Monday, April 12, 2010

Conan Conquers Cable! The Simpsons! Smallville! And a DATE NIGHT Review!

So Conan has signed with TBS, and a new chapter in the Late Night Wars is set to begin. This is an unexpected move, but it's also a really interesting one. I think a lot of people expected something to happen with FOX (myself included), but it sounds like there was still a lot of reluctance on FOX's end to mess with its popular syndicated programming ... and the last thing Conan wants is another battle with local affiliates after what happened at NBC (okay, so it was really Leno's fight with the affiliates, but Conan has seen how ugly that can get). Still, even in the cable world, most people thought the likeliest option would be Comedy Central. Conan seems a perfect match for their brand, and even if he'd have to battle for time-slot space with Stewart and Colbert, some sort of pairing of those three would be a dream lineup for any network. Conan just seemed like a natural fit for a network that airs edgy, young-skewing, comedy-nerd-friendly shows like The Sarah Silverman Program and Important Things With Demitri Martin. TBS, on the other hand, has rebranded itself in the last few years as almost a throwback comedy network, built around old reruns of Seinfeld and Family Guy, along with original shows that might have felt at home on TGIF in the early 90's (Bill Engvall? Tyler Perry? My Boys?). Personally, I haven't watched much TBS since they stopped being a "Superstation" that acted as a sister network to TNT, and therefore aired basketball, wrestling, and endless "movies for guys who like movies." (sigh ... I used to watch endless hours of movies like Conan The Barbarian, Beastmaster, Robocop, and Escape from NY on TNT and TBS back in the day). Sure, I still watch the occasional Seinfeld rerun on the network, but whereas TNT has built itself up as a legit network for drama (and sports), I don't know if TBS has done the same for comedy.

To that end, TBS needs to rebuild, and quickly. Having Office and Family Guy reruns is a good start to build up solid programming blocks around Conan, but the original programming needs to get a complete overhaul, asap. TBS needs original animated shows, edgier comedies, etc. The good news is that there's always been great cross-promotion between the Turner networks. I watch a ton of the NBA on TNT, and I'm always bombarded with promos for Bill Engvall and Frank Caliendo, that I basically tune out as I have zero interest in those shows. But, imagine watching the NBA Playoffs and getting hit with all sorts of hilarious Conan promos. Imagine watching Adult Swim and constantly getting reminded about the new Conan talk show. Turner has some great places to promote a new show, and they will surely promote Conan early and often across their various brands. I could even see the show being rerun on Adult Swim late at night, for example.

But, it's going to be an uphill battle for a while. TBS is going to have to really rebrand itself and get some better programming to support Conan. Conan is someone they can build around though - he's his own unique brand of comedy, and he has his own production co that will surely be in talks with Turner about developing additional series for their networks. Creatively, we can only hope that Conan is given free reign to go nuts. Who knows which if any of his old characters or sketches he'll be able to use, but hopefully this is a chance for Conan to try some new things and not stick to the same old talk show formula.

The best-case scenario here for Conan and Conan fans is if Conan comes back with a great new show that gets great viewership and in the process helps to reinvigorate TBS. There have been numerous examples of cable nets turning their popularity around on the backs of just one or two key shows - look at AMC with Mad Men for example - and Conan could be the impetus for TBS to really up their game. I'm not quite sure how George Lopez fits into this, but I think he can coexist with Conan. At the same time, TBS needs to build around Conan, not Lopez or Tyler Perry or whoever else. Plus, this is the age of on-screen programming guides, DVR, and Hulu. Viewers, especially younger ones, will proactively find the shows they want to watch. And TBS has as much reach as any other cable net, so distribution won't be a problem.

In a way, I think us Conan fans wanted to see Conan back on a big network going head to head with Leno and Letterman. With all of the hype that came from his battle with Leno, it would have been fun to see him re-enter the arena on the biggest possible stage. And let's face it, with all the bad blood that resulted from the clash of the late-night titans, there was definitely that desire to see Conan return to go head to head with Jay. That said, for years now there's been press about how Adult Swim's reruns of Family Guy routinely beat all network late-night shows in the younger demos. So there is a real opportunity here. TBS just has to step up to the plate a bit and get Conan fans excited not just about the new talk show, but about the network as a whole.

One thing's for sure though ... the late-night TV landscape just got very, very interesting.

- Okay, so ... what was I going to talk about again before all of this Conan news came up? Oh yeah, my usual Monday rigamaroll (great word). This weekend, I was still dealing with some car stuff and such, but, I also managed to see not one but two movies, which I will now dutifully report back to you on (well, I'll talk about one for now, stay tuned in the next day or two for the review of the second!). But first ... some TV Thoughts:


- After several weeks of anticipation, SMALLVILLE finally returned to some of the big plot threads first revealed back in the stellar, Geoff Johns-penned "Absolute Justice" episode - the JSA, Checkmate, Tess Mercer's status as an undercover agent, Amanda Waller, etc. I was excited to see so many of these intriguing concepts revisited, but I was also slightly weary of the regular Smallville scribes handling the threads that Johns so skillfully introduced. And what we got was, predictably, a mix of the good and the bad. The good was that the presence of Waller and Checkmate raised the stakes for Clark and co. Instead of the usual shaky romances or personality-swap storylines that Smallville is famous for, we got some legit, superheroic drama filled with intrigue and danger. That alone is worth praising on a show that rarely takes a break from its cheesy formula anymore to focus on great drama. Plus, Pam Grier is great as "The Wall," Amanda Waller. It's funny that they are apparently recasting this role for the upcoming Green Lantern movie, with Angela Bassett playing the comic book staple. Personally, Pam Grier looks and feels right for the part much more than Bassett, so kudos to Smallville for that inspired bit of casting. I also liked that this episode finally gave J'onn J'onzz a chance to shine, using his various powers and abilities, and exposing his weakness to fire. The character has mostly been wasted thus far, ever since he was introduced a few years back, so it's nice to see one of DC Comics' most iconic characters finally getting his due. One other cool thing about this ep - some experimental directorial choices that were a nice break from the norm, including a sleek action scene that showed Clark in comic book panel-esque freeze frames. Pretty cool, and something I wouldn't mind seeing every so often.

So why wasn't this another great episode in the vein of "Absolute Justice?" Well, despite everything that this one had going for it, it just didn't have the sharpness of Johns' episode. The interactions between Clark and Waller felt heavyhanded and lacked the intensity they should have had. It's funny, because just this week I read the latest issue of Superman: Secret Origins by Johns, and there was a similar scene in it, in which Supes is confronted by the US Military, that was infinitely more dramatic and memorable than anything from this week's Smallville. Meanwhile, Tess Mercer's character still feels broken. It came off as though her role as a Checkmate agent was some random gig she had on the side, as opposed to a secret identity she had had to live with for years. And we still don't have a clear read on her character or her motivations. Was all the stuff with Zod last week for real, or was it part of her cover? The show made no effort to hint one way or the other. Finally, Checkmate should be an imposing, cool, highly advanced government operation. I don't see them as a group that leaves chess-piece calling cards or anything like that. Checkmate still felt sort of small-time here. I think what makes them so cool in the comics is the genre-bending mix of a counter-terrorist / espionage unit existing in a world full of superheroes and villains. That cool-factor was cheesed-up to the point where it wasn't quite as cool in the Smallville-verse. Finally, it pained me that rather than focusing on the story at hand, we had to put up with all sorts of soap-operatic stuff between Clark and Chloe. I'm not saying there shouldn't be soap opera on a show like this, but we've been down this road too many times to count on Smallville. The real story of this episode is Clark being on the radar of the US government, and the reprecussions that has. Instead, the focus was put on Clark and Chloe's ongoing trust issues, which are tired and played out at this point. It just feels like Smallville has no idea how to shift gears and do epic drama when the story calls for it. I wanted this episode to feel "big," like "Justice" did, but it didn't really come close to matching the bar set by that one. Still, I'll take this over another mind-swapping episode any day of the week.

