Tuesday, June 30, 2009

FX announces premiere dates

Many media outlets, including the Los Angeles Times' TV blog and E!Online, are reporting that FX has announced premiere dates for several of its fall shows. According to these sites, the biker drama "Sons of Anarchy" returns Sept. 8 at 10 p.m. and the dark sitcom "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" comes back on Sept. 17 at 10 p.m. The plastic surgery drama "Nip/Tuck" will return for its penultimate season at an unnamed date in October.
Of these, I'm most excited about the return of "Sunny," which might be my favorite comedy on TV. Yes, I love "30 Rock," but even that fine show can't touch the brilliance that is "The Night Man Cometh," (see above photo) or any incarnation of "Sunny's" "Day Man/Night Man" musical offerings. The show's fourth season wasn't as good as previous installments, but even subpar "Sunny" is better than 90 percent of current sitcoms.
As for the other two I, unfortunately, haven't seen "Sons of Anarchy" yet, but have all the first season episodes and hope to watch them before season two premieres.
And "Nip/Tuck," ironically, has aged poorly, but I'm still watching it -- mainly because my husband won't let me give it up. For this reason, I'm glad it's slowly, but surely, coming to an end. I'll just stick it out, making the most of the aspects of the show I still enjoy (like the fine acting by Julian McMahon, Dylan Walsh and Roma Maffia).
Meanwhile, "Sunny" is coming back! Greenman in the house!

Friday, June 26, 2009

No, he's not just happy to see you: reviewing HBO's "Hung"

Some TV show titles are mysterious and enigmatic. A name like "Breaking Bad" or "Pushing Daisies" gives few hints as to a series' premise, luring the viewer in to watch the show and discover just what that title means.
"Hung" is not one of these titles. Unless you're an interior design geek, you've probably already guessed that this series, which debuts 10 p.m. Sunday on HBO, is not about drapes or picture frames.
It is about a man with a very large penis.
I'm sorry, but there's really no delicate way to express that.
In fact, not only is it about a man with a very large penis, it's about a man with a very large penis who decides to take on a second career as a male prostitute. Yet, despite that salacious premise, "Hung" isn't a salacious show.
Actually, it's an intelligent, melancholy yet funny series about desperate people taking desperate measures to survive in these hard economic times. The man possessing this significant endowment is Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane), a former star athlete gone to seed who is now working as a basketball coach and history teacher at his old high school. His grasping, greedy wife (Anne Heche) has dumped him for a richer man and a series of disasters, which I won't spoil here, has left him alone and living in a tent in his backyard.
Looking for answers, Ray enrolls in a "get rich quick" class, in which the teacher encourages him to find his "winning tool." Ray takes this advice a bit too literally, and decides to become a gigolo. He's aided in his endeavor by struggling poet and former one-night-stand Tanya (Jane Adams), who has also enrolled in the class with visions of creating a product called Lyric Bread (don't ask).
Tanya is at first repulsed by Ray's idea, then joins him as an unlikely pimp.
The thing I like about this show is that, unlike the antiheroes of similar series (such as "Weeds" or "Breaking Bad"), neither Ray nor Tanya is really motivated by greed. Ray just wants to be able to afford basic things in life, like some concert tickets for his teenage son or some much-needed home repairs. Tanya just wants to quit her soul-sucking temp job and pursue the artistic career she's always dreamed of.
These aren't opportunists. These are people who have reached the end of their rope. "I used to be a big deal," Ray laments in a voiceover. Of course, now he's just big. So why not make the most of that?
"Hung" is a timely, perceptive show that does a nice job of reflecting the troubled times we live in. To add a little more poignancy, the series is set in the struggling city of Detroit. Early scenes depict the demolition of Tiger Stadium as a sort of metaphor for a way of life that no longer exists.
However, despite its downbeat subject matter, "Hung" has a lot of humor, particularly in Ray's attempts to forge his stud persona, and in mousy Tanya's strained efforts to assert herself as a pimp.
Obviously, this is a show that leans a lot on its actors to make its characters sympathetic despite their strange enterprise. Both Jane and Adams are up to the task.
Jane made an excellent Mickey Mantle in HBO's TV film "61," but has failed to gain success on the big screen. Ray might be his role. Though Jane's performance can be a bit too broad at times, he's never anything less than likable in the role, and he's utterly believable as a tarnished golden boy.
As the dippy, earthy-crunchy Tanya, Adams has the much harder role. In the wrong hands, Tanya could have easily become a grating caricature, but Adams is so subtle and smart that she gives this flaky character depth. Through her puppy dog eyes, we see how heartbroken Tanya is by the empty life she lives, and how badly she's looking for some way to keep her head above water. Plus, her delivery of the phrase "man whore" is impeccable.
The only bad performance in the bunch is by Heche, who is almost unbearably shrill as Ray's ex-wife. I understand that the character is supposed to be uptight and brittle but, in the third and fourth episodes I watched, it becomes clear that we're supposed to feel some sympathy for this character, who is as much a victim of our consumerist culture as Ray and Tanya. But Heche is so irritating, I couldn't feel anything.
However, that's just one quibble. Overall, "Hung" is a promising, interesting show that transcends a raunchy idea. And a less than subtle title.
"Hung" debuts at 10 p.m. Sunday with a special 45-minute episode. Subsequent episodes will only be 30 minutes long.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

