Ask Matt: Analyzing 24's Politics, Mourning Daisies and Eli and More!
TV Guide's Senior Critic Matt Roush takes your TV questions. Have a rant, rave or burning question about your favorite show you'd like addressed? E-mail him here!
Question: Something was very much glaring for me in the advance reviews for 24: Redemption. More often than not, reviewers questioned 24's relevance in the post-Bush era, droning on and on about the issue of torture in 24, how the show would adjust with a new president and relating just about everything to do with the show with politics. Look, I was not a big fan of Season 6, and I'm certainly not one of those who can't accept criticism of the show. If there are any problems with the plots and characters, please do fire away. But what I just can't stand is the penchant of many reviewers to "politicize" every single thing related to the show. To me a TV show has one main purpose: to entertain. If it does that, why the hell would I care if it is relevant with, say, the current political administration? Or whether it was associated with Bush politics in the past? I care far more about Teri's death, Mason's sacrifice, the nerve gas attack on CTU and Jack faking his death than those political perceptions with which the people in the media seem intent on tying the show. Let the show entertain. If it doesn't, point out its faults, simple as that, The only thing that will ever make a show relevant is its quality from a storytelling perspective, because in the end, that's what it really is: a fictional story. — Jack F.
Matt Roush: Generally, I agree that if you let a political point of view get in the way of assessing a show's entertainment value, you haven't done your job as a reviewer, unless you're writing for a specific political audience. (Thankfully, not my case.) But 24 does not live in a vacuum, nor does anyone who watches it. And frankly, much of the political content being discussed by reviewers (the torture theme, the fact that Jack is being sought to testify and justify his actions before Congress, the sniveling portrayal of the token U.N. weasel, even the swearing in of a new female president) was embedded in the show itself, begging to be commented on. Still, my primary concern like yours was whether the two-hour special measured up as a bridge to the new season and as an exciting chapter in the show's history. On those counts, I feel it succeeded. (My main objection was the usual logistical one, how a country could organize an evacuation within a mere two hours.) Politics aside, I can't wait until the show returns for real on Jan. 11.
Question: I could write a lengthy diatribe about the loss of Eli Stone and Pushing Daisies, but it won't save them now, so I'll save myself even thinking about the dreary business side of it all. All I can do is lament the fact that these wonderful shows are gone. Two shows that asked questions about life and death, tackled the nature of human mortality, and ultimately put a hopeful face on the things that we are supposed to dread most — and both of them were axed simultaneously. There is still a lot of excellent TV on ABC and across the major networks, but nothing fills the niche of these two shows. Nothing puts a smile on my face without sacrificing character and plot the way Eli and Ned and Chuck did. Like I said, there is still a lot of great TV: Lost still ranks above either of them in my list of great series, but these two shows were the medium's heart this year. What does it say about the world today when shows about love and hope and magic can't survive? I'm sorry, but it can't be argued that either show wasn't sharply written, well-acted, well-produced. It's not about time slots or preemptions or ABC's failure to promote. The real issue, I fear, is that the core values of these shows just didn't connect with viewers, which is maybe the saddest part of the whole story. Anyway, thank you for promoting these shows, and for sharing your dispatches on various episodes of both. They were the perfect series to want to read about and talk about and share with others. It's doubly sad, but I guess somehow fitting, that we lost them both at the same time. To end on a positive note, there is still a beating heart in one corner of the networks' schedules, and that's in the third great show to come out of last years' strike-shortened season. Chuck has been on absolute fire recently, and has stepped up its game considerably with the recent episodes about Chuck's ex. I am optimistic that Chuck will survive with its mediocre ratings in a season where mediocre has become the new "great." — Nick
Matt Roush: As everyone can imagine, I've been wading through acres of impassioned e-mails from fans mourning these very special series. We'll discuss it here from several different angles, but before getting into the blame game and decrying TV in general, I wanted to second Nick's comments that I am not only saddened by the premature end of Daisies and Eli, I am disheartened by the viewing public's unwillingness to embrace shows that used whimsy, hope and imagination to tell their upbeat stories. I see both good and bad in the glut of crime dramas and reality shows on the schedule, but in these particular shows I saw something truly marvelous, and what I mostly fear is that we're less likely to see the networks attempt a future flight of life-affirming fancy if they're convinced they'll get a better return by churning out the umpteenth iteration of everything that's worked before. The shame here does not apply to a network that gave these shows a first and second chance in an unforgiving climate.
Question: I know you liked Pushing Daisies and Eli Stone and didn't think Dirty Sexy Money was going to make it, but how does a critic (and a good one) feel when two of the shows he did like didn't make it? I mean we all try to look for justification (a la the hubbub about Ghost Whisperer, though I'm one of the wait-and-see people who think it will turn out OK), but I'm sure you look upon it as just one more thing that happens in the world of television. Do you have any opinions as to why they didn't make it? And are you disappointed, or just fatalistic? I'm no longer sorry about DSM. I think instead of being edgy and clever, it started trying to do too many things at once, not all of them smart. — Dorothy
Matt Roush: Not a lot of hand-wringing over Dirty Sexy Money, which I was on the verge of breaking up with myself. Dan wrote in to express his disappointment in that show: "Last season was so bright and sharp, and this season was a complete 180. From the first episode back, it seemed like everything that was so great and enjoyable about the first season was completely stripped away, and this artificial stand-in had taken its place. Pulling the plug almost feels like putting down an injured animal."
Ouch, but true. But to address Dorothy's question about how this critic puts the current disappointment in perspective: I'm used to getting my heart broken. The shows I tend to respond to most passionately are those that don't look and act like most others, which means they're usually a bit of a creative and programming risk. Sometimes they pay off (Lost, The X-Files, plenty of stuff on cable), often they don't. With Daisies, which has never been anything less than a delight, I just wish it had been given a chance to air on the same night as Lost at some point. The strike killed that one for sure, and even if ABC could have done more (like repeat it) to enhance its profile, it would have been an uphill climb. With Eli, you can point to everything from its mystical preciousness to its politics to the possibly hasty decision to split up the firm before we'd gotten our bearings back this season. But that show still seems to me like something that could have worked commercially. Losing both of these shows gives me two fewer hours of TV that make me feel good for having experienced it — as opposed to so many shows that make me feel lucky for having survived it.
Question: Well, ABC's gone and done it. They've axed 3/5 of the shows I watch (live, by the way) on their network. I'm down to Ugly Betty and Life on Mars, the latter of which I'm still making my mind up about. I think I'm doomed by having no interest in medical shows, lame reality, farce like Desperate Housewives or melodrama like Brothers & Sisters. As soon as I find a show I love, poof it's gone. Which brings me to my question: Are networks expecting too much of their shows, ratings-wise, in this age of time-shifting, cable, and enough options and niches to make one cross-eyed? Are they expecting far too much of an outdated model of business? Cable (and CBS) have cleaned up by becoming "branded" as it were. You know on CBS you're going to get a no-effort-required crime procedural of some kind, or on USA you'll get a show with a quirky main character, or on FX you'll get antiheroes. And cable particularly has far lower expectations than network when it comes to viewership and ratings. I think network TV in this digital age is just trying to be too many things to too few people, and then expecting the kinds of numbers they used to have when they were the only game in town. It just hurts when great shows like Pushing Daisies get the axe (without getting a chance to write a proper ending even!) because they're not living up to some network suits' expectation of what the numbers should be. — Nika
Matt Roush: An excellent observation, because I do think we're on the brink of a new paradigm for success in the digital-TV age. Cable has the luxury of multiple revenue streams, from advertising as well as from cable companies, and can make their numbers work at a far lower level than the broadcast networks, which still operate in the mass marketplace. I keep thinking and hoping the networks will establish new models and formulas so the best and brightest shows can flourish even if they don't break out. The NBC/DirecTV sharing of Friday Night Lights this season could be a starting point, but the industry isn't yet willing to relinquish its hope that everything it puts on can draw an audience on the level of NCIS, Dancing with the Stars, CSI and Grey's Anatomy. Clearly a fool's errand.
One more discussion of Pushing Daisies before we move on, because that show has generated so much mail. This is from Lou of Cleveland: "When ABC canceled the show, why couldn't they let Bryan Fuller produce one more episode to wrap up the series? The facts are these: The sets are still up, the cast and crew are still engaged, the audience is small but they are a desirable demographic and loyal. How difficult would it have been to let us have some proper closure? Why isn't it a common practice to give shows, especially serialized ones, the chance to properly end their runs? Would one more showing have made that much difference? Obviously this question applies to all cancelled shows, but Pushing Daisies is the only one I care enough to ask about. Two additional questions: 1) With Pushing Daisies and Battlestar Galactica finishing their runs, I'm down to Lost and Chuck as the only shows to love. I know what's happening with Lost. Do you think Chuck will get a third season? 2) Seeing my current favorite shows listed above, can you make any educated guesses about any upcoming shows I may grow to love?"
Contractually, all of these endangered shows' producers knew they were working within a 13-episode window, with no guarantee they would get to make more. It was their call whether to leave the show at that point open-ended (or in the case of Daisies, with an actual cliffhanger, a prospect I find rather dismaying) or deliver some kind of satisfying finish should that be all they wrote. Adding an extra episode to any of these contracts, nice as it sounds, would be prohibitively expensive, not to mention that it's almost a miracle that in most cases, we'll be able to see most if not all episodes that were produced of these series before they make way for the midseason in the new year. I look at these shows as a gift, and I don't need absolute closure of their stories to be satisfied. As for NBC's Chuck: Again, something of a miracle that NBC gave it a full-season order. If NBC were having a better fall, it might not be so lucky. Renewal for next season will almost certainly be touch and go. Finally, on the horizon, I'd put Dollhouse on your calendar, and then light a candle for its survival.
Question: I'm officially out. While there is much I find compelling with Grey's Anatomy (the humanization of Sloan, the struggles of Bailey), I cannot continue to watch the drivel that is the "Izzie sees dead person" storyline. The original Denny storyline was quite compelling and the chemistry between Izzie and Denny was undeniable. But he died. The continuation of the "love story" is not only creepy but dilutes the powerfulness of the original storyline. We are lucky that at the moment there is plenty of great TV available (granted, with the cancellation of Eli Stone and Pushing Daisies there will be a little less), and, unfortunately, this sorry imitation of what the show once was does not even begin to cut it. I usually watch series from the premiere to the bitter end, even when there is a distinct decline in the quality of the show (West Wing, Gilmore Girls), but I don't think Grey's is worthy of my time anymore (the silly intern plot doesn't help either). Am I wrong? — Ella
Matt Roush: Lots of mail on this topic again, but as I said in the last go-round, I won't be surprised if this horny-ghost subplot drives a lot of fans to break up with the show, at least in the short run. (The great thing about long-running TV shows is that they always have the potential to win you back.) I found the last original episode unbearable, save for a few moments with the adult doctors (Bailey deserves so much better). The Denny-Izzie scenes qualified as Cringe TV, and the stuff with the interns (Sadie making her own incision!) was arguably even more ridiculous and off-putting. Whatever those writers are on, could they send me some for the holidays?
Shari adds to the Grey's debate: "It has become increasingly clear to me that the writers (or perhaps Shonda herself) have no idea what to do with these characters and have continued to write them around storylines instead of the other way around. We have all seen how vastly improved Lost and Desperate Housewives got once their show-runners set an end-date and could plan each season/episode accordingly. My question is, do you think Grey's Anatomy would benefit from an end date? Perhaps then they wouldn't feel the need to bring back dead fiancés and hire new doctors/interns left and right? I really feel more and more that this show is losing the spark and heart it once had, and I think the only way to salvage it is to set a date and map everything out from there. Any thoughts?"
