Monday, December 13, 2010

Mid-season television report (now complete)

OK...time for the much anticipated (mostly by me) mid-season television wrap-up extravaganza!!

I have been very up-front about how burnt out on sports in general I have been this season, and the various reasons for that. But all it really means is that I have been even MORE invested in the television shows I watch, and have subjected my friends and co-workers to HOURS upon HOURS of my blatherings about what I watched on TV last night (Hi, Amanda!).

So, what I'm saying is...pack a lunch. This could be a long one.

A few disclaimers....first of all, SPOILER ALERT OMG SPOILER ALERT. I will be spoiling plot, character development, themes, etc. for all of these shows. If you come to one that you are wanting to stay unspoiled for, just skip to the next one.

Also, I am incorporating a bunch of clips for some of these. I was somewhat limited by A) trying to keep the blog family friendly, and B) Hulu. A lot of the clips came from Hulu, so I apologize in advance for the lead time and advertisements. Hulu is getting awfully handsy.

OK, on with the show!

Amazing Race - Oof. What a frustrating season this was, capped off by the most boring finale I can ever remember.

Question - why is it that almost every young single "dating" couple on this show consists of a douchey, arrogant, borderline abusive guy and his slightly ditzy, attractive girlfriend? Are those the only personality types who try out for this show? The only couple I can remember who didn't fit this pattern was the hippies who won a few years ago...I loved those people whose names I can't remember. I wonder what they are doing now...

The finale this season was terrible...usually there is at least some sort of demanding task that will enable some "bunching" for a more dramatic finish (and the finale, by the way, is the one episode of the season where I don't mind the "bunching" technique of the producers, since all 3 of the teams conceivably have earned a chance to win at this point). Not this time...everybody bungee jump to this raft, now go paste some flowers on to a Rose Bowl float, now go take an open book version of the memory quiz that anybody who has ever seen a finale before knows is coming,'re done. Nat and Kat basically won this leg, and therefore the million dollars, by being the first to their cab at the LA airport. Yes, Thomas and Jill had the cabby from hell (and should have bailed on that cab as soon as they realized they were going to have a language barrier while IN LOS ANGELES), but Nat and Kat got the first cab at the airport and never really faced anything that was likely to trip them up.

Oh, season is an "All Stars" cast (or something like it...they are calling it "Unfinished Business", and I don't think the casting is meant to be the "best" players as much as "players the audience seemed to like"), and also the first season to be filmed in HD, which should be gorgeous.

At least this season gave us THIS:

And, really....shouldn't that be enough?

Boardwalk Empire - The internet reaction to this show has been sort of strange...most of the critics who I trust (Sepinwall, Mo Ryan, A.V. Club, etc) seem to be big fans of the show, but a lot of the commentary on more "fan based" sites or the comments to the critics sites seem to be either more lukewarm or downright disappointed.

I think it has to do with people's expectations of what this show was going to be...people saw Terence Winter (one of the head writers on The Sopranos), Martin Scorsese, characters such as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, and Prohibition-era Atlantic City and thought we were going to get a mix of Sopanos, Goodfellas, and The Untouchables. Which, granted, would have been pretty awesome...but it's not what this show is. This is not a "gangster" show, at least not at this point. It is a story about times of massive upheaval and how people deal with it. It's about, as Nucky said in the season finale, how much sin people are willing to live with.

President-elect Harding called for a "Return to Normalcy" in the victory speech we heard in the last episode, and that's the point...what is the new definition of "normal"? We are just coming out of a World War, and many of the men who came back have had their eyes opened in ways that had never happened before. Prohibition has produced an extremely lucrative and dangerous black market. The Sufferage movement has given American women the right to vote, and with it more influence and power than had ever been possible before. We are almost squarely between the abolishment of slavery and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's, and that dynamic is fluid at best. A huge influx of immigrants have filled the east coast, especially the Northeast, and brought new ideas, dreams, and methods to achieve those dreams with them. Organized crime is finding strong footholds in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, and power struggles are ongoing to see who is going to be the "boss".

Trying to ride this wave and find a place to stand on this rapidly changing foundation, is Nucky Thompson, city treasurer for Atlantic City. Steve Buscemi has been sort of a polarizing figure among those debating the show's merits, in large part because he doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would be powerful enough to be running the show. I think that's the Jimmy told Nucky in the pilot, he can't be "half a gangster" anymore. Nucky is a guy who has been very successful under the old rules, and he's now having to adapt to a world that he doesn't know if he's suited for, or if he even wants to be suited for. Buscemi, as always, knocks it out of the park.

