Much of the TV landscape is, and has always been, devoted to comfort-food formula. Some of us, though, live for those moments when a show breaks formula and delivers the unexpected. This week gave us some excellent examples of that in the most popular formula of the moment: the crime/police drama.
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First, TNT's Southland, which really doesn't qualify as a conventional police procedural, its cases often taking a back seat to the personal day-in-the-worklife dramas that unfold with gritty, muted realism. Even so, it was a jolt to witness the death of a major character (Kevin Alejandro's quietly competent Nate Moretta) unfold in the manner of a matter-of-fact nightmare. After a tour of duty spent keeping a tight leash on his volatile partner Sammy, a routine street encounter between Nate and some gang members goes monstrously wrong when Nate is fatally clubbed as their backs are turned. Nate bleeds out as Sammy faces a swarming and terrifyingly silent mob that flinches back each time Sammy shoots into the crowd but almost immediately clusters back into formation, eerily reminiscent of a zombie flash mob out of The Walking Dead. It's a horrific scene staged as the opposite of melodrama, hard to shake.
On a lighter note (what wouldn't be?) in the same Tuesday time period, USA's White Collar gave its loyal fan base a reward with a classic origin story that jumps back in time eight years. Neal is a hit with the ladies — Kate and Alex — even before he acquires his sense of style, including his first suit and hat, while plotting a scam against a Madoff-like swindler Vincent Adler (Andrew McCarthy) with the help of a goateed (and badly wigged) Mozzie. Also on the hair front, Peter shaves off his Ron Swanson-worthy 'stache while using Kate as a lure to snag the elusive Neal. And back in the present, we get a new MacGuffin in the form of a fractal antenna devised from the music box, which may lead the fed and the former protégé to Adler's hideaway.
We get a chemistry lesson on ABC's Castle, as a deadly new twist in the cold case of Beckett's murdered mother forces Beckett and especially Castle to take a long, hard look at what their partnership is all about. Leading, naturally, to a long, hard kiss. Which isn't real, except it's really real. In a rare somber moment early on, mama Martha advises Castle, "You can't charm your way out of a bullet. Be honest with yourself about why you're doing this." Castle admits, "It's not about the books anymore." Unless we're talking The Book of Love, I suppose. When Beckett is kicked off the case, and Castle joins her to go rogue, he cockily boasts, "Fear does not exist in this dojo." (This is why we love this guy.) Beckett tells the would-be Karate Kid that this isn't his fight, but he argues, "I don't hang around you just to annoy you." Which is when we get to the meat of the matter: "Then why do you keep coming back, Rick?" When Beckett calls Castle anything but Castle, that gets our attention. As does the long, lingering smooch they perform in front of the bad guys who've taken Esposito and Ryan prisoner. It's a mock-drunken decoy kiss that turns into something more when Beckett initiates a second round, and there is serious heat here than has nothing to do with Nikki Heat. Castle is taken aback, but not so flustered that he can't save the day in the violent showdown that ensues. More of this, please.
A sniper also causes mayhem on Bones, as the evil Gravedigger is taken down mid-transport by a copper bullet that sends blood, brain and bone all over Sweets — this is a seriously icky crime scene — but what the baby-faced shrink can't wash off are her final unrepentant taunts. No one is mourning this fiend's violent end, but there is some serious soul-searching as Angela goads Hodgins (who has no remorse about celebrating the death of the villain who almost buried him and Bones alive), Bones momentarily wonders if her dad could be involved, and Booth recognizes the bloody handiwork of his mentor, a rogue sniper named Jacob Broadsky. When they come face-to-face on a plot of land Broadsky bought in Booth's name, Booth gives chase and is knocked down by an exploding trailer, but can't take the kill shot when he gets a chance. We haven't heard the last of Broadsky, I'm sure. Ditto for Ryan O'Neal as Bones' dad Max, who endeared himself to fans by lamenting the fact that after all this time, Bones and Booth still aren't together. Yeah, what's that about? Extra bonus points this week: No Hannah.
