Because social and personal (Happy Valentine's Day!) obligations kept me away from the TV more than usual this week, I'm going to boil down this week's wrap-up to my version of a "Hot Topics" list, with a few odds and ends thrown in for fun.
OF IBM AND MEN: Man your buzzer if you really thought either Ken Jennings or Brad Rutter could topple supercomputer Watson on Jeopardy! in that fascinating three-part exhibition stunt. I got more caught up in seeing what Watson didn't know or how it was misinterpreting clues — including the first Final Jeopardy, which somehow led Watson to transform Toronto into a U.S. city — because if you were expecting a fair fight, it got frustrating pretty quickly when it became clear no mere human (not even Jennings, on whom the jury's out) could beat Watson on the buzzer. And while it's hard not to admire Watson's prowess at sniffing out a Daily Double, what was with those bizarre wagers? Also hard not to admire Jennings' ultimately human self-effacement. Getting a rare crack at a Daily Double, he quips, "I can either unplug Watson or bet it all." And at the end, he channels The Simpsons as he scrawls on his Final Jeopardy screen: "I for one welcome our new computer overlords." How soon before all of this turns up on The Big Bang Theory? Could be that show's version of the classic Odd Couple "Password" classic.
GOING GAGA: It's so easy to hop aboard the Lady Gaga backlash, but why would you what to when it's so much fun having her around? Gaga's most egg-centric Grammy appearance aside (the stuff late-night monologists' dreams are made of), the flamboyant self-styled diva did herself few favors this week by launching her publicity blitz around a sub-par song (albeit with a great message) that cribs from any number of Madonna's memorably expressive hooks. Gaga is usually better than that. For all of her jetting from late-night to morning-news shows, what I'll remember most about this week's Gaga-vaganza is her revealing 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper. "I'm a master of the art of fame," she says, somehow without arrogance, and as she elaborates on her life as a piece of performance art ("I art direct every moment of my life"), and dissects a celebrity culture where "everybody wants to see the decay of the superstar," I am again amazed that she is only 24. The same age as many of those American Idol hopefuls who haven't a clue. However you feel about Gaga's music, this purposefully ostentatious entertainer delivers, and she knows exactly what she's doing and why. As she tells Cooper, the danger with Gaga is to take her too seriously — or not seriously enough.
BIEBER FEVER: Just when you think nothing could stop the Justin Bieber express — in print, in Super Bowl ads, in SNL skits, you name it — a hail of CSI bullets mows the moppet down, like something out of a Muppet Babies redo of Bonnie & Clyde, thankfully sparing us more of his pouty posturing. (Regarding the rest of the CSI episode, I agree with our Cheer regarding the creep-tastic villainy of Bill Irwin's pathological Nate Haskell, whose "warrior gene" defense implodes when Langston reveals he has the same genetic aberration but uses his for good. Someone go needlepoint "DNA isn't destiny" now.) Did you buy Bieber as a vengeful adolescent mad bomber? Me neither.
Also not sure I'm buying the Bieber virus infecting another rocky episode of Glee this week, although the boys cringing while the girls squeal over Sam's "Justin Bieber experience" had me laughing. (Until the boys joined in, and even Puck put an unfortunate moptop over his Mohawk.) For all the pandering to the babes who love the Beebs, the episode hits its musical crescendo in the high-Rent "diva-off" between Rachel and Mercedes. Now that's singing.
A SORRY CHARLIE: "If Charlie Sheen outlives me, I'm gonna be really pissed." That's Chuck Lorre's post-Two and a Half Men vanity title card, followed a half-hour later by a more somber assessment of the Sheen mess in Mike & Molly's vanity card: "He felt dead inside. No matter how hard he partied, he could never escape that simple fact — inside, dead." Whoa. And there's more. Among the "random things I've learned in TV" he listed after The Big Bang Theory, Lorre notes: "Strong Nielsen ratings guarantee employment, not self-esteem." With those shots across the bow titillating viewers while Sheen shoots off his mouth on the radio, joking about he sometimes needs to be propped up during rehearsals, comes word that Men will go back into production at the end of the month. I'm not sure even a multi-year contract on Celebrity Rehab is going to give this ongoing True Hollywood Story debacle a happy ending.
NBC'S CLASS ACT: Once again, Community is the brilliant, underappreciated gem of NBC's Thursday comedy lineup, finding new ways to play with narrative, which involves tweaking the mockumentary format while staying true to character as the study group is subjected to a new round of Pierce's dastardly mind games. It's Abed, naturally, behind the camera, impassively observing the fallout at the hospital as Pierce feigns dying so he can bequeath devious gifts — or, as Jeff intuits, "complex acts of psychological vengeance," including resurrecting the specter of Jeff's absent dad. "Why am I the only one he decided to torture?" wails Shirley as she cradles a disc that purports to record her friends talking behind her back. If she only knew how a check made out to fill-in-the-blank will test high-minded Britta's altruism, or how paralyzed with terror Troy will become in the presence of his idol LeVar Burton. ("Set phasers to LOVE ME!" Troy weeps alone to the Reading Rainbow theme.) The episode stunningly whips from the hilarious (LeVar Burton's "More fish for Kunte" kicker) to the somewhat serious (Shirley realizing she uses guilt as a weapon) to scenes that achieve both ends, like when Jeff shouts at Abed, "Don't you dare intercut this with footage of me freaking out!" then of course cutting to glimpses of Jeff mentally shredding under the stress. Community hits an unnervingly emotional nerve in formally audacious episodes like these, becoming something more than comedy though never less than funny. This season is shaping up to be something students of great TV comedy will be learning from (without being able to steal from) for years.
