Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Good Wife: Season 2 Premiere

I've really been looking forward to this year's return of The Good Wife. I didn't see it until the end of its run last year, but I was hooked halfway through the first episode I saw. It is extremely well-written and acted, and unlike many other shows (especially legal dramas), it's actively exciting and takes directions you wouldn't necessarily expect.

For those of you who have never seen the show before, essentially it stars Chris Noth as disgraced district attorney Peter Florick, living a fictionalized version of the Eliot Spitzer scandal. But as the title suggests, the perspective is from his wife, Alicia. The show spends some time with Alicia's feelings of betrayal, but what makes the show watchable is that Alicia is very strong in her own right, and is not merely the wronged wife, even though Peter's enemies choose to portray her that way in the media. This is a story of how she picks up the pieces, going back to work to take care of her family, leaving an uncertain relationship with her scoundrel husband.

As a result, the show has two major strands: the challenges at home, and the challenges at work, which brings its own set of characters. The show has done an excellent job of balancing the two, which is helped by the presence of strong talent in both camps (none stronger than Archie Panjabi, justly rewarded with an Emmy for her Nancy Drew character, Kalinda Sharma). But maintaining a precarious balance is difficult for shows in their second season, but The Good Wife shows no signs of faltering yet.

This is not a show that you expect to challenge the boundaries of FCC decency standards, but as I said before, the writers often surprise. This week's episode had what I'm fairly sure is the first on-screen portrayal of oral sex pointed in the female direction on network television. You don't see even a scrap of flesh, but it's still one of the sexiest scenes I've seen.

Other points of note:

  • Man that judge is an asshole. Hope he gets his comeuppance.
  • As always, Alan Cumming is a massive scene-stealer.
  • Love the spy vs spy antics of Kalinda vs. whatshisface.
  • Not enough Christine Baranski. But then again, there rarely is.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Fringe Season 3 Premiere: "Olivia"

Fringe became my replacement for Lost even before Lost ended. When I gave up hope that the truth about Lost would be even half as cool as the fan theories, I transferred all my theorizing nerd energy to Fringe and it actually exceeded my expectations. This spring when Lost was steadily traveling downhill to arrive at the most disappointing finale ever, Fringe was coming into its own, correcting some of the first season's missteps and establishing the mythology early on for the rest of the show (long may it run). The Season 2 finale, "Over There," was spectacular and raised the bar for Season 3 to an almost unreachable height. And while I had a few minor quibbles with last night's episode, overall I was very impressed. And I'm still too excited about the return of my new favorite show to get quibbly about it.

I was surprised and intrigued right away by the revelation that Walternate and his team were trying to convince our Olivia that she was the other Olivia. (On a side note, this show is hard to write about coherently. No name for the alternate characters is as good as Walternate, and it's tiresome to always have to say "the other Olivia." I think the writers call her BOlivia, which looks stupid to me, but I'll go with it for clarity's sake.) I expected them to interrogate her, torture her for information about Walter and Peter and our universe in general. I don't quite understand the motivation behind implanting her with BOlivia's memories, but it was chilling to watch the treatments take effect. She didn't just acquire BOlivia's memories, she acquired her skills and personality as well. Olivia could never have made that shot. Olivia would never have painted a room yellow. The question that remains is whether Olivia is still in there, aware of what's going on in her mind, able to compartmentalize her own memories and personality somewhere. I hope so. Anyway, it's nice that she got to see her dead mother before she was reclaimed.

I love the alternate universe. I love scanning the background for differences. I love that they have nanites and zeppelins and daily flights to the moon and that the script doesn't beat you over the head with them. You just catch a glimpse of a billboard for the hit musical Dogs or a snippet of a news bulletin on the radio that former President Kennedy is stepping down as ambassador to somewhere. I love the dark banter between the Fringe Division agents over there and what it reveals about what's normal for them. I love that Charlie's still alive and that Walter's the Secretary of Defense and that Astrid is an emotionless human calculator. And as much as I love it and as wonderfully disorienting as it is to be there, how much would it suck to live there? Bus and taxi drivers can't put their vehicles into gear until they've swiped the passengers' ID cards so they can be tracked: the government always knows where you are. The ID is called a Show-Me and (even though they ask for it with a redundantly polite "Can I see your Show-Me, please?") the association with "Show me your papers" is creepy.

Toward the end of the episode, though, I was getting antsy to return to our universe. Fun as it is to play spot-the-differences over there, Fringe isn't complete without our Walter and Peter, and they're over here. The tantalizing final scene was just enough and nicely established what was happening over here. The higher-ups aren't taking the team any more seriously than they have before, Walter's eating Oreos, Peter's kissing BOlivia and doesn't know she's not Olivia. That part made me really sad, actually - the real Olivia is trapped in the AU having her mind altered while the impostor is over here getting a new relationship that doesn't belong to her. Olivia sacrificed so much to get to the AU, rescue Peter and tell him how she felt, and he didn't even notice that it wasn't her who came back.

It should be noted here that Anna Torv is a much better actress than I originally gave her credit for. Her style takes a little getting used to, I think, but she has risen admirably to the challenge of playing essentially four characters at times (Olivia, BOlivia, Olivia-as-BOlivia, and BOlivia-as-Olivia). I thought John Noble was going to make her look bad because of how well he distinguishes Walter from Walternate - primarily with his posture, but also with his voice and his expressions. But Anna Torv does almost as much with nuances using just her eyes. As I said, it was chilling to watch Olivia slowly transforming into BOlivia against her will, but it was equally interesting to watch BOlivia consciously pretending to be Olivia. She just found out about this universe and she only had a brief encounter with Olivia on which to base her performance. She smiles a little too much. She's a little too bemused by Walter. I'm already a little disappointed in the other characters for not seeing it. She's going to slip up and get caught soon, or I will be most annoyed with not only the characters but the writers as well.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Modern Family: The Old Wagon

"Good times, she wrote!"

At last, after a dreary summer of heavy drama, a show with intentional humor, and lots of it. If the season maintains this standard, it's going to be even better than season 1, which had extremely funny moments, but sometimes got sucked into the sap. This episode still had some of those 'special family moments,' but undercut them very effectively with direct, sharp humor.

There were 3 separate plots. In the first, you had the traditional manipulations and foolishness of the Dunphy family, where the women are in charge only by default (The men are hopeless!). In the 2nd plot, you have Jay and the Gays. Jay and Cameron bond over their mutual desire to keep Mitchell away from any and all power tools, leading to some hilarious exchanges between Jay and Cameron.

My favorite plot was with Gloria and Manny, and her need to come between him and any future love interests. Sofia Vergara just gets funnier and funnier. I know some people complain that there is no reason for characters to talk to the camera in this show, as it's not really in a documentary style, but I think the show would be only half as funny without Gloria's caricatured asides.

Have 2 contenders I can't decide between:

  • Jay, on building a bookcase with Mitchell: "It was my Vietnam...And I was in Vietnam."
  • Gloria, on being a Colombian mother: "I'm not gonna let him make a mistake that is gonna affect him for the rest of my life! ... his life!"

5 out of 10. If this is how we start off, I'm confident we'll get it under 4 at some point this season!

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Glee Season 2 Premiere: Auditions

I know it's lame to start with a "Good/Bad/Ugly" post, but "Auditions" is not an episode that merits a thoughtful essay. It's not terrible, but for one of the most anticipated premieres of the season, I found it disappointing.

The Good

Sue Sylvester. I realized I'm basically only still watching Glee for Sue at this point, and she saved an otherwise meh episode last night. It was fun to watch her giggling with Will during their short-lived alliance. Everything she says is so wrong and it goes too far and it's funnier the worse it gets.

New blood. Ken Tanaka is gone and his replacement was more interesting in her first scene than he was in an entire season. Coach Beiste is going to be fun. And the new kids - Sam and Sunshine - both have great voices and potential for engaging stories. Even if Sam's mouth is comically, distractingly, entirely too big for any face.

