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Fall ’08 Season TV Blitz, Day 7: Third Down for Dexter and Friday Night Lights

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 7, 2008


Dexter
(Sunday, 9:00-10:00 PM, Showtime)

New Cast: Jimmy Smits

Where We’re At Now: After finishing up with Doakes, Lila and all the unpleasantness from season two, Dexter Morgan is a new man, at peace in his relationship with Rita, his past with his father, and his controversial predilections. His idyllic frame of mind is disrupted when, on a routine mission at the house of a murderous drug dealer, he finds the drug dealer struggling with a man he does not know, and Dex ends up killing the man in self defense while the drug dealer escapes. Turns out the man is not your typical scumbag at the end of Dexter’s knife, but the cop hero brother of the assistant district attorney (Smits), who does not take his brother’s slaying lightly. Meanwhile, Rita has a surprise announcement waiting for Dex…

Thoughts: More than any of the returning shows this season (well, of the decent ones anyway), I questioned the need for another season of Dexter. Season two avoided the sophomore slump and then some, making for some of the most scintillating TV of the decade at its peak. But it ended conveniently, unsatisfyingly and extremely uncovincingly, and with Dexter’s true nemesis of the first two seasons sadly out of the picture. Meanwhile, Dexter seemed pretty conclusive about not fighting what he is anymore, and to see him perpetually waffling on that would’ve been about as compelling as whether or not Meredith and McDreamy end up together at the end of this season of Grey’s. Unless the show was willing to have him get caught–an idea it toyed with tantalizingly last season, but ultimately didn’t have the stomach for–it seemed like there wasn’t much more of Dexter Morgan left to see.

Give the show credit, then, for throwing two potentially interesting wrenches into the mix. The show nearly forced Dexter to confront the possibility of having murdered an innocent when he didn’t know what to do with Doakes at the end of last season, but allowed Lila to off him without permission while Dexter just tut-tutted at her and pretended not to be glad for her assistance. We don’t know yet exactly what the deal with Dex’s latest victim is, but given his uneasy rapport with Smits (who still looks pissed off about Cane not becoming the next Sopranos), clearly the pangs of conscience might be getting to him for the first time. Meanwhile, the idea of there being a little Morgan running around in nine months is certainly one rife with possibility–can Dexter stand to take responsibility for another life, when he’s taken so many of his own? Cheesy, I guess, but provocative nonetheless.

Still Hot / Worth Sticking With?: Too early to call, but for there to even be a possibility of forward progress after exhausting so much in the first two seasons is another credit on the show’s eventual Hall of Fame resume.


Friday Night Lights
(Wednesday, 9:00-10:00 PM, DirecTV)

New Cast: None Permanent

Where We’re At Now: Coach and the Panthers is forced to go into a quasi-rebuilding year after the injury to Smash Williams eliminated them from title contention the year prior. Smash attempts to get back to full-strength for college, while Riggins takes over his role as starting tailback and Saracen fights off pressure from the school’s hot new freshman QB prospect, and his rich, manipulative father. Landry and Tyra are on a relationship break while the latter frets about getting into college and not ending up like her mom and sis, and Tim and Lyla are back in full effect, but Lyla worries about displaying it in public. Meanwhile, Tami has taken over principal duties at school, and discoveres that taking care of the whole school isn’t so easy, especially when so much of the time, energy and money is devoted to the Panthers.

Thoughts?: I might’ve thought that Dexter shouldn’t or wouldn’t come back, but I figured there was no way that Friday Night Lights would even have the possibility of coming back. After NBC politely ran out the clock on the season and two-thirds of the show that they ordered to air, despite perpetually sub-mediocre ratings and a truly mystifying lack of Emmy consideration, it seemed inevitable that the channel would wash its hands of the show, which would collect its consolation prize of Brilliant But Cancelled cult status. So sure did the show’s demise seem that I even prematurely Eugooglized it last February. But in a comeback even more improbable than the Panthers’ come-from-behind State victory in the S1 finale, in comes the DirecTV channel (which I’m still not convinced even exists beyond this show) to resurrect the show’s third season, freeing it from the commercial burdens and expectations of a major network timeslot in the process.

So it’s hard to be too picky about a show where, from here on out, every episode is pretty much a bonus. Not that there’s too much to be picky about in the first place, though–going back to Dillon in the fall is like all the great parts about going back to school (seeing your friends and acquaintances again, catching up on the summer gossip) without actually having to go back to school. Most things are pretty status quo at the moment, though Tami as principal is certianly going to lead to some interesting splits on the unified Taylor front, as she continues to fight for school supplies and education benefits to the detriment of Coach’s team (and brings up the question, for maybe the first time in the show’s run, of just how important High School football really should be in Texas).

The show comes into trickier territory for the first time with regards to the graduating class of ’08–namely, Jason Street and Smash Williams. Street was nowhere to be found this episode, after spending last season quititng the Panthers and then knocking up a waitress in a semi-immaculate conception, but Smash is still in the picture (albeit only as a guest star now), with coach helping him try to regain his speed and his confidence after last season’s potentially career-ending injury. Keeping Smash around for the time being isn’t necessarily a problem, but once characters start hovering around a show when they have no real reason to be there, that’s when a show is closer to its end than its beginning. Here’s hoping the creators realize this soon enough, cut the cord with Jason and Smash, and start to rebuild around a new crop.

Still Hot / Worth Watching?: Most definitely. With the official retirement of The Wire, Friday Night Lights is rivaled only by Dexter and Mad Men as the natural heir to the Best Drama Alive throne, and season three shows no sign of slippage thusfar.

