Saturday, April 3, 2010

Annual TV Commentary: 2008-2009 (Part 1)

In my effort to transfer various blogs over here, here's the first of what has become a sort of mini-tradition, my annual TV reviews. Here's the second, for the 2008-2009 TV season, and remember that there are spoilers for each show's respective season at the time.

Boston Legal ABC (Sep-Dec '08)
While I'm happy that Boston Legal went out on its own terms with a final 13-episode run, I'm also happy that ABC canceled the show. The final season just helped confirm that the show I used to completely love had majorly run its course. It felt like the writers had just lost track of what made the show so great, instead going overboard with the soapbox ranting which in the end eclipsed the actual characters. It's the series finale, I just want to see Shirley and Carl get married, not get sidetracked into a debate about Israel! Yeesh! Cases dragged, things generally grew more absurd, and I think I ended up simply falling out of love with the show. Still, Denny's slow mental decline was handled well, same with Jerry and Katie's blossoming relationship. But, in the end, the show lost me.
Favorite Scene Denny loses track of time after discovering Shirley and Carl making out in their kitchen, leading to everybody's realization of the full extent of his "Mad Cow".
Favorite Character Alan Shore
Favorite Episode True Love (5.4)
Rating C-

Damages FX (Jan-Apr '09)
When Damages' first season ended, I thought I read that the executive producers would try and make the show's sophomore season a little less confusing, in order to entice more viewers. Obviously, somewhere along the way, that decision flew out the window. Note to TV: There's convoluted arc plots, there's mega-convoluted arc plots, and then there's Damages season two. Maybe I'm just not smart enough, but I got completely lost along the way. Too many characters, too many subplots, too much everything. Let's start with the entire stock market arc, which I got completely tired off half way through the year. It also didn't help that Walter Kendrick was no match for Ted Danson's complex and magnificent bastard in season one. Then there was William Hurt, seemingly sleepwalking through a story which dragged, then disappeared, and then bored when it resurfaced at the very end of the season. Plus, the fact that so many characters just stood around with little to do for way too long just disappointed. Marcia Gay Harden, Timothy Olyphant and Anastasia Griffith are truly gifted actors and (at least in the case of the first two) big names, why give them such thankless parts? In the end, all I ever really cared about was Patty Hewes' personal problems and the mystery of what happened in Ellen's apartment. That subplot being the only mystery that really suckered me in from the very beginning, I was not disappointed with its resolution. On the plus side, Glenn Close is still unbelievably awesome as Patty. Even when she doesn't have dialogue, she screams emotions just from her expressions. Note her orgasmic satisfaction after scheming her way out of a lawsuit, her crafty but undeniably catty remarks at her son's middle-aged girlfriend (great storyline, by the way), and the way she just dominates the screen whenever she appears. While the acting (minus Hurt) was uniformly stunning, the season itself just didn't really work. There were rumors that most of the season was hastily re-written due to William Hurt being as enjoyable to work with as a rabies-infected beaver, and I hope that was the reason for the big UNR plot just not working. Still, the show is a powerhouse for phenomenal actors and mind-bending intrigue, and with a couple of the actors (Danson, Olyphant, Griffith) getting other shows and Hurt not being asked back, the show will return next year with a season to match the greatness of the first year, with fewer characters, a more audience-friendly case for Hewes & Associates to work and way more emphasis on the always fascinating Patty/Ellen relationship. Still, this season: not so great.
Favorite Scene Patty and Ellen's scene in Patty's bedroom shortly after she threw out her husband, with Ellen suggesting that they may both be vindictive people. Totally Glenn Close's Emmy moment.
Favorite Character Patty Hewes
Favorite Episode London, of Course (2.11)
Rating B

Desperate Housewives ABC (Sep '08-May '09)
I never thought any season of Desperate Housewives could be worse than its abysmal second year, but season five has taken that title. It sucks too, since I actually thought the first couple of episodes were truly great. There was some real mystery with Dave manipulating everybody, Susan and Gabrielle's issues with their new kids, the darkness surrounding Susan and Mike's break-up. But then, out of nowhere, the season rapidly sunk into pure sucktitude. Let's start with Dave, one of the most frustratingly annoying non-characters in the history of television. For one, there was no actual mystery to the so-called mystery. Pretty much everybody called in the very first episode that the mother and daughter killed in the car accident were Dave's family, and the following 22 episodes were just filler to get to the finale. Absolutely nothing of interest happened in between, from the pointless McCluskey sisters to the Dr. Evil-esque "camping trips", when a real psycho would just kill his targets when he first got the chance. The finale blew, and the writers didn't even have the guts to kill such a worthless character. Onto the housewives themselves, most of the season saw them just going round in circles, doing things they'd already done in older (and better) storylines. Lynette, one of the most shrill monsters on TV (not helped by Felicity Huffman's scary weight loss and all that collagen that appears to have been injected into her bottom lip), got involved with even more kids-related garbage and to prove that the writers have absolutely no idea what to do with her character anymore, they decided to end the season with making her pregnant again. Any likeability Orson ever had was beaten, tortured and murdered by asshat writers who decided to completely destroy his character and his relationship with Bree. Susan and Jackson and his stupid green card hoodoo blew chunks too (it's not like he's from goddamn Iraq, he's Canadian for cripes sake!) Gabrielle had a couple of decent storylines along the way, but I don't know if I like the teenage-Gabby girl that moved in with them in the finale. The writers need to stop relying on new characters (especially kids) to give the leads something to work with. It's just lazy, which brings me onto my biggest issue with this show. It really feels like the writers just aren't allowing things to grow organically, so we have forced couples (Mike and Katherine) and contrived storylines written in purely to give Marc Cherry's favorite actors something to do. The only reason Nicollette Sheridan was written out was because Cherry couldn't stand her ass. His undying love for James Denton, Doug Savant and Dana Delany means that we're stuck with characters that have nothing left to offer, resulting in ridiculous subplots engineered to keep them on Wisteria Lane. And I haven't even started on Edie's death, what could have arguably been the most powerful change to ever hit the show, rendered wholly unnecessary due to its complete lack of follow-up and a "goodbye" episode devoid of any power as the whole formula was copied from another episode (the 100th) which aired barely two months before it. I love this show, but man this season had absolutely none of the mystery, humor or entertainment of the previous years. ABC needs to step in and regroup before it flies completely off the rails.
Favorite Scene Edie's scene with Gabrielle where she explains that she always knew she would die young.
Favorite Character Gabrielle Solis
Favorite Episode Kids Ain't Like Everybody Else (5.3)
Rating D

Dirty Sexy Money ABC (Oct-Dec '08)
My biggest complaint about Dirty Sexy Money's first season was that considering how trashy and fun the show's title is, it wasn't reflected in the show itself. Thankfully, the writers completely switched up the show for its second and ultimately final season which, and I know this is an unpopular opinion among the show's fans, I really liked. Sure, there were numerous plotholes, characters had complete personality transplants (Simon, Lisa, I'm looking at you!) and developments were usually re-written or forgotten about every episode, but the show itself did become a crazy soap opera, which is a genre which isn't utilized at all on primetime network TV anymore (even Desperate Housewives is mostly played straight). The weird thing is, thinking back, I didn't particularly like many of the characters this season, or many of the storylines. But like some of my favorite old series (Melrose Place, Central Park West), the complete insanity and silliness of the show kept me coming back each week, and ultimately got me kinda sad when the show was canceled. Like last season, I adored Karen, Natalie Zea being one of the few actors around that can play so many different types (comedy, drama) with 100% authenticity. Plus, she's completely gorgeous. And, while it didn't ring totally true, I liked the continued triangle between Karen, Nick and Lisa, from the awesome catfight to Nick finally settling down with Karen in the end. I also enjoyed Jeremy's arc with Nola (until his Vegas marriage in the finale), Patrick's covering up of his crazy wives death and eventual relationship with Carmelita (until she stupidly got killed off the show), Leticia's trial and Brian's marriage to the dying Andrea. Onto the sucktitude, it did get annoying that storylines were consistently dropped, and that character motivations varied from episode to episode. Supposedly there was a lot of re-writing and crew changing behind the scenes, and it definitely showed on screen. I also felt that Lucy Liu was constantly shoe-horned into different storylines, purely to keep Nola on the show. The whole thing with Simon keeping her brother hostage was just too out there. Like Pushing Daisies, I watched the unaired episodes online, and the show ended how it began, with an entertaining mix of soapy drama and comedy. Weirdly, I was probably more saddened over this show's cancellation than I was over Pushing Daisies. There was a lot of potential here, with a truly great cast of actors, and the show was really finding its groove in this second season. Sure, it was ridiculous most of the time, but it was a lot of fun, which is something missing from TV right now.
Favorite Scene Nick breaking the news to Karen that Simon had traded her in for shares in Darling Enterprises, a beautifully acted scene where Natalie Zea put across a whole range of emotions, from giddy excitement to desperate pain to complete denial. Awesome.
Favorite Character Karen Darling
Favorite Episode The Plan (2.9)
Rating B

Dollhouse FOX (Feb-May '09)
I think everybody was excited over this show, and I'm guessing that it didn't live up to everybody's (high) expectations. It's weird; I didn't really love it or really hate it. I gave it the benefit of the doubt for its first two episodes, but until around episode eight, I just didn't really care. Very much a vanity project for Eliza Dushku, I was not won over by the cast, the story or any of the arcs. It was hard to get a handle on anyone, presumably due to the lack of a real protagonist, and the feeling that the writers didn't really know who would "lead" the show. While shows like Buffy or, for an example of something currently airing, Fringe manage to balance strong arc plots with lighter, mission-of-the-week stuff, Dollhouse never really succeeded in that department, since I found almost every one of the standalone episodes completely uninteresting and the arcs equally mundane (it took forever for Ballard to get intriguing, for example). Thankfully, the show eventually did pick up. Characters were allowed to develop a little, and I admit that it did get watchable. Alan Tudyk was great as Alpha, I really liked Victor and DeWitt, and some of the meditations on identity and the true ickiness of the Dollhouse itself (rape, slavery etc.) were intriguing. But there was still a lot wrong with it. As much as I love Eliza Dushku, I honestly don't think she has the range to play Echo. A lot of her "personas" were really similar, only three convincing, different ones springing to mind ("porn!" lady, rich lady and Alpha's girl in the finale). When it comes to the finale, I was disappointed both in the resolution (Echo simply reverting to her old self again, when SuperEcho would have made for a stronger show), and the fact that suddenly the most interesting character performed by a truly talented actor (Claire/Whiskey) presumably won't be around much next season due to Amy Acker jumping ship to an ABC show. While it probably sounds like I'm taking a big dump on it, Dollhouse does have a lot of potential there, plus with the pedigree of writing talent and great actors (Olivia Williams, Acker, Harry Lennix) involved, it can easily grow and become something better.
Favorite Scene Claire commenting to Topher that she doesn't get why he programmed her to hate him. An intriguing moment, and well performed by both actors.
Favorite Character Claire Saunders
Favorite Episode Needs (1.8)
Rating C

Fringe FOX (Sep '08-May '09)
My favorite new show of the season was a surprising one, mostly because it started out so badly. I don't know if anybody else felt the same way, but Fringe's first couple of episodes were clich├ęd, formulaic, and featured characters desperate for some kind of personality. But, in an indication of our impatient TV-viewing culture, gradually the show found itself and around mid-season it suddenly became a real work of genius. Effortlessly balancing complex arc plots with more linear monster-of-the-week standalones, Fringe managed to really capture my attention. Plus the cast really began to work. Anna Torv started off as an uninteresting drone, but quickly infused her with real personality and depth, John Noble stole the show as the mentally unbalanced but darkly comedic Walter, and the writers actually decided to hilariously acknowledge how forgettable and underused Astrid is (what with Walter getting her name wrong every episode). As the season continued, we got some awesome mysteries (crazy skin growth, the Observer kid, Olivia's dreams, her mysterious powers, bodies split in half) and more importantly some great arc plots involving Olivia's past, alternate realities and Leonard Nimoy. While the show continues to have a lot of similarities to old shows out there (Olivia's childhood experimentation is straight out of Alias' Project Christmas hoodoo, for example), the strength of the writing and the slow build of chemistry between the main cast forces you to overlook that. And that final shot of the season? Woah, it sticks with you...
Favorite Scene Not just for the casual lesbianism, but the scene where Olivia (as that crazy killer dude) picked up the stripper in the club for some erotic fun was one of the best-directed, best-acted moments of the season.
Favorite Character Walter Bishop
Favorite Episode Ability (1.14)
Rating A-

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