Monday, September 26, 2011

What "Person of Interest" could learn from "Fringe"

James Caviezel and Michael Emerson in Person of Interest and Anna Torv, John Noble and Joshua Jackson in Fringe. Photos courtesy of and

The pilot for CBS's Jonathan Nolan-created, J.J. Abrams-produced Person of Interest turned out to be one of the better pilots of the fall season. The premise is intriguing, there are some badass action scenes, and Michael Emerson is... well, he's Michael Emerson. However, the premiere demonstrated a tendency to stick with a more procedural format and ignore some of the larger questions, which was also a concern when a little show called Fringe premiered three years ago. If Person of Interest  is to become a unique, intriguing sci-fi show rather than just CSI: 1984, it should follow the lead of Abrams' other sci-fi success. (Obviously I mean creative success, not ratings success. For the love of God, people, start watching Fringe so I don't have to spend the next year dying inside every time I see the Friday ratings.) Here are some pointers to help get the writers started.

1. Expand beyond the procedural
The first season of Fringe was largely a sci-fi procedural similar to The X-Files, in which the Fringe team solved mysterious cases while slowly uncovering the corners of the bigger picture. In the second and especially third seasons, however, the show expanded beyond the case-of-the-week structure, building two convincing worlds and revealing an epic, possibly apocalyptic conflict. The procedural element is still there, but these days it's always used in the service of the larger story and never, ever gets boring. Person of Interest might have a harder time following this lead, since it's on CBS, home of eight hundred iterations of CSI, but it's worth the extra work to find a compelling, long-term narrative to balance the procedural format.

2. Exploit the possibilities of your premise
One of the most fun elements of watching Fringe (besides playing Spot the Observer, which I'm terrible at) is seeing the way the writers have used the alternate universe as an opportunity to create a world with enough small differences from ours to seem alien, yet still recognizable. These differences can be used for dramatic effect, as was the case with the big reveal that the Twin Towers are still standing Over There, or they can be used in subtle ways that show how the two universes diverged, such as Red Lantern comics and the 11th season of The West Wing. Person of Interest has the potential to be a fascinating exploration of the role of surveillance in the modern world, and that premise could be used to do some really cool things. I'd like to see some time devoted to the dystopian possibilities of the surveillance web, or maybe some exploration into the ways that web can be used with social media. I just know Facebook is watching me...

3. Let your supporting cast shine
Right now, Person of Interest is keeping the focus squarely on Emerson's Finch and Caviezel's Reese at the expense of Taraji P. Henson's Carter. Fringe, on the other hand, has a rich cast of supporting characters, such as Astrid, Broyles and Nina Sharp, just to name a few. Fan favorite Lincoln Lee (Seth Gabel) just got promoted to series regular, and his stellar work in the fourth-season premiere totally justified that promotion. Let us get to know background players like Carter and Detective Fusco (Kevin Chapman); if they're half as interesting as Lincoln or Charlie (Kirk Acevedo) their increased screentime will pay off.

4. You can put your dour, humorless lead to good use
Much of the criticism leveled at Person of Interest had to do with Caviezel's lead performance. I didn't find him all that offensive - he was certainly great at all the ass-kicking he had to do - but his performance was largely limited to glowering, scowling and rasping his lines. (Seriously, someone has caught a case of the Christian Bale over here.) During the first season of Fringe, many similar complaints concerned Anna Torv's performance as Olivia, and they were pretty much on target. The show worked around that, however, presenting Olivia as an emotionally stunted, closed-off character who gradually warms up to Peter and Walter, and eventually giving her a kick-ass, wisecracking doppelganger with a better haircut and much more personality. The doppelganger thing obviously won't work with Person of Interest - unless there's an alternate universe we don't know about - but the point is remains that Anna Torv went from being one of the worst actresses on television to one of the best. Show 'em what you can do, Caviezel.

5. Include a cow
Why? Because cows make everything better. And they provide milk.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Would the cancellation of "Whitney" be such a terrible thing?

Whitney Cummings and Chris D'Ella in NBC's Whitney. Photo courtesy of

Yael Cohen at The Daily Beast recently took it upon herself to argue that Whitney Cumming's eponymous NBC sitcom represents a shift in the world of female stand-up comedy; namely, that Cummings can break down the barriers that keep skinny, long-legged, hot women from pursuing a career in an industry dominated by men, unattractive women and lesbians. If Cohen is right, Cumming's success onscreen (she's also a creator of CBS's Two Broke Girls, but behind-the-scenes work apparently doesn't count) could pave the way for the poor, disenfranchised hot girls who just want to do stand-up comedy, but who haven't been given the chance.

That might sound a little harsh, but I've always had a problem with attractive female actresses and comedians complaining that their looks prevent people from taking them seriously, despite a multitude of studies showing that attractive people earn more money, are smarter, and are happier than their less attractive counterparts. In a looks-obsessed culture like Hollywood, it seems even more ridiculous to argue that a woman who looks like Cummings is put at a disadvantage because of her beauty. Cohen, of course, has an explanation for this that takes her argument from questionable to actually offensive. She quotes Dave Rath, a (male) comedy manager, saying "So when a hot girl goes on stage all the guys want to be with her and all the women are like, why is my boyfriend looking at her that way? So the audience was always put off a little bit by attractive women."

Rath's explanation, and by extension Cohen's, hinges on the idea that women are jealous shrews who can't handle the presence of an another attractive woman, much less an attractive woman who is also funny. (To her credit, Cummings contradicts Rath, saying "Whereas I used to think that looking pretty or sexy would alienate women, now it's the opposite. Now I feel like when I embrace my femininity, it makes women relate to me more, because they go 'Oh, she's just like me, she puts on makeup, she tries to look cute...'") The bigger problem here, however, stems from another one of Rath's words of wisdom: "[Comedy] is about vulnerability, people have to identify with those things and that's what everybody is laughing it." The audience has to identify with the person onstage and their problems in order to find that person funny, and most women just do not look like Whitney Cummings (or similarly attractive comics Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler).

