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Monthly archives: October 2006


Untimely Passings
2006-10-31 14:40
by Mark T.R. Donohue

While a diligent enough websurfer could uncover plenty of evidence still to the contrary, the tone and substance of recent "Studio 60" cancellation stories has me convinced. Well, the real giveaway is that NBC preempted last night's episode of the show to try and give "Friday Night Lights" a boost. I was sorely disappointed to flip on my TiVo this morning and find no new "Studio 60" episode but I'm sure that not many others had the same reaction. "Heroes" is an OK consolation prize, and I'm glad the show has emerged as NBC's breakout hit of the season, but it doesn't take a ratings genius to know that the pairing of "Heroes" and "Studio 60" isn't a natural combination. They ought to move "Studio 60" before they cancel it.

If the rumors are true, it's a shame. "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" was just rounding into form. The last episode aired, "The Wrap Party," was easily the series' best since its premiere and the first to give an inkling of how the show might work as a full-blown ensemble drama rather than the two-man showcase for Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford the pilot implied. Two of the subplots, one concerning Simon and Matt's discovery of a new writer at a local comedy club and the other involving Timothy Busfield's character Cal and a blacklisted former comedy writer, were so well-handled that I immediately had to watch those scenes again. I was very much looking forward to future episodes of equal quality. Aaron Sorkin found a way in the parallels between Hollywood in the blacklisted guy's day and Matt and Danny's current network battles to make subtle political points without resorting to tedious, didactic speechifying. Not everything about the episode worked. The thread with Tom's outrageously ignorant hick parents was neither credible nor original, and Steven Weber's character continues to be obnoxious beyond rational limits. However, "Studio 60" seemed from this viewer's perspective to be an ambitious show headed in the right direction. It's rare for a series with so many ideas to fire on all cylinders from the first hour. (One of the many reasons my heart still hurts for "Freaks and Geeks.")

In the grand scheme of things, it hurts more to lose a show in its prime than one still feeling its way around in the way "Studio 60" is or was. As big a Joss Whedon fan as I am, I'm mystified by the obsessiveness of "Firefly" fans. There are a couple of great episodes among the handful that aired, but there's so little really there on which to latch. I would almost feel worse for "Star Trek: Enterprise" fans, although that rather optimistically assumes that there were any. A better example perhaps is "Angel," which got the axe after its two best creative years and only a season after the addition of James Marsters completely electrified the cast dynamic. What's even more tragic about "Angel" ending before its time is the show got cancelled even after the creative team made enormous structural changes to meet network demands. The writers somehow overhauled the whole pace, setting, and storytelling pattern of the series between the fourth and fifth seasons without losing a beat in quality. In fact, they gave the show a new life which should have lasted it for two or three more years. Instead it was cancelled, forcing an abrupt and arbitrary ending to the story...and possibly driving Whedon out of TV for good.

It's always a bummer when a show with a major ongoing arc style to it bites the dust prematurely. Or is it? In a weird way, I kind of don't mind that "Carnivàle" never made it past a second season. The cast really seemed to lose steam before the story did, and the example of "Twin Peaks" has me almost convinced that my imagination is home to many better endings than whatever may actually have ended up on screen in due time. The's show's almost willful opaqueness benefits from the lack of any concrete conclusion. Once you kind of let go of the belief that any of your questions are ever going to be answered, the show's first season has a real elegant dreamlike ambiguity to it. I'm sort of watching "Lost" in the same expectation-free way these days. It hardly has hurt the sterling reputation of "The Prisoner" that that short series' finale raises more questions than it answers.

It's far more common that we see hit shows last a little longer than they should. (Or in the case of "The X-Files," way, way, way longer.) The last season of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is an almost nonstop parade of formless, joyless placeholder episodes that give way to a finale that just isn't climactic enough after all the blah. "The Next Generation" and "Deep Space Nine" both clearly suffered from weary writers in their seventh and final seasons. "Gilmore Girls" isn't officially dead yet but you can see the writing on the wall from the way its signature dialogue has completely lost its wit and pep. "Stargate SG-1" was never a particularly ambitious show to begin with, but the way its last few years have devolved into stale fantasy blandness makes you wonder why Kevin Sorbo never joined the cast. Don't even get my research department started on the topic of the long and precipitous decline of "The Simpsons." At least the recent episodes of that Fox show are still watchable. Once one of the funniest traditional sitcoms on TV, the last couple seasons of "That 70's Show" were complete unredeemable garbage.

The moral is be careful for what you wish. If the show lasted long enough to pile up more DVDs than you can reasonably watch in a weekend, be happy. As much as I might sometimes wish for just one more season of "Arrested Development" or "Home Movies" or "The Adventures of Pete & Pete," given the state of the vast majority of modern TV, it's a small marvel that any of these shows existed for as long as they did.

On a completely unrelated note, this piece passed on by my father regarding legal precedents for apostrophe placement deeply touched my writerly soul.

What I Did for My Rain Delay
2006-10-25 18:59
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Man, I don't know if I am going to be able to stay awake for baseball tonight. At least I've had a chance to zoom through some things on the TiVo. I have been saving the last episodes of "Deadwood" from this summer's run to digest slowly and with proper concentration. Well, that's only part of it. The other part is the crushing disappointment I am sure I am going to feel when I reach the end of the season. I have no idea how HBO and David Milch managed to completely ruin the future of a show that most smart actors would trample their families to get a guest spot on, but Milch seems to have decided that a comedy about surfers (really) is more worthy of his time. HBO seems to be too proud to give Milch all assurances that he can continue doing "Deadwood" at his own pace while guaranteeing that "John from Cincinnati" will get a fair shake as well. This is tragic, as there's no imaginable way the promised two two-hour "Deadwood" movies can properly wrap up the storyline. What's more, "Deadwood" is so devastatingly effective as series television that I fear the movies can only spoil its spell. The hectic, impressionistic genius of Milch's balls-to-the-wall approach to writing each scene of the show up to and in some cases during its filming doesn't seem as if it will quite carry over to movies. "Deadwood" is such an incredibly rich show to watch because of its leisurely way of developing the main story, filled as it is with characters to whom dissembling and fillibustering are survival mechanisms. After being utterly bewildered my first time through the first season, I've taken to simply appreciating the dialogue on initial viewing and waiting to follow the larger shape of things until I've digested each individual episode two or three times. What's funny is that even though "Deadwood" to me becomes a greater and greater pleasure the more I view and re-view it, I'm deeply sensitive about losing it. It won't be until the third season comes out on DVD that I will really get to dig into the guts of it, and that will likely lead to further study of the first and second seasons.

As it so happens, while the rising hostilities between Swearengen and Hearst (Gerald McRaney, who compared to this is completely wasted on "Jericho") make for a compelling central thrust, the subplots in season three of "Deadwood" have kind of lost me. I love Brian Cox, but Langrishe and his troupe of actors are a little much even for this notoriously long-winded show. I haven't quite grasped the significance heaped upon moving the children from the schoolhouse. It seems like all they talk about some episodes. It also seems like some tertiary characters are getting screen time which might be better saved for Alma, Ellsworth, Charlie, or my personal favorite, the loathsome E.B. Farnum. Then again, when I first watched the second season I didn't enjoy anywhere near as much as the first. On DVD, the second time through it sparkled, and the third time, it outright ripped. "Deadwood" is very much a forest-for-the-trees kind of show, and I don't know how well that will translate to the limited running time it has left to settle things. Will there be time for all of the sidelong little glances into the camp's wretched working class life? Will there be enough dead air to spare for Sheriff Bullock's monumentally awkward conversations with the formidable Mrs. Bullock? What's great about "Deadwood" is you can pick a rank-and-file cast member at random, say W. Earl Brown's ethical hatchet man Dan Dority, and you can pick a scene where that actor and character seem like the heart of the show. I don't know if four hours, less credits, less sneak peaks of "John from Cincinnati," will be enough to keep that feeling alive.

