Tag Archives: Year in Review

The 2008 Television Time Capsule: Pushing Daisies – “Comfort Food”

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“Comfort Food”

Season Two, Episode Eight

Airdate: December 3rd, 2008

Perhaps it was destiny, written in pie filling the moment the show even aired, or perhaps we can blame it on the usual scapegoats (Writer’s strike, economic downturn, etc.) – regardless, Pushing Daisies has gone from a hopeful future for whimsy to a series destined to be a sought after DVD set of only 22 episodes.

With a majority of the second season’s episodes airing after the show had already been canceled, the season had a sense of bittersweet inevitability: knowing that it would be ending left us trapped between hoping to soak in every last moment and cursing the harsh reality that would soon take it all away. But while it may not have gone through the same sophomore resurgence as Chuck, Pushing Daisies never wavered: it remained, through the 10 episodes aired of the 2nd season, the best darn resurrection pie maker procedural on television.

And while the season had a handful of great episodes, and I have a particular affinity for the costumes of “Dim Sum Lose Sum,” I think that “Comfort Food” is the episode I would choose to represent the series within the Time Capsule. My reasoning is actually decidedly simple: it is an episode about baking pies, solving mysteries and the ramifications of bringing people back to life. It is at its core the episode that dealt most with the show’s central qualities, and it feels like a strong representative sample as a result. Throw in a musical number at the end (Olive’s unrequited love bursting into “Eternal Flame”), and you have a love letter to the show’s fans.

YouTube: “Eternal Flame” via Olive Snook

But what really pits “Comfort Food” over the top is that this familiarity is achieved through two pairings that the show rarely delved into on this level. Ned rarely gets to spend anytime with Olive by herself since Chuck came around, while Chuck and Emerson rarely interact without Ned present as a buffer of sorts. By placing Ned and Olive at the cook-off (complete with a cameo from a character from Bryan Fuller’s Wonderfalls), and sending Chuck and Emerson to solve the problem of Chuck’s betrayal of Ned’s trust, the show demonstrates a willingness to shake things up a little.

But you can’t shake this show’s charm: even cancellation will be unable to entirely wipe away the show’s impact on these actors, and on those who stuck with the show since the beginning. Yes, the show was never a mainstream success, but from a critical and creative perspective few would argue against its inclusion within the 2008 Television Time Capsule. This is a show that people will be watching, I believe, for years to come: and when they come across “Comfort Food,” with the series’ end in sight, I have every reason to believe they will stop, smile, and realize what a fun road it’s been.

Still waiting on those final three episodes, ABC – make it happen or release the DVDs ASAP.

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The 2008 Television Time Capsule: Entourage – “Return to Queens Boulevard”

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“Return to Queens Boulevard”

Season Five, Episode 12

Airdate: November 24th, 2008

I have never gotten more flak as a television critic than when I have the gall to criticize Entourage. It’s a sore spot for me: it’s a show that people keep trying to convince me is just male wish fulfillment, and a show that I keep trying to convince people is in fact a drama about celebrity and its impact on humanity. So when the show leans to the former, and I complain about its inability to live up to its potential, needless to say conflict arises.

I’m including “Return to Queens Boulevard” in the 2008 Television Time Capsule for a selfish reason, because I think it proves my point. For about 24 minutes, this is an investigation into how celebrity has changed people: how Vince reacts to being jobless and living at home with his mother, and how Eric responds to his own sense of responsibility for Vince’s future. When the two characters have what could be their final blowout, and Vince fires Eric for failing to land him a job, I absolutely refuse to believe that even skeptics don’t feel like this is a moment that has been built up since even the first season.

But after those 24 minutes are over, something goes horribly wrong: everything goes back to normal. Vince has a job, an amazing job with Martin Scorsese even, land in his lap, and all of a sudden their fight is over: that Eric badgered Gus Van Zant enough to get Vince a job was suddenly enough to overcome their differences and reunite them. When Vince showed up in that office, it was a show taking the coward’s way out: at even the sight of a decent character study which could have ramifications for the following season, the show balked.

I am fine with Entourage not taking itself seriously, or fulfilling the male wish to have as much nudity as HBO will allow, but what I can’t stand is the show’s dabbling in more serious (and, for my tastes, more interesting) storylines only to snatch them away. Yes, the show might move into its sixth season and investigate this rift further, but what would have been the harm of letting what was arguably the show’s most intriguing post-Season Two storyline go on for a bit longer?

An improvement over the almost disastrous fourth season which was just unpleasant at the end of the day, the fifth season posed bigger questions and was much more willing to actually offer up some intriguing answers to them. That Doug Ellin and co. would wipe that all away only further proves that the show needs to either solve its bipolarity once and for all or at the very least inform its most ardent fans that people are allowed to have different opinions about the series.

