Squee! It’s…

It’s a veritable smorgasbord of squee tonight on Chuck. Just having Carl Lumbly show up as Casey’s turncoat mentor would have made us happy, as we adore Lumbly for everything from Alias to Battlestar Galactica to Cagney and Lacey and EZ Streets (those were the days) to Justice League (he’s The Martian Manhunter’s voice, for heaven’s sake!). We admit we might love him most for arguing with Josh Lyman about slave reparations on a very special West Wing episode (ask Susannah why it’s so special).

But does Chuck stop there? Nooooo. Just as the BuyMore provides after-Thanksgiving bargains, Chuck piles on the awesome–Mommy and Daddy Awesome, that is, who are played by Morgan Fairchild and Bruce Boxleitner. Captain Awesome was spawned by Flamingo Road‘s femme fatal and Babylon 5‘s Captain Sheridan! Or Falcon Crest‘s femme fatal and Scarecrow (where’s Mrs. King?)! Or, or Chandler Bing’s erotic novelist mother and TRON! This truly is awesomeness at work, tonight on NBC.

Squee! It’s…

We’ve had a hard time getting squee-y around here over the past few days, but it’s nice that it’s a much-loved science-fiction drama connection that brings us back to squeeage. Squee–it’s Melinda McGraw on CSI: Extra Spicy (Miami) tonight! McGraw has appeared in everything from The West Wing to Mad Men to Bones and Saving Grace and Desperate Housewives. We want to give her a big hug, however, for being Dana Scully’s sister on The X-Files. We wanted to believe, too, Melissa. Sorry about that bullet and all.

Squee! It’s…

Squee! It’s W. Earl Brown on The Mentalist and Paula Malcomson on Law and Order: Honey Barbecue (Special Victims’ Unit) tonight! Since we’ve mentioned Al Swearengen around here this week, it’s only right that Deadwood‘s lovable, violent Swearengen sidekick show up as well. You’ve also seen Brown on Psych, Angel, CSIs both Original Flavor and Extra Spicy, NYPD Blue, and The X-Files. Malcomson played Swearengen’s employee, hooker with a heart of…silver Trixie. She’s also appeared on ER, Lost, and Six Feet Under. Back-to-back Deadwooders in primetime tonight!

Bonus on each show: Michael O’Neill, The West Wing‘s Agent Butterfield, joins Brown on The Mentalist, while the legendary Martin Mull (Gene Parmesan!) joins L&O: SVU. I might even have to watch.

Bacon in Britain

You may have noticed a dearth of Bacon-related activity lately, even with new episodes of, well, just about everything. While suspicious deaths were taking place at Pushing Daisies‘ abbey (can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait) and vortices were opening up on Heroes (can wait can wait can wait a good long time) and Life was the latest show to screw up the Stanford Prison Experiment (folks, it’s not difficult–they’re called Institutional Review Boards, and they’re not gonna let you do that kind of thing anymore), Susannah and I were crossing the Atlantic to spend a little time in the UK. While we were taking in the London Eye (Susannah claims the Nestene Consciousness is alive and well and making her nearby hotel bathroom scorching hot) and giggling at the Dodi and Diana shrine at Harrod’s and listening to a service in Westminster Abbey‘s often blocked-off Shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, we were also taking our Bacon responsibilities seriously and watching some British TV. We champion a lot of UK shows here (Doctor Who, the original Life on Mars, Gavin and Stacey, Spaced, etc.), so we might have given the impression that the sun never sets on the quality TV of the British Empire. Turns out the ratio of quality to crap is…pretty much the same as it is in the US. A brief tour:

  • Both countries show a lot of football. It’s very different kinds of football, but it’s a lot of football. We saw at least pieces of the England-Kazakhstan World Cup qualifying match (and heard no fewer than five Borat jokes within our first hour on the ground as a result), the Germany-Wales game, and the England-Belarus match, and can therefore report that although the graphics leading into and out of breaks are just as mind-numbingly repetitive on British TV as on American, they are slightly less annoying than those break-dancing robots on Fox’s NFL coverage. Advantage: UK.
  • One genre that has disappeared from the American airwaves but that appears to thrive in Britain is the celebrity-stacked game show. The US used to have Match Game and Password (which recently suffered through an aborted comeback attempt) and Hollywood Squares and any number of other shows that were ostensibly about answering questions and winning prizes but that really allowed celebrities to pop off “witty” bon mots. How would Nipsey Russell have disseminated his poetry if not for $10,000 Pyramid? These shows have been pushed off the American television map by fake courtroom shows, but they’re alive and well in UK primetime. We saw one quiz show with Stephen Fry grilling Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson (I believe it was QI), and there was Some Guy With A Spiky Mullet who showed up on almost all of these game shows. The peak of such production, however, appeared to be Alan Carr’s Celebrity Ding Dong–I am not making this up–a show that is essentially an electronic version of HORSE. A noted British comedian quizzes teams of B-list celebrities until one team gets four answers right, meaning that their corresponding four letters (either D-I-N-G or D-O-N-G, depending on which side of the stage they’re seated on) have all been lit. They then win some unidentifiable reward–pride? The Crown Jewels? It was difficult to tell. Although we are no fans of the fake courtroom shows, the British celebs’ answers didn’t seem to be scripted and, therefore, tended to be rambling and less than funny. So we’re giving the point to US TV, although we note we might have been more charmed had we any idea who the B-list celebrities were.
  • The US has imported “talent”-based reality shows straight from their Limey cousins–Pop Idol became American Idol; Britain’s Got Talent became America’s Got Talent; Strictly Come Dancing became Dancing with the Stars; Dancing on Ice became Skating with Celebrities. A proud tradition on both sides of the pond. We saw something “talent” based, although we confess we’re not sure which show it was (we think it was probably X Factor, given Simon Cowell’s presence), but it involved a lot of not-very-impressive singers and even a moment where Cowell apologized for picking a boring song for a competitor. Little wonder, then, when we switched on the TV the next night in the middle of yet another singing competition, this one hosted by So You Think You Can Dance‘s Cat Deeley. Finalists included a post-surgical transsexual who had been outed during the course of the show (to even greater public popularity!) and a group act called 2 Up 2 Down, two married couples in which both wives were in wheelchairs. We began to suspect this one to be a spoof when one of the 2 Up 2 Downers tumbled off a stool in which she’d been propped during a number with Rick Astley, of all people–and, indeed, the show was actually a parody dreamed up by Peter Kay (aka Doctor Who‘s Victor Kennedy/Abzorbaloff) called Britain’s Got the Pop Factor…and Possibly a New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly on Ice (it’s even funnier when Deeley recites it with great gravity). But I think it says something about the structure of the bread-and-circuses electric kool-aid nightmare these “talent”-based reality shows have become that for 15 full minutes we believed it was real. (In fairness, this was before we heard the title.) Winner: No one (except Peter Kay and Cat Deeley)–we’re all losers in that landscape.

So do the Brits actually have superior television? We do love us some Who and Cranford, and we’re grateful they lend us The Office, but we’ve got Daisies and sent them Buffy and The West Wing to great acclaim. I guess we’ll have to keep going back to London until this question is decided once and for all.

BONES and 90210: Are Two Episodes Better Than One?

On Tuesday night, I was scuttling around packing canned meat and candles into a backpack and racing for a fenced wilderness fortress. Not because yet more hurricanes are headed for the coast, but because the seventh sign of the apocalypse had appeared.

I was enjoying the new 90210.

And this is coming from someone who absoultely could not stomach the original (and has trouble in general with soap operas about the traumas of the rich and pampered–I could only make it as far as the mint green suit in this week’s Gossip Girl before I gave up in despair). But the dialogue was bouncy and the situations kitschy (drugs in a hollowed-out book! Dum dum duuuuuuum!) and the nods to the original hilariously cheesy. And watching Tristan Wilds, I could squint and almost believe that the saddest kids on The Wire made it out of the slums. It extended past my bedtime, leading me to put off watching the second half until the next day, but I was happily interested in finishing and therefore pretty surprised that the show was almost universally panned the next day.

When I saw the second half–which is really a second episode tacked to the first to create a super-sized premiere–I understood the critical roast. The zest brought by Rob Thomas and Mark Piznarski (the team behind the brilliant Veronica Mars pilot) left the zip code with them, leaving both characters and plot lines thinner than the actresses.

