Political Animals

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Question: I was wondering if you have found time to tune in or catch up on MTV's teen supernatural drama Teen Wolf or the comedy Awkward. I have been back watching both again recently and am officially hooked. With Teen Wolf being picked up for a 24-episode season next year [and Awkward for 20] and the laundry list of new scripted dramas on the horizon, what do you think of MTV scripted shows and are they in it for the long haul? — Sharday

Matt Roush: I had fallen behind on both shows during the recent critics' press tour, and one of the more pleasurable tasks of the last week was catching up on them. Awkward in particular, which is one of the best romantic comedies anywhere on TV. I like these characters so much (and the snappy writing) that I'm almost dreading this Thursday's episode, where it looks like we'll see the fallout from awful Sadie spilling the beans to nice-guy Jake about his sweetheart Jenna and BFF Matty having been a secret item before they got together. Awkward indeed! (And in writing that little summary: Yes, I feel like a high-school gossip.) Teen Wolf has also exceeded most of my expectations for the genre, and like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (though nowhere near as deeply) has gone far beyond the original source material to deliver a gripping, unpredictable, amusing, sexy and at times very scary thriller. With Jackson as the killer Kanima, Lydia bringing Peter the former Alpha back from the dead, and a grieving Allison going all Super Hunter, this season's twists have been fun to watch — although last week's fateful lacrosse game was beyond incomprehensible — and I'm looking forward to tonight's season finale (10/9c).

Regarding the bigger picture: It does look like MTV's current regime is serious about being in the scripted game, and I'm hoping at some point they'll develop a series that will involve actual music (considering the network and all). These two shows are a good start, and a sight better than the attempts to remake British shows (like the already-forgotten Skins and next week's inferior Xerox of The Inbetweeners).

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Question: Thoroughly enjoy reading your take on the TV world. Wondering what you thought about Political Animals on USA Network? I started watching because of Sigourney Weaver and now am hooked. Love the casting. Ellen Burstyn manages a role that could be very trite, but the tough former showgirl shines through in her portrayal. The same is true of Ciaran Hinds in his role as former president, ex-husband and womanizer. I especially like that it is a limited series and I'm not going to have to commit beyond that. Of course how I actually feel about that will depend on how things are wrapped up... or not, at the end of these episodes. Right now I am just enjoying the ride! Haven't seen too much in the media about this show either and was surprised by that. Your thoughts? — Brenda

Matt Roush: Having just finished watching this six-part series to the end — the finale airs next Sunday — I stand by my original review, which likened it to "a bawdy, raunchy fusion of Aaron Sorkin and Jackie Collins." This was my favorite TV "beach read" melodrama of the summer, with its over-the-top plotting getting me past the many improbabilities. I enjoyed Weaver (despite her unflattering wardrobe) a great deal, and would watch an entire show about Burstyn hitting the road with her gay grandson (the very good Sebastian Stan) for a nightclub cabaret tour. Even when dealing with weighty matters, Political Animals maintained a breezy tone, which may test some viewers' resolve in next week's eventful finale. As escapism, I give it high marks, and will be curious to see if USA sees an upside to continuing the story.

Question: I'm hoping Elementary is as good as the previews I've seen. I'm a big fan of all things Holmes from the Basil Rathbone movies to Robert Downey Jr.'s steampunk-ish turn to House and the wonderful new Sherlock on PBS. I even think I see quite a bit of Sherlock Holmes in Steven Moffat's version of Doctor Who (River Song as Irene Adler, anyone?). I'm not too concerned about a crowded field since the PBS/BBC gem only puts out three episodes at a time and I will happily pay for more than one speculative Holmes novel this year because I like the authors' work. I'm not sure I would be as excited about Lucy Liu had I not watched her gripping performance as a good cop caught between protecting her career and doing the right thing on Southland. I also had the pleasure of seeing Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller together in Frankenstein at a special showing at the movies and I feel like I'm already a fan. My worry is that I felt that way about Hawaii 5-0 leading up to the premiere. Great cast, great location, great theme song! Bad, bad, bad scripts. Tell me I'm not in for a letdown. — Cynthia

Matt Roush: All I've seen is the pilot, but I'm encouraged there will be room on TV for a second enjoyable contemporary spin on the great detective. As you note, PBS' Sherlock import is more like a special, brilliant treat, whereas Elementary will aim for a bigger, broader audience, and with this casting, it feels to me like another CBS hit, aiming higher than most (in the vein of Person of Interest and the standard-bearer The Good Wife more than the run-of-the-mill Hawaii).

Question: I was just curious of what you thought so far of Damages season 5? It has me on the edge of my seat with the taut storylines and the again brilliant use of flashbacks/flash-forwards. It really has the exciting tension of season 1 and season 3, and I'm glad it's ending with a bang. I was underwhelmed with the military-themed season 4, but this year it has come roaring back. The writing and direction are flawless as always. And the acting! Jenna Elfman has really surprised me with how good a dramatic actress she can be. I believe that Glenn Close will get another Emmy nomination (her fifth for the role) for her fiery work as Patty Hewes. And it really is a testament to Rose Byrne as an actress who has excelled each year in going toe to toe with Close. Couldn't ask for a better final season! — Kevin

Matt Roush: Again, just caught up on the most recent episodes over the last week, and what's intriguing me most about this final season is watching Ellen become every bit as devious and ruthless as Patty in setting the stage for their final showdown (even at the expense of her client's best interests). Agreed about Jenna Elfman, who scores in every scene she appears in (too few). Not sure yet where I fall on Ryan Phillippe, whose character certainly seems damaged, but when a subplot about his personal life was introduced I found myself itching to get back to the legal mystery. I also like the call-backs to the first season's bloody intrigues, haunting both Patty and Ellen. Where it's heading I have no idea. Just how I like it.

Question: I couldn't agree more with your assessment of Falling Skies as the most improved show this summer. Heck, I can't think of any show since Buffy that has made such a leap between its first and second seasons. Really impressive. I truly "believe" Noah Wyle's character. And yes, the kid who plays Ben is definitely going places. Love him! Super talented. — Debi

Matt Roush: Not really a question here, but gives me an opportunity to recommend this Sunday's finale, titled "A More Perfect Union," which seems to refer less to the new government in Charleston than to the collaboration of the 2nd Mass and the rebel Skitters as they prepare for a pivotal battle. A strong end to a surprisingly rocking season.

Question: Love your column, but could you lower the volume on the fans of reality shows who complain that someone was "picked" who did not have as much "talent" as someone else on the show. All shows on television are TV shows first and singing competitions, survival exercises and looks into the lives of people second. If the reality show does not create good ratings (and "drama" helps a lot in that department) the show will not continue. Project Runway is really showing this off this year. Radio personalities know their job is to get more people to listen to them so their bosses can charge more to advertisers. It is the same with reality programming. Keep up the good work. — David

Matt Roush: I wouldn't argue that much if not most of reality TV is built around contrived conflict and overly heightened "drama," and that often includes the eliminations in reality-competition shows — especially those that don't have an interactive element for the viewers to help determine the outcome. But it's not for me to "lower the volume" of viewer complaints, if the passion they're expressing seems genuine.

Question: There have been a lot of complaints about the winners of last season's The Glee Project not having very big roles on Glee. The problem is that Glee has so many regular characters that a lot of them don't get very meaty roles. I was among the people disappointed that Damian and Samuel didn't have bigger roles, but I'm also disappointed that characters like Mike Chang don't get bigger roles. With a good chunk of each episode being taken up by the musical numbers, there just isn't enough time to give all of the regular characters good story lines, let alone the winner of The Glee Project. — Dennis

Matt Roush: A fair point, but at least Mike Chang got to bust a move on a regular basis, whereas poor Damian McGinty barely got to mutter a few unintelligible lines most weeks. What a wasted opportunity. Whichever of this year's three finalists wins (Aylin being the odds-on favorite, with Blake and Ali close behind), I'm betting and hoping they'll be given a bigger platform on Glee. And as I've said before, while I have no reason to doubt Ryan Murphy's assertion that there will be only one winner this year, I'll be surprised if some of the runners-up don't show up at some point. They're just too good. To your bigger point about Glee's ensemble nature: It's true that some of the characters never got much of a chance to develop, and with the focus now split on Rachel in New York (Lea Michele always being first among equals in this cast) and New Directions back in Lima, that's probably not likely to change.

