Monday, March 2, 2009

FRINGE, CHUCK, SMALLVILLE, TERMINATOR: Danny's Mid-Season TV Roundup: Most Improved Or EPIC FAIL?!?!

Ahhh, is it Monday already? Well, it's time to buckle in for another crazy work week. Luckily, I did have a fun weekend, the highlight of which was Dan C.'s off-the-chain pinball party on Saturday night. Dan's place is decked out from head to toe with all sorts of vintage pinball machines, so it was a fun venue at which to hang out with a ton of people from my Birthright trip, including a couple of folks who I had not seen at all since Israel. Plus, to give the party that added extra bit of awesomeness, Dan came through with a cake emblazoned with a photo of our Israeli tour guide, Gill. Not only was Gill's smiling mug displayed across the cake's frosting-covered surface, but beneath the photo, Gill's trademark exclamation of "Beautiful!" was inscribed in frosting. Beautiful, indeed.

Anyways, since all in all my weekend was relatively laid-back, I did take advantage of some R&R time to catch up, finally, on some key TV series. I know, it's been way too long since I've written about the likes of FRINGE, SMALLVILLE, or CHUCK on the ol' blog, so time to play some catch-up.

- And of course, tonight brings us a HUGE, 2-hour episode of 24, in which the White House is sieged by Duma and a crew of African soldiers. Holy Power-Hours, Jack! This could be good ...

- Alright, so, since it's been a while since I've talked about a lot of these shows, I'm going to do something a little unique here and talk about some of the general trends I'm seeing with each series ... because, wow, looking at some of these series as of late, there have been some pretty radical shifts in quality since January. Let's take a look:

FRINGE - Business Has Picked Up

- So I haven't talked about FRINGE in a long time, but, holy crap, why didn't anybody tell me that with its most recent couple of episodes, Fringe has become one of the absolute most-awesome shows on TV? (okay, a bunch of people told me this, but still ...). Look, I've been a Fringe fan since Day 1, but I'd yet to see evidence throughout the first several episodes that the show would rise above being just a really good show and become something truly special. In my weekly episodic reviews, I handed out a lot of B's and B+'s, but not so much flat-out A's. Well, all that has changed. With it's most recent episode from mid-February, Fringe just catapulted itself into the TV stratosphere, blowing open its own mythology with several huge plot twists that rocked the show to its core. I mean, wow, suddenly this show is about multiversal warfare, implanted metagene viruses, parallel-universe dopplegangers, and time-travel. Talk about raising the stakes! I love the ambiguity over whether it's Olivia or Peter, or both, who possess some kind of genetically-unlocked latent psychic ability. I love the revelation that Walter may have actually written the strange manifesto that seems to be the predictor and response to The Pattern. I love the expanding cast of strange villains, and wonder what role Massive Dynamics is set to play as things go forward. Mostly, I just think it's cool what this show has become -- a series that takes some of the craziest sci-fi ideas you can imagine and folds them into a relatively street-level and gritty procedural format. And kudos too to Anna Torv - she really has evolved as an actress in a short time, and while I was iffy about her at first, I now really feel like she's made Olivia Dunham into one of the most compelling leads on TV. And yes, John Noble is as awesome as ever to boot.

My Old Grade: B+
My New Grade: A


- So earlier this season, I was kind of digging this show. It mixed cool action with an intelligent approach to storytelling, and had a couple of nice performances week in and week out from the likes of Lena Heady and Summer Glau. So, um, whaaat happened? I mean, trying to catch up on this show over the weekend, I was just floored by how dull and uneventful the episodes since the move to Fridays have been. Honestly, I could barely even get through the first few episodes since the return from hiatus. Just an endless holding pattern of characters moping around, brooding, and generally being angsty, with little to no real action or plot development. And you can tell that there is a certain intelligence and sophistication to the writing, but I mean, come on, this is a show about killer robots from the future! Where's the action and excitement? I like that the show can be dark and methodically-paced, but as of late it's just put me to sleep. It doesn't help that the show's most intriguing character, Cameron, has barely been featured lately. It also doesn't help that the neverending subplot of Cromartie being trained in the ways of humanity is both interminably slow and mind-numbingly lame. Make it stoooop. I was slightly on the fence about this show before, but now I think I may be done with it. I don't have time to waste on a show that has this kind of drop in quality with no roadmap towards improvement in sight.

