Saturday, October 30, 2010

NBC Sitcom Roundup — "Costume Contest" & "Epidemiology"

The Office, Season 7 Episode 6 — "Costume Contest"

In terms of pure laugh count, this newest Office is one of the strongest so far this season. It was a mess, to be certain, throwing out tiny subplots left and right and trying to give almost every character a little something to chew on, but enough of these subplots worked that it was the good kind of mess. Barring one misstep (the exact misstep I predicted the show was going to make in my last sitcom roundup), this was a funny, consistently entertaining 22 minutes of television that zipped by in a flash.

First off, "Costume Contest" featured the return of full-blown manchild Michael Scott, who reverts to incredibly awkward temper tantrums reminiscent of a preschooler when he doesn't get his way. I feel the same way about temper tantrum manchild Michael Scott as I do about hypercompetent salesman prodigy Michael Scott — I wouldn't want to see either every episode, because it'd get real old quick, but as something saved for a few appearances a season I love it. Michael's juvenile, public vendetta against Darryl was hilarious, and the moment where he emerged from his office in a Darryl costume and exclaimed, "I work in the warehouse! I'm cool. I'm hip and I'm jive and I don't care about nobody! Do you know who I am? HAPPY HALLOWEEN, JERK." was one of the biggest and most sublimely uncomfortable laughs I've had at this show in ages. The scene where Michael takes his anger out on Kevin who in turn takes it out on Gabe was also genius.

The Halloween-centric miniature subplots revolving around the $15,000 coupon book also made me laugh a lot. Most every costume was pretty funny so I won't go through them one by one, but I loved Angela giving up, throwing her values under the bus, and dressing up as a slutty nurse, and especially Oscar's frustration and bafflement that no one else in the office seemed to understand that the "$15,000" coupon book was, in practice, worth about $40. In fact, Oscar's subplot, despite only taking up about a minute of total screentime, may have been my favorite part of the episode. It was a spot-on depiction of feeling like the only sane man in a world gone crazy.

I said last week that the "Danny used to date Pam" retcon couldn't lead anywhere good, and indeed, the one thing that didn't really work in this episode was the conflict between Jim and Timothy Olyphant's new character Danny Cordray, wherein Jim tried to figure out why Danny didn't call Pam back after their second and final date four years ago. Like, persistently tried to figure it out. It led to some nervous chuckles, and Danny's eventual explanation that Pam was too dorky was enjoyable in a "Wow, not everyone in the world loves Jim and Pam!" sort of way, but Jim's behavior in this subplot did not in any way, shape, or form resemble that of a human being on the planet earth. He actually came across crazier than Michael. And yes, it ended in the affirmation that Jim and Pam are a cute couple and have a cute baby. I get it, Office. Promise.

Community, Season 2 Episode 6 — "Epidemiology"

Home run. After a rare stumble with last week's Jesus episode, Community returns with force to remind everyone why it's one of the best, most creative, ambitious comedies in the history of television and one of the top ten shows of the last decade, comedy, drama, or otherwise; a show that is quickly muscling its way up the ranks to become my second favorite sitcom of all time. I've said it before but I'll reiterate: Community is a spectacular fucking show. If you consider yourself someone who enjoys laughing or things that are good and are not watching Community you are doing yourself a grave disservice. It pains me to think of all the nerds watching the bloodlss, turgid The Big Bang Theory because "wow, nerds on television!" when a couple channels over Community is a more loving tribute to pop culture and film convention and television comedy than The Big Bang Theory could aspire to in a thousand episodes.

Doing a full-blown zombie (or "people infected by tainted taco meat") apocalypse is probably something the writers decided they wanted to do for Halloween as soon as last season's action movie spoof "Modern Warfare" was such a hit, and they pulled it off brilliantly. To list the things I liked would be to go beat-by-beat through the whole episode, so I won't bother, except to say that I expected Jeff to be the last man standing just like in "Modern Warfare" and was delighted by the swerve. Troy occasionally feels underutilized outside of his bromance with Abed and positioning him as the hero was perfect. The whole episode was hilarious and even a little scary; the only flaw is that it wasn't an hour long. Even removed from the medium of television and stacked up against feature films, "Epidemiology" could well go down as one of the finest pieces of horror-comedy ever made.

This is Community's third high concept episode in a row, after the Apollo 13 spoof and the Jesus episode, and it's probably time to take things down a few notches and get back to (relative) reality, but even as someone who didn't care for last week's episode I think it's been a spectacular little run. All other comedies currently on the air should look to Community and feel embarrassed.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

NBC Sitcom Roundup — "The Sting," "Reaganing," & "Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples"

The Office, Season 7 Episode 5 — "The Sting"

Despite the introduction of Deadwood sheriff (and Live Free or Die Hard / The Girl Next Door bad guy) Timothy Olyphant as traveling salesman Danny Cordray, I was not super into this latest Office episode. I especially wasn't into the B-plot — in fact, I'd go so far as to say I sort of hated it — but even the A-plot was a broad, cartoony piece of work held together more by the presence of a premium cable and big screen actor stirring up the chemistry than by the writing.

I want to give credit where it's due, so I'll grant that, yes, I laughed at the titular "sting," wherein Michael, Dwight, and Jim set up a fake sales call for Danny with hidden cameras and Meredith posing as a CEO to learn his sales secret. It was a goofy, madcap sequence that had absolutely nothing in common with the dry and relatively realistic show The Office once was, but when Meredith declared Oscar to be a janitor who couldn't speak English and forced him to dust the blinds as part of the show for Danny, it was almost funny enough to overlook the broadness of it. Still, part of my mind screamed "this is like a scene from 30 Rock, not The Office."

I'm glad Danny seems to be sticking around, but the whole retcon that he used to date Pam between Roy and Jim makes me nervous. If used for a bit of awkward humor, great. If used for soapy theatrics, terrible. As Pam rightfully points out during the episode, Jim is married to and has a child with her, so hopefully The Office has enough rationality and restraint not to stir up some kind of insipid jealousy drama about the fact that she had a short-term boyfriend four years ago.

Meanwhile, the B-plot about Andy starting a band was a piece of shit. I hate to be so blunt about a show I love, but yeah. It just wasn't funny. At all. I understand that Ed Helms co-starred in The Hangover, a smash hit that made hundreds of millions of dollars, but that doesn't mean that every single B-plot has to center around Andy from this point on. Not to mention that this is the third Office out of five episodes this season that has contained musical numbers. I thought it was cute enough in the first episode, acceptable as part of the plot in the third, but now I'm just begging them to stop. This is The Office, not fucking Glee.

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 5 — "Reaganing"

I'm so happy, especially after last week's gag-inducing live show, to say that I loved the latest 30 Rock. In fact, it was the best of NBC's Thursday sitcoms, just 22 really funny minutes of television, in no small part because it put Liz and Jack together instead of dividing them into separate storylines. I understand why the writers don't always do this — Liz and Jack apart means more combined screentime for them and fewer minutes balanced on the more precarious shoulders of the remaining cast — but I'm always glad when they do, because it's the show's key relationship, not to mention its most entertaining. And hey, this one had some legitimate character development for Liz! Taking us to the beginning of her sexual hangups and isolating their root cause actually felt like the resolution of a story arc four years in the making, and it was funny to boot.

Segregating Kenneth and Jenna into their own subplot is usually a recipe for disaster (see the episode "Let's Stay Together" for further details), but this one was actually enjoyable as the conman element gave it an extra dimension beyond the tired "LOL, Kenneth's a hick!" and "LOL, Jenna's a diva!" angles they usually take. I still hold a grudge against Kelsey Grammer for the ABC show Hank, so bringing him in as the villain was satisfying, even if he never really got his comeuppance. And while the awkwardly absurd jellybean resolution to Tracy's subplot made it obvious the writers had no idea how to end it, everything up to that point was really funny. Tracy's announcement that "I'm sorry, I have an erection!" was base humor done right, and I laughed.

