On that rare occasion when someone tells you there's nothing good on TV — but honestly, why would you be talking to people like that? — gently point them toward Tuesday nights at 10/9c, a time period that became ridiculously overstuffed this week thanks to some of cable's best and most entertaining dramas. (And let's pause to give thanks to cable replays, for those with limited DVR capability.)
THE TUESDAY LOGJAM: Let's start with FX's Justified, fresh as ever in its third season. Still recovering from last season's wounds, wry U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) may not be up to snuff just yet — as his boss taunts, "You can't run and you can't shoot, what good are you?" — but the show is so assured in its blend of barbed humor and deadly menace that you can always expect at least once per episode to be found laughing on the edge of your seat. Mags Bennett may be gone, and there's no replacing the great Margo Martindale, but icy-eyed Neal McDonough is giving it a robust go as a fixer from Detroit who's laying waste to local members of the Dixie Mafia. And with Boyd Crowder (the sly and sinister Walton Goggins) scheming to take control of crime in Harlan County, we anticipate a major showdown.
Bonus points for this week's guest villain: Dexter's Desmond Harrington as a stone-cold killer nicknamed "Ice Pick," who should know better than to initiate a standoff with Raylan on opposite sides of a table. (Nice tablecloth trick, Raylan.) When Ice Pick goaded Raylan in an elevator earlier on by complimenting his Stetson, then jibing, "Not much call for cowboys these days," we knew he was a goner. Great start to what's shaping up to be another lethally entertaining season.
Moving on to USA Network's breezy hit White Collar, where the tug-of-war for Neal Caffrey's soul continues as the back half of Season 3 picks up from the summer cliffhanger. "There's a reason why our kind doesn't stay anywhere too long. It's in our nature to deceive," says the nefarious crook Keller, who's kidnapped Peter's wife Elizabeth — crossing the line even for Mozzie — and in the final showdown over the stolen Nazi loot, prompts Neal to actually fire a gun to save the day and his buddy Peter. "Mrs. Suit" also shows her moxie while in captivity, sweating out her guard with mind games and using her ring to weaken the window glass so she can make her escape. Tim DeKay does excellent work, exploding in rage when he realizes the extent of Neal's deception and where it's led — to his own domestic doorstep. And we feel Matt Bomer's pain as a remorseful Neal offers to give it all up to make things right. (Loved his final battle with Keller, looking like gladiators in suits as they jousted with relics from the Nazi cache.) Neal is cleared when Keller makes a full confession, and as a reward, Neal is told there's a chance, pending a hearing, that his sentence could be commuted. Bye-bye anklet, hello freedom — but what does that mean for the new life he's built? "If you want a happy ending, it depends on where you end the story," Neal muses. Is there any doubt he'll stay put?
The gritty underdog in this Tuesday time period is TNT's Southland, which only got better when it moved to cable after an uneasy birth on NBC. A tour of police duty through Los Angeles' underbelly, where things get tense in an instant as random mayhem comes from all directions, Southland tends to avoid melodrama as it follows patrol cops and detectives through their grind, which seems mundane until it turns intensely harrowing. The fourth-season opener is built around the uneasy return of Michael Cudlitz' John "the gimp" Cooper from rehab and physical therapy. He's paired with Lucy Liu, surprisingly effective as no-nonsense officer Jessica Tang, who's developed a thick skin from the sexist taunting of her peers. (A damning video of her being body-slammed and assaulted by a giant during a traffic stop just underscores the baggage these cops routinely carry.) She's no saint, and it's a hoot when she keeps griping about being pulled away from a nomadic food truck to tend to a pathetic suicidal jumper — whose would-be death jump from a forklift, using panty hose as a rope, is comically sad. The parade of grim episodic incident continues with Det. Lydia Adams being unable to keep her druggie snitch from winding up dead in the ocean she'd always dreamed of seeing, and Cooper's former partner Ben Sherman clashing with Lou Diamond Phillips as a cocky cynic of a patrol cop who taunts Ben as a junior "Columbo" at crime scenes.
The episode is so strong it probably didn't need the climactic explosion of violent chaos in the precinct, as a shooter bursts in and starts unloading his rifle in a terrifying shootout, taking Phillips (among others) down, leaving everyone shaken and puking. This is hardly a day-in-the-life incident, and for a moment, I felt I was watching a TV show. Curious to see if there's fallout in weeks to come from this incident, which at the very least would spark a media frenzy.