Question: I've been reading what you've said about reality shows, and I wonder: While I know that they are cheaper to produce, could it be that it is also hard to find good writers these days? The good stuff gets canceled and the dreck often lives on. Are the writers just skipping the aggravation and going straight to screenplays? They seemed to nurture writing talent on TV in the past. — Robin

Matt Roush: There's still plenty of good writing and experienced writers working in TV, and networks are developing scripted series with the same determination as ever. But it's a fact that the real estate is more limited, especially as some reality shows can take up as many as three hours (or more some weeks) of a network's schedule, and many cable networks don't have the budget or inclination to pursue scripted fare. Because on the other side of the argument, if there weren't an appetite for reality TV of all sorts, from ambitious docu-reality as discussed in last week's column to absolute embarrassing trash like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, there wouldn't be such a market for it.

Question: I've wondered why NCIS has never been nominated for an Emmy award, when week after week, year after year it has been No. 1 in the ratings? All the shows on CBS have been very good: the CSI shows, Person of Interest, etc., and none of them have been nominated. The one CBS show I can't stand, The Good Wife, has been nominated. I remember the days of the Cable ACE awards, I wish the awards were kept separate from the network awards. Many people cannot afford to pay for HBO and other premium channels, and it is so unfair having their shows compete with shows that the majority of people are able to watch. Wish you could have the last word on this or be in a position to talk to the higher-ups about this unfair practice, makes my interest in watching the Emmys nil. — Annamae

Matt Roush: We'll have to part company on the Good Wife diss — that show deserves every nomination it gets, and should have been included in the Best Drama race — but I'm not sure even if there was a division between cable and broadcast network shows (which I'm not advocating) that some of TV's most popular shows would make the Emmy cut. Formula crime and action series, while enjoyable and (like NCIS) very well executed, often aren't seen as distinctive enough to earn nominations, even in less crowded fields. But you're hardly alone in expressing disinterest in an awards show where so many of the nominees are so niche in appeal.

Question: Why do the Emmy Awards get such low ratings? Because most viewers don't care about the shows and actors who are nominated. Again this year, the TV Academy nominated shows and actors which it thinks will impress critics and the industry, and ignored strong performances on "mainstream" shows. Most TV viewers have no one to root for among this year's nominations. It wouldn't surprise me if the Emmy Awards get the lowest ratings in its history this year. — Susan

Matt Roush: You may be right. Seems like a good time to point out that the Emmys, like the Oscars, aren't designed to be popularity contests. It's rare when the No. 1 film is named Best Picture, and these days it's even more rare on TV — although Modern Family has bucked that trend in comedy, which lately has caused some critics no end of hand-wringing. Because the real issue here is that while network TV still operates more often than not as a mass medium with "big tent" programming (which doesn't necessarily mean simplistic or negligible), the cable and premium networks are able to take bigger risks on more challenging and less escapist (and much lower-rated) projects, which tend to get more serious critical attention and ultimately awards recognition. Doesn't seem fair, I know, but if you're looking toward the Emmys to reinforce popular taste, you're bound to be disappointed.

Question: My question is how does a show like Haunted Highway stay on when it is so obviously faked and misrepresented? The show is supposed to be only the researchers, and I use that term loosely, filming their own stuff, which in some instances it has been shown they are clearly not by themselves and here is an example why I think this. The "Hairy Man" episode, which through their own research and from supposed eyewitnesses declared the creature in question to be very aggressive. Despite this information, they go out into a forest location where they have never been with no type of protective support, not even hiring a local hunter, someone who knows the area. Now night falls and they split up, and of all people the female walks the perimeter while the man stays in base camp. The obligatory creepy sound happens and when she calls for assistance the man goes crashing through the forest, an unfamiliar forest, making more noise than a freight train. Now I have to believe these two people are not idiots — bad actors maybe but not idiots, in which case it leads me to the conclusion that this is a controlled environment, which makes it not real. Isn't this some form of misrepresentation? If they were to tell me this was only for entertainment then OK, but to try to represent yourself as a serious paranormal research show, that's just wrong. How do shows like this stay on the air? — LG 

Matt Roush: I'm afraid I'm such a skeptic when it comes to this genre of sur-"reality" TV that I find it amazing when anyone believes these things to be authentic. I have to believe most people look at shows like this as pure entertainment and aren't sweating the details. What would be the point?

That's all for now. Keep sending your comments and questions to askmatt@tvguidemagazine.com, and in the meantime, follow me on Twitter!

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