Tuesday, June 29, 2010

HBO is Summer TV Central

This past Sunday saw the return of Entourage which, when combined with True Blood's third episode, means we're really in summer TV season now. HBO may air a lot of serious stuff like The Pacific and that Al Pacino as Jack Kevorkian movie, but they know what people want to see in the summer: super light escapism. So for those of us who want to turn off our brains but maybe not so much as to tolerate America's Got Talent, here's where we'll be.

I went into Entourage's 7th (!!!) season the way I have every season since like season 3: by saying, "Why is this show still on and why am I still watching it?" But as it did last summer, Entourage reminded me: because there is no other show that better exemplifies summer fluff TV than this one. It's a show about rich people with problems so minor you'll have forgotten them by the time the credits roll. And in the meantime, plenty to live vicariously through.

After the season 3-5 rough patch where the show forgot what it was about and made Vince's career tank, Entourage is back in full-on fluff mode. Last year Vince basically took the year off with nothing to do, but this year he's back doing what he does best: acting as a vessel for a glimpse inside Hollywood without showing any personality whatsoever. This week saw him doing a stunt with no training to prove he's not a pussy, which of course made him seem all the bigger a pussy for not being able to say no to his director. That meant we got to see Vince on set, see a guy light up on fire, and watch his team react to Vince's whining. What more do you need?

Elsewhere, Eric had a light episode, enjoying a lunch with now fiance Sloane (at a restaurant that seemed to employ Top Chef season 5's Stefan?) and doing some basic Vince work. Ari realizes being head of WME (or whatever fictionalized name they came up with) is a lot of work. And Drama and Turtle are still really, really annoying. Turtle wins for worst subplot of the night, partly due to it involving Heroes-killer Dania Ramirez. But hey, Entourage was never a great show. Or even a particularly good one. But it's fun, and that's what makes it good summer TV.

I heard a lot of announcements between seasons about the huge number of new characters coming to Bon Temps this season, which made it all the nicer to see them all largely absent from the premiere. So many shows lose themselves in new characters and new plotlines that it's good to see True Blood sticking by its core characters. But the premiere also saw them all completely spread out. Sam off with his bio family, Bill in Mississippi, Jessica in her house - it was looking like we'd be getting 8 different separate subplots all season long.

While that's still somewhat the case, at least by episode 3 there's been some convergence. Sam is back at Merlotte's and interacting with everyone else. Jessica's been linked back in through Franklin's visit and Sookie's request that Sam look out for her. Sookie's left again in search of Bill, but her trip to Dallas last year didn't hurt anything.

Thing is, True Blood is one of the few shows that actually structures each of its seasons on one of the books it's based on. Which means each season is structured like a novel, with beginning, middle, and end spread out throughout the season. So there's no rush to introduce important characters right away - Eric didn't show up til like midway through season 1, I'm guessing so it would line up with the page he entered on in the book. And these first 3 eps have been a lot of build-up.

So while it's too early to know which of the many plot threads will pay off, here's how I'm feeling about them so far. Among the better ones, True Blood's decision to use actual wolves instead of really crappy CGI has paid off, and the werewolves have come off less lame than on most similar shows and movies. And cool to see Eric and Godric fighting Nazi werewolves. Franklin's super creepy so far, which could go either way. So far so good, but could overstay his welcome a la Maryann. And while she hasn't had too much to do yet, I'm liking the increased screen time Pam's promotion to regular has led to.

On the other end, Sam's family drama isn't doing it for me so far. Maybe it's cause I still remember his little bro being annoying on Prison Break, or because they've mostly been in their own little world, but so far it feels separate from everything else and not so interesting. I've got nothing against King Russell as a character, but that subplot won't kick in until somebody else shows up there. And way too early to say anything on Alcide, who's only barely been introduced (yet I believe is meant to be the biggest new character this season).

However the various threads end up working out, True Blood's got a solid start so far and seems bound to keep getting better each week. I'm glad to have its campy style of fun on my TV this summer.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

This Week in Summer TV

This week, my TV season fully transitioned from regular season to summer, with the finales of Glee and Top Chef Masters, and the premieres of two shows I thought I'd give one (and only one) episode each: Persons Unknown and Work of Art. I already discussed Glee, but here's my brief takes on the other three:

Persons Unknown sounds cool on paper: a bunch of people are kidnapped and put in a mysteriously empty village where they're watched by unknown people. Sounds a little like The Prisoner meets Lost, right? Well, if NBC hoped you'd think that, they didn't work too hard to make it known. I didn't hear about the show until the day of, which makes it all the more clear this is just typical summer burn-off.