More 30 Rock episodes like this, and who knows? Maybe I can make it to season six with my sanity intact after all.

Community, Season 2 Episode 5 — "Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples"

Unfortunately, I wasn't really feeling this latest Community. I don't object to Jeff being largely sidelined and Abed protagonist for a week, but having Abed become the Jesus of Greendale was nowhere near as funny as having him become the Godfather of Greendale in last season's "Contemporary American Poultry," and the religious feud between him and Shirley handled what last season's Christmas episode did gracefully with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It almost retroactively makes that episode worse. Pierce's subplot with the old folks had some chuckles but fizzled out into an awkward anticlimax.

I would say that the biggest laughs of the entire episode came from John Oliver's Professor Duncan, and I'm glad that he seems to have had his part beefed up this year. But other that that I think this was probably one of the top five weakest episodes of the series. Ah well. Dust yourself off, Community, try again Thursday. I ain't hold a grudge.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Celebrating 25 Years of NES

Twenty-five years ago on October 18th, 1985, the Nintendo Entertainment System first reached American shelves, and it was good. It's not my favorite system (that remains and may always remain the Super NES) or even my second favorite (longtime readers may recall my top 64 N64 games list from a couple years back), yet it remains as inextricably bound to my childhood as eating and breathing. I don't know the exact date in '86 that my parents bought our house in New York an NES, because I was still drooling and shitting my diaper at the time, but I do know that I quite literally have no memories of not playing NES.

My infancy was spent watching my older brother play. As a toddler I began fiddling with the controller myself, delighting in making Mario and Mega Man and Kid Icarus move on the screen with no idea that there were even levels or objectives at hand. I sharpened my nascent reading skills on Nintendo Power. The rare hours I wasn't playing were spent crudely drawing Nintendo characters with Crayola Markers. I hummed game music while walking to preschool. I dreamed in pixels.

Twenty-five is considered old for just about any living creature on earth beyond humans and turtles, but when it comes to computer hardware it's positively primeval. Hell, my laptop from 2006 has been on the rattling, crashing brink of death for a year now. The only objects I own that are a quarter of a century old are a handful of books, my Nintendo Entertainment System, and a few early NES cartridges. And you know what? The NES has held together even better than the books. It's been shlepped across the country and lain dormant for years at a time, but when I plugged it in earlier today the red light blinked on and I began playing as surely as if it was straight out the box. The NES is a sturdy motherfucker, and that sturdiness earns sturdy love.

Of course, the hardware itself is nothing to love — without games, all you have is an odd, bulky paperweight. It was the games that consumed my childhood daydreams, the games the images of which flash in my mind when the word "NES" is uttered still today, the games that I love the most. So in light of the NES's 25th I could think of no better way to celebrate than by going back and discussing roughly 25 games that I retain strong childhood memories of. Note, this is not a list of the best NES games; there's masterpieces entirely absent, and there's horrible games present. But it is, for better or for worse, 25 games I'll always remember.

Hell, most of them are sitting on my shelf, so it'd be hard to forget.

Adventures of Lolo Trilogy

Contrary to popular belief, Tetris is not the greatest puzzle game on the original Nintendo. The most timeless, sure. The most famous, absolutely. But the best (and, hell, maybe one of the most underrated game trilogies of all time) is the collective whole of Adventures of Lolo, Adventures of Lolo 2, and Adventures of Lolo 3. Produced by HAL Laboratory, the same in-house Nintendo developer who would go on to create Kirby's Dream Land 1-3, Kirby's Adventure, EarthBound, Kirby Super Star, Super Smash Bros., Super Smash Bros. Melee, and most recently Kirby's Epic Yarn, the Lolo games can be very simply boiled down to pushing stuff. That's all; you push.

You push boxes in front of Medusa statues to block their lethal eye beams. You turn enemies into eggs and push them out of the way or into rivers to make rafts. You push your way through mazes. Anything and everything you can do to reach all the hearts, open the door, and get your ass to the next floor. It sounds deceptively simple, but in all three games the later levels get apocalyptically hard. The Lolo games are some of the strongest (and, more importantly, most fun) exercises in geometry and logic I've ever seen, genuine mind-expanding stuff that proves doddering old farts were wrong about "video games will turn your kids' minds to mush!" from the very beginning. I still don't think I've beaten all three; not without looking up the solutions anyway. Nothing else on NES tickles your brain in a more satisfying way. Love these games.

Bionic Commando

This is blasphemy in certain NES circles, but I honestly can't say I ever enjoyed Capcom's Bionic Commando that much. I know we had it when I was a kid because I still have the cartridge and the first level's music is fresher in my mind than any of Mozart's symphonies, but in well over twenty years since its release I'm pretty sure I've never played beyond a third of the way through the game. I just can't get my head around the lack of a jump button in a shooting sidescroller. It's just too weird.

Bokosuka Wars

Bokosuka Wars is one of the most awful games on the NES, a game that sails so far beyond the realm of ineptitude as to become a fascinating grotesquerie, like the grisly aftermath of a fatal car accident. Basically, it's a kind of prototype real-time strategy RPG where you command a king and his knights and soldiers in a campaign against an ogre chieftain. Battles are completely random; when you walk one of your men into a bad guy the game simply flips an internal coin and one is left standing. If you make it to the final boss only the king can beat him and you have a 50% chance; if you're unlucky you start the whole game over again. The control is slow and horrible and the soundtrack, consisting of one grating, hideous song, will drive you to murder. It's easier if you just see for yourself.

Yet for some reason I retain a bizarre fondness for this game. It's so lovable in its ineptitude. "So bad it's good" is a conceit generally applied to passive media like film and television while in mediums like gaming and literature that force you to actively engage bad is usually just considered bad, but I confess that in my life I have probably put a good three or four hours total into this putrid piece of shit. Bokosuka Wars is the worst game of all time. It rules.

Castlevania Series

The original Castlevania is totally sweet. Not as sweet as Castlevania III and certainly not as sweet as 1991's Super Castlevania IV, but it oozed gothic atmosphere in a way that no contemporaneous NES games even began to measure up to. I don't want to call it "mature," because it still had a narrative that amounted to "go kill king bad guy!", but compared to what else was available on the system, it totally was. It had a grim atmosphere and skeletons and mummies and vampires and Medusa and Frankenstein and Death and badass tunes. Sure, the controls were stiff and the difficulty was brutal, but it felt cool, foreboding. It remains a classic.

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest is less impressive. Still got sick beats, but it introduced exploration and nonlinear elements akin to a poor man's Metroid and their clunky execution made it the weakest of the NES trilogy (however, I still played it to death as a little kid — I couldn't beat any of the Castlevanias any more than I could sprout wings and fly, so as long as I could whip zombies it didn't make much difference if I couldn't beat what I was playing due to impossible jumps or baffling structure). Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse wisely decided to just reprise the original, but enhanced: three additional characters, branching paths, radder bosses, crazier level design, more attacks and techniques, slicker graphics. It's the best of the three and probably one of the best sidescrollers on NES.

Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers

Rescue Rangers is pure sidescrolling bliss. Lightning-paced levels, zippy tunes, and fast and fluid control make it one of the most kinetic games on the system. Mix that with crazy fun two player co-op and clean, colorful graphics that perfectly capture the look of the Rescue Rangers cartoon and you got a rare licensed game that actually does justice to its namesake. The difficulty is also perfectly balanced, far from easy but nowhere near as insurmountable as Castlevania. In summary, game rocks hard.

Beyond the jump, many more NES memories!

