Thursday, May 26, 2011

"Glee" Finale: Well, at least Mercedes got to do something...

Mark Salling, Chord Overstreet, Harry Shum Jr. and Kevin McHale in "New York," the second season finale of Glee. Photo courtesy of starpulse.com.

(Warning: SPOILERS ahead for those who haven't yet seen the season finale.)

I've complained about Glee a lot in the past. I've been disappointed by the way this once smart, feel-good show became a parody of itself, a series of seemingly unrelated episodes designed only to shoehorn in Top 40 hits and increase iTunes sales. The finale didn't really do anything to change my mind; while the usual pop hits were eschewed in favor of some uninteresting original songs, a plug for Matthew Morrison's new album, and a truly terrible Madonna song, the story was just as inconsistent as ever, and the characters once again seemed like completely different people than they did last week.

Let's start with the good moments, shall we? First of all, and most exciting, Mercedes (Amber Riley) actually has a love interest in the person of Chord Overstreet's Sam. Let's all just pause and let that sink in for a moment. As I've discussed before, Mercedes is the most ill-used character on the entire show, and until now she has never been allowed to have a love interest, while the rest of the characters have hooked up in a quantity of different permutations that could give the teens on Gossip Girl a run for their money. Does the extremely brief glimpse of Mercedes and Sam's relationship at the end of the episode - not to mention the fact that it seems to have stemmed from their pity date to prom - make up for two seasons of neglect? Well, no, but it's a good sign. Plus, it adds credence to my theory that executives and showrunners at FOX read this blog on a regular basis.

Another nice moment was the resolution of the Brittany/Santana storyline. It's slightly misleading to call it a resolution, since things were left pretty open-ended, but the final conversation between the two characters was sweet and, while they didn't end up together, it did leave the door open for a future romantic relationship while making sure that Santana knew how Brittany felt about her. It was a lovely, understated moment for a show that does not generally appear to know what the word "understated" means.

The third interesting storyline of the episode - and the only one that produced a remotely compelling musical number - was the moment when Kurt and Rachel snuck onto the stage of Wicked and, with the help of the world's most understanding security guard, sang a duet of "For Good." Now, "For Good" is one of my least favorite Wicked songs - it's saccharine and rather boring. However, compared to the rest of music contained in this episode, it was great. Which isn't really a good sign.

Now, onto the bad. I suspect that one of the reasons I disliked this episode so much is because I don't buy into the romanticized version of New York that was the focus of so much of this episode. My personal experience of New York has been that the city is filthy, crowded and hostile. I get stressed out just from being there. Based on my time in the city, if a group of Ohio teenagers suddenly burst into a terrible mash-up of some awful Madonna song and "New York, New York," they would be mocked and possibly spit on. (Also, can we talk about the unreality of a glee club who, only a few episodes ago, didn't have any money to go to Nationals, would be staying the Intercontinental Times Square? Or Finn taking Rachel to Sardi's, where an appetizer will run you between $15 and $20?) To me, New York City has never been a city of artistic inspiration, but rather a city of people yelling at me because I had the audacity to be from somewhere other than NYC. It's apparently my own personal failing.

However, despite my infinite dislike of New York City, the major problem I had with this episode was the general inconsistency of the characters. Will Schuester, who is perhaps the most inconsistent character on the show, had a baffling character arc. First he wanted to stay in New York to work on April Rhode's broadway show, a decision he made clear in the last episode; then, all of a sudden, after singing a song off of Matthew Morrison's new album in the theater and being told, in the corniest way possible, that he "had real talent" by an usher, he decided to quit on his Broadway dreams and go back to Lima, thanks to some backstabbing by Vocal Adrenaline coach Dustin Goolsby (a wasted Cheyenne Jackson).

Rachel's character arc was just as confounding. First she was in love with Finn, then she refused to be with him because she thought it would conflict with her "career" (at which point I wanted to yell "You're still in high school! You don't have a career), because she apparently forgot that she's still a year away from graduation and their last shot a relationship lasted considerably less than a year. Then they kissed on stage, which apparently somehow cost the glee club the competition - which they lost, by the way, although it was a fairly unimportant plot point - and then they made out in the library and decided to get back together anyway, and you know what, I really don't care anymore.

A few other random things happened: Quinn wanted to destroy the glee club's chances at winning (because apparently their hastily written, insipid original songs weren't going to do that anyway) but settled for getting a haircut instead; Brittany wrote an awesome song about a cup; and Puck, Sam, Mike and Artie serenaded Finn and Rachel with a song from The Aristocats. Other stuff probably happened, but this episode was such a grab bag of random plots and moments that, as Todd VanDerWerff pointed out in his recap for the AV Club, seemed to have dropped in from another show entirely, that I'm having hard time remembering what it was.

All in all, this episode encapsulated the problems of the extremely uneven second season. There were moments that were lovely, and brought back the original sense of the show as a series about a group of misfit kids and their hopes and dreams, but the vast majority of moments were just a grab for attention, ratings and iTunes sales. I'm looking forward to next year's NBC musical series Smash, which appears to feature original songs that are largely related to the plot and characterizations that are consistent from episode to episode. However, in order to make time for Smash, I might have to jettison Glee, and I'm really okay with that. A this point, even the promise of Mercedes getting a story can't keep me interested. The writers will probably just forget about it two episodes in anyway.

Monday, May 23, 2011

"Game of Thrones" Generates Even MORE Controversy (this time, it's racial)

Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones. Photo courtesy of blastr.com.

As HBO's Game of Thrones continues to get better and better, it also continues to generate controversy. The latest complaint (coming after Ginia Bellafante's argument that Game of Thrones is just for boys and allegations that the show was glorifying rape) is that the show's portrayal of the nomadic Dothraki is racially problematic. (Warning: SPOILERS ahead for those who have not yet seen Episode 6.) According to Maureen Ryan's recap of "A Golden Crown," the Dothraki scenes "contain a lot of people of color, and they also contain a lot of gratuitous nudity, and it all makes for a problematic aesthetic and message." Ryan goes on to say, "there was absolutely no need for that many dancing women in Viserys' death scene to be topless."

Ryan's argument sounds, at least to me, very similar to arguments that are often leveled at the Haradrim, the Southrons and the Easterlings in Lord of the Rings. (For a fairly comprehensive overview of the subject, check out the discussion at TolkienGateway.net.) These faceless antagonists are generally described as either "swarthy" or "dark-skinned," and the problem was only exacerbated by the film versions, in which the Haradrim and Easterlings had a distinctly African and Middle Eastern appearance, respectively. The film's portrayal in particular caused many groups to cry foul, accusing Tolkien and director Peter Jackson of dividing the good and evil forces along racial lines.

To me, the portrayal of the Dothraki is considerably less problematic than the portrayal of the Haradrim and the Easterlings in Tolkien. Even though Tolkien repeatedly stated that he didn't want his books to be read as an allegory, people have spent the years since the trilogy's publication reading it as an allegory of everything from the Cold War to World War I. The faceless quality of the forces of evil invites comparisons to propaganda painting "enemy" groups as nothing more than an inhuman, faceless multitude, and Tolkien's stark good vs. evil dichotomy leaves little room for sympathy. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, has already portrayed the Dothraki as a much more sympathetic group than, say, the Lannisters (with the exception of Tyrion). I was certainly rooting for Khal Drogo when he poured a pot of molten gold on Viserys' head, despite the brutality of the act. Of course, that could have been because Viserys is, with the exception of Joffrey and the creepily still breast-feeding Robert Arryn, the most unlikeable character in the show.

To me, the two scenes that heavily focused on the Dothraki in this episode - Viserys' death scene, and the earlier scene in which Daenerys eats a horse's heart - were intended to highlight the differences between Daenerys and Viserys by showing their reaction to the seemingly strange Dothraki customs. Viserys is, as always, appalled by the Dothraki rituals because he is convinced that he is better than these people, that as the heir to the house of Targaryen he is entitled to their loyalty and servility. Daenerys, on the other hand, has spent the series coming into her own as a woman, a Khaleesi, and now a Targaryen, and her acceptance by the Dothraki is a result of the way she has embraced their culture, eating horse hearts and topless women and all. Indeed, I generally feel that the Dothraki come off much better than many of their counterparts across the Narrow Sea, and Daenerys understands that.