That's an interesting point. Normally I would look at a franchise like this as very open-ended — maybe not so open-ended that it should run on fumes as long as ER has — but given how quickly a show like this tends to burn through stories and character couplings in their first and best seasons, maybe it would make sense for a truly visionary show-runner to acknowledge an end-date sooner than later. At the same time, I wouldn't want series creators to unnecessarily limit their options, either, so it's probably best to address this issue on a case-by-case basis. Realistically speaking, even if announcing an end date makes creative sense for Grey's, it wouldn't make business sense for ABC at this point. They're already preparing to say goodbye to two cash cows in the next few years. Something tells me they're secretly thrilled we're making such a fuss over Grey's latest descent into lunacy, if only because it shows we still care. (Maybe the end date should be Izzie's, come to think of it. They've clearly run out of good stories for her.)
Question: Your review of the first few episodes of Entourage was pretty positive. I was wondering how you felt about the remainder of the season, specifically the Season Five finale. Personally, I thought the finale was pretty good, but I would have loved it if the writers had taken a chance and left the Vince-firing-E plot unresolved until next season. It would have been interesting to see the two of them doing their own thing, even it was just for a few episodes. Also, I can't help but wonder where the show goes from here. Vince landing the role in a Martin Scorsese picture seems like it would have been a good way to end the series. With a role like that, how much higher can his star rise? — Joe D.
Matt Roush: You're right that Vince firing E, then wooing him back, then making up for real after landing the Scorsese movie, was all a bit rushed. They could have established that conflict a few weeks ago instead of exploding and compressing it in a single episode. But the way it turned out gave the season the happy ending it probably needed, given all the trials Vince went through in trying to get his career back on track. That story gave the series a more compelling through-line than it has had in a while, with something actually at stake and Vince coping with no longer being the flavor of the month or even year. But looking back at the season as a whole, I find Vince a less compelling central figure week by week, and while Eric still intrigues me as he gets his career up and running, I'm pretty fed up with the hangers-on like Drama and Turtle (though they're good for a few crude laughs now and then). I find myself looking at Entourage as the Ari-and-Lloyd show these days, and they never disappoint. To your point that a Scorsese lead would be a career peak way to end the show: You might have said the same about Vince landing the star role in a James Cameron fantasy franchise, and look how badly that ended.
Question: My husband and I absolutely love Life on Mars — the concept, the clothes, Michael Imperioli's awesome mustache — and Jason O'Mara makes Sam a heartfelt, terrifically compelling character. So we were incredibly shocked and disappointed after last week's episode to see that the show won't be back until Jan. 28! Why do we have to wait more than two months for new episodes? Plus, I'm worried that, since the show has been a bit "ratings-challenged," the long wait will cause viewership to fall even more, ensuring a quick cancellation of a great, quirky show. What do you think? With the move to Wednesdays, do you think the Lost lead-in will help ratings? Or will the fact that it will be opposite two other crime shows (Law & Order and CSI: NY), only seal its doom? — Cathy W.
Matt Roush: Man, ABC can't catch a break, can it? The network actually gives one of its riskier new projects a new lifeline and it still gets slammed. (Some of the mail I got was much more outraged than Cathy's.) The idea that ABC is doing this show any harm by taking it off the air in the dead month of December, and re-launching it after Lost in January, doesn't fly with me. Yes, it would be nice if ABC would use this period to repeat some of the best early episodes, but the network will be busy burning off the last episodes of the shows it just gave the ax to, while repositioning Private Practice on Thursdays as a warm-up to its new time period. Mars was fading on Thursdays with an incompatible lead-in, so maybe the pairing with Lost will be a blessing. It's also entirely possible, of course, that the same viewers who had little patience with Eli Stone and Pushing Daisies will ultimately reject this as well, and having a high-profile lead-in like Lost could make it look like a loser by comparison, not to mention the formidable competition from long-established crime franchises. All a way of saying that a show that was struggling on Thursdays may also very well struggle on Wednesdays. But this is more of an opportunity than many shows are getting this season, so stop the complaining.
