Thursday, October 15, 2009

Thursday Night TV Review Part III: Office/30 Rock

Don't forget to check out my article on how relevant SNL alumni still are these days.

The Office:

While Jim and Pam are on their honeymoon, Michael gets entangled with the mafia (I think?) while the B-plot can best be described as a bunch of people want to bother Jim and Pam on their honeymoon in Puerto Rico.

I honestly was writing too much about Community while The Office was going on to be able to entirely absorb the plot but in the A-plot but here’s what I got: Michael gets the idea to write his own book and starts narrating (this would have been a better plot than what we were presented with); a large Italian man tries to sell Michael something, there’s some ambiguity over whether he’s in the mafia; Andy and Dwight attend a meeting in a restaurant with a large Italian guy; Andy is wearing a mechanic’s uniform and volunteers to repair the car of a woman and her son who mistakenly treat him as such; and the staff launches into a discussion over whether this guy is mafia or not based on his last name. At the end of the episode, Michael “stands up to the mob” although we don’t know if he’s in the mob or not.

The B-plot might have centered around Pam and Jim but it was made all the better by the fact that they were physically absent from the episode. For someone who thinks JAM is overused, it’s nice to get a much-needed break from Jim’s smirk for a week. On the downside, we have an overdose of Kevin who has often been criticized in going from adorably dense to full-on retarded in recent seasons. In a show that’s going for realism, Kevin sticks out like a sore thumb. In any case, Kevin commandeers Jim’s office while he’s on his honeymoon for reasons that definitely seem retarded to me. Things take a twist when Kevin accidentally causes Jim’s credit card to be voided (best scene in the episode). In the meantime, Jim is bothered by Michael because he needs bailing out when the whole mafia thing blows up and Oscar calls up Jim because he feels like the office is going to Hell without Jim’s presence. This all leads up to a fairly rewarding punch line. One major concern was that Jim has only been in charge for one week? Wasn’t he the office slacker a week ago? This characterization is getting a little rushed here.

My review of this week’s The Office doesn’t hold much water because of my distraction, but it seemed like this episode took rather unpromising ideas to run with.


30 Rock started and ended off with a cute meta-awareness and in between a definite sense of improvement over a lackluster 3rd season. I agree with the AV Club’s review that the show got caught up in too many “Liz finds love” plots and too heavy of a reliance on guest stars. The Office had a comeback year last season by taking the relatively safe premise (of a regional manager who would always keep his job no matter how eccentric his ideas are) and turning it upside down.

Maybe what was wrong was that 30 Rock was getting too safe. We knew every one of Liz and Jack’s celebrity love interests wouldn’t last because we read in the Hollywood Reporter that Jon Hamm and Selma Hayek had limited episode contracts. Similarly, we know that Kenneth the Page will continue to be dumb but loyal. Jack teased us a couple times into thinking that someday Kenneth was going to amount to more than the sum of his parts and eventually take over Jack’s job. In this episode, Kenneth finally lives up to that billing as a capable foil to Jack Donaughy and that made him interesting for the first time since the poker game in Season 1.

Jack cuts overtime pay for his pages and gives himself a bonus instead. When Kenneth accidentally takes a peek at Jack’s paycheck, he becomes furious and stages a strike with the demand that Jack put down in writing that he lied. It’s a battle of wits between Jack’s hard line business savvy and Kenneth’s naïveté affability. The exact opposite ends of the human spectrum that these two characters inhabit has been capitalized upon a little (the episode where Jack puts Kenneth in an elevator with a literal reenactment of lifeboat ethics comes to mind) but the show has never literally pit the two characters against each other. It felt like this episode seemed like something that the show’s been leading up to forever. Things even get topical with a pseudo-debate between the two about the extremes of capitalism.

In the B-plot, Josh is leaving the cast and Jack orders Pete and Tina to find a replacement that reflects middle American values more. This raises the question of where the hell Josh has been for the past two seasons. He sort of disappeared and I don’t know if it does the show any good to call attention to how thin the show’s cast is anyway (it seems like there are only three characters on the show). This prompts Tracy and Jenna to get in touch with the common man more. The show gets plenty meta but it’s almost as if Tracy and Jenna are used almost entirely as a single meta-joke and it feels a little bit cheap. Still, there’s an inspired bit of lunacy that feels almost improvised as Tracy goes out into the middle of the striking crowd and tries not to act plebian.

There’s also a C-plot in which Liz and Pete have to keep the show’s new hire a secret so they do a really lame job of keeping their scouting trips to the comedy clubs a secret and the staff starts to suspect that they’ve had an affair. It all basically leads to a punchline that’s moderately worthwhile.