But summer trash can still be summer fun. If there's any show Persons Unknown really resembles it's Harper's Island - CBS' attempt to do a weekly horror series that, well, didn't do so well. Like Harper's it's got kind of an intriguing idea, but also like Harper's it's undone by a rather C-level execution. By the end of the first hour, you don't really know anything about any of the characters, other than that they're all kind of annoying. And they don't really do much but wander around and yell "How do I know you're not THEM?!?!"

In the promo at the end, NBC's emphasized that the show will give you answers, and soon. But what they seem to forget is that people wanted answers on Lost so badly because they really cared about the questions. And so far this scenario just isn't quite creepy enough. Lost had the Monster and the polar bear. The Prisoner had the giant bubble and the question of why No. 6 resigned. Persons Unknown has grainy video footage and a bunch of Chinese guys saying "Please" a billion times a second. That's not gonna cut it.

No characters and weak acting and dialogue is one thing. But if this is gonna go for the campy guilty pleasure that is really its only hope, there's gotta be a bit more going on. I wouldn't mind watching another episode, but at the end of the day, I'd rather spend that time working through my TV on DVD.

Last night Bravo unveiled their newest entry into the Project Runway/Top Chef family: Work of Art. It's basically Project Runway with art instead of fashion. Take a bunch of wacky creative types, give them a mentor (but now with an accent!), and have them judged by a panel of experts in their field.

If "Project Runway with art" sounds good to you, you'll probably enjoy this show. Magical Elves make good reality TV, and it certainly feels like Bravo-era Project Runway. And unlike the Lifetime editions, this show actually does have some colorful characters and maybe even some talent (not that I'd have any idea).

But another part of me feels like this is to Project Runway what Top Chef Masters is to Top Chef: it's watchable enough, but it doesn't feel quite as right as the original. The new mentor doesn't have quite the spark of Tim Gunn, and the judges don't have the zing of Michael Kors and Nina Garcia. I'm also a little iffy on the concept. The artists all get to work in their own media, so you've got painting vs. photography vs. photoshop. No wonder the photographers came out on top; which do you think takes longer?

Again though, the reason I can't get into it is I'm just not that into art. And I'm over Project Runway. Really, the only reality TV I want to be seeing is shows involving food. So while I'm not opposed to having this on in the background, if I'm watching Bravo this summer it's for Top Chef.

Speaking of which, Top Chef Masters aired its season finale this week, and we again saw one of the biggest differences between the spin-off and the original: everyone on Masters always makes good food. The finales are never about who's going to win; it's about watching a whole lot of food porn. So the fact that the three came so close in the end is no surprise; any one of them could have won. But it was nice that Marcus did. Guess I should try out Aquavit some time.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Summer TV Preview

There may not be a whole lot worth watching on TV over the summer, but that doesn't mean there isn't anything you could watch. So I've put together a list of the return dates for some of my cable faves as well as what new shows the networks are burning off this summer. Things I'm planning to check out are in caps.

The Good Guys (June 7th, 9:00, Fox)
Bradley Whitford and Colin Hanks star. Kind of looks like a USA show, no?

PERSONS UNKNOWN (June 7th, 10:00, NBC)
Sounds cool, is produced by The Usual Suspects' Christopher McQuarrie, and stars Ferris Bueller/Spin City's Alan Ruck. So why did I first hear of it the day of its premiere?

Pretty Little Liars (June 8th, 8:00, ABC Family)
Alloy Entertainment tries for another YA series to TV show success with this teenage Desperate Housewives.

WORK OF ART (June 9th, 11:00, Bravo)
It's Project Runway but with art instead of clothes. Since PR is no longer worth watching, maybe this will fill the void? (Note: Regularly airs at 10:00)

TRUE BLOOD (June 13th, 9:00, HBO)
A premiere I'm actually excited about! They've announced an insane number of cast additions for the season and the promos all look awesome. Proof that good summer TV can still exist.

Scoundrels and The Gates (June 20th, 9:00 & 10:00, ABC)
It's cute that ABC is trying for original scripted shows in the summer, but that doesn't mean I'll watch either of these. Scoundrels seems like another USA-lite show about criminals trying to go legit, but it stars Tony Almeida! And The Gates is Desperate Housewives with vampires. If you're looking for some trashy fun this summer, maybe that will do the trick.

