Sunday, November 13, 2011

Community, Season 3 Episode 7 – "Studies in Modern Movement"

How many times a year are we lucky enough to get a sitcom episode as effortlessly, thoroughly enjoyable as "Studies in Modern Movement?" It didn't fit into the high concept mold the show has become known for, and when I'm thinking back on Community as a withered old man I don't know that it will pop into mind as quickly as paintball or Dungeons & Dragons or My Dinner with Andre, but what it was was damn funny, warm, comforting television; sort of an actually good version of what the masses believe unoriginal laugh track shitcoms to be.

But for how remarkably easy it went down, if you step back and observe the mechanics of "Modern Movement" from a distance, it's actually a pretty impressive work of pacing and structure, squeezing four separate subplots into its 21-22 minutes, all of them revolving around the same event and all except Britta and Shirley's tying into the endgame. Even when it seems like the show is taking it easy from a viewer's perspective, the writers clearly aren't taking a damn thing easy.

First off, the episode's primary plot belonging to its youngest trio and arguable holy trinity of Troy, Abed, and Annie was every bit as likable as you'd hope such a story to be. It wasn't necessarily as jam-packed with punchlines as Community is at its very sharpest – though it didn't lack for laughs, as the presence of Donald Glover can make anything up to and including your best friend's funeral hilarious – but between the Dreamatorium, blanket fort, and puppet shows, it was just pure goodhearted fun.

(Sidebar: Though I don't imagine we'll be spending all that much time at the apartment – the show is about Greendale – in an alternate reality every bit as fanciful as Troy and Abed's puppet show where Community is going to see its fifth season, this episode also did a good job indicating a post-graduation direction the show could take, by morphing from a college comedy to basically being Friends. Granted, that increases the risk of Schwimmer fatigue.)

It was also great to see Annie confront her differences with Troy and Abed head-on and the three all adjust to meet each other in the middle. Unlike similar stories such as Liz and Tracy finally leveling with each other last season on 30 Rock, I expect Community has the commitment to narrative and character to make this development count. Annie's loosey goosey routine near episode's start also felt like a nicely subtle callback to her just blowing everything off in "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design" almost exactly a year ago.

Speaking of Community nostalgia, Jeff's story felt like a nice callback to classic season one-era "jerkass Jeff learns a lesson" stories, albeit one taking place off campus, which season one never did. The story was a little slow in liftoff, but I must have watched the brilliant "Kiss from a Rose" montage five times, which, granted, is way less than I've watched the "Somewhere Out There" sequence from "Environmental Science." (Man, season one all over the place!) It also paid off about as perfectly as I could imagine with "HE TWEETED IIIITTT!!" and Moon Dean. Comedic escalation, baby: It's an art and a science.

I'd also be remiss not to mention the blink-your-ears-and-you-miss-it reveal that Jeff is seeing a therapist. Just a throwaway line to keep the plot rolling? Something that will come up again and be paid off later? Perhaps the result of his mental break back in "Biology 101?" With Dan Harmon, who knows?

The Britta / Shirley and Pierce stories were slighter, but they were also quick and funny and didn't linger a second longer than needed (Britta and Shirley's lasted barely two minutes all put together). I liked how the superiority hot potato got tossed between Britta and Shirley until the exact moment that Jesus began singing about drinking human blood, and how it ultimately brought the two together in an alliance against general insanity. And as for Pierce, well, Chevy Chase was, is, and always will be a master physical comedian, so he sold the hell out of it. (But my favorite Pierce physical comedy bit will probably always be him tripping over the drum set way back in season one.)

I love Community's high concept episodes more or less literally as much as anyone, but "Studies In Modern Movement" is a testament to just kicking back and delivering a chill, relaxing 22 minutes, and doing it right. Depending on what the next fifteen episodes bring, I wouldn't be shocked if it ultimately lands in my top five for the season. Although, this being Community, I wouldn't be shocked if it winds up way down the list either.

Funniest Moment: The funniest (and most quotable) line was Troy's "Just because we're awesome doesn't mean we're not adults!", but the moment where I really lost it was when it faded from Jeff and the Dean singing "Kiss from a Rose" to Pierce making a snow angel in toxic paint.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: Hell on Wheels

The show: Hell on Wheels, Sundays on AMC

The premise in ten words or less? Civil War vet works the railroad, hunts his wife's killers.

Any good? If there's one thing I've learned from all other critiques of Hell on Wheels across this great wide internet, it's that you're apparently contractually mandated to talk at length about Deadwood if you review this show. Now, I'm not here to dispute the greatness of Deadwood, and it certainly goes without saying that Colm Meaney's semi-antagonistic railroad magnate here smells faintly of Al Swearengen, but, despite being Westerns set in roughly the same timeframe, I feel the shows are doing two very different things on a structural level.

Deadwood, boiled down to its most basic premise, was locked in and literally about one location, and explored the growth and culture and politics and ins and outs of that location in exhausting detail. Welcome to fuckin' Deadwood! It can be combative!

Hell on Wheels, in stark contrast, is pretty much an on-the-road adventure show. I imagine the people behind it might blanch at such an analysis, thinking it far too base for what they're creating, but it's true. The show, set in 1865 shortly after the death of Lincoln, seems designed to move along with construction of the transcontinental railroad, and has built into its inherent premise a means to continually introduce new characters and locations and conflicts, while of course keeping it anchored by those who work on the railroad.

Chief among this main cast is Anson Mount (which already sounds more like a Western character's name than a real man) as Cullen Bohannon, a Confederate Civil War vet and former slave owner who goes undercover working railroad construction while on a Kill Bill-esque mission to bring vengeance to his wife's wartime murderers one by one. It's a pretty solid premise that provides wiggle room to showcase cool Old West settings that don't necessarily adhere to the archetypal deserts and dusty towns (most of the show actually takes place in the grasslands of middle America) and to tell stories ranging from longform serialized plots to standalone revenge-of-the-week episodes.

What remains to be seen is whether or not Mr. Mount has the presence to bear the load of an entire TV series on his admittedly masculine shoulders. He has a cool beard and a glare and that gravelly Western voice going on, granted. But he just doesn't have the gravitas or the charisma that you might hope for from such an iconic Man With No Name-esque figure, and there isn't nearly as much mystery in his eyes as the director seems to think there is in long, slow, extreme close-ups. In a perfect world, this role would be played by Viggo Mortensen, but sadly, ol' Viggo don't do TV.

This being a serialized cable drama, there is of course an extended cast, but the three biggest players besides Bohannon seem to be Common as Elam Ferguson, a former slave and railroad worker who may or may not prove an ally of Bohannon's (probably so, because the one major black character isn't going to be a villain), Colm Meaney as Thomas "Doc" Durant, the aforementioned ruthless railroad magnate, and Dominique McElligott as Lily Bell, the wife of a contractor who finds herself on the run from some hostile Native Americans.

None of these characters or performances just blew me away, but none were particularly problematic either. I'll offer further judgment on them when I re-review the series in weeks to come. I do raise an eyebrow at the show's adherence to what's been called the "Smurfette Principle" – there being exactly one prominent female in an otherwise all-male cast, something that Deadwood certainly didn't struggle with – which arguably places even more pressure on the character of Lily to step up than anyone else, so let's hope the writers are up to the task.

Now, I should stress that despite the adventure show moniker I've bestowed upon it, I wouldn't really define this as an action series in the traditional sense of the term (at least not yet – Breaking Bad has action scenes, but they tend to be spaced many episodes apart, so Hell on Wheels may be working its way there). There's one scene that could kind of be described as a slaughter and some other instances of bloodshed and death, but, at least in the pilot, these other instances tend to be done in the blink of an eye; the exclamation points on the end of scenes rather than the sentences.

