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Time of the Season: S1 of Six Feet Under (’01)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 15, 2007

“I’ve never worked in a funeral home that was more depressing!”

Well, I’d put this one off as long as I could. I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d have to buckle down and watch the first season, and possibly the next four, of Six Feet Under–it’s just one of those shows that you can’t really write seriously about TV without having watched. But I was real fucking hesitant to do so, since barely anyone I knew seemed to much like the show, and I was rarely in the mood to watch ten or so straight hours of what I’d assume was going to be some of the most depressing and disturbing TV I’d ever watched.

It’s weird, though–I wasn’t sure exactly how I’d react to finally watching Six Feet Under, but I expected it to be bigger than the reaction I had. It wasn’t that depressing or that disturbing, it was just a bunch of episodes of significantly above-average relatively dramatic and blackly comedic television. It’s good, sure, but it didn’t really strike me as GREAT, and from everything that I’d heard about this show (a webboard I frequent recently voted it the #5 TV show of all-time), I was expecting something that either rocked my perceptions of what GREAT TV was, or something I didn’t give a shit about at all.

In case you somehow managed to avoid this show for even longer than I did, the central premise is this–Seattle-residing Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) is begrudgingly re-uniting with his family, who own and operate a funeral parlor out of their own home, for Christmas, when patriarch Nathaniel (Richard Jenkins) gets killed in a car accident. Nate decides to move back home to help run the family business after his father’s death, along with his uptight brother David (Michael C. Hall), his loner teen sister Claire (Denise Flemming from Can’t Hardly Wait) and their domineering, off-balance mother (Frances Conroy). In addition, Nate connects with Brenda, a woman he met on the plane in, having sex with her in an airport supply closet.

Needless to say, everyone and everything is fucked up. David is a closeted homosexual, having an affair with black cop Keith, who is growing increasingly frustrated at David’s secrecy. Claire becomes an outcast at her school after her asshole semi-boyfriend (Milo from 24) tells everyone that she sucked his toes (I had no idea this was such a sexual taboo, honestly). Mom has been having an affair for two years that only now does she tell her kids about (at the father’s funeral, no less). And Brenda is the worst of all, the daughter of two insane psychiatrists, and the sister of the most creepy-jealous brother since Joacquin Phoenix in Gladiator (Elton from Clueless). I said goddamn!

Really, though, all this insantiy doesn’t add up to too much more than a super-quirky drama, in an age where super-quirky dramas are increasingly becoming a dime a dozen. Honestly, it feels more like a Showtime show than an HBO one to me–more in common with those formulaic but off-kilter enough to remain compelling shows like Weeds or Dead Like Me than the grand, epic theatrics of a show like The Wire or The Sopranos. And too often, it feels like the show is shoving those quirks in your face, as if the characters were competing to see who could act the most unscrewed.

And some of the show’s quirks can be kind of grating. The idea of the funeral shop’s corpses talking to the main characters, voicing their insecurities and giving them the necessary closure, sort of works for the first episode, especially when it’s the father they’re talking to. But as the season goes on, it starts to feel kind of cheap, especially because these characters are literally speaking out loud to these characters, not just imagining conversations in their head. I mean yeah, these characters are all nutty and whatnot, but the idea of them all talking to imaginary people on a regular basis is a real stretch, and the amount the show uses it as an expository device (“Oh, so that’s what they were thinking!”) feels like cheating.

It’s not to say that I didn’t like the show. The characters are mostly pretty good, the set-up is interesting enough, and the acting is definitely all-around solid–it’s even got the same great sort of Tragedy of Suburbia look that made American Beauty so visually striking (no coincidence, as SFU creator Alan Ball wrote the film’s screenplay). But I’m just not seeing the greatness, or even the uniqueness, yet, and for a show that’s supposed to be so love-it-or-hate-it, it’s a little disappointing.

That said, it’s promising enough that I’m willing to believe that it might get better. I’ll probably end up seeing the show through, in any event, if for no other reason than because I keep hearing how perfect the series finale is, which I’ve only got about 50 more episodes to get through to get to. Dammit. Maybe I just need to stop talking to people about TV altogether.

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Time of the Season: S1 of Dead Like Me (’03)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 8, 2007

“Life sucks, and then you die. And then it still sucks.”

A regular on critics’ “Brilliant But Cancelled” list, Showtime’s black comedy series Dead Like Me (teenage girl dies, finds out she has to continue to wander the earth, reaping a countless number of souls as an undead, before she can pass over to the official afterlife) also had the huge advantage of both seasons being in my brother’s girlfriend’s DVD collection, meaning I could theoretically watch the whole without spending the roughly $16/season rental prices at my local video store. Score. Anyway, it’s going to be an inevitable point of comparison when the CW’s cult-hit-to-be Reaper debuts, so I figured I’d give it a whirl before my next project, the similarly death-focused but uh, slightly heavier Six Feet Under. Here’s what the box score looked like:

The Good:

