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Sunday, January 31, 2010

An interview with "Lost" guru Nikki Stafford

The beginning of the end is near.
That's right, folks -- Tuesday marks the first episode of the last season of the TV series/pop culture phenomenon "Lost." Other critics and bloggers are preparing for this momentous occasion by interviewing people associated with the show and/or publishing their own thoughts, memories or ideas about this unique, bizarre series. I decided to gear up for my final days with Ben, Hurley, Locke, et. al. by interviewing the most eloquent, funny, tireless "Lost-ie" I know: author and blogger Nikki Stafford. Stafford, as you might know, is author of the popular "Finding Lost" series of books ("Finding Lost: Season Five" is now available). She also writes the hilarious, insightful blog Nik at Night , on which she provides her thoughts on a variety of shows (including this lovely piece on the devastating "I Will Rise Up" episode of "True Blood"). But she saves her greatest thoughts and analysis for "Lost." In fact, her blog is the one I link to to help fill in gaps in my own "Lost" recaps (which, incidentally, will re-start soon).
Given her expertise on the topic, I sat down and had a lengthy discuss with Stafford on what she'll miss about "Lost," some of the show's greatest moments and what she'd like to see happen. Below are some snippets from our interview. If it seems disjointed, it's because I usually have such a great time talking to Stafford, I sometimes forget to take notes (Bad TV blogger! Bad! Bad! Bad!). So, I decided to write this as sort of a loose account of our conversation. There's still some good, revealing stuff in here, so dig in.
What she'll miss
We started off by talking about what she'll miss most about the show once it ends its six-season run in May. Not surprisingly, she mentioned one of the qualities that most fans -- including your truly -- hold most dear about the show: the way it combines drama and comedy. Stafford said the show is unique in the way it inserts humor into its fabric, which, let's not forget, includes time travel, death, and some serious daddy issues.
This unique combo of laughs and gasps is personified by one of the show's most treasured characters, Stafford said. And that character's name is the one that she most often mentions when asked what she'll miss most when the show's over.
"The first thing that jumped into my mind was Hurley," she said. "I'm going to miss Hurley. He has a lot of humor without reducing him to comic relief."
Hurley is, Stafford pointed out, a fairly serious character. After all, his father abandoned him. He lived in a mental institution, where he developed the world's most convincing imagining friend. The woman he loved was murdered by one of his friends. And yet, he's the source of the show's funniest moments (for one of Stafford's faves, click here).
Another unique "Lost" quality we discussed (and that we'll both miss) is the way the show can introduce seemingly meaningless characters who turn out to be instrumental to the "Lost" mythology. This list includes Eloise, Richard Alpert and Charles Widmore. The show also introduced two major characters -- Ben and Desmond -- relatively late in the game. Stafford and I both marveled at the fact that Benjamin Linus doesn't even show up until season two and doesn't reveal his true identity until season three. But, as Stafford points out, it's now hard to imagine the show without him -- or without Michael Emerson's amazing performance. "The show moves into a whole new sphere once he shows up," she said.
One thing Stafford won't miss? All those questions from casual fans about the show's much-contested love triangle. "I really wish less time was spent on the whole 'Is Kate going to be with Jack or with Sawyer?'" she said. Though she's aware that the triangle is a vehicle to hook viewers who aren't interested in smoke monsters or time travel, she contests that the Kate/Jack/Sawyer triangle isn't what the show is really about.
"Lost" highlights and lowlights
We also discussed some of Stafford's favorite moments and twists. Like many viewers, Stafford counts season three's shattering "flash-forward" twist as one of her favorite moments, and a crucial one to the series. Around that time in the show's run, Stafford pointed out, some viewers were growing tired of "Lost's" flashback structure. "Fans were saying 'How much more can they mine out of these people's past?'" she said. To learn that the "flashback" in the season three finale was, in fact, set in a future in which Jack and Kate (among others) were back home, blew lots of people away. That includes Stafford. "That was, for me, the game changer," she said.
Other important "Lost" moments include the death of Alex, Ben's adopted daughter. Stafford said the death was not only shocking, but it had an amazing ripple effect on Ben and his relationship with Charles Widmore. When Alex dies, Stafford said, "Ben becomes this incredibly sympathetic character -- for about 30 seconds." The murder also leads to Ben's hypnotic, beautifully photographed visit to Widmore near the end of the season four episode "The Shape of Things to Come." It's a scene that's incredibly important to the show, Stafford said, not just as a standalone episode, but also because it strongly echoes the conversation that Jacob has with the Man in the Black at the end of season five.
"I have reviewed that scene (between Ben and Widmore) so many times," she said. "That scene is the centerpiece of the series."
Of course, not all of "Lost's" twists and turns have been good ones. And, of all the show's creative missteps, there's one that Stafford famously loves to hate: the sudden appearance of good-looking (and seemingly useless) couple Nikki and Paulo in season three. "That was a gigantic mistake," Stafford said, laughing. Indeed, her dislike for the couple has become something of a running joke in her writing. Still, she said, their sudden appearance was almost (emphasis on almost) worth it, because of the excellent episode in which the grating twosome make their exit. As most fans know, the two are mistakenly buried alive while embroiled in a fight over some diamonds. "Watching them die is one of the funniest things ever," Stafford said.
Other storylines she cares to never to see again? Anything explaining Jack's tattoos. "Jack in Thailand never made any sense to me," she said.
What she wants to see
With the end of "Lost" just around the corner, fans and critics are starting to divide into two distinct camps -- those who have a concrete list of questions they want answered by series' end, and those who are pretty much willing to let the chips fall where they may. Count Stafford firmly in the second category. "I just want to leave myself open," she said. "If I marry myself to one theory, I'm going to be disappointed when it doesn't happen."
That said, she does have some wishes for the show's final season -- one of which might surprise you.
"I want to see Kate happy," Stafford said. "I know there's a lot of Kate hate out there, but I've never disliked her."
As much as she doesn't care about Kate's relationships with Sawyer and Jack, Stafford said she's fascinated by Kate's bond with her "adopted" son Aaron, whom she took when Claire was assumed dead (and whom she had to give up to return to the island). Unlike her romances, Kate's relationship with Aaron is marked by unconditional love. "Aaron has never wanted anything from her, except for her to be his mom -- which she can't do," Stafford said.
And, despite his polarizing effect on viewers, Stafford has nothing but good wishes for Jack as well. "I'm the first one in a huge long line of people who laugh whenever something bad happens to Jack," she said. "(But) he means well. He really thinks he's helping people."
As far as "Lost's" many mysteries are concerned, Stafford does hope the show answers some of the "gigantic" questions it's raised. For instance, she'd like to know where Jacob came from, and how that giant statue got destroyed. But she's leaving herself open to some unsolved mysteries. "They can't answer everything," she said.

"Dollhouse" series finale recap: "Epitaph Two"


This week, Fox aired the final episode of Joss Whedon's bizarre, complex, frustrating gem, "Dollhouse," and, frankly, I couldn't think of a more appropriate way for it to end.
This final episode, titled "Epitaph Two," crystallized everything that was right with the show -- and everything that ensured that it would never be a mainstream success. First, it likely made little to no sense to those who haven't seen the episode "Epitaph One," which never aired on television and was available only on DVD. I guess at this point, Whedon and co. figured that, if you've stuck with the show this long, you're hardcore enough to have sought out "One" on your own.
The episode also had the rush-rush-rush feel typical of this final set of episodes, in which the show's creative team had to cram everything it wanted to accomplish into just a few hours. Just as we suddenly learned a few weeks ago that Boyd was evil, "Epitaph Two" revealed that Alpha was actually a good guy now. Huh. Really? It's an interesting idea (and I embrace anything that gives us one last glimpse of Alan Tudyk), but I would have liked a greater explanation beyond "he's evolved."
Yet, I loved the episode both in spite of its flaws and because of them. I love all its weird plot twists and impenatrability. Much like Echo, its main character, "Dollhouse" can't totally be known and, anything it does unveil is like a gift to the patient admirer. This is a show that rewards commitment and hard work.
It's also damn entertaining. From the gorgeous, sun-bleached landscapes to the always well-done action sequences, "Epitaph Two" felt like a well-mounted dystopian thriller -- with great one-liners and a lot of heart.
When "Dollhouse" aired its first few weak-but-promising episodes, who would have known we'd eventually connect so strongly with Adele and Topher? I for one never would have guessed that I'd actually shed tears at a scene in which a grieving Echo downloaded an imprint of her late, departed Paul into her brain so that he would always be with her.
Also, a year ago, would anyone have guessed that Fran Kranz's bratty Topher would be the savior of humanity? Yet, due to the way the show has developed the character over the last season, it made perfect sense.
At any rate, here are some more thoughts on "Epitaph Two."
* From the "things I'd like to know more about" file, what the hell happened to Whiskey? We never found out how she came back to the Dollhouse fold after killing Bennett or how her face got fixed. And did she survive the events of "Epitaph One"? Where is she? Also, why did Tony become Victor? I guess we got some explanation of that, but I wanted more. How did he recruit his followers? What happened to him?
* For once, the best one-liner of the night went not to Topher, but to Alpha: "It speaks to the scizophrenic in me. Well, both of them, actually."
* Loved Adele as a weathered but ferocious Earth mother, growing crops and tending to her human flock. The maturation of that Adele/Topher relationship is one of the things I really enjoyed about the show's later episodes, and one of the reasons I'm glad the show got a second season.
* Nice job making the futuristic survivors guild we first glimpsed in "Epitaph One" into actual characters with only a little bit of screen time. They could have just been a catalyst; a device to get our main characters where they needed to be. Instead, I actually cared when Mag got shot. They felt real.
* People bust on Eliza Dushku's performance as Echo and, admittedly, I don't feel she has the range of Enver Gjokaj (Victor) or Dichen Lachman (Sierra). But her breakdown over Paul's death was heart-breaking.Well done.
* So who left the "Paul" imprint for Echo? My money is on Alpha. So what is up with Alpha? I know we've been promised that there won't be a follow-up book or movie or anything, but I'm kind of hoping that someone eventually writes "The Alpha Chronicles." Because I'd dig that.
* What a perfect final shot -- Echo, reunited with Paul and instrumental in saving humanity, crawls right back into her little Dollhouse bed. Poignant, sweet and devastating.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Damages" hurts my brain -- but in a good way




I present that there is no more maddening show on TV than FX's twisty legal drama "Damages." In today's serial-mad TV landscape, I've grown accustomed to complex shows with lots of plot twists, characters who aren't what they seem and long, complicated storylines that seemingly last forever.
But "Damages," which starts its third season Monday at 10 p.m. on FX, makes me particularly nuts. Every season is so layered with flashbacks, flash-forwards and so-called "present day" scenes that it makes the head throb. Unlike "Lost," which has a reason for its time jumps, "Damages" just feels like it's messing with you.
But that's OK. I don't mind being messed with if I get to spend another season in the company of the gloriously amoral, uncompromising and fabulous Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), one of the meatiest female characters on TV. Over the past few seasons, Close's Patty has become an intriguing mix of crusading attorney and lonely career woman. She's not afraid to get nasty and sink to incredible lows to get her job done. But she's not too callous to feel wounded when she's betrayed. Close's Patty feels incredible human -- which is good, as much of the show that surrounds her is ridiculous.
As in previous seasons, the storyline this season is broken into two parts: a "now" and a "later." In the "now," we see Patty and her sidekick Tom Shayes (the underrated Tate Donovan, who might finally get his shot at Emmy nod based on the two episodes I've seen) representing a group of people swindled in a financial fraud perpetrated by the Bernie Madoff-like Louis Tobin (Len Cariou). Patty is trying to figure out if Tobin's family was in on the scam, and if they still have any money lying around. Her arch nemesis is Tobin's shark-y attorney, Leonard Winstone (a surprisingly convincing Martin Short). Meanwhile, Patty's former protegee, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) has left Patty's firm and is pursuing her legal career elsewhere.
As often happens on "Damages" we soon learn that things will go quickly awry for Patty and company, as we see a series of flash forwards to "six months later." As they do every season, these flashes show us a series of catastrophes. In this case, the future involves a car crash, a body in a dumpster and at least one secret relationship.
As we leap back and forth in time, the poor viewer tries futilely to figure out just what the hell is going on. The show, as always, gives maddeningly few clues. More than once, I grimaced while watching the preview episodes. Yet, they were still vastly entertaining, mainly because of the actors.
Every season, the show surrounds Close and co. with a great supporting cast of famous faces. This season we have not only Cariou and Short, but also Lily Tomlin, who plays Tobin's shady wife, and Campbell Scott, as Tobin's conscience-ridden (but still creepy) son. So far, Scott is the standout as Joe Tobin, a man for whom the trope "The road to hell is paved with good intentions" was seemingly invented. Scott is always excellent, but here he presents an intriguing mix of vulnerability, rage and confusion (not unlike Ted Danson in season one). He's great to watch, as is Short. Dramatic performances by comedians can sometimes feel like stunts, but Short's performance is intelligent and perfectly calibrated. His Winstone is charming, bracing and not worth trusting even a little bit.
Byrne remains the show's weak link, but her performance gets more confident each season. She's still a little overmatched in her scenes with Close, but that's probably for the best. The whole point of Patty is that she's unstoppable, even in the face of great odds.
What's at the heart of this season's many mysteries? Who knows? And, as long as the journey is full of fun, interesting characters, who cares?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Reminder: "Burn Notice" returns tonight

