Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Glee: Pilot

Whatever becomes of Glee after this, that was one hell of a pilot. At this point, Ryan Murphy's creation is more style than substance, but the style is so terrific that I'm okay with that for now. It is a problem that has to be addressed going forward, however.

But first, that style! It's not exactly the case that none of this has been done before. But I think it is fair to say that none of this has been done all at once and in this medium before. The first quarter of the show plays like a rehash of Election, which is fine as far as it goes. I think Election would probably make a pretty great TV show, actually. But, to Glee's credit, it soon grows out of that simple rehash (though, to be sure, it retains elements) and begins layering pieces of other shows on top of it: we see bits of Murphy's old show, Popular, and of Freaks and Geeks, and of Friday Night Lights, and, most obviously, of High School Musical and American Idol.

The smörgåsbord of inspirations makes for compelling television, but also for a delicate balance. If the show leans too hard toward High School Musical, it risks becoming, well, High School Musical. But if it leans too hard toward Friday Night Lights-like realism, the musical performances will seem even more absurd and out of place. And if it gives in too much to irony and fails to take the musical performances seriously on some level, it risks turning them into camp and dragging the rest of the show down with them. The presence of Murphy makes maintaining the show's balance seem all the more unlikely. Though Murphy's an excellent writer, he's been known to do some stupid stuff and drive shows into the ground. (Shockingly enough, Nip/Tuck didn't always suck.)

But television is unpredictable. I wouldn't have guessed that Friday Night Lights would very nearly run itself off the rails until Landry went and killed that guy. And I wouldn't have guessed that The Big Bang Theory would become a solid little sitcom that I look forward to watching every week after its painfully hackish pilot. TV shows evolve and devolve, hang together and fall apart in interesting and unexpected ways. And yet part of reviewing a television show is trying to predict the future, because television is by its very nature episodic, and one episode does not a series make. And so I'll say this: Almost all shows collapse eventually. Glee will not escape that fate and, because of its balancing of styles, is indeed likely to meet it sooner than most. But right now, it's a great show. And when it comes back in the Fall, everyone should endeavor to watch it. Because pilots like this don't come along very often.

Just how soon Glee hits its collapse, and just how painful that collapse will feel to its viewers, depends on whether it can improve on its pilot's weak points by deepening its themes and sharpening its characterization. As of right now, Glee doesn't really seem to have anything new to say. Insomuch as it has cribbed its style from various inspirations, it has cribbed its themes as well, and the mix of themes is far less compelling than the mix of styles. High school is symbolic of a caste system from which we never really escape, even if our roles get changed around. There's more to life than the collection of material wealth. There's a conflict between the belief that we can achieve whatever we want to achieve and living in a small town in which most everybody has failed to achieve even their most modest of dreams. Etc. Etc. All true and potentially interesting, but nothing I haven't seen done better before.

Even more problematic is the squad of archetypes Glee sends forth to tackle these themes. Most grating is Jessalynn Gilsig's Terri, who is the shrill and shrewish housewife at once holding her husband back from his true potential and pushing him into a career he's sure to hate. It's not Gilsig's fault—she's a fine actress, one for whom I've always had a bit of a soft spot—but the character as written is an appalling stereotype and a shortcut for referencing the problem with materialism without actually tackling it. Equally stereotypical, though more amusingly so, are the gym teachers, played by Peter Gallagher and the always fantastic Jane Lynch, who provide yet another thematic shortcut, this time for referencing the high school caste system.

Fortunately, these are the sort of problems that can be corrected. In particular, I'm not too worried about the characterization. Toward the end of the pilot, certain characters, such as Lea Michelle's Rachel, were already moving beyond the types on which they had been modeled. Add to this a uniformly excellent cast and a talented writing staff, and there's every reason to believe the characterization will work itself out to a certain extent. The thematic shallowness is more concerning, and I'm not sure I trust the show so much on that front.

Despite these shortcuts in characterization and the thematic deficiencies, Glee is easily one of the best pilots I've seen in a long time. The world of the show is already recognizable and well-defined, and the show itself is unlike anything else on TV. More than that, it's just a pleasure to watch, as purely entertaining as anything I've seen all year. And that in and of itself is no small accomplishment.

