As the TV calendar year begins to wind down, here's some of what got me wound up about TV this week.
FINALE WATCH: DOGGONE GOOD: And now the waiting begins, with these appropriately ambiguous final words as Hank and Britt reach a crossroads in FX's terrific Terriers season (hopefully not series) finale: "Which way will it be?" There's little doubt that Hank will deliver his partner and best bud Britt to prison to serve time for his jealousy-fueled assault on the guy-who-didn't-sleep-with-Katie. They're both stepping up and growing up: Britt prepared to help raise Katie's baby once he's out, no matter who the daddy is; Hank selling his house and moving on with life after sorta reconciling with his newly widowed ex Gretchen, who advises him to sell to someone hopeful. There is a sense of hopefulness, and purpose, as this offbeat and thoroughly engaging mystery/buddy caper series signs off from a first season that continually surprised those who watched — and too bad there weren't more of us — with its emotional depth, its sudden shifts from jokey banter (brilliantly written) between the scruffy heroes to dark and deadly conflict with ruthless powers that be.
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I'm not sure how much of Terriers' ratings woes has to do with its early-fall scheduling and its vague and rather misleading title, but I found myself toward the end wishing the show had been named Ocean Beach, for the story's unassuming setting that was the center of a Chinatown-like land-grab conspiracy (with the goal to pave over the town for a new airport) that Hank unearthed and ultimately thwarted. Although to achieve this goal, he had to let the scheme's newly revealed Big Bad walk (Boomtown's Neal McDonough in a cunning 11th-hour cameo). Still, we did get some satisfying payoffs in watching Hank take down murderous henchman Burke in a fight to the death, as well as the humiliation of evil lawyer Zeitlin (the reliably smarmy Michael Gaston) when Britt slugged him repeatedly during their interrogation, before he was led away in handcuffs. Can't say enough about the charisma and natural chemistry exhibited by Donal Logue (Hank) and Michael Raymond-James (Britt) in what should be career-defining performances. Laura Allen as Britt's beloved Katie has never been better. In Terriers, Shawn Ryan and Ted Griffin produced a winner in every way but in the ratings. Let's give intrepid reporter Laura Ross the last word while we await news of renewal, as she tells Hank: "You're remarkable in a funny way — or funny in a remarkable way." Terriers is remarkable entertainment, funny and poignant and exciting. I bet when people discover this on DVD, they'll wonder how they could have ever let this get by them. Hopefully, we and FX will all get a second chance to do right by Terriers.
FINALE WATCH ON WHEELS: I believe in Ocean Beach. I do not believe in Charming. Never have. The cult surrounding the preposterous biker melodrama Sons of Anarchy dwarfs the audience for Terriers, but for me, this has always been one rocky ride. I did some catch-up with the series over the Thanksgiving break, having stalled out during the protracted period when it seemed they'd never get to Belfast and then it seemed they'd never leave. Some shows benefit by watching multiple episodes in a few sittings. Sons of Anarchy is not one of those shows. A storyline like pregnant Tara being held hostage in an attic over several episodes is the sort of nonsense that turned Dynasty into a joke back in the day. Don't get me started on that image of Gemma holding a gun on an orphan baby and a nun in Belfast. Stuff like this isn't shocking, it's ridiculous. (Although I was truly sickened when the young Irish couple who had the misfortune to try to adopt Abel were slaughtered, and with only a slight pause of reflection from Jax, the show goes on.)
All of the head-spinning machinations at the end that ask us to believe that everyone (but Gemma) was in on Jax's doomed deal with Cruella de Stahl? Not really buying it. Though who wouldn't be happy to see the last of Ally Walker's hissable evil agent, given an appropriately bloody exit as she snivels in vain for Opie to spare her life, ending the reign of one of those laughably over-the-top villains who exist to make the thugs at the core of the series somehow look heroic. Again, not buying it. As Tara reads John Teller's letters to Maureen implicating Gemma and Clay in his death, I'm not only reminded of the core of a show I might actually watch (the struggle for Jax's soul), I'm reminded how often I wish I were actually watching the late John Teller's story. Now that's a fascinating character. When does Justified return again?
MIDTERM FINALE WATCH: OK, The Event. You had your chance. And you blew it. While still not as gloomy a dead-end as last year's FlashForward (which never recovered from its own long mid-run hiatus), this convoluted yawn of a sendoff had me inspecting my nails, not biting them. The reveals were intriguing enough — Michael Buchanan the pilot is an ageless "one of them," Thomas' missile launch isn't a nuke strike aimed at the U.S. but a communications satellite aimed toward the visitors' home — but they weren't very exciting. When the show returns in late February, maybe it should be re-titled The Whatever.
QUITTERS: Quite the aggravating little trend in the world of CBS reality this week, as contestants simply gave up on The Amazing Race and Survivor. At least on Survivor if you quit, you're actually out of the game. (Although the rules apparently allow quitters who last this long to stick around and sit on the jury. I think they should be sent home and never be heard from again.) None of these wimps — who, by the way, were hardly the oldest or most physically challenged players — were shown to be dangerously sick and they hadn't (thankfully) been injured. But they were sick and tired of the hardship of being on a TV reality show. Boo freaking hoo. Given the desire of so many millions to get a chance to be on a show like this, I can't imagine anyone watching from home being the least bit sympathetic. Quitters never win, and whiners never make for good TV.
There's simply no excuse for The Amazing Race's grungy Nick to check out. He even has the audacity to bitch about being hungry after forcing his long-suffering companion Vicki (aka Pauley Perrette's twin) to perform the grueling eat-till-you-find-the-fake-food challenge. He refuses to help her look for the correct digits on the side of a boat as they set sail in the pitch-black Hong Kong harbor: "Hide and go seek in the damn dark for a number that's not even in order?" he gripes. "I'm ready to be done." And he lies down, moping and snoozing while Vicki refuses to give up — until he finally persuades her to take the multi-hour penalty. As bad luck would have it, this is not an elimination episode. So we're stuck with Nick for another week. While he may yet make a show of regret, and it seems unlikely they'll be able to come from so far behind to survive the next leg (making the next leg something of a non-starter, and I may just skip it and come back for the finale), Nick wins the show's poor sportsmanship award.
But that's child's play compared to what happens on Survivor, where two young ladies decide to pack it in. A double exit is a first, and hopefully a last. Not that I'll miss the psycho narcissism of NaOnka, who to the very end remains unapologetic about her clownish self-regard and selfishness. Knowing she's leaving, which means food and shelter are right around the corner, she refuses to "take one for the team" and give up the reward challenge — worst ever, by the way, an extended commercial for another lousy Jack Black movie — instead forcing den-mother Holly's hand so the tribe could get a replacement tarp and extra rice. Holly makes an effort to keep "Purple Kelly" from giving up, but to no avail. And that's the first and last time we even realize this loser is on the show. Kudos, by the way, to Jeff Probst for giving this terrible twosome some time to think on it, mining a smidgen of drama from this setback, but bad on him to urge on NaOanka at tribal council. The best way to punish an irritant like this? Make her shut up, send her away, ignore her, "smuff" her once and for all. A sad day for Libertad, and I feel especially bad for the jury (Marty most of all), forced to sit and watch this disaster while wondering "what if" these fools had just quit earlier. Or not shown up at all. Pitiful.
HEAD SCRATCHER OF THE WEEK: And the Oscar show goes to ... James Franco and Anne Hathaway? Really? And: Huh? Are you sure we're not talking the Independent Spirit Awards? Presenters, maybe, but hosts? Nobody saw that coming, and now that we're over the shock, we have to wonder: Does anyone want to see this coming? They're perfectly fine actors with respectable film (and even TV) resumes and winning personalities, and they've each done well on Saturday Night Live. Hathaway can even sing, so I'd trust her to rise above the cheese in any production number they might throw at her. But as actors, are they the defining icons of a new cinema generation? Hard to imagine. Was Johnny Depp too busy, or too cool for the room? But let's not prejudge more than we have to. They could surprise us with their charm, their range, their willingness to do what it takes to help us endure this always-elephantine show. And now let's focus on the next puzzle: How in the heck are they going to fill all 10 slots in the best-picture category?