I also take issue with Ryan's insistence that the bare-breasted women in the Dothraki court are reflecting badly on the Dothraki in racial terms, making them look more primitive than the Northerners. First of all, it's not like there's a shortage of breasts and vaginas on display in King's Landing; we've already seen both King Robert and Littlefinger cavorting with multiple prostitutes at once, and in the next episode (which is available a week early on the HBOGo App, and which I would strongly suggest watching if you have the chance) we are treated to a non-Dothraki display of girl-on-girl action that far surpasses the scene between Daenerys and Doreah in the second episode.

Second, I wouldn't argue that its necessarily incorrect to show a group of culturally different people who have different attitudes about bare breasts and sex. There are many groups of people who exist or have existed in our world who have completely different conceptions of what is taboo or not; I wrote my undergraduate thesis about an oral epic from the Siberian Republic of Tuva which features descriptions of breasts and genitalia, and is commonly told in front of young children. The Dothraki are not the people of Westeros - if you read the series as an allegory of medieval Europe, they're comparable to the Mongols, who hail from the same region as modern Tuva - and it wouldn't be surprising if their attitudes toward sex were more along the lines of Tuvan attitudes, rather than European ones.

Third, despite the fact that Game of Thrones can be read as an allegory of medieval Europe, and is based at least in part on the historical War of the Roses, it is important to remember that it is a fantasy series. This isn't England and Africa, this is Westeros and Dothrak, and as such is distanced from any sort of racial statement about the actual world. Yes, the Dothraki can be read as a counterpart to the Mongols, but they can also be read purely on their own terms as nomadic horse lords who have a chance of taking over the Seven Kingdoms. After all, it's not like the people of Westeros are anything resembling Christian - there are two major religions in Westeros, distinguished by whether the adherent prays to the old gods or the new, and neither of them resembles Christianity. This makes any sort of allegorical reading, particularly in terms of race and primitive/advanced cultures, problematic.

Of course, some of you probably agree with me, and you have every right to. Sound off in the comments, and let me know if you think that Game of Thrones has a race problem.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Most Exciting (New) Fall Shows

Clockwise from top left: James Caviezel and Michael Emerson in Person of Interest (photo courtesy of thevoiceoftv.com); Stephen Lang in Terra Nova (photo courtesy of blastr.com); Sarah Jones and Sam Neill in Alcatraz (photo courtesy of zap2it.com); and Christina Applegate and Will Arnett in Up All Night (photo courtesy of daemonstv.com)

As one TV season wraps up, so the buzz for the next season begins. Pilot season is over, folks, and networks are finalizing their fall schedules. Without further ado, I bring you the new shows that I'm most excited to see next fall.

Alcatraz (FOX)

Alcatraz doesn't start until midseason, but it has a pedigree that is worth the wait. The show was created by J.J. Abrams, and thanks to Fringe and the new Star Trek movie, I will watch anything featuring that name, despite the quickly forgotten debacle that was Undercovers. The trailer promises twisty sci-fi craziness, centering around a time-traveling prison break being investigated by Jorge Garcia and Sarah Jones. Throw in Jurassic Park's Sam Neill as a mysterious tycoon attempting to get to the bottom of the mystery, plus some seriously creepy images of the newly abandoned prison and the bewildered, violent inmates, and Alcatraz promises to be one of the most intriguing new shows of the fall.


Terra Nova (FOX)

Fox's Terra Nova doesn't have the best buzz right now; the Steven Spielberg-produced prehistoric epic has been in development for quite a while now, and was supposed to be Fox's big new show last season. However, with Spielberg at the helm and Jason O'Mara (Life on Mars) and Stephen Lang (Avatar) starring, it sounds quite promising. The first look trailer is great, with images of a smog-covered, convincingly dystopian future contrasted with the lush jungles of prehistoric Earth. The premise is certainly interesting; colonists from the future are being sent to the time of the dinosaurs in an attempt to change the past and save the polluted world of the future. (Between this, Alcatraz and Fringe, next year is going be time travel-heavy). Plus, dinosaurs! And fights with dinosaurs!


Up All Night (NBC)

This one's pretty simple: Will Arnett and Christina Applegate starring in a comedy about a couple having their first baby, accompanied by the hilarious Maya Rudolph in a supporting role, is just about everything you need to make a show really funny. The copious profanity on display in the trailer is just the cherry on top.


Smash (NBC)

I'm hesitant to recommend this show, mostly because I suffer from a symptom I like to call Post-Traumatic Glee Disorder, and any musical TV show is likely to trigger flashbacks of excessively auto-tuned renditions of the latest Top 40 hits, whether or not they are relevant to the plot. However, I'm tentatively prepared to recommend NBC's Smash. After all, it stars Debra Messing, Jack Davenport (FlashForward) and Anjelica Huston as Broadway producers working to produce a show about Marilyn Monroe. Ingenue Katherine McPhee (of American Idol fame) may not be able to act, but we at least know she can sing. And since the show will feature original music, we know that it won't rely on rehashes of Top 40 hits that derail the plot in order to sell more songs on iTunes.


Person of Interest (CBS)

This show is perhaps the single most exciting offering on the fall schedule. First of all, it stars Michael Emerson (Lost's Ben Linus) as a mysterious figure who uses existing government surveillance equipment to monitor crimes and prevent them before they happen. I would honestly watch Emerson read the phone book aloud for twenty episodes, but I suspect Person of Interest might be more interesting than that; it's a collaboration between J.J. Abrams (who is ever so prolific this season) and Jonathan Nolan (Christopher's brother, and a writer of The Dark Knight). Admittedly, I'm a bit concerned over whether J.J. Abrams can handle three shows at once, but I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Bonus points for co-star Jesus (James Caviezel from The Passion of the Christ).


Torchwood: Miracle Day (STARZ)

Torchwood isn't exactly a new show; it ran for two seasons and the excellent Children of Earth miniseries on BBC. Fans have been waiting forever for the next season, which is set in America and being shown on Starz. The bigger American TV budget should allow for bigger action sequences, and the premise is suitably creepy; an entire day goes by in which not a single person dies on Earth. Watch the fantastically eerie teaser trailer, and tell me you're not insanely excited for this.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

"The Big Bang Theory" Finale: And Then There Was Raj

Kaley Cuoco, Jim Parsons and Kunal Nayyar in "The Roomate Transmogrification." Photo courtesy of toomuchtotivo.com.

I have to admit, for most of this season I felt that The Big Bang Theory was in a serious slump. The premise was growing stale, Jim Parson's Sheldon, while still entertaining, was even more one-note than before, and Kunal Nayyar's Raj was too often sidelined as a result of a new focus on Howard (Simon Helberg) and his girlfriend, Bernadette (Melissa Rauch). I don't know if the season finale necessarily turned the show around - after all, there is every chance that these problems will come back full force next season - but tonight's episode was a return to form. Tightly plotted and full of laughs, the episode had its flaws, but overall it was an entertaining throwback to the first or second season. (Warning: SPOILERS ahead for those who haven't yet seen "The Roommate Transmogrification.")

There were a few moments in the episode that didn't click for me, and I want to get them out of the way so I can get to the good stuff. The biggest problem I had with the episode - and a problem I've had with the season in general - is the way that Sheldon's character has somehow become even more neurotic and socially inept than he was originally. While there were moments in the episode that featured typical Sheldon humor without going over the top, like his jokes about Leonard's flatulence in the opening Cheesecake Factory scene, much of the story reduced him to the one-note awkward scientist who hasn't changed since the first season. The roommate paperwork he gave to Raj in particular was a joke that has been repeated ad nauseam, and while Parson's delivery still earned a few chuckles, the joke has worn a little thin.

I understand why the show chooses to showcase Parsons - he's an extremely talented comic actor, and Sheldon is the show's breakout character - but I wish they would give the character something more to do than just be neurotic and socially incompetent. Parsons is a great comic talent, but he's also capable of much more range, as the rave reviews he's earning in the Broadway revival of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart demonstrate. Obviously, The Big Bang Theory is a broad comedy, and there isn't a lot of room in the episodic sitcom format for serious character development; however, Parsons is a talented enough actor that the writers could give him a little more to do without upsetting the balance of the show.