RIP Farrah Fawcett...and Michael Jackson

What a bizarre day in entertainment news. First, we lose pop icon and "Charlie's Angels" star Farrah Fawcett at age 62, following her lengthy battle with cancer. Then, the far more shocking death of Michael Jackson at age 50. All this mere days after the death of longtime TV personality and "Tonight" show sidekick Ed McMahon.
It's all so sad and strange. Granted, Jackson's odd, alienating behavior over the past few decades made it difficult to love him as a person (though many did), but he definitely made a contribution to the world of pop music. I'm going to go ahead and admit this: the "Thriller" video kind of freaked me out as a kid, but I still loved it. And I think the Jackson 5's "The Love You Save" is one of the best (and most underrated) pop songs ever.
By the same token, Fawcett exhibited some odd behavior in her later years (most notably a scattered performance on Letterman in 1997), yet her TV work and modeling career made her a major pop culture figure. And her courage during her last few years of life was admirable.
Obviously, her death got somewhat short shrift after Jackson's passing was made public. As I type this, I have Larry King on in the background, and he mentioned that he was supposed to do a whole hour on Farrah Fawcett...until Jackson died. Suddenly, all Farrah got were a few kind words from her buddy Cher (who was, of course, also on to talk about Jackson). That's really too bad. Why do we do this? Why must Fawcett's equally sad passing be pushed aside? Why can't we give them equal attention?
They were both complicated, fascinating people. No matter what you thought of them, they made an impact and attention -- equal attention -- must be paid.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Miranda Richardson is going to be on TV! Even though she's absent from this press photo!

Today AMC announced plans for its latest original series, the conspiracy thriller "Rubicon," starring James Badge Dale (Chase on "24"). Given that AMC's other two original series are the fantastic "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," I have nothing but high hopes about this latest enterprise...particularly since it will also star the fabulous Miranda Richardson, of "The Crying Game." To which I can only say: "Woo-hoo! Miranda Richardson will be in my living room on a regular basis! Chew on that, Stephen Rea!"
See, I was a bit of a "Crying Game" fan in my teen years (ah, yes -- I was SUPER cool, back in the day), and adored Richardson's bitch-tastic performance as the ice queen IRA babe Jude. Plus, I'm always happy to see accomplished actresses of a certain age get a career boost via TV (by the way, indie icon Lili Taylor will also be on the show). For more info about "Rubicon," see AMC's press release below.

NEW YORK, NY, June 24, 2009 – AMC announced today it has greenlit the dramatic series Rubicon. From writer and executive producer Jason Horwitch (Pentagon Papers, Medical Investigation), Rubicon is a conspiracy thriller that follows an analyst at a New York City think-tank whose work leads him to uncover a hidden clue that points to an unfolding global conspiracy. The one-hour, 12-episode weekly series will be produced by Warner Horizon Television. Rubicon marks the third series order from AMC. The first two series that the network developed were Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

“This script is an iconic project for us in that it underscores AMC’s brand promise of ‘Story Matters Here,’ combining great storytelling with a world that hasn't been explored on television before. Think tanks are inherently mysterious places with murky agendas, and it’s a great setting for a show like this. Jason's understanding of the conspiracy thriller genre is evident in a plot reminiscent of some great films like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View. We're thrilled to have a world class cast, director, and production team to bring this series to life,” said Joel Stillerman, SVP of original programming, production and digital content for AMC.

Rubicon revolves around a secret society that pulls the strings on the world political stage. The series focuses on an analyst at a national think tank who discovers that his employers are not who they seem to be. The show’s cast includes James Badge Dale (The Departed), Lili Taylor (Six Feet Under, High Fidelity), Dallas Roberts (Walk the Line, Flicka, The L Word), Jessica Collins (The Nine, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation), Christopher Evan Welch (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Lauren Hodges (Law & Order), Paul Butler (The Insider, Reign Over Me) with Arliss Howard (Full Metal Jacket, Natural Born Killers, The Sandlot) and Oscar®-nominated actress Miranda Richardson (The Crying Game, Sleepy Hollow).

AMC’s Joel Stillerman, SVP of Original Programming, Production and Digital Content; Vlad Wolynetz, Vice President of Production, Series and Movies; and Jeremy Elice, Vice President of Original Programming, will oversee the development and production of the new drama.

Rubicon’s pilot was produced in New York City and was directed by acclaimed film and television helmer Allen Coulter (The Sopranos, Hollywoodland, Damages and Nurse Jackie). Kerry Orent (Michael Clayton, Rescue Me) is the producer, and the casting director is Avy Kaufman (The Sixth Sense, King Kong, Garden State).

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

RIP, Ed McMahon

Because I've been busy today, I haven't had time until now to post anything about the death of longtime "Tonight" show sidekick and TV icon Ed McMahon. McMahon died early Tuesday at the age of 86. Though no cause has been given for McMahon's death, he had suffered from a series of recent health problems.
I don't really think I can say anything about McMahon that hasn't been said already. Nearly every media outlet in the country has written about his skills as a foil and his omnipresence on television. In addition to his 30 years with "Tonight," he hosted or appeared on a slew of other shows, including the amateur talent contest "Star Search."
Near the end of his life, McMahon, unfortunately, become better known for his series financial problems than for his work as a broadcaster. But -- in the public eye at least -- he was able to maintain a sense of humor about himself and his situation. Take, for example, his "good sport" cameo in this Cash4Gold ad, which ran during this year's Super Bowl.
Dignified? No. But it is funny, and McMahon is clearly in on the joke. And that's, I think, how most people will remember him -- as the guy with the cavernous laugh who, no matter what life threw him, was able to laugh at himself. He'll be missed.

