A quick look back at some of what got this critic talking about TV this week:
THE MAIN EVENT: Now that's how you do a TV debate, as the veep candidates squared off Thursday night in a lively encounter that made for great TV, unlike last week's unfocused and lost-in-the-weeds presidential face-off. Rousing, contentious, scrappy, with an actively engaged moderator (ABC's tough but fair Martha Raddatz) who did her best to keep the old salt and the whippersnapper on point, bluntly moving things along when necessary. Maybe she could have reached across the table once in a while to wipe the distractingly wolfish grin off Joe Biden's face and the sheepish smirk off Paul Ryan's. But this was a red-meat political spectacle, with the makings (let's hope) of a more colorful Saturday Night Live parody than we got last weekend.
Highlight of SNL: the filmed montage of hilariously inappropriate would-be "Bond Girls" (Diane Keaton, Jodie Foster, Lea Michele, Molly Ringwald, Ellen DeGeneres and a gold-plated Penny Marshall). And kudos to PBS folk hero Big Bird for staying up seven hours past his bedtime to charm Weekend Update's Seth Meyers, boasting about his million Tweets ("No, I'm a bird, tweeting is how we talk"). Daniel Craig? A disappointment, mostly badly used in terrible sketches, and for some reason acting like he was playing (bellowing?) to the back row most of the time. Still dying to see Skyfall, though.
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EXTRA INNINGS: As someone who grew up across the river from Cincinnati, spent half my professional career in Washington, D.C., and currently live in the middle of Manhattan with a die-hard Orioles fan, you could say we've been a bit distracted this week with the MLB playoffs. My DVR runneth over. Still, managed to catch some regular TV here and there.
TEARJERKER OF THE WEEK: On Parenthood, the Bravermans, Adam and Kristina, put on a brave face telling their college daughter Haddie about mom's cancer ordeal, cross-country Skype-style. They try to keep it positive and tell her to focus on school, but it's not working, and everyone's a mess. (Including, if my Twitter feed is accurate, everyone watching at home.) Haddie is truly and understandably rattled, placing a worried follow-up phone call to Adam, begging her dad, "Can you treat me like an adult?" He does, leveling with her while trying to maintain his cool. Good thing they're not on video-phone, because dad's fighting back tears as he tries to assure her, and Peter Krause and Sarah Ramos nail this moment by underplaying the sentiment while conveying the fear and exhaustion that comes with not knowing for sure that everything really will be OK. (Haddie's surprise arrival at the restaurant after little Victor's triumphant ball game forces Kristina's hand to open up to the rest of the stricken but supportive tribe. I'll leave for another day the question of how college students on shows like this and Glee can afford all of these last-minute plane trips.)
Monica Potter is rising to the occasion marvelously as Kristina, but this was a great episode as well for the often exasperating SuperMom Julia (Erika Christensen), whose panic-attack meltdown over an uncharacteristic work screw-up illuminates the despair of a Type A personality who realizes it may not be possible to do it all after all.
NAIL-BITER OF THE WEEK: Showtime's Homeland, of course, as an overstimulated Carrie goes off the grid during her Beirut mission, putting everyone at risk, the most dangerous loose cannon ever. Meanwhile, Brody observes the Abu Nazir mission from the government's War Room, texting a mayday warning at the last moment to foil the hit. (His knees weren't the only ones shaking during that improbable but riveting scene.) As he tells his new handler later: "I cannot be texting secret messages while I'm surrounded by the [bleep]-ing Joint Chiefs!" We agree; even once was a stretch, but yikes. And just when you thought it was over, Saul finds a chip amid Carrie's dangerously gotten gains containing Brody's confession that would have been broadcast if he'd gone through with last season's suicide bombing. The game is over! Or is it? (You know the answer; we're only two episodes in this season. Way to burn through story, guys!)
JAW-DROPPER OF THE WEEK: Anyone with an appreciation for FX's terrific track record in drama had to be floored when Walton Goggins (of Shield and Justified fame) materialized on Sons of Anarchy like a bizarre Halloween outtake from RuPaul's Drag Race — as one Venus Van Dam, trannie diva and willing participant in a scam to frame a drugged councilman by straddling his "Shamu" frame. "I'm the belle who does not tell," Walton-as-Venus coos, flirting with the incorrigibly intrigued Tig (who gets bit where the sun don't shine when the patsy awakens) and seducing the mark's gung-ho stepson (Prison Break's Marshall Allman), who actually thinks this will make the bikers like him more. Oh, foolish youth. Sons was overdue an interlude of comic relief during this intense season, but this felt perilously close to "Carol Channing Does Charming." On a more somber note, I'm sure I'm not the only one who went "uh-oh" when Sheriff Roosevelt's wife Rita revealed her pregnancy. Sure enough, the home-invasion goons wasted no time in overstepping, and her attempts at self-defense landed her in the hospital with a bullet in the tummy. As Gemma tells Tara: "Not a lot of grey in this life, sweetheart. Extremes become average." And this has been an above-average season of Sons.
OLDIES BUT GOODIES: It seemed somehow appropriate that in a week that marked the passage of Webster dad (and former NFL star) Alex Karras, we saw sitcom characters pay homage to TV comedies from the good old days. Starting with New Girl's Jess, channeling Urkel ("Did I dooo that?") after a daylong "TGIF" marathon binge. The guys cringe in horror. Nick: "It's perfectly fine to watch TV all day" — Matt: I agree — "But Urkel?? Not even in my darkest moments ..." The new kids down the hall dig her shtick, somehow not knowing that there ever was an Urkel — or a Stephanie Tanner from Full House, catch-phrasing "How rude!" ... A night later, on Modern Family, Phil quotes Jefferson as he toasts college-bound Hayley. Not Thomas, silly. George. And when Claire tries to cut him off, she gets a "Not now, Weezie."