Of course, the fact that Cummings is hotter than most women doesn't mean we can't sympathize with her. I can sympathize with Liz Lemon just fine, and Tina Fey is nothing if not good-looking. The problem is that 30 Rock is a quick, well-written show and Whitney just isn't. I watched the pilot episode of Whitney, and it wasn't Cumming's looks that kept me from laughing at the show; it was the way the half-hour was devoid of any originality and simply rehashed the same tired jokes about couples who don't have sex enough and unreliable men. Whitney could have been a smart, incisive look at a part of our society that doesn't get a lot of screen time - committed couples who, for whatever reason, choose to remain unmarried - in the vein of this fall's best new comedies Up All Night and 2 Broke Girls. Instead, the jokes are straight out of a King of Queens rerun, and the writers fall back on the old romantic comedy cliche of making the gorgeous Cummings more vulnerable by making her socially inept. (Seriously, who sees a three-tiered display of cupcakes at a wedding reception and doesn't realize that those cupcakes are the trendy wedding cake?)

Cohen concludes her piece by saying that Whitney's failure would signal to the television industry that "audiences aren't ready for a rom-com sitcom centered around a good-looking female standup." Whitney has a good shot at survival - it is on NBC, after all, a network that tolerates low ratings because it's too busy circling the drain to worry about them - but its cancellation shouldn't mean that audiences can't handle a good-looking female standup. It means that audiences are discerning enough to reject a pile of week-old leftovers dressed up with a sprig of parsley to make them look "fresh." If you want to support Cummings, watch the very funny 2 Broke Girls and root for Kat Dennings, a female protagonist who is refreshingly normal-looking while still being pretty damn hot. That is the kind of barrier-breaking television that I want to see.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Laughing to cover up the darkness

Joel McHale in "Biology 101," the first episode of Community's third season.  Photo courtesy of

While watching "Biology 101," Community's third-season premiere, I found myself laughing hysterically. This episode was one of the show's sharpest, funniest half-hours, featuring some pretty hilarious gags ranging from a sophisticated running joke about the differences between British and American television to the sheer physical comedy of watching John Goodman's Vice Dean Laybourne (head of the inherently funny Air Conditioning Repair Annex) using his girth to intimidate Dean Pelton (Jim Rash). After I'd finished watching the episode, however, I realized that, despite the many very funny moments, this was a dark, dark episode of Community, possibly darker than last season's melancholy standouts "Mixology Certification" and "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas."

The darkness of the episode stemmed largely from its exploration of Jeff's innermost depths. While the ensemble as a whole was very strong - Danny Pudi's Abed in particular had some stand-out moments - this half-hour was about Jeff Winger, and Joel McHale did a great job with the character. The show has always been, to some extent, the story of this shallow, self-centered character who learns things about himself through the rest of the study group, and that idea was at the forefront of "Biology 101." The difference between this episode and previous Jeff-learns-a-lesson episodes (such as last season's "Accounting for Lawyers") is that this episode doesn't let Jeff learn an easy lesson and go on with his life; he is forced to really look at himself, deep down into his core, and realize that he doesn't like what he sees. This moment of realization comes during a parody of the enigmatic finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey that doesn't feel like a parody in the way the show has done parody before. The scene is funny, but when you look more closely it's also very serious, very much the story of a man who is only now realizing how little he has in his life.

According to creator Dan Harmon, this year Jeff "will try to change himself in ways that only prove the bad things about himself... He's a narcissist and a solipsist. His decision to start being a human being is going to be really hard for him." The show started to go darker last season, as certain episodes (such as the aforementioned "Mixology Certification" and "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas," in addition to the excellent "Paradigms of Human Memory," among many others) began to show the cracks in the characters' seemingly happy exteriors. This episode took it further, and many of the funniest jokes included very dark elements, the best of which was the moment when the characters of Cougarton Abbey, a fake British series upon which Cougartown is supposedly based, all poisoned themselves with hemlock in the final episode. I for one am excited to see Community take a darker turn this season. Much of the best comedy is mined from pain, disillusionment and self-loathing, and I'm sure this wildly inventive show can do wonderful things with this new darkness.

But enough about death and despair. As I said before, "Biology 101" was a very, very funny episode of Community. The running gag about Cougarton Abbey was fantastic, as was Abed's discovery of the extremely long running British sci-fi series Inspector Spacetime. (Can we have a David Tennant cameo? Please, Dan Harmon, please?) John Goodman was magnificent as Vice Dean Laybourne, and the revelation that Greendale's Air Conditioning Repair Annex provides eighty percent of the school's budget was great, and allowed for Dean Pelton's lovely, self-referential line, "I just came by to tell everyone that this year isn't gonna be that different, with the notable exception we won't really have any money." And the inspired Glee-style number that opened the episode was very funny and short enough that it didn't take up too much of the show's running time. Plus, that opening burst of sunshine and rainbows was an excellent contrast to the darker undertone that pervaded the rest of the episode.

Abed and Troy moving in together is a promising development, particularly since Annie will, at some point, be moving in with them. Britta's announcement that she wants to major in psychology is sure to provide some great comedic fodder, and the rest of the cast's reactions to her desire to become a therapist were priceless. Also, Omar Little! As a biology teacher who is also an ex-con! YES!

