Susan Lucci, Erika Slezak
There will come a time when we tell future generations about the good old days when serialized soaps blanketed the daytime TV landscape — the way prime time once was overrun with Westerns, variety shows and big-ticket miniseries, among other fondly remembered, now-faded formats. The latest death knell, not unexpected but still a shock when it sounded, came late this week when ABC confirmed that the venerable, iconic All My Children and the similarly long-running One Life to Live had been taken off life support. Word of their demise had circulated for some time — AMC takes its final bow in September, One Life to Life will soldier on until January — but it's still a jolt to the system when confronted with the unmistakable signs than an era is ending. Changing viewing habits and economics have conspired against scripted daytime dramas in favor of cheaper-to-produce talk/lifestyle shows. Just as the remnants of variety TV can be found in the results shows of reality competitions American Idol and Dancing With the Stars, soap intrigues have been upstaged by celeb-reality high jinks: the plastic casts of Bravo's various Real Housewives shows, the debauched antics of Jersey Shore, which is being spun off while the daily soaps dwindle to a mere few.
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It's possible that each network will still be able to sustain a signature soap — General Hospital, Days of Our Lives, The Young and the Restless — over the long haul. But the audience isn't as young as it used to be and it's certainly more restless. But wow. Being replaced by a talker called The Chew? That's a bitter pill for anyone to swallow.
THE FRONT OFFICE: Of all the ways I imagined The Office would go with Will Ferrell's short-term character of Deangelo Vickers, making him an unfunny and unpleasant buzzkill wasn't one of them. After a promising but overly drawn out set-up at a hotel bar, where the old and new boss hit it off but fail to recognize each other (even when they're on the same cell-phone conversation), a chill sets in as Michael Scott overstays his welcome — kinda like The Office that way — and twists in the wind wearing jealous pathos on his sleeve (never his best color) as his Dunder Mifflin buddies suck up to the new guy, making Michael the odd man out. Also on the outs: Dwight, when he wakes up to the fact that Michael never recommended him for the open seat of command. As if.
Much of what comedy there is comes in watching the workers humiliate themselves to curry favor: Andy contorting himself into a slapstick stooge after Vickers dubs him the "office funny guy" — Andy's half-hearted stab at an ethnic joke is one of the few amusing moments of mortification; Jim and Pam proudly exploiting their baby to a guy who couldn't care less; Kevin sporting a silly toupee; Darryl feigning an affinity for the Southwest, including a costume change; and so on. So far, I'm as averse to Vickers as Vickers is to peanuts. The best moment of true awkwardness: watching poor Erin dither about how to answer the phone, Michael's way or Vickers'. The best line: Vickers asking Michael, "What is the Native American girl's name?" (So much for Kelly's "meet cute.") Now that Michael and Vickers have man-hugged it out — from behind, and at excruciating length — maybe these next few episodes will be more satisfying. But it's going to take some doing for The Office to top that classic proposal episode, which probably should have been Michael's and Carell's triumphant swan song. But this is obviously not a show that has much interest in leaving us wanting more.
LAUGHING MATTERS: Maybe I just had an off Thursday, or was distracted by mourning for ABC's soaps, but with one exception, NBC's comedy lineup felt pretty weak all around — starting with the usually spot-on Community, which seemed way too artificially forced and arch, even by that show's wacky standards. Best part: Stephen Tobolowsky as the professor defeated by Abed's Big Bang Theory-style deconstruction of Who's the Boss to determine once and for all who actually is the boss. (Answer: Angela.) The night's highlight: Parks and Recreation's charmingly goofy spontaneous wedding bash for Andy and April. "Seriously, I cannot emphasize how little we thought about this," boasts the groom. And loved Andy's call to action: "If you would do me the obligation of having your honor heretofore in the room doth right over there, ah, hence." And April's vow: "I never really seem to hate you." Ah, young true love. But my favorite bits include the cold open, as Ron grosses out the office by pretending to pull out a tooth with pliers ("It's always fun to see Tom faint"), Ron's reaction to Chris bringing a veggie loaf to the party ("Not only does this thing exist, but now you have deprived everyone of cake") and Ann's doomed introduction to Singles Night. After one failed tongue-tied attempt, Donna from the office butts in: "Did you grow up in the woods? Are you Nell? From the movie Nell?"
A frantic 30 Rock brings Tracy back into the fold and finds Jenna ("Reese Witherspoon's just a likable version of me") doing sub-Saw torture porn alongside a SlaughterFace villain who'd rather be doing Carousel at Goodspeed, a Muppet and Everybody Loves Raymond's Phil Rosenthal. But the episode only comes alive in those moments when NBC is in the cross hairs. "I figured out how to fix NBC," Jack says. "We will only do shows that work." To which Liz replies, "That's nonsense." (And as we watch bad-comedy glimpses of mock money-pit NBC pilots Who Nose? and Dad 2.0, we can't help but think they should have just gone with an actual clip from the odious, and real, The Paul Reiser Show.)
