Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Jack Bauer Shoots First! 24 Thoughts! Plus: Family Guy, Chuck, and MORE!

Man, growing up sucks. As a kid, it'd be just about that time where I'd be daydreaming of long, carefree summer days with no school and no responsibility. Still, as we get into May, the spirit of summertime is still there in the air, even here in perpetually warm LA. In the world of pop-culture, at least, there's the start of summer movie season and with it that feeling of bigtime blockbuster excitement. Okay, so maybe the coming summer movie slate isn't exactly drool-worthy, at least not as of yet, but hey, with Iron Man 2 set to drop this weekend, we are, at the least, kicking things off with a bang.

I have to say, the Iron Man team knows how to make their movie into more thank just another popcorn flick, but into a true event. Other movies are going to crash and burn at the box office this summer, and people are going to wonder why. At least part of the reason is that Jon Favreau, Kevin Feige, etc., go the extra mile to make their big films into something special. They add the little touches that get the fanboys excited, and by extension everyone else. People are already wildly speculating as to the contents of the post-credits bonus scene in the film. People are wondering about the top-secret JJ Abrams trailer supposedly attached to the theatrical release. I love that - it's the little things like that that put a movie over the top in today's evolving marketplace. It means you have to be there, in the theater, opening weekend, in order to get the full experience and to be in the loop. So yeah, even though there aren't exactly an overabundance of giant megaton uber-blockbusters this summer, Iron Man 2, poised to be a heavy metal megalith in its own right, may be enough.

Okay, some TV Stuff:

TWENTY "Nothing. Nothing!" FOUR:

SPOILERS Ahead ...

- 24 last night was another mixed bag, but I at least give the show credit for ramping up the intensity, and for ending on one hell of a "holy $#*%!" moment. Jack's brutal, point-blank killing of Dana Walsh was intense and memorable, if not completely unexpected. At the least, it was a final, clear-cut message that this is a Jack who has gone off the rails, who kills not because he has to, but because he has appointed himself judge, jury, and executioner.

And that's part of what made this episode hard to really get behind, despite some really heated scenes. It's just hard to root for Jack now. In fact, it's hard to get behind any single character on this show. A lot of that is context. Up to now, Jack's brutality has always felt justified within the over-the-top world of 24. Jack was trying to save innocent lives, trying to save the world, and he was the only one with the balls to do what had to be done, in the moment, to get the job done. Jack was a walking red tape-cutter, and we applauded him for it. In real life, things are much more complicated. But in the world of 24, we could count on Jack to have our backs and save the day. Now, not so much. Jack, who's always been selfless, is now selfish. He's on a personal mission of vengeance that could very well contradict the greater good. Not to mention that he's gunning down innocent cops and other civilians left and right to accomplish his goals. In some sense, he's the same Jack. But we haven't been convinced that there's any real reason for what he's doing. Jack is trying to expose the Russians who tried to blow up NYC, but without any real thought put into the hows or whys. 24 has always worked in a world of moral clarity - you do what you have to to save the most innocent lives. Now, everyone and everything on 24 is very much colored in shades of grey. And that could be interesting if done with extreme care and subtlety, but that's not really what 24 is about. It's about rushing towards an urgent goal. The result is scene after scene that comes off as forced and heavy-handed. The motivations of Jack, President Taylor, Chloe, etc. are all so muddled now that it's hard to get inside any of their heads. And with Jack, we're being made to almost root against him, and yet there's not counter-force to root for in his place. Cole got pwned by Jack in this ep - it'd be one thing if it was Tony or someone suitably badass in the role, but come on, we never thought Freddie Prinze Jr. had a chance of standing up to Bully Jack.

Gregory Itzin continues to be a scene stealer as Logan. His mischievous smirks and windbag exchanges with Taylor were very entertaining, even if the logic behind them was once again pretty lacking. I mean, Taylor may as well just hand the Presidency over to Logan for all she is letting him do. Remember, this is a man who orchestrated the ASSASSINATION OF A SITTING PRESIDENT. It's barely believable that Taylor would even be talking to him, let alone letting him insert his man in CTU. I mean, how stupid is she? Back to Logan for a second though - how great was it when Taylor hung up on him, but he kept talking into the phone so that he could save face in front of his aid?

I will also say that the overall staging and choreography of the action in this ep was top-notch. One thing about 24 - it's always been the absolute best show on TV when it comes to delivering awesome action scenes. From the locations to the stunt work to the intensity to the pulse-pounding music, there were a lot of times during this ep where it was easy to just sit back and get caught up in the rhythms of some kickass action scenes.

