“Chuck vs. the Final Exam”
March 22nd, 2010
At its best, Chuck is a show where the stakes of a traditional spy show feel extraordinarily real: the whole point of the premise is that the things that happen in the show’s universe are dangerous and larger than life, but our protagonist is a regular guy who has a computer in his head that makes him a far more important asset than he was born to be. The show’s second season, where it reached the peak of its creative success, captured Chuck Bartowski coming to terms with the idea that being a spy might be what he was meant to be, and that there was the potential for the world of espionage to become “real” in a way he had never imagined.
But something went wrong at the start of the third season, to the point where I would argue that the show has diverged from the “real” not only in terms of believability (which isn’t new, considering the suspension of disbelief necessary in many of the spy stories) but also in terms of character. And while some would point to the Intersect 2.0 as a dehumanizing factor or the forced separation of Chuck and Sarah against the wishes of die-hard fans as reasons that the show is becoming less grounded, I would argue that it is something more substantial than that.
“Chuck vs. the Final Exam” is supposed to feel as if the stakes are higher than ever, even arguing that if Chuck fails this series of tests he will return to his normal life. However, it doesn’t feel like the stakes are higher than ever – things felt much more real, much more life-changing, when Chuck was reconciling family and country, when he was fighting for something beyond getting to be a “real spy.” The problem with this episode, and much of the third season, is that the struggle between who Chuck is and who Chuck is on the path to becoming has been said instead of shown, implied rather than demonstrated. And so rather than the show confidently or subtly introducing this tension, the show has thrown out the “real” Chuck and moved quickly and efficiently towards something that, while interesting, just isn’t as engaging.
It’s a move that would be necessary to cram this story into thirteen episodes, which may well be the root of my frustration with the show’s current trajectory.
January 28th, 2010
Noel Kirkpatrick put together a post on “formula TV” over at Monsters of TV yesterday, and in highlighting Burn Notice he points out the following:
…each episode will also find Michael trying to get back into the CIA (originally to find out who burned him and why), often near the end of the episode or throughout the episode while trying to help the Client of the Week.
And while this is ostensibly true, it’s important to note that not all such efforts are built to the same standards: Carla was a distraction which forced Michael to multi-task, while the police detective at the start of the season was a nuisance that forced Michael to be more cautious. And while I thought Carla felt as if she created character-driven drama, in that Michael was distracted and perhaps too focused on returning to his position within the CIA (the same goes for Strickler, to some extent), Moon Bloodgood’s detective was just a barrier who made the show less interesting, a muzzle that kept Michael Westen from being Michael Westen.
It’s too early to judge Gilroy yet, but “Friendly Fire” is the ideal demonstration of how fun Burn Notice’s formula can be: a compelling story is made more explosive and more enjoyable by the presence of an external figure who is looking for a good show. And while it might not be as psychologically complex, it presents no barrier to the show being its fun, high-energy self, which makes it a story with quite a bit of potential.
January 27th, 2010
Friday Night Lights is a show about convergence.
Really, all ensemble dramas end up driving towards climaxes which tend to bring various story elements together, so this may not seem overly remarkable. However, as the show heads towards the conclusion of its fourth season, the show is doing a lot to bring together stories, simplifying in some instances and complicating in others.
And while some of the tension created by this convergence is engaging, what I tend to enjoy more is the sort of indirect effects: this is the first time in a while where the show actively demonstrated the show’s central dilemma of ignoring the football in order to service the characters on a personal, non-football level, and that tension (when used, as opposed to simply created and elided) is part of the show’s tragedy.
“Injury List” is about capturing the tragedy of stories converging at the worst possible time, although the show manages to keep (most of) that convergence from seeming too convenient in the show’s late season push.
“Our Dear Leaders”
January 26th, 2010
J.D. and Turk are not entirely dissimilar characters: they’re best friends, after all, and both have their quirks which make them quite enjoyable to watch in a “look at how immature he can be” sort of way. However, what I always found interesting was how Turk was always capable of better balancing the two: while the show struggled at the start of this season to position J.D. as both a mentor and a source of comedy, Turk has always been taken somewhat more seriously, which meant that he could be a bit more over the top without losing our respect or the respect of his new Med Students.
Ultimately, though, I think “Our Dear Leaders” didn’t entirely work because there is a point the Chief of Surgery needs to have moved beyond these types of stories. While it may be thematically helpful to have all of the stories play into a sense of leadership, to lump Turk in with the med students is problematic in terms of the necessity to exaggerate his character’s response to particular actions. It’s not that Donald Faison is no longer funny, or that there isn’t a story to be told about the fact that he’s too old to be acting like a Med Student, but the story never really gave him much material to work with, and it never quite connected the dots in terms of making this a story about Dr. Turk needing to come to terms with his maturity (instead suggesting he suck it up so the source of his jealousy would keep donating money to the hospital).
It wasn’t a terrible episode, but it seems as if the show still struggles when it tries to straddle these two worlds as opposed to capturing the points at which they interact.
“Mess of a Salesman”
January 26th, 2010
Normally, we tend to view Better Off Ted as a sanctum of comedy genius, a show we measure in terms of how often we laugh more than anything else. Yes, the show has enjoyable characters, but it isn’t a show that we often consider at that level, at least not in terms of the lead in a review of this kind.
And yet “Mess of a Salesman” first brings to mind the word “sweet,” and not in terms of the use of the word as a synonym for “awesome” or “rad.” No, I thought that this episode was perhaps most defined by its sweetness, a winning quality that made what was potentially one enormous sitcom cliché (the no-good brother showing up and making the protagonist’s life hell) into something that never headed down that melodramatic path. While it meant that the episode was less ridiculous than usual, and perhaps less funny than the recent stretch of episodes, it was grounded in a way that shows the versatility to be found in this show’s universe.
By combining its usual corporate satire with some rather positive depictions of humanity and mentorship, the show may have stayed on the rails more than one might like, but I thought it was an enjoyable turn (if not quite the note the show should go out on, should this truly end up its final airing on ABC as is currently scheduled).
January 21st, 2010
Jack Donaghy has had many relationships in his time on 30 Rock, and while some of them have been adventurous or novel (Isabella Rosellini as his ex-wife, Edie Falco as his congresswoman girlfriend) the rest have been remarkably dull. And while Alec Baldwin is technically capable of elevating any material, and the show has always hired potentially funny actresses to play the roles, his relationships can be a black hole for the show at times. While Emily Mortimer is a great actress, Phoebe the bird bone fiance was painful, and Salma Hayek’s nurse had one decent episode (“Generallisimo,” although I liked the McFlurry story) but never amounted to anything else. And yet, because they’re major guest stars and represent Jack’s main storyline, the characters stick around longer than any other character with such little potential ever would, and the show suffers for it.
I like Julianne Moore, but her character on 30 Rock was a one-joke one-off that should have never developed into anything more. While there was potential in the story for Jack to tap into parts of his past (the episode in which Moore didn’t actually appear but Jack and Kenneth broke into her house actually did this better), the story has spent too much time on her character’s divorce and not enough time on Jack himself. There are some fun bits in “Winter Madness,” and I’m sure the episode was quite enjoyable for Bostonians, but the stories felt as if they weren’t actually creating enough comedy to form anything close to a cohesive episode.
Although American Historian Tracy Jordan can hang out on my television anytime.
January 8th, 2010
I was talking (okay, tweeting) with The A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias this weekend, and he classified “Getting Closer” as a fine example of a time when being hired to write immediate responses to television is not only inconvenient but downright confounding (to paraphrase).
It’s a great way to classify the episode, because a few days after watching it I still don’t really know what to say about it. I can say that I was surprised at various points where the episode wanted me to be surprised, and in a way which reflected emotional response rather than complete confusion. I can say that I saw the conclusion to Tim Minear’s script coming before the show made it explicitly clear, but what’s most interesting is that despite predicting the ending I still have absolutely no idea how it works.
“Getting Closer” is a fantastically entertaining episode of television, but its twists and turns depict a moral ambiguity which makes it almost entirely comprehensible. Tim Minear’s script is not so dense that we can’t comprehend what we’re seeing, but rather neglects (on purpose) character motivations to the point where the war which is supposed to pit one side (good) against the other (bad) has instead become more complex than anything in the Attic could ever be.
Which is yet another fascinating development in a second season that has been nothing if not compelling.