Things were much happier a night earlier on ABC, as Modern Family and The Middle returned with new episodes in fine form. Especially Family, which unashamedly went for big broad jokes and obvious gags — each one a scream. Cam choreographs a middle-school musical debacle that ends with the kids spelling out "We Love the F Word," while Phil plasters an ad on the mini-van that looks like he's pimping out his wife ("I Can't Be Satisfied!") and teenage daughter ("Let Me Make Your Dreams Come True"). Phil's one-sided phone conversation, during which he thinks he's selling real estate, is a classic of innuendo worthy of Newhart: "I also have an older model with a lot of character ... Well, I think the carpet matches the drapes. I haven't checked in a while. ... Both of 'em? Wow! Well, I guess that makes sense if you're planning to flip one. ... Give me a chance to give them both a good scrubbing." Also loved Manny scowling as Luke's class-clowning charms the girl of Manny's dreams. As Luke displays his "dinosaur arms," Manny can only mutter: "That's a great way to stretch out a shirt."
Speaking of kids and clothes, couldn't get enough of the running gag on The Middle where little Brick is forced to wear humiliating hand-me-downs of "cousin clothes" regardless of fashion. (Been there.) "Until we win the lottery, your style is free," sighs mother Frankie. Which gives us a parade of embarrassing looks. Brick in leather: "Mom, who are the Village People? I think you know why I ask." And later, all a-glitter: "Mom, who's Liberace?" (A teacher taunted that one.)
A TALE OF TWO HUMANS: In one of the oddest juxtapositions ever, BBC America's Being Human aired its terrific third-season finale last weekend, mere days before Syfy's Americanized version wrapped its first season. I understand this is a business, so will try not to second-guess the British producers' decision to sell U.S. rights while the original, and far superior, series is still in production. But did they really have to air simultaneously — as if to beg unflattering comparisons regarding the Canadian-produced interloper? I'm not surprised Being Human is a success for Syfy; it's a great premise, borrowing so much from the best of the original while introducing a few tweaks of its own. But it still feels like "deja boo" to me — and I just can't warm up to this cast. Especially the pouty, shrill Meaghan Rath as Sally the whiny ghost. (The only time I warmed up to her was when she went all dead-eyed psycho-zombie after her encounter with the exorcist.) Sam Huntington's puppy-doggish werewolf Josh mugs like he's in a sitcom, and only Sam Witwer as the tormented vamp Aidan (I keep wanting to call him Mitchell) brings the necessary brooding intensity. Aidan definitely gets the best storylines — including the climactic throwdown showdown with his nemesis Bishop (Mark Pellegrino), who (unlike in the original, where the wolf did the deed) is beheaded by Aidan, who later gets a call from the Dutch master proclaiming our hero as the new vampire leader.
"We should get cable," Aidan tells his supernatural roomies after a long, hard and bloody day. May I suggest digital cable, so as to have access to BBC America — where the "real" (IMO) Being Human went out with a tragic flourish. This one has teeth, if you will. And terrific performances from Aidan Turner, Russell Tovey and Lorena Crichlow.
Now, the BBC lowdown: The love connection between Mitchell (vamp) and Annie (ghost) has fueled much of this season, and the revelation that Mitchell is the ghoul behind the subway massacre drives a wedge between him, Annie and werewolf George. Emotions run high as Annie high-tails it to purgatory only to learn that subway victim Lia made up the "wolf-shaped bullet" prophecy to punish Mitchell. "What you've really got to worry about is the self-fulfilling prophecy," Lia tells a worried Annie. True enough, as a despondent Mitchell decides he no longer needs Herrick's secret to resurrection and kills his recruiter at sunrise. Mitchell then begs his estranged buddy George to kill him — prompting a proper chewing-out from Nina: "Vampires and their indescribable bull----. You can't do it yourself because it won't provide enough anguish!" Again, truth. Because it is INTENSE in the house as Mitchell provokes George to fits of grief, rage and remorse while Annie weeps and we're thisclose to George plunging the stake into his best friend when sinister ancient vamp Windham shows up to take control. "This martyrdom isn't an option," he says, declaring Mitchell will now be his attack dog. Which proves to be the trigger for George to turn Mitchell to ash: "I'm doing this because I love you," says George, who then turns to big-bad Windham: "I think you've got a fight on your hands."
I know which version of Being Human I'm more eager to see next year. Not sure I can do both again. I'm only human.
BAD VAMP/GOOD VAMP: The other best vampire moment of the week comes from (where else) the CW's Vampire Diaries, as Damon tells Elena — expect it on a T-shirt or a ComicCon poster near you soon — "I will always choose you." (This to the girl who chose his brother Stefan over Damon — and poor Damon long carried a similar torch for her evil doppelganger Katherine). "I don't mind being the bad guy," Damon tells Stefan after hoodwinking everyone by faking SuperWitch Bonnie's death to fool Big Bad Klaus (temporarily in Alaric's body) during their grueling grudge match. "At the end of the day, I'll be the one to keep her alive," he promises his brother. Damon also displays some dashing dance technique, twirling the ladies on the dance floor at the groovy '60s theme dance. "I've got moves you've never seen," he tells Elena. Why do you think people keep watching?
THE SCORECARD: So much for Paul's "crazy wild abandon" on American Idol. It's astonishing someone this quirky made it to the mainstage in the first place, and while I enjoy this cool dude's attitude (and he made a most gracious exit), if he'd sharpened his singing at the expense of his funky style, he might have outlasted the soporific Stefano. And once again, the judges punt instead of pontificate. Lost opportunity: Calling out Scotty for dropping a song that might have challenged him — "Everybody's Talkin'," a true movie classic — in favor of a generic George Strait sleeper. The boy's a star, but he's coasting, and Simon would have called him on it. ... Will anyone be able to challenge Boston Rob on Survivor? The numbers are in his favor, and his lock on his tribemates is rock solid — especially after sending poor Matt back to Redemption Island. "A hit straight out of a mob movie," says David (now banished to Redemption Island along with Mike). "Cold-blooded," observes the outmatched Julie. "It's a game, but do you not have any feeling at all for a human being?" Guess not. Rob's smugness is starting to grate, but he's playing the game masterfully. His "us vs them" mentality includes manipulating his puppets: "We're going to be arrogant about it, and we're gonna show it." Then he clarifies. "I'm not. But I want them to. Because I want their votes at the end of the day."
TWISTS AND TURNS: Not since Grey's Anatomy's Callie and Arizona has a car calamity been more obviously telegraphed than Amber's blind-sided smash-up on Parenthood, setting up next week's traumatic season finale. As she drinks and smokes weed with her bohemian boyfriend behind the wheel, you could see it coming — and not just because we've seen that same hit-from-the-side camera shot dozens of times, and it's no longer shocking. But as usual, the cast rises above the material (though nothing can make me believe Sarah's first-time luck as a playwright). Peter Krause and Monica Potter are amazing as they eavesdrop on daughter Hallie's love-making via her accidentally activated cell phone, then struggle with how to confront her. Adam's silent treatment is especially shattering, so when he shows up at soccer practice and offers to fix her boo-boo, it's the best kind of warm fuzzy. It may take this car wreck to mend the train-wreck relationship of Sarah and Amber, though. And Dax Shepard is really selling the desperation as Crosby attempts a "Hail Mary pass" with a fixer-upper house to win back Jasmine, who tells Julia, "I don't think I'll ever not be angry at him."
An even more shattering betrayal unfolds in the same Tuesday time period over on The Good Wife, as Alicia connects the dots while Peter celebrates his election win in the other room. Having put herself back on public view in a TV interview that wins Peter the race, she learns from wily Wylie the investigator that Peter's rumored workplace fling doesn't even exist. It's someone named Leila — which Alicia knows is Kalinda's former name. She staggers off, sobbing against the cheering in the other room, and we are on pins and needles until the show returns May 3. Our money's on her turning to Will, who murmurs, "I think she's fantastic," as he watches Alicia control her TV interview. "You should tell her how fantastic she is," urges Kalinda, who despite everything is Alicia's other biggest fan. "People like to be told." Well, The Good Wife is fantastic, too. Network TV's best drama, hands down.
THE HONOR ROLL: Kudos to Castle for paying respects to a master of the mystery (and TV mystery) trade by keeping an empty seat at the writers' poker table in honor of the late Stephen J. Cannell. Returning to the game for the first time since Cannell's death last September, Castle brings along a cocky one-book-wonder protégé whose chops get busted by the likes of Dennis Lehane ("This one book made you like a crime-solving genius, did it?") and Michael Connelly ("You know what I did after I wrote my first novel? I shut up and I wrote 23 more"). ... Comedy Central's new Sports Show With Norm Macdonald is a gleeful equal-opportunity offender, with the former Weekend Update comic back in his element making snarky asides at the absurd excesses of the sports biz. In one classic "Breaking News" update, Norm declares with his sardonic deadpan: "The Mike Tyson app has just viciously raped another app. Let's see what 'Sad Bill Cosby' thinks about this." The video meme of a grumpy Cos says it all.
AS HEARD ON TV: "Is that that toothy girl from Mystic Pizza?" — This is how Parks and Rec's Ron Swanson remembers Julia Roberts best. Don't you just love a joke that's perfectly in character? ... "How much do you have to hate to say something before you actually don't say it?" — Mike of The Middle besting wife Frankie in a domestic argument. Again, rings so true. ... "I need to give the headlines back to Charlie [Sheen]. I feel really bad about that." Katie Couric, laughing with former co-host Matt Lauer, as she returns to her old Today roost to plug her book — and endure another round of questions regarding her still-being-negotiated future. ... "Am I going to have to take a taser to you?" — Tom Bergeron chiding Dancing With the Stars judge Bruno Tonioli after another elaborate outburst. Why ask, Tom? Just do it. Tom's other best line: describing the week's classical-music repertoire as "hot new singles" as far as Old Man Len is concerned. ... "Are you still recommending me for cancellation?" — Words you don't want to hear on a bubble show like the CW's Nikita, as Alex survives (barely) another round of intense interrogation by her suspicious Division bosses.
What about the week in TV thrilled or dismayed you? Share in the comments, or send questions and thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org, and in the meantime, follow me on Twitter.
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