Saturday, August 29, 2009

Summer TV Report Card

Thanks to cable, summer is no longer the desolate television wasteland, comprised of repeats, intelligence and dignity sapping reality shows and dumped pilots. (Network television, however, still continues this time honored taking out of the trash).

So how did summer viewing stack up, quality-wise? Let's take a look. Here are my grades for various summer season shows (some of which are still in progress):

Burn Notice: A-
Very solid season, filled with everything we like (how-to voiceovers, CGI-free action, colorful cover identities, lots of Sam Axe) and only a little of what we don't (meandering master plot and too many scenarios where the bad guys tidily take each other out). The only serious misstep was with the character (and casting) of Detective Paxson.

Royal Pains: C-
This freshman show seems to have caught on in the ratings and performed well even after losing the superior Burn Notice as a lead in. I stuck with it through to the finale, but I'm not sure that I'll keep it on the season pass list when it returns next summer. Other than Campbell Scott's mysterious Boris, all the characters are black holes of charisma or downright annoying (I'm looking at you, Evan). The nifty "solutions" to medical problems lack the brilliance of House and aren't as fun as similar improvisations on Burn Notice. And I don't give a damn about any of the relationships here.

In Plain Sight: B-
Credit where credit is due for successfully centering a show on a prickly, borderline unlikable character. Mary McCormack's Marshal Mary Shannon is competent and caustic, and her interplay with the show's best character, Fred Weller's bone-dry Marshal Marshall Mann, is the reason to keep coming back. The show also made some effort to adjust the supporting cast, making Stan more passionate and less buffoonish, and pushing Mary's aggravating family to the background. The creator and showrunner has left the series, so we'll see how things shake out next year.

Law & Order: Criminal Intent
: B+

This warhorse keeps chugging along, offering "ripped from the headlines" crimes to be solved by two of TV's quirkiest and most watchable performers, Vincent D'Onfrio and Jeff Goldblum. The supporting cast is also sublime. I really like the work done by Eric Bogosian, Kathryn Erbe and Julianne Nicholson.

Saving Grace: D
On the surface, I should love this show. It features characters from "flyover country" that are taken seriously, blends procedural crime-solving with a dollop of the supernatural and has talented actors giving real and naturalistic performances across the board. There's no question that Holly Hunter's bravura scenery chewing is a thing to behold. Yet every single episode I watch feels like there are three or four scenes cut out that would help it hang together more coherently. And the overall arc shambles aimlessly along, confusing "divine mystery" with "exasperatingly nonsensical." A nice effort, but definitely far less than the sum of its parts.

The Closer: B
I've long stopped pulling my hair out over Kyra's dinner theatre Georgia accent (now that Saving Grace is shutting down, perhaps Holly Hunter can give her some dialect coaching?) and just enjoyed this show for what it is. It features a great supporting cast (any reason for more JK Simmons on my TV is a reason to cheer) and a bluesy score (the opening scenes / credits roll out sequences are among the best on TV). Though the "revelation in Brenda's personal life triggers an 'a-ha moment' about the case" device can be a little trite, the show just works.

Leverage: B
More fun than it ought to be, this lightweight summer diversion is eminently watchable, thanks mainly to the performances. Timothy Hutton grounds the team with his actorly chops, and the rest of the Leverage group orbits around him giving us everything from geektastic riffing (Aldis Hodge's Hardison) to inexplicably adorable face-scrunching (Beth Riesgraf's Parker). The con mechanics don't always hold up under close scrutiny, but this show is as refreshing as a lemonade on a summer day.

Weeds: D
I gave up on this show for a while, but came back this season to see what's going on and can't believe I made it through the entire thing (one more episode, the season finale, airs Monday). Mary Louise Parker is sexy as hell and gives her all to a role that just doesn't do anything for me. Nancy Botwin isn't particularly likable, competent, moral, funny or engaging. (In Plain Sight's central character is similar prickly, but is at least good at what she does). The side plots, whether they feature the kids, Doug and Dean or Celia, feel beamed in from another show and I can't believe anyone gives a shit about Esteban or his career. Really, the only redeeming features this season have been Justin Kirk's nimble gift for comedy and pathos, and Alanis Morrisette's surprisingly winning guest shot. A mess.

