Ask Matt: Grey's, Once Upon a Time, Southland, Fringe, HBO's Comedies
Sandra Oh and Kevin McKidd
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Question: I would love to know your thoughts on the Cristina/Owen storyline at this point in the season of Grey's Anatomy. It goes without saying that Sandra Oh and Kevin McKidd have been absolutely flawless and incredible in acting out their scenes together, particularly in last week's episode. However, do you think this is a case where the acting outshines and elevates the writing for the most part and makes it more nuanced that what is on the page of the script? While I enjoy watching Sandra and Kevin act opposite one another and while I will always root for Cristina/Owen to work it out in spite of their endless issues and this endless storyline, I feel that the writing has not been serving them or the characters we have come to know.
It feels as though Owen has been made the villain (even though he's had his share of idiotic actions this season, claiming all women want babies, cheating, etc.) in the eyes of the writers, and the cheating was used as a device to make that event the root of their problems and their split in this episode, as opposed to the communication problems and lack of resolution of past hurts and issues that have stemmed from many things in their relationship, including the way Cristina scheduled the abortion initially without telling Owen. It also feels as though an agenda is being pushed for this storyline where Cristina gets to be the gifted, amazing surgeon who does not want kids and had an abortion to be true to herself, which is fine in and of itself, but discounts Owen's role as her husband as the man she loves. It boxes Cristina (who has been known to show empathy, caring, passion and deep love for her friends and for Owen) into yet another story that divides her loyalties and forces her to choose between her career and her husband. In the past she has been shown to want both, to choose both. I feel the writing has not been nuanced enough to give a balanced view. To be clear, I understand what Shonda Rhimes and the writers are doing, to break down the relationship to the point where they have no choice but to grow and fight for their relationship or let go completely, but I don't feel the writing has been effective enough throughout the season to justify whatever means they intend on giving us. — Michelle
Matt Roush: There are some interesting observations here, obviously deeply felt (and hardly alone in that, judging from my mail), but as I noted in my Week in Review column, I felt nearly equal sympathy for both characters, and I agree the actors are making the most of their material. My main problem with the episode wasn't the writing — I've been on board with this storyline all season, and I'd been looking forward to this showdown — but I was disappointed that more of the hour wasn't devoted to their riveting psychodrama. Yes, Owen's one-night-stand was the catalyst for what went down, but his quiet torment and guilt was no less effectively portrayed than Cristina's wailing and weeping. I don't feel they're casting him as a villain here as much as a troubled, damaged man who did a stupid and bad thing — but as Bailey told him the week before, that doesn't make him a terrible person. (Meredith may not agree, but she's always going to take Cristina's side; soulmates are like that.) He's out the door for now, but the door is open (given his final declaration of love) for a possible reconciliation. At which point the writers will no doubt move on to torture one of the other couples. That's how this show rolls.
Question: Having an office discussion concerning Grey's Anatomy and the music "volume" played during each episode. The music is so loud, it drowns out the story lines. In addition, Derek mumbles his lines, so with him mumbling and the loud music, it's pretty much a turn-off. We're getting pretty fed up, and unless something is done, we will no longer view the show. We've adjusted our TV controls, but to no avail. After all, we're tuning in to watch a show, not to listen to the music. Have you been asked about this before? — Marie
Matt Roush: Only several times a week; the volume of music that should be underscoring but instead ends up obliterating dialogue is one of the most frequently mentioned pet peeves in my mailbag, behind only the old standards "why are there so many repeats" and "why did they cancel [name of show]." Grey's is one of the worst offenders, to be sure, but many ABC dramas overdo it with the jaunty music. With Grey's, I've learned to be a lip reader, which makes it really tough when the music starts blasting over a scene when they're wearing surgical masks. Music can be effective when setting a mood or providing dramatic or comedic punctuation to a scene, but it has gotten out of control on many shows, not just Grey's.
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Question: As I sat in front of my TV watching Once Upon a Time, it occurred to me how aggravated I become when I watch this thing. Were it not for my husband, who enjoys it, I would gladly find something else to entertain me. That being said, please tell me that you have some insight as to whether or not Regina/The Evil Queen (whatever!) is going to get her evil plans dashed any time soon. I'm growing very weary of watching the "bad guy" come out better than the good every single week. Thought the concept was interesting at the beginning, but now it's just an hour of frustration. Thoughts? — MJ
Matt Roush: I try not to stay ahead of the story on this or any other show — this column aims to be spoiler-free (at least concerning things that haven't aired yet) — and with new episodes returning this Sunday, I guess we'll see how Regina/Evil Queen fares now that David/Charming's wife Kathryn has been discovered among the living, essentially clearing Mary Margaret/Snow, or so you'd think. Keep in mind that even revisionist fairy tales do mostly tend to turn out "happily ever after," but not before a lot of suffering at the hands of evil. This being an ongoing series and not a two-hour Disney movie, it's not likely we'll see many actual resolutions (happy or otherwise) for a while, but if they're smart, there will be more reversals of fortune and frustrations for the bad guys to make things less predictable. Even so, I still find myself enjoying anything that happens in fairy-tale land more than the intrigues of Storybrooke. It's not a perfect series by any means, but I'm glad something this different is a hit, and it's an enjoyable way to spend an hour on Sunday before the heavy lifting begins later in the night.
Question: As a Fringe fan, I have participated in the Twitter campaigns on Friday night as I watch the show, but I can not help wondering if these type of campaigns really make any difference. Many viewers seem to DVR Fringe or wait until it comes out on Netflix, and no fan campaign is going to change these viewing habits enough for the nightly ratings to drastically change. So do you think these campaigns work when there is little increase in ratings? — Mandy
Matt Roush: The networks take many factors into account these days when deciding the fate of a cult "bubble" show like Fringe. Social media (and the attention paid by more traditional media) are playing a role as well, but to spare you from my generalizing, let me steer you toward the best story I've read on this topic in a while, by my colleague Michael Schneider. Bottom line from my POV: It can't hurt to let your passion be known to the network and/or to advertisers in whatever form — although sending tchotchkes seems to be out of vogue — but fan campaigns have limited effect if the show doesn't somehow pull its weight or otherwise make sense economically. Still, with Fringe more than most shows in its situation, I wouldn't lose hope.
Question: I really love the show Southland. I don't understand how a major network let this show go. How is this show doing in the ratings now that it is on TNT? Do you think they will renew this show? It is so hard to like a really good show and watch it get canceled while all those awful reality shows keep going on and on. — Barbara
Matt Roush: Just be glad that NBC dropped it, given how things have gone for that network (and the skittishness over Southland is just one indicator of how badly NBC was being managed at the time). The show improved when it went to cable, and while it's not a breakout hit on the level of The Closer, the ratings for Southland improved this season in a very crowded time period. A renewal is still pending, but recent reports suggest that TNT will bring it back, with the current sticking point being the number of episodes, because the producers (not to mention the fans) would love to see more than 10 a season. Staying hopeful, because this has become one of my favorite crime dramas as well — and seeing a trite series like CBS' NYC 22 come along only reinforces the need for a show that packs this much gritty realism into an hour.
Question: I have seen the commercials for HBO's Veep and Girls. They both seem interesting. Have you watched the pilots? If so, do you think they will have a successful future? — Elizabeth
Matt Roush: My rave for Girls ran Friday, and I'll post a version of my (also positive) magazine review of Veep later this week closer to its premiere. But the answer is yes, I do think both of these shows are likely to be more successful, and maybe even popular, than many of the so-called comedies HBO has been subjecting us to the last few seasons. Girls and its fascinating creator/star/director Lena Dunham have been welcomed with an almost Mad Men-level industry and media buzz, so however the ratings play out, HBO is likely to see this as a winner. Veep is more conventional (though very pay-cable profane) in its blistering workplace satire, but it has a major star (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) at the center, as well as another auteur pulling the creative strings (Armando Iannucci of The Thick of It and In the Loop), and it goes for big laughs and mostly earns them — which lately, with the exception of Curb Your Enthusiasm, is almost unheard of at HBO. I'll be very surprised if both of these comedies aren't around for a long while.
