Baseball Toaster Western Homes
Monthly archives: September 2007


More New Shows, Good and Bad
2007-09-30 13:15
by Mark T.R. Donohue

"Bionic Woman" A mess, really, from the stupid scene in the pilot that feels it's necessary to spell out the whole central metaphor in explicit dialogue (the little girl in the car with her mother watching Jaime Sommers run supersonically through the forest) and the continuous yawning plot holes. The research department, a big "Battlestar Galactica" guy, told me a lot of the reviews he read wondered why Michelle Ryan was cast as the lead instead of Katee Sackhoff, who's the standout player in the first episode as a simultaneously pathetic and superpowerful botched experiment. Ryan has the exact same expression in every scene, whether she's pouring drinks, comforting her little sister (Lucy Hale, pretty winning), having her legs amputated or getting plowed. There's a little "Buffy" and a little Akira in "Bionic Woman," which doesn't do anywhere near as good a job shading its sci-fi with currently relevant themes as "Heroes" does without seeming preachy or killing off the escapist-fun factor. There's a really scary and terrifying plot concept behind "Bionic Woman" -- the notion, reported in the pilot by Miguel Ferrer's generic operative guy, that the government has all sorts of amazing technology far beyond our imagination and they're not exactly using it responsibly. There's a show there, but I don't think it's this one.

"Back to You" Seems like a can't-miss formula for a successful sitcom, and it is. That might sound boring but I was glad I took the time to add this show with Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton to the watch list. Fred Willard has been crying out for a regular sitcom role that gives him as much freedom as he's given here for ages; as Marsh McGinley he's doing the same Fred Willard bit as always and it's just as funny as it always is. It's amazing how bad the level of acting in the average sitcom is. I've been glancing at "Two and Half Men," previously unseen by me, sporadically since it started in syndication, and I can't believe it's a popular show. The only person in the cast with the least bit of comic timing is the kid! Grammer is obviously one of the best TV actors we have and it's nice to see him playing a character differentiated from Frasier; he's still a pompous blowhard (this is TV, no one wants to reinvent the wheel) but anchorman Chuck Darling is more comfortable looking middle-aged, somewhat more assertive, and seemingly has a very different set of problems with women. The pilot drops kind of a big bomb on Heaton's character so she's not really allowed to be as funny in the first two shows, although she's a pro at doing the hysterical crying bits and much easier than Grammer to accept right away as a different character from her famous established one. I like the way that the legendary James Burrows-Christopher Lloyd directing/writing team mixes in younger, edgier humor with the traditional sitcom fare with well-drawn twentysomething supporting characters. (Josh Gad as nebbish young news director Ryan Church recalls the beloved Miles Silverberg.) There's nothing really new about "Back to You" but there's nothing wrong with being predictably entertaining. This might be the only debut sitcom on any network this season to make it to a second year.

"The Big Bang Theory" I go back and forth with the affected nerd voices Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons use as adult theoretical physicists, but otherwise I have extremely high hopes for this show. I once wrote that no half-hour comedy other than "Futurama" could ever run a Heisenberg uncertainty principle joke, and now that's not true. This show is packed with references to seriously interesting and cutting-edge science stuff, and it's also really funny (funnier than the preview clips). Simon Helberg is very lovable as bell-bottomed supporting nerd Wolowitz, and Kaley Cuoco is surprisingly self-aware as the hottie who moves in next door to Galecki and Parsons' dateless losers. It's tricky to play a character who's of average intelligence among geniuses -- a lot of the jokes play on Cuoco's dumb-blonde innocence -- but not eventually earn the audience's contempt. The writers of "The Big Bang Theory" clearly understand the concept of emotional intelligence, and right away they make it believable that the scientists and the Cheesecake Factory waitress could form a real friendship. Like any brand-new sitcom there are a few howlers in the pilot, but for the most part "Big Bang Theory" is really funny. The cast could use a little bit more normal-person balance but that can easily be addressed.