Posted in Fall '08 TV Blitz | 1 Comment »

Fall ’08 Season TV Blitz, Day 6: The No-Brainer Roundup (Worst Week, Gary Unmarried, The Mentalist, Knight Rider)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 5, 2008


Worst Week
(Mondays, 9:30-10:00 PM, CBS)

Cast: Kyle Bornheimer, Erinn Hayes, Nancy Lenehan, Jay Malone, Kurtwood Smith

Premise: Sam (Bornheimer) has recently knocked up and betrothed himself to Mel (Hayes), and plans to tell her parents (Lenehan & Smith) about it. However, he is about to have…

Thoughts: Well, at least there’s no laugh track. Apparently Worst Week is based on a British programme called The Worst Week of My Life (always with the brevity, those Yankee TV execs), but in America we already have a very well-established precedent for the Everything That Can Go Wrong Will Over Weekend With In-Laws setup, and you’d think Meet the Parents had more or less closed the book on that plot frame. Apparently, though, CBS thinks America will want to see horrific confluences of circumstances befall a relatively genial and well-meaning individual every Monday night, though, and in the season premiere alone, Sam shows up late and naked to his in-laws’ house, unknowingly pisses on Mom’s roast goose, knocks Dad unconscious and mistakenly informs Mom and Mel that he’s dead, and sets Dad’s portrait on fire. Sadism is alive and well on broadcast TV.

It could be worse. Bornheimer makes for a generally likeable, relatable protagonist, and he resists the temptation to just ape Stiller’s freak-out antics. Meanwhile, no one makes for a better no-nonsense hardass than Kurtwood Smith, he of That 70s Show, Robocop and Dead Poets’ Society fame, and even if the show hasn’t really let him loose–yet–the always pervasive threat of his stern disapproval gives the show a decent comedic tension. And, in all seriousness, the lack of laugh track really does help. But how could they possibly keep this show going for more than a couple episodes? How much bad shit can you really watch happen to one guy before you say “fuck this, I wonder who got voted off Dancing With the Stars?” And how many episodes can they really stretch one week out into? Are there going to be dream episodes? Or will the show eventually evolve ino Worst Month/Season/Year/Existence?

Hit Potential: Well, the critics seem to think it’s decent enough, and it’s gotten OK ratings. But can you really imagine this lasting 22 episodes? A second season? Dear lord.

Worth Watching: Not unless you think Flirting With Disaster is the pinnacle of screwball comedy. And even then probably not.


Gary Unmarried
(Wednesday, 8:30-9:00 PM, CBS)

Cast: Jay Mohr, Paula Marshall, Ryan Malgarini, Laura Marano, Jaime King, Ed Begley Jr.

Premise: House painter Gary (Mohr) has recently divorced from wife Allison (Marshall), with whom he had two kids, awkward Tom (Malgarini) and bookish Louise (Marano). Gary contemplates whether to turn a one-night stand with Vanessa (King) into a more long-term relationship, and Allison informs Gary that she’s engaged to their marriage counselor Dr. Krandall (Begley).

Thoughts?; Gary Unmarried, unsurprisingly, is a show as unsophisticated and groan-worthy as its title. It’s a laugh track-smothered, Two and a Half Men-piggybacking sitcom with twice as many yuks as the thankfully unrenewed Back to You packed into its first half-hour last season. With relatively little plot or basic situational comedy to speak of, the success of the show is basically dependent on how charming you find the rogueish Mohr to be. And to be fair, he is pretty charming–dating back to his Bob Sugar days in Jerry Maguire, Mohr has always had a knack for playing sleazy, snaky over-smilers, and here he plays one of his most unapologetic to date. Too bad TV shows generally require more than one character, because there’s not much support to be found elsewhere, even with Jump the Shark Queen Paula Marshall and good sport Ed Begley Jr. in tow.

Hit Potential?: Can I really say “none” with any sort of conviction? Ratings haven’t been off-the-wall yet in either direction, but a show as unambitious as this on a channel as unambitious as CBS could be on years before we even notice that it should’ve been cancelled in its first half-dozen episodes. Maybe it’ll at least finally cancel out the decade-long hit that Mohr’s career took after Paulie.

Worth Watching: Nope. But y’know what was kinda underrated? King’s Ransom. Wish that was on cable more.


The Mentalist

(Tuesday, 9:00-10:00 PM, CBS)

Cast: Simon Baker, Robin Tunney, Owain Yeoman, Tim Kang, Amanda Righetti

Premise: Patrick Jane (Baker) is a brilliant detective guy who used to pretend to be a psychic, until a serial killer took offense and disposed of his daughter and wife. He has a team and solves mysteries. You know his steez.

Thoughts?: I mean…really? I don’t demand much in the way of creativity from my CBS dramas, but can you try a little harder than The Mentalist? If you want to see a quirky, brilliant detective with a haunted past, there are already about a half-dozen DV-Rable shows with that exact plot description, most notably NBC’s excellent Life, one of the few pleasant surprises of last season. But you could forgive it if there was some sort of twist, something to make The Mentalist at least slightly distinguishable from the cookie-cutter copy of a show format that it seems. And while I guess Simon Baker (he of Land of the Dead and The Devil Wears Prada) is slightly more dashing than your average superhero of a TV detective, and it’s always nice to see the super-underrated Robin Tunney (The Craft, Empire Records, Cherish) and the super-hott Amanda Righetti (The O.C., Reuinion, North Shore) get work, there’s nothing else to work with here. Just a brilliant dude, doing brilliant shit, while everyone else sits around and marvels at his brilliance.  C’mon.

(You know what’s even worse? There are repeated instances in the show’s pilot where people ask Baker questions to the effect of “Who are you??” And not once–not once–does he turn around and proclaim, “I…AM THE MENTALIST!” I mean, seriously, if you’ve got a title like that…might as well work with it, right?)

Hit Potential: Undoubtedly. What else do CBS watchers have to do on Tuesday night?

Worth Watching?: Damn, I miss Reunion and North Shore. What happened to you, FOX?