For examples of both the light side and the dark side of where patience with action could lead, you don't even need to change your channel off of AMC. On the one hand, you have Breaking Bad, a show with such rich characterization that long, action-free stretches can nonetheless be gripping and fraught with tension. On the other hand, you have The Walking Dead, which doesn't seem to have any idea what to do with itself if the zombies aren't on the offensive. At this point for Hell on Wheels it's just a question of how well they can do the character work and which show they'd rather be.

But the first episode, while containing a few dead spots, makes for an overall solid and decently atmospheric introduction into the show's world. The production values and costumes and all that are nice enough that I never questioned it being the 1860s, and I think there's a lot of incredibly interesting places the show could go given a few seasons as Bohannon rises up in the railroad biz. It's not great, but I like to imagine that it could be great if they don't fuck it up. So, if you have any inclination towards Westerns whatsoever, check it out.

Will I watch again? It's on AMC, so yes, you can pretty definitively book the first season of this one on my viewing schedule. Now, recent episodes of The Walking Dead have me questioning whether or not the AMC brand is worth what it used to be just a year ago, but still, the network behind Breaking Bad deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Office, Season 8 Episode 6 – "Doomsday"

One major thing that separates Robert California from previous overly intense bosses such as Charles Miner and Evil Ryan is that, while intimidating and occasionally short or manipulative with people, he's never really been an antagonist. "Doomsday," while structured around a gimmick with all the realism and believability of Community's zombie apocalypse, was funnier than the last couple episodes and interesting in how it dipped its toe into the waters of making Robert an obstacle to be triumphed over for the first time.

The real villain was Dwight, of course, or at least his more or less science fiction doomsday device. But Robert was the one the office was afraid was going to fire them all, and he was the one who Jim was sent to impede the progress of on his secret mission. While I don't think that The Office is by any means a show that needs a "big bad" to thrive (although, as I've mentioned before, I did really enjoy the Charles Miner arc), I do think that, in these perilous post-Carell days, it's good to have some kind of tension hanging over the narrative.

Again: The doomsday device, as a premise, is stupid almost beyond belief. One, it's science fiction. Two, if they actually have software that instantly detects any error made anywhere in the office, why not use that software to simply point out the errors? But I suppose we were asked to accept Michael's film having professional-looking dolly shots in last season's "Threat Level Midnight," so whatever.

In terms of laughs, the episode, while not great, wasn't starving. Kelly's "P.S. We should kill him." at the bottom of her email about Robert; Dwight digging a horse grave; Jim hurling Robert's iPhone across the racquetball court; Stanley singing "Closing Time." What issues existed were less in the setups and punchlines and more in characterization and believability, but still, actual laughs alone boost this episode over "Garden Party."

The warehouse subplot was a drastically mixed bag: On the one hand, I think Craig Robinson is great and I'm always up for a little Darryl action. I also like that they've apparently maintained the new warehouse lady Val's existence across more than one episode, because you never know. But on the other hand, Gabe, like Creed before him, doesn't really work for me as a character with his very own subplots. I sometimes like him as this creepy dude who hangs out at the edges of the narrative doing and saying creepy things, but he hasn't earned full episode spotlights the way that Erin has.

Lastly, I'd like to point out that there seems to be some kind of funny NBC synergy going on here, as both Chuck and The Office contained protracted racquetball sequences a matter of days apart. Maybe with Chuck's impending finale we can take this crossover all the way and bring in Adam Baldwin as the new Sabre CEO in The Office's inevitable season nine.

Funniest Moment: Catchphrases are often called a detriment to comedy, but I have to admit that the return of Stanley's "and shove it up your butt!" took me completely off guard and made me sputter in wonderfully juvenile laughter. Mostly because I didn't think that was ever going to come up again, I think.

Monday, November 7, 2011

7 Episodes In: Up All Night

(The fall TV season's new offerings are starting to hit that point where it's time to loop back around and offer second reviews of those I've kept up with. Some may have started good and stayed good and some started bad and stayed bad, but what's really interesting is shows that started bad and turned good or vice versa, in which case you can feel free to point at my original review and mock me.)

For those who don't recall: Up All Night follows the adventures of new parents Reagan (Christina Applegate) and stay-at-home dad Chris (Will Arnett). Reagan balances raising a baby and reigning in Ava (Maya Rudolph), her best friend and wacky host of the talk show she produces. Link to original pilot review.

Revised thoughts: Up All Night is the epitome of a show that achieves exactly the level of quality necessary to justify its existence and not one iota more. I don't necessarily mean that as an insult – about 80-85% of scripted television does not meet that level (over 95% if you factor in reality TV), so Up All Night is still ahead of the curve – but, as of seven episodes in, I don't feel this is a show I could really recommend someone watch with a straight face. And that's not even comparing it to top tier sitcoms like Community and Parks and Recreation, I'm talking about compared to, like, New Girl and MTV's Awkward.

I specifically waited seven episodes to re-review, because episode seven is the magic number where both 30 Rock and Community shook off any lingering new show cobwebs and put out their first unambiguously great episodes with, respectively, "Tracy Does Conan" and "Introduction to Statistics." That's enough to make episode seven my official "shit or get off the pot" mark for single camera sitcoms.

But while 30 Rock and Community used their first six half-hours to whittle their shows into lean, mean pacing machines, refine their technique, and figure out what made their characters pop, Up All Night, as far as I can come up with right now, literally hasn't solved one single problem present in the pilot. If anything, it's found itself a few new ones.

The biggest issue, as was the case in the pilot, continues to be the entire half of the show that involves Reagan producing her talk show Ava, starring her best friend of the same name. Every time Up All Night cuts from the central marriage and baby to wacky talk show hijinks, it almost always loses its distinctive flavor and instantly turns into a poor man's 30 Rock (and I don't mean a poor man's peak 30 Rock, I mean a poor man's 2011 30 Rock). Maya Rudolph's Ava, who is SO CRAZY and says WHATEVER'S ON HER MIND or even things that DON'T MAKE SENSE AT ALL, usually just comes across as Tracy Jordan with a vagina, and is rarely funny.

And on the other end of that wackiness overdose, Will Arnett's Chris grapples with the exact opposite problem. As I mentioned up top, there are instances in my pilot reviews where I'm just flat-out wrong, and my judgment of Will Arnett's understated, more or less realistic co-protagonist as being a promising new direction for Arnett's career was one of those times. Chris isn't just subtle, he's sedate and boring, which is such a shame coming from the same monumentally lively actor behind Gob Bluth and Devon Banks.

On the other hand, Christina Applegate, who made little impact on me seven episodes back, has managed to shape a reasonably charming and three-dimensional protagonist out of Reagan Brinkley. Granted, when she's at work trying to reign in Ava she positively stinks of Liz Lemon, but she has the natural comedic rhythms to make awkwardness, exasperation, and the occasional weirded-out reaction shot decently funny. I'd say most of my laughs at this point stem from Applegate's performance.

The show is also, as of this point, rather directionless. I know that the vast, vast majority of TV viewers couldn't begin to care less about that even in their dramas, let a-fucking-lone their sitcoms, but I enjoy a good narrative framework to hang a TV season on: The Office had both Jim and Pam and Dunder Mifflin's financial woes, Community had Spanish 101, 30 Rock had Liz and Jack's antagonistic relationship becoming a friendship, Parks and Rec had the pit, Arrested Development had more than I care to name, and so on. Up All Night doesn't really have anything like that. It's all somewhat boringly stuck in place. Now, maybe the show will prove me wrong and have Reagan quit Ava or something, but I'd bet money against it.

Now, everything I've written above probably comes across a little vicious – and, reading over it, even I think maybe I'm being a little too harsh – so I'll clarify that I by no means whatsoever hate Up All Night. I'm in no way bothered by anyone following it (although I'd raise an eyebrow at anyone declaring it great). The main cast all understand punchlines and comic timing, it's reasonably peppy and fast-paced, and it isn't afraid to occasionally bare comedic teeth (like the episode where one of Ava's crew members dies and she realizes she can't remember his name as she fakes her way through a eulogy).

