A few quick thoughts on a week when, in my neck of the woods, it was too hot to do much of anything but stay in and watch TV. Under normal circumstances, a dip in a pool would be just the thing, but leave it to America's Got Sideshow Talent to ruin even that image. Metaphor of the week: a 50-year-old daredevil taking a high dive into a shallow kids' pool. That's Talent in a nutshell: Shallow and all wet. And yet popular, in the greasy junky way of the onion blossom booth at the county fair.
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The numbers aren't as big (though the demos are just fine) for Fox's So You Think You Can Dance, but this riveting display of authentic young talent hit a new high Thursday in its smartly conceived Top 20 reveal show, which doubled as a thrilling exhibition of the contestants' range. As the new cast was announced, they would appear on the stage in groups, performing choreographed pieces in various styles — contemporary, hip-hop, Broadway, ballroom — without fear of elimination. The lovable Cat Deeley wishes it could always be so, and so do we. Puts all the other competition shows to shame.
Including The Voice, which kicked off its live performance rounds by focusing on Team Christina and Team Blake — which meant lots of jokey sniping between the judges and absolutely no meaningful critiques of the singers, even the occasional shaky one. (At least on Dance, there is actual constructive criticism at times. I suppose the same could be said of Talent as the judges pound their buzzers, but that's just a variation on the old Gong Show. If you're looking at Piers, Sharon and Howie as arbiters of quality, let me introduce you to this really terrific show called The Event.)
Back to The Voice. Is it really honoring the contestants' voices when they're drowned out by the judges' antics — Christina needling Adam (who still wishes the awesome Beverly was on his team, as who wouldn't) that he may have soiled himself during Beverly's performance, or Christina flirting with Blake's bland country discovery Patrick by asking the bashful kid to take his pants off. Whatever. Maybe Christina should be rethinking her wardrobe. In performance, it looks like she still thinks she's doing Burlesque.
AUTHOR, AUTHOR: The guiding creative force behind two of cable's most distinctive series — George R.R. Martin, whose sprawling books inspired HBO's wondrous Game of Thrones; and Veena Sud, executive producer of AMC's uneven but moodily intriguing The Killing — penned episodes of their shows this week, which is usually a sign that we should sit up and take notice. Especially with each show nearing its climax, with only two episodes left to air before their June 19 finales.
The Killing, as is often the case, seems to have polarized the audience with a self-contained episode focusing almost entirely on detective partners Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder (Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman), cooling their heels in the incessant rain while waiting for a search warrant to let them inside the hostile environment of the Indian casino where Rosie was last seen. The Larsens? Nowhere in sight, continuing to grieve off camera, we presume. The politicians? Thankfully absent. According to my mailbag, after I praised the episode in an Ask Matt exchange, many felt this was tedious filler, stalling whatever momentum the series may have had. I share the opinion of Lost's Damon Lindelof, who tweeted after watching: "The Killing just killed. If you call that 'stalling,' you're watching a different show than I am. Bravo." It's an episode of rare psychological nuance, as we watch these two damaged-goods crime-solvers reveal more of themselves to each other and to us, and we finally get a handle on the twitchy, elusive Holder (he dotes on his nephew, he loves meth, he has turned to the proverbial "higher power" to chase away his demons).
"We make choices to fix our mistakes — or we don't. You did," says Sarah, charmed despite herself by this new-agey oddball. "Some things you can't fix. Maybe they just stay broke," responds Holder, expressing the bleak ambivalence that is a hallmark of this series. The episode picks up some urgency when Sarah learns her son Jack is missing — we had earlier overheard police-scanner chatter about an abducted youth — and then a body is found matching Jack's description. It isn't him, of course, but Sarah is pretty much broken and in hysterics by the time she returns home to find Jack waiting, having played hooky with his father. As some have complained to me, Sarah is far from a great detective. But on cable, it's the flaws that make you interesting. And this episode was so memorably performed and carefully and emotionally calibrated, I actually found it a relief from some of the more contrived occurrences of recent weeks.
Whereas Game of Thrones has never been more on its game than in the mercilessly taut episode written by Martin, setting up the major events to come in the season's final two chapters. Mercy is much on everyone's mind. While Ned Stark sweats it out in prison, visited by the "spider" Verys ("Why is it no one ever trusts the eunuch?"), the rest of the Stark retinue in King's Landing is slaughtered. Scrappy daughter Arya flees for her life, as her dueling instructor heroically holds back assassins with his wooden sword. Big sis Sansa, thwarted from marrying horrible King Joffrey because of Ned's "treason," pleads with the king's court for mercy for her father. Not much luck there yet. Ned's son Robb asserts his authority over the Stark family's bannermen, leading a host into battle against the Lannisters, although allowing a captured enemy scout to go free and raise the war cry. Tough mom Catelyn tells Robb their only hope is to win in the field, because they've lost the game of thrones for now. "If you lose, your father dies. Your sisters die. We die."