  • Ellen Muth as protagonist Georgia “George” Lass. Not too pretty (for TV, anyway), or even particularly likeable, George is the perfect everydeadperson–cynical, immature and lazy–making the show’s ridiculous central premise surprisingly buyable. She’s relatable without being too cute about it, and whiny without every being too irritating. She looks even younger and less experienced than her young, inexperienced character. And of course, Muth’s gone on to do absolutely nothing since.
  • Mandy Patinkin and Jasmine Guy as Rube and Roxy, the two no-shit-taking elder-statesmen of George’s reaper group. Rube, both a boss and a father figure to Georgia, functions alternately as both the show’s brain and heart, and Patinkin plays him as a scowling, callous schmuck whose good intentions still manage to always shine through. And Jasmine Guy is just awesome as the show’s necessary ass-kicker, a perpetually pissed off meter maid whose “oooh look at how perpetually pissed off I am!” schtick somehow never becomes grating.
  • The show’s general set-up of Grim Reaping as just another boring, annoying, and endlessly repetitive day job (and even worse, a non-paying one, meaning the characters either need to get a supplementary boring, annoying day job or to skim from the corpses of those reaped). I’ve never seen a show so unimpressed with death, much less one in which death is the show’s central premise. Original stuff.
  • Cursing. You don’t realize how much you miss it in broadcast TV until you watch a show like this–one that doesn’t make a point of foul-mouthedry, but can insert swears where they’d actually be in real-life dialogue. Sort of important, y’know?

The Bad:

  • Exchanging Rebecca Gayheart for the evil sister from S2 of 24 (real name: Laura Harris) halfway through the season. Dunno if it was due to conflicting schedules, backstage disputes or what, but Gayheart’s sweet, super-enthused Betty was one of the show’s most compelling characters before she decided to hitch a ride into the afterlife with one of her reaped, her void getting filled the next episode by Harris’s similarly perky but far more irritating Daisy. Such obvious character swaps are always distracting and usually unwelcome, but to do it before the first season even ended was just bad form.
  • The Scrubs-style moralist summarizing at the end. Maybe it’s inevitable in shows like this, but c’mon, is it so much to ask for one death-focused comedy that can just keep it light for a whole episode every now and then?
  • Having a clip show a mere 12 episodes into the series’ run. Everyone knows you need at the very least, two years of material to cull from for a decent clip show. One with less than even a full season’s worth of footage to work from is just fucking lazy.

The Questionable:

  • Callum Blue as Mason, the group’s loveable British ’60s holdover scamp. Don’t know whether he’s trying too hard or not trying hard enough, but he’s the only one in the group that I’m still undecided about.
  • All the post-death stuff with George’s family. There’s some seriously compelling stuff in there with miserable, frustrated mom Joy (Cynthia Stevenson), increasingly distant dad Clancy (Greg Kean) and confused, troubled daughter Reggie (Britt McKillip), but the show doesn’t seem like it quite knows where to find it yet. Consequently, most of their screentime feels purposeless and even slgithly irrelevant to the show at large.
  • Ex-ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland’s musical score. Pretty jazzy theme song, but the rest of the incidental music feels like it was composed for a different, more self-important show.

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Time of the Season: S1 of My So-Called Life (’94-’95)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 10, 2007

“Why do you always have to say stuff like that?”

Lately, due in no small part to the Apatow mania ensuing from the runaway success of Knocked Up, I’ve been seeing a lot of people choosing to re-express their love for the quickly-canceled late-90s teen series he executive produced, Freaks and Geeks. I recently watched the show’s 18 episodes myself for the first time, and for the most part, it deserves the hosannas–it’s a clever, mostly honest and extremely fun TV show, with a great cast and a killer soundtrack. If it was still on TV today, I’d probably make watching it a priority.

But despite enjoying it a fair amount, I didn’t feel much of an emotional connection with the show. It’s partly attributable to it being set in both a time period and a part of the country I had little relation to, and partly because I didn’t really like either of the show’s main characters (Sam was a simpering little dolt most of the time, Lindsey was a little better but was too explicitly poser-ish to really inspire too much sympathy). But mostly it was because I felt like emotionally, the show sort of pulled its punches–it never really had the balls to go for the gut.

As a slightly inevitable result of the show being set in the past and being based on the experiences of the shows’ creators, the whole thing felt kind of rose-tinted to me. Even the worst humiliations the characters suffer have the anecdotal vibe of a bunch of friends laughing over the story ten or twenty years down the line (“Oh man, you remember the time you got locked out of the locker room when you were ass-naked? Or the time your sister got high for like the first time, right before she had to go babysit for her neighbors, and she totally freaked out?”) Parts of the story are unrealistic enough that it even feels like the show is using an unreliable narrator (“Wait, are you sure that it was YOU who broke up with Cindy Sanders, not the other way around?”) It’s not necessarily a bad thing–god knows it makes the show more enjoyable, and it’s probably the way I’ll choose to remember my high school experiences ten years or so down the line. But considering the raving I’d heard about the show, people talking about the pilot episode making them cry and such–that I don’t really see.

