Sometimes it's not just about the ratings. And sometimes it is. That's the takeaway from an eventful week in the win-some/lose-some sweepstakes we call TV programming.
On the plus side: TNT's renewal of Southland, the latest lifeline for the gritty police drama that NBC ditched during that misbegotten period when Jay Leno put the 10 pm drama on the endangered species list. It will never be as popular as the network's signature shows like The Closer and Rizzoli & Isles (which got a funny shout out from 30 Rock's Liz Lemon this week), but Southland's uncompromising integrity helps give credence to TNT's "We Know Drama" credo.
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An even happier surprise was delivered by Fox, renewing Fringe for a fourth season after having banished the fantastically adventurous sci-fi thriller to Friday (typically a "death slot" on Fox) earlier this year. Fox acknowledges that Fringe has raised its creative game this season, with alternating exploits in parallel universes, while crediting its loyal and vocal fan base with keeping it alive against the odds. (Note to fans: Do not miss this week's harrowing episode set in the alt-world, with the fate of Olivia's life and pregnancy in the balance.)
The news was not so good at FX, which confirmed that the compelling-but-grueling, and little-watched, boxing drama Lights Out would not be picked up for a second season. Echoes of FX's Terriers, which likewise told a more-or-less complete story in its terrific but underappreciated freshman season. Both now look in retrospect like miniseries that may satisfy the viewer (even if we're left wanting more), if not the company's bottom line. Two episodes are left in Lights Out's run, and the good news is that they will air on Tuesdays (10/9c) where they've always been scheduled. Network TV is almost never that generous.
Take ABC and the woefully undervalued Detroit 1-8-7, which prematurely ended its run out of pattern with a special Sunday episode. (It also suffered frequent preemptions in recent weeks, never a good sign for a struggling show's future.) ABC hasn't confirmed that Detroit won't be back next season, but the signs aren't exactly positive. So kudos for going out with such a strong episode, as Fitch (Michael Imperioli) faces down his mob nemesis from New York and the precinct rallies to protect one of their own, covering for him and stonewalling the feds at the baptism of his partner Washington's child. Bonus points again to James McDaniel's stellar supporting work as a veteran cop who decides at the 11th hour that retirement to Tuscany will kill his soul faster than continuing life on the dangerous city beat. "I love this city," he says. Detroit made us love Detroit as well, and it's a pity more people didn't come along for this ride.
Some other standouts during this week in TV:
BOMBSHELL OF THE WEEK: OK, who saw that twist on The Good Wife coming? When woman of mystery Kalinda muses, "Ever get the feeling something bad is going to happen?" and Alicia giggles, "Always," I'm betting no one predicted it would get this dark and twisty. As the enigmatic Kalinda faces grand jury questioning and repeatedly takes the fifth (on Alicia's urging), she eventually answers enough leading questions to force a final showdown with her rival Blake, who she's manipulating to flee town. But he's loaded for bear, revealing in their underground face-to-face that he knows who helped her change her name and cover up her elusive past: Peter Florrick, Alicia's philandering husband. And what's more, they slept together. BOOM! "Life changes, doesn't it?" Alicia said to her friend shortly before all this went down. If she only knew. And when will Alicia know, and can her bond with Alicia — and with Peter — survive this latest betrayal? The best drama on network TV has turned it up another notch.
GAME CHANGER OF THE WEEK: And tell me you didn't go "awwww," at least a little (or maybe a lot), as The Office's Michael Scott made one of the grandest gasp-inducing romantic gestures in recent TV memory, as he pops the question to his quirky soul mate Holly — and how amazing is the chemistry between Steve Carell and Amy Ryan? Michael initially wants to propose to her with fire in the parking lot. (Thankfully, Pam nips that gasoline-fueled idea in the bud.) So he settles for candles instead, the warm-fuzzy culmination of his sweet memory tour of Dunder Mifflin, walking Holly around to all the areas where their workplace love affair blossomed. Next step: facing the gauntlet of office staffers, each holding a candle as they ask Holly if she'll marry them. (Michael's asides are hilarious.) And then the reveal of an office filled with lit candles, everyone watching from behind blinds, as Michael presents the rock of a ring that made Pam shriek, "Holy bleep — is that real?" (Cost him three years' salary.) Naturally, the heat sets off the sprinkler system, and as these fans of corny slapstick revel in the moment, reverting to Yoda voices for Michael to propose marriage and Holly to accept, the office erupts in glee. Until Michael reveals he's leaving, moving to Colorado with Holly while she tends to her aging parents. That shuts everyone up, and even gives pause to fans who knew this was coming. Let the games for succession begin.
