Some thoughts on the highs and lows and assorted other TV news that caught my eye this week:
DEAD MAN WALKING: So there I was watching AMC's The Walking Dead last Sunday — the first piece of TV I hungrily consumed after a week of mostly TV-free vacation (except for the Oscars, which I should have passed on) — and as self-righteous Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) yammers on about everyone's humanity being at stake if they execute their prisoner (Randall the Outsider), I start rolling my eyes and going, "Oh, die already, you blowhard." So imagine how bad I feel a few scenes later, after Dale walks away muttering "This group is broken" when he thinks he lost his argument — when in reality he didn't — and he stumbles across the zombie little Carl was unable to kill when he found the "walker" stuck in the mud earlier in the day. Down goes Dale for the count, trying to fight off the deadly bite but being bloodily, horribly eviscerated (as in disemboweled) in the process. Ugh.
Somehow it won't be much comfort telling him that Rick wasn't able to shoot Randall after all — because Carl was watching, soullessly urging him on with a "Do it, dad, do it!" — because even kindly Hershel (who sat out the debate, which also rankled Dale) can see that they won't be able to put Dale back together again. And while Rick was able to deliver the killing blow to little Sophia in the grim fall mid-season finale, it's up to Daryl to put Dale out of his misery with a "sorry brother." The Walking Dead reminds us all the time what a bloodthirsty lot we are, as many complained the show itself was stuck in the mud during this Hershel's farm period. But now we're in the season's final chapters, and the carnage is just getting started.
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TRIBAL MADNESS: I won't even tell you what I was screaming at the TV Wednesday night as CBS's Survivor: One World truly went off the deep end — courtesy of one of the most loathsome players ever. Worse than Russell. Smarmier even than Johnny Fairplay. I'm talking, of course, of preening evil queen Colton, a spoiled-rotten unrepentant bigot who somehow has cowed the men on his tribe into letting him pull all the strings: "I'm running this entire show right now. If you can't see that, then you are Helen Keller." Not funny. Not cool. But true enough, and very true to bad form. In a decision he engineered that so flabbergasted Jeff Probst (who thought he'd seen it all) he called it "one of the craziest in the history of the game" and "one of the biggest and riskiest moves ever seen in this game," Colton convinces the Manono morons to sacrifice the immunity they've just won (in a blowout challenge) and take the Salani women's place at Tribal Council. "Have they really lost their mind?" wondered Kat (who's hardly the brightest bulb of her group). If not their mind, then surely their nerve.
But that's just how deep the hateful Colton's antipathy runs toward Bill, a struggling stand-up comic who is African American and has been known to sleep on friends' couches as he chases his dream. "I hate him. I want his head on a platter. I want him gone," Colton drones in one of his tantrums. Using a misstep by Leif as a pretext — calling the littlest player "an annoying Oompa-Loompa" and declaring, "That little Munchkin is about to get knocked back to Oz" — the equal-opportunity offender rallies his group (including a "completely bum-puzzled" Jay, as are we all) to prematurely sacrifice one of their own. Not Leif, but Bill, who had the audacity (and stones) to call Colton "a little stuck-up brat" to his face. Everyone else seems petrified to get on Colton's bad side. What is this, The Crucible? Only a bitch hunt instead of a witch hunt? Colton's behavior at Tribal Council is typically abhorrent, as he giggles and patronizes his black housekeeper and says dismissively of Bill, "I don't associate with [poor] people like that in the real world." Colton, who appears to have gone to the same finishing school as Hilly on The Help (and who could use a helping of humble pie), gets his way, as Bill is sent packing, but for how much longer?
THE TV JUKEBOX: Just how incestuous is this world of TV music competitions, anyway? Just a day or so after Kelly Clarkson, Lionel Richie and Robin Thicke appear on NBC's The Voice as guest mentors, they're announced as the celebrity stars (along with Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles) of ABC's summer singing contest Duets. Which does at least offer a new twist, as the established stars will sing alongside their protégés for the vote. But honestly, it's hard enough to tell these shows apart as it is.
Although there's no question that even in the "battle rounds," The Voice is so much more fresh and electrifying than American Idol as it winnows down its mostly unremarkable Top 13. I appreciate how the Voice judges are keeping an eye on the prize, selecting those they think have a shot at actually winning — but it was a tough call when Christina Aguilera's powerhouse belters Anthony Evans and Jesse Campbell went mano-a-mano on If I Ain't Got You. "Seriously, this kills me," she said.
On Idol, very few were killing it in the Whitney and Stevie catalogs, especially in the boy ranks. Yes, Jeremy Rosado seems like a sweet guy, but when he was picked as a "wild card" last week over a quirky original like Reed Grimm or a malleable kid (eliciting early stadium screams from the audience) like 15-year-old Eben Franckewitz, you could hear America groan while they refused to pick up the phones.
Final thought on this subject: How much more fun would Idol be if they let Steven Tyler or Randy Jackson swap seats with Jimmy Iovine? They'd be just as suitable as mentors, but they're toothless as judges (especially Steven), and it seems unfair to make us wait until results night to hear Jimmy's withering, spot-on critiques.
JUST DESSERTS: Best news of the week (though hardly unexpected): FX's renewal of Justified for a fourth season, the news of which arrived the same week as one of the current season's best and twistiest hours, establishing Neal McDonough's Quarles firmly in the pantheon of memorable villains with whom Raylan Givens has tangled. Raylan's in particularly hot water, as Quarles and restless sidekick Wynn Duffy do their darndest to frame him for the murder of Poor Gary (left on the lawn of Gary and Winona's old digs), with the Feebs and local Lexington detectives double-teaming the embattled marshal. Favorite moment: When Raylan explains why he threw the (now) incriminating bullet at Duffy — "told him the next one might be coming a little faster" — one of the Lexington shields can't help but laugh: "Deputy, that might just be the coolest thing I've ever laid ears on." Yes, Raylan is just that cool, and it's even cooler when he confesses he heard that line on the Johnny Carson show once. Not so cool is the attempt of crooked Sheriff Napier to set up Boyd Crowder for the car bombing the sheriff arranged himself.
But it's Quarles, unhinged and unleashed, who we're left with, as he's cut loose by his Detroit bosses after failing to nail Raylan. Popping an Oxy while driving and listening to the strains of a revival sermon about "the beast," this icy killer finds his way to Limehouse's holler, where he approaches the backwoods kingpin: "You said you liked to back the winning side." Game on, but who exactly are the players again?
NOVA NO MORE: Fox's cancellation of Terra Nova this week wasn't much of a surprise, given the middling ratings returns on its enormous investment and the network's obvious heel-dragging in recent weeks. It's too bad this ambitious production could never find the balance between its epic-scaled sense of adventure and its mawkish Disney lite characters. Next time when they swing the bat this hard, it might sense to have the show figured out first.
PUTTING ON THE SHOW: I'm still a believer in NBC's Smash, but at times (like this week's episode), it often feels like two shows battling for supremacy. There's the actual Smash, a fascinating saga about the making of a Broadway show. And there's a much clumsier thing called Smush, a trite and dull soap that's forever singing off key.
Here's the parts of Smash that I liked: Derek, that bully of a director, forcing Karen to do her Marilyn-esque "Happy Birthday" in front of the full ensemble, schooling Ivy on her shaky vibrato, and then having her coach Ivy in an awkward private session. Ivy barks at Karen, "Don't get ahead of yourself. ... I'm a grown-up, and I have a pretty clear sense of what I bring to the party." Tough words from a tough diva, but when Derek refuses to give Ivy feedback during rehearsal, she freezes and cries — her insecurities echoed in the neurotically splashy "Let's Be Bad" production number (also the episode title). I also identified with Julia's procrastination in delivering her new pages, even as the producer and director bark. And while I'm not wild about the Smash numbers that find characters bursting into song in their actual life, Karen's sultry "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" fantasy solo in front of her mirror worked well enough. Tom's pillow talk with his lawyer beau, remarking on how bad the sex was, had me reflecting on how one of the show's executive producers is David Marshall Grant, whose similar post-coital scene in thirtysomething (with Peter Frechette) many moons ago stopped the TV industry in its tracks. These days, not so much.