NBC Sitcom Roundup — "Sex Ed," "Live Show," & "Basic Rocket Science"

The Office, Season 7 Episode 4 — "Sex Ed"

This newest Office was split down the middle, with an A-plot that I enjoyed a lot and a B-plot that, despite a few funny moments, ultimately fell flat. Starting with the good, it was a great idea both comedically and for characterization to have Michael revisit all his exes (plus Oscar). Tons of continuity porn, with several offhanded references to scenes going as far back as 2006. The Office is generally episodic enough that hardcores, casuals, and newbies alike can jump in and laugh at any point (personal confession: I first got into the show watching season two episodes completely out of order on an iPod), but "Sex Ed" would probably be nonsense to an Office virgin. And that's fine by me — I like my shows with strong continuity.

Michael's visit to Carol wasn't spectacular, but that's not a huge shock because the most notable thing about Carol was always just that the actress is married to Steve Carell. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of casual viewers didn't even remember her. The visits to Jan and Helene were more interesting in the way that they showed how wrong Michael and these women always were together, plus, as antagonistic as Jan was during her time as a regular, it was nice to see her somewhat less pathetic than the way we left her a couple seasons back, especially seeing as this is probably her final appearance.

But what this episode did best is show how the chemistry between Michael and Holly remains electric years later, even over a phone conversation where we don't even see Amy Ryan. One thing The Office accomplishes that most other sitcoms and dramas alike fail miserably at is the way it actually convinces me that Holly is The One for Michael. I don't know if it's more the writing or more Amy Ryan but I've loved Holly from her very first episode and it's very easy to understand why Michael can't get over her. I hope she ties into Michael's departure in an interesting but not incredibly predictable way.

The B-plot, with Andy holding the sex ed seminar, wasn't as successful. Like I said, I definitely laughed at a few specific moments (Andy: "What? Is it because he's black?" Jim: "No, it's because it's genitalia."), but it spiraled into a groanworthy anticlimax when the entire seminar was revealed to be a ploy to find out whether Erin and Gabe were sleeping together. The Office, I know it's painful to hear this, but Andy and Erin will never be the new Jim and Pam. I'm serious. It just won't happen.

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 4 — "Live Show"

I suppose this live show is useful as a tangible example of the nightmare version of 30 Rock that could have been, but that's about where my admiration ends. Look, it was interesting and it was bold, sure. There was an infectious nervous energy to it. I get why Tina Fey was jazzed about the idea. But none of that can change the fact that I just didn't laugh. I hated the way the howling audience threw off the timing, I hated the look of it, and I hated the broad, theatrical humor (like Liz spraying the water in Jonathan's face) that they never would have resorted to in a filmed, edited episode.

Almost every performance suffered for the live conversion. It was impossible to see Liz Lemon through Tina Fey, Kenneth's giggling played less funny and more psychotic, and the less said about Tracy Morgan's glancing at the camera and stepped-on lines the better. Although I frequently give Jenna Maroney shit for being a generally useless character, Jane Krakowski did by far the best job and felt almost indistinguishable from her filmed performances, no doubt thanks to all her theatrical experience. Alec Baldwin was also pretty decent, but the raspy voice and snappy retorts of Jack Donaghy were mostly lost. Matt Damon was a natural, so it's too bad he only had about a minute of screentime.

I'd go on, but there's really nothing to say about this episode's generic forgotten birthday plot and I'd rather just move on and forget about it. Please, 30 Rock, let this be a one-time thing.

Community, Season 2 Episode 4 — "Basic Rocket Science"

The thing about Community is that it's like someone is making a show just for me, with all the shit I like. College comedy, absurdist humor but with a hint of heart, strong continuity and subtle jokes that demand your attention, an amazing ensemble cast, self-aware parody of the entire sitcom medium, and tons of pop culture references. I seem to love this show more and more every week. I'd go so far as to say that, with two weeks left until the return of Friday Night Lights, Community is at this moment not just my favorite sitcom but my favorite show airing on TV, period. I'm really enjoying Boardwalk Empire but my excitement at a new episode just can't seem to compare to the grin on my face after a new Community.

As a spoof of Apollo 13, "Basic Rocket Science" is Community's third full-speed-ahead parody episode, following up on season one's Goodfellas parody "Contemporary American Poultry" and general action movie parody "Modern Warfare." I'm not sure that it fully measured up to those great episodes — the way that the former explored the character of Abed and the the sheer manic genius of the latter is hard to match — but it was nevertheless hilarious. I loved the way it brought Troy to the forefront and I loved Abed taking the place of Apollo 13's Ken Mattingly as the man left behind. I'm not sure I should bother going on, because I'd just be listing tons of punchlines I loved, but needless to say I thought the entire episode was brilliant. I laughed my ass off. That it was the strongest of itself, The Office, and 30 Rock hardly even needs be said; it left them choking on the exhaust of its superiority.

As the season goes on I'd love to see Greendale's rivalry with City College explored further. It makes a great hook, especially now that we have an actor cast as the Dean of City College, and could fuel conflict for plenty of episodes or even whole story arcs if Dean Pelton's fear of Greendale falling to City College came to pass. But speaking of Dean Pelton, my one critique of the episode is that his illicit gas station and rest stop encounters and general perversion are starting to become just a little too much like Arrested Development's Barry Zuckerkorn. Let's keep it original, Community. Some of those gags were pretty damn familiar.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Recapping and Ranking Fall 2010's New TV Series

The fall 2010 TV season has produced three new shows that I can straightfacedly and without shame describe as good: Boardwalk Empire, Terriers, and Lone Star, the last of which Fox took into a back alley and executed after just two episodes. So, subtracting Lone Star and adding the other two shows that I seem to have stapled onto my regular viewing docket, The Event and Running Wilde, we come to a total of four new shows, only one of which, HBO's Boardwalk Empire, is likely to make it to a second season. Not particularly impressive, but not that far below ordinary TV par either.

Now, if you lurk on TV message boards, you may have heard rumors that Boardwalk Empire is bad. I can assure you that these rumors are stupid, or at best impatient. We're four episodes in. HBO dramas are never explosively paced; they were still setting the stage four episodes into The Wire and Deadwood too.

Is Boardwalk Empire the culmination of television as an art form, a transcendent masterpiece that you are incomplete as a human being until you've experienced (i.e. The Wire, or what idiot fanboys believe Lost to be)? No, it's not, which seems to be what naysayers were expecting. But what it is is a very cool, very stylish period crime epic with terrific production values and some great performances. True, the first episode is still the best, but that's just kinda what happens when your pilot is directed by Martin Scorsese, and I think the last episode in particular was enlivened by the development of Michael K. Williams' character Chalky White. But I will admit that Kelly Macdonald's character Margaret Schroeder is yet to truly click and tends to gum up the momentum.

I don't have a whole to say about Terriers that I didn't when I discussed the show just a few days back, and not enough people watch it for there to be any kind of backlash for me to respond to, but it's a hilarious mystery show that all y'all should check out. As for Fox's late, lamented Lone Star, while I thought the first two episodes were poised to develop into something fascinating I'm not sure if you should watch them. It'd be like watching the first ten minutes of a movie, liking it, then someone snatching the DVD from the player and snapping it in half. You don't need that tragedy in your life.

As I mentioned above, I'm still watching The Event, albeit with a highly critical eye. The characterization remains shit compared to the first season of Lost or even Heroes. Subsequent episodes have given a slightly better sense of who the protagonist Sean Walker and President Elias Martinez are, and I like Heather McComb as Agent Collier, a cop who arrests Sean but defects to his side when mysterious agents show up and gun down her colleagues, but by and large the characters are just props. But I will give this to The Event: stuff happens. Some shit goes in every episode. By no means does this make it great television, but it does make it more watchable than the vast majority of new shows this fall.