Nurse Jackie: B+
A meandering examination of an addicted ER Nurse and her personal and professional travails, this show won me over on the strength of the acting, particularly a ferocious and vanity-free performance from the incomparable Edie Falco and Merritt Wever's lovable, loopy Zoey. With the exception of Anna Deavere Smith's slapsticky administrator (I fault the character and writing more than the actress, who ably tries to work with the tone deaf material she's given) the whole ensemble turns in great work.

Entourage: D+
Another show, like Weeds, than appears on my TiVo more out of habit than any sort of passion. It was never blessed with sharp writing or performances (save early, pre-sushi Piven) in the first place, and it's only gotten shaggier in its later years. This year, the show's least compelling character, Eric, winds up with most of "dramatic" heavy lifting, and he's simply not up to the challenge (and what's with the annoying stick figure neighbor? Ye gods). It takes a special kind of ineptness to waste Gary Cole.

Hung: B
This one seems to be really hit or miss for a lot of folks. Not quite funny enough to be laugh out loud hysterical, yet not as sharply dramatic as something like Nurse Jackie can be, Hung is content to drift along on the charms of its cast and wacky premise. Your mileage may vary, depending on how much you enjoy Thomas Jane and Jane Adams. Personally, I think Jane is an underrated actor who filters some of his character's jockish obliviousness with a hangdog earnestness, and I've long had a crush on the delightful quirky and compelling Adams.

True Blood: A-
While this isn't a deep, thought-provoking meditation on the human condition (such as other HBO efforts like The Sopranos or Deadwood), there's hardly anything on TV now that offers this much outlandish, over the top fun. Though I could do without some of the characters (like Eggs), Michelle Forbes has been a gleefully demented big bad and the relationship between the shy, sweet Hoyt and the vampire virgin Jessica is funny, compelling and fascinating to watch. Almost all the eccentrics in Bon Tomps have something to do this season (welcome back, sassy Lafayette!), and the show has found a nice tone that effectively straddles gut-busting camp and operatic melodrama.

Virtuality: A-
Though this was a failed pilot aired as a burn-off TV movie, it's really a shame Virtuality didn't get more of a shot. It was well cast, well written and had an abundance of ideas to explore.

Being Human: B
What a delightful little surprise this BBCA import has been. It's the story of three flatmates (as they say across the pond) - a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost. Though I frequently watch with the closed-captioning on in order to catch some of the mumbled English slang, and some of the foundational "rules" about how these supernatural creatures operate aren't exactly clear, I admire the winning performances of the three lead actors and appreciate the fact that the plot isn't afraid to go to some very dark places.

Rescue Me: B+
This has been a very successful comeback for a show that seemed to be running out of gas during its last go round. Most all of the central characters have gotten a plotline to wrap their arms around, and you can never go wrong when you give the crew of the 62 Truck more scenes to hang around and shoot the shit about women, pop culture, politics or life in general. Sometimes, the focus on Tommy's magical love life can be wearying, but it helps when you have an actress as good as Callie Thorne to play balls-out crazy, or one as talented and sexy as Maura Tierney to play a mysterious new interloper. Few shows can vacillate between pathos and comedy as well as Rescue Me, and one of the things I've admired this season has been a concerted effort to feature longer, unbroken set pieces that mine the depths of both.

Eureka: B-
Though I'm a little pissed that Friday's episode was a glorified clip show masquerading as a new episode, Eureka does what it always does: provide an amiable, well-acted and engaging summer diversion that coasts effectively on its high concept trappings and likable cast. Jamie Ray Newman has added some life, too, as a flame-haired, lispy romantic foil for the comically gifted Colin Ferguson.

