With season finales, cliffhangers and reality-competition showdowns abounding as the TV season nears its end, here are some of the turning points that caught my attention:
KNOPE CAN DO! On a thoroughly charming Parks and Recreation finale, eternal idealist Leslie Knope achieves her lifelong dream of being voted into office — and Amy Poehler captures every nail-biting emotion, from overwhelmed pride at casting a vote for herself to premature despair, an ultimately genuine joy and gratitude to all the friends who made this possible. Her opponent Bobby Newport isn't the only one who's relieved — and geez, show, Paul Rudd is such an adorable boob (the way he stares at a boom mike like it's a chew toy), can't he stick around as a mascot or something? Pawnee City Council may not be Washington, D.C. (where Ben appears to be heading, casting a long-distance pall over the celebration), and a 21-vote margin of victory isn't much of a mandate, but who cares when you have friends like a whisky-laden Ron Swanson, who tells Leslie when she's down that the team rallied to her cause because "that's what you do when you care about someone: You support 'em win, lose or draw." Awww.
Extra bonus points to Ron for introducing Ben to scotch (watching it dribble from his tongue is a scream), because "Clear alcohol is for rich women on diets." I'll drink my next G&T to that.
In more great moments in sitcom altruism, we have the very winning finale of Fox's New Girl, in which everyone just wants everyone else to be happy, making me happy in the process. As Schmidt tells Jess, preparing to "White Fang" Cece to set her free, "When you care about somebody, you do what's best for them, even if it sucks for you. Even if they're just a woof." (Jess needling Schmidt for his pronunciation of "wolf" is so cute.) And after Jess and Nick's own encounter with a wild creature — a coyote — in the wilderness, where we get to hear Jess' hilarious Road Runner impression before she releases her inner "woof," she reveals she just wants Nick to be happy, even if it means moving in with the soul-crushing Caroline. She'll be OK, Jess insists, "because I met you." Awww. And even if we hadn't been tipped off by Nick's panic attack that led to this night stranded in nature, his return to the apartment brought out the happy dance in all of us. Great first season, guys.
BITE THIS: "It's Mystic Falls. Nothing bad ever happens here." Those were the days. That's a younger-and-much-less-wise Elena talking to then-stranger Damon — an encounter he would wipe from her memory, leaving her thinking Stefan met her first — in a Vampire Diaries flashback, part of a wild season finale that saw just about everything change. Most notably Elena, the victim of yet another watery car accident, but this time she makes Stefan save Matt first, and her drowning means the end of Alaric's reign of terror (his resurrection as a vampire/vampire slayer is tied to her doppelganger blood). But because she was fed vampire blood earlier by Dr. Fell — to fix the cerebral hemorrhage from last week's accident — Elena wakes from the dead. Welcome to the vampire ranks, dear, what took you so long? And though we saw Alaric thrust the magic stake into Klaus' paralyzed body, which bursts into flames, Bonnie's latest spell somehow puts Klaus into poor hybrid Tyler's body, meaning Klaus is still alive and all those from his bloodline continue to live. A relief, but how confusing!
But what of the romantic triangle? Elena's heart-to-heart with Matt (the mortal she strung along back in simpler times) is illuminating, describing Stefan as "the person that makes you glad that you've alive" and Damon as the "problem," because "when I'm with him, it just consumes me." Believing the clock may be ticking on both brothers, when Klaus is presumed dead, Elena decides to return to Stefan, who she never stopped loving even when she fell for Damon. She tells the odd vamp-brother out "I have to let you go," and Damon's heard it all before. But what Elena doesn't realize is that when Damon met her first, he read her perfectly: "You want a love that consumes you. You want passion and adventure and even a little danger." Now that Elena's immortal like the rest of them, will that change how she feels?
Bonus points to Matt Davis's moving final scene as Ghost Alaric, appearing to poor Jeremy (the last undead Gilbert for now) to assure the angsty teen "I'll always he here to look after you. You'll never be alone" — even if his sister is now about to start playing for the other team.
BLAST OFF: "Boldly go, Howard Wolowitz," says Sheldon Cooper, as he quietly and silently takes Amy's hand — a moment of actual human connection that is truly gasp-inducing, and more emotionally affecting than I'd imagined — as The Big Bang Theory's season finale sends Howard skittishly into space, a newlywed whose earlier rooftop ceremony is captured appropriately enough by Google Earth. The wedding of Howard and Bernadette is sweet and simple, and only momentarily sullied by Sheldon's lapse into Klingon-speak. The translation is actually rather sweet: "The need to find another human being to share one's life with always puzzled me, maybe because I'm so interesting all by myself ... May you find as much happiness with each other as I have on my own." But as the moment with Amy signifies, Sheldon is never as alone as he thinks.
