SEATTLE MED: Welcome, TV peeps, to the November sweeps, late-October edition, where not all stunts are created equal. First among non-equals is TV's still-reigning hospital soap, the durable Grey's Anatomy, showing it has lost none of its juice — and neither has the faux-documentary format — in a wrenching and pivotal episode seemingly inspired by last summer's excellent Boston Med. Or is it the local sweeps news? The show temporarily becomes Seattle Medical: Road to Recovery, with sensational teasers amid other infotainment hoopla, as hand-held cameras follow the doctors along the usual rounds of triumph (a double arm transplant, a regenerative trachea procedure in the pediatrics ward) and tragedy (Mandy Moore, from the shoot-em-up cliffhanger, is back, but goes into an irreversible coma after Bailey's routine op). The gimmick, though familiar, illuminates character as we watch them do their jobs from a new perspective while sparing us from the show's maddening tendency to overshare. And what a nice change not to have all that intrusive mood music playing in the background.
The docs self-consciously play to the camera — Alex shows off his war wound, and cocky Derek brags about his team of "medical titans" — while in more guarded moments they tell the unseen visitors about how they've been coping since the hospital massacre, and most intriguing is Cristina's ambivalence. She gets the episode's final words: "Being a hero has its price." Honey, you've paid in full. Time to get back to work, please. Meanwhile, prestigious-grant-winner Arizona and Callie are Africa-bound — but for how long? (Final thought: Shonda Rhimes clearly has a thing for long-ago Felicity star Amanda Foreman, who's winningly natural as the wife of the formerly armless guy, and a far cry from the Private Practice psycho who sliced up Violet to get her baby.)
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HALLOWEEN HILARITY: More treats than tricks this year as lots of shows went all out to get in the Halloween spirit, none more successfully than ABC's stellar Wednesday night sophomore sitcoms. Modern Family was literally a scream, as you'd expect, but let's start with a show that deserves a big bear hug: Cougar Town, which brought the sweet to undercut the snark this week as Jules' lonely widower dad Chick (the terrific Ken Jenkins, Scrubs' Dr. Kelso!) pays a visit to his princess and uses a bear costume to cross the emotional divide with his daughter. In so doing, he reminds her (and us), "You have built a beautiful family here." And what do families do better than rag each other? Watching Ellie and Laurie dress up as each other to mock each other, and then Travis showing up as Andy (who's doing "Dom DeLuise dressed as Burt Reynolds," Grayson guesses), all very funny. But this week they lead from the heart, as Ellie and Andy concede that good-old-boy Bobby would make a good guardian for their baby after all, and Grayson and Chick perform a charming duet to "Kicked in the Family Jewels" — or is that "Jules?"
Speaking of hugs: On Fox's wonderfully raucous and generally aww-some Raising Hope, we learn that Jimmy spent his childhood being terrorized by a mystery man in a mask every Halloween, the trauma of which would send the boy back into the arms of his dad, Burt. Who, it turns out, was behind the mask and was scaring his kid incognito "for the hugs." Jimmy, naturally, is not amused and wants precious little Hope nowhere near his folks — although letting his clueless buds babysit while he goes off to play Batman to Sabrina's drunken Robin is no improvement. (The bit where Jimmy's buds consider feeding Hope "baby bird" style was gross even by this show's standards.) Burt engineers another crisis, this time involving the missing baby, to get yet another hug from Jimmy, who finally has to acknowledge, when cradling Hope, that "a hug is a powerful thing." Raising Hope, we heart you.
Meanwhile, Modern Family had me howling every time Phil set off the screaming skeleton, one of many props supporting Claire's prized haunted house, where the family comes together in what Jay rightly calls a "colossal fog cue." Cam reveals his childhood Halloween trauma that led to him wetting himself, while Mitchell gets busted for trying to hide the padded Spidey costume he wore to work. The farcical elements play beautifully, because it's tied to something that matters, as Phil spends the whole night trying to convince a tightly wound and oblivious Claire not to follow their divorcing neighbors' example. ... And let's not forget the Hecks of The Middle, where Brick goes dressed as a Scottish WWI hero — an actual obsession of Atticus Shaffer, if we're to believe his talk-show appearances — and is mistaken for The Simpsons' Groundskeeper Willie, while Sue sulkily attends a church event, because (as Frankie voice-overs in a line that took me back to my own Hoosier roots) "Whenever there's an exciting event for kids, the church always offers an alternative." But look who's back: Reverend Tim Tom! As for killjoy Mike? He won't dress up (although he does look like the Brawny guy). He won't dance. But he can do a mean TP in a neighbor's yard. Love this family.