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The 2008 Television Time Capsule: Dexter – “The Damage A Man Can Do”

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“The Damage A Man Can Do”

Season Three, Episode Eight

Airdate: November 16th, 2008

In my review of the show’s third season finale, I tore into Dexter for missed potential, for failing to take advantage of its early season ideas and instead investigating something interesting but not compelling. This isn’t to say that the show’s decision to focus its attention on the relationship between Dexter and Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits) was a poor one but rather that it felt like the story never fit the season in a way.

What it did provide, though, was a number of solid episodes that delved into the ramifications of their friendship. “The Damage a Man Can Do” is the most simple of these moments: not wrapped up in the show’s drive towards a conclusion, or in the show’s divided attention at the season’s opening, it answers the question of what could happen if Dexter Morgan had a partner, a friend who helped him with his dark secrets. The episode boils down Dexter’s dark passenger into a shopping list, and a series of disguises and actions that feels wonderfully scientific.

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The 2008 Television Time Capsule: The Mentalist – “Red Handed”

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“Red Handed”

Season One, Episode Six

Airdate: November 11th, 2008

In the doldrums of the Christmas exam period, as new TV wound down, had a choice: catch up on an older show that I have sitting around on DVD or trying to keep culturally relevant by sampling the one new show that is a definitive hit. CBS’ The Mentalist is a long time coming: the network has been searching for a place for Simon Baker ever since it canceled The Guardian after three seasons, and after Smith was a total dud it was time to give Baker another chance in the spotlight.

Mostly, I’m including The Mentalist because of its success: it’s only grown since its premiere, and has the potential to emerge as a Tuesday cornerstone for the network. In a year where very few shows truly broke out, The Mentalist is a true success story.

But it’s also a smart show, in ways that are not always clear and certainly not driving some of the show’s creative input. Bruno Heller, in his first major series work since the end of HBO’s Rome, brings a certain wit to the series: it doesn’t offer anything that other procedurals don’t already offer in spades, but it has proven particularly capable of switching modes from drama to comedy.

A lot of this has to do with Baker’s charm: say what you will about the procedural drama as a medium, or the fact that this show is basically a more serious version of USA’s Psych, but Patrick Jane is an entertaining character to watch. He’s intelligent, his social ticks are less about smugness than they are about impatience (it’s a distinction), and his humanizing back story has been smartly underplayed but maintained in order to eventually pay off.

Picking a single episode is somewhat challenging, because every episode tends to blend into the next. However, if I had to pick one, I think that Jane’s foray into the world of gambling felt like the most fun, and the way the episode worked around it felt quite satisfying. Jane’s ability to gain financially from his efforts are in many ways a root cause of his past indiscretions, so his charity with said winnings adds to the character’s charm.

I am not likely to ever love the show, or watch it live as opposed to in a lull where nothing which needs thinking feels right, but the show may go down as the season’s only true hit: and while I at first was quite cynical about it success in the wake of better shows falling by the wayside, I nonetheless feel like the show remains a well-made procedural drama. And there’s room for one of those in the Time Capsule.

[For more details on the Cultural Learnings 2008 Television Time Capsule, click here!]

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The 2008 Television Time Capsule: The Middleman – “The Flying Fish Zombification”

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“The Flying Fish Zombification”

Season One, Episode Five

Airdate: July 14rh, 2008

Of the shows that aired this past summer, there were a number which could have made their way into the time capsule: the second season of Burn Notice was entertaining, In Plain Sight kept my attention most of the time, and I thought that Secret Diary of a Call Girl had one really fascinating story that I just wish they hadn’t rinsed and repeated again and again.

But they all felt like old ideas, well executed but ultimately feeling like a pitch where two other shows are combined with a “meets” in the middle. But you can’t do that with The Middleman, a show which defies all attempts at genre definition or, more importantly, shoe-horning. While its rapid fire dialogue in its pilot brought Gilmore Girls comparisons to the surface, and its almost nostalgic treatment of super villains and threats to humanity hearkens back to older examples, the show set its own course for a show that didn’t fit into any box.

Unfortunately, it didn’t fit into any demographics either: the show never took off with ABC Family’s targeted young female audience, leaving its future seriously in doubt. But I believe that it needs to be remembered, and as a result place an episode into the Time Capsule to help spread the word.

Picking “The Flying Fish Zombification” isn’t just because of its great name (all of the episodes have those), but rather because I feel like the show’s wit and creativity emerges in both the A and B stories. Wendy (Natalie Morales) being trapped between her normal life and her work as a Middleman is one of the show’s central ideas, but never before was it more entertaining than when Dubby was caught between fighting with The Middleman (Matt Keeslar) to stop zombie-creating fish being used to create an exclamatory soft drink and the genius that is Art Crawl. The former was just plain fun to watch, while the latter gave the show’s fans their battle cry and introduced us to the wonderment that is Noser’s version of “Stump the Band.”

This is a smart and intelligent show that deserves a better fate than a quick and dirty DVD release to recoup costs: even if they have no plans to bring the show back, the creative vision of Javier Grillo-Marxuach deserves a proper sendoff and a DVD that reflects the show’s unique place in 2008’s television landscape.

For now, a spot in the Time Capsule will have to do.

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The 2008 Television Time Capsule: Fringe – “The Equation”

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“The Equation”

Season One, Episode Eight

Airdate: November 18th, 2008

In some ways, I think that Lost is not going to do J.J. Abrams any favours.

Sure, having his name attached to the show got him a great deal of critical acclaim, and his new status as a household name has allowed him to reap considerable career advancement considering this summer’s upcoming release of his Star Trek reboot. But Lost has long ceased being Abrams’ show, and his calling card has never quite been the highly mythological science fiction that that show has become.

I’ve written a lot about Fringe, primarily because there was a lot of misconceptions going in and a lot of misconceptions as it aired. This show isn’t Lost, having more in common with Abrams’ work on Alias than anything on his more recent series. The show has been dangerously procedural, largely devoid of a deep bench of interesting characters, and oftentimes feeling as if its mythology is more contrivance than intrigue. So for those who were expecting a highly serialized, character driven, mythologically interesting drama series ala Lost…well, you’re somewhat out of luck.

But for those who had their expectations in line, I believe that Fringe has delivered a very solid start to the season: towards the end of the ten episodes which aired this Fall, the show picked up both its episodic and long-term content to an honestly quite thrilling conclusion. The pieces began to fit together, and what once felt like part of a broad and shadowy conspiracy now felt like a real honest to goodness plan.

And for me, that starts with “The Equation,” a taut thriller of an episode that was extremely atmospheric: a series of disappearances, all very sudden and all with victims who were some type of genius in their chosen field, are linked together to an equation, the solution to which remains unknown. Placing a young musical genius at the heart of the story, we discover two things.

First, we discover that Michael Giacchino, who had been phoning it in for the preceding episodes in the series, is still capable of writing haunting and moving music, as the central composition of the equation is the perfect melody for the episode.

Second, we realize that what Abrams has achieved with Fringe is his attempt at taking what he learned from Alias, in particular the attempt to add procedural elements to the show to appeal to new viewers, and put it to good use. Knowing now that vagueness is not something which can stand on its own as dramatic development, the season uses it instead to allow us to discover the truth as our characters do.

Yes, the show’s characters need work, and yes they need to diversify their solutions more, but I don’t think the time capsule needs to hear about all of that junk: “The Equation” is serialized procedural at its finest, and reminds us of how much potential this show really has as it heads into the rest of its first season.

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The 2008 Television Time Capsule: Mad Men – “The Mountain King”

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“The Mountain King”

Season Two, Episode 12

Airdate: October 19th, 2008

There are a lot of problems with choosing “The Mountain King” as the episode of Mad Men to enter into our 2008 Television Time Capsule. There are a lot of subtleties you lose in such a decision: you lose the slow escalation of Don Draper’s emotional distance, the subtle dissolution of Don and Betty’s marriage, and the various nuances that define the series’ ability to take a season and make it feel like a lifetime in the best way possible.

But I feel as if “The Mountain King” is the best example of Mad Men’s best qualities: the inner turmoil of Don Draper, here revisiting his past and the woman who helped him assume the identity of his fallen comrade, was never more vulnerable than it was here. If he was lost in a world he didn’t understand in “The Jet Set,” this episode finds him in one that feels almost too comprehensible: it has simple tasks, simple pleasures, and there is a moment or two where we actually question whether Don is going to return to his old life, and there is not a single moment where we question that Don is at the very least going to return to Sterling Cooper with a different outlook on life.

The episode makes this list, though, because of both its thematic consistency and a single moment of stunning television. For Peggy, this was the episode wherein she made her big move: she closes the Popsicle account with a healthy dose of religious imagery (one of the season’s recurrent themes with the introduction of father Gil), moves into Freddy Rumsen’s office, and achieves a triumphant victory, it seems, for the role of women in the show’s universe.