SURVIVING NICELY: It took a ratings hit by going head-to-head with American Idol's infamous Hollywood Week group-sing episode, but Wednesday's premiere of Survivor: Redemption Island was on fire, with an explosive tribal council the likes of which you usually only see well into the game, never from the start. Boston Rob and Russell are the headliners, but the one bringing the fireworks in the opening round is a loose cannon named Phillip, who grates on everyone as he brags about his past as a "formal federal agent" (to which the production adds a question mark in his on-screen ID). Bossy and blabby, he gives his tribemates eye strain from all the eye-rolling, and they're presumably not even privy to his "male lion" growl shtick. Francesca, a brash lawyer, goads him by saying "Who cares?" But it's Francesca — or, as Phillip calls her, "Frances-qua," because "My mouth is dry and I've been getting treatment for it" — who's sent to Redemption Island after directly challenging his authori-tah. (Yes, there's probably a little Cartman in this bizarre bully as well.) The big question: Why in the world would ultra-aggressive Kristina, who pulls a Russell by finding the immunity idol without a clue, then reveal her hand to someone as volatile as Phillip? He outs her and the idol at Tribal Council, leading Boston Rob to tease Kristina with the offer of keeping her around if she turns the idol over to him. No dice; she isn't THAT stupid. But Survivor is already that crazy-good. Can't wait for more.
TWISTS AND TURNS: [From last Friday] Alt-world Olivia is pregnant, and grandpa-to-be Walternate is thrilled, seeing it as a way to bring Peter back from the other side. Fringe keeps knocking them out of the park. WATCH THIS SHOW on Fridays if you can. It is without the best show too few are watching. ... On the perilously predictable V, tell me you didn't see the bulls-eye on Erica's husband the minute he showed up at the hostage/bomb site. Come on, show. Do something, anything to surprise me. Like, say, offing the annoying Tyler? ... The Good Wife's rival investigators Kalinda and Blake go over the top, and down to their skivvies, in an interrogation-cum-seduction that ends when Blake calls her "Leela" and she floors him with a blow to the chest with her trusty bat. Gasping for air, Blake momentarily gets the last word, if not the upper hand, as he croaks out, "I phoned your husband." Boom!
HONOR ROLL: I second our Watercooler rave applauding how Adam Scott kills it with flop sweat on this week's Parks and Recreation as Ben's inglorious boy-mayor past derails the Harvest Festival media tour, from "Crazy Ira and the Douche" on radio to "Ya Heard? With Perd" on local TV. ... My other favorite sitcom meltdown of the week: The Middle's Sue Heck (Eden Sher), dissolving in traumatized remorse over sneaking into a steamy R-rated movie against her dad's wishes — and putting extra pumps of butter on her popcorn, causing her to barf on the theater floor "I couldn't handle it!" she shrieks. "How could I ever doubt you?" she cries, punishing herself and exposing the hole in the wall she and Brick created. "What kind of a sister am I?" she bleats in horror. It's too funny. ... They're timeless to me: the Jim Henson Company Puppets and the Sesame Street Muppets. The Puppets, including Dreamgirls-like backup singers, accompany Cee Lo Green and Gwyneth Paltrow on a jubilantly wacky and multi-colored Grammys performance. Won't be forgetting them. Several nights later, Sesame Street icons Cookie Monster, Elmo and Telly (I agree with those who feel the latter should have been Grover) judge Top Chef's cookie Quickfire Challenge with hilarious brio and antic enthusiasm. Front-runner Dale is momentarily stymied that he can't curse with the Muppets around, but everyone's laughing by the time Elmo says Antonia's chocolate hubcaps "looked like cow chips. Well, IT DID!"
THINGS I'M NOT BUYING: Not even at Target should one be running around in shorts and black knee socks like Angelo in his Top Chef: All-Stars swan song. He's kicked for too much salt in the potato soup, not for his fashion faux pas, but really, my eyes! ... Similarly, I hope we never see Walowitz expose his dickie again (by which I mean his black mock turtleneck) on The Big Bang Theory. That's just wrong. ... An entire Office episode built around a screening of Michael's tacky home-movie melodrama Threat Level Midnight? Even when Michael finally decides to get over himself and laugh at his folly, I can't bring myself to join in. ... Even worse: Pete and Frank jamming as Sound Mound on 30 Rock. How badly does this show collapse whenever it shifts focus from Jack and Liz?
AS HEARD ON TV: "When people look at you, they don't see what you're wearing. They see a cat getting its temperature taken and then they hear it screaming." — Reason #16,432 why we love Santana, as she schools Rachel on Glee. ... "A magical night when a 10 has the self-esteem of a 4 and the depraved enthusiasm of a 2." — How I Met Your Mother's Barney Stinson as he describes the calculus of Feb. 13, "Desperation Day." ... "At this point in our ecosystem, you are akin to the plover, a small scavenging bird that eats extra food from between the teeth of crocodiles. Please fly into our open maw and have at it." — How Sheldon welcomes Penny to mooch some pizza on The Big Bang Theory.
That's a wrap. What caught your eye and ear this week? Sound off in the comments, or send me questions and reactions directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, and in the meantime, follow me on Twitter!