STORMING THE CASTLE: A major event in "shipper" history, as Castle finally brings "Caskett" (Castle-Beckett, for the uninitiated) together in a blistering emotional clinch, but only after Beckett resigns at work (for now) and Castle Deletes Her File (how symbolic). She's furious at him for keeping her in the dark the whole last year over the ongoing threat to her life, and he's fed up with her stubbornness, even after openly declaring his love for "the most remarkable, maddening, challenging, frustrating person I've ever met." But after what I call her Vertigo moment — watch the first scene of that Hitchcock classic, and you'll understand — during the rooftop chase for the sinister Cole Maddox, she has her epiphany. While hanging to life by her fingertips, she didn't care that the bad guy got away this time. "All I could think about was you. I just want you," she says. And they're off, satisfying fans' needs at long last, as Castle gazes at the bullet scar on her chest, and they kiss, they smile, they hold hands as they walk out of camera range for some much-needed privacy. Guess she'll fill the void left by his daughter Alexis, who in her valedictory graduation speech paid tribute to the people who "are our solid ground, our North Star, and the small clear voices in our hearts that will be with us always." Most would agree she's leaving her dad in pretty good hands.
WAKE-UP CALL: If the show wasn't so bizarre, and performing so under the radar in the ratings, I'd say Thursday's episode of NBC's mesmerizing Awake was Jason Isaacs's Emmy reel. He is heartbreaking as Michael finally comes to grips with loss, trapped in the reality where he lost his son and unable to get back to the other world until he makes a critical breakthrough (something we saw coming): The car accident that shattered his life and psyche was no accident. While wife and son are butchering "Hungarian Rhapsody" in the passenger seats — "Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?" — Michael realizes they're being followed, and the car that hits them, eventually sending them over the edge, is being driven by the cop (Kevin Weisman) who in Hannah-world is Bird's partner, Ed Hawkins. But before Michael recovers that disturbing memory — which plays out with more revelations and twists in next week's exciting episode — the grieving father collapses before Hannah, sobbing in spasms of guilt over the loss of Rex: "He's gone. He's really gone, and it was my fault." Hannah is there for him the way he was there for her, and this is truly wrenching material, beautifully played. I'm not sure we'll ever learn exactly why Michael is experiencing the two dream realities — I haven't screened the final hour (airing May 24) — but the story of what triggered it is beginning to take some major leaps.
NEW MUSIC: "I have no idea what's going on out there," admits Mad Men's Don Draper in a fascinating episode that upends his expectations when it's discovered that his lovely trophy wife Megan is cheating on him — not with a man, but with her dreams. Advertising isn't her thing (even though she seems to be good at it and they make quite a team), acting is. So off she goes to quit her job, after waking Don from his slumber (he's been asleep to her needs) to tell him she felt better failing an audition than she did succeeding with the Heinz account. Showing how times have changed, and how even alpha males must dance to a new tune (the Beatles' Revolver album, for which the show reportedly paid $250,000 to get rights to "Tomorrow Never Knows"), Don decides to give Megan what she wants, even though it's not what he wants. He doesn't want her to end up like Betty, after all. "That takes a lot of guts," says Peggy, once she gets over being annoyed that Megan doesn't value the career Peggy has worked so hard to pioneer. My heart goes out to Don, who a week earlier looked so thrilled to have a partner who was truly a partner. And it gets even sourer when Peggy subs for Megan as Don's faux wife in the Cool Whip test kitchen, blowing her lines and snapping at Don, "You're not mad at me, so shut up!"
But the biggest shock of the hour was seeing Rory Gilmore — aka Alexis Bledel — all grown up as Beth, the neglected suburban wife of Pete's philandering train-commute buddy, who takes Pete in for a night of "reckless" passion. But as Beth looks into his eyes, as blue as Earth as seen from space, she reflects on their lives as anything but romantic, instead as "tiny and unprotected, surrounded by darkness." She shuts down any prospect of an affair — "Why do they get to decide what's going to happen?" Pete grouses to Harry — and even when he finagles his way back into her house, sneaking a kiss while the husband fetches insurance papers, she insists "I don't want that" and pleads a migraine, leaving her husband and Pete alone for dinner. It's the mid-'60s, boys. You're not calling all the shots anymore.