On the strength of the A-plot, I’m hoping that 30 Rock is en route to a better season.


Thursday Night TV Review Part II: Parks and Recreation

An article: Borat is satire, Bruno is social harm

Parks and Rcereation:
This was the best episode of Parks and Recreation to date. Fred Armisen guest stars as a the head of the delegation of Pawnee’s Venezuelan sister city and he turns out to be surprisingly rude. He insults Leslie’s efforts to welcome him at every turn and he even appears so culturally abhorrent as to think that he can take any American women he wants as prostitutes. The episode basically takes his Ferecito character on Saturday Night Live and combines it with a little bit of Borat. Needless to say, I wonder how this will play in Venezuela. It’s not very original but it was innovative and it was funny and that alone makes this the best episode of Parks and Recreation to date.

Among the other pluses of this episode were:
1) The absence of the Anne-Mark romance as that has been the most chemistry-laden pairing I have ever seen in the history of television
2) A hilarious B-plot involving a Venezuelan intern being enamored with April who alternates between giving him flirtatious signals and acting bored to death of him. Aubrey Plaza takes the art of deadpan to new levels with her stoic emotional monotone and as far as strong supporting characters go, it’s hard to top her.
3) The show having a few key twists involving the brash Venezuelans apologizing and willing to make it up to Leslie with a major gift before it is revealed that they have ulterior motives. Both the show’s twists surprised me and neither took the easy way out.

The show was great and even approached levels of simultaneous humor and tension that The Office achieves. At the same time, I have to wonder if the show’s characters can produce this much wonderful humor on their own without the benefit of a guest star. Fred Armisen’s character highlighted the inherent humor in Leslie and, on a larger scale, the city of Pawnee’s situation because he serves as such a perfect foil to her inept sense of pride. Leslie is pretty abnormal and that’s where the humor is supposed to come from but
that humor is lost because there’s no contrast: Her ideas and mannerisms are largely accepted by those around her.

Bottom line: A great episode but doesn’t necessarily make me confident that the show will be equally as good next week.

Grade: A

Thursday Night TV Review-Part I: Community

About 3 years ago, I reviewed NBC's Thursday night block in its entirety. Recently inspired by the AV Club's reviews of single TV episodes, I thought I'd do the same thing:

I have no idea if the AV club is hiring, but note to you guys, consider this my application:


This week, Britta cheats on a Spanish test and Jeff continues his quest to win her favor by defending her before the honor council. Despite Jeff being an a—hole (or maybe because of it), his romantic pairing with Britta is one of the most endearing romances on television simply because of the very reason he stated so succinctly towards the end of the episode: His motivation with her is about more than just sex, because if it was just about sex he wouldn’t be going through all this crap to be friends with her. In an effort to develop the outer edges of their ensemble instead of hiring more guest stars, Community uses the three faculty members on the show (Tony Jeung, Jim Rash, and Jon Oliver) as the honor council and they provide some of the episode’s best moments.

The two b-plots are pretty much throwaways: Annie relies on Pierce to write the school song and he lets her down while Abed tries a little too hard to play a prank on Troy. The last two Abed subplots remind me of those plots on Star Trek where Data tries to answer the question of what it means to be human. That’s how disconnected from the world around him Abed is.

I’m somewhat tough on this show because while it has some characters with potential and moments of humor, its attempts at combining the cynical musings of smart-aleck Joel McHale with genuine heartfelt moments of togetherness fall short. Joel McHale’s rambling diatribe in the pilot about pencils, sharks, and Ben Affleck made me cringe and both attempts to infuse the show with the broken-souls-in-need-of-a-second-chance theme fell equally flat: Annie’s pep talk to Pierce to keep him from giving up on writing a song and Jeff’s ludicrous appeal that while Britta violated the honor code, it’s in the school’s interest to keep her.

Fortunately, both those corny moments were redeemed by comedic mishaps: The song Pierce ends up writing was stolen from Bruce Hornsby and Jeff’s speech allows Jon Oliver’s Dean to make a power play on Britta (under her punishment she must undergo counseling with him once a week).

