Sunday, December 20, 2009

0! 0! The best TV shows of the past 10 years

Say what you want about the 00's, the past decade has been a pivotal one in the world of TV. Over the past 10 years, the way we watched TV changed dramatically. It seems odd to think of a time when, if you weren't home to watch your favorite show, your only option was to tape it with your VCR. Today, we can still tape a show, using a DVR that allows us to tape two shows at once (at least). We can also watch shows online or on DVD. The old methods of viewing are dead. A new age of TV has begun.
If our methods of watching TV changed, so did TV itself. Yes, we saw the rise of the reality show, but we also saw a change in story-telling style. Many shows (most of them on cable) offered rich, complex serialized stories, told through complicated (and not always heroic) characters. This decade offered some of the best TV shows of my lifetime, including such iconic efforts as "The Shield," "The Wire" and "The Sopranos" (yes, the last one started in the 90's, but most seasons aired this decade -- which also lays claim to the show's polarizing finale).
Below is my list of the best shows of the past 10 years. Yes, I'm sure most of the choices will be the same as those found on other "Best of the Decade" lists, but that doesn't negate their quality. Nearly every show on this list was revolutionary in some way, offering something new to the medium. They're also all extremely entertaining.
Take a look.
1. "The Shield," FX: Most folks think Tony Soprano is the anti-hero of the decade, and he's all right. But for my money, Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), the arrogant corrupt cop at the dark heart of FX's "The Shield" is the one to beat. Vic and his "strike team" of thug cops killed, stole and lied their way through the ravaged community they patrolled. They also caught a lot of bad guys, so it was hard to totally hate Vic and co. "The Shield" re-invented Chiklis's career and backed him with what remains the best acting ensemble of the decade. CCH Pounder was subtly moving as Mackey's polar opposite, the principled Claudette Wyms, and Jay Karnes was a wry treat as Claudette's partner, the goofy Dutch Wagenbach. But possibly the show's best character was Vic's mad dog sidekick Shane Vendrell, played with absolute perfection by Walton Goggins, whose lack of an Emmy is nothing short of a sin.
The series had a slew of memorable moments, but my vote for the best was this one, in the show's last season, when Vic finally confesses to all the evil crap he's done over the years. Note the prolonged closeup of Chiklis's face. It's uncomfortable, raw and devastating. Like this whole show.

2. "Freaks and Geeks," NBC: Yes, roughly half the episodes of this single-season series ran in 1999. So what? Enough ran in this decade for it to qualify. And, frankly, what decade wouldn't want to claim this brilliant show, about students at a Michigan high school in the 1980s? The show beautifully captured the pain, awkwardness and humiliation of growing up. That's probably why it only lasted a season. But it's a gem, featuring brave, honest performances from its young cast, including Linda Cardellini as conflicted brainiac Lindsay Weir, John Francis Daley as her brother, Sam, and future stars James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel as Lindsay's friends. Bonus: "SCTV's" Joe Flaherty played Sam and Lindsay's dad. And yes, he was AWESOME.

3. The Wire, HBO: After all the praise heaped on this brilliant portrait of life in urban Baltimore, it's hard to think of anything else to say. So why not let the show speak for itself?

4. "The Sopranos," HBO: The fade to black. After years of operatic characters, brilliant writing and star-making performances, the moment that will forever define "The Sopranos" is the fade to black. Creator David Chase, instead of giving fans a neat, tidy ending to the saga of New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), cut abruptly to black at the close of the show's final episode. Many fans thought they had neglected to pay the cable bill. Others were plain angry about what they saw as a flip of the bird to a loyal fan base. But, eventually, it's been revealed for what it was: a bold, uncompromising and totally fitting end to one of the decade's most daring shows.

5. "Deadwood," HBO: There's a lot of talk about the "Three Davids" of HBO -- "Sopranos" creator David Chase, "Wire" auteur David Simon and "Deadwood" mastermind David Milch. Milch might get lost in the shuffle occasionally, because his show is so dense and strange. It's a Western loaded with violence, profanity, poetic dialogue, a star-making performance by Ian McShane as anti-hero Al Swearengen. It's hard to describe and even harder to forget. Here's one of the more under-stated scenes from this series. Yes, there's a lot of cursing, but it's pretty much impossible to find a profanity-free "Deadwood" clip.

6. "Lost," ABC: Maybe the strangest show of the decade and definitely one of the most gripping. A disparate group of people board a plan that crashes on a mysterious island. Smoke monsters, mysterious natives called "Others," polar bears and time travel all follow. It's a mind-boggling show, made watchable by some of the most compelling characters on TV. My favorites include mysterious Other Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson), serene -- if nutty -- lottery winner Hugo "Hurley" Reyes (Jorge Garcia, playing one of the decade's most engaging characters), and the baffling John Locke (Terry O'Quinn). It's smart, funny, moving and vastly entertaining.
Plus, it has some of the coolest visual, most eye-catching set pieces of any show on TV. Behold -- the frozen donkey wheel!