"Chuck" Can't judge a book by its cover, can't judge a show by its creators. "Big Bang Theory" is the invention of Chuck Lorre, creator of the dastardly "Dharma and Greg," and it's funny and natural and has five immediately distinctive characters. "Chuck" boasts the involvement of "O.C." dude Josh Schwartz, and yet the dialogue couldn't be flatter or more out-of-touch. When the script needs a video game that its early-twenties hero might have played with his roommate in college, it goes for early-eighties text-parser legend "Zork." No, that's not the right choice. "Big Bang Theory" seems to be written by reformed nerds for current nerds, while "Chuck" is a show about nerds by mean regular people. Like Napolean Dynamite, it's all about laughing at the pathetic loser without necessarily feeling any kind of real sympathy. The pilot of "Chuck" has just a horrible idea; that this poor, damaged young man is going to find a woman who genuinely seems to like him only to find out she's actually a government agent who has to protect him -- because of something his BMOC college roommate did against his will. That's awful! Cruelly, "Chuck" is mostly paced like a comedy but it fecklessly tries to use action sequences to pay off comedy conflicts; when secret agent Bryce Larkin gets (apparently) killed I honestly feel like the writers think that's going to "make up" for how Larkin stole Chuck's only girlfriend back at school. My goodness, that must take an amazingly low opinion of American empathy. This vulgar miscalculation is the worst thing about "Chuck," but there's not much else going on either -- the scenes at Chuck's Best Buy-like job plagiarize 40-Year-Old Virgin with no apparent shame and the special effects are lazy and uncentered. Take the images shown when Chuck views the video Larkin sends him that apparently instills him with all the intelligence agencies in the world's collected information. They're so amateurishly selected and edited that it's clearly being played for laughs, only here's the thing -- comedy is just as hard work as action to get right. "Chuck" doesn't get either right and you shouldn't waste your time with it. And as a further insult, it gives the fine Adam Baldwin a stock heavy role with less dimension than the alien supersoldier he played in the waning days of "The X-Files."

Keeping Just Barely Above the Tide
2007-09-26 12:21
by Mark T.R. Donohue

OK, I'm not even going to try and organize my thoughts about all of the season premieres I've watched so far. In a few weeks, I'll write more structured things about whatever I'm still watching. As for now, I just have to move some of these pilots through before my brain gets full.

"Gossip Girl" Kinda OK, actually. No substitute for "Veronica Mars" but the CW is doing a good job spreading out gradually so that by 2011 they'll have one respectable show per night. I tuned in for Kristen Bell's narration but that's actually the show's biggest weakness, a silly tie-in to a parent series of young-adult novels that the show's barely-there storytelling hardly requires. However this is a more watchable soap than you might expect because it has an engaging star (Blake Lively, also of the just-good-enough-not-to-turn-off Accepted) and good casting catches in both the evil ice queen (bravely "Gossip Girl" casts the brunette Leighton Meester against the blonde heroine Lively) and the Innocent Young Thing (very sharp 14-year-old Taylor Momsen). Sadly all of the male characters are more or less indistinguishably oily, which is bad because one of them I think is supposed to be somewhat more sympathetic ("Penn Badgley" as Momsen's sister and Lively's suitor) and one is definitely supposed to be sleazier than the rest (no clue, and I scoured the IMDb page and the CW page too). I haven't cancelled the Season Pass yet, but we'll see how the competition shakes out. As for the premise it's totally fluffy nonsense about high school-age Manhattan socialites, and "The O.C."'s Josh Schwartz is attached -- so clearly the thing could catch on big.