Other stuff I love about this show:
- Richard Harrow: It was when this character was introduced that I really started loving the show. Here are a couple of scenes that capture the quiet menace of the character (keeping in mind that the family-friendly nature of the blog limits the clips I can use):

- Arnold Rothstein: I sure hope that his truce with Nucky doesn't mean that we'll be seeing less of him. Michael Stuhlbarg's portrayal was perfect as the educated businessman whose business just happens to be somewhat less than legal.

- Chalky White. Wish we could have seen more of him, because I miss Omar.

- "Real tough guy, you gonna shoot me for mouthin' off?" "Well, I wasn't gonna...but you sort of talked me into it." BLAM. The moment I stopped worrying about Michael Pitt's portrayal of Jimmy Darmody.

Obviously, I could go on and on about this show...I am starting to wish I had done a weekly recap of some sort. Maybe next season.

One last clip before I move on...loved this scene for so many reasons, including the obvious homage to the "settling all family business" scene from The Godfather. It includes some very brief profanity, and some pretty intense violence, so if that's not your thing you can move on to the next show.

Walking Dead - My reaction to this show is kind of...mixed? I guess? I distinctly remember thoroughly enjoying every single episode (with the slight exception of the finale), and yet when I think about the season as a whole I feel a bit...disappointed? Unfulfilled? In other words, each individual episode worked for me on some level, but the overall arc seemed to be lacking and missing the thread that tied it all together.

I guess most of my issues can be explained by the fact that it was only a six episode season, and even those six episodes were slightly rushed due to AMC wanting to get the pilot on Halloween night. So, the whole season ended up feeling sort of like prologue, in retrospect. In particular, the characters never became "full" enough for me...I didn't find myself really caring that much about any of them.

The whole thing with the CDC in the last two episodes ended up being totally useless, as it blowed up real good but only took the lives of two characters: the one we just met last week, and a character who we knew next to nothing about. My guess is that the storyline was inserted (and it's not part of the comic book series, apparently) to let the audience know that A)we are not going to get an "origin story" as to how this zombie apocalypse happened, and B) don't get your hopes up about a possible cure at some point. Which is my mind, that's not what the story is about anyway. It's about starting over, figuring out the new paradigms, how we as humans react and adjust when everything we find familiar is taken away. The fact that you have to be constantly worried about zombies popping up and attacking just adds drama. Sort of like Battlestar Galactica, but replace "Cylons" with "Zombies" and "Space" with "Metro Atlanta".

Here's why I'm still on board: First, like I said, I really did enjoy the individual episodes. They were really well shot and directed, and I stayed on the edge of my seat at almost all times. Second, even given such a short period of time to flesh out the characters, they were still able to give us scenes as powerful as this one, which affected me as much as anything else on TV this season. This scene is the day after a zombie attack on the camp, and Amy (younger sister) was bitten by a zombie and is now dead. Andrea (older sister) sits next to her, keeping vigil and not letting the other survivors put a bullet or pickaxe through her head (the usual way of disposing of zombie-bitten bodies so that they won't reanimate) so that she can get some sort of closure:

If they can continue to find a way to include those kind of character moments along with the ZOMG ZOMBIES scenes, I think this has the potential to be a great show. It's just not quite there yet, and we won't know if it will ever be until we can see at least one full season. Which we now have to wait ten more months for. {sad clown}

Chuck: There may not be a current show that I have more FUN watching than this one. The writing creates a great mix of a sci-fi show, buddy movie, comedy, and a really well-done love story between two leads with great chemistry. The cast, led by Zachary Levi, is absolutely perfect, having completely inhabited their characters now that we are in the fourth season. And if you follow me on Twitter, you know how I feel about Yvonne Strahovski (hint: I like her. A lot).

The show hit a bit of a lull last season, as they seemed to be throwing obstacles at the Chuck/Sarah pairing for no reason other than to keep the "will they or won't they" tension going, but this season has been back to the show we all love and buy foot long subs for.

