Sifting through the proverbial critic's notebook, a quick look back at some of the week's more memorable TV happenings:
Let's start with the death we didn't see coming: By which I mean HBO putting down Luck. With only two episodes to go in its underwhelming (though beautifully acted and shot) first season, the show was abruptly canceled two episodes into production on a Season 2 that probably shouldn't have been green-lighted in the first place. The reason wasn't ratings, which were dismal, but the third accidental death of a horse on the set (two died during Season 1). Which is a tragedy no matter what you thought of the show itself. There's a lot to admire in Luck, and the racing sequences are beautifully shot, but all parties are correct in concluding that the price is simply too high to continue. Though I would also argue that HBO may want to rethink this arrogant tendency of instantly renewing shows in which there's no discernible interest from the public or their subscribers. Still can't believe How to Make It in America actually got a second year.
Now to the TV deaths we did see coming — in one case inadvertently, as a major spoiler was revealed in testimony during the Nicollette Sheridan trial, blowing the surprise (to those keeping track of such things) that Mike Delfino was about to take a bullet on Desperate Housewives, leaving Susan a shrieking widow. Because she (and we) haven't already suffered enough this season. I'll be honest; I broke up with this show a while ago. Tried to reconnect as the final season started, but just couldn't bear how miserable everyone and their stories had become, especially the wretched Lynette and Tom. Checked back in this week to see how the big death played out, and was hoping against hope that the leak wasn't true and that Lynette could instead be put out of our misery. Her nasty attitude toward Tom as he declared he's actually happy with his new woman — who Lynette almost let choke to death later on — reminded me why I moved far away from Wisteria Lane. Although watching the great Kathryn Joosten (as Karen McCluskey) beg Bree to help end her suffering was a strong through-line with several classically macabre gags: Karen lying under the wheels of Bree's car, then cooking up a "suicide [rhubarb] pie" that Bree accidentally samples.
As for Mike's death, in broad daylight on his doorstep: Really? They knew the loan shark was gunning for him, even going to the police for protection, and he lets himself be a sitting duck? But as Susan coos in their final moments together, "You don't get scared," reminding him why she fell for him in the first place. "You always take care of people." Sure enough, he pushes her inside the house when he sees the Death Car coming. Mike never had it easy, having to put up with one of the show's most annoyingly neurotic characters (who stopped being lovable quite some time ago). Trust me, dude. You're in a better place. This is one wake I think I'll be sitting out.
Regarding the other TV death that we knew was inevitable, but which played with far greater dramatic power: the final showdown on The Walking Dead between Rick and madman Shane, who engineered Randall's escape from the barn (only to kill him off-camera) to lure his former best friend into the woods for a tense manhunt that's actually a pretext for murder. Shane's death has been foreshadowed for much of the series (and not just because he died early on in the comics). His feeling of envious displacement when presumed-dead Rick rejoined the group and his family at the start of the series has been festering into full-blown psychosis, exacerbated by the massacre of the barn zombies and the recent bare-knuckled grudge match on their road trip. "You got no idea what I can live with!" Shane shouts as Rick challenges him with a "Why? Why now?" (As if there's ever a good time for this sort of execution.) Shivers all around as Shane shoots back, "Lori and Carl, they'll get over you. They've done it before," reminding us of the impermanence of life in this dystopia and the resilience of these characters to soldier on. But Rick won't give up without a fight, and as Shane goes in for the kill, Rick fatally wields his hidden knife: "This was you, not me! You did this to us!" Good luck convincing everyone else, Rick.
Then the coup de grace, as distraught Rick finds his boy Carl (to whom he's given a gun during a soliloquy about death) waiting for him in this field of screams, and before they can talk out this latest horror, Shane rises from the dead in full zombie mode — we see the transformation within in CSI-style shock-cuts — and it's Carl's turn to take down the ghoul. We're not even left time to ponder how Shane and Randall can regenerate as zombies without having being bitten, because unbeknownst to father and son, a massive swarm of zombies is heading their way in the dark. Let the season finale carnage begin! G'bye, Hershel's farm.
