Raging Against the Machine: SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE’s Casual Racism

So You Think You Can Dance is back for its summer run on Fox, and none of the changes made to the format recently (a returning, less screamy Mary Murphy; All-Star partners) has addressed the most pressing problem the show has. I have complained about it before, and I’m going to keep complaining until something gets better: The casual racism SYTYCD blithely tosses around turns what should be an effervescent celebration of the arts into a grotesque display of white privilege, and it has just. Got. To. Stop.

Feast your eyes on the judges’ treatment of krumper Brian Henry during Wednesday’s New York auditions:

Nigel Lythgoe is practically patting himself on the back for cheerily noting that krumping “doesn’t always have to be violent,” but that doesn’t stop him from insisting that the dance style comes from “frustration,” despite Henry’s objections that this is the exact opposite of what he intends. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, as this is little different from Lythgoe’s pride in believing his show has created a form of lyrical hip-hop, which is essentially watered-down nonsense designed to keep white suburbanites from clutching their pearls in fear. These ludicrous comments are rooted in some of the ugliest stereotypes about African American masculinity, and they’re nothing short of dangerous.

Murphy is no better, with her condescending lecture about how “it’s okay to be cocky”–within limits–demonstrating a fundamental lack of knowledge about the social interactions and general culture of the dance forms that fall under the (too broad) umbrella of “hip-hop.” Again, this isn’t anything new–the show’s insistence on referring to dancers formally trained in dance styles with roots in ballet principles as having “technique” while ignoring the specific nuances of hip-hop and African dance is a brush-off deeply rooted in dismissing art forms cultivated in minority communities. Particularly galling is the way judges tend to criticize hip-hop and other dancers for lacking “technique” while praising light-as-air conteporary/lyrical/jazz dancers who are either unable or unwilling to lower their chests during hip-hop numbers. “Technique” may be shorthand in the (also too broad) contemporary umbrella for specific quality of movement, but that type of dance owns neither the word nor the concept. Using language in this way is privileging white experiences and perspectives at the expense of dancers who excel at something else.

I’m not sure it would bother me if a judge noted that the show produces a winner through viewer voting: America is what it is, and maybe taking a different tone would persuade more voters to pick up the phone. This small change would accomplish two things: it could open up a dialogue about why a change in tone would make a dancer more endearing to “America,” and it would allow the dancer to make affirmative choices about personal presentation. As they stand, however, judges’ critiques impose assumptions onto dancers’ intents, training, and personalities instead.

I really want to like this show–the dancers are enormously talented, and it’s hard to find attention paid to dance anywhere but PBS. But the casual, nauseating, completely unchallenged racism woven into the show’s structure is making it nigh unwatchable.

We’ll leave discussion of Nigel’s blatant misogyny for another day. Yay.

Repeat Offenders: Consequences of Emmy Love Affairs

Ah, spring–when a TV watcher’s heart turns to Emmy consideration. Ballots come out on Monday, and since there’s nothing the Baconeers love so much as a good list (you may have noticed), said ballots whet our appetite. As much as we are sometimes frustrated with the Emmys–and oh, how frustrated we get–last year’s had some surprisingly great moments. Remember the murderous comfort food cookoff judge from the greatest Pushing Daisies episode ever? Eric Stonestreet has an Emmy now. How neat is that?  While we might gripe about who was excluded from nominations–wherefore art thou, Community and Friday Night Lights?–Modern Family and Mad Men were deserving winners. Huh. Maybe that adorable Jimmy Fallon-Glee opening just put everything in a more flattering light.

Bryan Cranston gives me pause, though. I love Cranston–I thought he was robbed of an Emmy for his Hal on Malcolm in the Middle, and his performance on Breaking Bad is a genuine tour de force. It’s certainly hard, then, to argue that he shouldn’t have won. At the same time, this was Cranston’s third win in a row, while nominees like Hugh Laurie–who, believe it or not, has never won for House–continue to languish unrewarded. While I’m not ready to ask Cranston to remove himself from contention this year (Breaking Bad‘s broadcast schedule takes care of that), it got me to wondering about how often the Emmys get “stuck” on one winner, and what repercussions that might have beyond the winner.

We looked back at the last 20 years, examining in particular three things: first, the percentage of repeat winners (winning in consecutive years for the same role or show), such as the Cranston example above. Second, we looked at the percentage of multiple winners (winning in non-consecutive years for the same role/show)–two lauded performances trading off wins across several years might block notable others from winning just as much as one repeat victor might. Third, we looked at who the other nominees were during years with repeat or multiple winners. Who is potentially being blocked from an Emmy when the Academy becomes obsessed with a single winner? If, for example, Frasier‘s multiple wins came at the expense of The Nanny, maybe that’s not a problem–maybe it’s justice.

Drama Series: 40% repeat winners; a whopping 75% multiple winners

While Mad Men has won the last three trophies, the most notable repeat winner in this category in the past 20 years was The West Wing. The show usually cited as a close second-place–or robbed, depending on your perspective–was The Sopranos…which won the Best Drama Emmy twice, so maybe things turned out just fine. In the past 13 years, however, only 6 series have won (The Practice, The West Wing, The Sopranos, Lost, 24, and Mad Men). Notable nominees during that time who never won? Six Feet Under, Deadwood, House, Grey’s Anatomy, Boston Legal, Damages, Breaking Bad, and Dexter. While I like some of those shows very much, and while I would have preferred to see some of them win in their nominated year(s) (hi, Deadwood), the repeat winners do look pretty strong.

Maybe the problem is in the nomination process: notable shows that couldn’t break the repeat stranglehold because they were never nominated include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Veronica Mars, and Friday Night Lights, among others. If repeat winners had to skip a year or took themselves out of contention, would genre spoilers sneak into contention?

Comedy Series: 30% repeats and 60% multiple winners

Two non-consecutive wins each for Murphy Brown and Everybody Loves Raymond (Except Me), but four consecutive wins for 30 Rock and five for Frasier (Modern Family‘s win certainly raises the question of whether Christopher Lloyd has the submission process dialed in). Frankly, I personally have more trouble with some poorly chosen one-time winners than these repeaters (Ally McBeal? Really?), but notable nominees who lost to repeaters include Scrubs and The Larry Sanders Show. On the other hand, I can’t feel that bad about Two and a Half Men.

Still, perhaps the problem is–again–in the nominating process, since Frasier and 30 Rock tended to beat the same competition over and over: Pushing Daisies, Gilmore Girls, and, perhaps most notably, The Simpsons were boxed out entirely during these repeat winner years.

Are repeat winners a problem, or just rewards for a job well done? Should the Academy attempt to spread the wealth more? What series do you think were most unfairly denied the gold by repeat winners?

Friday: But you were talking about Bryan Cranston and Hugh Laurie. Does the tendency toward repeat winners hurt individual actors more than series?

M Is for the Murders That She Ordered: TV’s Best and Worst Moms

Susannah is off being feted for Mother’s Day; I, on the other hand, am cheerfully/crabbily boycotting. This, then, seems the perfect Bacon nod to Mother’s Day: celebrating those TV moms who did it right and side-eyeing those who could have used a refresher. Or a visit from Social Services.

Let’s look at some heroes first:

10. Jules Cobb (Courteney Cox), Cougar Town: Heaven knows she’s a tad on the clingy side–we expect a whole episode to be built around Trav finding a NannyCam implanted in roommate Kevin. But when push comes to shove it turns out Jules knows when to back off (even if she doesn’t want to) and when to step in. What makes her a compelling candidate for the good list, however, is all the mothering she does of the Cul-de-Sac Crew that makes up her little constructed family. No one in the neighborhood is going without wine, advice, or hugs while Jules is on the job. (Well–maybe Tom.)


9. Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Downton Abbey: We love our PBS costume dramas, with Downton Abbey the latest obsession. Isobel Crawley’s progressive ways make her not only an encouraging, inspiring mother to reluctant heir Matthew, but, in the ways she’s searching out to let him be lord of the manor while keeping a toe in the career she’s so intensely proud of, the mother to a new age. Plus, she’s got the cojones to toe-to-toe with Dame Maggie Smith’s fearsome Dowager Countess of Grantham without even flinching.

