Monday, February 8, 2010

Blog of Justice: SMALLVILLE's Golden Age, Plus: The Office, Parks & Rec, and More!

So, everyone have a good Superbowl Sunday? I went into this year's big game feeling pretty indifferent as to who won, but I have to admit I got caught up in the underdog story of the Saints. Sure, CBS sort of hammered you over the head with how the Saints had inspired the entire city of New Orleans and such, but still, it was fun watching them take some big chances and gut it out against the favored-to-win Colts.

Anyways, I have some TV items I want to discuss. And by the way, if you haven't already, check out my Oscar Surprises and Snubs post from this past Friday.


SMALLVILLE - "Absolute Justice" Review:

- First thing's first - I've got to talk about Friday's double-sized, movie-length episode of SMALLVILLE. Smallville is a series that I've written a lot about over the years, and it's one of those shows that I've stuck with through the good times and the bad. Many times, I've watched episodes of Smallville and come away disappointed, and yet, I am too much of a hopeless Superman fan to give it up. But I will say this about Smallville -every once in a while, it manages to surprise me, and every so often, it will have a moment, a scene, or even a whole episode that reminds me of how much potential this show really has. It's a show that centers around some of the most iconic fictional characters ever created, and sometimes, Smallville takes advantage of that fact and shows glimpses of the show it could be with the right writing and vision.

Well, Friday's episode was one of those great moments in the show's history. Written by DC Comics' fan-favorite scribe Geoff Johns, "Absolute Justice" had me smiling ear to ear for the duration of its runtime. It was like watching a whole other show than what we've become accustomed to. There were great heroes, compelling villains, and plenty of twists and turns. There was action ... real, superheroic action. And there was a story that was overflowing with shoutouts and homages to the DC Comics that inspired the episode.

And that aspect alone might have been enough to win me over. I mean, DC readers are familiar with Johns' respect for comic book history and mythology, with his reputation for reinventing characters and concepts while staying true to what's come before. But so many times, Smallville has teased us with concepts from the comics only to ignore what made said ideas so cool in the first place. Not so this time - even with a small TV budget and a limited cast with which to work, Johns very quickly introduced dozens of characters and high-concept plot threads, and somehow made them all work in a manner that even a casual fan could easily digest. But man, for us longtime comics geeks, this one was jsut a treat. I never thought I'd see the likes of Hawkman, Dr. Fate, Amanda Waller, or Courtney Whitmore, aka Stargirl, on a live-action TV show. I NEVER thought I'd see Wesley Dodds, Jay Garrick, Ted Grant, or Alan Scott. And never in a million years did I ever think I'd turn on Smallville and see Sylvester Pemberton, aka the original Star Spangled Kid. I mean, wow. Excuse me while I geek out, but ... friggin' awesome! And Johns didn't stop there ... there were countless little touches that made me smile. From the amazing painting in the old JSA brownstone depicting the original team in their Golden Age glory, to the reference to Michael Holt (the modern-day Mr. Teriffic), to the museum items that ranged from the "Fairplay" jacket to Wildcat's boxing gloves ... this ep was basically a DC fan's dream. Going in, I was worried about how Johns would shoehorn the JSA into Smallville's continuity, but he went above and beyond my expectations, perfectly capturing the spirit of the team and its legacy, while adjusting the concept to fit seamlessly into Smallville's world. Some might complain that the costumes seemed hokey or whatever, but you know what ... after a little while I didn't care. To me, it was awesome to see colorful costumes and fantastic powers straight out of the comics on TV. This was the most fun I've had with Smallville, well, maybe ever.

The crazy thing is that the episode didn't just introduce the JSA into Smallville's universe. It also brought in one of the DCU's best and most intriguing concepts and characters -- Checkmate, The Suicide Squad, and "The Wall", Amanda Waller. Excuse me yet again as I completely geek out. Awesome! Amanda Waller is one of my all-time favorite comics characters, just because she's so completely different from the norm - a middle-aged African American woman who is a high-ranking government operative and badass as hell. She is somewhat morally ambiguous in her motivations, and has no qualms about sticking it to anyone in order to get what she wants. Suffice it to say, seeing the legendary Pam Grier show up as Amanda Waller, leading a shady Checkmate operation that struck the JSA yet also served to rally them out of retirement ... I mean, YEAH, it was handled pitch-perfectly and felt like the coolest thing to happen to the Smallville mythos in a long, long time. I always thought CCH Pounder would make a good live-action Waller, but Grier looked and acted the part, and has the street cred playing the badass to boot. And hey, as if all that wasn't enough, she dropped the "Apocalypse" bomb as well ... tantalizingly teasing that the hellish war-planet Apokolips (and presumably its leader, Darkseid) could in fact be a involved in a future storylines. I didn't think Smallville would ever go there, and I don't know if they'd get it right, but hey, I'd at least give them kudos for attempting it.

I think that's what pushed this episode of Smallville over-the-top for me. It could have just been a fun shout-out to DC Comics geeks, but it was much more than that. For one, the overarching storylines of Smallville got a much-needed shot in the arm. We suddenly have a great antagonist in Waller and Checkmate, and a lot of interesting mysteries and questions about their true motivations and agenda. I mean, what? Setting up a huge, multi-layered storyline like that has *never* been something Smallville's done well or often, but here it is. I thought this would be sort of a standalone ep, but I was wrong. It laid the groundwork for a lot of future plotlines, which is great. Meanwhile, this episode had something that Smallville has at times possessed, but not always -- HEART. Johns is known as an action writer, a guy who does the big blockbusters. But anyone who's read his JSA Thanksgiving issues knows that the guy knows how to use these iconic heroes to elicit genuine emotion from the reader / viewer. And this ep had those moments. The great character bits that add substance to the storylines (the Green Arrow / Hawkman rivalry was handled very nicely), and the big themes that define the characters and teams. Johns has always compared the JSA to a family, and he carried that over into this episode of Smallville. I can't remember the last time a Smallville ep had me this emotionally invested.

"Absolute Justice" delivered on its potential. Sure, you wish that a story this big could have had even more characters and been upgraded to a bigger budget. But the ep's heart was in the right place, and that's what made it so much fun to watch. With one episode, the bar for Smallville has been raised. If every episode was like this, you'd have yourself a must-see series on par with TV's best. Kudos to everyone involved.

My Grade: A


- I have to say, NBC had a pretty amazing lineup of comedy this past Thursday. Almost every show was on-fire.

- I first have to talk about COMMUNITY, which I've been on the fence about for a while. I went so far as to drop the show back in the Fall, but eventually got back onboard, and I'm glad I did. The show has really upped its game of late - the writing seems much more fluid, and the characters much more consistent. But man, this past week's ep may have been my favorite ever. The main plotline, in which Annie falls for a hippie type who the rest of the group sees as bad news, was a nice showcase for the talented cast. It really felt like the dynamics of the study group had finally gelled, and there was now a reason for everyone to hang out other than the fact that they'd all been thrown together. The real star of the episode though was the bad movie night subplot, in which Chevy Chase desperately tried to fit in with his younger classmates by joining them in their weekly movie parties. Chase's stale attempts at jokes were just classic, as were the movies being watched. Kickpuncher? Able to punch foes with the power of kicks? Awesome! This was a classic ep of Community.

My grade: A

- PARKS & RECREATION also had an absolutely hilarious episode, with Aziz Ansari in particular in top form. I've said before that one of the key factors in this season of Parks being so much better than the first has been its refocus on the entire ensemble of characters - and this ep was proof that the best Parks eps take advantage of guys like Aziz. The whole saga of him moving out of the house he shared with his greencard-seeking ex-wife was pure funny. And Amy Poehler's plotline, about a slick snack company that planned to sell its new nutrition bars in the park, was also really good satire. And I loved Ron Swanson's role, as he overreacted to Amy's pestering over his drinking, and began a quest to engage in as much malnutritous behavior as possible. And also: DJ Roomba! Yes! Parks has been on a roll of late, and this was one of its best episodes yet.

My Grade: A-

- It was good to see THE OFFICE finally have a real, new episode after last week's recap show. The introduction of "Sabre" as the company that swooped in and bought the struggling Dunder-Mifflin felt a bit sudden, but it also made for some great, understated comedy. I thought the introductory video, featuring Christian Slater, was hilarious (and the looks on Dwight and Michael's faces when they saw him - priceless.) I loved Andy and Erin's Sabre song (they thought the company name was pronounced "sab-reh". Meanwhile, the Jim-Pam storyline, in which they scouted a prospective preschool for their soon-to-be-born baby, was a little grating, but it's interesting how the writers seem to be conciously making the pair less likable. Oh, and I loved Michael's visit to David Wallace's house. As someone who's seen formerly high-strung execs humbled and brought back down to earth following sudden corporate changes, there was an awkward yet spot-on humor to the precedings.

My Grade: B+

- Finally, 30 ROCK has had a solid season so far, but has struggled to attain the comedic heights of its glory days circa Season 2. Still, this past week's episode was very funny, with a nice turn from Jan Hooks as Jenna's manipulative mother. I really liked Jack's Glengarry Glenn Ross-style advice for Jenna (instead of "Always Be Closing," it was "Always Speak Quieter."), and the scenes between Jack and Jenna's mom were pretty great. Still, this was yet another episode that was hampered by an overly sitcom-y Liz Lemon storyline. If I had to pinpoint one reason that 30 Rock has slipped a bit, I'd say that it's because the show has tried to make characters like Liz increasingly conventional. Instead of highlighting the random absurdity that goes on around Liz, the show has instead become more of an old-fashioned comedy that has a couple of consistently wacky side-characters (Tracy, Kenneth, etc.), but central plotlines that in and of themselves are fairly straightforward. Liz and Frank moving in together to try to live a mutually more healthy lifestyle was funny, and I loved the Paranormal Activity-esque hidden camera footage used to expose each of their bad habits. But, is this the kind of storyline I want 30 Rock to have on a regular basis? Not exactly. Still, this was a really funny ep, and as always, there were at least a couple of classic Tracy Morgan lines ("I’m not offering. I’m just taking a survey to gauge general interest!"). Overall, pretty good stuff.

My Grade: B+

- I caught the season premieres of IMPORTANT THINGS WITH DEMITRI MARTIN and THE SARAH SILVERMAN PROGRAM, and thought both were pretty funny. I think both shows are in that category where I really like the humor and sensibilities of the starring comedians, but feel like their series have been somewhat of a mixed bag thus far. That said, I thought both shows had really strong premieres. Demitri Martin had a couple of really memorable, funny sketches - "Funny Dog," the evil henchman sketch, etc. and some very funny standup segments as well. A good start for the new season, that felt top to bottom loaded with funny stuff and more consistent than earlier episodes. Meanwhile, I thought Sarah Silverman was, as usual, a little too reliant on gross-out gags to get laughs. But when the show was just being random and absurdist, I really enjoyed it. I loved the opening, for example, in which Sarah's sister sets up a ridiculously complicated series of ransom-style notes just to get Sarah to meet her for a mundane conversation. And I also liked the wacky subplot of Sarah's two geeky friends being haunted by the ghost of a guy they accidentally killed with a remote control. Still, there were those moments where I felt like the show was just trying to see how far it could push things as opposed to trying to get the most laughs out of a given scene. Good stuff though overall from both shows - I think my DVR season pass list just got a little bigger.

My Grade:

Important Things With Demitri Martin: A-
The Sarah Silverman Program: B+

- Alright, I'm out for now. Stay tuned, as always, for thoughts on 24!

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