The past few weeks have been filled with returns for favorite shows, and tonight marks the return of another personal fave: USA's "Burn Notice."
The show comes back tonight at 10, and it's an excellent episode, featuring a guest stint from TV vet Tyne Daly. Daly, as you might know, co-starred on the hit 1980s cop show "Cagney & Lacey" with Sharon Glass, who plays Michael Westen's mom on "Burn Notice."
The two get lots of screen time together in this episode and it's great fun to watch. The episode also has its share of drama as Michael (Jeffrey Donovan)tries to figure out who murdered his agency contact in the summer finale. Donovan remains one of the coolest leading men on TV, and the supporting cast is excellent. Cult movie hero Bruce Campbell continues to be an absolute joy as Michael's boozy sidekick, Sam and inspires Michael's best line in the season premiere: "Sam, what's wrong? I've never seen you drink a beer so slowly."
"Burn Notice" returns tonight at 10 on USA.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"White Collar" returns; thankfully I don't have to start hating it


It's fair to say that the mid-season finale of USA's new caper drama "White Collar" contained one of the more polarizing cliffhangers of recent years.
Up until the last episode of the fall, the series was basically a cheerful, fast-paced buddy comedy about brainy FBI agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) who recruits world's-smartest-thief Neal Caffrey (Matthew Bomer) to be a consultant on tricky theft cases. It was a charming, fun romp, fueled mainly by the great chemistry between (and wonderfully loose performances of) the two leads.
Then came the mid-season finale in which it appeared that the straitlaced Peter was a bad guy who was keeping Neal's lady love Kate as a sort of hostage. It was a shocking possibility, and one that could have turned this light caper into something dark and sinister. Like many, I had no idea how I felt about it. On the one hand, I would like this show to have a little more substance. No, I don't expect it to suddenly turn into "The Wire," but I'd like there to be more at stake for the characters.
On the other hand, the Peter-Neal relationship is one of the show's strongest assets, and I can't possibly support anything that messes with that.
Well, the show returns for the second half of its season tonight at 10 and, without spoiling anything, let me just say that I'm pleased by the new episode. It manages to add a little more depth and mystery to the show without spoiling that central relationship.
Plus, there's a fun mystery of the week in which Neal has to go undercover to bring down a boiler room scam. The show's at its best when it lets its two leads show why their characters are the best at what they do. Both Bomer and DeKay get nice showcases here, and Willie Garson is still a joy as Neal's paranoid sidekick Mozzie. It's an enjoyable episode and it should satisfy those who were scratching their heads at the fall finale.

Monday, January 18, 2010

"Life Unexpected" tries to save the CW's soul


When the CW launched a few years ago, it inherited a number of shows from its parent networks, UPN and The WB. These included two strong, female-centered dramedies, "Gilmore Girls" and "Veronica Mars." However, within a year, those shows were off the air, and the network soon became home to schlocky remakes like "Melrose Place" and "90210." Yes, there were still a handful of quality shows (I still miss "Reaper"), but shows like "Gilmore" and "Mars" weren't really to be found on the network.
Thank goodness, then, for "Life Unexpected," a charming dramedy that debuts at 9 tonight on the CW.
The show -- about a foster teen who reconnects with her birth parents -- is sweet, intelligent and funny. In short, it's the kind of show that might have aired on The WB back in the day.
When series starts, 15-year-old Lux (the luminous Britt Robertson) is looking for early emancipation, so she can leave a foster system that's bounced her from one awful family to the next her whole life. To do this, she needs the approval of her birth parents. Dad is an immature 30-something bar owner who calls himself Baze (Kristoffer Polaha). Mom is an emotional basket case named Cate (Shiri Appleby) who hosts a radio talk show with her boyfriend (Kerr Smith, playing perhaps the most understanding TV mate this side of "The Closer's" Fritz Howard).
Turns out, Cate and Baze were teens themselves when they had the one-night stand that led to Lux. Baze always thought Cate had an abortion. Cate thought her baby had been adopted by a nice family.
When they learn that Lux is alive and miserable, they want to help. But can they?
The series is engaging as it follows these unique, damaged people as they attempt to form a family. It helps that Robertson is nothing short of magnetic as Lux. Despite her descents into headstrong teenage bratdom, we feel for her as she tries to get used to having her real parents in her life. Appleby and Polaha are also likable as two of the most unsuitable parents on earth. Despite their issues, we really believe that they might become decent parents just by the sheer force of their love for their newly discovered child.
"Life Unexpected" is fresh, sharply observed and brimming with smart things to say about families and human nature. If it takes off, it could bring some much-needed heft to the CW's lineup.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

