Thursday, December 10, 2009

Battle of the Best, A Sort-of Spin-off, and A Second Look

This week saw the crowning of a new Top Chef, the third episode in Scrubs' awkwardly half spin-off half-same show attempt at survival, and the return of low-rated critical gem Better Off Ted. Let's take a look (and obviously, stop reading if you don't want to know who won Top Chef).

This season of Top Chef was unique in that from day 1, it was pretty clear who the final four were going to be and it was just a matter of killing time until we got there. But what wasn't clear was who would come out on top. Jennifer was kicked off last, but any one of the final three seemed capable and deserving of the win.

Yet despite that, I certainly felt Kevin was the favorite all along. Maybe it's because he won the first challenge, as in all previous seasons but two the first challenge winner went on to win it all. Maybe I thought the Voltaggios would cancel each other out. Or maybe he was just that darn likable. Which is why it was kind of sad to watch him have an off night, leading to a 3rd place finish behind the brothers.

It was a little like season 4, when Richard went in as a possible favorite only to infamously declare that he choked. Kevin's night wasn't nearly as bad as Blais', but when the master of pork fails to wow with the dish, it's clear he's fared better. So once it became clear the judges had enough issues with his food to rank him lower, it was battle of the brothers.

And just as Kevin was who I would have predicted to win going into the night, Michael was probably the one I least expected to win. Not that I think he didn't deserve it - this is no Hosea situation - but Bryan generally seemed to be the judges' favorites of the two. All the more credit to Michael for doing so well, not only winning the battle of the mystery boxes but the chef's choice too.

So cheers to Michael Voltaggio for winning the season, and to season six for redeeming Top Chef after the relatively weaker fifth season. I'm sure all three of the finalists will soon prove themselves worthy of sitting on the other side of the judging table soon.

Usually when a low-rated show expected to be cancelled is renewed at the last minute, its fans are ecstatic. When Scrubs was given a 9th season order after its series finale, that wasn't the case. By its eighth season, it had not only survived a network change, but was well past the respectable point of retirement. Yet, perhaps due to a dearth of comedy on ABC's schedule, it has been brought into a season that is not quite a spin-off and not quite a continuation of the show, instead resting in some kind of unfortunate in between.

The idea behind Scrubs [Med School] was that it would follow a new group of med students through med school, with Drs. Turk and Cox as teachers to provide some stability, while other Scrubs stars maybe guest star once in awhile. And that idea is a spin-off. But it's not what the show is. JD doesn't just pop in as a familiar face; he's still the main character. And with Elliot, Carla, and Jordan all gone, it's kind of just Scrubs without the women. Which means despite 8 seasons worth of growth, JD is now less mature than he ever was. Instead of last spring's send-off of moving on and growing up, we'll last see JD whining about Cox giving a med student more attention.

Yet while it seems like the better move would be to shift the focus to the med students, there's one fatal problem with that plan: two out of the three are really, really annoying. Now, to be fair, Cole seems like he can improve. The obnoxious legacy douche played by James Franco's brother has already shown signs that when he moves behind his one-joke character description he could be worth watching. But it worries me that narration will soon fall solely to Lucy, who's trying to be a JD/Elliot type but mostly just comes off as shrill.

So why will I still probably keep watching it until the day ABC finally pulls the plug? Three reasons:

1. Dr. Cox. He was always one of the brightest spots of original Scrubs, and the med school setting has given him a chance to shine. With new targets for his insults and new ways to deliver them, Cox is clearly the real star of this show.

2. Denise. As the only one of last season's new crop of interns worth watching, Denise's increased screen time in the "spin-off" has led to an even better character. She not only gets a lot of the funniest lines, but also the most effective drama.

3. Drew. The older med student who Cox placed at the top of the class is easily the best of the new characters, and should really be the new lead. Not only does he interact with all the other characters far more than Lucy does, but he actually seems capable of carrying a show.

So with these three strengths behind it, I think there's still a way to make new Scrubs work. Center the show on Drew, find some other, more interesting med students to support him (as well as some other good supporting/recurring characters to replace the Janitor/Ted/, and give Cox and Denise as much screen time as possible.

Truth is, now that ABC has comedy hits in Modern Family, Cougar Town, and to a lesser extent The Middle, it is nowhere near the comedy-desperate situation it was in when it brought Scrubs back from the dead, so a second (or tenth) season seems very unlikely. Which is probably for the best. But although Scrubs' legacy would have been better had Med School never happened, it's still watchable enough to keep me going.

Following Scrubs on Tuesday night is Better Off Ted, a show that I've tried out numerous times and still can't decide whether to watch it or not. When I first saw the pilot, I liked the characters and actors, liked the idea, but just thought it was a little too earnest. Then I watched some of the summer episodes and liked it, but didn't love it. But this second season premiere seemed better than what I remembered, so maybe it's now time to commit.

With some time to work out kinks, the show no longer feels as earnest and cutesy as it once did, no longer making me wish I was watching Pushing Daisies instead. And the chemistry has had time to gel among the strong cast, headed by a charismatic Jay Harrington and a hilarious Portia de Rossi.

Better Off Ted also didn't make Dollhouse's mistake and chose a strong episode as the premiere. Not only did it have a great central gimmick - that super corporate Veridian Dynamics told all its employees their perfect genetic partners - but a good guest star in Taye Diggs and a number of funny bits, such as Ted having to pretend to be Native American (although his premature "I love you" seems cribbed from TV's better known Ted. Way to pull a Mosby).

If you've been thinking of giving the show a try - and it could certainly use viewers - this would be a good one to start on, showcasing many of its most appealing aspects. It convinced me to keep the season pass on my DVR. And with all its clever ideas, who knows, maybe someday it will grow from enjoyable to must-see TV.


Kara said...

Totally agree. I think Kevin should have won. I cared about him so much more than those unsmiling robotic Voltaggios, and between the two bros, Michael was the my least favorite, though I figured he'd win over Bryan.

Not to be a quibbler, but not 1 but 2 of the past 5 seasons' winners haven't won the first challenge (Hung and Hosea).

Zander said...

You're right, I must have messed that up while editing the post (hence a typo in the same sentence). Last time you tried to correct me on this I was right, this time you are. It's been fixed.