Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The cancellation of "24" -- an exercise in inevitability

When the announcement came down last week that this season of the Fox action drama "24" would be the show's last, I wasn't surprised. Well, OK, I guess it would have been hard to be totally surprised, given that rumors of the show's cancellation had been swirling for a while.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Lost" recap: "Some people just aren't meant to be together"

Spoilers for this week' "Lost" after the break, so don't click through if you don't want to know.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"Lost" recap: God, the Devil and Richard Alpert

Spoilers on this week's episode of "Lost" are below, so don't click through unless you've seen it.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Kiss the cooks: Reviewing "Breaking Bad's" third season

Since it debuted two seasons ago on AMC, critics have been lauding the drama "Breaking Bad" as one of the most gripping, provocative and well-acted shows on TV. No less than Stephen King has called the best show on television. But there's one element of the show -- which returns for its third season at 10 p.m. today -- these reviews seldom mention.
Sure, the series -- about a New Mexico chemistry teacher who becomes a crystal meth manufacturer -- is powerful and intelligent. And yes, Bryan Cranston, who plays nerd-turned-drug-dealing-badass Walter White, is doing some of the best acting on TV (as evidenced by his back-to-back Emmies).
Yet let's not forget one major thing about "Breaking Bad" -- it's friggin' weird. I mean, it's weird in a good way, not in a fourth season of "Big Love" way. But it's still weird. This is a show that, in the three episodes sent for review, features a pair of identical, nearly mute assassins, as well as a bell-ringing invalid, a glass eye, and a barbecue grill filled with flaming cash.
But "Breaking Bad's" strangeness is one of its many charms. When the new season starts, Walter and his partner in methdom, Jesse (the equally excellent Aaron Paul) are both complete messes. Walt is plagued with grief and guilt, after the departure of wife Skylar (Anna Gunn), who was starting to figure out his double life. He's also pretty torn up about the plane crash that deposited debris and body parts in the family pool. It's a plane crash, don't forget, that Walt was responsible for, as it was caused by the grief-stricken dad of Jesse's junkie girlfriend, whom Walter allowed to choke to death. Walt is obviously wrestling with his role in the crash and there's a devastating moment in the first new episode in which he tries to explain to his students that the tragedy wasn't as bad as it could have been. It's awkward and hard to watch but Cranston, as always, makes it riveting.
Jesse, meanwhile, is still unaware of Walt's role in his girlfriend's death, so he feels responsible for the crash. Of  course, he's also heart-broken and, in a touching scene, repeatedly calls his dead lover's voicemail repeatedly so he can hear her voice. On the bright side, Jesse has cleaned up his act after his time in rehab. Both he and Walt are reluctant to return to the meth game, but it's clear that they won't be able to stay out of it for long.
Just like the last two seasons, this one starts a little slow. As always, I often have a desire to skip over the scenes between Walt and estranged wife Skylar. Gunn is admittedly excellent, but on the Wife of a Complicated Protagonist scale, Skylar is closer to Rita Morgan than Carmela Soprano. I feel for Skylar's plight as she continues to learn unsavory things about her hubby, yet she always feels like a nag and a hypocrite to me. She's just too humorless and angry to be thoroughly sympathetic.
Yet there's so much about the show that I do like, I'm willing tolerate the stuff I'm not crazy about. The third season brings back some of the great supporting characters introduced last season, including sleazy but brilliant attorney Saul (a hilarious Bob Odenkirk) and chicken restauranteur/drug load Gus (Giancarlo Esposito). And, with its breathtaking shots of New Mexico sunsets and desolate deserts, "Breaking Bad" is one of the most beautifully photographed shows on television. Even Cranston's wrinkles have a certain poetry and beauty to them.
All this, and a scene of Cranston belting out America's "Horse With No Name"? Who could ask for anything more.

The third season of "Breaking Bad" starts today at 10 p.m. on AMC.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"Lost" recap: You work your side of the island, I'll work mine

Spoilers for this week's episode of "Lost" after the break, so don't click through if you don't want to see.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Olyphant shines in FX's excellent "Justified"