Warehouse 13: A-
This freshman series, a delightful melange of The X-Files and TNT's Librarian series, with a dash of Bones thrown in, charmed from the start, though it isn't without a few growing pains. It is winningly cast, with leads Eddie McClintock and Joanne Kelly as "Secret Service" agents tasked with procuring magical and sci-fi "artifacts" for the mysterious Warehouse, which is overseen by reliable veteran actor Saul Rubinek. Recently, Allison Scagliotti joined the cast as a young hacker genius to add some depth (and winsome attitude) to the team. McClintock and Kelly have chemistry to burn, and the whole concept is fun and breezy, and a great way to spend an hour. The artifacts themselves have been inconsistent in nature, ranging from historically clever to poorly conceived, and some of the episode wrap ups have been a wee bit trite. It's all but impossible for new shows to find their tone and footing right out of the box, but with the addition of more backstory and a recurring nemesis (Roger Rees), Warehouse 13 is quickly getting into an addictive groove.

Psych and Monk: (Incomplete)
We're too early into their summer runs to offer a complete evaluation for these returing USA favorites, but I will say that Monk seems to have stepped up a bit in its swan song from a lackluster prior season. The ratings show that Psych suffers some viewer drop off from its lead in, and I can't understand why, as this show continues to make me giggle with its endless pop culture riffs and the easy chemistry between leads James Roday and Dule Hill.

All in all, if, like me, you find reality drivel one of the horsemen of the apocalypse and needed some scripted viewing this summer it really was a pretty good time to be plopped on the couch in front of the tube.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Six: Please, no more

A random list of 6 things related to one topic.

Gmail has a wonderful spam filter. In Google Reader, you can set various blog feeds to go into different folders by topic or any other classification you want (such as a folder I call "whenever," which is basically a grouping for items that I may get around to reading eventually). In Outlook, you can set up filters to direct incoming mail to various folders by sender. Leafing through EW, you can skip any articles that pertain to reality TV, the latest precious hipster music or Twilight. On my DirecTV channel grid, I can customize it to hide all the channels related to home shopping, mythical deities and the children's programming consumer industrial complex. The point is, there are many ways to filter out the things you loathe or are not interested in.

However, to be culturally aware and stay up to speed on things that you are passionate about, there's a certain amount of chaff that's never going to get separated from the wheat, and that will still make it through your filters and penetrate your defenses. For example, say you can't stand the president (the current one, or the former one). There's no way to stay abreast of the national and global news without hearing more than you want about him. Or say you despise a certain canine-slaughtering, STD-spreading, receiver-missing QB. You can't possibly watch or listen to or read any sports news without getting Ron Mexico overload. So no matter how well you try to insulate yourself, some signals are just going to be received, dammit.

Here are the 6 things I'm sick to death of hearing about, wish would vanish from the earth, but can't really avoid:
  1. Tim Tebow
  2. Michael Vick
  3. Death Panels
  4. Paula Abdul
  5. Baseball and steroids
  6. Reality "stars" (Kardashians, Spiedi, JSimp, Anyone associated with the "Hills," Jon and Kate, etc.)
What's on your "Please, no more" list?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

I'll take potpourri for $6,700, Alex

Brought to you in panoramic THX vistaview 3-D blogovision

This Jason Whitlock column has to be read to be believed. I guess he's a James Bond fan. (Though it is immeasurably delectable to see yet another sanctimonious hypocrite -- a coach who brings a priest on road trips -- get exposed for the fuckshovel he is).

Video interviews with the stars of the enjoyable new Syfy show Warehouse 13. Joanne Kelly is ADORABLE. And for the ladies, there's some Eddie McClintock (who humorously relates of always being mistaken for Craig Sheffer and David Boreanaz. And tells of Sam Rockwell chatting him for a while, before asking "so is Buffy really hot?")

More video fun for guys and gals! E! chats with the stars of Castle (also equally adorable), and Nathan suggests a Dr. Horrible sequel is in the writing stages. (I'm still hoping for an Emmy performance, though Nathan actually gets that question and says nope, but it could be a subterfuge).

I wax and wane with fashion trends, but now I'm fucking old and just don't give a damn. So it's nice to know that I'm "hip!" Guess I'll order those chili cheese fries.

Mayor? Hell, with this platform, Brad Pitt for motherfucking PRESIDENT.

Den of Geek lists the 25 Best Blockbuster Sequels of All Time. Some of their choices are a little dodgy, but it's hard to argue with their first and second selections from a geek perspective.

A cute and informative graphic of the 10 levels of communication intimacy.

Mental Floss says you can judge a book by its cover.

Top 20 shows cancelled by FOX before their time
. C'mon y'all, what else would be number one? (And of these, I watched 17, was passionate about 12 and have 5 entire runs on DVD. Fuck your mother, FOX).

Pajiba looks at the Most Heinous Page to Screen Adaptations. Really hard to argue with any of these, though I enjoyed both Dresden Files and The Stand for what they were. I think another post should examine casting/writing/directing for a new version of The Stand, which should air on HBO/Showtime/Starz.

Oscar worthy horror movie performances.

I had bunk beds with Star Wars sheets. But DAYUM this is awesome. (And I always preferred the Y-Wing to the X-Wing. Not having this makes me feel like an abused child).

The 10 Greatest "Screaming Lines" in movies. You'll know more than you think.

Technology proves it - shut the fuck up Paula. (I can generally figure out who "looks beautiful up there" and "made it their own" without 4 minutes of incoherent babbling).

Hysterical parody of Gwyneth Paltrow's GOOP.

Speaking of shows FOX canceled, who wouldn't want this in their closet?

NFL predictions for all 32 times, as characters from Lost. (Perhaps my neighbors will wonder why I'm screaming "WAAAAAAAALLLLLT!!!!) during Sunday afternoons.

Times Online lists the 10 Most Historically Inaccurate Movies of All Time. (Basically, if you want the truth, don't involve Mel Gibson, though surprisingly, The Passion isn't on the list).

Great Vanity Fair read on Mad Men
. (Coming back Sunday! Who else is psyched as hell? And how about that doubleheader -- True Blood and Mad Men back to back? Frakkin' awesome).

Kinda related, I had a twitter exchange with the estimable Mo Ryan (the Chicago Trib's TV critic) about True Blood, and offered the idea (which she seemed to agree with) that True Blood is very reminiscent of Syfy's cult classic Farscape. Inherently preposterous scenario about characters in a fantastical situation with over the top, operatic theatrics, but which is grounded (and made all the more enjoyable) by performances that take the material seriously and play it completely poker-faced. Both shows may have "campy" appeal, but they embrace yet also transcend that label because the people involved treat the show and characters with respect. Thoughts?

I'm always wary when a show adds a baby. But Dexter might be an exception:

7 Greatest Butlers in Nerdom

It would have been out of place in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, but wouldn't the other four movies have been significantly improved with this sequence?

Finally, the epic conclusion of The Middleman never made it to the tube in a produced version. But the creator and cast did a table read at Comic-Con, which is now online in its entirety. If you were a fan, you owe it to yourself to watch it, because it's EPIC. The entire playlist can be found on youtube here, but here's the first part (of 7) to get you started:

Saturday, August 8, 2009

TV Quickies

USA's In Plain Sight is a mildly entertaining diversion, but the best reason to watch that show continues to be the droll wit of Fred Weller's Marshall Mann sidekick. Oh, and the show's creator is leaving after this season, and doesn't sound exactly happy about it. At least he's taking Jinx with him.

Speaking of mildly entertaining summer diversions, I like the cast of Leverage, but can't for the life of me figure out Beth Riesgraf. She's either one of the worst actors on television who can't facially convey normal human emotions in any scene she's in, particularly when she's not the center of focus, OR she's absolutely brilliant, giving her somewhat mysterious and off kilter character perplexing line readings and throwing exaggeratedly muggy (and adorable) expressions from her visage.

The Dollhouse DVD is fantastic. "Epitaph One" is truly the mind-blowing revelation you've heard about, and pulls brilliant, heartbreaking performances out of everyone involved (especially Topher!). And the original pilot is much, much better than the aired pilot, with 100% less head-scratching hostage negotiation. The special features are entertaining, and similar to what you've seen on other Whedon discs. (I hope to catch the commentaries later this week).

