The Thursday Playlist: Burn Notice and Other Finales, Derek on Netflix
Fans often feel burned when the final curtain falls on a favorite show — especially when it happens unexpectedly and without resolution (just ask fans of A&E's The Glades or, even more recently, AMC's The Killing, which at least solved its third-season case before the grim fadeout). This is not the situation with USA's Burn Notice, which has been leading all summer to a calculated big finish (Thursday, 9/8c) after seven seasons of spy capers, a format that took a decidedly darker turn down the last stretch. (The complete current season, plus three episodes from last year, will air in a daylong marathon starting at 6 am/5c.)
It's surprising, really, that it took this long for outcast agent Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) to get so fed up with the agency that burned him and repeatedly betrayed him that he would essentially and finally flip on the CIA in his latest deep-undercover assignment, literally sleeping with the enemy and risking the alienation of his friends and family forever. Watching Michael come to blows with Sam (Bruce Campbell) last week wasn't easy to process. Can these relationships and careers — and while we're at it, lives — be saved in the final showdown? When we left off, Michael was torn between his new cohort Sonya (Alona Tal) and longtime flame Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), and it sure sounds like someone got shot on that rooftop.
All you can count on for sure in the series finale, titled "Reckoning," are a few big explosions (a Burn Notice trademark, and how anticlimactic would it be without them) — and according to various teases, at least one significant sacrifice before order is restored. It's worth remembering what an explosive impact Burn Notice had on establishing USA Network's brand of broadly appealing, easy-on-the-eyes escapism, and it has been a key component of the summer lineup since June 2007.
Its departure leaves a void, but USA hopes to fill it with future seasons of another undercover melodrama, the more intensely serialized Graceland, which was just renewed earlier this week for a second year. In the first-season finale (10/9c), the deadly drug enforcer "Jangles" takes a member of the house hostage as Briggs' (Daniel Sunjata) past comes back to haunt him. Can't they all just get along? What fun would that be?
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Also aiming for a violent season finale: ABC's popular Canadian import Rookie Blue (10:01/9:01c), in which the officers of 15 Division finally unravel the plan of the shooter who's been targeting them, while the search continues for Oliver Shaw. However it plays out, the show has been renewed for a fifth season for next summer.
HOUSE OF PATHOS: Beware the wise idiot, second only to the sad clown when it comes to annoyingly mawkish archetypes. Ricky Gervais lays on a thick veneer of sentimental pathos in his brave but banal title performance in Netflix's Derek (all episodes available starting Thursday), playing a dim-witted yet sweet-souled retirement-home worker who's almost as precious as the animal videos he can't stop watching on YouTube.
"He's too nice for his own good," says his protector and greatest admirer Hannah (the wonderfully warm Kerry Godliman), the home's most dedicated and selfless caregiver. "He's better than everyone," declares one of Derek's sad-sack buds, sex-obsessed slob Kev (the tiresome David Earl). As for childlike Saint Derek with his stooped posture and clenched grin, he simply knows that his aged charges "ain't got long, so every minute is important. I just want them to be happy all the time."
He and others offer testimonials directly to the camera in the tired "mockumentary" style Gervais perfected in the original The Office but here comes off as a serious miscalculation. The ever-present but unseen film crew adds a layer of patronizing self-consciousness to a series that is at its best when it relaxes into the slow rhythms of the Broad Hill nursing home, whose residents aren't nearly as hopeless and forlorn as they look. (Except maybe for Karl Pilkington as the misanthropic handyman Dougie, a bitterly balding Eeyore with a hilarious martyr complex.)
For all of its indulgent flaws, Derek is the first show to truly benefit from Netflix's all-at-once programming model (in this case, viewers must set aside only a manageable seven half-hours). If you can make it past the unbearably manipulative opening episode, there's authentic poignancy and a wistful melancholy in this world of lost and mostly forgotten souls. And the final episode is an unabashed tearjerker, structured around a longtime resident's funeral and a surprise from Derek's past. Should you feel like skipping ahead, Derek will forgive you.
REALITY CHECK: I'm a sucker for a good quiz show, but NBC's overproduced Million Second Quiz, now in its fourth night (8/7c), has a depressing way of reminding you just how many precious seconds of your busy life you'll never get back as you watch. The gamesmanship can be fun, as contestants square off and strategically "double" the point value of trivia questions at key points of each "bout." But Ryan Seacrest's hosting is an unctuous distraction as the seconds relentlessly tick away (at $10 a second), and segments showing the reveal of the next "line jumper" from the world outside the Giant Hourglass have the cheesy feel of a Publishers Clearing House ad. The real problem: Not enough game in this game, at least not during the hours this 24/7 stunt is airing on TV.
And let's hope night two of Fox's once-again-revamped (though not improved) The X Factor (8/9c), swollen to two hours, improves from Wednesday's first look, which hopscotched around various cities with no sense of continuity or chemistry between smug Simon Cowell ("In my opinion, and I'm usually right ...") and his girl group of fellow judge/mentors: Demi Lovato the holdover, oozing compassion for the contestants when she's not snarking at Simon, joined by a soporific Kelly Rowland and generic transplant Paulina Rubio, whose mangling of "pitchy" and "peachy" was a rare bright spot. X marks the yawn as dud contestants take the spotlight for Simon's mockery, and while there were a few fresh talents revealed on opening night (most memorably 13-year-old Dion, whose triumph over disability led Simon to dub her as "literally extraordinary" while comparing her musical charms to Carrie Underwood), this still seems the one-too-many of the singing competition genre. Its early return only whets the appetite for the much more addictive early rounds of NBC's The Voice, which starts a week from Monday.
THE THURSDAY GUIDE: Eyewitnesses to presidential history, 20 former White House Chiefs of Staff are interviewed in Discovery's The President's Gatekeepers (9/8c, following a replay of Wednesday's Part 1 at 7/6c). The conclusion recalls epic moments including Reagan's "Tear down this wall" speech in Berlin, the Obama administration's mission to kill Osama bin Laden, the scandals that rocked the Clinton White House and led to Nixon's resignation and the sometimes-tenuous relationship between the president's right hand and the First Lady. ... Before the latest episode of Lifetime's Supermarket Superstar (10:30/9:30c), the show's host, Stacy Keibler, guest-judges a Project Runway challenge (9/8c) in which the designers are tasked to modernize the "Southern belle" look. ... Night's top repeat: CBS's The Big Bang Theory (8/7c), in which Jim Parsons and Mayim Bialik justify their latest Emmy nominations, when a Dungeons & Dragons game acts as a catalyst for Sheldon and Amy to come to a reckoning in their unusual but endearing relationship.
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