Rookie Blue and Boston Med (June 24th, 9:00 & 10:00, ABC)
Oh look, another cop show, how original. Boston Med however is not a generic doctor show to logically follow, but a documentary-series a la Hopkins from a few summers ago, this time set in Boston.

Hung (June 27th, 10:00, HBO)
Is this any good? I watched the pilot and wasn't wowed. If you were, this is when the second season premieres.

ENTOURAGE (June 27th, 10:30, HBO)
Mark Wahlberg promises there will only be 6 episodes after this season. So if you've made it this far, might as well see it to the end.

Huge (June 28th, 9:00, ABC Family)
Another show Alloy Entertainment made off of a YA book series. This one's about fat camp and stars Hairspray's Nikki Blonsky.

Louie (June 29th, 11:00, FX)
It's gotta be better than Louie C.K.'s last show on HBO, right?

HAVEN (July 9th, 10:00, Syfy)
The logline sounds like 5 other Syfy shows (mysterious town where supernatural stuff is going on), but it's based on a Stephen King novella and therefore will be awesome. Unlike most of the shows on this list, I actually plan to watch this pilot.

The Bridge (July 10th, 8:00, CBS)
Oh look, a cop show. Way to be original CBS.

The Glades (July 10th, 10:00, A&E)
A procedural....but wait! The main guy doesn't play well with authority. That IS quite a twist!

Rizzoli & Isles (July 12th, 10:00, TNT)
Procedural based on Tess Gerritsen's bestselling book series. Should fit in nicely at TNT.

Covert Affairs (July 13th, 10:00, USA)
The logline sounds like every other USA show ever, but it's got Piper Perabo, who was very cute in Coyote Ugly....not that I saw it or anything...

The Pillars of the Earth (July 23rd, 10:00, Starz)
An event four-part miniseries based on Ken Follett's massive tome. Should be pretty epic.

MAD MEN (July 25th, 10:00, AMC)
Are you ready for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce? Cause I certainly am!

Masterchef (July 27th, 9:00, Fox)
Since it worked so well when NBC tried to rip-off Top Chef, now Fox is giving it a go.

Jersey Shore (July 29th, 10:00, MTV)
My must-NOT see of the summer. But for those of you that like trash, mark your calendars.

RUBICON (August 1st, 8:00, AMC)
AMC's track record alone (Mad Men, Breaking Bad) makes their 3rd original show worth checking out, but it helps that it also sounds pretty awesome. (Note: Regularly airs at 9:00, and a preview episode airs after the Breaking Bad finale this Sunday)

COMEDY CENTRAL ROAST OF DAVID HASSELHOFF (August 1st, 10:00, Comedy Central)
If I watched last year's roast of Joan Rivers, I'm definitely watching them tear into the Hoff.

Big Lake (August 3rd, 10:00, Comedy Central)
It's a comedy from Will Ferrell's prod.co. that's got some SNL alums in it.

WEEDS (August 16th, 10:00, Showtime)
I hear they're finally ending the nightmare that was the past two seasons on the Mexican border and relocating to Seattle. That's got to mean an improvement, right?

THE BIG C (August 16th, 10:30, Showtime)
A female-centered half-hour dark comedy that may ultimately feel more like a drama? Will fit in perfectly on Showtime.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

That Sue Sylvester - She's a Marshmallow

This year's crop of finales has had quite the mix: crazy twists (Gossip Girl), emotional but puzzling (Lost), out-of-nowhere action (Grey's Anatomy), and business as usual (24, The Office, Modern Family). So while the TV season may have actually ended a few weeks ago, I'm still naming Glee as the one that was overall most satisfying. As tough an act as Sectionals was to follow, Regionals more than rose to the task, reminding everyone all over again why we fell in love with this show over a year ago when they first sang "Don't Stop Believing."

Glee may generally call itself a comedy, but this finale had far more moments to make some hypothetical person (totally not me) tear up than laugh. From Tina breaking down in that super depressing pizza "party" to Mr. Shu pumping everyone back up with his Journey idea, there was plenty of emotion on display well before everyone said how far they had come this year. To casual fans it may have come off as cheesy, but to us true Gleeks it was heart-warming.

While we all knew "Don't Stop Believing" would be sung to bring the season full-circle, the Regionals performance was a whole lot more than that: a medley that also included "Faithfully," "Anyway You Want It," and "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'." And as was the case in Sectionals, they showed who brought the fun, getting everyone up on their feet to clap along (except Sue, of course). And everyone got a chance to sing - not just all Rachel and Finn.