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Another penultimate episode nearly as intense unfolded on TNT's gritty police drama Southland, airing its next-to-last episode of the season — no way can this be the end of the road — leaving several of its key characters in grim situations. Officer Ben Sherman's recent unhinged smackdown of a pimp turns deadly when he and Sammy are fired upon from another moving vehicle, then their patrol car is broadsided, Sammy taking the worst of the impact (the better to inflame Ben's guilt). And Lydia puts herself, and her unborn child, in harm's way again, as she is attacked in a shed while her partner chases another perp. In a scene of quiet and excruciating anguish, her assailant grinds a weapon into her vest-covered chest, as Lydia groans, "Please!" in pain and terror. It seems to go on forever, until her partner returns to head-kick the brute off of her. We assume the vest saved her, but when she gets to the doctor's (late of course) for her checkup, another patient notices a spreading blood stain on her stomach. That can't be good. And Tang passes her sergeant's test, baldly lying about the orange safety tip on the toy gun of the kid she shot. Cooper's congratulations come through gritted teeth.
And lest you think Southland is all dark, some vignettes of the cops' daily routine have a twisted whimsy: the lunatic wearing a golf-ball costume, wielding a club as he vandalizes a junk shop: "Do I look like a private golf course guy?" he screams at Cooper. Or the domestic call in which a couple's rough sex goes too far, prompting Cooper to defuse the situation by suggesting the roles be reversed and see how the guy likes being choked. Or the littering citation for the jerk who tosses a banana peel out of his car: "A—hole with a small carbon footprint is still an a—hole." Officer Cooper, you rock. So does Southland.
Final thought: Did anyone else make the connection between the Southland subplot in which a perv streams live video from a diner bathroom with a hidden "toilet cam" and the return of South Park this week, with its TSA parody of a Toilet Safety Administration setting up intrusive security checks and video monitoring to ensure no one leaves the toilet seat up and enforcing the wearing of safety belts on the john. "We want the government out of our bathrooms!" Cartman declares in this symphony of toilet humor, and it's hard to disagree.
As much as I love Southland, it has the bad luck in the attention sweepstakes to go up against FX's Justified on Tuesdays, and that show is on fire. Cribbing yet another storyline (though with many differences) from Elmore Leonard's great read Raylan, we encounter a gang of prostitute bank robbers led by the smarmy pimp Delroy (Lost's William Mapother). And when the sole survivor takes refuge with Ava (Joelle Carter, yee-haw!), she takes the opportunity to blow Delroy off his feet the way she once did her husband, and as she talks it out with an agitated Boyd Crowder — the icky Delroy was under their protection, after all — she suggests she might make a pretty good madam. Who can argue? Meanwhile, Quarles' hired gun Tanner falls victim to a booby-trapped land mine in a weapons store, Boyd takes down Sheriff Napier and his "slick haircut" in a feisty public debate, and Limehouse and Quarles discuss the merits of shoo fly pie: "Like all sweet things, it draws pests." Justified is one yummy show, and when Raylan promises Limehouse, "I'm either going to put [Quarles] in prison or in the ground," my money's on the ground.
Smash-Vs-Smush Update: As introduced in last week's Week in Review column, I'm continuing to struggle with the battle between the terrific backstage drama of Smash and the contrived soap opera I think of as Smush. The plus side: Smash gave us a very compelling storyline in Ivy's vocal angst, as she struggled to hit the high notes. "A leading lady with vocal problems? No one believes that even when it's true," announced the imperious Eileen. When the steroid prednisone is prescribed, Ivy's worries are disparaged by the Evil Director Derek (by far my favorite character on the show): "Darling, you work in musical theater. There are lots of terrible side effects: bankruptcy, alcoholism, insecurity." Ivy's night sweats lead to a hallucination of Karen-as-Marilyn in her boudoir mirror, but the real Karen is busy challenging Florence + the Machine at a bar mitzvah (she couldn't learn the lyrics to Hava Nagila?), where she makes an important show-biz connection. As Karen lurks in the wings, waiting for the text that will allow her to step back in the lead, it's hard not to emphasize when Ivy moans: "That chick really gets on my nerves. Why didn't I just have her fired the first day?" Save that for your next show, diva darling.