I had a coupon for a free movie on DirecTV on demand, and used it on the third Underworld movie. If you're going to watch a silly, blue tinted movie about the emancipation of werewolves, it certainly helps to have thespians Michael Sheen and Bill Nighy around to chew scenery and class up the place a bit. (Pouty Rhona Mitra as an undead kickass princess doesn't hurt, either).

The Burn Notice finale was great, though I did think they wasted too much time this season with the woefully miscast Moon Bloodgood as Det. Paxson. Some online reaction was surprising, in that people complained (SPOILER) that Michael shot Strickler "in cold blood." First, Strickler had a gun on him, so it wasn't exactly "cold blood," and second, I was glad that Michael took direct action against a rather unsavory character. Too often on Burn Notice, the bad guys wind up arrested or humiliated or driven out of town. I think that someone with Michael's background wouldn't hesitate to put someone down if they needed putting down, unless the act itself interfered with completion of the mission or hampered his long term plans. And while he was killing things that needed killing, he could have shot all the Irish accents that came out of a community theatre production of Darby O'Gill and the Little People.

Similarly, I've been catching up on Bruce Campbell's one season cult classic Brisco County Jr., which is a trippy Wild Wild West like show combining frontier adventure with dollops of sci-fi (it was co-created by Lost EP Carlton Cuse, if that tells you something). It's a fun show, particularly for fans of The Chin, but I think at the time it might have played things for the kids too much, since hardly anyone ever gets shot - on a show full of bounty hunters and quick-drawing gunslingers.

I also decided to pick up some reruns of Sons of Anarchy on FX, and after the first two eps, I have to say it's quite intriguing. Don't know why I missed this first time around, but it shows quite a bit of promise.

Speaking of FX, I think I've mentioned this before, but I blazed through the entire series run of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and it's got to be one of subversively funniest things I've ever seen. It's absolutely, gloriously politically incorrect, and for that, I love its shriveled, dark heart.

Warehouse 13, SyFy's new (Bones + X-Files / The Librarian x Friday the 13th: The Series) show, gets better each and every week. It's really well cast and a lot of fun, though the writing (and plot machinations) could use some tightening.

So, Paula Abdul is off American Idol. To which I say, thank Zeus. Look, the other two chair fillers to Simon's right are just as inept. Randy is a self-absorbed ("Did you know I worked with Mariah, dawg? And I toured with Journey?") fountain of idiotic catch phrases ("for me, for you" "molten hot" "work it out" "aiight" "dawg") that doesn't do a think to elevate the contestant critiques. Given her background in the industry and CV, I had hopes for Kara. But whether it was her role as the "fourth wheel" on a panel that tended to drone on already (when it wasn't interrupted by witless audience reaction, wasting even more time in already overstuffed shows), the criminally incompetent directing and production that actually reduced the meaningful content of the shows (the singing) while allowing it to consistently bloat beyond all reason and fuck with DVRs all across America, or her own cosmic gift for malaprops (Studio 57, for example) and incoherence ("early" Aerosmith and "artistry"), she didn't exactly make a great first impression. Still, given a choice of whom to boot among Kara, Randy and Paula, I would have given Paula the pink slip. The former have more "credibility" on their actual resumes than Paula, a performer never known for her "vocals" (or production or songwriting) anyway. And I prefer my entertainment scripted if I want to watch someone strung out on pills (Greg House), verbally incomprehensible (Tracy Jordan) or endearingly supportive (Hurley). Personally, I would have wiped out all the judges sans Simon and started over, but hopefully, given the contract situations, that can be taken care of after next season. (Kara had a one year option picked up, and Randy is signed through next year). Almost anyone would be better. What about Elton John? Jody Watley? Susanna Hoffs? Or my personal choice, Harry Connick Jr. (mentioned back in a 2008 "how to fix Idol" post, along with some other fixes for common Idol problems). Initially the silver lining (inside of the gold lining of 86ing the less intellectually gifted half of the duo who sang "Opposites Attract") in all this was that we'd be back to a somewhat more streamlined panel of three, instead of the performance eradicating blight and bloat of four that submarined much of this last season. However, the producers have stated that they plan to press on with four judges in a yet to be determined fashion, whether it be with a permanent replacement or rotating guest judges (such as they're doing early on with Posh Spice and Katy Perry). Sigh.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Proof of a kind and benevolent deity

Esquire has a new photo shoot featuring the lovely and talented Christina Hendricks.

