Monday, November 30, 2009

Post Turkey-Day Blog: Modern Family, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Conan!

So after several days of sweet, sweet vaction time, it's once again back to the grind. But hey, I had a fun and relaxing Thanksgiving weekend - some good food, good movies, some fun nights out, and even some basketball. If you're behind on your blog readin', be sure to check out my previous couple of entries, which include reviews of movies like THE ROAD and NINJA ASSASSIN.

Anyways, I am prepping some big blog posts for the next couple of weeks, so stay tuned. Not only will my usual Best of the Year posts be going up, but I'm also planning on doing a series of BEST OF THE DECADE posts with huge lists detailing the best music, movies, TV, and more of the 00's. Come on, you knew I couldn't resist ...

It's funny though - like anyone else, I have some inevitable gaps in my pop-cultural intake.. While I may not have time to watch the entire reun of The Sopranos or anything to prep for my Best-of-the-Decade list-making, I am at least trying to watch a couple of movies that I somehow missed upon their release. To that end, I've just recently watched some must-see movies on DVD that I had never seen previously. Both were pretty spectacular - one being CITY OF GOD, the other being GRIZZLY MAN. Man, I watched Grizzly Man yesterday and am still semi-blown-away yet also traumatized by it. Suffice it to say, both films will likely end up with a spot on my Top Movies of the Decade list. Stay tuned ...


- So I thought there wasn't supposed to be new TV over Thanksgiving? And yet, stuff kept piling up on my DVR. Come on, networks, give a man a break, will ya'? On the other hand, I can't really complain about a new episode of Modern Family, can I? Speaking of which ...

- Oddly, MODERN FAMILY's pre-Thanksgiving ep was its best in weeks. After slumping a bit for a couple of episodes, MF came back at full-strength with a pretty hilarious ep about a birthday party gone awry. The story revolved around Luke's upcoming birthday party, as his parents are determined to throw him the party to end all parties (they are moved by his relative indifference to parties and presents - when asked what he wants for his b-day, Luke says that "a belt would be nice, but ... this extension cord has been working pretty well ..." - hilarious). But this was an ep where all the various subplots came together to merge into one hilarious caucophony of craziness. Most everything clicked - from Cameron's transformation into Fizbo the Clown (his encyclopedic lesson on types of clowns was great), to Manny's crush on a classmate who would be at Luke's party, which made for maybe the ep's funniest moment, when Manny heroically tries to save her from a collapsing Moon Bounce (very Malcolm in the Middle-esque). Good stuff all-around from Modern Family.

My Grade: A-

- GLEE also had a pretty good episode on Wednesday, even if I agree with the sentiment that the whole fake-pregnancy thing is a pretty absurd storyline. I mean, come on, how could a guy possibly not realize, after multiple months, that his wife is not actually pregnant? That aside, it's amazing how in some ways Quinn has quietly become the star of the show. Her pregnancy storyline is perhaps the show's most substantial and compelling, and somehow almost every other character has now become a supporting player of sorts in Quinn's ongoing saga. But the level of teen melodrama this week combined with the return of Sue Sylvester made for a potent combo. I also ejoyed the rivalries with the competing glee clubs, as well as Kurt and Rachel's rivalry over Fynn. Overall, a pretty entertaining episode of Glee.

My Grade: B+

- Okay, so both THE SIMPSONS and FAMILY GUY came out with a similar sort of episode Sunday night. What I mean is, well, I've talked a lot in the last few weeks about how both of these shows have seriously been in the crapper for the last few months. Now, ideally with The Simpsons and FG, you want an episode that has both an interesting story and also jokes that consistently hit the mark. Last night's ep weren't quite a return to to form in that regard, but both were halfway there, as both had some pretty funny jokes that kept me chuckling throughour the half-hour. And yet, both had storylines that made me cringe at certain points as well. Let's take a look:

With The Simpsons, it was one of those episode where a lot of random jokes really clicked. I was cracking up throughout the opening, in which The Simpsons drive back from a winter vacation only to hit obscenely awful traffic. Some of the family-in-the-car dialogue was hilarious, and when Homer crashed the car in ice, only to be saved by Cletus ... well, few other shows have ever mocked redneck yokels as well as The Simpsons, and last night was no exception (the redneck version of The Country Bear Jamboree was great). But soon enough, this dovetailed into a storyline in which Lisa takes up with a bunch of Wiccans. Sounds good in theory, but the execution was not great and mostly fell-flat. For some reason, the show made the Wiccans into lame caricatures rather actual characters. I know The Simpsons has always done broad caricatures, but usually what made the show standout was that there'd be an unexpected depth to even characters like Apu or Flanders. The three Wiccan women in this one were just kind of there. At the same time, there were some great throwaway gags (Wiccapedia, Bart's rant to Lisa about how she was too young to be a Wiccan, etc.). But the overall storyline just felt pointless and never really did anything with Wicca except to use it as something for the Springfieldians to riot over.

On Family Guy, a similar situation. The overall storylines were kind of ridiculous. Brian getting upset about how unfairly animals are treated in relation to people ... well, it just felt off, let alone the fact that it makes no sense. I don't hold FG to any sort of standards of logic at this point, but having Brian protest for animal rights when he is a lone talking, intelligent dog in a world of otherwise-normal animals ... um, okay? Yeah, probably best not to think about it too much. But, I'll tell you this: I am pretty sick of Brian's character in general. He just seems like a convenient way for the FG writers to include some sort of serious, issue-oriented dialogue in every episode, and yet, there is also clearly an element of self-loathing at play, since just last week they had Quagmire call out Brian on just how annoying he has become. I think what I'm getting at is that, man, FG has become a bitter, bitter show. It now seems to be all about "hey, yeah, we don't give a %&$# anymore, so we'll just throw in gags designed to cross the line between funny and obnoxious". I mean, the cleaning lady gag last night - it had some hilarious moments. I was dying when Chris was forced to sleep in the same bed as the Maid, and awkwardly tried to make a move on her - so funny. But ... did we really need Stewie to make a joke that had him include the phrase "you people?". It'd be one thing if the point of the joke was that Stewie is an asshole. But the joke was more about "hey here's a biting witticism from Stewie that is also semi-rascist." I don't get why Family Guy needs that kind of stuff. At the same time, I don't get why every episode now has to be centered around some social issue. That has NEVER been FG's strength. I wish the show would just concentrate on the random, absurdist, and consistently funny style of humor that made it awesome to begin with. And yet, at the end of the day, Sunday's ep featured some of the funniest gags the show has had in a while -- the aforementioned gag with Chris and the Maid, a cutaway to Peter having a swingset accident, a random but funny appaearance by the dad from Family Circus (for some reason, Family Circus jokes never get old to me ...), and several others were all really well done. Well, baby steps, I guess.

My Grades:

The Simpsons: B
Family Guy: B

- Finally, I thought I'd take a minute and talk THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH CONAN O'BRIEN. I just wanted to say that, in my view, Conan has been on a real roll for the last couple of weeks. I know there have been the naysayers who claim that Conan just hasn't been the same since the move to 11:30. And I have to agree that, a couple of months ago, the show was definitely starting to get a bit stale. Too many of the same bits every week. The whole anti-New Jersey thing was okay, but not quite as funny as it might have been. And the few skits that were lifted from the old Late Night show (Conando, for example) just made you wish there was more of that old Late Night magic each episode. Well, it's been a slow and steady climb, but I feel like Conan has been getting back to more Late Night-style humor of late. Sure, we've been getting old favorites like The Great Interrupter and Deep Conversations with Max, but the real turning point may have been the classic interview from the other week with Heidi and Spencer of The Hills. Whereas someone like Leno may have mostly taken them at face value, something magical happened that night in the Tonight Show studio -- the audience seemed to be willing Conan to avoid a standard interview and to really let them have it. I mean come on, anyone who's watched Conan and knows his sensibilities knows that it's not in his nature to cozy up to lame reality TV "stars" (especially ones as douchey as Heidi and Spencer - who are regular targets of Conan's jokes to boot). So Conan embraced the boo's for the pair and went with it, and the resulting interview - awkward and hilarious all at once - was classic Conan. In the following days, it feels like it's been one great bit after another on Conan. An awesome interview with new Tonight Show semi-regular, Norm McDonald, the return of Max Weinberg and all the hilariously random humor that allows for, and a great Thanksgiving ep that featured a classic segment showing Conan's thanksgiving dinner with his staff, and also Pee Wee Herman doing a Thanksgiving play. So I say this: When it comes to late-night humor, Conan is still the king, haters be damned.

- Alright, I am out for now. Good luck getting through the Monday-after-Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Danny Studies the Secret and Deadly Arts of the NINJA ASSASSIN ...!


- Let me start by getting the following out of the way: NINJA ASSASSIN has some of the most badass scenes of ultra-violent, hardcore NINJA action that I've ever seen. I mean, HOLY BALLS, there are some action sequences in this movie that are pure ownage. Many times, the awesomeness was almost too much to comprehend - I had to glance over to my friends to make sure that they too were seeing the same insanity that I was. Swords, blades, and yes, ninja stars all make an appearance, and they do things to other ninjas that are the stuff of every red-blooded boys' fourth grade notebook doodles. For the many scenes of AWESOME NINJA POWER contained in this movie, Ninja Assassin is a must-see for anyone who appreciates the many ways in which ninjas kick ass (and oh, there are many).

And man, if only, *if only*, there was a solid script to match the coolness of the action scenes. If Ninja Assassin had a halfway decent storyline, then I think it would go down as a modern martial-arts classic. The problem here is that, for all the awesomeness on display, there is a near-equal dosage of sucktitude when it comes to the plotting, dialogue, and yes, the acting. It's a damn shame, because it shouldn't have been that hard to come up with a servicable script for a movie like this. I mean, it's NINJA ASSASSIN! Is it that difficult to come up with a basic, adrenaline-soaked story to frame the action with? Instead, the movie inserts a near-incomprehensible, boring-ass plotline about a bunch of "Europol" (not Interpol, for some reason) agents who are tracking down the murderous ninja clan to which our hero, Raizo, used to belong. I'm not sure why they are tracking the ninjas, or why they're based in Berlin, or why we should care about the agent characters. But they're there, and they take up many scenes with nonsensical yet cliched dialogue. And couldn't they at least have gotten a better actress for the lead "Europol" agent role? Naomie Harris just doesn't pull it off at all - some of this may be the script's fault, not hers, but man, is her character bland here. Same goes for her partner - absolutely as bland and boring as can be.