7. "Arrested Development," Fox: This quirky sitcom about a crazy spoiled family lasted only three seasons. But let's be honest -- we're lucky this show managed to stay on the air that long. This intricate character-based comedy dared viewers to work for their laughs. It rewarded us for paying attention, being well-versed in pop culture and current events, and for being just a little bit sick. All this, plus Jeffrey Tambor and Jessica Walter as the best bad parents of all time. (Note: Hulu clips look weird when I imbed them, so I can only link. Sorry!).
8. "Mad Men," AMC: True, it might be a bit too early in the show's run to bestow the mantle of greatness upon it. Still, in just three seasons, its accomplishments have been astonishing. This period drama about New York ad men (and women) not only revived 60s style, it made a star of the incredibly gifted Jon Hamm, launched AMC as a home for original program and won buckets of Emmys. It's also provided some of the most memorable TV moments of the best 10 years, including this one.
9. "Veronia Mars," UPN/the CW: A lot of people thought "Veronica Mars," a drama about a teen detective, was just a perky Nancy Drew update. Oh how wrong they were. In the first episode alone, we learned that Veronica (Kristen Bell, in a star-making role) had been raped, that her best friend had been murdered and that her mom had abandoned her. Nancy Drew never had such problems. Of course, it wasn't all darkness in Veronica's world. This was one of the quickest-witted shows on TV and full of zippy moments, like this one:

And this one:

Aaaand this one:

10. "Everybody Loves Raymond," CBS/ "30 Rock," NBC: On the surface, these two comedies seem to have nothing in common. "Raymond" is a conventional family sitcom, with a laugh track, cute kids and a lot of bickering. "30 Rock" meanwhile is a zany workplace comedy with no laugh track, a gag-a-minute pace and no kids to speak of. Yet they have more in common than you'd think. The stars of both shows came from fields other than acting. Ray Romano was a standup comic with little acting experience. Tina Fey was a comedy writer whose acting experience was limited co-hosting "SNL's" Weekend Update and a small supporting role in "Mean Girls," which she wrote.
Both seemed unlikely choices to carry a sitcom. But both succeeded, due mainly to sharp writing and excellent supporting casts.
On "Raymond," that cast was epitomized by Peter Boyle, as Ray's dad Frank.

And, on "30 Rock," the supporting cast was headed up by none other than Alec Baldwin. Here is my favorite Baldwin clip, in which his Jack Donaghy helps Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) with some therapy:

Saturday, December 19, 2009

IScreen's Top 10 Shows of 2009

Putting together a list of this year's top 10 shows proved harder than I anticipated. While last year was a relatively spotty year for TV (with the exception of excellent final seasons for "The Shield" and "The Wire"), 2009 offered a lot of reasons to love the boob tube. Several returning shows had particularly strong seasons and there were some truly smart and imaginative new offerings.
To accommodate all the year's notable programming, I present not only the traditional top 10 list, but also an honorable mention and a list of runners up. Do you have a problem with that?
I didn't think so. On to the list.
1. "Breaking Bad," AMC: After a strong, but uneven, first season, AMC's wrenching drama "Breaking Bad" blossomed into a devastating, much-watch series in its sophomore outing. With the initial exposition out of the way, the tale of drug-dealing chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston, whose brilliance goes without saying at this point) and his slightly more seasoned sidekick Jesse (Aaron Paul) went into overdrive. The guys got deeper and deeper into the drug biz. They built up a crew, acquired a lawyer (the excellent Bob Odenkirk) and unleashed a whole lot of hell. At its best, "Breaking Bad" is smart, darkly funny and deeply unsettling. It's the year's best show and, along with "Mad Men," cements AMC's reputation as the new home for great drama.