What makes the show fun, besides the fact that it seems to be written for people my age and with my interests, is the supporting cast that seems to be having an absolute blast. One pairing that has been spending a lot more time together this season, with hilarious results, is Morgan and Casey:

And now, just because I love this cast so much and this reel just makes me want to hang out with them:

How I met Your Mother: This is one that I just picked up last year when I dropped House, and it's one that I can really take or leave. In fact, I have come thisclose to dropping the show from the rotation, only to have an episode like this week's that reminds me of how good the show can be sometimes. So, if they keep throwing in the occasional winner of an episode, then that fact plus Jason Segel and NPH will be enough to keep me around.

Just for fun, even though it's not from this season:

Glee: Look, there's nothing I can tell you that is going to sway your opinion either way about this show. You either love it, and can therefore forgive its many, MANY faults, or you hate it and can see nothing BUT its many, MANY faults.

I am obviously in the former camp, but that doesn't mean I can't at least acknowledge the faults. The most egregious are:

1) Overall lack of consistency. In EVERY facet of the show. There are wide swings in quality from week to week, plot lines are dropped and picked up seemingly at random (though that hasn't been quite as bad this season), and characters (especially Will) are written and portrayed in whatever way fits the plot that week, often leading to completely contradictory situations, like the Glee club members repeatedly telling us and other characters what an awesome teacher Mr. Schue is when we have such thing.

2) Especially this season, the deification and martyrdom of Kurt. In the first season Kurt was a snarky, self confident (although mostly still in the closet) guy who reminded me of a couple of my show choir friends back in high school. This season he's a whiny, self absorbed, selfish, insecure little waif who is constantly telling us how unfair his life is, even while people are bending over backwards to try and make things better for him. I wouldn't want to be friends with that fact, I would want to stay as far away from that person as possible.

Having said all that, I still love this show. Even though the main characters sometimes seem to have different motivations and personalities from week to week, the supporting cast seems to be written much more consistently. I have loved seeing more of Santana this season, and Heather Morris as Brittany is probably the most solidly funny performance on the whole cast, doubly impressive since this is her first acting job.

I have been tougher on the show this season...when it first hit the air, I loved having an almost painfully realistic portrayal of a high school show choir, and I was blown away by the musical performances to the point that I was more likely to overlook the less consistent parts of the show. Now, I'm spoiled by the musical performances, which causes me to look more critically at the other stuff...but as long as they break out something like this every once in a while, I'm going to continue to be hooked:

Raising Hope: If you had told me before the season started that of the two new Fox comedies on Tuesday night, this one would have become must see TV for me, while Running Wilde would have been out of my rotation after two weeks I would have said you were nuts. But that is what's happened.

Raising Hope has done a great job of re-creating what was the strength of another Greg Garcia show (My Name is Earl), which is building a world of really off the wall characters that still somehow manage to be likable and bring a lot of heart and emotional connection as well.

Garret Dillahunt and Martha Plimpton (along with the cutest baby on television) are giving performances that are reason enough by themselves to give this show a shot if you haven't already:

Sons of Anarchy: This was my first season watching this show, and more than anything else it made me want to go back and watch Season 2. That is a compliment...sort of. I really enjoyed the world that Kurt Sutter has created, and the characters are well written and acted (besides some occasional accent issues, JAX)...but even I feel like the plot was a bit meandering, and I don't have the supposedly vastly superior season 2 to compare it against.

The SAMCRO-goes-to-Belfast plot seemed pretty pointless while it was going on, and it seems even moreso in retrospect...I feel like this whole season was just to set us up for next season, which seems didactic at best, and insulting to the viewer at worst, as if Sutter didn't think I had anything better to do than watch a 13 episode prologue. And while I did enjoy the season finale, I had some of the same issues that Mo Ryan did...namely, what did SAMCRO know with regard to the game Jax was playing with Stahl, and when did they know it? I have no problem with Jax tricking Stahl, obviously...but if Jax was never really in danger with SAMCRO, then the tension the audience was supposed to feel about how the club was going to react to Jax turning rat was false, and that bugs me.

Having said all that...I'll be back for season 4, hopefully after going back and watching season 2 so that I'll have a better idea as to what all the fuss is about.

Modern Family: On Todd VanDerWerff's podcast this week, I think he nailed my feelings about this show...this show is good, but it is as good as it is ever going to be. It arrived fully formed, which is impressive, but it also means that the show doesn't really show any interest in growing or developing. Instead, they are just going to try to produce the funniest episode that they can every week...and there's certainly nothing wrong with that approach, especially when you can be as funny as this show can be when the writers and cast are hitting on all cylinders.

