A mere two nights after The Walking Dead finale shattered cable ratings records, and more than a few nerves, with its zombie shooting gallery at Hershel's now-abandoned farm, two more dynamic series signed off for the season Tuesday night — hopefully not for good (though one seems a likely goner) — giving us some fun and tense times. Sometimes both at once.
ABC's underwatched Amazonian thrill ride The River closed with a freaky homage to The Exorcist, capping an eight-episode romp of horror as adventure, with visually clever gimmicks (in its use of video monitors and hand-held cameras, the images eerily sputtering whenever something bad was about to happen, which was often) unable to distinguish the unpretentious storybook hokeyness (which I enjoyed) of the quest for missing TV explorer Emmet Cole. They found him last week on a research compound overrun by mutants, Cole preserved in a cocoon but with his explorer spirit broken by tragedy. In the finale, the goal is to get the survivors home unscathed, easier said than done, because the dread spirit of the Boiuna isn't done with the crew of The Magus just yet.
They'd teased a death in this finale, and the first reel is spent with everyone reflecting on the trip — and smarmy producer Clark wondering how to cut all of this mayhem down into an eight-episode series (meta much?) — while we wonder who has the target on their back. Or, as it turns out, neck, because that's where Emmet's whiny son Lincoln takes a bullet meant for Emmet, fired by an unseen assailant. His death is sudden, bloody, shocking. But irreversible? Not on this boat. Before you know it, Lincoln's she-bitch mother Tess has roped Jahel, the young native princess of the paranormal, into channeling the Boiuna spirit, which surrounds Lincoln's corpse with water (an unnerving scene) as he comes back to life.
But as it ever has been since the days of the classic "The Monkey's Paw" fable, the resurrected beloved son comes back damaged. He gives false witness, accusing sinister Capt. Kurt of the shooting, while knowing all along the triggerman was shaggy Jonas, who could never forgive Emmet for having left him literally hanging. More chills in the scene where Lincoln fells Jonas ("I wanted to kill you myself") and then goes back to eating his sandwich. He later violently confronts Kurt, who turns out to be more protector than villain, hurling the Captain around his cell while declaring in Boiuna voice, "I am Guardian enough!" He leaves Kurt alive, though, with the instruction, "You tell them." Who "them" is we still don't know.
Watching the monitors, Emmet realizes Linc isn't who he's cracked up to be, and has Lena drug him. When the possessed son awakens strapped down, it's Exorcist time, and while what follows is often derivative, it's great scary fun. Emmet feeding Linc one of those magical dragonflies, only to have the demon spit it back in Emmet's face. Lincoln's body writhing, contorting maniacally as the Boiuna demon taunts Emmet for being an inferior father, even spilling the beans about Tess's affair with Clark, then turning to the camera to bark to Tess: "You like this, Mom? You like to watch?" (She may not, but we do.) Linc pinning Lena to the ceiling with Boiuna sorcery, popping the buttons of her shirt as he recites their childhood "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" anthem. Eventually, it all boils down once again to the schism between father and son, the explorer and the boy left behind, and Emmet's tearfully redemptive apology (delivered as well as the contrived circumstances could allow by Bruce Greenwood) inspires the inner Lincoln to reject the "Black Snake" spirit, which screams "We're at war!" as it breaks all the windows and slithers off under the water.
Next day, and they're all just a few kilometers away from civilization when we get an ending worthy of The Twilight Zone in its existential, inevitable, no-exit creepiness. The village around the river's bend fails to materialize, and as Tess declares, "We're not on the map anymore," the camera guys send their remote flying device up into the sky, revealing in an overhead shot that (as Lincoln realizes aloud) "The river's changing. It's never gonna let us go." As we watch the forest and waterways undulate, changing the geography and trapping this helpless floating crew, it's over.
Probably for good, given that the show never really caught on the way the more unsparing and graphic Walking Dead did on cable. I liked The River's old-fashioned approach to make-you-jump suspense, even when it came off as simplistic, silly and repetitive, and I'm sorry ABC wasn't rewarded for this experiment in style and content. I had a blast watching the show, and on those occasions I laughed at its bravado, it wasn't because I was mocking it, but because I was enjoying it.
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There was precious little escapist levity in the fourth-season finale of Southland, TV's most realistic and wrenching police drama, which I hope TNT wastes no time in renewing. Maybe for more than 10 episodes next year? Though I'll take what I can get, and the austere nature of this sensationally non-sensationalized series is almost European in feel (though unmistakably Los Angeles in setting), so the shorter order is kind of fitting.
The opening and closing moments belong to Ben Sherman, the troubled young patrol cop (well and tautly played by Ben McKenzie) whose vendetta against an abusive and murderous pimp has some of his co-workers worried, including his partner Sammy — laid up with a broken arm after last week's automotive assault by Sherman's nemesis — and Ben's interim partner, the overbearing yutz played by Lou Diamond Phillips, who's none too happy to be tagging along on this grim crusade.
Sammy (Shawn Hatosy), the former detective who reveals he returned to patrol duty to mentor younger officers like Ben, can't break through to his buddy, even when he admits at the hospital, "I feel I failed you." Ben doesn't want to hear it. Even his good Samaritan efforts to send the prostitute's daughter back to Corpus Christi have a bullying quality, and his relentless pursuit of his prey is nothing less than disturbing. Especially once he finally tracks down the perp, chasing him into an alley where we hear a gunshot (off camera) and find Sherman standing over the body. It's declared a good shoot, but we're not so sure. And neither is Sammy, who looks askance at his smug pal from across the pool as the season ends.
Still waters run deep with all the characters in this sharply focused show. That includes Lydia Adams (Regina King), the tightly wound detective who finally decides to reveal her pregnancy at work — but insists (against her boss's advice) to go into the field for an especially upsetting murder-by-fire case. The investigation takes her to the hospital bedside of a severely burned little girl (mercifully but heartbreakingly swathed in bandages), and while Lydia ultimately decides to stay on duty "for the duration" of her pregnancy, she is shaken, reflecting to her gruff female boss: "Babies in the womb, they hear everything that we hear, they feel what we feel. What we do, it's hard enough not to let it get to you. Now it's like it's going in too deep. And if it is, where's it going? It just feels wrong. It just doesn't feel right." Simply spoken, deeply felt. (She also arranges a meeting with the married man whose baby she's carrying. Not to blow up his world, simply to let him know. And, as is her style, to walk away, alone.)
The third, and most electrifying, story thread follows officers John Cooper (the great Michael Cudlitz) and Jessica Tang (a never-better Lucy Liu) on the latter's last day on the beat before moving on up to sergeant in a different precinct. Cooper is not celebrating, though he is indulging her memory tour of favorite haunts. He still can't shake how she lied after shooting a boy carrying a toy gun, and got away with it with this promotion. No one does a slow burn as effectively as Cudlitz, and he just looks more and more miserable as they go about their business, peaking in a shootout at a car wash where she fails to have his back. After work, Cooper won't give a testimonial speech at the bar where Tang is being toasted, and as he walks out, she confronts him in an alley, dredging up memories of when he was a liability to his former partners before kicking his painkiller habit.
"Don't try to compare me to you. We are not the same," seethes Cooper. And Tang finally explodes: "Who the [bleep] are you? God?" Throwing something at him, she says, "Here. You decide." And we know it's the toy gun's orange safety cap she hid from authorities. Cooper picks it up, and next we see him, he's back in drill-instructor training-officer mode, badgering a new rookie who looks even greener than Ben Sherman did back when Southland started. As they climb into the car, Cooper starts the ignition, and the newbie notices something on his key chain. "Good luck charm, maybe?" It's the orange safety cap, a silent totem and constant reminder of how not to do this job.
There is a sense as the season ends that life goes on, that the numbing and exhilarating grind of policing continues, with a new cycle of recruits learning the ropes as a fresh series of unpredictable random daily incidents enter the ledger of legend. I can only hope TNT sees the value in Southland, which may not be as big a hit as The Closer, but whose quiet integrity makes it an essential component of this network's "We Know Drama" brand. It doesn't get much more dramatic than this.
A ROM-COM FIXER UPPER: Watching NBC's Bent is like sitcom speed dating, with all six episodes of this midseason tryout airing over three weeks of back-to-back episodes on Wednesdays (9/8c and 9:30/8:30c). The scheduling is odd, but Bent is the sort of funky offbeat comedy that grows on you, so watching more than one episode at a sitting turns out to be a good thing.
This is the story of Alex (Amanda Peet), an uptight single-mom lawyer, whose opposites-attract sparring with her tall dark and goofy surfer-dude contractor Pete (the very appealing David Walton) isn't quite love at first sight. Her milquetoast doctor boyfriend (Matt Letscher) being an additional wrinkle.
But given that Pete's messy kitchen renovation — with a madcap crew including J.B. Smoove and Friday Night Lights' deadpan Jesse Plemons (as the much-abused apprentice) — could take as long as Eldin's house-painting on Murphy Brown, we wait in anticipation for the walls to come down. Not everything works — Jeffrey Tambor as Pete's needy failed-actor dad wears out his welcome quickly — but compared to shrill NBC misfires like Whitney and Are You There, Chelsea?, this low-key charmer is a pleasant spring surprise.