My Grade: B


- I wanted to like last night's episode of THE SIMPSONS - after all, it's been a while since we've had a Mr. Burns episode, and some of the all-time classic episodes of the show are Mr. Burns-centric. Not only that, but in recent years, Burns eps have become something of a rarity, and when they do crop up, they tend to be stand-outs. Take "The Burns and the Bees" - one of my top 10 episodes from the last several years, for example. Last night's ep, though, just felt tired despite aiming for something different. The premise had potential - Mr. Burns goes to jail for art theft - but the episode couldn't seem to focus on this concept in any meaningful way. Burns in jail alone could have made for a good episode, and there were some great gags when he was first incarcerated. But soon enough, the show branched out in way too many directions. Smithers assumed control of the Power Plant, became popular for being nicer than Burns, but then gets taken advantage of by Homer and his pals. Meanwhile, Burns meets a born-again convict and he himself becomes newly religious. Plus, there was a useless Bart and Lisa subplot involving an antfarm. The less said about that, the better. But really, this was just emblamatic of how ADD The Simpsons is these days. Burns in jail is a funny idea - why not run with it? Instead, we just got carted from one storyline to another. Some funny jokes and great one-liners managed to slip through the cracks (I liked Milhouse convincing his dad to buy him a rotten tomato to throw at Burns), but at the end of the day, there wasn't much that was memorable about this ep.

My Grade: B-

- THE CLEVELAND SHOW likewise had some funny gags, but felt very Family Guy-ish in terms of how generally crass and random it was. What I've liked about the show is how it combines the absurdity of FG with a more traditional sitcom pace. But this ep, in which Cleveland's ex-wife Loretta abruptly and randomly dies, just felt like it was trying too hard to be out-there. And the fact that that death storyline shared equal time with a story about Cleveland's uncontrollable gas problems ... well, it was at times funny, at times just sort of sad. I still really like some of the characters on the show (Cleveland Jr. is always great, and had some of last night's best lines), but I don't know ... when the biggest laughs now come from Cleveland's oddball mispronunciations of things, I'm not sure what that says about the show as a whole.

My Grade: C+

- Meanwhile, FAMILY GUY is just a mess right now. Last night's episode was just hard to watch at times. A couple of funny gags (Peter on a lion, a well-timed call-back to the "Surfin' Bird" song) saved the ep from completely sucking, but overall, this was one of the worst FG eps in a while. Family Guy used to impress me with how clever it was with its random references and knack for awesome comic timing. Now, everything just feels lazy. Look at last night - this episode's idea of a brilliant gag was to have Brian turn into Muttley from Wacky Races all of a sudden, for no good reason. Yeah ... awesome. Meanwhile, the show's characters just become more crass and heartless every week. The big revelation this week was that Peter hates his kids. Again, I feel like it's another example of FG just doing jokes and storylines that dare us to be offended, instead of doing things that are smart or funny. I was ready to like the world-ending storyline, but the fact that it turned out to be an elaborate April Fool's joke just seemed like one more instance of the writers substituting shock value for actual follow-through on a given storyline. There's still an unpredictability to FG that I admire, that keeps me coming back, but more often than not lately, the result is just a lot of shock tactics as opposed to actual, inspired comedy.

My Grade: C-

- Alright, time for some movie reviewin' ...


- Steve Carell and Tina Fey are each known for their edgy, absurdist, intelligent, and finely-honed humor. Each week on The Office and 30 Rock, the two Second City-trained actors bring two of TV's most entertaining characters to life - Michael Scott and Liz Lemon. And as the stars of those shows, two of the best TV comedies of the last decade, pairing them in a big comedy movie should have been a match made in heaven. And yet, Date Night, from Night at the Museum helmer Shaun Levy, drowns out its moments of hilarious comedic inspiration with many more moments of generic Hollywood lameness. Carell and Fey try their best to rise above the material, and when they and their talented co-stars let loose and have fun, they succeed. But too often, the movie feels like low-grade, warmed-over rom-com fluff. With the talent involved, you can't help but expect better.

Date Night follows a pretty simple and formulaic plot - Phil and Claire Foster are a married couple whose relationship has hit something of a lull. Between work and the kids, the Fosters are always tired, cranky, and have lost most of the spark in their love life. Basically, they are a walking cliche of a married couple. Naturally, the thing for them to do to get their marriage back on track is to have a wacky adventure together, and so they do. When the two go on a date night to a fancy New York City restaurant (they live in boring old New Jersey), they (gasp!) steal someone else's reservation in order to get a table. Of course, they steal the reservation of two low-level thugs who are wanted by the mob, by a couple of crooked cops, etc. So, the whitebread suburban Fosters are confused with the criminal Triplehorns, and hilarity ensues.

Right from the get-go, you have to wonder about Steve Carell and Tina Fey as two Joe Average suburbanites. Tina Fey's whole persona is built on being urbane and sophisticated and cutting edge. Even though she's the voice of sanity on the crazy world of 30 Rock, she's still a far cry from boring soccer mom. And Steve Carell, well, he's built a career on playing eccentrics. Both he and Fey give it the old college try, but you just don't quite buy it. What's worse is that their personalities in the film seem crafted by Hollywood screenwriter types who have no idea what a normal married couple is actually like. Everything just feels forced and fake-ish, from the pretentious book club that the two participate in to the whole notion that they'd even want to go out of their way to dine at an exclusive NYC hot-spot called "Claw." Remember when Chevy Chase just wanted to take his family to Wally World? That middle-class American vibe seems lost on the creators of Date Night. The characters are supposed to be relatable and average and boring, but they feel like the LA version, not the real version of what people are actually like. So right from the get-go, I think there's an inherent feeling of unlikability with this movie - the characters feel way too yuppie-ish, a far cry from the good ol' Griswolds and their beat-up station wagon.

At the same time, the plot of the movie is pretty thin. Like Dumb & Dumber and countless other movies, the actual plot surrounding the criminals and the caper is kept intentionally vague and muddied-up. And yet, Date Night's plot is so eh-whatever that the movie grinds to a halt when it focuses on supporting characters, like the two on-the-take cops or the "good" cops on their tail. There are some inspired bits from Mark Wahlberg as a buffed-up intelligence guru, Ray Liotta as a mobster, and the always-great William Fichtner as a corrupt politician. But the movie is way too in love with its recurring jokes. Running gags, like Wahlberg's disdain for shirts, get run into the ground over the course of the movie. The overly schtick-y stuff really drags, but the movie shines when it gets loose and has fun. A scene in which James Franco and Mila Kunis cameo, as the real Triplehorns, is probably the highlight of the movie, and that's partly because it feels like Franco, Kunis, Carell, and Fey are really riffing and going nuts. This scene and a couple others have the edgy, improvised feel of a great Judd Apatow movie. So it's a shame that others feel more like bad 80's "mistaken identity" movies. That said, if only Date Night had half the cheesy charm of, say, Adventures in Babysitting.

There's also a really shoddy quality to some of the editing and directing. Action scenes feel rushed and slapped-together, and some of the edits are noticeably abrupt. The movie just doesn't have a lot of steam to its narrative - it over-relies on Steve Carell and Tina Fey to carry the film, and even with a relatively short running time, it feels stretched out.

Still, some scenes do have genuine laughs, and there is a really sharp comedic chemistry between the two leads. Not necessarilly as a likable married couple - more like two great comedians trapped in a subpar movie, challenged with making it funnier and more entertaining than it would have been without them. They're like two great improv players stuck with a pretty bad premise for a scene, and it's sometimes fun just to see them find the funny whenever possible. Other talented actors like Mark Wahlberg, Kristin Wiig, William Fichter, Ray Liotta, Mark Ruffalo, JB Smoove, James Franco, and Mila Kunis do the same. But even they can only do so much to make a so-so movie with a by-the-numbers script funny. As it stands, Date Night is an okay comedy with some decent laughs, but it's also, to me, a huge missed opportunity for something special.

My Grade: B-

Okay, that's it for now. All I know is, 24 tonight had better rock.

1 comment:

  1. Great Review, Danny.

    But I have to disagree with your review of Date Night a little. I took 3 yuppie-ish friends to see the flick, all with a wide variety of likes and dislikes- and all 3 were laughing their butts off. A feat that has not been attained in many years.

    I thought it was really funny and enjoyed seeing Marky Mark without his shirt on. A- in my book. Keep writing!