Monday, June 22, 2009

"Jon & Kate," minus me

Note to American media outlets:
Please, please, please stop telling me to care about the reality show "Jon & Kate Plus Eight." Really. I'm sick of not being able to check my e-mail without seeing a tease on Yahoo for some "shocking" story about the troubled Gosselin spouses and their poor, unfortunate, oversized brood. I have seen umpteen blog postings about tonight's "special" episode, in which there will be some big announcement. What will it be? Divorce? Separation? Moving the show to Tuesday nights?
I don't know. I've not seen one episode of this series. And, for a long time, it seemed OK that I'd never watched it. But, over the past few months, countless stories and blogs have told me that I HAVE to care about this saga. I've been told that I must care about the growing animosity between Jon and Kate, which, I guess, is increasingly visible on screen. I've been told that Kate is a monster, and that there's video of her being cruel to her children. I've also been told that her haircut is stupid.
Why am I being told this? Why is the fate of Jon and Kate and the eight of such great importance all of a sudden?
Yes, it's sad that a highly visible couple with children is having problems. I feel bad that their marriage isn't working out. I feel bad that their many, many children will probably be scarred forever by the combination of their parents' tense relationship and the omnipresence of cameras in their life. But I don't need to hear about it every minute.
In fact, I don't need to hear about it at all. There's a reason why I avoid "Jon & Kate," and most reality shows in general. I like living in my reality-free bubble. I do not appreciate constantly having it punctured. So please, stop telling me to care. Stop bombarding me with "news" about the Gosselins. I don't care. I'm allowed not to care. Leave me alone.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Dutch gets evil; Sookie gets wooed and Tommy gets some tough love -- catching up with some of my favorite shows

So, I know it's been a while since I've posted anything and, I swear, I haven't forgotten you. I've just gotten a bit busy. But, as you already know, the newly-begun summer season has already presented us with some great TV. Though I reviewed most of these shows when they debuted/returned, I have since neglected most of them, which is a mistake I'd like to rectify. Let me take a minute to check in with some of the best new/returning shows of the summer season.
* Burn Notice: Most critics have declared this week's episode of "Burn Notice" the best of this season so far. I concur. This week's ep brought the return of evil gun runner Brennen, played by one of my favorite actors, Jay Karnes of "The Shield." On that show, Karnes played weaselly, yet ultimately decent, cop Holland "Dutch" Wagenbach. Karnes gets to show a completely different side as the gaspingly awful Brennen, and he's absolutely fantastic. I also always enjoy the episodes featuring Michael's brother, Nathan, as they bring out a different side of our favorite superspy. Around Nate, Mike is more vulnerable and human. It always serves as a nice reminder of Mike's humanity. And the moment at the end of the episode, when Mike realized just how hard it is for Nate to be his brother, was very touching.
We also got arguably the best scenes yet with Barry the money launderer, who has not only hired a life coach and an intern, but becomes fast friends with Mike's mom, Madeline. My only regret is that we never got to see the Madeline-Barry product party.
I did have one small quibble with the episode: when are they going to do something useful with the suspicious cop played by Moon Bloodgood? So far, her role has been limited to "Show up. Glower. Exit. Repeat." Sigh. This story line better be going somewhere.
However, that was a pretty small flaw in an episode that gave us Barry, Nate, Brennen and, lest I forget, the cantenna -- a nifty homemade hacking device. Overall, solid stuff.
* True Blood: HBO's vampire soap "True Blood" returned this week and, let me say that I've been a little amazed by the critics who have dismissed the Sookie-Bill relationship as the weakest part of the show. Yes, I find the character of Sookie Stackhouse a bit whiny and grating, and wish the TV Sookie was a bit more like the sassy, witty character in Charlaine Harris's novels. That said, I think Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer have fantastic chemistry, and that their love story is often quite sexy and touching. And I still say that this scene is one of the most romantic moments of the TV year.
Come on! How can you watch that scene and not get swept up in this relationship? Have you critics no soul?
* Rescue Me: I've written not a word about this season of "Rescue Me" since my initial review, but I really do think this is one of the show's best seasons ever. This week, we saw Tommy go even deeper into denying his alcoholism. In particular, the scene in which Tommy tells off his horrified AA group is one of the most powerful in "Rescue Me" history. Denis Leary is hitting all home runs this season. But mention must also be made of Robert John Burke, who plays Tommy's sadder, wiser cousin, Mickey. It's hard to believe that this is the same actor who portrayed ice-veined Bart Bass on "Gossip Girl." He's much different here, and his performance is every bit as good as Leary's. Maybe he should get his own show.
*Nurse Jackie: I'm really getting into this Showtime series starring Edie Falco, and I hope you are, too. I've seen the first six episodes, and it only gets better. This week, we learned a little more about the day-to-day anxiety of Jackie's job when an irate patient punches her in the face. I love the way that Zoey, the nursing student played by Merritt Weaver, was almost more horrified by that than she was by the ear bubbling up in the toilet. I'm also fascinated by the whole issue of Jackie's infidelity. We've yet to see in any real flaws in her relationship with her husband. He's sweet, helps with the kids and they seem to have a pretty hot sex life. So why is she turning to Eddie? Is it just because he gets her painkillers? I'm sure someone as clever as Jackie could find another way to procure them. Maybe she wants a part of her life that's secret; that she doesn't have to share with anyone. Maybe Eddie is how she blows off all the steam generated by being a dedicated nurse, mother and wife. It's wrong and unfair, but it's an interesting idea, narratively. My only problem with the episode was the Mrs. Akalitus story line. Really? We're going with the "Uptight boss is semi-accidentally drugged" story line already? Didn't "Taxi" fish this lake dry with Louie DePalma in the episode where Reverend Jim takes his driving test? I'm just sayin'.