PIQUED: The Psych 20th-anniversary homage to Twin Peaks was like a Mad magazine parody come to life, cluttered with visual and verbal echoes and puns to let us know they know the show and hope we do, too. It's an enjoyable stunt episode, which at times hints at the extravagant weirdness and queasy emo excesses (prompting Gus's sympathetic crying jags) of David Lynch's cult classic, but mostly just winks at us as it piles on the in-jokes. Look, there's a gone-to-gray Dana Ashbrook and Lenny von Dohlen. Look, there's the real Log Lady, talking to her log — although the joke is that now she's not: "That would have been too much." There's Sheryl Lee, standing over a corpse wrapped in plastic that looks like Laura Palmer. And my, isn't Sherilynn Fenn still foxy? Loved Julee Cruise's dreamy reinterpretation of the Psych theme, and given the spoofy nature of the episode, also got a kick out of Shawn's frustration when no one in this isolated, low-tech town gets his cultural references. (Turns out the town gets together every Thursday to watch Everwood reruns, and that's it.) If this cute but slight episode prompts anyone to go back and rediscover the groundbreaking Twin Peaks pilot and the show itself — up to the reveal of Laura's killer, at least — then job well done.
META MOMENTS: "What happened to your hair?" — Anyone who ever saw Ray Wise go silver overnight (as Twin Peaks' mad Leland Palmer) can appreciate that particular Psych joke. But it wasn't the only show having fun with TV. ... In an otherwise mirthless episode of Fox's soon-to-be-toast Running Wilde, kudos to Maulik Pancholy (Jack's assistant on 30 Rock) for showing up as himself, hired to play a doctor to fool Emmy, prompting this exchange: "He plays Jonathan on 30 Rock." "From the Sun?" "No, that's 3rd Rock. I'm on 30." "How many rocks are there?" It ends with Steve (Will Arnett) snarking, "Sorry, man. Nobody here's a fan." The real punch line? 30 Rock is the only show Emmy watches. ... Speaking of 30 Rock, here's Jack playing therapist to Kenneth, who's just revealed the childhood trauma of having eaten his "father pig" Harold: "His sacrifice made you what you are today — which is, the lowest-level employee at the last place network. In America." Only The Simpsons is more unsparingly brutal to its host network and corporation.
TWISTS AND TURNS: Could Michael Shannon have cinched his supporting-actor Emmy in the penultimate episode of Boardwalk Empire? As mad avenger Agent Van Alden, his quest to flush the truth out of his duplicitous partner Sebso results in him drowning his Jewish sidekick in the most berserk baptism scene on record. Van Alden is like the offspring of Dick Tracy and Carrie's zealot mom. ... Other Boardwalk news: Jimmy the hood turns out to be the bastard son of the Commodore, who we discover is being slowly poisoned by Jimmy's mom, courtesy of arsenic-laced cookies. And that love match of Nucky and Margaret? Not so much any more. ... Didn't I tell you that this week's Fringe was awesome? The show finally restores order to the various universes, bringing Olivia back to Earth while evil Faux-livia flips back to the other universe, at the expense of the heroic alt-Broyles. A thrilling episode, but not quite as triumphant as it sounds, because Olivia doesn't yet realize she's now part of an emotional three-way with her doppelganger. (See Friday's Watercooler for more.)
DRESSED TO KILL: Some palm-sweaty suspense as Julia Stiles makes her first kill on Dexter, offing Scott Grimes (the fifth wheel in Jordan Chase's rape club) while Dexter advises her, "Aim for the heart." Which she does. And sex naturally follows. "I'm not a monster at all" in Lumen's eyes, Dexter tells himself. Close call, though, because former fattie Jordan (nice work from Jonny Lee Miller) set his old buddy up to be killed and then calls Deb (with Quinn tagging along) to interrupt the crime. Nice fake-out that the kill room was in a neighboring vacant house. But Deb isn't entirely fooled. She begins to suspect a vigilante "barrel girl" is on the loose, though not imagining she's in cahoots with Dexter. And Liddy (a hilariously malevolent Peter Weller) is sitting on new video of Dexter coaching Lumen in knife technique. This can't end well.