COMEDY TO CHEW ON: No comedy takes more risks than NBC's sleeper sensation Community, and this week's mind-blowing exercise in subverting our expectations was so wonderfully weird, I can't wait to watch it again. First off, when has any network sitcom so openly and audaciously obsessed on a show (the currently MIA Cougar Town) from a rival network? Secondly, we wonder along with Jeff, who's meeting his study-mate at a fancy restaurant: Why is Abed acting so weird — as in, not acting weird? Affecting normalcy in a cardigan sweater (Jeff: "Why are you dressed like Mr. Rogers and talking like Frasier?") and eschewing his usual pop-culture riffs, Abed tells a long, strange dinner-table anecdote of visiting the Cougar Town set, becoming a background extra who he calls "Chad" and upon whom he develops such an elaborate back story that Abed goes into an existential, pants-pooping funk when the camera stops rolling. ("Chad had lived, Jeff. Chad had lived more than Abed.") Abed declares himself a new Abed, ready for the gift of "real conversation," and an initially skeptical Jeff opens up cathartically with a tragicomic secret-shame confession of once being costumed as an Indian girl at Halloween. But "real" is relative on Community, and Jeff discovers none of this is actually real, but instead is an "homage" to one of Abed's art-house faves, My Dinner With Andre. (Meanwhile, the rest of the study group is back at the diner in Pulp Fiction drag, waiting to surprise Abed. One word for Shirley's mutton chops-a-la-Samuel L. Jackson: "Cool.") Jeff is angry at Abed, but Abed is back to his "fast-blinking, stoic, removed, uncomfortably self-aware" self, likening himself to everyone from Data and HAL to "Woodstock and/or Snoopy." A happy ending of sorts as the Pulp Fiction party is moved to the fancy eatery, and we marvel anew at the creative leaps of faith Community asks of its fans. Most other TV comedies feel like treading in shallow water by comparison.
GREAT GUESTS: John Lithgow is "the mother of all fathers" to Barney, making a superb first impression on How I Met Your Mother as Barney's long-absent dad, Jerry. His life in the 'burbs turns out to be less than legendary — although Barney's fantasy of a cool alternate-Jerry gives Lithgow a chance to show his comic chops — and there's real poignancy as Jerry declares, "I'm not the guy he wanted me to be," and Barney acts out in rage: "You're just some lame suburban dad. Why couldn't you have been that for me?"
The show may be on its last legs, but FX's Lights Out gave character actor David Morse one of the most moving and surprising showcases of the season as a broken-down, brain-addled boxer known as "The Rainmaker." Heartbreaking as he tries to fit in at the gym, but too unstable to be trusted not to hurt someone or get himself hurt even worse, he does come in handy when Lights needs someone to rough up the councilman the feds are leaning on to expose Lights' less noble deeds. "If I don't write it down, it's like it never happened," the "Rainmaker" says as he chomps down on a piece of paper with the address Lights provided him. Crazy like a fox, this guy.
How great to have Modern Family back this week, and in such terrific company. Watching Jay hit it off with Mitchell's gay friends, including the return of Nathan Lane's Pepper, is a joy. And who knew the Dunphys lived next to the neighbor from hell: Philip Baker Hall as the hilariously curmudgeonly Mr. Kleezak. Shades of Dennis the Menace and Mr. Wilson, by way of Harold and Maude, as adorably oblivious Luke reaches out to the oxygen-sucking old man: "Are you going scuba diving? Why do you have that tank?" When Kleezak barks, "Are you being smart?" we know the answer all too well. Which only makes it funnier.
Brilliant celebrity cameo of the week: Oscar winning writer Aaron Sorkin playing himself, running into 30 Rock's Liz Lemon as they interview for a writing job on The Sing-Off with Nick Lachey. (It's Liz's attempt to find a "Plan B" backup while TGS goes on "forced hiatus.") Sorkin responding to Liz's Studio 60 prompt with a "Shut up" is just the beginning. (Both series premiered the same season, and we all know which one lasted.) Embarking on a classic Sorkin-style walk-and-talk, Sorkin speechifies: "Our craft is dying while people are playing Angry Birds and poking each other on Facebook. ... We make horse buggies, and the first Model T just rolled into town." When Liz likens themselves to dinosaurs, he snaps: "We don't need two metaphors. That's bad writing. Not that it matters." Some of the best writing 30 Rock has seen this season, and it does matter. Well played.