Stray Thoughts
  • I think that Chang as a security guard could be a great development, as long as he doesn't get overused. A little Chang goes a long way.
  • Harmon has also said that Jeff and Annie's relationship is going to go in a romantic direction this year. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, the two actors have great chemistry, and Annie is the one person who can consistently make Jeff think about his actions. On the other hand, she's still 20.
  • The high-pitched whining sound that Abed made when he found out that Cougartown wasn't coming back until midseason (and again at the gruesome end of Cougarton Abbey) was amazing, and also recalled Troy's screaming in "Paradigms of Human Memory."
  • Loved the shot of Chang just nonchalantly walking around carrying a ham.
  • Chevy Chase did a great job in this episode as a penitent Pierce, who was willing to be the villain just because Jeff needed someone to.
  • "We have plenty of linens. We mainly want the things."
  • "You are the opposite of Batman."
  • "You could have lived the rest of your life in blissful ignorance and died a happy pansexual imp."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Review: "New Girl" and "2 Broke Girls"

Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs in 2 Broke Girls; Zooey Deschanel in New Girl. Photos courtesy of and 

2 Broke Girls and New Girl, which both had their premieres this week, are two very different shows featuring female protagonists. One is shot in the decidedly un-hip multi-camera format, complete with laugh track, while the other takes advantage of the single-camera style that distinguishes shows like 30 Rock and Community. One airs on CBS, which is widely regarded as a network that caters to middle-aged people with a focus on procedurals, while the other airs on FOX, a network that prides itself on being the home of Family Guy. And one of these shows is trying to present a different portrayal of women as independent, smart, foul-mouthed and tough even in their vulnerability, while the other trades in tired cliches and substitutes quirks for actual personality. Oddly enough, the clever, transgressive one is CBS' new multi-camera sitcom 2 Broke Girls. The other one is FOX's New Girl.

2 Broke Girls is the story of Max (the phenomenal Kat Dennings), a tough, streetwise waitress, and Caroline (Beth Behrs), a trust-fund baby who loses her fortune to her father's ponzi scheme and ends up waiting tables with Max. The description may sound unoriginal - it certainly did to me when I first heard about the show - but the somewhat clunky premise is redeemed by writing that is mostly sharp and outstanding performances by the two lead actresses, as well as a fairly realistic portrayal of a social class that doesn't often show up on television.

The great thing about 2 Broke Girls is the way that the writers, Dennings and Behrs refuse to let Max and Caroline slide into cliche. Yes, Max may be a sardonic, streetwise chick, but she is also able to drop her prejudices long enough to see that Caroline really needs her help. Her dialogue is sometimes overwrought - a few too many casual uses of the word "vagina" come off as desperate rather than hip, and an unfortunate pun about Coldplay nearly derails a magnificent takedown of some hipsters - but Dennings imbues the character with a likability that complements, rather than contradicting, her smart sarcasm. It's also nice to see Dennings - a real woman with a real woman's body - playing a character for whom body type is a complete non-issue.

Caroline's character is slightly more schizophrenic, although this seems to be the fault of the writing rather than Behrs' sharp, nuanced performance. Caroline starts the hour as a stereotypical, Paris Hilton-type rich girl who has never worked a day in her life, but Behrs imbues the character with a shrewdness and intelligence that belies this initial impression and makes you believe that yes, this character probably did attend the Wharton School of Business. By the end of the episode, Caroline has demonstrated that, while she isn't the most street-smart person in the world (which she obviously wouldn't be) she is far from the vapid heirhead that the earlier scenes made her out to be. Similarly, Max and Caroline become friends by the end of the episode, and while their playful mockery of each other continues, it's clear that they like and respect each other.

The supporting cast, however, never makes it out of the realm of stereotype. It's only the first episode, and things could easily change for the better, but the parade of cliches in the supporting cast is baffling, particularly when compared to the well-rounded leads. In particular, the Park Avenue matron for whom Max nannies during the day is so one-dimensional that her lines made me wince.

Along with its two immensely talented leads, the most impressive part of 2 Broke Girls is the honest but not depressing way the show portrays the life of the working poor. Max and Caroline aren't the cast of Friends, living in spacious apartments and dining out every night - they're both working menial jobs (Max works two of them) and living paycheck to paycheck. The reality of their situation is all too prevalent, given the current state of economy, but it's also a reality that is only rarely seen on TV, and hardly ever in a half-hour sitcom.

New Girl, on the other hand, has hardly a shred of reality to call its own. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - 30 Rock and Community are hardly realistic, and they're two of the funniest shows on TV - but the show really needs something to ground it, particularly since none of the characters are anything more than a collection of quirks. While watching Zooey Deschanel's over-the-top, "adorable" antics, I found myself thinking of a line from the excellent Doctor Who episode "Amy's Choice:" "If you had any more tawdry quirks, you could open a tawdry quirk factory." Well, not only has Deschanel's Jess opened the factory, she's produced enough product for a lifetime of sales.

I'm not a Zooey Deschanel hater. I enjoyed her performances in Elf and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and I didn't even hate her that much in (500) Days of Summer. The difference between her roles in those films and her role in New Girl, however, is that in those roles she was actually playing a character. New Girl's Jess, however, isn't a character; she's a collection of eccentricities and insecurities that never coheres into an actual human being. When your character's defining trait is cutely singing at random moments, it might be time to evaluate your performance. Not to mention that Deschanel is trying to so hard to be adorable and quirky that it's exhausting to watch. Dial it down a notch, Zooey; stop and take a breath once and a while.

None of the other characters are really any better. The three guys that Jess moves in with after a nasty break-up are barely sketched caricatures - the sadsack, the jock, and the douchebag. Of these three, the sadsack, who goes by the name of Nick (Jake M. Johnson) is the most relatable, largely because he is the only character who doesn't exist solely for the purpose of being funny. Nick's conversation with an ex-girlfriend outside a party is one of a few moments that seems to be grounded in any kind of reality, and it's a nice break from the forced cutesiness that plagues the rest of the episode. Of the other two guys, Max Greenfield's Schmidt spends most of the episode taking his shirt off at random moments and being forced to put money in a "douchebag jar," while Damon Wayans Jr.'s Coach was written off the show after the pilot episode, and is thus completely irrelevant.

New Girl will probably stick around for a while, based on a confounding number of good reviews and the love that many critics and viewers have for Deschanel. I'm hoping that 2 Broke Girls also manages to stick around long enough to iron out the kinks and present the honest, funny portrayal of female friendship and financial worries that is waiting to get out. I personally hope that New Girl sticks around long enough to do a crossover episode with 2 Broke Girls, because I would love to see what Max would have to say about Jess' hipster glasses and general lack of self-awareness, not to mention her complete lack of common sense. I bet that even Caroline could come up with a few choice words.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

"Vampire Diaries" Recap: And we're back!