"Dollhouse" recap: This is spinal tap


NOTE: SPOILERS ON THIS WEEK'S 'DOLLHOUSE' BELOW


Was it just me, or did anyone else find this week's installment of "Dollhouse" difficult to watch? Between Echo getting that involuntary spinal tap (without, apparently, benefit of anesthetic) and the ultimate fate of Boyd Langton, the whole thing just made me queasy.
I thought it was an excellent episode -- and far more emotionally involving than I thought the show would ever be when it debuted last year -- but I don't think I could ever watch it a second time.
With that aside, here are some more thoughts on "The Hollow Men."
* So, we now know why Rossum is so hot for Caroline's body: she apparently has an antibody in her blood that can be used to create a vaccine for Topher's hand-held imprinting device. That's why Boyd the Dollmaster lured her and company out to Rossum -- to harvest her spinal fluid. And let me tell you, based on that spinal tap scene, I hope I never have to have that procedure in my life. Because, yeesh, it looked painful.
* Speaking of Boyd, the scene where he finally unmasked himself as Rossum's founder was really creepy. However, was it believable? Everything we've seen of Boyd Langton, security chief/doll handler has lead us to believe that he's calm, even-keeled and not the least bit ego-driven. Yet, once he reveals himself as the Dollmaster, he seems totally nuts. When he started talking about how much he loved everyone it made me skin crawl. And it seemed totally un-Boyd. I expected him to rationalize his behavior, but he gives little or no reason for his actions, save the desire to get Caroline's blood. Is his real personality that different from what we've seen these past two seasons? Apparently. I guess Victor-as-Topher was right -- the dude WAS a really good actor.
* Despite that stark shift in Boyd's personality, I thought every scene between him and Echo was utterly shattering. From Echo's heart-broken realization that her father figure had been betraying her to Echo leading a mind-wiped Boyd to explode in the Rossum lab, it all made me die a little inside. When Echo looked at Boyd and uttered "I loved you" with that mix of agony and contempt, it was devastating. Excellent work by both Eliza Dushku and Harry Lennix in these scenes.
* Also nice work by Fran Kranz and Olivia Williams in the scene where Topher and Adele both try to shoulder the blame for the existence of the hand-held wipe device. There's a real mother-son vibe between these two characters that I enjoy watching.
* So, for those of you who wondered why November had been imprinted with Mellie's personality before the siege of Rossum, you got your answer: it was so we'd feel extra bad when November/Mellie shot herself in an attempt to resist her sleeper programming.
* There sure is a lot of gender-bending on this show, isn't there? This week, we saw Whiskey/Saunders imprinted with Clyde Ambrose's personality (nice touch -- she was in full male drag, complete with suit and tie). Of course, we already knew that the original Dr. Saunders was a man, and that his personality was (I assume) modified to suit his new body. We've also seen Echo imprinted with a male serial killer and Victor/Tony imprinted with a sorority girl named Kiki. You know, if it weren't for all this nasty apocalypse business, the Dollhouse might have a nice second life as the world's most authentic drag cabaret.
* In spite of all the grimness in this episode, we did get the always-welcome sight of Victor as Topher. I don't have anything significant to add about that -- I just like seeing Victor as Topher. Also, I'd like to once again beg any TV types out there to find a show for Enver Gjokaj. The man is just amazingly versatile.
* Well, that's it for me. Don't forget that the last episode of "Dollhouse" has been postponed a week, due to the telethon for Haiti being held next Friday on all the networks. The episode will now air Jan. 29 at 9 p.m. on Fox.

Dammit! "24" has sucked me in for another season!