The slate of new half-hour sitcoms — $#*! My Dad Says, Raising Hope, Better With You, Running Wilde, Mike & Molly, and Outsourced — doesn't exactly glow, with the two least offensive being Fox's Running Wilde and Raising Hope. Wilde, from Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz and co-star Will Arnett, can be compared to Arrested with the wit and pacing and creativity dialed back to about a third, while Hope, from My Name Is Earl creator Greg Garcia, can be compared to My Name is Earl almost exactly, from its white trash settings to the pacing of its humor. I'm still watching Running Wilde out of loyalty to Hurwitz, but it's akin to the lesser sequel of a great film. If Arrested Development is Chinatown, Psycho, or The Matrix, then Running Wilde is The Two Jakes, Psycho II, or The Matrix Revolutions.

Also, a brief note about NBC's fish-out-of-water comedy Outsourced: I don't want to go so far as to call it legitimately funny or worthwhile, but the critical hive mind which has desperately tried to label it one of the worst new shows of the fall is just stupid. Give it up, critics. It's bad, but it's not as bad as you want you want it be. And give up the phony cries of racism too while you're at it. I actually saw one blog suggest the show was racist for "making fun of" the Indian accents, something which no character did at any point. If you find the Indian accent so absurd that just hearing it makes you think it's being mocked, that's your racial issue, but there's no need to project it onto a mediocre sitcom.

Looking to the remaining shows, all new procedurals, be they cop (Chase, Blue Bloods, Detroit 1-8-7, Hawaii Five-0), lawyer (The Whole Truth, Outlaw, The Defenders), or both (Law & Order: Los Angeles), can be thrown out. I rank the recently canceled Outlaw the highest of the lawyer procedurals because it at least gave a fairly strong sense of who the protagonist was, but it's still pretty much a piece of shit. Detroit 1-8-7 and Hawaii Five-0 aren't quite as bad as the other cop shows, reaching the level of relatively harmless time-filler, but still present no reason to watch.

If there's any show that my initial opinion has shifted on, it's ABC's No Ordinary Family. I went back and watched a second episode and I admit I was probably just a little bit too harsh on it. Key words being "just a little bit." I'm not going to go so far as to add it to my regular schedule and I still absolutely hate the goofily hyperbolic family drama, but as serialized sci-fi it may actually have a small amount of merit. A character I had assumed was a series regular was suddenly and rather brutally offed at the end of the second episode, which makes me think the show may have a little more blood pumping through its veins than I initially gave it credit for, so I'll check up on the reviews and reconsider giving it another chance in a couple months.

The CW's Nikita and NBC's Undercovers are alike in that both are slick, polished, and inoffensive action shows that just don't quite stand out from the crowd enough to be appointment television, although Nikita comes closest. And last (except for ABC's My Generation, but no one cares about a mockumentary soap opera that got shitcanned after two episodes) but surprisingly not even close to least, the CW's Hellcats is about as watchable as you can imagine an overly peppy college dramedy about cheerleaders could possibly be.

Since there are a few more premieres in late October I can confirm that there will be a sixth day of pilot reviews in about three weeks, after which I'll go back and edit this post to insert the new shows in my rankings. Fingers crossed we'll get something that doesn't suck. Now let's make with the list.

Day 1: Outlaw, Boardwalk Empire, Chase, The Event, Lone Star
Day 2: Detroit 1-8-7, Raising Hope, Running Wilde, Better With You, Undercovers
Day 3: My Generation, Outsourced, No Ordinary Family, Law & Order: Los Angeles
Day 4: Blue Bloods, The Defenders, Hawaii Five-0, Mike & Molly, $#*! My Dad Says
Day 5: Hellcats, Terriers, Nikita, The Whole Truth

Beyond the jump, the rankings!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

TV Pilots, Day 5 — Hellcats, Terriers, Nikita, The Whole Truth

I said back in my first TV pilot review post that "this review series will probably have three entires," but I confess I undershot. I didn't realize how many damn TV pilots there really were this fall! There's still a few more to go this month (most notably the October 31st debut of AMC's potentially awesome The Walking Dead), and that's before midseason replacements kick in. That's a whole lot of probably bad television to suffer through.

But I did make it to the light at the end of the shitty tunnel that was my recent CBS marathon, so for completion's sake I figured I might as well hop on over to the video section of the CW's website and check out their pilots too. Couldn't get any worse than CBS, right? This is the part where for comedic purposes I'd love to be like "turns out it could, fuck everything!", but to my surprise neither of CW's two new shows are so bad. Neither are overwhelmingly good, either, but at no point was I in agony. I also discovered two shows on Hulu I'd overlooked the premieres of, one of which was agonizing and one of which actually kind of rocked.

Enough foreplay. Today we take a closer look at CW's Hellcats, FX's Terriers (by the way, I just love that a show named after a cat and a show named after a dog premiered on the same day), CW's Nikita, and ABC's The Whole Truth:


The premise in ten words or less? Pre-law student is forced to join the cheerleading squad.

Any good? I wouldn't go so far as to use the word "good," but there is a strange watchability to it, like televised cotton candy. In the interest of full disclosure, I actually watched two episodes (which isn't an endorsement; just acknowledgement that the pilot ends in a cliffhanger), but episode two didn't change my perception of the pilot so much as cement everything I had suspected.

First off, I have to say that for a show categorized by Wikipedia as a "comedy-drama," Hellcats really isn't very funny at all. I chuckled maybe two or three times in 84 minutes. The tone is simultaneously too earnest to be wry and too trashy to be dramatic, watering itself down into something rather lukewarm. And, like almost every show centered around teens, or, in this case, just-beyond-teens, there's way too much unwelcome and unwarranted focus on parents and teachers, especially the protagonist's irritating, drunken mother. No offense to any parents out there, but no wants to watch you in a teen show (the exception being Friday Night Lights, which is less a teen show and more a brilliant work of art, but even in the great Freaks and Geeks I was always kind of "eh" when the focus shifted over to Mr. and Mrs. Weir).

Unless you really love cheering sequences, the show's secret weapon is unquestionably Alyson Michalka as the protagonist Marti Perkins, a pre-law major at a Memphis university who loses her scholarship and has to join the same cheerleading team she routinely mocks for their cheering scholarship. She's hot, yes, but in an off-kilter way with a unique energy to her screen presence that makes her fun to watch. The downside is that the rest of the cast falls far behind and every scene without Michalka is a drag. Hellcats joins 24 and Monk in the club of TV shows whose best characters by far are their protagonists.

Will I watch again? I doubt it. By the end of episode two the soapy theatrics were already enough for me. But I don't really blame anyone who does, either. It's got dancing and cattiness for women and gays and wall-to-wall hot chicks in skimpy outfits for straight men (to pretend is the reason they were watching when their friends walk in on them and they don't change the channel in time).


The premise in ten words or less? Ex-cop and ex-criminal are private investigators.

Any good? To my endless shock for something resembling a procedural, yes! It's kind of great, in fact, coming flabbergastingly close to dethroning Boardwalk Empire as my favorite new show of the fall after watching the first three episodes. Why is Terriers great? Let me count the ways. One, it's the funniest new show of the fall, including all actual sitcoms. The dialogue is hilarious and plenty of moments made me bellow with laughter, something yet to happen at Running Wilde. Two, the chemistry between the two leads is awesome. Three, I actually cared about said leads by the end of the pilot. They have emotional depth and unlike a lot of shows about cops and detectives Terriers actually convinces me these guys are smart. Four, the mysteries unfold in unique, occasionally bizarre ways, with nothing being what it initially seems by the end of the episode. Five, there's serialized elements and an overarching plot (think Veronica Mars, which had individual episode mysteries combined with a bigger narrative spanning the season).

