Summer Recap
July 21, 2008

So, I gave myself the summer off.  Yeah, it makes no sense, but I did it.  With the fall TV season ramping up, I thought I’d check in and give you quick hit reviews of new and old shows from this summer.  New show watches to come in a month of so.  Enjoy.

The Middleman

ABC Family, Mondays at 10:00PM

Genre: Sci-Fi Comedy

Conceit: Meet the New Avengers, Funnier Than The Old Avengers

So, this was my first ABC Family Original show (though, honestly, I couldn’t tell you how many original shows they’ve had before), and I’ll tell you, the network is off to a great start in winning me over.  The Middleman follows the exploits of Wendy Watson, a early 20’s Art School graduate who’s wandering through life aimlessly until a temp job puts her in science fictiony danger.  Next thing she know, “Dub-Dub” finds herself being apprentice to The Middleman, a super-secret espionage type who saves the world from natural, supernatural, and just plain odd danger.

Sounds campy?  Sure is.  And that’s one of two reasons this show really works.  Its self-awareness is the basis for 60% of the humor on the show.  Middleman and Dub-Dub find themselves in the most ridiculous situations and acknowledge it with snarky comments galore.

The second reason this show soars is newcomer Natalie Morales, who makes you want to watch her with a quirky sensibility and a Sahara-dry wit.  Her interplay with all the supporting cast, and especially The Middleman, is a pleasure to watch in a Summer of mediocrity.

The two negatives of this show are minor but real.  The first is the fact that this is an ABC Family show.  Even with a TV-14 rating and a fair share of double-entendres that raise eyebrows for a “family” station, The Middleman is on a family network and is limited by it.  This isn’t fatal as the limitations rarely ever come into focus.  But its there.  The second problem is a tendency to suffer from Diablocoditis.  This usually results in 3 too many clever lines strung together, without giving the viewer a chance to breathe; this illness was last seen in the movie “Juno”.

These minor gripes aside, The Middleman is a winner of a summer show.

Final Grade: A-

Watch the forth episode of this season: http://abcfamily.go.com/abcfamily/path/section_Shows+Middleman/page_Video-Middleman_Full_1002

The Secret Life of the American Teenager

ABC Family, Tuesdays at 10:00PM

Genre: Drama

Conceit: Life if Juno Happened In the Town That 7th Heaven Took Place In.

Yeah, I know, two ABC Family shows in a row.  This show is an odd duck.  I am well aware that I am not in the target demographic for this show, which I assume is split between 8-18 year olds and 35-55 year olds, representing contemporaries of the characters as well as their parents.

What drew me in was the notion of a show that has an honest discussion of sex from the prospective of a high school teenager.  You do get that.  Sort of.

The story starts with Amy Juergens finding out that she’s pregnant after having sex for the first time with a random guy at band camp.  The first episode really does this starting point justice as being very believable both in the set up and the reactions.  If this was the main focus of this series, as commercials lead you to believe, this show would be excellent.  Unfortunately, TSLotAT (by the way, a thought provoking, but way-too-long- title) wants to represent all views on sex.

So we meet all the supporting characters, who each represent a different view on sex.  How convenient.  Now I applaud ABC Family’s attempt to show all sides of the discussion.  Unfortunately, everyone is a caricature.  We have the promiscuous girl (who is having sex to fill an empty emotional void); we have the promiscuous boy (who is having sex to mask his hurt from childhood sex abuse); we have the virgin girl (who is not having sex out of respect to her faith and her parents); we have her football boyfriend (who was a virgin for the same reason until he cheated on her with the aforementioned promiscuous girl); we have the virgin boy (who has a mega crush on Amy and has just started dating her, unaware of her maternal ways).  And they’re all connected.  Mix in some awful acting by half of the adults on the show and what could’ve been a very source of dialogue melt into just awful PG-13 rated soap opera.

Final Grade: C

Watch the second episode: http://abcfamily.go.com/abcfamily/path/section_Shows+Secret-Life-Of-The-American-Teenager/page_Video-SecretLifeOfTheAmericanTeenager_Full_1002

My Boys

TBS, Thursdays at 9:30PM

Genre: Sitcom

Conceit: Sex and the City.  Just With More Guys And Less Sex.

