Monday, November 30, 2009

What I Saw Over Thanksgiving Weekend

People have different Thanksgiving traditions. Some people play football. Some people have loud fights with their families. I see movies. Last year I had a post on movies to see with your family in the midst of a turkey-based food coma. Much like last year, the perfect Thanksgiving movies got pushed to Christmas. But even without Nine and The Princess and the Frog, I found plenty to watch over the holiday weekend.

Grade: B+

First up, the movie I actually saw on Thanksgiving day. In a lot of ways, The Fantastic Mr. Fox is like The Incredibles, which I saw and loved during Thanksgiving five years ago. Again you've got a family in which the parents gave up their dangerous and preferred line of work to settle down with a family, only to come back to it after the father gets restless. This time they're foxes and not superheroes, but it still leads to a movie ostensibly for kids that's really more for adults.

Hating on Wes Anderson has become popular, between The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, but Foxes is a strong step towards winning those former fans back. That dry, sardonic Wes Anderson style is still very much here, but it's used for something much more fun. A lot of the humor comes in the "animals acting like people" form, but the voice cast helps sell it. There's a bit of Daniel Ocean in George Clooney's Mr. Fox, a former chicken thief who misses the thrill. Anderson mainstays Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray are back to keep things light. Meryl Streep is underused, but does a lot with what she's got.

All that said, there's still plenty of dark stuff to make you question whether kids should see it, as you'd hope from something based on a Roald Dahl book. Mr. Fox gets his tail shot off, and all the animals' lives are continually in danger from all the angry farmers. But the stakes make all the many capers legitimately suspenseful. Especially after the mopey Where the Wild Things Are, it's nice to find a kids' movie for adults that wants to excite instead of depress. Hence why it gets fantastic in the title.

Grade: B

When I walked in to see 2012, I was expecting it to be really stupid but fun, and you know, it delivered on both counts. Continuing a string of big-budget disaster movies from destruction master Roland Emmerich, director of Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow, 2012 boasts the least specific threat with the craziest amount of damage yet. From the trailer, it's hard to judge what's destroying Earth. Earthquakes? Fireballs? Mayans? Turns out to be some combination (of the first two), but you won't be listening to the talk of neutrinos in the earth's crust. You'll be watching shit blow up.

All of Emmerich's movies are basically the same, it's just a matter of recasting the roles and switching the targets of destruction, so it's probably easier to discuss 2012 with Independence Day in mind. The story starts when a scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor filling in for Jeff Goldblum) discovers that, due to some evil neutrinos, the world will be destroyed in 2012. After telling his compassionless superior (Oliver Platt) and the president (Danny Glover), they form a plan to help a select group of the worthy survive the coming onslaught.

After a whole lot of prep, around 30-45 minutes into the movie we meet our actual protagonist, John Cusack (playing Will Smith), a writer with an ex-wife (Amanda Peet) and two kids. Somehow, the four of them plus the ex-wife's boyfriend wind up as the only people in America able to outdrive earthquakes, outfly explosions, and outswim floods to survive. Nothing about any of their escape scenes makes a remote amount of sense. Just try counting the number of times somebody falls into an earthquake-induced abyss and makes it out alive. But it doesn't matter, because there's high-quality disaster porn all around, like skyscrapers shattering on top of Cusack's limo and their plane magically bursting through smoke clouds.

There's nothing here we haven't seen before in any of Emmerich's other movies, but that doesn't mean 2012 doesn't still have its merits. For one thing, the explosions are probably bigger than in his previous movies. It is the end of the world after all. And to me at least Ejiofor, Cusack, Peet, Glover, and Thandie Newton make for a more appealing cast than that in The Day After Tomorrow (no offense). Though no matter how many famous monuments get destroyed (and there are a lot), nothing's as iconic as that destruction of the white house in Independence Day. As far as dumb action movies go, I'll take 2012 over Transformers 2 any day, but that doesn't mean I'll ever revisit (or remember) it.

While not catching up on movies in theaters, I also tried to make some progress on my Netflix queue, which I've been woefully neglecting ever since the TV season began (and pretty much all summer as well). First on the DVD front (to keep me entertained on the train) was Adventureland, a coming-of-age movie set in the '80s from the director of Superbad. But one thing I didn't realize from the trailer: not a comedy.