A closer examination of the names behind Terriers makes it apparent why the show is so damn watchable: the executive producers include Ted Griffin (writer of Ocean's Eleven), Shawn Ryan (creator of The Shield), and Tim Minear (Joss Whedon's number two man on several shows, including the immortal Firefly). Directors include Craig Brewer (director of Black Snake Moan), Clark Johnson (director of several episodes of The Wire, including the pilot and series finale), and Rian Johnson (director of Brick and The Brothers Bloom). If none of those projects ring a bell, then, well, I'm shocked you read my blog. E-run, don't e-walk, over to Hulu and check Terriers out.

Will I watch again? Definitely. In fact, there's an unwatched episode waiting for me on Hulu that I'll probably watch as soon as I'm done typing these reviews.


The premise in ten words or less? Rogue government agent is hunted by bad guys.

Any good? Well, it ain't bad, I'll give it that much. In fact, it's the best action show to premiere this fall (with the important caveat that that's only stacking it up against Chase, Undercovers, No Ordinary Family, and Hawaii Five-0, not exactly a lineup of kings), and the one with the most original plot. Basically, there's this secret agency called Division which has grown so powerful the government can no longer control them, who kidnap troubled youths, erase their existences, brainwash them, and train them into super soldiers and assassins. Our heroine Nikita is a Division killer gone rogue who aims to jam up their plans and bring them down from the inside with the help of her mole, a girl named Alex who is one of the newest recruits. A decidedly non-generic plot, so it's a shame that incredibly generic chases and shootouts ensue.

The concept for Nikita came first and Maggie Q was cast as the lead through the ordinary audition process, but after watching the show it'd be easy to assume that it went the other way around, with producers deciding to build a show around the actress. I've thought Maggie Q was awesome ever since seeing Live Free or Die Hard and she does all she can to make the fairly bland dialogue and fight scenes she's given pop (not to mention that she spends plenty of the pilot in slinky dresses, bikinis, or lingerie; Nikita is not shy about leveraging sex appeal). Also, at risk of sounding PC, I think it's pretty damn cool to see a mainstream American TV show with an Asian-American as the unambiguous lead, and a show that handily passes the Bechdel test at that. The number of series this can be said of could easily be counted on one hand, if not one finger, that one finger being Nikita. Makes me wish I liked the show more!

Will I watch again? I don't think so — not yet, anyway. This show comes agonizingly close to legitimate goodness but just can't quite make it over the final hump. But I'll skim reviews in a few months and if anyone's saying that it's greatly improved then I just might be compelled to swing back around. Lord knows this pilot season hasn't given me much else to watch.


The premise in ten words or less? Lawyers, lawyers, lawyers!

Any good? Whoa, man! Watch those lawyers! Watch those lawyers do their lawyering thing! Those are the lawyerest darn lawyers I have lawyer laid my lawyer eyes upon. Lawyers, lawyers, lawyers, lawyers, lawyers! God, fuck off, ABC. Are you kidding me? I said a few days ago while reviewing CBS's The Defenders that "I almost admire the balls with which The Defenders doesn't even pretend to put any kind of spin on the generic lawyer procedural outside of setting it in Vegas," but since The Whole Truth shuffles us back to Manhattan and I'm now beyond admiration and just pissed off, let me truncate and regurgitate that sentence: The Whole Truth doesn't even pretend to put any kind of the spin on the generic lawyer procedural.

I would love to be a fly on the wall at the pitch meeting for one of these countless, interchangeable, boring, episodic lawyer shows just to see how it goes down. Does the producer start, "well, you see, there's some lawyers—" and the head of the network just goes "I LOVE IT!!! GREENLIT!!!" and throws a giant bag of money at them? It's so enraging to imagine the great scripts rotting at the bottom of drawers somewhere in Hollywood so we can get procedural after procedural.

Will I watch again? I'm blown away to find myself uttering these words, but I honestly think I'd rather watch more of The Defenders. At least that one has Jurnee Smollett.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

NBC Sitcom Roundup — "Andy's Play," "Let's Stay Together," & "The Psychology of Letting Go"

The Office, Season 7 Episode 3 — "Andy's Play"

I was cringing less than a minute into "Andy's Play" when the show opened with its second musical number intro in three episodes, but it made a big turnaround and delivered the best episode so far this season. First off, the titular play wound up being hilarious. Andy's cell phone going off coupled with Michael's balloons and runaway liquor bottle was some good old fashioned can't-look-at-the-screen awkwardness that had me laughing harder than I have at The Office in a while. I didn't quite buy the entire office going backstage to console Andy afterward (if no one else Stanley would have just gone home), but it made for a warm moment without feeling overly cloying, and the way Michael put aside his own jealousy over not getting a part in the play was hard not to like.

As for the various subplots about the show's romantic couples, I enjoyed Jim and Pam the most (unless you count the moment of hipster Ryan answering Kelly's inquiry of the time by showing her the analog clock on his iPad). A new baby is one of those things that can kill a sitcom dead if they try to really integrate it into the plot (while the Friends approach of having Emma mostly disappear had the creepy side effect of making Rachel and Ross look like terrible, terrible parents), but the brilliant trick of The Office is that since the camera never follows the characters home she can appear once or twice a season and nothing seems strange about it; in fact, it's almost nice to see little baby Cecilia every few months. Her part in this episode was kind of cute and kind of funny. The Hurt Locker analogy was great.

Dwight and Angela I was less invested in. It seems like the show is trying to make us care about a relationship that was always a joke, while I'd honestly rather see Dwight with Pam's friend Isabel from the wedding and happy hour episodes. And sorry Office writers: you're putting in a noble effort, but Andy and Erin will never be the new Jim and Pam. I like them fine in throwaway humorous moments (Erin's panic attack last season upon learning that Andy and Angela had sex was hilarious) but, like with Dwight and Angela, attempts to inject genuine pathos fall flat.

However, I liked the way Erin herself was written much better this week. The disposable camera bit in last week's "Counseling" was funny as a self-contained joke, but there's a line between writing Erin as flighty, neurotic, and naive and writing her as a full-blown gibbering retard who shouldn't be allowed to handle scissors, and that gag crossed it. Her terrible babysitting technique and asking if Andy wrote Sweeney Todd was a vast improvement.

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 3 — "Let's Stay Together"

In an impressive one-two punch, NBC also gave us the season's strongest 30 Rock this week, one on par with the show's early years. I loved the big plot with Jack and Congress and NBC's racial issues and Liz and Toofer's head writer squabbles and Tracy and Dotcom making a new black sitcom about a man and a talking dog specifically because it was a big plot that interconnected almost every major character into one comedic tapestry rather than having everyone segregated into their own disconnected storylines like the last two weeks. Barring Kenneth and Jenna's subplot, every scene led into the next and every character's actions informed everyone else's. That's the kind of sitcom writing that impresses me, the kind that Arrested Development excelled at.

Lots of great moments to highlight here, but I think the best may have been Liz awkwardly sitting in on the African-American talk show she had no business at (hosted by The Wire's Reg E. Cathey in a brilliantly dry guest spot). The climactic scene of Jack leading Congresswoman Queen Latifah on an unfortunately racist tour through TGS headquarters was also hilarious, especially the predictable but still funny sight gag with the "White" and "Colored" signs by the bathroom doors. This episode also removed Family Man Jack Donaghy and have us back Business Shark Jack Donaghy for 22 minutes of blissful respite.

Kenneth and Jenna I was less impressed with, and not just because their disconnected subplot broke the perfect flow of the rest of the episode. Two weeks ago I said, "Yeah, Kenneth is working at CBS now, but I give that maybe two more episodes," and now, two episodes later on the dot, he's back at NBC. The audition scene fell completely flat. I didn't even crack a hint of a smile. I know he's the show's breakout character or whatever but he's become one note over time. Yes, he's a hick. We get it.

Community, Season 2 Episode 3 — "The Psychology of Letting Go"

In sharp contrast to this week's Office and 30 Rock, "The Psychology of Letting Go" is Community's weakest effort so far this season. It was still the best of Thursday's sitcoms, but only by a razor-thin margin, rather than the Grand Canyon-esque gulfs of the last two weeks.

We'll start with the relatively bad and get it out of the way first thing: Britta and Annie's oil spill subplot just didn't quite work. Shirley's running passive-aggressive commentary on them leaving her out was hilarious ("Skinny bitches."), as were a few throwaway moments ("You don't have to yell at us! Nobody is on the other side of this issue!"), but the oil catfight climax was incredibly predictable from the second that Britta and Annie started feuding, and worse, not particularly funny. Not that I require every Community joke to make me bellow with laughter, but when half an episode is devoted to a subplot that leads to a big punchline which makes me smile faintly and go "heh," that's unfortunate.

I liked the main plot with Jeff trying to expose Pierce to the truth of his laser lotus cult a lot better, if only because basically every single line in the scene between Jeff and Patton Oswalt's school nurse was laugh-out-loud hilarious. The religious debate had definite shades of last year's Christmas episode (in fact, this episode specifically brought that one up, and I can't decide if making the comparison so blatant helped or made things worse), but I give the show credit for tackling the death of a main character's parent in such a bizarre, lighthearted way. I'm not sure if I've ever seen anything quite like it on television before.

This week's best stories were actually its smallest ones. John Oliver's restraining order against Chang led to several great moments, particularly the force field cafeteria scene (not to mention Oliver faking his way through an anesthesiology lecture to impress a sexy college girl, which becomes doubly hilarious if you imagine her trying to one day apply his imparted knowledge in the field), and the subplot with Abed and the pregnant girl, played out entirely in the background without a word of dialogue and frequently out of focus, while not traditionally funny, was very clever and impressively experimental; almost Arrested Development-esque in its "fuck the casual viewer" attitude. The final scene of Professor June Bauer trying to explain the plot of Inception to the natives was a clever way to do a pop culture reference with an absurdist twist.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

TV Pilots, Day 4 — The CBS Shitathon

I have suffered to bring TV pilot reviews to you, dear reader. I have suffered through NBC's Chase, Outlaw, and Law & Order: Los Angeles. I have suffered through ABC's Better With You, No Ordinary Family, and My Generation (the last of which, by the way, has rightly been cancelled). But I had yet to suffer through any of CBS's new shows, because my one rule is that I won't sit through TV commercials, and as CBS doesn't contribute to Hulu I figured I was home free.

So it was to my profound, existential horror that I discovered a few days back that CBS posts full episodes on, including the pilots of their five new scripted programs. I was cornered, trapped, out of excuses. I hate CBS, you see, because they produce nothing but simpleminded, lowest common denominator trash, and the American people routinely reward them with the highest ratings of the year outside of American Idol and Dancing with the Stars for it. CBS, as an entity, mocks people of taste with its very existence. It pains me in my soul to think that at CBS headquarters my viewings of these episodes notched some invisible hit counters up by one.

So let's put on our hazard suits and wade into it. We're far enough past these series' premiere dates that me arranging these reviews in chronological order is irrelevant, so I now present to you, in alphabetical order, Blue Bloods, The Defenders, Hawaii Five-0, Mike & Molly, and $#*! My Dad Says. May god have mercy on my soul:


The premise in ten words or less? Family of cops in New York.

Any good? Blue Bloods is first and foremost right-wing jerk off fodder unlike anything else this side of Glenn Beck. The characters rant against bloggers, the media, and technology to keep elderly viewers nodding and going "that's right!", which by itself isn't overly suspect, but it also features torture to get perps to talk (and unlike 24, which depicted its torturing protagonist as an antihero, in this one he is the noble fount of all goodness), torture which of course works immediately and gets 100% accurate information. It depicts the justice system as a left-wing institution standing in the way of hardworking cops that exists only because liberals fantasize about keeping murderers and child molesters on the street. New York's abolishment of the death penalty is criticized. At one point the crusty old family patriarch who tells it like it is goes off on how laws exist, quote, "to protect the criminals!" and endorses a police state.

The plot involves a family of law enforcement officials named, I shit you not, the Reagans (I suppose that CBS figured that flyover state viewers would start madly salivating and humping their couch cushions upon hearing the name, leaving them too incapacitated to change the channel). Two brothers, a sister, and a dad. The older brother is a detective, the younger a rookie beat cop, the sister an assistant DA, and the dad Police Commissioner. Together, they form a crime fighting unit! The show itself is an uninteresting police procedural. In the pilot a child molester kidnaps a girl, the older brother finds the perp because an eyewitness saw his van, tortures him to find out the girl's location, the leftist lawyers try to put him back on the street, and the sister shuts their efforts down. Next week will have a new, equally generic case. There's no reason for this show to exist.

Will I watch again? I'd rather have my scrotum repeatedly tasered.


The premise in ten words or less? Lawyers in Las Vegas.

Any good? I almost admire the balls with which The Defenders doesn't even pretend to put any kind of spin on the generic lawyer procedural outside of setting it in Vegas (which itself adds nothing beyond B-roll of the Strip taking us from scene to scene). I can't honestly say the show fails; all it wants is to be a way for people to sit in front of a glowing screen without having to turn on their brains or any pesky serialized elements that demand more than one hour of attention at a time, and it achieves that completely. It's just CBS saying to America, "Here some fuckin' lawyers, assholes. Don't even pretend you won't watch. Aw yeah, we know you're our bitch. Now lean over that table there."

The show is also somewhat upsettingly co-starring Friday Night Lights alumnus Jurnee Smollett as a stripper-turned-lawyer, which is the TV acting equivalent of finishing your meal at a five star restaurant and walking right across the street into Taco Bell.

Will I watch again? Well gee, if I didn't tune in again then where else on TV would I ever find lawyers? I mean, think about it. This is my chance to see a court room! On TELEVISION! Wow! *makes jerking off motion*


The premise in ten words or less? Cops in Hawaii.

Any good? I am tough but I am fair, and while I may be biased against CBS I will give any show the credit it deserves: Hawaii Five-0 is the best pilot I'm reviewing today by an astronomical margin. In fact, it's better than NBC's Texas procedural Chase. That's not to say it's out-and-out good television by any means (I'd probably be lamenting Daniel Dae Kim going from Lost to this if Lost hadn't sharply declined into embarrassing nonsense in its final season), but as far as procedurals go it actually puts in more than the lowest possible amount of effort, something which can almost never be said for anything aired on the CBS network. This show easily could be on Fox, NBC, or ABC and it wouldn't feel out of place.

I feel like I may be going over the top here. I don't want to make it sound like this is something you actually need to watch. The plot does nothing to differentiate itself from any other cop procedural. But the cinematography is crisp and gives an incredibly strong sense of the Hawaiian settings. It's actually shot in Hawaii and they're obviously proud of it and show it off in pretty much every scene (unlike Lost, which despite being shot in Hawaii was always doubling it for either the mysterious island or various other cities around the world). It's nice to see an American TV show with a more exotic look. The action scenes are fairly propulsive by TV standards, although of course with only four main characters you know that no one is ever in any real danger.

Will I watch again? No, but I'd watch the whole damn season before I'd watch one more of any of these other shows, so by CBS standards consider that a stunning, once-in-a-lifetime knockout victory. Congratulations, Hawaii Five-0, you have achieved the level of braindead, disposable entertainment. You are the Citizen Kane of CBS programming.


