Let's dig into a busy sweeps week, starting with the scary before we get to the funny.
MONSTER MASH: Zombies are cool. That's the takeaway from the boffo ratings for the premiere of AMC's riveting zombie epic The Walking Dead. (Episode two this Sunday has a moment that made even this fan of the macabre want to look away.) But zombie horror is also disturbing, in this case emotionally affecting, as the survivors look on at an inexplicably wrecked world populated by the lumbering dead who can strike awfully close to home.
What's remarkable about Dead isn't the graphic images. This isn't torture porn (a genre whose appeal, as in the Saw movies, completely eludes me). What strikes me is that for the most part, the shocks are not delivered for cheap effect. The scene from the pilot that still haunts me most, weeks after first screening it, is Lennie James as a man trapped in a house with his grieving son as the creature that was once his wife and the mother of his boy staggers to the front door, sensing something inside. (Is it mere animal lust to feed? Or something more profound?) Last we see him, he aims a shotgun through a window at his wife as she wanders in a pack. The grief is palpable as he tries to squeeze the trigger, but can't. On the other hand, how iconic is the image of lawman Rick Grimes riding a horse into Atlanta while the other side of the freeway is an automobile graveyard. His perilous escape from a zombie mob into a mostly abandoned tank — there's always another zombie to kill, no matter where he turns — provides the thrill to the chill the show so expertly conveys.
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But hey, let's not forget the vampires. The CW certainly hasn't. And now that arch-villainess Katherine is trapped in her tomb, The Vampire Diaries moves on to a new arc and delivers a fresh mythology dump with lightning speed. Enter "the Originals," the First Vampires from the Old World, led by the seemingly unstoppable (and unnaturally handsome) Elijah, who flicks off the head of the disloyal 500-years-on-the-run Trevor like he was popping a grape. Which horrifies Trevor's foxy companion Rose (Lauren Cohen, fondly remembered by Supernatural fans as the devious Bela), who looks like she'll be sticking around. As will Elijah, who climactically removes the spear impaling him to the wall, itching to resume battle against the Salvatore brothers and presumably to reclaim Elena the "Petrova Doppelganger," whose blood is "the key to breaking the curse blah blah." Rose reveals the Originals will just keep coming after the Doppelganger. "They have to. They're doing it for him: Klaus." Who? OK, we dig it. New villains. But what the hardcore Vampire Diaries fan is still drooling over is Damon's declaration of love for Elena, which he promptly wipes from her memory: "I don't deserve you, but my brother does." Said brother, by the way, who reveals it was he who turned Damon back in the day, because "I didn't want to be alone." So who's the selfish vampire now? Way to burn through story, show.
And how about a bit of sci-fi love for Fringe upon its return from post-season baseball hiatus, as we learn that people trapped in amber aren't exactly dead (how creepy), which serves as a metaphor (according to the Peter inside Olivia's head) for Olivia being trapped "over there." Walter-nate puts Olivia back in the Altered States Memorial Isolation Tank, flooded with psychotropic drugs, to tap into her ability to move between worlds. Which she promptly does, more than once, the second time leaving a birthday message for her niece and lying about it afterward. Our Olivia is waking up! Walter-nate explains his sinister actions thusly: "Nature doesn't recognize good and evil. Nature only recognizes balance and imbalance. I intend to restore balance to our world." Still sounds kinda evil to me.
WHOSE KID IS IT ANYWAY?: Who doesn't love a good "wrong kid" gag? It was the great payoff for one of the best episodes so far this season of ABC's underrated The Middle, as Brick (turning 9) learns his cloaked-in-secret origin story. But not before catching his parents and sibs in lie after lie. "This is the unicorn all over again!" cries Sue, still scarred from being allowed to believe in the mythical creature one science fair project too long. (Her proud spiel in the flashback: "Their primary food source is rainbows, but they have also been known to eat clouds.") But Brick isn't buying rainbows, he wants the truth, and it involves a distracted-by-sports Mike picking up the wrong infant while Frankie luxuriates in a hospital suite intended for the Ferguson family. "You didn't know it wasn't me for a month?" shrieks the horrified Brick upon discovering he spent the first month of life bonding with the Fergusons, while Blake Ferguson somehow survived the Hecks. What doesn't kill you ... kinda kills you.
Meanwhile, in Modern Family's most farcical moment this week, stage-father Cam goes into high dudgeon (for Mitchell's benefit) at a commercial shoot starring Baby Lily when the voice-overs turn out to be horrific Asian caricatures. Ranting about how the director only sees these babies as "interchangeable stereotypes," Cam naturally picks up the wrong Asian tot as he storms out. At least it doesn't take him a month to return it.
MORE LAUGHING MATTERS: Another sitcom birthday this week, as Jules clocks 42 on Modern Cougar Town (this week's self-mocking title), but the real action comes from Andy going all Keyser Soze to prove he really belongs in the group, while Bobby suffers the ill effects of a Neti Pot, leaking saline (and making me howl) every time he bends over. This show will do anything for a laugh, and it usually succeeds. ... Love Abed tapping into his inner "mean girl" by way of Robocop on Community, as he takes on Hilary Duff's snotty clique (re her uneven bra padding: "You look like you're smuggling a lime and a coconut!)" before turning on his own gal pals, who've clearly created a monster. ... How does Sheldon Cooper get Wolowitz to accept his apology for torpedoing his security clearance (by oversharing with wooden guest FBI agent Eliza Dushku)? "I'm giving you my spot on the couch," he says, to audible awws from the Big Bang Theory audience (and a gasp from my own sofa). When cautioned about how much he loves his spot, he demurs: "No, I love my mother. My feelings for my spot are much greater. It is the singular location in space around which revolves my entire universe." Hey, kinda like my sofa, especially on a sweeps Thursday. By the way, welcome back, Penny. You pour me a drink, I promise not to spit it out.
WHATTA HAMM: Last weekend's Saturday Night Live may not have the best of the three Jon Hamm episodes to date, but even the worst moment with Hamm tends to be better than the best of most other weeks. The Mad Men star and recurring 30 Rock guest is shaping up to be one of the most reliable and game laugh-getters this side of Tom Hanks, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. "Wham, bam, thank you Hamm!" indeed. His JFK impersonation in the annual Vincent Price Holiday Special wasn't as spot-on as his previous James Mason from two years ago, but his Robin Williams audition for Back to the Future was awesome. (That running gag also gave us another wonderful Jay Pharoah moment as Eddie Murphy. When will they let this guy take a crack at doing Obama?) And maybe it was the lateness of the night, but I howled during Hamm's "I Didn't Ask For This" appearance as a man whose "best cry ever" wail was mocked and Auto-Tuned on YouTube. (For the real thing, watch this.)
LADIES' NIGHT: This week's Women of SNL prime-time special is a real keeper, letting us relive many of the show's classic female-driven moments, including the very first appearance of Rachel Dratch's Debbie Downer, cracking everyone up (from guest Lindsay Lohan to the usually impervious Dratch) to the point of tears. Hilarious every single time. I wish there had been an entire segment devoted to the great Gilda Radner, who set the tone and raised the bar for all who followed. But the opening Real Housewives reunion sketch is a smart way to bring the various generations together, and being reminded of the glories of Delicious Dish (showcasing Betty White and her "giant dusty muffin"), the Sweeney Sisters, Mary Catherine Gallagher, the Target Lady, Spartan Spirit, "Mom Jeans" ad and much more ... What a legacy.
TEAR-JERKER OF THE WEEK: The melodrama on Brothers & Sisters can get on your nerves — I always recommend trying to keep up with the family's wine consumption to get through the hour — but this week, Matthew Rhys as Kevin really hit it out of the park with his anguished reaction to his husband Scotty's infidelity. "I am not angry! I am in pain! And you put me there! The person who was supposed to love me more than anything. You were supposed to be better than this." And that last observation is why this bump in their road is such potent TV drama.
Kevin and Scotty's relationship has been quietly revolutionary in TV terms for its frank and matter-of-fact portrayal of a gay relationship, with open displays of affection and unwavering acceptance from the family. Spats over impending fatherhood aside, they're the perfect couple. Too perfect, in fact, which is why this corrective, however contrived and presumably short-lived, is a welcome wake-up call to a family (and possibly a fandom) that overly idealizes them. "They are the one Walker marriage that is not going down in flames," declares Nora. "Dudes cheat. But Scotty's not that dude," insists Justin. A chagrined Uncle Saul, who initially shuns Scotty, later reveals, "You two are as close to perfect as anything I have ever seen. You and Kevin were living my dream." But dreams aren't drama, and it's a fact of soap opera life that flawed characters are more interesting than perfect role models, and by depicting both Scotty and Kevin (who skipped his partner's restaurant opening on the fateful night) as partly to blame for the unfortunate circumstances, no one comes off a villain here. Plus, it's refreshing that no one pretends Scotty's lapse has anything to do with a love connection, because those things rarely are. Everyone is sadder but wiser now. I could have done without the punches thrown at the fund-raiser, but otherwise, very well played.
PHYSICIAN, HEAL THYSELF: What does it say about Private Practice that the only way it can get any serious attention, especially critically, is to brutalize one of its many annoying characters? KaDee Strickland certainly rises to the anguished occasion as Charlotte, the snippy proud-to-be-a-bitch whose rude remark to a mentally disturbed patient comes back to attack her in a harrowing sexual assault in her office. The aftermath makes for some powerful drama (certainly more relatable than having a madwoman slice Violet's unborn child out of her womb several cliffhangers ago), primarily because Charlotte is not content playing the victim. Bristling with rage and hurt and embarrassment (not the same — yet — as shame), she snaps at boyfriend Cooper, who's so much less tough than her, "You ever call me the victim again, this marriage is off!" Refusing pain meds as Amelia stitches her up, Charlotte's cries aren't the same as whimpering, and it's excruciating. Naturally, this being Private Practice, bad decisions are made, including Charlotte's refusal to tell anyone but Addison that a rape was involved. Someone will have to tell me how that works itself out.
Meanwhile, on Grey's Anatomy, Cristina finally proves she can handle a crisis, seeing a transplant patient through several alarming setbacks. But she's terrified through the entire process, as she reveals to Meredith, and as the episode ends, she tells Owen she's quitting. (But for how long.) And Africa-bound Arizona quits Callie — again, for how long? We're guessing until the time Jessica Capshaw's maternity leave ends — because her whiny girlfriend is a serious buzzkill, and who wants to take that attitude to the third world?
Finally, did anyone else get a Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibe watching the medical dramas? First, Amber Benson (Tara) as the estranged daughter of Cristina's patient, and then Nicholas Brendan (Xander) on Practice, scarily effective as Charlotte's mad attacker.
BOND-AGE: Timothy Dalton is one of my least favorite James Bonds, but what a pleasant surprise he was as Guest Star of the Week on an above-average Chuck (above par because there was precious little time wasted at Buy More, for one). Not a surprise that Dalton turns out to be the dreaded Volkoff — that seemed fairly obvious from the high-profile casting — but while he's bumbling around pretending to be Mama Bartowski's enthusiastic handler, he's a treat. "It reminds me of that great episode of Alias. I loved that show!" he gushes mid-mission, not long after he sheepishly confesses having had his first sexual experience watching Lawrence of Arabia. ("I'm not proud of it. I came from a broken home.") Watching him play against type is lots more fun than watching him play to steely type, as he gloats and threatens our heroes while Mama Mary "Frost" Bartowski works our last nerve flipping the switch from hero to traitor back to hero again. (This trick is getting old, lady.) "Protect him," she whispers to Sarah as she secretly helps them escape the bomb that destroys Papa Bartowski's archives. But what was in the new Intersect-a-majig she downloaded into her son? Time, I hope, will tell. Soon.
MORE CHEERS: As was cheered earlier this week, Jack Huston makes quite the haunting first impression on HBO's Boardwalk Empire as mangled marksman Richard Harrow, a wounded war vet whose shattered face is half-hidden behind a mask that would do the Phantom proud. Befriended by the exiled Jimmy Darmody, Harrow comes out of his shell long enough to ply his trade on the thug who slashed Pearl. Which gives us a flamboyant camera shot (a Scorsese-ian trademark) zooming through the shattered diner window up to the room where Harrow is stashing his tools. ... And cheers again to my colleague Bruce Fretts for calling out one of my current faves, FX's unfortunately under-the-radar Terriers, as one of the season's hidden gems. This week's emotional workout is Terriers at its best, with the case of the week (involving a pre-op transsexual hooker seeking closure for one of her fallen brethen/sisters) taking a back seat to Hank's feverish attempts to wake up his ex about the man she's soon to marry. The groom's hidden history involves shady allegations of child abuse, but Gretchen is in the loop and lashes out at Hank for meddling. "You're the live grenade in my life!" she yells, banishing him from the proceedings. Meanwhile, partner Britt joyfully proposes to Katie, whose pregnancy won't be embraced as a blessed event until she learns whether Britt or her professor is the baby daddy. Terriers is so much more than just an offbeat private-eye drama. It gets richer by the week. Can't recommend it highly enough.
END OF THE LINE: The current issue of TV Guide Magazine (NCIS cover) has my thoughts on why NBC's glossy but underwhelming spy capter Undercovers never measured up. (Excerpt: "Except for Gerald McRaney as the amusingly disdainful boss, there's no bite to any of it.") NBC got the message and has discontinued the show after its initial 13-episode order. Also not picked up for the back nine: CW's Life Unexpected, a show that quickly squandered its feel-good potential (after tempting us with what looked like a return to the classic WB Gilmore Girls/Everwood vibe) with contrived and shrill conflict. Am I the only one wishing they would spin off a buddy show around Baze and Ryan, leaving Cate and Lux to aggravate each other as the guys split Portland for greener pastures?
WE CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW: What great news that starting next year, The Amazing Race's amazing globe-trotting adventures will finally be broadcast in HD. Executive producer Jonathan Littman confirms to me via Twitter that "budget and equipment durability finally came together." All good news for the most ambitious of all reality competition shows and for the many fans who have long pined to see the travelogue in the crispest visual format possible.
REALITY CHECK, TWO LEFT FEET DEPT: So I went out on Election Night for a posh Showtime screening of some promising new winter shows — Episodes with Matt LeBlanc looks amazing, and Shameless with William H. Macy looks, well, interesting — and when I got home, the election results were dismaying. Yes, I'm talking about Bristol Palin squeaking through again on Dancing With the Stars, while the dashing Rick Fox is the second dance-testant in a row ejected after scoring a personal best. I know we're all exhausted from the midterm elections — and how happy are we to have all those attack ads in our rear-view mirror? — but maybe we should start another Get Out the Vote campaign to combat the Palin-drones. Enough already. ... Speaking of non-stars, did you get a load of the who-dats and has-beens in the Skating With the Stars cast? A Disney Channel and soap star I'd have to look up on imdb, a faded rocker, an unreal housewife, an erratic actress and one person who moderately intrigues me: Olympic skier Jonny Moseley. They should call this one Train Wreck on Ice, but the good news is that with only six players, it will be gone before you know it and can easily be ignored during the holiday season. (The bad news: It's being followed by another edition of The Bachelor.)
REALITY REMNANTS: The merge comes just in time to bring some drama back to Survivor, but really, Libertad? Does your new name mean freedom from common sense? You have a full-blown psycho in your midst, food-stealing Naonka (whose confession later almost seems like bragging), and you don't boot her instantly? I hate the part of the game where they keep the most wretched (Naonka) or useless (Dan) players around way too long because they know no one would ever vote for them to win. ... Can we call shenanigans on Top Chef: Just Desserts for letting the contestants do their shopping for the tea-party challenge and only then telling them chocolate was off limits? Really not fair. And really not feeling the Morgan love, after he clumsily breaks one of Yigit's fragile sugar structures and talks dismissively of Zac giggling "like the little girl that he is." Is that any way to talk about the Julie Andrews of pastry, I ask you? Kudos for the win, Zac. ... And America's Next Top Model finally makes the move to Italy, from Venice Beach to the real Venice, and then on to Milan, which constant-whiner Liz mistakes for Mulan, reason enough to send her packing back home to the daughter she misses so much. (Why couldn't America have extended this same courtesy to Bristol?)
RALLY HO-HUM: Having lived in Washington, D.C. for many years and attending many rallies and marches on the Mall, one thing I've learned: You really had to be there to enjoy it. Same was largely true of Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity last Saturday, which was rather leaden in its attempts at labored comedy and preachy when it came to lambasting the media, something Stewart does much more effectively and concisely on his nightly Daily Show. There were some inspired moments — the Yusuf/Cat Stevens ("Peace Train")/Ozzy Osbourne ("Crazy Train")/O-Jays ("Love Train") mashup, in particular — but you know something's wrong when the most memorable images and laughs of the day are generated by the signs being lofted by the adoring mob. Still, at least one of Stewart's pithy observations regarding the clown's echo chamber of cable news is worth repeating: "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing."
ULTRA SHEEN: As was jeered earlier this week, Two and a Half Men's habit of making morbid sport of the debauched intersection of Charlie Sheen and alter-ego Charlie Harper continues apace, with this week's zinger: "On the list of things I expect to kill me, mercury poisoning ranks well below liver failure, struck by lightning and heart attack during sex." Good thing for Sheen that tabloid headlines fall under the old sticks-and-stones rule and fall off his shoulders like so much pesky dandruff. But let's give the last words on this subject for now to Bill Maher, whose "New Rules" on last Friday's Real Time went like this: "The news media no longer has to report that Charlie Sheen got drunk and named and scared the s--t out of everybody. Until we hear otherwise, we'll just assume it's happening. In exchange, the 12 million regular viewers of Two and a Half Men have to reveal what could ever make them turn against Charlie Sheen. 'Hi, America, I'm Charlie Sheen, and I was the 20th hijacker. I missed my flight that morning because I was raping Mary Tyler Moore.' Would that do it?"
AS HEARD ON TV: "Die Die." — Baby Harrison's first words, as interpreted by daddy Dexter. (Is he really saying "bye bye," as the nanny believes, or is he just being a chip off the morbid block?) ... "Ambition is the willingness to kill the things you love and eat them to stay alive." — The world according to 30 Rock's Jack Donaghy, available on needlepointed throw pillow. ... "Only those who risk going too far find out how far they can go." — The worldview according to Fringe's Walter-nate, as he ups Olivia's dosage in the isolation tank. Bastard. ... Finally, here's one of Chuck Lorre's title cards this week, regarding the recently publicized woes of his nemesis, the Parents Television Council watchdog group: "The #1 rule of human behavior might be 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' But the #2 rule is, 'People who try to exert moral authority tend to be $#*! Heads." Word.
That's a wrap. And tell us what made your week in TV memorable or miserable. A reminder to send questions my way to firstname.lastname@example.org and in the meantime, follow me on Twitter! Next week: the return of Conan O'Brien. Be there!