A very different sort of nostalgia kicked in on a tricky episode of CSI when Elisabeth Shue is dusting off a newspaper vending machine and remarks, "Do you have any idea how many people touch this thing on a given day, week, month?" Given how many unread papers were inside the machine, the answer to that question (says this veteran of the daily print business) is: Not as many as used to, my dear. Try investigating the death of newspapers, that'll really keep you up at night.
I PREFER SPRINKLES: The "ewwww" heard 'round the soft-serve world was Mister Softee gagging over The Good Wife's latest peek-a-boo into Kalinda's twisted sex life with estranged husband/abuser Nick. No good way to describe what goes down without sounding like a copywriter for Skinemax, but in a rare moment of being together in public, Kalinda's ice-cream treat is nearly ruined when Nick feels her up then sticks his fingers in her cone — which played even filthier than it sounds. Our enigmatic sexpot proceeds to lick away without batting an eye. "Did I make you cry?" she taunts him. Apparently not, but together they make me want to wash my eyes out with soap.
REALITY CHECK: This was the week when the game changed on TV's singing competitions, with The Voice going into "battle rounds," and The X Factor culling its herd down to 24 hopefuls divided into four categories, including (sigh) groups, two of which were once again cobbled together from otherwise rejected solo boys and girls. Simon Cowell is stuck with this albatross of a grouping, but maybe that will free him up to be more brutally honest about the Teens, Young Adults and Over 25s who have a better shot of making it to the end. And could L.A. Reid have been more discouraging and condescending to his "over 25" charges? Not content to announce at their first meeting that he was disappointed to be assigned as their leader, he adds insult to insult by choosing wunderkind Justin Bieber to be his guest judge. Yeah, this kid can relate. No wonder he needed his manager by his side.
The Voice, as usual, was way more fun, adding a smart "steal" twist to the battle rounds, which allows rival judges to snap up contestants who've just been cut loose. The suspense of the "blind auditions" is back as the loser of each round waits to see if anyone will hit their button, and when more than one of them do, the battle is back on between the judges. Which is and always has been The Voice's sweet spot.
Meanwhile, on Survivor, the hard-luck Matsing tribe loses again — its fourth in a row — which finally sends Russell Swan packing, somehow acting blindsided when there were only two other members on his team. The guy wasn't just losing challenges, he was losing it, mistakenly calling Jeff Probst "Lord" during his latest rant to the Holy Father. (The show's overlords are promising a game-changer for next week, which only makes sense, because I can't imagine an immunity challenge played by a team of two against two other still-intact teams of six.) In hindsight, not such a great idea splitting everyone into three mini-tribes. But now it's someone else's chance to be losers. That said, this was one of the better physical challenges in a while, thankfully not ending with a puzzle. And while no one outside of Matsing has gone to tribal council yet, it's fun watching the game be played by schemers like Tandang's Pete, manipulating a schism between Abi (who found the hidden Idol) and RC (who had the clue). Nothing wrong with this season that a little shuffling of the deck wouldn't fix.
RAVES: Elena as an unhappily hungry vampire on The Vampire Diaries, feeding on a guard while imprisoned, then rushing to rescue Matt (on whose behalf she died) from the rage of Damon. "Stop saving me!" Matt cries, still in survivor-guilt mode. Biggest head-scratcher: Why did the pastor set off a gas explosion to blow up all of his Town Council minions? "We are the beginning," he declares. Of what? ... Chris Messina busting some wild dance moves as the Mindy Project ensemble goes clubbing. "You look handsome, like a youth minister," gushes klutzy Betsy. And he got the only successful hook-up of the night to boot. ... The squabbling between the gay dads (Cam and Mitch) and lesbian parents (Michaela Watkins and Wendi McLendon-Covey) on Modern Family. When the surlier of the moms snaps that she hates clowns, the sarcastic comeback: "Because they wear makeup?" ... The "pretend wedding" on The New Normal, with little Shania resplendent in a homemade dress of leaves. Despite the "hot button" treatment of marriage, pretend or gay or otherwise, with Nana's rants and David's ambivalence and Bryan's fussy yearning, this show's heart is full as David proposes mid-sonogram, reinforcing that "Family is the ultimate commitment." ... The Wizard of Oz references in Revolution, as Capt. Neville and Danny take refuge in a storm cellar as a cyclone rages, and after the danger passes, the whole house (more or less) comes down on the wicked witch — um, captor — but does Danny leave him there to die? No wonder Uncle Ninja Miles keeps threatening to walk away from his family.
R.I.P. To the season's first (but not for long the last) cancellation, Made in Jersey — which I always thought of as "Made for Fridays," but even by those low standards, this trite and lightweight USA Network wannabe couldn't measure up. Better luck next series, Janet Montgomery. And how long before the ax falls on Partners, The Mob Doctor, Animal Practice and Guys With Kids? Until then, it's worth noting that one of the most annoying new shows of the season has yet to premiere. Next week, get ready to say hi (and for me, bye) to Emily Owens, M.D.
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The Weekly Watercooler: Debates, Waterworks and Nail-Biters
A quick look back at some of what got this critic talking about TV this week: