Danny Pudi, Joel McHale, Donald Glover
A very selective look at the shows and various other TV odds and ends that stood out for me this week:
STUNT OF THE WEEK: Live from New York, it was 30 Rock. (And the following comments apply only to the early version. Couldn't really imagine sitting through it again to see how and where they tweaked it.) Much as I wrote many years ago when ER pulled off a similar stunt, I hope they take a nice bow and promise never to do it again. There were some inspired moments, as there usually are on this show — and I couldn't get enough of Julia Louis-Dreyfus' surprise cameo as "Flashback-Liz" (as real-time Liz notes, "My memory has Seinfeld money"). But most of what worked had little to do with the thinly sliced meat of the actual episode. Jon Hamm's hilarious transplanted-hand ad, Dr. Spaceman's "Love Storm" CD pitch to cure erectile dysfunction ("It's not just a dog problem anymore"), all would have been right at home on Saturday Night Live, which is what this episode looked and felt like, for better and worse, with its harsh "Mexican soap opera" lighting, shaky camerawork and uneven timing, exacerbated by the live audience hoots and hollers. (And I'm not talking about the moments when the camera whizzed back and forth to the blackout sideways gags. Those generally worked.)
Tracy's ham-fisted attempts at breaking up on camera, and Kenneth milking the self-conscious giggling, only tended to remind me how much I still miss the authentic theatricality of The Carol Burnett Show (non-porn version). Jenna's threats to "slip a nip" made me want to zip her lip. All reminders that whenever the show looks away from Liz and Jack, it tends to suffer. At times it was if they were taking the "no more laughing" directive to Tracy a bit too literally. What I liked: Jenna putting words to a live rendition of the theme song (and at the final bow, being heard saying, "Are we still on the air?"), Rachel Dratch as the bullet-brained cleaning lady, and Matt Damon's request during Carol's turbulent flight for Liz to "TiVo Bones for me in case I survive." Which, to be honest, I did, but because of this, won't get to watch until later.
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Meanwhile, not live but much livelier, 30 Rock's companion show Community scores with its send-up of space flight disaster movies, with the best use yet of a KFC product-integration tie-in — seriously, what's up with that? — as a primitive computerized Colonel SANDERS (Systematic Android Network Diode Energy Rocket System) goes all HAL by way of Atari on the study group during a flight simulation gone awry. It's all very Apollo 13 and all very silly, as Abed on the outside plots with the Dean (funnier than ever) to rescue his stranded (i.e., towed) classmates, while the rest of the group erupts in conflict: Pierce cracking up and being caged, Annie revealing herself to be a saboteur who's hoping to transfer to City College (fat chance), Jeff resenting Capt. Troy's authority until he rallies, because "[Greendale] is our toilet. Nobody craps in it but us." And they have the E Pluribus Anus flag to prove it. This terrific cast certainly has the chops to pull off a live episode, but let's hope they never go for extra credit.
In other laughing matters:
No show had me laughing out loud more this week (as usual) than the brilliantly structured Modern Family, with Cam's pixilated bike shorts a fashion disaster as he tells Claire before his ride, "I'm leaning toward the park." Claire, fulfilling her Strangers on a Treadmill mission: "I can see that." When Cam realizes Mitchell was behind the dose of tough-love advice, he trashes Mitchell's beard. "Well, you had that bullet in the chamber," Mitchell pouts. They nearly make up over sweet nothings and shaving cream, until Cam says, "You can make it up to me by doing my shoulders," and instead of a massage, Mitchell goes for the razor. Ouch. And I love that Phil going improv as MC at the real-estate banquet is a hit, and that Jay is the last to know he's playing "el jefe" at the wrong party. (I first experienced this episode at a table read in LA this summer, and was thrilled to see how well the laughs still held up.)
Actually got a lump in my throat at the end of Cougar Town as Smith dumps Laurie, who takes it convincingly badly, but the ensuing hug brings her and Jules back together after their tiff resulting from Grayson and Laurie stupidly revealing their one-night stand. Eating the sword, indeed.