Curiously, the same thing happened during Wednesday’s season premiere of Bones. Setting a lot of the action in the UK livened up a pedestrian mystery (with Torchwood‘s much-killed Suzie, Indira Varma, and Doctor Who‘s lesser medical student, Oliver Morgenstern, in the person of Ben Righton to entertain the BBC junkies among us), and the long-awaited arrival of Angela’s husband provided some intrigue back at the Jeffersonian. The novelty wore off across two hours, however, with the shift to a new mystery feeling very much like a…second episode tacked to the first to create a super-sized premiere.

In both cases, we thought we were getting a treat–extra ice cream for being good kids. But in both cases, slowing down the pacing quickly deflated the excitement. If we’d seen only the first episode of 90210, would the CW have gotten a week of cheese-filled buzz instead of bad reviews? Would Bones fans be talking about whether Brennan’s new flirtation would come between her and Booth rather than the fast and inexplicable breakup between Hodgins and Angela if we’d seen only the first half? On the other hand, we fondly remember the one-two punch of seeing both parts of The West Wing‘s “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” on the same night. Maybe all that means is that neither 90210 nor Bones (as much as we like it) is as good as The West Wing. But is there anything more to be gleaned here as to when to go for the two-hour premiere and when not to? Because we’d like to think we deserve extra ice cream sometimes.

“Why Would You Spend So Much Time Thinking About TV?”

This question has come up more than once. In fairness, it sometimes comes from people who can’t imagine spending so many words writing about anything (and heaven knows I run on sometimes), let alone TV. And the question comes as often as not from people who watch a lot of TV themselves but can’t imagine digging into the glowy stuff instead of just enjoying the high. It’s a fair question. Does popular culture–filmed and broadcast popular culture, no less–matter enough to be worth the time and effort it takes to think?

Perhaps the answer came tonight during MSNBC’s coverage of Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. Talking about his experience standing in Invesco Field and hearing the speech live, NBC’s Brian Williams said,

I’m thinking of two guys. I’m thinking of Tim Russert, our brother, for obvious reason. Because of the spectacle of it, because he’d love watching this, and because Mike Murphy might have been right tonight that this is going to be in large part perhaps a generational campaign. I’m also thinking of Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter, the legendary writer and creator of The West Wing on NBC, but also the screenwriter behind the film The American President. The line from this speech, ‘that’s a debate I’d like to have,’ is a one-off, direct lift from President Andrew Shepherd. This is part of the new cadence, and the new tone and the new language of American politics. It was personal that way. It was conversational. There were parallel constructions in this speech that come right out of the Sorkin playbook. And it’s kind of the pen and the style of Barack Obama.

Andrea Mitchell later said,

You guys also focused on the echo of Aaron Sorkin from that great movie with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening, and this [the convention speech] was the American president laying down the challenge to the older, established, very tough, popular in New Hampshire, in fact, the senator from New Hampshire [sic] Republican opponent.

A prominent American journalist just claimed that the guy who wrote Sports Night, The West Wing, and the much-maligned Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip created the new language of American politics. Another one just anointed a candidate the president based on that writer’s style and words. The TV Bacon crew’s obsession (unplugging the phone on Wednesday nights type of obsession) with The West Wing far predates TV Bacon itself, and that obsession was rooted in many ways in wishing American political life and discourse were more like what we were seeing on TV. We were seduced by the poetry and elegance of that new cadence, but also by the possibility that real ideas could be clothed in a cadence so glorious and invigorating that it was meaningful in and of itself. And MSNBC journalists essentially said tonight that the magic mirror of popular culture has tranformed into just a mirror, a real one. Maybe they’re overstating it (they’re perhaps pundits instead of journalists, which means overstating things is kind of their job). But if they’re even a little bit right, thinking about TV is worth the time and effort because the good stuff, the really, truly special stuff, creates new paradigms, new visions, new language. And those things create new worlds.

DOCTOR WHO “Midnight”: Curious Doctor Chose to Linger

I love a good submarine episode–a story where people are bottled up in a small space. The great early X-Files episode “Ice” and The West Wing‘s “17 People” are similar to this week’s Doctor Who entry, “Midnight”, in that trapped people are forced by an external entity to eat their own paranoia and turn on one another. Good times!