On the other hand, there's clearly huge star-potential in Rain, the martial-arts action star who plays the lead role of Raizo. The guy has a natural charisma, and makes for a totally badass ninja to boot. I'm sure Rain will be popping up in many bigtime movies from here on out, because he definitely kicks major tail in this film. I also thought that veteran ninja-movie actor Sho Kosugi made for a pretty awesome lead villain, as the grizzled and vicious leader of the clan which Raizo has fled from. When Rain and Sho have their climactic showdown at the movie's end, the clash of the two ninja titans is epic indeed.

It's hard to praise Ninja Assassin as much as I'd like to, because so many parts of the plot feel like really lame B-movie stuff (and not so-bad-it's-awesome, just confusing and head-scratching). At the same time ... I also can't emphasize enough how badass certain action scenes are. The opening ten minutes or so, for example, is an absolutely mind-boggling display of total ninja destruction. No doubt, the movie kicks off with a huge bang. Later, there's an amazing ninja chase / fight scene through city traffic that was flat-out intense. And so many other fight scenes are just plain cool - the ninjas in this movie move with supernatural speed and stealth. There's just the right amount of otherworldy mysticism at work to give the ninjas a mythical, almost supernatural quality. That said, when Raizo at one point gets hit with like 50 simultaneouly-hurled shurikens, the pain feels oh-so-real. Ouch. Director James McTeigue (V For Vendetta) goes balls to the wall - his action is brutal, epic, and ultra-fast-paced. Ninja-like, you might say. The movie might have dropped the ball on everything else, but you can't deny that McTeigue and co. pull off some memorably-staged throwdowns.

That's the great thing about ninjas - you can't really "Twilight-ize" 'em. Vampires may have been defanged of late in pop-culture, but I think ninjas are mostly immune to all that. Okay, I guess there was Vanilla Ice's Ninja Rap back in the day, but still ... it's nice to know that ninja movies like this one may suffer from hokey stories and questionable acting, but dammit, they still feature ninjas, and that means ass-kicking, cool swords, throwing-stars, and plenty of ninja-style ownage.

So here's the deal: if you like kickass ninja action (and who doesn't?), you should probably run out right now and see Ninja Assassin. Just be prepared to sit through some really weaksauce story and dialogue in-between the awesome action scenes. But hey, it's probably worth it to just grin and bear it, because as they say in the movie (well, I'm paraphrasing, but still ...), a true ninja knows not the meaning of pain.

My Grade: B

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Keepin' the Fire Burning: THE ROAD - Reviewed - and: Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Well, it's a holiday weekend, and I've just come from the first-ever Baram Brothers' Burbank Thanksgiving. Sure, it was a low-key celebration, and sure, the amount of food that was actually home-cooked was minimal to nonexistant, but hey, I've never been one for big holiday productions. Give me some decent food, a nice dessert (preferably something chocolate), and a relaxing evening of chillin' out, watching movies, and being lazy any day of the week.

Anyways, I kicked off the long holiday weekend Wednesday night by checking out a movie I had been looking forward to for a long time now - The Road. I really dug it, but was surprised to find that the reviews that were out there were decidedly mixed. For that reason, I was really eager to review it and set the record straight.

So ... HAPPY THANKSGIVING ... and check out the review below ...

THE ROAD Review:

- Sometimes, you've just got to go with your gut. I've read several reviews of The Road, and the majority of them are either mildly positive or else utterly dismissive. A few have enthusiastically sung the movie's praises, but many have also expressed the sentiment that the film just doesn't hold up to the evocative imagery and dense literary themes of Cormac McCarthy's acclaimed novel. I know what the critical consensus seems to be, and yet ... I just saw The Road, and came out of the theater feeling like I'd watched a monumental cinematic achievement. This was a movie that bowled me over, that gripped me from start to finish. Talk about intense - The Road was, to me, about as intense as they come. I haven't read the book on which the movie is based, but it's hard to imagine a movie that could better capture the story's main themes, as well as its bleak, desolate atmosphere. I thought that this one knocked it out of the park. This was, I think, one hell of a movie.

The Road works so well because it is absolutely unrelenting in its vision. The movie transports us to a hellish, post-apocalyptic future in which mankind is on its last legs after an all-consuming disaster of mysterious origin. The world has literally come apart at the seams, and what was once a place of color and beauty is now one of ashen grey and all-encompassing desolation. This isn't your typical futuristic wasteland, in which humanity regroups post-disaster to restart society and learn from the mistakes of the old way of life. No, this is an uncompromisingly bleak world in which, basically, humanity seems to be pretty much $%&#'ed. And I think that that's part of what makes The Road so effective as high drama - the stakes, clearly, are high. We don't know that any sort of happy ending awaits. This isn't a story that plays by action-movie rules. Instead, this is a journey about how one carries on in the face of absolute hopelessness. It sounds bleak, and it is - very much so - but that bleakness makes the little moments where the light shines through that much more powerful.

The acting here is superb. Viggo Mortensen delivers a one-of-a-kind, award-worthy performance. Over the last several years, Viggo has become one of my favorite actors - not only does he consistently choose unique and challenging roles, but he rises to that challenge and goes above and beyond what most other actors would bring to the table. Viggo's performance in The Road is another achievement to put on his list of great performances alongside movies like The Lord of the Rings, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and Appaloosa. Here, Viggo portrays a man who is clinging to the concept of survival when all else seems lost. His health is fading, his will is shaken, his sense of morality challenged, and yet he persists. It's a haunting performance that will stick with me for a long time. The intensity that Viggo brings to this role, the way that he loses himself in the role ... well, I don't think any other actor working today could have played this part, not even close.

I was also somewhat blown away by how good Kodi Smit-McPhee is as Viggo's son. Some of the most effective work I've seen from a child-actor in a movie of this kind. Some of Kodi's big moments in this movie are ultra-powerful, some totally heart-rending. Charlize Theron does nice work as Viggo's wife, who appears in flashbacks to just after disaster struck and the world went to hell. And Robert Duvall has an awesome cameo as an Old Man who crosses paths with the Man and his Son. It's one of those roles that is short, but very memorable, and pivotal to the movie.

Actors like Mortensen help augment the fact that The Road may be methodical at times, but it's also intense as hell. The wasteland that the Man and the Boy trudge through, trying desperately to reach a fabled haven to the South, is a very scary place. Dangerous and feral men roam about, cannibals look for weaker prey to feast on, and thieves hunt for food and supplies. The disaster killed the trees and animals and wiped out all remnants of civilized society. Food is scarce, and the few people left walking the earth have been forced, in many cases, to become something less than human. Every stop that our heroes make on their journey could be their last. Danger, death, and even worse fates lurk around every corner. Suffice it to say, this movie kept me 100% on the edge of my seat for the duration.

It's funny though, because I've heard the criticism that the movie is actually too sentimental as compared to the book. Personally, I thought The Road had just enough lightness to give the story weight, to make it feel like there was a point to all the darkness. I think the conversations between the Man and his Son make for some of the most interesting discussions of human morality that you'll ever see in a movie. And what sentimentality there is helped illustrate what to me is a key point of the story - that even in the absolute bleakest of times, there is a spark of humanity that will persist. To me, The Road wasn't a story about the end of humanity. Instead, it was a story of how despite all odds, humanity somehow goes on, even if it's just a few, or even just one, who "keeps the fire burning."

There is a lot of violence and grimness and bleakness in The Road, but there's also a very thoughtful, very smart, and very emotional examination of what it is to be human at the movie's core. When the closing credits hit, there was a sort of stunned silence in the theater. We all exhaled. Many clapped. This movie hits you hard, but it earns it. Director John Hillcoat does an amazing job of creating a world that, visually, is dripping with a gloomy atmosphere of grey desolation. Many scenes are beautifully shot, very painterly and evocative. At the same time, other scenes get your heart racing - Hillcoat knows how to lay on the tension and construct a scene so that the intensity builds to the breaking point. And Viggo and the rest of the cast does an outstanding job of bringing real emotion, drama, and humanity to the film. I'm not quite sure what issues others had with the movie, why it didn't resonate with them as much as it did for me. But I came away somewhat floored. The Road is up there as a must-see, award-worthy movie of 2009.

My Grade: A

- Alright, once again, HAPPY THANKSGIVING - until next time, Baram out.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Going Insane With Werner Herzog, Nicholas Cage, and BAD LIEUTENANT


- Make no mistake: Bad Lieutenant will likely become a near-instant cult-classic. Werner Herzog's latest will go down as one of the all-time crazy-ass movies, a totally insane film that you have to see to believe. It's also a movie that somewhat walks a fine line. If this were any other director working with this material, you might have ended up with a movie trying to be a great "bad" movie, only to end up as just plain "bad." But this is Herzog, and as the movie goes on, you start to realize that there is in fact a sort of demented genius at the core of Bad Lieutenant. There are the surface elements of a "bad" movie. Over-acting, out-of-nowhere plot twists, a half-baked crime story ... but when it comes to all of Bad Lieutenant's craziness ... Herzog, I think, knows exactly what he's doing. There is a method behind the madness. Most of the time. However you slice it, the fact is that Bad Lieutenant is a highly entertaining, ultra-insane flick that's a must-see for those like their movies with a slice of crazy on the side.

In some ways, Bad Lieutenant is a modern film noir - a detective story about a corrupt cop who lives in a world of sex, drugs, and crime, where everything is very much painted in shades of grey. The post-Katrina, New Orleans setting is really there to add to the movie's murky, hazy atmosphere. It's a movie about broken people, so it makes sense that it takes place in a broken city.

Our lead is, of course, played by Nicholas Cage. Cage, as we all know, is most at-home when he has the freedom to "let the hog loose" (as Herzog has put it in interviews), and imbue his characters with his natural tendency towards over-the-top eccentricity. Cage can be frustrating when he is inexplicably cast in typical leading-man type roles. The weirdness of Cage is typically a horrible fit for movies where that strangeness is boxed-in. But when he's free to let loose - think Raising Arizona, Adaptation, and now here - well, crazy Cage matched with a crazy script can often lead to crazy-good results. In this movie, Cage isn't holding anything back. His character, riddled with back problems, is hunched-over, bug-eyed, and constantly seems to be on the verge of a complete psychotic break. His voice changes depending on how drug-addled he is at any given moment. He's a loose cannon, and he's one messed-up dude.