The down side: On Smush, even the return of Julia's husband — with a symbolic chemistry textbook to remind us what's missing in their marriage — can't stop her from meeting Michael Swift in an abandoned rehearsal room for a private topless consult on the couch (which will later be used for a musical run-through, ewww). But nothing is worse than watching Eileen pal around with the odious Ellis at dive bars, where she relieves her stress by playing violent video games. (I'm sure I wasn't the only one wishing she'd turn that gun on Ellis.)
Who Made You Queen? Few things are more aggravating as a longtime viewer of Survivor than to see someone get away with all manner of egregious behavior and never have to pay the consequences. So far, that appears to be the trajectory of the obnoxious Colton, who gets separated from the male muscle when the tribes are surprisingly reconfigured and declares of his new team: "It's like Greek gods vs. peasants," not endearing him to the "peasants" on the new Manono. "These people suck at Survivor," he whines, and later moans, "It's really hard being the leader of a bunch of idiots. It's so difficult." Even those who see through this lazy malcontent's act, like Jonas (who wonders, "How does he get away with this?"), never push back, as Jonas seems content for now with being "Colton's bitch," so as not to make the sort of waves that sent Bill packing in last week's insane tribal council. Typical to form, Colton pulls the strings to send home the only member of their tribe worth her weight in challenges: Monica. Please may his reign end soon. And please Survivor, curb your recycling impulses and never darken your doorstep again with this creepy, pampered bigot.
The Ayes (on the Eye) Have It: It's good to be king of prime time, as TV's most-watched network (second only to Fox in the younger demo) CBS renews a whopping 18 series for next season, including dramas, comedies, reality shows and newsmagazines. But as CBS' programming history dictates, not even in success can a network afford to remain completely complacent, which is why some shows aren't a lock to return, including aging CSI spinoffs Miami and NY (which almost didn't make the cut last year). There's no doubt Two and a Half Men will return — that's just a matter of working out the crazy financials. And Rules of Engagement, the Rodney Dangerfield of utility players, somehow manages to survive year after year, though rarely with a guaranteed time period. What of newbies Unforgettable, A Gifted Man and the critically reviled Rob? Time will tell. (Though of the three, only Unforgettable would qualify as a surprise cancellation.)
Surprise, Surprise: Did not see Red Riding Hood being the actual killer wolf in the fairy tale (superior) half of Once Upon a Time. ... Did not see Caitlin (Anna Camp) giving up her promising fast-track career as Alicia's protégé-turned-rival on The Good Wife for motherhood and marriage. "I don't have to prove anything. Or if I have to, I don't want to." Something tells me Alicia is secretly envious. When Diane declares, "the glass ceiling was broken for this?" Alicia corrects her that maybe it was, that women should be able to make this choice. I'll miss her, though. ... Did not see Owen confessing he'd cheated on Cristina — though really, who can blame him? — on Grey's Anatomy. The question lingers: With whom? ... "So how was my funeral?" Emmet Cole's (Bruce Greenwood) first words upon emerging from his cocoon coma after being discovered on the penultimate episode of ABC's The River. His first act of consciousness: killing a zombie monster who's crawled aboard The Magus. As they so often tend to do.
The Honor Roll: Congratulations to Community, which I welcomed back yesterday, for returning with relatively robust ratings. (Thanks, Big Bang Theory, for taking the week off.) ... Good for Oprah Winfrey to open her exclusive (and by OWN standards, highly rated) interview with Whitney Houston's family by focusing on the part we all wanted to see: a nearly half-hour interview — not a sit-down, since both were standing — with Bobbi Kristina, the daughter whose mantra is "I gotta keep moving." (By contrast, American Idol waited until more than halfway through Wednesday night's performance show to address the ouster of "gentle giant" Jermaine Jones, which was hardly a secret by then. Not good — but what was he doing there in the first place?) ... Kudos to Rayce Bird, an Idaho tattoo arist, for winning the second season of Syfy's terrific fantasy-makeup competition Face Off. Even though some of his applications buckled during the models' live dance, his creature designs were stunning, blending from light to dark, with the transformative middle figure a creepy sight to behold. The audience agreed with the judges for a change. ... How refreshing is Blake Shelton's honesty on The Voice, to admit he'd never heard Nirvana's "Heart Shaped Box" after Lee and Lindsey struggle to perform it in their battle round. "I would have picked Monster Mash if I was going for creepy." Hey, Blake, can I be on your team?