Knight Rider
(Wednesday, 8:00-9:00 PM, NBC)

Cast: Justin Bruening, Deanna Russo, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Paul Campbell, Yancey Arias, Bruce Davison, voice of Val Kilmer

Premise: TALKING CAR

Thoughts?: It’s hard to know exactly what to say here. Seems like acting disappointed, surprised, annoyed or amused by the stale humor, surreal plotting and blank characterization of this 2008 update of the 80s Hoff/Daniels classic would all be inappropriate, or at least redundant. So instead, I’ll just say this: This show is exactly what you expect it will be. I’ll leave it at that.

Hit Potential?: About as much as the updated version of the show theme, which sounds like it belongs on the soundtrack to The Saint (KILMER!!), has to be a radio hit.

Worth Watching: WHAT Y’ALL WANNA DO, DON’T YOU KNOW WE ALWAYS COMIN’ THROUGH, ME AN’ MY CREW,  LEMME HEAR YA SAY FIRE IT UP! (FIRE IT UP!!!) SAY FIIIIRE IT UP!!! (FIIIIRE IT UP!!)

Posted in Fall '08 TV Blitz | 4 Comments »

Fall ’08 Season TV Blitz, Day 5: How I Met Your Mother & The Office

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 29, 2008

How I Met Your Mother
(Mondays, 8:30-9:00 PM, CBS)

New Cast: Sarah Chalke (Regular, at least for time being)

Where We’re At Now: Ted has successfully proposed to Stella (Chalke), the dermatologist who removed his tramp stamp and who he dated last season. Marshall points out that he has done this without really knowing anything about her, including whether or not she would like Star Wars, both’s favorite movie, which he is shocked to find out she has never seen. Meanwhile, Barney struggles with the realization that he is in love with Robin, enlisting Lily’s help to woo her. Robin is weirded out by Barney’s attempts to be gentlemanly to her, and misreads his advances.

Thoughts?: New season, same ratings doldrums for How I Met Your Mother–the season four premiere achieved yet another mediocre 5.9 rating, less than half the viewers that ABC’s Dancing With the Stars received (though thankfully, .2 more than historically terrible lead-in The Big Band Theory received). How this show has managed to be presumably everything anyone could want in a sitcom for three going on four seasons while continuing to steadily underperform in the Nielsens and not getting cancelled is going to go as one of the the great mysteries of early 21st century TV, like a Twilight Zone episode with a laugh track. At least you can’t fault the show for being inconsistent, I suppose.

Anwyay, the new How I Met Your Mother toys with two big changes to the show’s otherwise relatively same as it ever was forula-Ted getting married, and Barney renouncing his old-school womanizing ways. Both are somehwat inevitable changes for the show to at least tinker with at some point, though the latter would be disastrous if they ever went through with it–we want to see Barney trade in his skirt-chasing, catchphrase-spawning ways for a deep relationship with Robin as much as we want Dr. House to realize his sarcasm is just an immature defense mechanism and start treating his friends and employees with the respect they deserve. Luckily, the show’s creators appear to realize this, and even though they throw in a (fairly brilliant) fake out to deke audiences into thinking the transformation is official, they let it be known that ultimately, Barney as we know him is probably here to stay .

Ted and Stella’s future is a little more uncertain–they appear to be in it for the long haul, and given that Sarah Chalke rivals Alyson Hannigan for heart-wrenching adorability (both undoubtedly being first ballot Hall of Famers), it’d be hard to fault Ted for settling down. But is she really ready to become a permanent fixture on the Mothership? She’s still not listed in the show’s main cast, and she’s yet to be confirmed as the Mother in question on the show, so it seems like her future on the show is still far from permanent.
Nonetheless, her stay is welcome for the time being–I’m still too in love with her Scrubs character to not hope for her to start yelling “Frick!” every now and then, but since How I Met Your Mother is still relatively charming and vaguely fresh whle Scrubs has gotten grating and redundant, I can get my Chalke fix here for now.

(Side Question: Doesn’t it seem sort of unrealistic that Ted and Marshall’s favorite movie would be Star Wars? I mean, how many geeks do you know who think the first movie is the best of the trilogy? Sure, it came first, but unless you were of age at the time–and Ted and Marshall would’ve been about two in 1977–it seems like most people have come to prefer Empire or Jedi, no? Kind of lazy writing, in my opinion.

Side Question #2: Assuming this show goes on for, say, three-four more seasons, isn’t it going to be weird that the actors playing Ted’s kids will have grown from adolescents to young adults in the time it took him to tell his story? Or are they replacing the kids with new actors every season? Doubt I’d notice, to be honest)

Still Hot / Worth Watching?: Apparently not to the general public, though to be fair, they never really had the audience to begin with (unlike, say, Heroes, which I think we can now count as one of the biggest one-season wonders in recent TV). I still kinda dig it.


The Office
(Thursdays, 9:00-9:30 PM, NBC)

New Cast: Amy Ryan

Where We’re At Now: With Toby gone to Costa Rica, Michael has taken a much bigger liking to Holly (Ryan), the new HR rep at Dunder-Mifflin, though with a pregnant Jan (not by him) in tow, he fails to act on his feelings, prompting Holly to go on a date with a yoga instructor set up by Oscar. Dwight and Angela continue their affair after Angela has agreed to marry Andy, who she now finds annoying and makes planning their wedding deliberately difficult. Pam is gone to study graphic design at Pratt, while Jim wonders whether or not he should have proposed to her before she left. And Ryan, officially having bottomed out, returns to the company as the fill-in receptionist for Pam, much to Michael’s delight and Jim’s schadenfraude. And everyone’s trying to lose weight to win an branch-wide competition.

Thoughts?: I took an extended hiatus from The Office over the course of the fourth season–the hour long episodes to start the season were disastrous, and with Jim and Pam finally in sync, the show lost any sort of urgency it might have had the first three seasons. Perhaps more importantly, it just wasn’t very funny anymore. And truth told, I still probably won’t be sticking with The Office on a weekly basis like I once did. But by all estimations, this was a pretty fucking good premiere. Angela and Andy’s conversations, and the resulting booty calls to Dwight, were all fairly priceless. Kelly’s crash diet, and her much-savored rejections of a significantly humbled Ryan, were handled beautifully, as was Jim’s moment of triumph over his one-time saboteur. And the last scene, while somewhat predictable, was maybe the most emotionally arresting moment on the show since Pam’s Survivor speech, if not even longer.

But maybe the best recent development the show has gone under is in Ryan’s character. With Jan going off the deep end last season and Carol never having been at all fleshed out as a character, the show was wise to present Michael with a legitimate match for once. Holly strikes a nice balance of being a very Michael-like character, who would have believeable interest in him, without either just being a female carbon copy of him or being a complete idiot. A lot of it has to do with Ryan, who played the supremely loveable Beattie Russel on The Wire, and brings the same kind of general kindness, albeit in an expectedly lamer fashion, to her character here. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when/if Michael’s more self-centered, meaner side surfaces around Holly, but for now at least, it’s nice to just see these two sweet kids getting along famously.

Still Hot / Worth Sticking With?: The show appears to have regained its footing and momentum for the time being. Just quit while you’re ahead with the hour-longs, plelase.

Posted in Fall '08 TV Blitz | 6 Comments »

Fall ’08 Season TV Blitz, Day 4: Return of House and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 19, 2008

House
(Tuesday Night, 8:00-9:00 PM, FOX)

New Cast: None yet, supposedly Michael Weston is coming on to play a PI

Where We’re At Now: Wilson has returned to the hospital from his bereavement period, after his girlfriend Amber perished in the season four finale. House, guilty about his part in Amber’s death (he had called Wilson drunk to pick him up, Amber ended up escorting him home on the bus that crashed), and scared to confront his friend, avoids him at first, and then tries to play it off like nothing happened. When Wilson tells him that he’s leaving Princeton, he tries to browbeat, and then blackmail him into staying. Meanwhile, there’s a new patient with some wacky confluence of disease and bad circumstance, and No. 13 copes with her imminent mortality due to being diagnosed with Huntington’s.

Thoughts?: I had mentally relegated House to “catch re-runs when you can if nothing better’s on” status sometime during the third season, but somehow during season four, it became a must-watch (or at least, a should-watch) all over again. David Shore and company were brilliant to minimize Cameron and Chase’s involvement, to cast Foreman as the very conflicted House In Training, to create a new cadre of assistants for him to play with over the season, and to ultimately narrow them to Olivia Wilde, Kal Penn and That Baldy Jewish Guy. More recently, they were brilliant to create this tension between House and Wilson, despite the fact that the latter’s suddenly extremely significant relationship with Amber (nee Cutthroat Bitch) was never particularly believable.

Of course, House is still House, and most of the episode is as paint-by-numbers as can be expected. It’s obvious that at first House is going to ignore his feelings of guilt and regret about Wilson and Amber, and that afterwards he’s going to attempt a mixture of displacement tactics, guerilla warfare, and cold, unfeeling, scientific logic to try to get Wilson to stay. And then of course, you’ve got the final moment when House, after badgering from Cuddy and guilt-tripping from Cameron and Chase, finally sublimates his ego and admits his mistakes. It’s at that point, however, that the House season premiere does something legitimately unexpected–a scene as emotionally jarring as anything I’ve seen in ages, and one which comes close to making the season premiere essential viewing. I’m not going to say what it involves, of course, since I’d like to think most of my readers have DV-Rs and lives, but suffice to say, I’m not really sure how House can stay the same as he ever was after this episode. And for a show whose reliance on formula has been its veritable calling card for so long, it should make for an interesting development.

Still Hot / Worth Watching?: Maybe now more than ever. Or maybe not–this is a critical turning point for both House and House, and to see whether both character and show manage to adapt will be the ultimate test of the show’s longevity. To go back to same is it ever was after this episode might be the safer option, but it’ll ultimately be the final nail in the coffin of the show’s suddenly resurgent relevance.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
(Two episodes, 10:00-11:00 Thursday Night, FX)

New Cast: Nope.

Where We’re At Now: Still Philadelphia, still sunny.

Thoughts: There’s so little actual advancement of plot on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia that it makes Entourage look like The Wire by comparison. And that’s cool–Sunny has basically taken the torch from Seinfeld for TV comedy’s best approximation of a Samuel Beckett play (or as Larry David would put it, “No crying, no learning”). Frankly, it’s a pretty good sitcom model, as every season, spending time with the Philadelphia crew feels more and more like hanging with your group of friends from high school–funny, comfortable, and repetitive to the point of maddening redundancy. And that’s essentially what the gang at Paddy’s is, just a group of High School friends that doesn’t seem to realize that they’re all in their 30s (or in DeVito’s case, 60s) now. Good times.

Anyway, these two new episodes, one in which Mac and Dennis decide to hunt Rickety Cricket and Frank tricks Dee and Charlie into being cannibals, and one in which Dee and Frank try to steal Bruce’s inheritance and Mac, Dennis and Charlie decide to make money selling gas…well, they’re certainly It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia episodes. I wouldn’t rank either among my favorites, but it doesn’t really matter–by the time I get to the show’s lilting theme song and beautiful montage of the city of Brotherly Love, I’m hooked for the next hour, no matter what’s to come. There were some extremely funny moments in both–Mac gorilla masking Dennis, and Charlie jumping out of the van screaming “WILD CARD, BITCHES!!” among them–but for now, just having the show back would’ve been enough.

Still Hot / Worth Sticking With: Please. You think Scrubs is still going to save your soul? You need this show in your life.

Posted in Fall '08 TV Blitz | 1 Comment »

Fall ’08 TV Season Blitz, Day 3: Week in Review (Privileged, Fringe, DND)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 14, 2008

Privleged
(Tuesday Night, 9:00-10:00 PM, CW)

Cast: Joanna Garcia, Lucy Hale, Ashley Newbrough, Allan Louis, Anne Archer, Brian Hallisay, Michael Cassidy

Premise: Megan (Garcia) is a New York writer struggling to come up with tabloid fodder for the trashy magazine she writes for, when her boss (Debi “Only Chick in the Entourage Credits” Mazar in a one-ep cameo) mercy-fires her and reccomends she hook up with prolific, super-rich cosmetics mogul Laurel (Archer). Megan wants her for a mentor, but Laurel wants her to tutor her two spoiled granddaughters, Rose (Hale) and Sage (Newbrough). Megan reluctantly agrees, thinking it’ll be an easy paycheck, but finds the girls, especially the domineering Sage, to be more than she bargained for. Meanwhile, she crushes on new hunk neighbor (Hallisay), and is crushed on by platonic male friend Charlie (Cassidy).

Thoughts?: Privileged is like the Florida Marlins of prime time TV, picking up cast-offs from cancelled TV shows of yesteryear and hoping to turn them around. Joanna Garcia comes from Welcome to the Captain, Lucy Hale was the adopted daughter of The Bionic Woman, and Michael Cassidy was one of The 4400–even former Oscar nominee Anne Archer is a layover from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where her character was recently killed off. Building a show around spare parts like this is always a risky proposition, especially with a premise that seems timestamped from 1987, but like the Marlins, Privileged does an adequate, if hardly transcendental job of making the most of it.

Several of the characters are stock as you can get, especially black, gay chef Marco (Louis), who just needs some dark sunglasses and more colorful pants to be Meschach Taylor in Mannequin. But Garcia is a decent poor-man’s Amy Adams, cute and precious but firmly moralistic and genuinely caring, and Ashley Newborough looks just like a slutty, evil Winnie from The Wonder Years (though twice as terrifying as that probably sounds). Anne Archer probably wishes she could still act like the boozy narcissist she played on Philadelphia, but she lends minor credibility to her bemused matriarchal role, and the two prospective male love interests do a decent enough job of matching Garcia’s starry-eyedness, and making their respective courtships seem appropriately innocent for a show presumably aimed at young teens not quite ready for open promiscuity in their TV drama.

The show’s central conceit–yet another fish-out-of-water story, with would-be city girl Garcia living in swanky high society in Southern California, teaching young girls how to be young ladies and learning about life and love in the process, probably–is pretty fucking boring, actually. That said, there are a couple of genuinely above-average moments, as when Garcia has just been fired from her tabloid job, and after recounting the state of her life’s affairs, she concludes “Oh my God, EVERYTHING IS BAD!” These are, of course, often counter-balanced with cringe-worthy moments like when Garcia gets locked on her apartment  fire escape naked, and a boy observing from down below notes that he can see her “vajayjay” (oh Grey’s Anatomy, what you hath wrought). Still, the show stays afloat on just enough humor and semi-earned sentimentality to at least be something parents should be more comfortable with letting their daughters watch than lousy attempts to re-capture 90210‘s glory days.

Hit Potential: Kinda doubt it. Parents might prefer their kids to watch it, but unless those kids still think that 14 is more mature than they’ll ever be, they’re likely to be more enticed by the “New GOSSIP GIRL: Next Monday” ad on the screen’s lower-right-hand corner. I’d be surprised if it lasts a whole season.

Worth Watching?: Not really gelling for me. But if you’re like my friend Sonja and can’t get enough of anything involving precocious kids or Amy Adams (or in this case, I suppose, Amy Adams look-and-act-alikes), you might dig it.

Fringe
(Tuesday Night, 9:00-10:00, FOX)

Cast: Anna Torv, John Noble, Joshua Jackson, Lance Reddick, Kirk Acevedo, Blair Brown

Premise: A plane is found with all its passangers dead, seemingly of some bizarre virus, and the FBI is called in to investigate, including Olivia Dunham (Torv). When her partner John is infected with the virus himself when chasing down one of the suspects, Olivia searches out the brilliant but now-mad scientist Dr. Walter Bishop (Noble), whose research on a similar virus she believes may be able to help her. To do so, she enlists the help of his equally brilliant but troubled and estranged son Peter (Jackson). Together, the three trace the virus to a mysterious, but heavily protected corporation called Massive Dynamic, which Olivia’s supervisor Phillip Broyles (Reddick) says is just the beginning of a far wider global phenomenal of metaphysical weirdness.

Thoughts?: So far, so strange. Even more than creator J.J. Abrams’s flagship series, LOST, Fringe seems hellbound on being the X-Files for a new decade, with all the international, under-the-surface conspiracies and the WOAH SHIT visuals that that would imply. So far, we’ve already had comatose bodies with translucent skin, drug-induced dreamworld interactions (helllloooo The Cell), and implied communication with the dead (“How long has he been dead?” “Five hours.” “Question him.” A pretty badass way to end an episode, gotta say). But it’s X-Files through a decidedly Abrams-ish lens, with all the fictional corporations (Massive Dynamic already has plenty of Hanso Foundation and DHARMA Initiative echoes), extreme visual close-ups (even an arguable homage to LOST‘s eye-opening opening shot) and shrieking violins at emotional climaxes that that implies.