QUITTERS: So Dr. Chase has finally decided to step out of his mentor's shadow, quitting the team on House two weeks before the show is over. Would have had more impact if he'd left when the team still amounted to something. Meanwhile, the ailing Wilson decides to quit being Wilson, pretending to be "Kyle Calloway" (the name of the guy who stole his prom date) on a road trip with a flashy sports car, a bald wig and a thing for 80-ounce steaks. He can't repress his inner Wilson, though, when he encounters an old lady with Alzheimer's on the side of the road, and he gets back on a bus with House. "I can live without Kyle," says House, quietly relieved to have his friend back. But he can't live without Wilson. Which makes it that much worse when we see House's face react to Wilson's latest scan results.
In the busy CSI finale, Nick Stokes quits, disgusted after his face-to-face with McKeen, the man who killed Warrick. Would have had more impact if we didn't already know George Eads was signed for next season. But the episode ends with plenty of other peril, seemingly engineered by the murderous former undersheriff: his replacement Conrad Ecklie taking a bullet while walking with his daughter Morgan, and D.B.'s daughter and granddaughter snatched from their house, with a "Karma" note left behind. As Sara noted earlier, "Everyone's got some weakness, especially when it comes to family." Time for D.B. Russell to snap into action.
REALITY CHECK: Did we really need to hear "You Lift Me Up" twice this week? For the love of Muzak, please give it a rest. Maybe I'm just burning out on singing competitions — infinitely padded two-hour episodes will do that to you, just ask our Watercooler columnist — and closer to home, when a Duets promo appeared the other night, my Significant Other turned to me and barked, "You are not watching that one." (Sorry, it comes with the territory. But maybe I should watch this one at work.)
Thankfully, The Voice's overwrought Faux Josh Groban (aka Chris Mann) did not take home the grand prize. That went to unassuming Jermaine Paul, no longer a background singer for anyone (although the Voice produces reduced him to that very role, along with Chris and Tony Lucca, during the Hall & Oates performance in the finale).
Meanwhile, the American Idol judges with their standing-O mania continue trying to hand the crown to Joshua Ledet (the second perpetrator of "Lift"), who it's hard to imagine going anywhere without a choir in tow. He is a powerful singer, no question, but nowhere near as original as Phillip Phillips, who finally found a song ("Volcano") that confirmed his reputation as the true artist among this group. He also has the funkiest, funniest personality. So far, his quirkiness and unapologetically limited range don't seem to be hurting him qualifying as an "Idol." Too bad for Hollie, but this week's elimination was inevitable.
Same goes for Melissa Gilbert (big fan base, limited ability) and Roshon Fegan (unlimited ability, seemingly small fan base), victims of this week's double elimination on Dancing With the Stars. Gilbert actually had her best week, but against the juggernauts of personality (Donald Driver), gutsy performance (Maria Menounos), smoldering presence (William Levy) and ethereal winsomeness (Katherine Jenkins), it was too little too late. Whoever goes next, it's going to hurt.
Have to admit I wasn't really rooting for any of the unpleasant teams left in the final leg of The Amazing Race. But props to Rachel and Dave for being so dominant they could miss an actual roadblock challenge and go back to do it and still return to the finish mat in time to win the million bucks. Hope they spend some of it on couples counseling. ... So much for a "last man standing" on Survivor this season. The women stuck together for what could be a bitter end, and as hard as Tarzan fought to plant doubts in Alicia's and even Kim's head, he's simply too weird to be an effective strategist. Let the cat fighting finally begin!
ODDS AND ENDS: Three guesses who put the peanuts in Rebecca Duvall's tainted smoothie on Smash, giving the diva an out after her first preview is met with the sound of approximately one hand clapping. Don't you love it when this show is about that show (Bombshell)? Terrific Smash title song, by the way. But they're right. You don't end a musical with a suicide. (Wait till you hear the new final number in Monday's finale. It's almost as good as "Let Me Be Your Star.") ... Meanwhile, the prom episode on Glee is almost predictably berserk, with no one acting like their regular selves and Blaine looking all Eraserhead without his hair gel and Santana and a suddenly mobile Quinn conspiring to throw the prom-queen votes Rachel Berry's way, giving her a moment of glee with Finn after last week's audition setback. Hearing the boys (including the Glee Project winners) do a One Direction song brought back fond memories of last year's prom, when they performed flash-in-the-pan "Friday." ... Disneyland may be the happiest place on earth, but not if you get motion sickness on the rides or have to put your child on a leash. Both of these running gags from Modern Family (Phil's nausea, Lily tangling her "safety tether" with others) made my living room the happiest place on earth. That and Gloria's fuzzy slippers.