies in vivisecting him, but a dream from Fry's past may be the only hope for a sniffling and sick species. It would have been tempting, after the wonderful "The Tip of the Zoidberg", to have gone back to a wacky, zany Futurama episode, but if there's one thing this series has taught us, it's that it loves its characters.



Doctor Who: "The Curse of Peladon"

A classic Whodunnit


Just a matter of hours until "Let's Kill Hitler", the return of Doctor Who in Series 6, but our tribute to Nicholas Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen goes all the way back to 1972. I've already reviewed the first story of Season 9, Day of the Daleks, so we skip ahead to The Curse of Peladon (January 29th - February 19th). A strange choice to include in the tribute, perhaps, since Courtney does not appear in the serial...but any excuse for some good old Doctor Who, really. 





Wilfred: Doubt

It's weird to admit it, but Wilfred, a TV show about a man who smokes pot with a talking dog only he can hear, is one of the most well read shows on television. Specifically, it's a crash course in existential philosophy. Most episodes of this first season have derived their central concepts from the likes of Nietzsche, Sartre and in tonight's case Kierkegaard. No, really. The key is in one of Wilfred's lines from the end of the episode. He tells Ryan that, in a moment of duress, he chose faith over doubt. That dichotomy, that choice, is central to Kierkegaard's writings in those exact terms. The fact that this lesson is wrapped in incest jokes and an especially skeezy performance by guest star Dwight Yoakam doesn't take away from the philosophical punch of the episode.

Catching Up: Brisco County, Jr.- And Baby Makes 3

A big part of the de facto reboot of Brisco County Jr. is the shift toward a decidedly ensemble storytelling model. Looking at the early episodes of the series, Brisco was always out front. Bowler only popped in for a few scenes and in some cases Poole was completely absent from the episode. Frequent guest stars like Kelly Rutherford were never treated like a part of the gang even when characters like Bowler got a promotion to co-star status. By contrast, the last few episodes of the series are almost entirely character driven. Rutherford's Dixie Cousins came back for a couple episodes toward the end and found herself treated like part of the Brisco family. Had the show gotten a second season, I'm sure Dixie would have popped back up, if not ascending to a series regular position. "And Baby Makes 3" certainly leaves the door open for her.

The Hour: Episode Two

The second hour of The Hour (man, that's gonna get annoying fast) fares much better than the pilot. I'll concede that pilot episodes are extraordinarily difficult. They have the unenviable task of introducing most if not all of the central characters, the main premise and at least one long arc concept in what almost always amounts to too little space. Perhaps that's why the conspiracy plot stuck out so much to me last week. Everything about The Hour had to seem big and important in the pilot, so the spy stuff had to be in the foreground. This week, that segment is mostly treated like background noise while the news program elements take center stage, and all the better for it.

Catching Up: Freaks and Geeks- The Cindy Arc

One of the more clumsy conclusions in Freaks and Geeks is the close of Sam and Cindy's relationship. There were a lot of hands in that story, including two Kasdan brothers, Judd Apatow and Mike White. These are all highly competent individuals and they wrote Cindy as a very interesting character for most of the season, but they forced her to do a harsh 180 in the end just to teach Sam (and thereby their audience) a harsh but important lesson. It's not that people don't reveal their true colors in the middle of a relationship to the surprise of their partner. That, in itself, is a common TV story. The problem is that the person we're led to believe Cindy is turns out to be an intentionally misleading smokescreen for the monstrous stereotype we meet in "The Little Things".

2011 Fall TV Preview: NBC

It has not been a fun decade for NBC. Despite starting strong with a couple big comedy hits, a mix of epic flops and forgettable newcomers really took the luster off the 90's king of network TV. The peacock is still chugging along and even though it's been an abysmal couple of years (minus Community) for premiers, no one can accuse NBC of not trying. That's especially true this fall with the network's slate of new, somewhat ambitious shows.