"30 Rock" was brutal again tonight. Two unoriginal sitcom plots, plus Tina Fey is just completely useless at physical comedy. Also if Fey is going to keep finding a pretext to put her supposed ugly duckling character in a ball gown every damn week, what little development was there to begin with is going to be shot to hell. Alec Baldwin is still great though. As for the rest of the cast, Tracy Morgan has rapidly become scenery, and the show seems to change its dynamic every week. Jane Krakowski wasn't even in this one, Judah Friedlander is just counting on his appearance to get laughs at this point (which kind of works, see Date Movie, or better yet, don't), and the other talking heads haven't moved past the black guy, the bald guy, and the gay guy status yet. Meanwhile I may be the only person in the universe who thinks that "Twenty Good Years" is at all funny. The last few episodes haven't made me laugh as much as the pilot did, but Lithgow is always good for at least one amusing temper tantrum per act break and what they lack for in writing they've covered with fabulous stunt casting. Jane Leeves as a sex bomb! Tim Russ as a human! I love it.

I can't help it, I'm worried about "Veronica Mars." While none of the first few episodes of the third season have been individually objectionable, the shift to smaller running mystery arcs just seems like a bad idea. Since there's not enough time to compellingly introduce a lot of suspects and red herrings, the possibilities for resolutions that are both logically and dramatically satisfying seem quite remote. It seems like Rob Thomas and his staff could pull it off if only they could put more of an emphasis on the characters and less of a lead foot on the plot development pedal, but the penurious CW network limits them there by not allowing a full cast complement for every episode. This was fine early on in the series when it was Veronica vs. the world, but that model isn't consistent with the point to which the show has grown. It's distracting when Mac or Wallace vanishes for a couple of weeks. It's true that like "Deadwood" "Veronica Mars" is a show that plays way better on DVD when you can really geek out and watch episodes one after another. For this show, we really ought to be able to have the best of both worlds, though. And it would be really nice if enough eyes flipped over that the CW could commit to actually giving all the cast members full-season contracts and not just Kristin Bell, Jason Dohring, and Enrico Colantoni next season. I love the "Mars" that has been and I wouldn't change any of it for the world, not even the Paris Hilton episode. But in order to be one of those rare shows that can completely change gears and continue to be top-notch entertainment, "Mars" needs its network to have a little more faith. And for people to go buy the first- and second-season DVDs, which are often on sale for twenty dollars at Target. Seriously, people. You have no excuse. Go now!

Back to the Script
2006-10-23 08:24
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I didn't watch very much scripted television at all last week, which is a bit unusual. I don't know how many other people are with me on this, but I find the new Monday Night Football announcing team completely repellant. I can't stand them. I love "Pardon the Interruption," but Tony Kornheiser trying to behave himself is no fun whatsoever. And what is up with the constant comments about guys who are on his fantasy team? How many receivers does he start in this mythical league, 20? The main problem is that Joe Theismann is a) a moron and b) has no sense of humor about it. It's OK to be a moron so long as you can be laugh at yourself every now and then. Tony Siragusa is excellent at this. But Theismann rarely picks up on it on the rare occasions Kornheiser tries to tweak him. Nobody on the entire broadcast team has any interest in saying anything constructive about the game, so you might as well just give them a miss and put on some light music. For my part, since Week 1 I have been watching "How I Met Your Mother," "Heroes," and "Studio 60" and I don't miss football at all. Last Monday I foolishly went back in there because the Bears were on, and even though it was a great game I kind of wish I had just listened to the Bears radio guys over the web and TiVo'd my shows. Now I'm all behind.

"Heroes" has reached phenomenon status, and here's how I know for sure: my friend Ken is watching it. My friend Ken hasn't reguarly watched anything on TV that wasn't animated, dubbed badly from Japanese, or both since "Next Gen" went off the air. And I didn't even have to tell him to watch it, he found it on his own. Bizarrely, this development comes coupled with the announcement that the network of "Heroes," NBC, has decided (or maybe they haven't) to stop showing anything besides game shows and reality programs for the 8-9 hour all week long. I have absolutely no idea what to think about this. I guess it makes programming the TiVo a little easier. I've been living Howie Mandel-free for a long time now and I sure don't want to go back down that dark tunnel.

With the World Series, the NFL, and the PS2 game Bully (yeah, I bit the bullet and bought it, I'll write about it when I finish it) taking up most of my time, I've caught up with my shows kind of piecemeal through the week when time allowed. I still have two episodes of "Lost" to sift through and I don't really want to make that leap until I have time to really digest them. The season premiere really kind of restored my faith in the show and I want to pay attention. The latest "Veronica Mars" was solid. When Joss Whedon wrote a little tribute to the show for Entertainment Weekly (I think) the most insightful thing he said was that Veronica's biggest strength is also her biggest flaw; because she can always find out what's really going on, she has to know even when she'd be happier leaving it alone. This came up with her mother both in the first season and the second season. In the third season, Veronica's pathological need to investigate is providing the necessary tension in her relationship with Logan. Meanwhile, Francis Capra is back, and he looks like he did some time in prison as did his character, Ed Begley Jr. has showed up in the obligatory "Mars" stunt casting coup of the season as the college dean, and Keith is still the best dad ever.

Quickly: I can never quite parse what is going on with the Adult Swim schedule, but it seems like new episodes of "12 oz. Mouse," "Venture Brothers," and "Robot Chicken" have been showing up on my TiVo lately, or at least ones I haven't seen, and they are welcome. I like those commercials for the HDTV where everyone's standing up and pointing at the missing golf ball. Then, of course, we had the whole Kenny Rogers thing which was like life imitating ad. I cannot possibly recommend the new record by Denver's Everything Absent or Distorted more highly. It is fantastic. You will listen to it over and over and then afterwards it will continue playing in your head. You can buy it on cdbaby or on iTunes and I really think you should.

Some Thoughts on Video Game Journalism, Such As It Is
2006-10-17 15:34
by Mark T.R. Donohue

There's a new title out from the always-controversial Rockstar Games called Bully. Since the game has gotten so much negative press accusing it of being no less than a "Columbine simulator," and also because it sounds fun, I want to get it and play it so I can write about it in this space. However, video games are expensive. I already stretched my resources this month to pick up the new basketball and soccer titles and to preorder Final Fantasy XII. I normally allow myself one used game purchase per month, but as the Christmas season approaches the crush of titles gets such that it's hard to stick to this rule. Every so often I can trade in a bunch of games to save some cash, but when New Super Mario Bros. came out I felt compelled to blow my entire trade-in stack on a Nintendo DS. It was worth it. But apart from digging into my precious TV on DVD collection, the very thought of which makes me die a little inside, I've got nothing to barter for Bully or Scarface: The World Is Yours or Company of Heroes. Let us not even speak of the XBox 360.