Joseph Morgan as Klaus in "The Birthday." Photo courtesy of

The Vampire Diaries is BACK, baby! Last night's season premiere dove right back into the going-on in Mystic Falls while burning through more plot and character development than True Blood did over the course of a whole season. "The Birthday," which picked up two months after last season's finale, was a near-perfect episode of TVD; it featured hot sex, snappy dialogue, serious gore, equally serious emotion, and an excellent twist at the end. There was so much going on that I couldn't possibly cover every element in a regular recap, so I shall instead present you with the best moments and best quotes of "The Birthday." And if I forget something (which I'm sure I will) add it in the comments!

Best Moments

Klaus and Stefan wreak havoc: The tease that opened the episode was a perfect example of how to build suspense, introduce a relationship, and catch up with the characters all in under three minutes. I had almost forgotten the way that Joseph Morgan can imbue Klaus with such charisma while still scaring the pants off you - he's like Eric Northman without any of that pesky humanity (and before amnesia turned him into a lovesick puppy). Paul Wesley was appropriately shocking as Bad Stefan, and it was fun to see  the character's blood lust after two seasons of Stefan's constant nobility. Morgan and Wesley also managed to convey the relationship between the two characters perfectly with just a few words and some meaningful looks. An excellent way to kick off the season.

Damon in the bathtub: First of all, the visual of Ian Somerhalder sitting in a bubble bath, drinking champagne was just fabulous and perfectly Damon. Second, his playful banter with his compelled girlfriend/sex toy Andie was just the right mix of flirtation and actual concern, which set up the later scene where Stefan kills her in order to scare Damon away. Third, we then got to watch a naked, soapy Damon wander downstairs to surprise Elena. More, please!

Stefan's internal turmoil: Damon and Alaric (together again!) investigate Stefan and Klaus' latest crime scene. The visual of Damon nudging the blond girl's knee and causing her head to fall off was grotesque in the best way possible, and his explanation of Stefan's behavior - he's a true ripper and goes into a blood lust that causes him to tear bodies apart, but then he feels bad and puts them back together - is just beyond creepy. I honestly think the remorse makes his behavior more frightening; his hunger is so strong that it completely wipes out all his human instincts.

Serious bystander effect: The scenes in which Stefan and Klaus tortured werewolf Ray (David Gallagher) as part of Klaus' attempt to make more hybrids would have been creepy enough on their own, what with Stefan's heartlessness and the excellent new game of Truth or Wolfsbane Dart. The element that pushed the scenes from unsettling to disturbing, however, was the fact that Stefan had compelled the other patrons of the bar not to help the poor wolf. An entire bar full of people just hung out in the background, drinking and playing pool, while Klaus tortured and killed Ray. Talk about the bystander effect.

Jeremy and Matt have a surprising heart-to-heart: I really enjoyed the dynamic between Jeremy and Matt in this episode. These are two characters who have lost a lot at the hands of the supernatural beings of Mystic Falls, and Steven R. McQueen and Zach Roerig have excellent bro-chemistry (or bromistry, as I would call it if I enjoyed making up stupid words), so their friendship seems natural. The minor but compelling twist in their scenes tonight came from the fact that, when Jeremy told Matt that he was seeing the ghost or spirit or something of Vicki (a.k.a. Matt's sister), Matt didn't believe him. It wasn't at all the way I thought the scene would play out, and serves as yet another example of the ways in which the show's writers always manage to surprise the audience.

Elena finds out the truth about Stefan: After finding out that Damon had been tracking Klaus and Stefan without her, Elena confronts him about it only to find out that it has been Stefan, not Damon, who has been leaving a swath of bodies in his wake. (At least she didn't see the dismembered corpses in Memphis, because that might have put her over the edge.) The utterly fantastic Nina Dobrev managed to convey Elena's heartbreak beautifully with her facial expressions, as the character came to the realization that the love of her life is a monster.

And Elena is officially the best girlfriend ever: And yet, being the tough girl that she is, Elena manages to get past her shock in order to be there for Stefan. Their phone call at the end of the episode was another great emotional moment, and this time Paul Wesley was the one to knock it out of the park. The look on his face as Elena told him that she loved him, and that he had to hold on to that love, was a perfect mixture of self-loathing, fear, sadness and love. Thank you, TVD casting directors, for being awesome!

Now there is some sexual tension: Caroline and Tyler spent most of the episode ignoring the sexual tension between them; no small feat, considering that tension was so thick it was a wonder anyone else could walk between them. There were some great moments added in that showcased both characters' frustration - Tyler dirty dancing with a girl named "Slutty Sophie," Caroline lifting someone off the ground in order to clear her path through the dance floor - but the ultimate payoff came in the hot, hot, HOT sex scene at the Lockwood mansion. Candace Accola and Michael Trevino have fantastic chemistry, and the scene was satisfying both for the characters and the viewers watching at home. Of course, this being TVD, all good things must come to an end...

From awkward to terrifying: As Caroline attempted to sneak out of the Lockwood's house, she was confronted by Tyler's mother. It was an awkward situation that quickly deteriorated into a kidnapping as Mrs. Lockwood, having doused Caroline's purse in vervain, proceeded to shoot her with vervain darts until the poor vampire was lying helpless on the floor. And... end credits! As usual, I can't wait for next week.

Best Quotes

"I promise I'm not a serial killer. I just want to use your phone." Has anyone ever said this who hasn't been a serial killer?

"Just because I tell you things doesn't mean you are allowed to know them!" I love the teenage drama queen/badass vampire dichotomy of Caroline Forbes. Hats off to Candace Accola!