There's a group of actors I like to call "2-percenters."
These are performers who, in about 98 percent of their projects, are just kind of OK. They're not bad, necessarily. It's just that they're nothing special. But, every now and then, they find roles that suit them perfectly. Maybe these roles play to their strengths as performers. Maybe they're a close fit with their own personalities. Whatever the reason, these performers are suddenly transformed. They become unstoppable. You can't take your eyes off of them.
Perhaps the most famous of these 2-percenters is Hilary Swank, mainly because, whenever she plays to her strengths, she's good enough to garner an Oscar. But there are other 2-percenters out there, including actor Timothy Olyphant.
In most of his projects, Olyphant is decent, but doesn't exactly jump off the screen (he holds the dubious distinction of being the blandest of all the "Die Hard" villains -- and yes, I remember William Sadler in "Die Hard 2"). Yet ask the guy to play a no-nonsense lawman and he brings the house down. He was sensational as the decent but flawed Seth Bullock on HBO's much-missed Western "Deadwood." And Olyphant scores again as the cowboy hat-sporting Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in FX's excellent new drama "Justified," which premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m.
Maybe it's his steely stare, his ambling walk or the cool, dry tone of his voice, but Olyphant is captivating when he's laying down the law. Of course, here -- as in "Deadwood" -- he has the benefit of excellent material.
"Justified" was created by Graham Yost, who's been involved with such prestigious projects as "Band of Brothers" and "Boomtown." It's based on characters created by acclaimed novelist Elmore Leonard, and the  show has the quirky, funny, straightforward tone of much of Leonard's fiction.
The premise is pretty basic -- Olyphant's Givens gets into some trouble and is transferred from Miami to his home state of Kentucky. There he encounters some eccentric locals, including a few old friends. In the pilot, those friends include Givens's former coal-digging partner, Boyd Crowder, played by the always-awesome Walton Goggins of "The Shield." Boyd, it turns out, has become a white supremacist and developed a fondness for blowing up buildings.
Other episodes have Givens facing off against a musically inclined prison escapee and a former accountant for a drug cartel (the latter is played by the irreplacable Alan Ruck of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off").
In addition to Olyphant and the aforementioned guest stars, the cast includes the wry Nick Searcy as Givens's boss and Erica Tazel and Jacob Pitts as his new colleagues. Natalie Zea and Joelle Carter are also on hand as the women in Givens's life -- an ex-wife and current love interest, respectively.
Each episode is more or less self-contained, without a lot of the cliffhangers or complex mythology that drives a lot of modern TV. Yet it's not a procedural drama either. It's something rarer -- a smart, well-written, well-acted character drama that feels more like a series of short independent films than a conventional TV series. In that way, it reminds me of another TV show adapted from Elmore Leonard's work, ABC's short-lived "Karen Sisco."
I have a feeling that "Justified" will be more successful, in part because cable demands smaller audiences than broadcast TV. But, also, I think audiences are hungry for a show that treats them like grown-ups. And, any show that has the good sense to hand Olyphant a cowboy hat and a badge clearly knows what it's doing.

Friday, March 12, 2010

War is Hell -- How does that make you feel?: Reviewing "The Pacific"

It's hard to watch HBO's new 10-hour miniseries "The Pacific" (the first hour airs Sunday at 9 p.m.), without being reminded of its excellent 2001 miniseries "Band of Brothers."
Both, after all, focus on the same subject -- World War II. "Band" centered on the European side of the war, whereas "The Pacific" focuses on the island-hopping Marines fighting in the Pacific. Because both projects come from the same production team -- which includes Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Gary Goetzman -- they have a similar aesthetic. "The Pacific" has all of "Band's" grainy, you-are-there cinematography, sweeping music and loving shots of the sober faces of heroic young men.
The two pieces also have the same organizing thesis: "War is Hell." But, where "Band of Brothers" mainly concerned itself with the honor and nobility of being a good soldier, "The Pacific" is more interested in how war affects the man behind the soldier.
As a main character's father says in an early episode, men who've seen the horrors of war have "their souls torn out." Over the course of the miniseries's 10 hours, we do, in fact, see the souls seeping out of the characters as they engage in fight after fight and see untold amounts of carnage.
The series focuses on three main characters: the stoic, put-your-head-down-and-fight Sgt. Basilone (Jon Seda), arrogant but sensitive writer-turned-soldier Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) and the young Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello), who joins up in spite of a heart murmur.
All three are excellent, with Dale a surprising standout. I was primarily familiar with him from his work as Chase in season three of "24." "24" is hardly an actor's showcase, and Dale came off as little more than a bland foil to Kiefer Sutherland. But he's charismatic and affecting as Leckie, who has one of  the toughest times with the unflinching conditions of his war.
Aside from the three leads, there's also fine work by the always-swell William Sadler as a commanding officer, Annie Parisse as Basilone's love interest and Rami Malek as a crazed soldier known as Snafu.
"The Pacific" has a lot more navel gazing and talk about feelings than "Band" did, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. We live in a world where people are more cynical about war than ever. It only makes sense that a project about World War II produced in this era would reflect that cynicism.
Besides, this increased focus on emotions doesn't mean that "The Pacific" is dewy and sensitive. It has the same brutal, honest violence as "Band." If the new miniseries seems a little inferior to "Band," that's to be expected. After all, "Band" came first. But "The Pacific" is still excellent in its own right. It's powerful, intelligent and personally involves you in the lives of its soldiers.
War is, indeed, hell. But it does produce great art.
"The Pacific" airs for 10 weeks on HBO. The first episode airs Sunday at 10 p.m.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The patron saint of FX?: An interview with "Justified's" Walton Goggins