2. "Lost," ABC: Yes, I know the new conventional wisdom is that cable is king and broadcast is yesterday's news. But this year, the networks offered a lot of top-notch programming, including the best season yet of ABC's fascinating sci-fi drama "Lost." This was the show's penultimate season, and it was a doozy. We had time travel, the surprisingly touching romance of Juliet and Sawyer and perhaps the year's most shocking finale. What if, it proposed, everything we'd been watching these five seasons could be undone? The show's final season will, presumably, provide the answer. I can't wait. In the meantime, check out one of the season's funniest moments here.
3. "Big Love," HBO: How does "Big Love" do it? How does it manage to make a drama about a polygamist family seem like just another family drama (albeit an incredibly well-acted and well-written one)? Three seasons in and I'm more hooked than ever on the story of Bill Hendrickson (Bill Paxton) and his three wives, played wonderfully by Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin. This season, everyone shone but Sevigny was a particular highlight as her increasingly unstable Nikki Grant battled her daddy issues, her insecurities and a host of secrets.
4. "Mad Men," AMC: Granted, this season of the period drama "Mad Men" was a little slow. There were too many episodes focusing on adman Don Draper's (Jon Hamm) home life, particularly his increasingly dreary wife Betty (January Jones). But the season's best episodes were so phenomenal, they made up for any lags. How can you deny the brilliance of "My Old Kentucky Home," which includes the now-classic line "My name is Peggy Olson, and I want to smoke some marijuana?" Or the visceral shock of the lawn mower scene from "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency?" Or the devastating genius of this scene, in which Don finally reveals the truth about his past?
It all led up to the unforgettable, game-changing finale, "Shut the Door, Have a Seat," in which the "Mad Men" world we knew unraveled, and morphed into something new and exciting. Truth is, I'm willing to put up with this show's slow spots, because it delivers the goods more often than not. And when it delivers the goods, few shows are better.
5. "Friday Night Lights," NBC/DirecTV 101 network: Sadly, many people still haven't seen any of the fourth season of the wonderful drama "Friday Night Lights." That's because you can only watch it on DirecTV's 101 channel. The season won't air on the show's other home, NBC, until the summer. That's a shame, because this is possibly the show's best season since its first. The series reinvigorated itself with a brilliant story about Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) being forced to helm the football team at East Dillon High, a hardscrabble school far less well-off than his former home, Dillon High. The show has also successfully introduced new characters and started to close out stories for some of its returning characters. These include tortured good guy Matt (Zach Gilford), whose character has been through the ringer this season. It's disappointing that this series has to fight to be noticed (to even be seen, in fact), because it's easily one of the most moving, intelligent shows on TV.
6."The Good Wife," CBS: 2009 presented a bunch of promising candidates for best new show, but CBS's "The Good Wife" gets my vote. "ER" vet Julianna Margulies plays a familiar type -- the betrayed wife of a scandalized politician. Left behind to raise her family after a dalliance with a prostitute lands hubby in jail, Margulies's Alicia Florrick returns to her legal career -- as a junior associate. Turns out, she's pretty good at her job. The show manages to be both procedural and compelling character drama, with Margulies giving a brave, powerful performance. Bonus: the husband, played by Chris Noth, is portrayed not as a complete jerk, but as a flawed guy who still loves his angry wife. Good, adult entertainment.
7. "Nurse Jackie," Showtime: The next best new show of the season, "Nurse Jackie" stars Edie Falco as the title character, an excellent nurse who is also a philanderer, drug addict and general rule-breaker. But you kind of love her anyway, thanks to Falco's spot-on performance. Bonus: Merritt Wever's performance as newbie nurse Zoe, maybe the year's funniest new character.
8. "True Blood," HBO: A surprise hit in its first season, HBO's vampire soap "True Blood" got even better in its second season, thanks to some truly insane plotlines, the deepening of several characters and LOTS of sex. Yes, the storyline involving Michelle Forbes's quasi-demoness Maryann was uneven, but it was never boring. And all the show's supporting characters were in top form this season, especially Alexander Skarsgard's Eric, Ryan Kwanten's Jason and Chris Bauer's hilarious Andy Bellefleur (I chuckle every time I think of Bauer's reading of the word "pizazz"). With so many elements clicking, there's only one thing I can say: bloody good show!
9. "Modern Family," ABC: Imagine if the Bluth family of "Arrested Development" was made entirely of well-meaning, decent people instead of self-centered brats. It sounds awful, doesn't it? Well, ABC's new sitcom "Modern Family" isn't awful. Not even a little bit. The show has the dry wit, wacky characters and mockumentary format of "Arrested," but has something else, too: a heart. This family isn't stabbing each other in the back. They love each other. And you know what? Loving families can be funny, too. Especially if the family members are played by deft performers like Ed O'Neill, Sofia Vergara, Ty Burrell and Eric Stonestreet. Don't believe me? Take a look at this.
10. "Dollhouse," Fox: Yes, I know that Geek Nation is up in arms because Fox didn't renew its challenging sci-fi series "Dollhouse" for a third season. But come on! It's a show that deals with heady topics such as personal identity, exploitation and our culture's growing dependence on technology. We should be happy it even got two seasons. Particularly since the show's second season has been nothing short of excellent. The show centers on a company that imprints mind-wiped humans, or "dolls," with new identities to meet the needs of clients. This season, doll Echo (Eliza Dushku), has developed a personality and free will. Other characters have deepened as well, including Dollhouse tech Topher (Fran Kranz) who has gone from a smarmy geek to a truly complex, compelling part of the show. So yeah, I'm sad this is the last season. But I'm glad we got to see "Dollhouse" at all.
Honorable Mention -- ESPN's "30 for 30": Technically, this isn't a TV series but a series of occasional specials ESPN is running to celebrate the network's 30th year on the air. But it's too good not to mention. Each special focuses on a different story or personality in sports history. Each is helmed by a different director (Peter Berg and Barry Levinson are among the contributors). And each provides a truly fascinating look at the world of sports. Well-worth watching.
Runners up:
1. "Dexter," Showtime: For John Lithgow's awesome performance as the season's chief villain, Arthur Mitchell.
2. "White Collar," USA: For being one of TV's most entertaining new shows, and providing a star-making role for the charming Matthew Bomer.
3. "The Closer," TNT: For being one of the few procedural dramas with a sense of humor that goes beyond darkly comic puns about body parts.
4. "30 Rock," NBC: For Alec Baldwin's continually great performance as Jack Donaghy
5. "Glee," Fox: For proving that a scripted series with musical numbers can work (take that, "Cop Rock!"). Also for Jane Lynch.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"Dexter" season finale recap: "The Getaway"

Look, I was expecting certain things from the season four finale of "Dexter." I expected that Dexter (Michael C. Hall) would finally catch up with Arthur Mitchell, aka the Trinity Killer (John Lithgow). I expected that Debra would learn that Harry's CI/girlfriend was Dexter's mom, Laura. I expected a lot of dumb shenanigans with LaGuerta and Angel.
But what I didn't expect was that ending.
After what seemed like the episode's natural climax -- Dexter killing Trinity -- we saw Dexter returning home to (he thought) an empty house, to collect his bags and meet up with his wife, Rita (Julie Benz) for their honeymoon. But, upon calling Rita, he realized her cell phone was at home...along with her purse. Then, he hears his baby son Harrison crying in the bathroom.
And that's where he finds Rita, dead, in the bathtub, marinating in her own blood. And Harrison, sitting on the floor, covered in Rita's blood in an eerie echo of how Dexter was found by Harry as a child.
Apparently, the Trinity killer left something behind before Dexter caught up with him.
It was a shocker and a real game-changer for the show. If you ask me, it was much needed. The Rita scenes were becoming a real drain on the series, and domestic life was threatening to turn Dexter -- a MURDERER, lest we forget -- into little more than a house cat. The death of Rita tears down everything Dexter has been trying to build these four seasons. His facade of a normal life is gone. What happens now? Does he continue to raise his children alone? Does he take off and re-build some place else? It opens the story up immensely, and I'm eager to see what happens next.