The premise in ten words or less? Fatasses fall in love.

Any good? Mike & Molly is the absolute worst sitcom since Hank. This is shockingly unfunny stuff. I am simply blown away by how awful this show is. This fucking piece of dreck — this cloying, disgusting embarrassment to the human race that will make you question whether or not inventing television was worth it, this idiocy, this black hole that consumes anything within a thousand miles that may be construed as comedy — is about two morbidly obese people who find each other at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting and fall in love. Well, they don't fall in love in the pilot, he just asks her out, but it's pretty obvious that they will fall in love over time because it's right there in title of the show. I noticed on CBS's website that the second episode is called "First Date" and the third "First Kiss," so hopefully the fourth will be "First Fuck" then the fifth "The Wedding" then we can move on and pretend this show never existed.

The "comedy," if you dare to stretch the definition of a theoretically great word far enough to encompass this awful, awful concoction within it, is mostly centered around joking about how fat the main characters are, which seems odd. Based on the show's premise and its comedically inept leading man being approximately the size of Pluto you'd suppose that Mike & Molly is aiming to appeal to increasingly fatass mainstream America, but then it just spends the whole time mocking them. Which would be fine if it was ever funny, but it's not. The laugh track never picks up on this, though, cackling away like the funniest thing in the history of the planet is unfolding before its eyes every time Mike goes "durr hurr, I so fat!" in slightly different words for the hundredth time in two minutes.

This show is beyond shitty. I can't fathom how something so stupid and awful and devoid of anything even faintly resembling humor made it through pitching and writing and casting and rewriting and filming and editing without anyone at some point accidentally inserting something vaguely funny. It's like some bizarre scientific experiment on the American people to see how bad they can make a sitcom before no one will watch it. Don't just take my word for it; CBS put the first five minutes on YouTube!

Will I watch again? I would rather be eaten by Mike and Molly than watch their show again.


The premise in ten words or less? Wacky dad!

Any good? No, it's absolutely awful. But, in a shocking twist, I do need to defend it for just a second. Most TV blogs and critics I read labelled Shit My Dad Says (which I will be calling it since I am not gonna type out that series of symbols again) the worst new scripted show of the fall, and let me be clear, it's not. This is so, so much more watchable than Mike & Molly. Yes, more watchable in the same way that being decapitated via guillotine is preferable to being doused with gasoline and lit on fire, but still, Shit at least lets us watch the immortal William Shatner deliver his bland, unfunny dialogue rather than whoever plays Mike in Mike & Molly, who I suspect is so obese because he devoured all comedy in a fifty yard radius.

Whew, that was painful, having to defend this show in any way. Back to the more pertinent task at hand, Shit My Dad Says is about a guy who moves back in with his wacky dad who tells it like it is. I mean, you won't believe it — this dad just says whatever is on his mind! He is SO wacky! He sits there in his chair and he just says the stuff other people won't say! How funny! How uproarious! The laugh track thinks so too! Basically, this show is one of the most moronic things ever committed to film and we should be bright red with embarrassment at the notion that aliens may one day find a DVD of it when they explore the ruins of our planet a million years from now. It's about as funny as the Holocaust.

Will I watch again? I will not watch again, because it is a bad, unfunny, stupid show for fucking morons. Which I guess means it'll be a smash hit.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

NBC Sitcom Roundup — "Counseling," "When it Rains it Pours," & "Accounting for Lawyers"

The Office, Season 7 Episode 2 — "Counseling"

Although we'll probably see Steve Carell a couple more times after this season (it's realistic to assume he'll be back for the series finale, if nothing else), one thing that The Office is going to have to take care of before his departure is putting a bow on Michael Scott's key relationships — with Holly Flax, of course, but also Dwight, Ryan, the Halperts, maybe Stanley and Phyllis and, if we're lucky, Toby. Last Thursday's episode may be the first step in that process.

Michael's inexplicable hatred of Toby has always been one of my favorite running gags on The Office, reliably making me laugh for over half a decade now, so I was thrilled to see Michael's assignment to six hours of counseling with Toby last week being followed up on. The execution left me a little bit wanting, though. Like many great elements of sitcoms, Michael's one-sided feud with Toby may be one of those things that's hilarious at the corners of the show, rationed out in throwaway lines and quick moments, but when brought to the forefront risks overexposure to the point of no longer being particularly funny. I laughed here and there but rather than building towards a climax I felt like this episode's A-plot kind of started at the top and then slowly burned out. That said, I did like the final scene with them bonding in a tiny way and burying the hatchet for just a moment over their mutual dislike of Gabe.

Dwight and Pam's stories both had some chuckles but ultimately symbolized how far The Office has drifted from its initial intent of mining dry comedy from banal office life. A parody of Pretty Woman featuring Dwight in the Julia Roberts role is one of those things that I'd have no problem with on other, more naturally cartoonish shows, but on The Office? It was a little much (although it did contain my biggest laugh of the episode, when Creed declared that they should build their own mall to Erin's baffling agreement). Meanwhile, Pam conning and bluffing her way into a promotion was cute, but a gargantuan stretch in realism for a show that authentically and depressingly had her fail out of art school a couple seasons back. I'll be curious to see if Pam's new office administrator position has actual longterm plot relevance (perhaps even a setup for increasing her prominence after Carell's departure?), or if it was just a throwaway one-episode thing.

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 2 — "When it Rains it Pours"

In a twist on how I've usually felt over the last few years, 30 Rock was actually quite a bit more enjoyable than The Office this week. In classic Rock tradition, the show split three ways into a Liz story, a Jack story, and a Tracy story, and while none had me rolling, all three amused. Liz's ulterior motive-laden flirting with Paul Giamatti's character was probably the comedically weakest plot but still had some highlights, including Liz's admission that her pilot boyfriend Carol "sounds made up" and Brian Williams making another brief but always-welcome guest spot to deliver a junior high ice burn on Liz for her rumored sluttiness. Giamatti deserves credit for hiding behind a beard and silly ponytail and blending seamlessly into a (by 30 Rock standards) fairly dry, unflashy guest spot.

Jack Donaghy and Tracy Jordan's subplots were alike in that both found excuses to simply let the the actors riff for long stretches of time, with Jack making advice tapes for his unborn child to view after his death and Tracy playing Cash Cab, the best jokes in each plot being Jack revealing that at Harvard he was voted "Most" and Tracy's explanation that he cannot return to Abu Dhabi or he will be executed. Tracy's subplot also featured the return of Dr. Leo Spaceman, who despite only appearing in about a dozen episodes to date might just be one of my top five characters in all of 30 Rock. It's to the show's credit that they've always resisted overusing one of their most potent comedic weapons, and it makes every time he shows up a huge treat.

Community, Season 2 Episode 2 — "Accounting for Lawyers"

No twist here: Community was once again, to the surprise of no one paying attention to contemporary TV comedy, the week's big winner. The episode's plot had a sort of sandwich structure, with the first and third acts being primarily a character study of Jeff Winger (during which we left Greendale's campus for one of the first times ever, and the first time ever for bulk of an episode) and the middle act taken up by a miniature, five-minute heist flick with Troy, Abed, and Annie as a sort of tenth-rate Ocean's Eleven crew breaking into Rob Corddry's law office to obtain proof that he sold Jeff out way back before the beginning of the series. I thought it worked brilliantly, giving the show a wide berth for both quieter character-based humor and broad slapstick.