Randomness. Puck's vasectomy, Santana's boob job, Brittany's summer in the sewers, Becky, Asian Camp, Finn's Cheerios tryout. Glee is my guilty pleasure show and I appreciate the wacky WTF moments way more than the high school drama.

The Bad

Lea Michele's haircut. I mean, it's not a bad haircut but it makes her even less believable as an awkward and fashion-challenged 17-year-old. I was immediately taken out of the story during all her scenes because all I could see was a Hollywood twenty-something.

The song selection. "Empire State of Mind," "Telephone," and "Billionaire"? Really? The performances were all decent, but the songs just didn't do anything for me. I get that it was the point to do recent hits for recruiting purposes, but over-saturation really worked against them here.

The ugly. (Uh, Glee?)

Artie/Tina/Mike. This whole plotline rubbed me completely the wrong way, which was a shame because I think it was supposed to be funny. I'm all for rounding out the background cast (and I'm excited by the prospect of more Mike), but there's character development and then there's out-of-character development. Tina, who was so offended by objectification last season, dumps Artie for Mike's abs. Artie, who used to be so sensitive and so infatuated with Tina, ignores her for weeks in favor of Halo and doesn't see how that makes him a bad boyfriend. Then, the only thing he takes away from the breakup is that he needs abs and should obviously join the football team as a battering ram, despite having previously learned to be realistic about his condition. Just... ugh. In a similar vein, while it was fun to watch Quinn's inner mean girl rise again, it effectively undid most of her character's growth last season. And Rachel has always been an egomaniac, but she's never been a sociopath. I'd like to think this was all done intentionally to show how fickle high school kids can be, but I'm afraid I don't give the Glee writers that much credit.

I'm hoping the junior high nostalgia will help me to enjoy "Britney/Brittany" next week, because Glee is officially on the bubble for me.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Mad Men: The Beautiful Girls

Death is never funny, or so the general thinking goes. But like the best episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore show, which Beautiful Girls resembled more than once, Weiner took some of the darkest rites of passage in modern human experience - death, racism and desperate love - and turned them into high comedy. And like the seminal episode about the passing of Chuckles The Clown in the middle of a circus show, Mad Men showed that death usually does have a hilarious side to it. And is almost always a circus.

This episode really is one for the women. We get the aging party girl, Ida Blankenship, the office crew (in which Joan was starting to look more and more old-fashioned) and of course young Sally, who is in many ways directly affected by the cultural turmoil surrounding the women of the show. Having divorced parents and a mother who cannot even deal with her own feminine identity, let alone Sally's own exploration, has obviously set off fireworks in Sally's brain, which she foolish decides that only her father can fix..

Mrs. Blankenship has classic line after classic line, and I was thanking the show for the addition of a brilliant character when, suddenly, she snuffed it. Roger predictably made it all about him, but we see genuine compassion and sadness from Cooper and the rest of the office females. But it does show something that happens when these women die; they become legends, with secrets in their graves, and not much more. And that's probably why it affected Joan more than others.

I suppose in some way Joan really cares about her louse of a husband. But I still find it surprising how committed she is to him. You can explain it away as social mores ruling her behavior, but that never seemed to be Joan's primary concern, so much as keeping control of her own status using any means possible, even if it means rejecting progress for other women. In many ways, Roger is the perfect man for her, a relic from the past, just as she aspires to be.

As for Peggy, she is still blossoming, and willing to explore to find her way in the world. She more than competently takes down her would-be lover's double standards, but more importantly, begins to recognize and react to her own, even while knowing that fighting racism is battle she cannot fight while ALSO fighting misogyny and the glass ceiling.

Betty seems to be more easily cowed by the judgment of other women than  by the men in her life. She listens to Henry because she respects him. But cold disapproval only bothers her when it comes from other women. Maybe that's what Sally is really rebelling against, the inherent and obvious weakness in her mother when facing any kind of challenge, frippery or otherwise.

By the end, when that elevator door closes, we see that all the worries and contradictions facing the 3 generations are fully present in Joan, Faye and Peggy (but Peggy looks positively serene next to the other two, maybe because her idea of womanhood isn't quite as rigidly defined as the other two's).