8. Virgina Chance (Martha Plimpton), Raising Hope: Virgina might seem an odd choice, given that she gave birth at 16 and then raised a son for whom a Wal-Mart level job was a huge step up, but the pilot demonstrated that Virginia’s someone you want on your side. Between walloping the serial killer who would become the mother of her grandchild on the melon with a household appliance and tenderly singing said granddaughter to sleep, Virginia’s got all the mothering bases covered in her own way.

7. Jackie Tyler (Camille Coduri), Doctor Who: Jackie’s another tough initial sell–it certainly takes the Doctor a while to warm up to her. As her layers are peeled back, however, we find a fiercely protective Jackie who fought on after being widowed to raise a girl so brave and resourceful she can hold her own with a Time Lord. On top of that, Jackie’s observant enough to worry about how Rose’s journeys are changing her. “Let me tell you something about those who get left behind,” she tells someone perceived as a threat to her daughter and the Doctor, “because it’s hard, and that’s what you become: hard. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that I will never let her down, and I’ll protect them both until the end of my life. So whatever you want, I’m warning you, back off.” We’ll take Jackie’s tough love any day of the week.

6. Marge Simpson (Julie Kavner), The Simpsons: She’s brought down tyrants through the hearth arts (scotching Mr. Burns’ gubernatorial campaign with one well-placed entree). She’s shielded Lisa from the Simpsons Gene. For the love of Pete, she’s homeschooled Bart Simpson. Marge has given up a lot to put her kids first, but she might be rewarded one day by being the mother of a president. And Bart Simpson.

5. Patty Chase (Bess Armstrong), My So-Called Life: The anchor of a show that was too good for this world, Patty could bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan, and nurture Angela through all the heartaches great and small that come from just trying to grow up in this world. And in her spare time, she could do the same for Rayanne and Rickie. We wish Angela had been our friend in high school, mostly so we could hang out at her house and have Patty mother us.


4. Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), Friday Night Lights: If mothers are judged solely on how their kids turn out…well, they shouldn’t be. But if they were, Tami’d better hope Gracie Belle turns out well, because Julie Taylor is working our last nerve. But the Julie saga is actually a perfect example of why Tami’s a great mom–by turns sympathetic and demanding, she gives her kids all the support they need to succeed and then insists that they work hard to be all they can be. Then she does that for an entire town of kids. Add to that her example as a wife and professional (well, most of the time), and she’s top-notch.

3. Claire Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad), The Cosby Show: Claire’s the head badass in charge, and everyone in her house knows is. She’s head disciplinarian, head cattle prodder, head listening ear…she might be the #2 dance leader in the house, but you get the idea. To be fair, the dream life the Huxtable kids live has a lot to do with their socioeconomic status, but Claire is an equal partner in providing that, too. And she does it all with class, sass, and, yes, being a badass. If I could choose one of the moms to be instead of one of the moms to have, it might be Claire.

2. Sarah Connor (Lena Headey), Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: Tortured, torturing. Shooting, being shot. Taking on the military-industrial complex to save her son, who will lead the glorious revolution against our robot overlords. Sarah’s not just mothering John Connor, people–she’s giving up her hopes and dreams, and maybe her own life, to save us all.

1. Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham), Gilmore Girls: She may every once in a while be a little overindulgent, but Lorelai’s determination to give her daughter the childhood she herself never had sets off a cascade that starts with a teen mom raising her daughter in a potting shed and ends with Stars Hollow’s Most Beloved Girl Ever graduating from Yale. Along the way, we see one of the warmest, most supportive mother-daughter relationships ever shown on TV. We might want to be both Lorelai and the daughter she raised.

And to those moms you might not want to emulate:

10. (Tie) Lucille Bluth and Lindsay Bluth Funke (Jessica Walter and Portia de Rossi), Arrested Development: One makes her youngest son so codependent that when trying to escape her he mistakes the warning “Loose seal!” for her name and loses a hand. She then uses his prosthetic replacement in…happy times and leaves it in the dishwasher for him to find. The other merrily ignores her daughter until she wants to date said daughter’s high school boyfriend. The apple doesn’t fall far from the funny, funny tree.