Partly as a result of my Freaks and Geeks experiences, I downloaded the first (and like F&G, only) season of the mid-90s ABC teen series My So-Called Life. MSCL was, when you get down to it, the teen drama that I grew up on. I didn’t start consciously watching anything from the genre until at least a few years into the 00s, but in 1996, I watched a whole lot of MTV, and when they weren’t playing videos, animated programming, Singled Out or Real World/Road Rules, they were showing My So-Called Life re-runs, so I invariably caught a fair share of episodes. Watching them again, there were plenty of eps that I didn’t remember at all, but then there were some episodes–or really, just lines or scenes from them–that I was shocked at how vividly I remembered.

And even though I was probably too young to really appreciate it at the time, watching it now, it was obvious why I remembered these moments so vividly–because My So-Called Life never pulled its punches. The episode I remembered best was “Betrayal,” where Rayanne (A.J. Langer), the best friend of series protagonist Angela Chase (Claire Danes, her breakout role at a shocking 15 years old) sleeps with Angela’s on-and-off boyfriend, Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto, building up the good will he would subsequently squander over the course of the next decade), while Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall), Angela’s neighbor with a serious crush, semi-unwittingly tapes the whole thing. I especially remember watching the last scene, where an estranged Rayanne and Angela act out a scene from Our Town for the theater director, the dialogue of which echoes what the characters want to say to each other, but can’t in their own words. They finish the scene, both of them in tears, and they walk off the stage in separate directions. As the credits started to roll, I was stunned–Huh? You mean they don’t kiss and make up? What the hell is going on here? Sure enough, even by season’s end, Angela and Rayanne still haven’t fully made up from their falling out, and as far as we know, they never do.

One of the governing rules of episodic TV, especially where family or friends is concerned, is that you never stray too far or too long from your comfortable emotional core. If a character runs away, eventually they come back, if Dad is tempted to cheat on Mom, he eventually decides to return to his wife’s loving arms instead, and if two best friends have a fight, they eventually kiss and make up. But what makes My So-Called Life so different is that the comfortable emotional core is never really there–from the very first episode, Angela is fighting with her parents, father Graham is considering an affair, and Rayanne is getting in over her head with boys and trouble. And over the course of the series, Angela’s relationship with Jordan never even approaches stability, and neither does gay friend Rickie’s traumatic home life, or Brian’s unrequited feelings for Angela. But MSCL doesn’t play to sensationalism, at least not any more than say, your average episode of Law & Order–it’s just part of the job of being a teenager.

And the show’s emotional honesty works, mostly because the cast and characters are strong enough to sell it. The roots for most of the show’s characters and dynamics I feel come from a sort of unspoken antecedent, the similarly cruel 1986 teen drama Pretty in Pink. Claire is obviously Andie, the emotionally troubled girl with a pretty-boy crush on Jordan/Blaine (though this being the 90s instead of the 80s, the dividing line of wealth has been replaced with the dividing line of alternative-y coolness–suddenly the most likely lower-class Catalano is afraid his friends won’t approve of the dorky, upper-middle class Chase). Rayanne is Iona, the more experienced best friend, and parents Graham and Patty take their turns at playing the Harry Dean Stanton role of the concerned, confused parent, trying to give advice that they weren’t always able to follow themselves.

But the series’ most brilliant transposition of the Pretty in Pink archetypes is how they take the paradigmatic character of Duckie, and split him into two different characters, Brian Krakow and Enrique “Rickie” Vasquez. Brian inherits Duckie’s lovelorn loner side–terminally in love with his childhood friend, but too socially inept and fearful to do anything about it, forced instead to watch from the sidelines as she’s courted by some jerk-off that doesn’t nearly deserve her. And Rickie inherits Duckie’s, well, gay side–flamboyantly dressed and largely effeminate, a sexually unthreatening friend to the protagonist, except, unlike Duckie, one that is explicitly homosexual. Some series so obviously set from the female perspective tend to write guys that are kind of one-dimensional, but Rickie and Brian are two of the show’s best characters (as is Jordan, probably the series’ most uncompromised character, who unlike Blaine, barely even tries to hide what an asshole he is).

There really are no weak links in the cast, though–Devon Odessa’s Sharon, Angela’s overachiever ex-best friend, can be kind of annoying, but she’s still necessary as Rayanne’s foil. Besides her, Angela’s family is uniformly strong–Lisa Wilholt is maybe the series’ unsung hero as Angela’s ignored younger sister Danielle, and Tom Irwin and Bess Armstrong as the girls’ parents serve as brutal reminders of how grossly underwritten the Weir parents were on Freaks & Geeks. AJ Langer is inspired as wild-child Rayanne, never too grating in her attempts to be shocking or too cloying in her moments of obvious insecurity. And of course, Claire Danes holds the whole thing together, in an occasionally thankless role as the 90s everygirl, but one that the series obviously couldn’t have survived without.

You could say that the show was ahead of its time–and the show was certainly fairly influential, especially on F&G, which even borrowed the central premise of “girl leaves her comfortable social circle to hang out with the bad kids” for Lindsay’s main story line (not to mention James Franco’s Daniel DeSario character, for which I hope Jared Leto at least received some royalties). But to say a show is ahead of its time implies that TV eventually caught up with it, which I’m not really sure it has yet with My So-Called Life. That there hasn’t been a remake (or at least remodel) of this show for the Emo generation is such a wasted opportunity–imagine how much Angela would’ve enjoyed having a LiveJournal, or how often Brian would’ve checked Facebook every day to see if Angela or any other girl had finally friended him. The gang could even go to see The Academy Is in concert or something.

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Time of the Season: S1-S4 of Peep Show (’03-’07)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 6, 2007

“So finally justice is served. Well, not actual justice, just what I wanted. Which is basically the same thing.”

Maybe great art is supposed to be absolutely terrifying. I’ve long argued that some shows and movies–Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office, any movie involving Ben Stiller or Jason Biggs–should be rated at least NC-17, for unberably socially awkward situations, which I think are far more damaging to impressionable psyches than any amount of gore, foul language or sexually explicit content could possibly be. By that logic, Peep Show should be rated XXX and should probably be illegal in certain countries. It lives up to its name in possibly the truest way possible–not only are you a voyeur to the most private moments of UK roommates Mark (David Mitchell) and Jeremy (Robert Webb), you also get to hear their most private of thoughts, as the characters’ inner monologue is vocalized–making the horrifically embarrassing situations they get themselves into twice as uncomfortable.

It’s a good thing Peep Show is funny–very funny–then, because without the humor, the show would be about as unwatchable as a Drew Carey and Mimi sex tape. As it is, though, the cringeworthy moments are almost always matched with moments of utter hilarity, making the show just palatable enough to make you keep watching. And since this is a British show, there’s regrettably little to plow through–four seasons (or “series,” as the Brits call it) may sound like a lot, but at six eps a series, it’s actually just an episode longer than a full 23-episode US season.

In some respects, though, that’s not such a bad thing. With just six episodes to work with, each series works through a specific arc, mostly involving the relationship of the extremely jittery and neurotic Mark and his co-worker Sophie (Olivia Colman), who he spends most of the first two series pursuing, eventually getting her (largely despite himself), and then spending most of the next two series trying to get rid of her. The lazier but less socially anxious Jeremy’s arcs are usually less solidified by series, though his relationships with various girlfriends (neighbor Toni, hippie Nancy and posh girl Big Sooze) are often subjects of focus as well.

Really though, the best parts of Peep Show come in the relationship between the two roommates (fine, flatmates), which is dysfunctional at best, and often downright adversarial, as when Jeremy nearly poisons a sick Mark and then locks him in his room to prevent him from ruining his mushroom party. Still, their friendship gets them into some of the funniest situations I’ve ever seen in TV, like when the two try their hands at Strangers on a Train-like pranking of the others’ current enemies and end up getting shot with an air gun and pepper sprayed, respectively. And it’s even oddly touching at times–despite the fact that Mark and Jeremy spend 95% of the show yelling at each other, they always end up back with the other at the end of the day, the sign of a truly great TV couple.

But it’s not the humor, or even the awkwardness, that made such an impression on me about Peep Show. It’s the suggestion that the social anxieties and difficulties you have growing up (your fears, your insecurities, your doubts) never really go away, and that essentially, you can never really turn your brain off–it’ll always be there, hen-pecking at every decision you make, over-analyzing everything after the fact and generally just fucking you up at every possible turn. The show affected me so much that afterwards, when I got into Mark and Jeremy-esque situations in real life, I could actually hear myself thinking in their voices. Some spooky shit for certain, but like I said, that’s great art for you.

The biggest problem with Peep Show? It’s not available in the US–only series one is out on Region 1 DVD, and the rest you’re on your own to locate. But believe me, with a fifth series having been commissioned (and supposedly a US version on its way), if you’ve never seen this show before, you don’t want to wait too much longer to discover it.

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Time of the Season: S2 of How I Met Your Mother (’06-’07)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 22, 2007

“That’s two”

Now this is exciting. I’m not sure how the creators of How I Met Your Mother somehow managed to view all my (still only a few) criticisms of Season One and somehow retroactively correct Season Two so that most of them no longer applied at all, but I sure as hell salute them for doing it. S2 of HIMYM not only ensures my viewership for season three (even though I’ll probably have to Torrent everything), but gets it put on my Must-Pimp short list for anyone unfortunate enough to enter into a conversation about the state of contemporary television with me.

The most immediate thing about season two is that they sorta de-wussified Ted, meaning the show is no longer burdened with APS (Annoying Protagonist Syndrome–learn it by heart, ‘coz it’s the last time I’m spelling it out for you fly-by-night IITS readers). Since he’s together with Robin for the whole season, we no longer have to worry about a perpetually lovelorn Ted waxing poetic about the nature of love and being single and other such bullshit, or garnering enough courage to really tell the girl how he feels, for the 115th time. Sure, he and Robin still get into fights a couple times over the course of the season, but it’s relatively low-key and surprisingly unrepetitive stuff, so we can let it pass (and Robin, who previously threatened to be the show’s weak link character, has stepped up her game enough to no longer be a worry).

