October 2011

The Project Runway Finale

Were you happy with the outcome?

My life is basically over because two of my favorite shows, Project Runway and Top Chef: Just Desserts, chose their winners this week. I’m going to have to find something else to do with my life, but I’m pretty okay about the outcome of Project Runway this time.

30 Rock

I gave up watching Tina Fey’s 30 Rock for a little over a year. I decided that Liz Lemon was too self-deprecating: she could never keep a man even though she’s played by the veritable hottie, Tina Fey; she watches too many infomercials for a successful woman; she needs Jack Donaghy’s advice a little too often. I traded in 30 Rock for shows in which the characters are a little nicer to each other like Modern Family and where the lead character’s feminism holds water in any storm like Parks and Recreation.

Sons of Anarchy: Fruit for the Crows

It's a testament to how screwed up Kurt Sutter and his writing staff are willing to let their protagonists get when they can't even fall apart properly. "Fruit for the Crows" demonstrates just how in over their heads everyone in the MC has gotten this season and the result is the best, tightest episode in this admittedly uneven batch. It's a hallmark of every crime story to see the crooks get by on their dirty dealings for only so long before it all comes crashing down. That's what we're watching as of this episode of SoA and now that the show has been renewed for another season, it's going to have to be the story of who survives the collapse and what they do in the aftermath.

Man Up: Pilot

There are two reasons I'm giving ABC's new, likely not long for this world comedy Man Up any attention at all. Primarily, it's because Fox has decided to preempt two of its top-rated shows for the sake of an American Idol knock-off nobody seems to care about, so there's a little extra room on the Tuesday slate for the next couple weeks. I'm also reviewing Man Up because I feel like the recent glut of network TV shows about the utterly mythical "feminization" of men needs to be addressed and this show just happens to be the best of the sorry lot of premieres. The abysmal, horribly dated How To Be A Gentleman has already been canceled and Tim Allen is desperately attempting to recapture the thunder of Home Improvement with Last Man Standing at this very moment, so ABC and Man Up get this place of dubious honor. Amazingly, the fact that it's based on a social philosophy that's both wrong and offensive isn't the only (or the worst) reason it's a terrible show.

Terra Nova: The Runaway

Lovers of serialized sci-fi mystery, rejoice. Terra Nova just spent an entire episode being super cryptic in some especially patronizing, nonsensical ways. On the plus side, "The Runaway" proves that the show can be properly paced and focused when it wants to be. I'm not really going to fault Terra Nova for putting so much energy into its Sixers conspiracy mystery plot because, after all, that's what these kinds of shows are here to do. The real problem is that this change of focus, however better written and directed than past episodes, feels like a bait and switch. I know I keep harping on this, but a show about people trying to survive in a dinosaur-infested jungle shouldn't be that difficult to make entertaining. That's why Terra Nova was supposed to be and there's no reason it can't still be that, though it's clear it won't be. Instead, it's going down the intentionally convoluted path of serialized sci-fi mystery pioneered by better or at least better thought-out shows.

Bored to Death: Gumball

Ah, sweet relief. It's always good to see a show return to what it does best. In the case of Bored to Death, that means putting its three main characters in a wild, goofy misadventure full of effete dialog and noir references. Last week's Season 3 premiere kept Jonathan, George and Ray in separate stories for the majority of its run time and I wrote in my review of it that, at best, that was a way to give each of them a starting point for the rest of the season. Well, that's exactly what happened. "Gumball" keeps the boys together and benefits greatly from their converging stories.

Pan Am: Eastern Exposure

Pan Am is struggling a bit in the ratings after a fairly strong premiere, which is unfortunate. It's shaping up to be one of the best new shows of 2011, though perhaps it's suffering from a poor timeslot. Sundays are good space for cable dramas and off-beat comedies, but Pan Am may do better in a mid-week position. I can see why ABC put it on Sunday, though. It's still a sunny, fun show but it has plenty of influences from the more prestige-driven end of the TV spectrum. In a sense, it aspires to be a Sunday kind of show when really it's a hybrid of typical Sunday shows and the less ambitious fare that's in the mid-week slots. If ABC lets it hang on for long enough, it may just evolve into the meatier, more character-based show it's trying to be.

The Walking Dead: What Lies Ahead

"The CDC was a dead end."