Near the beginning of the eighth season premiere of "24," something truly upsetting happens. It's something that will cause a chill in even the most hard-core fans of "24"; something that I never thought I'd see happen on this show.
Someone calls Jack Bauer "Grandpa."
Yes, apparently this show has been on long enough for Jack Bauer to begin creating a dynasty of stubborn, tow-headed troublemakers.
That revelation is less shocking than some of the events that follow, but it still knocked me for a loop. At any rate, when we first see Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) this season, he's napping alongside his perky, bear-obsessed granddaughter, Teri. It's an idyllic scene. Of course, any "24" fan knows it will be only a matter of minutes before Jack is torn away from grandpa duty to help save the world -- again.
This season, Jack's day of hell involves saving a visionary leader of a fictional Middle Eastern country ("Slumdog Millionaire's" Anil Kapoor) from assassination. His latest adventure brings Jack to a new, New York-based version of his former stomping ground, CTU. The new CTU is different from the L.A. version we saw through most of the series' run (there's a lot more glass in the decorating scheme), but there's one similarity -- angry techie Chloe O'Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) is hanging around, sniping at people and making sourpuss faces.
Judging from the four-hour season premiere, the eighth season of "24" is pretty much business as usual. Heavies with accents? Check. Red herrings galore? Check. Bureaucrats standing in Jack's way? Check. Jack exclaiming "Dammit" every time said bureaucrats foil him? Check. CTU employees with personal problems that drag down the narrative every 20 minutes or so? Check.
On the last score, the new season introduces Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Katee Sackhoff as engaged CTU agents. Little can be said about their characters thus far, other than that they are mildly less annoying than Ricky Schroder was in season six.
There's also an appearance late in the premiere by one of last year's cast regulars, who seems to have undergone a shocking transformation (which probably isn't so shocking given the frequency with which characters change loyalties and motivations on this show).
It's not groundbreaking but, so far, the new season of "24" is solidly engaging. There's enough shouting, action and techno speak to satisfy long-time fans of the show and, so far, time-wasting subplots are kept to a minimum (Sackhoff's story line notwithstanding).
Also, Sutherland remains appealingly world-weary as Jack. The Jack we see this season seems a bit more mellow and human than the sweaty, torturing superman we've seen in previous seasons. I have no doubt he'll be up to his old tricks soon, but, so far, I like that the show is at least pretending Jack has evolved.
It's also good to see Cherry Jones back as President Allison Taylor. Jones has enough gravitas to make her often-ridiculous dialogue seem like more than mere exposition, so God bless her.
Overall, the eighth season of "24" is off to a decent start. I'm curious to see where it's going. But if it ends with Jack playing shuffleboard in a retirement community, I'm out.
The four-hour season premiere of "24" begins Sunday at 9 p.m. with a 2-hour episode. Another 2-hour episode airs Monday at 8 p.m.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

New season of "Leverage" starts


I know this has been a big week in TV, with NBC sending Jay Leno back to 11:30 and Simon Cowell announcing he's leaving "American Idol." But, amid all this TV news, there's a ton of actual new TV -- including this week's winter premiere of TNT's frothy caper series "Leverage."
The show returns Wednesday at 10 p.m., with the gang working to scam a cruel sweatshop manager. This season, Jeri Ryan ("Boston Public") is reprising her role from the summer finale as Tara, a grifter who steps in to help the Leverage team while Sophie (Gina Bellman) is coping with "emotional issues." Really, Bellman is pregnant. But it's no matter. Ryan is a fine temporary substitute. In fact, in some ways, I like her sly, aloof Tara better than Bellman's more strongly comedic Sophie.
The two episodes I've seen so far are very strong, and both offer some excellent material for the series' star, Timothy Hutton. In this week's scam, his character, Nate, plays a kooky, fan-flipping foreign designer, and Hutton is clearly having a ball with the bit.
The show also continues to give good material to supporting characters, particularly Aldis Hodge's Hardison, who has a hilarious bit in next week's episode, in which he fakes a weather cast.
"Leverage" isn't the best show on TV, but it is among the most fun to watch, and I'm glad to have it back.

"Big Love" recap: I just want to make you a BLT!