The problems I had with the Sheldon storyline, however, didn't detract from the episode as a whole. There were some great, laugh-out-loud funny moments that were grounded by some good plot threads. One of my favorite scenes the scene where Raj, having taken off his noise-canceling headphones to get a snack, overhears Leonard and Priya (Aarti Mann) having extremely nerdy, Star Trek-themed sex. Hearing Leonard and Priya's banter through the door was hilarious, and Nayyar's reactions completely sold the scene. I've always been a big Kunal Nayyar fan, and one of my favorite things about this episode was his central role.

Of course, a discussion of Raj's role in the finale wouldn't be complete without his surely buzz-inducing hookup with Penny. Kunal Nayyar and Kaley Cuoco are my two favorite actors from the show, and even though I could see their hookup coming from a mile away, they have such great chemistry and comic timing that it didn't matter. I particularly liked the moment when Penny, having woken up in bed with Raj, first sees his hand, then follows his arm with her eyes until she reaches his face. The moment went on for a long time, but not too long, and Cuoco's dawning expression of dismay was priceless.

While one pair hooked up, two other couples were falling apart. Leonard, who was bothered that Priya refused to tell her parents about him, got a shock when he found out that she was planning on moving back to India in a month. Raj was feeling threatened because Bernadette had just received her doctorate and had been offered a high-paying job at a pharmaceutical company, thus making her both the more educated and higher-earning half of the couple. Neither of these plot threads were particularly groundbreaking, but they were played well by Johnny Galecki, Mann, Helberg and Rauch. The Leonard/Priya story in particular was compelling because Leonard is really the audience's stand-in; he may be smart and geeky, but he's the character, even more so than Penny, who really stand back from the group and comments on their social awkwardness. (Of course, it's possible that Penny is the real audience stand-in, and that I identify with Leonard because I'm also a geek, and I have my socially awkward moments.)

The Big Bang Theory will never be a groundbreaking show in the way that Community or 30 Rock can be (although the latter's better days are behind it). It is generally, however, a solid half-hour of laughs that, in episodes like this, is well put-together and streamlined, and it has a cast of excellent comic actors. The show can't attain the insane heights of a "Modern Warfare" or "MILF Island," but when it's good, there isn't a more consistent comedy on TV. Let's hope that the show uses the momentum from this episode to bring season 5 back up to the level of the first two seasons.

A few random notes that didn't come up in the review:

  • The moment when Penny confessed to Raj that she made a mistake in dumping Leonard was sweet, and filled with the kind of sentiment that doesn't usually come up on this show. Props to Kaley Cuoco for making the moment seem organic.
  • The writers are clearly trying to start season 5 with a clean slate, but I really hope that Leonard's relationship doesn't crash and burn. I don't always like Priya, but Johnny Galecki brings such identifiable sadness to his character that it hurts when he's unhappy.
  • Bernadette giving Howard a Rolex was funny; her comment, "I just want my baby to have pretty things" seemed forced.
  • Speaking of Howard, any character progress made by his unseen mother in last week's episode was negated by her lewd come-ons to Raj.
  • Penny's reaction when she realized that Raj couldn't talk to her even after sleeping with her was great.
  • Loved that while Penny and Raj were drinking wine, Sheldon was drinking filtered water.
  • The moment when Leonard shuts the computer on Priya's parents was really funny in an understated way.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Castle" Finale: Beckett's Betrayal

Stana Katic in "Knockout," the season finale of Castle. Photo courtesy of wetpaint.com.

I've mentioned before that I prefer Castle when it doesn't take itself too seriously. I like that the show can be fun and light-hearted despite the murder that opens every episode. While I do enjoy some of the more serious episodes - the second season two-parter "Tick, Tick, Tick..." and "Boom!" is excellent - I prefer it when even those episodes have some humor, such as the entertaining interaction between Dana Delaney's Jordan Shaw and Castle in the aforementioned two-parter.

This week's finale, however, was extremely light on the humor. Other than an early moment in which Castle brags to Ryan and Esposito about the upcoming publication of a graphic novel based on his characters (which is a real thing, apparently), the episode's tone was one of ominous seriousness, akin to one of the more dramatic episodes of Law & Order: SVU. Which is exactly the sort of thing I don't like to see on a normally lighthearted show like Castle.

I'm not saying the season finale was bad - it had a lot of scenes that worked, and the two major twists were extremely well-executed - but there were moments when the tone veered too far toward the dramatic, and those moments rang hollow. For me, the two most jarring scenes were Castle's confrontation with Beckett and his removal of Beckett from the hangar before Captain Montgomery's last stand. The first scene in particular, in which Castle tells Beckett she needs to stop investigating her mother's murder, and accuses her of having "crawled inside [her] mother's murder" to hide, rang false to me. While the beginning of the scene was good, addressing the tension between Castle and Beckett in a straightforward way, the moment escalated quickly into melodrama, with Castle blaming everything from Beckett's endangerment of her own life to her bad relationships with men on her mother's murder.

Besides the unnecessary melodrama, I didn't like this scene because it didn't fit with the previously established relationship between the two protagonists. I don't buy for a second that Castle really thinks Beckett refuses to open up to him because of her mother's murder, and I also don't buy that Castle would really try to convince her to stop pursuing the man who killed her mother. He knows what this case means to her, and he also knows from previous experience that any attempt to tell her what to do on this case will be ignored. The scene seemed less like an interaction that sprang organically from the characters, a more like a plot device added to the episode to create drama.

The thing was, the writers certainly didn't need to create drama. The revelation that Captain Montgomery (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) was involved with the case and was betraying Beckett, and his final decision to sacrifice himself in order to save her, was a dramatic enough arc in itself, and one that earned the emotional payoff much more than Beckett and Castle's fight. (The arc even worked despite the clich├ęd "good cop dies right before his retirement" element that I sensed was coming ever since Montgomery announced that he was retiring.) This arc led to one of the best emotional scenes in the episode - the fight between Ryan and Esposito. Jon Huertas and Seamus Dever played that scene beautifully, but the real reason the scene worked was because it was completely organic to the characters and the situation: their betrayal at finding out that their boss and role model was dirty was honest, and it didn't even seem over the top when Esposito punched Ryan.

Of course, the scene that everyone will be talking about during the hiatus is the final scene, in which Beckett is shot by a sniper while speaking at Captain Montgomery's funeral and Castle finally tells her that he loves her. That moment, like the Captain's death, was an emotional scene that felt earned rather than forced; it made perfect sense that Castle would articulate his feelings for Beckett only when he realized he might have lost her forever, and I hope that this revelation will lead to some actual movement in the will they/won't they relationship between the characters. If Beckett wakes up in the hospital next season and doesn't remember Castle's words (and yes, she will wake up in the hospital; I knew all along she wouldn't be killed, even before I read an interview with creator Andrew W. Marlowe in which he revealed that she would be back next season), again stalling the resolution to that particular plot thread, I'm going to be majorly annoyed.

I've been fairly hard on the episode, largely because of the over-dramatic scenes and lack of humor (although Castle acting as a pallbearer in a suit and sunglasses, while the other pallbearers were all cops wearing dress blues, was a nice visual gag), but I seem to be in the minority here. Sandra Gonzalez of Entertainment Weekly loved the episode, finding it completely devastating and emotionally fraught. Indeed, her two favorite scenes were my two least favorite scenes, demonstrating that one person's melodrama can easily be another person's emotional impact. My boyfriend, an avid Castle fan himself, was also quite fond of the episode, and didn't find the more emotional scenes jarring or melodramatic.

I think the difference between my take on the episode and the takes of those who thought it was great (and I'll repeat here, I didn't think it was bad, just uneven) is that I'm a recent Castle convert. I started watching the show midway through the current season, and while I've seen a number of episodes, they haven't been in any particular order and I certainly haven't seen all of them. In particular, I wasn't as involved in the Johanna Beckett murder storyline as someone who had seen the show from the beginning, and was thus unaffected by scenes that, to those who were more invested in the plot thread, were important and moving.