Jesse Eisenberg, known as "the guy that's not Michael Cera even though he plays the same characters," plays a college-grad with no job prospects who's forced to work at a local amusement park to pay for grad school. You'd think between bonding with the community of park workers, the wacky antics of such a place, and '80s nostalgia there'd be plenty here for laughs. And there are some, but there's a lot more angst as Eisenberg's character falls for Twilight-er Kristen Stewart, a fellow park employee who's sleeping with (gasp) Ryan Reynolds' married rocker/handyman.

The romance is cute and all, but it's nothing that hasn't been done in a million coming-of-age movies beforehand. It's Adventureland itself that makes the movie stand-out, especially strong supporting players like Martin Starr as an unlucky-in-love nihilist and SNL's Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the married couple who run the park and account for approximately 95% of the movie's laughs. The drama's handled well enough that it's still enjoyable to watch, but if there was more Hader and Wiig and less moping, this might not have been left for Netflix.

Finally, Drag Me to Hell, a VERY well-reviewed horror movie that was hailed as a return to the comic horror Evil Deads of Sam Raimi's past. Maybe I just don't get horror - or this movie - but I'm not seeing the comedy. Yes, there are occasional moments of gross-out camp, especially when they bring the demon in question to form during a seance, but those moments seem vastly out of tone with the rest of the movie.

Playing into the times, the story begins when Alison Lohman's bank worker denies a gypsy woman an extension on her mortgage, and the woman returns the favor with a gypsy curse. Soon Lohman's being attacked by the toothless crone and a goat demon when not swallowing flies or bleeding out the nose.

Thing is, the movie hardly goes horror to horror. It actually spends a lot more time looking at her life at the bank and her relationship with boyfriend Justin Long (yes, the Mac guy). Since most of the movie is played straight and without camp, the campiness of the horror is less funny than disjointed. As such, I didn't find it funny - or scary - just sad. Now, I was going to have issues with this movie regardless because (SPOILER ALERT) she kills her cat to offer to the demon, which pretty throughly turned me off to it. But overall, it's definitely got its moments; it just doesn't congeal into a single consistent movie.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Are the Visitors Leaving So Soon?

Well, that was fast. Before I could even write up a pilot review for V, it's already time for the fall finale, which means no more V eps until March. We saw back in Lost season 3 how successful the fall "mini-pod" of episodes works, and I'm not optimistic about ABC's decision to treat V the same way. I'm even less excited that other networks are scheduling similarly sized breaks in their shows' seasons, most unfortunately in the case of Glee, which Fox announced today will not be returning until April (?!?!?!?!) after its December fall finale. Word to the higher-ups: having a show disappear for months at a time kills momentum and buzz WAY worse than a few weeks of repeats.

I'm only bothering to complain about the scheduling because, while four episodes may not have been enough to all-out hook me, it certainly left me intrigued. In many ways, V is the show FlashForward should have been. Less concerned with trying to be the next Lost, V has no higher aspirations than to be an enjoyable action show with cool twists and fun shoot-outs in every episode. The characters may not be any more developed than on FlashForward, but they don't need to be. While FF is about how a group of characters deal with a single event, so we're meant to care about them, here the characters serve the bigger story.

Plus, whatever the characters don't have in the writing is made up for in an appealing group of actors, none of whom seemed to learn TV acting from David Caruso (I'm looking at you Joseph Fiennes). The show's got mad geek cred, not only putting a popular Lost alum (Elizabeth Mitchell) in the lead, but finding room for not one but two Firefly alums in the cast (Alan Tudyk, not straying too far from his role as Alpha on Dollhouse, and Monica Baccarin as Anna, the head of the Vs, whose line deliveries kind of remind me of Betty Draper). Add in Scott Wolf as a reporter, and you've got a good group.