But it still feels pretty schmaltzy and safe compared to NBC's other groundbreaking sitcoms, and, if Up All Night runs for five years and 100 episodes, it will never, ever put out a "Modern Warfare" or a "Dinner Party." I could be wrong about that, but if I am I'll deep fry and eat my own balls. I'm pretty sure I'm done following the show on any kind of regular basis, but, as it hits that "TV to leave on while you're making a meal or browsing the internet or folding clothes" sweet spot with near-perfection, I'm sure I'll see at least a handful of episodes a season for however long it runs.

What's improved since the pilot?
• Christina Applegate's performance, comic timing, and characterization.
• The addition of Jennifer Hall to the main cast.

What's stayed the same since the pilot (in a good way)?
• The pacing still moves at a fairly brisk clip.

What's stayed the same since the pilot (in a bad way)?
• It usually feels like two separate shows mashed together rather than a cohesive whole.
• Maya Rudolph continues to play like a poor man's female Tracy Jordan.
• The jokes directly involving little Amy tend to be safe, generic baby humor.

What's gotten worse since the pilot?
• Will Arnett's character has had what little edge there was sanded down and is now very dull.
• Occasional treacly, generically sitcommy endings.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Parks and Recreation, Season 4 Episode 6 – "End of the World"

At its best, there may not be another show on television – hell, maybe not that many in the history of television – that does warm as well as Parks and Recreation. Not in some syrupy, studio-audience-goes-"aww," fuckin', like, Cosby Show / Full House sort of way, but in a truly genuine way that comes from sincere love for its characters. I don't know that I laughed harder at "End of the World" than I have at any number of other sitcom episodes this year, but in the warmness, it excelled. The ending montage set to "All Will Be Well" gave me tingles that I daresay hinted at the way I routinely felt at the end of Friday Night Lights episodes.

Another part of what made the episode work so well for me is how all its stories grew from the same starting point. I know other people may not mind it – in fact, the wildly enthusiastic reaction to last month's "Ron & Tammys" pretty well proves they don't – but I tend to be less of a fan of sitcom episodes where the assorted stories feel rigidly segmented, like they might as well be taking place in entirely different episodes.

Here, it all started with the Reasonableists and their end of the world cult. I kind of tensed up when that story was introduced, thinking that one of the office's dumber employees (i.e. Andy) would suddenly start to believe, but it turns out it's me who should have had faith... in the show, that is. As they played it, no one actually believed in Zorp or the dawning apocalypse, but the vague idea of what the end of the world would entail did indeed drive the action.

First off, Leslie and Ben and the return of Shauna Malwae-Tweep (not as funny a character as Joan Callamezzo, but always helpful in how she allows Leslie and other characters to bounce comedy off of her). Leslie and Ben have never necessarily been the TV couple I'm most invested in, but Amy Poehler and Adam Scott tore into the dramatic meat of this story with such gusto it's hard to complain. Leslie admitting that if it were the end of the world she'd want to be with Ben captured a perfect balance of the depressing and the heartwarming.

I just hope they stick with Leslie putting her city council run first, because that's flat-out more interesting from a character perspective, and a slightly miserable Ben is just more funny to watch. Chris Pratt can make happiness hilarious with Andy, but Adam Scott's comedic skillset tends a little more toward the put-upon side of life. (Also, by the way, this episode again keeps up the tradition of alternating election and non-election stories, with this of course being an off week.)

Also a bit miserable but trying to spin it Rumpelstiltskin-style into pure joy are Tom Haverford and Jean-Ralphio, finally (and, as I mentioned last week, thankfully) at the end of their Entertainment 720 journey. I was never an enormous fan of this story, but, like bad sex that nonetheless ends in orgasm, it went out with an enormous bang. Their end of the world party wasn't necessarily super-funny, but it was super-fun, every second of it completely and totally enjoyable. Around the time Jean-Ralphio did his drum line dance I'm pretty sure I had a nothing-short-of-moronic grin plastered across my face. The return of Lucy was also a nice surprise, and will hopefully continue into future episodes.

And this week in "Ann's Place In This Ensemble Is Awkward and Loosely Defined,"we have her... not really doing a whole hell of a lot of anything, which I guess fits the name of this paragraph-long mini-segment I've established in these reviews. She talks to Chris a little bit, I guess, and then goes to the party with him, but I have absolutely no investment in them as a couple whatsoever, so I can bring myself to do little more than shrug.

As it turns out, April and Andy (i.e. The Actually Funny Jim and Pam) going through Andy's apocalypse bucket list was the only truly and undilutedly funny story of the night. From Andy's quest to hold a thousand dollars to the return of Burt Macklin and Janet Snakehole, it was one solid laugh after another. But even this story turned quite sweet at the end as they tooled down the road toward the Grand Canyon together, while still sneaking in one last wonderfully unexpected laugh in its final seconds. See the next paragraph for further details.

Funniest Moment: If you're just going by pure laugh volume, it's a close call between Leslie bluntly and tactlessly telling Shauna Malwae-Tweep to keep it in her pants and then backpedalling and the very last moment where Andy asks April, "Where's all the faces? Like the presidents?" Specifically Aubrey Plaza's "What the fuck?" facial expression immediately after, a reaction that would make Arrested Development-era Jason Bateman nod in approval.

Community, Season 3 Episode 6 – "Advanced Gay"

You know what I love? I love that, in the wake of paintball, spaceships, claymation, alternate timelines, Dungeons & Dragons, and My Dinner With Andre, "Advanced Gay" is now a "normal" episode of Community. I'm sure there are live-action sitcoms that match current era Community in weirdness and surreality, but I can't think of any where the baseline for normalcy shifted so dramatically from where it stood in the pilot. If you were to plop this episode with its black Hitlers and spaceman paninis back in the first half of season one, it would be stupefyingly bizarre. Now, two years later, it's positively down to earth.

It also happens to be damn funny; maybe not quite on the elite level of "Remedial Chaos Theory," but up there with "Biology 101." Everyone outside of Troy, Pierce, and to a lesser extent Jeff kind of got the short shrift (although everyone got funny moments, from Abed mimicking Troy to Annie asserting that the gay bash will love Jeff wearing nothing to Chang leaving the party not alone to Britta being the worst), but with the first two in particular it did strong, legitimate character work that explored them as three-dimensional beings while never losing sight of the comedy.

First let's unpack the main Pierce / gay bash A-plot, the episode's more self-contained half. Larry Cedar deserves massive props for the sheer snooty racist zeal with which he tears into the role of Cornelius Hawthorne for the five or six minutes we spent with the nonagenarian prior to his actually fairly timely demise. It can't be easy to make dialogue like "These are your friends, Pierce? Minorities? Jewesses?" actually be funny rather than simply repulsive, but Cedar pulled it off, all while wearing a ridiculous ivory hairpiece.

The actual gay bash itself was one of those things where the comedy existed more in scattershot punchlines (the Dean's obliviousness to Tron perhaps being the greatest) than in a truly clever or original concept, but as a way to explore Pierce as a character I found it effective. Our Pierce may be a little racist, a little sexist, and a little homophobic (although it was more his general manipulativeness that got him temporarily ejected from the group at the end of last season) but his quick taking to the gay party lifestyle interestingly hints at a man who, had he not been raised by Cornelius, could have turned out much more modern and open-minded. So Edible.

And the final funeral sequence – perhaps the lightest, most irreverent handling of the death of a main character's parent I've seen on any live action show ever – struck a careful balance of being pretty dark ("Dude just told his dead dad to suck it.") without ever really plunging into nastiness or misery, a tightrope act I can admire the difficulty of. And although Jeff was undeniably a supporting player this week, the episode's end did a good job bringing it back around to him and making it more clear than ever that Jeff's dad must appear before season's end.