"Dollhouse" recap: Echo and Ballard, sittin' in a tree

This week's "Dollhouse" recap is a wee bit late, and will be short, as I've had a busy weekend of Christmas prep (gift buying, gift wrapping, cookie baking, card filling-out, etc.) and am zonked.
But I was impressed by this week's pair of episodes, "Meet Jane Doe/A Love Supreme." Though I've often observed (as have many others) that Eliza Dushku doesn't quite have the versatility required to play Echo, she was, admittedly, excellent in these two episodes, as we saw Echo finally becoming something close to a whole person.I would have liked to learn more about what happened during those three months between Echo's adventures in dumpster diving and her rebirth as Echo 2.0 (maybe Alpha Echo? Or is that too on the nose?).
But overall, both episodes were solid. In "Jane Doe," we saw Adelle betray Topher in what seemed like a total act of self-preservation. Adelle clearly saw that her bad guys had no shot against the really bad guys, represented by Keith Carradine's smarmy Matthew Harding. So, she decided to play their game, and turned over Topher's design for the remote imprint. You know -- the one that will, presumably, have a hand in destroying the world.
The scene in which Topher confronted her was brutal and an excellent moment for both Fran Kranz and Olivia Williams. "You're the coldest bitch on the planet," Kranz's Topher snarled at Adelle. He's kind of right, but maybe she felt she had no choice.
In "Love Supreme," we saw the very welcome return of Alan Tudyk as Alpha, who started picking off Echo's old romantic engagements. We learned, of course, that this was all a giant ploy to get to Ballard. You see, while spying on Echo and Ballard, Alpha saw them hooking up -- and realized the Echo was in love with Ballard. Not imprinted-by-a-creepy-chair love, but real love. Alpha, seemingly, kills Ballard, but (spoiler if you haven't seen Epitaph One), we know he doesn't really die. So what happens?
Overall, a smart, fun pair of episodes. And yes, it did feel a little strange to be watching a show about exploitation and human trafficking while I wrapped gifts for my 9-month-old nephew, but sometimes you have to multi-task.
Here are a few more observations on "Meet Jane Doe"/"A Love Supreme."
* Must say, it was a little jarring to see Glenn Morshower -- known mainly for playing stand-up guys on "24" and "Friday Night Lights" -- as a racist sheriff. In fact, that whole storyline felt like filler. I would have preferred a little more background on the evolution of Team Ballard/Echo/Langton instead.
* After all that build-up on the Ballard/Echo relationship, I thought the actual consummation of it might be lame or a letdown. But it wasn't. The romance felt sweet, sexy and totally earned.
* Ballard is kind of a tool, though -- at least when he scoffs at Echo's lack of culinary skills. "36 personalities and not one of them can cook." Dude, where are you from? The 1950s? Modernize, for Christ's sake.
* It was a good night for Topher lines. In addition to his "coldest bitch on the planet" line, we also had that great moment when Topher learns that Echo can access her old imprints without the aid of the chair.
"I'm obsolete," says a crushed Topher. "Now I know old people feel. And Blockbuster."
* In addition to Carradine, Morshower and Tudyk, we also saw the return of Patton Oswalt as Joel Mynor. To date, Mynor is the only "client" that I've liked even a little bit. Maybe that's because he turned to the Dollhouse out of a broken heart after losing his wife. But other clients have used the Dollhouse to heal emotionally, and I still thought they were icky. Perhaps I only like Mynor because he's played by Oswalt, who kind of raises the game on every show he's on.
* How scary was that scene when Alpha turned all the dolls into ass-kicking zombies? Scary, and beautifully choreographed.
* I've raved a lot about Enver Gjokaj's uncanny ability to capture the voice and mannerisms of other characters on the show (see last week's hot Topher-on-Topher action). But Tudyk did an excellent job this week of capturing Tahmoh Penikett's voice in that scene when Alpha accessed the Ballard identity he'd imprinted himself with.

Friday, December 11, 2009

"30 For 30" makes a brief return

Ever since I began sharing living quarters with Mr. IScreen, there's been a distinct change in the kind of material viewed on our main TV.
When I lived alone, I rarely watched sports, let alone shows about sports. But, since I started living with a man, certain shows began creeping onto our DVR. Shows like HBO's "Real Sports," and "Hard Knocks," and Showtime's recent "Full Color Football." To my surprise, I kind of liked these shows. Because really, they aren't about sports. They're about people. They're about people with hopes, dreams, flaws and failings. They're about people who have achieved extraordinary things and/or encounter devastating, tragic setbacks.
Like any good TV program, these shows get beneath the surface of their subject matter to the universal humanity underneath. That's also true of ESPN's ongoing series "30 for 30," which began showing earlier this year.
The occasional series consists of documentaries about important sports stories of the past 30 years, each helmed by a different director. Barry Levinson directed Oct. 13's rousing "The Band That Wouldn't Die," about the Baltimore Colts Marching Band, and Peter Berg directed the series' first entry "Kings Ransom," about the trade of Wayne Gretzky to the L.A. Kings. Other documentaries that have aired so far include the tragic "Muhammad and Larry" and the entertaining, if poignant "Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?"
Even if you're familiar with most of the stories (I, for one, was not), the "30 for 30" shows take a closer look at them, and tell them from a fresh perspective. The series has been on hiatus for a while, but returns on Saturday with "The U," a two-hour documentary about the University of Miami Hurricanes and their reinvention in the 1980s, after coach Howard Schnellenberger scoured Miami's ghettos to recruit predominantly black players to what was previous a mostly white school.
Directed by Billy Corben (whose 2006 doc "Cocaine Cowboys" is another favorite of Mr. IScreen), the documentary takes a probing, funny and fascinating look at race, class, politics and, of course, football. At two hours, "The U" is a bit overlong (all of the other shows have been only an hour in length), but the story it tells is worth the time.
Plus, it's probably for the best that this entry is meatier than the others, as it will be the last "30 for 30" to air until March. If you've seen the other "30 for 30" episodes, you'll want to catch this one, and if you haven't seen the others, you should start checking them out.
After all, they're not really about sports. They're about the people behind them.
"The U" airs Saturday at 9 p.m.
You can view a trailer for "The U" here.

"Flight" is grounded for good

By now you've probably heard that HBO's sprightly musical comedy "Flight of the Conchords" won't be back for a third season.
On the one hand, that's probably a smart decision on the part of series stars Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement. The second season was a little strained, and it's probably best they decided to quit before the show went downhill.
But I will miss the show's blend of quirky humor and inspired songs.
In fact, my feelings are best summed up by the Conchords themselves:

Recap bonanza: "Glee," "Sunny," "The League"

This week, FX's "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and "The League" both had their season finales, and Fox's bright new musical comedy "Glee" had a mid-season finale (it returns April 13).
Instead of having individual recaps for each, I've decided to mesh them all together into one mega-recap in the interest of time. Because what goes together better than showtunes, poisoned beer and fantasy football?
Away we go...
* Glee, "Sectionals": Though I'd probably classify "Glee" as the most breezily entertaining new show of the season, it's been pretty inconsistent for the first half of its freshman season. Terri's fake pregnancy was probably the worst TV subplot since Landry Clarke's impromptu killing spree in season two of "Friday Night Lights." Plus, I grew tired of the whole Quinn-Finn-Puck story. Come on -- even Finn isn't dumb enough to believe you can get a girl pregnant WITHOUT HAVING SEX! But the show's zesty musical numbers, witty dialogue and excellent acting make it a must see. "Sectionals" took all the show's best elements and threw them into a single episode.
We had Mercedes belting out "And I'm Telling You," Rachel getting her Streisand on and the whole Glee crewing soulfully crooning The Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want."
We saw evil cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester finally get a little payback, being stripped of her job with the Cheerios and suspended from McKinley. Of course, even in defeat, Sue was fierce and Jane Lynch milked every last drop out of Sue's final scene of the year: "Get ready to board the Sue Sylvester express. Destination: HORROR!" (Lynch's breathy, ominous reading of the word "horror" was, alone, worth the entire episode).
But the episode's best scene came when Will, after finally ditching his crazy wife, chased after a heartbroken Emma and planted one of the most satisfying TV kisses ever on her lips. Swoon!
April can't come fast enough.
"It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," "The Gang Reignites the Rivalry": Admittedly, this season of FX's nutty dark comedy "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" has been a bit spotty. Yes, as always, some episodes were brilliant, include the hilarious offering "The World Series Defense" (and, if you have a few spare bucks, I highly recommend renting or buying the DVD-only special "A Very Sunny Christmas"). But there were quite a few disappointments (am I the only one who expected more from that "kitten mittens" episode?).
However, the season five finale "The Gang Reignites the Rivalry" was pretty excellent, from the opening with Frank in his ill-advised skinny jeans to the gang's victory over the nasty frat brothers at the end. My favorite sequence has to be the one in which Dennis and Frank vandalize the home of poor Art Sloan, as Dennis pontificates about how kids today have no respect. And, by the way, "I'm a legend!" is my new battle cry.
"The League," "The Shiva Bowl": I haven't really written anything about FX's freshman comedy "The League," which was just renewed for a second season. That's unfortunate, because I found the show to be one of the season's biggest surprises. After a broad, coarse (but still funny) pilot, the series has settled into a nice groove as a laid-back comedy about a group of friends in a fantasy football league. I know nothing about fantasy football, so I can't attest to whether the show portrays that world accurately. However, I've spent enough time around guys to know that the show's depiction of male friendship is spot on. I love the easy chemistry among the actors, particularly in this season's finale, in which league outcast Andre finally beat perennial champion Pete. Of course, Andre did lose his girlfriend Shiva, who dumped him after learning the guys had named their league trophy after her. I loved the moment when Shiva saw the trophy, bearing her high school yearbook picture, in Ruxin's car, and Ruxin sheepishly told her "I can explain. But it isn't going to make you feel any better."
With its scatological humor and goofy characters, "The League" isn't a classy show, and I can see why a lot of critics didn't like. But it made me laugh, and it has a nice, familiar feel to it. I really look forward to future seasons.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Despite the odds, "Men" has a certain charms

