Monday, October 26, 2009

Who Wants to be Don Draper for Halloween?

A lot of people have been asking when Mad Men was going to pick up the pace, and not without reason. For every big drama moment like Sal's firing or the British guy's foot being lawnmowered off, there's been half an episode about Don and the teacher or Betty and the politician. With only 3 episodes left of the season, we wanted to see some pay-off. Which is why Sunday night, Mad Men produced its best episode of the season, and one of its best overall.

Now, the past few episodes I've started to tire of the Sopranos-like device in which Matthew Weiner and co. choose to focus on only three characters each week. Since most weeks Don and Betty made up two out of three, that meant weeks at a time without any noticeable imput from Pete, Peggy, Roger, Joan, etc. This week wasn't any different. There were still only three storylines - Don/Betty, Roger, and Joan. The difference is this week all three were gold.

First up, Joan. Now that she's left Sterling Cooper, we see far too little of Joan, so any sighting is cause for excitement. And unlike her memorable but brief appearance with Pete in the department store, this time there was plenty of Joan, and even more reasons to think her husband is the most unworthy human being on the planet. As he flubbed his interview prep and bitched and moaned about how unfair life is that he's not a good enough surgeon, Joan did what every one of the show's viewers wanted to: hit him in the head with a vase. Sadly, his decision to join the army seemed to just keep Joan trapped in the marriage even tighter (though clearly leading into a Vietnam storyline), but for that faked smile at the end alone, this should be Christina Hendricks' Emmy submission episode.

Next Roger, who's been barely present this season. His Casablanca and Hemingway referencing encounter with an ex who left him in Paris twenty years earlier brought Mad Men back to part of its original appeal: the glamour of an earlier era. Watching Roger and Annabel discuss the old days was like watching an old black-and-white Hollywood romance, except older and sadder. His simple "you're not" when she called him "the one" hit harder than any of his more obvious attacks the night before. Definitely John Slattery's Emmy submission episode.

But as great as it was to see Roger and Joan get so much screen time, this episode will really be remembered as the one where Betty confronted Don about his past. This episode's been in the making ever since that guy on the train called Don "Dick" in season 1, and man, did it not disappoint. Watching the way Don completely collapsed once he accepted his past must come out, dropping cigarettes and unable to pour his own drink, well, certainly a different person than the one who sneered "you people" at Sal just two weeks ago.

As Don slowly and methodically went through his past, you could see the pain each word brought, as Betty found herself unsure how to react. I admit I kept asking throughout "what about the teacher in the car?!?!" Would she leave, or spend the night there? Very grateful for the shot showing she did indeed leave. But otherwise, the kind of subtle scene Mad Men excels in, up there with Peggy telling Pete about their baby last season. Jon Hamm and January Jones, I think you know what to do come Emmy time.

The episode ends with possibly the series' best final line ever, "And who are you supposed to be?" Isn't that always the question. And with Don's past opened up, there's now tons of material feeding the final two episodes. Plus, the following storylines still need some kind of resolution by season's end: the Brits' ownership of Sterling Cooper, Duck's attempts to steal Peggy and Pete, Sal's firing, Joan's connection to Sterling Cooper, Roger and Jane's marriage, and Betty and the guy from the governor's office. Maybe not everything will be addressed by season's end. But whatever happens, this week at least showed what Mad Men looks like at its best.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bad News for Dollhouse Fans

Well here's some disappointing news to start the day: according to Entertainment Weekly, Fox is taking Dollhouse off the schedule for November sweeps, not bringing it back til December for back-to-back Friday night episodes. So there's some doubly bad news: not only is Fox giving it the vote of no confidence by taking it off the air for a month, but in December the burning off process begins. All of which means what we probably knew all along: this second season will be Dollhouse's last.

So what went wrong? Why, after just three episodes this season has Dollhouse already been marked doomed? It's easy to just blame the network, but I think this case is a little more complicated than that. After all, most networks wouldn't have renewed Dollhouse at all. Or Fox could have gone the NBC route and renewed it and then canceled it before a single episode aired, Southland style. And finally, they could have actually canceled the show after these three episodes, but instead have promised to air all 13 episodes (even if some may end up being over the summer).

Next, as much as I hate to admit it, Joss Whedon and co. do have to take some of the blame. As I wrote after the second episode, the first two episodes this season just haven't been very good. The premiere was solid enough, but the second episode was just bad, and when every episode counts there's no room for duds. Now, the third episode was a huge improvement over the first two, with a plot about a creepy psycho on the loose in Victor's body who ends up swapping with Echo (leading to a very funny scene of Victor at a club with a party girl's personality). But even that episode was pure case-of-the-week, which most fans had hoped the show evolved out of last year.

But despite some creative missteps, I still believe the time slot was ultimately what doomed the show. There's an argument that Friday nights are a good place for struggling shows because the expectations are lower. But they're not. CBS continues to get blockbuster ratings for crappy supernatural procedurals like Ghost Whisperer and Medium, so the other networks think "I can do it too!" But here's the thing: only old people stay home and watch TV on a Friday night. Young people go out and catch the show on DVR sometime later. Which is why Dollhouse's ratings are 50% DVR. Cause only young people watch it. But it takes 17 days for those ratings to come in, at which point it feels like too little too late.

Even the death slot could have been survivable if Fox even tried to give the show a compatible lead-in, but instead it gave it probably the worst options in its line-up: Brothers and Til Death. Having never seen either, I can't really comment on their creative strength, although I can say that most critics named Brothers the worst new show of the season, and I honestly thought Til Death was canceled years ago until I just looked up Fox's schedule to see what Brothers is called. But even if both shows weren't even more in need of cancellation than Dollhouse, you still can't lead in to a challenging sci-fi show with unchallenging and unwatched comedies. Fringe would have made sense. Even a House or Bones repeat would have worked. Anything that would already have people watching the network.

Entertainment Weekly had a piece recently about how Tuesday is the worst TV night of the week, and shows like Dollhouse should be moved there where they'd stand a better chance. I couldn't agree more. I don't watch a single Tuesday night show, as the only options are reality, NCIS, and remakes of shows from the 1990s (literally the only shows that don't fit into these categories are The Good Wife, The Forgotten, and Leno). So if nothing else, maybe this whole incident will convince Fox that if their benchmark for a successful Friday night show is whether it can beat a repeat of House, maybe they should just air a repeat of House instead. Times have changed since the days The X-Files became a hit on Friday nights. And for Dollhouse fans, at least we'll get to see the final ten episodes sometime.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Good Fit for CBS

Although not one of my more anticipated fall premieres, The Good Wife managed to make its way onto my pilot list due to all the good reviews calling it the best new drama this season. I've now seen a couple of episodes, which pretty much validated what I expected all along: it's a perfectly well-done show that's just not for me.

The show centers on Alicia (Julianna Margulies), the wife of a state's attorney (Chris Noth) who becomes an amalgam of Edwards, Spitzer, Blagojevich, and that New Jersey governor when he gets caught in a sex scandal, is forced to resign, and winds up in jail. With her husband in jail, Alicia goes back to working as a lawyer for the first time in over the decade, becoming a junior associate at a law firm run by her old college buddy played by Josh Charles (aka Sports Night's Dan Rydell).

As Law & Ordery as the timeliness may seem, it's actually the best part of the show. All of the leftover baggage from riding out the scandal - in addition to her husband's ongoing appeal - make Alicia one of the best-developed characters in any of the so-called character-based procedurals.

Because yes, sadly, once Alicia gets back to work, that's exactly what the show becomes. While we do see her at home and visiting her husband in jail, we mostly see Alicia in the office and in court. Yes, it's one of those shows where there's somehow a court case every week even though most cases take years. Not that the cases aren't interesting. There's a last-minute discovery to win the case in every episode, and every week there's a new judge with a big personality to spice things up. But after so many other lawyer shows have really covered this territory, I can't help but feeling like this is just one more.

There's a reason the show is doing well and has been picked up for a full season. Occupying what once was Judging Amy's timeslot, The Good Wife has a lot of the same appeal - a law procedural with a strong female protagonist at the center. And it is great to see Josh Charles back on TV, so many years after Sports Night. So if you like these kind of shows, as many people I know do, this one is well-executed. But if you're like me, and like your shows closer to Lost on the Lost to CSI scale, this is never going to be must-see.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Dollhouse Wants to Stay Awake

It's only 2 episodes into the season, and already blogs are announcing Dollhouse's potential cancellation. As depressing as that prospect is, it does address something we all knew going into season 2: Dollhouse is lucky to have a second season, and we should enjoy it while it's on. Since Joss Whedon knows that as well as anyone, it makes it all the more curious why this season's first 2 episodes feel so much more like early season 1 than late season 1. To paraphrase Tony Soprano, every episode is a gift, but does it have to be a pair of socks?

That's being a bit overdramatic, since Dollhouse continues to be enjoyable week to week. I'm more referring to the decision to go back to the case-of-the-week format, and more specifically the lackluster nature of the first 2 cases. In the season premiere, Echo married BSG's Apollo, an arms dealer, to take him down. As fun as it is to see Apollo again, I spent the whole episode wondering how long this engagement lasted to get him to marry her, and why it was worth all the effort.

Still, if the procedural element wasn't up to Whedon standards, much of the rest of the episode was. Whiskey/Saunders, one of the show's best characters, had a great storyline as she dealt with the season 1 finale revelation that she's actually an Active. It makes you realize what season 2 will be lacking when Amy Acker has to go off and make Happy Town, which sight-unseen I still expect to last shorter than Dollhouse. So if the premiere wasn't finale-quality, it had enough good stuff to set up the season right.

But this past week's episode was all about the case of the week, and what a weak case it was. Echo's made into a mom, and goes baby crazy? Even by case-of-the-week standards, that's not very fun. No ass-kicking Echo, no out-smarting Echo, just sad Echo. Worst of all, Boyd, Saunders, and Victor were all completely MIA. If Ballard as Echo's handler means less Boyd, then I wish he was still at the FBI.

With hints about Echo's growing consciousness and Wesley/Sandy Rivers/Mr. Alyson Hannigan's quest to take down the Dollhouse, both episodes built a solid foundation for the season. Which would work out great if we knew there was going to be a rest of the season. With its future in jeopardy, Dollhouse needs to bring back the quality of the end of last season if it wants to stay on the air. The promo for next week showed a much more action-packed and interesting episode, so I'm encouraged. But as someone rooting strongly for the show to succeed, I'm still a bit disappointed.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Seth MacFarlane Domination Continues

Seth MacFarlane is taking over TV. He's got Family Guy and American Dad on Fox. He's appearing in person on FlashForward. And now, with last week's premiere of Family Guy spin-off The Cleveland Show, he's got 3/4 of Fox's Sunday night line-up. Only The Simpsons stands in the way of the animation block becoming "Seth MacFarlane night."

But with Cleveland's second episode airing tonight, I thought it was worth taking a look at MacFarlane's second attempt to clone Family Guy. Like American Dad, Cleveland attempts to replicate Family Guy character-by-character as much as possible. There's Cleveland (here taking over the Peter role), his high school crush (Lois), his overweight son (Chris), her daughter (Meg), and her too-mature-for-his-age young'in (Stewie). Plus a talking bear, a redneck, and a preppie white guy who lives with his mom as Cleveland's three friends.

Essentially, it's Family Guy with a few racial and geographical adjustments. And while the pilot didn't exactly make me laugh, it was still miles above American Dad (also true for any other scripted show on TV). I will say that the Family Guy trademarked cut-aways seem to be getting more desperate and less logical with time. It's starting to feel like amateur improv, where they don't actually know how to complete the joke after the set-up. I'm starting to think South Park may be right that the show is written by manatees.

Truth is, Family Guy was a show I LOVED when I was 13, but I outgrew its sense of humor a couple years ago, so Cleveland's not really aiming for me as its audience. But if you like Family Guy and can tolerate American Dad, you'll probably enjoy it just fine. And if nothing else, it's got a pretty good theme song:

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Humor in Lying

Grade: B+

Humor is, of course, subjective, so I'll say this upfront: if the trailer for The Invention of Lying didn't appeal, you're probably not going to like the movie either. But for all the many, many high-concept comedies coming out of Hollywood these days, this concept is actually kind of brilliant: in a world where everyone only speaks the truth (and, by extension, tends to share every unpolite but honest thought in their head), one guy (Ricky Gervais) has figured out how to lie.

You'd think that concept might get old, creating a one-joke act that plays itself out far before the end. But with so much material within that concept, it doesn't. Maybe it's just me, but watching Tina Fey say how much she loathes her job and waiters telling Gervais that his date (Jennifer Garner) is way out of his league kept making me laugh. Best of all are some hilarious truth-in-advertising campaigns from Coke ("it's very popular") and Pepsi ("for when they don't have Coke.") Also, Jennifer Garner proves here that, just as in 13 Going on 30, she's actually quite a talented comedic actress, and her truth-telling is often the funniest. All of which makes the first act of the movie provides a frequent and consistent amount of laughs.

Writer/directors Gervais and Matthew Robinson knew they couldn't let the whole movie go on like that though, so, for better and for worse, it heads off in different directions. Trying to comfort his mother as she's dying, Gervais ends up inadvertently inventing religion. At first it seems like that shouldn't work (or belong in this movie), but once you see him try to explain "the man in the sky" to his followers in the movie's funniest scene, you'll change your mind.

Sadly, the last act reverts to what so many similar comedies feel obligated to do: go the tried-and-true romance route, with a Gervais/Garner will-they-or-won't-they you've seen about 500 times before, and each of them better done. Cause this time the central concept all but disappears (as does the humor) as Gervais mopes about wanting Garner back. As Gervais' character is basically an even more depressed version of Extras' Andy Millman, the movie illustrates that a movie about depressed characters is sometimes kind of depressing. And even if the truth-telling never gets old, the hundreds of times they say "genetic match" and "fat kids with snub noses" most certainly does.

You'd think the guy who created Tim and Dawn (who would eventually become Jim and Pam) could make a better romance, and find a balance between funny and sad instead of bouncing back and forth between them. Maybe that's what was lost in Gervais finding a new collaborator instead of usual co-writer/director Stephen Merchant (who does have a fun cameo). Speaking of cameos, the movie is packed full of them. I won't spoil them all, but they run the gamut from the more expected comedians (like Merchant) to legit big names (Edward Norton!) Guess there's a lot of fans of The Office (or Extras?) in Hollywood these days.

Basically, it's uneven. When it's good, it's hilarious. When it tries to be serious, it fails. But since it's the funny parts you'll remember when you leave the theater, I'm not lying when I say you should check it out.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Blah to the Future

Grade: B-

I know I'm a week behind, but I just caught the pilot to FlashForward, ABC's newest attempt to imitate its success with Lost. And I have to say, I'm disappointed. It's not that I was expecting Lost-level quality. That's far too much to ask. But while the concept is certainly a good one, the execution just isn't.

First off, I'm not bringing up Lost just cause this is a genre show on ABC - FlashForward does everything it possibly can to make you think of it, especially in its direct rip-off opening scene. Beginning with a close-up of its male lead waking up from unconsciousness (face, not eye, huge difference), the sounds of people screaming are gradually heard as our lead discovers the wreckage around him. There's even a sudden explosion. If you substitute the word "car" with "plane," it's Lost. When you toss in Penny and (later) Charlie as cast members and an Oceanic Airlines poster in the background, it's clear what the goal is.

Stepping aside from the easy comparisons though, let's look at what FlashForward is on its own. At the exact same time, everyone in the world passes out and has visions of April 29th at 10 PM. Well, not everyone - John Cho's character has the misfortune of being visionless, leaving him to spend the next 6 months wondering if he's doomed to die before then. Voldemort's brother sees himself leading an investigation into the event. His wife, Penny, sees herself with another man (sadly not Desmond). And a man on the brink of suicide sees himself alive.

So ok, that's a great idea for a show. You get to see what happens between point A and point B, and try to figure out whether they can change their fates or not. There's all sorts of mysteries, the coolest one being what's up with the one person on the planet who didn't get knocked out during the event. You can imagine all sorts of twists and turns to come along the way.

So what's wrong? Pretty much everything else. Despite aiming for Lost, the quality just feels B-level. The dialogue is continually laughable, the acting never quite convincing (which I'll blame on the writing, not the cast), and the general tone muffled and plodding. Worse, none of the characters really stand out as people you care where they are 6 months from now. Since most of the mysteries are character-based, that's no good. Also, it's too aware of the strength of its concept. The entire pilot consists of a series of "what did you see in your flash forward?" "Oh, I saw this, what did you see in your flash forward?" It's like "Real World: Visionquest." Yawn.

Because the concept does intrigue me, and because there's only so many shows that even put in the effort of trying to break new ground, I'll give this one three episodes before making up my mind. But I can tell you now that this has much more in common with Heroes, Prison Break, and, yes, The Nine - all shows that tried to be the next Lost and ultimately settled for something less. For another low-grade genre show, it could do the trick. But for something to replace Lost's ability to wow, I'm still waiting.