It had been a pretty even-keel season of the reborn American Idol — perhaps too much so — until the Pia bubble burst Thursday night. Maybe a shocking elimination like Pia Toscano's way-too-early ouster is just the sort of wake-up call Idol needs to shock some showmanship into the part of the show that needs it the most: the judging. I've enjoyed the raucous goofiness of Steven Tyler and the glowy glamorous warmth that is Jennifer Lopez, but cheerleading has its limits, and when the closest thing to actual criticism from the panel is Randy (of all people) damning with faint praise by merely saying "Good job," it's clear the judges aren't doing a good job. Or much of a job at all.
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I'm not sure we need a clone of Simon Cowell, whose blunt and condescending cruelty in recent seasons teetered on boredom with the process. But how is the audience expected to separate the wheat from the chaff when the judges act like everyone's "in it to win it," even the bland Stefano (who looked gobsmacked at being spared, as were we all) and Haley the annoying growl-tiger — not to mention the self-indulgent mannerisms of Paul (grinning through "Folsom Prison Blues?") and Jacob, who may have landed in the bottom three this week by suggesting those who didn't vote for him had a problem with their own self-image. "I have no idea what just happened here," J Lo declared, nearly in tears. Don't look at us, judges. Look at yourselves. Put a little teeth in it next time. It would do everyone, including the show, a world of good. (As for the perceived anti-girl bias among the voters: Don't forget that Casey was ousted, but saved by the judges. Wonder if they regret that now.)
And when is a fall not a fail? When Maks' thigh gives out during a rumba with Kirstie Alley on Dancing With the Stars, easily the most gasp-worthy moment of that show's season to date, and the duo manages to work through his obvious pain and her understandable confusion to deliver an admirable dance like the show-biz pros that they are. Or as Bruno puts it in one of his more coherent moments: "You can't keep good talent down." Their attitude is refreshing as well, keeping it real and in perspective, with just enough humor and laughter to remind us not to take things too seriously. (Maks rushing off to get iced down, but wishing his dad a happy birthday first: also a win.) It's not the first time we're reminded that Dancing isn't all about the dance. Performance demands personality, and Kirstie and Maks are on top of the leader board in that category.
EPISODE OF THE WEEK: Critics almost broke Twitter touting the wonderfulness of this week's Justified. And for good reason. It had everything. Reversals galore, triumph chased by a sucker-punch of tragedy, whipsawing from humor to suspense, punctuated by singing (Mags!) and clogging (Boyd!). A Kentucky fried "whoop-dee-doo" indeed, anchored by Margo Martindale's magnificent (Emmy-Emmy-Emmy) performance as Mags Bennett, running the proverbial gamut as she wins and loses everything in the space of a single episode. Tension is hair-trigger high on Mags' compound, keeping Marshal Raylan Givens occupied while Mags hosts a Sunday shindig for the entire community. She rules the roost, sitting pretty after besting "Missy Thang" from the coal company in a secret bare-knuckle negotiation that includes a payday for Boyd Crowder as well, since he got Raylan's folks to sign their rights over to him, not to Black Pike. Securing a fortune for her brood from the outplayed city slicker, Mags kicks back with a folksy rendition of "High As the Mountain." She has it all.
Well, almost. She's not so lucky with her precious young ward Loretta, whom she dotes on ("You're like a dream come true for this old girl") at the expense of her own unruly boys, especially the jealous giant Coover. This doofus is caught by little Loretta (the excellent Kaitlin Dever) wearing the watch that belonged to her dear dead dad — murdered by Mags in the season opener and buried in a nearby mine shaft. In peril, Loretta calls Raylan, who comes to the rescue by giving Coover the fatal shaft, while Loretta gets a reprieve in Child Protective Services, and Mags gets humbled. For now. Watch her eyes go cold as Mags glares at Raylan after realizing what's been taken from her — a son and a daughter, and it's pretty obvious which affects her more. What next? I am chomping at the bit (as they say in horse country) to find out.
RUNNER-UP EPISODE OF THE WEEK: CBS's The Good Wife continues to operate at full steam, every bit the equal of cable dramas that get the lion's share of buzz and acclaim. The only flaw in this week's sensational episode is that it should have ended on Louis Canning (Michael J. Fox at his twinkly peak) beaming at Alicia as the elevator closes on him, saying, "Do I look beaten?" (The fade-out with Will and Tammy? Really, who cares?) The cunning Canning wants to steal Alicia from Lockhart-Gardner, and he's probably right that they're holding her back. The rapport between Fox and the stunning Julianna Margulies is such a delight. Like when he maneuvers to get Alicia alone in her car to make the first pitch, and when she calls him out on his methods, he quips: "There's got to be a word for people who are always finding hidden motives for things." "Right?" Alicia laughs. Right. Also blowing me away: Alan Cumming as the excitable political guru Eli Gold, throttling the leader of the Democratic committee for concocting a new scandal for Peter's rival Wendy in the final days of the election. He's only upset because it gives her an opportunity to look like an enemy of the machine. "The one thing I hate is amateurs!" Eli hisses. The cynicism, and entertainment value, is outrageously entertaining.
We also get Kevin Conway's final appearance as Jonas Stern. "What happened to that cute little housewife that I used to know?" the founder of the firm wonders, telling Alicia what a "valuable commodity" she will be in legal circles when/if Peter is elected. Then he dies in his sleep. And Lily Rabe (daughter of Jill Clayburgh, so affecting this season in Broadway's Merchant of Venice revival) is great fun as a wily reporter, getting under Eli's skin as she pursues rumors of Peter's "other" infidelity and goes for the jugular during a phone interview with a cagey Alicia. Even the case of the week is compelling, getting the goods on a corrupt company making employees so miserable (in hopes they'll quit) that some commit suicide. One in his own cubicle. There's nothing amateur about The Good Wife. You are watching, right?
FAMOUS LAST WORDS: "Who won?" Those may be the most heartbreaking words I've heard all season, a perfectly bittersweet finish for FX's Lights Out. Patrick "Lights" Leary wins his grueling comeback fight by a knockout, vanquishing the bigger, stronger "Death Row" Reynolds and surviving the questionable calls of a seemingly crooked ref. But his victory comes at a price, a shattering concussive disorientation that renders him unable to appreciate the win. How does it feel to be champ? How would Lights know? The climactic boxing match is painfully thrilling, but Holt McCallany's triumph as Lights Leary is in the emotional moments, including a searing confessional scene where he reveals to a priest that he can't forgive himself for having hurt people, broken the law and lying to cover his sins — but mostly for putting so much of the burden on his family, including his fretful middle daughter. His (and our) tears are earned, and Light's story will haunt me for quite some time to come. As will those last words.
STUPOR HEROES: I'm saddened by Lights Out's premature exit, but at least the season as a whole was satisfying. Whereas No Ordinary Family's rushed finale is one of the most berserk hours I've ever witnessed. Crunching what feels like a season's worth of mayhem into a single nonsensical episode, it's thoroughly and laughably ridiculous, but at least there's a cartoonish energy on display that was lacking from the series as a whole. Take your pick of wacky moments: Lucy Lawless's cackling villainy ("Give me the answer or your sister dies!"), JJ flinging the hypo into evil Dr. King's eye and turning him into an instant cancer zombie, Jim somehow surviving being shot multiple times while his powers were in remission, Katie delivering her super-baby with a speed that makes Olivia's sped-up pregnancy on Fringe look poky — loved the glowing green eyes, by the way. This was no ordinary finale. Extraordinarily silly, actually.
GOOD GRIEF: Taking top honors among new shows premiering in a busy first week of April: AMC's sinister and soggy The Killing, building inexorably in its first foreboding hour to the discovery of young Rosie Larsen's body in a watery trunk (the car belonging to the campaign of councilman and mayoral hopeful Billy Campbell). The show won't let us look away from the unbearable raw grief of Rosie's working-class parents, played with absolute conviction by Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton, who appear to age in front of us. (When they have to break the news to their young sons, the pain is even more palpable.) Drawn against her will into the investigation is Mireille Enos's stoic detective Sarah Linden, whose quiet inscrutability is a marked contrast to the funky irreverence of her new partner (Joel Kinnamen), who hasn't altogether shed his undercover narc ways. But his unorthodox methods, including luring wayward teens with the promise of pot, bring results, as he discovers the "cage" in the high school where something dark and bloody went down. Goosebumps, anyone?
PURR-FECTLY CREEPY: From the procedural files: CSI's penchant for the kinky rears its furry head again in a bizarre episode showcasing fan favorite "Lady Heather" Kessler (Melinda Clarke) — now known as "Dr. K," dominatrix-turned-licensed sex therapist, currently specializing in a form of role playing where damaged patients pretend to be animals. Cats, to be precise, hissing and biting when they fail to snap out of their feline trance. Which leads a skeeved-out Sara and Langston to a fetish party where guests are purring in laps like erotic house pets and we hear puns like "cat got your tongue?" and "creature of habit." This episode's B-story also gives us the week's ickiest scene, as Dr. Robbins, out of the morgue for a change, performs a "crash C-section" on a pregnant teen who's just hanged herself, slicing open the dead girl's belly as Nick watches in awe and we cover our eyes. The baby is fine. I'm not so sure about us.
Back to Lady Heather. With Gil still in Peru, the sex-doc is now obsessed with Dr. Langston, seeing the killer within. When he pensively muses, "Some people just can't ask for help. They don't know how," you know he'll end up back in Dr. K's office. And so he does, bringing along the Nate Haskell files as he bares his tormented soul: "There's violence in me. It's in my blood. Sometimes I can taste it." (His reason for joining the police: "If I'm helping people, I'm not hurting them.") Lady Heather suggests that "the good Dr. Langston" — as opposed to his own inner Dr. Jekyll — isn't going to win against a fiend like Haskell. Langston confesses, "If I give in to my nature, I won't catch him. I will kill him." Heather agrees. "What becomes of me then?" he wonders at the fade-out, and suddenly Laurence Fishburne is kind of interesting. Looking forward to that next showdown with Bill Irwin's malevolent Haskell.
THE SCORECARD: Lost in all the American Idol hubbub is one of the strongest and most entertaining seasons of Survivor in a while, buried on Wednesdays opposite Idol's performance show. This week's deliriously twisty installment was all about Matt. Or, should we say, Poor Matt. Or maybe door-Matt? This clumsy God-fearing oaf can't catch a break. But he can sure ace those Redemption Island challenges. Besting Sarita for his sixth consecutive duel win, he finally gets to rejoin the game as the tribes merge. But he wastes little time putting his foot in it, oversharing to Boston Rob about his initial plans to flip to the other side. And while Mike does his best to win Matt over, including a session of Bible study that Rob openly mocks ("Could be romantic comedies, or it could be Oreo cookies, if they're all liking it together, I want that broken up"), Matt ultimately decides he's "honoring God" by not going all Judas on his original team, even if that means succumbing to the will of Survivor's most devious devil. And so Rob engineers Matt's return to Redemption Island yet again. "Genius is what that was," mutters David after the vote. "OMG, that poor kid," laments Julie as Matt's torch is snuffed out a second time. And Matt trudges into the dark, realizing, "They don't want to be friends with me. (Awww.) I guess I'm not very good at this game." Just keep winning those Redemption Island challenges, Matt. You deserve at least as many chances as Russell at getting it right.
My other favorite reality-competition episode this week: the "jock makeover" challenge on Logo's hysterical RuPaul's Drag Race. A literal scream, start to finish, and amid all the frank talk about the art of the tuck, some of the straight boys really get into the high-heeled spirit of things. Especially square-jawed Matt, who introduces himself saying, "I play baseball. Hard." He also sashays hard, and as the campy Fuchsia, helps win the round for his "sister" Manila. Slava, from the world of water polo, is also no slouch, strapping on giant bazooms ("Bam!") courtesy of Alexis Mateo, who reacts to Slava's flirting by chiding: "Really, dude, focus right here. We are trying to make you a woman, not a husband!" Me? Still laughing.
TWISTS AND TURNS: The CW's Thursday night thrillers returned with a flourish this week — most notably the underrated Nikita, with a true game-changer in the Nikita-Michael relationship. Where we left off at hiatus time: Michael has discovered her lair, and her mole (Alex), and he'll expose them if Nikita doesn't track down his nemesis Kasim — who killed his wife and child years ago. Amid much mayhem, Nikita accomplishes her mission, as she always does, only for all parties to learn that Kasim was once a Division recruit himself, and he was ordered to kill Michael's family by none other than boss man Percy! Oh Michael, such a tool, promised vengeance for so long by the very man who created these ghosts. So Division now has another traitor in its midst: Michael, pledging "100 percent" loyalty to Percy while promising to find those black boxes of damaging intel for Nikita. "If I had just listened to you five years ago, things would have been different," he tells Nikita. "Things will be different," she says, proving it with a long, lingering, passionate kiss. It is on. (Ditto with Alex and neighbor boy Nathan, despite Nikita's warnings.)
Lots happened in an overstuffed Vampire Diaries, almost as nutsy-cuckoo in its convoluted way as that No Ordinary Family finale earlier in the week. I'm with Matt, who whines, "This is too much. All of this is just too ... much," as he confronts his girlfriend over her vampirism, then outs Caroline to her distraught sheriff mother while all manner of hell breaks out throughout Mystic Falls. Most memorable: the wicked Isobel bursting into flames at her own graveside in front of daughter Elena, now that she's been released from her task by the Original Big Bad. Isobel's final pre-suicide act is to betray Katherine, now in the clutches of a Klaus-witch who somehow has possessed Alaric with Klaus's spirit. Said witch also has the moonstone, because in the dumbest plot twist of all time, Katherine finds the thing in a soapdish. Speaking of witches: Bonnie absorbs the power of 100 dead witches from the days of the Salem witch trials and plans to use all that bottled-up mojo against Klaus, even if it's her last act on earth. Got all that? Me neither.
HONOR ROLL: Kudos to "Knights of the Realm," one of the best Saturday Night Live sketches in ages, as host/musical guest Elton John gathers with other knighted celebs — including unannounced interloper Tom Hanks as Michael Caine — to face a dragon threat. As a mock Bono opines, "When artists put their souls together, they can accomplish anything," Elton quips, "Except a Spider-Man musical." Burn! "Can you smell a bomb tonight?" he continues, reminding us that The Lion King is still packing them in. ... I don't think I've ever seen the title character of Bones giddier than on her visit to a body farm this week, with decomposing bodies delighting her at every turn. As a bloated corpse swells and its distended belly explodes, sending guts flying and Booth retching, Bones does a happy dance: "You rarely get to actually see a body rupture from distension. Woo-hoo!" ... And who didn't immediately crave a stuffed-lion speaker phone, as seen on The Good Wife, as the Mr. Mom investigator takes a call from his boss, and we hear Titus Welliver's voice hilariously emerging from this adorable toy. Brilliant. ... We give the last words this week go to Chuck Lorre's Big Bang Theory signoff: "My lawyer ate my vanity card." I bet.
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