Sunday, January 30, 2011

Saturday Night Live

Not only was the best part of last night's Saturday Night Live clearly the awkwardly fantastic interactions between Mark Zuckerberg, "MARK ZUCKERBERG" (Andy Samberg), and Jesse Eisenberg during the latter's opening monologue, but check out the ending when Eisenberg ends the show and then he and Zuckerberg stand there awkwardly, proving once and forevermore just how perfect Jesse Eisenberg was for that role to begin with.

(Oh yeah, Eisenberg was also a wonderfully game and energetic host who added to every sketch he was in, whether by choking out the line "and the mouth came from a hoe who did not know her place" or joining in on Andy Samberg's desperate plea that the pair of them took a pill, and that's why their penises are so small)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Exclusive Interview: Danielle Fishel

The My TV Nominee interview series continues with our second entry of the year. A nominee in both the "Best Variety/Talk Show Host" and "Be-My-Best-Friend" categories, Danielle Fishel is the host of the Style network's pop-culture roaster The Dish (nominated for "Best Variety/Talk Show"). 

The charming host also happens to be a TV icon, a famous face since the age of 12 when she joined the cast of a little show called Boy Meets World. Famous as Topanga, the candid and self-possessed Danielle talks about leaving her beloved character behind, her transition into hosting and how much she loves The Dish

Click Here to read the full interview

Pilot Season

Now is that time of year in TV when news of what could be happening next year starts leaking out. It's pilot season, a free-for-all of brilliant concepts and derivative sure-things battling it out for precious few primetime spots.

My picks for the possible best of 2011's fall season?

In the top spot, obviously, it's Aaron Sorkin's return to TV. The cable news-set drama is sure to be a winner and (as much as it pains this network-devotee to say it) the fact that it was HBO that picked up the pilot not NBC or ABC gives me hope that Sorkin will get to do it his way. That means he'll most likely play up the idealism, play down the romance and spend a lot of time on a soapbox- sounds perfect. The Oscar he's about to win (or absolutely should be winning) will undoubtedly help push the show to quick success. Call Tommy Schlamme and Josh Molina- there's work to be done.

The other pilot that looks particularly promising based purely on concept and writing pedigree is a new NBC pickup called Grimm. It's a cop drama (a very hit or miss category) but lives in a world where the tales of The Brothers Grimm can come true. It's an intriguingly high concept, perhaps a bit too high for the desperate network, but it sounds pretty cool. The fact that it comes from Jim Kouf and David Greenwalt gives me hope too. The former Whedon scribes know their clever fantasy writing and know how to make a high concept show work on network- if anyone can do it, it'll be them.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Let's All Get Offended By Something Stupid Tracy Morgan Said

So Tracy Morgan, for some inexplicable reason, was a part of a half-time show for a Knicks-Heat game on TNT. And he, now somewhat infamously, blurted out, "Let me tell you something about Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin- she's good masturbation material. With the glasses and..."

I saw this first on facebook, that always great purveyor of news. And, honestly, I was offended. I hate Sarah Palin's politics and public persona as much as the next Massachusetts born-and-educated, gay-marriage-supporting, non-real American out there. But I am a pretty die-hard feminist who spent a good portion of the 2008 election (during which I supported neither of the two major female candidates because I don't vote due to genital similarities) somewhat appalled at the blatant sexism displayed by the media. And reducing a serious political contender (even if she is a serious political contender with a reality TV show and views on political issues that makes me squeamish) to the same level as the Jenna Jamisons and Maxim Covergirls of this world seemed to reek of mysoginistic bullcrap.

Until I watched the video, and realized that Tracy Morgan was probably the one acting most reasonably here. TNT came out after the fact and apologized that Tracy "showed a lack of judgement on air with his comments." Well sorry, TNT, but fuck that. Tracy took the already incredibly mysoginistic line of questioning spouted by YOUR anchors, "Tina Fey or Sarah Palin?" and took it to its logicial extreme.

