Saturday, March 31, 2012

Fringe - "Nothing as It Seems"

Season 4, Episode 16

“You remember you said all of this would stop being strange?”

Apparently this is just a week for purposeful repetition in television, with both Community and 30 Rock doing episodes that used callbacks to previous episodes in order to tell their stories, and now Fringe doing the same. There's a reason that I cited two comedies for this example, as it's the form which most often uses this trope, and does so the most effectively. (One of my favorites was a fifth season Scrubs episode, which essentially just re-filmed all of the show's best bits from the previous four seasons and made it into an episode.) With dramas, such a move is a bit trickier, as it usually requires to take on some sort of thematic relevance, or barring that, at least have a specific purpose as it relates to the overall narrative. 

Community - "Digital Exploration of Interior Design"

Season 3, Episode 13

“Another pillow fort? Kind of repeating yourself, aren't you?”

Few things are as intrinsic to comedy as repetition. There are so many ways in which it can used to great effect, from simple exchanges that hinge on the same or similar phrases being used throughout, or simply just mining laughs from something happening over and over and over and over and over again, like Sideshow Bob and his cursed foe, the rake. However, when it comes to comedic storytelling, the use of repetition isn't necessarily required, and using it become much trickier. While it can be the sign of a show that's run out of ideas, repeating storylines purposefully is also problematic, as it can lead to diminishing returns and/or dashed expectations.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Happy Endings - "Big White Lies"

Season 2, Episode 20 

“Regular schmoes like us need to be nice.” 

Many times on this blog, I have railed against shows – usually comedies – for relying on tired and/or clichéd plots, things that you've seen a million times, and know where the story is headed. However, I make exceptions to this rule when a show is able to use a cliché in a new or meaningful way, or to subvert the tropes original usage. “Big White Lies”, an episode whose title gives away the trope in question, manages to do just that, and it's becomes a fairly enjoyable episode because of it. 

Justified - "Measures"

Season 3, Episode 11 

“I'll clean that up.” 

Is Raylan Givens an anti-hero? That's a question that's been bumping around the internet lately, usually under the guise of other conversations, but it's one that I think is important to understand when talking about the show, and about the character's somewhat diminished role this season. Certainly Raylan has a morality that lines up with the average Western World philosophy more often than not, but he's also a deeply angry man, one who is more prone to violence than most. Obviously he is purposefully drawn in such an ambiguous manner that the show wants us to think about this, but how you see Raylan probably says a lot about how you view the show in general, and answering that question becomes key in “Measures.” 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Alcatraz - "Garrett Stillman"/"Tommy Madsen"

Season 1, Episodes 12-13 

“In any Faustian tale, a Devil is often needed. However misunderstood.” 

At this point, it would be unwise to pretend that Alcatraz is going to come back. I mean, in this current anemic-ratings television market, I suppose anything is possible (just look at how the network brought Breaking In back from the dead for no real reason), but given how far its ratings have slipped since the premiere, it's more likely to go away than not. This reason alone seems to give the season's/series' last two hours an undercurrent of desperation, as if they are just daring FOX to cancel the show, what with all this cool shit that happens. But there's also a far more depressing sort of desperation, as the show tries to tie everything together from the previous 11 episodes, because while not everything works, it shows a version of the show that works a lot better than what we had previously. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Mad Men - "A Little Kiss"

Season 5, Episodes 1-2 

“You're all so cynical. You don't smile, you smirk.” 

It's long been an accepted fact that one of Mad Men's defining traits is how it differed from the public perception of the 1960s. While the majority of the people perceive the 1960s a period of great social change – and it indeed was, in part – things that would define the decade like race riots, feminism, and a growing distrust in the government wouldn't really happen until the second half of the decade. As such, the first four seasons of Mad Men have taken an approach that's antithetical to the public memory of the decade, but one which is more historically accurate, as it works through the lens of impending societal doom for the white men at the center of the narrative. Yet as the show enters its fifth season, and drops in the audience in the summer of 1966, the narrative has to change, and “A Little Kiss” eases us into this new environment through story elements both internal and external.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Fringe - "A Short Story About Love"

Season 4, Episode 15 

“I don't want to feel like this anymore.” 

It's been four weeks since Fringe aired its last new episode. Welcome back. Are you well rested? Did the time away help you to gain a little perspective about the show? Nah, me neither. However, the time away did temper the frustration that I've been feeling with the show (absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that), but I'm not really sure if it prepared me for what I was about to watch, an episode that managed to further answer some of my questions/concerns about the season as whole, but was frustrating for a large part of running time – and for reasons that surprisingly had little to do with the serialized plot. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Archer - "Space Race, Part II"

Season 3, Episode 13 

Given the relatively poor job that Archer has done in wrapping up hanging storylines, both in terms of how the “Heart of Archness” trilogy played out, and really just the overall Katya storyline, I think I can be forgiven for being skeptical of this, the season finale of Archer and the second half of the “Space Race” storyline. However, given that “Part I” was so much better than any of the three “Archness” episodes, I guess it shouldn't be surprising that “Part II” managed to pull just about everything off so well. 

Community - "Contemporary Impressionists"

Season 3, Episode 12 

“Maybe too inaccessible and a little too dark.” 

So perhaps the there was something to the fact that last week's episode felt so open, considering that that episode and this one were switched from their original production orders. My bad. However, no matter the degree to which this switch threw viewers off in terms of continuity – and I would argue that it wasn't really that jarring – I think it was worth it, because I would hate to have seen viewers turned off by an episode such as the one we had this week, which took Community's trademark weirdness, and turned the dial up just a bit too high. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Happy Endings - "You Snooze, You Bruise"

Season 2, Episode 19

Some weeks, I feel like I have very little to say about Happy Endings, and considering the light, disposable, 3-gags-a-minute kind of show that it is, that's perfectly all right with me. Especially when the show can be as funny as this one was.

Cougar Town - "Something Big"

Season 3, Episode 6 

At the point, we all know the notes that Cougar Town is going to hit. It's going to give us some nice, weird humor for the first twenty minutes, then some pathos in the back two, and we'll all leave the show smiling and happy. Adherence to a formula for too long a time can break a show, but this particular formula is one that Bill Lawrence has had success with for many years, if you count all the way back to 2001 with Scrubs, and it's one that's still working today. This is formula that has an incredibly long shelf-life, assuming you know how to utilize properly and aren't afraid to adjust the humor/pathos ratio from week-to-week. So until the day comes when that formula breaks down and the episodes start to feel route and calculated, it will be up to us to discuss how the show uses the formula each week in order to deliver some stellar episode like this one. 

Justified - "Guy Walks into a Bar"

Season 3, Episode 10 

“You are a conquistador, but we are not your savages.” 

If Justified's main problem is the fact that it spends too much time on the villains, and not enough on the heroes, it's going to have to make that dynamic work for the better, and that's exactly what “Guy Walks into a Bar” did, even if it did so in a bit of a roundabout manner.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Alcatraz - "Webb Porter"

Season 1, Episode 11 

“I wasn't always like this, you know.” 

Since the beginning – which really wasn't all that long ago, I realize – Alcatraz has relied on an oversimplified interpretation of psychology in order to explain the psyches of it's prisoners. I wouldn't call it a reliance on pop psychology – though there certainly are some instances of that – but rather the one cause, one effect model. Something bad or traumatic happens to a '63 either while they are young or while they are locked up, and that's what causes them to act the way that they do. Tonight, the show tried to mix it up by having an inmate suffer lasting effects from both before and during lockup, and in addition to highlighting the show's use of oversimplified characterization, it also ended up just being one giant, muddled mess. 

How I Met Your Mother - "The Broath"

Season 7, Episode 19 

How I Met Your Mother has had a particularly bumpy ride over the past few months, as emotional twist after emotional twist has left me exhausted, and without anything to show for it. In it's prime, the show was able to deliver the some of the best emotional beats that I have ever seen on a four-cam, and it seems like the show has been trying to recapture it as of late. Yet while last season was able to up the pathos and deliver some of the strongest beats in the show's entire run, it seems like this season is trying to push that even further and its become to much, and each successive twist leaves me colder and colder. So it was quit surprising tonight when the show was able to take some of the more recent questionable story twists and deliver an emotionally resonant half hour. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Walking Dead - "Beside the Dying Fire"

Season 2, Episode 13 

“This isn't a democracy anymore.” 

The basis of most of the complaints against The Walking Dead essentially boils down to how the characters talk too much and there's just not enough zombie killin'. By that logic, tonight's season finale, which seemed to be pretty much nothing but zombie killin', should have been a slam dunk, especially considering how adept the show has proven itself at staging zombie scenes in the past. However, something must have gotten lost in the translation of expanding those zombie attacks to a longer running time, because tonight's episode was actually sort of boring, despite all of the action that took place on screen.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Archer - "Space Race, Part I"

Season 3, Episode 12 

“Fucking space.” 

Here we are, the first part of the two-parter that will close out the third season of Archer, and the show went with an idea that really could only be pulled off on a show such as Archer: the entire crew somehow ended up in outer space. It's a genre trapping so clichéd, awful and awesome at the same time, that this very easily could have been disastrous for the show. Luckily that wasn't the case. 

Community - "Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts"

Season 3, Episode 11 

“It's almost too conceptual to follow, but I love it.” 

The following expression of joy is brought to you by Community fans everywhere:


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Happy Endings - "Party of Six"

Season 2, Episode 18 

Part of the what makes Happy Endings work so often is that it is able to introduce what seems like a tired sitcom plot, and manages to invert it or put it's own twist on the proceedings. (It's fitting then that the show's worst episodes are those that don't twist those premises enough.) One-liners are great, and part of the reason the show is so funny is because it manages to pack so many jokes into an episode, but jokes alone don't always make for great comedy, and that's why I find the show's distortion of cliches so important to it's success. So then what are we to make of an episode that purposefully uses tropes to tell it's story, and is actually successful in the process?

Justified - "Loose Ends"

Season 3, Episode 9 

“You always bring broken things in here, tryin' to fix 'em.” 

I've been loathe to admit this both because I was trying to give the show the time to get over this hurdle on it's own time, and because I would hate to go against the critical consensus and thus in anyway be “wrong”, but I haven't really loved this season of Justified like I loved season two. I mean I still really enjoy this season, but I don't love it, and that's a crucial distinction that I feel I has to be made in criticism. I believe the reason for this is that while last season gave Raylan a direct connection to the criminal world – thus making it more weighty and intense – this season has mostly seen him removed from the action. There's been a lot of genius plotting that I can appreciate, and individual moments of tension that grip me, but as a whole I just don't feel the same pull that I did last year.  

So it's only fitting that the week that I finally acknowledge what's hindering my complete enjoyment is also the week where the show offers up hope of a fix. 

Cougar Town - "One Story Town"

Season 3, Episode 5 

Last week I spilled a considerable amount of digital ink discussing what I considered to by Bill Lawerence's misguided attempts to lure in new fans to Cougar Town by employing a star of his previous shows Scrubs (in this case Sarah Chalke). I still hold to that theory, but I want to make sure, even though I said it in my previous review, that as a fan of both shows I enjoyed it from a creative perspective, even if I didn't see in real marketing value in it. (Then again, I'm also not won over by shows who use big name guest stars as stunt casting either, so maybe I'm just not the target audience for such a move, and I will thus never buy into the logic behind it.) It's important to understand that so that you believe me when I say that I enjoyed this episode, which had even more appearance by Scrubs alums, even more – though it wasn't solely based on their appearance.

Alcatraz - "Clarence Montgomery"

Season 1, Episode 10 

Tonight's episode of Alcatraz was originally meant to air two weeks ago, yet was preempted by a rescheduled NASCAR race, and then for whatever reason, was preempted for the next two scheduled episode, before finally airing tonight. Obviously, the network didn't feel as if the reorder would affect anything, and for the most part they were right, since the events of the episode weren't predicated on anything we didn't know past the third episode, and there were only some slight revelations by the end. So instead of repeating myself again concerning the show's major flaws, I would like instead to discuss something far more troubling: this episode's awful depictions of both racism and race. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Walking Dead - "Better Angels"

Season 2, Episode 12 

One of the questions that I continually ask myself is whether this season of The Walking Dead has been building to anything, if the writers have been planning these events as lead up to some sort of climax, or if they're just plugging in plot points either to pad out time or because they happened in the comic book. While I won't deny that there have been some strong moments this season, as a whole it has been mostly rudderless, just bouncing around from plot point to plot point with only a few thin connective tissues holding the whole thing together. But as we close out the back half of the season, the show seems to have improved in this department (no doubt thanks to Glenn Mazarra taking the reins), to the end that “Better Angels” might have been the best episode of the season so far. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Archer - "Skin Game"

Season 3, Episode 11 

After a few bumps in the road, Archer returned with a strong episode in “Skin Game”, and it did so by using some of the same narrative tricks that I have decried the show using in the past. 

Parks and Recreation - "Lucky"

Season 4, Episode 18

When it was first introduced, Leslie's run for city council seemed like another creative boon to Parks and Recreation. After all, season three saw an uptick in quality thanks to the Harvest Festival arc, and the rest of the season was similarly driven by Leslie and Ben's budding relationship, so it would make sense that another, even more inclusive arc would make for another great season, especially one that would place Leslie outside of her element and hopefully let us know more about her. And for the most part, the show has done that, and done it very successfully, but as we reach the later parts of the season, some parts of this arc are starting to wear a little thin, especially in regards to Leslie herself. 

SNL - "Jonah Hill/The Shins"

Season 37, Episode 17

So here's my problem with Jonah Hill: while I don't actively dislike like him in anything that he's done, I've never found him to be all that funny. He's caustic, and the best movies he's done have managed to make that work, but I'm always conscientious of the fake that I'm rarely laughing because of anything that Hill is doing – it's always the script that's actually funny. As such, I don't understand why he's been invited back to SNL, especially since his first time hosting wasn't anything better than average. Still, there's always a chance for improvement, right?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Happy Endings - "The Kerkovich Way"

Season 2, Episode 17 

“Nothing changes.” 

What do we expect from Happy Endings at this point in the show's run? What was once an enjoyable light, swift-footed, and hilarious show has taken a few uneasy steps into more of a traditional rom com this season, and it's a move that has left this humble critic a bit stymied. On any given week, it's become harder and harder to tell which kind of show we'll be tuning into, and regardless of the show's varying level of skill at each kind of formula, it often makes for a very unsettling experience which shifting from one mode to the other, and often without much warning. 

Justified - "Watching the Detectives"

Season 3, Episode 8 

“It seems you dodged another in a long series of bullets.” 

In the midst of a great and tension-filled season, Justified somehow managed to keep that tension going while also fixing one of those trouble areas that's somehow way too easy for people to overlook: the show's focus on Raylan. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Cougar Town - "Full Moon Fever"

Season 3, Episode 4 

What makes Cougar Town bankable in it's current state? For the show's first seven episodes or so, it was the original, hokey premise, but it was one that worked. Yet as the writers began to shift out of that original focus, and the audience numbers began to dwindle, it became apparent that that wasn't the case, neither was the supposed start power of Courtney Cox, nor the various special guest stars that the show could book, which at best moved the ratings needle for one episode and no more. It obvious at this point that Bill Lawrence has created a weird little world that's not meant for everyone, and that's fine, but it's strange that Lawrence and Co. keep trying to get viewers to try some unconventional humor by using conventional methods. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Alcatraz - "Johnny McKee"/"The Ames Brothers"/"Sonny Burnett"

Season 1, Episode 7-9 

“There's no such thing as just doing time. You're either predator or prey.” 

All shows have growing pains in their first seasons, those first handful of awkward episodes where the writers are still tweaking with the formula, the stories, the characters, in order to make the best possible show out of the elements they have on hand. This goes at least double for genre shows that have overarching mythology, as the show has to experiment in order to find the perfect balance between serialized and standalone elements. Obviously, not all shows get through the growing pains period on the right foot, but those that do should be commended. Depending on your overall sense of patience, Alcatraz should have already gone through this phase (and given the declining ratings, most of America seems to be in agreement with this statement), but these past three episodes serve as nice snapshot of what the show is doing right, and what it's doing wrong. 

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Walking Dead - "Judge, Jury, Executioner"

Season 2, Episode 11 

“You just want to go around in circles again?” 

There only so many ways that I can express my disappointment with The Walking Dead, especially when it keeps making the same mistakes week after week. Even when the episodes are good, as last week's was, I find myself talking about the show's persistent problems and how quality episodes seem to overcome them. The problem with this approach is that sometimes critics can fall into the frustrating trap of criticizing a show for something that it's not trying to be, which is both unfair to the show and frustrating to the critic. But I'm not confused about what TWD wants to be, and I don't think the show is either. So makes it frustrating is episodes like “Judge, Jury, Executioner”, which has some good ideas – and even some good scenes – but manages to bungle the execution in some form or fashion. 

Archer - "Bloody Ferlin"/"Crossing Over"

Season 3, Episodes 9-10 

One of the pressures that most comedies face as they grow on in years – especially those comedies that have one bombastic personality in the center, with a lot of secondary and tertiary characters to fill in the background – is to give those second- and third-tier characters stories of their own. It's usually a move that's brought about by both creative and artistic needs, as writers search for new stories to tell, and/or actors buck for more screen time. It's something that Archer's done in the past, and given how poorly it worked in the first two seasons, it's surprising that the show would try again. Yet that Mallory-centric episode was actually pretty solid, so maybe there's something there. Yet when you take “Bloody Ferlin” and “Crossing Over” as a pair, it's clear that the show still has some work to do. 

SNL - "Lindsay Lohan/Jack White"

Season 37, Episode 16 

Tonight sees the return of Lindsay Lohan to the SNL stage, and the third time she's done so in order to stage some sort of career comeback. Like so many other desperate and/or hacky actors that have graced the stage (I know, they usually go hand-in-hand) so isn't like this is unprecedented, but considering that she doesn't seem to have anything to promote (except for her recent Playboy spread, I guess) so that makes this episode reek of extra desperation.

So, who wants to jump in first?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Parks and Recreation - "Sweet Sixteen"/"Campaign Shake-Up"

Season 4, Episodes 16-17 

The season, Parks and Recreation has fitfully dealt with the reality of what Leslie's campaign will mean for her position as deputy director of the Parks Department. Now, as a comedy, hell as television show, the writers has every right to disregard the rules of reality and instead play by rules that make for better piece of entertainment. However, because the show does seem to exist in a world that closely mirrors our own, and given that show's work best when they stick to their internal rules, Leslie and her cohorts should be sticking more closely to our sense of reality. The show still hasn't totally found a way to work in the legal hurdles in an organic fashion, but these past two episodes have found a way to make the human angle so believable.

Happy Endings - "The Butterfly Effect Effect"/"Cocktails & Dreams"

Season 2, Episodes 15-16 

As a show that's usually, purposefully, and relatively plotless – and all the better for it – it can be hard to pin down just what we should expect from Happy Endings when it comes to issues of continuity. Sure, all comedies seem to have their running gags that seem to make their show richer, but those are so far infiltrated into the world of TV that even a show like The Big Bang Theory, which essentially hits the reset button every week, has it's own share of them. The problem with Happy Endings is that it seems to want to work in both of these veins, and the juxtaposition of these past two episodes suggest that maybe that isn't the best idea.

Justified - "When the Guns Come Out"/"The Man Behind the Curtain"

Season 3, Episodes 6-7 

“This here's the carrot. What's the stick?” 

Perhaps my favorite part of any serialized narrative – especially those that are only season-long in length – is the point where it all starts coming together, where the story bits start coalescing into a more recognizable whole. As a fan of serialized television, it feels like a payoff seeing those bits that I couldn't make heads or tails off coming into focus and showing their worth, a validation of the time I spent watching the show as worthwhile. For Justified specifically, this moment is perhaps the second biggest of any season, right after whatever explosive resolution the writers come up with. The show is rightly invested in giving viewers an organic story worth watching, and while it makes for a great payoff, it also makes for frustrated early viewing, and that makes these episodes something of a relief as well.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Cougar Town - "A Mind with a Heart of its Own”/“Lover's Touch”

Season 3, Episodes 2-3 

With Cougar Town now firmly entrenched in it's third season (though whether that third will turn into a fourth remains unclear, given that the show's rating didn't seem to move at all, and ABC still treats it like dirt) the burden falls on to the second and third seasons to define just what this season is going to be about. Now for most comedies, and especially for one that's has a relaxed tone like Cougar Town, having your seasons be “about” or point to something isn't really that important of a requirement, and that's okay. But given how season one of the show was about Jules' rediscovering herself after divorce, and season two was about new relationships (for both Jules and Travis), it would seem to follow that season three would do the same.