And unlike the dreary, exposition-heavy FlashForward (what did you see in your flash forward? What did you see in your flash forward?) V keeps the story moving. Already in these four episodes the main resistance fighters have found each other, we've found some unexpected Lost-like connections between other characters, and the mythology is building up with talk of the Fifth Column and the mysterious John May. And every episode has had a couple of different action sequences to keep things exciting. Wherever the plot may be heading, at least it's moving somewhere.

Still, despite all that's happened in these four episodes, tonight's "finale" still felt like a fourth episode. While there were cliffhangers (the priest getting stabbed, the image of the V fleet waiting on the other side of the universe), it lacked that huge twist to make you say, "Ok, I definitely need to watch that when it comes back." An appropriate comparison is Battlestar Galactica, which also began with a four hour miniseries. While I generally think the miniseries is nowhere near as good as the series that follows, what got me to keep watching was that final "Sharon Valeri is a Cylon!" reveal. Without something that big, a four month wait may leave most of us forgetting what we saw.

Of all the new sci-fi offerings this fall, V to me seems to hold the most promise. Interestingly enough, it seems a lot of sci-fi fans like Entertainment Weekly's Doc Jensen have been quick to turn against V for disappointing when they would normally say to wait and see (and he's a FlashForward fan. Huh?) But personally, I've found each episode satisfying enough to want to see what comes next. It may ultimately disappoint, but it would be more disappointing if it's this scheduling experiment that ends up dooming it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Finale Worthy of the Crappy Season Preceding It

It's no secret that this season of Project Runway has been objectively bad. I wrote about it, everyone else has written about it, we all know the reasons. There's no real purpose in going over all of that again.

But in spite of everything else, the judges did probably find the three strongest people for the finale (if you don't count Shirin and Ra'mon, that is). And as much as everyone I've talked to has said, "I don't even have anyone I'm rooting for. They all suck," I actually had someone I was rooting for. Carol Hannah had made consistently nice stuff AND managed to spend more time on her clothes than on bitchy comments. Was she up to the standards of past PR winners? Maybe not, but she would still be a very respectable pick.

And that decision was amplified when I saw the collections. Usually everyone brings their A-game, to the point that people you go in hating sometimes cause me to reconsider, and it's hard to figure out who really was on top. But not this year. This year Carol Hannah was FAR AND AWAY better than the other two, who I thought both MAJORLY disappointed. While her collection wasn't "cohesive" if cohesive means "all exactly the same," she was the only one with any memorable individual pieces that actually looked good. And it wasn't all black. Seemed like a no-brainer.

As for the others, Althea's so-called "sportswear of the future" looked like pretty normal clothes you could find on anyone, any time. And even getting past the fact that she went for more casual wear, it wasn't very interesting. Of course, this episode has been sitting on the shelf for over a year now, so maybe "the future" to them was Spring 2009, and this was really cutting-edge back then. I certainly wouldn't know.

Now, I'll give winner Irina the benefit of the doubt for a moment. She said that black doesn't look good on camera, so it's certainly possible that what I saw was nothing at all like what the judges praised. But what I saw was many variations on the same outfit with stupid hats and a couple of the exact same fur things she's already made multiple times before. As for the "warrior" look, they all just looked like ice queens. So when one of the judges said "You know what women you're designing for," I have to conclude he was referring to....Irina.

It wasn't just the decision that made this finale such a let-down. Everything about it seemed second-rate. Michael and Nina often looked apologetic/embarrassed/unconvinced by what they were saying. There were no contestants from seasons past there for the show. The biggest guest judge they could get was...a Susan Boyle look-alike? Plus I spent the whole time wondering if the designers were being blue screened in, since I had heard they weren't allowed to show themselves at the time for spoiler reasons.

Anyway, yes, Carol Hannah was robbed, but the more important thing is that this season is over. Next year is back in New York and back to normal, this LA experiment an unpleasant memory behind us. And if moving back to New York doesn't help, then well, I guess we're even bigger suckers for still watching it.

On a happier note, Glee was so good this week that I almost didn't realize there was no Sue Sylvester. Though that did make for one of the more dramatic episodes, with many honest and emotional scenes and, yeah, some crying. But all of the pregnancy drama with the parents was treated in enough of a realistic and un-melodramatic way that it worked, and made Finn and Quinn both more interesting as characters.