It says something about Cage's performance here that he completely overshadows the rest of the cast, which includes guys like Val Kilmer and ladies like Eva Mendes. Both of them are pretty good in their roles - Mendes in particular is the most watchable she's been in a while. Rapper Xzibit does a pretty good job as gang leader Big Fate, and Brad Dourif (Lord of the Rings) has an unusually low-key role as Cage's bookie. But ... this is Cage's movie, no question. Virtually all of the movie's most memorable scenes are due to Cage doing or saying something so over-the-top, so unexpected, that you have to laugh, wonder what the hell you just witnessed, and/or turn to your friends and exchange looks of shocked amazement.

And yes, Cage's drug-fueled journey in Bad Lieutenant has many such moments of bat$#&% insanity that will surely be referenced and quoted for many moons. "His soul is still dancing." "You don't have a lucky crack pipe?", and many, many more. One scene, in which Cage interrogates a young couple by actually ... well, no, I don't want to spoil it. You have to see it to believe it. Suffice it to say, you won't know whether to laugh, cry, or cringe. And how about the scene where Cage throws down with a couple of old women at a senior center? Wow, just wow. And how about the fact that Herzog throws in random iguana-cam shots? Yes, iguana-cam. WTF, indeed.

And I guess that's the knock on a movie like this. When the movie isn't at its bat$%#&-crazy best, you find yourself kind of getting a little bored and just waiting for the next crazy moment to happen. And sometimes, you do start to wonder: how good is a movie, really, if it's basically just a collection of scenes in which Nicholas Cage goes unhinged? I think that, in the end, there is, as I said, a method to the madness. This movie, despite its weirdness, never 100% rises above the material its riffing on, the way, say, a Mulholland Drive does. It can be an odd mix, because so much of the movie is played for laughs, and yet you're never quite sure how much of the movie is meant as comedy. Sometimes, Herzog pulls back the curtain just enough to let us know that he's in on the joke. Other times, you're not so sure.

Still, you always feel like in his own eccentric way, Herzog knows what he's doing - and he crafts a movie that is ultimately a kind of twisted ode to being bad. Cage does everything wrong, sinks increasingly lower into a pit of moral depravity, and yet, somehow, comes out on top. It's a darkly funny twist on the usual Hollywood formula, and this is, I think, a movie that has something to say beyond just being weird for the sake of being weird. But it's that same unapologetic weirdness that makes Bad Lieutenant, despite occasional unevenness, one of the most interesting and memorable movies you'll see this year.

My Grade: B+

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Blog That Rocked: PIRATE RADIO Review, and MORE!

Back in action and ready to rock. As Thanksgiving approaches, we are now officially in the midst of prestige movie season. At the same time, the TV nets just wrapped up their big-event programming for November sweeps. Suffice it to say, a lot to talk about ...


- Wow, once again, SMALLVILLE was pretty ... awesome? After last week's well-above-average episode, and the week before that's excellent, Zod-centric installment, this week's was another really fun adventure. I mean sometimes, it's all about priorities. Take the Lois and Clark romance for example. When we get whole episodes that are ALL ABOUT the couple's mixed feelings for one another, and there's endless pining and brooding and whatnot, it gets really old, really fast. But this week's ep was a great example of how Smallville can excel when it develops the relationship organically within the context of an epic adventure story. Sure, you get those great Lois and Clark moments, but you also get those great "Superman" moments, which is something that the show sometimes forgets about. I don't mean Clark using his powers or fighting a villain-of-the-week, I mean Clark acting the part of the Man of Steel - rising to a challenge, inspiring others, and never backing down. It might sound cheesy, but that's what Superman is all about. And hey, there's no better way to show this than the old sci-fi standby, the post-apocalyptic potential future. In this ep, we finally see what Lois saw when she travelled a year into the future after last season's finale. I still don't think it was a great idea to wait so long to get to this reveal - this ep actually would have made for a great season premiere, actually. But, I'm glad that we got to it, even if it took a while, because this was a really well-told story about a future in which all of humanity has been made to kneel before Zod, so to speak. Even if it was only a *potential* future, there was still a lot of drama to be had out of the kinds of earth-shattering scenes we probably won't get to see in regular continuity anytime soon - Chloe dying, Lois and Clark gettin' hot and heavy, and of course, the whole thing about earth being overthrown by an army of evil Kryptonians. We even got the obligatory plot thread about Oliver Queen leading a kryptonite-arrow-sportin' band of anti-Zod rebels. Been done before? Sure. Still awesome? Indeed. This was cool stuff. And by the way, I am ultra-psyched for January's JSA Smallville event, penned by Geoff Johns. Looks great so far from the previews.

My Grade: A-

- I didn't get to review PARKS & RECREATION last week, so I'll chime in and say that Thursday's ep was a pretty solid, if unspectacular episode. I think the great thing with Parks though is that it's found its voice. The characters are now really strong top to bottom, and it's to the point now where episodes can feed off of that. Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson has become one of the most reliably awesome characters on TV, for one thing. And the rest of the cast has really gelled as well, turning Parks into a full-fledged ensemble comedy. In Thursday's ep, I thought the whole guys-goin'-hunting storyline was only okay, but I still completely cracked up over Ron's antics and the rest of the group's response.

My Grade: B+

- Man, I don't know if it's just me, but FOX's Sunday Night lineup seems like it's in a huge slump as of late. Sunday was the second week in a row that both THE SIMPSONS and FAMILY GUY have been very much subpar. And despite a couple of bright spots, subpar basically characterizes the seasons of both shows so far. Really sad, especially in the case of The Simpsons, which had a couple of really well-done early episodes, and since then has just slid into mediocrity. I mean, last night's Simpsons ep was just plain dull. It had moments that were pretty funny, but for some reason, much like last week's ep, decided to shift gears right when things were getting interesting. The story had promise - Jonah Hill voiced a sort of proto-Bart, who ten years ago pulled school pranks that are still legendary in the halls of Springfield Elementary. Hell, he even pulled one prank so intense that it scarred Principal Skinner for life. Bart, shocked and intrigued that there was once a prankster even more notorious than he, seeks out the now 19-year-old troublemaker, who is of course a live-at-home loser still obsessed with pranks. The flashbacks to the character's heyday were pretty funny, and I love a good Seymour Skinner-freaks-out joke as much as anyone ("Woooooooooorms!"). But then, the episode became about Bart trying to help out his new mentor and get him a real job, and all the wind left the episode's sails. It didn't help that the Marge-and-Maggie subplot fell pretty flat overall. It involved Marge's daytime playgroup with the other area moms, and them getting upset that she wasn't serving organic food and whatnot when she hosted the babies. This led to some pretty tired Whole Foods parodies, and not a lot of laughs.

FAMILY GUY had a pretty fun premise as well - Peter befriends a guy named Jerome, as a sort of replacement for the spun-off Cleveland. Everyone loves Jerome, until Peter finds out that he used to date Lois ... paving the way for all the most predictable jokes possible. The one really funny moment was when Jerome very awkwardly gives Lois the heimlich maneuver - that one really cracked me up. Otherwise, the whole episode was just pretty blah. I've heard some people praising the subplot where Brian tries to become better friends with Quagmire, only for Quagmire to deliver a searing monologue about why, exactly, he hates Brian so much, which seemed to basically be one giant critique of all liberal-wannabe-intellectual-hipster-douchebag types. It was a bit much for me. Family Guy has had so many random, nonsensical jabs at people for no reason whatsoever, that when they actually try to have some substance behind something like this, it falls pretty flat at this stage of the game.

My Grades:

The Simpsons: C+
Family Guy: C+

- Alright, I saw a couple of movies this weekend, and am really eager to talk about both. But for now, here's ...


- I've seen a lot of mixed reviews for Pirate Radio, so I went in not knowing quite what to expect. But I walked out of the theater very much won over by the energy, heart, humor, and spirit of this film. Anyone who loves rock n' roll owes it to themselves to check this one out, because Pirate Radio is essentially a love letter to the pioneering and free-wheeling spirit of rock.

Written and directed by Richard Curtis (Love, Actually), Pirate Radio mythologizes the true story of rebel British DJ's who, during the early days of The Beatles, The Stones, and The Who, broadcast rock n' roll to the masses via signals coming from mobile, seafaring stations that resided outside the jurisdiction of the disapproving British government. At the time, official British radio stations refused to play rock music (it was practiclaly equated to pornography), and so young Brits turned, in droves, to pirate radio to get their rock n' roll fix. This movie tells the story of one such pirate radio station - the biggest and most popular in Britain - and the band of misfits, hippies, and burnouts who made it their life's mission to spread the gospel of rock. Even as a preppy teen boards the boat and begins to learn to love the ways of rock, stuffy politicians are doing their best to shut down pirate radio once and for all. It's a classic story of us vs. them and of fighting the man, and there are no big surprises in terms of how it all goes down. But Curtis does a great job of crafting a fun and surprisingly emotional journey that will have you cheering and rooting for rock n' roll to triumph over those who would prefer to keep the likes of Mick Jagger, John Lennon, and Bob Dylan out of the public conciousness.

It definitely helps that the cast of Pirate Radio is top-to-bottom outstanding. The number of talented and funny actors in this one is pretty mind-boggling, actually. Even better, all the characters have their moments to shine. The characters are all there for a purpose, and they each bring something to the table. Our guide and stand-in for the movie is teenaged Carl (Tom Sturridge), whose mother has sent him to live on the boat with his godfather (Bill Nighy, in fine form as the ultra-mod head honcho of the radio station), after he's kicked out of school for drugs. Carl doesn't quite know what he's in for. He thought he was going somewhere to become reformed - instead, he's gone to a modern-day pirate ship filled with all manner of shady characters and unchecked debauchery. To that end, to some degree Pirate Radio is a coming of age story for Carl. But like I said, it's also really about all of the great characters that surround him. There's the great Philip Seymour Hoffman as The Count, a self-styled rock DJ from America who won't stop broadcasting 'til the day he dies. There's Nick Frost (Shawn of the Dead) as Dave, a jovial sleazebag who revels in his rockstar fame, finding particular pleasure in bedding many of his groovy groupies. There's Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords) playing a would-be rocker not too dissimilar from Murray on FOTC (meaning that yes, he's pretty hilarious here). There are also really nice performances from the rest of the boat crew - Rhys Ifans as the legendary, deep-voiced DJ Gavin, Chris O'Dowd as the hopless romantic Simon, Tom Brooke as Carl's dense roommate, Thick Kevin, and Katherin PArkinson as the lovelorn lesbian chef of the ship, Felicity. There are some great performances from the British government villains as well. Kenneth Branaugh is in fine comedic form as the stiff-upper-lipped Parliament member hellbent on shutting down rock n' roll radio. And so too is Jack Davenport (Swingtown) as the unfortunately-named Twatt, Branaugh's right-hand man (so to speak).

Pirate Radio is somewhat loosely constructed, but to me it worked because most of the individual scenes are so entertaining and funny. The collection of actors aboard the pirate radio boat are so good that you feel like you could watch them sit around and banter all day. Sure, sometimes the sheer number of characters and subplots can be a bit overwhelming, and sometimes that means that certain story beats seem a bit rushed or glossed over (like the feud between The Count and Gavin over who gets to be the station's #1 DJ). But most of the time, the scenes come together to form a nice tapestry of what it was like to be a part of the rock revolution of the 60's. The government angle reminds us how counterculture all this stuff still was back then, and we also get lots of scenes of everyday people, from all walks of British life, rocking out to their transistor radios, enthralled by the music they were hearing and the charismatic DJ's who spun the records. I really liked how the movie was, on one hand, a look at the crazy characters who populated Rock Radio, but also a broader look at how the music they were playing was causing a pop-cultural revolution across the world. Sure, it can get a bit cheesy and schmaltzy, but I say there's nothing wrong with a good rock n' roll fairy tale every now and then.

And I mean, it's hard not to get caught up in the ra-ra-rock spirit of the movie when you hear all the legendary songs that serve as its soundtrack. From the Beatles to the Beach Boys, from The Who to The Kinks, if you have an ounce of rock n' roll in your soul then you'll be bopping along. I especially liked that, during the end credits, we get a montage of all sorts of rock album covers from the 60's to now. It nicely ties the themes of the movie together - that these guys fought to liberate the airwaves and fight the man, and that spirit endured, and went on to become the driving cultural force of our time. Not too shabby.

So yeah, I can see how Pirate Radio might prove too liberal with its baby boomer myth-making for some. And I know that some have criticized it for playing fast and loose with historical fact in the name of entertainment. But like I said, I was ultimately won over by Pirate Radio. It's a feel-good movie about rock n' roll inspiring people to get up, stand up, and keep the dream alive. It's funny, heartfelt, and has a stellar cast. I thought it rocked.

My Grade: A-

- And that's it for now. In honor of Pirate Radio, I say only this: for those about to rock, I salute you!

Friday, November 20, 2009


What's up, everyone. Well, just about made it through the week, and getting ready for the weekend, and soon, Thanksgiving. I've got a lot to cover today, so here we go:


- I'll start by talking about Wednesday's episode of GLEE. Yes, Glee - a show that's clearly among the most buzzed-about of the new TV season. The fact is, people freaking love Glee. And yet, objectively, you've got to admit that the show can be uneven. In some ways, it's one of the strangest shows I've ever seen, in that every episode seems to swing wildly back and forth in terms of tone. Some weeks, the show is dark and cynical. Others, its bouncy and optimistic. Some weeks, the teen drama feels authentic and realistic - more Freaks and Geeks, and others, it feels broad and cartoonish - more High School Musical. Glee is a show that's really, really hard to get a handle on. And yet, a lot of people (namely of the female population), love it unconditionally. Why is that? When talking with girls who are self-proclaimed "Gleeks" (shudder ...), you never hear things like "well, I liked the episode, but it was really dark compared to last week's," or "good episode, but it was weird that so little time was spent with Sue Sylvester this week." Things like that. At the end of the day, I think that a lot of people simply love the characters in Glee and will follow them through thick and thin. It's the Twilight effect - as soon as there's that element of female empowerment fantasy at play, all objectivity goes out the window. And hey, I'm not trying to be sexist here - guys do the same thing with over-the-top action movies and such. But I think there is that undeniable factor that there are many girls out there who relate to Rachel. Some of them have her confidence and sense of self, some only wish they did. But Rachel is a landmark character because she's a character of the YouTube age -- in the past, she would have just been another middle-of-the-road high school nobody. But now, in our culture of constant self-promotion and anyone-can-be-a-star way of thinking, Rachel may *actually* be sort of a loser, but in her own mind, she's on the A-list. And in the self-contained world of the glee club, she is a star and a diva. Rachel reminds me of any number of people I actually know, for better or worse, and I do think that Glee nailed the character in terms of concept and casting. She's the kind of character that girls can relate to and live vicariously through, but that guys can easily grow to hate. I mean, here's a character who wants it all - she wants to be a loud and proud glee-club geek, yet has a real superiority complex, pines for the football team quarterback, and is probably just as dismissive of others as they may be of her. So I think that's something that makes Glee resonate so much with a certain segment - it has Rachel, and other characters, who break from the usual TV mold. People are thrilled to see these types on TV, and it is refreshing, you have to admit. We all know Rachels, and some of you reading this probably are Rachels. And maybe, in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and American Idol ... well, the scary thing is that maybe all of us, in our own way, are our own particular brand of Rachel. Yikes.

But back to this week's episode, it was another one that just felt so different in tone from the previous week's, it was pretty jarring to me. There was no Sue. And that meant a lot less overt comedy. On the other hand, there was A LOT of singing - and a lot of that was done as much to advance the story - musical style - as it was just to be a showpiece for the cast. I enjoyed most of the storylines here - Rachel's crush on Will and his fruitless attempts to turn her away made for some pretty entertaining moments - capped off by Will's musical medley that only served to make Rachel and fellow teacher Emma that much more enamored of him (ironically, he sung "Don't Stand So Close to Me" - and even though he wanted Rachel to take the chorus to heart, it probably didn't help that the song is about how much a teacher is lusting after his Lolita-esque student). Meanwhile, the Quinn pregnanacy angle came to a head, as the whole sordid situation was revealed to her conservative Christian parents (her Dad's daily highlight is watching Glenn Beck - oy). This was another storyline that was handled pretty well, especially since Quinn and Finn have become really good characters since the pilot.

But yeah, this was another one where you just didn't know which Glee was going to show up to the party. Over on TV Guide, Matt Roush addressed this same concern. He explained that even though Glee can be uneven and all-over-the-place, he still remained inexplicably passionate about it, because it was just so different, and yes, unpredictable. I don't know if passionate is the word I'd use to describe how I feel about Glee, but the whole Glee phenomena definitely fascinates me. And it's funny because despite some of its darker themes, this episode was ultimately a very cheery, uplifiting ep. It was no big surprise that it ended with "Lean On Me." But the weird thing is that in a different episode, with a different tone, who knows. Personally, I like Glee better when it's darkly funny and twisted (the Slushee episode from a few weeks back, maybe my favorite one yet). And yet, I feel like a lot of Glee fans secretly want it to be High School Musical. Glee is smart enough and fun enough to support multiple tones, but personally I'd like it a little less Disney-fied. That said, "Don't Stand So Close to Me" has been in my head all week.

My Grade: B

- Moving on to the third of four 2009 episodes of V ... well, I feel similar about this one as I did towards Episode 2. The show right now is only okay, but I like the premise enough to stick with it and see how the new showrunners change things up come 2010. It's funny, because I just talked about how the characters on Glee make it consistently fun in spite of some of its other problems. V is the oppositte - the premise is strong and intriguing, and there's a lot of fun, if not well-worn, sci-fi tropes at the heart of the story. But V really needs a shot in the arm. It needs the added oomph to make it really pop. The characters right now, mostly, are pretty bland. The best character is the V leader Anna, partially because she is so mysterious and we don't know her true motives. But that same quality detracts from characters like the FBI agent played by Elizabeth Mitchell. Could she eventually turn things around and make the character her own, like Anna Torv has done on Fringe? Maybe. But Fringe is a show that really focuses in on character. V right now is very broad, very cartoonish in some respects. That's fine, but if that's the route you're going to go, give us some awesome, larger-than-life heroes that we can really root for.

This week's episode competently moved things forward, and had a couple of decent twists with regards to the rebel Fifth Column V's, and them being the impetus for a couple of the principle good-guy characters to finally meet. Meanwhile, we all got to live vicariously through the teen kid as he hooks up with Laura "Supergirl' Vandervoort, without realizing, of course, that beneath her human facade she is a hideous lizard-alien. We also learn that Vandervoort is Anna's daughter, which wasn't that great of a twist, but who knows, could pay off down the line. But as things progress, you can't help but wonder why things are unfloding the way they are. Why don't the rebel V's just expose themselves to the media? Why did Elizabeth Mitchell feel so strongly about protecting the V's from an assasination plot? Wouldn't such a thing just expose them also? Right now, V feels like a series just trying to get from Point A to Point B, and when you do that, it's hard to get much pop out of a twist or story beat.

In any case, still onboard for now, and despite my lukewarm feelings, I'm still very curious to see if the show gets that shot in the arm come next year.

My Grade: B-

- Next up, I'll talk about another big sci-fi show that has had its ups and downs - FRINGE. Before this week, Fringe aired a couple of episodes in a row that were pretty much standalone stories. They were alright, but these last few episodes have felt like X-Files lite - as I've been saying over and over again here on the blog. What I mean is, these eps have employed the standard "monster of the week" storytelling style made famous by the X-Files back in the day. But, Fringe has done only a so-so job of creating really compelling monsters and villains each week. The show rarely takes the time to get into the psychology of these villains, and the resolutions to their stories tend to feel rushed and glossed over. That's not to say there haven't been some great moments these last few weeks. The lack of depth given to the weekly antagonists is, overall, in part a tradeoff for getting so deep into the heads of our heroes. No matter what else is going on, Oliva Dunham, Walter and Peter Bishop, Broyles, etc., have developed into some of the most fun / badass / well-developed characters on TV, and it's always a pleasure to watch them interact. That said, it was high time for the show to get back into the mythology that made it really take-off in the latter half of Season 1. Those eps were where the show really began to hit its stride, and it seems like this is where the writers excel. The fast-paced, mythology-driven episodes of Fringe made the show feel fresh and unique. During that run of great episodes in S1, it didn't feel like any show I had seen before - not like X-Files, Lost, whatever. So it was a shame to see Fringe lose some of that uniqueness over the last several weeks.

