Tuesday, March 06, 2007

State of the Television Address

Madam Speaker, Vice President Cheney, members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens: the state of our television is strong!

[Break for 90-second standing ovation]

Okay, I'm not going to keep that gimmick up for the whole post. That's just my clever way of kicking off a scattershot rundown of what's going on with TV right now -- what's working for me, what isn't, what I've dropped and what I've picked up.

We'll start with a show that's been knocking my socks off lately.

Heroes: From a wobbly pilot episode, which had me questioning the show's potential, Heroes has won me over in a big way. It's developed from a fanboy pleasure to a genuine TV powerhouse, and I swear it's getting better pretty much every single week. It's strengthened characters I initially thought to be weak, like the Petrelli brothers, and it never fails to deliver shocks, thrills, and surprises that feel like they were generated organically, rather than being contrived for Sweeps Month, or forced by actors wanting to leave the show, or pulled out of somebody's ass at the last second. (You listening, Lost?) The episode two weeks ago, the one focusing on the showdown between Horn Rimmed Glasses and his family vs. Matt Parkman and Radioactive Man, was top-notch, perhaps the best of the series so far, rich with character moments and action setpieces, while still advancing the overall plot. This may be my new favorite drama, maybe even my favorite show overall. Too bad it's taking a break until April 23!

Battlestar Galactica: This is the show being challenged by Heroes as my top drama. It's had a wobbly middle part of its third season, just as it did in its second, which gives me hope that it's gearing up to kick out the jams as it works up to the finale, just like last year. This week's episode was a real shocker, with the for-real, no cheats, no foolin' death of arguably the show's best and most popular character, Kara "Starbuck" Thrace. Now, does this mean the character is gone for good? Probably not; any fan has got to imagine that it'll be revealed, maybe sooner, maybe later, but eventually, that Starbuck was a Cylon, one of the mysterious "Final Five" models, and that she will be resurrected. I've also seen speculation strongly arguing against this, so who knows? At least it was a powerful episode, and hopefully an indication that things are now building to the season finale.

Rome: With Deadwood gone, Rome has become my favorite HBO series, and although the current second (and final) season of the series has suffered from diminishing returns, following the impossible-to-top brilliance of the first season, which was capped by the murder of Julius Caesar, this is still a great show, with wonderful acting all around, especially from Polly Walker as Atia, the best female villain on TV since... well, possibly ever. The relationship between Kevin McKidd's Vorenus and Ray Stevenson's Pullo hasn't been as fascinating as it was in the first season, and since their friendship anchors the show, the show has suffered somewhat because of it; McKidd and Stevenson seem to be treading much of the same ground as before, though they're both still unquestionably very good. And I think James Purefoy's Mark Antony worked better as sidekick to Ciarán Hinds' Julius Caesar than he does as the center-stage character he's become. But these all amount to minor quibbles over some damn fine TV.

Lost: Okay, I mentioned it above, so let's get to it. I'm still a fan, but I can't argue with the widely-held opinion that this season has been exceptionally weak. From the poorly planned schedule (six episodes in the Fall, then three months till the next episode), to the lack of any forward momentum, to the disappearance of pretty much every character except Jack, Kate, and Sawyer, to the increasingly irrelevant flashbacks, to the prominence of the Others (again, to the detriment of the majority of the cast we've known since day 1)... season three has been a fiasco. And yet I hang in there. I'm hooked in enough to need to see where the show is going in the long run. And there still are scattered gems to be found (the mind-bending episode centering on Desmond and his ability to see the future was a thrilling glimmer of what the show once was, and hopefully will once again become). I'm in till the end.

My Name Is Earl: This show has managed to stay fresh by experimenting with the formula that threatened to drive it into a rut. An episode that completely ignored Earl's list was one of the show's best ever: "Our 'Cops' Is On!", in which the gang watches an episode of Cops featuring all of the leads running afoul of the law. Other episodes have featured claymation drug trips, excursions to Latin America to rescue Catalina, and, best of all, the development of "Crab Man" Darnell into one of the best supporting characters on a sitcom, what with the Witness Protection Program, his secret intellectualism, and of course his pet turtle.