My Old Grade: B
My New Grade: C-

CHUCK - Let's Get Serious

- It's funny, I still like Chuck a lot, but I'm sensing that it's experiencing a similar problem to what happened to Josh Schwartz's THE OC in its second season. Back then, The OC went from being a drama with comedic elements to an almost all-out self-aware parody. It's hit character, Seth Cohen, went from a semi-tragic geek to a walking punchline. And in doing so, The OC went from a show with legitimate dramatic chops to a lightweight dramedy. Now, Chuck has always had that comedic bent, but lately the show seems to have just become too goofy for its own good. Where once it seemed like we'd get some legit character development with Chuck and co., the show now seems stuck in a holding pattern. It always disappoints me when Chuck is written as basically the same awkward nerd that he was back in the pilot, even after all he's been through. I get annoyed that Zachary Levi still has Chuck spaz and freak out whenever he has a flash. In general, the show seems to repeat itself far too often. I mean, how many times now have we seen Chuck awkwardly get seduced by some femme fatale as he stammers and bumbles his way into further danger? And how long can the whole Chuck - Sarah not-quite-a-romance go without any sort of real progression? It's funny, because the show seems to be so focused on comedy now that I actually look forward to the Buy More segments more than the spy segments. Because at least the Buy More stuff really is meant to be more lighthearted and jokey. But it's been a while since there was any real dramatic gravitas to the spy stuff, or since there was an episode that really broke with the formula and wowed me like the Missile Command ep did earlier in the season. That's not to say the show hasn't been solid - I enjoyed the last few eps well enough, and there were some great guest appearances as well. But Chuck already has its Captain Awesome, it doesn't need to turn its title character into Captain Emo. It's time that Chuck got a little bit more serious.

My Old Grade: B+
My New Grade: B-

SMALLVILLE - Halted Momentum

- If you're a show like Smallville, and got a huge midseason boost thanks to a superbly-written episode by celebrated comics-scribe Geoff Johns, how do you follow-up on that and keep the momentum going? Well, apparently, you don't. Smallville's last few eps have been decent in and of themselves, but looking at the bigger picture, you can't help but get frustrated that they did a whole arc going back to the Lana-Clark tragic romance angle YET AGAIN for what must be the 500th time in this series' history. I mean, seriously, how many times have those two gotten together only to separate again? For a while, it seemed like Smallville had some real forward momentum - Lana was out of the picture and there were some fun sparks between Clark and Lois. Clark seemed on the brink of finally becoming a full-fledged superhero, and even though it never seemed likely that Smallville would go the route of having Clark be a full-on costumed avenger, the show was starting to take on a more epic, free-wheeling feel that was really breaking from the formula. And the show is still doing a nice job of telling its stories in a fun and non-formulaic manner - I like how the show has rotated in characters like Oliver, Jimmy, and Kara without overexposing them. But Lana's return to the spotlight just served as a reminder of the bad old days. I'm still waiting to see if Smallville can grab that brass ring and be great before all is said and done.

My Old Grade: B+
My New Grade: B


- Some quick reviews of FOX's Sunday night animation slate for ya'. I think mostly, I just wanted to vent about last night's SIMPSONS. I mean, wow, the show looks absolutely amazing now that it's in HD. I must have paused the opening intro scene a dozen times just to take in all of the new details. But sadly, I think the intro and couch gag was the highlight of the episode. Ugh. What a mediocre Simpsons ep. Few if any jokes actually clicked (the one funny gag: Homer repeatedly looking in his glove department and being oblivious to the overdue bill inside ... "waitaminuuute ..."). The plot was unmemorable. Just bad, bad, bad, by any standards.

My Grade: D

- KING OF THE HILL had a decent episode - I liked the setup of Hank and Peggy starting a new date-night tradition, but the episode went south when it became about their overcompensating for Bobby feeling ignored ny spoiling him. Some decent stuff here, but nothing too memorable. Liked the subplot about Dale's half-assed attempts to live "in the wild." Otherwise, just okay.

My Grade: B

-- Anywaaaaaaaays ... time to jet and prep for a GRAVITAS-INFUSED double-shot of 24. Dammit all.

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