Friday, June 12, 2009

New season of "True Blood" doesn't suck

After watching the first two new episodes of the second season of HBO's deliciously fun vampire series "True Blood," I've realized something very important: single heterosexual women (and single gay men) should probably avoid this series like the plague.
Don't get me wrong. The show -- about telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) and her adventures in Louisiana's supernatural underworld -- is a hoot, full of witty dialogue, hilarious performance and truly beautiful (if creepy) imagery. I'd never steer anyone away from it based on quality.
It's just that, if you're single and so inclined, Bill Compton will ruin you for ALL other men. As fans know, Bill is Sookie's boyfriend. He's also a vampire and, as played by the sultry Stephen Moyer, he's the most ridiculously erotic man (dead or undead) currently on TV. He's over a hundred years old and has the manners of a Southern gentleman. He's gorgeous. He pronounces "Sookie" as "Sucky," which, for some reason, is unbelievably hot. He's great in bed. And, in this season's premiere, he offers a ticked off Sookie an apology so eloquent and beautiful, I literally gasped. Seriously. It's the kind of apology that ends with the sentence "You are my miracle." Swoon!
Sigh. OK, Bill worship aside, it's nice to have this enjoyable (if a bit unfocused) series back on TV. The new season, which starts Sunday at 9 p.m., picks up where the last one left off, with Sookie and Tara (Rutina Wesley) finding a body in Andy's (Chris Bauer) car. I won't reveal who that body belongs to, but I will say that it was a bit of a surprise. The show wastes no time in following up on some of last season's other hanging plotlines, like Bill's murder of Sookie's skeevy uncle; the bratty new vampire Bill had to "turn" to make up for murdering a vamp to protect Sookie and a little back story on Maryann (Michelle Forbes), the mysterious woman who kind of adopted Tara at the end of last season. We learn a bit more about Maryann's history with Sam (Sam Trammell) in Sunday's premiere and, let me say, I couldn't be happier that Forbes seems to be getting a larger part this season. Like fellow "TB" cast members Bauer and William Sanderson, Forbes is one of those actors who has been in nearly every show, and she's always a dark delight.
The show also hasn't lost its dark sense of humor. In addition to the supernatural mayhem, we get scenes like the one where Bill teaches new vamp Jessica how to recycle, and another in which the Sheriff lectures Andy while wearing some sort of country line dance outfit.
"True Blood" does have flaws, with Sookie Stackhouse a pretty polarizing character. Paquin is adorable and charming, but Sookie can be tough to take at times. I understand her life is confusing, but she's just so damn whiny. Plus, in the second episode, she does something so stupid that you just want to shake her.
The show's narrative also can get a bit twisty, and I sometimes worry that they're trying to do too much with too many characters.
But, overall, "True Blood" is a treat. It's good to have it back. And not just because of the overwhelming hotness of Bill Compton.
The new season of "True Blood" begins at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

For your consideration...