In our discussion of this Tuesday time period, it would be unfair to leave out Parenthood, which by nature of being on ratings-embattled NBC almost qualifies as cable. It's also almost that good. I'm over the Julia adoption storyline — this week, annoying birth mother Zoe's anxiety is triggered by a birthing class (yawn) — but when Zoe concedes, "It's all getting so real, huh?" that does speak to Parenthood's strengths. The most wrenching material this week deals with Haddie's early admission to Cornell, a joyous moment dimmed by Adam's anxiety over the cost of his daughter's Ivy League education. There is real anguish as he and Kristina lay out the facts for the daughter who has given up so much so the family can tend to special-needs Max, and now the new baby. It isn't fair, and when Haddie tells her mom, "You can't ask me to not be upset about it. You have to just let it be what it is," it does feel awfully real. (Adam finally relents, promising Haddie they'll do "whatever it takes" to make her dream happen, but he and we aren't convinced, and it surely won't be easy.)
But Parenthood is always good for a soapy twist or two as well, so we can now count the episodes until Candidate Bob crosses the line in making a move on an uncomfortable Amber. And it felt like such great payback as Jasmine squirms watching Crosby (and little Jabbar) exult in the cello action of his delightful and talented new squeeze, Lily. And while I initially cringed when Zeek impulsively buys an Airstream trailer to channel his anxiety over his uncertain health diagnosis — atrial fibrillation, treatable but a wake-up call to mortality — it was hard not to melt when he urges Camille to go on the road with him and fulfill her dream of painting all the missions along the way. "C'mon kid. Let's just go and do it." Yes, let's.
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And now, some more of what caught my eye, for better or worse, this week:
I SWEAR! So much fuss, apparently, over Modern Family, as a very few watchdog groups got their knickers in the usual twist (prematurely, naturally, the better to call attention to themselves) as little Lily dropped the "f"-bomb — the little actress was really saying "fudge" — to her parents' chagrin, but also amusement. The show played the situation just right, as Cam bursts into helpless giggles watching his princess swear like a sailor. ("I have two children," Mitchell grouses as Cam runs out of the room shrieking.) Even funnier than the swearing is Lily's ghastly flower-girl gown, lit up like she's doing "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" from Gypsy. But the strongest comedy in the episode was delivered by Julie Bowen, attempting, without much luck, to tone down Claire's bossy mommy mannerisms in her city-council debate with David Cross, and when Ty Burrell's Phil tries to come to her rescue, they both end up going viral. Auto-Tuned, no less. Bonus points to Stella the French Bulldog, whose swims in the pool (causing Jay, then Gloria, to jump in to rescue her) weren't so much suicidal as an attempt to fetch the "squeaky wiener" toy trapped in the drain filter.
FALLING IDOL: Still a monster hit, but not the show-killing juggernaut it used to be, American Idol kicks off its 11th season with numbers that would still make any sane programmer green with envy, but with hits like Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory refusing to roll over for it on opening week, the audition episodes took a significant hit from a year ago, when Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez were still new to the game. The freak-show aspect seemed significantly toned down for the first rounds in Savannah and Pittsburgh, with the emphasis on inspiration and chasing the dream, as many contestants are introduced with home video of them watching the show as babes. (An entire generation has been weaned on Idol. Make of that what you will.) "I'm actually living what's really on TV," said an awestruck Stephanie, a 15-year-old Carrie Underwood devotee.
For the judges, it's all about the "goosies" (J.Lo's term for goosebumps) — or maybe gooses, as Erica the randy bartender gets in a good squeeze of Tyler's gluteus maximus. Turnabout's fair play, given Tyler's penchant of inappropriately drooling over the jailbait — like when he says things are "hot, humid and happening, just like your daughter" in front of a former pro football star there to support his 15-year-old daughter. And I imagine I'm not the only one who flinched when "hipp-sie" Amy, who lives in the woods, talked about "pitching a tent" in front of the rocker.
WITCHES BREW: "I smell dinner," cackles the scary blind witch (Emma Caulfield, wonderfully savoring the campiness of it all) in the Hansel & Gretel chapter of ABC's Once Upon a Time. "Gravy or butter? Which shall it be? How shall I baste you?" she torments the trapped children in her house of sugary temptation before the kids, as legend demands, turn the tables on her and toss her in the oven. From afar, the Evil Queen quips, "I would have gone gravy," as she torches the witch and takes possession of the weaponized apple.