"Reaper" A disappointment. I think creators Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas miscalculated in having Kevin Smith direct their pilot, because despite the buzz Smith's big name brought to the show, he's kind of... not really... he can't direct. The pacing of the first episode of this comedy-fantasy (although it's not funny and not particularly fantastic) was all over the place and I even caught a few of Smith's trademark Clerks two-shots where the camera starts moving in anticipation of one character's finishing speaking and the other's beginning. The show has a grubby, out-of-focus look that doesn't suit the material at all; Ray Wise's appearances as the Devil lack any of the suprise-cameo majesty they require. Wise also isn't very physically imposing against Bret Harrison, who plays the series lead, a 21-year-old warehouse store-worker whose parents long ago sold him into Beelzebub's service. Said "service" mostly involves flailing at souls escaped from hell with unconvincing special effects, many excessive build-ups for non-jokes from unfunny comic relief character Sock (Tyler Labine) and then capturing the damned with some sort of relic granted them by Satan, which in the pilot is a Dirt Devil handvac. (Get it? Dirt Devil? Whoa, dial "h" for "humorousness.") This show just doesn't get either of the genres it is trying to straddle -- for comic-book fantasy it's flat, too self-involved and gets the mythology all wrong, and for blue-collar "My Name Is Earl" comedy it's, well, not funny -- and in the havoc of a new TV season on a fifth-rate network, it has to get way better quickly if it's going to stick. Perhaps having real directors work on all subsequent episodes will change things around for the better.

We'll get into some of the returns of shows we already like in our next post. Go, new TV season!

Before the Networks Overwhelm You, Try Our Scuzzy Cable Series!
2007-09-19 13:56
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I finally sat down with the special double-issue "Entertainment Weekly" fall preview and both of my DVR remotes and programmed the first week of the new fall season. It was an involved process. There were charts, lists, research, and several circlings and crossings-out with thick Sharpie strokes involved. There's not a lot of new-series premieres coming up that have me terribly excited, but that may result in me sampling a lot more of what's out there. There are a few nights that are wide open, and with the potential to record up to three shows in one timeslot these days, I'm willing to try and keep up with everything there is on that's worth it.

One show you ought not to miss that slipped its season premiere in a week before the network deluge begins is "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," FX's demented little comedy that makes a noble effort to be more discomfiting than "Curb Your Enthusiasm" while mostly adhering to the standards of broadcast cable. The show's first season was barely seen, but since fan Danny DeVito joined the cast as two or three of the younger characters' deadbeat father, it's managed to get an expanded and slightly higher-budgeted second and third season and a way-belated DVD release.

"Sunny" is structured like "Seinfeld" and "Curb" in that it's about a group of self-centered people that always receive ironic comeuppances for their greedy little schemes, but it has an extreme, no-holds-barred attitude that's more like "South Park" or "Family Guy" than any other live-action show. Typical episode topics involve going to an abortion rally to pick up women and switching sides because the pro-life chicks look hotter, being stabbed in revenge by your incestuous, inbred rivals from elementary school, and in the third-season premiere, attempting to get an orphaned infant into a tanning booth so that it can "play Hispanic" in television commercials.

DeVito's addition hasn't blunted the zeal of creator/writer/performers Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney, and Glenn Howerton's enthusiasm to offend, and his character Frank has proven an equally deranged foil for the younger quartet of Charlie (Day), Mac (McElhenney), Dennis (Howerton), and Dee (the fearless Kaitlin Olson). However having a fifth wheel in the mix has forced the show's writing away from its original single-subject format, where the writers would happily chip away at your resistances, making you squirm until you finally embraced the equal-opportunity offensiveness of it all and laughed therapeutically. Breaking away from the main thrust of each episode doesn't help "Sunny's" club-to-the-face-subtle humor any. The first two episodes (FX is unwisely running the first half of the third season two at a time for the next few weeks, something that doesn't gel with the show's escalating logic and someone-just-threw-a-live-grenade blackout endings) mute funny main plots involving Mac and Dee's moneymaking schemes for the dumpster baby they're raising together and Mac, Dennis, and Dee participating in an open tryout for the Eagles with dumb subplots involing Frank and Charlie digging for garbage and feuding with the loathsome McPoyles.