Question: It was disappointing to read your rush to judgment of Magic City after only one episode. I found it entertaining and fun, much like the HBO series Rome was, and far better than most of the junk that now passes for TV drama. So why not give it a fair chance? By the way, Ike Evans does lack swagger, that's the point. He gets other people to swagger for him, and so far seems to be doing it well. Also, unless you're shooting a war drama, there was nothing magical about Havana Cuba in 1959. — M. Skyler
Matt Roush: I'll let you in on a secret. I was as disappointed as anyone that I didn't respond more positively to Magic City. As is almost always the case, I wanted to like this show. I'm intrigued by the period and I loved how it looks, but the writing, the story and most of the cast just never caught fire for me. But I wouldn't call this a rush to judgment. I watched three episodes before writing my review. (Even if they'd only made the pilot available, I would have felt compelled to share my first impressions; that's part of the job.) I recently received the fourth and fifth episodes and will watch them closer to air, and if my opinion changes significantly, I will share it. Given that Starz has already guaranteed this a second season — the sort of hubris pay-cable networks are fond of displaying, which I'm beginning to think looks more like a publicity stunt — I'll likely keep watching Magic City for its entire eight-episode first season to see how and if it evolves. And while I was being a bit facetious in suggesting that a more interesting show might be set in the Havana of the period, that was meant as a reflection of how dramatically inert I found the first episodes of Magic City.
Question: Numerous TV commentators have all but written off the chances for Rock Center With Brian Williams to be renewed in the fall. Didn't NBC say at the start that it would not be bothered by the show's ratings this early on? Granted, it has probably performed worse than expected in recent weeks, but it's still a quality newsmagazine program. It just seems odd that the typical TV viewer would tune in during primetime on a weekday to watch in-depth stories about stuff they couldn't care less about. Will NBC cancel it? If they don't, do you think they'll move it to a significantly different timeslot on the schedule? — YK
Matt Roush: Well, let's hope Rock Center's editorial policy aims higher than telling stories about stuff nobody cares about. (At the same time, it would be awful to see it go down Dateline's sensationalistic true-crime rabbit hole.) Rock Center's ratings must be a disappointment to the network and to the news division, but I also can't imagine they're much of a surprise — especially once the show was moved from Monday to Wednesday, an especially problematic night for NBC, where Rock Center has already aired in two different time periods. This is not the way to nurture a new franchise. But given the problems elsewhere at NBC, and what I'm assuming is the cost factor (a news hour typically being less expensive than a scripted one) as well as Comcast's own stated interest in supporting the news division in general and Brian Williams in particular, there may be life yet for Rock Center. Watching 60 Minutes' tribute to Mike Wallace Sunday night, I was reminded that this show was far from an instant hit in its first low-rated years. It seems unlikely that Rock Center will ever reach 60 Minutes' heights — doubtful 60 Minutes will again, either, except when it scores a major "get" — but it may be in NBC's best interests to stick with this for a while. Though I wouldn't be surprised if it sits out the fall, and I'd be amazed if it returns on either Mondays or Wednesdays.
Question: Dr. House, Tony DiNozzo, all of the women on Cougar Town: TV has never suffered a shortage of narcissistic characters, but generally, this is one personality trait of many. Lately, though, it seems like writers are getting that far and no further. The new guy on Fairly Legal is driving me away from Sarah Shahi (sigh); elsewhere on USA, Psych's Shawn is more insufferable every week. Bent irritated me more and more with each episode, as the contractor, his father and the sister all stayed stuck on themselves. Is there any way to convince Hollywood that we want to see more realistic, or at least varied, people on our scripted shows? — Jon
Matt Roush: The word you may be looking for is "rounded," which is what you'd hope to see in even the most hard-to-take characters on TV. Used to be TV shied away from building shows around unpleasant characters (see Buffalo Bill among others), but now we're in an age of irony where we're being asked to love to hate many major characters. I'll fall back on one of my more obvious rules of thumb: It's all about execution, in this case performance and writing. As an example: For many years, Hugh Laurie kept us glued to House (before it and the ensemble fell apart) with his charisma, wit and the way he let us in on the character's physical pain and psychological demons, allowing us to forgive or at least empathize with him even at his most maddening. All too often, though, these traits can come off as smug shorthand to make a character more "colorful," when it's really only off-putting.
