This week in TV was as notable for the legends who left us as for what actually happened on TV in the last full week before the May sweeps begin (next Thursday). So let's start there, acknowledging two figures who loomed large in my formative years of being weaned on TV.
It's impossible to imagine TV without Dick Clark, the genial host and canny impresario who understood the power (and the profits) of the medium as well as anyone, and whose influence in packaging pop and rock for TV is incalculable. His passion for being on TV, and being involved in TV, never faded, not during all those years introducing new acts to American Bandstand (a legacy he recalled in the evocative NBC drama American Dreams) or presiding over various incarnations of the infectious Pyramid game show — one of my all-time faves, falling somewhere between Jeopardy! and Password in the pantheon of smart, fun play-alongs — or, in his most iconic role, welcoming in the new year on Rockin' New Year's Eve. He went from "America's Oldest Teenager" to Grandfather Time, and while it may have been uncomfortable for some to watch him be part of the celebration after his stroke, we had to admire his gumption, spirit and enthusiasm for the party he so memorably created. His production company runs the gamut from the Golden Globes to So You Think You Can Dance (which many years is my favorite competition series), and in Ryan Seacrest and American Idol, we see a continuity in the sort of mass-appeal broadcasting that was Dick Clark's specialty.
Before there was Bill and Eric, Stefan and Damon, those Twilight twerps or even Sesame Street's Count, there was Barnabas Collins, the tormented TV vampire whose soulful suffering on the daytime phenom Dark Shadows haunted my childhood in the late '60s. I had the fake fangs, the ring, the build-your-own-skeleton board game, the punny joke book. I was all in for that daily afterschool dose of primitive supernatural angst, embodied in the moody performance of Jonathan Frid. He passed away just weeks before Tim Burton's big-screen resurrection of the franchise, in which he has a cameo opposite the new Barnabas of Johnny Depp. (The trailers make the movie look insufferably jokey, a '70s Beetlejuice, which causes this fan of the Gothic original no end of dismay.) By all accounts, this stage-trained Shakespearean actor was never truly comfortable with the pre-Comic-Con instant infamy this role bestowed on him, and he never really emerged from its shadow. But what a shadow.
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Now, on to some of the shows that stood out, for better and sometimes for worse, this week.
MAD MEN: Quite simply, still the best drama anywhere on TV, even if it's telegraphing its points (the dripping water faucet of suburban anomie) with an awfully heavy hand. Random thought: The moment I saw Don Draper in that hideous plaid sports coat, I silently thanked providence that this show will end before we get to the '70s, when fashion deteriorates even further. And how fun to see the ladies of the Cos Cob dinner party (including Megan) get all fluttery as the Superman in their midst strips to his undershirt to fix the kitchen geyser. With John Slattery directing this week's outing, we finally get to see the unctuous Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) get his comeuppance — from the unlikely fisticuffs of Lane Pryce, moved to a gentlemanly display of "medieval" (Cooper's word) violence by the insolence of the "grimy little pimp" of a boy wonder. "I know cooler heads should prevail, but am I the only one who wants to see this?" quips Roger. Step aside, pops. We want to look, too.
Poor battered Pete, whining "I have nothing" in the elevator to Don, who could teach him a thing or two about existential crises. Don is a changed man for now, refusing the bait at the upscale cathouse while Pete enthusiastically succumbs, as long as the girl knows who's "king." Don can only pity Pete, and for good reason. Like the "bad actors" in the cheesy driving-school instructional film, Pete can't score with the high-school cutie he's flirting with (not once the Suburgatory hunk shows up). He can't fix the faucet at home, where a doting wife and adorable baby only make him feel trapped. And at work, he has no champions when he takes a fall. "Everyone in this office has wanted to do that to Pete Campbell," Joan tells Lane, to ease the chagrin when he makes a pass at her. "I just seem to find no end to my humiliation today," he moans. A lot of that going around in the office.
And RIP to Ben Hargrove, the nom de plume of Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), who's still indulging his writing bug in short-story science-fiction allegories — until he's ratted out to Roger. Ken blames (who else) Pete, but as my fellow columnist the Televisionary suggested, Ken may have jumped to conclusions. Who's to say Peggy, whose fate is tied to his at the agency, didn't let it slip, to keep him in check. (And I'd be perfectly happy not to have this spelled out for us ever.) Ken, thankfully, is undaunted. Adopting a new pen name, Dave Algonquin, he's now entering John Cheever territory with the story "The Man With the Miniature Orchestra," a reference to Pete's hi-fi console (I remember ours well). As he begins to write in bed, we wonder if he could ever imagine TV maturing to the point where stories like his could be translated into such deeply rewarding entertainment.