Walton Goggins understands why people have such a strong connection to "The Shield," the gritty, twisted cop drama he co-starred on for seven seasons on the cable network FX.
Heck, he feels the same way. "I'm profoundly touched by its effect on people," said the actor. "Because its effect on us was so tremendous. It changed my life."
Goggins, interviewed by phone from his home in Los Angeles earlier this month, unforgettably played angry, unstable cop Shane Vendrell on the series. Though Michael Chiklis's Vic Mackey was, nominally, the show's central character, Shane was arguably its heart and soul -- a dark, tortured man who was both reprehensible yet weirdly sympathetic. Goggins' brave, raw performance earned him much love from critics. The fact that he garnered not a single Emmy nomination for the role is nothing short of a sin.
Shane was the kind of character who, seemingly, comes along once in a lifetime, and Goggins wondered if he'd be that lucky again. "After getting the opportunity to be Shane Vendrell, I did not think I'd have a character that would challenge me intellectually and emotionally like that again," he said.
Lucky for him -- and for us -- he was wrong. Goggins has a key supporting role in the pilot of FX's terrific new drama "Justified," starring Timothy Olyphant of "Deadwood." On the show (which premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m.), Olyphant plays Raylan Givens, a hard-nosed U.S. Marshal who is assigned to lay down the law in his hometown of Harlan, Ken. There, he encounters old friend Boyd Crowder (Goggins), now a white supremacist with a penchant for blowing things up.
It's a juicy role, getting almost as much screen-time in the pilot as Olyphant's character. Though he's far less prominent in the next two episodes sent to press, Goggins said Boyd comes back "in a big way" later in the season.
Boyd, he said, is a true original, just as Shane was. Both do terrible things, yet draw you in just the same. "The one thing they do have in common is a certain gregariousness," Goggins said.
That's a quality Goggins seems to share. He's remarkably charming to talk to, peppering his speech with the occasional "darlin'" and showing an infectious enthusiasm for whatever project he's talking about. For instance, while speaking about his role in the upcoming summer action movie "Predators" (a sequel to 1987's "Predator"), his voice starts bubbling over with excitement, as if his words can't keep pace with his joy.
"It's so funny!" he said of the movie. "It's so good! I can't wait for people to see it!"
Yes, you can hear those exclamation points in his voice when he speaks on a project he's passionate about.
Goggins was equally thrilled by the chance to play another indelible character for FX. The series is based on characters created by acclaimed writer Elmore Leonard, and Goggins said project was irresistible. "It was an opportunity play this character and say these words," he said. Plus, he couldn't pass up the chance to play cat and mouse with Olyphant on screen.
"It sort of makes it 'Deadwood' versus 'The Shield,'" Goggins said, laughing.
 Though both characters possess ample charisma, disarming drawls and a tendency toward bad behavior, Goggins said there is a distinct difference between Boyd and Shane. Boyd is far more cunning, and Goggins said it's a blast to play a character who has such intelligence. "He's a Svengali," he said. "He's a righteous redneck messiah!"
"Justified" makes Goggins something of a repertory player for FX, and he's pretty OK with the fact that his name is becoming so tied to that of the network. "An actor should be so lucky to get an opportunity to call a network home," Goggins said. "I think they're doing some of the most exciting stuff on television."

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"Lost" recap: Revenge of the nerds

Note: Spoilers on this week's episode of "Lost" below. If you haven't seen it, don't click through.

Monday, March 8, 2010

"Big Love" season finale recap: "End of Days"

I know most people watched the Academy Awards last night, and might not yet have seen the (completely insane) season finale of "Big Love." Once you've seen it, feel free to click through for the recap.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Wanna talk about the Oscars? Be my guest!

So, due to the fact that I've only seen two of the nominees -- and that I have roughly 5 hours left of HBO's "The Pacific" left to watch, along with the season finale of "Big Love" -- I probably won't watch of tonight's Academy Awards telecast.
But if you plan to -- and have predictions, thoughts, opinions on the awards and the show -- please feel free to post them below. I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts!
Note: I'll feel really pathetic if I check this space tomorrow and it's completely blank, so please comment!