Catching Up: Aeon Flux- "Matriculated" from The Animatrix

Peter Chung's work beyond Aeon Flux is somewhat limited. He's done a fair amount of design work for cartoon series such as Phantom 2040 and Reign: The Conqueror, among other small projects. The most impressive and artistically free item from the past decade of Chung's work is "Matriculated", a short he wrote, designed and directed for The Animatrix. It's a special kind of ironic that a set of nine animated shorts meant to tie in with the Matrix movie trilogy ended up being more interesting, better written and coherent than the Wachowski Brothers' films. It does, however odd, explain why what basically boils down to one good sci-fi flick and two horrible sequels remains such a pervasive influence on pop culture. The concept the Wachowskis provided is intriguing enough on its own that any failure on their part to make the most of it is almost moot. The artists, writers and directors who contributed to The Animatrix, themselves luminaries of the anime world, use the mythos of the movies as a playground for their own approach to art and storytelling. Not all of the shorts are equally good, but there's enough creativity in the mix to justify watching the lot in one sitting. "Matriculated" happens to be my favorite and I know it's because Peter Chung was given more or less free reign.

Futurama, "The Tip of the Zoidberg"

I can has a lobster?


The Planet Express crew come to a conclusion: Dr. John Zoidberg is not a good doctor. Well, they knew this, but when his attempts at surgery turn the team inside out, they've had enough and demand that Professor Farnsworth fire Zoidberg. But the professor refuses, unearthing an unlikely history that proves to be just "The Tip of the Iceberg", one of the best episodes of this season of Futurama and why this show is simply, honestly, so great.




Wilfred: Isolation

This week, FX aired a double block of Wilfred. All in all, "Isolation" was the weaker of the two, which isn't to say it was a bad episode, just that it didn't wow me like "Compassion" did. The episode did manage to out-ringer its predecessor in the guest star department. Both Eric Stoltz and Peter Stormare got meaty cameos that made the most of Wilfred's weird sensibilities. The episode revolves around Ryan's anxiety about a neighborhood block party and the resulting fugue state that nearly lands him in jail.

Wilfred: Compassion

FX has paired Wilfred with Louie, arguably the most interesting, unique comedy on television since the original BBC version of The Office. I think tonight I finally understand why. Wilfred isn't just a deceptively deep, affecting series that mixes brazen humor with dark, psychological content, it's a part of the emerging FX brand. As much as fans and critics (this one included) have decried the network's decision to cancel Terriers, I'm now confident that FX is still wholly dedicated to ambitious, thoughtful programming. Wilfred has proven itself much more complex and satisfying than its premise promises or even requires. "Compassion" manages to be the best episode of the series to date, maintaining the show's dedication to its man-as-dog conceit, its silliness and its dark edge while also exploring its protagonist's nuanced mental state.

Catching Up: Brisco County, Jr.- Stagecoach

The classic murder mystery is perhaps the most sturdy template for an episodic TV show imaginable. It gives the production staff a good excuse to keep most of the actors in as few locations as possible, actually benefits from broad characters and can be played for comedy, drama, action or any other angle the writers require. That's why, no matter how many times it pops up in TV, the murder mystery never gets old. "Stagecoach" shakes up the format a bit by making the central location the titular vehicle, but the concept is still the same. Brisco is hired by the federal government to transport a spy to a prisoner exchange on the U.S./Mexico boarder, but an assassin contracted to kill the spy is hiding among the colorful travelers crammed into the same cab. One by one, the story eliminates each of them as suspects, either by killing them or exonerating them. And for good measure, the episode also marks the return of Pete Hutter, John Pyper-Ferguson's amusingly verbose outlaw.

The Hour: Pilot

I always hate to see repeated mistakes in storytelling. Television is full of them. Watching the pilot of The Hour, which debuted in the States this week after a moderately successful run last month in its native England, I couldn't help thinking of AMC's late, (eventually) great drama series Rubicon. The latter started as a conspiracy thriller that got lost in its paint-by-numbers approach to the genre and, after a fairly significant shake-up in the creative staff, stumbled into a fascinating examination of modern day political think tanks. The spy stuff rarely worked at all while the more down-to-earth drama was some of the best on television. So, it's with profound worry and disappointment that I have to report on The Hour's insistence on doing the same thing. The interesting part of the show, the formation of a TV news program in 1950's London and its impact on televised journalism in general, is far more interesting than the shadowy thriller of murder, paranoia and secret messages hidden in cigarette paper that serves as the show's distracting core.

Doctor Who: "The Dæmons"

Evil - or worse - is underfoot in Devil's End


Nine days until we kill Hitler - that is, nine days until Doctor Who returns with the curiously-titled "Let's Kill Hitler". Meanwhile, we continue with our tribute to Doctor Who legends Nicholas Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen, who both passed away before the commencement of Series 6 earlier this year. While their respective marks on the program last into the present day, we turn our attention to the final episode of Season 8, where the Doctor must fight the forces of darkness.