This was a week where history played out before our eyes, with revolution in Egypt catching journalists — including several of TV's biggest news stars (Anderson Cooper, Christiane Amanpour among others) — in the dangerous crossfire. Another colossal winter storm cutting a swath of snowy and icy peril across the country kept millions glued to the Weather Channel (if the elements didn't knock out your cable). And Charlie Sheen's epic real-time E True Hollywood Story continues, shutting down TV's most popular sitcom and challenging Hollywood's priorities in the process.
But hey, what else was on?
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HUZZAH! The greatest compliment you can pay any TV show is to want to watch it again the second it's over. And once the February sweeps calms down, that's my plan with this week's delightfully inventive instant-classic episode of Community, one of TV's freshest and most adventurous sitcoms. This week's theme is "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons," which allows for an epic and ensemble flight of fancy that never leaves the study room and requires no special costumes or sets. Just a flight of imagination, which always earns this show extra credit.
Presented as a fantasy fable, with even the narrator's identity a joke (the heretofore unseen cleaning lady), the episode finds everyone role-playing to boost the spirits of despondent "Fat Neil" to make him feel a winner, a group effort led by "Jeff the liar, son of William the barely known." Even Senor Chang in wacky "dark elf" blackface is there. Everyone but Pierce "the insensitive, aka Pierce the dickish and Grandpa the flatulent." As dungeonmaster Abed assigns characters — Shirley's dismayed reading of "I am a dwarf named Zippity Do" killed me — everyone somehow manages to stay in character. Which leads to one of Community's greatest lines ever, as Troy barks to p.c. buzzkill Britta, "You're the AT&T of people!" Enter Pierce as the embodiment of evil, indignant at being left out as he forces his way into the game, taunting Fat Neil with cruel barbs while stealing his magic sword and taking over the game. Troy reacts as you'd expect: "This is why I wanted to play Chutes & Ladders." Jeff stands up to Evil Pierce, "You've made your point. You can ruin anything!" But his own motives for instigating the game are revealed when Evil Pierce traps everyone, including a weeping Neil, in a state of "suspended humiliation." Turns out it was Jeff who coined the "Fat Neil" phrase! But soon enough the tables are turned, as Fat Neil leads each character in turn to shower pity on the villainous Pierce, and order and peace are restored to the study group, as Neil stays behind to tell Pierce, "That was the best game I ever played in my life." And one of the most enjoyable episodes I'm likely to see in 2011. It may not be a Game of Thrones, but this is a crown jewel in a terrific second season. Well played, everyone.
ALREADY MISSING IT: One of TV's wackiest sitcoms, ABC's ill-titled (and doesn't it know it) Cougar Town, is taking an undeserved and unwelcome long hiatus after this week to make room for Matthew Perry's initially underwhelming Mr. Sunshine (more on that next week). And the irony is lost on no one, as Chandler knocks Monica off the lineup for a while. But the show goes out swinging, in a pre-Valentine's Day winner in which much is made of crying. Appropriate given how much some of us hate saying goodbye. "I don't even think I have tear ducts," muses the snarky and unsentimental Ellie, who also snipes regarding Grayson being so closed off: "Those tiny eyes. I mean, can tears even fit out of them?" The answer is yes, especially if a screening of Field of Dreams is involved, pulling the cathartic trigger on Grayson's memories of dear dead dad and thus satisfying Jules' sadistic need to pierce his emotional armor.
As we impatiently await the show's return in mid-April (boo!), a few observations about why Cougar Town deserves at least as much respect as the similarly nutty, and currently way over-celebrated and terribly uneven, 30 Rock. (Jenna and Tracy's fight over the Kabletown sweatshirt a new low, by the way.) From my perch, I thought the running gag of Laurie's "year-iod" much funnier than Liz Lemon's protestations about not being pregnant: "I have had my period for the last 61 days." Ditto Travis' ghastly-funny "sexy pose" photo shoot for his girlfriend had me laughing out loud, while I barely smiled at Liz's overexertion during her fake-pregnancy shoot, including applying oil: "Look how my belly glistens." No thanks. And honestly, 30 Rock, it's not as amusing when we can see you work that hard for laughs. Cougar Town's more offhand approach to delivering the weekly cascade of jokes is holding up much better lately. Wednesdays will be much less pleasurable without it.
To be fair, though, 30 Rock got off at least one killer gag this week: Jack's failed experiment with remote-voice-activated TV, as SVU dialogue keeps foiling his demonstration to the huggy new Kabletown boss. The kicker: As Jack mutters "Crap," the TV turns to Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Couldn't have said it better myself.