Still, what made the episode worth writing about was the Will and Rachel storyline. First we got a hilariously awkward duet of "Endless Love" in which Rachel chased Mr. Shu around with "crazy eyes" while he made horrified expressions. Then, even better, a mash-up (why are Glee's mash-ups always so good?) from Will of "Don't Stand So Close to Me" and "Young Girl." The more into his message he got, the more excited Rachel (and Emma!) got to be watching him.

Closing out the episode with a feel-very-good group number of "Lean on Me," it was an episode with a lot of music and a lot of heart. Thankfully Sue's back next week to wreak some havoc and bring in the funny, but this episode's more realistic tone helped balance out some of the wackier stuff. Ryan Murphy's come a long way from Nip/Tuck.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

So It's Come to This

Well, I held out for awhile, but I have finally succumbed to the inevitable: I've joined Twitter. There are three reasons why I made this decision:

1. So I can post my movie and TV thoughts on nights when I don't have time or am too lazy to write-up a full blog post. For example, I just saw The Hurt Locker, and while I intend to review it eventually, I can now let you know that I loved it without yet having to say why.

2. So I can shamelessly self-promote for the blog, posting links every time I write a post. I'm guessing this reason has created a lot of Twitter accounts.

3. To follow @ActuallyNPH. If Neil Patrick Harris is on Twitter, it can't be that lame.

So, if you like the idea of more Zandervision in much smaller doses, follow me @zandervision. And if you don't, no worries, the blog will still be here for you continuing like normal.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Gossip Girl Reality Check and Other TV Tidbits

Ok, nobody goes to Gossip Girl for anything resembling reality. A world in which high school students become paparazzi fodder for no particular reason (Serena) or believe their name should be known worldwide while being a serious business man at 18 (Chuck)? Obviously intended to be taken as the silly froth it is.

But even in the world of Gossip Girl, tonight's episode seemed extra silly. Primarily anything having to do with the Tisch cabaret. Now, portraying Tisch students as tools? Totally realistic. But as big Lady Gaga fans? That seems like a stretch. And stretching credibility too far: laughing hysterically at Dan's objectively lame Snow White/Lady Gaga musical. I'm not blaming Dan for this: he did have like 3 hours to write the thing and was doing it for Olivia/Blair. But seriously, it was like something out of a summer camp for 13-year-olds. I can't see theater kids applauding a fractured fairy tale without a heavy dose of incest, suicide, or rape.

As for the Serena/Tripp/Nate triangle, that's problematic less for credibility and more for just being stupid. It's hard to believe Serena started out as the show's main character, cause this season she's been creeping up next to Nate on the list of characters that should be voted off. And Topher-Grace-with-bugeyes (Tripp) can go with her. Speaking of which, what does Jenny have to do to get a worthwhile storyline? This week was no "I'm going to be a hipster designer and take off my clothes for a sketchy hipster photographer," but Belgian ecstasy dealer is close. I'm certainly thankful that the next episode will be a Thanksgiving one, since everyone needs some together time.

Moving over to CBS, How I Met Your Mother gave what I thought was one of its strongest episodes this season, but what do I know, I'm the one person still refusing to hate on this season. What can I say, I still enjoy even the weakest episodes. But with Barney and Robin's relationship rather quickly dispatched last week (since even I admit it wasn't working), we had Barney back to top form, and it felt good.

At times the episode felt like an advertisement for the inevitable tie-in book (will The Playbook be ready for Christmas?), but I'd buy it if it's anywhere near as awesome as some of the examples we saw tonight. After all, we got more Barney tricks and flimflams than ever before, and the Lorenzo Von Matterhorn certainly lived up to its reputation. Like last year's "The Naked Man," I have to wonder how many people will actually try some of these things. I'd certainly like to hear how far real women would listen to SNASA. And most exciting of all: next episode is titled "Slapsgiving 2: Return of the Slap." Unless Wikipedia is lying to me. Which it better not be.

Finally, as part of some recent DVR cleaning (see also: my previous entry on Nip/Tuck), I finally made it to 3 episodes of FlashForward, a show I had high hopes for but, as I wrote after the pilot, found rather disappointing. Two episodes later, little has changed. I still think it has some good ideas and a sub-Heroes-level execution. For those unfamiliar with Heroes, that means wooden acting, weak characters, and ponderous, self-important dialogue.