Dear Academy of Television Arts & Sciences members,
I noticed that you've received your Emmy ballot and that, over the next few weeks, you'll be charged with selecting the nominees for this year's Primetime Emmy Awards. First off, let me say that I've looked at the ballot and I owe you all an apology. I'm always ranting and raving about how you nominate the same people year after year and omit a lot of worthy candidates. But now that I've seen the ballot, I see the difficult job you face. Nearly every actor and show on TV is eligible for nomination. I mean, you could nominate pretty much the entire cast of "Rules of Engagement" if you wanted to (by the way, thanks for never doing that). With so much information, I can see how you'd get overwhelmed.
So, I thought I'd help you out.
Below is a list of worthy candidates in each category. Most would be first-time nominees and all have done excellent, award-worthy work. All I ask is that you take a look and at least CONSIDER nominating them. OK? Let's get started.
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series: Until a few months ago, I barely knew who Danny McBride was. I was aware he was a protegee of Will Farrell, and that he'd made a well-received low-budget movie called "The Foot Fist Way" (which I'd never seen), but that was about it. Then HBO debuted the new comedy "Eastbound and Down," on which McBride played angry, foul-mouthed ex-pitcher Kenny Powers. Though it took me a few episodes to figure it out, I eventually realized that McBride is the real deal. Funny, fearless and a good actor, McBride is a talent worth watching...and worth nominating.
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series: Let's be honest -- this is a category that rewards flash. Yes, Hugh Laurie, James Gandolfini, Bryan Cranston and other past nominees and winners are talented. But I imagine most actors could do good things with complicated, juicy characters like Dr. House, Tony Soprano and Walter White. It's much harder to be memorable when playing the calm, reasonable center of a series. And that's just what Kyle Chandler does every week on "Friday Night Lights." With just a twitch of his jaw, or a cloud of thought floating over his eyes, Chandler reaches deep into the soul of high school football coach Eric Taylor. It's a rich, lived-in performance and it's crazy that, three seasons into this show, Chandler has yet to score a nomination.
Also worth nominating: Jeffrey Donovan, who, in the most recent season of "Burn Notice," found some rich emotional layers in slick ex-spy Michael Westen.
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series: I only saw half of the first season of Showtime's new sitcom "The United States of Tara," but I did like Toni Collette's warm, brave, funny performance as a mom juggling work, family and multiple personalities.
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series: OK, I won't waste much time pushing this one, because I know there's almost zero chance this will ever happen, but I must say that Leighton Meester is a revelation as Blair Waldorf on "Gossip Girl." Don't laugh! She's funny, vulnerable and gives unexpected depth to this pampered princess. The show lives or dies on Meester, and that's what makes her Emmy-worthy. OK, speech over. Let's discuss some other worthy candidates for this category. Regina King is in her first season over on NBC's promising cop drama "Southland," and she's already created a three-dimensional character out of tough but sensitive police Detective Lydia Adams. Plus, she's always been one of my favorite actresses (it's hard to steal a scene from Tom Cruise, Renee Zelleweger and Cuba Gooding, Jr., but she did just that in "Jerry Maguire"). And, no discussion of this category would be complete without a healthy push for Elisabeth Moss, who is nothing short of spectacular as Peggy Olson on "Mad Men." I wish that character was my best friend, that's how vibrant and convincing Moss is.
Outstanding Supporting Actor in Comedy Series: Look, I love Bret and Jemaine, the wacky tunesmiths at the heart of HBO's "Flight of the Conchords," but without Rhys Darby as their sensible yet dense manager Murray, it would definitely lose something. Darby's dry delivery and great, deadpan reaction shots are as essential to this show as the songs and shtick. The guys wouldn't be as funny without him.
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series: OK, you can ignore ALL my other suggestions as long as you heed this one -- you absolutely MUST nominate Walton Goggins for his uniformly exceptional work as troubled, doomed Detective Shane Vendrell on "The Shield." Goggins' is one of the best supporting performances of the best decade and he's a huge part of the reason why Shane was one of the show's best characters. Check out the series finale, in which Shane makes a terrible, terrible choice and struggles with every minute of it. Phenomenal.
Also worth mentioning: Dean Norris and Aaron Paul of "Breaking Bad," Ken Leung and Jeremy Davies of "Lost" and John Scurti of "Rescue Me" would all be solid additions to this category. But putting Goggins in the running should be your priority.
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series: This was a good year for funny ladies. "SNL" mainstay Amy Poehler got her own series. Tina Fey was a smash on both "30 Rock" and "SNL." But I can think of at least two hilarious women who are constantly ignored by award-granting institutions: Kristen Schaal of "Flight of the Conchords" and Kaitlin Olson of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." Both women hold their own on male-dominated shows. Both add dimension to truly weird, fairly unsympathetic characters. And both are pee-your-pants hysterical. Recognize!
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series: Remember what I said about Walton Goggins? I feel the same way about Chloe Sevigny on "Big Love." She's always been great as mercurial, damaged polygamist Nikki Grant, but this was her strongest season yet. In nearly every single episode, she had at least one amazing, scene-stealing moment. In the season finale, she had two: the scene where she met her abandoned daughter, and her breakdown in the car with Jeanne Tripplehorn's Barb. All the actresses on this show are outstanding, but Sevigny was this season's gem.
Also worth mentioning: I don't know if anyone else is going to plug Michele Hicks' work as Shane's wife Mara on "The Shield," but let me put in my two cents. Hicks was so raw and vulnerable, she made us feel bad for a character that was nearly impossible to like. Well done.
Outstanding Comedy Series: This could very well be the last season for HBO's "Flight of the Conchords." While it wasn't as good as last season, this is still one of the funniest shows on TV. How about a little love?
Outstanding Drama Series: Yes, "The Shield" won a Golden Globe for best drama years ago, and has been nominated in the past. But this is its last season. Please show this fantastic series the appreciation that its devastating final season deserved.
So, those are more thoughts. Again, these are only suggestions, and I hope you'll at least consider them. Except Goggins and Sevigny. Their nominations are non-negotiable. I mean it.
I Screen You Screen

Premiere date announced for "Mad Men" season three

So, in case you haven't heard by now, AMC finally announced a premiere date for the third season of its great, Emmy-award-winning drama "Mad Men." It'll be back at 10 p.m. EST on Sunday, Aug. 16. Also, if you missed any of the second season, AMC will run a marathon of all 13 episodes on Monday, Aug. 10, beginning at 7 a.m. To get you revved up for the new season, here's the commercial AMC's running for season three...which, as far as I can tell, contains absolutely no scenes from the new season.

In other scheduling news, Showtime has already renewed its brand new series, "Nurse Jackie," starring Edie Falco, for a second season. They work quick over at Showtime.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