In any case, I was pretty excited for this week's ep - it featured the Observers - bald, otherworldly men who monitor important events and have been a constant, enigmatic presence in the Fringe-verse since the pilot. Sure, the Observers might be a bit derivative of comic book characters like The Watcher or The Monitors, but still ... they are cool. I was really curious to finally get an episode that spotlighted them. As it turned out, this one was definitely had more of a spark than other recent eps of Fringe. There were a lot of cool, fun scenes with the bald-headed beings, and there was some great interaction between them and Walter (and the mystery of his relationship with them is one of the show's best riddles). No doubt, this episode felt uniquely Fringe-y. But, I don't know, it also felt a little cliched. The story revolved around one rogue Observer tampering with space/time in order to prevent a girl's death. Turns out he had watched that girl survive a childhood trauma and felt a peculiar attachment to her, and was willing to defy the Observers' non-interference rules in order to help her out. It made for a decent story, but definitely something I've seen many times before in books and movies and TV. The kicker was that they seemed to be setting up some sort of big reveal as to why the Observer singled out this one girl to be saved, of why she was important. Turns out, it was because our bald, emotionless, pale-faced Observer friend had learned the true meaning of love, and, as a single tear rolls down his eye, he explains to us that yes, love was the reason why he had to save this random girl and potentially endanger all of existence in the process. Pretty cheesy, and not really what I was expecting.

I don't want to sound like a total downer here. The truth is this ep had a lot going for it. Awesome Observer-tech and weapons, great Walter wackiness (milkshakes!), and some cool and creepy, very otherworldly acting on the part of those playing the Observers.

Anyways, I think the sheer novelty and coolness factor of having an episode of Fringe totally focused on the Observer(s) was enough to keep me pretty enthralled for the duration of this episode. But do I wish that a slightly better, cooler, and more original story had been devised for the occasion? I do.

My Grade: B

- I finally got around to watching the final two hours of THE PRISONER. This one is interesting. I have some issues with how the story wrapped up, but I also can't deny that the conclusion, and the miniseries as a whole, made a big impact on me. This was a series with flaws, but it was also one that kept me hanging on every word, every image, every revelation. This was smart, intelligent, sophisticated storytelling. Maybe it sometimes got too ambitious or too convoluted or too abstract for its own good. But when I think about the level of writing and acting on The Prisoner, this is clearly stuff that is on a higher plane of existence than so much of what you see on TV. I mean, I can think of few, if any circumstances, where I've seen acting as captivating and resonant as what we got from Sir Ian McKellan in this series. Just awesome, memorable stuff. Give this man an award. I think when all is said and done, people will remember this version of The Prisoner as a worthy reimagining of the original series. Not perfect, but at the end of the day, some pretty darn compelling TV.

Again, I thought the final two hours was a case where the second hour was stronger than the first. The first hour was really interesting, but it's funny - while watching, I was frustrated with how confusing the hour was, and yet, after the second hour, it made a lot more sense in retrospect. Basically, Hour 5 of The Prisoner dealt with an apparent clone of #6 that is all of a sudden running around The Village. This second 6 is a more irrational, more animalistic, more dangerous version of the original, and he's causing quite the stir, even threatening to kill 2. The twist comes later in the episode, when we see that there's also a clone of 2 out there. This new 2 is calmer, more carefree, and in turn more reckless than the original. In the end, we see that this is all part of 2's ongoing attempts to mess around in the mindspace. He's isolated aspects of he and 6's psyche's, testing whether those independent entities would have the ability to go through with actions that the originals would never dare. 2 has created a 6 that is willing to kill him, and a version of himself that is willing to die. Pretty cool in retrospect, but while watching, it was often just confusing. But still, I got caught up in the mindgames and was eager for more. And more was what I got in Hour 6, as things really kicked into high gear, and we began to learn the heretofore unknown origins of The Village, 2, etc. Without going into spoilers, I'll say that the resolution wasn't quite as huge as some might like, but it was pretty fascinating nonetheless. It gave me a lot to think about, so to speak, and I was impressed with how well everything ultimately tied together. All of the main characters fit nicely into the grand scheme of things. And even if the secret of the Village wasn't ultra-super-mind-blowing, it allowed for some really intense, emotional moments with 6 and 2 and 313, who in the end was way more important to the overall story than I initially suspected. It turned out that this version of The Prisoner ended up having a lot in common with things like The Matrix, Lost, Dark City, and even the game Bioshock. Moral questions about what comprises a utopian society versus a dystopian one, and about whether a man has the authority to impose order on others, even if it's by force and without their consent. At what cost does a "perfect" society come, and is it worth the price?

So hats off to THE PRISONER. It proved to be a well-told, superbly-acted, and highly relevant update of the original. It was chock full of fascinating ideas and discussion-worthy moral questions. Really, really good stuff.

My Grade: A-

- Okay, that about covers it for dramas. So how about comedies? Let's talk MODERN FAMILY. I love Modern Family, it's my favorite new show of the year. But ... this one was not it's strongest episode. I think it somewhat coasted on the characters as they've already been established, without really bringing much new to the table. But, more importantly, it just wasn't as funny as previous eps. The highlight was probably the big pajama party that Jay threw for his grandkids. Getting Phil and Claire's kids together with Manny made for some funny moments, especially when we learned about Manny's semi-incestuous crush on Haley. But the other two main plots fell a little flat, I thought. In one corner, Claire's last-minute anniversery gift for Phil is a personal visit from a washed-up musician from a band who Claire mistakenly thinks Phil is a big fan of. The musician, played by none other than Edward Norton (!), was kind of grating after a few minutes, and the storyline as a whole kind of dragged. Same goes for the storyline involving Mitchell, Cameron, and their old friend, played by Elizabeth Banks (!!!). Banks is always good, but the storyline was pretty cliched. We get it, Mitchell and Cameron have a baby and have been domesticated, and no longer have time to go along with Banks on her crazy adventures. All in all, a decent episode of MF is still better than almost anything else, but in a short time, I've come to expect better.

My Grade: B-

- On the other hand, Thursday's episode of THE OFFICE was pretty freaking brilliant. This one didn't have a ton of huge belly laughs or anything, but man, it worked amazingly well as a dead-on satire of dysfunctional corporations. I thought the setup here was great, with Michael called to New York for a Dunder Mifflin investor's conference, where he'd be spotlighted as the company's most successful branch manager. However, with the company facing bankruptcy, Michael and the higher-ups at DM were greeted with a ton of hostility from the crowd, and Michael, never one to accept disapproval lying down, takes it upon himself to try to singlehandedly rally the investors back to Dunder Mifflin's side. With hilarious results (duh). This ep just fired on all cylinders. The juxtaposition of Michael's naive goofiness with the dead-serious upper management of DM was awesome. And Michael's nonsensical yet oddly-inspiring speech to the investors was classic. The B-plot back at the office wasn't quite as memorable, but it led to some nice character advancement for Jim, who tried to exert some of his newly-gained authority by finally clamping down on Ryan's lack of productivity. I loved Ryan's twisty, douche baggy responses to Jim. and maybe the funniest scene of the episode was Ryan avoiding work by giving Creed advice on his love life ("do you really like her, or just the idea of her?" bwahaha). Overall, this was a great episode of The Office - maybe the best overall of the season so far.

My Grade: A

- 30 ROCK in turn had a pretty good episode, although I don't know if it was quite up to the standards of The Office earlier in the night. This was one of those episodes where the main, Liz-centric plot was only okay, but the episode was somewhat saved by some hilarious subplots involving Jack, Tracy, and Frank. I was dying of laughter at almost everything involving Jack and Tracy each contemplating the idea of getting a vasectomy. Add the always-awesome Dr. Spaceman into the mix, and you had the makings of some kickass comedy. Plus, Tracy Jr.! I guess that, aside from Liz's apartment-hunting plotline being a bit dull, the thing that kind of annoyed me about this ep was the whole Green Week thing. This actually applies to all of the NBC shows that had to have some kind of environmental message jammed into their episodes this past week. On shows like The Office and 30 Rock, the message was basically a throwaway gag that ended up coming off as more of an "FU" to the whole concept as opposed to anything organic to the actual episode. Sort of funny, sure, but in this 30 Rock ep, the whole meta-commentary thing went a bit far. Even Al Gore's appearance felt more like some kind of ironic statement. I don't know, I like that 30 Rock took on the whole thing with its usual whacked-out sense of humor, but it was also kind of distracting. That said, I did really enjoy the ep as a whole, and there were many, many hilarious lines of dialogue throughout. I just don't want the show to get too meta and self-referential.

My Grade: B

- Man, I have had a rocky relationship with COMMUNITY of late. I was ambivalent enough towards the show that I finally decided to drop it a couple of weeks ago. Then I happened to catch last week's ep (the debate team one), and thought it was actually pretty great. I decided I should probably jump back on board the Community bandwagon. I mean, afterall, every week I read review after review declaring Community to be hilarious, one of the funniest comedies on TV. And yet, this week I was back to feeling totally "meh" about the show. I think the writing is consistently sharp, but not necessarilly funny. Last week's ep was the first time I felt like everything 100% came together as it should. This week, with Joel McHale's smart-alecky student befriending Ken Jueng's slightly insane Spanish teacher, in order to convince him to drop his ease up on his assignments, I don't know, it just felt like very standard sitcom stuff glossied up with rapid-fire dialogue and random pop-culture references. And I still dislike most of the characters. Am I missing something here?

My Grade: B-

Whew. Well, I've managed to cover a lot, and it's about time for the weekend to commence. Have a good one!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

TOTAL DESTRUCTION - a review of 2012! Plus: The Prisoner

Hey everyone, back with a look at Day 2 of THE PRISONER, and, as promised, a review of 2012.