THE SCORECARD: Who else thought Casey Abrams was going to lose it — as in: physically collapse and/or hurl all over the stage or the judges' table — when the American Idol judges saved him from elimination midway through his song? It doesn't get more dramatic than that. Another reminder that Idol is having a pretty terrific and galvanizing season, and this week the judges stepped up the constructive criticism: especially Jennifer Lopez, warning the contestants not to over-sing or to be complacent and to let their personalities shine through the music, but not at the expense of the music. Among those who raised their game: Lauren, Jacob (by toning it down a notch) and Naima, whose African dance was remarkably bold. Other thoughts: I'm generally not a fan of letting the singers hide behind their instruments — it nearly killed the show last season — but if it keeps Paul's spastic dance moves to a minimum, let him keep the guitar. And try as Scotty might to sell it, we're reminded that some things just don't mix: like Motown and country. But at least he looks at us while he's singing. Stefano, learn from that. You barely escaped elimination, and the judges wouldn't have saved you.
On the Dancing With the Stars front, who'd have thought a nearly 50-something Karate Kid and a 60-year-old sitcom queen called "the broken one" by her puckish partner would be the front-runners after opening night? If the unexpectedly charming Ralph Macchio and the deliriously self-deprecating Kirstie Alley keep it up, we're in for a treat — even if this group lacks the kind of lightning rods of past seasons (Kate Gosselin, Bristol Palin) that tend to spike ratings. Who'll be the first to go: lead-footed radio guy "Psycho" Mike Catherwood or, surprisingly tentative and defensive, the usually-ebullient Wendy Williams? I've seen her studio audience bust many a move. Now it's her turn.
HONOR ROLL: Walton Goggins is a master of sinister understatement on FX's Justified as ex-con Boyd Crowder, the last person you'd expect a coal company exec (Hung's Rebecca Creskoff) to hire as a security consultant. "It sounds an awful lot like you want me to return to my outlaw ways," he tells her, newly clad in his J.C. Penney suit in the back of her limo. Sounds like he might be right, because she now needs him to deal with fearsome backwoods crime matriarch Mags Bennett. ... Loved watching Andy and Darryl make up the rules to the Dallas board game during The Office's garage sale, frustrating Kevin — who got the last laugh when he stormed off with all the money. "And that is Dallas." Indeed. ... All hail Matt, who continues to survive on Survivor's Redemption Island, winning four challenges in a row in hopes of lasting long enough to be brought back into the game. What a champ — and you know he won hearts as he formed a "faith community" with fellow ejectee Krista, who gave him her Bible after losing the table-maze contest. ... It was like old-home week, as The Middle reveals one of Mike's most treasured keepsakes (on his short-list of "do not toss" items during spring cleaning) is a floorboard from Indiana University's Assembly Hall. (Nostalgia alert for my alma mater).
AS HEARD ON TV: "Hell hath no fury like a lion or a gorilla when he thinks he's been provoked." — Survivor's irrepressible Phillip on learning the rest of his "Stealth" team — Phillip as specialist, Rob as mentalist, Grant as assassin — has been holding out on him regarding immunity idol clues. ... "I've been a cop in Detroit so long, when I started half the suspects was white." — Veteran Detroit 1-8-7 sergeant Jesse Longford (James McDaniel) trying to joke with a personnel director in his exit interview. ... "They're gay. They know what shoes they own!" —Modern Family's Haley, after doofus boyfriend Dylan leaves his footwear behind at her uncles' house while she was babysitting Lily. ... "It's like yoga, except I still get to kill something." —Parks and Recreation's Ron Swanson on the lure of fishing, during the office's brainstorming camping trip. ... "I was trapped in a world of wet wipes and rectal thermometers. And then the babies came and life changed." —The return of 30 Rock's devious Devin Banks (Will Arnett), and it's about time. ... And finally, something for everyone to keep in mind, courtesy of American Idol's Steven Tyler: "You don't look a day over fabulous!"