"Weeds," "Breaking Bad," and gender on TV

This weekend, I was watching some preview episodes from the fifth season of "Weeds," which begins at 10 p.m. today on Showtime.
The series focuses on suburban mom Nancy Botwin (Mary Louise Parker) who turns to pot dealing after the death of her husband. Over the course of the past several seasons, Nancy's greed and ambition has driven her deeper and deeper into the drug biz. At the end of last season, she just narrowly escaped getting murdered by her Mexican drug lord boyfriend. The new season finds her still in hot water with the Mexican mafia, while also juggling her two sons and array of wacky associates. The episodes are typical "Weeds," -- solid and entertaining, but occasionally too far over the top and a little too condescending to the supporting characters.
However, throughout the episodes, my mind kept drifting to another series about drug dealing, AMC's drama "Breaking Bad," which just concluded its amazing second season. Like Nancy, "Bad" protagonist Walter White is a suburbanite who tells himself that the drug trade is the only way to support his family (he has terminal cancer). Walter manufactures crystal meth, a drug far less justifiable than pot. He's also gotten increasingly sucked into the drug world in the show's short life.
But there are some distinct differences between the two characters. Most of those have to do with the fact that "Weeds" is a comedy and "Breaking Bad" is a drama (Nancy makes more jokes, for one thing). But I think the core differences between them have to do with the fact that Walt is a man and Nancy is a woman.
The show gives them entirely different sets of strengths that are obviously gender-related. Walt, the man, is a brilliant former chemist who manages to survive in the drug trade, despite his inexperience, due mainly to his intelligence and resourcefulness. His skill at manufacturing drugs has saved his life more than once, as has his ability to think fast in a crisis.
Nancy, the woman, is a former housewife who manages to survive in the drug trade, despite her inexperience, due mainly to her charm and sexuality -- what used to be called "feminine wiles." The whole reason the Mexican mafia hasn't killed her is that she's pregnant by the drug lord, who believes she might be able to deliver him a son. Clearly, this isn't a tactic Walt can use.
I'm not going to make some knee-jerk claim of sexism, accusing "Weeds" of making Nancy dumb (or, at least, non-intellectual) because she's a woman. First off, "Weeds" and "Breaking Bad" were created completely independently of each other at different times. I don't think the two shows were meant to be a commentary on each other at all. Secondly, "Weeds" was created by a woman, Jenji Kohan. Plus, Nancy has a lot of positive attributes that Walt doesn't have. We've never seen her let an innocent person die, for example. In fact, she got in trouble with the Mexican mafia because she couldn't stomach their human trafficking business. Nancy is also much more family-minded. Yes, she's engaged in a trade that endangers her two young sons, but she's always aware of that, and is constantly making arrangements for them in case of her death (the start of this season has her packing off her young son to go live with her sister, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh).
But the contrast between the two characters provides an interesting picture of our different ideas of men and women, particularly men and women in business (whatever that business might be). Nancy isn't the only TV business woman who plays up her sexuality. The female investigators on the "CSI" series, for example, are almost always in low-cut tops and high heels -- clothing that few real investigators would consider practical. And, on these same shows, the men are often wonky intellectuals (or, in the case of David Caruso's character on "CSI: Miami," seem capable of solving a crime by simply whipping off their sunglasses and staring directly into the camera).
Why does this dichotomy exist? Why can't we have a brilliant female cop or drug dealer (or doctor or lawyer or fill-in-the-blank) who wears slacks and turtle necks and can start an RV engine with spare change? Some such characters do exist, including Brenda Leigh Johnson on "The Closer," but they're still too rare. We live in a world where real women can succeed in business without wearing mini-dresses and batting their eyes. TV needs to catch up.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

"The Closer" returns

TNT's crime drama "The Closer," isn't a show I write about much, mainly because there's not all that much to say. It's pretty straightforward: quirky police interrogator Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) fights crime with the help of a mostly male staff. She's expert on the job, but lacks people skills and other social niceties. It's not really a show that lends itself to being discussed and dissected like, say, "Lost" or "Dollhouse."
But I still like it. I've always liked it, mainly because I think it's one of the most purely entertaining hours on TV. I also love the character of Brenda, and the way that she's allowed to be frumpy and disagreeable, but is never portrayed as less than competent. The show's new season starts tonight at 9 p.m. and, like most "Closer" episodes, focuses on a terrible crime that must be solved by Brenda and her gang. Also, Brenda's cat is sick, and she tries to deal with that, in the kind of tender yet slightly goofy subplot we've come to expect from the series.
The first episode is light on the show's usually reliable supporting characters, focusing mainly on Brenda and the crime at hand (though there is a nice emotional arc for Raymond Cruz's still-waters-run-deep Detective Sanchez).
That's OK. In a TV world where "entertainment" is usually a synonym for "dumb and mindless," "The Closer" is the rare show that's both fun to watch and not insulting to the brain.
Maybe I can't analyze it, but I can sit back and enjoy it. And that's enough.
The new season of "The Closer" starts tonight at 9 p.m.