- So, am I missing something here? I've seen any number of reviews just totally bashing the new, AMC remake of THE PRISONER, and I just don't get it. Sure, the new miniseries isn't perfect by any means, but it's still one of the overall best things I've seen on TV in a long while. I really enjoyed Sunday's first two episodes, and last night's middle section was another really interesting and intriguing ride. I thought the first of the two hours was easily the weaker of the two. In Episode 3, we catch up with #6, still trying to figure out his way around The Village. The beginning of the episode was a bit jarring, as it was a very clean break from the previous installment. There was no real follow-up on #6's fake brother and family, and no real mention of his short-lived stint as a bus driver / tour guide. The lack of continuity ultimately wasn't a big deal - I imagine that some of that is fallout from the series changing from an ongoing drama (that would likely have featured more standalone episodes, similar to the original series), to a miniseries. But after the initial sense of confusion abated, the ensuing storyline was certainly interesting, and revealed a lot about The Village's culture of paranoia, fear, and constant surveillance. #6 becomes a spy of sorts, working undercover to find "dreamers" - people whose minds have broken through the Village's brainwashing to some degree, and whose dreams have led them to wonder about places beyond The Village. It was an interesting idea, and it underlined the idea that everyone in The Village, no matter how happy or content they may seem, is living in fear. That said, the episode was a bit slow at times, and the angle of having 6 pose as a school teacher, showing young kids the tricks of the surveillance trade, was a bit much to swallow. Although, this thread did produce a pretty awesome moment, when Ian McKellan's #2 discovered that a young girl from the class had been spying on him. Before sentancing her to some horrible fate, McKellan calmly implred her to first finish her ice cream cone. Awesomely evil. We also got more insight into 2's relationship with his son, which was interesting, but again, a bit soap-y for a show like this. In the end, this third hour was interesting, but felt like something of a tangent from the main storyline. But man, things really picked up in the next hour, as we got a look at love in the world of The Village. 6 is matched up, via The Village's automated match-making system, with woman who seems to be an exact replica of the mysterious woman that we've been flashing back to throughout the series so far - the woman who spent a fateful night with 6 in New York just prior to his abduction and relocation to the Village. As the episode progresses, we go deeper into the sick and strange headgames being played on 6. It becomes clear that every night he's taken away to The Village's creepy Clinic, and inoculated with various brainwashing and mind-numbing serums. One of the serums manipulates his feelings of love for his mysterious match, and hers for him. It was all pretty fascinating, and it was also a showcase for the women of The Prisoner to shine. I thought Hayley Atwell was pretty great as both incarnations of 6's enigmatic lover - Lucy and 4-15. I also really liked the depth given to Ruth Wilson as 313, the doctor tasked with doing 2's sinister bidding all the while trying to break free from it all. Really, the best compliment I can give to Night 2 of The Prisoner is that it made me wish that this was more than just a miniseries. There's tons of potential in this world and these characters, and it felt like Monday's two episodes just scratched the surface of the kinds of stories that a new Prisoner series could tell. Can't wait for tonight's conclusion.

My Grade: A-

And now, the long-awaited review of Roland Emmerich's latest ...

2012 Review:

- At this point, you should know what you're getting yourself into if you buy a ticket to see 2012. From all the previews and pre-release hype, the intent of this movie was essentially clear from the get-go: to be master-of-disaster Roland Emmerich's most ridiculous, most over-the-top, most gleefully destructive movie yet. And on those counts, 2012 is everything you could hope for and more. It's essentially a living cartoon come to life - epic destruction on a massive, global scale in which many, many people will die, but cute kids, noble politicians, lovable dogs, and yes, John Cusack, will outrun disaster, survive the apocalypse, and live to repopulate the planet (oh yeah!). 2012 is a pretty stupid movie in almost every respect, but it's a stupidly entertaining one as well. If you go in ready to laugh, cheer, and jeer at all the craziness, you'll have a blast.

I think what's frustrating about a movie like this though, if you actually stop to think about it for a minute, is that 2012 is a stupid-but-fun movie that really could have been a *great* movie if it actually had a decent script. I mean, here's the thing about Roland Emmerich - he's actually a pretty awesome director in a lot of ways. Few of his peers are so capable of depicting carnage with as much style and bombast as Emmerich, and the guy knows how to create those kind of big, cinematic moments that conjure up that old-school feeling of movie magic. Unlike, say, Michael Bay, Emmerich is pretty talented at staging a badass set-piece and creating an edge-of-your-seat action scene that has real narrative flow to it (that you can, you know, actually follow). And when Emmerich is at the top of his game, and has a fun, smart script that matches his exuberance for over-the-top, bombastic storytelling, he can make one hell of an exciting blockbuster movie (see: Independence Day). While 2012 has a decent cast necessary to potentially pull off popcorn-movie greatness, it definitely doesn't have the script. In many ways, the movie gives in to many of Roland's worst movie-making instincts. The story and characters here are ultra-cheesy, and yet you're never quite sure if Emmerich knows it. He seems to be going for Spielberg-style storytelling, with all the big emotional beats you'd find in, say, Jurassic Park, but he's limited by Saturday morning cartoon-level plotting, characters, and dialogue.

What that sometimes means is that there's an odd mismatch between the actors and the script. John Cusack is a great actor, but a great action hero for an over-the-top movie like this? Cusack does a good job of grounding the movie ... but does 2012 work better with someone grounding it? I kept thinking of Jack Bauer while watching the movie - Cusack could have used a little Kiefer Sutherland-style intensity to really sell the craziness of the world-ending events of the movie. Some of the other actors similarly don't seem to quite realize what movie they're in (Amanda Peet, I'm looking at you). That said, there are some interesting and fun actors here. Danny Glover as the President? Very nice. Newcomer Chiwetel Ejiofor as a young scientist who first warns of impending doom? Surprisingly pretty darn good in a huge role. Zlatko Buric steals a lot of scenes as a comic-relief Russian billionaire. Great genre actors like Steve McHattie (Watchmen) and John Billingsley (24) pop up and do cool stuff. But sometimes things just get too dumb to be fun ... take Woody Harrelson as a wacky, conspiracy-theorist endtimes doomsayer. The character is just annoying, more than anything. And his interaction with John Cusack is just too random and out-of-nowhere to be credible.

In some of the character moments, the dialogue, and even the action scenes, Emmerich just doesn't know how not to indulge himself. He has Cusack and his family outrace the apocalypse, improbably turning a would-be epic disaster scene into a Roadrunner-style live-action cartoon. It's fun, but totally bugnuts. There's the scene at the Vatican where Michaelangelo's famous paintings get split right where the figures iconically touch fingers. There's the obligatory scenes of doggies in danger. There's many a drawn-out death scene, and yet, ironically, many a scene of mass death and destruction in which the untold millions killed seem to go strangely unacknowleged.

What's funny is how much 2012 wants to appear epic. The movie starts with a friggin' view from outer space. I was already giggling from moment one. And from then on out, the movie furiously cuts from location to location, often with a comical randomness. At one point, Emmerich throws in a serene mountaintop scene, in which a wizened monk calmly philosophizes in the face of impending danger. It was so cheesy, I couldn't help myself - I burst out laughing.

And that's the thing with 2012. It is totally and unabashedly ridiculous. Sometimes that makes for fun, over-the-top moments and melodrama. Sometimes it just makes you groan and roll your eyes and wish that Jeff Goldblum had somehow been written into the movie. But despite all the cheesiness and general sense that your IQ is being lowered while watching the movie, there's a sense of fun to 2012, and a level of unapologetic excess in the visual f/x, that I feel like it's definitely worth seeing in a theater. I can't in good conscience give this movie a high grade on any objective scale, and yet I'd recommend 2012, easily, over other 2009 "blockbusters," like the totally craptacular Transformers 2 or Wolverine. As I said afterwords, I felt dumber for seeing this movie, and yet, even if only for a moment, I also felt more awesome. And that, my friends, deserves an exclamation point of: "dammit all."

My Grade: B

- Alright, enough destruction for one day. Peace out.

Monday, November 16, 2009

I AM NOT A NUMBER! The Prisoner, Smallville, The Simpsons, and MORE!

Back from the weekend, and getting ready to power through what should be a long but interesting work week. In any case, I've got a truckload of TV reviews to kick off the week, so, here we go:


- I'll start by talking about last night's premiere of the AMC reimagining of THE PRISONER. Let me give some background, some of which I'm sure I've covered before here on the blog, but, oh well. So I'd heard of The Prisoner on and off growing up, though like many of my generation, I had heard bits and pieces about the cult British series, and later became somewhat familiar with the concept thanks to the hilarious Simpsons episode that spoofed the show, "The Computer Wore Menace Shoes." (it even featured original Prisoner star Patrick McGoohan in a cameo). Later on, once Lost became a big hit, you'd often hear the show's creators reference The Prisoner as an inspiration. Anyways, at some point a couple of years ago, I saw the DVD box set on sale on, and made the purchase. I quickly became a fan of the show's surreal 1960's vibe, and could easily recognize that The Prisoner was indeed the precursor to many a modern story about being trapped in a strange place that makes you question basic notions of freedom, individuality, and even reality itself. So I went into this new version of The Prisoner already a fan of the original series. At the same time, even though I often bemoan the glut of remakes and reimaginings in Hollywood, I was actually pretty excited about this new version of The Prisoner. For one thing, I feel like the original is, more than anything, a show about ideas - and I felt like those central themes, applied to modern issues and sensibilities, could make for a really compelling story. For another thing, I read a script for the Prisoner pilot (back when it was being planned as an ongoing series) a couple of years back. I went in skeptical, but was actually fairly blown away by what I had read. Even though the version of The Prisoner that ultimately got made was a bit different (it's now a miniseries, for one), a lot of that older version still made it intact. In any case, a new Prisoner with some smart writing, a modern take on a cult-classic, Ian McKellan and Jim Caviezel in the lead roles ... sounds to me like a recipe for a success.

So I was somewhat surprised and disappointed to see a slew of somewhat negative reviews of the new Prisoner. It made me wonder where, exactly, this new version had gone wrong. Luckily, as I watched the first two hours of the six-hour miniseries last night, I came away in large part reassured. In fact, while there were some rough patches, I thoroughly enjoyed AMC's latest.