SING OUT! Good for Glee to give the Sectionals spotlight to several of New Directions' more unsung members: Quinn and Sam, with a Santana chaser, as Mike Chang and Brittany bust some fabulous moves. But color me confused where the Warblers are concerned. After advising Kurt to not try so hard to stand out, the boy band's big number is virtually a solo for Darren Criss as Blaine. Not that anyone's really complaining. And how again does a senior-citizen group (even one as adorable as The Hipsters) end up competing with overripe high schoolers? When did Glee become The Sing-Off?
HIDDEN GEM: Is anybody watching Nikita on Thursdays (against truly stiff competition)? They should be. As should I, if I had the extra hour. Over Thanksgiving, I caught up with this sleek spy thriller — miles superior to the defunct Undercovers — and am impressed by the way it's carving out its own intense mythology while staying true to the original premise of a rogue assassin (Maggie Q's sleek Nikita) determined to take down the black-ops organization that ruined her life. (Having a mole, Lyndsy Fonseca's Alex, on the inside is a smart invention, but she gets around a little too easily in what should be a more locked-down Division.) The latest story twist is even timely, with Nikita and fellow rogue "cleaner"-turned-"guardian" Owen tracking down black boxes full of government intel that Division boss Percy maintains to protect his hide. Shades of WikiLeaks this week as Owen publicly exposes an off-the-books Chilean assassination, but the leak ends up backfiring when a CIA analyst (Damages' Noah Bean) on Division's trail is framed for the murder. The action scenes are kickass, the emotional underpinnings are reminiscent of Alias, and it's all a great escape. Hey CW, you know what show might look good on Tuesdays? Nikita.
HONOR ROLL: Finally, an all-star reality competition that lives up to its name. Bravo's Top Chef: All Stars is all personality, all talent, and I am hooked. ... Nerd nirvana! What a geeky treat as pop-culturally obsessed Community resurrects the fond memory of Farscape, the cult fave that helped put the pre-Syfy Sci Fi Channel on the map. "Was Scorpius half-Skaaren, half-Peacekeeper? Frell yes, I got Starfighter on Blu-Ray!" constitutes a gay pick-up line in the world of Abed. (Imagine if he ever met Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. Fireworks!) The Farscape babble continues long after it becomes obvious that Abed's fellow fan is more interested in Abed than John Crichton. When Abed demurs, explaining "I really really like talking about Farscape," he gets a drink thrown in his face. "It's a really good show," he says, dripping. And he's right. ... Patient-of-the-year award goes to Scott Foley as a dying man without insurance who captures Teddy's fancy — and who can blame her? — on Grey's Anatomy, which devises a medical "green card" scenario by which Teddy proposes to him so he can go on her insurance. Foley, a fan fave since Felicity, is so instantly appealing we have to figure he has Ali McGraw/Love Story syndrome. Whatever happens in that storyline, if he comes back as a ghost, I take back this praise. Meanwhile, Cristina's epiphany comes in the form of a monster 28-pound trout she snags while fishing with Derek. Holding the fish while an admirer tells her she's "really something" (to which Derek concurs), she leaks some beatific tears and appears ready to go back to work. It's about time.
AS HEARD ON TV: "Babies are cute, until you've done everything there is to do with them. Then you get bored. That's why TV shows about babies never last more than a year." — Premature grandpa Burt Chance (Garret Dillahunt) getting yet another thing wrong on Raising Hope, because this show isn't going away anytime soon. ... "Her chill is terrifying." — John Teller describing his then-wife Gemma in a letter from beyond the grave on Sons of Anarchy. He isn't kidding. ... "Alcohol makes people sad. It's like the Lifetime movie of beverages." — Troy's revelation upon turning 21 on Community. I'll drink to that. ... "I know that the cricket that reads to me at night is totally stealing my jewelry." — Brittany being as fabulously random as ever on Glee. ... "Jeff and Lester are about to die. I'd say that's bad news." — Speak for yourself, Chuck. ... "If I had a dollar for every time some evil vampire surprised me." — The Vampire Diaries' Damon Salvatore making light of the whole Elijah-Klaus mess. ... "Don't tell anyone, but I can't stand pigeons. They're like rats with wings." — Another reason to love Lisa Simpson. (Pigeons being this particular city dweller's pet peeve.)
That's a wrap. What did you think of this week's TV? And remember, no quitting allowed. Unless we're talking Bridalplasty. Even a TV critic has limits.