THE TRAMP STAMP: My favorite comic metaphor of the week: the romantic dinner scene from Lady and the Tramp, referenced on Cougar Town ("Not what the show is," the title card says, once again mocking the show's misleading title) when Jules taunts the temporarily banished Ellie by threatening to eat a giant chocolate manatee from both ends: "Let's Lady and the Tramp this bitch." One night earlier, on Glee, Brittany brings up the same scene as she woos Artie with visions of eating spaghetti a la Tramp at Breadstix (should they win with their duet), saying she's been practicing edging the meatball across the table with her nose. Which we see her doing later as she forlornly eats solo while Quinn and Sam enjoy their celebratory meal.
SHOW STOPPER: The delightful "Duets" episode of Glee was full of them, and which was your favorite? Sam and Quinn's "freaking charming" (Santana's growly words) Jason Mraz cover wins the contest for strategic reasons, but I would have given it to Mercedes and Santana for their rip-roaring "River Deep Mountain High." Or Kurt for his dazzling Le Jazz Hot solo/duet production number-out-of-nowhere, decked out in a half-black/half-white costume accentuating the masculine and feminine. Kudos as well to the gender-reversed "Sing" from A Chorus Line "introducing us to the amazing voice of Mike Chang." (Yes, he can actually speak.) And what a way to close the show, with Rachel reaching out to Kurt — yes, she's actually a human being sometimes — doing the Barbra to his Judy in a soaring recreation of the classic "Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again" mash-up.
The episode was so strong you barely noticed Jane Lynch was missing. But she made up for it by giving her all on Saturday Night Live as a guest host with gusto, especially in her all-about-Sue opening number, her Faith Hill-sings-football parody and as a barking Phyllis Diller-esque comedienne spicing up an otherwise disposable game-show sketch. Speaking of show-stoppers, Bruno Mars was the best and most musically accomplished SNL guest performer in a while, certainly of this season so far.
SCENE STEALER: I know it's early, but I'd like to start an Emmy campaign right now for Martha Plimpton of Raising Hope, who dominates this wonderfully funny show as the grandma-before-her-time Virginia. This week, we see her go crazy insisting she's not crazy, flipping out as she control-freaks her way through a series of doomed family portraits, causing poor Jimmy such stress he makes a nervous meal of his hair. She also effectively "couch-blocks" her son's attempts to woo Sabrina, while nagging him to make his move lest he get stuck in the "friend zone" like Friends' Ross Geller. She's a handful, but she means well, like when she reveals to husband Burt that her desire for a perfect family portrait is "so I can fool people into thinking we have what all those other families have." But those other families aren't nearly as funny.
GIVING DUE CREDIT: To The Simpsons for this week's awesomely disturbing credit sequence, courtesy of underground British artist Banksy, who imagines a dystopian dungeon of an animation/merchandising sweatshop, where a wobbly unicorn's horn is used to poke the hole in DVDs and where a monolithic 20th Century Fox logo behind barbed wire reminds us it's always 1984 somewhere. See it here.
LIVE FROM CHILE: Often when we gather in front of the TV for a live news happening, it's to witness a tragedy, a calamity, to bemoan the state of the world. This week, with the marathon coverage of the euphoric rescue of the Chilean miners, the news was all good, and the pictures were joyously riveting — even if you had to endure endless verbiage from 24-hour cable news talking heads, reminding us why we steer clear much of the rest of the time. The low point may have been CNN calling into service the overexposed magician David Blaine to talk about ... oh, who cares? It's not the low points we'll remember from this. The miracle of live TV never seems more miraculous than when we're watching a true miracle of human ingenuity and enterprise unfold before our eyes. There was the awe of a moon landing in the spectacle of watching men rescued from what felt like the center of the earth.
THE SQUAWK: Sit Bill O'Reilly next to Joy Behar, and if you don't have earplugs handy, you have my sympathy. Arguing — nay, shrieking — about the Islamic center in lower Manhattan on The View this week (I live in New York and know better than to refer to it as the GZM) — the Fox News loudmouth patronizes his equally overbearing hosts with a "Listen to me because you'll learn" and a "Don't give me the 'we' business," prompting Joy to joylessly bolt from her seat with a "I don't want to sit here." An equally irked Whoopi joins her as they walk off the stage. Imagine if glasses of water or cream pies had been handy. Oh, the dignity of daytime TV. See it here. And raise your hands if you're looking forward to the premiere of CBS' The Talk next week. Didn't think so.