9. Mom (Tress MacNeille), Futurama: On the surface, a sweet, bustled woman who just wants you to be happy because she loves you so much. Underneath the corset, a corporate overlord who just wants to suck the life (and all of your money) out of the entire galaxy. Don’t disappoint Mom–she might slap you. Or send her army of killer robots to express her displeasure.

8. Lianne Mars (Connie Bohrer), Veronica Mars: Imagine a mother who gives up every vestige of her old life, including being able to see or care for her teenage daughter, in order to protect that daughter from nefarious folk. A candidate for the best moms list, right? Sure, until she returns, drains her daughter’s college savings going to fake rehab, and then steals a very hard-earned paycheck on her way out the door a second time. Veronica became a better person with Lianne out of the picture anyway.

7. Colleen Donaghy (Elaine Stritch), 30 Rock: Highly critical. Ridiculously demanding. Acid-tongued. Unaffectionate (“Tell him his mother loves him. But not in a queer way”). The anti-matchmaker. And almost sure to bring all of these delightful qualities to the next generation (“I see you brought the bag…that my bastard grandchild will come in”). Like some of our moms on the best list, Colleen did the best with what she had, but now that she has more she’s happy to use it to keep twisting the knife.

6. Ellis Grey (Kate Burton), Grey’s Anatomy: It seems like we should have felt sorry for Ellis Grey, given that her career as one of the foremost cardiothoracic surgeons in the world was cut short by early-onset Alzheimer’s. And maybe we would have, if she hadn’t treated her husband with contempt, cheated on him and then pushed him out of their daughter’s life. Or expressed nothing but disappointment in Meredith, while spitting on her dreams at every opportunity. Oh, and then there was the time Ellis slashed her wrists in front of her daughter, just to manipulate a lover. Meredith drives us up a tree, but she comes by her crazy honestly.


5. Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), Weeds: We’d like to watch this show more regularly, but we can’t get over the intense discomfort we feel when Nancy puts her children in grave danger not only because she’s running a weed business, but because she’s just so bad at it. We can understand being scared about losing her lifestyle along with her husband, but in what world did exposing her children to criminals and druggies become a better choice than downsizing and getting a crappy desk job?

4. Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale), Justified: Well, she’s all about family, you have to give her that. A rural version of the Godfather, Mags is willing to use anyone to further her Kentucky kingdom, and that includes selling out her sons, pitting her sons against one another, manipulating her sons, putting her sons in danger, asking her sons to commit heinous crimes…and if they don’t obey to her satisfaction? She smashes their fingers with a ball peen hammer. Sure, she feels deeply sad when things go badly for said sons, but you’ve also gotta suspect she’s got one of those poisoned mason jars set aside for everyone in the family, just in case the need should arise.

3. Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), Damages: Patty would like you to know that she loves her son very much, albeit in her own heartless, extremely demanding way. That’s why she lies to him about his paternity, disowns him, has all of his belongings removed from her home, attempts to bribe his pregnant girlfriend, and has said girlfriend arrested for statutory rape. At least she was pretty understanding when, in return, he tried to run over his mom with her own car.

2. Betty Draper Francis (January Jones), Mad Men: Look, I can understand how soul-killing it might have been to try to live the traditional roles that were imposed on women in the 50s and 60s. It’s not all the smoking and drinking and dieting she does while pregnant, or even the frequently administered spankings that make her such a bad mother, because, hey, it was a different time and who didn’t let their kids play with dry cleaning bags back then? It’s the fact that she allows her bitterness about her strangled life to manifest as resentment of her children. Most of the other moms on this list at least manage to pretend to show some affection towards their kids every once in a while. Not Betty. When she’s not ignoring hers completely or telling them to go away and watch TV, she’s shutting them in closets, telling them to go bang their heads against a wall, or force-feeding them sweet potatoes in front of her new in-laws. But perhaps the worst thing she’s ever done was petulantly fire Carla, the maid who was the closest thing to a loving caregiver those poor kids ever had.