Even the moralizing and lesson stuff doesn’t really stand in the way too much this time around. Most of the actual narrative arc of the second season is featured around Marshall and Lily (who having called off their wedding at the end of the first season for Lily to find herself in San Fransisco, are temporarily broken up, though obviously it’s only a matter of time before they get back together again), and they tend to be much less heavy-handed with this business than Ted and Robin. More than any TV couple since Kirsten and Sandy Cohen, I actually want the success of their relationship to be uninterrupted from here on out–the new contenders for primetime’s dream couple.

But the real reason this season is so head-and-shoulders above the last is that it’s just a lot funnier, most of which can still be chalked up to the man with the plan himself, Neil Patrick Harris. NPH is largely behind the two funniest episodes of the season–“Slap Bet” and “Showdown,” two episodes so hilarious that they elevate HIMYM to the highest strata of 00s sitcoms, putting it in contention with Scrubs, The Office and Arrested Development for best of the decade. I won’t ruin the delights they contain within for those of you out there still uninitiated, but suffice to say, if you see no other episodes of the show, see these two–you’ll have no choice but to see the rest afterwards anyway.

There is still one doubt that lingers with me, even though it hasn’t been a problem so far–the limited cast. S2 of HIMYM featured virtually no other characters in strong roles this season except the main five (with the possible exception of Barney’s gay brother, played by Wayne Brady, but that was just a one-ep cameo), and now that Lily and Marshall are together for good, and Robin and Ted are broken up for good, there’s really nowhere else for the show to go unless it gets some new blood in it real quick.

But taking a lead from the show, we’ll let future-How I Met Your Mother deal with that problem. Right now, the show is so good that it’s hard to believe it’s still struggling so much in the ratings–how is this not the Friends of the 00s yet, except actually funny? Or does that answer my question right there? Once again, way to go, country.

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Time of the Season: S1-S3 of Homicide: Life on the Street (’93-’95)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 20, 2007

“Virtue isn’t virtue unless it slams up against vice. So consequently, your virtue’s not real virtue. Until it’s been tested… tempted.”

For some reason, I expected Homicide: Life on the Street to pretty much be exactly like The Wire, except more dated and less intense. Well, the reasons were actually pretty obvious–both are set in Baltimore, both are about the city’s crime and brutality, both are based off of work by David Simon, and they even share a couple cast members (so far I’ve spotted Larry Gilliard Jr., The Wire‘s D’Angelo Barksdale, and Al Brown, The Wire‘s Stan Valchek). Not to mention that most people above the age of 30 who I’ve talked to or who have seen my posting about The Wire immediately followed with Homicide raves. And I just couldn’t see how the show could possibly measure up to the scope, the excitement or the realism of The Wire.

It didn’t really occur to me that Homicide would have different goals altogether. It’s a much, much smaller show than The Wire–focusing on about a dozen recurring characters rather than the hundreds in the Wireverse, concentrating pretty much solely on the law instead of playing both sides of the fence, and showing much more interest in character and dialogue than in labyrinthine plots and multi-leveled story arcs. It’s really almost impossible to compare the two in any coherent manner, which is probably a very good thing.

Anyway, enough about The WireHomicide is just a damn good show. The acting is spot on across the board–I had no idea how much of the cast I already knew, besides Andre Braugher (who is arguably the show’s lead, even winning a Best Actor Emmy for it some seasons later), there’s Ned Beatty, Yaphet Kotto, Kyle Secor (Jake Kane in Veronica Mars), Richard Belzer (originating his much span-off John Munch role), Jon Polito (the fat, bald Coen Bros. regular), even Daniel Baldwin in a totally non-embarrassing role. There’s not a weak actor or character in the bunch, and it’s really a perfectly balanced ensemble, so much so that an episode could pair any two of the detectives at random for an hour and it’d be compelling no matter who they chose.

And the writing must be some of the best I’ve ever seen on broadcast TV. It’s probably not as realistic a depiction of Homicide banter as the lazy, crude Wire speak, but it’s rich enoguh that it’s hard to really care–each of the characters is a philosophizer in their own right, and it quickly becomes apparent that the show is as much about existential angst and the crumminess of human nature as it is a bunch of cops solving crimes. The first season’s two best episodes–“Night of the Dead Living” and “Three Men and Adena,” both of which will surely rank in this blog’s inevitable 100 Years, 100 TV Episodes list–play more like great absurdist one-acts than TV shows.

This changed somewhat by the time of the third season, in which network brass, wary of the low ratings Homicide was pulling in, forced the show to open up a bit. The show went through several very obvious transitions, including the canning of the highly unphotogenic Jon Polito (which leads me to wonder, what exactly is the nicest way to tell someone “You’re fired because your ugly ass is costing us viewers”?), the beginning of several occasionally ridiculous romantic subplots (my personal favorite being Secor’s dalliances with an Asian fetishist in her coffin-shaped bed), and more gimmicky hooks to bring in audiences (crossovers with Law & Order, a Christmas episode, cliffhanger endings, a finale taken from the criminals’ point of view). The show also started pulling in all sorts of guest stars, from Robin Williams to Steve Buscemi to even a ridiculous pre-credit appearance from John Waters.