THINGS I DIDN'T SEE COMING: With only one episode to go, Mad Men delivers one of its greatest surprises to date, as notorious chain-smoker Don Draper publishes a one-page "Why I'm Quitting Tobacco" manifesto in The New York Times to (as Peggy quotes him) "change the conversation" about the firm's persona non grata status since the Lucky Strike defection. Most everyone is horrified and irate — including Old Man Cooper, who storms out, shoes in hand — but Don declares, "This is an ad for our company. If you don't understand it, then you shouldn't be in this business." A very downsized business SCDP is nowadays, as pink slips go out — farewell, little Danny — and we wait eagerly and anxiously to see what shoe drops next. (Poor little Sally Draper takes her own stand at the old homestead, befriending creepy Glenn against Betty's wishes, and is punished by Betty deciding it's finally time to move.) And Midge, Don's one-time Bohemian lover, is a heroin junkie peddling her paintings and even herself for the next fix. That is beyond sad.
STATE OF THE EMPIRE: This week's episode of HBO's stunning Boardwalk Empire is probably my favorite to date, as Margaret (my favorite character) gets her brief Cinderella moment at Nucky's lavish birthday party, while the front pages are obsessed with a real-life (also short-lived) fairy tale surrounding the woman passing herself off as Anastasia. We watch Nucky admiringly observe the well-read Margaret as she stands her ground against the well-heeled politicos he's courting, as she makes a witty argument for women's suffrage in context with women's ability to "withhold something that you desire" (i.e., alcohol). It's little wonder he takes her for a whirl on the dance floor to "Alice Blue Gown," but the romantic mood doesn't hold, because it's time for Lucy to jump out of a cake. Margaret has it easy, though, compared to Jimmy's new Chicago squeeze, Pearl, who gets her face brutally slashed as payback for Jimmy and Capone's strong-arm tactics.
The episode's home-run scene is a mesmerizing monologue from Michael Kenneth Williams (the immortal Omar from The Wire) as Chalky White, confronting the local Klan chapter's Cyclops over the recent lynching. He tells a story about his father, a master carpenter, who was strung up and hanged as reward for building a rich man's bookshelves. As he reveals his daddy's tools, the Cyclops wonders what Chalky's going to do with them. "Well, I ain't building no bookcase." Emerging 10 minutes later with the Cyclops' pinky finger, ring still attached, Chalky tells the corrupt Sheriff Eli that the Klan had nothing to do with it. "There's a point which if a man still sticks to his story, that's a man that's telling you the truth."
KILLER TV: "You gotta be OK around dead things," says roadkill specialist and off-duty serial killer Boyd Fowler (a well-used Shawn Hatosy) to Dexter Morgan, who obviously has no problem with that. Lots of shocks in this week's sensational episode of Dexter, as Dexter (calling himself "Darrell") tracks his latest prey, with an authentic OMG moment when Dex injects Boyd, only to be shot by Boyd with a tranquilizer gun. They wake in an ambulance, and it's very tense as hunter and target play it cool until the next round. Which the Dex-ecutioner wins. Which leads to the climactic shocker. Dexter performs his bloody duty per usual, only noticing after it's done that he's being watched — by a woman Boyd was imprisoning as his next victim. Said woman played by Julia Stiles. Where is this going?
CSI also got its creep on this week, introducing the nightmare figure "Sqweegel" — from a novel by CSI creator Anthony Zuiker, and nice way to spike book sales — who lurks in people's homes and hides under their beds, crawling like a spider in a latex body suit with a zipper-mouthed torture mask as he wields a mighty scalpel (including in a locked car during a car wash). Like Dexter, this spooky killer is a bit of a vigilante, targeting local heroes with dark secrets, including Vegas philanthropist Ann-Margret (a strong guest turn). "I am no one," declares the ghoul as he gets away for now. See ya, Squweegel, during some upcoming sweeps month, I'm betting.