But I think I still might have enjoyed Troy's B-plot more, if only because of how much I love Donald Glover and John Goodman as actors. Granted, lines like "Now come with me to the second floor. Somebody pooped in the sink." and black Hitler don't hurt either. And there's also my simple admiration for watching a sitcom have the guts and the patience to lay pipe (PLUMBING PUN MASTERSTROKE) for longform serialized storytelling. It's only in the last decade plus a few years that TV dramas slowly taught themselves that such a thing was possible; for comedies it remains quite cutting edge to this day.

I never regarded the first season's "English as a Second Language" (the episode that introduced Troy's prodigious plumbing talents) as particularly great or important in the grand scheme of things, but if this story with Troy and the Air Conditioning Repair School Annex pays off in a suitably grand way at season's end it will retroactively become wildly impressive for its insanely distant foreshadowing. Who knows? Maybe this season is heading toward some epic multi-part finale where air conditioning, Vice Dean Laybourne, Professor Kane, Jeff's dad, Troy's gifts, Evil Troy and Evil Abed and paintball all collide in some sort of comedy apocalypse. A Community nut can but dream.

Funniest Moment: Gillian Jacobs' look of panicked horror when Shirley asks Britta, "You can excuse racism?"

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Homeland, Season 1 Episode 5 – "Blind Spot"

Observe closely as I interrogate Homeland's fifth episode, "Blind Spot," behind the cut.

Pilot Inspektor Tim: Once Upon a Time

The show: Once Upon a Time, Sundays on ABC

The premise in ten words or less? Woman moves to town populated by fairy tale characters.

Any good? The one monumentally appealing thing Once Upon a Time has going for it is that, perhaps on the most fundamental level of any new show this fall, I've never seen this story on television before. Even my two favorite new shows this season, Homeland and Boss, while superbly scripted and performed, are on some level putting new spins on old anti-terrorism and political stories, respectively. Once Upon a Time, which I was only able to very loosely paraphrase the plot of in the allotted ten words above, isn't putting a new spin on anything. It's just new.

While the story does indeed involve Jennifer Morrison's protagonist Emma Swan rolling into the town of Storybrooke, Maine after the son Henry she gave up for adoption ten years earlier tracks her down and she's forced to drive him home, and the town is indeed populated by fairy tale characters, it's a little more complicated than all that.

Storybrooke's residents, who include the Evil Queen, Snow White, Jiminy Cricket (in human form), Prince Charming, Red Riding Hood, Rumpelstiltskin, the Seven Dwarfs, and many more, have not only been transplanted from their fairy tale origins but also seem to have lost all memories prior to said transplant and are now living as contemporary American people who share characteristics of who they used to be, perhaps most notably the Evil Queen as the town's somewhat dictatorial mayor, Henry's adopted mother, and, before long, Emma's archnemesis.

The show was created and is run by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who worked on Lost for all six seasons, so it should come as no shock that this information – when it isn't delivered via exposition from young Henry, one of the town's only residents who isn't from a fairy tale and perhaps the only one who knows the truth – is doled out via flashbacks which take us from Maine to a high fantasy fairy tale land of castles and princes and witches and swords and magic and whatnot, where the Evil Queen plots revenge on Snow White for some unknown slight. Normally I'd object to Kitsis and Horowitz plumbing Lost's leftovers so soon, but, at least from the point of view of a fantasy nerd, these flashbacks are a fairly enjoyable way to shake things up.

Now, when it comes to television, I'm a sucker for the new and the original, and I can at least initially overlook at lot of flaws if they're in service of something that has nothing to do with cops, doctors, or lawyers. So I give this show a thumbs up for its unorthodox narrative, but beyond that there's undeniably a lot that's really messy about it. When I said there was one monumentally appealing thing about Once Upon a Time, I meant there was one monumentally appealing thing, and a number of other decent or flawed things I hope improve.

On the plot level, as of two episodes in at least, the Storybrooke scenes feel kind of directionless and inconsequential, and the town's residents' reactions to Emma just chilling in the town for a little bit and getting to know her son feel unconvincingly fascinated or unconvincingly hostile. I guess that's the danger of serialized shows – procedurals may be boring and predictable, but at least you know what the plot is. In the Storybrooke part of this show, which is about three-quarters to two-thirds of both episodes I watched, I'm not quite sure what the heroes or villains want, why they're up against each other, or where any of this is going.

Now, in the fairy tale scenes, the Evil Queen goes apeshit and blasts plenty of people with lethal black magic. If she gets her powers back in the real world and starts doing so there, things could get interesting. As of now, the bulk of each episode feels like it's biding time.

On the acting level, the biggest blemish is without a doubt Jared S. Gilmore as Henry, giving the exact kind of overly precocious, overly cute, not remotely convincing performance you usually expect from child actors (and that the show Gilmore is a transplant from, Mad Men, is actually one of the best-known avoiders of via Kiernan Shipka's Sally Draper). Normally this isn't a big deal, since little kid characters tend to be stuck somewhere in the background, but in this case he has maybe the most screentime of anyone save Emma and the Queen, and it grates.

I also haven't been extremely engaged by Jennifer Morrison as Emma (perhaps because she doesn't have that much to do), but thankfully, outside of those two, I like most of the cast. Ginnifer Goodwin is basically the living embodiment of "likable," which shines through in her Snow White. Former Bond villain Robert Carlyle cheeses it up admirably as Rumpelstiltskin and Lana Parrilla tears into the Evil Queen / the mayor with a relish that I have to admit makes me kind of root for her over the show's nominal hero. Not to mention Giancarlo Esposito – goddamn Gustavo Fring himself! – as the Evil Queen's Magic Mirror and, in the real world, reporter for The Daily Mirror newspaper. I hear he also makes great fried chicken.

Ultimately, whether or not I end up liking Once Upon a Time and continuing with it into 2012 and beyond comes down to where it's going. If the real world scenes (which I assume will come to gradually take over the show, as a network TV budget can't nurse extended high fantasy sequences forever) turn into a bloodless soap opera with Emma and the Queen trying to one-up each other in Desperate Housewives fashion (as they do in the second episode), then I'll be done. If Storybrooke gets more dangerous, magical, and action-packed, I might well be in. We'll see.

Will I watch again? I always like to see a fantasy series on television, so I'm gonna stick this one out for a little while, see where it takes us. And if it takes us into a glowing cave with a cork stopping up a pool of magic I will be extremely upset.

Pilot Inspektor Tim: Allen Gregory

The show: Allen Gregory, Sundays on Fox

The premise in ten words or less? Spoiled, precocious seven-year-old transfers to public elementary school.

Any good? I'll say upfront that I'm not the person to talk to when it comes to animated sitcoms. I don't really watch them, like, at all. I did watch the first new Beavis and Butt-head since there was so much hype surrounding it, and I watched an episode of The Simpsons a few weeks ago, but I'm pretty sure those are the first two animated sitcom episodes I've seen since the pilot of Bob's Burgers in January (although I'll add the caveat that I love Mission Hill and Undergrads and own both on DVD, so I guess there's exceptions to every rule).

So I'll keep my thoughts on Allen Gregory quick and simple. The show centers around the title character, a little kid voiced by Jonah Hill with two gay dads who is used to a pampered life of luxury and intellectual snobbery. After his dads lose their money, he's forced to attend a public elementary school, where his elitist attitude immediately makes him an object of ridicule, but he does make one friend. He also has an adopted Cambodian sister, Julie.

Summed up quickly, I didn't find any of it that funny. I do think there's some appeal to reversing the Simpsons / Family Guy tradition of dumb guys at the center of animated sitcoms with a guy too smart for the world instead, but in practice Allen Gregory himself fails to be either likable and sympathetic or dislikable in a funny way. He's just a bit of a prick, and the characters around him all feel fairly generic (although if forced to pick a favorite I'd go with his deadpan sister Julie). There was one scene where Allen Gregory abruptly gets a crush on his elderly principal that made me chuckle, but that was about the extent of my laughter.

