"Why does fun always have a price?"
These are the words of Poor Sue Heck — I can never refer to this scene-stealing character (played brilliantly by Eden Sher) without adding the word "poor" in front of her name — in another hilarious episode of ABC's underappreciated The Middle. Yes, the show is fun, but with the sting of truth. Living in the shadow of the marvelous Modern Family (which offered up another farcical hoot this week), ABC's Wednesday night kickoff show is operating on such a high level of comedy these days that an argument should be made for including it in the pantheon of sitcoms that currently fill most comedy awards categories. Shows like 30 Rock, the played-out The Office, the wildly uneven Glee, various pay cable half-hours (the best being Showtime's Nurse Jackie) and of course Modern Family, the current standard-bearer of ensemble greatness.
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This week's Middle takes some very conventional situations (hence sitcom), including Frankie freaking out after mistakenly overpaying for a luxury item — eye cream made from a French mule's bladder — and teenager Axl being put in charge of a wailing baby doll for a school project, and finds meaningful and biting comedy that anyone who's ever been part of a family can relate to. "What do babies have to do with sex?" gripes Axl about his sex-ed assignment. "They ruin it," quips Frankie. "When do kids become less annoying?" Axl whines when the electronically monitored baby won't stop crying. "I'll let you know," mutters papa Mike. And when Axl dismembers the baby in frustration, he surveys the wreckage and groans, "This is 'D' work at best." A-plus, actually.
All of this plays out against Frankie's dilemma of having put the family's household budget in jeopardy over her $200 credit-card purchase — she thought it said $20, and who of a certain age hasn't made that kind of myopic mistake? Mike freezes her out, even after she takes a humiliating moonlighting job playing a pioneer at a local heritage museum. She beats herself up throughout the episode, staging both sides of an imaginary fight with her husband, and worries about Mike's silence: "It's never been this quiet for this long without a game on." (Such honest, funny writing.) When the confrontation finally comes, we learn Mike isn't so much mad at her as he is at their situation, "because we can't afford to make a mistake ... We've got to have four jobs just to stay poor." But it could be worse. When they think back on when they first started, it used to only take 5 bucks to send them over the edge. "How the hell did we make it through?" Mike wonders. "A lot of TV and denial," suggests Frankie. Hard to deny that.
As they hash it out, we also discover the only room in the house they've ever followed through on improving is Sue's bedroom — which Poor Sue has destroyed trying to fix a hole in the drywall (metaphor alert!) she caused while playing a prank on Axl. Which is where the "fun always having a price" line comes in. If you ask me, The Middle is priceless.
MORE LAUGHS: So what tickled you the most on Modern Family? Phil reveling in the cheesy 3D glories of Crocktopus? His despair at the thought of having to see a subtitled French movie? ("I didn't do anything wrong.") Manny's dribble glass confirming Jay's dementia in strangers' sympathetic eyes? Mitchell's panic that he may have fathered a child with his high-school ex (Mary Lynn Rajskub)? "This could be the 'going bald scare' all over again," he laments. (To which Cam quips, "And we know how that turned out.") Or the reveal that said child is actually her little-person husband? "Hey, what's up, dude?" Mitchell says, frantically trying to mask his mortification — until the Lil Slugger baseball mitt he brought as a gift gives him away. Or maybe little Luke aiming food at the gaping jaw of strenuously studious sister Alex? They're all winners.
STAR POWER: Giving a master class in versatility, Jim Carrey soared (and so did the ratings) as a Saturday Night Live guest host with the most — memorably hamming it up in an inspired Black Swan parody sure to make the season's best-of reel, and as a psychic who dabbles in celebrity impersonation, giving us an uncanny take on Alan Thicke, among others. A few nights later, Carrey turned up on a revealing edition of Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio, telling James Lipton and an adoring audience, "I always spoof my own ego." We also learn there's a limit to how long he can hold Fire Marshal Bill's facial contortions (from In Living Color days). "I thought I was going to be the man of 1000 faces, and I got up to 150."
In an even more illuminating essay on the actor's craft, PBS' wonderful American Masters series profiled true Renaissance man Jeff Bridges (actor, musician, photographer, painter, etc) in The Dude Abides, an inspiring and affectionate portrait of a creative life executed with remarkable range and not a shred of pretension. Made me want to see lots of his movies again (especially The Last Picture Show and Starman). And note to my couch buddies: Get up and go see True Grit!
IN WITH THE NEW: When has a January ever been this busy this early with new shows fighting for attention? If you missed it, here's what I had to say about the wave of shows that premiered last Sunday (including Downton Abbey, Episodes, Shameless, The Cape and Bob's Burgers) as well as reviews of FX's powerful Lights Out and ABC's disappointing Off The Map.
Now that the pilots have aired, a few more observations.
