Friday, December 23, 2011

TV Report Card: Fall/Winter 2011


Way, way too much television this season. I've made many attempts to cut back over the years, but failed miserably by having 12 (!) rotating shows during this season. Why so much? Truthfully, I've been trying to fill the void that was left by Lost two years ago. Despite only running in the spring, that show consumed me all year long. There was enough meat and potatoes in Lost that left me full and satisfied all year round. But while this fall had strong shows, none of them came close to being as satisfying as that island drama. Some came out as big winners, though. In order of preference, it's time to grade my shows from this fall/early winter season so far.

The most viscerally exciting by far is The Walking Dead. Many critics and fans complained that this show "talks too much;" that for a show about zombies, there seems to be very little zombie action. Well, I completely disagree. The writers did a bang up job tightening the screws and allowing us to get to know our characters. Arriving at Hershel's farm was a fantastic creative decision. Who are these people we watch every week and what makes them tick? Sure, there are still some weak spots (other than missing her daughter, we still know nothing about Carol and we haven't seen T-Dog do much of anything since he infected his arm), but the good stuff far outweighs the bad. Daryl, Glenn, Dale, Andrea - they all got some juicy arcs and added much-needed layers to their previously underwritten characters. In the meantime, Rick, Shane and Lori's series-long story strands came to a thrilling twist when she announced her pregnancy and came clean to Rick about Shane.

The newbies are rather interesting as well. Hershel is a good, conflicted character; he is a man with several shades of gray. I really enjoyed Scott Wilson's portrayal here. It's certainly understandable why he wanted everyone out of there. And should they all move on, I would love to see Maggie stick around with us. Lauren Cohan radiates a warm screen presence. And how about that midseason finale? The phenomenal last act was a terrific culmination of all of this season's story strands. And that final twist was just perfect. Now that I know more about these people, I can't wait to see what happens to them. February cannot come any sooner. Season so far: 5/5. Series to date: 4.5/5.

Last year's best show is still just as good this season. Parenthood is in season 3 and everyone involved has found their groove. Early in the run, showrunner Jason Katims would try to force some characters into stories that didn't quite fit right, but now everything flows naturally. Putting Peter Krause and Dax Shepard together to create The Luncheonette is one example of bringing out the best of both actors. The chemistry between the two brothers is palpable and sincere. Shepard's character has shown the most growth in the series so far and he's a pleasure to watch. Also really liking the material they are giving Julia and Joel. They are just good people trying to do right by everyone. And someone please give Lauren Graham an Emmy already! One suggestion for Katims: more stories for Mae Whitman, Sarah Ramos, Miles Heizer and Max Burkholder. As I've mentioned in this post last year, these are some of the best teen actors I've seen on TV since My So-Called Life. Season so far: 5/5. Series to date: 4.5/5

And speaking of My So-Called Life, Claire Danes is something of a revelation, isn't she? I always knew she was a terrific actress but last year's Temple Grandin showed me how great she can really be. Now add Carrie Matheson to her impressive roster of great achievements. She's breathtaking in Homeland, which is by far the best new show of the season. It started out as an interesting cat-and-mouse thriller and soon escalated into something excruciatingly tense. This is smart storytelling. The creators of 24 wisely took their talents to cable television where their characters were allowed to breathe and plots could unfold in more organic ways. Damian Lewis's Brody kept us on our toes all season long and his performance in the finale should have him locked for a Best Actor trophy at next year's Emmys. Also, I can't forget to mention Mandy Patinkin's beautifully restrained performance as Carrie's mentor Saul - he could very well be the soul of the show. Homeland is not perfect, but for pulling off a complicated premise during its debut season, it is a confident, assured thriller and fantastic television. This season: 4.5/5

There's only one show on TV these days that is guaranteed to make me laugh every week and that is Modern Family. Though it's not quite as pitch perfect as its first two seasons, this third go-around proves that creator/producer Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd know precisely what they are doing. Each member of this cast is a brilliant performer and most of them don't even need a line of dialogue to make us laugh. My only caveat: it's season 3 and none of these characters have evolved yet. I think in order to achieve long-term success, we need to see growth and evolution to the Pritchett/Dunphy clans. I'm afraid we're going to be seeing many of the same plots recycled over and over again. Let's hope they manage to keep things fresh, and so far, so good. Season so far: 4.5/5. Series to date: 5/5

Modern Family should take notes on how to evolve a sitcom and encourage growth. How I Met Your Mother, a once lengen-waitforit-dary sitcom currently in its 7th season, lost its way a bit in recent years but I'm happy to say the show is experiencing a wonderful resurgance. Lily's pregnancy, Barney's newfound desire for commitment and Robin's courtship with her therapist are all providing rich storylines. Something about this season feels fresh and invigorating. Could it be that the writers have stopped force-feeding us clues about the "mother" of the title? It's so nice to see Ted just being Ted. Also, the writers are really on top of their game giving us episodes like The Ducky Tie, which gave us a whole new dimension of The Slap Bet, and Tick, Tick, Tick, which hilariously featured Ted and Marshall stoned at a concert. Comedy gold. Season so far: 4.5/5. Series to date: 4/5

Grey's Anatomy is also on fire this year. My wife and I made a decision to save this season's first half until the holidays so we can knock them all out during rerun season. Maybe that unbroken viewing pattern helped make this season one of their best and most enjoyable in many years. Webber is ousted as chief, Hunt has taken over, Derek is blacklisted from the FDA and estranged from his wife, and Meredith is trying out motherhood. It's refreshing to see these four characters in new roles this year. All of the other stories flowed nicely, and we saw some fine guest turns from Debbie Allen, Alfre Woodard and Scott Foley. Like HIMYM, after many years on the air, there's still life in this show yet! Season so far: 4/5. Series to date: 3.5/5

See, Ryan Murphy screwed up. Before premiering American Horror Story, he should have mentioned that it was going to be a seasonal anthology series. Each season would be self-contained with its own story, cast, theme, etc. Had I known this, I wouldn't have been spending a lot of time wondering where is this show going? It's a haunted house story, period. There's nothing else to it! It was a frustrating experience as the plot kept going in circles (dead people show up, scare the Harmons, disappear, and come back again later), and I just couldn't get excited about a show that had no driving storyline. But having said that, the show did have its moments of high camp and good twists. The show really took off during the last three episodes where the Harmons were killed off one by one and became latter-day Beetlejuices. It wasn't until it was all over when I realized what Murphy was up to. Hindsight can be a bitch, but hey, I think I dug it. This season: 3/5

The final season of Desperate Housewives is shaping up to be neither their best season nor their worst. This is actually a slightly above average season featuring some strong arcs and performances (the murder coverup actually works because it keeps our girls together), cleverly bringing back the themes of season one. What brought Mary Alice to suicide? Isolation. The strength of her friendship with the girls wasn't strong enough to keep her going. Will Bree suffer from the same fate?  Nothing earth-shattering here, but hey, a lot of laundry gets folded in our house during Desperate Housewives. And folding laundry has never been so enjoyable. Season so far: 3/5. Series to date: 3/5

My wife and I tried out two sitcoms with varying degrees of success. New Girl is the best of the two, despite being too cutesy at times. I think Zooey Deschanel is adorable but her character is too cartoonish to really be able to relate to her. Her three male roommates, however, ground her to reality and, as an ensemble, these four young adults entering their 30's actually gel nicely together. New Girl is inconsistent and has lots of work to do, but I believe time will serve these folks well. Consider me charmed, if only for the time being. Season so far: 3/5