1. Livia Soprano (Nancy Marchand), The Sopranos: She’ll probably end up on every bad mom list you’ll see, and she’ll even probably come in at #1 on most. That’s what happens when you compare your children to dogs, fake a stroke to manipulate the entire family, ruin your daughter-in-law’s relationship with her own family, make it clear you think your son will tire of his wife…yeah, Livia’s a peach. Until another TV mom tries to persuade family members to kill her own son, Livia’s likely to be the undisputed queen of the damned. Where’s the Hallmark card that says, “I’m Glad We Got Over Your Putting a Hit Out on Me–Happy Mother’s Day?” In Livia’s cold, dead hands, that’s where.

Why FRINGE is the Best Sci Fi Series on Television Right Now

We weren’t too nice to Fringe around here when it first premiered. I seem to recall phrases like “slow and derivative,” “disappointing,” and “bargain bin” being tossed around in our early reviews. And we weren’t wrong. The show got off to a pretty creaky start–creaky enough that we stopped tuning in altogether. But a funny thing happened while we weren’t watching: it got better.

It didn’t happen overnight. It took them most of the first season–and maybe even a good part of the second–to find their butter zone and figure out what they were good at. But once they did? Wow. And now that Doctor Who seems to have lost a lot of its mojo (a post for another day), I’m officially declaring Fringe the best sci fi show on television.

There’s no denying that lot of the first season felt like a mundane X-Files rip-off with a lot of cheap gross-outs (WARNING: Do not under any circumstances attempt to watch this show while eating. You will regret it.) and some truly ridiculous “science.” But as the show’s mytharc develops, you gradually begin to realize that all those seemingly isolated incidents were actually leading the characters somewhere pretty interesting. (The mad science, unfortunately, never gets any better, so you’ll just have to resign yourself to some serious suspension of disbelief.) And unlike its predecessor, The X-Files (or J.J. Abrams’ Lost, for that matter), the Fringe mytharc has a straightforward, linear progression that manages to be both satisfying and intriguing, while actually kind of making sense. In that respect it turns out to have a lot more in common with shows like Veronica Mars and Damages than its genre cousins.

But it’s in the second season that Fringe really hits its stride, because that’s when it really digs into the emotional lives of the characters. Monsters and supernatural phenomena are all well and good, but what gets me invested in a show is its characters. And with John Noble’s masterful turn as Walter Bishop, Fringe has managed to create one of the best characters on any drama, ever. If Walter’s tragic, fragile genius doesn’t break your heart again and again, well, you might want to check to make sure you’ve got one. And while I admit that I found Joshua Jackson’s Peter and Anna Torv’s Olivia awfully wooden at first (and Peter downright unlikable in the pilot), they’ve evolved quite a bit since then. That off-putting woodenness has transformed over time into a natural reserve that not only masks personal heartbreak but is a point of commonality that eventually draws the two characters together. Watching these two damaged, distrusting people slowly open up to one another has been an unexpected delight.

Speaking of which, that’s another thing Fringe does better than The X-Files (and almost every other show on TV with a will-they/won’t they couple, for that matter). Instead of dicking around the audience and dragging out the sexual tension between the leads interminably (*ahem* Hart Hanson *cough cough*), they let it develop steadily and naturally over the course of the first two seasons. And then they totally went for it. And then, of course, they threw some major, epic roadblocks in their way, just to keep things interesting. But something tells me these two kids aren’t going to let something as simple as the end of the world get in their way.

Fringe has a little something for every sci fi fan: star-crossed lovers, wacky mad scientists, doppelgangers from parallel universes, mysterious time-travelers, and Leonard Nimoy. There are even plenty of Easter eggs seeded throughout the show to keep hardcore conspiracy buffs busy, from the fedora-sporting Observer who’s hidden in every episode like a game of Where’s Waldo, to the cipher that appears before the commercial breaks, spelling out a new word each week. But those are just bonuses: you don’t need to devote hours of your life to searching for the clue that foreshadows the next episode or combing fan sites to see if you missed a hidden Massive Dynamic logo somewhere in order to enjoy this show. The main storyline is easy enough to follow even for casual viewers, although it’s not necessarily the sort of thing you can just jump right into the middle of.