The TBS summer-time hit is back for another run.  I always enjoyed the premise of this show: tom-boy’s life.  Very simple.  But here’s the problem: from the very first episode of the series, Jordana Spiro’s PJ has never seemed like an authentic tom boy.  The show gave her a “male” job (sports writer), a bunch of friends who are guys, save one, and a love of poker.  But none of this stuff makes a girl a tom-boy (which, by the way, seems like an antiquated phrase even as I type it).  PJ just always seemed like a bland character who didn’t seem any different from any other female character on TV.  The show used Kellee Stewart’s Stephanie Layne as a foil, showing how un-“girly girl” PJ is. No one buys it.

None of that has changed this season at all.  In fact, we barely see PJ do any sports work or play poker, so the two fake guy things are gone, making PJ even less compelling than before. 

The one thing TBS did right this season was bring more focus onto PJ’s supporting cast.  While Stephanie’s new status as an author is completely random and should be ignored, the male cast really shines in their goofiness.  Its almost as if the best bits of the show are when PJ is merely the hinge by which the guys rotate on.

Final Grade: C+

Watch this season’s episodes: http://www.tbs.com/video/index/#/all-video/shows/my-boys/full-episodes/

In Plain Sight

USA, Sundays at 10:00PM

Genre: Action-Comedy

Conceit: Mary’s Got A Gun

USA Network has really pioneered the Summer Television season movement.  In Plain Sight is their latest entry into the movement.  Honestly, I only turned on this show because it stars Mary McCormack.  I consider The West Wing to be the best television show of my time (thus far) and McCormack became a regular character in the shows lesser, I mean later, years.  So that alone earns at least an hour of my time.

McCormack stars as Mary Shannon, a US Marshal attached to the Witness Protection Program and stationed in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  That’s pretty much all you need to know.  From their, you’re introduced to the classic cast of characters for this type of show: the quirky male sidekick; the uncoordinated boss; the hot but flighty sister; the good-for-nothing but caring mother; and the tense on-again-off-again love interest.  Sprinkle in some random action and McCormack talking about how her life can’t seem to get together and you have any given episode.

Its not that the show is bad.  In fact, its got the feel of what a summer show should be: light and easily accessed.  Unfortunately, it veers to far into that region.  There is really nothing to be gained by watching an episode and nothing to be lost by missing one.  But what it does, it does well.  So basically, if you’ve got nothing else to do, and you have space on your TiVo, its worth an hour of your time.  

Final Grade: B-

Watch this season’s episodes: http://www.usanetwork.com/series/inplainsight/video/fullep/

Psych

USA, Fridays at 10:00PM

Genre: Comedy

Conceit: Lethally Funny Weapon

This summer gem managed to get me excited for its new season with (at least what I thought) a hilarious ad campaign:

For those unaware, Psych stars James Roday as Shawn Spencer, a son of a cop who uses his psychic abilities to solve mysteries.  Wait, before you reach for the remote to change channels, Spencer isn’t really a psychic.  Instead, he uses his hyper-observation skills to make it seem like he has the abilities his clients wish he did.  Spencer is teamed with Dule Hill’s Burton “Gus” Guster, a childhood friend and the straight man in this comedy.  This show had really mastered the light summer feel that USA really wants.  Spencer and Hill’s chemistry sealed the deal and the supporting cast is excellent.

If you think there’s a huge “but” coming, there is.  We’re only one episode into the new season and things are not looking good.  The premiere featured a very disappointing payoff for the mystery of the week.  That would be forgivable, except for the B-story, involving Shawn’s long absent mother.  While the story itself suffers from serve predictability, in general, Shawn is portrayed as extremely…well…serious, throughout it.  And while that makes sense for the story, it doesn’t work for the show.  I’ll reserve judgment until a couple more episode air, but I have to continue with cautious optimism.  Psych, please work your magic.  Soon.

Final Grade: Pending

Watch this season’s episodes: http://www.usanetwork.com/series/psych/video/fullep/

 

 

Lost: There’s No Place Like Home
May 16, 2008

ABC, Thursdays at 10:00PM

Genre: Sci-Fi Drama

Conceit: The Thinking Man’s “Gilligan’s Island”.