TV shows about the TV business rarely do well, but Showtime may have done the droll TV satire Episodes a disservice by not airing the first two episodes in tandem, because Matt LeBlanc only emerges as a real character (playing an unflattering but hardly damning version of himself) in the second half-hour — which includes his first unpromising meeting with the British writers, then more charmingly at a dinner party where he reveals how much he needs their show to become a hit. But there's much to savor in that first episode, including the soul-crushingly painful scene of Richard Griffiths auditioning for the role he created back in England, subjecting himself to the scrutiny of the network suits, who force him to flop when they insist he try doing it with an American accent. At every turn, the face of Daisy Haggard as the cringing head of network comedy, who looks like she's just smelled something foul, says volumes about the sorry state of so much TV development.
Wondering if I was the only one cringing in Shameless when Emmy Rossum and Justin Chatwin had hot desperate sex in the kitchen — not because of its graphic nature, but because they were doing it on that disgusting floor! By contrast, the subplot about the high-schooler servicing Lip (and later, unsuccessfully, the gay Ian) under the table was just puerile shock-for-shock's-sake nonsense. And much as I love Joan Cusack, not buying her in the ridiculous role of the student's ditzy agoraphobic mom.
"His Grace turned out to be graceless." An observation from the head housekeeper of Downton Abbey in the captivating first episode, after the visiting Duke — at first seen as a marriage prospect for the Earl's eldest daughter Mary — suddenly bolts, dashing everyone's hopes. Especially those of scheming manservant Thomas, revealed in a stunning (given the period) twist to have been involved sexually with the Duke, who had come to the manor to find and destroy his love letters, leading on Mary along the way. Some barbed dialogue when resentful middle sister Edith taunts Mary by saying, "So he slipped the hook," to which Mary retorts, "At least I'm not fishing with no bait." Ouch.
The finest character study of the new year, Lights Out, is especially fascinating in those moments when Patrick "Lights" Leary (Holt McCallany in a first-rate lead performance) protests, "I'm not a thug," but is forced by fate to turn to his more brutal nature. In his low point, which turns out to be a series turning point, that means working as a debt collector and manhandling a yuppie dentist (V's Christopher Shyer), and later pushed too far by an obnoxious barfly, settling a drunken macho challenge in a parking lot brawl. His fists don't fail him, but you can tell "Lights" feels he's failed a crucial test of character. Keep watching this one.
Of Off the Map's many flaws, the most unforgivable may be in saddling Zach Gilford with such an unappealing character. As Tommy Fuller, he's so clueless as he arrives in South America that he doesn't even know the word "gringo." He whines all the way through a jungle hike ("This isn't a walk. It's an Iron Man." And: "It's called civilization. You should really try it.") and is otherwise just not pleasant company. The waste of this fine actor is made even more clear by the episode of Friday Night Lights that aired the same night as Map's premiere, in which Julie Taylor runs to Matt Saracen's side (and bed) to escape her problems, until Matt sets her back on the road, however reluctantly. Unwilling to pass judgment on her mistakes ("I'm not your parents"), he grows increasingly uneasy about her lack of direction. "I don't want to be your safety net." Their parting is very touching, but it is time for her to move on. We all miss Matt Saracen, but Off the Map made me miss him more.
TV'S MOST PROBING HOUR: And no, this isn't a colonoscopy joke, although that was the rite of middle-age passage bonding the heroes of Men of a Certain Age in the too-soon mid-season finale. (The show has really grown on me in this second season.) Why TNT buried this terrific "Three Men and a Colonoscopy" hour opposite the BCS Championship game is a puzzlement. Because it wasn't just the doctors getting under the characters' skin this week. As Joe and Owen accompany Terry on a road trip to a Palm Springs spa, trying to make the most out of the discomfiting procedure, everyone is lost in thought. Owen is reeling from discovering how badly in debt his dad left the car dealership — and now he's going to have to look like the bad guy to save the company — while Joe keeps making losing "mind bets" to punish himself as he practices his putting for the senior golf tour. And Terry is hung up on his former acting partner Erin, who isn't answering his texts or calls. (Karma, dude.) It all culminates in an awkward, funny/awful drunken fistfight in a steakhouse bar, after which they retreat to a taco stand. So much for their clean colons. But at least their friendship is healthy. Looking forward to the back half of the season this summer.
CRIMINALLY GOOD: ABC's Detroit 1-8-7 is turning up the heat in every way but the ratings. (I'm really starting to worry about this one surviving much longer.) This week's very strong episode claims the life of gorgeous DA and friend-to-the-precinct Rochelle Yates, who's been snooping into the business of a local "key to the city" philanthropist, played with just the right touch of arrogant hostility by Todd Stashwick. He and Michael Imperioli's Fitch go at it, including an improbable public showdown at a charity event. It looks like the bad guy's going to get away with this murder, until the final act, when it's revealed Mr. Moneybags has been found murdered in his car. All eyes turn to Fitch. Stay tuned.
