William Petersen and Gary Dourdan, CSI

 

 

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: I just wanted to give props to the amazing season premiere of CSI last week. I was a fan of the show from the pilot, but I stopped watching around the fourth season because the stories seemed to start repeating themselves too much. But after watching this stunning, well-produced, gripping premiere, I may have to declare once again that I am a CSI fan. So here's my question to you: Why do you think Warrick's death was so effective, while many other TV deaths aren't? Was it because Warrick Brown has been in our lives and in our homes for eight years? Was it because the characters around him acted like real human beings, and not "TV characters?" What was it about this episode that stuck with me so much? —Marcus

Matt Roush: In general, the writing and acting on classic (and for me, the only currently watchable) CSI is reliably above-par, but the season opener really knocked it out of the park, with William Petersen, Marg Helgenberger, George Eads, a returning Jorja Fox and, in a heartbreaking death scene and even more shattering videotaped appearance, Gary Dourdan delivered some of their best work to date. The reason an episode like this has such a powerful impact is partly a tribute to the show's longevity and sustained popularity, but mostly a tribute to how Dourdan embodied the tragically flawed character of Warrick with so much emotion and depth, even in seasons when he was underused. His death needed to be treated like a big deal, and the episode lived up to the hype and the occasion, capped by the various reveals including Grissom's understanding of how much his mentorship meant to this fallen comrade. Any time a favorite character is written off a show, it tends to generate complaints. But as long as the show treats the character's departure with appropriate respect and affection, as CSI did in this instance, I call it a job well done. Now the challenge is to give Grissom his due in these next few months.

Question: I often hear The Amazing Race referred to by critics as being "TV's Best Reality Show." My question is this: What does a reality show have to do to become one of TV's best shows, period? It seems like there is a stigma with the genre — not helped at all by the awful performance of the reality hosts at the Emmy Awards — where a reality show can only be a great reality show. When critics discuss which TV show is the best, through articles or Top 10 lists, reality shows never make the cut. Many reality shows are of the lowest common denominator, offering little more than trash TV, and I think that may do a lot to give reality its negative reputation as "illiterate TV." But for all the VH1 celebreality trash shows, there is The Amazing Race, a show that has become one of the highlights of my week. As much as I love Dexter and Mad Men, I find myself wanting to watch The Amazing Race first when queuing up the Sunday shows on my DVR the next day. The exotic locales are often breathtaking (literally in last Sunday's episode, as the high altitude of Bolivia actually took the teams' breath away), the tasks are intriguing yet entertaining (I thought the wrestling was hilarious), the drama intense (I find myself on the edge of my seat when there is a close battle to see who gets eliminated, particularly if I am rooting against one of the teams), and the production values second to none. The show has won the Best Reality category at the Emmy Awards every year, deservedly so, and is critically lauded, so what more does it have to do to be considered one of TV's best, not just reality's best? — Matt C.

Matt Roush: If I failed to put The Amazing Race on my best-of-year lists when it first hit the scene (and I'll admit, I can't remember if it ever made the cut), mea culpa. It could have something to do as well with the fact that we've been in a golden age of network and especially cable drama in the last few years, so Top-10 lists tend to be pretty crowded. And anytime I've been able to make a distinction with the reality genre, it's always at the top of the list, to be sure. But in the big picture, you're right that it probably is too easy to take a show like The Amazing Race (which really did kick into gear this season with the Bolivia episode) for granted, and to patronize the entire field of reality TV as something lesser, when it's obvious to those with an open mind that great work is being done in this format just as it is in drama and comedy. Still, just taking this calendar year of 2008 as a for instance, if The Amazing Race stays on its current course without completely knocking me out, I would find it hard to acknowledge it as one of the shows that defined the year in TV for me, which is the main criterion for inclusion. Which doesn't diminish the fact that Race is tremendously entertaining, a personal favorite and I expect it always will be. You'll never see me arguing over its yet-unbroken string of Emmy wins.