Suburgatory is less successful. I love Jeremy Sisto and the actress who plays his daughter, Jane Levy. They have a beautiful rapport with one another and their scenes together bring a smile to my face. However, the rest of the cast is insufferable. Everyone is a cartoon; shrill, overacted, buffoonish cartoons. I always ask - why do Tessa and George always hang out with them? Maybe in season two they will move back to Manhattan with an all new supporting cast. Hey, one can always dream. Season so far: 2.5/5

Is Ryan Murphy deliberately assassinating his characters on Glee? It seems everyone is making heinous, selfish decisions that don't seem to gel with the characters we've come to love from season 1. Quinn scheming to destroy Shelby in order to get her baby back is as false and manipulative as the idea of Puck shacking up with her. This whole storyline is one of the worst ideas the writers ever had. And Rachel costing Kurt the election by rigging the votes? She's not that dumb. And is she really that selfish that she will embarrass her good-natured boyfriend Finn because he couldn't afford any of the items on her Christmas list? And isn't she Jewish? The outing of Santana was nowhere nearly as emotional as Kurt's, because the writers made her character so insufferable. How can we possibly care about anything she does or say when she does nothing but hurl empty insults to everyone in her sight? And don't get me started with Sue. She continues to bring the show down every week. Like Santana, she's just a mouthful of one-liners. No wonder Chris Colfer gets all of the awards recognition -- Kurt Hummel is the only character that feels remotely real.

So what did I like on Glee this year? Giving Mercedes an edge worked wonders for her character (her Effie rendition was phenomenal); Mike Chang got some much-needed depth with a story involving his parents; the first time Kurt/Blaine and Finn/Rachel have sex was actually thoughtfully written and refreshingly honest; and any screen time devoted to Coach Beiste and Burt Hummel is always a good thing, regardless of the dumb stories they are involved in. Oh, Glee. You're a mess. You piss me off so many times but yet I can't look away. I'm sticking with you.... for now. Season so far: 2.5/5. Series to date: 3.5/5

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. This season of Dexter was all sorts of clumsy and inept. The religion angle was an inspiring choice of direction for the writers to pursue but the execution was completely ham-handed and lacking in dramatic tension. Introducing Brother Sam (played very well by Mos Def) as a spiritual voice was promising to start with but ended so abruptly and without consequence for Dexter (or the viewer). Colin Hanks was a bore and was entirely unconvincing as this season's Big Bad (I've never seen a respected actor like Edward James Olmos do so little; he brought nothing to the table). The staff at Miami Metro are as clueless and inept as they've ever been. The only redeeming thing about Dexter this season was Debra Morgan, played superbly by Jennifer Carpenter. She got promoted, broke up with Quinn and handled some very tough challenges. Debra grew as a character and her metamorphosis was absorbing and fun to watch. So how will this finale's new twist play out next year? I'll tune in to watch, of course, but my expectations are very, very low. Perhaps now there's no where else to go but up? This season: 2/5 Series to date: 3.5/5

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Quick Takes: November '11 Wrap Up

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon (2011) wasn't exactly a strong start to the month of November. But at least I got the worst of it done with right off the bat. What a loud, garish mess. It's sad because I'm a huge fan of the original Transformers, a funny, ridiculously entertaining action blockbuster. The second film was a big step down but it wasn't terrible. It was enjoyable up to a point. But TF3? Unwatchable. All of the heart, charm and spectacle of the original is completely gone. I'm surprised I made it all the way through without turning it off. Oh, the torture of being a completist! 1/5

Bad Teacher (2011) was a disappointment considering how much I love this cast. I think Cameron Diaz is a remarkable talent but she doesn't have a good track record of choosing strong material. Justin Timberlake, a movie star in the making, took a step backwards by playing this role of a dorky substitute teacher too broadly. Only the terribly underused Jason Segel shines brightly here. But he wasn't enough to save this middling, sporadically humorous comedy from Jake Kasden. 2/5