But what Matthew Weiner makes very clear in the episode (co-scripted by Robin Veith) is that the show isn’t about blanket statements: in contrast to Peggy’s success, Joan (a fantastic Christina Hendricks) is trapped in an impending marriage that in this episode turns violent, and Betty feels so devalued by Don’s departure that she lords her moral superiority over others and shares her grief with her daughter. If Peggy takes control of her own destiny, we discover at episode’s end that Joan has lost control of her own, as her fiancée rapes her on the floor of Don’s office, and that Betty doesn’t even know where to begin.

It was perhaps the most human we had ever seen Joan, in particular, and it’s a sign of the show’s diversity: as we ponder Don’s future, celebrate Peggy’s success, and enjoy the comic stylings of Bertram Cooper’s marvelous sister, we nonetheless depart the episode in absolute disgust at Joan’s fate. While the show is often more subtle than what we saw in the season’s penultimate episode, it was never more powerful in my eyes.

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The 2008 Television Time Capsule: Battlestar Galactica – “Revelations”

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“Revelations”

Season Four, Episode 10

Airdate: June 13th, 2008

When Battlestar Galactica ended its third season, it had left two primary questions for the fourth and final season to answer: who is the final Cylon, and when will humanity reach Earth. By the end of “Revelations,” it had answered one of these questions, but it had more importantly done what the season had been somewhat slow to do: to take the third season’s cliffhanger and elevate it to the show’s grandest scale.

This isn’t to say that the rest of the fourth season was a failure in this regard, but the reveal of four of the final five Cylon models was always going to remain small until the entire fleet knew their identities. While episodes like “The Ties that Bind” show the ramifications of this not-at-all simple fact on certain individuals, and the entire season dealt with the internal psychological turmoil (or discovery), it never felt like the season could really take off until more people were aware of their identities.

And in “Revelations,” this became true: as the show ramped up the interest in discovering the final Cylon model, resurrecting D’Anna and bringing the question of Otherness between humanity and Cylons into greater focus by bringing the two sides into a tenuous alliance, it seemed like the ideal time to throw all caution and secrecy to the wind and reveal their identities to the entirety of the fleet.

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The 2008 Television Time Capsule: Lost – “The Constant”

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“The Constant”

Season Four, Episode Five

Airdate: February 28th, 2008

It should come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog, or watched Lost’s fourth season, that “The Constant” makes it into Cultural Learnings’ 2008 Television Time Capsule. The story of Desmond Hume’s altered state, trapped between his time on the island and a period years earlier shortly after his breakup with Penny, the episode is the very definition of what made the fourth season of Lost one of its best.

The reason is found in the episode’s seamless integration of heavy science fiction subjects (radiation-driven time travel) with the show’s most powerful love story. Ever since his flashes began, Desmond has been the character most often directly involved with the science fiction, and on some shows such characters feel like tools, less characters than tools of exposition. But at the same time, Desmond unrequited love with Penny has been one of the show’s most enduring storylines.

The two storylines meet in near perfect harmony in “The Constant.” They each alter one another in the right way: the element of time travel is made more understandable when their relationship is caught in between it, while their relationship, although already compelling, becomes even more remarkable when it is able to transcend both space and time.

While there may be some disagreement about whether or not the show’s finale delivered on the season’s promise, I don’t feel as if anyone could argue that its most emotional moment called back not to Jack and Kate’s flashforward but rather this episode’s pivotal moment, the phone call that will go down as one of the show’s most powerful sequences.

YouTube: The Phone Call

And, as a result, “The Constant” shall enter the Time Capsule as a sign that Lost has continued to evolve: always a science fiction show driven by its characters, those two parts of its identity had never been in such stunning partnership before this episode. As we prepare for the show’s fifth season (which starts January 21st on ABC), I have perhaps an unreasonable confidence that this is the benchmark towards which Lindelof and Cuse will again strive.

Let’s hope I’m right.

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Cultural Learnings’ 2008 Television Time Capsule: An Introduction

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Faced with the task of memorializing 2008 as a year in television, there have been two major trends: either accepting the challenges facing the industry in 2008 and focusing on the positives which emerged, or eviscerating the industry for falling out of its golden age and squandering its potential.

I don’t envy people who truly have to do this job for a living: in a year of failed pilots and declining ratings, it must be tough to sum it all up from a critical perspective without the same kind of freedom that this blog affords me. The Cultural Learnings 2008 Television Time Capsule is an attempt to elide the year as a whole altogether: yes, it is tied together by some vague idea of recognizing that which was memorable in television, but I have no obligation to step outside my own station in doing so.

But I can’t pretend that writing this feature didn’t make me think about the broader implications of the industry, or that I didn’t read numerous other year-end features that influenced me to some degree in the process. This has been, even if we ignore the qualifications of good and bad, an interesting year for the medium of television, and I can totally see how some would begin to view the year as somewhat of a disappointment.

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