While the Journey made for the musical highpoint, there was still plenty of music to go, starting with Vocal Adrenaline's ambitious cover of "Bohemian Rhapsody," which further proved Jesse's assessment of the group as "soulless automatons." Still, that was some of the craziest fill-every-inch-of-the-stage-with-super-speedy-people dancing I've seen. And all the more amusing for being set against Quinn's delivery. Quinn shouting out lines from the song was definitely too much, but otherwise I thought the juxtaposition worked. And I love that Quinn and Mercedes are now bffs.

As for the judging, as soon as celebrity came up you knew Sue was going to show the heart beneath her steel tracksuited shell and save the day. Josh Groban and Olivia Newton-John's cameos were kind of lame last time around, but ON-J was pretty awesome dressing down Sue, being offended only one group chose one of her songs, and insulting just about everyone. Groban still not so much. And though Sue couldn't get New Directions to place, she was able to make a jab at the hilariously named Oral Intensity.

So while I knew Sue would be the one to convince Figgins to keep Glee Club alive, that didn't diminish the super moving "To Sir with Love" performance the club gave to Mr. Shu (though still not as good as "My Life Would Suck Without You"), the series of insults Sue had to get out before she could give him the good news, or how great it was to hear him tell the club "One more year!" Oh, and the twist that Shelby adopted Quinn and Puck's baby? Brilliant.

So to me, the finale had everything we want in a Glee episode: great musical numbers, involvement of all of the characters, classic Sue Sylvester moments, and for it to leave you feeling good. Still one of the most satisfying hours on TV, and I can't wait to watch Will go up against John Stamos' dentist next season.

Free Outdoor Movies!

New Yorkers, bookmark this page! Here is your one-stop guide to all of the many free outdoor screening series this summer. So what are we seeing this summer?

The most well-known of the various screening venues is usually the most creative with its choices, but you can always count on a number of popular picks. All are on Monday nights.

June 21st Goldfinger
June 28th Carousel
July 5th The French Connection
July 12th My Man Godfrey
July 19th The China Syndrome
July 26th Monty Python and the Holy Grail
August 2nd Rosemary's Baby
August 9th The Goodbye Girl
August 16th 12 Angry Men
August 23rd Bonnie and Clyde

RIVER FLICKS (Hudson River Park)
Just like last year, the theme is movies from the previous summer. So I've pretty much seen all of these, but watching The Hangover outside could definitely be fun. Wednesday nights.

July 7th The Hangover
July 14th I Love You, Man
July 21st The Proposal
July 28th District 9
August 4th Julie & Julia
August 11th Public Enemies
August 18th Star Trek

Same series as above but for kids and on Friday nights. I'm always down for Muppets.

July 9th The Wizard of Oz
July 16th Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
July 23rd The Great Muppet Caper
July 30th Monsters vs. Aliens
August 6th Big
August 13th Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
August 20th Annie

SUMMER ON THE HUDSON (Riverside Park South)
Another series that seems to lean towards the recent movies. Also on Wednesday nights.

July 7th NeverEnding Story
July 14th Pan's Labyrinth
July 21st Inkheart
July 28th The Fall
August 4th Big Fish
August 11th Stranger than Fiction

MOVIES WITH A VIEW (Brooklyn Bridge Park)
Lives up to its title - this is the best view of any of these series. But you can't always hear when the subway goes by. Thursday nights.

July 8th Annie Hall
July 15th Monsters vs. Aliens
July 22nd The Big Lebowski
July 29th Rear Window
August 5th Brokeback Mountain
August 12th Dreamgirls
August 19th The Blues Brothers
August 26th Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
September 2nd Public's Choice

RIVER TO RIVER FESTIVAL (Movie Nights on the Elevated Acre)
More Muppets! Also Thursday nights.

July 29th Broadway Danny Rose
August 5th Auntie Mame
August 12th The Country Girl
August 19th The Muppets Take Manhattan

Watch movies on a boat. Saturday nights.

May 28th Top Gun
June 19th Field of Dreams
July 9th Ghostbusters
July 23rd The Goonies
August 6th Raiders of the Lost Ark
August 20th Rocky

I think this is a new one. Friday nights.

July 8th Laura
July 15th Double Indemnity
July 22nd Sunset Boulevard
July 29th All About Eve
August 6th Freaks
August 13th Invasion of the Body Snatchers
August 20th Night of the Living Dead
August 27th Rosemary's Baby

Not yet listed; check back later for schedule

Monday, June 7, 2010

Party Down on DVD This Summer

With Glee providing the last major finale tomorrow night, the main TV season is most definitely over. And as much as the networks may talk about their 52-week schedules, we all know that summer TV, at least on the networks, is a bust. The benefit: more time to watch shows we somehow missed when they originally aired. Whether it's older shows you always meant to try (yes, I'm still working on The Wire) or new shows it's not too late to jump into, summer TV for me is all about the TV on DVD.

