Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Not a Secret, nor an Agent! Thoughts on CHUCK, JOURNEYMAN, REAPER, THE SIMPSONS, and MORE!

Man, these last few weeks have been pure craziness. I've got to stop over-booking myself so I can just chill a bit and relax. But, last night I attended a very cool program through the LA Jewish Federation's Entertainment Division. It was a small dinner that featured Larry Jacobson, longtime Tonight Show writer, as the guest of honor. Since the event was limited to a dozen or so guests, there was plenty of time for questions from the peanut gallery and for one-on-one questions following his talk. Having worked at the Tonight Show as an NBC Page and having seen Jay Leno perform so many times, it was really insightful to hear the thought-process of one of his top writers. Definitely a cool event, and everyone in attendance was really friendly as well, so the whole thing was pretty refreshing.

Anyways, a ton of TV stuff to talk about ...


So, most of the TV pilots that are running this week and next I saw way back when last spring, but I'll take some time here and review some of the ones that I'm planning to revisit and catch a few more episodes of over the next few weeks. Tonight is huge here at NBC, as BIONIC WOMAN debuts. It should be really interesting to see how it does in the ratings. I'll likely go more in-depth on that one tommorow, as I'm hoping to rewatch it tonight since there've been some changes to the pilot since I last saw it. Also, I hope everyone caught two really cool shows on Monday in CHUCK and Journeyman. I know I have the personal conflict of Chuck and Prison Break airing at the same time on Mondays, but I think everyone should check out Chuck whether you watch it on-air, download it on iTunes (yes it's on iTunes), Amazon Unbox, or just record it.

Before I talk about some new shows though - let me first talk about ...

THE SIMPSONS - Season Premiere Review:

- I mentioned in my Fall Preview that I was really anticipating this season of my all-time favorite comedy, if only to see whether a show that has been slumping for years now could rebound off the momentum from the generally well-received feature film. Unfortunately, this season premiere was pretty much a total dud - reminiscient of some of the weakest episodes from the past few years. The jokes largely fell flat, the premise (Homer making changes in his life to live a lifestyle of the rich and famous) was unevenly presented and brought to mind similar episodes that did the concept a lot better (ie the classic Max Powers ep), and worst of all, a potentially amazing guest voice-actor was totally wasted. Yep, Stephen Colbert appeared and played a completely forgettable character, a life-coach for Homer, in a role that gave one of America's funniest comedians precious little to work with. There were a few scattered moments where a joke worked, mostly in the show's opening featuring Mr. Burns, who was conspicuous by his lack of screentime in the movie. Mr. Burns and Homer had one or two great exchanges (Homer's reaction to Burns' dinner invitation was classic), but, after a pretty amusing opening, it was all downhill from that point forward. Look, there's no better TV comfort food then settling in to watch a new episode of The Simpsons on a Sunday night, and it's pretty remarkable that the show's now entering its 19th year. But please, Simpsons writers, inject some juice into this show - it's would be a true shame for the relative hilarity of the movie to be a mere blip in what has been a long, painful second act for what was once, undisputedly, the best comedy ever.

My Grade: C

- I still have to sit down and watch Sunday's KING OF THE HILL and FAMILY GUY. Stay tuned ...


- Reaper is undoubtedly a cool show. Kevin Smith directed the pilot, and the show brings that Kevin Smith slacker aesthetic, which was probably way ahead of its time back when Clerks first came out, to the TV screen where it's been absent for a long while. I mean, in general, it's just cool to see a show that is so different from your typical genre stuff, with a nice mix of action, adventure, and goofy comedy in the vein of a Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure style movie. Odd then, that Reaper and CHUCK both debuted a day apart, as each feature a pretty similar premise about a geeky slacker who is thust into an extraordinary circumstance that throws them into a world of danger and intrigue. Both Chuck and Reaper's protaganists even both work at analog's of big-box department stores, with Chuck lampooning Best Buy while Reaper has a satirized version of Home Depot. But really, the show's have two very different sense of humor, lending each a pretty unique feel. Fans of The OC will immediately recognize the snappy dialogue and post-ironic sense of humor that creator Josh Schwartz brings to Chuck. On the other hand, Reaper feels a bit more traditional and sitcom-ish, even though it's premise is pretty unique to this kind of comedy.