Of course we all know that LOST ain’t nothin’ without Kate, Locke and Sawyer, just like The X-Files would never have gotten off the ground without the chemistry between Mulder and Scully. And while there’s plenty of WOAH SHIT moments to go around in Fringe, the show still has aways to go towards proving that the emotional core is there to carry it past the monsters of the week. So far, Olivia doesn’t seem like too much more than Meredith Grey with a gun instead of a scalpel, and CRRAAAAAZY scientist Dr. Bishop was already starting to get on my nerves by the end of the (admittedly too long) 80-minute pilot. But any show featuring Lance Reddick (uptight lieutenant Cedric Daniels of The Wire, who doesn’t exactly seem like he’s branching out with his role here) and the long-delayed comeback of ex-heartthrob Joshua Jackson (who positively stole Dawson’s Creek and went a long way towards making The Skulls watchable) certainly has a couple aces in the hole in that respect, so I’m hoping that might be enough to build on.

Even besides that, the premiere of Fringe was far from perfect–the plot was garbled, with one totally nonsensical twist already under its belt, and the action scenes were far from what those of an J.J. Abrams show should be. But the potential, and the pedigree, is certainly there. And the titles–big titles, placed on the screen like part of the scenery.  Love that stuff.

Hit Potential: Depends a little on the human element previously mentioned, and apparently the ratings out of the box weren’t as good as FOX expected, but based solely on mystery and prestige, we should get at least one full season, with possibility for more if people decide they have time in their lives for two Abrams-produced constantly-expanding mysteries.

Worth Watching: Don’t see why not. Seems like the best is yet to come, in any event.

Do Not Disturb
(Wednesday Night, 9:30-10:00, FOX)

Cast: Nicey Nash, Jerry O’Connell, Molly Stanton, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jolene Purdy

Premise: A bunch of people work at a hotel. Wackiness ensues.

Thoughts?: Between this and his work last year in Carpoolers, Jerry O’Connell has become something of the patron saint of delightful little half-hour sitcoms with absolutely no staying power or chance of long-term success. Hard to say why Do Not Disturb pleased me as much as it did, and I guarantee I won’t be making a point to watch it with any sort of regularity, but something about the lack of ambition the pilot displayed was sort of charming. For one thing, there was no attempt at giving any sort of backstory, just jumping in to a new episode (Nash berates O’Connell for his office philandering, but finds herself unable to resist one of her employees) like the show had already been on for two seasons. Then there’s the laugh track, which I somehow always forget like 75% of sitcoms still have. Then there’s the fact that the show takes place in a hotel, but they barely seem to mention anythign hotel-related in the entire episode. Then there’s the fact that this show somehow made it to FOX, even though in a season five years ago, it probably wouldn’t rate higher than a PAX or UPN.

I dunno, maybe I just love a good sassy black woman / dorky white guy dynamic, but Do Not Disturb definitely hit the spot.

Hit Potential?: Dear lord, no. They should be cracking champagne if this thing makes it a dozen episodes.

Worth Watching?: Not on primetime, but it’d be perfect 3:30 in the afternoon watching if it somehow goes long enough to make it to re-runs someday.

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Fall ’08 TV Season Blitz, Day 2: The Return of HBO Sunday Nights

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 9, 2008

You know I need you desperately

Entourage
(Sunday Night, 10:00-10:30 PM, HBO)

New Cast: Bow Wow, with more supposedly to come

Where We’re At Now: Medellin has officially come and gone as a critically-panned, straight-to-video flop, and Vince has gone hiding in a Mexican paradise while the shit hits the fan. Eric has recently added two new clients to The Murphy Group (at least one of which is Bow Wow), but still panics over Vince’s recent lack of offers. The drought appears to come to an end when a producer claims to want Vinny for a new horror flick, leading E and Ari to try to reel him back into reality. Meanwhile, Drama has a new long-distance girlfriend.

Thoughts?: My only real problem with the return of Entourage is that it’s happening three months too late–this is a summer show if there ever was one, lightweight, totally inessential, but more fun and relaxing than a Red Stripe and a Best Damn Top 50 marathon. Besides that, it’s pretty much same as it ever was–cars, girls, toys, and a minimum of stress. This episode wasn’t much better or worse than any in recent memory–your average Entourage ep is almost always going to be worth watching in your average channel-flipping evening, so I let my watching of it be dictated by that. You never feel like a particularly large amount of effort went into Entourage, anyway, so I don’t feel so bad barely putting any effort into watching it.

Still Hot / Worth Sticking With?: The days of this show being a must-watch, if they ever really existed, are definitely long since over, but if you’ve ever liked it, there’s no reason why you won’t still like it. There are some minor plot developments–namely Vince having to play the underdog for the first time since Season One and E starting to seem more and more like the Suit that Billy always accused him of being–but by the end of the episode, it’s just Vince, Eric, Turtle and Drama, loving the ladies and the life and each other, and it’s still all that’s needed to put a smile on your face. Besides, Meadow Soprano and Andrew Bynum are gonna be on this season (though not necessarily in the same episode), so you gotta stick around for that.

True Blood
(Sunday Night, 9-10, HBO)

Cast: Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer, Ryan Kwanten, Rutina Wesley, Sam Trammell, Nelson Ellis, Frank Sobotka from The Wire for at least one episode

Premise: In the (maybe?) future, vampires not only exist, but have become viable members of society, based on their new reliance on a synthetically created blood substitute called True Blood, which is readily available at bars and convenience stores. Still, as would be expected for such a minority group, vampries are subject to a certain amount of prosecution, as well as a certain amount of fetishism, from outsiders fascinated and appalled by them. In a small Louisiana town, gentle, telepathic Sookie (Paquin) works at a bar owned by her admiring-from-afar boss Sam (Trammell), and quickly becomes infatuated with vampire Bill (Moyer) when she saves his life from a couple of thugs looking to sell his blood on the black market. Meanwhile, Sookie’s filandering brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten) may or may not have killed a neighbrohood flirt during rough, vampire-inspired sex, and the thugs haven’t forgotten about Sookie yet.

Thoughts: While I was watching this show, I was mostly just amazed that nothing with this basic plot had ever been made before. In an age when even comic book-inspired movies are being treated with heavy tones and auteur aesthetics, how is this the first high-profile example of a program or movie saying “OK, so what if vampires actually existed?” Openly gay producer Alan Ball, he of American Beauty and Six Feet Under creepiness-in-suburbia fame, is certainly the man to bring this idea to fruition, cleverly drawing on the history of outsiderness and aberrant sexuality in vampirism to create obvious parallels with all sorts of different minority groups. And the idea of the titular blood-substitute is a brilliant excuse for vampires to be able to acceptable, if not entirely accepted, in polite society. The potential for this concept, if done with the right cast, in the right setting, and within the right perameters, is practically limitless.

Whether this is the cast, setting and perameters for it best to succeed is sort of hard to determine for the moment. I’ve always dug Paquin, and potential vamp love-interest Moyer seems compellingly sullen enough as well. But is the rest of the thusfar thin cast up to the challenge? And aside from the obvious Anne Rice connections (nicely referenced in the show’s excellent opening gambit), is a small town in Louisiana, already a sort of smothering atmosphere even within the confines of the pilot, really the best place for this show? And can Ball and company set up a decent set of rules for how vampirism actually works in this context (how are they created, how do they self-sustain, how are they killed), and can they get us to care about or relate to vampirism once they do?

Still, even with all these questions to go, I’m definitely intrigued. To my knowledge, there’s never really been a decent sci-fi / fantasy show to be given the freedom of a Showtime or HBO setting, and already, True Blood has differentiated itself from the pack in one very key element: Sex. There’s a whole lot of it in the first episode, and it’s not like the sex on Entourage–it’s freaky, (relatively) graphic, and often a little scary. If nothing else, True Blood has already shown the ability to use sex in a way few if any TV shows have previously–to titillate, hopefully, but also to build character, tension and to freak people the fuck out from time to time. And there’s also the potential for greatness in the relationship between Paquin and Moyer, which has already displayed some decent electricity, and has a fine tradition of super-romantic human-vamp relations to draw from.

Hit Potential: Think it’s bought itself one season, at least. Vampires will always sell, sex will always sell more, and Alan Ball has achieved the HBO cred to ensure the channel’s trust through a shaky start if need be. And even if it doesn’t have a long run of commercial success, the thing definitely has cult show written all over it.

Worth Watching?: Yeah, the first scene alone was enough to ensure my viewership through at least the first three episodes or so. At this point, “promising” and “intriguing” are about the most we can ask for from new TV premieres anyway, and this show was definitely both of those things. Keys to the show’s future will be establishing compelling drama on both the scale of the show’s small town and on the larger scale of the vampires’ search for acceptance in society (or to convert them into their own fold, whichever).

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Fall ’08 Season TV Blitz, Day 1: Gossip Girl & 90210

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 4, 2008

Where does the time go

Seems like only yesterday, we were having our minds blown by Big Shots and Carpoolers for the very first time. And yet, here we are, ready to rev up a brand new 2008 TV season, full of all the wonder, trepidation and sexual arousal we’ve come to associate with the months of September and October. Truth told, it’d be a profound sort of accomplishment for it to be as unremarkable as last season’s crop, which produced nary a breakout show and only one or two arguable Brilliant But Cancelleds. But that’s what makes this time of year so exciting–the amount of unfortuante retreads, “hey, what if?” scenarios taken too far, and anachronisms-to-be is always capable of reaching new heights. Plus, everyone starts the season 0-0, right? Let’s get our hands dirty.

Gossip Girl

(Monday Night, 8-9 PM, CW)

New Cast: Possibly, don’t know regular cast well enough or who’s sticking around.

Where We’re At Now: After spending the summer apart, Serena and Dan contemplate if they broke up for the right reasons, while the former pines solo and the latter sleeps around a lot. Chuck attempts to win Blair back, but heartbroken and still angry, she decides to try making him jealous with a new-guy-for-rent. Nate fools around with a married woman, Jenny tries to get ahead in the fashion world and make things right with Eric, and everyone goes to a fancy party at the end. Kristen Bell’s disembodied voice continues to give the play-by-play.

Thoughts: The really remarkable thing about Gossip Girl, I’ve realized from my admittedly limited exposure to it, is how little it pretends to be a show about the teenage experience. These people are supposed to still be teens, right? But they don’t look like teens, they don’t act like teens, they don’t vacation liek teens and they certainly don’t go to class like teens–when Blair tells Chuck that she’ll see him in school, I did a double-take, like “oh yeah, these people are supposed to be significantly younger than me.” I don’t mean this as a criticism, though–frankly, it’s a little refreshing for a teen drama to be so blatant in its acknowledgement of the wish fulfillment fantasy it represents to its teen and pre-teen constituents, since that’s what it is for the great majority of ’em, even when the show isn’t about Upper East Side millionaires vacationing in the Hamptons.

Equally shrewd, I think, is the show’s new advertising campaign, which you’ve no doubt seen plastered on buses and in magazines for the last few months. Featuring the show’s characters in provocative positions, they expressly market the show as a guilty pleasure, even showcasing select quotes from conservative critics, decrying the show’s loose morality. In actuality, the show remains relatively tame–this is still the CW, after all, and taboos aren’t exactly being shattered–but the campaign pulls the double whammy of making kids watching it who don’t know better feel like badasses, while consoling the adults watching it that should know better by saying “It’s OK, everyone else does it too.”

Point being, Gossip Girl is a show that, now as ever, knows what it’s doing. It’s hard to care about too many of the show’s details–besides the seethingly scummy Chuck (who I pray the show doesn’t pussy out, like they did to Luke on The O.C), I still find all the characters blandly likeable, blandly dislikeable, or just altogether bland, and their interpersonal relations thrill me little. Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t find a certain measure of the show fascinating. It’s the ultimate Velvet Rope show on TV right now, the kind of show that scintillates you with the promise of access, visting worlds you will surely never visit in real life. As a 22-year-old male I still find it somewhat intoxicating, for the 14-year-old girls out there, I can only imagine the possibilities.