The former point is the most surprising, since it's got such legit actors as Joseph Fiennes (Voldemort's brother), Sony Walger (Desmond's true love Penny), and John Cho (Harold). And I will say that after three episodes, John Cho's character is the absolute only one I care about, so he gets a pass. But Joseph Fiennes seriously acts like he's starring in a spin-off of CSI: Miami. I keep expecting him to slowly take off his sunglasses.

Otherwise though I blame the writing more than the cast. I thought maybe the constant "this was my flashforward, what was your flashforward" talk might end after the pilot, but nope, it's here to stay. They say the word "flashforward" like 50 times an episode, which is a bit much when it's also the name of the show. Sure, the concept's kind of cool, but not nearly as cool as they all seem to think it is. And as Lost proved, it's the characters that make these stories worthwhile.

Now that V has come to fill the ABC sci-fi niche and to do a way better job of it (blog post to come), there's even less room for FlashForward on my queue. Which means I've FINALLY made all my decisions about what to watch and what not to this fall...right in time for midseason. But hey, with Glee, Modern Family, and V, this is one of the strongest TV seasons in a long time.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

TV Break-Up Part 2

This post should have been written a long time ago. I mean, yes, Nip/Tuck has been unwatchable ever since the Carver reveal years ago, and I should have dropped out like everyone else somewhere in season 4. But I meant that this post should have come weeks ago when this season premiered. Thing is, it's taken me 5 weeks to get around to watching it and confirming Nip/Tuck is just as bad as I remember. Check and check.

When I first saw the pilot, I said "This show can never jump the shark. It's already gone there in one episode." I mean, how can you top an episode in which the dead body of a South American gangster is wrapped in ham and thrown to the gators? But Nip/Tuck always saw that episode as a promise, that they would go for the most outrageous thing imaginable or unimaginable, a promise they've continued even when breaking any other promises of quality, enjoyment, or relatability.

So as every Nip/Tuck premiere offers a menu of idiotic storylines in the season to come, what have we got going on this year? First off, Sean's anesthesiologist girlfriend, Teddy, has now been COMPLETELY RECAST! While last season she was a very blonde Katee Sackhoff, this year she's the very brunette Rose McGowan. It's not just the hair color, which you'd think they'd at least explain away in a line of dialogue like "I like the new hair." No, they really look NOTHING alike. And ACT nothing alike. It's a COMPLETELY different character with the same name. If Nip/Tuck was trying to convince me it's gone from nighttime soap to daytime soap, congrats. You've succeeded.

Anyway, in the premiere Teddy didn't do too much more than confuse me for reasons stated above, but from looking ahead, here's what happens: she turns out to be a Black Widow who kills men for the life insurance money. Then she takes Sean and his family into the woods to reenact/plug Dylan Walsh's already-out-of-theaters Stepfather movie by playing his part. Then she gets killed by...another killer? The fact that it took me awhile to even find a Nip/Tuck recap site anymore since TVGuide and Television Without Pity dropped it years ago should say something. But really Nip/Tuck? It's just like a younger Colleen Rose, which was already a terrible storyline. Way to recycle your worst ideas.

What we did see in the premiere is a LOT of Mario Lopez. Most people, when they see Mario Lopez, they think Saved by the Bell. Not having watched that as a kid (I know, blasphemy), I think of all the clips of him acting like a jackass on his E! show that air on The Soup. Either way, the fact remains - he can't really act. He just stands around with his shit-eating grin and lifts his shirt from time to time. And I guess makes Sean and Christian look old/fat. And this is fun?

Then there's Christian and Liz's divorce, continuing an unfortunate storyline from last year in an even more unfortunate way. At first I was pleased to see Barry Bostwick, so awesome in Spin City and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And....then he asked Christian to jerk off. Proving that anytime someone on this show seems potentially normal, they must inevitably try to fuck a couch or cut off their boob with a chainsaw in a waiting room (both things that actually happened....just last season). Dammit, Janet, you can do better Brad.

Finally, last and certainly least, there's Matt McNamara, doing his part to make Kim Bauer, Dawn Sommers, and Cousin Oliver look like the greatest characters to ever grace our television screens. Last year the writers took a moment to say, "Well, we've already involved him in a hit-and-run, had him sleep with a transsexual, had him date a neo-nazi, and turned him into a meth-head, why don't we try to make him normal for once?" I guess whichever writer said that lost the battle, since this season he is....wait for it....a stick-up artist mime! That's right, he robs convenience stores....while miming. To paraphrase Lily Aldrin: Nip/Tuck, for most shows this would be a new low, but for you it's just a new middle.

The sad thing is, despite the fact that every single storyline is among the stupidest things I've seen on TV, and I can no longer tolerate a single one of these characters, there were moments during the premiere that I could still kind of see what I originally liked about the show. But no, Nip/Tuck has run out of second chances and "just one more episode"s. If it just had a few eps left before the series finale, maybe. But with like 30 episodes to go? No chance. Goodbye, Nip/Tuck. You won't be missed.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Reality Showdown

I only watch 2 reality shows, and even that is probably too much. But while I'm unapologetic in my love for Top Chef, which has bounced back from its so-so Hosea season back to its tasty former self, Project Runway just continues to make me more and more embarrassed to be watching something on Lifetime. I was one of those people who said "I will never watch it on Lifetime. Clearly the change is due to get rid of all straight male viewers. And the producers of The Real World? And in LA? I'm out." But somehow I'm still watching it, and it just goes to show that you should always listen to your first instinct.

When the first episode ended without a single breakout contestant I could remember, it was a bad sign. When Michael and Nina disappeared after the second episode, that was a worse sign. When Ramon, one of the few somewhat talented designers this season that made my early top 3 prediction, got kicked off way early, it got even worse. And somehow we made it to the top 5 with two obvious deadweight contestants (who thankfully were sent home), and nobody all that worthy continuing into the final three.

So what went wrong? So many things. The erratic judging has to make it to the top of the list. Without consistent judges, good people (Ramon, Shirin) got sent home for being unfortunate enough to be declared the glorious fuck-up of the week while Christopher kept scraping by at the bottom with no one to notice. Well, except Heidi, who seems to yield more power than ever this year, and that doesn't seem to be a good thing. Plus, the show's just not as fun without Michael Kors comparing everything to '80s movies and Nina's various facial expressions. By the time the judging panel was all pregnant women, it was clear I was watching Lifetime.

But even getting past the judging, the contestants weren't all that great to start. And the new producers could care less about what they design. Do you realize how little actual sewing and constructing we've seen this season? Yet how many times have we heard Irina trash talk someone or Althea gossip in a corner? That's what happens when you get the team behind The Real World - it's all drama, no design. Obviously people are watching for some drama, but when Irina's confessionals start making up half the show, it's gone too far.

Good news is, it's almost over. Just the finale to go, then next year the promise is back in New York and back with Michael and Nina. It's not even like this season made particularly good use of LA - just a lot of lame celebrity judges and excited talk about "red carpet." I guess I'm rooting for Carol Hannah by default, but it's really not even worth the effort of picking someone to root for. I'll give Runway a break and call this year a failed experiment. But if next year starts following the same pattern, it's Auf Wiedersehen.

In contrast, Top Chef this season has been everything Project Runway hasn't. While on PR it was tough to see who would come out ahead as nobody was all that good, Top Chef had a clear top 4 from the very beginning: Kevin, Jennifer, and the Voltaggios, who have literally taken every elimination win this season between the four of them. Now, Jennifer's had a rough few weeks, and if she was on this year's Project Runway she definitely would have been cut, but the TC judges recognized her overall performance and let her stay. Which will make for a more interesting finale when they all finally get to face each other down (unless something goes wrong this week, which it very well could).

This past week's Reunion Dinner was admittedly kind of lame, but it was airing opposite the final game of the World Series, so they get a pass. Especially after a Restaurant Week challenge filled with inter-Voltaggio drama, Robin annoying everyone, and a group declared the best Restaurant Week team ever. See, the drama on Top Chef may feel just as manufactured and over-emphasized as on Project Runway, but at the end of the day, the food still wins out.

I would be satisfied if any of the top 4 win this year, which makes the chance of a Hosea repeat all the less likely. So yes, I like food a whole lot better than fashion, and I would prefer Top Chef's worst season (5) to Project Runway's best (2). But now that each is well into its 6th year, it's clear which one's got longevity and which may have finally become out of season.

Sterling Cooper Draper Price

It's odd to think of an episode that saw the dissolution of the Draper marriage as being one of the least depressing episodes of the season, but after the downward spiral Don and everyone else has been on of late, a fresh start seems like a good idea. And Mad Men's season 3 finale was certainly a game-changer. With most of the main characters from Sterling Cooper (sorry, Kinsey & Ken) heading into a new agency and Betty heading to Reno, season 4 looks likely to be nothing like the first 3 years, which should make even the most strident season 3 haters excited about what's to come.

After the past two seasons, we know the drill: Mad Men slowly and frustratingly puts its pieces into play, letting it all explode in the final few episodes. And we had already gotten a ton of pay-off this year, between the phenomenal episode 2 weeks ago in which Don confessed his past to Betty, and last week's equally instaclassic in which JFK's assassination led everyone to rethink their lives. Well, those thoughts clearly lasted, as many big changes occurred this week.

All things considered, the Brits haven't had too large of an impact on Mad Men this season. Moneypenny, who initially seemed a kind of British Pete Campbell, has had practically no role. Price has had more of an impact, but still didn't irritate Don nearly as much as Duck Phillips ever did. Still, it was clear that the British storyline would have its resolution this season, and sure enough, the sale of Sterling Cooper was announced right off the bat (and goodbye Conrad Hilton. I can't say I'll miss you).

What I hadn't guessed was that instead of a repeat of last year's finale we'd get something different: a new agency headed by Don, Roger, Cooper, and more surprisingly Price. Most of the fun of the episode (that's right, I used the word "fun" in describing season 3 Mad Men) came in watching the recruitment, providing a number of nice moments between Don and his would-be proteges. Pete, whose need for Don's approval fueled so much of season 1, finally got his much desired pat on the back as Don praised his ability to anticipate future needs. And Peggy finally told Don off after all the many times Don yelled at her this year. It all led to a very nice scene of Don begging her to join, but who else thought Peggy might blow the whole thing by telling Duck first?

Still, as much as I loved Cooper's threat to lock Harry up if he didn't join in, the best recruitment had to be Roger's call to Joan, finally getting her back in the mix. These past few episodes it seems the writers realized fans demanded more Roger and Joan, and made up for it big time. Very welcome to have her be the one answering the phone to first say the new agency's name, even as they work comically out of a small hotel room. Hey, it's a hell of a lot better than Michael Scott Paper Company.

I should mention the other big storyline of the finale: Don and Betty's road to divorce. I guess it's been so inevitable that it didn't even seem too sad, though we did get a rare side of Don as he grabbed her and (almost comically hypocritically) called her a whore. That can go right up there on the Don's Proudest Moments list with "you people." Speaking of Sal, I'm hoping his lack of appearances since his firing doesn't mean he's really off the show. SCDP's going to need an art department, after all.

I'd also like to pause and note the writers managed to go THE ENTIRE SEASON without referring to Peggy and Pete's baby (at least not in words). Though it was delightfully uncomfortable when Trudy came to visit the office and Peggy had to thank her for the sandwiches. There was also no Duck Phillips this episode, so if he has some evil agenda beyond grossing America out with his relationship with Peggy, it's still yet to come.

So, there may have been no one scene that instantly made the season, like Pete and Peggy's talk or Duck's conference room storm out from last year or Don's "The Wheel" pitch from season 1. But what we got was a thoroughly satisfying episode that tied up most of this season's storylines with a promising fresh start for next year. I know Mad Men's taken some heat on the internet for this season, but for all its ups and downs I'd say the past three episodes more than made up for any shortcomings. And I'm certainly eagerly awaiting the official launch of Sterling Cooper Draper Price.