It makes for some good, solid conventional television–I especially liked the subplot with Belzer, Secor and Clark Johnosn opening up their own bar, and the myriads of problems they run into–but ultimately, it’s a shame that they had to stray from the minimalism and no-frills grittiness that made the first two seasons (or really, first season and a half–S2 runs a whopping four episodes) feel so unique. But the characters are still great, the writing is still top-notch, and the credit sequence (which I wasn’t sure about at first, but has definitely hooked me since) reels me in every time. I wonder if NYPD Blue holds up this well.

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Time of the Season: S1 of How I Met Your Mother

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 8, 2007

“Legen–wait for it–DARY”

Turns out there’s at least one show on CBS that isn’t either a serial crime-related drama or Two and a Half Men (who knew?) Despite its cloying title, cloying premise (a father 25 years in the future tells his kids the unnecessarily long story of how he, well, met their mom) and cloying roots (the stories are based on the actual romantic experiences of the show’s creators, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas), How I Met Your Mother is actually a surprisingly palatable show–sort of like Scrubs meets the decent parts of Friends. Show’s definitely not without its issues though, so let’s break it down one time:

The Good:

  • Neil. Patrick. Harris. Fresh off a career revival due to his unforgettable cameo in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (a performance that ranks up there with Bob Barker in Happy Gilmore and Jon Favreau in the D-Girl episode of The Sopranos as an all-time great self-performance), NPH basically plays a slightly less scummy version of his H&K persona (minus the drugs, plus suits & laser tag). NPH’s Barney, with his littany of cheap pick-up lines and paradigm-spawning catchphrases, is easily the show’s most memorable character, and probably the most compellingly narcissistic TV character not cuurrently appearing on Entourage (why “Suit up!” hasn’t become the next “Let’s hug it out, bitch” is beyond me). It comes off as somewhat ironic given his recent coming out of the closet–Barney might be the the most rampant, unapologetically misogynistic TV character since Bulldog from Frasier, who was played by the similarly homosexual Dan Butler. Go figure.
  • Jason Segel and Alyson Hannigan as engaged couple Lily and Marshall. Between his roles in SLC Punk, Freaks and Geeks and this, Segel is quickly becoming one of my favorite That Guys of recent years, and there are at most seven–maybe eight–people on the entire planet that are more adorable than Alyson Hannigan. The two manage to do the impossible with their characters–play a couple that is both totally in love and demonstrates it whenever possible (in often extremely cutesy fashion), and still remain likeable (and even endearing) people. It’s unreal.
  • Skillful use of “The One Where ____” Friends-type plotlines (i.e. The One Where Barney Dares Robin To Do Stuff on TV, The One Where It’s Game Night, The One Where Ted Waits for the Slutty Pumpkin, etc). As I’ll talk about more later, the show often gets bogged down in its multi-episode arcs, so it’s pretty important that the self-contained episodes have pretty tight storylines, and for the most part, they definitely do. My personal favorite is probably “Okay Awesome,” i.e. The One Where They Go to a Club. Segel’s quote upon his arrival (“Oh, it’s just that I had this move,and I wanted to BUST it“) is a series high point.

The Bad:

  • Definite APS (Annoying Protagonist Syndrome) sufferer. Ted Moseby, played by Josh Radnor, isn’t a bad guy, and it’s not a bad performance, but when you’ve got one characterexperiencing critical, life-changing romantic epiphanies in pretty much every episode, he’s bound to get real grating real quick. He gets enough support from the rest of the cast that his failings aren’t too glaring, but the number of times I wanted to slap this guy across the season is at least twice as high as it probably should be.
  • Show carries over many of the good qualities of Scrubs–likeable, believable group of friends, hilarious and on point pop-culture references, realistic look at relationships, quality stuff like that–but unfortunately it also carries over the show’s worst quality, the unrelenting moralizing. Partly necessary due to the show’s framing–future Ted (voiced by the unseen Bob Saget) telling the whole thing to his kids–it has Scrubs-style morals-a-week, and like Scrubs, they’re all pretty much the same moral. It’s real repetitive, and real fucking frustrating.

The Questionable:

  • The whole Big Mystery about who exactly the mother of Ted’s kids is–at first it’s geared to be Ted’s season one love interest Robin, but Saget closes the first episode by referring to her as “Aunt Robin” to his kids, making it clear that it’s not her. This is risky, since not only does it make us not really care whether or not Ted and Robin get together (since at the very least, we know it’s not permanent), it leads to lots of another annoying fakeouts. It might be rewarding when it’s finally revealed, but now it seems to me that the show’s sweet and involving enough without this arcing gimmick, and it’s just sort of distracting.
  • The theme song. I dig it, and it’s great for the show, but it’s only like ten seconds long–by the time you start humming along, it’s already over. What gives?
  • Limited cast–though a couple people drift in and out of their universe, so far it’s basically just the five mains (Ted, Lily, Marshall, Robin, Barney) and whoever Ted happens to be dating at the time (which is now Robin, so forget that). Drama becomes stale when it’s the same people rehashing the same tired business with each other time and time again, so let’s hope that the show takes the lead from Scrubs and Friends and sees its social universe expand somewhat in future seasons.