Grade: B+

Also, check out this latest article I wrote at the Examiner (17 Actors overdue for a nomination)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

My take on the season's new shows

My take on various TV shows presented through Helium

Cougartown, ABC-The show is clearly oriented towards a female audience in the same way Desperate Housewives or Grey's Anatomy is, but it's surprisingly watchable to both genders. It's more about a woman going through a midlife crisis than it is "Sex and the City" with a teenage son. Courtney Cox does imbue the character with a sort of sincere desperation that puts her on just the right side of endearing.
My verdict: I'll watch it if I catch it on TV

Community, NBC-The idea of a setting of community college is a winner and the cast as pretty amicable. I like the characters of Annie, Abed, the Spanish teacher and Britta already. That being said, some are hailing this as a show that is a genuinely finished product when the show still needs a lot of fine tuning to find its groove. Attempts at sedimentality have been cringe-inducingly akward so far.
My verdict: I watch it weekly but am willing to unceremoniously drop the show if it doesn't iron out its kinks

Glee, FOX-I love this show. I had an attraction to Popular as well ten years ago which was created by the same guy so I had an expectation that we'd be taken into a world of strange extremes: rigidly defined high school stereotypes contrasted with very relatable relationships between people. The show certainly has a unique style and the musical numbers are fun. I don't buy that it's a parody so much as just a tonally different version of High School Musical. The show takes its musical numbers too seriously to be called a parody.
My verdict: Watch it weekly

Castle, ABC-Nathan Fillion just strikes me as a poor man's Jason Bateman. He looks matine-idol-like enough that if you put him on the bridge of a spaceship like in Firefly, then he's pleasant enough, but I'm not that big of a fan of him. In Castle, he's a bit smarmy. There are a number of shows featuring some duo of detectives, thieves (the show with Melissa George and John Stamos), or hostage negotiatiors (that show with Ron Livingston) with sexual chemistry but I give this show credit for not jamming these two people together in circumstances that are hard to buy. It seems that the two are genuinely stuck with each other and only one of them likes it, which is a good formula for keeping the dynamic interesting.
My verdict: Arguably worth watching. Deserves a couple more episodes

Modern Family, ABC-Some are hailing this as the great new comedy of the season and like Community, it's not fully formed enough for anyone to really make that call yet. It's use of the single camera mockumentary format detracts from the show, as far as I'm concerned. Just because the Office uses a mockumentary style and it's a great show doesn't mean that it works for everything. In this case, the humor isn't effective enough for us to laugh without some kind of cue (Malcolm in the Middle, Arrested Development, Srubs, My Name is Earl and 30 Rock, for example have musical cues which cue us in). The combination of a gay couple, a traditional 3-children household, and a patriarch who married a Columbian half his age and takes on her son from another marriage (I'm sure that was a run-on sentence) is still a pretty good set-up and that's what makes the show work well. Some people are saying that Ty Burrell is the breakout character as the dad who tries too hard to be cool, but my favorite Sofia Vergara as the saucy Latina.
My verdict: Not the centerpiece of my TV viewing schedule, but I'll watch it. Deserves time to see where it goes, at least.

Flashfoward, ABC-This sounded like an intriguing show but too many cop cliches kept me from getting too interested in it. After seeing so many cop shows, seeing anyone act remotely like Dennis Franz is enough to get you to tune out. This isn't a cop show, but an example of breaking cliches to make a show interesting would be Dennis Leary's Rescue Me where the firemen are heroic but also pretty vulgar.
My verdict: Didn't even make it to end of episode 1

The Jay Leno Show, NBC-As many others have pointed out, putting Jay Leno on at 10 pm pretty much strips NBC of any integrity that they believe that they can deliver us a good product. It was pretty much a cost-cutting movie and it's like watching monkeys in a cage to see the network execs try to pass this off as a bold creative move that they can be proud of. The only thing to mildly be excited about is that D.L. Hughley and a couple other intriguing personalities are added as correspondents, but NBC is basically throwing in the towel at this point.
My verdict: Depending on who's the guest and if nothing else is on TV, I probably still wouldn't watch it, but maybe if I really have to watch TV

The Good Wife, CBS-I'm trying to figure out as I watch this if lawyer shows are intended only for a certain subset of the population (i.e. people who've been to law school) or if the drama is captivating enough for everyone. There's a lot of dark music to indicate this is supposed to be gripping, but I'm not feeling it. The other angle about the disgraced politician's wife, however, is plenty juicy. The show is basically about Elizabeth Edwards, Silda Spitzer or Jenny Sanford and appropriately starts off with a press conference where the political figure is apologizing while the wife "stands" by his side. As they're walking down the hall on the way out, she slaps him. Now we're talking! A little bit later the daughter asks mommy, "I just read that daddy slept with a prostitute my age. Is this true?" This is the juicy stuff but the show doesn't seem as interested in all that as it does about being a generic lawyer show about a tough woman. I can see how a weekly series that takes the tone of a Douglas Sirk melodrama might really become a drag, but that's the show's most relevant and pressing angle.
Final verdict: Don't see promise