"Nurse Jackie" provides a heroine both sainted and tainted

Does anyone play denial better than Edie Falco? For all those years on "The Sopranos," on which she played mafia wife Carmela Soprano, she gave us a woman who constantly suppressed her knowledge of her husband's criminal activities (and her complicity in same). With her tight-lipped smile, set jaw and studiedly calm eyes, Falco's Carmela was a woman who tucked her misgivings and guilt about her life into a place deep inside.
On Showtime's excellent new dramedy "Nurse Jackie," which premieres at 10:30 p.m. Monday, Falco takes another character whose survival hinges on keeping certain secrets. This time, she's nurse Jackie Peyton, a smart, compassionate, resourceful voice of reason in a hospital where most of the other employees are either hopelessly callous or eye-rollingly goofy. She offers not just care, but sympathy (and, if needed, a firm dressing down). Jackie is undeniably good at her job. She's also incredibly flawed. The first time we see her, she's laid out on the bathroom floor, preparing to snort painkillers to ease her aching back. Jackie tells herself, and us, that this is necessary ("What do you call a nurse with a bad back?" Jackie asks in a voiceover. "Unemployed! Ba-dum-bump!").
In addition to her drug use, Jackie is guilty of other sins. Though other critics have disclosed these, I won't. But, suffice it to say, her life requires a lot of juggling and secrecy. And hypocrisy. Jackie doesn't bat an eye when admonishing a patient for her prescription drug addiction.
Carmela Soprano might not have liked Jackie's short hairdo or ragged nails, but she probably would have related to her plight. So do we. Unlike a lot of TV anti-heroes and anti-heroines, Jackie seems fundamentally good. She does help a lot of people through her work, and offers mostly good, sane advice to her co-workers. She has a good heart, even though she lies, abuses drugs, and flushes the occasional ear down the toilet (don't ask).
In fact, I like "Nurse Jackie" the show mainly because I like Nurse Jackie the character. We might not always agree with what she does. But we understand her. And we know, in many cases, the good balances out the bad. In many ways, she reminded me of a sweeter version of Tommy Gavin, the angry firefighter played by Denis Leary on "Rescue Me." Both have substance abuse problems and difficulty with relationships, but are hyper-competent on the job. And they both have dark, nasty senses of humor. However, I'd never want to hang out with Tommy Gavin. I could probably do lunch with Nurse Jackie.
Falco, of course, is a perfect fit for the part. She gives Jackie the appropriate gravitas and a nice deadpan wit, and her expressive face is perfect for a character who does most of her talking with her eyes.
The rest of the characters, however, are hit or miss. Eve Best is properly aloof as Jackie's glamorous and sardonic doctor buddy, and Merrit Wever is adorable as a naive (but surprisingly perceptive) nursing student. And it's fun to see Paul Schulze, who played Father Phil on "The Sopranos," as a pharmacist with whom Jackie has a special relationship. But I'm not quite sure how I feel about Peter Facinelli, who plays obnoxious frat-boy Dr. Fitch "Coop" Cooper. His bombast masks his insecurity about his abilities as a doctor (and about his various personal problems, about which we learn slowly). Facinelli doesn't quite have the depth as an actor to play this complicated character. However, he can be very funny at times, particularly when geeking out about the hospital getting a new, automated pill dispenser. I have hopes that Facinelli will grow into the role.
At least he's given a character to work with. Poor Anna Deavere Smith, as a stern hospital administrator, has little to do other than hover and look imperious. Smith is a good actress, capable of much more. Let's hope the script provides her with meatier material.
Overall, though, this is Falco's show and, as such, it's worth watching. Her Jackie is someone you can enjoy spending a half hour a week with.
"Nurse Jackie" premieres at 10:30 p.m. Monday. The first episode is also available to view online. Click here to watch.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A show I won't be writing about

Another show premiering on Thursday is NBC's new drama "The Listener." But I've been so swamped with my vacation, series finales, and new cable shows that I didn't even have time to request a screener, let alone watch the show. So, you won't see a review here. But I would like to take a quick minute to talk about a trend that "The Listener" seems to be continuing: the "The ___" trend. You know, as in "The Mentalist," "The Locator," "The Cleaner," "The Closer," "The Beast" and, coming soon from the network that brought you "The Listener," "The Philanthropist." Lots of people seem to be noticing this trend. Amy Antangelo, aka TV Gal, mentioned it in her latest blog posting. And SNL did this hilarious send-up on the "The" trend. By the way, I happen to like "The Closer," but my husband hates it and, thus, adores Kristen Wiig's spot-on Kyra Sedgwick imitation. Even I must admit it's pretty funny ("CON-FAYYYYSSSS!!!")
So, in summary, I have no review of "The Listener." But I give the "The" trend a thumbs-down.

"Burn Notice" is hot, but "Pains" hurts to watch

When USA debuted the TV show "Monk" in 2002, it was a turning point for the network. Sure, USA had aired original series before (most notably the popular cheesefest "Silk Stalkings"), but "Monk" was arguably the first show to employ USA's now-popular recipe for creating a successful show: Take one likable, semi-recognizable actor (in this case, Tony Shalhoub). Then, put him/her in a simply plotted, high-concept show who premise can, preferably, be described in one sentence. Add in colorful supporting characters. Mix well. Serve.
USA has since employed this formula to create several shows, including "Psych," "In Plain Sight" and, most successfully, "Burn Notice." That last series, stars Jeffrey Donovan as blacklisted spy Michael Westen, who lives in Miami and uses his spy know-how both to fight his enemies and help the disenfranchised. The show, which returns for its third season at 9 p.m. tonight, contains all the basic USA elements. It's quick, slick, and not overly complicated. But underneath all the cool spy gimmicks, Miami sunshine and one-liners is a real emotional core. Over the show's past two seasons, we've come to care about Michael and his two partners, on-again-off-again girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) and schlubby tough guy Sam Axe (the great Bruce Campbell).
At the end of last season, Michael finally cut himself off from the people who burned him -- a moment punctuated by a spectacular jump from a helicopter. This season finds him facing the consequences of his actions, which (spoiler alert) haven't made his life any easier.
The season premiere is a bit of a come-down after last season's emotional, action-packed finale, but it still contains a lot of action, some good character development moments, and just the right amount of scenes in which Campbell's Sam sucks down a beer like it's mother's milk. The second episode, airing next week, is even stronger, as the gang fights to retrieve a kidnapped child. "Burn Notice" isn't just typical USA escapism. It's the real deal: a show that entertains, but doesn't insult your intelligence.
If "Burn Notice" represents the high end of USA's programming, the new series "Royal Pains" is definitely the low end. The show debuts 10 p.m. Thursday, right after the season premiere of "Burn Notice," but shares none of its lead-in's depth and cleverness. The show centers around Hank (the likable Mark Feuerstein of "Good Morning Miami" and the movie "In Her Shoes"), a brilliant ER doc who finds himself blacklisted following a principled (but politically un-savvy) decision. After dropping out of life totally, he's lured back to the land of the living by his goofy accountant brother (Paulo Costanzo), who invites him to crash a party in the Hamptons. Of course, while at the party, Hank saves a guest, and all the richies want to adopt him as their own personal concierge doctor. The show isn't terrible, and Feuerstein is quite charming in the lead. But it's flat, predictable and unexceptional. The few zesty moments are provided by Costanzo, who is a lively, quick-talking presence, and by the always-welcome Campbell Scott, seen all too briefly as the powerful host of that fateful party.
I might be being a bit hard on "Royal Pains." It could get better. Most USA shows do improve as they go along. But, frankly, I wasn't moved enough by the pilot (which, by the way, is a butt-numbing 90 minutes long) to give it a second chance.
I realize that USA's goal isn't to provide ground-breaking television. It's to provide pleasant, watchable television. But it's possible to do that and also engage the minds and hearts of your audience. Hopefully, the network's next originally offering will be more "Burn," less "Pain."