Question: What do you think of the way the House writers are exploring the ramifications of the Amber arc this season? I thought "Emancipation" (Nov. 18) dealt with the definition of care and how much is too much and how much is too little beautifully. House's scene with the patient brought tears to my eyes as he drew on his own emotions about his involvement in Amber's death and fear of losing Wilson to connect with this girl's grief and fear. I think we also saw a little of what made House get off the bus, as he tells the girl that losing another child will only make this worse for her parents. Losing another loved one would not have made Wilson feel better, either. Emancipation from old issues to allow for new growth was a strong thread for all the characters, and perhaps holds out hope that House and Cuddy can redefine their own definitions of care in a way that makes sense to both. What do you think? — Gerry
Matt Roush: I think that's a very sensitive reading of that episode, which I much preferred over last week's overwrought, overlong, preposterous hostage sweeps stunt. The interplay among House, Wilson and Cuddy help make up for the show's many other flaws this season. I'm still hoping House avoids putting any of its adult leads in a traditional relationship, but their co-dependence is often fascinating to behold.
Question: I was wondering if you had heard the rumors that ER might live to see another day? I imagine you're displeased, if only because you've said a number of times you wished the show had exited with a little grace years ago, but conversely I've got to say I'm a little excited. From what I've seen so far this season, I can see why it continues to put up a good fight in the ratings. Sure, ER stopped being outstanding years ago, but it's still entirely compelling, and in this broadcast TV wasteland (especially at NBC, and trigger-happy ABC isn't much better), that means something. I remember when Grey's Anatomy hit it big a few seasons back, ER briefly tried to copy its soapiness and cuteness. But these days I find myself wondering if Grey's would be a little bit more interesting if it took a page from ER's handbook. The shows, while medically set with diverse casts, don't have too much in common. Grey's is full of irksome McNicknames and ghost dating, and ER at least makes more time for the heavier medical storylines. I know you've indicated all the cast members tend to blend into a homogenous, boring blur, but Angela Bassett has been a revelation. Granted, the show's ratings this season have probably ticked up partly because viewers are tuning in to see Anthony Edwards come back or in hopes that there will be a Clooney cameo, but doesn't that say something? What if the show brought back a regular or two (seriously, have any of the cast regulars besides Clooney done anything since leaving the show) and mixed them up with actual powerhouse characters like Bassett's Banfield? I know this show is becoming the show that cried "last season" (rivaled only by former Thursday companion Scrubs) and I know you have reason (besides the fact that it's in your job description) to be critical but could it maybe work? — Dennis
Matt Roush: The reason there's any buzz around ER right now is the sense of event a "final season" confers. (That plus the fact that both rival networks chose to put brand-new shows opposite it, neither of which are breakouts.) If NBC reverses course, which I hope does not come to pass, it will be a sign of creative and corporate desperation more than a tribute to the show's staying power. Fans deserve to be rewarded with a final chance to say goodbye to beloved characters like Drs. Carter, Greene (even in a morose flashback) and, let's hope, Doug Ross. But beyond that, put a fork in it. It's so hard to even remember when this show was still galvanizing. And while what I've seen from Angela Bassett has been impressive, Banfield still strikes me as one more joyless person barking her way around County General. As imperfect as Grey's is, and lately that hardly begins to describe it, as long as Bailey is around it's still my go-to medical show on Thursdays.
Question: I was just curious if you have any thoughts on the third season of Friday Night Lights. Normally you have lots to say about this fantastic show, but I'm guessing you're waiting until the current third season airs on NBC to weigh in. The Nov. 19 "New York, New York" episode, though, was particularly great in my opinion. Without giving anything away, the awesomeness included: the after-dinner football at the Taylor house, Coach's final decision on the new house followed by Tami's reaction, Tim's enthusiasm for Broadway and Scott Porter's performance on the doorstep. Would you agree FNL has regained whatever it may have lost in its second season? — Mark
Matt Roush: I've made note several times lately how impressed I have been by this third season, but this particular episode blew me away. (Actually, it blew my box of tissues away. I lost it several times during the episode.) The scenes between the Coach and Matt Saracen, resolving his awkward position on the team; the Coach and his wife, confronting a real-estate opportunity that made no economic sense; and especially between Jason Street and Tim Riggins, as these best buds visit the Big Apple (with a pit stop at Gypsy?)... really, it was all so memorable and moving, so entertaining and ennobling. Glad to be able to end the column on a positive note this time.