Still, it's great to see a show that operates with such verve and freedom on non-HBO cable, and the way that "Sunny" is beginning to have "Arrested Development"-style runners (few of which are repeatable in polite company) is a delicious development in my book. If they ever got more than a handful of episodes on a year they'd have something going.

"FoTC": Good News, Bad News
2007-09-11 13:24
by Mark T.R. Donohue

The good news is that "Flight of the Conchords" has been picked up for another season, and apparently the show's cultural penetration has, out of left field, positioned it as the new HBO buzz show that "John from Cincinnati," "Rome," and "Big Love" all failed to become. San Francisco Chronicle critic Tim Goodman writes of being mobbed on the streets of Rockridge when he goes out wearing his promo-only FoTC T-shirt.

The bad news is that based on the last two episodes of the show's first season, Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie might be out of songs. The season finale, "The Third Conchord," curiously tried to draw most of its laughs out of unfunny guest performers Toddy Barry and Demetri Martin and didn't have a single musical number apart from a rather unimaginative instrumental homage to the Rocky theme. Then it threw in an arbitrary "twist ending," a la "Lost," that suggested the next season will have a completely different setup. Good idea if there wasn't going to be a second season, which the Conchords and director James Bobin may well have believed at the time they shot the finale, but I hope for their sake that Murray somehow loses his fortune and is back working in the New Zealand consulate by the time of the second-season premiere.

It takes a lot of time to write good songs. Most of the tunes used in the first season have been around for several years, as those who have tracked down old Flight of the Conchords material on YouTube and file-sharing services can attest. In a lot of cases, Clement and McKenzie had literally hundreds of live performances to draw upon when picking the funniest ad libs and asides for the "definitive" television versions of their songs.

Whether the second season of "Flight of the Conchords" will be as deliciously loopy and lovable as the first depends, ironically, on whether the duo is more serious about being a band or TV stars. If Bret and Jemaine take as much time as they need to write a second season's worth of songs (which when you think about it is really two or three album's worth of recorded material, something that takes your average big-time rock band up to or more than ten years to complete) and tour behind their new material, then things will be fine. But if they rush into it and make more episodes like "The Third Conchord" that try and rely on their spoken comedy alone, the show could fall off the cliff faster than "Twin Peaks."

I don't want to see that happen. I haven't seen a TV show that made me instantly as happy as "Flight of the Conchords" the first time through since the first season of "Arrested Development." "AD" never topped its first season, mostly due to the fact that Fox kept chopping down its episode orders, but it remained funny and went out on a high note. I wish I could say that I had higher hopes than that for "Flight of the Conchords," but all of my past history with TV shows and rock music suggests a wait-and-see approach.

Who's Excited for the Fall Season?
2007-09-06 11:55
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I really do want to make myself write something every day in this space, both because I think it will be good for you the reader and me the writer. When I got into the habit of making only one very substantive post every couple of weeks, the barriers to my just stopping in for a couple seconds and trying out some ideas became insurmountable. I'm not the sort of person who likes to "blog on the fly," as it were; I prefer to ruminate for a while to compose my thoughts and figure out what my broader conclusion is before I sit down to type.

Since it's almost fall and therefore time for the return of all of our favorite network shows and the premiere of many, many new ones, it seems like a good time for me to force myself into the habit of blogging first and asking questions later. Unfortunately, I have just begun work at a new job overseeing college newspaper columnists for U-Wire, and as a result I now spend the majority of my mornings reading the perspective-free rantings of Generation Subliterate and mourning the constant misuse of my favorite punctuation mark; no one seems to heed the lonely, misunderstood semicolon. In the interests of keeping my new job, which I really do like since I enjoy eating, I'm not going to complain about it too much in this space, but there are some useful things I have learned in my first week on the job. First of all, and believe me I know how unoriginal a sentiment this is, but word processor spell check has got to go. Got to go. Second of all, every single stereotype you believe to be true about Duke University is completely on-target. Somebody needs to burn that place to the ground, stat.