Over on NBC, things went gaga, quite literally, as Community's bizarre Dean Pelton and The Office's gangly corporate spy Gabe both appeared in Fame Monster drag, each making the same "P-P-P-Poker Face" joke. Community, as is often the case, is the most inspired of NBC's Thursday comedies, going all-out mega-zombie (a nice warm-up for AMC's excellent The Walking Dead) when the Dean's bio-hazardous taco meat turns Pierce and eventually everyone else into classmate-chomping ghouls. The true horror, however, is that no one can shut off the Dean's ABBA-blaring playlist. "It's officially a waking nightmare," says Jeff in his $6,000 too-cool-for-school suit. Jeff's last shriek, as he falls to his zombie peers: "My jacket! You're stretching it!" And Abed's our hero, as he sacrifices himself to boost Troy out a window: "Make me proud. Be the first black man to make it to the end." This isn't the apocalypse, though, it's comedy, and the outbreak is averted by cool temps and a massive roofie from the authorities (who show up six hours later on the dot). But will there be repercussions from Senor Chang (as Peggy Fleming, to confuse the racists) kissing Shirley (as Glinda the Good Witch, NOT Miss Piggy)? That's what I want to know. This is one audacious sitcom that deserves to making a bigger noise.
Over at the Office party, where Oscar wins the costume contest by default — no one expects "rational consumer guy" to actually win — Pam's Olive Oyl is adorably dorky, which is appropriate given that she and Jim force Timothy Olyphant's Danny to confess that her dorkitude was what kept him from pursuing their relationship several years earlier. Jim's comeback, "Who doesn't call a dork like that back?" is really sweet. And in the subplot, where Michael "MacGruber" Scott typically overreacts to Darryl going over his head to pitch Corporate a good idea, are we now to think Darryl is a serious contender for taking over when Michael leaves? "I do have big plans at this company," Darryl tells us in no uncertain terms. The Office and Dunder Mifflin could do worse, but honestly, who really thinks it's a good idea for this show to go on after Steve Carell exits?
HAVING A BALL: Here's Stanley the Office grouch reacting to Andy's True Blood/Bill Compton costume: "How many freaking vampires am I supposed to care about these days?" Good point, especially in a week when zombies are the TV flavor of the moment. But these days, all you really need concern yourself with are the vamps and witches and wolves of The Vampire Diaries. Things kick into further high gear at the Lockwoods' Masquerade Ball — seriously, Mystic Falls, when aren't you throwing a gala party? — where Katherine pretends to be Elena as the boys and Bonnie go to take down the evil lady vamp. My, how Nina Dobrev is loving doing the nasty. "God, you're hot. Now go away," she dismisses Matt, sending him off to bring the killer wolf out of Tyler. And how cool is the twist that when Matt fails in his mission to be killed, which would trigger the werewolf curse, party girl Sarah steps in to take the fatal hit.
Not a good night for the party girls. Threatening to "rip this town apart until it rains blood" if she doesn't get the moonstone, Katherine demonstrates her mojo by coldly killing Amy right in front of Stefan. Payback is sweet, as Caroline traps Katherine in a bedroom and the Salvatores go on the attack. But Kath plays her trump card: Visiting witch Lucy has linked Kath to Elena, so when she gets staked, the mortal girl bleeds. That's gotta hurt. Things go south for Katherine, though, when Lucy is confronted by good witch Bonnie, and a Bennett connection is made, so Katherine is betrayed and felled by Lucy's magic when she's given the moonstone and wakes up in an underground prison. Kath's warnings to Damon that Elena needs protection go unheeded, so in the final moments, Elena is whisked away by a mystery masked man. This show moves like wildfire.
TIME WARPED: What's a bigger target than Glee when it tackles one of its over-the-top stunt episodes? Still, even if the material is inappropriate for high school (forcing some lyric changes, including "transsexual Transylvania" becoming "sensational" in Mercedes' otherwise scintillating Frank-N-Furter number), the Rocky Horror Picture Show homage is great fun — as long as they're singing. The kids, that is. (Kurt is an amazing Riff Raff, and all of the Magentas and Columbias are knockouts.) But why did they have to try to shoehorn in a story? Gotta say, even someone like me who has a high tolerance threshold for Glee's excesses was kinda creeped out by the grown-ups getting in the game — especially Will, who's getting awfully smarmy and icky lately as he tries to win Emma back by staging her favorite cult show. Recasting the Rocky role for himself is something I'm happy not to see come to pass. Uncle Jesse on Ecstasy — I mean, John Stamos' toothsome dentist Carl — cavorting around the chorus room to "Hot Patootie" is just weird, and Mr. Shue's shirtless tango in a classroom with Emma to "Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me" is a long cringe, although I always dig a good Brittany-Santana romp, and it's a number I'll enjoy listening to on my iPod as long as I don't have to watch.
Subtext alert: The boys dwelling on their body-image issues, including the "ab-ulous" Sam and especially Finn (who's almost suspended for parading around the halls in his unflattering boxers), is inadvertently topical, given the kerfuffle over the Glee girls posing provocatively for GQ. "Aren't you worried that the adult themes might be a point of controversy?" wonders Rachel when Mr. Shue suggests Rocky Horror as the school musical. Well, that's the point, isn't it? So while the haters and the hard-core Gleeks continue the debate, let's let Sue Sylvester have the last words: "We've lost the true meaning of Halloween: fear. Halloween is that magical day of the year when a child is told their grandmother is a demon who has been feeding them rat casserole with a crunchy garnish of their own scabs. ... Children must know fear. Without it they won't know how to behave. They'll try French-ing a grizzly bear or consider living in Florida." That's how Sue sees it.
LADY AND THE SCAMP: So while Charlie Sheen was melting down (among other alleged transgressions) at the Plaza in Manhattan, what was his alter ego on Two and a Half Men up to this week? Fretting about dating an older woman — of, horrors, 47 (played by former CSI lab rat Liz Vassey, who's lovely at any age) — which prompts this comeback from brother Alan: "When she's 70, you're likely to have been dead for 10 years." Perhaps the most meta moment of the week. In the episode, Charlie drinks beer on the couch and jokes about his "$2500 date experiences," while preparing to go out with the well-preserved dermatologist who "scraped a pre-cancerous mole off my ass." He greets her with a "How are your boobs?" (since she's already seen his asset) and later lusts after her 20-year-old bisexual daughter who keeps a webcam in her bathroom. Meanwhile, Alan takes Viagra and spends the episode in one embarrassing masturbatory situation after another, giving Charlie the excuse to call him "a self-abusing zoo monkey." Why go into such detail? Because it may help explain why the real Charlie goes off the rails every time he gets a week off.
REALITY CHECK: Michael Kors and Nina Garcia, you got some 'splaining to do. If we're to judge from the combative judging debate that capped the endless and underwhelming two-hour climax to Project Runway, they overruled Heidi and ridiculous guest judge Jessica Simpson and gave the final prize NOT to the brilliant and adorable Mondo, who's only the most beloved Runway contestant in recent memory and whose collection embodied the spirit of invention and fun and wonder this show is supposed to be about. Instead, the winner is Gretchen, a mope who designs boho Annie Hall knockoffs, but whom the "pro" judges deem is "in tune with what is happening in fashion now." (Further explaining why this show is my only window into that inexplicable world.) Heidi keeps arguing that Mondo's the one who was winning all the challenges, whose use of color and prints had been celebrated and rewarded by these same judges up to the very end. So why the last-minute change of heart? Surely not simply because Mondo had the audacity to defy Michael and Nina and include that staggering polka-dot gown, which alone could have eaten all of Gretchen's monotonous and repetitive outfits for breakfast. Maybe if he'd cut the sleeves off to show some skin? But Nina sneers about how Mondo's over-the-top style skews too "young" (as if that's a bad word in fashion or TV) and lacks sophistication. As opposed to Gretchen's peasant look that seemed all cut from the same bolt of cloth? Why do I keep coming back to this show?