Cleveland Show, FOX-(a bit of a longer review than I originally intended on)
On Family Guy, Cleveland Brown has never served much purpose besides being a token black character as far as I've been concerned. Obviously, Mike Henry disagrees. Henry is the white actor who voices Cleveland and when he talks about his excitement for centering a spinoff around the Cleveland character, it seems apparent how proud he is of his own creation. What exactly Cleveland's unique mannerisms are, beyond being a little timid, that make him worth watching, I'm not sure. He's certainly never been a great source of humor.

Fortunately, there are some unique characters in the background: Cleveland's son, Cleveland Jr. is an incredibly sympathetic figure because he's probably one of the most hopeless characters on television (chubby, little ambition, so eager to please that he's willing to find his niche as a bathroom attendant), his biological son Rollando is someone I could see myself liking more than Stewie (he's a smack-talking kindergartener who might be described as street-smart in the same way Stewie's book-smart), and a rebellious teenage daughter who's more assertive than Lisa Simpson or Meg (might not be up there with American Dad's Hailey). The wife, Donna, is the heart of the show. The show advertises itself as the sappier and more heartwarming spinoff of Family Guy and there's just a little bit of that gooey feeling to be found within the story of Cleveland and Donna being reunited as a married couple.

Cleveland and his three neighbors (two white guys of various socio-economic levels and an animatronic bear) form a social group that's almost a virtual clone of the quartet that drinks at Quahog's Drunken Clam which wasn't a good idea if the show wanted to set itself apart. The bear is nowhere near as funny as Roger the alien, Klauss the fish or Brian, the dog.

The setting and the fact that this will be a fairly faithful take on the black sitcom (as faithful as white writers can be) might also be seen as a plus or a minus
Final verdict: Worth watching to see where it goes. Watching 3 Seth MacFarlane shows in one night is a bit overkill, but if I'm not feeling the American Dad or Family Guy episodes, I'll tune into this

SNL has been mismanaging comedic talent for a while now

As usual, here's an article from helium to click on about the Roman Polanski scandal:

Except Will Ferrell, Lorne Michaels hasn't actually been doing that well with SNL talent post-1996 except for 3 women: Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Amy would never have gotten off the ground as a comedic star if she didn't have the chance to get her name out there for 8 seasons.

It seems like the big movie stars of comedy are coming up through being friends with Ben Stiller/being in frat pack movies, comedy central (daily show, stand-up specials, comedy central original shows), arrested development and The Office. SNL alum since the bad boys age of SNL have been largely unsuccessful in films (i.e. Colin Quinn, Norm McDonald, Chris Kattan, Tim Meadows, Molly Shannon, Cheri Oteri, Ana Gastayer, Jim Bruer, Horatio Sanz, Chris Parnell, even Jimmy Fallon is bombing in Conan's old slot).

Look at who's populating comedies these days:
-Zach Galinfakas (was in a Comedy Central show: Dog Bites Man)
-Rob Riggle was in Kicking and Screaming, Step Brothers, etc. (went from being fired on SNL to the Daily Show)
-From the Office: Mindy Kailing (License to Wed, Night at the Museum), Craig Robinson (Knocked Up, Zach and Miri, Pineapple Express), BJ Novak (Knocked Up), Jim Krasinski (Leatherheads, License to Wed, that Sam Mendes film), Jenna Fischer (Blades of Glory), Rainn Wilson (Juno, My Super Ex Girlfriend, Last Mimsy)
-From Freaks and Geeks: Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, James Franco
-From Arrested Development: Portsia de Rossi (Better off Ted), Jason Bateman (The Break-Up, Mr Magoo, Smoking Aces, Hancock, Juno, etc etc etc), Will Arnett (Blades of Glory, Brothers Solomon, 30 Rock), Tony Hale (Andy Richter's sitcom, Control, Stranger than Fiction)
-Demitri Martin-Comedy Central stand-up mainstray to Daily Show to own show to Ang Lee film
-Jack McBrayer from 30 Rock (Talladega Nights, Walking Hard)

I think they talk about SNL is a show of strong women but it's really only a show of women. The men on the show are second rate, perhaps. Also, with regard to the Casey Wilson/Michaela firing, Lorne does realize that Amy is only popular today because she shined on SNL for like a million years. There's no way that Michaela is gonna acheive any fame like that in half a season. It's harder for women to get noticed anyways in comedy.