Across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys proves to be a most progressive Queen of the Warriors, forbidding the Dothraki horde to rape during their pillage of the lamb people. As she rescues the slave women, Khal Drogo is challenged for showing mercy at the orders of his "foreign whore." Those are fighting words, and Drogo takes the upstart's head off — but not before sustaining a troubling chest wound that Dani insists gets some instant treatment. Things are just as violent up North at the Wall, as Jon Snow (further disgraced as a "traitor's bastard") redeems himself by saving the Lord Commander from an attack by the reanimated zombie corpse brought back from the woods where Uncle Benjen remains MIA. Fire is the weapon of choice here. Fitting enough, because Game of Thrones is on fire.
WHITE COLLAR, BLACK HAT?: My own household is somewhat divided on the new twist in the White Collar buddy dynamic as season three begins. I'm all for conflict, so am enjoying watching Neal struggle with the devil (Mozzie and the cache of Nazi treasures he switched and hid in last season's finale) and angel (skeptical FBI partner Peter Burke) on his shoulders. As Peter puts it: "If you were one step away from pulling off the biggest score in your life, could you let it go?" He's talking about their mission of the week (involving a smuggler trying to retrieve $60 million in stolen fed reserve funds), but Peter is really goading Neal, who he believes is behind the missing Nazi loot or at least knows where it is.
There's a school of thought (at least among some fans I know intimately) that it's disappointing to watch Neal revert to criminal form, but I like the cat-and-mouse suspense of Neal desperately covering his tracks regarding the singed fragment of his own painting that survived the warehouse explosion. Peter is fooled for now, but if Mozzie tries selling any of the treasures, it will set off alarms, now that the FBI has an inventory list of the missing loot. This is a strong set-up, and for those fearing for Neal's soul, I'm betting when the time comes, his better nature will win out. But I'm hoping it won't be easy.
THE BIG 5-0-NO: Hitting the half-century mark isn't easy for many people, but it's even worse for Men of a Certain Age's Terry (the terrific Scott Bakula), the washed-up actor turned car salesman punching the clock at his friend's dealership. Nicknamed "Hollywood" by derisive co-workers, his sales numbers are on par with the top guy (the cocky Marcus), but Terry's self-esteem has taken a beating in the wake of the break-up with would-be soulmate Erin. This week's episode charts Terry's self-pitying decline into past bad behaviors, sleeping with a way-too-young caterer (Roswell's Majandra Delfino) and going back on the weed — both occurring during an ill-advised surprise birthday party. And while the drama is solid and poignant, it isn't easy to watch as Terry makes critical mistakes at work: douchily stealing one of Marcus' clients, sparking a battle that gets really ugly when he bumps Marcus on the showroom floor with a car and gets punched in the face. Anyone else would be fired, but Owen won't let him off that easy. With Marcus now out the door in a huff, Terry is challenged to pick up the slack. Meanwhile, Joe is also backsliding — into the world of his gambling addiction. Frustrated at his lack of progress on the golf links, he steps in for his cancer-ridden bookie and takes a guy's bet. File that under slippery slope, and let's hope Terry at least has hit bottom. I don't want Men to become as relentlessly depressing as it was at the outset.
AS HEARD ON TV: "Don't be so Jewish about it." — The Daily Show's John Oliver, chiding Jon Stewart after he sliced his hand open during a mock news conference spoofing Wiener-gate (the hot topic of choice on late-night and talk TV all week.). Unlike Anthony Weiner, Stewart offered to resign for not being tougher on his friend on the day of the actual press conference. Oliver ("trustworthy, British") was more than willing to take over, with this motto: "Clear eyes, dead hearts, can't lost." Thankfully, Stewart isn't going anywhere. He had us in stitches, but also got stitches — on his hand, as he revealed the following night. ... "Think of it as a Kardashian. What it lacks in refinement it makes up for in cargo space." — White Collar's Mozzie, describing the vintage plane he has lined up for his and Neal's thwarted getaway. ... "It's Jim Carrey in ... Whatever. You'll pay to go see it." — A movie trailer on South Park, as Stan turns 10 and develops a "condition of being a cynical a—hole," where everything begins to look and sound like crap. When he laments, "It's just crap," he's told, "No, they're penguins." This time, I think Stan's probably right. ... "Those (bleep)ers downstairs were wrong. You guys are totally allowed up here." — Modern Family's openly gay Jesse Tyler Ferguson answering the traditional Inside the Actors Studio question about the words you'd like to hear when you arrive at heaven's door. ... "It's cool to be bad, but it's also possible to make it in Hollywood without a reality show." — Reese Witherspoon at the MTV Movie Awards (an endless commercial for the Twilight franchise), her rant finding a rather ironic platform on the network of Jersey Shore.
That's a wrap. What did you watch this week? Share in the comments, or write me directly at email@example.com, and in the meantime, follow me on Twitter! [Note to readers: Because of travel and other summer distractions, this column will appear only sporadically from now through August, but I'll continue to file summer-TV reviews and commentary, and Ask Matt will stay active for most of the summer, so please keep writing.]