Or in this summer's case, TV on Wii. Thanks to Netflix adding Wii to their list of Netflix ready devices, I can now watch anything on Netflix's instant viewing section on my TV. Which is largely how I came to try Party Down, a show that premiered as one of Starz's first original programs a year ago and is currently on its second season, but few people seem to know about it. Despite big names in the cast and among the producers, it has remained very much below the radar.

Which is exactly why I'm recommending it for TV on DVD this summer. I got so hooked after starting I ended up watching all 10 episodes of the first season in just 2 days. So what is it? Well, it's basically The Office but set at an LA catering company comprised of wannabe actors, with each episode set during a different party. Though probably more the British version of The Office than the American one. And since it's on cable and is set in LA I'd toss in a little Extras, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Entourage. Think of the American version of a Ricky Gervais show and you're on the right track.

I was originally intrigued because one of the creator/producers is Rob Thomas, who previously created one of my all-time faves Veronica Mars. If you like Veronica Mars you'll definitely find a lot to like here, since a lot of Veronica Mars alums show up. Of the six regulars, four of them have some kind of Veronica Mars connection, as Ryan Hansen played Dick Casablancas, Ken Marino played Vinnie Van Lowe, and Adam Scott and Jane Lynch both guest starred. And more of their former castmates have guested here, including Kristen Bell (Veronica), Enrico Colantoni (Keith), Jason Dohring (Logan), and Alona Tal (Meg).

The rest of the cast is plenty accomplished as well. There's Jane Lynch, who has since left the show to become Sue Sylvester. Martin Starr, a Freaks and Geeks alum who stuck with the Apatow clan (and is probably best known as the beard guy from Knocked Up). And Lizzy Caplan, who you either know as Janis from Mean Girls or Jason's V-addicted girlfriend on True Blood (or both).

Anyway, I'll give imdb a rest and move on to the actual show. Ken Marino plays Ron, the David Brent/Michael Scott-like team leader of the catering crew who takes his job more seriously than anyone else there does and has the low-aiming dream of opening up his own chain soup restaurant. Adam Scott plays Henry, the Tim/Jim character whose greatest achievement as an actor was a beer commercial that gets him recognized everywhere but led him to quit acting. And Lizzy Caplan is Casey, the Dawn/Pam character, an aspiring stand-up comedian whose husband wants her to move to Vermont.

The party-of-the-week format allows for a ton of great guest stars (JK Simmons, George Takei, and Rob Corddry are a few more) as well as many different scenarios for hilarity. Some of my favorites: A college Republicans party in which the team manages to ruin the flag the students were planning to give to Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Hollywood sweet 16 where the birthday girl won't leave her room, a post-party for the porn awards, and a party for a Russian gangster who just got away with murder (but also recognizes everyone from their F-list acting jobs).

The show does have one major flaw though: it can't hold on to its cast. Jane Lynch leaves after the first 8 episodes to join Glee, which admittedly is an improvement for both Lynch and the world. Less acceptable is the news that Adam Scott will only be in three episodes in the third season due to his role in Parks and Recreation which is troubling for three reasons: 1. He's basically the main character on Party Down, 2. Party Down is a better show, and 3. Parks already has a large ensemble and doesn't really need him. That said, the producers' explanation that realistically catering tends to be a temporary job and people come in and out all the time makes sense. The show can survive it.

Far better news is that Netflix is able to stream the second season as each episode airs, so I can keep watching without having to wait for the DVDs. So if you're looking for something funny to watch this summer, give this a shot.

Want some more TV on DVD recommendations? Here you go!

Dexter - It's had four consistently great seasons, and with 24 and Lost over it is now the most addictive drama on TV.

Damages - It may or may not get a fourth year, but it's still got three crazy suspenseful seasons out there that I still can't believe more people didn't watch.

Glee & Modern Family - They were the breakout shows of this past season. If you haven't already, time to figure out why (these may not actually be on DVD).

True Blood - If you wished Twilight had a lot more nudity and was awesome instead of the stupidest thing ever, then this is for you.

Lost - You know you were secretly curious listening to your co-workers talk for hours about the finale. Go marathon all six seasons, and when you finish in two weeks we can talk.