Most people these days know her as Joan, the poured into a dress queen bee of Sterling-Cooper's secretarial pool on Mad Men, but we Browncoats first noticed her as the duplicitous "Yo-Saff-Bridge" on Firefly (so monikered, because she showed up at various times as "Yolanda," "Saffron" and "Bridget" without ever giving her real name).

My google reader is also quite fond of the appropriately named "FUCK YEAH RED" tumblr, which is dedicated to posting photos of the adorable Ms. Hendricks.

Mad Men returns in a couple of weeks, and suddenly, I wanted to break out the DVDs to watch "Our Mrs. Reynolds" again.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Frakkin' good news for Dollhouse

With season 2 of Dollhouse starting production, and the recent Comic-con panel, lots of tidbits are spilling forth:
Missing Battlestar Galactica? Well, we already have Helo as a regular on Dollhouse (and Romo Lampkin popping up occasionally, too). But Apollo and Saul Motherfucking Tigh are also making a visit. Jamie Bamber will guest on the first episode of the season, and word just broke that the incredible Michael Hogan will now guest on the second episode. Awesome, no?

Speaking of BSG, that show was named "Program of the Year" by the Television Critics Association last night. So Say We All.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

I'll take potpourri for $6,600, Alex

Warning: Objects in this blog are closer than they appear.

Mark Sheppard, one of the best character actors on TV today (Badger! Tanaka! Manservant Neville! Romo Lampkin!) explains his plan to take over the world.

Oh dear lord. MUST HAVE. The Big Damn Serenity.

A fun look at some obscure Google logos.

Some gorgeous designs for the Nautilus. If you're rebooting 20,000 Leagues, you should start here.

Top 75 spaceships in movies and TV. Great list, with pictures!

15 Most atrocious movie accents. (of course Costner is on it).

Have we outgrown the need for "belief?"

Most CSI fans are happy about Sara returning and Riley leaving. I, however, am not among them. I can't stand Jorja Fox as an actress, and never liked the Sara character. I was hoping she would get stung by one of Gil's exotic insects in the jungle and die. And I was quite fond of Riley's quirky CSI and think Lauren Lee Smith is adorable. (Google her, safe search off, and most guys should agree).

Pop Candy brought back the "favorite R.E.M. song" topic this week, based on a Top 20 list from Paste. I've addressed this subject before, which you can find here, and I have to agree more with Whitney's list than the one from Paste. Plus, any list skips Chronic Town (Box Cars) AND has the accursed "Swan Swan H" at number three (on a list of "good" songs!) makes my head want to explode.

SI writer Jeff Pearlman takes on last week's SI cover boy, the carnival snake handling cult leader and pulpit pusher (and occasional fullback/awkward thrower of the ball) from Gainesville. I run hot and cold with some of Pearlman's opining, but I like this one. Here's a follow up.

Along similar lines, hypocrisy gets fatter. Yes, McMackin's comments were stupid, close-minded and thoughtless, no question. But for Weis, representing an organization that institutionalizes bigotry and actively seeks to prevent equal legal rights for people who differ philosophically with their myth-making, to take "offense" is vomit-inducing. Fittingly, that's about the only "offense" to come out of South Bend in quite some time.

Having trouble finding "original" television theme songs? I know I was, until I stumbled across this marvelous website. Kudos, sir.

A good list of 10 great sci-fi novels. (Needs Dune and Hitchhiker, though).

I'm more Libertarian and Objectivist than most, but this "How to succeed as an Ayn Rand character" flowchart cracks me up.