Thursday, January 29, 2009

TV is Back?! LOST and 24 Return!

Whew. That last blog took a lot out of me. Thanks to everyone who took the time to read through that monster of a post, and thanks to everyone who gave me positive feedback. I actually went through the whole Israel recap post and did a few edits / corrections, as I wanted to make sure it was complete and is now there to serve as a thorough account of my recent Israel adventures. I'll be sure to post a lot more about Israel in general over the next few weeks and months, but in the meantime, man, there's A LOT I've wanted to talk about, but have put off so that I could finish up my post-Israel recap. I want to talk about Obama's inauguration, the Oscar nominations, Waltz With Bashir, and several other pressing topics, and hopefully I'll get to all of that over the next several days. But first, it's time to forget about all of that for a bit and talk TV.

Because, whoah baby, after a post-holiday lull, TV is back in a big way in January. Two of my all-time favorites have returned after lengthy absences, and, well, there's a lot to talk about ...


- I know, I know, all of you loyal blog readers have been on the edge of your seats waiting to hear my thoughts so far on the latest season of 24. So, before I get to a more critical analysis, let me first offer belated cries of gravitas-infused joy:


Yeah, regardless of the fact that last season of 24 was not exactly the series' best, you can't help but be pumped that, finally, after a year-long hiatus, one of the top shows of the last decade is finally back in primetime. Oh how I missed you, 24. The recent Redemption movie offered up a nice little tease, but, finally, this is the real thing. Twenty-four consecutive, real-time Jack Bauer Power Hours.

Suffice it to say, upon returning from Israel, practically priority #1 was getting reacquainted with Jack and co. Forget unpacking, forget laundry, forget tagging photos on Facebook. The clock was counting down, and I was outta time!

Okay, so what have I thought of the season so far? It's strange, there's a lot to like about what we've seen in the first several hours, but at the same time, the season has been solid and well-done, but not really mind-blowing or jaw-dropping. At least not yet. I'll start with the positives - in general, it's great to see Jack back in action and kicking ass, especially alongside his longtime right-hand man, Tony Almeida, aka the bearer of the SOUL PATCH OF DOOM. Tony's presence as a back-from-the-dead wingman of moral ambiguity is a much-needed boost to the show's overall badass quotient, and many of this season's best moments to date have been in scenes where Jack and Tony are at odds/working together /being badass in general. I mean, if you asked me to name the biggest highlights of the season thus far, some of them would include the Tony vs. Jack throwdown in the premiere, the two of them working together and joking about nearly killing each other, and Tony's taking out all of Emerson's men in this week's ep, with a Bauer-powered sniper assist, and then cooly exclaiming "why don't we put all this behind us?".

Tony's return has been a highlight, but in general the season seems to just have an overall more serious, less campy tone than last season. Sure, there are still the familiar beats of any typical 24 season, but this year, at least so far, there's no one subplot that makes you rolly our eyes and reach for the fast-forward button. At first, for instance, I expected the First Husband's subplot, in which he investigates his son's murder, to be this year's big groaner. But the storyline has surprised me by actually being very compelling, delivering some of the season's most intense moments to date. It helps that the actor playing the first husband is great - how intense was it last week as he clenched his fists in anger after being hit with a paralysis-inducing serum by his traitorous secret service agent? Their ensuing tussle and the chaos that resulted was great stuff. Like I said, the season has just had a very solid feel to it - nothing too over-the-top or campy, yet plenty of cool moments to keep the intensity high.

Now, what's bothered me about the season up to now? Okay, the biggest problem may be this: a lot of this season of 24 feels like it's expending too much effort addressing the show's critics - namely those who have complaine that the show glorifies violence and torture. To me, this season's constant and somewhat heavy-handed moral arguments regarding the merits of torture have really slowed the show's momentum at times, and also just taken me out of the action to boot. While the arguments for and against torture are interesting in the real world, not so much in a fictionalized and stylized one like 24's. I mean, imagine if you had a Batman movie where each fight scene was bookended by discussion of whether or not he was in the right to beat up crooks without due process. I'm not saying that the legitimacy of torture isn't a good *overarching* theme for the season, but the way it's been handled has undoubtedly been pretty hamfisted. I want to be able to get caught up in the action, not forced to wonder about the moral reprecussions of each of Jack Bauer's smackdowns.