I thought THE PRISONER did a pretty nice job of combining smart, thoughtful writing with some really weird, trippy scenes. There was a really nice atmosphere of "okay, what, exactly, is going on here?" that permeated through the first two hours, and I thought that Jim Caviezel, as the new #6, did a nice job in the lead. Sure, his character was a bit more measured and soft-spoken than the more over-the-top original played by McGoohan, but I thought that he did a nice job of anchoring the out-there premise. The real highlight was definitely McKellan though, who brought a huge, commanding presence to his role as #2. Whereas the original show was known for each episode mysteriously having a new person filling the role of #2, this new version has McKellan in the role for the duration - and when you have an actor with Sir Ian's talent, you want to give him room to breathe and really explore this strange and mysterious character. Some of McKellan's scenes thus far have been totally transfixing. Awesome stuff.

I realize at this point I should probably sum up the premise of the show. In the original version, the classic storyline goes that #6 was once some sort of James Bond-esque British secret agent, in possession of many a national secret. When he decides to resign from his job, he is kidnapped and whisked away to a mysterious island on which exists "The Village." The Village is a quaint yet ominous place in which people have no proper names, only numbers. The villagers have jobs, live semi-normal lives, and seem happily oblivious to the fact that they are prisoners. In the original series, it was implied that the other residents of The Village were other former intelligence agents, who over the years had been brainwashed and conditioned to spend their lives in blissful ignorance (or else fearful denial) of their plights. The Village is ruled by the devious #2, who is hellbent on extracting #6's secrets through all manner of mindgames, head-trips, and other, more sinister methods of persuasion. #6, meanwhile, is hellbent on escape, though he can never be sure quite who to trust, what's real, to how, exactly, to get away from The Village (wandering villagers who trespass past the city limits are often gobbled up by mysterious, giant white spheres that surround The Village). And who is #1? Well, that might be the biggest mystery of all.

Anyways, the new Prisoner tweaks the old formula a bit. The Village may still be an island, but it appears, at least, to be a remote outpost in the middle of some endless desert. Not only that, but in this version, the Villagers are completely *unaware* (or at least pretend to be) that any other place other than The Village even exists.

This is where thigns get tricky, as the new series walks a fine line between being completely abstract and surreal, and being more logical and down-to-earth. It's a problem that a show like Lost faced often, especially in its early years. If you have the characters ask too many questions and get too logical or analytical about their strange circumastances, you risk ruining the mysterious and surreal atmosphere of the show. But if no one questions anything or asks the kinds of questions that a normal person would, you end up with frustrating, manufactured drama that feels like a cop-out.

In The Prisoner, like I said, it's a fine line. They have #6 question the villagers on how they can possibly believe that no other place exists (ie "Well okay, then who invented the light bulb?), but stops short of taking this line of questioning to its logical extremes (for example, why wouldn't he say "Well okay then, why do people here have different accents? Why are there black people and white people?" etc.). It can get a little absurd if you think about it too much, but it's not so bad when you think about it as all being one giant mind-$&#$ at #6's expense. To me, the key turning point is when (SPOILERS), #6's "brother" (a guy from the Village who #6 is told is his brother, even though #6 knows he isn't), admits that he isn't *really* what he said he was. This was a great moment, because it hinted that indeed, all of the illogical behavior and randomness of the villagers is, moreso than anything else, just a way to reall mess with #6's head.

I think that there are some other places where The Prisoner has faltered so far. Scenes that show a TV soap opera that's broadcast in The Village (sample dialogue: "I love you #587, but I slept with your brother, #588!), are just too goofy given the tone of the rest of the show. I'm also unsure about the fact that #2 has a befuddled teenage son and a sickly wife (who is kept sickly due to #2's own scheming). It's one thing to give #2 personality and depth, but I could see how these slightly more soap opera-y plotlines could be a hindrance to the show. We shall see.

I did like flashback scenes that depicted the fateful night before #6 got brought to The Village. We learn that this #6 was no secret agent, but instead an information gatherer - a guy who monitors CTV footage and watches for shifting patterns in human behavior. This new backstory was actually kind of cool, and I'm curious to see how it comes into play later on. Anyways, these flashbacks show how Caviezel invited an enigmatic but alluring woman back to his apartment, only to find that she was more than she initially seemed. Kind of cool - again, curious to see how it all ties together.

Now, I think the other main issue here is the pacing. At times, the first two hours did kind of feel like plot threads from an ongoing series were mashed-up to fit into a six hour mini. The problem is that there's not really enough time for #6 to just be shocked and outraged at his plight as a prisoner of The Village. Fans of the original series recall that McGoohan's 6 was basically in a constant state of anger over his situation, and was basically a man of action. He never became complacent in The Village, and tried to escape at every chance he got. Caviezel's 6 is a bit more passive, and even though the two hours end with him frothing-at-the-mouth angry and confused, it feels like his temprament is all over the place prior to that point.

Still, I thought that this new version of the Prisoner had enough going for it to make it a really interesting ride that seems to be well worth taking. The acting was superb, and there is definitely an intelligence and philisophical bent to the writing that makes this stand out from most fare on TV. Plus, even though this one was more subdued and less over-the-top than its inspiration, there were still some really fun moments and callbacks. We got the giant white spheres, Caviezel doing a nice scream of the classic "I am not a number!" line, etc. And to top it off, the look of the show, with some really epic, feature-film like cinematography, was pretty spectacular at times. To me, this is one that's well worth checking out, and I'm very anxious to see where things go from here.

My Grade: B+

- Whew. So, let's talk SMALLVILLE. It was going to be hard for this week's ep to live up to the previous week's way-better-than usual installment, but surprisingly, Smallville churned out a pretty decent little episode. The storyline really pushed ahead on the whole Clark Kent as public superhero thing. And that's both good and bad. It's good because it makes for some new and exciting storylines, and it forces Clark to be more and more Superman-like, which is always fun to watch. The bad is that all of this stuff still feels like a giant tease. By any storytelling logic in the universe, Clark should be Superman by now. They've brought him to the brink many times now, and this episode brought him closer than ever. In fact, the setup was all right there for Superman's huge public debut. Lois in danger and dangling from the Daily Planet rooftop, a crowd of curious onlookers gathered below, and Clark on the roof, forced to either let Lois fall to an untimely and grisly death, or else show off his powers and make a stunning debut as Superman. Of course, this being Smallville, the resolution was ultra-contrived and further dealyed the (should-be) inevitable. In an homage to the old Superfriends cartoon, this ep introduced Zan and Jayna as two teenaged would-be heroes who are huge fans of Clark's alter-ego, the Blur. Carrying out a number of super-powered acts of heroism in the Blur's name, these reimagined Wonder Twins end up bungling a bunch of big saves, damaging Clark's rep in the process. Of course, they also serve as a deux ex machina in the end, creating a distraction so that Clark can save Lois from that building without revealing his powers to her or the world at large. All of this was pretty well done, and Clark did have some real "super" moments, even if he's still just plain old Clark Kent. But come on already, how long can they take two steps forward and three steps back with the show's lead character? Get him in the blue and red already!

My Grade: B

- Man, I was kind of dreading last night's episode of THE SIMPSONS. A long while back, I wrote a spec script for the show that I've retooled and refined over the years, and I've been proud and relived that the show has never really done a script with a similar premise to mine in all these years. But when I heard about the plot for this one, in which Marge poses for surprisingly suggestive photos for a charity calendar, well, I got kind of nervous, as the premise was uncomfortably close, in theory, to what I had written. But, once I saw the episode, I was a.) relieved that the plot so quickly veered away from the whole calendar thing, but b.) disappointed that the episode felt like the worst kind of Simpsons episodes from the last several years. It was disjointed, totally ADD, and, in the end, was yet another riff on the "Homer and Marge have marital problems that they ultimately resolve" trope that has popped up WAY too often in modern-era Simpsons. It sucks too, because there was the hint of a potentially very-funny plotline here, with Homer becoming Carl's assistant, after Carl gets a promotion at the nuclear power plant. Why oh why wasn't this the main plot of the episode, and just given more time to play out and be funny? Instead, the whole Marge-as-calendar-pinup thing transitioned into a lame story in which a newly-amorous Marge turns to Flanders for companionship, after Homer is tired / absent all the time thanks to his new job as Carl's bitch. Um, what? Why did this episode have like ten different plotlines? And how did the episode, with a couple of potential keepers, devolve into yet another Homer-Marge romance thing? It didn't help that the laughs were few and far between. This was a bottom-of-the-barrell Simpsons ep, made all the more annoying due to the fact that there was a lot of potential buried somewhere underneath.

My Grade: C-

- FAMILY GUY was also pretty mediocre last night. There were some funny one-off moments (Peter doing karaoke with the ghost of Ronald Reagan ...), and some of the stuff involving Stewie making a dumber, subserviant clone of himself (aka "Bitch Stewie") was also kind of chuckle-worthy. But the main plot here mostly fell flat, as Quagmire finds a baby on his doorstep that is his, and reluctantly ends up accepting the role of father to this little girl. I don't know - personally, I can't really buy into any "serious" storyline on FG. For most of its existence, the show has completely avoided having a serious or emotional side to its storytelling, so it's hard to treat these characters with the same kind of legitimacy as you would the characters on a King of the Hill or The Simpsons. Quagmire in particular is pretty much a gag character (giggity!), so how am I supposed to get involved in a storyline about his newfound baby daughter that is looking to tug at my heartstrings? Family Guy backed itself into that corner a long time ago, so come on FG, don't go getting all soft on me. And also, be funnier!

My Grade: C

- A solid episode of THE CLEVELAND SHOW was about all that kept FOX's Sunday night lineup from being completely absymal. Lately, I'm liking Cleveland because it's basically a funnier, slightly toned-down, and more consistent version of Family Guy. I mean, remember what I just said about FG's characters being incapable of being in more serious storylines at this point? Well, Cleveland definitely skews a little less wacky (despite its talking bears and such) and a little more, um, "mature" I guess would be the right word? That said, last night's ep was somewhat hit and miss - particularly the main storyline involving Cleveland's wife and her desire, post-marriage, to reconnect with her single friends. That one was alright, but nothing amazing. But there were a couple of funny running gags (loved Cleveland's reactions everytime his wife came home from a girls' night out), and lately, everything with Cleveland Jr. is pretty awesome. This show is still only "pretty good" at the end of the day, but it's been way more consistent than FG since it premiered.

My Grade: B

- Alright, that's it for now: in my next post: a review of 2012~!

Friday, November 13, 2009

"Frankly, I wasn't convinced. A lot of the evidence seemed to be based on puns." A Friday the 13th TV Wrap: THE OFFICE, 30 ROCK, FRINGE, GLEE, and V!

Well, it's almost the weekend, and even though it's been a short work-week for me due to having Monday of, I'm more than ready for a much-needed break. It's been a crazy week here at the office, and so I'm hoping that tonight's viewing of Roland Emmerich's 2012 will be a semi-catharctic moment of calming via multiple acts of mass destruction. Sure, the movie is likely to be absolutely ridiculous and mildly-retarded, but few filmmakers are as blatantly gleeful in their cheesiness as Emmerich. The fact that he has that whole European thing where he seems to take himself and his movies 100% seriously, despite their total absurdity, makes a movie like 2012 that much more potentially insane and entertaining. We shall see. Stay tuned for the full review, coming soon.


- Over on The AV Club, they've started running a massive Best-Of-the-Decade series of features, counting down the best in TV, movies, and music from throughout the 00's. The first batch of lists focuses on television, the highlight of which is a big list that counts down the best TV shows of the decade. Very interesting stuff, although to some extent I think there is something of a consensus when it comes to TV, at least on the best of the best TV series. Still, there is room for individual taste to come into play, and that's why I'm considering doing my own Best of the Decade list. The main problem? As I always say, I am but one man. For all my TV-watching, I still have many gaps in my viewing, from The Wire to Dexter to Breaking Bad ... so it would be hard to call a list that I come up with definitive. Still, it could be fun to look back at some of the series that have, for me at least, defined the 00's. Once again, stay tuned ...

- I was optimistic about V after seeing the pilot episode this past summer. Sure, it was somewhat cheesy and felt a little rushed, but still ... it just had an overall sense of fun to it that made it seem like a must-watch come Fall. Even with its problems, the groundwork seemed to be put in place for a series that could, eventually, become pretty epic. So I can see how many felt somewhat let down by Episode 2. I mean, rather that really escalating the brewing conflict between the humans and the visitors, this one sort of took a step back and felt very much like a typical second episode of any given serialized drama. We got a little plot-progression, a little who-can-you-trust paranoia, and a bit more insight into some of the characters for good measure. But this ep did feel a little like treading water. We still haven't gotten too far inside the head of Elizabeth Mitchell or Scott Wolf's characters, for example. Wolf's storyline in particular really seemed to drag a bit - it suffered from Smallville-itus. You know, like how on Smallville, mild-mannered country boy Clark Kent would always get wrapped up in the schemes of globetrotting billionaire Lex Luthor? It would often seem like it was too much of a stretch for their worlds to so often collide. Same with Wolf and the leader of the visitors, Anna. For an alien leader hellbent on conquering earth, she seems to be spending waaay too much time pondering her relationship with a single TV reporter. Similarly, there's the already somewhat annoying relationship between Elizabeth Mitchell and her teenaged son. Why doesn't she just tell him more concretely that the V's are dangerous lizard-people?! I mean, sure, there's the danger that her son would spill the beans to his friends, but this is her son we're talking about! Maybe be a bit more concerned that he's spending his afternoons spreading propaganda for reptillian extraterrestrial conquerers?! Anyways, this was an only-okay episode, but for some reason, I still feel somewhat into the show. Despite everything, there is still that feeling that this could get pretty awesome when the $&#% really starts to hit the fan.

My Grade: B-

- After a couple of really fun, well-done episodes, I'm not quite sure why, but I wasn't 100% feeling this week's GLEE. I think it just felt way too ... traditional ... for a show that, at it's best, is really subversive and darkly funny. It once again speaks to the fact that Glee is, still, completely all over the place in terms of tone. I mean, compare this week's after-school-special-ish vibe to the awesome Slushie episode from the other week. Whereas that one felt fresh and funny, this week's ep was oddly sentimental and preachy. I mean, they gave Sue Slyvester a huge, emotional beat, for crying out loud! What! I'm not saying that Glee shouldn't have emotion or heart, but I feel like it's way too early to humanize the show's greatest comic villain at this point. Otherwise, it was an enjoyable episode, for the most part, and I liked the central plot of of raising money to buy a wheelchair-accessible bus for the glee club's trip to sectionals. It just felt like this one had lost some of the show's edge from previous weeks.

My Grade: B

- Argh - no MODERN FAMILY this week. Damn you, CMA's. It speaks to how much I am liking MF that my week felt somewhat emptier without it!

- I thought that, overall, both THE OFFICE and 30 Rock were pretty strong last night. (Go NBC!). Seriously though, I was kind of iffy on The Office at first, but it slowly but surely won me over through sheer persistence. There were just too many moments of hilarity. So let's see ... things I loved:

The random flash to Ryan in yet another hipster d-bag outfit. The little snippets we've gotten of the painfully self-aware and tragically cool Ryan this season have all been gold.

Creed fleeing what he thought was a real murder scene.

The Mexican standoff to end the episode ... freaking hilarious.

Dwight's level of commitment to solving the murder-mystery.

Andy's dead-on Savannah accent. And his cluelessness about the Swedish Chef from the Muppets.

Andy's awkward attempts at asking Erin out on a date, and her possibly in-character-only response.

Michael's near-insane refusal to break character.

Oscar's awful attempts at a Southern accent.

Tube City.

So yeah, even if the whole murder mystery dragged a bit at first, it ultimately won me over. And the end-tag standoff scene just cemented the whole thing as awesome. Beyond all the zaniness though, this episode actually set the stage for a much bigger overarching plotline - the bankruptcy of Dunder-Mifflin. There are a lot of interesting pieces to pick up from this one.

My Grade: A-

- 30 ROCK last night followed a similar trajectory to The Office -- I was kind of dubious at first, but in the end, the episode really won me over. I think the episode's biggest flaw was the been-ther, done-that nature of the Tracy and Jenna subplot. We've seen similar shenanigans from these two many times over at this point, and while Tracy Morgan is basically always funny, you wish that he could get better and less repetitive storylines. Same goes for Jenna. But ... what made this episode was the central Liz-Jack plot. Their symbiotic business relationship, played out like a romantic comedy, was the source of a ton of humor last night - not to mention some awesome satire of the media business. When Jack offers to help Liz develop her Dealbreakers book into a series, Liz plays hardball and "explores her options," shopping the concept around to other agents. The results of Liz's break from Jack turn out pretty hilarious - a meeting with a way-too-young agent who's just graduated from repping animals to "humans and primates." A power-lunch with Scotty Shofar, a cell-phone-obssessed d-bag who was very reminiscient of a certain former NBC network head. Suffice it to say, when Mr. Shofar had to bail on Lemon because he had Brooke Hogan on the line, I nearly lost it. So yeah, a couple of semi-weak subplots eventually got overshadowed by a memorable and dead-on A-plot. This ep of 30 Rock definitely had it's fightin' gloves on.

My Grade: B+

- Didn't watch PARKS & REC yet. Sorry!

- Oh man, what to say about last night's FRINGE? This was yet another solid but unspectacular episode. But I have to admit, with each successive solid-but-unspectacular episode this season, I lose a little bit more overall enthusiasm for the show. What can I say, I'm nostalgic for the FRINGE of old - the late-season-one era Fringe. The Fringe that kept blowing me away week after week with huge reveals, amazing character moments, and an overarching plotline that was exciting and unpredictable. All of these standalone episodes are okay, but most of them feel like X-Files lite. At least last week we got a focus on Broyles, and therefore many moments of Lance Reddick-infused gravitas. This week, no such luck (though Broyles did have one particularly badass, if not slightly-cliched, moment towards the episode's end ...). Instead, we got a decent plot about a rebellious teen imbued with mind-control powers, who lashes out at his father - a Massive Dynamics scientist - by embarking on a wild crime spree using his psychic powers. The ability to psychically "push" someone is something we've seen before on shows like The X-Files, and the angry-kid -manipulating-others theme reminded me a bit of the classic Twilight Zone episode - you know, the one with the omnipotent kid who wishes people away when they piss him off. Anyways, the plot here was okay, but the real meat of it was how the father-son relationship at the heart of the case reflected back on the fractured relationship between Walter and Peter Bishop. To that end, we got some very nice, dramatic moments from John Noble, in an episode in which Walter seemed to do a lot of reflecting on mistakes of the past. I did really enjoy seeing him step foot inside Massive Dynamics HQ, seeing his mix of wonderment and regret as he saw what might have been had he pooled his genius towards building a company, like his old colleague William Bell. Walter's character moments (not to mention his always-awesome, always-random quips, like "you were abducted, of course you need crepes!") were far and away the highlight of the episode. Especially true given that we got no real new insight into Olivia's condition, the otherdimensional visitors, etc. The big reveal here was that ... (SPOILERS) ... the psychic kid was actually one of many clones bred by Massive Dynamics as part of a larger experiment, confirming that Massive D is up to some pretty shady stuff (although we pretty much knew that already). More shades of X-Files, Eve 6, etc. Yep, let the jokes commence about whether a one-hit-wonder rock band will arise out of this episode of Fringe. Meanwhile, the action leading up to the capture of the kid was not that riveting. As has been the norm of late, the resolution felt pretty rushed, and you never developed enough of an attachment to the kid or his father to care all that much about their fates. Fringe really needs to work on creating episode-specific characters that are memorable, even if they only appear once. Again, not to keep bringing it up, but think of all the classic one-shot villains from throughout the history of The X-Files. Fringe really needs an infusion of that kind of character. So yeah, this episode continued a streak of Fringe installments that had some cool moments, some interesting character stuff for our main players, but that didn't truly wow me as the show has done, on occasion, in the past. For that reason, I'm especially excited for next week's Observer-centric ep, which promises to dive back into the show's unique and rich mythology. For now, I think Fringe still needs to figure out how best to do these standalone, freak-of-the-weak style episode. I don't think they've quite nailed it yet.

My Grade: B-

Alright ... weekend time. And oh yeah, Happy Friday the 13th!