Survivor: First season I've watched from start to finish, and probably the last. I'm mainly watching so that I can read the recaps from people I like to read...and that's no reason to watch a TV show.

I don't know if it is that I haven't been watching long enough to pick up on things, or just really poor editing, but I have gone through this whole season not really being able to tell what anybody's strategy is. I think I'm a pretty smart I'm blaming it on the editors.

Cougar Town: SO much better than its name (every review is federally obligated to mention that at this point). There is absolutely nothing deep about this's just a funny bunch of people sitting around doing and saying funny things, with copious amounts of red wine available. And it is maybe my favorite comedy currently on television (with the possible exception of Community).

Psych: Consistently funny, and laughs are coming so fast you have to have the pause and rewind button ready. Much like Chuck, I feel almost like this one is written specifically for me.

For instance...note how the victim is positioned in this clip:

Look familiar? For any avid players of EA Sports NHL '94, it should:

THAT'S the kind of stuff that keeps me coming back...and the fact that they chose to just trust that those who the joke was meant for would get it, rather than explain it, made me love it even more.

Terriers: Sigh. This show was SOOOOO good. I'm not even going to try and analyze why it couldn't find an audience...instead, I'm going to STRONGLY urge you to find some way (Netflix, Hulu, DVD, whatever) to go watch a truly fantastic 13 episode movie/miniseries.

There is no way to really do this show justice in a review, which I think was part of its problem...when you describe it, it sounds like a very generic premise. It's about a couple of scruffy, witty PI' is a washed out cop, one is a (mostly) reformed criminal. There is no way to convey the feel of the show, which was just...I don't know, "comfortable" doesn't sound right, but it's the best I can come up with right now. I just felt like I knew these guys as soon as they showed up on the screen in the pilot, and their world felt so lived in and familiar that it was just easy to immerse myself in the show every week, no matter what was going on in the actual plot.

Again, Hulu is a nemesis when it comes to finding just the right clips, and this show doesn't lend itself to that kind of thing anyway, but this is a good one from the finale.. (and don't worry about spoilers. I could tell you every single plot point of the overarching story and I don't feel like it would diminish the show one iota, and I'm HUGELY anti-spoiler)

RIP, Terriers. Thanks for a tremendous run.

Big Bang Theory: Ummm...I don't know. It is what it is. It's funny, most of the time...the jokes just seem to be mostly the same every week. Last week, I never watched the episode, and I didn't feel like I was missing anything. That can't be a good sign, especially in a time slot as crowded as this one.

Community: Like most of the comedies I like, this one is written for a very specific audience that I happen to be a member of. There are plenty of laughs, but the genius of the show is both the meta commentary (of which there is wisely less of this season...don't want it to become a crutch) and the fact that there is a gooey center to it as well. This is a group of people who really NEED each other...separately, they would be impossibly lonely, but together they have created a surrogate family for each other. That doesn't sound funny, I know...but again, that's part of the genius.

The Christmas episode from last week became an instant Christmas classic to be rewatched every year, as far as I'm concerned. Sheer awesomeness, both in concept and execution.

And, of course, there is Troy and Abed:

The Office: Continues to be wildly inconsistent as it careens towards what I believe to be either the end of the show or a complete reboot once Steve Carrell leaves at the end of this season.

I do think this is a better season than the last one, when I really started to question whether I actually liked any of these people, especially Jim and Pam. This season's lows haven't been as low as last season, and every once in a while they can still come up with an episode like "China", which felt to me like the show did when it was in its prime.

The Mentalist: Perfectly acceptable television, and the only true "procedural" that I watch. This is one that the wife and I usually let build up and then blow through 4-5 episodes of on a Saturday like this last one when neither of us feel like doing anything productive. Nothing special, but consistently entertaining, and a very solid cast.

Fringe: Last but certainly not personal MVP of this season so far. I said back in my original Fall TV preview that this could be my new LOST, or at least as close as any show could come to that. And, as high as my expectations were, the show has exceeded them.