The season three finale airs this Friday night and it looks to be another mind-blower, but if you haven’t been watching the show I honestly can’t recommend you start now. The long, hot desert of summer television is just around the corner, and what better time to give Fringe the chance it deserves? Start from the beginning on DVD (if you’re impatient you can even skip to season two, but if you’re a completist like me you’re going to want to see it all) and enjoy watching this Little Show That Could grow from a tiny caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly, albeit one with creepy finger-bone wings.

BETTER WITH YOU: No, Not Really

I could waste your time describing the premise of Better With You (comparisons of distinctly dissimilar marriages within a family, yadda yadda), or with complaining about how the show wastes good actors like Kurt Fuller, Debra Jo Rupp, and Joanna Garcia-Swisher, but there’s really only one thing you need to know about ABC’s most recent addition to their comedy stable.

They use a laugh track. In 2010.

No, seriously.

They use a laugh track. I feel like I should be able to drop a microphone and walk away after saying that.

I have to assume that’s to tell the audience when to laugh, as we couldn’t quite be sure otherwise.

It’s the new Golden Era of televised comedy, folks. With the faux-documentary approaches of The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family; with the genre-leaping dexterity of Community; with the jaw-dropping efforts to make a movie every week on Glee; with the slick editing on Cougar Town; with the whip-lash pacing of Better Off Ted, 30 Rock, and Archer, a lazily shot multi-camera sitcom with a laugh track isn’t going to make much of splash anymore.

Maybe they can decamp to CBS–they still use laugh tracks on stuff like Two and a Half Men. For obvious reasons.

Entrez-vous? MAD MEN, THE VENTURE BROTHERS, and the New Viewer

I tried to watch the new episode of Mad Men this week, I really did. Everything I hear says that the show is hitting new highs, and heaven knows I hate missing out on the zeitgeist. As I squirmed on the couch, however, I had to wonder if I’m just not meant to get it. I think some important stuff was supposed to be going down between Don and Peggy, but all I could see is what a jerk Don Draper is being. Loyal fans tell me these were momentous times, which leads me to wonder if the Sterling Cooper world just isn’t for me.

I think I cracked the actual code, however, while watching–of all things–the season premiere of The Venture Brothers (and, yes, I’m altogether too aware that this may be the first ever comparison between Mad Men and The Venture Brothers). The Monarch’s ode to his Butter-Glider (“no more hiding what is woooonderful”) made me laugh until I was wheezing:

Really, who can’t enjoy a little Butter-Glider humor? And yet, most of the episode was built on so many references, homages, and in-jokes  that the plot felt like a Jenga tower. Some of those references, as is often the case in The Venture Brothers, were to other pop culture phenomena (here several asides to Fantastic Voyage, Innerspace, David Byrne, Ghostbusters, House…even the episode title is a reference to an Oscar nominee), but many were references to little details in previous episodes. If a viewer hasn’t committed to memory–let alone seen–previous episodes like “The Family That Slays Together Stays Together,” “Return to Malice,” and “Pinstripes and Poltergeists”  (setting up 21′s twisted relationship with a dead 24), or second season premiere “Powerless in the Face of Death” (for King Gorilla’s backstory, the fact that there have been many Hank and Dean clones, and the montage of those clones’ deaths), that Jenga tower is almost certain to come tumbling down. “Powerless in the Face of Death” is more than four years old. It’s terrific, and people should commit it to memory, but that’s a lot of dedication to ask of a TV viewer. It isn’t just that the plot will make little sense without understanding what has come before–it’s that these gem-like little Easter eggs are the humor and emotional payoff of the entire endeavor. I found it delightful, but then I can recite the previous clones’ deaths. The show’s made for me, but it’s probably a lot less than inviting for a new viewer.