Understatement of the century, Rick. When last we left our intrepid group of zombie apocalypse survivors, they were running away from an exploding building where their once tense, riveting survival drama temporarily became a bag of sci-fi cliches that ground The Walking Dead to a halt. The CDC plot threatened to derail the entire series before it really had a chance to get going. And then, likely as a result, Frank Darabont canned his entire writing staff. With the premiere of Season 2, it looks like we're back to basics. The cast has been whittled down to only those characters who are interesting and actually have personalities, the action once again centers on the struggle of the survivors to avoid being eaten and the interpersonal dramas are anchored to more immediate concerns rather than serving as the soap opera of a static camp. The Walking Dead is back and in more senses than one.

Boss: Pilot

The evolution of Starz has been an interesting one. It's eerily parallel to that of MTV, only much more rapid and with different influences in the later stages. Starz began as a premium cable network that more or less only aired major motion pictures. Whereas HBO and to a lesser extent Showtime embraced original programming early and began supplementing their blockbuster movies with a lot of B-grade and below padding, Starz had a good few years of nothing but boffo releases back-to-back, much in the same way MTV used to really only air pop music videos. Also like MTV, over the past few years Starz has tried to reap the benefits of original programming, which is likely the result of having former HBO brass on the payroll and seeing revenue slip for years. The new series that have popped up on the network haven't been able to touch the prestige or viewership of either HBO or Showtime, but then these shows have completely different audiences. The people who are tuning in for Game of Thrones or Weeds aren't flocking to Spartacus or Camelot. To this end, Starz picked up the brooding political drama Boss this season and is currently playing an advance online preview of the pilot, set to air this Friday.

A Gifted Man: In Case of Separation Anxiety

So, I think this is going to have to be my last review of A Gifted Man. As always, anyone else who wants to carry the torch can go right ahead, but I feel like I'll have said everything of critical value about this show after today. I really wanted to like this show. The pilot showed such promise with its beautiful, contemplative tone. It's clear now that everything good about the pilot can be traced back to its one-time director, Jonathan Demme. Patrick Wilson and Jennifer Ehle have still performed well under weaker direction and clumsier scripts, but even the best actor can't carry a show that's handled so poorly behind the camera. As "In Case of Separation Anxiety" proves, A Gifted Man is ultimately more hack work than spiritual exploration.

The Office: Garden Party

The world of The Office is at once too limited and disconcertingly uncharted. That much was made abundantly clear in the Season 7 episode "The Search" when Michael Scott got lost in downtown Scranton. The show had been on the air for seven years (longer counting strike delays) but we had seen precious little of the town where it takes place. By the same token, very few episode have taken the time to give the regular characters backgrounds or even lives outside Dunder-Mifflin. It's a shame considering what fertile comic ground character history can be. Think of all the jokes the show has wrung out of Angela's obsession with cats or Gabe's fascination with Japanese culture. So, it's a little disconcerting how long it took to get some meaty history about Andrew Bernard. "Garden Party" serves as an instant character history for Andy that explains pretty much everything about why he is the way he is. In fact, a couple characters actually come out and say so much toward the end of the episode. I know it was important to give Andy some heavier background now that he's the center of the show, but I can't shake the feeling that we should have gotten some of this info elsewhere in the years he's been in the cast.

South Park: Last of the Meheecans

When it comes to social commentary, we can always trust South Park to pursue the logical conclusion of any ridiculous train of thought. "Last of the Meheecans" isn't the first time the show has addressed American perceptions of Latin-American culture, but it's the first to expand on the ever-shifting place of resident aliens both legal and illegal on U.S. soil. The episode asks the eerily pertinent question, "What if Mexicans in the United States all decided to go back across the border?"

Up All Night: Mr. Bob's Toddler Kaleidoscope

I'm the youngest of three children, so my first significant interaction with an infant was when my niece was born. It's been an eye-opening experience to say the least. I recall a day when she was maybe 9-12 months old. My sister and brother-in-law's friends were over with their small children and much of the night's conversation centered around children and parenting. At one point, the fathers ended up inadvertently racing their babies. They literally put their kids on the floor and watched as they crawled, each at a different speed, cheering on their offspring. If they had been doing this intentionally, it would have been disturbing, but it was a weird moment that arose organically out of a general enthusiasm for each child's development. This is something that happens with parents without them knowing it. Good parents are especially concerned with the progress of their children, both alone and in comparison to other people's kids. It's only natural, but that doesn't stop competitive parenting from being absurd. This well intentioned drive to have the best kid ever is at the center of this week's episode of Up All Night and the genuine, true-to-life core is what makes it work perhaps better than any episode of the series to date.