Are there three actors less likely to work with one another than Ray Romano, Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher?
Romano, best known for stand-up and his long-running hit sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond," just doesn't seem to fit with either the intense Braugher, most closely associated with heavy dramas like "Homicide," and Bakula, best known for genre series like "Quantum Leap" and "Enterprise."
Though each has his strengths, these just aren't three guys that you'd picture hanging out together. And yet, on TNT's "Men of a Certain Age," which features the three actors as a trio of longtime friends, Romano, Bakula and Braugher make an engaging -- and believable -- team. Their surprising chemistry is the centerpiece of the series, which debuts at 10 p.m. Monday, but the show has much else to recommend it.
"Men" features Romano (who also co-created the show with Mike Royce) as Joe, a party store owner with a gambling problem. His two best friends are out-of-work actor Terry (Bakula) and car dealer Owen (Braugher). All three men are at varying degrees of crisis. Joe is separated from his wife, whom he still loves. Owen works for his unrelentingly disapproving father. And Terry, though clearly the most cheerful of the group, is increasingly aware that, despite his freewheeling lifestyle, his life is kind of empty.
Mostly, the show puts the three actors in separate stories, but it also gives them plenty of scenes together, during which they convincingly banter like old friends. They mock each other, discuss their various relationships and concerns and crack wise. Their rapport is one of the show's many shocks. Another is that Braugher -- he of the booming, commanding voice and sad eyes -- is pretty gifted in the show's comedic scenes. He really gets to shine in a later episode, when a disillusioned Owen decides to become the world's nicest car dealer.
Romano also surprises, by being a better actor than you'd expect. Yes, he was funny on "Raymond," but didn't have the range or depth of, say, the late Peter Boyle, who played his father. Here, Romano has more dramatic material to work with and, if he's not quite as versatile as his co-stars, he certainly doesn't embarrass himself. In fact, any awkwardness Romano might have in the role is kind of appropriate, given that he's playing an awkward man who doesn't quite know his place in the world.
As for Bakula, in the three episodes I saw, he had the least interesting material to work with. But he does have a nice storyline in the second episode, when Terry takes revenge on an impolite driver. Plus, as a hardcore "Quantum Leap" fan, I always enjoy getting a glimpse of Bakula's good-natured charm.
Though the show is a bit slow at times, there's a lot of humor, some nice observations about middle age and those fine performances (I didn't get a chance to mention Lisa Gay Hamilton, who plays Braugher's wife, but she's pretty good, too). Overall, "Men" is a promising, intelligent drama featuring a group of characters we actually enjoy spending time with.

"Monk" series finale recap: "Mr. Monk and the End, Part II"

This week marked the final episode of USA's long-running detective dramedy "Monk," starring Tony Shalhoub as an obsessive compulsive detective. The series wasn't your typical edgy cable fare, but rather a sweet-natured, gentle comedy fueled by an unfailingly excellent performance by Shalhoub.
Because the series doesn't demand the week-to-week attention of serials like "Lost," I must admit that I lost touch with it for a while. But I made a point to check in on the final episodes because, while the series wasn't always a must watch for me, I've always had a certain amount of affection for its goofy charms.
Spoilers below
The show's last two episodes (the two hour finale actually started with last week's episode, "Mr. Monk and the End, Part 1") were in perfect keeping with the tone of the show. I think we can all agree that this series could only end with Monk finding the killer of his long-dead wife, Trudy. And it was also fitting that, though Monk felt some relief after solving undoubtedly the biggest mystery of his career, he also felt empty. His pursuit helped keep his wife alive in some way. Thus, I think it was appropriate that the series finale not only wrapped up the mystery of Trudy's death, but also gave Monk someone new to love -- Trudy's daughter, whom she had long thought to be dead. The daughter, played by Alona Tal (who, to me, will always be Meg on "Veronica Mars), turned out to have all the tenderness and patience of her mom, giving the ever-tortured Monk his happy ending.
As final episodes go, it was definitely one of the better ones I've seen in recent years. We saw every major character have some kind of closure. Randy was moving to New Jersey to be with Monk's former assistant Sharona. Natalie had a new boyfriend and her daughter is headed to college. And Monk is taking his next step toward a new life, which includes bracingly normal activities like going to the movies (but ONLY to theater 10!).
It was a nice, understated ending, for this sweet, modest series.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

"White Collar" mid-season finale recap: "Free Fall"

So, I know I already posted a review of the mid-season finale of USA's charming new caper drama "White Collar," but I wanted to take a few brief moments to talk about the episode itself, now that you've (presumably) seen it.
That said, episode spoilers are below.
OK, I'd primarily like to talk about that last scene. What do you think it means? Do you really think Peter is bad? I sincerely doubt it and, if he is, my esteem of the show will fall immensely. Making Peter evil with no real lead-up to that reveal would just be kind of a cop-out; a way to generate some cheap gasps and thrills.
I think the real reason he's following Kate is probably more complicated. Perhaps he senses Kate is using Neal, and he's trying to keep her away from him. Or maybe she's the one who helped Peter catch Neal in the first place, and he doesn't want Neal to find out about it.
Whatever the reason, I'm really hoping the show deals with it in a satisfying way. I'm a little worried about that as, though the series is great fun, it is a bit slight. I hope this twist isn't just explained away in five minutes, but that it adds a little weight to the show. Even if Peter isn't evil, he is betraying Neal. That betrayal will add a layer of complexity to the relationship between the two leads, and complexity is just what this show needs a little more of.
What did you think?