I think this underlines problem for a show like Castle, a problem that will leave viewers divided on serious episodes devoted to long-term story arcs. Castle falls squarely on the episodic end of the serialized/episodic continuum, which makes it easy for viewers to dive in at any point in the series without having to catch up on everything that has happened so far. This makes it much easier for the show to pick up viewers in later seasons (unlike, say, Fringe or The Vampire Diaries, for which you need to have a knowledge of all the previous episodes in order to follow the show), but it also makes it problematic to have an episode that, like this one, is so focused on the serialized arc.

For viewers who have been watching from the beginning its a great, emotional episode that answers a lot of questions, but for latecomers it is confusing (luckily for me, I had someone to explain the story) and overly dramatic, because viewers who only started tuning in later, or who missed a previous Johanna Beckett episode, aren't particularly invested in the story. An episode like this walks a fine line between accessible and incomprehensible, and the finale definitely stepped over that line a few times. That said, I still love Castle, and I'm excited to see what changes are in store for next season. I for one would like to see Ryan and Esposito promoted (together) to Captain. Or, alternately, Jane Lynch could leave her grating, increasingly inconsistent Sue Sylvester behind and come work for the NYPD. How cool would that be?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Fringe" Finale: A Paradox Explains (almost) Everything

Emily Meade, Jasika Nicole, Joshua Jackson and Anna Torv in "The Day We Died." Photo courtesy of fringetelevision.com.

Fringe fans certainly have a reason to be grateful this summer. I'm sure everyone who watched the finale heaved a huge sigh of relief that there will be a fourth season, because while "The Day We Died" was an excellent season finale, it would have been a terrible series finale. (Note: SPOILERS ahead, so if you haven't seen the finale yet, stop reading.)

There was a lot to love about this episode of Fringe, and I want to focus on those. So, I'm going to get my minor quibbles with the episode out of the way first. The biggest problem I had with "The Day We Died" was the explanation for why Walter can't change that he sent the machine back in time, but Peter is perfectly capable of recalling his consciousness to the present and changing his actions. I'm normally okay with the pseudo-science of Fringe - in fact, I find it quite entertaining - but there was something blatantly wrong with Walter's I can't change the time frame, but you can work within the time frame explanation. It seemed too much like the writers just invented it to push the plot along, rather than seeming organic to the Fringe-verse. It also worries me slightly; many other shows have gotten bogged down in time travel storylines (I'm looking at you, Lost), and I hope the writers handle this development well.

My other (much less important) quibble with the episode was the distracting whiteness of Walternate's hair. I know that he was made up to look older (although, with the exception of Ella, everyone else looked the same age), but his hair looked like it had been made into a bio-luminescent trap by a colony of glow worms. I could barely focus on anything he was saying.

Enough complaints. I really, really liked this episode. I really enjoyed Future Earth, and I would love to go back there someday. As I mentioned previously, I was hoping that Fringe would just go for broke and set a good chunk of next season in the future. I knew that wasn't going to happen as soon as Olivia got shot, but I stand by that line of reasoning. There are so many teases of events - like what happened in Detroit, and that shot of the vortex in the Thames - that I would have loved to find out more about, and I really enjoyed the dynamics of the future Fringe team. There were also some great character development moments in the episode; one of my favorites was watching Olivia effortlessly use her telepathic abilities to catch a box that was about to crash to the ground. I wanted to spend more time with that Olivia, a strong, confident woman who is now in charge of Fringe Division and who has honed her powers to the point where she can perform such delicate maneuvers. Anna Torv portrayed Olivia with an effortless confidence that she doesn't usually have, and I loved every second of it.

It was an episode of all-around outstanding performances - besides Torv's portrayal of Olivia, Joshua Jackson did a great job showing Peter's anger and despair at Olivia's death, and Lance Reddick was even more imposing than usual with a badass glass eye - but, as usual, one stood out. John Noble's performance as the imprisoned Walter (a man who, in fifteen years time, is blamed for everything that is going wrong with the world) was a delicate balance between a man who has been completely broken and the old Walter, a man with a childlike sense of wonder and scientist's drive to find all the answers. The scene between Walter and Olivia is a lovely, quiet moment in an action-packed episode, beautifully acted by both Torv and Noble.

Noble also does a great job with Walternate in this episode, and showing the ways in which Walter and Walternate differ. At their core, they are the same broken man; Walter is broken because of his guilt over the destruction of the other universe, while Walternate is broken because he is the only one left from his world. Their reactions to their grief, however, are completely different. While Walter philosophically waits in prison, accepting his punishment, Walternate becomes more calloused, more willing to take the other world down with him at all costs. The scene between Peter and Walternate is wonderful in spite of the bio-luminescent hair, because it shows that Walternate is a man who has lost everything, and is now willing to do absolutely everything in his power to exact his vengeance. This is not a man who would take joy in the long-missed pleasures of a swivel chair.

Of course, while the future storyline was great, the major talking point of the episode was the ending, which I thought was great and promises good things for next season. I really like the idea of the two worlds being forced to work together in order to save both universes, and I look forward to seeing the interactions between Walter and Walternate, Olivia and Fauxlivia next season. In particular, I think that the two Olivias are going to make a great team; they're much less divided than Walter and Walternate to begin with, and we've recently seen Fauxlivia and the rest of the Earth-2 Fringe team becoming suspicious of Walternate's agenda. Plus, the charming and delightful Lincoln Lee (Seth Gabel) was upgraded to series regular for next year, which almost certainly means more involvement for the other Fringe team.

I do have a few questions about the ramifications of Peter's disappearance. (And speaking of the disappearance, I really dug the creepy scene in which the Observers, gathered on Liberty Island, explain that he's gone now. It was well done, eerie and explanatory at the same time.) What reasons do the two Walters have for their conflict now? Does baby Henry still exist? Does Peter's non-existence mean that we will no longer have to deal with the love triangle between the younger Bishop and the two Olivias? (God I hope so). I'm assuming that Peter is going to be found/rematerialized eventually, as I can't imagine that Joshua Jackson would be completely written off the show, so what happens when he comes back? Will the others' memories of him come back as well, or will he be a stranger? Basically, I can't wait for Fringe's return in the fall, and I'm so thankful for it's renewal. Because seriously, how terrible would it have been if that was the note the show left us on?

"Castle:" Why You Should Be Watching

Nathan Fillion and Molly C. Quinn in Castle

Now, usually when I tell people to watch a show it's because it's a cult favorite that pushes boundaries and is in imminent danger of cancellation. Anyone who read my column in the Swarthmore Phoenix will remember the way I shamelessly begged people to watch Fringe for weeks and weeks (and weeks). In my defense, Fringe was renewed for a fourth season, yet another piece of evidence that executives and showrunners at FOX read my musings on a regular basis. (If you need more proof, this was published on February 3, one month and eight days before FOX aired the Glee episode "Sexy," which addressed the many, many problems I had with Brittany and Santana's relationship. Some might say this was a coincidence, but I suspect that the more accurate explanation is that Ryan Murphy reads my writing."

However, today I'm here to suggest you watch ABC's Castle, which is in no danger of getting canceled, having been renewed waaaay back in January, and which is far from a cult show, despite the fact that star Nathan Fillion played Mal Reynolds in Firefly, a cult show if there ever was one. And since Castle is fairly popular and no danger, I'm not going to beg; instead, I'm simply going to suggest that you devote an hour of your time on Mondays to watching this fun, witty police procedural.

I know that "fun" and "witty" are words that don't often appear in the same clause as "police procedural," unless they happen to be separated by a string of negative polarity items. (For a definition of negative polarity items, look here.) However, Castle takes what is often a dour, humorless drama - as the sexual assault of the week on Law & Order: SVU demonstrates as well as anything - and makes it into a show so lighthearted, so full of witty one-liners and sharp comedy, that you almost forget there are murders taking place every week.

A large part of the humor on Castle comes from its irascible leading man, best-selling author Richard Castle, brought to life by Fillion. Anyone who has seen Fillion in anything - Firefly, Doctor Horrible's Singalong Blog, or Two Guys, A Girl, and a Pizza Place - knows that the man had an undeniable, rouge-ish charm about him, one that permits him to say truly disgusting things and still come across as cute. (Example: his immortal line from Doctor Horrible, also know as the best line in the history of anything, which can be found here. I'm not going to repeat it, because this is a family site, and by family site I mean that my parents read it.) Fillion's natural charm makes the shallow, cocky Castle seem lovable rather than awful, and makes his readings of lines such as "I really am ruggedly handsome, aren't I?" come across as cute while also being impossibly vain.