SLEEPER TV: There's a lot of "best show you should be watching" buzz around FX's underrated Terriers, and this week's surprisingly moving episode is an excellent reminder of what a gem this is that's just waiting to be discovered. (Please, FX, give this one a chance to catch on. Premiering this offbeat show amidst a fall network onslaught may not have been the wisest move.) Everyone ups their game this week, especially Laura Allen as Katie, girlfriend to the thoroughly smitten Britt. The tricky case of the week puts everyone through the emotional wringer, involving a dying woman calling out her husband's infidelity as she sends the PI's on a wild-goose chase for a sapphire ring that's actually a blue diamond. But they're all already wound up in the wake of Hank's ex-wife Gretchen's engagement party. Britt is over the moon about Katie. "What am I waiting for?" he wonders. Meanwhile, Katie has a drunken lapse with her amorous professor after karaoke night and is so distraught she confides in a chagrined Hank. Her despair is real, as is Hank's, as he begs her never to tell his best friend, to pretend to forget it ever happened. He only wants the best for these two, knowing the pain of a broken heart. Which for him only gets messier when Gretchen's future groom Jason (not the jerk Hank would like him to be) confronts Hank over the credit-card scam. I can think of no characters this fall I'm rooting for more than these funky San Diego rascals.
HONOR ROLL: Now that Law & Order has left New York for the other coast, the best place to watch terrific New York theater actors ply their trade is on CBS' The Good Wife. This week's episode made good use of rising stars Bobby Steggart (as a boyish client) and Anika Noni Rose (as sleek opposing counsel), while Rubicon's Dallas Roberts stole every one of his scenes as Alicia's sardonic gay brother, still urging her to leave her schnook of a husband. Another great episode. ... Much as I loved seeing Andy Richter back on TV, guesting on Fox's wildly uneven Running Wilde as Will Arnett's new father figure who unfortunately misreads the affection as something more, the standout this week is Peter Serafinowicz delivering a perfectly absurd Alan Alda "tough-guy New York accent." ... South Park is predictably unforgiving of the excuse "It's just a Jersey thing" when it comes to obnoxious reality-TV housewives and Jersey Shore jerks. The cruelest contempt is reserved for the Snooki monster, a grunting, boozing sex machine who molests Cartman, showing her lack of taste. "That thing is famous? Why?" There is no answer. We also learn that Kyle's mom Sheila is a Jersey transplant who once went by "S-WOWW." To combat the Jersey invasion, Randy enlists Osama Bin Laden and his suicide bombers, which is breathtakingly offensive, although it turns out it's just a ruse to assassinate him.
REALITY CHECK: All in all, not a great week for the Jersey Shore image, as The Situation is booted from Dancing With the Stars. Please, let the personality-free Bristol the Pistol be next. And judges, what's with your hostility toward Ma Brady? Florence Henderson rocked that rumba. For shame. ... It wasn't so much a Survivor merge as a shuffling of the deck this week, as young and old were mixed together but the result was still the same. Older alpha males are not welcome. This week's victim: Tyrone, who overreached when the young 'uns came to camp. Who deserved the boot? Naonka, the apparently bipolar irritant who careens from cocky Miss Thing to whiny barnacle at the drop of a rainstorm. She huddles miserably during a downpour, muttering, "I'm over it," prompting Alina to appropriately note, "She just seems like she's on her period all the time," advising her, "You have the rest of your life to be warm and comfortable." Hoping they put Naonka out of her, and our, misery soon.
OUTCAST: What we will now call NBC's regrettable Outlaw from this point forward, as the Jimmy Smits legal drama is exiled to Saturdays, where the remaining episodes will be burned off. The latest casualty of a non-starter of a new fall network lineup.
AS HEARD ON TV: "There is a time and a place for subtlety, and that time was before Scary Movie." — Troy on Community, a show not particularly known for its subtlety (though last week's in-the-background Abed subplot was genius) ... "This isn't the game I grew up with, the game played in the misty ballparks of Enron Field or PacBell-then SBC-now AT&T Park." — Bart Simpson attempting a bit of baseball nostalgia. ... "You know Grissom would have tasted that." — CSI lab rat Hodges to Nick, after the CSI tech merely sniffs a carpet stain. ... "If I ever get that crazy, I want you to take me out in the back yard and blow my head off with a shotgun. You got that?" — A pre-senility Maw Maw of Raising Hope in a flashback. Too late now. ... "Sometimes your movements are so lifelike I forget you're not a real boy." — Leonard speaking truth to Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. ... "Did she really call my uterus hostile?" — Meredith Grey to Derek after getting unhappy news at the OB-GYN. Like anyone's surprised. And please, let this be the last we hear of it.
That's a wrap. What knocked you out or left you cold this week? In the week ahead: The finales of Mad Men and Rubicon, the premiere of CBS' daytime The Talk, and much more.
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