I suspect the same is true for Mad Men–that if a viewer is as immersed in the Sterling Cooper world from the very beginning, the organizing structure that is all of Don and Peggy’s little interactions over the years holds up the Jenga tower. And even more important than supporting the plot line, having those previous tidbits as the emotional underpinning allows for a cathartic payoff. But a new–or inconsistent–viewer doesn’t get the payoff, and I have to wonder if those viewers just give up. This isn’t exactly revolutionary–it’s not rocket science that one reason procedurals do so well, especially in reruns, is because people can drop in knowing nothing and leave happily 44 minutes later with the bad guy in jail. But it is interesting that these two examples, and perhaps most other examples of TV shows that reward hard work and paying attention, are on cable. Arrested Development scratched out four glorious years on FOX but never had a quarter of the audience of American Idol. ABC couldn’t sustain Pushing Daisies. How long can a show last if its very structure keeps new viewers from joining the party? To what extent do profit streams that take into account DVD rentals and sales and online access to content make such shows, with which viewers can catch up, more financially viable? Does the fact that we’re talking about payoff to small details set these shows apart from soap operas, which have ongoing storylines that demand commitment, or are we just being snobs? Is the only hope for complicated, Jenga tower programming networks that can be satisfied with a couple million viewers, while broadcast television is destined for little more than singing and dancing competitions?

THE DEFENDERS: Leaving Las Vegas

There may be a glut of legal shows crowding the airwaves, but I understand the push to greenlight them. There are only so many occupations in which dramatic tension is woven into the very fabric of the work. The adversarial nature of practicing law builds interesting conflict into the premise of the show, which a good production can use to drive the week-to-week content.

Still, 20 years after Law & Order and 25 after LA Law showrunners have to hustle to make each new iteration of legal show eye-catching. That’s how you get Eli Stone, which used George Michael songs and a potential brain tumor to freshen things up. ABC’s failed The Whole Truth was a valiant attempt, presenting prosecution and defense views of the same evidence. Unfortunately, it sank under the weight of the Lifetime-worthy, overscored tags that showed what really happened.

The Defenders takes a very different approach, trying a marriage of levity and consequences to keep the format jumping. And to be honest, setting the show in Las Vegas is a great concept–the idea that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas solely because you enjoy attorney-client privilege is kind of inspired. Las Vegas…is what it is (where else can you see a whole ceiling-full of Chihulys within feet of someone handing you a prostitute’s phone number?), which should lead to cases that are tricky, titillating, and tragic by turn. There will also be ample opportunities–ample–for the leads to get into trouble. It really should inject new life into an aging genre.

Unfortunately, they’ve chosen to cast Jim Belushi as the lead, so I couldn’t watch more than 30 minutes of the darn thing. Can’t do it. Like the premise, like some of the rest of the cast (Natalie Zea!). Can’t do it. When David Cross thinks someone’s a jerk, that’s really saying something (and that’s coming from someone who likes David Cross). Jerry O’Connell is fine, but he’s not nearly likable enough to make up for how unlikable I find Belushi. If you don’t suffer from this same malady, let me know how the Vegas setting works out, but I’m folding.

HAWAII FIVE-0: No Worse Than Any Other Cop Show, I Guess

Despite the fact that Alex O’Loughlin has about as much range and charisma as a piece of cardboard with a frown painted on it, CBS seems stubbornly determined to build a show around the guy. Hawaii Five-0, a remake of the classic cop show from the 1960s, is the eye network’s second strike, after the ill-fated Moonlight (which missed the current vampire renaissance by *this much*).

Unfortunately for the new Hawaii-Five-0, the rest of the cast isn’t much more interesting than O’Loughlin. Lost‘s Daniel Dae Kim is about dynamic here as he was on Angel, which is to say, not dynamic at all. One begins to suspect the man’s at his best when he’s not allowed to talk much. But I really have hate in my heart for the writers who decided that Battlestar Galactica‘s Grace Park, the ONLY female lead, needed to be mostly naked in two of her THREE whole scenes in the pilot episode. Not that Grace Park is Meryl Streep or anything, but she can certainly do more than show off her abs. Scott Caan is the cast’s one high point. He’s actually rather adorable, but he has no hope of overcoming the sucking personality vacuum generated by the rest of his co-stars. The poor guy might as well be acting opposite a cinderblock wall.