Oh, man, why'd I go and speak about it? I feel like a bad person now. They've already started half-assing the releases for those of us like me who only own the "obsolete" XBox, PS2, and GameCube. In fact, for GameCube, new games don't exist at all. The new version of NBA 2K7 for the "old-gen" systems omits the great old 24/7 mode, a collection-based 1-on-1 game that's essentially an entire separate experience. Older editions of the 2K series were huge values because you could play 5-on-5, sim a couple of seasons, futz around on Live a bit, put the disc away for a while, and then return to it a few months later to play 24/7 as if you'd just bought an entirely new game. At least that's the pattern I had going. Now if course if you haven't laid down the $400 for the new hardware you're a second-class gamer.

I didn't always feel that way, but then again I came up playing PC games in the days before broadband, meaning if one of your friends had a copy of the game, you had it too as soon as you could borrow the discs. I've gradually become more of a console gamer as old-line single-player PC RPGs have died out and adventure games have disappeared completely. In any event, even though I was the only boy in a family of girls and pretty much on my own as far as console and software purchases were concerned, my minimum-wage record store job kept me in games well enough. Until the current platform generation, there was only one dominant system per cycle. Nintendo, Super Nintendo, PlayStation. This made finding games you wanted used easier and also made renting and borrowing a bit simpler. However, since the hobby has exploded (largely due to the prevalence of guys just like myself who have kept gaming actively into their mid-twenties and beyond), it's gotten to the point where if you want to play all of the best games you have to own three systems and a dedicated PC gaming rig. XBox has (or had) the online play and the most processing power. PS2 has the largest installed user base and an undeniable roster of AAA exclusives, like Metal Gear, Final Fantasy, and the Grand Theft Auto games. Nintendo has, well, Nintendo, still the best first-party software producer in the known universe, good for the most joyous gaming experiences of every hardware cycle (in this case, Zelda: The Wind Waker, the Pikmin games, Animal Crossing) and pretty much zero third-party support.

For folks like me who have never accepted the idea of playing first-person shooters on consoles (the entire Halo phenomenon passed me by completely), you have to have a PC so you don't miss stuff like Call of Duty or Half-Life 2. Though I'm predominantly a single-player gamer, I do enjoy Battlefield (in various iterations) and classic Counter-Strike every now and then. The real-time strategy genre kind of peaked with StarCraft, but the games are completely unplayable on consoles, and worthy variations on the theme like Rise of Legends and Battle for Middle-Earth still pop up here and there. The main reason I still need a desktop is of course to play assorted Civilization and SimCity sequels obsessively and unflaggingly.

What I'm trying to do here is establish my gaming bona fides. I don't think any self-respecting baseball fan should be completely without at least a little background knowledge for every team. I don't think any person who says they know their pop music can be telling the truth if they know nothing about jazz and hip-hop. (On the other hand, I know absolutely nothing about classical music. I consider it a different class entirely, like how a mage can't learn priest spells. Work with me here.) The point is, I want to continue to maintain the well-roundedness in video games that I bring to all of my hobbies. I don't love gaming any more or less than I love baseball. (However, I've never fully enjoyed playing a baseball video game, unless watching the research department play and vigorously curse out Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball for the Super Nintendo counts.) In fact, I'd love to move into writing about games professionally as I have with music and am beginning to with sports and TV. It would solve a lot of my problems.

However, the barriers to entry in video game journalism are steep. When I began writing about music in college it wasn't terribly difficult to get the access I needed. It's a lot cheaper to make a CD than it is a video game, and there are a lot of starving musicians in this country who are desperate for attention. Stack up enough weird obscure promos, and you can go trade them in for the stuff you actually want. I guess people only keep sending you stuff if you write about it, but that's never been a problem for me. I still get a couple CDs in the mail every month even now despite the fact that I haven't been actively maintaining my own music site for about six years. Of course, who am I kidding, nowadays if it's anything of any notoriety whatsoever you can go online and get it from one channel or another, whether strictly legal or not.

Baseball comes into my house pretty much for free, too. I've sprung for the Extra Innings package the last few years but before that the radio deal was supremely affordable and at the very least ESPN is good for a couple of out-of-market games every week, and there's TBS and WGN too if you don't mind watching the Braves and Cubs. I don't get to go to nearly as many games in person as I'd like to in my wildest dreams, but from a writing standpoint staying home and flipping channels before, during, and after the Rockies games every night gives me much more information with which to work.

Working my way back around to the main thesis in the leisurely fashion that is my enduring style, you can get noticed as a sportswriter or a music writer without going deeply into credit card debt. Provided you can actually write a little. That's always the catch. Becoming a video game writer simply by stacking up a whole ton of well-written pro bono articles on the subject...well, that's simply not going to happen. There is the shining example of Penny Arcade, which is strictly speaking a webcomic and not a review site. However, it's grown into kind of a clearinghouse for gamers and gamer culture, with a cottage industry of spinoff work in advertising and strategy guides and even their own annual convention. PA is the exception that proves the rule. Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, the artist and writer respectively, are a) prodigiously talented and b) obsessively devoted to video games above and beyond everything else in the universe besides (I assume) their families.

In my experience, most people who are gifted writers are not obsessively interested in one single thing to the exclusion of all others. Absurdly single-minded people, it follows, are not particularly good writers, by and large, because they have no basis for comparison. That's what writing is about, really: bringing something from over here where I am to over there where you are by way of the things in between we share in common. Not that all gamers are the same person, exactly, but they tend to have a rather limited set of tools with which to relate how great their hobby is to those who don't share it. A few months ago Roger Ebert caused a minor stir by suggesting video games could never really be art, an opinion no doubt colored in nongamer Ebert's mind by the plain fact that there are no writers who describe video gaming with artistry. While Ebert by his own admission watches almost no television, he's willing to accept that there may be great art there of which he's unaware. He's also not a music buff, a conclusion I draw from his review of the film Jesus' Son, a movie about heroin addiction. He speculates at length on the origin of the movie's title. The speculation is interesting, but incorrect; obviously, it's a reference to a line from the Velvet Underground's "Heroin," a self-evident truth which Ebert never reaches. (When I went to provide a link to the review I noticed that the long-standing omission had been corrected. Nice catch, Jim Emerson. You'll have to take my word for how the original published piece read.) Clearly though while no music scholar himself Roger Ebert believes in the potential of the form to reach true beauty.

Those who ought to be making the case that video games have equal artistic merit are doing a right poor job of it. The reasons for this are many. Not least among them is the fact that video game journalism has some tremendous credibility issues. In order to print accurate and timely information about the latest games, video game magazines and websites depend on developers and publishers to an unhealthy extent. Video games, far more than record albums or theatrical films, are tremendous investments of manpower and capital for the companies that produce them. The standards required by the various console manufacturers before they will even grant a development kit (i.e., the software tools required to design a game for a given console) to a would-be game developer are very high. Accordingly, game development companies are far more scarce than record labels or film studios. A music magazine has no fear of a label cutting off their supply of advance albums due to one negative review. There will always be more albums, and ultimately the act is counterproductive for the label. The nation's film critics are hardly shaking in their blazers over the many horror movies and Rob Schneider vehicles for which the studios refuse to offer preview screenings. If you're a game magazine or website and you lose the cooperation of Electronic Arts or for that matter Rockstar, what are you going to tell your readers? The video game industry is dominated by a few megafranchises that move units by the million and, yeah, sell magazines and draw eyes to your URL. (Imagine if the Red Sox and Yankees stopped cooperating with ESPN.)