Question: To the reader that commented about the lack of buzz for NCIS (and I'm one who has buzzed about it, even submitting a question last week), I can only offer these theories as a long-time fan of the show. It has not been in any danger of cancellation and there have been no drastic time-slot changes to worry and rally the fans. The actors, while successful professionals, do not generate much tabloid coverage, say particularly controversial things or end up with mug shots on display — so no articles about whether this one or that one will be fired for his/her behavior. And most importantly, I have built up trust in the writers. Over the years, they have seldom let a thread drop. They always seem to come back with some answers even several years down the line. When there is a shocking death, it's handled in a way that fits into the story and never has the feeling of being a shock for the sake of a shock (at least to this viewer). Maybe by lack of buzz, it's really a lack of complaints. And viewers show their approval by showing up week after week, year after year. — Cynthia
Matt Roush: An excellent appraisal of a show and a cast that has never taken its success for granted. Is it the most adventurous groundbreaking series on TV? Of course not, which is why NCIS is virtually invisible at the Emmys and on year-end 10-top lists. But its consistency and its firm grasp on what its audience wants is why it stays atop the ratings even after nine seasons.
Question: I noticed a strange coincidence recently. Mark Pellegrino plays the evil figment of a main character's imagination in both Being Human (Syfy version) and Supernatural. I know that character actors are pigeonholed — by definition, but I've never seen an actor serve the exact same purpose and play the exact same personality on two different shows in the same week. Granted, there are different back stories on his characters in both shows, but it still seems like a really odd coincidence. I suppose this is more of an observation than a question, but you've been kind enough to indulge me in the past. Have you noticed this sort of pattern yourself? I find that it takes away from my enjoyment of the show when I spend more time thinking about the actor than the character he is playing. Although it's probably just a matter of actors needing to work, and playing a recurring character on two different series probably doesn't suck. Thanks for your always appreciated insights. I look forward to the "Ask Matt" column every Monday. It's nice to have a voice of reason on the Internet and somewhere to turn other than fan forums. — Pallas
Matt Roush: Thanks for that. Couldn't do this column without you and the many other contributors, who continue making my own relationship with TV more interesting. I guess it is odd when a familiar face to genre viewers (he was also Jacob on Lost) is doing double duty in such visible roles on popular cult series. But far from taking me out of the show, I usually find myself responding with delight when a favorite character actor appears in a variety of roles. That was certainly the case when Pellegrino turned up as Brenda's flamboyant lawyer on The Closer, revealing a wickedly comic flair I wasn't prepared for. Mark Sheppard also comes instantly to mind, with a busy resume that includes Battlestar Galactica's Romo Lampkin, Supernatural's Crowley, Warehouse 13's Regent Benedict Valda, to name a very few. I'm always glad to see him, even when he conjures up memories of his past work while I'm watching his latest. The fact that these sorts of actors keep getting work is good for them and for us.
Question: A while back, I read where you alluded to your enthusiasm for Knots Landing. Can you please tell me why it is about the only TV show that is not available on DVD in its entirety? Some of the worst shows that never even had a full season aired are available, but Knots, the longest-running prime-time soap that maintained its stellar ratings through the end, has only managed to release Seasons 1 and 2 on DVD. Any explanation for the resistance to release the entire series? — Brenda
Matt Roush: Quite a few Knots fans asked about this, so while I'm not the best authority when it comes to a show's afterlife on disc or elsewhere, in this case I'll just have to assume that the first seasons didn't sell well enough for Warner to continue issuing them. (Which doesn't mean a collectors' edition won't someday be available in some format. Who knows where downloading/streaming will eventually lead?) Series with much shorter shelf lives would obviously be less expensive to produce than a long-running soap. And just speaking generally, as much as I enjoyed Knots as a great guilty pleasure during its time on the air, I'm not sure it's a timeless entertainment, and given that we're talking 14 seasons and nearly 350 episodes, it's hard to imagine any but the most devoted fan shelling out the money or the time to relive the whole thing. But should they ever compile a greatest-hits boxed set (Paige and Sumner's strip croquet, the death of Peter Hollister, Michelle Phillips seducing Mac to The Mamas and the Papas, and so much more), I'm there!
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