At first glance, it might seem that it is only Fillion's charm and admittedly rugged good looks (despite the weight he has gained since his Firefly days) that keep the show from running into the ground. After all, it is a fairly formulaic procedural based on a laughable premise. In short, Castle is called by the NYPD when a murder is committed that resembles a crime in one of his books, and stays to shadow Detective Beckett (Stana Katic) because he is friends with the mayor. Apparently his friendship with the mayor extends so far that he is allowed in interrogations, on stakeouts, even in raids. Sometimes he even fires a gun, not that he's had any sort of police training or anything. Because that would be totally cool with the trained law enforcement officials he endangers with his lack of skill on a regular basis. But back to the show...

The reason that the premise occasionally seems to make sense is Castle's chemistry with his costars, in particular with Beckett. I'm getting a little tired of the will-they-or-won't-they plot that's been dragging on for two seasons now, but such is the curse of detective procedurals; you have great chemistry between your two leads, but if they actually get together the momentum of the whole thing just collapses. Just ask Moonlighting. Or don't, because it got canceled a mere one season after the two leads hooked up. However, despite the laggardly pace of the Castle-Beckett romance (or lack thereof), it can't be denied that the leads have excellent chemistry, and their scenes are always entertaining.

The show's best scenes, however, are those that involve Castle and his teenage daughter, Alexis (Molly C. Quinn). They may not have the most realistic parent-child relationship on TV - either that, or there's a lot of yelling and door-slamming that happens off screen - but their storylines distill the nice moments from the stew of angst that is being a teenager in a lovely, funny and often touching way. I would take their relationship over Beckett and Castle's any day, and not just because scenes that involve Castle and Alexis also tend to involve Susan Sullivan as Castle's mother Martha, and she's just great. She's like a nicer, more supportive Lucille Bluth, and while I love me some Lucille, after watching so much Arrested Development and Archer, it's nice to see a parent occasionally support their child.

Castle is far from groundbreaking television, but it's a sharp, quick-witted take on the usually bogged-down procedural genre, with a charming male lead who is matched by the supporting cast. In addition to Beckett, Alexis and Martha, Seamus Dever and Jon Huertas are great as the interracial cop duo Ryan and Esposito. They always seem to have popped in from their own buddy cop movie - one of the good ones, not Cop Out or Rush Hour 3. Some people like the episodes where Castle goes darker, like this season's two-parter in which Castle and Beckett foil a terrorist attack in New York that had undertones of 9/11, but for me the best episodes are the one in which the quips are constant and the good time are rollin'. Sometimes the bullets fly too, but that's all part of the fun.

"Doctor Who" and Neil Gaiman: A Match Made in the Universe's Junkyard

Matt Smith and Suranne Jones in "The Doctors Wife." Photo courtesy of www.screenrant.com.

I know that this week is Pencils Down, Pass the Remote's Finale-Stravaganza, and that "The Doctor's Wife," the fourth episode in the sixth season of Doctor Who, is not a finale. However, I loved this episode so much that I couldn't wait to write about it, and I suspect (given the amount of traffic my previous Doctor Who post has been getting) that some of my readers feel the same. So today I will be taking a short break from my finale reviews and writing a little about why "The Doctor's Wife" was such a stand-out episode. The break won't be too long, I promise; if you come back later today, you might just find a review of the Fringe finale. Clearly, I'm in a sci-fi sort of a mood today.

I had extremely high hopes for this episode of Doctor Who, as it was written by one of my favorite authors, the incomparable Neil Gaiman. The great thing about this episode was the way that Gaiman made his influence felt throughout the hour while not distracting from the snappy pace. Gaiman's influence was evident in the episode's setting, a conscious planet named "House" (voiced by an exceptionally creepy Michael Sheen) that exists outside the universe, sort of like a small bubble clinging to the outside of a larger bubble, only not really. The Victorian junkyard look of House and it's patchwork inhabitants - a woman named Auntie, a man named Uncle, and an Ood known as Nephew - was straight out of Gaiman's novel Neverwhere, and boy was it a creepy place. And the ouroboros, or snake eating its own tail, is a fertile trope that has appeared in science fiction stories from Lost to Red Dwarf.

The best element of the hour, however, was Suranne Jone's portrayal of the personified Tardis, trapped in the body of a woman named Idris by House. Gaiman's dialogue for the Tardis was spot-on, her confusion of tenses showing both his quick-witted sensibilities and drawing a connection to Douglas Adam's novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. (Adams, by the way, is another former Doctor Who writer). The conceit of having the Doctor finally be able to talk to the Tardis, to explore their long and complicated relationship, was great fun in addition to being extremely illuminating. After all, the Doctor's relationship with the Tardis is by far the longest, deepest one in his life, and it was lovely to see him able to interact with her for the first time.

The dichotomy between the Tardis, the good, wise living matrix, and House, the twisted, evil sentient planet, is a fairly simple one, but it's powerful nonetheless. The scenes in which House tortures Amy and Rory as they run through seemingly endless corridors are, for my money, some of the creepiest in the rebooted series' run. The moment in which Amy stumbled upon a corridor, covered in graffiti that repeats "hate Amy," "kill Amy," and "die Amy," before finding the dessicated skeleton of Rory, ranks right up there with the Weeping Angels in terms of sheer terror. I've mentioned before that I often find the Rory-is-going-to-die moments a fairly cheap grab for emotional resonance on the part of the show's writers, but this scene was so terrifying, and so completely organic to the episode and the character of House, that I believed it completely. Karen Gillan's performance in these moments was perfect, and her grief over Rory's seeming death and hatred of her sold the moment. She also provided a nice counterpoint when, while giving the telepathic password to the Tardis' control room, she summoned "delight" by thinking about her wedding.

The character of House made for an excellent villain, one who I wouldn't mind seeing again at some point (although how he would be brought back I have no idea). The way that he cannibalizes both Time Lords and Tardises - brought home in the moments when the Doctor sees that another Time Lord's arm has been grafted to Auntie, and the human Tardis' grief at seeing the broken corpses of her sisters - is a perfect device for highlighting the Doctor's ultimate loneliness and bringing him closer to the Tardis. One of the great truths about the Doctor is his ultimate loneliness, brought to the forefront here when he discovers that the lost Time Lords he's been hoping to find are nothing more than old messages, constantly playing on repeat.

House, however, was more than just a plot device. His level of sadistic cruelty toward Amy and Rory was disturbing, and the way he made them watch each other die was a nice reminder of the fact that these two companions are constantly haunted by the specter of the Doctor's death. House's pure hatred of these life forms was reminiscent of Harlan Ellison short story, "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" (thanks to Ben Yelsey for the reference!). This story tells the tale of the last five humans left on earth, who are forced by a cruel supercomputer to live underground, who are kept from death by the computer purely so he can torture them. The character of House is so frightening because of the way he enjoys Amy and Rory's suffering. In that way, he shares similarities with John Simm's incarnation of the Master, who laughs and dances to the screams of the dying population of Earth.

The main thrust of the episode, however, was the Doctor's relationship with the Tardis that he so often takes for granted. I liked the way that the episode's title perfectly fit the hour's happenings, even though some might have been given the wrong impression. (I for one assumed that the episode would be about the Doctor's relationship with River Song.) It was the perfect title because, no matter River's or Amy's or even Rose Tyler's relationship with the Doctor, it can never approach the depth of his relationship with his Tardis. He is, after all, a madman with a blue box. The Tardis is part of his identity, and he finally got to talk to her, to tell her how much he loves her and how important she is. His heartbreak at her death was so genuine, and so well played by Matt Smith, that I could understand his grief despite the knowledge that she had returned to her own body. The final moment, when he spoke to her and she responded by moving the levers and sending him to wherever he needed to be, was one of the best of the season so far.