Monday, June 1, 2009

"Breaking Bad" season finale recap: "ABQ"

The second season of AMC's "Breaking Bad" wrapped up last night and, I must say, this show is evolving into one of TV's great dramas. When it debuted last year amid the writers' strike, it showed a lot of promise, but ended its first season before its ideas were really given a chance to flourish.
But this season, the saga of chemistry teacher turned drug dealer Walter White (the brilliant Bryan Cranston) and his junkie sidekick Jesse Pinkman (an equally amazing Aaron Paul) came full flower. Last season we saw Walt, diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, become a crystal meth manufacturer to help provide money for his family after his death. This season, Walt became more and more invested in his new "career" -- and increasingly ruthless. His relationship with the loyal but dense Jesse also became increasingly charged, leading up to the moment in last week's episode when Walt let Jesse's troublesome junkie girlfriend Jane (Krysten Ritter) die of an overdose. The moment has drawn a lot of comparisons to Tony Soprano's murder of his nephew Christopher in the famous "Kennedy and Heidi" episode of "The Sopranos" (though Walt's is mainly a murder of inaction). However, the episode -- and the Walt/Jesse dynamic -- reminded me in a way of another dark, departed drama, "The Shield." The relationship between Jesse and Walt is a lot like that between Vic Mackey and Shane Vendrell. Walt, like Vic, is convinced that what he is doing is for the best, and finds creative ways to keep his criminal activity hidden -- particularly from his wife. Jesse, like Shane, is more of loose cannon. Just as Shane told his wife Mara everything about his business, Jesse spills all his drug-dealing secrets to Jane. These are two men who, as Shane put it in his suicide note, "made each other into something worse than our individual selves."
At any rate, not only has "Breaking Bad" become a program that bears comparison to "The Sopranos," and "The Shield," it's also become a strong, must-see offering in its own right. Last night's finale episode, "ABQ," showed several turning points for its characters. Skylar finally bucked up and left Walt, after his "which cell phone?" slip lead her to investigate a bit deeper into her husband's activities. Jesse is finally getting clean (for now). Walt's cancer is officially on the run (though not gone for good). And, of course, we learned exactly what caused that charred teddy bear to be floating in Walt's swimming pool: a plane crash inadvertently caused by Jane's heart-broken air traffic controller dad.
Here are a few more of my thoughts on "ABQ."
* Let's start with the revelation about the source of the Great White Swimming Pool Massacre. I just don't know how I feel about it. On the one hand, I get that it's something of a sign; that this crash is evidence that Walt's drug-dealing business is costing the lives of more and more innocent people. I know that, without Walt and Jesse, Jane wouldn't have died and her dad wouldn't have been distracted and grief-stricken enough to let the plane crash happen. On the other hand, it just seems a little too poetic and coincidental to me. I mean, really: of all the places the planes could have collided, they crash over Walt's yard? It's a little much. And I felt a little ripped off that this was the payoff we'd been leading to all season. I expected something more directly related to Walt's business. I mean, I get what they were trying to do here. I'm just not sure how I feel about it. Thoughts?
* That said, the rest of the episode was full of spectacular moments. The scene with Walt venturing into the junkie flophouse to find Jesse was probably the most powerful one of the whole episode, if not the whole season. It's also the first time in a long time we've seen Walt behave somewhat admirably. Saul's fixer offers to go in for him, but Walt insists on doing it himself. He knows that he's the reason Jesse's in the flophouse, and he feels a responsibility to get him out. The horror, sadness and revulsion on Walt's face as he walks among the house's many junkies is just perfect. And the moment when he finds his partner is simply devastating. Cranston has been (deservedly) praised up and down for his genius work as Walter, but this scene proved yet again that Paul is more than a match for him. He plays so many notes, here -- guilt, shame, pain, drug-induced disorientation -- and doesn't miss a beat.
* By the way, the fixer who takes Walt to the flophouse (and covers up Walt and Jesse's involvement in Jane's overdose) was played by the great Jonathan Banks, who, to me, will always be the surly yet lovable Frank McPike from the classic crime drama "Wiseguy." I'm sure he'll be another great addition to the show's ever-expanding gallery of supporting characters.
* Speaking of which, how priceless was it that Gus the drug distributor was one of the local businessmen participating in the DEA fun run? I'm hoping we see more of Gus (and of Giancarlo Esposito's marvelous, restrained performance) next season. I'm dying to know what he thinks of the fact that Walt is the brother-in-law of a DEA agent.
* As previously mentioned, Cranston has been lauded so much for his work as Walt that there doesn't seem to be much more to say on the subject. But I have to mention his performance during the scene when Walt Jr./Flynn praises him effusively to the TV journalist reporting on the web site donations. Despite his praise, Walt knows he doesn't deserve to be commended as "decent" and a "good guy." He looks guilty, pained and miserable. Nice touch: a chipper Marie in the background, feverishly urging Walt to smile for the camera.
* The departure of Skylar and the family officially sets Walt up as a man with nothing to lose. The death of Jane essentially does the same for Jesse. So what are they going to do now?