"I'm every parent's worst nightmare. I'm the chaperone teacher from hell." Considering you're getting drunk at a party full of underage high school students (who are also getting drunk) I would say yes, Alaric. Yes you are. (On a side note, I'm really interested to see where Alaric's character goes this season. Based on the premiere, it seems that he's having the most visible trouble dealing the events from last season, and I'd love to see how that plays out over the course of the next few episodes, as well as how his relationship with Elena and Jeremy evolves now that he is basically the last parental figure they have left. So far, he's not doing such a good job with that.)

"You don't want that. You want the cheap young stuff over by the cheap young people." Gotta love a man who appreciates a good bottle of Scotch.

"You never stop caring about your family, do you? But whenever you feed, the blood makes it easier." Joseph Morgan is just mesmerizing as Klaus. I can't take my eyes off him.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Review: "Up All Night"

Christina Applegate and Will Arnett in Up All Night. Photo courtesy of

Up All Night was, as you may recall, one of the new shows that I was most excited to watch this fall. It has a killer cast - Christina Applegate, Will Arnett and Maya Rudolph - and, based on the early trailer released during the upfronts, it managed to be funny while also being honest about the struggles of being a new parent. Having now seen the first episode, which aired Wednesday night on NBC, I still see a lot of potential in the show. There are, however, a few kinks that need to be worked out.

Let's start with the good. Applegate and Arnett give excellent, likable, grounded performances as Reagan and Chris, new parents who are struggling to balance jobs with their new baby while denying that they can't party like they used to. Arnett in particular gives a charming performance that, unlike so many of his great past roles (GOB Bluth and Devon Banks, to be precise), eschews over-the-top caricature in favor of a realistic portrait of a new stay-at-home father coming to grips with his obligations.

This isn't to say that the show is unfunny. It's definitely funny, although I found few laugh-out-loud moments and more sly, chuckle-inducing humor (this could be due to the fact that many of the pilot's best jokes were in the trailer that I had already seen). One of the funniest moments came when Chris, on a desperate search to find normal cheese, as opposed to "that fancy cheese over by the salad bar," happens upon an old lady who wants to tell him how cute his baby is. Twice. The fact that this innocent woman has "come after" baby Amy more than once sends Chris into a hilarious and believable spiral of paranoia about his child's well-being. Maybe it's just the fact that I grew up with an overprotective mother (hi Mom!), but this scene rang particularly true to me.

Some of the best scenes of the pilot, however, weren't really about baby Amy at all. They were about the  struggles that Chris and Reagan face as later-in-life parents, both of whom have successful careers, who are suddenly forced to face the fact that their entire life is about to change. To me, the character's ages really puts a fresh spin on what could be a fairly standard series about coping with a new baby. Chris and Reagan are very modern parents; they've been married for seven years in the pilot episode, they both already have fulfilling lives, and they still love to party. Their decision (or not - the first scene of the pilot shows Reagan taking a pregnancy test, but we don't really get a sense of whether the baby was planned) to have a baby at this time in their lives is an increasingly common one in a world where many people spend years getting advanced degrees and finding success in their careers before deciding to have children.

To me, Chris and Reagan are symbolic of the sort of delayed adulthood that is common these days (and I'm not criticizing - my fiance and I are both eagerly putting off full adulthood by getting advanced degrees - a trait that sets them apart from the previous generation of television parents. Their delayed adulthood also explains a scene that, I suspect, might strike some in the audience as an example of very bad parenting. On their anniversary, Chris and Reagan end up going out late, getting drunk and singing karaoke, only to wake up the next morning with hangovers and a crying baby in the next room. This is the sort of behavior that, in the different context, would come off as negligent; here, however, it serves as an example of the kind of sacrifices that new parents have to make in order to raise a child. The inane fight that Reagan and Chris have in the same scene is similarly realistic, and allows the show to express, through Chris, the anxiety that someone with a career can have when they leave to take care of a child.

This kind of fine-grained realism, however, is shattered in any scenes that involve Maya Rudolph's Ava. Part of the problem seems to be that Rudolph's character was originally conceived as a publicist rather than a Tyra-esque talk show host, and the quick retooling of the pilot allowed for cracks in the scenes involving Ava's talk show. The bigger problem, however, is that Rudolph's scenes play like they're from a completely different show - their aesthetic is the cartoonish surreality of 30 Rock rather than the realism of the other two-thirds of the episode. The thing is, Rudolph is a wonderful naturalistic actress - see Away We Go if you don't believe me - who has clearly been directed here to behave like one of her SNL characters rather than a real human being. Ava's cartoonish, party-all-the-time vibe makes her a counterpoint to Chris and Reagan's new life, but her diva antics also make it difficult to understand why Reagan is such a close friend of hers. I would like to see the writers humanize Ava by delving into her friendship with Reagan and allowing Rudolph to take her performance down a notch.

Up All Night has the makings of an excellent, realistic-yet-comic look at a subset of parents that hasn't been thoroughly explored in popular culture: older, married couples who are firmly established in their "adult" lives without really being adults, and who find that parenthood completely changes their lives by, in some way, forcing them to finally grow up. The show needs to retool the talk-show portions of the story, and add its very realistic perspective to that underdeveloped story thread. The tension between parents and their childless friends is a very interesting one to explore, and if Up All Night can convincingly portray that tension, it could become a great show instead of a merely interesting one: a Modern Family for the almost-adult set.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Emmy Awards 2011: Who should win

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones. Photo courtesy of

The Emmy's are almost here, which means it's time to start prognosticating about the winners. The nominations this year were not as all-out terrible as they generally are (although I certainly had some complaints), and I feel like throwing in my two cents. So, here are my picks for the shows and actors who should go home with statues on Sunday night, as well as those who should have gotten a nomination. (I'm not going to pick the likely winners; if you want someone to help you place your bets, there are plenty of other options out there for you.)