Writer Russell T Davies makes clear parallels to a society willing to give up freedom for security by having the terrified Crusader passengers turn on the people least like them. More interesting, however, is the way he bottles the Doctor up and turns his own pattern for modern-day Doctor Who on its ear, inverting everything we’ve seen for the past four years. For starters, the Doctor and his companion actually make it to where they intended to go–and it’s a holiday. He’s not lonely, for a change–he knows Donna will be there, waiting for a dinner that will require a bib. All of that happiness alone should tell us that everything is inside out on planet Midnight.

There are bigger inversions coming, however. So much of Doctor Who, at least in the Davies era, is about people around the Doctor finding the ability to sacrifice for something greater than themselves. It’s a considerable shock, then, when this entire bunch goes feral, and does it immediately after the Doctor has delivered the kind of pro-human speech that usually inspires people to greatness. Humans aren’t adorable and strong, here–they’re cruel and xenophobic and thick and selfish. Even DeeDee, the best of the bunch, explains the way to throw people out of the craft, and the nameless hostess who sacrifices herself to save the Doctor in the end was the first to suggest murder as a possible solution.

And the truly scary part is that she may have been right all along. The Doctor’s typical insistence that there might be something of Sky left to save very nearly leads to his demise. Astounding performances from Lesley Sharp and David Tennant mimicking each other’s speech demonstrate this by not being perfect mirror images: we see terror and resistance in Tennant’s, indicating there’s something left of the Doctor fighting against the cold and the dark, but Sharp’s curious, animalistic, and, finally, assured take seems to indicate that Sky has left the building long before the Doctor is willing to give up on her. River Song claimed in “Forest of the Dead” that all the skies of all the worlds might go dark if the Doctor accepted that everyone dies, but if he had accepted Sky’s death and allowed her body to be tossed, would he ever have had his voice stolen? He might be just plain wrong, from the very beginning to the very end, a terrifying circumstance we don’t often see.

Every characteristic of the Doctor is turned on itself here. Davies and others in the Who camp note that the Doctor isn’t a superhero–he defeats enemies with his cleverness, not his ability to bend steel. When he describes his own cleverness here, however, it only serves to make his fellow passengers more willing to destroy him. His blithe, never-questioned pseudonym is instantly ripped to shreds, its falseness used to convict him. This most hyperverbal and hyperkinetic of Doctors has his voice and his will stolen. Curiosity gets the Doctor in trouble all the time, but it usually digs him out of that trouble, too; here, he cajoles the driver into exposing them to danger just to see something no one has seen before and creates suspicion by admitting he’s fascinated by what’s going on. He’s even drawn back into poking at Sky when he won’t let anyone else near her, both because his ego has been pricked and because he’s yet to work out what’s going on with her. All of this staring up from the abyss instead of down into it is deeply unsettling, making the bottled up, prosthetic-free, psychological horror of “Midnight” one of the new series’ best outings. If you can keep from getting the bone-deep shivers when Sky starts speaking before the Doctor does, or when the Doctor is copying the orders of his own demise, you’re made of tougher stuff than I am. Kudos all around for Sharp, Tennant, new-to-Who director Alice Troughton (who also directed “The Doctor’s Daughter“, so…nice comeback), and the lighting and sound departments who pulled off this tricky beast.

In the end, “Midnight” makes the case that both the show reboot and Donna have been making all along: the Doctor needs someone with him. He needs, as the quoted Christina Rossetti wrote, a friend

To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.

This makes the last lines of the episode, after Donna and the Doctor have been reunited, all the more haunting, as Donna’s “molto bene” (apparently Time Lord code for “all’s well that ends short of a holocaust”) evokes a protest from the Doctor that brings back fun memories of begging Rose not to try her hand at a Scottish accent or of telling Donna not to try on her posh at a garden party, but with every drop of light and playfulness drained from it. It’s dark and cold on Midnight, indeed.

(In other news, I wonder where that Lost Moon of Poosh is? And did I just hear him say “the Medusa Cascade”? The clues may not be subtle this year, but they’re fun.)