Yes, this is a criminally late recap of the fourth season premiere of HBO's "Big Love." But I totally have excuses for my tardiness -- excuses that involve a particularly wretched stomach flu and a fire in my apartment building.
Truth is, my "Dollhouse" recap Saturday kind of sapped me, and I haven't felt up to more blogging, until now. So, I didn't write a preview of the new episodes of "Big Love," and was tempted just to let the week pass by without commenting on it at all. But I couldn't let it slide, for two reasons.
Number one, I heard about the new credit sequence. Because my review screeners didn't include any credit sequences, I had no idea that the show had overhauled its opening credits until yesterday morning. No longer do we have the Hendrickson clan poignantly ice skating to the Beach Boys. Now, we have this:

Lovely, yes. But was it necessary? I loved the original sequence -- loved it so much in fact that my husband and I used "God Only Knows" as our wedding song. Why change it? I haven't seen any explanations yet. I assume it's merely the "Big Love" team wanting to shake things up a bit. That's fine, but it's going to take a lot of getting used to.
My second reason for wanting to write about this episode is (SPOILER ALERT) that I weirdly loved the screwball plot surrounding the dead body of Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton, whose character was murdered in last season's finale). I know a lot of critics don't like the Juniper Creek stories on the series and, I'm imagining, didn't care for this episode's "Weekend at Bernie's"/"Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" shenanigans with Roman's corpse. But it's just that insanity that makes me love the show. As soon as Adaleen (the peerless Mary Kay Place) screamingly urged daughter Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) to go down to the freezer to fetch some bacon, you kind of knew what was coming. But that didn't make it any less horrifying when Nicki entered the deep freeze to find her father's corpse. It was a moment both creepy and hilarious, as was the Hendrickson clan happening on Roman's body at their work site.
Yes, it was over the top. But it still worked -- mainly because Roman was always such an over the top character. It makes total sense that his corpse would literally turn up to haunt his daughter and her family.
It also worked because other elements of the show weren't quite as over the top. Margene's struggle to grow her jewelry-selling business was, for example, realistic and compelling, as was Nicki's struggle over her feelings for Bill. However, I didn't really buy Barb being wackily at sea with the casino business. The Barb I know is usually good under pressure. Yes, I know she's been thrown off by her excommunication -- and by the lack of respect given her by Bill's business partners -- but I don't think that would make her act like such a maniac. I felt much better when she gained control of the situation by the end of the episode.
I'm also not totally on board with Bill running for office. I feel the show already has too many balls up in the air, story wise, and this might be one more plot than it can handle.
What did you think of the premiere?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

"Dollhouse" recap: OMFG!


OK, so, "Dollhouse" resumed its second season death march on Friday after a brief hiatus and may I just say -- Wow. What an amazing, unexpected, brain-smacking episode this was!
This won't be a long post, because I'm still recovering from a rather nasty stomach bug that invaded our home this week. However, I couldn't let this episode go without comment, so here's my brief assessment of "Getting Closer."
SPOILERS BELOW

Let's start with this week's big reveal. We finally learned the identity of the big cheese pulling all the strings at Rossum...and it turned out to be none other than Boyd Langton! It makes perfect sense, yet seemingly came out of left field. The fact that we learned this bit of news right after a particularly heartwarming conversation between Langton and Echo made it all the more devastating. But what is Langton's end game? Why did he allow Echo to be reunited with Caroline, knowing that it would allow her to identify him as the Dollmaster (yes, that's his new nickname -- deal with it)?
And was Langton the one who ordered the siege of the Dollhouse (and the assassination of Bennett by Whiskey/Saunders)? Or was it someone else?
Clearly, the reveal of Langton as the Dollmaster asks more questions than it answers. But I'm very excited about where this show is going -- and pleased by its ability to pull the rug out from under us in a believable way.
Here are a few more thoughts on "Getting Closer":
* OK, so, I am a little confused about the Echo/Caroline time-line now. We're led to believe that Caroline is made a doll after her meeting with Langton, which followed her break-in with Bennett. Was this the same break-in that got Caroline's boyfriend killed? That would make sense, time wise. But it doesn't look like the same break-in. None of Caroline's other eco-terrorists pals seem to be there. Was she captured twice by Rossum? That would explain why they had a file on her. I don't know. I'm confused.
* Up until Langton was revealed as the Dollmaster, the episode's most shocking moment was Whiskey/Saunders cold-bloodedly killing Bennett Halverson. At first, I thought the murder stemmed from Saunders' intense hatred of Topher; that she couldn't stand to see him happy and had to kill the woman he loved. But we're told she was a sleeper, activated by Rossum. So who did it? Langton? As her lover, he would have the ability to do the task. Or was it someone else? Also, we learned from the Epitaph episode that Saunders is welcomed back into the Dollhouse fold (and has her face fixed). Just how does that happen?
* On a different note, I'm kind of sad for the loss of Bennett, and the side that she brought out in Fran Kranz's Topher. Their awkward romance was sweet, poignant, and vastly entertaining. I especially liked Topher professing his admiration for Bennett with a singularly Topher-ian pick-up line: "You know I always had a crush on you. Even when I thought you were a dude."
* We also learned this episode what Topher and Langton removed from Paul to make room for the Doll architecture: his love for Echo. But Topher said he only removed the connections that were the freshest, so I assume his feelings for Caroline remain. Interesting.
* So, apparently, there is no "Rossum." It's just a name, taken from a play -- Karl Capek's 1920 "Rossum's Universal Robots," to be exact. The play is about a scientist named Rossum, who learns how to create human-like machines. No, I've not previously heard of it, but, apparently, Capek invented the word "robot" for the play. The word is derived from the Czech word for "forced labor."