A few stray notes:
  • I made this episode sound really dark. It wasn't, and some of the funniest scenes came from the Doctor bickering with the Tardis like they were an old married couple.
  • Also loved the way that the Tardis offers her side of the story: she stole the Doctor, and she decides where he needs to go.
  • Amy and Rory requesting that their new bedroom not have bunk beds, and the Doctor replying that "bunk beds are cool!"
  • The return of the old control room! It was nice to see it again.
  • In the old series, the other rooms of the Tardis were explored. Are we ever going to see anything but the control room? I personally want to get a look at the oft-mentioned swimming pool.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

"Community" Finale: There Will Be Paintball

Donald Glover, Danny Pudi and Alison Brie in "For a Few Paintballs More." Cougartown actress Busy Philipps can be seen in the background.

The epic game of paintball has now concluded, and I feel that I can safely say that this year's two-part finale managed to top "Modern Warfare" in terms of both scope and laughs. There was even a nice, emotional coda at the end that wrapped up the season-long arc of Pierce's villainy and alienation, while leaving the study group reeling. This move promises good things for next season, and exemplifies one of the best features of Community: the show's ability to have major character growth even amidst the paint-splattered craziness. (Note: SPOILERS. All sorts of spoilers. Seriously, stop reading if you haven't finished the season.)

I realize that this is almost the same thing I said in yesterday's review of the Vampire Diaries finale, and that's probably not a coincidence. (In fact, it's definitely not a coincidence.) I appreciate The Vampire Diaries' go-for-broke pacing as much as I appreciate Community's absurd wackiness, but those features would certainly ring hollow without the character building moments that both shows are so good at. This is one reason that I prefer these two shows to something like Glee, which has all the wackiness of Community but without the underlying character stability. (Todd VanDerWerff of the AV Club makes this point excellently in his otherwise questionable article about why Community and Glee are basically the same show.) The show's character relationships ground the general insanity, and the finale was a perfect example of that.

But you didn't come here because you want to hear me pontificate about Community (if you did, leave a note in the comments and I'll be happy to write more pontificating posts for you); you came because you want to Talk. About. Paintball. And so do I. I have a lot of thoughts on "A Fistful of Paintballs" and "For a Few Paintballs More," and I can't wait to share them with you. So, here goes.

One of my favorite things about the finale is the way that it tied in references to previous episodes of the show. In my profile of Alison Brie, she mentioned that all the recurring characters would make appearances and that conflicts from throughout the season would come to a head, and the episodes lived up to that promise. I was a particular fan of the way that Troy's plumbing expertise, revealed in the Season 1 episode "English as a Second Language," was put to good use when he rigged the library sprinklers with paint. The final conspiracy theory, which revealed that Greendale rivals City College were behind the paintball war, was also a nice nod to the ongoing rivalry explored in "Basic Rocket Science."

There were other, less direct references as well. One of the most intriguing and revealing moments came when Annie, impressed by Abed's Han Solo-esque rebellious persona, began to fall for Abed, and ended up kissing him in the (paint) rain. This was both a nice throwback to the kiss between Jeff and Annie that closed out last year's season finale and an insight into Annie's character. Annie is the romantic of the study group, someone who spent part of the first season hopelessly in love with Troy and was crushed when she found out about Jeff's affair with Britta. Annie's vulnerability was on full display here, and Brie played the moment when Abed drops character and leaves with a detached "Cool," beautifully, showing us Annie's devastation and her disbelief that she ever could have considered a relationship with Abed.

The episodes were also impressive for the deft tonal shift that took place between the first and second parts. The Western motif in the first half was very funny, especially Josh Holloway's mysterious gunslinger and the saloon culture in Pierce's hideout. (Vicki's table dancing was a great detail in that scene, and Garrett's put the whole thing hilariously over the top.) The Star Wars vibe in "For a Few Paintballs More" was also great, even though it was fairly understated; despite Abed's Han Solo impression and the paintball players dressed as stormtroopers, the second half followed a fairly straightforward action plot rather than a specific Star Wars plot. I really like that the show didn't feel the need to stick too closely to Star Wars; if the Family Guy parodies have taught us anything, it's that reenacting the entire movie is not actually funny. Like, not funny at all.

I also really enjoyed Troy's power struggle with Jeff, as it highlighted some nice tension from the season as a whole. Even though Jeff is generally called upon to be the leader of the group, Troy is the one who has to step up when no one else wants to, a fact that was nicely demonstrated in one of my favorite episodes of the season, "Mixology Certification." It was really nice to see Troy assert his independence, and even better to see Jeff acknowledge Troy's value in the finale scene. The Troy and Jeff pairing is not a particularly common one on the show, particularly since Troy and Abed's relationship is so strong, but I like to see Troy insist on his own importance on occasion, particularly since the character is my personal favorite. (It doesn't hurt that he's played by Donald Glover, who is just hilarious all the time. Warning: the first and third link are fairly NSFW.)

I also liked the role that Shirley played in the finale. Shirley is often the group's voice of reason, and she kept up that role nicely here by reminding the other characters, through lines about wanting to go home and see her children and missing CSI, that this was a paintball war rather than an actual war. Shirley's nun costume was a great nod toward the character's roots as a stereotypical Black Christian woman as well as a nod to how far she's come. I also really liked that Shirley and Britta were the two members of the study group who made it to the final moments of the paintball war, and the scene in which they rode in on a golf cart, guns blazing, was both funny and triumphant. Even though I really like the final scene with Pierce, and the way that his win (and subsequent donation of the money to Greendale) set up Pierce's relationship to both the school and the study group, I really wanted Britta and Shirley to win.

Speaking of that final scene, it was a great way to humanize Pierce and redeem him, at least partially, for all the nasty things he has done this season. It was also a great set-up for some major conflict next season, as the group comes to terms with their treatment of Pierce and, presumably, tries to woo him back. The final scene was sadder than I expected the end of the PaintStravaganza to be, but it was appropriate to the tone of the season as a whole. Plus, the tag before the credits both brought back the funny and acknowledged the people upon whom the real burden of the paintball war fell: the Greendale janitors. Funny and classy, the tag was a great way to end the season and lighten the mood a bit after Pierce's sobering exit from the study group.

A few stray lines and moments that I enjoyed, but didn't have time to fit into the review proper:
  • Leonard telling Jeff that he was once a Little Rascal
  • The slow-motion shot of Annie's boobs (the anatomical parts, not the monkey) bouncing as she ran away from Holloway's character
  • Troy's anguished howl at Magnitude's sacrifice: "Pop what?!"
  • The cameo by Cougartown stars Busy Philipps and Dan Byrd
  • Annie's rejection of Abed's vest, because it smells like Starburns
  • Holloway's "Sonuvabitch!" (yay Lost reference!)
  • Vicki's final charge into battle
  • The return of Quendra with a QU
  • Speaking of recurring characters, where were Rich and Slater? I would have liked to see them at some point.
  • Pierce's two fake heart attacks were hilarious, and a great paintball strategy!

Friday, May 13, 2011

"Vampire Diaries" Finale: Damon is Saved, Stefan gets Awesome!

Ian Somerhalder and Nina Dobrev in "As I Lay Dying," the second-season finale of the CW's The Vampire Diaries

I don't think there is any other show on TV that could produce what was basically a three-episode finale that was so packed with twists, turns and emotional moments and still managed to flow as beautifully as The Vampire Diaries did with "The Last Day," "The Sun Also Rises," and "As I Lay Dying." When a show with worse pacing (which, at this point, is pretty much every other show on TV) tries for the same thing, we end up with the final episodes of the third season of True Blood, and nobody wants that. Even Fringe only managed a two-part finale, and Fringe is just packed with awesomeness.

One of the things I love most about The Vampire Diaries - besides the continually jaw-dropping pacing - is the way that, even in the midst of action-packed episodes like this season's final few hours, the writers always make room for some nice, character-driven moments. (You've probably figured this out by now, but there are major SPOILERS ahead if you haven't finished the season.) This is one of the many, many reasons that The Vampire Diaries is so much better than that other, much more sexually explicit vampire show; the plot twists, no matter how shocking, are always organic to the characters, and we the audience are always given character moments that make those twists plausible.

One excellent example from the final episode comes when Stefan, always the nobler of the Salvatore brothers, agrees to go on a decade-long blood bender with Klaus in exchange for a cure for his brother. This moment works because the groundwork has been laid for it throughout the three-part finale, as well as the previous two seasons of the show. We've seen that, despite Stefan's tempestuous relationship with Damon, he loves his brother deeply, a conflict that was beautifully articulated in a conversation between Damon and Elijah in "The Sun Also Rises." Stefan, wanting to make sure that Elijah was going to go through with their plan and actually kill Klaus, explained that he had wanted to kill Damon a thousand times, but never had. That one line summed up the relationship between Stefan and Damon perfectly, and set up the kind of sacrifice that Stefan would be willing to make for his brother.

Stefan's sacrifice, however, had been set up much earlier than that. Starting in the Season 1 episode "Under Control," we've been shown scenes of what happens to Stefan when he's drinking blood, and we can guess that, despite his attempts to get himself used to drinking blood by taking small sips from Elena, the dozen or so blood bags that Klaus forces on him are going to get the better of him. By the end of the episode, when the look in Stefan's eyes crosses the boundary into pleasure as he feeds off an innocent girl provided for him by Klaus, it's become obvious that Stefan has given himself over to the blood. This development promises an interesting role reversal between Damon and Stefan next season, one that none other than Stefan Salvatore himself, Paul Wesley, is excited about. According to an interview with producer Julie Plec, "Probably Paul Wesley's happiest day on set was getting to dive back into that side of Stefan."

To me, the biggest, most emotional arc in the final three episodes was that of Damon's werewolf bite and Stefan's determination to save his brother. However, since much of the season had been building to Klaus' sacrifice and transformation into a werewolf-vampire hybrid, that storyline took up most of "The Last Day" and "The Sun Also Rises," and it was also a good one. The best element of the sacrifice, to my mind, was Joseph Morgan's performance as Klaus. Morgan played the big, bad vampire as a charming psychopath, who used Jenna as his sacrifice vampire purely because he wanted to torture Elena, and who let Elena think, just for a moment, that she would have to choose which vampire would be sacrificed: Stefan or Jenna.

One of the nicest character moments in this storyline was Jenna's death. Elena, knowing as much as she does about vampires, told her terrified aunt to "turn off" her emotions, allowing Jenna to die without fear. Nina Dobrev's performance in this scene was terrific, as was Sara Canning's; both actresses did a stellar job selling the scene, which just made the whole thing more moving. I didn't want Jenna to die, but the scene was played perfectly, and her death will hopefully give Alaric a nice character arc next season, so I've come to terms with it. (I have not, however, come to terms with Elijah's death yet, because I love Daniel Gillies' performance and hair. However, I probably don't need to, as he has already been killed and brought back to life, and we know where his body is located, along with the rest of the Originals. I'm looking forward to some Original storylines next season.)

In terms of characters who are being set up for good arcs next season, Jeremy Gilbert is second on the list, right after the adventures of Klaus and Evil Stefan. After being killed by Sheriff Forbes and brought back to life by Bonnie and some reluctant dead witches, he ended the episode face-to-face with his two dead girlfriends, Anna and Vicky. Jeremy, while smokin' hot, has been given little to do this season other than date Bonnie, and his new abilities (whatever they entail) are extremely promising for his role in the third season.

All in all, the second season finale of The Vampire Diaries kept up the unflagging pace and the dramatic plot twists that the show is known for, while also providing for some lovely character moments. I didn't even manage to touch on the scene between Elena and Damon in which he finally tells her that he loves her and she gives him a sweet, platonic kiss. It was a lovely moment in their relationship, and it gave the friendship between Damon and Elena some needed forward momentum. Their new closeness is promising for next season as well; while I'm not a Damon/Elena 'shipper, I can't wait to see how their relationship develops while they try to rescue Stefan from Klaus, which I assume they will. The final three episodes of The Vampire Diaries did an excellent job of setting up the next season while wrapping up this season's major storylines. We even got to see Klaus shirtless. Really, what more can you ask for in a finale?

Finale Season Is Upon Us

Clockwise from top left: Joel McHale, Alison Brie and Danny Pudi of Community; Joshua Jackson of Fringe; Nina Dobrev and Ian Somerhalder of The Vampire Diaries; Lea Michele, Heather Morris, Jenna Ushkowitz and Dianna Agron of Glee

It's that time of year again, folks, the time when our favorite major network shows begin ramping up the twists, the suspense, the general balls-to-the-wall awesomeness of their episodes in preparation for one thing, and one thing only: the finale. Some choose to leave us with a cliffhanger to build up our anticipation over the long, empty summer months, while some would rather wrap up the season in a nice bow, with everyone happy and working through their drama (at least until September rolls around). And some just want to leave us laughing.

For the next week, Pencils Down, Pass the Remote is going to be finale central. I'll be offering my thoughts on the season-ending episodes of Community, Fringe, The Vampire Diaries, Glee and more! Plus, I'll be providing flashbacks to finales past with a list of the best and worst season and series finales of all time! (When I say all time, I mean the ones that I've seen.) I'll even be providing some predictions of where my favorite shows will go next season, purely because, as I've mentioned before, I know that network executives and showrunners read my commentary.

So, stay tuned today for my thoughts on the finales of Community and The Vampire Diaries, and keep checking back throughout the week for more of the Pencils Down, Pass the Remote Finale-stravaganza! Tell your friends.

P.S. For reasons that I do not fully understand, my recent post about ABC's Castle has vanished from the site. That'll be going back up as soon as I have a chance to rewrite it. (This will possibly teach me not to compose my posts in Blogger, but rather to write them elsewhere. Live and learn.)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Romance and SciFi: When is Enough Enough?

Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson share a tender moment

Warning: SPOILERS ahead for those who haven't seen the most recent episodes of Fringe or Doctor Who.

The first three episodes of the new Doctor Who season have been heavy on the romance; in fact, there's more romance in this season than there was even in season two, when Billie Piper's Rose spent most of the season mooning over David Tennant's Doctor. In a mere three episodes we've seen not only sexy (some would say inappropriate for a family show) interactions between the Doctor's current companion Amy (Karen Gillan) and her husband Rory (Arthur Darvill), but some serious flirtation between Alex Kingston's mysterious River Song and the Doctor (Matt Smith). The relationship between Amy and Rory in particular has been milked for plot fodder, via a Rory-is-dying storyline, a few too many times.

Of course, Doctor Who is hardly the only science fiction show that makes time for romantic plotlines in between the time travel and telekinesis. Everyone who watches Fringe knows that, for the past season, much of the time that wasn't spend on possible world-ending cataclysms was spent on a love triangle between Joshua Jackson's Peter, Olivia and alternate-universe Olivia (both played by Anna Torv). Even though I would be terribly upset by Fringe without Peter after he blinked out of existence at the end of the finale (!), it might be nice to have a few episodes where we don't have to worry about whether alt-Olivia's new baby will throw a wrench into Peter and Olivia's relationship. (Also, it's possible that the baby blinked out of existence with Peter, which would serve the same purpose.)

While I certainly like to see some relationships on even my sci-fi shows, and while I enjoy rooting for both Peter and Olivia and Amy and Rory, sometimes it's a little too much. On the most recent episode of Doctor Who, a thoroughly entertaining romp involving pirates and a siren who was actually a medical program, an unnecessary emotional climax was added when Amy had to perform CPR on an unconscious Rory. This moment played extremely over-the-top, to the point where it was reminiscent of the moment in the first season of Lost when Jack pounded Charlie's chest in the rain, while Kate looked on crying, for what seemed like five minutes.

Additionally, while the build-up to the Fringe finale was certainly epic and while I loved all the twists and turns, I was extremely happy when the idea that the home of whichever Olivia Peter chose would be saved, while the other universe would perish. I had a hard time believing that the destruction of a universe could hinge on something so... well, silly, and I didn't like the way that the rather tired love triangle was forced into the main story arc.

So, here's my question for you; when it comes to science fiction, how much romance is too much?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Alison Brie Talks "Community," "Mad Men" and Paintball


Brie as Annie Edison in Part 1 of the upcoming Community finale, "A Fistful of Paintballs"

It’s always a little risky to talk to an artist you truly admire. They could be just as kind, gracious and funny as you thought, or they could turn out to be uncooperative or narcissistic. Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Community’s Annie Edison herself, Alison Brie, and I’m happy to report that this charming, funny and talented young actress falls into the former category; she’s just as sweet and bubbly as you would expect from the actress who brings Annie to life. She covered a wide range of topics, including her work on both Community and Mad Men, sharing a scene with Josh Holloway, and her desire for a mermaid-themed episode of Community.

If all of you are excited as I am about the upcoming, sure to be epic Community finale, you’ll be excited to hear Brie’s thoughts on the two-part sequel to last year’s beloved paintball episode. Brie said that getting the script for the second part of the paintball episode contained some of the most shocking twists she had seen in a Community script. “The second part of the finale, there just are twists and turns that I didn’t see coming at all,” said Brie. “There are moments when you’ll read something and look at the writers and say, ‘really? Is this just a joke for the table read?’” Brie even compares the twists in this episode to Jeff and Annie’s unexpected kiss at the very end of last year’s finale, saying “This is two years in a row now that my biggest shock of the season has been the very last episode.”

Brie also teased Annie’s role in the paintball battle, which promises to be much greater than her role in last year’s episode. “Annie got taken out pretty early when we did the original paintball episode, and this time I really have a lot more to do,” said Brie, adding, “She’s practiced since she got taken out so early last year. She doesn’t like to lose.” 

Brie was especially excited about the scenes that Annie shares with Josh Holloway’s mysterious stranger. “He plays a bit of a mysterious character, and I got to do some action scenes with him.” She also got to flirt a bit with the man best known as Lost’s heartthrob Sawyer, and apparently shared quite a bit of chemistry with the guest star. “As we were doing the scene, our writer and director said ‘We’ve got to milk this chemistry’… and I was like, ‘Yes, chemistry with Josh Holloway, nailed it!’” An episode of Community wouldn’t be complete without a few pop-culture references, and having Sawyer himself on the set provided the writers with some opportunities for the meta. “There’s going to be a Sawyer line,” she promised, “so we’ll see if the Lost fan’s pick up on it. I’m sure they will.”

Of course, viewers who have invested two years in Community also want to see what the rest of the study group is going through, particularly given the internal tensions that have threatened the group this season. Brie promises that we’ll see plenty of developments in the group’s relationships. Recently, certain people in the group have been having trouble with other people, and “those feuds really come to a head in a major way in these last two episodes … there is a lot of really emotional stuff going on.” We’ll also see some of the recurring characters make an appearance. “There’s a lot of cute nods to the peripheral characters,” said Brie, “these people that you’ve seen every so often on the show.”

The final two episodes, however, are also action-packed, and the actors were worn out from all the paintball fights. “I clean [my ears] every time I shower, and I still had paint coming out of my ears a week later. It grossed me out!” laughed Brie, who had already suffered a paintball-related injury filming last year’s episode. "Last year I got shot in the boob, and it hurt!" said Brie. "I had a bruise."

Brie was also happy to talk about her hopes for the future of Community and Annie Edison. For all the ‘shippers out there wondering who Annie will end up with, Brie says, “I go back and forth between Troy [Donald Glover] and Jeff.” Like so many of us out here who love the chemistry between Brie and Joel McHale, “a lot of the time Jeff and Annie make sense to me, because Annie has a way of being a voice of reason for Jeff.” However, she also thinks that the pairing of Annie and Troy is a possibility: “They went to school together, they grew up together, they’re the same age, and there was really something in that.” Brie also has some ideas for the show’s third season. “A mermaid episode,” said Brie, “a Splash episode where Annie just shows up naked on a beach, and you realize, “Oh god, she’s a mermaid … I’m going to pitch this.”

While Brie is best known for her work on Community, she also plays a recurring character on a very different critically acclaimed show: Mad Men’s Trudy Campbell. Although Brie admits that she identifies with Annie more because of Annie’s “nerdy sense of humor,” and the fact that Annie is contemporary, while Trudy is a period character, she says there are similarities between herself and Trudy. “It’s very easy for me to connect with the ambitious side of Trudy, her striving for perfection. It’s just that what Trudy values are not the things I value.” She also has some insight into Trudy’s relationship with Vincent Kartheiser’s Pete, one of the show’s more unlikeable characters. “What’s fun about playing Trudy is that she doesn’t bear witness to a lot of Pete’s horrible deeds. She just loves him and wants to be an amazing wife to him, which makes her a quirky character,” said Brie.

Brie is currently in Ann Arbor, Michigan filming the movie Five-Year Engagement, which costars Emily Blunt. Brie said that being in a college town like Ann Arbor has put her more in touch with Community’s fan base. “I just adore our fans. They’re amazing,” said Brie. “They pick up on things right away. They’re so intelligent and they get so excited about the show, and it’s been really cool to be here in Ann Arbor and be able to witness them firsthand more than usual.”

I said earlier that it can be risky to talk to an artist you admire, because you never know what they’re really like. It is equally worrisome to hear about the behind-the-scenes dynamics of an ensemble show like Community, because you never want to hear about tension between cast members. “One of the best things about working on the show has been making some of my best friends,” said Brie, adding, “I’m texting them every day, and they’ve been texting … We love each other.”

Despite the cast’s tight bond, Brie was willing to dish on one hot topic – the question of who was the show’s best paintball player. “I feel like I have to say Joel [McHale], so I don’t get in trouble” laughed Brie, but went on to add, “I have to say that Danny Pudi is very agile … He’s like a jungle cat, so he’s a good stealth man, but Joel is, you know, all muscle.”

Even though most of the talk centered on the upcoming finale, Brie was happy to talk about other episodes – in particular “Paradigms of Human Memory,” the recent clip show that showed viewers glimpses of a number of adventures that didn’t make it on screen. I asked Alison what clip she would like to see expanded into a full episode. “It would definitely be the St. Patrick’s Day adventure,” said Brie. “Especially Abed’s line, because Danny’s such a pro, and the way he delivered that line, ‘The mysterious events that surrounded the exciting conclusion of our St. Patrick’s Day adventure.’” However, after thinking for a moment, Brie added that another favorite clip was “our trip to Mexico where Pierce almost gets shot.”

Monday, May 2, 2011

New "Fringe" Finale Trailer: How Excited Are You?



The trailer for the final Fringe episode of the season, ominously entitled "The Day We Died," is here, and boy is it awesome!


Let's discuss, shall we? (Note: this discussion will definitely include information from the most recent episode, so if you haven't seen "The Last Sam Weiss" yet, stop reading now. Also, some minor spoilerage about the upcoming episode is included, so if you don't want to know anything more, you should definitely stop reading.) It appears that this episode will take place entirely (or almost entirely) in the future glimpsed at the end of last week's episode. Judging from the final line of the first promo for the episode, we eventually end up back in the present. However, I would be completely alright with having the entire fourth season set in the dystopian future, after the destruction of the Other Side.

I've spent a lot of time wondering about what Fringe is going to do next season, and I know I'm not alone; the third season has been leading up to the ultimate destruction of one of the universes, and I just couldn't figure out where the show could possibly go once it had obliterated a reality. However, setting season four fifteen years in the future, forcing Peter, Olivia and Co. to deal with the fallout of that decision - not to mention the schemes of Walternate, who appears to have survived the destruction of his world somehow - would be a fascinating place to take the show, and I suspect that the creative team behind Fringe would continue to impress us with their take on a dystopian future.

Now for random fun things from the trailer. I enjoyed the quick glimpse of Boardwalk Empire's dearly departed Pearl (Emily Meade) as a Fringe agent who also happens to be... Olivia's niece, Ella! I'm not entirely sure the baby-faced Meade will be believable as a capable Fringe agent, but I suppose that's kind of the point; in a future as bleak as this one, everyone has to fight. Also digging Broyle's new milky eye, which somehow makes him look even more badass, and is rather reminiscent of a recent development in my favorite web comic. Plus, Astrid with shiny new straight hair! Walter with a prison beard! And the fact that Walter is in prison at all, which raises some intriguing possibilities.

Who else is looking forward to Friday night? Do you want season four to take place in the future? And seriously, how awesome does Lance Reddick look with that eye?