Still, beats the fuck out of Criminal Minds: Louisville. Sign me up for season two!

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Time of the Season: S1 of Beverly Hills 90210 (’90-’91)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 4, 2007

The 90s, now officially 17 years old

It was sort of hard to explain to people why I wanted to rent the first season of Beverly Hills 90210, but I had a fair number of reasons. First, as a child of the 90s and a perpetual student of the decade’s culture, it’s criminal how little of the show I had seen thusfar. Second, as a fan of many of the teen dramas it helped make possible (mostly The O.C. and Dawson’s Creek), it didn’t seem right not to have properly experienced the godfather of them all. And third, the episodes I’d seen of it had been pretty good–not high art, exactly, but compelling teen drama nonetheless. So whatever–I’ve watched a fair number of brilliant-but-cancelled series recently, it seemed like time for some quality basic-but-enormously-popular viewing.

Unfortunately, 90210‘s first season was pretty far form the cultural landmark and thinking-TV respite I’d been hoping. I had no idea how different and largely inauspicious the show’s beginnings were compared to the next couple seasons–the 22 first-season episodes I watched beared little resemblance to the impression I had of the show, especially after the couple of episodes I saw over the summer. It gets points for originality (though it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when shows like 90210 weren’t ruling the airwaves), but not much else.

Really, the show just hadn’t found its stride yet. The soapiness that the show would soon become legendary for really wasn’t in place yet–according to Darren Star in one of the S1 DVD’s extras, it wasn’t until 90210 spawn Melrose Place set new standards for over-the-top drama that 90210 was forced to move in that direction itself. For the first season, at least, there was plenty of teen drama, but most of it wasn’t of the romantic kind. Instead, you get plenty of issue-a-week episodes dealing afterschool special-style with problems like drunk driving, breast cancer, teen parenthood, and so on. Today, it’s extremely cheesy stuff, and the show’s fairly conservative moralizing is nauseating at times.

The other principal difference is that for the first season, the show was pretty much just about Brandon (Jason Priestley) and Brenda (Shannon Doherty). Sure, most of the characters from later seasons are there, but the stories are still mainly Brandon and Brenda’s. Though they’re pretty good characters, and the relationship between the two gives the first season its most touching moments, they’re not strong enough to shoulder the whole show–90210 was meant to be an ensemble drama, wiith the Walshes just as the focal point, but it looks like it took at least until the second season for the show’s creators to realize it.

All this would be forgivable, though, if it wasn’t for the most apalling difference between the first season and the rest of the series–the theme song. The classic 90210 theme song–with its unforgettable opening four-chord, two-clap intro, and soaring sax and guitar hook–is nowhere to be found in the credit sequences of the first 22 episodes. Well that’s not totally true–it’s there, sort of, but in a neutered, horrifically dated, and most crucially, intro-less form, which just teases you by reminding you of what it’s not. A truly great theme song and credit sequence can salvage even the worst TV episodes, but with these, I ended up skipping the credits altogether. So sad.

If nothing else, I suppose 90210‘s first season is interesting in an “early years” sort of way, the way you study a director’s student films or an artist’s early demos to get a sense of what was to come and what had changed in the meantime. The most enjoyable thing about the show for me was watching David Silver, Brian Austin Green’s character, in his early days–Green was only 17 in the earliest episodes (a full decade younger than some of his castmates and supposed peers), he plays a 15-year-old, and he looks and acts like a 13-year-old (one who wears New Order shirts, for some reason). That this guy ever ended up as one of the show’s potential romantic leads is mind-boggling after watching his first year at 90210. And Tori Spelling, the butt of a thousand jokes for landing such a princess-y role in her daddy’s sitcom, is barely in the first season at all, a supporting character at best who actually seems fairly low-key compared to the rest of the cast. My guess is that this changes slightly in later episodes.

I’ll probably check out the second season sometime in the hopes that it gets better, and I think it will–supposedly the show didn’t really take off until then anyway. They better at least have the right theme song by then–I bet that’s what made all the difference.

(Side Note: Andrea Zuckerman might be the most annoying TV character in the history of the teen drama genre. And I want to be Steve Sanders.)

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Time of the Season: S4 of The Wire (2006)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 21, 2007

I do still know how to write other articles, sort of

Sometimes I think maybe there’s only room in my life for either The Sopranos or The Wire. When the second half of the sixth season of The Sopranos was letting me down pretty hardcore with its overreaching and heavy-handedness, The Wire was there for me with its relatively low-key ambitions and tight storytelling. But when The Sopranos started coming back into form in its grand drama (Christophuh!), starting the fourth season of The Wire was sort of disappointing. Now…it’s sort of hard to say.

Anyway, season four probably isn’t as good as season three–in fact it might ultimately be the least appealing of the four. But saying “The Worst Season of The Wire” is sort of like saying “The Worst Pixies Album” or “The Worst John Cazale Movie,” and indeed, it’s still one of the best things on TV. The focus of this season is the public education system, part of creator David Simon’s attempt to prove that all institutions are similarly corrupt and compromised, or some such business.