Friday, January 8, 2010

Brit wits meet nitwits in Showtime's "Episodes"





Celebrities playing themselves onscreen generally go in one of two directions: realistic or cartoon. In the former, the celebrity generally plays a version of himself or herself that's as close to the real thing (or, rather, the media image of the real thing) as possible. In the latter, the celebrity plays as broad an image of himself or herself as possible (with Neil Patrick Harris's work in the "Harold and Kumar" movies the obvious example).
When I heard that Matt LeBlanc of "Friends" fame was playing a version of himself on the new Showtime sitcom "Episodes," premiering 9:30 p.m. Sunday, I thought for sure he'd go the cartoon route.
After all, this is the man who gave us Joey Tribbiani. Sure, he's funny, but subtle he ain't.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"Nip/Tuck" starts final season


When FX's glossy drama "Nip/Tuck" debuted in 2003, it cemented the cable network's identity as the new home for daring, envelope-pushing TV. Where "The Shield" was the network's take on a broadcast staple -- the cop show -- "Nip/Tuck" was the FX version of a medical soap opera. Its depiction of plastic surgery had all the graphic bloodiness of "ER" but with an element that series lacked -- style. The surgery scenes were edited almost like music videos, complete with songs that reflected the surgery taking place (for instance, in a first season episode, "Tighten Up" by Archie Bell and the Drells played during a surgery to firm up loose skin on a patient who had just lost a significant amount of weight).
Not only did the show have style, it had sex. Not relatively chaste, George-Clooney-making-bedroom-eyes-at-Julianna-Marguiles sex. Sex sex. Sex in a variety of positions. Mean, nasty, shocking sex. In the first season alone, surgeon Christian Troy (Julian McMahon)seemingly got busy with half of Miami, while lusting after the other half.
While I didn't love "Nip/Tuck" the way I loved "The Shield" (or, later, FX's "Rescue Me"), I did admire how aggressive and stylish it was. I also admired the central performances by McMahon and Dylan Walsh, who played Christian's talented but uptight partner Sean McNamara. They had a nice rapport, and I actually believed they'd been friends and rivals for a long time. And, even though it wasn't as smart or as classy as "The Shield," "Nip/Tuck" was never boring.
Now, six years later, the show is coming to a close. Its seventh and final season starts Wednesday at 10 p.m. Over the years, the show has deteriorated quite a bit. Where the show's plot twists were once shocking, they've become silly or even off-putting. I mean, how many horrible things can happen to Sean's son Matt? He's already attempted a self-circumcision, had a threesome with lesbians, found out that Christian is his biological dad, slept with his mom's transsexual life coach, and dated a neo-Nazi. And that was just in the first three seasons! Did we really need last season's storyline, which started with Matt robbing convenience stores while dressed as a mime and ended with him getting sexually assaulted in prison? And I won't even talk about Sean's ex-wife Julia (Joely Richardson), who has been through so many dramatic character changes, she seems less of a character and more of a rack on which to hang a series of behavioral problems.
But, even though the show has veered into self-parody, I've kept watching. Mainly because my husband likes it, but also because it's just crazy enough to stay entertaining. Also, the acting remains strong and the surgery scenes still have an addictive mix of queasy realism and glitz.
So, as the show plods to a close, I'm trying to stay optimistic. The first two episodes of the new season are actually pretty good (the first is written by show creator Ryan Murphy, and has much of the melodramatic zing of the first season), so maybe this thing will come to a strong close. But, no matter what happens, I'll still kind of miss "Nip/Tuck" when it's gone.
Because, no matter what else it's become, it's never been boring.