Here's the parts of Smush I wish I hadn't seen: Julia's boring son Leo being busted for smoking pot in the park, encouraging her gorgon overreaction and another mention of the (Noooo!) adoption, while smitten Michael Swift clings to her like a barnacle ... Michael's incredibly stilted "A Song For You" serenade to Julia — on her outside stoop! — while Leo (sigh) watches in horror from above (we know how you feel) ... the hideous Ellis weaseling his way into Eileen's office and confidences ... dialogue like "What's bigger than love?" as Michael discusses script changes (a pretext for flirting) with Julia ... anything involving Karen's boyfriend Dev's ambitions to become press secretary.
More Smash, less Smush please.
ODDS AND ENDS: Lindsay Lohan may have been a good sport, coming on to Saturday Night Live to spoof her tabloid bad-girl reputation, but any signs of her being a talented performer seem long ago and far away. (Jon Hamm, pretending to be her backup host, would have been more welcome.) Best bits: the Real Housewives of Disney parody — like Once Upon a Time crossed with GCB — and Bill Hader channeling Psycho's Norman Bates in his Shepard Smith impersonation, and returning to Weekend Update as James "king of the snakes" Carville. ... I really wanted to enjoy Katy Perry's grotesque take on a prison guard on Fox's Raising Hope, but the entire episode felt off, more shrill than usual, and Perry made me cringe more than laugh. ... Most puzzling midseason comeback: Fox's Breaking In, an aimless show not improved by the addition of a shticky Megan Mullally. ... I wonder if anyone else was thinking "What is that lady from The Event doing here?" when this week's Awake ended with the hero's police boss (Laura Innes) meeting on a park bench with a mysterious conspirator whom she accuses of "taking out [Michael's] whole family." Oh great, another layer of mystery on an already densely weird show.
THE HONOR ROLL: Leslie's drunken interview on Parks and Recreation with Indianapolis morning-show host Buddy Wood (Sean Hayes), who needles her: "Is it this sad, pathetic town that makes you drink this way?" Her response to his charges: "What? No! Preposterous! Are you in(hic)ebriated?" Pause. "That was bad timing." Anything but, actually. ... The converted wine fountain on Cougar Town. ... The "whip sound" app on The Big Bang Theory, which made me laugh out loud every time Sheldon used it (usually to mock Howard). ... In the same episode, Penny advising Amy not to confuse Star Trek with Star Wars. "They get all cranky when you mix the two up." Asked what's the diff, Penny replies, "There's absolutely no difference!" ... New Girl's Jess taking Nick to the doctor — her lesbian ob/gyn — for his touch-football injury, and giving him meds designed for severe menstrual cramps. Also: Schmidt's "Fredo kiss" when he thinks his best friend is dying. ... ABC's The River may be going nowhere in the ratings, but I was transfixed this week watching the crew of The Magus watching the recovered tapes of Emmet Cole, documenting his decline into madness and despair in the Amazonian jungle — but thankfully, not so desperate as to eat his trusty dog for protein. But I'm sure I'm not the only one who thought "Dharma" (as in Lost) when the episode ends at an abandoned outpost, Emmet's last known location.
AS HEARD ON TV: "I'd make fun of Sheldon for having girl problems if I weren't in shock that Sheldon has girl problems." — Leonard on The Big Bang Theory. ... "That is the most sickeningly sweet thing I have ever experienced — and I am sipping Kool Aid through a Red Vine." — Big Bang's Sheldon reacting to Howard and Bernadette's billing and cooing. ... "Sickly is the new sexy." — Big Bang's Penny trying to make sense of Amy's infatuation with Sheldon. (Can you tell I liked this week's episode?) ... "Are you accusing me of being a fake blond? Because if you need me to prove it to you, I might be inclined to break you over that stepladder, ride you like a teaser pony and paint this room an entirely different color." — Justified's Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) in a tense encounter with Marshal Raylan Givens.
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