In video game journalism the impression that the tails wag the dogs has never quite been shaken. The classic storyline that most critical-minded gamers see repeating itself is as follows. Several months before a game's release, an industry mag runs a preview with some impressive screenshots and a few verbal teases. A few issues later, they run an intense and in-depth cover story with pages and pages of beautiful visuals and many paragraphs, already pull-quoted for back-of-the-box blurbs, of borderline reverential praise for the experience the game will ultimately deliver. Then the game comes out, millions of gamers buy it, and maybe it delivers, maybe it doesn't. The magazine's official impartial review won't run until a month after the release date, if ever.

What can you do? In fairness to the game magazines, it would be no more ethical to review incomplete code than for a music critic to review an unmixed tape of rough demos or a film writer to pan an unfinished cut of a movie with "scene missing" cards and animatics in the place of completed special effects. The video game business is famous for missed deadlines and blown budgets. They can't be held entirely at fault for not making the distribution of review copies their top priority in crunch time.

Here we have a chicken and egg problem. Are there no great video game writers because the industry is perceived as a little unethical, unprofessional, and icky, or does the lack of respect stem from the paucity of good journalists? I'm not saying there aren't any good writers in the world who focus principally on electronic gaming. There's Dan Hsu, and...well, there's Dan Hsu, with apologies to Andy McNamara at Game Informer. The rank and file writing that appears on game websites and in game periodicals is clunky, unoriginal, and desperately short on style despite obvious straining towards that end. That's not to say I haven't read tons of brutally poor music writing. Most aspiring music journalists have at least some grasp of English composition, however; it's an inevitable side effect of protracted exposure to Morrissey lyrics. Way too many cub video game reporters seem to have been promoted to that job directly from roles as video game message board trolls, and it shows. These people are gamers first and foremost and only writers because they couldn't cut it as programmers and don't have the attention spans to be beta testers. This needs to stop.

For whatever reason while the core demographic of the video game industry has aged (the "average gamer" is closer to 30 than 20 these days), the mentality of the publications covering it really hasn't. The better magazines have the sophistication and ADD-friendly visual style of Maxim (not a compliment), the lesser ones are just unofficial ads bound together with explicit ones. The true sign of a good critic to me is not unlike that of a good artist: a defined aesthetic. Sometimes Ebert can utterly pan a movie but I can come away from reading his review with a pretty good feeling that I will enjoy it. It's for this very same reason that I trust the Penny Arcade guys' opinions the most when I am on the fence about what game to get. They would shiver at the description "critic." One of the major running themes of Holkins' blog posts is the general uselessness, corruption, and fallibility of every accredited game journalist in the business. However, I know what they like. I know what we have in common and where we disagree. When they rave about a sleeper game like Apex or Katamari Damacy and I go out on a limb and buy it, I am seldom if ever disappointed. Isn't the ultimate function of the critic to represent to you whether or not your money will be well-spent on whichever entertainment product it is in which they are theoretically expert? There isn't a self-described game critic in the world whose success rate is anywhere near the break-even point, and that's why I wish there was an easy way for me to get into the business. Also, I would like a free XBox 360.

Mr. Tough
2006-10-13 11:28
by Mark T.R. Donohue

(The real story behind our hero's coverage of Tuesday night's Yo La Tengo show for Billboard)

I have been afraid of Ira Kaplan for years. I have actively refused opportunities to meet him on several occasions. When I got a chance to interview the band for the Daily Cal, I specifically requested phone time with James McNew, their bass player. James is a huge guy, but he sings in a little tiny falsetto. He posts on the Internet about his favorite "Simpsons" episodes. He is not in the least intimidating.

Ira is SUPER intimidating. If you've ever watched them play, you know he goes nuts on stage, flailing his arms around and thrashing his guitars, but with his back to the audience the entire time. I've seen them several times and I've never once observed Ira making eye contact with anyone. He seems vaguely menacing somehow. In the liner notes to their records, there's often these veiled references to his getting into rows with people in other bands and (frequently) his wife and drummer Georgia Hubley. Georgia is about the most passive human being in the history of indie rock -- she's the only person I know of who can sing lead backing vocals -- and I fear anyone who can get a rise out of her.

Of course, this is all completely ridiculous. Yo La Tengo are beautiful people and everyone loves them. All those scary tour diaries on the Matador web page are just gags.

As I entered the Boulder Theater for the show tonight, I saw Ira and Georgia sitting at the merchandise table. Interestingly, their merch guy, sitting between them, was involved in animated conversation with some fans, but both actual YLT members were conspicuously silent. I stood behind a group of people in line for the bathroom trying to work up the courage to talk to Ira. He's not going to bite, I told myself. He's just an indie rocker. I wanted a drink.

To work up some courage, I tried Georgia first. "Hi, Georgia," I said. She waved back at me. All right! I sucked in my breath. "Hi, Ira," I said. He half-raised his head. I extended my hand towards him, and he shook it. I felt self-conscious about how cold my hand was. "I've seen you guys a bunch of times but I have always been afraid to say hi to you," I said.

"We're USUALLY not mean," Ira said, studiously avoiding eye contact. "Except to SOME people."

I was shaking in my Reeboks at this point. "Um...I interviewed James when I was in college. When...And know, two or three long titles ago, that album came out. It was neat. We talked about 'The Simpsons.'" How did I manage, the first time meeting one of my songwriting idols, to forget the name of his album? If I ever meet Elvis Costello, am I going to blank on All This Useless Beauty and start mumbling incoherently about "Futurama?" I wanted to die. "Which was great, but then I had to write the article...y'know...about 'The Simpsons.'"

Ira almost, not quite, looked directly at me. I could see in his eyes that he dearly wanted me to either buy some merchandise or leave him the hell alone. At least that was my feeling at the moment. Here I was telling this incredibly uninteresting story about an interview I did with not him but his bass player, six years ago, for some college newspaper that there was absolutely no way he gave a toss about. Desperately, I stabbed out for a happy ending. "I'm covering the show tonight for Billboard!"

A glimmer of interest, or possibly contempt, or maybe interested contempt, crossed the great man's face. "That article about 'The Simpsons' must have really impressed people," he said. He returned to carefully examining the floor behind and to the right of the card table supporting Yo La Tengo's merchandise.

"Well, yes, a few people. The right people. Have a good show!"

Amazingly, I was able to steel myself and go watch the opening band instead of locking myself in a bathroom stall and curling into the fetal position.

2006-10-11 22:28
by Mark T.R. Donohue

The last two pilots of the fall season rolled out on NBC last night. One was fairly high-profile and not very funny. The other I doubt anyone has particularly high expectations for and despite a few absolutely brutal clunkers it made me laugh consistently. The first one is the new Tina Fey vehicle "30 Rock," with Alec Baldwin, and the other is "Twenty Good Years," which pairs John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor.

