Some thoughts on a few of the shows that got 2012 off to a (mostly) promising start. Which means I've already forgotten that ABC's grotesquely unfunny Work It exists — and if you thought that was bad, wait until you see (or better yet, don't) next week's comedy disasters: CBS' offensively stereotypical Rob and NBC's rancid hangover of a dud Are You There, Chelsea? But for now, let's accentuate the (mostly) positive.
REVENGE OF THE TYLER: "Consider him gone," said Conrad Grayson. "He's overstayed his welcome," echoed his estranged spouse Victoria. Such foreshadowing on a pivotal episode of ABC's deliciously overheated soap Revenge, which opened on the flash-forward of full-blown psycho Tyler Barrol (Ashton Holmes, enjoying every moment of his lip-smacking villainy) holding nearly every significant member of the cast — as well as Declan and Charlotte — captive at gunpoint at Daniel's beachside birthday clambake. Overstayed his welcome? Phooey! I'm counting the days until he breaks free from the psych ward or wherever they're taking him or otherwise seduces his way back into the lives of these Hamptons horrors. You can't keep a good villain down, and Tyler is one of the most memorable crazies this side of the Real Housewives franchise. "It does appear that you despicable people are starting to rub off on me," Tyler vamped to his not-for-long boss Conrad. Going off his anti-psychotic meds just hastened the process. ("Cold turkey means hot mess," quipped Nolan prophetically, before his nutso former trick slashed and bound him.)
Tyler's last hurrah (for now) was a doozy. Here he is confronting his target/man-crush Daniel: "You're really not that bright, are you?" (Truer words.) "I'd watch that mouth if I were you. As pretty as it is, it could get you into more trouble than you can handle." And why did Tyler put the gun (which we later learn was unloaded!) on Emily in the climactic "Truth or Die" standoff? May have something to do with her calling him "an impotent little misfit who's gonna spend the rest of his life on the outside looking in." Thankfully, though Tyler is currently down for the count, they stopped short of killing him off. Come back soon, Tyler. All is not forgiven.
Extra bonus points: Fan fave Merrin Dungey (Alias' Francie!) appearing as Conrad's dishy divorce lawyer ... Victoria's first reaction at meeting the faux Amanda Clarke: "All I can see is a pretty girl with cheap shoes and limited social graces." ... Victoria copying Emily's idea of a "memory book" for her beloved Daniel, prompting Emily's icy response, "That is so inventive." Revenge may not be reinventing the prime-time soap, but it has revived the genre in grand, garish style.
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ON THE ROAD: As Zeek rallies his extended mess of a family to go on a road-trip caravan to mark his mother's 86th birthday, NBC's Parenthood hit an emotional high, in part because it extricates the various Bravermans from the strained ongoing storylines that often keep this underrated series from taking off. So for a week, we are spared more predictable angst from Julia's adoption subplot or the next round of contrived conflict at Adam and Crosby's recording studio. The focus was strictly on family, and it felt great, even when it hurt. Zeek's bullying of the troops, and his dismay upon learning that Kristina was staying behind to punish Max for calling her a "b----", reveal an insecurity that has been passed down to his own kids, who always have to be reminded that they're not failing in their roles as parents. At least they're trying, which is why Adam's attempt to break through Haddie's texting shell during the long drive is so moving. She'll be in college soon, and there won't be many more days like this. Or why Crosby sitting in the back, entertaining the kids with his goofy songs, is going to be such a treasured memory.
When they finally get to Grandma's — and Kristina has flown ahead of them, having reconciled with her problem child (whose handmade card sealed the deal) — we see the root of Zeek's unease. Granny's a cold fish (well played by Frances Sternhagen) who never gives her grown boy a break. Hey, it's not his fault her new chair got stolen from the back of the truck. (Though why ever did he put Crosby in charge of keeping an eye on it?) In the sentimental finish, Zeek tells his mom that he never stopped telling his kids he loved them — "I wanted it to be clear to them" — and that "they are my life." She finally relents to admit that his is a "beautiful" family, and of course she loves her "baby" as well. And on that note, observed silently by Camille, the family will be heading back to Berkeley. It was nice while it lasted.
UNHAPPY NEW YEAR: The waterworks overflowed on the first new Grey's Anatomy of 2012, a heartbreaking episode all about the emotional damage of a fatal "sudden impact." For the family whose car crashed into Meredith and Alex's ambulance in the November cliffhanger, the burden fell on the eldest daughter, who turned 18 mid-crisis, as she watched her mother die and had to declare the "DNR" on her dad, while her sibs successfully underwent surgery (including an intense eye-salvaging operation performed by Mark's new girlfriend, who even Lexie couldn't hate). But the most shattering impact was felt by Teddy, who started the episode unaware her husband Henry had just perished in the OR, and Cristina, who performed Henry's final surgery and was forced to work aside Teddy afterward to complete the tricky heart surgery (which involved removing the organ at one point). Such exquisite torture, this medical melodrama. To keep awake during such a long procedure, Teddy insists on joking, whooping it up with Yang, who's hard pressed to keep hiding her grief. And then, when it's time to close, Cristina delivers the news, and it's just too much. "I need you to say it," Teddy insists. And when Cristina declares, "Henry is dead," Teddy's quiet "thank you" is devastating — as is Kim Raver's performance as she uncovers Henry's lifeless body, her hand pausing before cradling his head and then collapsing in tears. By the hour's end, everyone's as exhausted and wrung out as Meredith looks and feels, so what a nice surprise to have baby Zola delivered back to her and Derek's doorstep. Shameless? Manipulative? Yes, but also effective.
