THE UNUSUALS “One Man Band”: For Want of a Waterfall of Milk

unusuals-premiere

The UnusualsM*A*S*H-laden DNA gets even more obvious this week, as they rip off the Sheldon Keller-penned classic “For Want of a Boot”. The 4077th nuttiness goes something like this: Hawkeye badly needs a new pair of boots. The boot provider will trade the footwear for a finagled dentist appointment; the dentist will squeeze in the boot provider for a pass to Tokyo; Henry will only give the Tokyo pass if someone will get Margaret to leave him alone; Houlihan will only lay off if Hawkeye will get a cake for Frank’s birthday; Radar will only cough up a cake for a date with a nurse; the nurse will only step out for a hair dryer; and Klinger, who has a hair dryer…well, if you watched M*A*S*H, you know what Klinger was wearing those high heels to get. Guess who doesn’t get any boots.

Fast forward 35 years to The Unusuals‘ 2nd Squad, where Shraeger is getting pressure from society friends to spring a kid who made the mistake of engaging in public and drunken urination…on a cop’s shoes. The dampened cop doesn’t want to drop the charges…but he will if Shraeger can get him out of a Friday shift. His commanding officer is willing to do Shraeger a favor…as long as she can get her new partner to cough up a trophy Walsh “stole” back in the day (the dispute behind the trophy lies in how long someone must keep a gallon of milk down his gullet before it counts as having been legitimately drunk in one sitting). Walsh extracts a variety of favors before relinquishing the trophy. Unlike Hawkeye, Shraeger gets her objective–only to find she’s just sprung an iron-clad suspect in an unrelated hit and run case–and that the person pulling the strings was her father.

I’m enjoying several things about The Unusuals–Banks and Delahoy’s murder store plot managed to be both amusing and sad–but this recycling of plots done better in the original sources, such as the pilot’s borrowing of the copy machine/lie detector gag from Homicide: Life on the Streets, is worrisome. All shows–procedurals, sci fi, soaps, you name it–are recycling plots at this late date in human storytelling history, but these are such memorable plots that they draw attention backwards instead of forwards. On the other hand, the devil is in the details–ripping off a M*A*S*H storytelling device never stopped Aaron Sorkin from giving good letter in Sports Night‘s “Dear Louise” or The West Wing‘s “The Stackhouse Filibuster”. Given the ratings, I’m not sure The Unusuals will get a chance to show how well they can make those details their own.

Squee! It’s…

Ooh, double squee tonight. The brilliant William H. Macy returns to ER in their continuing self-congratulatory parade of former stars (eh, they survived 15  years–let ‘em have their parade. If it weren’t for Macy, we wouldn’t notice it going by anyway). Though perhaps best known for films such as Fargo, Boogie Nights, Seabiscuit, and Pleasantville, Macy’s won a boatload of awards for his work in TV movies like The Wool Cap and Door to Door and has been a guest on many well-known series. We, unsurprisingly, will always love him for stirring up trouble and then resolving it on Sports Night.

On Bones, Deirdre Lovejoy pops up as a US Attorney. You’ll remember Ms. Lovejoy not as part of the reverend’s family on The Simpsons, but from Eli Stone, Law & Order: Honey Barbecue Flavor, and the last great episode of The West Wing (“The Supremes”). We remember her most fondly, however, as another attorney: ADA Rhonda Pearlman on The Wire. Just thinking about her makes us happy, because Pearlman was one of the few characters who got an unobstructed happy ending (Cedric Daniels/Lance Reddick, rowr). She’s joining Bones for the return of the Gravedigger storyline; since that plot produced what might be the show’s finest episode (2006′s “Aliens in a Spaceship”), we expect all kinds of sparks to fly tonight. Bones appears on FOX at 8pm Eastern and Pacific; ER on NBC at 10.

“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.

The Real Keith Number

Perhaps, like me, you have long loved Keith Olbermann from afar. If you’re really like me, you still have his last Big Show (the Sunday night edition of SportsCenter, with Dan Patrick) on videotape, if only because they were the model for Aaron Sorkin’s underappreciated Sports Night. (Or perhaps to preserve gems such as “Dick Trickle…did not finish.”) If you’re really, really like me, you love Keith anew every year when he gripes about Dale Murphy not being elected to the baseball Hall of Fame.

If you’re really, really, really like me, you’re really, really, really loving Keith these days for being one of the few newsfolk out there who acknowledged that bad calls by pundits prior to, say, the New Hampshire primaries likely had less to do with “racist” voters (paging Chris Matthews) or cell phones and more to do with the pundits’ own inability to do math. Hence the recent introduction of what might be my favorite part of Countdown‘s broadcast, the Keith Number, or polling data that include noting the percent of respondents that are undecided plus the margin of error (not to be confused with the Keith Numberdon’t they teach recreational mathematics anymore?). If the Keith Number had been in play before New Hampshire, the pundits might not have been able to make the right call, but they couldn’t have pretended to be so shocked by it, either. It would be nice to think that attention to detail like the Keith Number might lead to a bump in Keith’s numbers (from tvbythenumbers.com).

The real Keith Number today, however, is eight, or the number of fourth quarter comebacks Eli Manning had engineered late in the regular season when Mr. Olbermann called Manning a player to watch a few weeks before the Super Bowl–and dang. Perhaps the Keith Number is not to be messed with.

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!