Now, I'm sure the series will evolve as Allen Gregory begins finding his place at his new school and they come up with new characters to surround him with, but this pilot didn't have enough heart, humor, or creativity to keep me around to see that happen. But with all that said, I did actually rather enjoy the crisp, colorful animation, particularly the way the characters are drawn. Finding the art style repellent is the main thing that kept me from watching any more of Bob's Burgers, so it's a shame they couldn't have gotten some of the designers who wound up here.

Will I watch again? If I was interested in watching an animated sitcom I'd be much more likely to just catch up on all the Futurama I've missed or finally get around to watching Archer like everyone on the internet says I should. What I'm saying is that episode two of Allen Gregory is super, super low on my list of things to watch. I'm not sure it cracks the top thousand.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: Boss

(Note: Although two episodes of Boss have aired, I have only watched the first, so this is still, from my end at least, a pilot review. Just wanted to clear that up first thing.)

The show: Boss, Fridays on Starz

The premise in ten words or less? He's the mayor of Chicago!

Any good? I was absolutely taken with Boss from the opening frames and stayed riveted to the screen from then on in a way no other new series this fall this side of Homeland can claim. This is dense, brainy, literate television; endlessly stylish, ferociously acted and bursting with potential. I'm not going to claim it's on the level of Starz's Spartacus franchise – you gotta work your way up to claims like that – but as of one episode in it seems like a fascinating dark mirror of The West Wing, responding to every facet of that show's hope and optimism with the same on the opposite end of the spectrum. Boss is pure political cynicism.

The story centers around the fictitious mayor of Chicago, one Tom Kane, brought to life with startling power by Kelsey Grammer, so far removed from Frasier Crane that if you didn't know beforehand you would never guess or even believe that this man was a sitcom star for twenty years. From the opening scene, a minutes-long static shot of his face as he receives a dire medical prognosis (an opening which I might add is incredibly ballsy and unusual filmmaking for a TV series), he says infinitely more with almost indecipherably subtle shifts of his eyes and jaw than, say, Poppy Montgomery was able to with agonizing, protracted monologues about her dead sister in Unforgettable.

But don't get the wrong idea – while Boss is unafraid to dwell on silence when it serves the mood, Tom Kane is no silent protagonist. In fact, he immediately follows this long, restrained opening with a big all-American speech at a political event, and later on the pilot tosses some lengthy, downright Shakespearian (if Shakespeare used the word "fuck" more, anyway) monologues his way, which Grammer tears into with explosive, almost terrifying fury. One episode in and I'm already prepared to call bullshit if he doesn't secure an Emmy nomination.

To discuss the rest of the cast, I first need to get into the story, and hoo boy. Unlike certain other shows I've discussed this season (especially the last show I reviewed, ABC's Man Up), Boss is anything but thin on plot. In addition to the health issues, illicit securing of medication and generally screwed up personal life of the titular boss, stories that all receive their fair share of screentime, the first episode of Boss shoots plot threads in every direction you care to name. There's Kane's machinations and back-scratching and vote wrangling toward securing an expansion to the airport, there's appeasing various interest groups, there's Kane grooming the up-and-coming Illinois State Treasurer to primary the governor of Illinois, although the young political stud has some dark sides of his own.

And there's Kane's daughter Emma: political heiress, woman of God, charity worker, crack addict. She may not have the second-most screentime after Kane (that would probably be Kane's right-hand operators, Kitty O'Neill and Ezra Stone), but she does have the second most screentime in scenes from her point of view without the mayor in them, scenes that seem to be setting up a greater plot significance down the road.

And all that isn't even getting into various other subplots about construction workers, school renovation, or Chicago journalism that the series kicks off immediately and throws you right into the deep end of. The pilot of Boss is basically trying to launch into the fifth season of The Wire right out of the gate, with various institutions and points of view spanning every inch of the Windy City. There's even a little sex and violence in the mix, but I won't spoil the specifics there.

So as for the supporting cast, I am definitely liking Kathleen Robertson and Martin Donovan as Kane's aforementioned inner circle: Donovan radiates utter give-no-fuck confidence as Ezra Stone, while Robertson's Kitty O'Neill, able to rattle off a litany of Chicago politics facts at a moment's notice, is a creepy, cool ice queen. Connie Nielsen doesn't get enough screentime as Kane's estranged wife Meredith to make too much impact just yet, and nothing Hannah Ware did as Emma or Jeff Hephner as the rising State Treasurer Ben Zajac just blew me away in the pilot, but there's plenty of room to grow.

But, although I referenced HBO's magnum opus up above, I should be clear: Boss is not The Wire when it comes to realism. Maybe not even Breaking Bad. Boss (perhaps befitting the network that airs Spartacus) is hugely stylized, almost operatic. The camera work can be flashy, the entertaining, theatrical dialogue can have little in common with anything any human has ever actually said, the music can be sledgehammer.

In one scene, as Kane explains the history of various districts of Chicago to Zajac while standing atop a high building, the camera spins in a wide circle as the various regions of the city fade into historical versions of themselves from old America. Despite its cynicism and realpolitik, this is not a show that exactly purports to take place in reality.

And for my money, that's awesome. Just one hour into what I imagine will hopefully be a few dozen and Boss already evokes the feel of an epic Greek tragedy, not the least because of how the first scene of the series makes it obvious this thing has to end. There is one particular scene in the pilot involving one of Kane's guys threatening someone who knows a secret about him in a gratuitously flamboyant manner that went just a little too far out of the bounds of reality for me, but other than that this is television that straddles the fine line of being flashy, loud and bold without sacrificing subtlety, intelligence, or complexity.

There's something inherently funny about watching Kelsey Grammer not only anchor but positively excel in one of the best new shows of the year, because I regard his last show, ABC's short-lived sitcom Hank, to be literally and without one iota of hyperbole the worst scripted show of the last five years. Hank is so apocalyptically awful I actually recommend students of television watch it as a fascinating example of how every single conceivable thing can go wrong in the creation of a show, a quick and efficient guide of everything not to do. But hopping from Hank to Boss goes to show that while you can count an actor down, you can never truly count them out.

Will I watch again? Like Homeland, I'm definitely with this one for the duration of at least the first season.

Pilot Inspektor Tim: Man Up

The show: Man Up, Tuesdays on ABC

The premise in ten words or less? Some guys hang out.

Any good? Man Up is the epitome of a show that is almost impossible to summon any kind of feelings, thoughts, or emotions for upon completion of an episode beyond "that was an episode of television I just watched." It doesn't trigger the gag reflex the way the likes of Whitney and Last Man Standing do, but it also packs no more than two or three small chuckles into 22 minutes and has as limp and soggy a non-premise as any new show I've watched this fall. Even 2 Broke Girls, while yukky and laugh tracky as hell, has more personality and more of a narrative.

Okay, I'll try my best to describe what the show is about. At its center are three guys, Mather Zickel's Will, Dan Fogler's Kenny, and Christopher Moynihan's Craig. They play a lot of video games and work in insurance and grapple, for some reason, with the fact that they are not as masculine as the generations of men that have come before them. Will has a wife and a son and Kenny, as is Fogler's style, has a more abrasive, Jonah Hill-in-Superbad type personality, but other than that not much differentiates the characters.

Now, on a performance level, there's nothing particularly wrong with the show. The sheer energy with which Fogler flings himself into every line of dialogue even inspires a little smirk here and there, and Henry Simmons manages to make Kenny's ex-girlfriend's new, physically perfect beau, Grant, pretty likable as he gradually becomes the fourth member of the clique. But it's hard to judge when none of them have any particularly engaging or funny dialogue put in their mouths.

There's a weird ABC network synergy going on between this and the awful new Tim Allen show Last Man Standing, as both are about men upset about the death of traditional masculinity, with Allen's bitterness targeted at the world around him and the Man Up guys' at themselves. In one scene Will's wife Theresa (played by Teri Polo, who I guess most people associate with her role in the Meet the Parents franchise but who was more importantly in The West Wing) chastises her husband for never having fought in a war like his father and grandfather, and he actually seems emasculated by this observation; strange, alien behavior with no foothold in reality from either side.