The Office: Still the best sitcom on TV, though this year it's picked up a strong rival airing an hour later on the same network. Though I wasn't wild about the resolution of last season's big kiss cliffhanger, I loved the introduction of Rashida Jones as Jim's new love interest, putting the Jim/Pam relationship on hold. Michael Scott continues developing into one of the all-time great comedy characters, mixing head-smacking ineptitude with surprising, and often touching, glimpses of depth and kindness. And, as always, Dwight rules. It seems to me, though, the uncomfortable awkwardness factor has been cranked up a notch this season, making some episodes painful to watch for squeamish little ol' me. I've never been a fan of the comedy of humiliation, which The Office seems to be relying on more and more frequently this year, rivaling the British original (which is so painful I literally cannot watch it). The episode with Phyllis' wedding, for example, featuring increasingly awful and shameful behavior from Michael, was a chore to get through. I might be alone on this, but I wish the show would back off from this a bit.

Scrubs: Apparently, we're very close to the official announcement of a seventh season of this surprisingly long-lived sitcom, which seemed in danger of being cancelled in every single one of its previous six seasons. And Zach Braff is set to make crazy money; if the deal goes through, he'll be making $350,000 per episode. Nice work if you can get it. Good thing I still love this show, 'cause that's the kind of news that could sour a guy. $350,000! Criminy. I think the Turk-and-Carla-have-a-baby story has mostly been weak, but there's still plenty of silly and inventive hilarity to be had here.

30 Rock: This is the sitcom that threatens to knock The Office from its throne. Like Heroes, 30 Rock has grown from an uneven start to get better practically every week. The cast is wonderful: Tracy Morgan, whom I've never been a fan of, has grown on me ever since his Conan O'Brien/"Dr. Spaceman!" meltdown, and even Jane Krakowski, the last-minute replacement for Rachel Dratch (who still shows up as various characters in almost every episode) has won me over, perhaps beginning with her "Rural Juror" storyline. ("Rurr Jurr??") And I adore Tina Fey. I think she's lovely, and I think she's hilarious. But Alec Baldwin -- oh, come on. That guy is frickin' fantastic. I challenge you to think of a sentence he couldn't make funny. Seriously, just try. "President Kennedy has been shot by a would-be assassin in Dallas, Texas." He could make that funny! I pray, I tell you, this atheist prays that someday 30 Rock gets another of SNL's best and most frequent hosts to guest star on the show -- imagine it: Alec Baldwin... and Christopher Walken. Your TV set would explode, shortly followed by your head.

How I Met Your Mother: My favorite sitcom not on NBC Thursdays. (Actually, probably my third favorite sitcom overall, NBC Thursdays or not.) The characters keep getting funnier, and the stories keep getting more hysterical. The "Slap Bet" episode is one of the funniest things ever, combining both Robin's former life as a Canadian teen pop idol as well as, yes, the slap bet itself, which has already been revisited to side-splitting effect -- and Marshall's still got three slaps to dole out to Barney! As for Barney, he's still one of my favorite characters on TV, though he's perhaps been less quoteworthy this season than he was in the first.

The Class: As long as we're talking about sitcoms, I may as well confess my secret shame: I've been watching The Class. I know! I'm awful! But it is on right after How I Met Your Mother, and out of boredom I watched it one night -- and I discovered I kind of liked it. A whole hell of a lot more than I did when I watched the pilot, which sucked ass. The show seems to have found its stride, and has turned into a low-grade, embarrassing-to-admit, guilty pleasure. But a pleasure nonetheless. Hey, it's replaced my former secret shame, Two and a Half Men, which I finally gave up on a couple months ago, so at least I'm still only enjoying one bad sitcom! Interesting to note: this week's episode was the season finale. Two months before May sweeps. Doesn't speak very well to its chances at a second season. Also, I find it hilarious that one of the original main characters, Holly Ellenbogen (played by Lucy Punch), has been summarily written out of the show -- but that character's husband, Perry (played by Sam Harris, the first ever grand prize winner on Star Search), who wasn't even part of the titular class, nor a member of the main cast, keeps showing up, sans wife. Talk about insult to injury!

This post is getting out of hand. Let's take a break, and meet back here tomorrow for part two. Deal?

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