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Soundtrack Surprise! : ER

ER is an unusual show by modern standards. Before season 4, there were maybe 3 or 4 episodes that even used incidental music. None used pop music except in context of bars, karaoke, or the radio. In many ways, this let the actors be actors and kept the writers on their toes; no bad dialogue could be hidden from the audience with surging strings or adult contemporary fluff.

Even in Season 4, sonic manipulation was still used sparingly. You get the jarring and wonderful use of "Crucify," by Tori Amos, played at a girly sleepover at Elizabeth Corday's. Watching this now, that says more about the presence of Tori Amos in pop culture back then, which directly opposes the current perception of Amos as a producer of "gothy lesbian" music (which I never bought, but it was the general barrier to entry of other people I know). "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" by Green Day was repeatedly sung by Scott Anspaugh and Jeanie Boulet in scenes that were absolutely heartbreaking. It's good to know that there was a time BEFORE that song, and Green Day themselves, became synonymous with cheap sentiment.

So in Season 6, when music began to be used in earnest you end up with the most sublime use of pop music and the most irritating, within 2 episodes of each other.

"Bookends" by Simon and Garfunkel. Used twice for scenes of Mark Greene and his dying father, you can see an entire history in Anthony Edwards' eyes, of memories that he missed out on, that he could never experience again.

What should have been a beautiful scene was ruined by Don Henley's "Taking You Home" (who, frankly, has ruined many more tv shows, songs, and bands than can be documented. Perhaps a post for our sister blog The Oncoming Hope: Music). The long awaited (and final) reunion of Carol Hathaway and Doug Ross, was already sentimental enough (in a very very good way). So when the producers decided to overlay drippy acoustic guitars and Don Henley's warble, it took me so far out of the moment that I had trouble enjoying the scene.

I may be biased because this is one of my favorite songs of all time period, but it just captured (and foreshadowed) the state of John Carter's life, long after his brutal stabbing and the loss of star pupil Lucy Knight. It played at the beginning of the final episode of season 6, which went in directions no one could ever have predicted. Of course, once all is revealed, it becomes perfectly obvious. But the song comes in just to give a little bud of the truth, and then a series of unhappy coincidences brutally opened that bud to both the viewer and to Carter's colleagues.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Mad Men, Inked: The Swimmers

Mad Men is back to wearing it's John Cheever-ness on its sleeve, with Don swimming his way through his demons (see Cheever's short story The Swimmer), and returning to the false utopia of his Ossining life (For those of you playing at home, Cheever spent the majority of his productive years in Ossining, drinking and adultering until death by cancer).

However, like many of Cheever's short stories (see also The Enormous Radio, a personal favorite), The Swimmer features a young man who loses himself or a spouse to the darker undercurrents running through New York suburbs. Which is ironic since, for the first time this season, we're seeing Don try to shape up and course-correct (Which I was a little disappointed by to be honest, I was looking forward to seeing Don's bound-to-be-legendary rock bottom).

Meanwhile Joan takes a big step back. Like Don, the passage of time has made her attempts to assert power seem less cutting and a lot more desperate. Compare Joan's reaction to the vending machine scene to Peggy's in the Xerox scene in season two's "The Mountain King." Joan is struggling with the slow loss of control while Peggy is on a journey of consolidation.

I'm not going to go on too much about Don's inane voiceover, this has been fairly effectively trashed over at Slate. It's also too soon to discuss Dr. Faye Miller; her narrative is not complete, and her role is not yet predictable. But for the first time, we do see what kind of woman might make Don into a better man (apart from Peggy, of course).

It's tempting to dismiss Betty again, as it seems most have all season, but at last we are shown her value to the narrative. She is not as strong a force in Don's life as she once was, but she's still one of the unpredictable currents in his swimming pool.

After I finished writing this post, I stumbled across Natasha Vargas-Cooper's far more extensive discussion of the parallels between this week and The Swimmer. If you're interested, go here: The Footnotes of Mad Men: The Swimmer