This leads me to another issue with this season. No way to put this subtly - there's just an overall lack of gravitas so far this year. Yes, Tony is back, and so is the white-haired mastermind Bill Buchanan. But there's no villain who really gets your blood boiling like Peter Weller did a couple of seasons ago. No big bad who Jack has a true personal stake in taking down and taking down hard. Similarly, things in the White House are just kind of ... there. Without a heavy-hitter player like a Powers Boothe in these scenes, there's not quite the intensity present that we're used to seeing in 24's Oval Office. Cherry Jones is doing a nice job, and upped the ante this week with one heck of an emotional speech to her cabinet. But still, give us some White House rivalries we can really sink our teeth into. Same can be said for CTU, I mean the FBI. So far the FBI team comes off as CTU-lite - a more realistic but less cool version of the usual archtypes we always see on 24. Hell, there's even a mole. 24 needs some new types of characters who don't mirror ones we've already seen again and again on the show. Right now, things are solid, but all too familiar-feeling.

Finally, the writing is brisk and focused, but maybe too much so. At the drop of a dime, Jack accepts Tony and Bill's premise that there is an urgent need to work outside the government, even though thousands of lives could be risked by doing so. Bill's plans are similarly strange - is it really worth it to impede the government at every turn in a time of crisis, just to expose yet another conspiracy within its ranks?

That said, there are few shows that can deliver the same visceral thrills as 24, and the great thing about this season is that there's a whole lot of upside. Even if feels like the show is just kind of spinning its wheels right now, there is a very intriguing groundwork being laid, and it feels like things could really blow up at any moment. And already, we've gotten some instant-classic 24 scenes. How about Jack steering a car off a building from the floor, bracing himself for the big drop with a rare quip - "this is gonna hurt ...".

So yeah, thank the action-TV gods, 24 is back. The question is, will this be another *great* season, or merely a decent one?

My Grade:

Hours 1 & 2: B+
Hours 3 &4: B
Hour 5: B
Hour 6: A-


- If you read my massive BEST OF 2008 series of blogs (if not, go do that ASAP ...), then you're well aware that I named Lost my Best TV Show of 2008. So it goes without saying that I was really, really psyched for the show's much-anticipated return two weeks ago. And I am happy to say that the first three episodes of 2009 did not disappoint.

I think the great thing about Lost right now, which really became clear last season, is that the writers now seem to have such a solid vision for what the show's mythology is, how it fits together, and where it's all headed. Like many, I got very frustrated in the second season when you couldn't help but feel that the show was being written on the fly without a clear sense of direction. Now, there's that great sense that the puzzle pieces are slowly but surely coming together. Part of that is thanks to the new twist in which the castaways still on the island are being hurled through time, continually emerging in different periods in the island's history. It's a brilliant device in that allows the writers to seamlessly and organically reveal a ton of new information about the show's mythology without resorting to hard flashbacks or flash-forwards. Already, we've seen some huge reveals about Richard Alpert, Ethan Rom, and of course Charles Whidmore and their collective histories on the island, and it's clear that there's a lot more of these revelations still to come. And man, what a great opening to the season, in which we saw a flash to a scene where Daniel Faraday is somehow lurking amongst the members of the Dharma group circa the 1970's. Can't wait to see the follow-up to that intriguing teaser.

I know some people get turned off by all the time travel stuff, but to me, it's a real treat when such an inherently cool concept is handled in such a smart and imaginative manner. I love all of the rules being established, the paradoxes and possibilities. It gives the show a bit more of a true sci-fi edge, but there's still that sense of fun and mystery and grand adventure. This was apparent in this week's Desmond-centric ep, as Desmond is always a character who gives the show that epic, sweeping feel that its best episodes often possess. The first few episode have been pretty plot-heavy so far, but what's great about Lost is that it always takes a few seconds in the midst of all the action and delivers some classic character moments. That said, I found this week's Desmond and Daniel-focused ep a lot more intriguing and dramatic then the previous week's Hurley-centric hour. With so much going on and so much intrigue on and off the island, it just felt like kind of an odd choice to spend so much time with Hurley and his oddball family.

The only other complaint is that even with so much revealed and such a focus on unraveling the show's mythology, there's still a tendency to simply not have characters communicate realistically. For example, as a former Other, it's clear that Juliette might in fact be a wellspring of valuable information on the island's history, and yet the writer's still have her talking in vague sentances and we've yet to see her really questioned by Sawyer or Locke.

But really, Lost to me is firing on almost all cylinders so far in '09, and I'm as intrigued as ever by the show's ever-expanding cast of characters. I'm dying to know why Whidmore was an Other and how he came to leave the island and become at odds with Ben Linus. I'm curious as to the story of Faraday's mother, and eager to see what role Desmond, Penny, and their son Charlie will play going forward.

In a season of so-so new shows and heartbreaking cancellations (so long, Pushing Daisies ...), it's simply great to see a show as smart, challenging, and full of imagination as Lost back on the air. Again, the show has yet to have an absolute classic, mind-blowing episode so far this year, but I feel like it's only a matter of time.

My Grade:

Premiere: B+
Episode 3: A-

- Alright, back soon with more, including thoughts on Fringe, Smallville, and The Office - plus lots, lots more. Have a great Superbowl weekend - PEACE OUT.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Danny's BEST OF 2008: Music - My Top 10 Songs of '08

I know, I know, you thought I was done with all my Best of 2008 craziness, but I'm back with one mo' post, just in case one or two people out there were wondering what my picks were for the Best Music of 2008 ... well, here they are. Since no one album stood out to me overall this year as being groundbreaking or monumental, and since we're living in the age of a la carte digital downloads anyways, this year I will limit my list to best songs of the year.


1. "Paper Planes" - M.I.A.
2. "Scare Easy" - Mudcrutch
3. "You're Gonna Go Far, Kid" - The Offspring
4. "Better" - Guns N' Roses
5. "Disturbia" - Rihanna
6. "Rock n' Roll Train" - AC/DC
7. "I Kissed a Girl" - Katy Perry
8. "Pork n' Beans" - Weezer
9. "Human" - The Killers
10. "Inner City Pressure" - Flight of the Conchords

See, I can do a Best-Of list that doesn't take 5 hours to read (or write!).

Once again, Happy New Year!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Danny's BEST OF 2008: My Year in Review - Thoughts on The Year That Was and Hopes For The Year To Come!

Happy New Year!

But before I plunge headfirst into 2009, as is tradition, it's time for one last post looking back at 2008, the year that was. If you haven't already, please check out my mega-posts detailing my thoughts on the year's best in movies, TV, and more - even if you already skimmed through, I've made a few tweaks and additions over the last few days so it's worth giving 'em another read through. Then come right back here for one more dose of year-end wrap-up.

Before I get into my 2008 recap, however, I think I should start by talking about what's going on in the here and now. Normally, I'd simply be relaxing on this post-New Year's weekend, semi-dreading a return to work on Monday but optimistic about the big things to come in the new year. But right now, things aren't quite normal. I'm headed to Israel in a mere two days, via the Birthright Israel program, on what will be a very long-awaited, much-anticipated trip. For those that don't know, Birthright is a group that offers free (yes, free!) trips to Israel to any young Jews between 18 and 27 who have never travelled to Israel on an organized trip before. Seeing as how this is essentially my last year of eligibilty, I decided several months back that it was now or never, and that this was really the optimal time to take advantage of the great opportunity that Birthright offers.

So again, under more normal circumstances, I'd be running around like crazy, prepping for the trip, getting packed, figuiring out all the logistics, and hoping that it turns out to be a great group and an awesome trip. And I'm still doing all of those things (esepcially the running around like crazy part ...).

But what's slightly abnormal here is that just days ago, Hamas chose to break it's ceasefire with Israel by firing numerous rockets into Israeli territory. In response to the latest outbreak of rocket fire and to years of continued Hamas aggression, Israel retalliated in the form of large scale airstrikes, and, as of today, a ground assault in Gaza.

Now, I've taken a lot of flack for comments that I made a couple of days back. In a previous post, I said that, while I will always support Israel's right to defend itself, I couldn't help but worry that the force of Israel's attacks was costing it the larger battle to win over the hearts and minds of not only their Arab enemies, but of the rest of the world as well. To some degree, obviously, my reservations about Israel's retalliation is due to me being days away from going there myself. For selfish reasons, I am hoping for an end to aggression as soon as possible, and a return to a peace-agreement, even if it's one that is only likely to provide some short-term relief. And I also think that, in my previous comments, I was not clear enough in affirming my overwhelming support for Israel and my full condemnation of Hamas. But to a large extent, I can't help but stand by the spirit of what I said earlier, which is that no matter how pure Israel's intentions, unless they act with the certainty that their strikes will help end the neverending cycle of violence in the region, one can't help but wonder if the short-term benefits of these initial strikes will outweigh the possible longterm effects. Ultimately, is Israel just helping to unify its enemies against it?

I'm not saying that I have the answers. My point is simply that - look - you can see that Israel has tried to improve its PR in the last few days, even as Hamas leaders make evil-sounding doomsday-prophecy threats against Istael - but again, I just wish that Israel would take the extra step sometimes to make its case to the world before acting. Yes, the rockets fired at Israel were a terrible threat, but the threat was not so immediate and huge that Israel couldn't have begun its retaliation after first explaining its rationale and rallying its allies to its cause. It just pains me to see Israel once again defending itself even as people all over the world protest and as Arab nations align against it. How many times is this going to keep happenening?

The fact is, Israeli military action against terrorists is unlikely to have a lasting, positive affect unless: a.) there is full and active cooperation from the US and a coalition of other countries (the US has yet to even verbally lend support to Israel's ground strikes), and b.) the Israelis make EVERY effort to turn the everyday Palestinians AGAINST the likes of Hamas and radical Islamic groups in general. Racking up a death toll of civilians does NOT help the Israeli cause in this regard, and as hard as it is to avoid casualties of that nature in this type of assault, you have to wonder if that in and of itself calls the worth of this assault into question. Ultimately though, if the rank and file Palestinians come out of this latest conflict with more hatred towards Israel and more support for Hamas than ever, then, well, you have to wonder if the larger war against terror took one step forward and two steps back.

So that is the point I was and am trying to make. But don't get me wrong - Hamas deserves to be dismantled, and as an organization it deserves absolutely zero support from the UN, the USA, or anyone in the world. Any governing body that spends all of its cash on weapons and ammo rather than schools and hospitals should have seen some of the current humanitarian crisis coming. And the rhetoric of Hamas, like so many terrorist groups, is simply ridiculous - how do they expect to be taken seriously when they talk with melodramatic threats that make them sound like Cobra Commander from GI Joe? That's what I don't understand about people who talk about Israel and Hamas in equal terms, as if they are simply two opposing sides in some conflict colored in shades of gray. Hamas, clearly, wants nothing more than a reason to maim and kill. Anger and bloodlust is their currency, and it's how they maintain popular support. Their mission statement is death and destruction, whereas Israel's is peace and democracy. And that's why I just worry that Israel must be careful not to play into its enemy's hands.

So ... anyways ... in a couple of days I'll be boarding an El-Al jet and heading over to this hotbead of crazyness. More to come later, but let's get back to my Year In Review.

- Really, putting aside the conflicts of the last few days, 2008 was an historic year that produced many great moments that will go down as some of the most memorable in recent history. The presidential election of 2008 was undoubtedly one for the books, and it felt liek a moment of great victory and redemption for our country.

It's already easy to forget just how huge the moment was. Barack Obama, a candidate whom I supported since the start of his presidential run, won the election to the surprise of many and now stands as our country's President Elect. So many people expressed doubt that he could do it, but after eight disasterous years of George W. Bush in office, the majority of Americans rallied around the idea of positivity, of hope, and of change.

It's funny, because right now there is that strange feeling that we're on two concurrent paths - one towards potential disaster, and one towards a new golden era of innovation, prosperity, and equality. The last eight years brought us to the brink, and right now it feels as though we're teetering on edge - international instability, war, economic turmoil, environmental crisis - it's strange then to think that there is an uncanny sense of optimism, the idea that a brighter future is just around the corner. I don't know if that's really the case or not, but I can't help but think back to election day in November and remember the feeling of joy and elation, and wonder if that feeling was only fleeting, or was it a sign of great things to come?

I am thankful, however, that Obama's election win signalled a triumph over the divisive, Rove-ian politics that defined our country for so long, the tradition that John McCain embraced even after such tactics had been used against him. The tradition that Sarah Palin tried to reignite - for better or worse though, she proved so big of a moron that even her party loyalists tended to see her for the joke that she was. And thank God for that.

It's why January 20th can't get here soon enough for the sake of our country and the world. If ever there was a "lame duck" president, it's George Bush here in early January. Even he seems to have resigned himself to the fact that his policies have caused enough damage - better to rest on his laurels than stir up any more trouble. But man, so much trouble is brewing. All of the crises and huge global issues listed above, those are what Obama inherits, and what we all have to look at directly and you know, confront, deal with, solve.

It's why there's no time to argue about whether evolution is real - it's called facts, people - science is real, deal with it. There's no point in debating the morality of gay versus straight - if it doesn't affect your life, who cares? There's no use in pandering to the oil companies and the gun lobby and the tobacco makers - these people are old hat, *so* twentieth century, their time is over. That's some status quo action we don't need anymore, baby. Instead of making these issues about ideology, let's make them about solving problems. Oil is a problem. Guns are a problem. Poverty and disease are a problem. The economy is a problem. Crazy fanatics who want to kill us are a problem. Red vs. Blue is a problem. Dancing With the Stars thriving while Pushing Daisies gets cancelled - that's a problem, man.

And that's why I hereby declare 2009 to be the Year of the Solution. Let's forget the Us versus Them mentalities, embrace the "Yes We Can" mentality, ignore the stupid people, listen to the smart people, worry about doing what needs to be done, and by all means: let's do it!

- As for me, well, 2008 was a pretty good year, but I'll admit, after a a four-year period of change, evolution, and newness, 2008 was sort of a status-quo year. Same job, same apartment, same salary ... But, at the same time, there was a lot to like in 2008, and a great foundation established on which to build in the year ahead. For all I know, '08 may have been the calm before the storm (a good sort of storm, I mean).

Let's see, almost a year ago at this time I was headed to VEGAS for one of my first big business-trips. I attended my first-ever Consumer Electronics Expo, where I saw all kinds of cool tech, saw Peter Frampton in concert, stayed in the nicest hotel room I had ever been in, and was wined and dined on the company dime. Not bad for a kid from Bloomfield, CT who in earlier years spent many a family vacation slumming it in cheapo motels somewhere in Cape Cod.

Soon after that, in February, I got to go on another company trip to NYC. It was absolutely freezing the entire time I was there, and it was an exhausting couple of days, but the highlight was certainly the fact that I got to hang out with some great East Coast friends, including Erica and Kate W. I even got to visit the offices of The Onion, thanks to Mike D, now of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon fame. I also got to take the weekend to visit the family in CT - it was first of three times in '08 that I'd travel home. The next time would be in May, when I stopped in CT en route to BOSTON, for my brother Matt's big college graduation from BU. It was a lot of fun to hang out in Beantown and see the ol' BU stomping grounds, and it was a fun if too-short trip. Of course, I had tons of Boston pride several weeks later, when THE CELTICS won their first NBA championship in years after dramatically defeating the rival Lakers. But I digress ... As I was saying, the third and final time I'd be home in CT in '08 came in October, when I joined the fam during Yom Kippur, and reclaimed my title as videogame champ of the Baram household.

I also had a couple of trips down to San Diego this year. The first was in April, where I joined the Axe-Man and his family for a Passover seder. And of course, I was back in SD in July, for an event that has now become a much-anticipated annual tradition, the San Diego Comic-Con. Our long weekend in San Diego was even better than the previous year's trip. At the show, I saw several great panels, including the first-ever public screening of Watchmen footage, as well as a once-in-a-lifetime Q&A with the legendary Ray Bradbury, one of my all-time heroes. At night, not only did we have a a ton of fun partying like rockstars in downtown SD, but I even managed to get into an ultra-swanky Entertainment Weekly / SciFi party that was absolutely packed with all manner of big-time celebs. Yet another sign that I was livin' the dream. And hey, prior that that, in June, I got to attend the Saturn Awards - not exactly the Oscars, but hey, it was my first real Hollywood awards show, and I was right there with the likes of Summer Glau, Jennifer Love-Hewitt, and, dammit all, Dolph Lungdren. Pretty sweet, if I do say so myself.

Also over the summer, I attended my first-ever E3! Okay, well, kind of. I didn't hit the show floor, but I was front and center for Microsoft's E3 press conference, which was pretty cool. It was, certainly, one of my work-related highlights of the year, in a year that saw a number of big things happen at NBCU and in my department in particular. Without going into detail, it was a year that saw my group get back in business with Apple and iTunes, for one thing, which definiely kind of brought things full-circle in some sense. Of course, with the tanking economy and the state of the entertainment biz in general, things could be tumultuous at times. From the huge protests outside of NBC during the Writers' Strike to the wave of layoffs that hit in December, it was definitely an interesting if not at-times nerveracking time to be in showbiz.

But I kept pluggin' away, and tried to take on new responsibilities when the opportunity arose - whether it was helping to interview and supervise the NBC Pages in our department, or just me trying to be more assertive and vocal when possible. Meanwhile, I am of course a stickler for tradition, and one of my annual traditions is going all-out to celebrate all-things Halloween come October. This year saw yet another successful Horror Movie Marathon, one more trip to the Scary Farm, and yes, another great Halloween bash (aka the event formerly known as Page-O-Ween), in which I donned a long wig, tophat, and fingerless leather gloves as part of my SLASH costume. A memorable (and rocking!) getup indeed.

There were all kinds of other random adventures scattered throughout '08. An epic trip to Disneyland, some intense games of tennis, lots of bonding over politics, Wet Hot American Purim, a live Stella comedy show, and a bigtime birthday bash in September, to name a few. I was on a bit of a concert dryspell going into the Fall and Winter, but more than made up for it with a huge double-bill in late '08, as in a span of several days I saw SMASHING PUMPKINS, followed soon after by one of the all-time rockin' rock bands, AC/DC. I was, in fact, thunderstruck. There were family visits, birthday parties galore, nights on the town, and as is evident from this here blog, more movies than any one man should see in a single year.

Some friends left LA in '08, and there are some people who are here who I've seen all too infrequently. There are some on the East Coast who I only wish I could see more often, and some I regretfully didn't even have a chance to see this year. But hey, this was yet another year where I got to spend at least a little time with old friends like Erica C, Stephanie P, and Bradd K. I even got a visit visit from Kirsten S, all the way from Australia. I saw parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. And yes, my brother, whom I take great pleasure in annoying with too-frequent phone calls made for no other reason than to exchange mutual exclamations of that ever-popular Baram catchphrase, "dammit all ...". I made some great new friends, and became better friends with others. And of course there's the usual crew here in LA, with whom I have now shared countless adventures in Hollywood and beyond for going on four years now. But hey, don't worry, I'm not going to get sappy or anything. That's not what this blog's about (it's about overly long Best of the Year Movie lists that take 5 hours to read ... duh!).

That being said, I think that's about it for my recap of '08. A good year, to be sure. But you know, sometime several months ago, I half-jokingly ended a report on my apartment upgrades by saying that, just as I had improved my apartment in '08, so too would I be improving myself. Well, I've made a little bit of progress, I think, but as always this is just the beginning. 2009 is here, and I'm ready to shake things up. Up above I declared 2009 the Year of the Solution. On Facebook recently, my brother boldy declared 2009 to be the Year of Baram. Upon reading this intriguing yet somewhat boastful message, I couldn't help but smile, nod my head, and reply to his message with the simplest of affirmations: "dammit all ..."

- More to come before I'm off to Israel. Peace in the Middle East! (Seriously!)