Other stuff:

  • I'm ready for more episodes now. And yet I have to wait until Fall. I have mixed feelings about this promotional strategy.
  • I managed to get through that entire review without mentioning how great Matthew Morrison and Jayma Mays were. For shame.
  • I spent the entire episode waiting for former Celtic Kevin McHale to show up. And then I realized that it was a differet Kevin McHale, and he was playing the kid in the wheelchair. Moral of this story: I'm an idiot.
  • When properly deployed, any piece of music can be effective. And, to be sure, Glee used “Don't Stop Believing” very effectively. But Journey sucks. A lot. Let us never forget.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

How I Met Your Mother: The Leap

How I Met Your Mother sometimes overreaches on the sentimentality. It's a flaw, but it's also part of the show's charm, and it happened towards the end of last night's season finale. “The Leap,” written by series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas and directed, as usual, by Pamela Fryman, rolled along quite nicely until then, though.

Specifically, everything involving the goat was gold. There are, of course, those who believe it didn't live up to the hype, which is fair enough, I suppose. But that's why it's best not to measure quality by hype. (Which, incidentally, is why I almost universally hate backlashes.) And Ted fighting a goat to the delicate strains of “Murder Train?” That's funny.

Also funny is the budding romance between Barney and Robin. Though I think the show probably should have built up to their confrontation a bit more quickly, their fear of commitment and of their own feelings for one another make the dallying seem honest. And now that we've gotten the confrontation, it's hard for me to say that it could have been handled any better, really. Whenever Ted's relationships come to some sort of head, the show generally drops the comedy, strikes up the background pop song, and goes for straight, if slightly absurd, sentimentality. Not the case with Barney and Robin, at all, and that's how it should be.

As indicated in the lede, the show's melodramatic tendency did, however, rear its head at the end of the episode, when Ted infiltrated the Marshall and Lily storyline and turned Marshall's leap over to the neighboring rooftop into a somewhat strained metaphor for letting your life take you where it will. Which is sort of a nice sentiment.

And sort of a sad one. Because implicit in that leap is the harsh reality of giving up on your dreams; whether it's, in Lily's case, being an artist; or, in Marshall's case, saving the environment; or, in Barney's case, being a violinist; or, in Ted's case, being an architect. To its credit, the show is pretty upfront about this. None of these characters have accomplished their dreams, and in this way it is similar to The Office, which is a show about people who often fail and the small victories they do manage to achieve. Where the shows differ is mostly in style; whereas HIMYM embraces melodrama, The Office eschews it. So The Office gives us a scene wherein Pam finds out she's pregnant and hides it in silence behind a window, while HIMYM stages the leap in slow motion with voice-over narration.

What's most interesting about “The Leap,” though, is the way it plays the acceptance of failure as a victory in and of itself. And it is! We each have to accept our limitations. Despite what our parents told us when we were growing up, we can't actually be whatever we want to be. But we can be something else, even if that something else seems a little less spectacular to us. And maybe we can achieve slightly smaller dreams, like making the leap over to the roof next door. It's a bittersweet sort of victory.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Bones: The End in the Beginning

I'll generally not begrudge a show for taking stylistic risks and changing up its format from time to time, because risk-taking is the sort of thing that should be encouraged. But the Bones season finale, "The End in the Beginning," written by creator Hart Hanson and directed by Ian Toynton, was something of a disaster.

It was a dream episode, apparently taking place in Booth's mind as he lay in a coma after his brain surgery. The lab became The Lab, a nightclub owned by Booth and Brennan, who were married, while the other cast members took on various roles within the club. Despite being a dream sequence, there was still a murder mystery, involving the killing of...someone. Cam and Jared, Booth's brother, played FBI agents investigating the murder, which Booth and Brennan eventually solved. Jared was the killer, not that it matters. In between there were some lame attempts at meta-humor and Hodgins wrote a book and Sweets sang a pretty good song and Motley Crue sang a pretty bad song.