Now, let me talk a little more about Dana Walsh. As memorable a moment as her death was, it was also one of thosem oments that made you step back and look at what it meant in the context of this season of 24 as a whole. The fact is, for the majority of her run on 24, Dana was an incredibly weak, annoying character. She never felt like a great villain once she was exposed as a mole, just a pesky nuisance that you wanted to go away. I blame this on shoddy writing, mostly, but the fact is, the big confrontation between Jack and Dana didn't feel earned, at all. This wasn't like Jack finally going head to head with Peter Weller or Nina Myers. This was Jack squaring off with some misguided stooge - a victim of bad writing - who ultimately seemed more pathetic than dangerous or truly hateable in the way that great villains are. At this point, it's hard to say what the producers were going for. Were we supposed to have bought Dana as this devious villain who had those killshots coming? Or were we supposed to feel bad for her and angry with Jack for crossing a line? The fact that most probably didn't feel strongly one way or another is a sad comment on the character and on the plot porgression of this season. That would have been a catharctic confrontation of it was a truly vile villain. But mostly, this just felt like Jack putting a wasted character out of her misery. It was like Dana was saying "Guys! What can I do to make it so my character doesn't completely suck? Something? Anything?!" And Jack just echoed our thoughts as an audience and said: "Nope. Nothing. Sayonara and good riddance."

Again, 24 has always been a show that was so fun because it had some of the best and most badass heroes on TV. 24 right now is a show with no heroes, no one to root for. And I'm not sure how that is going to be addressed in the final weeks. Aaron Pierce, we need you man!

My Grade: B

- CHUCK, meanwhile, had an only-okay episode that had some fun moments, but that disappointed in a couple of key ways. It was really cool to see Fred Willard (he's everywhere!) and Swoosie Kurtz guest star as an aging spy couple, but the circumstances around their storyline were pretty blah. I am willing to accept a certain level of heavy-handed cheesiness on Chuck, but this wasa bit much. I mean, come on, the General is going to assign Chuck and Sarah, who have officially been dating for like a month (and are already moving in together!), to follow another CIA spy team to watch and learn how couples work in the field? Maybe if this had been done in a totally over-the-top, self-aware style, I'd buy it, but when Chuck does a ridiculous storyline like this with a semi-straight face, it can be a bit painful. Suffice it to say, by the end of the episode, I was barely aware of what was actually going on with the CIA's veteran couple, The Turners. At some point, they turned on Chuck and Sarah, but then it was a triple-cross, but then they retired from the spy game for good ... or something. My point is, the story was both uninteresting and convoluted enough that I stopped caring by episode's end. So, kudos to the show for awesome guest casting, but, I wish Willard and Kurtz had had the opportunity to make more of a splash. As Fred Willard once said: "wha' happen' ?!"

My other beef is with the Ellie and Awesome storyline. I've been predicting for months now that their journey to Africa, to participate in Doctors Without Borders, would end in some sort of kidnapping or abduction. I think a lot of us saw it coming. And that's okay ... but, I was hoping for a scenario to play out that at least had some additional twist or hook, or that was carried out in an exciting and jaw-dropping manner. Not so much here. Everything was very by-the-numbers, and the fact that the show did take time to establish a sort of status quo in Africa, only to end on the predictable kidnapping note, was also sort of frustrating, as it made all those scenes in Africa feel a little wasted.

Still, this episode was not without its charms. Everything with Morgan and Casey was pretty hilarious, and seeing Casey put Morgan through spy training within the confines of the Buy More made for some really entertaining scenes. The moment where Morgan played the role of hero and lured a deadly Bengal Tiger away from he and Casey was also really fun. I think the show gets a lot of its heart from Morgan, and it was cool to see him prove himself, even if it was in the most roundabout way possible.

Ultimately though, this episode of Chuck was pretty clunky in how it handled Chuck and Sarah's relationship. This is one aspect of the show where I'd like to see them use a little bit of subtlety, and not hammer us over the head. I thought it was out of character for the General, for example, to center a whole mission around Chuck and Sarah's personal lives. What Chuck needs to remember is that you earn your big character moments after a slow burn. When every week is some emo melodrama, it's harder and harder to get to those big moments. Tone it down a notch with Chuck and Sarah, and it will be a lot easier to get behind them as a couple.

My Grade: B-


- THE SIMPSONS had a really solid episode on Sunday, definitely one of the best of the season so far, and an episode that legitimately felt old-school in terms of strength of plot and jokes. The premise - having to do with Springfield becoming an ultra-secure town after a terrorist threat, complete with an elaborate network of surveillance cameras - was timely and rife with comedic potential, and there were some really good jokes that came out of it. Most importantly, the episode took its time with the story. It was quick to establish the premise, and followed it through to the end of the episode. Even better, it was one of those episodes where it felt like a ton of characters got off a great joke or two, from Ralph Wiggum ("I'm a furniture!") to Comic Book Guy. Less impressive was the Lisa-is-a-blonde subplot. So wait, all the Simpsons characters who have hair the same color as their skin are blonde? I don't know why, but that just seems super-weird. Anyways, the Lisa plotline, in which she dyes her hair in order to be taken more seriously, never quite took it off like it should have despite leading to a couple of good jokes. Still, this was, overall, a pretty damn good Simpsons episode. Not an all-time classic, but definitely a keeper.