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop (2011) doesn't have much depth nor did I walk away feeling any differently about the whole late night mess. While O'Brien appears very likable on stage, he is actually a deeply sarcastic man which often makes for uncomfortable viewing. It's a bummer that we learn nothing of what makes him tick, really; we only know that he is pissed because his dream job was taken from him prematurely. In the grand scheme of things, these problems are minuscule (O'Brien walked away with millions to retire early) so it's hard to feel really badly for him. 2.5/5

The hype machine can be a vicious thing. When you wait to see a popular movie after it has had some time in the spotlight, you risk the chance of clouding your judgment. When I saw Little Miss Sunshine a few months after it came out, I was worried - it couldn't possibly be that good. Well, I was wrong and it ended up being one of my favorite films that year. Was Bridesmaids (2011) just as lucky? Not quite. I'm afraid it falls in the same camp as The Hangover. It's a funny film with standout performances and memorable set pieces. But is it a great film? Is it a classic? I'm afraid not. Melissa McCarthy is wonderful as Meg, and she deserves all of the praise she has gotten this year (she will always be Lorelai's BFF in my eyes). I do have to say, though, that I'm totally digging Kristen Wiig's career trajectory this year. She's our next Tina Fey. She anchors Bridesmaids with skill and verve. 3.5/5

The next two films came out of nowhere and shocked the hell out of me. I wouldn't be surprised if either landed on my Best of the Year list. First, Hanna (2011), the third film from Joe Wright, whose Atonement was not a film I was crazy for (The Soloist is unseen by me). But Wright is a gifted filmmaker and Hanna is a fantastic showcase for his talents. It's a kick-ass action thriller that features Saoirse Ronan in a performance that should guarantee her a Hollywood career for life. Eric Bana is a former spy who trains her daughter to become an assassin in order to avenge her mother's death. Hanna is a film of many themes - family, honor, revenge - and it's also a film of technical brilliance. Fused with a hypnotic score from The Chemical Brothers, Hanna has impressive scenes with long takes, gorgeous frame work and stunning photography. 4.5/5

Then I saw another great film immediately afterwards, a movie I had zero expectations for. After experiencing the pleasure of Hanna, I embarked on The Trip (2011), a British road comedy that also features some terrific scenery and inventive editing. But that's where the similarities end. The Trip is actually a 3-hour BBC miniseries pared down to a 100-minute film for America and the result is an oddly affectionate look at two friends who share a common bond of films, food and culture. Assembled by the ever-so-versatile filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, The Trip is a fantastic showcase for two very funny men: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Most of their exchanges are improvised, but there is a caustic, biting wit that underscores their lively and often hilarious conversations. Their dueling Michael Caine impersonations are among the funniest bits of material I've heard all year. "But she's only 16 years old! You were supposed to blow the bloody doors down!" 4.5/5

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) had a lot going for it during its first hour. I was really digging the Indiana Jones vibe and that period detail so meticulously crafted by director Joe Johnston. Chris Evans is a charming lead and the relationship between him and scientist Stanley Tucci was brief but warm-hearted. But unfortunately the plot kicked into autopilot midway into the film and all elements of surprise and sure-footed pacing went right out the window. It's too bad. I liked Captain America enough to recommend it but disappointed that it failed to live up to its potential. 3/5

Red State (2011) also suffered a similar fate, though it is a more successful picture. The first half of Kevin Smith's electrifying career departure is a tense thriller about a couple of oversexed teenage boys and their ill-fated quest for nookie. What follows is an unpredictable, though wildly uneven, potboiler that is anchored (and saved) by a terrific, commanding performance by John Goodman. The villains - notably Michael Parks and Melissa Leo - were too one-note to stick with me and the post-shoot out scenes were somewhat anticlimactic. Red State is a little bit of a mess, but it's a very entertaining one and marks a promising rebirth of a director in need of a change. 3.5/5