Still Hot / Worth Sticking With?: For a show it seems like everyone was watching last year, Gossip Girl‘s ratings were still surprisingly mediocre–it’ll be interesting to see if that semblence of Under-the-Radarness will ultimately just serve as a sort of cred builder to provide the core of an all-out ratings assault in the show’s second season (the premiere’s ratings were good, but still nothing comiserate with the show’s buzz). In any event, for teen drama fans out there, it’ll probably be worth sticking with for at least another season or two, until everyone has slept with everyone else, the kids go to college, and/or Kristen Bell gets a reveal, at any point of which, the show will essentially be over.


90210

(Tuesday Night, 8-9 PM, CW)

Starring: Shenae Grimes, Tristan Wilds, AnnaLynne McCord, Dustin Milligan, Jessica Stroup, Michael Steger, Ryan Eggold, Lori Loughlin, Jessica Walter, Jennie Garth, Tracy Clark, Rob Estes

Premise: The Wilsons, parents Harry (Estes) and Debby (Loughlin) and children Annie (Grimes) and the adopted Dixon (Wilds), move from Kansas to California, where Harry has a job as principal of the kids’ new school, to look after their sick matriarch Tabitha (Walter). Annie meets high school queen Naomi (McCord), the girlfriend of her own ex-flame Ethan (Milligan), who she witnesses cheating on Naomi shortly upon arriving. Dixon tries to make the lacrosse team, but is framed for starting a fight by one of the team’s disapproving preps. Harry feuds with Naomi’s mother (Clark) over her daughter’s work, and it is revealed that the two had a relationship many years ago, which might have resulted in a child Harry never knew about. There’s also Silver (Stroup), a tough girl who runs a tell-all blog, Navid (Steger), a flamboyant would-be-journalist who might be gay, Mr. Matthews (Eggold), a hip young English teacher, and Ms. Kelly Taylor (Garth), the school’s guidance counselor and an old friend of Harry’s.

Thoughts: Well. the world might not have needed a new 90210, but it certainly got one. What has become abundantly clear about the old 90210 over time, though, is that it only really became popular for two reasons:

  1. The hunkiness of Jason Priestley and Luke Perry
  2. No one really knew what a good teen drama looked like yet

For its time, Beverly Hills, 90210 was certainly a marvel, and coming off a decade where all the best soapy dramas had casts with an average age of 47, it’s no surprise that the kids took to what at that point was the closest representation to teen life to be shown in the potboiler drama format. But it was slow, it was preachy, and at first at least, it was kind of lame. Yeah, eventually it got pretty ridiculous, and that was a good thing, but even those episodes are still pretty uneventful by today’s teen drama standards.

This new 90210 is a weird creature, since it appears to want to recapture that sort of shocking, guilty-pleasure edge that the original show had upon its premiere nearly two decades ago. But especially with Gossip Girl so imediately evident as a point of comparison, a revival of the spirit of 90210 feels distinctly quaint, and basically harmless. There’s some attempts at edginess–an implied blow job in the first fifteen minutes, a glitzy sweet sixteen party at the climax, and more hip music (MGMT, The Ting Tings) than you can shake a stick at. But come on, this is a show where the kids still listen to and care what their parents think, a show where students still work on the school paper, a show where at least one member of the cast is probably still a virgin (as opposed to GG, where the amount of past sex referenced in the first episode is probably greater than the sum total of the fucking that happened in BH90210‘s first two seasons). It’s a show where the kids are still, well, kids, sort of. And these days, that makes for a show that only your younger sister should be watching.

Of course, The O.C. managed to strike that sort of balance between the sinfully over-the-top and the sweetly good-natured, and received great adulation for it. But it’s hard to imagine 90210‘s cast or plotting to reach that sort of blend successfully–aside from the holdovers from the original show (can’t wait to see Shannon Doherty in later eps–she just gets hotter every over-the-top TV role she plays), the only characters that make much of an imperssion are Naomi, because she looks almost exactly like Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls (and even almost has the same name), Annie, because Shenae Grimes makes Colista Flockhart look like Camryn Manheim after two months on the couch, and Dixon, because he’s played by Michael from The Wire. The best part of the episode was seeing him weep over getting kicked off the lacrosse team (the way he used to best bond with his adopted father, you see) while picturing how he really wants to just start yelling “FUCK THIS LACROSSE BULL! Y’ALL WOULDN’T LAST TWO SECONDS ON MY BLOCK!!

That’s not to say there aren’t some great, non-imaginary “Welcome to the 90210, BITCH!” type moments of hilarity. There’s a part when Jennie Garth reprimands Silver (who is also her sister, somehow) for ragging on the new kids in her blog, proclaiming “How many times do we have to talk about this blog of yours?? All it does is cause problems!!” Even better is later, when Ethan’s lacrosse-playing asshole buddy reprimands him for defending Michael from The Wire, exclaiming “Dude, don’t be such a puss. Who cares about that puss???” These moments would be enough to make the show watchable if they comprised the majority of the episode, but unfortunately, most of the show is too earnest for these kinds of cheap thrills.

Hit Potential: Apparently the ratings were pretty good, but I just don’t know if I can see it sticking. I can’t imagine any self-respecting teen being able to go back to this after the untouchable glamour of Gossip Girl and the pseudo-reality (but actually even more untouchable glamour) of The Hills, and anyone younger has Hannah Montana and the Jonas Brothers to occupy their lives 24/7. Maybe the brand name just holds this kind of sway for the youth, though, regardless of the content within. Will be interesting to see if it makes it to a second season.

Worth Watching?: If you’re not a megafan of the original, probably not. If you’re feeling nostalgic for a simpler time in televisual teen drama, though, it’s certainly a serviceable throwback.

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