Best Drama Series

Should win: Game of Thrones
Should have been nominated: Fringe

I know that there are plenty of people out there who turn away in disgust at the sight of fantasy, preferring instead the gorgeous, ponderous stillness of Mad Men or the fine-grained realism of Friday Night Lights. I'm not trying to belittle those people. I just happen to think that Thrones' first season was a triumph of writing, acting and directing that managed to sate both fans of the books and newbies who didn't know the difference between a Lannister and a Stark. Not to mention that the show killed off the central character in episode nine, which means they should get an award for biggest balls on television. As for Fringe, the excellent third season provided viewers with a desperately needed dose of trippy yet emotionally grounded sci-fi, as well as a showcase for the excellent cast. How many other shows have you seen where every actor had to play two roles, and managed to play them convincingly?

Best Comedy Series

Should win: Modern Family
Should have been nominated: Community

Community is the single funniest show on television right now, and the fact that the folks at Greendale lost the nomination to the wildly uneven, offensively bad second season of Glee is a travesty. Of the nominated shows, however, I give the edge to Modern Family, which takes what could be a cliched, sentimental drama and makes it fresh and slyly funny without losing its heart.

Best Actor in a Drama

Should win: Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire
Should have been nominated: Sean Bean, Game of Thrones

Buscemi is probably going to be a controversial choice, but the spin this non-leading man put on his leading-man role of Nucky Thompson kept the character from being just another mob boss. Buscemi embodied the contradictions inherent in the honorable yet criminal Nucky in a way that made him seem genuine and, despite his many terrible actions, sympathetic. Bean gave a solid performance that may not have stood out among his flashier costars, but which provided a moral center that helped anchor Thrones many, many plot threads. Plus, the man got beheaded on camera!

Best Actress in a Drama

Should win: Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men
Should have been nominated: Nina Dobrev, The Vampire Diaries

I, unlike so many other TV connoisseurs, am not a huge fan of Mad Men, but Moss' performance as Peggy Olsen has always been one that drew me in on a show that kept me at a distance. Peggy's journey may represent the struggles of all women in the 1960s, but Moss ensures that the audience never loses sight of the very real girl at the heart of the character. As you know if you read this blog regularly, my love for Dobrev knows no bounds, and she really upped her game in the second season with dual portrayals of the tough, determined, kind Elena and the devious-with-a-heart Katharine.

Best Actor in a Comedy

Should win: Johnny Galecki, The Big Bang Theory
Should have been nominated: Joel McHale, Community

I love Jim Parsons' Sheldon as much as anyone, but when it comes down to it Galecki's Leonard is the most identifiable character on the show. Galecki makes the character nerdy without being incomprehensible, awkward without being pathetic, and just cool enough that you believe he could really attract a girl like Penny. As for McHale, he uses his coolness to his advantage while making sure the audience doesn't get so sucked in by Jeff's sardonic charm that we forget what a jerk he can be. At the same time, he manages the occasional moment of sweetness that makes all the snark seem worth it.

Best Actress in a Comedy

Should win: Melissa McCarthy, Mike and Molly
Should have been nominated: Aisha Tyler, Archer

McCarthy's natural comedy chops were put to great use in this summer's Bridesmaids, and her sharp, likable performance elevates Mike and Molly above its mediocre premise. Tyler may not physically appear as sexy, sassy secret agent Lana Kane, but without her magnificently funny line readings the character would be only a shadow of herself.

Best Supporting Actor in a Drama

Should win: Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones
Should have been nominated: John Noble, Fringe

Dinklage is a standout among a superb cast. His Tyrion is funny and charming even when he's scheming - especially when he's scheming - without sacrificing the pain that Tyrion constantly carries. He's a freak and a disappointment to his father, and Dinklage, even in his lightest moments, never lets us forget that. Noble is another standout in a great cast, and his performances as the harebrained Walter Bishop and the desperate, icy Walternate are some of the best work happening on television right now. Hell, they're some of the best work happening anywhere.

Best Supporting Actress in a Drama

Should win: Kelly MacDonald, Boardwalk Empire
Should have been nominated: Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones

MacDonald helped to humanize Boardwalk Empire with her character, the kind, conflicted Margaret Schroeder. Margaret was a woman in a difficult position, and her character's moral dilemma over becoming Nucky's kept woman in order to provide for her family was beautifully acted by MacDonald. Clarke - who barely had a screen credit to her name before Thrones - was superb in showing Daenerys' journey from frightened girl to badass dragon. Plus, she was nude. A lot.

Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy

Should win: Ed O'Neill, Modern Family
Should have been nominated: Donald Glover, Community

O'Neill's costars Eric Stonestreet and Ty Burrell may have the flashier parts, but gruff, loving dad Jay is the real heart of this family. Glover's case is similar; his costar Danny Pudi may steal the attention, but Troy is just as funny while still managing the occasional mature, heartfelt moment. Glover's performance in Mixology Certification - one of my favorite episodes - was subtle and nuanced in a way that few sitcom actors ever manage. Then, several episodes later, he spent most of the runtime paralyzed (literally) in the presence of LeVar Burton.

Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy

Should win: Sofia Vergara, Modern Family
Should have been nominated: Alison Brie, Community

Vergara is a very funny woman who makes sure that Gloria Delgado-Pritchett is a fully realized character, rather than letting her slip into the hot-younger-foreign-wife caricature. As for Brie... I love Alison Brie. Annie is often the most vulnerable, least comedic member of the study group, and Brie gave some excellent, vulnerable performances in Mixology Certification and Cooperative Calligraphy. And the she turned around and anchored what may be the single funniest scene in the history of television.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sookie's single, Marnie's gone, and someone amazing has returned!

Alice (Joe Manganiello) comes to an unfortunate realization in "And When I Die," the fourth season finale of True Blood. Photo courtesy of

(There are going to be all sorts of SPOILERS here, so for the love of God, if you haven't yet watched "And When I Die," stop reading.)

Russell Motherfucking Edgington is BACK!