It takes a while to get into the new drama with the schoolkids–there are a lot of them and the roles of each are sort of confusing at first–but ultimately it’s the most heartfelt and least cynical of the seasons thusfar, even if it does end up being one of the most depressing. As Bunny Colvin (the Hamsterdam ingeneur of S3) tries to sequester the school’s bad kids in an attempt to teach them social niceties, and former officer Presbilewski tries to make a difference with the others, their efforts have the same sort of consequences as everyone in the last seasons’–some kids do learn, some kids revert to their old ways, and some kids could never be saved in the first place. The fact that it’s kids involved for once and not jaded authority figures means that the stakes are higher than ever. When they go bad, it’s heartbreaking, when genuine progress is made, it’s some of the most affecting stuff I’ve seen on TV.

Apparently the next season doesn’t start until 2008. It’s gonna be a miserable year of TV in the meantime.

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Time of the Season: S3 of The Office

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 20, 2007

“I do not fear the unknown. I will meet my new challenges head-on, and I will succeed, and I will laugh in the faces of those who doubt me. It’s been a pleasure working with some of you, and I will not forget those of you soon. But remember, while today it is me, we all shall fall.”

Season three of the most reliable comedy on TV wrapped up with an hour-long finale last Thursday. On the whole, the season probably didn’t hit the highs of the Emmy-winning second season, but that was a pretty tough sell to begin with (it being one of the first TV seasons I actually figured had enough replay value to be worth buying). Especially with Scrubs getting preachier than U2 watching an M. Night Shyamalan movie and My Name is Earl running disturbingly low on jokes not along the lines of “Randy does something stupid [Laugh],” the third season did an admirable job of remaining the Thursday night comedy anchor, while 30 Rock was (hopefully) grooming itself for A-list status. Breakdown, go ahead and give it to me:

The Good:

  • Ed Helms as Andy Bernard. A worthy adversary to Dwight, a believable occasional-psycho and a hilarious rehabilitee, Bernard made the proceedings at the Stamford branch the highlights of the early episodes (“I’m going to kill you. IN REAL LIFE”) and added a much-needed spark to mid-season Dunder Mifflin. His performance in “The Return,” the season’s best episode, alone should merit him at least a nomination for the Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Emmy.
  • The Jim-Karen-Pam triangle. Karen, played by the foxy superproducer offspring Rashida Jones, was also a worthy adversary for Pam, though the gloves didn’t really come off in their relationship until Pam revealed her feelings for Jim at the office’s retreat (“Y’know, Pam….she’s kind of a bitch”), and Jim having to choose between the two was a legitimately tough one. Props to the show’s producers for not taking the easy way out and villifying Karen–for a while she was just as irresistibly likeable as Pam, which is no small feat.
  • Possibly the best Dwight season thusfar. His feud with Andy, his quitting speech, his attempted coup to steal the company from Michael, his brief tenure at Staples…pretty much non-stop brilliance and hilarity throughout. What’s more, his business trip outings with Ryan and Jim were surprisingly revelatory–he showed himself to be a real character for once, as well as a surprisingly astute salesman. You got the feeling this season that Dwight could actually have been something of a success had he been placed in a less dysfunctional company.

The Bad:

  • Way, way too many “Michael offends minority and tries way too hard to compensate, embarrassing everyone” episodes. Black people, gay people, fat people…no one was safe from Michael’s unintentional humiliation. These episodes were pretty funny the first two seasons, and they’re still kind of funny now, but it’s getting to the point where it’s just too much. You can only watch so many episodes covering your hands with your eyes before the unwatchability just gets annoying.
  • Weird flip-flopping and ultimate dismissal of Roy’s character. Apparently losing Pam was so sobering that he switched his personality up entirely, becoming even more sensitive and nice guy-ish than Jim, but one mention from Pam that she kissed Jim before the end of their relationship and he flips back to psycho boyfriend mode. Then the next episode, he’s gone entirely. Kind of a wasted opportunity.

The Questionable:

  • Michael’s relationship with Jan (and the general weirding out of her character). At first Jan’s can’t-help-herself affair with Michael was hysterical in its inherent self-loathing and confusion, but then they turned her into a sex-fiend, near-dominatrix and semi-psychotic. Funny in parts, but generally it just made me feel bad for Melora Hardin.
  • The show realizing that Creed was probably its funniest minor character. Creed’s unfazed drugged-out weirdo schtick was hilarious the first two seasons, and most of the third as well, but the last few episodes just had too many “That’s our Creed!!” moments for comfort. Him emerging from the ocean at the office retreat with the skeleton of a fish he just caught and ate himself for no particular reason was distinctly nadir-ish.
  • Jim and Pam finally maybe getting together at the end of the season. It was inevitable (sort of impressive they held out this long, really) and could make for some sweet moments next season, but the golden rule of TV romantic comedy has always been that once the tension between the two romantic leads is dissolved, the show is soon to follow. Let’s hope it’s not the case either (and also that Jim’s leaving Karen doesn’t mean Rashida Jones is out of the picture for S4–it’d be a shame to lose her so soon).

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