Sidebar: This was a strong week for two of Mad Men's stars in their extracurricular other personas. Jared Harris (Lane) continues to bedevil the world of Fringe as David Robert Jones, blackmailing Alt-Broyles to destroy the bridge between worlds by offering meds for his sick son — and we all know the lengths good men will go for their loved ones on this show, to the point of wrecking entire universes. "Love makes us vulnerable, but it also makes us human, I suppose," remarks this most inhuman of villains.
Alison Brie had one of her best outings yet on Mad Men as Pete's wife Trudy, who we discover is actually liked by Don (who has so little patience for most in his professional/personal circle), so much so that he caves when she pressures him to come to their dinner party. She is the hostess with the mostest (ambition anyway), even if she doesn't perform a Megan-style hootchie-kootch. And on an especially surreal Community, Brie's charming meddler Annie takes center stage in the Dreamatorium with Abed, whom she almost "breaks" by insisting he add empathy as an ingredient to his fanciful scenarios. She concludes, in this week's life lesson, "We both need to get more comfortable winging it." (Which isn't the same as [Jeff] Winger-ing it, I presume.)
THE GOOD WIFE: Quite simply, network TV's best drama, as Alicia spars with mother-in-law Jackie, whose well-timed stroke ("Oh, come on, Jackie!") can't mask the smile of triumph as son Peter rushes back to her side (after telling her off for buying the family home on the sly — with the grandkids' trust fund!). Alicia also locks horns with Matthew Perry's cunningly played Mike Kresteva ("He's like Blagojevich dangerous"), her adversary on the blue-ribbon panel who ratchets up the villainy as he announces his bid for governor, brazenly lying to her face while using Alicia as a pawn to try to keep Peter out of the race. Doesn't work, because the episode ends where we came into this series, with Alicia grimly standing by Peter's side as he makes his own announcement. Politics is ugly, and makes for very strange non-bedfellows. It also put a kink in Eli's dealings with his ex-wife Vanessa, when the DNC party head tells him to drop out of her campaign ("She jumped the line") if he expects any help with Peter's. This is getting juicier by the week.
THE SIMPSONS: So easy, and so unwise, to take this long-running show for granted. The couch gag-as-love story open by Bill Plympton was among the most inspired in the series' long history, and it was a blast watching Homer get hooked on the Lost-like series Stranded, streaming the entire series on his treadmill TV. "What a great opening episode! And I'm sure everything they said will pay off handsomely!" (Prompting Damon Lindelof to tweet afterward: "It was a genuine honor to be mocked by the greatest comedy of all time.") Marge is upset not just because he's using his expensive new workout to watch a show that went off the air years ago, but "when I wanted to watch it with you then, you said it was pretentious and repetitive."
FINALE FEVER: Raising Hope raised Lucy (the serial-killer mother of Hope) from the dead only to throw her under Smokey Floyd's bus in the messy conclusion to the two-part season finale, which featured courtroom cameos from just about the entire My Name Is Earl cast in a Seinfeld-ian summation of the Chance family's misdeeds. I loved seeing rubber-faced clown Jackie Hoffman (Grandma in the recent Addams Family Broadway musical) as Lucy's cutthroat lawyer — whose hand-picked jury of miners (the Natesville Dozen) were literally living under a rock during Lucy's reign of terror. And Maw Maw saying to Lucy: "If you're here to kill someone, I'm ready to go." But otherwise, an overly self-conscious way to re-establish the premise. Happy for the well-timed renewal, though.
And please let this be the last we ever see of The CW's Ringer, the finale as turgid and glum as ever, with good-at-heart Bridget dumped by Andrew and scorned by quasi-stepdaughter Juliet after revealing her true identity (but only after Siobhan's affair with Henry is revealed to them), while Siobhan herself is fleeced and abandoned by Henry after she lies about the new twins' paternity. These twins can't catch a break. There is a bit of long-awaited suspense when arch-villain Bodaway Macawi (a name I never got used to) shows up to take out Bridget, but of course ends up nearly killing Shiv ("You've got the wrong girl") instead — and damaging the wall poster, horrors! Bridge comes to the rescue by shooting Bodaway dead, believing he was attacking Juliet. It isn't until later that she finally realizes her sister is still alive, but had set her up to be killed. "Siobhan wanted me dead?" And on that note, with Shiv vowing Scarlett-style that she wants her old life back and Bridge mulling the meaning of all these betrayals, it's over. Not a moment too soon.
KRUMMILY KATHY: (With apologies to Suddenly Susan, not that they're necessary): What's the opposite of Bravo? No thank you very (bleep)ing much — words that apply to the waste of an hour that was Thursday night's premiere of Kathy, the much-ballyhooed but seriously under-produced gabfest vehicle for Bravo's outspoken signature clown Kathy Griffin. I enjoyed her Life on the D-List within reason (meaning: in small doses) and her stand-up specials rock, so I had high hopes for this. But to say there's nothing to it is to be kind. It's less than nothing, just another self-congratulatory and pandering showcase for Bravo to talk about Bravo, with Kathy welcoming a couchful of cackling sicko-phants to dish about Bravo personalities (of the heinous Real Housewives variety) and recycled View hot topics like Brangelina. I kept thinking I was watching a rehearsal, waiting for someone interesting to show up. (And much as I love moms like Maggie, she no longer counts.) At one point Kathy blurts, "I'm sorry if this is a Bravo infomercial." Join the club, hon. And next time around, think about actually putting on a show.
THE GUEST BOOK: Lots of terrific guest bookings this week. On a very clever Castle, there's a Firefly reunion of Nathan Fillion and he-man Adam Baldwin (late of Chuck) as Castle temporarily partners with a macho gang cop named Slaughter and mans up, becoming something of an action figure, toting a gun and calling his fists "Jake and the Fatman," taking pride in his bloodied nose (to the horror of Beckett, who like the rest of the team feels cheated on). Slaughter has rules: "Do not use the word awesome. You're a grown man." And a sexist code, taunting Castle about the "smoking hot" Beckett: "You're tapping her, right?" When Castle assures him they're just friends, he gets an earful: "Man needs a friend, he gets a dog. A woman like that, you storm the beaches or die trying, c'mon." Castle takes it like a man, until Slaughter starts talking smack about the "hot new redhead" in the morgue: "That girl's barely street legal." And that girl's Castle's daughter, and she's so off limits that Castle hauls off and punches Slaughter. It's his lack of ethics that sends Castle back to Beckett to straighten the case out.
And in a too on-the-nose appeasement for the "shippers," Castle uses daughter Alexis' college-admission dilemma to reflect on his own feelings for his partner. She was passed over for early admission to Stanford, her first choice, but now they want her. "Do you want it badly enough to get over being hurt?" he asks her, obviously thinking about Beckett not yet responding (to him anyway) to his "I love you" back when she got shot. Message: He wants it badly enough. Did Slaughter rub off on him enough to go for it?
Another reunion of sorts as Clueless star Alicia Silverstone shows up on Suburgatory to make googly eyes at her former co-star Jeremy Sisto. George and Eden have immediate chemistry, but there's a catch. (Isn't there always?) She may be "farm-raised, sun-kissed, completely organic" — but she's also the surrogate carrying a baby of Noah and Jill (who's busy promoting her new book, Making Time for What Matters). Awkward much? For now, they'll try to rise above. They do bring out the best in each other.
More great guests: Friday Night Lights' Gaius Charles on NCIS as arson investigator Jason King, who gives Tony the cold shoulder (though he warms up instantly to Abby, as who wouldn't?) because he still hasn't forgiven him for a long-ago tragedy when Tony rescued Jason as a kid from a fire in Baltimore (when Tony was still a Georgetown student) that claimed the life of his kid sister. "You can't save them all," is Tony's credo from the incident that inspired him to become a cop — and obviously put Jason on his own career path. Future BFFs? Wouldn't bet against it. ... Big Love's Chloe Sevigny chilled the blood on Law & Order: SVU as an amoral wife who stages her own kidnapping/assault, while on a Valentine's Day video chat with her husband (Mad Men's Rich Sommer), to extort ransom money while horsing around on a "screw-cation" with her latest boy toy (Southland's Shawn Hatosy). Olivia sees through her, but this tramp is a survivor, seducing a juror and making it clear on the stand, "I did whatever I had to do to survive." (Which is true enough.) ... The Glee Project runner-up Alex Newell steals the show on the disco episode of Glee, as a Vocal Adrenaline diva who defies his evil coach Jonathan Groff to take the stage in his female persona, Unique, and bring the house down with a killer version of "Boogie Shoes." Project co-champ Damian McGinty hasn't had a moment that strong all season. Still waiting for dreadlocked Samuel Larsen to make his mark, which seems more likely. ... Uma Thurman finally arrived on Smash as weak-voiced movie star Rebecca Duvall, who wonders why there has to be so much singing and dancing. (Given the weakness of her supposed show stopper "Dig Deep," can't say I blame her.) She's a fun pot-stirrer, driving Derek to distraction while bonding Ivy and Karen ("She stole our part. We hate her."), but obviously not long for this world. ... Excellent casting of Susan Blakely (Rich Man, Poor Man) as Ellie's elegant cold fish of a mom on Cougar Town. She acts nice to others, but snarks when Jules ducks out of sight: "With all the eyeliner, God forbid she starts crying. She'd look like Alice Cooper." Cut to Jules weeping, eyes blotched, whimpering, "Who's Alice Cooper? Is she pretty?"