In another life-ain't-fair moment, no sooner is Audrina Patridge booted from Dancing With the Stars than she's rewarded with a contract for a VH1 celeb-reality series that will follow her quest to be, or stay, semi-famous. Because that's how you honor someone whose greatest handicap is having no discernible personality whatsoever. At least I won't make the mistake of watching that one.
And what to say about Marty giving up his immunity idol to the insufferably smug Sash on Survivor? Was that Russell I heard vomiting from the wings? How soon before he returns to make the show interesting again? The only revealing takeaway from this episode is that dim-bulb pool-polluter Fabio seems to understand what a Freudian slip is (in reference to Sash blurting out something about a lack of trust in his tribemates) and doesn't mistake it for an undergarment. And after Marty's inept decision with the idol, they still keep him around? Dr. Jill, you deserved better than this.
BATTLE SCARS: And so the TV gods giveth and taketh away. First comes news of another Battlestar Galactica spin-off, one that actually sounds promising: a two-hour movie pilot/projected series, Blood & Chrome, that will follow the military exploits of a young William Adama in the first blasts of the Cylon War. This sounds like the project Syfy should have green-lighted in the first place to fill the BSG void, and Syfy seems to agree, because we'd barely filed this news away before Syfy lowered the boom on the ponderously opaque and stubbornly earthbound gloomfest Caprica, which probably should have been a miniseries at best. The show is toast (no pun intended), with the remaining episodes to be burned off in some obscure future. I admired the intelligence behind Caprica, but it was even harder to get into and stick with than Rubicon.
THE WIT AND THE WONK: The Daily Show's entertaining weeklong stay in Washington, D.C., culminating with this weekend's rally, hit its apex with President Obama's midweek visit with Jon Stewart. The chief executive tried to stay on message, while the deferential but sharp-tongued comedian/host got some licks in. "What have you done that we don't know about? Are you planning a surprise party for us, filled with jobs and health care?" Stewart didn't miss a beat when Obama referred to the "heckuva job" that embattled financial guru Lawrence Summers had done. "You don't want to use that phrase, dude," Stewart quipped. And the First Dude got the message, saying the pun was intended. Bantering aside, the discussion was about as substantive as anything you'd find on an actual "news" program, and way more civil than the cable-news norm.
HONOR ROLL: Sofia Vergara enunciating in hilarious "proper English" on Modern Family after Jay corrects her malapropisms a few too many times. .... Cougar Town's lead cougar Barb showing up at the bar as a haystack (with open back), because who doesn't like a good roll in the hay? ... Cloris Leachman, forever a hoot on Raising Hope, turns into "9-year-old Maw Maw" whenever she goes on a sugar binge. When she puts on her kitty-cat costume backward, she "looks like a transvestite ninja," Virginia notes. ... Meat Loaf and Barry Bostwick doing cameos on Glee, reminding us of their Rocky Horror glory days. I'd dust off my DVD of the movie, but my screen's too expensive to throw things at. Bummer.
AS HEARD ON TV: "I'm going as a peanut allergy." — The Halloween plans of — who else — Brittany on Glee. ... "Being married to a pro athlete, it must be a nightmare." — Gaby (Eva Longoria Parker) having an in-joke moment with Renee (Vanessa Williams) on Desperate Housewives, given that both actresses know what it's like to be married to NBA stars. ... "Your Halloween tradition is even stranger than the one with the homosexual burglar who steals children's teeth." — Manmeet on Outsourced, who believes "tooth fairy" to be "an offensive term." ... "Are you supposed to be Fat Elvis?" — Ziva teasing Tony on NCIS, who's dressed in blinding white disco duds as Saturday Night Fever's Tony Manero. ... "Fear is not endearing." — Try telling that to Sue Sylvester. This advice from one of the America's Next Top Model judges is aimed at Ann, who won five photo challenges in a row but can't speak or move with confidence and finally ends up in the bottom two. ... "You're far too short to be Darth Vader. At best you might be a turncoat Ewok." — Sheldon setting Leonard straight on The Big Bang Theory, after Leonard's secret tryst with Raj's sister is revealed. ... "Skip the teen drama. Get to it." — Is Damon of The Vampire Diaries psychic? That's what I say all the time when I watch this wildly entertaining show.
That's a wrap. Happy Halloween, everyone, and don't forget to make an appointment with The Walking Dead Sunday night.
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