There was this moment while I watched “Greatest Hits” last episode, where I started getting inexplicably excited.  Maybe its not inexplicable.  That episode really started moving stuff into place for the finale.  And Charlie’s life was or wasn’t going to end.  And it was all racing towards the end.  That’s exactly how I feel during hour one of this three hour finale.  

Jack and Sawyer.  Cyclops and Wolverine.  One is the only one who can lead.  The other is the only one you’d ever want in a fight.  Both men reached the helicopter and were one step away from just taking it back and saving the world.  Except one thing: Hurley is with Ben.  Ever since the first episode this season, we’ve been trying to figure out what Hurley meant when he told Jack he was sorry he went with Locke.  Is this it?  Is this the decision that changes everything?

I guarantee that you could not have guessed who it was doubling back on Kate and Sayid’s trail.  And when Nestor Carbonell walked through the leaves, all you thought was “that’s the missing piece; that’s what we need to make sense of this.”  Meanwhile, back on the tanker, we may be setting out for quite possibly the most tragic finale Lost has had yet.

Our flash forward went only a couple days into the future as the Oceanic 6 finally touch down in civilization.  Jack finds himself finally burying his “dad” and giving a very touching eulogy, only to be blindsided moments later with the revelation that he left his half-sister behind and he’s staring at his nephew.  Kate returned to the real world to remember that no one loves her except Claire’s baby, who she’s claimed as her own.  Hurley cannot escape the numbers, no matter how far from the island he gets.  His psychosis is just around the corner.  Sun shows that she has inherited her father’s ruthlessness.  And Sayid finally gets the girl.  I said before that Desmond and Penny are the “under the radar awesome couple”.  Sayid and Nadia are 2nd place for that award.  

I know this is only hour one of what was probably meant to be a three hour, one-shot finale, but I’m facing two realities.  First, I will be miserable waiting one week for the next episode.  Second, I will be beyond words, waiting for 8 to 9 months for the next episode.

Final Grade: A

Smallville: Arctic
May 15, 2008

CW, Thursdays at 8:00PM

Genre: Sci-Fi Drama

Conceit: Superboy Meets World.

Supergirl was always an iffy concept, even in the comic books.  It was basically a girl Superman, who was more immature.  Not terribly compelling.  In Smallville, Kara Zor-El was suspect because Laura Vandervoort is not much of an actress.  From her introduction in the beginning of the season, it was obviously that Vandervoort was cast more for her looks than for any acting ability that she may have.  But give the girl some edge and she’s actually interesting to watch.  Flying out of exploding planes, double dealing Lex, this is a Kara I can get with.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t Kara, was it?  It was Milton Fine, Brainiac.  Kara was sent to the Negative Zone  Brainiac.  He has been the villain of choice this season.  I know that Brainiac is an important character in the Superman universe, but I’ve been terribly bored by him this entire season.  Which is why I took so much personal satisfaction in Clark’s slow motion punching him in the face.  I also took personal satisfaction in Clark killing Brainiac.  This has always been central to the Superman mythos: when it means more than who he is, can Clark break his own moral code?

And Lana is gone.  Man, what a lame way to get rid of her.  I mean, I know that Kristen Kreuk wanted off the show, and I know the reality is that Lana and Clark don’t end up together, and I even know that Clark and Chloe are more entertaining that Clark and Lana ever were, but that was a weak send off.  Here’s hoping for the occasional guest appearance.  

We finally got the face off we’ve waited seven years for.  Lex finally knows.  No gimmicks.  No memory wipes (yet).  Michael Rosenbaum shows why he knows the character of Lex Luthor so well.  An even balance between a desire to do the right thing and flat out narcissism.  To “save” the world, Lex needs to control Clark.  And so the fortress collapses in on itself, in this less spectacular special effects.  And that’s it. 

I know that season finales are supposed to be cliff hangers, but that was just…meh.  I mean, the show faded to black with no real pay off.  With nothing to wonder about.  Sure, Kara’s in the negative zone.  Yawn.  Chloe’s been arrested.  Ok semi-interesting.  Black Lex cradling Clark in a dying Fortress.  Lame.  Here’s hoping that next season (which I’m pretty sure is the last season) finds a workable path and sticks to it.