I realize that lots and lots of other stuff happened in the fourth season finale of True Blood, but the single most exciting development (and the only real reason I have to tune in next summer) is the return of Denis O'Hare's batshit, psychotic, blood-crazed villain. Russell's on-air rant in season three was the high point of the show so far, and O'Hare's delightfully insane performance is sure to add a welcome dose of balls-out crazy to season five. The only thing that would have been better would have been Russell's actual, physical presence in the episode, but I guess you can't have everything, and in the case of the wildly uneven finale, it's best to just take what you can get.

As promising as Russell's return is, it doesn't make up for the boredom that pervaded much of the season finale. For every really good scene there were two or three snoozers that provided only the most predictable, perfunctory resolution without bothering to inject any suspense into the proceedings. With the exception of the fantastically tense scene between Lafayette-as-Marnie and Jesus in Lafayette's kitchen, the final resolution to the witch storyline was every kind of dull; even the kitchen scene was only really interesting because of the great performances by Nelsan Ellis and Kevin Alejandro. The final resolution was mostly about various other spirits, including Adele Stackhouse and Antonia, convincing Marnie that it was her time to move on. This is not The Ghost Whisperer, people! This is a show about vampires having sex and killing people, not about ghosts convincing other ghosts to "go gentle into that good night." True Blood is not cut out for subtlety.

The follow-up to that scene was even worse. The scene - in which Sookie breaks up with both Bill and Eric because she has finally realized that, just maybe, it's okay to be single for five seconds - seems interminably long, and does no favors to Stephen Moyer and Alexander Skarsgard. Both vampires have spent inordinate amounts of time this season (and in other seasons) mooning over Sookie, and it is not flattering for either man. Here's hoping this break-up reminds them that they are strong, sexy, dangerous vampires, not lovesick teenagers. In the words of the fantastic Pam, "I am so over Sookie and her precious fairy vagina and her unbelievably stupid name. Fuck Sookie!" I have never agreed more with a character on this show than I did with Pam at that moment.

On the bright side, the episode's final act provided viewers with some excellent Bill and Eric action. When Nan Flanagan showed up in order to convince them to side with her in a mutiny against the AVL and the Authority, they responded to her taunts by removing her bodyguards' heads (Eric) and staking Nan herself (Bill). The scene was even topped off by some classic Eric snark, as he looks at the heap of gore that was formerly Nan and smirks, "What a bitch." This is the Bill and Eric I want to see next season. It would be even more awesome if they teamed up with Russell to take down the Authority.

Another promising development - Tara is dead! It's not that I necessarily dislike the character, it's that the writers have turned her into such a victimized, pathetic, angry, and completely one-dimensional basket case over the course of the series that her absence will be welcome. It reflects badly on the writing staff that the death of a character is less offensive than her continued existence. Let's hope Rutina Wesley can find herself a better job in the future. And if she could get one for Britt Morgan, whose trashy Debbie Pelt died after shooting Tara, so much the better.

In other news, Jessica and Jason are now sex buddies, which is great because... sorry, I got distracted for a second thinking about naked Jason and Jessica in her slutty Little Red Riding Hood costume. I'm just assuming there will be more of this hotness forthcoming next season, and I think I can live with that.

In other cliffhanger news: ghost Rene turns up to warn Arlene that Terry is dangerous, which is presumably related to the appearance of his old army buddy Scott Foley (Scrubs' Sean and Felicity's Noel); Sam is being menaced by a werewolf; Holly and Andy are maybe going to hook up; and Steve Newlin is back! As a vampire! That last one is actually pretty cool, and I can really see it going somewhere. If Bill and Eric don't team up with Russell, maybe Steve will.

Stray thoughts:

  • I'm not usually a big fan of subplots that go nowhere, but I will be really happy if we never see Hotshot again. Same goes for the fairies.
  • Arlene's line about zombies being the new vampires would have been a funny meta joke if it wasn't so obvious the writers were trying to make it a funny meta joke.
  • Bill and Eric's matching bathrobes were adorable!
  • I didn't get to this in the recap proper, but I am very sad about Jesus' death. Kevin Alejandro, you will be missed.
  • I really don't understand why everyone wants to get involved with Sookie. Alcide is the latest addition to the I-love-Sookie bandwagon, and it keeps getting more baffling.
  • "I'm Janelle from Teen Mom 2"
  • The Vampire Diaries comes back on Thursdays! Who's ready for a show with consistent characters, writers who understand suspense, and excellent pacing?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

And in the end, it's all about the blood

Lauren Ambrose in "The Blood Line," the season finale of Torchwood: Miracle Day. Photo courtesy of

Torchwood: Miracle Day is now over, and just in time; I never thought I would say this, but if the show had continued into the start of the fall TV season, I would have been forced to jettison it in favor of something with a coherent plot and decent pacing. (On that note, The Vampire Diaries returns in less than a week! Hooray!) The season finale was, unlike various episodes throughout the season, not terrible (I'm looking at you, "The Middle Men") but it wasn't great either. After so much build-up I was expecting to find out more about the three Families and their motivations, or at least to find out that they had motivations that ranged beyond a generic let's-take-over-the-world plan. I was also hoping to see more of Lauren Ambrose's Jilly, a woman whose transition from bubbly publicist to fascism would have been extremely interesting if it hadn't happened so abruptly.

But let's start with the good. Eve Myles' Gwen was really the star of this episode, and she got to do more in this one episode than in the preceding nine put together. Her speech at the beginning about her father was reminiscent of the Gwen speech that opened the final episode of Children of Earth - and by "reminiscent" I mean "Russell T. Davies did the exact same thing he did in the last series" - but Myles gives a great speech, and this one really helped illuminate her personal motivations. Gwen's emotional phone call to Rhys was another highlight, as was her determination to kill Jack so he wouldn't have to commit suicide. All in all, it was a fantastic episode for Gwen, who even got to change out of her usual action clothes and into a great-looking dress for Esther's funeral.