FANCY MEETING YOU: Why I hate spoilers: Imagine how much more satisfying and surprising the random encounter would have been between Office icons Michael Scott (Steve Carell) and the British original David Brent (Ricky Gervais) if word hadn't leaked out first. Not that this week's Office cold open was a letdown. Anything but. "Comedy is a place where the mind goes to tickle itself," opines David, followed by the inevitable "That's what she said." Kindred spirits indeed, as two failed-comedian office nitwits trade offensive Chinese impressions and hug it out. Then, reminding us of the pathos that permeated the classic original series, David hits Michael up for work: "Any jobs going?" Michael says no, and muses afterward, "What a nice guy." Yeah, Michael, where would you be without him? [Which instantly got me thinking how appropriate it would be, depending on how long NBC's Office continues without him, if Dwight were someday to run into Gareth and get schooled by a true master in subversive sidekick comedy.]
In other big Office news, fans must be jazzed that Will Ferrell is signing on for a limited (we presume) arc to take the sting out of Carell's departure later this spring. I still think Michael Scott's exit is the perfect opportunity to shut the doors on the Dunder Mifflin story, which has been running on creative fumes for quite a while, but this show is the most popular cog in NBC's night-of-comedy wheel, so that's not going to happen for a while.
THE LAUGH TRACK: "Life was so much simpler when a machine told you when to laugh." That's Homer Simpson falling under the spell of fictional '80s cheesefest sitcom Thicker Than Waters (looked very Growing Pains to me). In a great running gag, credits reveal the show's executive story editor is David Chase, the director is Steven Soderbergh, and J.D. Salinger writes the forward to a super-fan guide. But the kicker is a True Hollywood Story expose, in which staff writer David Mamet (providing his own voice) is chewed out by the show's leading man with a torrent of profanity, leading to an epiphany: "Hmmm. I could use that." The rest is foul-mouthed Broadway history.
"Stop. Pooping." This is Rob Lowe as Parks and Recreation's human "microchip" Adonis, temporarily felled by the flu and none too happy about it, as he stares into the hospital mirror. With only 2.8% body fat to protect him from disease, his circuits are compromised by the illness sweeping Pawnee, and his vulnerability endears him even more to smitten nurse Ann. By the next day, though, he's up and running. "It crashes hard but reboots quickly," says the Human Microchip. Even more impressive — to Adam Scott's Ben, anyway — is Leslie's ability to rally herself from her loopy halla-flu-cinations and deliver a winning speech to local businesses to get them to sign up for the Harvest Festival. Ben brings her chicken soup in the hospital, but she only has eyes for the waffles. Ben now sees in her Michael Jordan/Kirk Gibson-level championship qualities. Can this last, or will Leslie blow it?
"We want Drugs!" "We want Drugs!" Even for Community, that's a seriously perverse chant, the byproduct of Pierce upending earnest Annie's middle-school anti-drug play and stealing the show as a wisecracking cannabis plant. It's a sly reminder of Chevy Chase's days in the original Saturday Night Live ensemble, when then-groundbreaking marijuana humor ran amok. Senor Chang (the hilarious Ken Jeong) saves the day in the second act by taking over the role as Bad Weed, taunting the kids ("I'm gonna deep-fry your dog and eat your mama's face") and prodding them to get out of their seats and beat him to a pulp. Even Shirley's impressed enough by his altruism to stop freezing him out — until he weirds out on her again. Under the "class dismissed" heading, we also discover that Annie used to get a dollar every month from the Period Fairy.
"I love me some beef and bubbles." So says Cougar Town's Laurie (the wonderful Busy Phillips), as she and Bobby crash Grayson's stash of steak and champagne while the "cul-de-sac gang" plays Jules' "Sardines in a Can" variation of hide and seek. This leads to an inspired "Beef and Bubbles" riff in which Laurie imagines them as a similarly monikered crime-fighting duo. We also get multiple plugs for the Oscar-snubbed documentary Waiting for Superman, a demonstration of how "penny can" is different from "sissy can" (and why Andy doesn't measure up), jokes about "sex chopsticks" and "pudding teeth," all a reminder of how much I'm going to miss this show when it goes on hiatus to make room for Mr. Sunshine in two weeks.