Question: I was a little surprised you've already decided that Brothers & Sisters is a "time waster" two episodes into the season. Give it a chance! Aren't you the one saying not to rush to judgment that a show has taken a downturn? (Granted, I'm still fairly pleased with Brothers & Sisters.) If anything, I think the show's writers have realized that, three seasons in, they have to do something a little different. Sure, the Walkers are still arguing like petulant children, but wasn't the whole peak of the second episode when Robert chastised the family (even Mama Bear Nora) for being so self-involved that they couldn't even help Kitty out? And the week before, Kitty held firm with being angry and non-trusting of a slacking Sarah. I like that after three seasons, every episode doesn't end with a modern-day Brady Bunch ending. Kitty and Sarah are on the mend, Tommy and Kevin aren't speaking, Robert's fairly certain he's more sane than possibly everyone else in the family and Holly is at everyone's throat. It's nice to see B&S finally let Patricia Wettig's Holly act a little bit more nefarious. OK, I get that Justin and Rebecca aren't everyone's (or maybe anyone's?) cup of tea, but I say just ignore them. It's not like each of the Desperate Housewives are interesting at the same time. I'm just as quick to not shower praise on the Housewives as pre-emptively as you and many others have. The first two episodes that aired were entirely watchable, but now the show's writers must avoid falling back into pre-flash fallbacks. Can't we just take a wait-and-see approach, at least just a little bit longer to both shows before applauding the one and (shudder) comparing the other to Wednesday night's train-wreck Addison's Lobotomy? — Dennis

Matt Roush: It figures that just as I lashed out at Brothers & Sisters, last Sunday's third episode would be a good one. Still too overstuffed and overwrought, with various Walkers quitting their jobs (and I groaned at the trailer teaser hinting that the good Senator would offer Kevin the communications job Kitty once held), but the storyline about Kevin's moral work quandary — is making partner worth lying about your life? — was a strong one, and the Justin-Rebecca relationship went beyond schticky sex farce to deal rather touchingly with the emotional fallout of his Iraq service. (For me, Rebecca still works better as Justin's confidant/best friend/sibling than as his lover. But yes, let's try to ignore that.) Also liked Tommy standing up to Holly for a change and preserving the Ojai name, in the wake of Sarah's impassioned defense of her brother (before tendering her resignation, of course). Maybe I was a bit hasty to register such strong distaste this early in the season, but I really hated that "Kitty's book" episode and sometimes you've just gotta rant.

Question: People speculated during the writers' strike that going without new TV shows would get many of us out of the habit (some would say addiction) of watching TV so faithfully. That didn't happen with me, but I think something that is turning me off to most TV shows, even the ones I thought were so great before, is Mad Men. One critic recently lamented that Mad Men is just so good, after you start watching it, you can't help but wish other shows would measure up. And of course, they can't. This might be a big part of the reason I have no desire to start watching Dirty Sexy Money again, even though I adored it when it was on before. It just seems so silly now. I don't have HBO, so I rarely saw The Sopranos, and I'm too wimpy to watch The Shield. But I know you've written about how superior those shows were to many others during their heyday. Is Mad Men even better? Has it raised the bar so far that nothing else will do? This show is addictive, to say the least. I'm honestly finding myself encountering elderly people and wondering if they were like Betty, Don, Peggy or Joan back in the day. But maybe that's something I should discuss with a therapist. — Sarah

Matt Roush: I love it! Mad Men has ruined you for regular TV? I wish I had that luxury. I will say that, barring a miracle, Mad Men will again top my Top-10 list this year. After a slow start, the show has grown in emotional complexity on several fronts, and while it's hardly a happy show (as so many like to point out), I find it terrifically entertaining and always fascinating. January Jones has done as fine a job at portraying Betty's disintegration as Jon Hamm does at revealing Don/Dick's dislocation (last week's bizarre Palm Springs odyssey was so original and unsettling I ended up watching the episode twice). And while it's true that most shows do pale by comparison — and Dirty Sexy Money never came close, even at its height — to say nothing else measures up risks that "elitist" charge I used to silently consider when I was around people who boasted they only watched HBO, or (in an earlier time) PBS. Poppycock. Beyond the dreck, which is as ever plentiful, there are wonders all over the dial, from those underappreciated ABC gems (Pushing Daisies, Eli Stone, the promising Life on Mars) to the best of the comedies on CBS and NBC to True Blood and Dexter on pay cable to the final season of The Shield and even to reality standouts like the afore-mentioned The Amazing Race. It's wonderful to have a show like Mad Men to luxuriate in, but that's like having a rich dessert after the hearty meal of meat and potatoes you can get elsewhere.

Last week's Mad Men also brought this comment from Annmarie: "It's not often that I gasp out loud at a plot twist, but when the European co-worker said he was a homosexual, and then explained what that meant, I just couldn't believe it. I tried to imagine how well that would go over in my office today, and I think the reaction would have been similar. People just don't announce stuff like that around here. It's more don't ask, don't tell, do your own thing. You might say it to your friends, but not the whole office. Another example of how this is a show that's really about the coming cultural revolution: Sal trapped in a lie and making his poor wife miserable in the process. Where do you think Sal will be in 1972? I doubt he'll still be married or in the closet, and everyone will be better for it."

There's no question this guy's ahead of the curve in his openness, but watching Bryan Batt (as Sal) stand in stunned silence in the aftermath as he watched his co-workers throw around words like "pervert" and "queer" was a truly priceless and revealing moment. I surely didn't see that coming, either. I agree that Sal is unlikely to stay closeted forever, and maybe the social activism in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall riots will eventually wake him up. Or maybe he's no more headed for a happy ending than anyone else at Sterling Cooper. I'd never try to presume where this story is going.

Question: As American prime-time television becomes more homogenized and pasteurized, it's reassuring, even thrilling, to have a show like Pushing Daisies on the air. It's so smartly written, so whimsical and engaging with a wonderfully talented cast! It's a top-notch production all the way around. I just love it! It's like a delicious, gourmet dessert. And no, it's not to everyone's taste, but so what? Since when has it been a crime to air a creative, interesting and distinctive showon amainstream network? Oh yeah, I remember: ever since someone began promoting "puffed rice" programs, like the three thousand "reality" shows which have proliferated everywhere. These shows lack substance and are such Pabulum. They appeal to our national love of voyeurism and they garner quick bucks and huge audiences for the networks that produce the shows, while requiring no talent and or thinking on the part of the audience. Please count my voice among those who adore Pushing Daisies. I fell in love with the show during the very first episode and I was overjoyed to find it had returned this fall. The season premiere was delightful from start to finish. I sure hope this program doesn't get dropped. What a shame that would be! — Kitty P.

Matt Roush: I'm getting quite a bit of mail from people who've just discovered this show — "Why did I not watch Pushing Daisies earlier?" asks new fan Thomas M, who adds, "I'll be sure to get all my friends hooked like I did with Lost" — and all I can hope is that ABC will be patient or find a more protected time period for the show in the belief that it could grow beyond its current dismal ratings. (I'd love to see it follow an edition of Dancing with the Stars, either performance or results show, at least once.) The level of invention and joyful creativity on display in Pushing Daisies is so high that I can't blame its fans for lashing out at the reality glut or the crime-drama glut as they wonder what's wrong with this picture. But this isn't one of those blame-the-audience or blame-the-network situations. Right now, it seems to me a case study in how a network chooses to handle a truly spectacular but undeniably cult property.

Question: The phrase "jump the shark" needs to die. People clearly don't know how to use it. The term was coined when the Fonz literally jumped a shark on water skis in an episode of Happy Days. People viewed this as a ridiculous attempt to get more viewers, so the phrase was born to call out similar ploys in other TV shows. At first it was great because it happens so often in TV, but now, things are getting a little ridiculous. Now, people just use the phrase whenever the writers of a TV series make a decision that they disagree with or if it affects the ratings. For example, the absence of Cameron on House has been called a "jump the shark" moment more times than I can count. How, in any way, does this constitute jumping the shark? The writers failing to find a way to successfully integrate the old and new teams on House in no way, shape or form is a ploy to gain more viewers. The initial letting go of the original team as a shark-jumping moment is debatable, but even that doesn't "jump the shark" in my opinion. And as to the whole Cameron and Chase thing alltogether, I really think they should have gotten rid of those characters at the end of Season 3. When they are on-screen, it seems to take up screen time from the actual medical story, which sometimes suffers because of it. I know a lot of fans feel alienated and maybe I only feel this way because my favorites (Hugh, Robert, Lisa) remain untouched. People get excited when the producers mention that Cameron and Chase will be in the show more, but I just get sad; the show suffers from having such a large cast. But one thing all Hamerons and Huddys and Hilsons and everybody in between can agree on: 13 is completely uninteresting and it is kind of inexcusable for her to be given so much screen time while other characters hide in the shadows. (For instance, we know virtually nothing about Cuddy, Chase or Wilson's backgrounds.) Forgive my tangent, I'm just a very passionate youth, I suppose. — Reina

Matt Roush: Nothing wrong with passion. (And I can only imagine what the 13 haters are going to make of next week's 13-centric episode.) I'm the first to agree that few phrases are more overused than "jump the shark," which only tends to inflame the knee-jerk sensibilities of today's more fickle viewers. But on occasion, it's useful to debate whether a show has made a potentially fatal decision — in this case, House's controversial move to bench its original team (excepting, eventually, Foreman) in favor of new-and-not-improved acolytes. While the literal definition of the "jump the shark" catchphrase describes a stunt so egregiously ridiculous that the show never recovers, it can also refer to this kind of jarring turning point. Not a ratings stunt, to be sure, but a calculated risk to keep the show from growing stale by injecting fresh blood into the ensemble at the expense of other regular characters. I tend to agree that keeping Cameron and Chase around on the margins only adds to the awkwardness of the transition. And while the show is still a hit, its move against mainstream smash NCIS has dented it a bit — though disaffection over the cast changes may also have contributed to its slide. This is clearly an issue that's far from over.

Question: This Grey's Anatomy addict wants to know what happened to Christina's potential love interest, Kevin McKidd? Will he be back? — Villiard

Matt Roush: Yes, and quite soon. My records show that he'll return in next week's episode (Oct. 23), and ABC's release for the Oct. 30 episode indicates [SPOILER ALERT] that Dr. Owen Hunt will be head of trauma by then.

Question: To me it seems as if Grey's Anatomy is getting weaker by the week. When Isaiah Washington was on the show, I enjoyed watching the two main couples go through the ups and downs of a relationship. Then Isaiah was fired and the show became the show of one main couple. From then on, it has become the story line to nowhere. Maybe it is just me, but I want Isaiah Washington back. The man gave the best monologues and he brought something to the show. I can't exactly put my finger on it, but without him it seems like something is missing. Is there any way possible for him to return to the show? — D.S.

Matt Roush: If you haven't gotten over Isaiah Washington's departure yet, it doesn't surprise me the show isn't working for you anymore. Beyond saying that I would be startled (though never shocked) should he ever return to the show, which I wouldn't count on happening in the near or far future, I would add that what Washington, and his character of Dr. Burke, brought to the show was a much-needed gravitas and seriousness about the art of medicine that's lacking in just about any of the other regulars (except possibly Bailey). The fact that he was so rigidly professional made his more personal moments with Cristina or George or the Chief that much more unexpected and memorable. Maybe bringing a new outsider like Kevin McKidd's trauma specialist will add some zing to the show.

 

Question: Are you as excited as I am about the BBC's decision to produce another Cranford series? The only bad thing is we have to wait 'til 2009 (or even later, since Masterpiece probably won't air it until months after it's aired in Britain). I bet it'll be worth the wait! — Jen H.

Matt Roush: Any return to the delightful world of Cranford would thrill me. It was a highlight of what has been a very strong year for the Masterpiece franchise. From what I understand, the sequel will be a two-part special scheduled to air in England around Christmas of next year. No word from WGBH about its prospects, since no deal has been signed yet. (Though given the critical and Emmy attention the original miniseries got, you'd have to think a pick-up is a no-brainer.) But if it is holiday themed — the story apparently picks up a year after the original, in September 1844 — then you'd think PBS could work out a deal to air it roughly in the same time frame of the BBC. All of that remains to be seen.

Question: I have recently been involved in a debate about what type of acting is generally more difficult. I know it's a complicated question, but do you believe that it is harder to act in a 30-minute sitcom or in an hourlong serious drama? — Don W.

Matt Roush: Impossible to answer, although it's no doubt harder to get sitcom work these days, and there are so few of them worth doing. But there is that classic saying: Dying is easy, but comedy is hard. So while great dramatic acting usually gets more notice and acclaim and certainly wins more Oscars, great comedy acting in sitcoms or sketch comedy is just as special an art. The best actors, dramatic or comedic, tend to have a way of making it look easy, whether performing in front of a live audience (in the theatrical manner of a classic sitcom) or on film. It's only when you see it not working that you can truly appreciate how difficult it truly is.