"Dollhouse" returns...for now

So, last night marked the start of the "Dollhouse" death march, as Fox aired back-to-back new episodes of the sci-fi drama -- not long after the network announced that it wouldn't renew the series for a third season.
This was the first of three two-hour extravaganzas that will air this month...before the series' final three episodes are burned off in January. The series finale airs Jan. 22 at 9 p.m.
But, as death marches go, last night's double whammy, "The Public Eye/The Left Hand," was pretty darn good.
Spoilers below.
First off, this week's ep featured an excellent guest cast, including Joss Whedon alumna Summer Glau, who played a brilliant -- albeit highly imbalanced -- programmer at the D.C. Dollhouse. We also saw the fabulous Ray Wise playing her boss, in a performance that renewed my sadness over the cancellation of "Reaper."
Those two guests were most prominently featured in the second half of the double feature, as Adelle and Topher traveled to D.C. to retrieve Echo and learn more about Sen. Daniel Perrin (Alexis Denisoff), who was revealed to be some kind of active/human hybrid used by Rossum to discredit the Dollhouse theory.
It was great to see Fran Kranz's Topher face off with Glau's Bennett, a character who is basically a female version of himself. His inevitable fascination with her (and what I gather was her at least semi-genuine infatuation with him) was fun to watch. Topher is possibly the character who has grown the most over the course of this brief series. This season alone, we've seen him vulnerable, regretful and oddly sympathetic. And here, we got to see him come close to falling in love.
Well, until Bennett tried to have Echo killed. But such is love.
Anyway, here are some bullet points on "The Public Eye/The Left Hand."
* Not only did the episodes have great guest stars, we got see yet another great performance by Enver Gjokaj, arguably the show's most versatile actor. As Victor, he's been everything from the Dollhouse head of security to a serial killer to a bimbotic sorority girl. And here, we got to see him imprinted with the personality of Topher Brink. Oh my God -- so perfect. As always, Gjokaj flawlessly captured the voice, mannerisms and surface characteristic of the person Victor is "playing." The Topher-talks-to-Topher scenes in "The Left Hand" were a definite highlight. The episode's best exchange came when Real Topher described dead-armed Bennett to Victor Topher:
Real T: "Imagine John Cassavetes in 'The Fury' as a hot chick."
Victor T: "Which you know I often have!"
* Wow -- have to admit, I didn't see the Perrin twist coming. For much of the season, Denisof's scenes have felt like filler, but this week he got to shine as he learned a little about his past, and had to decide whether to face what happened to him or wipe it all away and continue to be used as a pawn. He chose the latter. Why, I wonder? Maybe he's not as strong as Echo, who has said repeatedly that she doesn't want to go back to the "sleep" of being an active. Anyway, he made the choice to be Rossum's monkey, and he took poor Madeline down with him. And how creepy/sad was that final scene of "The Left Hand," with Bennett, calmly standing over a terrified Madeline? Yeesh.
* Dude, what did Caroline do to Bennett? More importantly, when did she do it? And why? Was it during the raid on the Rossum lab? And, though we learned that Bennett is probably not a doll, something is definitely wrong with her. But what? How long has she been in D.C.? Where did they find her?
* What did you think?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

"White Collar": Reviewing the first season

USA's charming new caper series "White Collar" has its mid-season finale on Friday night at 10 p.m. Though I haven't gotten a chance to write much about it, I honestly believe this show -- starring Tim DeKay as a clever FBI agent and Matthew Bomer as the brilliant thief who becomes his partner -- is one of the most entertaining new series of the year.
The show is the latest in USA's stable of lightweight, character-driven mysteries, such as "Monk" (which has it series finale Friday at 9 p.m.),"Psych," and "Burn Notice." All of these shows are less about meaty drama than they are about engaging personalities (with the possible exception of "Burn Notice," which gets deeper and more interesting every season). And "White Collar" features two of the most engaging personalities on TV, in the person of TV vets DeKay and Bomer.
DeKay gives just the right note of weary intelligence and dry humor as frazzled FBI agent Peter Burke, who teams up with charming forger and thief Neal Caffrey (Bomer). Both actors are terrific, but this is Bomer's vehicle. The actor has bounced around in everything from the short-lived drama "Traveler" to NBC's cult hit "Chuck," and here he has a really fun, flashy role that will finally make him a star.
There are some good supporting players as well, including the ever-reliable Willie Garson as Neal's sidekick, a conspiracy theorist with a seemingly endless talent for information-gathering.
The show doesn't always work. Tiffani Thiessen's role as Peter's sweet wife seems like an afterthought, and I never understood why Marsha Thomason's character disappeared after the pilot.
But, overall, this is a strong show. The finale is as good as everything that came before it, and ends with a shocking twist that -- if it is what it appears to be -- could turn the entire show upside down.
I kind of hope it doesn't. I like this show the way it is.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Nurturing a Yuletide obsession: An interview with Joanna Wilson, author of "The Christmas TV Companion"

When I was a kid, I would plop myself down in front of the TV around this time of year, just waiting for the Christmas specials to start. I couldn't get enough of them. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." "Frosty The Snowman." "A Charlie Brown Christmas." "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." Well, actually, that last one always kind of freaked me out. But you get the idea. I loved me some Christmas specials.
Joanna Wilson is a woman after my own heart. The pop culture expert and Ohio resident has literally watched thousands of hours of Christmas programming over the past seven years, attempting to view every piece of holiday TV out there, from variety specials to movies to Christmas episodes and beyond. She's writing summaries on all these masterworks for an encyclopedia she hopes to finish by next year.
In the meantime, Wilson has written a much shorter volume, "The Christmas TV Companion," released last month, in which she discusses a sliver of the holiday programs she's viewed over the years. These include everything from a Judy Garland Christmas special to a MADtv sketch that re-imagines Rudolph as a hooved Don Corelone.
So what drove Wilson to digest all this Yuletide TV?
"It became a project of passion for me," said Wilson during a recent phone interview with I Screen You Screen. "It just got bigger and bigger. It's really a full-time job."
Like most people, Wilson got hooked on Christmas TV via classic fare, such as "Charlie Brown" and Rankin/Bass specials, like "Rudolph." She declares that she was "like everybody else. We sort of grow up with these Christmas specials and become obsessed with them."
Wilson's obsession grew over the years, and she eventually decided to try to get her hands on as much holiday fare as possible. What Wilson has discovered in her years of research is that there are some truly outrageous -- and truly wonderful -- Christmas specials out there that most of us have never heard of. "Christmas TV Companion," is broken into chapters, including "Macabre," "Variety," and "Sci-Fi." There are also listings for family-friendly offerings and hidden gems. There are even sections that allow readers to "Make Your Own Marathon." Each of these sections lists a group of shows linked by a certain theme (for instance, "cool" actors -- like Steve McQueen -- who have made holiday-centered show).
Some of the works mentioned in the book are movies, but most are TV movies, episodes and specials.
By and large, "Christmas TV Companion" refrains from discussing popular, traditional shows -- like the Muppet Specials or "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" -- in favor of unearthing more oddball fare. In addition to the Garland special and the MADtv sketch, Wilson's book makes mention of such offbeat stuff as the "Rebel with a Claus" episode of the animated series "Squidbillies." In that episode, the show's protagonists -- a family of hillbilly squids -- kidnap the man in red, setting off an odd series of events that involve Ninja elves and an homage to the Quentin Tarantino film "Reservoir Dogs."
"I've seen it a million times," Wilson said. "There are many things that try to be offensive, but this is really cleverly offensive."
Of course, Wilson isn't immune to holiday sentimentality and the book includes many classic holiday tearjerkers, including "The Littlest Angel" and "The House Without a Christmas Tree." Oh, and no book on Christmas specials would be complete without infamous cult classic "The Star Wars Holiday Special."
But "Christmas TV Companion" also makes room for some high-end fare, such as "The Hard Nut," a highly stylized and modernized take on the classic ballet "The Nutcracker." Wilson said the special, choreographed by Mark Morris for the Mark Morris Dance Group and with production design by acclaimed illustrator/comics artist Charles Burns, is one of the real gems she's unearthed in her odyssey.
"I certainly didn't know about that before," Wilson said.
However, the material discussed in "Companion" is just a fraction of what Wilson's watched, and she said she had to leave many worthy entries out. What didn't make the cut? For starters, the conventional-sounding "Elmo's Christmas Countdown," featuring the perpetually cheerful red Muppet. What makes this worthy of Wilson's attention? Turns out, it features Tony Sirico and Steve Schirripa of "The Sopranos" playing puppet icons Bert and Ernie.
"To see these two famous 'Sopranos' people pretending to be Bert and Ernie -- it just blew my mind," Wilson said. (Note: You can watch the clip here. It's really something.)
Wilson said, as she continues her quest to watch all the holiday programming that's out there, she's still amazed at how much festive material there. "There's such a wide variety," she said. "I find surprises all the time."

For more information on "The Christmas TV Companion," visit Also, if you want to know when some of the specials in Wilson's book are airing, visit Wilson's blog, here.

FX announces mid-season schedule; also gives an end date to my suffering

Is there anything more terrifying than the unknown? I don't think so.
For months, I've been wondering when exactly FX would end its plastic surgery drama "Nip/Tuck," a show that I've continued watching, despite the fact that I no longer really enjoy it. Now I finally know -- March 3, 2010. Whew.
That's a relief. Now I know there's only a few more months that I have to endure the show's bizarre character changes and increasingly distasteful storylines (seriously -- was anyone begging for a Matt McNamara prison rape arc? Hasn't the boy been through enough?). The show's final season starts Jan. 6. Now, it's currently in its penultimate season, so that means there will be little break between its two seasons, giving me little respite before the sprint to the finish line. But I don't care -- as long as it ends soon.
In other FX mid-season news, the new animated comedy Archer debuts on Thursday, January 14; and the third season of the Emmy and Golden Globe award winning drama Damages starts on Monday, January 25. The new sitcom "Louie" with Louis C.K. is slated to start in spring and the Timothy Olyphant series "Justified" starts some time in March.
One last note: "Justified" was originally called "Lawman." As far as I know, no one has actually come out and said that the name was changed to avoid confusion with the A&E reality series "Steven Seagal: Lawman." If no one has mentioned it yet, let me be the first to start this rumor.