Smart storytelling: The alternate universe storyline was perfectly executed, and ran for what seemed like the exactly right amount of time, which is not easy to do. Catching the little differences between the two worlds (like Eric Stoltz in Back to the Future and Springsteen Station in New Jersey) was fun, but the storytelling was so much more rich than that...we actually got to know the doppelgangers of our familiar Fringe team, and get a clear understanding of why they hate us so much. Truly great stuff.

Creepily awesome cases of the week
: Nobody does it better. I don't know how these guys minds work that they are able to come up with this stuff, and maybe I don't want to...but I sure do love it.

Last week, they gave me one of my very favorite scenes of television this year...a clinically depressed scientist has been harvesting the donated organs of a woman whom he met in group therapy (who committed suicide), with hopes of regenerating her so that she can dance again. Creepy, right? But, somehow, this scene turns it into something almost...sweet. And certainly gorgeous. See for yourself:

Quality acting: Of course, John Noble and Lance Reddick are tremendous, and Joshua Jackson is playing Pacey all growns up, so that's good. But Anna Torv, who was criticized by many in the first season (including myself) has shown that if you give her great material, she can definitely rise to the occasion:

Put it all together, and you have my Fall Season MVP. Trust me, I'm as surprised as you are.

OK...all done!! I think that once the new year rolls around, I will be posting more often (maybe weekly?) going through the highlights of these shows, as well as some others I'm looking forward to (Parks and Rec, V, Justified, etc). Let me know in the comments if you have any suggestions/requests!

Thanks for reading!


Shan said...

Random thoughts on your assessment:

Loved BE, for many of the same reasons you cite. Also, I can't believe that Rothstein is the same guy who played the Job-like figure in the Coen's A Serious Man.

Not sure what the resolution to all the supposed controversy around Walking Dead's writers room will be, but I can only imagine how much this show might leap in quality should they add some scribes from well-written, canceled shows like Caprica, Rubicon or Terriers.

Chuck, at this point, reminds me of a USA show, and I mean that in a good way. I enjoy the characters and the shenanigans, but I just can't take it as seriously as some do. Still, it's fun and the cast is great.

Glee reminds me of "Zoo Night" at the old TK Harty's in Athens. Small cover, and $1.50 sub-well brand cocktails. We'd always get a long island tea (FIVE shitty liquors!) and have a great time, but then wake up with a terrible hangover. If you think too hard about Glee, it's like that painful morning after, but there are good times to be had on the in-the-moment buzz alone.

Despite my aversion to "family" comedies, I took your advice (and that of other friends) to pick up Modern Family. And I wasn't disappointed. So this year, that show that I didn't want to watch that I keep hearing good things about is Raising Hope. I think I'll wind up checking this out.

I see what a lot of the critics complained about with Sons of Anarchy, and yes, it did meander a bit and treat some of the characters like chess pieces. But I appreciate Sutter and company for trying something different and I eagerly anticipate season 4. (Plus, if you're just now getting into season 2, you can see what all the fuss was about. That season was a masterwork).

Another show I never bothered to catch was Cougar Town. On the surface, it seems right up my alley. I don't know if it was timeslot conflicts or bad buzz or how sappy Scrubs got or my inexplicable dislike of Busy Phillips, but I never gave it a chance.

I share your appreciation for Psych.

Terriers. Sigh. Open wound. Throw salt in. Best show of the year, hands down.

Community. Best comedy on TV.

Totally agree about Fringe. My favorite show currently airing, and like other genre shows (X-Files, Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse, etc.) it's built upon a shaky start to figure out exactly how to effectively execute the premise. So good, and such a deep and talented cast.

Scott said...

Shan - Just finished SoA Season 2 over the weekend. Holy crap.

The Gemma storyline alone was enough to be considered a classic series of television, but pretty much everything else was pitch perfect as well.

Only bad side is that I now like Season 3 LESS...but still enough that I will DEFINITELY be on board with season 4.

Now I'm about halfway through with Party Down, and I'm going to tackle Deadwood next. I love the holidays.

Shan said...

Oh, PT and DW are good choices. Love both of 'em. (Not necessarily a spoiler, but be prepared for DW not "wrapping up." Though the journey is certainly worth it).

I used holiday downtime in past years to blow through FNL, The Wire, Supernatural and a few others. Great way to watch a series.

amanda young said...

Killing the family members of your enemy to make them do something hasty. Old, but smart. I like Richard.Amanda Vanderpool