To honest, though, Hawaii 5-0 is fine for what it is. The dialogue is wall-to-wall cliches and the characters are straight out of the television writer’s archetype playbook, but the plots are serviceable, if predictable, and the locale is almost as pretty as the actors. There are also several nice nods to the original, in the revival of the show’s iconic theme music and in the use of the old catchphrase, “Book ‘em Danno.” And really, in a landscape littered with the likes of Criminal Minds and NCIS, Hawaii Five-0 isn’t so bad.

OUTLAWS: Objection!

Full disclosure: I’m probably guilty of giving any new NBC lawyer show a more thorough going-over than usual, since said show was chosen over NBC providing me a weekly dose of David Tennant as a lawyer. In other words, I expect these shows to be outstanding to make up for the terrible, terrible cost they’re imposing on the world.

Sadly, Outlaws doesn’t make it over the bar of “watchable,” let alone outstanding. Jimmy Smits is his typical charismatic self, with enough gravitas to sell heavy legal plots and enough playfulness to sell Cyrus Garza’s troubled, disorganized side without weighing down the show. While I’m not thrilled with the female characters being relegated to Stieg Larsson or chick lit rip-offs, the cobbled-together legal team (including Carly Pope, David Ramsey, and Jesse Bradford) has a lot of chemistry. The scenes focusing on the team working to unravel a winning legal strategy have potential.

The problem is that the scenes bracketing the plucky team are so beyond the scope of suspendable disbelief that the entire show sinks under their weight. I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, and even I know that when a court overturns a previous conviction the guy who was on death row 20 minutes ago isn’t immediately headed out for a Krispy Kreme. The opening scenes where Cyrus announces his departure from the Supreme Court–yes, the Supreme Court of the United States of America–while delivering an opinion from the bench are likely meant to show him as a maverick, an untamable iconoclast. Instead, it’s simply ridiculous. “Hey, y’all, I think I’ll step down from the Supreme Court. Kisses!” so thoroughly undercuts the character that it damages the rest of the show by making a what should be a serious approach silly. That’s not even mentioning the fact that Cyrus’ decision to become the defense lawyer in the trial he just ordered as a Supreme Court Justice apparently doesn’t wave any conflict of interest flags. Jimmy Smits feels very intensely about this issue, so it must be okay!

I like a good legal show, so I’ll keep hoping Outlaws figures out the law, but until then it’s hard not to wonder what David E. Kelley and Kathy Bates will be bringing to the bar–or what Tennant could have.

We Should Organize a Staff Field Trip to Shenandoah: Ken Burns Take on National Parks on PBS

I’m under double deadline here and am therefore forbidden from saying one word about television. Not one word. Not a word about there being Harlem Globetrotters on The Amazing Race or about how Community and Bored to Death are essentially the same (good) show or wondering how Trauma could open with not one but two helicopters crashing and yet not have Paul McCrane involved.

But I do hope you’re all enjoying Ken Burns’ latest opus, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, as much as I am. I’m soaking in national parks around here, and as such I forget sometimes what a miracle that is. Burns doesn’t–like the best historians, he tells a story, and this story is one of democracy. Thinking about the way the world operated until just recently, it’s astonishing that Yellowstone Park isn’t an aristocrat’s gated summer backyard. Thinking about the way the world operates these days, it’s astonishing that Bryce Canyon National Park wasn’t hoarded away by someone as rich as Mitt Romney. But they weren’t–they belong to us. The national parks are the places where this land really was made for you and me. Burns saw that slender thread and has woven it into his typical gorgeous tapestry, full of wonder, nobility, surprises, and good humor (oh, John Muir–you really were something). Someday we’ll be watching a five-part documentary on PBS entitled Ken Burns: America’s Best Storyteller. Going on right now on PBS, often with multiple showings a day and, in at least some locales, starting over from the beginning next week. You really do have to check your local listings on this one, but don’t miss it.