Part of what really gives Reaper its character and likability is its star, Bret Harrison. Harrison was a standout as a geeky high-schooler on the underrated sitcom Grounded For Life, and was also really good on FOX's The Loop. His character is a lot of fun in Reaper as well, and Harrison brings a funny everyman quality, which is necessary when playing an otherwise average character who happens to be chosen to be Satan's personal bounty hunter. Also good here is Tyler Labine as Harrison's trusty sidekick. Sure, Labine seems to just kind of channelling Jack Black, but he brings a lot of energy and good comedic timing to the mix. The other real standout is Ray Wise as the Devil himself. Wise is great, and really looks and acts the part - while he's funny and charming, you really buy that this guy also happens to be evil incarnate.

My biggest concern with Reaper is this: I'm not sure where it goes as a series. The pilot is played mostly for laughs, which is cool, but the show IS an hour long and does need some kind of ongoing storyarc to keep our attention. While Chuck did a great job of dropping some tantalizing clues about its overarching mythology in the pilot ep, Reaper presents a very one-and-done type of tale, and it's the kind of thing that was entertaining once, but promises to get very old if every episode plays like a comedic version of Smallville's freak-of-the-week formula. Because, here, other than the fact that he looks cool, the fiery pyromanic demon that Brett and his pals fend off is not very interesting, and their means of finding and tracking him down, resulting to the old cliche of searching through public records to determine his next move, was easily the lamest part of the episode. I like the random humor, but I'm concerned that there isn't enough meat here to keep my interest. So, very curious to see where this one goes, and hoping that episodes 2 and 3 present some compelling reasons to keep watching. For now though, this is a solid, funny show with a great cast and unique premise, that is definitely worth checking out.

My Grade: B+


Chuck is one of my favorite, if not my #1 favorite, new show of the season, and I really love a lot about the pilot and where the show seems to be headed.

For one thing, Chuck to me is great simply because it captures just about everything that made The OC such a fun show in its first few seasons. The snappy dialogue, the feeling that it's plugged-in to pop culture, the deft mix of humor and drama, the knack for showcasing fun, likable characters with a potent mix of geeky everymen (Chuck is, essentially Seth Cohen - one of the best TV characters of the last 5 years - transplanted into a new show) with over-the-top archtypes (Adam Baldwin anyone?). But here's the super-cool part: Chuck has all the stuff that made The OC click, but it takes that whole OC sensibility and transplants it into an action-adventure, sci-fi spy show. To me, the combination is like peanut butter and chocolate. If anything, the whole feel of Chuck reminds me a bit of one of my favorite comic books, Y: The Last Man. That book, for those who haven't read it (if not, please go do so at once), casts geeky hero Yorrick Browne as the sole survivor of a plague that killed all men on earth save him, leaving Yorrick to traverse a brave new world dominated by females. Part of the brilliance of Y is that it subverts the expectation that the world's last man would be some kind of Arnold Schwarzenneger-esque alpha male. Chuck follows the same type of formula, putting a geeky guy in the shoes that would ordinarily be filled by James Bond or Jack Bauer. It helps that lead actor Zach Levy is very likable as Chuck. Of course, I almost wish they had just gotten Adam Brody for the part since the character is essentially Seth Cohen, but, oh well, I understand why they didn't go that route.

Chuck is also surrounded by a lot of fun characters. His goofy friend Morgan is genuinely funny and has some scene-stealing moments. He and Chuck have a great scene of physical comedy, in which they actually battle a NINJA, that speaks to the show's geeky sensibilities but also speaks to the great comedic timing that both leads possess. Seth Cohen and Ryan Atwood would be proud. Then there's the beautiful-but-deadly Sarah Walker, a special agent who looks to have stepped straight out of the pages of a J. Scott Campbell-drawn comic book, and is not only great to look at but has some interesting chemistry with our hero Chuck. Adam Baldwin is fun as always, doing what he did to perfection on shows like The X-Files - playing a hard-nosed, badass guy in a suit. Finally, how can you not love a side character named Captain Awesome?

Maybe it's just me, but I feel like Josh Schwartz has accomplished something with Chuck that few other shows manage - he's made it feel genuinely cool. It has the kind of sensibility that one doesn't typically find in a network TV show - I mean in the first episode alone we get ninjas, car chases, a dance scene that turns into an all-out catfight, and a reference to Zork. And that's what's so cool about this show - unlike Heroes, which sometimes feels like it wishes it wasn't a show about superheroes, Chuck fully embraces its geekiness with a wink and a smile, and it's clear that Schwartz and co are having a ton of fun placing their unique stamps on the show. Basically, there's a reason why this one got a standing ovation at ComiCon. Really looking forward to seeing more of Chuck.

My Grade: A


Journeyman is a show that to me is exponentially elevated in quality thanks to the presence of its lead actor, Kevin McKidd. As time-lost traveler Dan Vassar, McKidd brings an intensity and charisma to the show that really carries it and makes the whole thing work. And what works best in terms of storytelling on this show is the strong character dynamics between Vassar and his wife, his brother-in-law, and most intriguingly, with his long-deceased old flame, who he encounters on his trips to the past. McKidd really does a great job of bringing an emotional intensity to these relationships, highlighted by a riveting, climactic scene in the pilot, in which McKidd makes a desperate bid to convince his wife that he isn't crazy, that he has, in fact, become unstuck in time.

Undoubtedly, Journeyman excels when it comes to dealing with McKidd and his love triangle with his wife and old girlfriend. Where the show falters a bit is in its plotting. Mainly, the show's whole time travel aspect is really exploited in terms of how it affects Dan and his various relationships, right from the get-go. It's clear that Journeyman is really a relationship-centric show and by no means hard sci-fi or tru action-adventure. But, this is still a show about time-travel, and I found it a bit frustrating that the whys and hows of Dan's journeys through time are barely touched upon at all, at least in the pilot. There are some very vague hints of a greater purpose to everything, but there weren't enough solid clues to really hook me in to any kind of broader mythology. And the truth is, this felt like a show that needed some kind of mythology, or at least SOMETHING to establish the premise. In a show like Quantum Leap, to which Journeyman has frequently been compared, there was a very basic and easily understandable structure to the series - Sam went back in time, inhabited someone's body, and manipulated the course of events to help out someone in need of a change in direction. With Journeyman, I am very curious what the grand cosmic purpose is to Dan's Vassar, but the show never seemed all that concerned with it. On the other hand, I think it's kind of cool that Journeyman, within the span of a single episode, dispatched with the inevitable storyline about how nobody believes Dan's stories about being a time-traveler, most especially his wife. In one dramatic moment, Dan convinces his wife that his time-traveling is legit, and - bam, we no longer need to deal with that conflict as a potentially annoying ongoing subplot. If only a show like Smallville had followed a simialr tactic and not dragged out the Lana-not-knowing-Clark's-real-ID subplot for year after agonizing year.

So, there's a lot to like about Journeyman. It has interesting characters and a dramatic weight and intensity about it that really draws you in. For me, I'm just much more inclined to be interested in the show if there turns out to be more of a hook to keep me coming back week after week. Time travel is a fascinating subject, and I want to see it explored more beyond the cheesy, obligatory "oh my god, he has an iPod, but it's 1985!" type moments that to me will get to be real old, real fast on a show like this. I want twists, turns, heroes, villains, a plot to sink my teeth into. Despite a cool cast and interesting characters that make for an overall excellent pilot episode - this, to me, is what will ultimately elevate this show from "pretty good" to "great."

My Grade: B+

- Alright, back with more later ... until next time.

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