September 2011

The Office: The Incentive

For a while now I've been a supporter of the idea of The Office returning its focus to its original premise of people trying to find some pleasant distractions in a boring job. For a while I thought that might be because I'm officially now a boring, responsible adult, but then I remembered that I write about TV for a living, so that's not it. No, I think it's because The Office just works better when it doesn't stray too far from that core concept. What's more, I think the show has done a great job of integrating the modern cultural climate of economic strain and technological change into its more timeless story of workplace drudgery. By doing these exact things, "The Incentive" is one of the best episodes of the past couple seasons and it feels like the case for how the Andy-as-manager concept can actually work.

Up All Night: Working Late and Working It

The usual song and dance of TV criticism during a premiere season is to make a corral of shows that have potential and assume that they may just live up to it. But as we get deeper into the regular TV schedule, it's coming closer to that time when both viewers and networks come to a decision about what's staying on the air, so critics have to respond by throwing in their lot with some new shows and giving up on others. Ultimately, ratings are still what make or break a show, but critical opinions still count. After all, it's free press for a show and if it's positive press it can get people on board who were otherwise uninterested. This can translate to good DVD and streaming sales post-cancelation but in some cases, like with NBC's Chuck, it can save the show from the chopping block. Up All Night is definitely teetering on the brink after just three episodes. The show had a decent premiere with over 10 million viewers and a 3.8 in the key sales demographics, but it saw a sharp decline last week with shy of 7 million and a good-for-cable, bad-for-network 2.4 in the demo. The translation of these figures is simply that Up All Night is struggling. It's not at death's door, but losing around four million viewers in one week is a bad sign. As much as I liked the pilot, I'm not sure I'm willing to put much critical weight behind the content that followed it.

Suburgatory: Pilot

"I feel like this is a Fellini movie." - George Altman

The above quote is supposed to be a key line in the pilot to ABC's new comedy Suburgatory. It's part of a long, complicated metaphor for his daughter Tessa's tendency to hate things before she gives them a chance and then love them when she's forced to endure them. But when George says this, the first thought that pops into my head is "No, I wish this was more like a Fellini movie." Suburgatory teases guys like me who enjoy weird, sometimes off-putting things by tossing in a few moments of surreal humor, only to pad out the rest of the episode with painfully unfunny jokes and terribly inaccurate, condescending cultural observations.

Sons of Anarchy: Una Venta

Before the Season 4 debut, Sons of Anarchy showrunner Kurt Sutter indicated that a few midseason episodes would be dedicated to filling in the things that happened while the guys were in jail. That's all well and good for those who keep up with behind-the-scenes information and industry events where TV people hold press panels, but for most viewers there's no assurance in the teaser info the Kurt Sutters of the world dole out in the summer. The early part of this season of SoA feels like Sutter expected all of his viewers to listen to his panel interviews and decided to just let the scripts skip out on filling in missing information. Every episode of the season so far has hinted at something that happened between Seasons 3 and 4 but it's all a bit too cryptic to hold any tension.

Glee: I Am Unicorn

Somewhere in America there is a family psychologist with questionable taste in television weeping openly. Tonight's episode of Glee puts the emotional crux of the season (or, ya know, the next episode or two) on the return of Idina Menzel's once-and-again choir teacher Shelby. After an off-screen life in New York, Shelby returns to Lima to take a teaching job and spend more time with her daughter. A noble decision, except for the fact that she's teaching in the same school attended by the two troubled teens whose baby she adopted, as well as the child she herself gave up for adoption 17 years before. Yes, and her plan involves meddling in these kids' lives by teasing them with the incredibly damaging and probably illegal prospect of getting their lost families back and also setting herself up as their adversary in the one after-school program that saves them from complete misery. As messed up as this is, "I Am Unicorn" sells this premise as the saintly act of a humbled artist trying to get misguided kids to shape up and better themselves.

New Girl: Kryptonite

TV always needs at least one show about pretty, young people being silly and I'm willing to let New Girl be that show. I'm much keener to give it that title than previous/current holders like How I Met Your Mother and Big Bang Theory, especially because I've grown downright hostile to laugh track, multi-camera shows. I also think those two aforementioned series have evolved into something beyond the pretty, young, silly ideal. They've been around long enough that being TV's fun trifle isn't really an option anymore. I think New Girl will get to that point, too, as the characters grow and the show's world expands enough to have a mythology. "Kryptonite" certainly suggests a larger world beyond the apartment that seems to be serving more as a home base than the place where everything happens. Most importantly, New Girl looks like it's willing to let its characters grow even as they all seem to be settling into clear roles.

Terra Nova: Genesis (part two)

People who live on a dying planet where fresh oranges are worth their weight in gold would not continue to use paper money. And yet, when ostensible Terra Nova protagonist Jim Shannon retrieves a care package meant to help him escape into the past with his daughter, it includes piles of cash. It's this lack of attention to detail that worries me about this show's prospects. I know that asking for logic in Future People Fight Dinosaurs and Solve the Mysteries of the Universe is silly, but it's the little things that make the already high-concept world of the show that much harder to believe.

Terra Nova: Genesis (part one)

I'm really looking forward to the day when every other scripted drama on network TV stops trying to be the new Lost. See, Lost was a hit because the writers realized that viewers wanted to be taken deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole the more they watched, which is why it started out as a show about people trying to survive on a mysterious island after a plane crash and slowly transformed into a sci-fi thriller and eventually into a not entirely sensical existential drama. The difference between Lost and every show that has tried to do the same since is that the writers for Lost didn't plan for things to get so crazy. There are plenty of interviews with behind-the-scenes folks that suggest the show's wild plot twists emerged as a response to obsessive fan theorizing and not from some master plan. The Lost-esque shows that have come about over the past five or six years have been based on a big box of mysteries that get parceled out with cryptic clues and calculated twists, making the whole process both false and manipulative. That's definitely what's going on with Terra Nova. The only real difference between it and every other sci-fi mystery drama is that it throws normality out the window from its first moments.

Doctor Who: "Closing Time"

Craig vs. the Cybermen


Traveling solo (again), the Doctor drops in on his old friend Craig, now a hassled and hapless father of a young boy. But with the Doctor, nothing is as simple as saying hello, and an old enemy reaches out from under the Earth to upgrade the human race. The "Doctor-lite" episode of the series, "Closing Time" is equal parts entertaining, frustrating and bizarre.



Pan Am: Pilot

What the hell did I just watch?

That's my general sentiment after the premiere episode of Pan Am and I'm sure I'm not the only one to say so. Instead of trying to piece together what Pan Am is, let's take a moment to highlight some of the things it could have been but isn't. It could have been the show promised in its own marketing materials, an excessively light, bubbly fashion show that looks and feels like a shallow Mad Men cash-in. It could have been a heavy, melancholy examination of a highly idealized bit of culture from an already highly idealized era, picking apart everything from gender issues to international politics in a shrinking world from the perspective of an iconic but doomed business. It could have been a dramatized history of the evolution and ultimate dissolve of luxury air travel. It could have been any or all of these things because Pan American World Airways was truly at the center of those same topics. Instead, Pan Am is a grab bag of vignettes, each with a different tone. What I can't figure out is whether that's a good thing or a recipe for disaster.

Boardwalk Empire: 21

The first season of Boardwalk Empire made it clear that the show relies on big, sweeping themes. Every story in each episode ties together with a single concept, which means that sometimes BE is poignant and sometimes it's a bit too neat. This also means that it's never entirely bad or quite as good as it could be. The motif crutch keeps the show thoughtful but makes it impossible for it to reach the naturalistic heights of, say, The Wire. It doesn't look like Season 2 is going to be any different, so I suppose we can look forward to a season full of good-but-not-great television.

A Gifted Man: Pilot

Once upon a time, I loved House. It was a slick medical show with a punchy script and a great lead actor. It used a patient-of-the-week format to expand the show's world with guest stars all while using medical mysteries to comment on the human condition. But then House turned into an increasingly ridiculous soap opera that didn't know what to do with the fascinating character at its core. I can see a very similar arc in CBS's new medical drama A Gifted Man. It's a strong, confident show with a great cast and a fresh take on the existential questions that naturally arise from crises of health, but I can't imagine its premise will carry it for more than three seasons before things get out of hand. That said, I look forward to those three seasons with as much enthusiasm as I could possibly feel for a new show.