My Grade: B+

- The general rule for THE CLEVELAND SHOW seems to be that the more an episode centers around Cleveland Jr., the funnier it is. Therefore, the fact that this ep was all about Jr.'s quest to date a high school hottie, even as Rollo attempts to sabotage the whole thing, practically guaranteed entertainment value. I loved Jr.'s rapoff with Kenny West, the show's Kanye stand-in. Hilarious stuff. Meanwhile, Cleveland's foray into pimping was pretty funny as well. Overall, one of the better episodes of this series to date.

My Grade: A-

- Okay, let's talk about FAMILY GUY. First off, as much as I may hate on Family Guy lately, I give it kudos for making it to 150 episodes. The fact is, even when I don't love what I'm seeing from the show, I still appreciate just how crazy and random it's willing to be in the name of comedy. It is crazy though - when FG first premiered, I remember being utterly blown away by just how funny it was. After only a few episodes, it rocketed to the top of my list of favorite shows, and I dutifully watched every new episode as it aired. Of course, the show fell victim to FOX's typically poor marketing and scheduling practices from that era, and the show was eventually cancelled, right at the height of its creative powers. Amazingly, the series became the posterchild for a new generation of TV shows that found a new audience on DVD. The show was an early example of a "viral" hit, so to speak, and suddenly, FG was the biggest thing in comedy, despite the fact that it was long since cancelled. So FOX made an unprecedented decision to bring the show back. And ever since that time, FG has been a juggernaut for the network, spawning spin-offs and making Seth McFarlane into a very, very wealthy man. But the fact is, FG has been on a long and steady decline since it returned from the abyss several years back. There have been highlights and high points since the return, and the show has managed to churn out some classics during its second run. At the same time, FG has degenerated into something that's a far cry from the inspired absurdity of the original run. The show has become mean. It's become repetitive. It's become lazy. And the latest disturbing development? The characters have somehow evolved into sounding boards for its creators rather than the lovable and funny personalities they once were. Case in point: this past Sunday's 150th episode.

I know, I know, there are those who will argue that this ep should be commended for trying something different, for attempting to mix the usual FG humor with the more serious psychological trappings of a one-act play. In this episode though, in which Brian and Stewie were locked in a vault together, and forced to exchange a Long Day's Journey Into Night-style series of boozy confessionals, I saw an episode that represented a lot of what's gone wrong with Family Guy over the last several years. Was it something different? Yes. Did it function in any way shape or form as a good episode of Family Guy? I would argue that no, it didn't.

For one thing, this episode was short on any genuine laughs, instead relying on gross-out gags and shock value to hold our attention. Ugh. Family Guy at its best may have had the occasional gross out moment, but the hilarity was ultimately because of smart and sharp writing and impeccable comic timing. In this one, we watched Brian literally eat Stewie's crap. Yeah, seriously. It wasn't funny, just gross.

Meanwhile, all of the psycho-babble coming out of Brian and Stewie's mouths had nothing to do with them as characters. In fact, Family Guy at this point has such weak characters that no story has any real weight to it at all. At this point, Peter could murder someone, Lois could become a prostitute, Stewie could become a male pornstar, and Brian could become a cat. That's why, to me, comparisons to The Simpsons don't hold water anymore. The Simpsons has been able to add well-earned emotional heft to their episodes over the years because we cared so much about these characters - because even though they were two-dimensional drawings, they oftentimes felt as real or moreso than real live people. But Family Guy has moved so far past that style of storytelling that there is absolutely zero ability to try to pull off an episode like they did this past Sunday.

I mean, think about Brian and Stewie. Stewie became popular because he was a megalomaniacal baby. He was hilarious. Brian was a liberal intellectual dog. He too was really funny. Now, both are written like weirdo twenty-something d-bags. Stewie is sort-of gay, into weird sexual mindgames, and yes, is still a baby. Brian is depressed, suicidal, and yes, still a dog. Somehow, somebody thought it would be a good idea to have Brian and Stewie, a baby and a dog, two characters in a wacky cartoon show, have a half-hour conversation like two drunk college roommates might have - a conversation that involves suicide confessions, weird sexual tension, drunken ear-piercing, eating $#^%, etc. Somebody thought that that was a good idea for a Family Guy episode.


How about making an episode that is funny and clever and imaginative? How about getting back to the sharp humor and originality of the older seasons? No, let's just transcribe some godawful emo banter that two depressed Hollywood writers are having while high on coke or something and have Brian and Stewie act it out.

WTF. This was an absolutely abysmal episode of Family Guy, and offensive on multiple counts. I'll tolerate just about anything in the name of a great joke, but this wasn't in the name of anything. This was an embarassment of an episode, and just possibly the final nail in the coffin for Family Guy, at least creatively. Some people think that just because comedy has "balls" means it's worth praising. Well, maybe this episode had balls, insomuch as it was out of the box in terms of defining what an FG episode could be. But that doesn't mean there was anything about it worth praising. Because there wasn't.

This episode was a pretentious, self-absorbed waste of time.

My Grade: F

- Okay, I'm off for now. Stay tuned for LOST thoughts, plus, a review of British revenge thriller HARRY BROWN!

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