Don't get me wrong though, I may love Community, but I'm also willing to be critical. This episode marks the second in a row (and probably damn near tenth total) where we follow Jeff on a character arc from selfishness and narcissism back to goodness and friendship again. I'll excuse the show because it's worked both times, but I'd like to see Community take a long, long break from this particular episode structure. Redundancy aside, it was interesting to see Jeff revert back to his pre-Greendale lawyer persona and see him in his original environment (or, as Abed aptly put it, his "origins"), and I hope to see Drew Carey as Jeff's former boss again. I loved the hole in Carey's hand which inspired him to become head of his law firm so no one could ask him about it; Community is nearly on par with Arrested Development in lending all its supporting characters a memorably absurd twist.

I have no complaints whatsoever about Troy, Abed, and Annie's heist subplot. Troy and Abed may be the classic Community duo but this episode proves that the show's three youngest characters are more comedically potent still as a trio. Annie's repeated chloroforming of the unfortunate janitor was, for lack of a more elegant way to put this, fucking hilarious.

This also marks the second episode in a row that ends (before the traditional Troy / Abed credits gag) by hinting that Chang is about to snap into evil insanity. I look forward to seeing where this goes.

Friday, October 1, 2010

TV Pilots, Day 3 — My Generation, Outsourced, No Ordinary Family, Law & Order: Los Angeles

I couldn't even make it through these pilot review posts without the season seeing its first casualty, which, this being America, was of course the second best new show of the year (behind Boardwalk Empire), Fox's Lone Star. I'd love to rage against Fox for the decision (while throwing in some digs about them canceling Arrested Development, Firefly, and Undeclared), but truth be told the corporation wasn't in the wrong. The show just wasn't getting enough viewers to pay for itself. The best efforts of talented artists can never change the fact that most people are repulsed by the notion of watching anything except episodic procedurals, reality television, and laugh track sitcoms. Originality and ambition are kryptonite to TV viewers.

Which is unfortunately a perfect way to segue into today's topics, ABC's My Generation, NBC's Outsourced, ABC's No Ordinary Family, and NBC's Law & Order: Los Angeles:


The premise in ten words or less? Dramatic mockumentary about a high school class ten years later.

Any good? I occasionally see serialized shows derided as being "soap operas," but frankly, if all series can be categorized as either soaps or procedurals, I'll go with the soaps, thanks. Good dramatic television is serialized today, period. But I think the way to pick out a true soap opera is that it has no thematic ambitions beyond its characters. Friday Night Lights, for example, is not a soap opera because through its characters it's a comprehensive examination of life and culture in contemporary small-town America. The West Wing is not a soap opera because it's really about the intricacies of federal politics. It doesn't even have to be that ambitious; 24 is not a soap opera because it's about saving the world from terrorists.

My Generation is a soap opera. Oh, it tries to be about things — the pilot explains how Bush v. Gore, 9/11, and Enron touched the lives of its protagonists in a dizzying spectacle of wannabe relevance — but it all comes down to a bunch of characters whose lives seem bizarrely, borderline-creepily entwined around their high school drama ten goddamn years later. Even the guy who moved all the way to Hawaii gets pulled back by the end of the pilot when the girl he slept with on prom night calls him to tell him she got pregnant and they have a nine-year-old son. I just love that, the notion that this girl's parents didn't give enough of a shit that their teenage daughter was pregnant to have her inform the father.

Anyway, the show is basically all the worst aspects of a generic teen drama without the genre's inherent appeal of actually having these characters stuck together by school. They're just together, for some reason, still sleeping with and crushing on each other after a decade. It's also shot as a mockumentary (and much more of a "real" one than The Office, with the characters frequently trying to escape the cameras) to give it some reality show zest, which doesn't really add anything except letting narrators spew lengthy exposition about the characters' backstories.

Will I watch again? Nah.


The premise in ten words or less? American gets a job in India.

Any good? Outsourced is not very funny, but I still need to briefly defend it. Most TV blogs that discussed this show felt mandated to put on a pantomime show of phony outrage about its perceived racism because 1) the American protagonist and Indian supporting cast have cultural differences, 2) the protagonist gets an upset stomach after eating some spicy Indian food, and 3) at one point he is surprised to find a cow behind the office building (note that he doesn't freak out like "DAMN INDIANS WITH YOUR COWS!", he just sees it and is briefly surprised). I'm as liberal as they come but I despise phony liberal outrage over banal minutia; all that it does is undermine outrage over legitimate outrages. So PC whiners "offended" by Outsourced, please, for the love of god, shut up. If anything it's refreshing to see a prime time sitcom on a broadcast network with a mostly Indian cast.

All that said, as a sitcom, the show isn't very successful. The biggest problem is the lead, the brand new Ben Rappaport, in, according to IMDb, his first role ever. I don't know whose dick he sucked to upjump to prime time show lead but the man simply doesn't have any comic chops whatsoever. He's just a bland, genial pretty face better suited for commercials or maybe, if he must do sitcoms, the role of Waiter #2. Some of the supporting cast is a little better, notably Sacha Dhawan and (the Indian-despite-her-name) Rebecca Hazlewood, and I had a handful of chuckles here and there, but compared to the block of The Office, 30 Rock, and Community that lead into it Outsourced is clearly the Trig Palin of the NBC sitcom family.

Will I watch again? I'll give it one more shot. But if my laugh count doesn't at least double, I'm out.


The premise in ten words or less? Suburban family gets superpowers.

Any good? I go desperately out of my way to avoid commercials and I still wound up watching ads for this one in front of movies for months before I finally saw the pilot, which, not surprisingly, turned out to be stunningly mediocre, a sort of Heroes by way of 7th Heaven. Despite the super strength husband and speedster wife being played by Michael Chiklis of The Shield and Julie Benz of Dexter, two famously edgy shows, No Ordinary Family feels bloodless. The action scenes are turgid, the traditional discovery of superpowers sequence far inferior to even Heroes, and the high school scenes a unique sort of awful (the newly-telepathic teenage daughter's subplot, where she decides to wait to lose her virginity, is like something out of an after school special).

But the biggest problem of all is the family drama. This family lives in a nice big house in suburbia. Mom and dad are gainfully employed and love their children, two ordinary high school students. So of course half the pilot is dedicated to bizarre, hyperbolic rants from everyone about how this is a family in crisis on the brink of collapse. The daughter's screeching about how her parents are never there for her and how their family is broken is particularly absurd (and way, way beyond normal "teens are brats" behavior). It's honestly one of the worst violators of the "show, don't tell" principle I think I've ever seen. The most intense familial crisis we see is the kids running out without eating the breakfast their dad made in the morning, a scene regularly employed in white bread family sitcoms like Full House. But man oh man do they ever tell us about the crisis on hand!

Will I watch again? I'd rather watch a fifth season of Heroes. If you watched seasons two through four of Heroes I'm sure you know how dire a statement this is.


The premise in ten words or less? Law & Order in Los Angeles.

Any good? This is in close competition with NBC's Chase and ABC's Better With You for the title of most agonizing non-CBS pilot of the season. I don't even know what to say. It's a generic police procedural fused with a generic lawyer procedural, with Alfred Molina slumming it as one of the lawyers despite the fact that he's a still a gainfully employed film actor who I've seen twice on the big screen this year alone (Prince of Persia and The Sorcerer's Apprentice, with fairly major roles in each). The "twist" is that, get this, the setting has been moved to Los Angeles! You know, the place that most TV shows are set! How exotic, how daring!

This is the only pilot I've reviewed thus far in this series of posts that I simply couldn't make it through without simultaneously browsing the internet. I just couldn't. I checked the clock, sure that I was at least half an hour in, but no. Fourteen minutes. I then writhed in agony and said "well, it's not like I'm gonna miss any great moments if I just keep one eye on the screen." And guess what? I didn't! I'm sure the show will be an enormous hit.

Will I watch again? I'd rather eat my own severed dick on a bun like a hot dog.