Sons of Anarchy: With An X

The flashy part of tragedy is all the horrible stuff that happens to sympathetic characters, but the thing that separates true tragedy from just a miserablist wallow is the potential for redemption. The best Shakespearean tragedies, for example, are tragic precisely because the Hamlets and Othellos of the story could turn away from their destructive paths any time they want, but they never do. This is what makes the tragedies of Season 4 of Sons of Anarchy feel a little hollow. Most of the horrible stuff has already happened and the characters who do even more horrible stuff do so because no choice they have avoids horrible stuff. As has always been the case with SoA, the good acting, direction and dialog suffers under questionable story decisions.

Enlightened: Pilot

While both nihilism and New Age, self-help spiritualism are equally trite, there's great philosophical potential in the space between. In the end, it's more valuable to discuss why high on life is just as silly as high on cocaine and how a real, workable philosophy has to emerge from rejecting the extremes of both. It's also a lot more complicated, messy and dramatic, which is why Mike White and Laura Dern have made that space between the subject of their new HBO drama Enlightened. Dern stars as Amy Jellicoe, a woman who spends the first several minutes of the pilot having a violent breakdown at work when her boss (with whom she's also having an affair) tries to rid himself of her by shuffling her off to a quiet corner of their big, corporate chemical firm. Amy's wild rage lands her in an all-too-perfect rehab/spiritual retreat in Hawaii where she spends a few months getting clean and adopting a radically different outlook. Enlightened is the story of Amy's attempt to return to her old life and somehow fix everything that was wrong with it using the power of hippie clothes, fluffy philosophy books and a new attitude. Along the way, White gets to write all the messy space-between drama he wants.

Terra Nova: What Remains

I like my sci-fi episodic, especially in a show's early seasons. Not being beholden to a greater mythology right off the bat allows a show to establish its world and flesh out its characters sans distraction. Terra Nova is trying to straddle the line between episodic and serialized storytelling, which means that one or both sides suffer from the divided attention. "What Remains" squanders a pretty promising premise by wasting time with a bunch of long arc features that either aren't interesting or can't be more than cryptic this early in the season. This misstep combined with the clunky way the show has been handled for its past three hours makes me feel like we're headed into another Heroes: A fun idea executed poorly and weighed down with too much extraneous junk.

Bored to Death: The Blonde in the Woods

Talk to me when Season 1 of Bored to Death was flailing (which was for a good half of the season) and I never would have believed it would survive to see a third season, but here we are. All things considered, Season 2 was a vast improvement, mostly because creator Jonathan Ames and his creative staff saw what makes the show work and made it the new focus of a somewhat confused series. Season 2 put the detective stories in the background a lot of the time or at the very least found a way to integrate George and Ray into Jonathan's cases so the winning buddy comedy could coexist within the noir-ish elements rather than despite them. The Season 3 premiere "The Blonde in the Woods" keeps our three leads apart for the majority of its run time, though I suppose that's necessary at the start of a season when everyone needs something to propel them in future episodes.

Pan Am: Ich Bin Ein Berliner

Nobody really had to try hard with Pan Am. It would have been enough (at least for ratings) for the show to have been nothing but a colorful trifle filled with pretty people and 60's nostalgia. Somebody wanted it to be more than that, though, and they're generally succeeding at making it so. It embraces the loaded history of the new globalism that rose post-WWII and plugs into the human side of all the romance, intrigue and comedy of its setting. In other words, Pan Am didn't need to make its Berlin episode about the spectre of Nazi rule or the impact the Kennedy campaign had on the image of women in the modern world, but it did. Though it still stumbles from time to time with landing these big, emotional moments, the show pursues its hard-earned depth with such enthusiasm that it's easy to ignore the smudges.

Boardwalk Empire: A Dangerous Maid

The most notable contribution made to the world by Arnold Rothstein was the idea of crime organized more like a corporation than a family. Rothstein himself didn't live long enough to see his model prosper, but a lot of his associates had lives and careers that lasted considerably longer than either tend to for criminals of such notoriety. Guys like Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano died old men and there's a good reason for that: Family is messy. This is why so many crime stories are equally family stories. There's drama in a family, irrational behavior that muddies the waters of business. Corporate structures are, by nature, pretty heartless. It's that very contrast that lives at the center of Boardwalk Empire, especially in this second season.