America's Next Top Model All-Stars

Episode Two

This week’s episode is all about branding. It’s really kind of nauseating because this famous “branding” guy came in to talk to the girls about how their corporatized products—their bodies and themselves—were being consumed by their fan base. Annoying I-am-a-lesbian-and-that-is-all-I-am Kayla was super pissed because the branding guy told her that being a lesbian was so five years ago and she wailed because that is her singular identity. Some other girl was told she should market herself as “candid” so she put on her bitch hat immediately to try to form a TV relationship with some isolated bitch girl in Kansas.

Whitney: Pilot

I'm not writing about the pilot for Whitney because I think the show is worth covering week-to-week (it's not). I'm not writing about it because it exceeded my expectations (it didn't). No, I'm writing about Whitney this one time because it happens to be at the center of a few notable developments in the business and structure of TV. Comedian Whitney Cummings has spent several years limited to recognition on Chelsea Lately and at Comedy Central roasts. That's maybe a step above being a regular commentator on old VH1 list shows. For whatever reason, both ABC and NBC decided that 2011 was the year to bring Whitney Cummings to network audiences. ABC picked up her behind-the-scenes work in 2 Broke Girls while NBC has paired her writer, created by and starring project Whitney with the rest of its Thursday night comedy lineup. Girls and Whitney share many of the same problems, though the latter fares a bit better in overall presentation. Unfortunately, that presentation is the increasingly dated, multi-camera sitcom format.

The Office: The List

The big test of Season 8 of The Office is whether or not the show can still function without Steve Carell. I wish I could say "The List" takes real steps to answer that question, but after an especially weird half-hour of television, it's still very much up in the air. James Spader has signed on for as many as 15 episodes, meaning his unsettling Robert California character will be much more present that Kathy Bates's Jo ever was. I'm not sure this is a good thing. Spader was the standout in the parade of guests from the Season 7 finale, but I'm not convinced Robert California works as a recurring character. In "Search Committee" he served as a quick, sharp play on the corporate shark stereotype, but that's not enough to carry the character for an entire season. What's more troubling, his presence in "The List" continues the late-S7 trend of leaning too heavily on guest stars to fill the hole left by Steve Carell's departure.

Doctor Who: "The God Complex"

Heartbreak Hotel


There's something very strange about being only two episodes away from the Series 6 finale, with neither this week's episode of Doctor Who, nor last week's, making any overt references to the story arc of Melody Pond/River Song, the Silence, Madam Kovarian or the TARDIS exploding (remember that?). That said, "The God Complex" is such a good episode of Doctor Who that it's hard to complain.





Up All Night: Cool Neighbors

I'm not the most charitable critic when it comes to television, so when a show is bad at the outset I'm more than ready to write it off for good. But when a show has a strong opening then something of a second episode slump, I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. "Cool Neighbors" is an episode of Up All Night that had to happen one way or another. Worst case scenario, the show blew all of its creativity on the pilot and it's going to be like this for the duration. Best case scenario, it got the "does being parents mean we're not cool anymore?" question out of the way early to make room for more interesting, entertaining topics. Neither of those prospects really worry me. If Up All Night turns into a bad or boring show after its strong debut, it'll be a minor but common loss. My real concern is that the cringe humor that makes up the majority of the episode will become a mainstay of an otherwise good show.

The Hour: Episode Six

From the very beginning, I've insisted that the espionage plot in The Hour is a pulpy mess that has only ever gotten in the way of the much more interesting story of how TV news developed in its earliest stages. The final episode of the first season is the finest example of this I could ask for, which makes it a sort of Pyrrhic victory of pop culture criticism. It's still excellent television for the majority of its run, but as the story unwinds in the final minutes the whole thing falls apart into a shameless display of expository storytelling.

Glee: The Purple Piano Project

One of the first times I ever got paid to write was an article about the Sky Bar. Basically, it's an old candy bar that wraps four segments of different fillings in mediocre chocolate, like one of those cheap variety boxes found in pharmacy chain stores. It's a ridiculous, awful, amazing candy bar that I love despite the fact that it's a bad idea executed poorly. After two seasons and a positively bonkers Season 3 premiere, I can honestly say that my relationship with Glee is exactly the same. Glee is a grab bag of insanity that is only fitfully good and often terrible, but nothing about any given episode, let alone anything resembling a long arc, lasts for more than a few minutes. "The Purple Piano Project" is as Glee as Glee gets, which means it does crazy and stupid with such moxie that it's kinda impossible to hate even though it's mostly terrible.