"30 Rock" has had a troubled development cycle, as Tim Goodman recounts in his review. The pilot had to be reshot with some cast changes, delaying its debut until after the similarly themed (but quite differently executed) "Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip" had been running for a month. I don't think that the same problems that a lot of viewers (though not me) have had with "Studio 60" will apply to "30 Rock" as well. "Studio 60" asks you to buy into the idea that the weekly production of a late-night comedy show is the absolute end of the world. Jon has written over at Screen Jam that he simply doesn't accept that premise. I certainly don't accept Aaron Sorkin's contention that television comedy is the proud vanguard of core American liberal values (and I couldn't be farther from accepting Sorkin's politics, the major reason I admired "The West Wing" from a distance while never watching it for more than a few minutes at a time). However, I'm willing to accept that the characters of "Studio 60" do, and that's enough for me. I think one of the effects that watching nothing but science fiction and fantasy TV growing up has had on me is that a believable real-world premise is the last of my concerns when it comes to getting on board with a new show. The first thing I ask of a show is that it has a perspective, and the second thing I want to see is great dialogue. "Studio 60" has those, and while it's certainly still working out some kinks ("West Coast Feed" was by a wide margin the weakest episode of the run so far) my immediate affection for the Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford characters will keep me watching at least until they have three or four absolute bombs in a row. I will add that Sarah Paulson's Juliette Lewis impression was the first genuinely funny thing she's done on the show and I hope that Sorkin is aware he needs to start selling harder on Paulson's qualities as a comedienne if the show isn't going to continue losing viewers by the millions every week.

For "Studio 60" comedy, while important, is a secondary issue. "30 Rock" is a sitcom, and the fact that the pilot isn't very funny is a big problem. I admit that part of my problem with approaching the show is I just don't dig Tina Fey. I'm not sure from where her good reputation comes. "Saturday Night Live" had stopped being funny long before her stint as head writer, and she didn't make it any funnier. As "Weekend Update" host she was stiff and desperate-seeming. (Of course, what do I know, I thought Norm MacDonald was hilarious.) To me the movie Mean Girls, much appreciated in some circles, was no better or worse than any other in the teen-queen genre. Fey's act is the smart girl who desperately wants to be told she's pretty, and to me that got old a long time ago. There are four women like that in my immediate family. For "30 Rock" Fey has written some good material for Judah Friedlander and (especially) Alec Baldwin, but as a lead she's flat and unlikable, and if the show continues to be a refuge for her old "SNL" buddies, it's not going to get funnier any time soon. NBC mercifully decided to force the punishingly unfunny Rachel Dratch out of the Harriet Hayes role, but showing misplaced loyalty Fey gave Dratch a few scenes in the pilot as an animal trainer. Each one slowed the show's already shaky momentum to a dead stop.

The other huge problem is the casting of Tracy Morgan as the third lead after Fey and Baldwin. Morgan is the definition of a one-dimensional sketch comedy actor. His performance as Tracy Jordan, a supposed movie star patterned after Martin Lawrence (there's even a Big Momma's House parody in the pilot in case it wasn't blatantly obvious enough already), is good for a couple of chuckles in his first scene but the joke is old before the end of the show's first half-hour is over. You know, whatever Fey and Sorkin might think, it's a lot harder to write a show with sustained characters and real relationships than a bunch of sketches that black out after five minutes. "30 Rock" is going nowhere fast, with all apologies to Alec Baldwin, who's terrific. If after this show is cancelled he could slide on over and take Steven Weber's role on "Studio 60," that would be super.

"Twenty Good Years" barely even has a premise. The show casts John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor, gives them characters named "John" and "Jeffrey," and expects them to be funny. You know what? They kind of are. Lithgow was able to carry "3rd Rock from the Sun," a woefully badly written show, for six seasons with nothing but the sheer ridiculous conviction of his performance. "Twenty Good Years" is somewhat better written and provides Lithgow with a worthy foil in the perennially underrated Tambor, who is taking a huge step down here after "Arrested Development" but does his best with the material provided. There's absolutely nothing to see in the "Twenty" pilot besides the standard sitcom tropes -- there's even a baby, right in the pilot, believe it or not -- but it made me laugh. A lot. When I was fast-forwarding through the commercials, I continued to laugh. Perhaps my mind was making a subconscious connection to Lithgow's landmark performance in 2010: The Year We Make Contact. Or maybe this is just a funny, if unoriginal, little show. I could go either way on this one. If the idea of Lithgow in a Speedo makes you smile even a little, you should check this one out before its inevitable cancellation.

Hey, the fourth season of "Scrubs" came out on DVD on Tuesday! Yay, "Scrubs." You know how far Heather Graham's star has fallen? She's not listed on the back of the box as a major guest star and Matthew Perry, Tom Cavanagh, and Molly Shannon (speaking of monumentally unfunny recent "SNL" castmembers) are. Graham wasn't just a major player during her "Scrubs" run but she was also quite good, joining a long list of actors who have been good on "Scrubs" and in nothing else: Tara Reid, Scott Foley, Brendan Fraser (who was fantastic on "Scrubs," I had to watch his episodes immediately over again because the first time through my mind wouldn't accept it), Amy Smart, the list goes on. You would imagine all of these actors would be sending huge baskets of muffins to "Scrubs" creator Bill Lawrence on a daily basis until he agreed to create shows for them. What is Bill Lawrence up to these days? Oh, wow, he's attached to the Fletch prequel, now entering its fifteenth year in development. Kevin Smith was attached to it when Clerks was still in theaters. Is the world that hungry for another Fletch movie?

Life On Mars
2006-10-11 05:09
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I was foolish to get all worried about "Veronica Mars" after only one episode on the new CW network. While "Welcome Wagon," the third season premiere, was slow and meandering, "My Big Fat Greek Rush Week" was like a primer on all of the things that make "Mars" great. Except one, but we'll get to that later.

When I write about "Lost" and "Veronica Mars" or "Heroes" or any of the other shows I am now following closely, I'm going to address my posts to fellow fans who are watching along with me. That means I'm going to assume you've seen the latest episode. Otherwise it kind of limits me in what I can and can't discuss. If you're still on the fence about "Veronica Mars," you should watch it. It's good. And then you will be able to enjoy this page even more, because I suspect I will be writing about "Veronica" pretty much every week.

"Rush Week" had a setup that could have seen the episode simply recycle the material from the second season's "The Rapes of Graff." In both cases, Veronica went undercover to weed out shady dealings in the campus fraternity/sorority scene. ("Weed out," get it? Not if you haven't seen the episode, I guess. But see above.) However, this offering was taken in a very different direction. "Veronica Mars" is most challenging to watch when Veronica isn't clearly the hero, and the sorority's secret in this episode turned out to be a real ethical conundrum. I appreciated what they were trying to do here, and I liked the way that Veronica's questioning of her motives dovetailed with Keith's angst over a rare bad call on his part. However, there was an obvious tactical mistake. The sorority mother at the house Veronica was investigating was growing marijuana to treat her cancer. Got it. Veronica felt guilty about exposing this because the only effect of her detective work was taking away the medicine of a severely ill person. Works for me. However, in order to get a big reaction for an act break, the producers had Veronica open a locked door to a field of cannabis. We're not talking about a single plant on a windowsill, we're talking about a pro-quality organic production line. If this woman had cancer that severe, she didn't have enough time left in her life to smoke all of that pot even if Ricky Williams, Snoop Dogg, and the entire Portland Trail Blazers roster came along to help her out. This kind of wrecked the whole moral grey area situation as far as I was concerned. Look, I went to UC Berkeley; I know from homegrown.

A small mistake in set dressing is hardly enough to scuttle an entire episode. "Rush Week" had a lot more going for it. For one thing, it had one of the strongest non-Veronica subplots I can remember seeing on the show. Wallace, Logan, and some beautifully stunt-casted guest stars participated in a sociology experiment where students were divided into prisoners and jailers. I really enjoyed this story. Dan Castellaneta played the professor! That's awesome, especially because Castellaneta's unaffected speaking voice sounds more like Mayor Quimby than any other of the legion of "Simpsons" characters he voices. (If you look at Dan's list of credits, his good judgement when it comes to taking on-camera roles is impressive: "Arrested Development," "Frasier," "Stargate SG-1," "That 70's Show"...but I digress.) Plus Rider Strong and Samm Levine. This whole plot was given more time than such things usually are on "Mars" (partly because the main story was kind of thin, but that's OK) and on the whole it was well-written, nicely acted, and had a good surprise ending. It was good to see Wallace get the last laugh over Logan. Unless, of course, Logan secretly enjoys running around in the nude in public, which I suspect he might.

Almost but not quite lost in the shuffle was a quick but nice little C-story involving Mac and Parker, and a wildy tonally different piece with Keith wandering through the desert after the apparent murder of Kendall. I'm not sure where they're going with the whole Keith/Fitzpatricks thing. I hope the next few episodes will have Keith interacting with the rest of the regulars more. On the whole it seems as if the show's emphasis has been shifted towards a much higher percentage of self-contained story per episode. I'm fine with that. While the ongoing murder investigation was a major part of what sucked you in to the first season, the second year's more complicated mystery threatened to swallow whole every episode. Some of the best shows they've ever done have been mostly stand-alone, like "Betty and Veronica" and "Drinking the Kool-Aid" from the first season and "Ain't No Magic Mountain High Enough" from the second. The show has developed to the point where the characters are interesting enough to stand on their own without a strong running storyline to provide artificial momentum. If the writing continues to be this strong, I think it will be fine. I don't think it's going to grow into a colossal hit, which I'm sure is not what the CW wants to hear, but it ought to settle in for a long and creatively satisfying run. Indeed, not having to constantly shovel coal on the fire of a massive supermystery ought to help the writers push the series to greater heights.

On the other hand, Tuesday night's "Veronica Mars" lead-in is in trouble. "Gilmore Girls" just isn't very good anymore. It's not as dramatic as when the end came for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," where the show completely fell off the cliff right at the top of its seventh season, but the "Gilmore" writers have just run out of material. Like "Moonlighting," as soon as the showrunners let Luke and Lorelai get together the writing was on the wall. Their relationship has been so on-again off-again that it borders on viewer abuse at this point. The constant drumbeat of babies and weddings isn't interesting anymore. I don't care about Lane's baby. Boy, I deeply don't care about Kirk's wedding. And I mostly don't care about Logan and Rory. The writers have playing out the end to their doomed-from-the-start relationship as if they had all the time in the world. If the show continues to be this uninteresting, they're not going to have enough time to wrap that up satisfactorily and put Rory into a good place by the series finale, which at this rate will be in only 19 more episodes. If they hadn't spent so much time torturously pulling Lorelai and Luke apart, they could have had that wedding already and ended the series on the birth of a new Gilmore Girl, which would be highly poetic and kind of sweet. TV writers can't resist putting births in series finales. The symbolism!

At this point I'm kind of in for the duration, even though "Gilmore Girls" has been bland since the sixth season. I sure hope Milo Ventimiglia can make time from his "Heroes" shooting schedule to show up at the end of the finale to sweep Rory off of her feet. Or would a Luke-Lorelai Rory-Jess double wedding be too much to ask for? Yeah, I guess so. Still, after completely toying with the emotions of their viewers for the entire run of the show, the "Gilmore" writers owe us some kind of huge payoff. It would be easy to blame the show's decline on the departure of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband Daniel Palladino, but new exec producer David S. Rosenthal is only following the trail the Palladinos left behind. The sixth season had Lorelai deliberately sabotaging things with Luke at every possible opportunity and Rory's huge blind spot with regards to the phenomenally unpleasant, shallow Logan remaining in place. Out of respect for the characters and the Palladinos Rosenthal has thus far resisted the urge to make any abrupt changes, but ironically, if one or two aren't made soon, they're going to have to be made in order to wrap things up as the seventh "Gilmore Girls" season becomes the final one.

I still totally have a crush on Paris, though. She's sassy and she's left-handed. This is important to me because I want my children to grow up to be middle relievers. Does anyone with HD know what kind of hat Luke was wearing in his one scene last night? It looked like it might be a Rockies hat but the image on the back appeared to be the minor league logo. It was weird to see Scott Patterson in any hat besides the hat. I think apart from the pilot he's worn that same blue hat in every episode in which he's appeared.

The Album: Not Quite Dead
2006-10-10 07:12
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Many of you may have noticed that the new version of iTunes corrects a long-running problem. The very slight but extremely noticeable pauses between songs in sequence on an album has been eliminated. This holds for your iPods, too. I have no idea why it took such a long time for this obvious wrinkle to be addressed. I was starting to think the technology just didn't exist.

This minor bit of new code has had a tremendous effect on my music-listening habits. For the longest time I'd just left things on shuffle and taken things as they come. I have this whole involved system where any time I skip a song for any reason, I mark it and remove it from a playlist of really good songs. There are still something like 10,000 songs on this elite playlist, so either I need to get more discerning or I just have the best taste in music that anyone has ever had. I think evidence favors the latter theory.

Anyway, it doesn't take an expert to realize that there are several rock albums that benefit tremendously from seamless transitions between songs. In the case of a record like Guided by Voices' Bee Thousand, the segues make as great an artistic statement as the songs themselves. While preparing a review of the new Tortoise record for NATN, I was struck by how carefully constructed the transitions on TNT and Millions Now Living Will Never Die were. A newly important focus on creating a "continuous listening experience" is one of the many ways electronic music and club culture have impacted rock and roll. But of course, groovy crossfades were not invented in the early 1990's. Thanks to this new iTunes fix, I can actually listen to Pink Floyd again. And it feels so good.

Now that the way most people consume their music is all-digital, the old importance of constructing an album to be an experience greater than the sum of its individual tracks is in danger of getting lost in the shuffle (if you'll excuse the double meaning). While I love my iPods and am already trying to figure out how I'm going to buy another one now that my 40 gig and 60 gig models have both been filled, I am against the concept of the album (though not necessarily the concept album) dying out completely.

Some of my favorite mid-album transitions that I've made a point to listen to and appreciate since the big iTunes update:
"Twin Falls" -> "Some" from Built to Spill's There's Nothing Wrong with Love
"TNT" -> "Swing from the Gutters" from Tortoise's TNT
"Stop Breathin" -> "Cut Your Hair" from Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
"Yours to Keep" -> "Echos Myron" from Guided by Voices' Bee Thousand
"Ashes of American Flags" -> "Heavy Metal Drummer" from Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
"Friends" -> "Celebration Day" from Led Zeppelin III

Play along at home!

Unrelated: The research department reports that there is a crowd lined up in front of the Electronics Boutique on the first floor of his office building. Preorders for the PlayStation 3 -- not the physical product itself, preorders -- are being taken beginning today. Some of these enthusiasts have been there since 5 a.m. It begs the question: Who has time to stand in line for five hours on a weekday that can afford a $600 PS3?

"Lost," "Mars": Our Favorite Serial Flavors Are Back
2006-10-04 21:14
by Mark T.R. Donohue

High anticipation can be a counterproductive thing. After waiting all summer for a new "Veronica Mars" episode, the chances that the third-season pilot would meet expectations were almost impossibly low. On the other hand the second season of "Lost" was such a weirdly mixed bag that I didn't know whether I was excited about a new season beginning or not. While "A Tale of Two Cities" was hardly explosive, and didn't use half the returning cast, I think it's easy to take it as a sign that the show is on a firmer footing for this season. Not least the plan to show the whole run without any repeats.

I am going to write about these episodes as if you have seen them. Spoiler alert, and so on.

In the second season "Lost" gave up a lot of momentum by almost punishing the sort of viewer who likes to endlessly scrutinize every last detail of shows like this one. This was an obvious mistake. "Lost" is kind of a remarkable moment in television history because not only has it built a massive audience while catering to these sorts of weirdos but it's even made almost its entire legion of fans into them. In Season Two, paying close attention wasn't at all rewarding because the show either laid things out without ever picking up on them or included random background details (especially during flashbacks) that didn't have any significance at all; they were just there to be noticed. There's only so long you can get away with doing that without exhausting your fans.

"A Tale of Two Cities" didn't tell us anything, really, except that the Others live in nice houses and have a book club. And a gazebo. And a shark tank. If you'd told me before the premiere aired that I was going to watch an episode that didn't have Hurley, Michael, Walt, Sayid, Jin, Locke, Eko, Charlie, Desmond, or Sun in it AND featured an umpteenth tedious Jack flashback, I might have given up and played the new FIFA game for a few more hours instead. However...on a show that keeps as much up its sleeve as "Lost" does, what's most important is getting to the viewer to buy back into the idea that it's all going to make sense one day. What's fun about the show is spinning your own theories, applying significance to clues, and trying to predict what's happened next. When you start to get the feeling that there's no point in trying to apply a logical framework to all of these crazy island goings-on because the writers haven't bothered to, a lot of the air goes out of the balloon. Watching this new episode I felt sucked back in.

They've turned over the cast quite a bit, which given the show's initial premise is pretty impressive. It's quite striking how much the show has changed since its initial few episodes. Henry Ian Cusick (Desmond) is now a regular. So is Michael Emerson, who plays Henry, only now we think his name is Ben. He's the third person we've been led to believe is the leader of the Others, after Beard Guy and the unfortunately named Ms. Clue. I hope that this time it sticks, because Emerson is one effectively creepy, manipulative dude. Elizabeth Mitchell is an entirely new addition who jumps right in with a big role in the first episode. She's Juliet, a sympathetic, though definitely complicit Other who might be a doctor. Someone named Kiele Sanchez is listed in the credits and IMDb says she plays Nikki but I didn't spot her in this one. I guess she's another Other. Heh heh, another Other. Rodrigo Santoro is in the cast list but IMDb doesn't even have a name for his character yet. Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Watros are out of the credits, obviously, since they're dead. Harold Perrineau and Malcolm David Kelley are out as well. Perrineau will be missed, but this doesn't come as much of a surprise. They really wrote his character into a corner last season what with the whole murdering his friends thing. I doubt we've seen the last of Michael and Walt entirely, but we'll see what happens. It's certainly a bit of a surprise given how important Walt was made to seem in the early episodes and the Others' obsession with him in the second season.

As for what we do see in the first episode, it's interesting the choices the writers make as to where to put Saywer, Jack, and Kate after their kidnappings. Sawyer ends up in a monkey cage, Jack is put in a rejected set from Saw III, and Kate is placed in a locker room shower. Yep, makes sense to me. Some sort of connection between the Others and the Dharma Initiative is strongly implied. Or at least Juliet wishes Jack to get that impression. The less said about the flashbacks in this episode, besides the nifty one right at the beginning, the better. At this point there can't possibly be anything new left to learn about Jack and his terrible, awful, no good, very bad father. I think what the writers were trying to do with this particular flashback, which involved Jack suspecting that his father was shacking up with his estranged wife only to be wrong, was point out that horrible relationships with your parents are a two-way street. Only, we know this already. The effect is similar to all of the Season Two episodes about Locke witlessly encouraging his father's reprehensible behavior. Digging up material that was subtext in earlier flashbacks and presenting it proudly as new text is hardly forward progress. That's the whole function of the flashbacks now: they allow the writers to fill fully half of each episode without actually presenting any new information. They're like bartenders who water down their drinks.

Still, the first few minutes of this episode reminded us beautifully of why we got hooked on "Lost" in the first place: mystery! Stunning revelations! Preconceptions overturned! We see a bucolic suburban scene, with some painfully pleasant-looking suburban people discussing the book they've all read. Suddenly the earth shakes, they run outside, and there it is, Oceanic Flight 815, splittin' in two and crashing in the way only Oceanic Flight 815 can. It's the island! Henry is on the scene, and he takes charge. Henry seems to know immediately that there will be survivors. He sends some villagers off to investigate, giving them specific instructions to pose as crash survivors. It's always nice to see Ethan again, that two-timing Canuck so-and-so. So what does all of this mean? The second season hinted strongly that the Others were not living in the squalor they wished the crash survivors to believe. However, my expectation was that they were living in some kind of science facility, a less-neglected version of the various hatches. Last season's big Claire episode "Maternity Leave" certainly suggested this. Clearly their society is more complex still. In Juliet's scenes with the imprisoned Jack she gives the impression that the Others' village can communicate with the outside world. They definitely have very complete dossiers on all of the crash survivors. Also, the cage in which they shove Sawyer for this episode used to house bears. Polar bears? The fish-shaped food Sawyer finds certainly supports it. So, they're Canadian, they like to play dress-up, they have a book club, and they enjoy keeping polar bears as pets then releasing them to terrify and confuse innocent plane crash survivors. Diabolical.

The first "Veronica Mars" episode was genuinely bad for the first several minutes; I was watching in horror. They even remixed the Dandy Warhols' theme song for no good reason and replaced the cool, kinetic old credits with new arty-awful ones. As much as I like "Gilmore Girls," "Supernatural," and "Everybody Hates Chris," if the CW network had managed to ruin "Mars," I would become their enemy forever. Then the first Keith-Veronica scene showed up and everything was all right. Man, I wish Keith was my dad. Of course, then I would be having all sorts of wrong kinds of feelings about my sister. Which means at least I'd fit right in on the world of this show.

"Welcome Wagon" was a very slow episode, somewhat reminiscent of the second-season premiere except without the confusing flashback structure (probably in the vain hope that the new network will bring in some new viewers). The problem was that while "Normal is the Watchword" did feature a rather boring mystery-of-the-week, just like "Welcome Wagon," it was leading up to the shocking and effective reveal of the season's main storyline, the bus crash. Season Three isn't going to have a single major mystery for the whole season. There are going to be three smaller ones. The first one was one that was already introduced in the second season, about an on-campus rapist who shaves girls' heads. That made the shock ending at the end of "Welcome Wagon" utterly unshocking. Particularly because the character of Parker (Julie Gonzalo), Mac's roommate and a new regular, was so obviously painted as unsympathetic during the course of the episode that it was almost a foregone conclusion that something bad was going to happen to her by the show's close.

The other new cast member is Piz (Chris Lowell), Wallace's roommate, and the jury's still out on him. He's kind of a generic granola-eatin' guitar-playin' stoner dude, but it is awfully nice to see the often-emasculated Wallace given a new male foil. Lowell is more likable than his character, and I like the way he played Piz's disappointment when he found out Veronica was seeing Logan, but he's hard to buy as a possible love interest going forward. He's so not her type. Cheers to Ryan Hansen, who after two seasons of playing an insensitive clod had to negotiate some tough material involving Dick's reaction to his brother Beaver's suicide (and multiple murders). Hansen's performance in the episode deserved better company than a slow Keith storyline and a predictable mystery involving the theft of Piz's guitar for Veronica to solve.