I ended up seeing Superbad -- never mind how -- and I loved it. What a touching film. It is surely about time Judd Apatow and his crew made a project firmly centered on young women, though. As I've written before, Linda Cardellini's lead was the only one of the "Freaks and Geeks" cast that didn't ring true to me. (I also couldn't stand her little brother, but that was a casting issue and not a writing one. Boy, what a bummer Apatow didn't discover Christopher Mintz-Plasse until now.) On "Undeclared" the Monica Keena and Carla Gallo characters got short shrift. In his recent string of hit films Apatow has had a strong streak of nicely drawn female supporting roles, like Catherine Keener's G.I.L.F. from 40-Year-Old Virgin and the trio played by Martha MacIsaac, Emma Stone, and Aviva in Superbad. But it'll be interesting to see whether next summer's Forgetting Sarah Marshall, with Kristen Bell and Jason Segel (from Segel's own screenplay) indulges the game Bell to the same degree that established Apatow regulars Segel, Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd, and Bill Hader will get.

While Apatow (or his directing proxy, depending on the specific project) always gives each one of his "guys" at least one big scenery-chewing improvisation per film, he has a tendency to use actresses like stunt props -- look at the increasingly degrading roles for the extremely lovely Gallo in his last few pictures. I understand that Knocked Up, as yet unseen by me, addresses this issue somewhat but I still think there is work there to be done. Also, I have no idea where she is or what she's doing right now, but I can't be the only person in the world who thinks that Emma Caulfield and Judd Apatow need to take a long lunch meeting. There are few actresses who combine movie-star looks and superior comic timing any better, but that sort of comes back around to my point -- Apatow's comedies are surfing the leading edge of the zeitgeist right now in part because they make big-screen heroes out of regular-looking guys. But where, pray tell, are the normal-looking women? We need more roles like Christina Payano's from "Undeclared" and fewer like Gallo's "Period Blood Girl" and "Toe-Sucking Girl."

The fall season! I haven't done my due diligence yet as far as looking through the huge mess of premieres and figuring out which ones I need to be tuning in for, but I think I'll let the paid critics thin the deluge out for me a little bit first. There are some returning shows for which I am beginning to get excited. Will "Heroes" manage to avoid the second-year pitfalls that have befallen seemingly every heavy serialized network drama of the last several years? After a strong show of support from its network, can "30 Rock" turn a strong critical reputation into a mass audience? And will Tina Fey manage to make it through an entire half-hour episode without putting her supposedly plain-Jane heroine into a ball gown or tank top that in HD practically forces her décolletage into the viewer's face?

The show I am really eager to get back on board with is "Lost," but we won't see any new episodes until 2008. In entertainment-industry terms, that's an eternity. Which brings us back around to the suddenly ubiquitous Kristen Bell. (Who else taped that picture from Entertainment Weekly of Bell in a Chewbacca T-shirt to their fridge?) "Lost" and "Heroes," apparently, engaged in quite a bidding war trying to secure Bell's services after "Veronica Mars" bit the dust. Kristen elected to go with "Heroes," in part because they were willing to offer a role with flexibility -- she can leave if she becomes a big huge movie star, and she could become a regular if that's the direction her career goes. I can't think of any reason why she wouldn't become hugely famous, given the fact that she's driven, articulate, and freakin' adorable, but it will be fascinating to see how things play out. By the time "Lost" gets around to not telling us why Jack has to get back to the island, "Heroes" could be terribly unfashionable. A show can lose momentum in a heartbeat; look at "Joan of Arcadia" or "Desperate Housewives," or even "Lost" this time last year. So we'll see whether Bell made the right decision. Getting off of the CW network, by hook or by crook, was unquestionably a smart move.