HAPPIER NEW YEAR: With ABC's Wednesday comedies back in originals, all feels right with the world. The Middle, enjoying its best season yet, kicked off with a smart episode in which the Hecks made New Year's resolutions for other members of the family —meaning Brick is forced to pull his nose out of a book, and watching Atticus Shaffer go all edgy and snappish is a hoot. ("I'm in detox. You can't throw an open book in my face!") Mike is forced to smile, which isn't pretty, and Sue is forbidden to try out for things, so starts her own forlorn "wrestler-ette" cheerleading squad. "I won't let you down," she promises the coach, who mutters, "That wouldn't be possible." Frankie tries spending more time with Brick, but ends up forgetting him at work. (Someone in my family once left their child asleep in the back of a car overnight, so I know these things happen.) I love this family. Bonus points to Brock Ciarlelli as Sue's not-quite-boyfriend Brad, whose latest "huge news!" has nothing to do with his sexual identity. He's on the wrestling team, calling his snug uniform a "costume" and practice "rehearsal." Who wouldn't cheer for that?
A portentous "black mouse" haunts Modern Family in another terrific episode: first in Gloria's dreams, her superstition feeding Phil's paranoia over his unresolved medical check-up; and spooking Mitchell in the garage when he fetches Cam's plentiful trophies from storage. "Do you ever think about death?" Phil asks his crabby neighbor Walt (the hilarious Philip Baker Hall), who's struck up an odd video-game bromance with little Luke. "I'm 85. Death is my roommate," Walt growls as he goes to fetch a new tank of oxygen. I love this family.
"Shame is overrated. Like Kesha," snarks Max on CBS' Two Broke Girls, a sitcom not on speaking terms with shame. Witness the show's latest off-putting ethnic caricature, a sassy Jamaican cashier, who could form a support group with the chirpy Asian diner owner and the Ukrainian lech of a short-order cook. And then there's the "Occupy Tampon" subplot, as Max takes offense to Han Lee charging more for the bathroom tampon dispenser. "We only protest once a month, but it's an intense five to seven days." I guarantee Han wasn't the only one covering his ears during all of that.
GREAT MOMENTS IN SEXUAL TENSION: After sending a rescued E.J. on her way on NCIS, Tony and Ziva share a very private moment, nursing their romantically bruised psyches. But just as Tony says, "Agent David, do you really consider me to be in your life?" she gets a call from her occasional CIA beau Ray. Curses, foiled again. (And if you saw the teaser for next week, Ray is about to come back into Ziva's life with an agenda.) ... "If I'm going to feel guilty about something, I'm going to feel guilty about this." — Damon planting a big kiss on a startled Elena on The Vampire Diaries, finally making a move on his corrupted brother's soulmate. It's about time. ... And as our own Damian Holbrook astutely noted earlier this week, Happy Endings wrapped this week's parody of rom-coms with a hint at a Friends-like bond forming between lovelorn Penny and Dave. Hey, if it makes him a funnier character, I'm all for it.
FLAUNTING IT: The talent's the draw on Lifetime's Project Runway All Stars, which brings back 13 of the most memorable designers from past seasons — some apparently chosen with an eye on personality over ability, but that should get sorted out soon (note Sweet P being kicked to the curb for her "ragged" terry-cloth creation in the first episode). An introductory fashion show of their latest creations (which they then had to echo in a 99-cent store challenge) revealed that many of the best are still on their game, including Mondo, Rami, April, Kara and Jerell. It's the "experts" who are lacking in oomph. Fresh-faced supermodel Angela Lindvall is an edgeless substitute for Heidi Klum, while mentor Joanna Coles (from Marie Claire) comes off as such a cold dragon lady in her workshop critiques, the contestants all look like they could use a hug from a sorely missed Tim Gunn. The judges, Georgina Chapman and Isaac Mizrahi, are personable but as yet lack the wit or bite of Michael Kors and Nina Garcia. "I demand satisfaction," crows the self-proclaimed "fabulous" Austin Scarlett. As do we all, and at least it looks like we may get it in the runway shows.
WHO SAID IT? "Why don't you just donate a hundred bucks to Curves and call it a day?" — Mike dissing New Year's resolutions to wife Frankie on The Middle, possibly the most honest and on-target joke I'll hear all month. ... "I may have been born yesterday, but I was up late last night." — Alan on Two and a Half Men, trying to convince Walden's calculating ex-wife and mother that he's not as big a fool as he looks. After he betrays them by staying loyal to his benefactor, he notes, "If it makes you feel any better, you're not the first women I've disappointed." ... "Drive or die trying! Maybe that's bad advice." — Dallas (Cheryl Hines) on Suburgatory, pep-talking daughter Delia before her DMV test. ... "You and I are peripheral vision-aries." — Steven Tyler to Oprah Winfrey during their Oprah's Next Chapter interview. He also called her a "magical being." She did not contradict him.
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