Squee! It’s…

Squee! It’s Zeljko Ivanek on Numb3rs tonight. You can have your Andre Drazens from 24; you can take your Governor Devlins from Oz; you can even keep your Steve Atwoods from The West Wing and your John Dickinsons from, well, the American Revolution. I’ll always love Zeljko Ivanek for ADA Ed Danvers on Homicide: Life on the Streets and for giving me the first moment where I knew I loved The X-Files (when we return from commercial to find that the body of the scientist Ivanek’s possessed janitor Roland has killed by sticking his head in a vat of liquid nitrogen has been outlined with tape–including hundreds of little tape Xs for where the shards of his frozen head shattered on impact. Niiiiiiiiice.).

Perhaps a notable guest spot on a network show like Numb3rs will mean Emmy voters will have Ivanek on their minds and will remember to nominate his striking turn as troubled attorney Ray Fiske on Damages this year. Because I’m not sure there was a better performance on TV last season than that.

Squee! It’s…

Squee! It’s…well, it’s new episodes of a good show, actually, with a held-back Christmas episode of House popping up. More importantly, however: squee! It’s Janel Moloney! The likelihood of Sorkin-withdrawal is high tonight, as Moloney appeared both on Sports Night (“It’s called gunmetal. Gray has more ivory in it.”) and on The West Wing, where she was twice nominated for an Emmy as Josh Lyman’s assistant, Donna. Josh may have hardly ever known what she was saying, but we always did. She’s recently appeared on Brotherhood, but you may also have enjoyed her as Amber Frey in a TV movie about the Scott Peterson case. Heh. Hooray for Janel Moloney and Hugh Laurie in the same room!

Diary of a Completist

torchwood.jpg

Wandering through the living room and observing me grumbling at the TiVo while making sure a Season Pass was set for tomorrow’s season premiere of Torchwood (“Grumblegrumble why doesn’t someone just stab Owen in the face grumblegrumble if you’re such a super sekrit organization, why do you race around in a giant flashing SUV with your name stamped into the hood grumblegrumble”), my brother brought the entire proceedings to a halt with a single insightful moment: “If the show drives you that crazy, why are you watching it?”

Fair question.

Maybe I’m girding my loins to watch Torchwood (with that crew, you kind of need to go into things with your loins protected) because events in its parent show persuade me the main character will be fun again. Maybe its because writer (and recently named Law and Order: Piccadilly Circus showrunner) Chris Chibnall admitted that they miscalibrated how much they let the characters’ mistakes pile up, suggesting they won’t make the same miscalculation twice. Maybe it’s because James Marsters of Angel and Buffy fame is not only showing up to kiss Captain Jack–he’s showing up after having raided Adam Ant’s wardrobe. That is admittedly pretty persuasive.

The most accurate reason, however, is probably that I’m a completist. Once I’ve been sucked–suckered?–into a TV world, I have to know everything about it. I’ll read comic books or tie-in novels. I’ll scour the Interwebs for anything and everything written about that show, regardless of whether it’s a serious academic treatise on Buffy Summers as transgressive feminist icon or Melllvar’s fan-written screenplay. I’ll badger Netflix for DVDs of deservedly obscure entries in the writers’ or actors’ filmographies.

And thus: Torchwood. Forty-some-odd years of Doctor Who paraphenalia to sort through apparently isn’t enough–now I have to add Torchwood goings-on to the list, just in case they reference Doctor Who in some fashion. And sure enough–there’s a hand in a jar. More importantly, there’s Martha! They’ve marbled in just enough Whonalia to make me worry I’ll miss something important about the show I love if I skip the show I…tolerate. It works. And it’s unlikely to stop–it’s why I’m trying to get around work firewalls to check out Joss Whedon’s Sugar Shock. It’s why I had to persevere in listening to The Wire‘s Michael K. Williams on NPR, even though it took almost four hours thanks to thoughtless people who kept interrupting me and asking me to do, you know, work at work. It’s why I merrily hummed my way through old LPs (vinyl, people!) of Gilbert and Sullivan for a week after the West Wing gang welcomed Ainsley to the fold.

It’s an illness, but I suspect I’m not the only one suffering from it. So we need to form a support group, hope Torchwood really is better this season, or squat on facestabbersagainstowen.com. Votes?