Laughing Matters: Moist Books. Syria Tourism Board. Mosquito Breeders of America. Depends for Racists. Loose Marshmallows. Just a few of Rush Limbaugh's new sponsors, courtesy of Saturday Night Live's cold open (with Taran Killam's spot-on impersonation). The Jonah Hill installment was otherwise hit or miss, but I'm still grinning at the host's shtick as 6-year-old Adam Grossman at the Benihana table. ("I'm joking! I'm 6! Any chance I could eat before I'm 7?") Also hilarious: Kristen Wiig as Paula Deen, appearing on Weekend Update with chicken leg and brick of butter in hand, to declare "nutrition" the new "bad n-word." (Not so funny: Andy Samberg's purposefully bad Sarah Palin impersonation.) ... Though most of 30 Rock's St. Patrick's Day episode had me seeing green (as in bile, as I tried to remember what I used to like about this show), I howled when Tracy told his iPhone: "Siri, kill Jenna." Soon enough, we hear the voice go "I killed Jenna Elfman. Is that right?" (It will do.) ... Raising Hope got lots of mileage out of the "Jennifer Aniston" perfume Virginia was using to bait the neighborhood raccoon. "No man can resist this — except Brad Pitt." Sabrina pipes up: "John Mayer." Virginia: "Vince Vaughn." Sabrina: "Bradley Cooper." Virginia: "And that homeless looking guy from Counting Crows." ... Couldn't agree more with Bruce Fretts' Cheer about this week's Modern Family, the centerpiece of my favorite night of TV comedy. "If you squeeze me, do I not honk?" Oh, Cam! But just as strong was ABC's The Middle, as Poor Sue loses her boyfriend (to a long-distance move) and gains appalling new dental headgear for her new "underbite overbite," while Frankie and Mike take over Brick's paper route while arguing over Mike's hidden cache of batteries in his T-shirt drawer. "You don't get to have your own secret stash of bachelor batteries. When you're married, you share everything." So real, so true. And my heart melted a bit when big brother Axl consoles Poor Sue as best he can: "Guys could ... like you. Trust me. I see a lot of girls where I go, 'How does she have a boyfriend?' But you know what, they do. So ... why not you?" Awww.
As Heard on TV: "No, it's not just Scrubs in Florida, with a lot of wine." — Cougar Town's latest joke in the title credits. An honest mistake this week, as Scrubs alums invade Jules' world, starting with creepy "group exploder" neighbor Tom (Robert Clendenin) and Bobby's new crush (Sarah Chalke), with Ted (Sam Lloyd) camping out with his a cappella group, capped by end-scene cameos from Ken Jenkins, Robert Maschio ("the Todd") and Zach Braff as the pizza guy. ... "I can get a tetanus shot, but I can't cure damaged suede." — New Girl's Schmidt opting to go barefoot rather than risk his shoes on the walk home from his latest tryst with Cece. ... "And so it devolves: the glory of law to a turkey baster." — The Good Wife's Diane (Christine Baranski) lamenting the sordid specifics of their latest mess of a lawsuit involving the incorrigible Colin Sweeney (Dylan Baker, relishing every moment). ... "Unless Harry's Law really took off this week and no one told me, you two are the biggest stars at the network." — Jack appointing 30 Rock's Jenna and Tracy as hapless St. Patrick's Day parade hosts. ... "You gave it up so big, God came through your eyes." — American Idol's Steven Tyler trying to articulate the impact of Joshua Ledet's soaring cover of "If a Man Loves a Woman." Joshua, however, only had eyes for the platter of crawfish. ... "I just found the immunity idol, and it's in my crotch." — Survivor's Kim, oversharing with tribemate Chelsea.