THE GIL FACTOR: As rumored, the much-missed William Petersen is heard (over the phone), then seen (in a Skype computer chat) — but always from an aggravating distance — for the first time since leaving CSI, during this week's above-par mystery on the campus of the college for the deaf where Sara tangles with Grissom's mother (Phyllis Frelich) and ex-girlfriend (Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar for the Children of a Lesser God role that previously won Frelich a Tony). "This is awkward," mutters Brass as Sara's "conflict of interest" becomes evident regarding the case's principal suspect — who's later the target of an office bombing. But what's really awkward is mother-in-law Grissom prying into the nature of Gil and Sara's long-distance marriage and sex life. Sara's on the defensive: "It's unconventional, but what Gil and I have works." And we're buying it, as Mama Grissom butts in on their Skype conversation at episode's end, and a nonplussed and grizzled Gil (currently consulting with the Peruvian government) responds to Mom's nagging by giving us the anthropological derivation of the phrase "sex pot." He signs off, literally, by signing, "I love you both." Fans love you too, Gil. Don't be such a stranger. And come back for real next time. CSI hasn't been the same without you.
REALITY CHECK: Memo to American Idol producers: Irony is not your strong suit. Wednesday's opening mock "apology" for Steven Tyler's "outrageous behavior," followed by another off-color clip (though far from Tyler's best), fell flat and backfired. Clearly it was meant as a joke, but it was way too self-conscious. And it didn't help that Fox and Ryan Seacrest, among others, teased the apology earlier in the day, smacking of hype that feels more than a little desperate for buzz. Idol, you want to apologize for something? Apologize for Lee DeWyze, maybe. Not for Tyler, who's the best reason to sit through these cheesy audition episodes. There's no question the show is emphasizing the feel-good factor this season (until the woeful L.A. round, anyway), and there's nothing wrong with that. But yikes, the weeding of questionable talent during Hollywood Week is going to be brutal.
Best Idol moment of week: famously metrosexual Seacrest meeting singing cowboy John Wayne Schulz's adorable family, including a breast-cancer-surviving mom and a dad who raised his boy to be "rough and tough." When Ryan suggests it would have sucked for Mr. Schulz to have a son like Ryan, dad scoffs: "You wouldn't be the way you are now, my friend." After John Wayne gets the golden ticket, Ryan gets a hug from Schulz senior and has the belt buckle scar to prove it.
Also from the reality-competition front: another plug for Syfy's Face Off, which in its second week comes even closer to Work of Art greatness, as the special effects make-up wizards tackle a body-painting/photo shoot challenge with naked models—and some astonishing results. "Boobs and wieners" (pixilated, natch) galore, rattling many of the geeky contestants, including Megan, who admits, "I haven't seen a penis in two years," and Nate, who won the earlier self-tattoo challenge, confessing, "I'm not a fan of being that close to naked people." And you guys want to be in the movie business? Curious. ... In the same Wednesday time period, Bravo's Top Chef: All Stars heads to the legendary Rao's restaurant, where challenge winner Antonia says "It smells like marinara in the walls" (Yum!) for some savory lessons in "keep it simple" Italian cooking. The stumbling block: the pasta course, including Mike's overcooked rigatoni, Dale's hot mess that prompts fabulous guest judge Lorraine Bracco to declare, "He's not getting laid tonight," and Tre's see-ya-later risotto with its overkill garnish. Anthony Bourdain declares of the "primi" platters: "This looks like something you'd find at a steam table at your worst enemy's wedding." Ouch. There's truly no room for error during this awesome season.
THAT WAS ROUGH: You knew the gloves would come off eventually on FX's first-rate Lights Out, but this week's episode is emotionally bruising as well. "You can't punch your way out of this," Patrick "Lights" Leary's wife tells him, after he's forced to come clean about the family's financial abyss. (And man, that was hard to watch.) But punch he does, taking on a former MMA brute in a harrowing and grueling cage match. Lights wins, saving the day for now for brother Johnny, but there's no joy in this victory. Life is one big sucker punch for these characters, and it's only a matter of time before Lights' comeback becomes real.
But that's nothing compared to the torment our favorite newbie vampire Caroline endures on The Vampire Diaries this week. Caught in the vamp-vs.-werewolf standoff between the Salvatore bros and the vengeful Jules (with hunky new Brady as her hench-wolf), poor Caroline is shot in the head, trapped in a cage and repeatedly shot, sprayed and tortured by Caleb until novice were-teen Tyler is delivered. The ambush in the woods is brutal — Stefan is staked, Damon shot — but Professor Witchdad brings the wolves to their knees, keeping order on behalf of his boss, the "Original" Elijah. Kudos to maintaining the tween-friendly CW vibe by having Elena and Bonnie show up afterward at Caroline's for a girl-power slumber party to help the poor thing get over her trauma. With Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec at the writing helm, this is a very happening episode, from Damon's opening shower scene to his climactic bloodbath with the local TV reporter. Methinks the Twilight-obsessed townies of Parks and Recreation should get over it and get with this program instead.