Oh, and, OMG, Booth and Bones totally did it. Except they didn't, because, you know, it was a dream, and the imaginary sex was just designed to titillate shippers who read spoilers. And then Booth woke up and was all like, "What a weird dream." And then he was all like, "Hey, who are you?" when Bones tried to talk to him. Because he had amnesia. Because Hart Hanson always has to end his seasons in the stupidest way possible.

"The End in the Beginning" is most directly comparable to "Restless," the fourth season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There are people who really dislike that episode, but those people are wrong, as "Restless" is one of the most brilliant pieces of television ever created. It's smart and funny. It brings the themes of the show to forefront. It deepens the characterization. And it wraps up the fourth season and sets up the fifth in a creative and unexpected way.

But "The End in the Beginning" is very much not "Restless." It is less smart and funny than odd and baffling. While it does bring the themes of the show to the forefront, insomuch as it focuses on the nature of Bones and Booth's relationship and the way it revolves around violence, it doesn't touch the breadth of the themes "Restless" expounded upon. In fairness, though, Bones doesn't have the same thematic breadth as Buffy anyway, so I think we can give them that one.

But by this point, Hanson and company should realize that people watch their show for the character interaction, not for the simplistic themes or uninteresting mysteries. And characterization is really where the episode falls apart, as the alternate characterizations in the episode were by and large random and pointless. What does it tell us, for example, that Cam played the role of detective in Booth's dream? And what does it tell us Zack found the gun? And what does it tell us that Hodgins was writing a noirish mystery novel? The answer to all of those questions is, unfortunately, nothing. Or at least nothing that's not superficial and trivial.

And that's the biggest reason why the episode was so lame. It's not that it was a bad idea. It's just that it's the kind of idea that's difficult to do well. And "The End in the Beginning" proved it.

The amnesia thing, though? Yeah, that was just a bad idea.

Friday, May 15, 2009

30 Rock: Kidney Now!

30 Rock has been pretty uneven this year. With that in mind, the relative quality of an episode of 30 Rock has less to do with how much you laugh, because you're always going to laugh, and more to do with how well it is constructed and how much it plays on the relationships between the characters. “Kidney Now!” did well with the latter, but not so well with the former. In what I've decided should be this blog's grand tradition, we'll start with the bad stuff first.

In the best episodes of 30 Rock, all the plot threads converge at the same time in one big orgasm of hilarity, and that just didn't happen here. Tracy's story was funny, and Liz's story was funny, and Jack's story was funny, but they didn't really seem to have a whole lot to do with one another. I suppose it's okay that 30 Rock isn't NewsRadio, and in a lot of ways 30 Rock is actually better than NewsRadio, but it would be nice if the writing were tighter.

That said, “Kidney Now!” did a great job with the character stuff. Alan Alda is perfectly cast as Jack's newfound father, and their relationship feels surprisingly realistic. Jack's happy to have a dad, but, because he's kind of selfish and not in any way John Locke, he's not so thrilled at the prospect of losing a kidney. Milton, meanwhile, realizes he might have been a bit forward about the whole kidney thing, and they hug, and even have a catch. And while Jack may not be gung ho about personally sacrificing, ruthlessly blackmailing other people into sacrificing is right up his alley. So he still gets to help his new father not die. Even though the whole thing is played for laughs with a thin veneer irony, it's still sort of touching in an odd way.

Also oddly touching was Tracy receiving an honorary high school diploma after delivering a nonsensical commencement address at the graduation of the high school from which he dropped out. That story is, of course, a really old cliché (Jack and Milton's story actually contains two clichés!), but it works because of the extra absurdity 30 Rock brings to it. The cliché is usually used for straight up sentimentality, which is the direction the episode fakes at, with Tracy claiming to have dropped out over drugs and violence or whatever. But the writers upend that expectation by revealing that Tracy actually dropped out because he was too squeamish to dissect a frog, and in doing so they point out the absurdity of the cliché in general, while still managing to evoke the sentiment of cliché.

The third story, meanwhile, was just a cliché used well, as Liz transformed into a real-life version of Jenna's advice lady from the previous episode. It added yet another wrinkle to the power-struggle in Liz and Jenna's bizarre friendship, and once again displayed how Liz is more like Jenna than she would probably care to admit.

Less analytical highlights:
  • "A guy crying about a chicken and a baby? I thought this was a comedy show!"
  • "From Peanut to President."
  • Liz: "We had a great year, didn't we?" Jack: "What are you talking about? It's May."
  • Kenneth's science class consisting entirely of bible stories.
  • Of course Clay Aiken is Kenneth's cousin.
  • The whole kidney song sequence.
  • "Opposite! Opposite! Opposite!"

The Office: Company Picnic

The fourth season of The Office wasn't bad, but it also wasn't up to the standards the show's second and third seasons had set. It did, however, end on a positive note, with the arrival of new HR representative Holly Flax, played by the always awesome Amy Ryan. Season five picked up where the tail-end of that fourth season left off, and hasn't really had a bad episode all year. “Company Picnic,” the fifth season finale, written by Jennifer Celotta and Paul Lieberstein, directed by Ken Kwapis, and featuring the return of Ryan's Holly, just continued the excellence.

It's really nothing short of remarkable how much Michael Scott has grown as a character. Actually, what's remarkable about it is that it all seems so natural and unforced. He still has all the passive-aggressive tendencies and poor judgment he displayed in the early seasons, as illustrated by the less than polite way he treats Holly's new beau; but those traits have been tempered by experiences he's had since then, mostly having to do with his tortured relationships with both Jan and Dunder-Mifflin. He is now brave enough to stand up for himself, as well as just self-aware enough to realize when he doesn't really have to.

Holly, after all, is not Jan or David Wallace. She was being neither sadistic nor dismissive of Michael when she decided to break up with him; she was just being realistic. Moreover, Michael doesn't have to tell her that he loves her, because she already knows that. And when they sat there on the grass together at the end of this episode, discussing the disaster that was their SlumDunder Mifflinaire skit, Michael actually got that. And probably for the first time in his life, he didn't push. He just accepted the situation, and decided to enjoy the little bit of time they got to spend together.

Equally lovely was Jim and Pam's scene at the end. Even though Pam's imminent pregnancy had been foreshadowed a few minutes before, it nonetheless takes some guts to write a scene entirely reliant on the physical reactions of the cast. But it just shows how much confidence the show is working with right now, and Jenna Fischer and John Krasinski (who just maybe doesn't get enough credit for what he does) were more than up to the task.

Also showing just how much confidence the show has right now is the writers' decision to introduce a baby, which is one of those plot developments that has a reputation for eating shows alive. Given how well the show has handled the Jim and Pam coupling, however, I'm not too worried. The Office seems to take a certain pride in taking the things other shows have done wrong and doing them right.

Other stuff:
  • Pam's good at volleyball! I have no idea why that's funny, and yet it is.
  • SlumDunder Mifflinaire was evidence that even when The Office is at its sweetest, it can still make you cringe.
  • Stanley should get drunk more often. Just because I like seeing him happy.
  • Phyllis sitting down in the middle of the volleyball game is precisely the sort of passive-aggressive thing she would do. She is more like Michael than she would probably care to admit.
  • We need to see Rolf and Mose get together and hang out.
  • I'm liking the new receptionist. And so is Andy. But he really wishes she didn't suck so much at volleyball.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Lost: The Incident, Parts 1 and 2

“The Incident,” written by the two-headed monster of Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse and directed by Jack Bender, consisted of one hour and 50 minutes of pure, concentrated awesome and ten minutes of boring, nonsensical love quadrangle bullshit. That’s a pretty good ratio, but let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first so I can stop being critical and start being all OMG TEH FUCKING AWESOME!1!1!!

In general, the romantic relationships have always been the iffiest aspect of Lost. Remember, for example, that time in the second season when the writers briefly tried to build a love triangle around Charlie, Claire and Locke? Good times. Of course, Lost has gotten romance right every now and then: Desmond and Penny, Bernard and Rose, even Nikki and Paolo. (As horribly annoying as Nikki and Paolo were as characters, their relationship was sort of interesting as an example of two people who brought out the very worst in one another.) But you’ll note that the writers tend to not know what to do with these relationships once the characters actually get together. Nikki and Paolo destroyed each other in short order, while Desmond and Penny and Rose and Bernard have become tertiary characters.

It’s not too surprising, then, that the writers have kept the Jack-Kate-Sawyer love triangle they set up in the first season in a constant state of flux. They clearly don’t feel that they can write these characters out, and yet, at the same time, they don't seem to trust themselves to write a happy couple for any lengthy period of time. So we get annoying plot machinations like Sawyer and Kate fucking in a polar bear cage while Jack watches on a security camera.

The third season had already added Juliet to the mix, giving us not just the Jack-Kate Sawyer triangle, but also the Jack-Kate-Juliet triangle, which was, for the most part, just as stupid. This season’s “LaFleur” took those two triangles and combined them into what everybody on the internet is calling a quadrangle. And the thing about the quadrangle is, it wasn’t actually terrible. It existed mostly in the background, as subtle and unspoken tension between the characters.

Until the first ten minutes of the second part of the finale, that is, when the writers decided to have the tensions bubble over in absurd and unrealistic ways. Why was Jack so gung ho on blowing up the island? Because of Kate. Why was Juliet suddenly prone to bizarre and out of character mood swings? Because of Kate. Why was everyone so willing to talk about all of these feelings as Sayid bled to death in the back of a Dharma van? It’s hard to say, for sure, but probably because of Kate.

What makes those ten minutes so frustrating is that the rest of the finale was so, so good. There’s no show on television today, and maybe no show on television ever, that’s more capable of making its audience as outright giddy as Lost is. And that was mainly my reaction throughout the episode. Here’s a list of just some of the things that were awesome in the finale:
  • Jacob and Esau (as everyone on the internet is calling Titus Welliver’s character) on the beach.
  • The title card informing us that the show had jumped ahead thirty years.
  • Jacob showing up in all but one of the flashbacks.
  • Juliet kicking everybody’s ass in the submarine.
  • Both of the shoot-outs.
  • Hurley driving the Dharma van.
  • Everything having to do with Lapidus.
  • Everything having to do with Bernard and Rose.
  • Locke’s body falling out of the container the crazy cult people were carrying around.
  • Esau-Locke slowly convincing Ben that he ought to kill Jacob.
  • Jack throwing the bomb down the shaft and everybody bracing themselves, only to have nothing happen.
  • The return of the electromagnetic pull like the one at the end of season two.
  • Dr. Chang getting his arm crushed.
  • Miles saving his father.
  • Elizabeth Mitchell and Josh Hallowell acting the living fuck out of Juliet’s death scene.
  • Ben actually killing Jacob, who seems to pretty much be God himself, and throwing his body in the fire while Esau-Locke watched on.
  • Juliet exploding the nuclear bomb by pounding on it with a rock. I'm just going to repeat that because she exploded the nuclear bomb by pounding on it with a motherfucking rock.
  • Fade to white.

So, yeah, just about everything.

All that said, as awesome as the episode was (and to be critical again), I’m still not entirely convinced the show has a whole lot to say about anything, really. It might, though, and I am definitely convinced that I underestimated the show’s ambition. The Jacob and Esau thing we saw in this episode is far more mythic, in the ancient sense of the word, than anything Lost had even hinted at before.

The themes of the earlier seasons of the show were never particularly complex, and what happens in the later seasons isn’t going to change that. But in the last couple of seasons, the show has developed a thematic complexity it didn’t previously possess. At this point, we are dealing with ideas of fate and morality that the show paid mere lip service to before. In the second season, for example, the characters crossed paths constantly in flashbacks, but it never really added up to anything. “The Incident,” however, gave us a very similar set of flashbacks in which Jacob met up with younger versions of Locke and Kate and Jack and so on, and it worked in a way season two’s flashbacks never did.

While this new knowledge doesn’t make the second season’s themes any more complex, it does give the viewer the sense of a show that’s building from something simple to something not so simple, and that’s almost as exciting to watch as all the awesome plot twists it throws at us.

Mixed Messages in Advertising: P.J. Bland's vs. Chile's

Message the commercial intends to convey: At Chili's, our colorful food is better than the bland food at those other restaurants.

Message the commercial actually conveys: At Chili's, our food is better than cardboard.

Me, I'm not even convinced of that. The ad campaign is impressively extensive, though.

Scrubs: My Finale

(Ed.- This is horribly late, of course, but I was holding it over until I was ready to launch the new blog.)

As my over-effusive post on the ER finale probably indicates, I’m something of a sucker for finales, in general. So you’ll forgive me if it seems slightly hyperbolic when I say that the Scrubs finale was the greatest episode in the history of television, and probably the greatest piece of art ever made since naked Neanderthals began writing on cave walls.

I don’t really mean that, of course. But it was a good episode of television, and easily the best episode of Scrubs since “My Last Words,” which had in turn been the best episode of Scrubs since season five, at least. The point being that Scrubs used to be reliable entertainment, but lost its way in its later years and actually became actively bad for large stretches of time. This final season has been a nice return to form and consistency, and the finale continued that and brought the show to a positive ending, which is as much as any fan could have hoped for and more than they had any right to expect when the season began.

There are a few specific things a series finale ought to do. If it does them, it will be a good episode. If it doesn’t do them, it will not be a good episode. To wit:
  1. It has to have a good story, just like any other good episode of television would. This seems obvious, but with all the concentration on the points to follow, this can sometimes get lost. (I’m trying to think of an example, but I’m just a stupid blogger, so I can’t. Examples exist, though. I’m sure of it!)
  2. It has to bring the main themes of the show to the foreground.
  3. It has to remind the viewer of the show’s early seasons.
  4. It has to provide closure on most of the relationships and hanging plot threads.
  5. It has to give the viewer a sense that the world of the show will live on, even after the show itself has gone.

Getting all of these things right can be a tricky, especially when it comes to balancing the conflict between numbers four and five. But the Scrubs finale is a good example of just how to do it. To wit, again:
  1. It had a good story running throughout the episode about the mother dying of Hutchinson’s and the son who decided against taking the test to find it if he had inherited the disease.
  2. That story did a good job bringing the main themes of the show to foreground.
  3. The flashbacks to the pilot at the beginning of the episode and the hall full of characters from earlier seasons toward the end of the episode acted as totems of times gone by and reminded us just how expansive the world of Sacred Heart is.
  4. Scrubs isn’t really a plot-heavy show, but the penny thing was sort of fun, as was the unveiling of the Janitor’s likely fake name. More importantly, those little plot resolutions put a nice bow on JD’s relationship with the Janitor. JD got similar moments of varying silliness with Turk, Carla and Kelso. The most well-earned piece of closure, however, came with the JD-orchestrated Dr. Cox’s speech, which we were almost as psyched to hear as JD was.
  5. At the same time it was giving us all that nice closure, “My Finale” was making it abundantly clear that Sacred Heart would still be there the next day, providing the same service it always had. (JD himself comes to terms with this over the course of the episode.) The closing home-movie montage of JD’s possible future was kind of beautiful (I admit it: I cried. So did you, so shut up.). And just as much as I’m a sucker for finales, I’m also a sucker for people getting into cars and driving off into the horizon, the horizon of course being not an ending, but the ever-present and distant future towards which we are always striving.

Of course, "My Finale" might not actually be the series finale, as ABC is in seemingly eternal ongoing discussions to bring the show back without Zach Braff. I can’t help but think that’s not such a great idea. The show was about how JD came to Sacred Heart and grew up. Now he’s grown up, as evidenced by his desire to be a better father, and he’s leaving Sacred Heart because of that. So this really is the natural ending point.

On the other hand, the fan in me would kind of like to spend more time with these characters. Add to that my desire to see more Better off Ted, the renewal hopes of which seem to be hinging on another season of Scrubs, and I can almost convince myself that another season might not be such a terrible thing. The critic in me probably knows better, though.

What this blog is.

This is a blog about popular culture. We write about television, literature, music and movies. Mostly television, probably, but we'll see.