And once again, we're reminded how obsessed Cougar Town is with its misleading title. When Jules runs into man-eater Barb and endures an off-color "Cuban sandwich" boast, Jules barks: "When are people going to understand that's not who I am anymore. What do I have to do, change my name?" (As if to answer, this week's title-card gag reads, ""Do we have to do this joke forever?") Given the way this week's episode played out, maybe they could return from hiatus calling the show "The Cul-de-Sac Gang." That's really what it's turned into, after all.
BETTER THAN A LIFETIME MOVIE: "I'm still processing!" Oprah shrieks at one point during the highly rated episode unveiling her surprise half-sister Patricia, who she only met at Thanksgiving. It was pretty compelling, if discomfiting TV, as we're made privy to personal and private "family business." This particular skeleton, which Oprah says "shook me to my core" and several times referred to as "a Beloved moment" like something out of a Toni Morrison family saga, is served up as a tabloid runaround so Oprah can control the flow of information. She seems especially choked up and astonished that her newfound relatives didn't sell her out to the vulture press. For that, we can all be grateful.
As American Idol continues its long road to Hollywood, and Steven Tyler wowing us with sheer force of entertaining personality, the show has clearly lost none of its manipulative zeal. Waterworks flow as we meet 26-year-old barista Chris Medina, who has been caretaking his fiancé since she suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident shortly before their planned wedding. "What kind of guy would I be if I walked out when she needed me the most?" he says, earning a future spot on Oprah's show if I'm any judge of noble character. He sings well enough to go through, but what seals the deal is when the judges ask to meet his lady, now in a wheelchair. "That's why he sings so good, because he sings to you," says Tyler, tenderly kissing her forehead. As with Oprah and Patricia, this feels awfully exploitive, but there's no denying it's effective.
REALITY CHECK: There is absolutely nothing in Syfy's fascinating new reality-competition series Face Off you haven't seen in countless shows of this type — but if you're as susceptible as I am to this genre (it's pretty much the only kind of reality show I can bear), then it's the process that hooks you. Way more enthralling than Bravo putting bitchy hairdressers to work in a waste of space like Shear Genius, this show puts special-effects makeup artists to the test, in challenges that feel like a mash-up of Project Runway and Work of Art. In the pilot, teams of two go to work creating visionary animal-human hybrid creatures on human models. Some of the results are stunning, some embarrassing. That's how these shows work. The judging is smart and tough, and the creative vibe couldn't be more brand-appropriate to a channel that celebrates fantasy and illusion.
So it's in with the new, and out with The Fashion Show, as the second (and improved) season of Bravo's we-lost-Runway-and-need-to-clone-it show ends with Jeffrey being crowned over the incredibly obnoxious Calvin. "It was built like an orgasm, your show," judge/host Isaac Mizrahi gushes over Jeffrey's final collection, inspired by his late mom. Moving on.
A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME: Is dead. And bravo to Lauren Cohan — whose Bela was one of my favorite Supernatural vixens — for bringing the anguish so powerfully on the back-from-hiatus The Vampire Diaries. She is wrenching and terrifying in her werewolf-bitten dementia and death pangs as 560-year-old vampire Rose succumbs to her injuries with the help of a stake reluctantly inserted by an unusually tearful Damon. But not before she terrorizes babysitter Elena every time Rose mistakes her for the evil Katherine. Question: Is someone on the Vampire Diaries staff watching Being Human? (Either the BBC America original or the Syfy remake, both of which will be airing simultaneously in a few weeks, now that BBCA has decided to start airing the new season Feb. 19.) Both Rose and Damon confess they miss "being human" at various points. And while Damon initially jokes, "Humanity's not all it's cracked up to be," after delivering Rose's killer blow, he later reveals to an unlucky motorist his secret that he misses it "more than anything in the world." That is the classic vampire lament, and it's good for this show to acknowledge it from time to time. Ian Somerhalder brings it as well, popping into Bella's dying pastoral dream to ease her into eternity, then trying but failing to keep his emotions in check when Elena gives him a long, lingering hug. "I feel, Elena, OK? And it sucks!" We know, Damon. Maybe reading a chapter of your bedside book Gone With the Wind will cool you down.