Speaking of which, Esther died. Since Esther has generally been about as boring as drying paint for most of the series, I wasn't particularly upset at her death. I was expecting more resolution to the story about her sister and nieces, but I guess something good happened with that, as they were all alive for her funeral. It speaks to the general unimportance of her character that her death isn't big or heroic; she's shot in an attempt to keep Rex from ending the Miracle, which underlines her role as a person who helps define Rex, rather than an independent character. Although the idea she had to switch Rex's blood with Jack's was pretty clever, so I guess she wasn't completely useless.

Speaking of which, the solution to the Miracle - the introduction of Jack's special immortal blood to either side of the magic Earth vagina also known as the Blessing (and if you didn't think that's what it looked like, you have an admirably clean mind) was nifty and also frustratingly vague. I've mentioned this before,  but the idea of Jack's blood being special does not seem to fit with the established explanation for Jack's immortality. The explanation of the Miracle was equally vague - apparently, since the Blessing thought it was under attack, it decided to give a gift to humanity by making everyone immortal - although I did really enjoy the way Jack rattled off a few Doctor Who events (the Silurians, the Racnoss) as possible explanations before Gwen pointed out that he had no idea what he was talking about. It was a nice way to remind everyone that this show takes place in the Whoniverse.

I also enjoyed the twist at the end in which Rex becomes immortal, just like Jack (although once again, I'm not entirely sure how Jack's blood made him immortal, since it took the full strength of the TARDIS matrix to do the same to Jack). I really disliked Rex throughout the first half of the series, but by the end he had begun to grow on me. I'd like to see him learn to cope with immortality in future seasons, and having an immortal friend for Jack might lead to some interesting developments for his character.

This being Miracle Day, however, there were quite a few problems that distracted from the main plot. The Charlotte-is-a-mole plotline was glossed over throughout most of the episode, making the resolution of that story seem like an afterthought. The Families also came across as cartoonish rather than menacing, and the reintroduction of the blue-eyed frat boy at the end implied that they might come back, which... let's not bring them back. Please? If you're going to bring back anyone, bring back the 456. They were some scary bastards.

The biggest problem with the episode - as well as the season as a whole - was Oswald Danes. It was never entirely clear what purpose his character served, and the writers never seemed to know what to do with him. In one episode they would try to make him a broken man trying to make something of his life, while in the next he would return to being a monster. It seems clear that, in the finale, Oswald was supposed to have something of a subversive redemption arc, but the grating contrast between the classic redemption storyline and his final rant about chasing down the girl he molested in hell was too jarring to be subversive. Oswald's character has always suffered from the fact that he is completely unsympathetic; the man raped and murdered a little girl, and that fact hung over everything he did in the series. His arc showed some promise in the beginning, at the very least as a commentary on the state of the media, but that never went anywhere, and in the end all the audience was left with was a bad taste in our mouths.

Stray Thoughts:

  • The caricature of the old, superstitious Chinese woman really rubbed me the wrong way.
  • The scene of Rhys finding Gwen's father to say goodbye was lovely, as was the image of P.C. Andy Davidson sitting by the side of the dying girl with no family. Can there be more Andy next season? Please?
  • And while we're at it, more Rhys would also be appreciated.
  • The shots of Jack and Rex spurting blood into the Blessing contained some special effects that looked more appropriate for an Evil Dead movie than Torchwood.
  • Speaking of that scene, how long to do you think it will take some film studies major to write a paper about the significance of two men giving up their blood to the mystical Earth Vagina?
  • Torchwood might not be back for a while, so let's just hope that Jack returns to Doctor Who soon. Maybe Rex could come with him?
  • Gwen looked fabulous at Esther's funeral, but could Jack not have put on a black coat for the occasion?
  • For more about the giant problem that was Oswald Danes, check out the excellent recaps over at the A.V. Club and io9.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Vampire Diaries Promo: Sex, Blood and Birthday Cake

As regular readers of this blog may remember, I absolutely love The Vampire Diaries. The show returns in only one short week and, as if I wasn't excited enough, the TV gods provided me with this promo that has left me salivating in excitement (although that may also be the prominently featured cake):

The main message of the trailer - other than the fact that, on closer inspection, that cake does not look delicious - is that this season is all about Elena. I love that because, as I may have mentioned before, Nina Dobrev is one of my favorite actors working in television right now, and her Elena Gilbert gets tougher and more badass every episode. More Elena is never a bad thing.

The teaser also promises lots more Klaus in the upcoming season. Joseph Morgan is pretty damn fantastic - and he is looking fine in that old-school tux, complete with tails - and I can't wait to see he and the newly bad Stefan (Paul Wesley) leave a trail of murder and mayhem in their wake. Neither can Wesley, who told Ryan Seacrest, "I think it's always more fun to play a bad boy," and promised more "bad Stefan" this season.

I am also loving the promise of a darker, more twisted love triangle between Elena, Stefan and Damon (Ian Somerhalder) this year. That shot of Stefan pulling Elena's hair hints that their relationship is quickly going to get less romantic and more obsessive as Stefan embraces his dark side (EW's Mandy Bierly is predicting a storyline that parallels Buffy's Angelus, and I would be all for that), leaving the door open for Damon to romance her. Dobrev and Somerhalder have great chemistry (which could explain rumors that the two are a couple in real life) and with Stefan out of the picture, Damon could finally have a chance.

I had only a few, minor quibbles with the promo. Much of the supporting cast was left out; I wanted a tease of what was happening with Caroline and Matt, or how Jeremy is dealing with the ghosts of Anna and Vicky. Also, more Alaric, please; the poor man spent most of last season babysitting Jenna, so let's get him a good storyline where he gets to hunt vampires, stat. I'm sure that these characters will be addressed in the season premiere - after all, it centers on Elena's birthday, and Caroline has never been one to stay away from a party - but it would have been nice to see even a glimpse of them in the trailer.

Who else is excited for the new season of The Vampire Diaries? Do you want to see bad Stefan as much as I do? And can someone please get Elena a real cake? The poor girl has been through enough.