Final Grade: C

Lost: Cabin Fever
May 9, 2008

ABC, Thursdays at 10:00PM

Genre: Sci-Fi Drama

Conceit: The Thinking Man’s “Gilligan’s Island”.

Penultimate episodes generally go one way or another.  Either they do such an incredible job preparing you for the finale that you just can’t wait 7 more days or they end up being a lead balloon and you take comfort in the fact that the finale will be that much better.  Cabin Fever was the latter.  

First off: stop with the flashbacks.  Unless its really going to add something huge to the story, don’t do it anymore.  This is the second flashback this season (not counting Desmond’s travels) and it was just as good as the first one, by which I mean it was not good at all.  John Locke is special.  Fine.  We know that.  Its been beaten into our heads. Apparently the island’s original inhabitants have been interested in his since he was born.  Amazing.  Apparently Richard Alpert never gets older.  Ok, well that is kind of interesting (and gets added onto the list of really sci-fi things about this show).  But still, this episode was truly a throw away.  Locke, Hurley, and Ben wander around the jungle, looking for the cabin, each thinking the other is going to lead them there.  Eventually Locke has a dream and finds the cabin.  That’s pretty much it.

There were two bright spots of this episode.  The first was Ben.  Michael Emerson continues to make a great argument for deserving an Oscar.  His transition from evil-ish mastermind who’s always one step ahead of the curve to helpless participant who’s accepted he’s not special anymore is brilliant.  Its filled with nuance and one of the most compelling roles on television.

The other bright spot happened at the very end.  I was right when I thought I saw Christian in Jacob’s Cabin during the season premiere.  But what was interesting was that Locke saw him too.  And he even identified himself as Christian.  For the first time, a character who “shouldn’t be on the island” has been seen by someone who doesn’t have a personal tie to them.  Is Christian actually alive?  And that shot of Claire just sitting there was brilliantly creepy.  How could she leave her baby, be with her estranged father, and be so at peace?  Brilliant.

And then they ruined it.  I let out a rather deep “ugh” when Christian told Locke what he had to do.  I’m sure it wasn’t to be taken literally, but still, lame.  Oh, and all heck is breaking lose on the tanker and people are coming to kill the island.

Lets hope that this three hour finale spread over the next three weeks (1 hour next week and then 2 hours in a row in 2 weeks) makes up for it.

PS: If this whole series ends up taking place in Locke’s mind while he’s on his walkabout in Australia, with each character representing another aspect of his persona, I will flip my lid.

FInal Grade: C

Lost: Something Nice Back Home
May 2, 2008

ABC, Thursdays at 10:00PM

Genre: Sci-Fi Drama

Conceit: The Thinking Man’s Gilligan’s Island.

Man, Jack and Kate just can’t get it together, huh?  Tonight’s episode found Jack on the verge of having a perforated appendix.  Juliet rushed to his aid, only to be swept aside as Jack revealed who the real girl in his life is.  We flash forwarded to Jack’s future (our past or our present?).  This takes place after Hurley’s flash forward and after Kate’s flash forward.  Jack has made his peace with who Aaron is and has taken to shacking up with Kate and playing house.  For once, all is well in Jack’s life.  And then Hurley fouls it up.  Jack goes to visit a mentally sick Hurley who refuses to go back on his meds.  He tells Jack that Charlie came to him and told him that Jack can’t raise “him”.  Of course Jack takes this to mean Aaron and loses his mind.  This is a great reference to Claire’s story, where the fortune teller convinces Claire that she must raise Aaron.  Combined with constant visions of his father Christian, Jack begins his downward spiral towards drugs and alcohol we all know he’s going to hit.  And he ends whatever he and Kate had.  Finding out that Kate secretly ran an errand for Sawyer she promised she would, we get a reference to something that’s going to happen soon, when Jack says that Sawyer chose to stay back while Jack saved Kate.

Speaking of the man named James, Sawyer leads Claire and Miles through the jungle when Miles has one of his visions and finds the bodies of Carl and Danielle.  This was only done to remind us that Miles has a weird connection to the dead (which is one of only two really sci-fi things we’ve seen so far, Desmond’s time travel being the other).  This was important because when Miles saw Christian lead Claire away, we are still lead to wonder whether he’s alive or dead.  Either way, Claire is gone, leaving Sawyer with Aaron.

Jin proved again that there is no one more brave and completely dedicated to his loved one than he is.  

Final Grade: A-

Smallville: Sleeper
April 25, 2008

CW, Thursdays at 8:00PM

Genre: Sci-Fi Drama

Conceit: Superboy Meets World

It really was spy vs. spy tonight as Jimmy Olsen was hired by the Department of Domestic Security to investigate possible terroristic activities by his lady love, Chloe Sullivan.  And did Jimmy spy it up, in true James Bond style.  Was any of this even the slightest bit believable?  Not really.  Even if we buy that someone from the DDS handed Jimmy a briefcase filled with cool gadgets, his kung fu fighting and cat like agility seemed to appear out of nowhere.

But who cares?

Aaron Ashmore could easily be one of the better people to inhabit the Jimmy Olsen persona in a long while.  He’s got the goofy charm and yet the heroic ambitions down pat.  And he’s just fun to watch.  And while I’ll always be on the “Clark and Chloe” train, I have to admit that Jimmy and Chloe have some serious chemistry.  They were nothing less than a delight to watch this episode.  The episode was just escapist fun.

Lex, meanwhile, continues on his master of the universe path.  He flies to Sweden to find a safe deposit box that Veritas was keeping.  In a scene reminiscent of “The DaVinci Code”, Lex finds what I assume is a historic compass which points somewhere.  This will surely point to The Fortress, if I know my Smallville.

The oddest part of this week’s episode had to be that Clark was barely around.  And the episode was still solid.  This will always be Tom Welling’s show, but it was nice to see that in his absence, the show still works well.  However, he did reappear at the end to set up what I’m sure is going to be a huge episode in the series next week.

Final Grade: B+

Smallville: Descent
April 20, 2008

CW, Thursday at 8:00PM

Genre: Sci-FDrama

Conceit: Superboy Meets World

Y’know, even though the show “Smallville” exists outside of DC comic continuity, and so the producers can pretty much do what they want (except, apparently, put Lois and Clark together), there are certain things that the show gets right.  Chloe, though she isn’t an actual character from the comics, is one example.  But a more pertinent example of the show getting something right is Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex Luthor.  Even when the show has taken the bizarre liberty of making Clark and Lex friends for years, it still gets the character right.  Lex is a villain, for sure.  But he’s not a villain in the classic sense.  Lex suffers from thinking he knows best, and so he will force his “best” on the world for its own sake.  In the last couple of seasons, Lex has gradually taken steps from well intentioned young man to the megalomaniac he is destined to become.  In this episode, when he pushed his father to his death, Lex may have sealed the deal.  In classic Lex form, the decision “to do what it takes” haunts him.  And in classic Lex form, he brushes past it to accomplish what he needs to.

Meanwhile, in a nod to things to come, Lois and Jimmy engaged in some Daily Planet quality investigative journalism when Jimmy finds out that he has a picture which may show that Lionel’s suicide was in fact a murder.  And Lois got shot.  In pretty comic fashion.  The one downside of this episode was that yet another person discovered Clark’s secret.  Which surely means that person is going to die in an episode or two.  Oh wait.  Nope, in this episode itself.  This device is getting kind of old.

Clark and Lionel have had a truly odd relationship.  For the last three seasons, Lionel has wavered between full-on protector, to slight of hand enemy.  In his death, he showed that he trying to keep two keys which, when combined, would allow the possessor control Clark from falling into the wrong hands.  He was caring for Clark as if he were his own son.  This show has always been about fathers and sons.

This revelation lead to a face off with Lex which could be considered one of the finer moments in the season.  Both Lex and Clark uttered words which embody who both characters are meant to be and why both characters were destined to be at odds with each other.

Before this episode, I really believed that this show was at least a half season past its prime.  With key actors departing at the end of the season, I figured this was as good a time as any to take a bow.  However, this episode really opened up brand new possibilities.  This episode alone may have justified a new season of “Smallville”.

Final Grade: B+