A few nights later, Hollywood royalty-turned-fairy tale villain — Charlize Theron, from the upcoming Snow White and the Huntsman movie — presides over a dark Gothic feast in the best-yet episode from this season of Bravo's Top Chef: Texas. As the judges dig in to seven wickedly indulgent courses including black chicken with claws still attached and lamb heart atop risotto, Theron happily gets into character: "Oh my God, I am this queen! This heart is phenomenal. Bring me more heart!" And as elimination looms, she wonders, "Do I get the head of the chef on a silver platter?" Beverly may have kept her head, but this loss felt like the unkindest cut yet — if only she'd plated her Rice Krispies in the conveyor-belt quickfire challenge, she'd have had immunity.
THE GLEE WIVES' CLUB: The first new Glee of the calendar year was a tuneful smorgasbord reveling in the possibilities of musical fantasy: recreating the "Summer Nights" number of Grease for Sam and Mercedes; Emma going all 5th Dimension in another dimension, substituting "Will" for Bill in her cover of "Wedding Bell Blues" (with Bieste and Sue sporting goofy headpieces like Fergie's daughters at the royal wedding); the boys urging Will to move like Jagger and the girls prompting him to remember "The First Time Ever I Saw [Her] Face," culminating in the sort of poolside proposal (in soaking white tux) we haven't seen since Esther Williams' heyday. Plus, we get in Becky's head as she crushes on Artie and hear Helen Mirren instead, telling haters to lay off. Fat chance with Glee, which even when it's firing this strongly gets hammered for being overstuffed, dramatically inconsistent — when did Sue Sylvester become a human being again? — and clumsy at rushing the drama, including Finn's impromptu proposal to Rachel in the final moment. There were moving, stirring and just plain fabulous moments throughout — including NeNe Leakes' cameo as a synchronized-swimming coach who takes one look at Sam and declares, "I've never seen lips like that on a white child" and ferociously warns him not to pee in the pool. She didn't say anything about wheelchairs, so when Artie rolls his into the water in the climactic production number, it just seems par for the course.
There was another watery proposal this week, as Daniel finally pops the question to Emily during a drenching downpour, signifying more stormy times on ABC's Revenge. Her "I do" is the best way for her to get back at Victoria, who sicced one of her thugs on Jack, an innocent bystander in the search for the damning tapes Emily planted on Amanda (and one is still under Jack's bed). With Amanda now out of the picture, sent away for her own good, Emily is shooting daggers at her future mother-in-law for spreading the latest lie — that the baby (Charlotte) she conceived with David Clarke was the result of rape. This catfight is getting real.
WE INTERRUPT THIS COMMERCIAL: You could feel Alex O'Loughlin soul shrink by the second as CBS' Hawaii Five-0 awkwardly ground to a halt to accommodate a nearly minute-long plug for Subway. He and Kono (Grace Park) grimace and bear it as their mountainous buddy from the food truck digs in to five foot-longs, praising their "serious culinary fusion." Sorry, but this kind of clumsy product placement can't help but leave a sour taste in everyone's mouth. We get that we're part of the problem in this time-shifting speed-through-the-ads DVR age, but this is no way to take a bite out of a crime show.
A PENNY FOR YOUR THOUGHTS: On the 100th episode of The Big Bang Theory, Leonard asks his former girlfriend Penny on a date. "Have you thought it through?" she asks at episode's end. The answer is yes, because the entire episode we just sat through was Leonard's daydream fantasy of thinking it through, which becomes more of a waking nightmare, because he dreams that it all falls apart again because he overthinks everything. (Their imagined dinner date ends in an argument, followed by her taking him to bed. "How does a miserable date end in sex?" he wonders while nursing a foot cramp and pining for his inhaler.)
So as we leave Leonard and Penny contemplating an actual do-over, we turn to Big Bang's time-period competition, 30 Rock, where Liz Lemon declares, "For once, I'm not overthinking everything" regarding her three-month relationship with the toothy, goofy James Marsden, who sits in his PJs on her coach all day. Jack gets in her head, though, mocking her beau mercilessly, so this isn't likely to end well.
THE BLOWUP: "I've had enough trauma for one lifetime," sighs Grey's Anatomy's Meredith as she considers her medical future. But the real trauma that's brewing is an emotional showdown between Cristina and Owen. I've been getting mail from Grey's fans all season wondering why this couple hasn't confronted the elephant-in-the-room of her abortion. The answer is: The writers like to save such moments for a special occasion. In this case, a party for baby Zola that doubles as a celebration for Webber's 10,000th surgery (an occasion marred by the intrusion of his panicked wife, wrenchingly played by Emmy winner Loretta Devine). Cristina's in hot water because she defied her husband's orders at work, and then he sees her cooing at Zola. So he finally snaps, railing about how nothing at work or at home is turning out as he envisioned. "It all comes back to this?" she cries. "You killed our baby, you don't ever forget that!" Them's fighting words, and I'm guessing the making-up is going to be a long time coming. (But first, we have to make it through the "what if" alt-world episode on Feb. 2.)
GREAT GUESTS: Leslie Knope has met her competition for the city-council race on Parks and Recreation, and he's an adorable boob: Paul Rudd as Sweetums heir Bobby Newport, a pampered naïf whose "regular guy" commercial (a dig at Mitt Romney?) shows him coddling a Persian Greyhound he got from his buddy, "pretender of the crown of Alsace-Lorraine." When Ben convinces Leslie to take an attack ad viral, likening childish Bobby to the 10-year-old Leslie, who even then "had better ideas" for running Pawnee, Bobby's confused hurt feelings makes him endearingly funny. "Why are you guys smiling? I feel bad," he pouts, as Leslie tells him to toughen up. What fun would that be? ... Giving his best performance in ages, Burt Reynolds appears as himself in the season opener of FX's brilliant animated spy spoof Archer. Archer is his biggest fan — "I even saw At Long Last Love. I think you were great. Well, I wanted to." — but the man-crush fawning goes sour when he realizes the droll, debonair and death-defying Burt is dating his dragon-queen mother. ... And I second Bruce Fretts' Cheer to Harry Connick Jr. for brightening Benson's day (it's about time) as a new ADA on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
ODDS AND ENDS: As Downton Abbey reaps more awards, this time at the Golden Globes, the captivating second season finds the grand house being transformed into a convalescent "officers only" wartime hospital, igniting a power struggle between the lady of the house Cora and the bossy Isobel. The real drama is occurring downstairs, as sweet-souled footman-turned-soldier William proposes to confused young Daisy, who's bullied into accepting by the cook Mrs. Padmore, using the argument that it will give the boy hope as he tends to Master Matthew Crawley on the front lines. (Even as the social order threatens to change, some things never do.) ... How tricky was the case-of-the-week on CBS' The Good Wife, in which the Treasury Department was trying to nail the creator of a new digital currency — or was BitCoin a commodity? Regardless, it took Kalinda to discover that "Mr. BitCoin" was actually three people, including their client (Jason Biggs). ... A character who never fails to slay me is The Middle's Sue Heck (Eden Sher), and when the family takes possession of a neighbor's new Passat while they're away, Sue uses the opportunity to prep for Driver's Ed behind the wheel. Being Sue, she accidentally puts the car in gear and it rolls out of the driveway — an incident that happened at least once in my family (The Middle hits so close to home) — and her panicked drive around the block is possibly the funniest scene on TV all week.
QUEEN BETTY: "You're going to hear a lot of jokes about your age. Take comfort in the fact that come tomorrow, you won't remember any of them." Which is how Amy Poehler kicked off NBC's 90th-birthday celebration of Betty White, the most gentle of roasts, enhanced by timeless clips from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Golden Girls and The Carol Burnett Show. They really don't make them like that anymore. But if only we could forget the show that followed, a sneak premiere of the flaccid hidden-camera show Betty White's Off Their Rockers, which may have sounded good on paper but (pardon the pun) got old quick. Seniors do and say wacky things around young 'uns, but only occasionally does it reach the point of Candid Camera-style hilarity. Usually, the kids just shrugged it off and moved on. Not a bad idea.
AS HEARD ON TV: "Go watch TV. Nothing smart. No PBS and no NBC sitcoms." — Virginia to husband Burt on a hilarious episode of Fox's Raising Hope, as the Chances compete to earn their GEDs in night school. As Virginia puts it, "I am not going from the Moe to the Curly in this trio." ... "We need idiots. You certainly need idiots. Who do you think is watching your show?" — Jack to Liz on 30 Rock, when Tracy organizes a protest by idiots (including Denise Richards) after Liz calls him an idiot for his inflammatory comments about gays. ... "Live long and suck it, Zachary Quinto." The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon, throwing a hissy fit when he gets the wrong cardboard Spock cut-out in the mail. ... "If a book could only be judged by its cover, you'd be a best seller." — Boyd Crowder to Raylan Givens on Justified, veiling threats within compliments. (And could this be a shout-to to Elmore Leonard's new novel Raylan? Just saying.) ... "Now she's cavorting with dwarves? When did that happen?" — Once Upon a Time's Evil Queen, checking in on her nemesis Snow White via the magic mirror. Where has she been? ... "Your turtle was a turd." — Oscar-winning Face Off judge Ve Neill not mincing her words as she judges the sea-creature challenge, which required lowering the models into a water tank. In this sink-or-swim round, the turtle sunk, and stunk.