On the other hand, there was a lot to like about "Welcome Wagon." I adore that Veronica is taking a criminology class from a professor and TA she obviously knows more than. I loved Hearst College's rather striking similarities to UC Sunnydale, which itself looked a lot like UCLA. Well, you know, there were only so many architects in California to go around when they were all built. Piz and Wallace had a very funny scene where they pretended to play hacky sack near a field of sunbathers. I'm ecstatic that Tina Majorino and Michael Muhney are regulars now, even though Mac got a little lost in the shuffle in this one and Sheriff Lamb didn't appear at all. Every time you think Jason Dohring is going to manage to get through an entire episode without doing something interesting he proves you wrong right before the credits. Here it was Logan's scene with Dick at the very end...nice body language.

I'm still not sure how I feel about the switch to more medium-sized mystery arcs, but there is one thing "Veronica Mars" has in common with its obvious inspiration, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer": even the terrible episodes are made totally watchable by the great dialogue and the pretty cast. Speaking of pretty cast, they killed off Kendall Casablancas. Pity.

Audience Retention
2006-10-02 21:18
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Three episodes in and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" seems to be in it for the long haul. "The Focus Group" was less hysterically tense than the first two episodes, which is a good sign rather than a bad one, and the supporting cast is beginning to see their roles develop. Most importantly, after the high level of tease and the low level of follow-through in "Cold Open" and the pilot, the show-within-a-show is beginning to resemble more closely something that people might actually want to watch. Sarah Paulson was funny and charming in this episode with her Holly Hunter accent and her growling bear joke, Nate Corddry's bad impersonations are funnier than his good ones, and on the whole "Studio 60" now seems at least as funny as "Saturday Night Live," rather than a great deal less funny. Before last week, I didn't think that was even possible. Extra credit for the low-key use of an uncredited Rob Reiner as this week's "guest host," and extra extra credit for the very funny "30 Rock" promo that ran during this episode with Alec Baldwin wondering when he was going to get to meet Aaron Sorkin and Amanda Peet.

It's a little confusing that "Studio 60" apparently exists in a universe where there is a competing "Saturday Night Live" rather than supplanting it. References to "SNL" characters and sketches are probably inevitable but I might have made a different choice there; perhaps NBC insisted. If there is a worry going forward it's that the obvious pressure of having a week to write and produce a live television show will put the drama on rails. Every week will be the same story, struggling to put together the show and then triumphing at the end with a montage of all the hilarious sketches Matt and Danny have somehow nursed to life. "Focus Group" undercut that somewhat with a minor twist (it was Danny trying to manipulate Matt using focus group statistics rather than Steven Weber's Slimy McStockcharacterstein) and a subplot involving Matt's old grudge against the writing duo played nicely by the manic Evan Handler and the mellow Carlos Jacott. I sort of enjoy the subtle gag that Jacott and Handler's Ricky and Ron (who are always together, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) are kind of like a dark, corrupted, unfunny Matt and Danny. They've even formed a dark alliance with Weber's Smarmy O'Genericemptysuit even as Matt and Danny bond with Peet's Jordan McDeere.

It's a good sign when a drama can start ironing out its weaknesses, in this case the supporting players and the plausibility of the show-within-the-show, while not losing sight of what made it appealing in the first place. The authenticity of Sorkin's insider's perspective continues to impress, while there are plenty of knowing nods at the creator's own career history refracted through Matthew Perry's increasingly impressive performance as Matt. In "The Focus Group" Danny tries to mend the fences between Matt and Ricky and Ron, warning his head writer that if he tries to do the show all by himself he'll burn out, just as Sorkin did on "West Wing." While "Focus Group" is the first episode to move some of the attention off of Sorkin's two leads, the episode ends up right where it ought to, with Perry and Bradley Whitford playing a beautifully balanced half-comic/half-tragic scene out on a moonlit beach. (Matt, ever the writers' proxy, comments openly on the homoeroticism of the moment.) Whitford and Perry have just terrific chemisty; it's thrilling just to watch them walk together. I'm glad this show is succeeding. Along with "Heroes," NBC has the two best new shows of the season, and they're back to back on Monday nights.

I said before I was going to write about "Kidnapped," which I finally caught up with this weekend, so here it is: it's terrible. The dialogue in the first two episodes of this show never sounds like anything people would say. It sounds like pieces of numerous straight-to-video action movies cut up and spit back out. Characters say things like "I will end you!" with a straight face. A married couple proves they're still intimate when she watches him shave and says "You missed a spot." You've seen all of this before and you didn't like it then, so why would you like it now? Delroy Lindo and Jeremy Sisto both do the best they can with the hideous dialogue and the contrived situations, but this piece of junk is completely unsalvageable. What advantage would kidnappers possible gain from blowing up a squadron of FBI redshirts? Do they get some sort of ransom bonus for degree of difficulty? Also, Sisto's character is totally implausible. You couldn't be an private consultant specializing in kidnapping and be based in the United States. Nobody ever gets kidnapped for ransom in this country, because the FBI really doesn't mess around when it comes to kidnapping. "Standoff" has this same problem, but at least "Standoff" has Ron Livingston and Gina Torres and some occasionally snappy writing going for it. "Kidnapped" sucks hard and I hope they cancel it before anyone else has to suffer through a single episode.

Speaking of sucking hard, I caught the second episode of "The Class" the other day. Oh man. It's been a long time since I watched a sitcom with a laugh track without laughing along once and even longer since I watched one that was as brutally unfunny as "The Class." How did they manage to recruit a studio audience to laugh as frequently and as loudly as the one on this show does for every non-joke? They must have gotten the whole lot of them as stoned as a Trey Anastasio crowd. That's the only thing I can think of. Or maybe they just show them an old "M*A*S*H" episode or something on tape and just splice the laughter in where (in)appropriate. The only thing even remotely funny about this show is the haircuts, like I said when I reviewed the pilot.

"How I Met Your Mother" is 0 for 3 on the young season. That's a little disturbing. The sitcom was pretty solidly diverting week to week in its first season, especially down the stretch last spring as the writers and actors got comfortable with its storytelling style. For some strange reason the show is relying on rather obvious sitcom tropes like the just-split couple that still has feelings for each other and the wacky visiting parents rather than letting the comedy flow naturally. For the first time the cast seems to really be straining and even Neil Patrick Harris's Barney hasn't gotten a laugh since the season premiere. I don't know what happened here. It's early yet, and the only reason I even kept watching the show at all during the shaky first half of its first year was my borderline creepy Alyson Hannigan fixation, so I'm not deleting my season pass quite yet. It got better then and it might get better now. Maybe the reason I'm not laughing has something to do with Hannigan's hair, which is now light brown after a decade as various shades of red. Hannigan looks slightly like a certain girl with whom I went to high school, a contributing factor if not the major factor in the crush I first formed on her during the first season of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." After the first two seasons of "Buffy" she went to a much brighter red hair color, rather decreasing the resemblance, and allowing me to appreciate her fine work on its own terms. Now that she has brown hair again it's like, whoa, I wonder if that's what that certain girl from high school looks like now? This is on the whole a little unsettling. I wish she'd go back to the red.