TOUCHDOWN: [SPOILER ALERT for those currently out of the Friday Night Lights loop] As we near the finish line of Friday Night Lights' last season with only two episodes to go — and they're terrific — a torrent of conflict bedevils our beloved characters as the Lions head inexorably to State. Eric is none too pleased that Tami is missing their hard-fought semi-finals triumph to take an interview at a small prestige college up north in Philly. (How will he feel when she tells him she didn't just get a job, she was offered the post of Dean of Admissions?) The Lions soldier on despite the news that education budget cuts are forcing a future merger between East and West Dillon's athletic programs, and only one team will survive. (Panthers? Lions? Why not just create a new team, the Cougars?)
Stepping back a bit, I always thought it was a stretch for a community this size to have two schools and competing programs. And while it makes for great drama, I also can't believe that a Texas town would make all this public at the same time the team is facing the pressure of going to State. But there's no questioning the power of this week's family showdowns: between brothers Tim and Billy Riggins, who duke it out as hot-headed Tim gets Becky fired from her Landing Strip waitress gig; and Vince finally standing up to his overbearing dad, who kicks the door in but is shown the door by his proud and defiant son. I'm sure I wasn't the only one choked up as the Lions return home from their pivotal game, and as the crowd cheers, Vince only has eyes for his mom. While Eric has no one to celebrate with, because Tami's not back yet.
FRIDAY NIGHT DELIGHTS: Let's hope Fringe continues its winning ways on Friday nights. The first episode back was a great emotional workout for John Noble's Walter Bishop, manipulated by the Observers to put Peter at risk to show them that he would be willing to let his son die — again — "when the time comes." How ominous. (Fringe catches another break this week, because of CW's last-minute decision to postpone the return of Supernatural and Smallville for a week, a ripple effect from major-market pre-emptions of Thursday night's shows.) ... Starz' lurid Spartacus: Gods of the Arena also got off to a strong start last Friday, and what a treat to get another dose of John Hannah as the cunning, scheming (but ultimately ill-fated) Batiatus as he tries to leverage his social position on the backs of his gladiator slaves and, in the first episode anyway, gets a face full of urine for his troubles. No one said it would be easy — or pretty.
PUT YOUR CLOTHES BACK ON: Biggest surprise of the week was that after all the controversy, including advertiser defections and hand-wringing from the usual self-righteous watchdogs, Skins' ratings plummeted in week 2. Usually when the MTV audience is told not to watch something, all the fuss spurs them to check it out. But maybe they could see for themselves how badly done this remake of the British series truly is, and that even the phoniness of shows like The Hills and the manufactured schlock of Jersey Shore ring more true than something this amateur-hour. Turns out, in the world of MTV, trashy reality is stranger, more popular and more appealing than poorly acted fiction.
AS HEARD ON TV: "What would be the point of living if life didn't change us?" — Carson the butler of Downton Abbey (from PBS' Masterpiece Classic), providing the moral of this lovely period fable to housekeeper Mrs. Hughes. ... "You had me at the Meat Tornado." — Parks and Rec's Ron Swanson learning to love burritos, thanks to new office temp Andy. ... "Can I have a sip of your Coke?" — A creepy American Idol contestant getting way too close to Randy Jackson, who thankfully says no. ... "Every crazy A-lister owns an island: Nicolas Cage, Celine Dion, Charles Widmore." — 30 Rock's Tracy Jordan making a Lost reference. (And yes, we miss it.) ... "What is it, the Alabama of Europe?" — Archer's title character, learning from the European nymphet he's bodyguarding that the age of consent is 14 in Germany. ... "It's got everything but an elbow." — Matt LeBlanc on Showtime's Episodes, bragging about his "third arm" endowment. But his brain isn't entirely in his crotch. When advising the writers not to make his love interest gay, he actually makes some sense: "Friends did 236 episodes. You gotta give yourself places for shows to go. How long do you think Ross and Rachel would have lasted if Rachel had been a lesbian?"