But, stupid and bizarre as the show's theme may be, at least it attempts to have one. On a story level, it's thin to the point of anemic; there's just nothing to the narrative beyond "here's some guys, watch them." It makes loosely-plotted hangout shows like New Girl and Happy Endings and Up All Night look like Arrested Development in comparison.

Will I watch again? I'd watch it before its thematic / network sibling Last Man Standing, but then again I'd rather watch a recording sent from the future of my own death than Last Man Standing, so that isn't saying much. I'd say Up All Night is a baseline for the absolute minimum quality level a sitcom needs to meet for me to watch it, and Man Up does not meet that level. So no.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Chuck, Season 5 Episode 1 – "Chuck Versus the Zoom"

Chuck is easily the most "fun" hourlong show I've followed in the last five years. Not the only pure piece of pulp, to be certain: I've seen every episode of 24, I continue to watch The Walking Dead (but don't let that show's fanboys hear you call it anything less than high art, or they'll attack), and in recent weeks American Horror Story and Revenge seem to have wormed their way onto my viewing schedule. But unlike those shows, Chuck, save for the occasional season or midseason finale, makes no pretense of gravitas. It's just unadulterated goofy effusive action-comedy fun from stem to stern, for better or for worse.

No doubt linked with that playfulness is the show's fairly straightforward, uncomplicated plotting and, save for the last few episodes of any given season, generally light serialization. In addition to being the breeziest hourlong I've followed in years, it's also the most episodic, with most of its villains being defeated within the space of 42 minutes. In certain ways this makes it easier to review – like the stories themselves, reviews can be relatively self-contained and closed off – but also tougher, as there's less speculation and discussion to engage in.

As for the main story this week: It was amusing. By no means great or anything I'll remember years from now (maybe not even months from now), but a charming enough way to pass the time. The extended massage / racquetball espionage set piece halfway through was quite fun, the kind of madcap zaniness topped off with a dollop of action that Chuck specializes in. The final act was a little more problematic. Sarah and Morgan dancing to throw off suspicion seemed like a lot of other bits the show has done before, and Craig Kilborn was neither particularly funny or intimidating as the villain.

But one little part of the climactic sequence I did really enjoy was Chuck seemingly heroically sacrificing himself, only to actually have left a video message back in the van hyperactively begging the team not to leave him. It did a great job showing off that while Chuck is definitely more courageous than ever before, he's still got a little of that goofy guy from the pilot left in him. He's a hero, not a fucking D&D paladin.

I'm not sure that I'm feeling the handing off of the Intersect from Chuck to Morgan just yet (and I'm also not sure that it'll last long enough to demand I get used to it, but who knows). It's not Chuck not having the Intersect that bugs me – I actually think Chuck having to use his spy knowledge sans artificial superpowers is an interesting story concept they blew through too quickly last year – but the Morgan part. I like Morgan as the techie backup but, at least as of one episode in, he's just a little too manic and goofy to anchor spy action, even in a show as lighthearted as this one. It's like if Q replaced Bond in the field.

As for the serialized aspect, I am as of now enjoying Decker as the recurring villain, even if he does seem to be more a nuisance than the rich and mighty organization-fronting evildoer we're used to with the likes of Ted Roark and Alexei Volkoff. I just hope that Decker's not the true big bad (and I doubt very much he is), and someone above him is going to supersede him partway through the season, maybe around the winter finale. This is the last season, so they might as well go fucking nuts and blow this shit up as big and ambitious as they can possibly afford to on their admittedly tight budget.

One thing I'm less than ecstatic about is seeing Jeff and Lester once again. At this point, with twelve episodes to go, I understand that they're in it for the long haul (although the eagle-eyed viewer will note that General Beckman, Bonita Friedericy, was absent from the opening credits, though I'm sure she'll at least guest spot at some point before series' end), but there was such a good opportunity for this show to shed its loose weight with the destruction of the Buy More at the end of the third season, and it's a shame they wormed their way out of it.

The episode where they went camping with Chuck and the gang was the only Jeff / Lester story I enjoyed all of last season, and this episode shows no sign of that changing. In a perfect world they would have swapped them out of the main cast and swapped Mekenna Melvin and Linda Hamilton in, but alas, this world is but fantasy.

(Speaking of Mekenna Melvin, no sign of Alex this week, but I certainly hope that changes in weeks to come. She's been a consistently quality addition to the ensemble since her first appearance.)

Finally, I'll finish positive by mentioning that I totally loved the opening sequence with Mark Hamill as a slimy European supervillain (and the one part where I did mostly enjoy Morgan as the Intersect). It had little to do with the rest of the episode, but just taken as a little Chuck short film it was pure fun, and another notch on this show's belt of knocking it out of the part when it comes to geek-friendly casting and cameos.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Whitney, Season 1 Episode 5 – "The Wire"

It feels like I could start a weekly game of identifying exactly which episodes of better sitcoms the various installments of Whitney Cummings' hate crime against television remind me of. Last week it was Community's "Anthropology 101," this week, during Whitney and Alex's game of sexual chicken while both armed with the knowledge that they were being spied on, I kept flashing back to Friends' fifth season classic, "The One Where Everybody Finds Out."

The scenarios aren't identical, of course – one involves the funny Chandler and Phoebe, the other the cripplingly unfunny Whitney and Alex – but the flavor of the thing was familiar, like how if you fish a half-eaten and moldy burger out of a sidewalk trash can and begin eating, you may be like, "Hey, this reminds me of In-N-Out!"

The basic premise of this episode was amazingly stupid, and not just for a sitcom. If Whitney found Alex's tone of voice condescending, why didn't she just say, "Stop using that shithead tone of voice?" Couldn't she have been trying to catch him in the act doing something illicit or something that would have actually made the spy camera make sense? And once the camera was up, they didn't go nearly far enough with making things uncomfortable for the people watching. The lap dance doesn't count. Between this and the pilot I'm getting pretty sick of the writers' mistaken belief that an extended third-act sequence of awkward sexuality from Whitney constitutes anything resembling comedy. It doesn't.

However, I still believe that this may be Whitney's strongest effort to date, both because of one moment which made me curl my top lip up in amusement for about half a second (detailed below in the funniest moment subsection) and because of the presence of Ken Marino as Alex's brother. Actually, I'm not sure if the latter is a plus, because, much as Party Down is brilliant and I love Marino, when he stepped through that door it was a little like seeing an old friend in pain. Guest starring in Whitney is a Ron Donald Don't.

But awful as Whitney may be, I do sort of admire how hard the producers are trolling people of taste with that episode title, just like when they said in an interview before the show started that all of NBC's other Thursday comedies (you know, those brilliant shows doing stuff no other sitcom has ever done, some stupid bullshit like that) have made it cool to be unfunny and Whitney is going to change all that. If you're gonna make a meritless piece of shit, might as well get some giggles out of its existence. Because, you know, there aren't any giggles to be found in the show's content.

Funniest Moment: Probably the guy who was Jonathan on 30 Rock (still haven't quite memorized his Whitney character's name) noting that Whitney's apartment isn't believable for someone of her means. It was perhaps the first moment of this series that might go over the heads of anyone.

Community, Season 3 Episode 5 – "Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps"

There's part of me that wonders if I might not regard "Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps" as brilliant had it aired a year later or earlier or if "Remedial Chaos Theory" had simply come afterward, as the two episodes employed the same basic framework of one cutaway story per study group member, but this one just wasn't as good. But, whether or not I kneel in awe of Community's ambition any given week aside, did this episode deliver the laughs? Yep. It was still the best sitcom episode of the week, if only by a small margin.

(If you must have the show vs. show competitive interpretation of it, I would say that my laugh count was pretty damn even between both this and Parks and Recreation's "Meet 'N' Greet," but I ultimately gave "Horror Fiction" the edge in my October roundup simply because I found it more creative and I'm more likely to remember it ten years from now.)

Much as the last two episodes of Community have broken themselves down into seven separate stories, let's just go ahead and break this review up into seven little reviews, ranked weakest to best, one for each of the titular spooky steps:

7. Jeff – Not that I thought there was anything blatantly wrong with this story, but, as the heartwarming resolution, it couldn't help but be a little less riotous than everything surrounding it.

6. Britta – The quickest and least flashy story, perhaps, but the Britta-ized radio announcement of the escaped lunatic by itself gave it the comedic punch to be more than just the episode's control experiment.

5. TroyHuman Centipede references may be a little played out by this point (New Girl of all shows had one this week, and New Girl is about as cushy and mainstream a show as I can imagine), but Pierce having butt-boobs he can touch all day was a vision of true comedic terror.

4. Annie – The quality of this one lay less in the overall Twilight-flavored concept than in the little moments, such as Britta's flat affirmation that "I'm fine with this." and Jeff's coining of the phrase "drained and tainted bitch-dog." The CGI on Annie's werewolf transformation also wasn't too bad for a sitcom. It took me out of the moment less than most of the dinosaurs do on Terra Nova, anyway.

3. Abed – A sublime literalization of stuff that gets routinely shouted at slasher protagonists on TV and movie screens across the nation. True, turning the radio on at the wrong time for the news bulletin reminded me of a joke they did with Wayne Jarvis on Arrested Development some five years ago, but Troy and Abed's harmonized real-world humming saved it anyway. Abed's quick and dirty character development about economic woes and romance was also great, and undeniably successful: I would have been more upset to see these characters get offed than those in Britta's tale.

2. Shirley – That Shirley sees the entire gang – even sweet little Annie – as a crew of deranged, heavy metal-listening potheads she's mother hen of may be the best revelation of its type since we found out that Kenneth Parcell sees all humans as muppets. Her misunderstanding of how marijuana works and her version of Britta's repeated insistence that she lived in New York were both perfection.

1. Pierce – It's difficult to say how much of this was how Pierce sees himself and how much was pure fantasy, but either way it was hysterically funny and so perfectly, utterly Pierce. Abed's "Oh man!" after Pierce punches out Troy is brilliantly delivered.

All in all a fun little Halloween anthology. But while I enjoy a good "Abed is awesome" moral as much as the next guy, there is an ambiguity-appreciating part of me that kind of wishes they had left the identity of the one sane personality test a mystery. Going back to the "Remedial Chaos Theory" comparison, it was a stab at a heartwarming ending that was decently successful but still paled in comparison to the "Roxanne" dance party that capped off the pre-tag end of the episode just one week prior. (And, just like as "Chaos Theory," the tag was a non-canonical continuation of Troy's story. Crazy how closely the two episodes sync up.)

Funniest Moment: Pierce's entire story is the second funniest moment of the episode; the funniest is the group's collective expressions immediately after the story is over, especially Britta. Gillian Jacobs has been killing it this season.

Parks and Recreation, Season 4 Episode 5 – "Meet 'N' Greet"

First off, is anyone out there really mourning the end of the Entertainment 720 subplot? Pretty much the sole thing I was excited about going into this story was the promise of more Jean-Ralphio, which was to some extent delivered on, but, as Ben Schwartz has been cast as a regular in another series, my dream of Parks and Recreation and Jean-Ralphio was not to be. It's not that I object to shows changing, but it can try one's patience when said changes obviously aren't going to last, especially when they feel as intrusive and generally grating as Entertainment 720 did in this episode.

But I'm just getting that one bit of negativity out first thing, because, E720 aside, this episode was a lot of fun and had more than its share of laughs (and even that story made me laugh sufficiently hard with the not-anonymous confessional from "Mark Zuckerberg"). April and Andy in particular were on fire from the opening seconds. April was largely just hanging on the side making quips rather than being directly involved in the action, but she was part of the episode's single funniest moment (as usual, detailed below), so it's all good. Ben and Andy's feud was a bit of a Lord of the Rings film trilogy situation (that is to say, the middle was the weakest part), with Andy's initial attack on Ben in Ben's room being hilarious and the "We're brothers" payoff making it all worthwhile, but the all-night headlock did get just a little soggy before it was done.

As for the rest of the Halloween party, this episode really got me thinking about the interesting role Chris Traeger plays in the ensemble. There's no doubt: he's the peppiest, most friendly, positive, optimistic person on the show (not an easy title to claim with Knope in the mix). He literally loves everyone. But he has, at the same time, filled the antagonist role from the second he stepped into Pawnee, first as the cut man there to slash City Hall's budget to ribbons, then as the obstacle standing in the path of Leslie and Ben, and now as Jerry's (unwitting and benevolent) antagonizer via Mr. Gergich's lithe, willing daughter.

Now, Jerry's despair is always hilarious to witness, and I approve of it wholeheartedly. But I also hope there's a confrontation coming, because Jerry has been bottling up the rage for years now, and I see no better story opportunity to finally let some of it loose.

And this week in "Ann's Place In This Ensemble Is Awkward and Loosely Defined," we have her teaming up with Ron Swanson to put the hammer – the hammer of home maintenance, that is – to April, Andy, and Ben's rotting house. It becomes more difficult by the week to deny Ann's status as Mark Brendanawicz 2.0, but this story wasn't without its solid laughs, particularly Ron's reading of "Sonic and Hedgehog" and his stoic confirmation that if you touch the shock wire above Andy's shower, you do, indeed, die.

While I had my problems with Entertainment 720, I did like the parts of Leslie and Tom's story that less directly involved Tom's floundering startup. They may have reached just a little too hard for the heartwarming beat at the end with her crying over Tom's campaign video (although even that moment wasn't without humor), but there was something very believable, sympathetic, and humorously cringe-inducing about her denying credit for the Harvest Festival that was her baby from the word go.

It's also interesting to note that "Meet 'N' Greet" continues this season's pattern of switching off election and non-election plots for Leslie each episode, which is a format that is definitely working and keeps this season moving without making the election stuff ever get stale. Well, I don't want to say ever, but not yet anyway.

Funniest Moment: For pure schadenfreude goodness, the only real choice is the look on Jerry's face as his daughter and Chris dry hump on the dance floor, perfectly punctuated by April correcting his stick-on smile.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Office, Season 8 Episode 5 – "Spooked"

There's something of a schism down the middle of The Office's latest Halloween episode, "Spooked." If you look at it strictly as Erin's story, it's pretty good. Though the writers always seemed to have more trouble pinning down her exact intelligence and neuroses levels than with any other character (eventually settling on extremely naive), I've liked Erin pretty much since the first moment she stepped into Dunder Mifflin, mostly thanks to the sheer enthusiasm with which Ellie Kemper throws herself into the role.

As for everything outside of Erin, the episode was something of a scattershot mess. Not to say that little snatches of it weren't amusing (namely Kevin's fear of mummies), but of the many teeny tiny subplots they tossed out, there were more misses than solid hits. Jim not wanting to dress as Chris Bosh, the continued Pam vs. Angela pregnancy rivalry, Dwight bonding with Robert California's son – none of this was particularly funny (although the last was at least given a little time to breathe and be somewhat believable).

And, to the surprise of absolutely no one, the grand prize for least funny part of the episode has to go to Jim and Pam, this time arguing about the existence of ghosts. They're boring when they're lovey dovey and, as this episode proves, they're still boring when locked in dispute. I was as invested in Jim and Pam as anyone else during the glory days of season two, but the magic has petered out so hard. I'm not sure what The Office can do to fix them other than just look at TV comedy's funniest married couple – April and Andy on Parks and Recreation – and try desperately to capture a little slice of what that show does.

Robert California was probably the best part of the episode outside of Erin, at least when he announced his entry with the hilarious line to Andy, "And you, on this day of fantasy, are... a laborer." His smugly stating that he's never uncomfortable was also great. But still, while James Spader is doing good work in the part, some of what's stuck in his mouth isn't so great. His final fear monologue would have been charming if it'd been a playful thing for the office to smile, laugh, and goodheartedly go along with (think the Office Olympics back in the day), but playing it as if everyone was actually scared just made it stupid.

But, with that negativity out of the way, back to the positive: This was probably Erin's biggest spotlight since "Secretary's Day" a couple years ago (an episode that actually went too far with Erin's neurotic nature in the restaurant scene), and Ellie Kemper tore into it as well as she pretty much always does. She never lets a single punchline escape her, and, although I remain less than entirely invested in Erin and Andy as a couple, she also sold her heartbreak at Andy's girlfriend reveal in a way that made you feel for her. A solid character showcase, just as "Lotto" was for Darryl.

The one part of her story that didn't quite work was her presentation of Gabe's "cinema of the unsettling." It was a scene that rammed up against the simple limits of what you're allowed to show on television: If the video had actually been gross and upsetting, the characters' reactions would have made sense and their discomfort would have been funny. As is, it wasn't and they weren't. However, this was followed immediately by the funniest moment of the entire episode, which makes up for it. And hey, speak of the devil!

Funniest Moment: A desperate Erin presenting Pecker Poker, "The game of cards that gets you haaard." Brilliant line delivery by Kemper, and the lone gut laugh of the episode.

Best TV Episodes, October 2011

I've decided to kick off a new feature wherein, on the first day of each month, I go through and rank and give some brief (spoiler-free) thoughts on my ten favorite television episodes that aired over the last month, plus pick a few runners-up. I can't watch everything, so I make no claim of this being any kind of definitive guide, but I thought it would be a fun way to organize my thoughts and share them at the same time, and maybe even talk a little about some shows I otherwise don't much.

Keep in mind that there's no "only one episode per show" rule in effect, so it's entirely possible that a few shows may dominate the top ten any given month. I may be a liberal, but the Tea Party should approve of this feature: there is no sharing the wealth here.


17. The Vampire Diaries, Season 3 Episode 5 – "The Reckoning" 16. Parks and Recreation, Season 4 Episode 5 – "Meet 'N' Greet" 15. Revenge, Season 1 Episode 5 – "Guilt" 14. Boardwalk Empire, Season 2 Episode 2 – "Ourselves Alone" 13. Homeland, Season 1 Episode 4 – "Semper I" 12. Parenthood, Season 3 Episode 4 – "Clear Skies From Here on Out" 11. Community, Season 3 Episode 5 – "Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps"

Top Ten:

10. Homeland, Season 1 Episode 5 – "Blind Spot"

Last Sunday's Homeland did a great job further cementing the show as, as I labeled it in my pilot review, the thinking man's 24. It excels at depicting espionage, intelligence gathering, interrogation, and other anti-terrorism activities in a way that adheres a million times more closely to reality, and continues to move the plot quickly yet patiently forward. I plan a full review of this episode in a day or two, so I'll leave it at that.

9. Breaking Bad, Season 4 Episode 12 – "End Times"

I mentioned in my Breaking Bad season four review that I found this episode arguably the weakest of the final act of the season, with a closing scene that seemed to take a certain character from smart to psychic. But, just as your favorite food slightly misprepared is still probably preferable to most anything else, problematic Breaking Bad is still Breaking Bad.

8. Parks and Recreation, Season 4 Episode 3 – "Born & Raised"

Joan Callamezzo is one of Parks and Recreation's great secret weapons, always hilarious but never overused and made stale (her talk show also anchored one of the funniest scenes of one of the funniest episodes of the series, "Media Blitz"), and she makes her season four debut to huge laughs and a really well-structured, interconnected plot. An all-around great episode for Leslie's character development and Ben being hilarious, because Adam Scott is always hilarious.

7. Parenthood, Season 3 Episode 5 – "Nora"

Parenthood is one of the most difficult shows on TV to define my enjoyment of, because the show is, at its heart, about decently well-off people having mostly small-scale, quickly resolved first world problems that have no impact whatsoever on the world at large. But showrunner Jason Katims (also behind Friday Night Lights) has a deft, borderline-magic touch for making these people so likable and their issues so compelling regardless that I end pretty much every episode with a goofy grin on my face. "Nora" was simply the goofy grinniest of October.

6. Boss, Season 1 Episode 1 – "Listen"

The second-best pilot of the fall and one of the best of the year, Boss, the story of a fictitious Chicago mayor and the machinations surrounding the office, is dense, brainy, literate television, hugely stylish and theatrical but with a thick undercurrent of realpolitik running through it. At showing the corrupting power of politics it excels far beyond the recent George Clooney film The Ides of March, and Kelsey Grammer is so ferocious as the titular boss that he damn near scrubbed the residual nightmares of his recent sitcom Hank from my mind.

5. Boardwalk Empire, Season 2 Episode 5 – "Gimcrack and Bunkum"

Long-simmering tensions between two characters come to a perfect boil, series dark horse Richard Harrow gets an awesome, actor-friendly showcase, and there's not one but two scenes of gruesome, beyond-the-pale violence. Hands down the best episode of the season, and one of the best of the series since the pilot; a sweaty, heart-pounding episode of a show that can occasionally feel cold and detached.

4. Homeland, Season 1 Episode 3 – "Clean Skin"

Effectively the third act and climax of the first act of Homeland's debut season, "Clean Skin" may be in certain ways the least cerebral Homeland yet, but it's also the most tense and thrilling, with one particularly shocking moment that will make almost anyone watching jump. It's the episode of Homeland where it's most evident the show is run by two of the same guys as 24, but without ever giving into that show's baser instincts.

3. Homeland, Season 1 Episode 1 – "Pilot"

Homeland's pilot, for my money, jumps ahead of the (both now deceased, the former more tragically than the latter) The Chicago Code and Lights Out and stands behind only Game of Thrones as having the best pilot of the year. While it does a great job laying the show's groundwork as a terrorism thriller, its true accomplishment is building its two key figures, Claire Danes' Carrie Mathison and Damian Lewis's Nicholas Brody, into startlingly rich, compelling, three-dimensional characters within the space of one hour. Watching Danes in this episode was the first time I was riveted watching an actor in a new series this fall.

2. Breaking Bad, Season 4 Episode 13 – "Face Off"

As perfect a fourth season finale as I think any of us could have hoped for a few months back, "Face Off" is explosively tense, violent, satisfying, and just plain climactic television, bringing tons of plot threads to their conclusions and showing an awesome, wicked delight at sending the show's premise spinning in a wildly new direction. (The episode is also surprisingly funny at points, particularly when Hector is spelling things out with his bell.) It doesn't necessarily contain Bryan Cranston's greatest performance of the season, but it does take the character into fascinating new territory, one where they now might as well go ahead and retitle the show Broke Bad. The stage is well set for a terrific fifth and final season next year.

1. Community, Season 3 Episode 4 – "Remedial Chaos Theory"

The first two seasons of Community each have a pair of episodes that loom tall and monstrously above the rest as little 22-minute comedy masterpieces among the best television has ever seen. Season one had "Modern Warfare" and "Contemporary American Poultry." Season two had "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" and "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design." And now season three is halfway to the same place with "Remedial Chaos Theory," a blast of dizzyingly clever comedic brilliance that singlehandedly makes almost all of the tens of thousands of sitcom episodes that have come before look lethargic and unambitious in comparison.

It has a hugely clever and perfectly-executed central gimmick, does terrific character work spanning the entire cast, is loaded with uproarious jokes, and has as heartwarming an ending as anyone could hope for, one that filled me with warm fuzzies that even Parks and Recreation at its best struggles to measure up to. If Community gives us just two or three more episodes on the level of this and the other four I mentioned before series' end, Dan Harmon can look back on a life's work and consider himself one of comedy's great architects.