Friday, March 5, 2010

"Burn Notice" finale recap: The Devil You Know

Just wanted to offer a quick recap of last night's "Burn Notice" season finale. Spoilers ahead, so don't click through if you don't want to see.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

"Lost" recap: Yelling Smoke Monster in a crowded temple

On this week's episode, we learn that you don't tug on Superman's cape; you don't spit into the wind; you don't pull the mask off the ol' Lone Ranger and you DON'T mess around with Sayid -- no matter what timeline he's in.
Spoilers below. Don't click through if you haven't seen this week's episode.

"Tell me what you don't like about yourself": Previewing the "Nip/Tuck" series finale

Is there a show on TV more frustrating than FX's plastic surgery drama "Nip/Tuck"?
If there is, I'm not aware of it. This is a show that isn't merely content to go over the top. It bungee jumps from the top while giving you the finger, much like Alicia Silverstone in that Aerosmith video. This is a show that's given us incestuous mutilating rapists, a manipulative transsexual life coach, a robber who dressed as a mime and a death by build-a-bear machine.
And I'm just hitting the highlights.
The show airs its final episode 10 p.m. Wednesday and, like the previous episodes, the show's swan song is melodramatic, ridiculous and strangely touching.
In its final seasons, "Nip/Tuck" has -- as I've noted several times -- kind of gone off the rails, morphing into a parody of itself (did I mention the death by build-a-bear?). And yet, I remained loyal to it. Why? I'm not entirely sure.
Possibly it's due to the always convincing relationship between frenemy plastic surgeons Sean McNamara and Christian Troy (played by Dylan Walsh and Julian McMahon). The push-pull of their volatile but loving relationship has always been an anchor keeping this crazy show just in the realm of believability. That's mainly due to the still-excellent work of Walsh and McMahon. After so many seasons together, the two actors have the kind of easy rapport that allows them to say volumes about their relationship with a look or sigh.
In the final episode, the dysfunctional duo face a cross roads in their personal and professional lives. I won't give too much away, except to say the resolution of their conflict is poignant and appropriate -- the perfect way to end this tempestuous series.
Of course, the show has its crazy moments, many of them involving Matt McNamara (John Hensley) and the aforementioned life coach Ava (Famke Janssen). There's also a storyline focusing on an elderly Japanese porn star.
But that's all par for the course. The final "Nip/Tuck" will likely satisfy fans -- even those like me with a love-hate relationship with the series.
The final episode of "Nip/Tuck" airs at 10 Wednesday on FX.

Monday, March 1, 2010

And the dead shall rise: "SouthLAnd" starts second season on TNT

It seldom happens that feverish fan reaction results in the resurrection of a respected, but low-rated, show. But it does happen. The latest example is the gritty and affecting cop drama "SouthLAnd." The show premiered on NBC and was renewed for a second season. However, before any of those episodes aired, NBC abruptly canceled the show (a move they're surely regretting in the wake of the Jaypocalypse).
Thankfully, the basic cable network TNT stepped in and picked "SouthLAnd" up. It began re-airing the season one episodes a while back and, starting on Tuesday at 10 p.m., TNT will start showing the unaired season two episodes. I've seen the first two, and they're pretty solid, picking up where season one left off.
Lydia (Regina King, fabulous and criminally overlooked for an Emmy nom) is grappling with the shooting of her longtime partner Russell (Tom Everett Scott). She's also none too happy with the fact that she's already been issued a new partner, the flashy Rene Cordero ("Prison Break's" rakishly charming Amaury Nolasco).
Meanwhile, newbie Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie) is still learning the ropes, and dealing with his crusty partner, Cooper (Michael Cudlitz).
Every episode of "SouthLAnd" has multiple storylines, and they vary in interest. King's stories are always the strongest, due to her flawless, surprising portrayal of the gruff yet sympathetic Lydia. Yes, the tough-on-the-outside lady cop is a grand TV cliche, but King never lets Lydia feel false. Her melting disdain for her new partner is believable, as is her pain over the real possibility of losing her old partner.
McKenzie, still best known for the teen soap "The O.C." is also good as the conflicted Sherman. An overbearing scene in the second episode, when Ben has dinner with his vapid sister and her friends, is given weight by McKenzie's performance. This is an actor who plays quiet anger as well as anyone on TV today.
There are flaws to "SouthLAnd," mostly visible in the storyline involving detectives played by Kevin Alejandro and Shawn Hatosy. The actors are good, but the characters aren't as interesting as Ben or Lydia. An ongoing storyline in which they tail a drug lord played by Wood Harris is fairly dull so far (it doesn't help that Harris played a similar character on the far superior urban drama "The Wire").
But, on balance, "SouthLAnd" is smart and involving. I'm glad it's found a second life and hope it thrives in its new home.