HOW TWEET IT IS: And down goes Seattle Grace's last living Luddite, as Grey's Anatomy's Chief Webber learns to embrace Twitter in the OR — but thankfully having others doing the tweeting while his and Bailey's hands are performing the cuts. Anyone on Twitter knows how prolific Shonda Rhimes is on the tweet circuit, so this was only a matter of time. Meanwhile, I'm still sifting through all the "Ask Matt" e-mail after bringing up the maddening Callie-Arizona-Mark baby situation in last week's column. These are matters impossible to digest in 140-character bites. But this episode adds more fuel to the fire. As you'd expect, Callie makes the world's worst and most excitable ob-gyn patient. Or, as she puts it in her usual delicate manner, "I am a hormone casserole." While Mark declares he won't be just the "cool uncle" (which does get creepy over the long haul) and Arizona processes her anger to decide like Mark that she is "in," I just want out. But how great to see Lost's Rose — the great L. Scott Caldwell — back on ABC, as the grieving wife of an Alzheimer's patient who draws the placebo short straw in Derek's clinical trial. No wonder Alex backs out, advising Derek to give Meredith a shot: "Your wife is the only person twisted enough to handle this crap." And what's our excuse?
THE HONOR ROLL: Michael Cudlitz, bringing Emmy-worthy gravitas and pain (oh his aching back!) to the role of patrol officer-mentor John Cooper on TNT's Southland. In this week's episode, with everyone affected by the Santa Ana winds, he befriends an abandoned kid who he ultimately must leave in the system's hands — and neither is very happy about it. He debates "hanged" vs. "hung" at a backyard suicide (he's right, of course). He testifies against his rapist-murderer father at a bleak parole hearing (erasing the farce perpetrated one night earlier on Harry's Law). And on the drive back, he nearly wrecks while pouring out pain meds he purloined from a perp. As the pills fall into the dusty scrub, Cooper's howl of frustrated rage is shattering. ... How much do I love the way The Good Wife ends so many episodes on a subtle open-ended note of "what's next?" In this week's example, Alicia leaves the bedroom door open for Peter after he presses the issue. Might take the sting out of the campaign going bankrupt. My other favorite scene: Eli Gold taking down Zach's scheming minx of an ex, Becca, presumably for good. ... This week's Chuck really did feel like the season finale it was intended to be, with a birth (for Ellie and a frantic Awesome), a proposal (Chuck and Sarah, finally) and the takedown of Volkoff (Timothy Dalton, again stealing the show) by Chuck's ingenious plan to evoke the memory of his late father "Orion." But it's clear the only hospital where Jeffster! should be allowed to play is a mental one. ... And let the mourning begin now for Friday Night Lights, only one week away from ending for good. (Happy news for non-DirecTV subscribers: NBC's premiere date for the final season is April 15, and the DVD release date is even earlier, on April 5.) SPOILER ALERT: The penultimate episode is a roller-coaster doozy, with Coach Taylor winning some (games) and losing some (it's decided after an impassioned town meeting that the Lions franchise will fold into the Panthers to create a "super team"). As the Lions head to State, the state of the Taylors' own marital union is tested when Tami reveals her dream-of-a-lifetime job offer in Philly and argues that after 18 years as a coach's wife, it may finally be her turn to come first. "I don't see why we can't look at something beyond football." Does she know who she's talking to? And can she hear our heart breaking?
AS HEARD ON TV: "My body and I have a relationship that works best when we maintain a cool and wary distance from each other." — Sheldon resisting Penny's acting-lesson techniques on The Big Bang Theory. ... "Better watch your back. Because I may have to go get a hero hairdo of my own and steal your thunder." — Damon taunting Stefan, hilariously, on The Vampire Diaries. ... "First in friendship, fourth in obsesity." — One of Pawnee, Indiana's many town mottoes, as read by Parks and Recreation's Leslie Knope, the laundry list revealing the town's long history of appeasement (to Hitler, Vietnam and the Taliban). Actually, the best motto of all is coined by outsider Ben, who looks out at the contentious town meeting (which ends up being recorded for the ultimate time-capsule entry) and declares Pawnee as a place for "Weirdos Who Care." ... "You didn't applaud when I turned 40." — 89-year-old Betty White winning her first-ever SAG Award, for Hot in Cleveland. Clearly, Betty, we should have. ... "Tell that to my house in Malibu." — Matt LeBlanc on Showtime's Episodes, after a writer informs him that sitcom catchphrases are cheesy. By the way, how you doin'?
That's a wrap. Have fun this Super Bowl weekend, and till the next time, follow me on Twitter!