And I second our Cheer to Jeremy Irons' wrenching turn as a tormented sex therapist with a history of sexual and other addictions on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. He believes (wrongly) that he had molested his own daughter back in his blackout days, and he's in a bind over professional ethics when his daughter is attacked by someone from his own sex clinic. The episode is burdened by a few too many clunky debates over whether sex addiction is an illness or a criminal indulgence — Stabler, naturally, isn't buying the "it's a sickness" argument, as he goes undercover into group therapy, squirming all the way — but Irons grounds this one with a riveting performance. Also good to see A.J. Cook (as the victim's partner) back on TV after being liberated from Criminal Minds.
SHOWS YOU NEVER WANT TO END: High on that list is CBS' The Good Wife, back from holiday hiatus with another taut episode (by show creators Robert and Michelle King) that shows most of the characters in the worst possible light. They're all trying to rescue the college-age son of a powerful client — and, by extension, his girlfriend — from a messy situation involving the shooting death of a pharmacist. Will they throw the girlfriend under the bus to cut a better deal for the client's son? (Turns out they don't get the chance, when he confesses to spare his pregnant girlfriend, the actual shooter.) Once again, Cary is their antagonist — and as Alicia snarks, ""Are there any other ASAs in the D.A.'s office or are you the only one?" (Love it when a show built around such contrivances acknowledges such things.) Everyone feels dirty after this is over — and we're especially unnerved by investigator Blake's rough treatment of a female witness. "No one said it would be pretty," muses Diane. Words that come back to bite her when Will angrily confronts her over her plans to stage a coup and split the firm apart. Significantly, he got the news from his girlfriend and not from Alicia, who had already been approached by Diane. Some very murky waters here. But it's not all darkness. Back on the home front, Alicia's wayward gay brother Owen bonds amusingly with her uptight mother-in-law Jackie, and those scenes sing. Not that there's a lot of competition, but this is easily the best hour drama on network TV.
SHOWS I CAN'T WAIT TO END: I have now added ABC's stagnant cheesefest V to this unfortunate list. So much was made of Jane Badler's return as Diana, mother of Anna, but her scenes opposite Morena Baccarin are so overripe as to be laughable. Diana is the alien equivalent to the madwoman in the attic, here kept on subterranean ice "like a buried dirty secret" by her daughter because her human skin was infecting her with emotion. (Do these visitors not have the ability to molt?) For an episode that couldn't stop talking about emotion and the power of the soul, the hour lacked either. Although in the it's-about-time department, we do finally see Anna replicate her mom's parlor trick from the original series and elongate her jaw to swallow a rodent. Which she then upchucks, bird-style, to feed Ryan's hybrid baby. Ewwww. And yay. "There's no greater bond than a nurturing mother and her child," Anna says. But Diana has her number, and predicts betrayal when it comes to Anna and her progeny Lisa, who's clearly got human sympathies. If this story doesn't take a huge leap forward soon, I'm giving up.
SANITY IN INSANE TIMES: Numbed by the violent horrors in Arizona last weekend, weary of the finger-pointing punditocracy from both extremes of the political spectrum, many looked to The Daily Show's Jon Stewart to continue his crusade for civility, and he did not disappoint in his somber Monday night monologue, which concluded with this wish: "It would be really nice if the ramblings of crazy people didn't in any way resemble how we actually talk to each other on TV." And then President Obama spoke, magnificently, at a public memorial on Wednesday, evoking the civic-minded optimism of 9-year-old victim Christina-Taylor Green. "I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it." So do we all.
AS HEARD ON TV: "Go out on a Tuesday? Who am I, Charlie Sheen?" — Marge on The Simpsons, being lured by a gaggle of "cool moms" to break her domestic routine. ... "Anyone with enough money and a lack of self-respect can become famous just by being famous. We've gone from Socrates to Snooki." — Duckie of NCIS in talk-to-the-corpse autopsy mode, decrying the state of modern celebrity as he attends to a fallen scion of a wealthy family. ... "Congratulations on the promotion, Jim. Wow. This is a huge upgrade from [the n-word] to slave. That's like a show going from the WB to UPN." — The Daily Show's "senior black correspondent" Larry Wilmore analyzing the censoring of Huckleberry Finn. ... "What is a week end?" — Maggie Smith as the riotous Dowager of Downton Abbey, unaccustomed to meeting a member of the family who thinks in terms of an actual work week. ... "Nora, you are every part of speech." — Holly of Brothers & Sisters in her swan song, after using "Nora Walker" as a verb (as in, being "Nora Walkered" off the show), and later describing her perky former nemesis as "a cross between Martha Stewart and Josef Stalin." With Holly's departure, let the sinking ship metaphors commence.
That's a wrap. Stay tuned for another busy week of premieres and returns, including the long-awaited relaunch of American Idol in a make-or-break season. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter.