No, it wasn't an April Fool's curtain-raiser. Watching the "very special" musical episode of Grey's Anatomy, I was reminded of the even more "very special" live episode of ER back at its height in 1997. My reaction now is as it was then: Take a bow, everyone, and promise never to do it again. The episode itself, a classic Grey's multi-hankie trauma-rama, would have worked just as well (if not better) without the distracting gimmick, dramatizing the frenzied aftermath of pregnant Callie's grievous car injury and coma as the staff of "Seattle Grace Mercy Death" (Alex's inspired new nickname) scrambles and argues at length, and sometimes in song, about how to save her and the baby, which is delivered alarmingly premature — and thankfully does not burst into an aria.
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This is the kind of creative folly that is sure to be mocked by those fond of playing the "jump the shark" game every time a show does something crazy. And this was nuts, no doubt about it, another leap into the emotionally extravagant absurd by Shonda Rhimes, remembered by many as the conjuror of Denny's Ghost. For the record, I find this kind of experiment in form much easier to forgive. Those willing to go along with it, savoring the bravura vocals of Tony winner Sara Ramirez and the willing (and occasionally able) pipes of her co-stars, were rewarded with the rare spectacle of a long-in-the-tooth show taking a considerable risk when it doesn't really need to. For that, I applaud it. Although at times I felt like giving a standing O-No!
But ask yourself: How many times in big Grey's episodes have we griped about the intrusive pop soundtrack that swells constantly, often obscuring the dramatics and dialogue? This week, they just cranked the volume to a new level, as the doctors — and an out-of-mangled-body Callie — themselves become the soundtrack, emotively bleating songs from the Grey's playlist as if, in Callie's battered brain, they couldn't bottle up the emotions any longer but had to let it out through music. The tone was less Glee giddiness than a sort of All That Jazz surreality, like minor and mawkish Dennis Potter. Few real show-stoppers, except for Callie's climactically over-the-top "The Story" — which finally and thankfully wakes the poor girl up from her musical echo chamber — and the frisky "Running on Sunshine" montage (my favorite bit) where the various couples find escape through foreplay, including Teddy and Henry, Bailey and Eli, Alex and Lucy, and Owen and Cristina. That routine felt like something from a completely separate, and better, episode. But kudos to the Grey's crew for having the moxie to go there. And still, nothing comes close to the brilliance of Joss Whedon's "Once More With Feeling" Buffy musical — now and forever the standard-bearer for such flights of fancy. (Who's up for a double bill of that and Dr. Horrible this weekend? I am so there.)
And now, for some other highlights from the week in TV:
JUSTIFIABLY PROUD: Not a bad week for FX's finest show. Justified gets picked up for a third season. It wins a prestigious Peabody Award for its all-around excellence and entertainment value. (More on those accolades in a few.) It's on the cover of TV Guide Magazine, leading off our highly recommended "Seven Shows You Need to Watch" feature. And this week, the series hits a creative home run, setting up an episode for next Wednesday that is one of the most electrifying hours of TV I've seen all season. We can't say enough about, or stop cheering for, Margo Martindale as fierce mountain mama Mags Bennett, who's not about to cede control of her mountains and holler to an upstart floozy (the terrific Rebecca Creskoff) from the coal company. Not without a fight, anyway. If I hadn't seen the range Martindale exhibits next week, I'd say Mags' Emmy-reel moment comes during her speech at this week's contentious town meeting that she transforms into a revival meeting as she extols their hard way of life: "We got our own kind of food, our own music, our own lick-ah! We got our own way of courtin', raisin' children and our own way of livin' and dyin'." And the only way to protect it, she bellows, is to say no to coal. When Mags speaks, we listen. In awe.
HOW GOOD IS WIFE? Another deserving Peabody winner, CBS's The Good Wife, suffered a ratings blow this week when ABC drop-kicked the more mainstream Body of Proof into the same Tuesday time period. But fans of quality drama were assuaged by another strong episode that tiptoes gingerly through the minefield of the Kalinda-slept-with-Peter revelation. Their hushed face-to-face, in which we learn their tryst was a one-nighter, is fraught with concern over Alicia. "I'm falling in love with my wife again," Peter tells Kalinda, husband to best friend. "It would kill her to know this." It's killing us wondering if and when she will find out. Meanwhile, Alicia learns she has a big fan in a psycho killer (Sam Robards, also seen as a smarmy cheat on the Body of Proof pilot) who tells her he wrote a song in tribute of the way she remade her life. "How gratifying. Oh goody," she deadpans in lieu of vomiting. Hard not to sing Alicia's praises, though, as she gets caught up in Eli Gold's surreptitious but transparent effort to help Nanny-gate victim Natalie Morales (a warmly appealing America Ferrera). "Am I being used here?" Natalie asks Alicia, who matter-of-factly answers, "I don't know." Pause. "But you know the best thing to do if you are? Use them right back." This is why we root for Alicia.
Nice move, Peabodys, honoring a high-end commercial show like this just when it could use the boost the most. (Wife is also included in our "Seven Shows You Need to Watch" package, by the way.) CBS, riding high in the ratings, isn't known for its patience with underperformers, but accolades like this will surely give the network more ammo to stand by the show the way Alicia has stayed with Peter. For now.
THE HONOR IS THEIRS: This year's Peabody winners (see the full list here) include several others from my own top-10 list, including HBO's epic war miniseries The Pacific and Temple Grandin biopic, and PBS' delightful modernization of Sherlock for Masterpiece Mystery! Also included: TNT's much-improved Men of a Certain Age, ESPN's 30 for 30 docu-series, Patrick Stewart's Great Performances triumph as Macbeth, and a number of worthy documentaries on HBO and PBS. Study the list and go in search of what you missed.
THE CHUCK WAGON: Something tells me I might have more fun at a Chuck Lorre concert than whatever it is Charlie Sheen is up to with his "sold out" (but not really) "Violent Torpedo of Truth" tour that kicks off this weekend. Talk about your April fools if you paid full price for that one. Following Thursday's Big Bang Theory, Lorre's title card was one of his more cathartic, a helpful reminder that the next time we encounter him at a network/studio function, better leave the platitudes behind. Ones like "God/the universe does not give us more than we can handle." To which Lorre fumes: "As an aphorism, it only makes sense in hindsight — after you've managed to crawl from the wreckage of whatever calamity [read: the Charlie Sheen incident] that God/the universe [insert Sheen] decided to toss your way." Or one of my own favorites: "This too shall pass." (A mantra for whenever I'm confronted with Jersey Shore ratings.) Lorre's rejoinder: "I knew these are words meant to reassure, but somehow they always leave me feeling that heartbreak, rage and grief are going to come shooting out of me like kidney stones through an inflamed urethra." Winning!
Given that Lorre has survived past wars with Sheen-tastic divas like Roseanne and Cybill Shepherd and Brett Butler, I'm willing to give him the final word when it comes to finding humor during tough times. Here's his kicker: "For someone in crisis, I think a more accurate and helpful assessment of reality would be, 'Love, sex, food, friendship, art, play, beauty and the simple pleasure of a cup of tea are all well and good, but never forget that God/the universe is determined to kill you by whatever means necessary.' Consider trying that next time you're called on to do some consoling. If you're feeling impish, you might also try, 'According to the rules of comedy, your suffering will be funny after an undetermined length of time. Maybe not while you're having your gangrenous leg sewed off, watching your home burn down or learning how to be intimate with your cellmate, but in the big scheme of things, soon.'"
THE SCORECARD: A quick take on some reality competitions, starting with the Top Chef: All Stars finale. Way to go, Richard Blais. You had to win, especially with Angelo and Antonia among your sous chefs. The climax was tense but somewhat undercooked by the lingering feeling that many of the season's truly top chefs had been ousted too early. Mike Isabella raised his game, to be sure, and gave Blais a run for his money at the end. Rare for this show, the menus concocted by both finalists looked incredibly appealing — with the notable Top Chef-ian exception of Richard's foie gras ice cream, which looked disgusting; why did he abandon his Cap'n Crunch concoction, anyway? And Mike's pork shoulder with pepperoni sauce? Gimme some of that.
Speaking of winners I'm rooting for, if Matt doesn't make it to the Survivor merge next week, I'm sure I won't be the only one who's crushed. The first person sent to Redemption Island, Matt has vanquished all opponents five times in a row, keeping a remarkably positive attitude throughout. If he can withstand Sarita's challenge — and the teaser makes it look like he's coming in with a handicap — he has the potential to turn the game on its head, yet another obstacle for Boston Rob (who engineered Matt's early ouster) on the other side of the merge. Good times.
No objections with who got kicked from Dancing With the Stars and American Idol this week, although I was surprised that Paul replaced Stefano in Idol's bottom three. No real surprises, though, in this week's Idol performances, and that is a problem. While Naima clearly went too far out on a limb with her awkward reggae "I'm Still Standing (Not!)," too many stayed firmly and stubbornly entrenched in their safety zone, starting with Scotty's somnolent reading of a justifiably obscure Elton John tune with "country" in the title. How lazy can you get? This season is blessed with distinctive personalities, and they deserve to be tested and stretched, not pandered to and coddled.
BE OUR GUEST: Going on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is always an invitation to visit your dark side, but for Elizabeth Mitchell, it's an opportunity to remind us that her flat, pinched performance as a heroine on the disappointing V remake is a fluke. The lady can act, and brings it like she once did on Lost, hitting all the right disturbing notes as a tremulous mess of a piano teacher whose twisted family history of abuse results in the death of a 10-year-old student discovered in a duffel bag amid pillows, silk sheets and a doll. Returning guest star Jeremy Irons (next to be seen as a conniving Pope on The Borgias) breaks down her defenses, and the weepy confession is wrenching — but it's not the whole story, and when we meet her dragon-lady mother and equally damaged half-sister, we realize just a what a victim our former prime suspect truly is.
Also on the guest front: I concur with our Cheer regarding Valerie Perrine's flamboyant turn as a shady granny in the penultimate episode of FX's sadly unnoticed boxing/family saga Lights Out. A former showgirl who left her family long ago, unable even to remember how many granddaughters to bring presents home to, Perrine appears on the eve of Lights' comeback bout to rekindle family ties — and put a spark back in the eyes of her ex, Stacy Keach, with a simple "Hello, sailor." Lights' delight in seeing his family reunited is short-lived, naturally, once he discovers she's just another self-pitying opportunist working an angle. As he pays her off with 20 grand, ignoring her cries for help, he declares, "Let's just pretend you never came. It was better that way." Just the latest setback testing Patrick Leary's innate decency. I'm going to miss this guy — and Holt McCallany's soulful, haunted performance. Even if you checked out of the series long ago, consider watching next Tuesday's powerful finale as if it were a stand-alone. It floored me.
THE HONOR ROLL: All's finally calm again on the Mad Men front, now that those ugly negotiations are over and Matthew Weiner can get back to business, writing his enthralling masterpiece of '60s mores for three more seasons, more or less on his own terms. ... Speaking of which, the fourth season DVD set of Mad Men dropped this week, featuring one of the series' very best episodes, the Don-and-Peggy all-nighter titled "The Suitcase." ... Also on the DVD front, as a luxurious warm-up to Masterpiece Classic's upcoming Upstairs Downstairs sequel (starts April 10), Acorn Media has released the complete original series on DVD in a deluxe 21-disc set with a bounty of extras. This is what is known as a full-course meal. ... Welcome back to Showtime, Nurse Jackie, reclaiming the title of TV's most savage dramedy, as Jackie's fabric of lies continues to unravel, now that husband Kevin has revealed himself to her unsuspecting co-workers. ... There was no singing during last week's harrowing accelerated-childbirth episode of Fringe, a crisis engineered by Walter-nate to ensure the survival of his grandchild. "He's a miracle," says Faux-livia's mom. So is this terrific show.
AS HEARD ON TV: "If you see anyone pull a gun, step in front of it." — Score one for Justified's beaten but unbowed Raylan Givens, as he gives Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) marching orders at the town meeting. ... "Stale pastry is hollow succor to a man who is bereft of ostrich." — Big Bang Theory's Sheldon (Jim Parsons), responding to Penny's gesture of day-old cheesecake after his gaming account is hacked. When Penny prompts him, "Just say thank you," Sheldon answers, "I thought I just did." That's why the guy has an Emmy. ... "Welcome to the perv parade that leads to nowhere." — SVU's Detective Stabler, summing his entire series up in a sordid nutshell. ... "I'll front-side him." — Survivor's Boston Rob, deciding Phillip has become such a loose cannon that blind-siding is no longer even necessary. Sadly, his tribe wins immunity again, so he doesn't get the chance. ... "Don't wear out your welcome. You'll end up like me." — Steven Tyler giving unusually sage advice to Idol showman James Durbin after his fiery "Saturday Night's Alright" number. When James said he was worried about "having a Pepsi moment" by dancing so near the flames with all his flammable hairspray, Ryan naturally had a Coca Cola moment in response. Gotta love live TV.
That's a wrap. What did you watch, good or bad, this week? Share in the comments or send me thoughts and questions directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. And until next time, follow me on Twitter.