My sole big screen outing in November: A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (2011). I'm not a fan of 3D; I find the practice distracting and it takes me out of the story. 3D turns movies into amusement park rides, and that's not what I love about this medium. That said, I got a few good laughs out of this movie - some at the expense of the 3D format. The use of 3D here is effective and doesn't feel like a cheap studio ploy to rake in more bucks. The film itself does not compare to the original classic (yes, I said it; it's a classic), but I'd say it's on par with Guantanamo Bay. And once again, Neil Patrick Harris all but steals the show. 3/5

After some heavy hitting new releases, I plowed through a few older titles I had been meaning to see for some time now. The first, a documentary I'd been hearing raves about: Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father (2008). What a heartbreaker. Director Kurt Kuenne pieces together a video diary about a young man named Andrew Bagby who was senselessly killed by his mentally unstable girlfriend. The video diary was intended to be a keepsake for Andrew's newborn son, Zachary, who would learn that his father was a decent man who was well loved by many. The film takes a tragic turn midway and Kuenne keenly observes how fragile life can be. The real stars of Dear Zachary are Andrew's tirelessly devoted parents, David and Kate. They are two people we could use more of in this world. 4/5

The next film is yet another doc from the same year, but it could have been made anytime in the last 5 years and very little would have changed. I.O.U.S.A. (2008) matter-of-factly spells out our nations problems with debt. This is dry stuff; the filmmakers don't really attempt to liven things up with human-interest anecdotes, which I wish they did. It's still an informative must-see, if only educate yourself on how our country got to where we are financially and where we are headed. It's not pretty, folks. We're in deep shit. Our kids and grand kids will be paying for these problems and that notion is kind of depressing. 3/5

Michael Keaton really needs to make more films. I rather adored his quirky little comedy, Game 6 (2005), which is the first screenplay from renowned novelist and playwright Dom DeLillo. Keaton is a playwright on the cusp of a career crossroads - his next play will either end his career or catapult him into greatness, the result hinging from the response of a much-feared critic (a well cast Robert Downey, Jr). You can tell DeLillo is a very accomplished writer of dialogue. The words spoken in this film are thoughtful and at times philosophical. The characters - especially Keaton, Griffin Dunne as an old writer pal fallen through times, and Harris Yulin as an esteemed actor losing his grip on his craft - are intelligent and deeply wounded. How the film is tied to one of baseball's biggest upsets is cleverly done. 4/5

My November viewings winded down with a pair of family films over the Thanksgiving weekend. Winnie the Pooh (2011) is a delightful, droll film for the entire family. It's really quite a pleasure to see a modern day toon that doesn't assault your senses with juvenile humor, fast-cutting action and by-the-numbers storytelling. Winnie the Pooh is simple, pure and has a certain intelligence that is deeply rewarding for adult audiences. A great family film is one that speaks to all ages and this is surely one of them. 4/5

And finally, Pixar breaks its amazing streak of unparalleled perfection with Cars 2 (2011), an enjoyable though underwhelming sequel to one of Disney's most lucrative franchises. When I see animated films from Fox or Warner Brothers, even Dreamworks, they always appear to be loud and goofy, attempting to attract an audience full of kids with A.D.D. Pixar films tend to have a gentler spirit, taking their time to tell a story and not contstantly resorting to cheap, instant laughs. Cars 2 seems to be Pixar's attempt to go "mainstream" and it's disconcerting to see them stumble a little bit. The main problem is that Mater isn't a compelling character to anchor a film. He's a hilarious sidekick, but doesn't have enough depth to drive an entire film. (I know, it's a cartoon character of a tow truck, I shouldn't be using the word "depth" here). And the plot is rather dense for a children's film; how many 6-year-olds will really get these references? These problems aside, Cars 2 looks impeccable. Pixar's attention to detail remains unparalleled. For me, an adult viewer with a love for spy films, I got a kick out of hearing Michael Caine's voice and seeing some clever movie references. Not a dud by any means, but Cars 2 is unusual step down for an industry giant. 3/5


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