And a character-actor RIP to Walt, Modern Family's neighbor from hell played with such memorable irascibility by Philip Baker Hall. His passing causes Claire (of the inappropriate smile-grimace) and Phil to walk on eggshells around little Luke, who bonded with the old guy, but the kid appears unfazed, more concerned with bringing home Walt's portable TV as a keepsake. (Which horrifies Claire, until she learns Luke could see the light from Walt's TV from his window, and this is his remembrance of the old guy.) Kudos as well to the spot-on casting of Barry Corbin as Cam's farmer dad, Merle Stonewall Tucker, who spars with Jay over who's more of the wife in the Cam-Mitchell relationship. "It makes me feel a tiny bit better to think that the person he's spending his life with is a tiny bit of a woman," Merle fesses. Whatever gets you through the night, pops.
NAME THAT TUNE: In the last few weeks, the pendulum of buzz has shifted in the arena of TV's top singing competitions. NBC's The Voice started strong, with those electrifying "blind auditions," but now that we're in the live rounds, Fox's American Idol (which was slow out of the gate) is revving forward in the ratings and commanding more watercooler attention — judging (in part) from the conversations I have on radio in many parts of the country each week, where I find early passion for The Voice seems to have cooled.
Part of the problem is format: Each week, American Idol showcases its entire cast of distinctive singers, putting them center stage and allowing us to find favorites. The team format of The Voice works against this, having contestants sing opposite each other in the battle rounds, and even now that they're getting solos, because the playing field is so large we only hear these singers every other week. Out of sight (and earshot), out of mind. And as entertaining as The Voice's judges might be, their constant chatter often takes the focus off the singer. This week, the results show was so poorly time-managed that Blake Shelton (who I enjoy) was still blabbing over the final credits and barely was able to blurt out that he was cutting RaeLynn before the show was over, robbing the country cutie of her final bow. By comparison, Colton Dixon's surprise Idol exit (albeit following terrible covers of Lady Gaga and especially Earth Wind and Fire) was handled with drama and dignity — allowing him to apologize that "I wasn't myself last night and I get it," providing the sort of catharsis these shows are supposed to be known for. Once The Voice realizes the voices we want to hear most aren't necessarily the judges', we might develop more of a rooting interest in who stays and who goes. If we can even remember who's left from week to week.
ODDS AND ENDS: I stepped away from the TV last weekend long enough to see Joss Whedon's apocalyptically clever meta-horror movie The Cabin in the Woods. While I had some issues with the way the many surprises are woven into the story (none of which I'll spoil here), my real takeaway was the sad realization of how much I wish it had been Whedon who'd pitched American Horror Story to FX. (Although a mental institution is certainly a logical place to reboot this berserk show next season.) ... Are the detectives of The Killing finally getting somewhere? They've deduced the identity of the "tattoo boy," and he's the son (living under a foster name) of the guy Rosie Larsen's dad murdered while in the Polish mob. Now there's a motive. And be prepared for another bombshell this week when Linden and Holder get the boy to open up. ... Speaking of bombshells, there was a dandy one on ABC's Scandal as the president's former intern (a very strong Liza Weil) reveals she's pregnant. And there's a sex tape. Believe me, this one's just getting started. ... On Showtime's Nurse Jackie, I love how they're not letting her get away with her usual shenanigans in rehab. She's almost sent packing after arranging for troubled daughter Grace to stop by "Disneyland," pretending it's her new temp office. "The only life you get to save is yours," her counselor (Laura Silverman) tells her, after informing her earlier, "You're not a nurse. You're a patient." Old habits die hard, though, when Jackie diagnoses her cranky-old-lady roomie (the wonderful Mary Louise Wilson) having a stroke. And yes, that's Carmelo Anthony in the group sessions. ... My favorite new character in Game of Thrones (next to the cunning Tyrion, of course): the mighty warrior Brienne ("I'm no lady"), devoted to protect Renly as a member of the king's guard. Like most of the women of this world, you really don't want to mess with her. ... Who's a worse mother than The Killing's Sarah Linden? Try Victoria Grayson of Revenge, who slaps her daughter and pays a thug to arrange the beatdown of her son Daniel in prison (just as he gets out of the shower, to add to the nightmare). It's her roundabout way of getting him out on house arrest, but Emily gets her own (wait for it) revenge, sneak-attacking the creep behind Daniel's and Jack's assaults while wearing a dark wig. (Her version of Clark Kent's glasses?) "In society, women are referred to as the fairer sex," she voice-overs. "But in the wild, the female species can be far more ferocious than their male counterparts." Duly noted.
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