January 6th, 2010
I think a lot of people have chosen to judge Cougar Town entirely based on Courteney Cox’s performance as Jules, which was perhaps fair early in the season – the show was about Jules dating younger men, which was a premise with very little room for growth for both the show and Jules as a character. And yet, something has happened over time that has evolved the show into something very different, a show with a fairly deep ensemble that isn’t afraid of mixing them up to create different pairings.
In other words, Cougar Town has become a show about a community, a group of characters who are capable of interacting with one another in social situations without things seeming chaotic or dramatic. While Grayson was once an antagonistic neighbour, he has become a reluctant participant in more age-appropriate social interactions, and while Bobby was once a deadbeat ex-husband he’s become someone who Jules cares about despite his use of a fish tank as a boat toilet. Ellie and Laurie were once actively antagonistic of one another, but they’ve now come to unite as Jules’ friends even if they maintain a six-foot distance between them when she’s not around.
And while some could argue that this is contrived, it’s given the show a sense of effortlessness with its story lines: it doesn’t feel like a stretch for new characters to interact with one another, and even if it makes for a definitively “small world” it’s one that has been effective both at delivering some strong comedy and, perhaps more importantly, accommodating guest stars like Scott Foley and Lisa Kudrow without feeling as if the show is changing in the process.
Cougar Town is simply a place I want to visit now, and I’m really enjoying what Bill Lawrence and company are offering.
“The Maternal Congruence”
December 14th, 2009
When running through the Big Bang Theory’s first and second seasons, there is no question that Christine Baranski’s appearance as Leonard’s mother was a highlight for me. I like Baranski in general, and I thought that the idea that Leonard grew up with this level of psycho-analysis was a nice bit of back story for his character, and seeing her interact with Leonard, Penny and perhaps more importantly Sheldon (who she clearly connects with more than her own son) was a lot of fun.
However, these kinds of characters don’t always work when you bring them back again. With the novelty factor gone, the jokes can become stale even if the actress is as good as Baranski (or as good as Elaine Stritch, whose Colleen Donaghy has seen diminishing returns on 30 Rock with every appearance). And parts of “The Maternal Congruence” act as if Beverly Hofstadter’s return is funny because it unearths the same jokes, like Penny’s father issues or Raj and Howard’s latent homosexual feelings, which is the sort of repetition that does the show no favours.
The episode seems smart, however, in how it plays up the ramifications of Sheldon and Beverly’s relationship, allowing it to evolve beyond a single observation (that Sheldon is more like Leonard’s Mother than Leonard) to its psychological impact, allowing Leonard to actually get angry rather than just annoyed with the way his mother treats him. But as opposed to stretching its characters to allow the ramifications of their relationship to really come to the surface, the episode goes down an entirely different path, getting everyone drunk and making fools of themselves to provide a raucous conclusion.
Like many good guest stars, Baranski elevates the material, but forgive me if I can’t help but have a case of Big Bang Theory Weltschmerz: I look at the ideal episode in my head, and then at what we’re actually given, and I can’t help but be a bit saddened (especially considering how the show ended its Christmas episode last year).
“Last Cigarette Ever”
December 14th, 2009
There are many shows that, in later seasons, like to do a bit of revisionist history in order to create new storylines. The Office keeps introducing new traditions even though the documentary camera crew should have logically spotted them years earlier (an observation I saw on Twitter last week, although I forget who made it), which is a necessary stretch but one that has no easy “out” for the show.
However, How I Met Your Mother has an easy excuse: because the show takes the form of Future Ted telling stories to his kids, there are logically parts of these characters’ pasts that he wouldn’t tell them out of fear of revealing too much about his past. Accordingly, it makes perfect sense that Ted wouldn’t reveal to his kids that he and the gang are occasional recreational smokers, and that he would wait this long into the series’ narrative to tell a story about how everyone’s smoking habits came together.
The problem with episodes like “Last Cigarette Ever” is that the show needs to either be in a natural place for this story to concur or construct a story that justifies the sudden introduction. And while it isn’t perfect for every character, the show finds enough of a heart in Robin’s journey and enough of a future-forward conclusion to make the story a charming chapter in a larger story as opposed to a single episode of a television series.