Look at Tracy's look of extreme discomfort and then repurpose this question for a more normal time. Those anchors were essentially asking if Tracy would rather, uh, let's be generous and say "date" his hard-working, incredibly talented BOSS (a woman he has worked with for over 12 years) or a political pundit. Yes they're both gorgeous women, and much has been made of this in more appropriate context. The anchors were the ones who first reduced two powerful, talented women to nothing more than sexual objects. Tracy was the one who showed them for the dipshits they were being in the name of (to quote Tracy Jordan) "BANTER!"

I'm not saying that Morgan neccesarily had satirical intentions. There's every chance he was just looking to shock when he brought the joke to that extreme. Or there's every chance that Tracy Morgan actually thinks that Sarah Palin is a useful self-pleasuring aid (he's going to take her behind the gym and get her pregnant. BAM!). But that's not my point. My point is that focusing this mini controversy on Tracy Morgan and not on the fact that treating Sarah Palin or Tina Fey or any woman in this blatantly derrogatory way is probably not the way towards a more "civil" society.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: If you think I'm being too sensitive, check out this piece on Sexism in the 2008 campaign and please keep in mind the fact that my candidate won and I'm still whining. Portraying Sarah Palin as a person unprepared to lead this country, or even pointing out moments when she has used her looks to secure political power, totally legitimate satirical points. Completely diminishing her because she happens to have two XX chromosomes? Kind of a bullshit way to score cheap political points.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The End of Life (Unexpected)

The interesting thing about the end of Life Unexpected is how very expected it was. The sweet show that would have fit perfectly on The WB never made much sense for The CW- the teenagers looked like teenagers, there were actual adults, it was more heart than sex organ. And though Tuesday's 2-hour offering was labeled a "season finale", everyone knows it was really a farewell to the lovely if short-lived show.

The first hour wrapped up the season's stories: we said farewell to Erik exactly as we should have, though I was perplexed at how fond I'd grown of him, and Emma's story was wrapped. The latter was less interesting, a bit of a character-under-the-bus issue, but the scenes with Baze and Sam were sweet.

The last hour was the series finale. It brought the focus back to the central grouping of Lux, Baze, Kate and Ryan. Some excellent Ryan moments saved the parent story from the annoying monster that is Kate, and Jones came back for an excellent scene that finally said what I've always believed: Jones is awesome, and not "normal". Thank god for a show that finally acknowledges that it's not just the "weird" protagonists that have stuff to deal with, it's the golden boys too, and everyone in between. Ryan fought for her so "Morning Madness with Kate and Ryan" returned to the radio with a sweet full circle banter session and Baze took back his bar (about time).

The final couple scenes got a little schmoopy with the "I love you" exposition and the would-be cliffhanger annoyed me at first. But I loved flashing forward 2 years to Lux's graduation. The easy resolution of the cliffhanger was nice to see, instead of being left with the trademark ambiguous ending of a show that's not sure if its canceled or not. Though the happily-ever-afters got a little tedious, I was happy to see the characters happy and Lux's speech was lovely (though she completely misused the concept of lightyears- they're space, not time). Math and is a cute if convenient pairing, as is Fern and that other guy who was always around. I liked that Jones is still in Lux's life though I wish he had stayed with Tasha instead of ending up with Lux (I get the poetry of her feeling like she deserves the stable nice guy, but I feel bad for Tasha, she deserves that too- possibly more, Lux be kinda crazy). As for the parental pairings, my favourite part of Lux's speech is when she indirectly thanked Ryan for never leaving her (Ryan was consistently my favourite character in the show, I loved his unconditional person-to-fall-back-on-ness), I loved that he sticked around. Not so sure about him marrying the random lady with his baby but he was always too good for Kate so actually I'm okay with it. And Kate and Baze. Well, duh, I guess, is the only word to really describe it. It was obvious, a little uninspired but the direction the show was always going so fine. I don't actually like them together but it's fine. Is it weird that I secretly hope now that she's 18 that Lux goes and finds Erik? Yeah, that's weird. Fine, she can steal Jones from her best friend, fine (not fine).

I seem to be complaining a lot, I know, but I really did like the finale. I even cried (in that Ryan part, I love Ryan). Life Unexpected was a sweet show and (like Ryan for Kate) it was too good for The CW, that's why it's over. Poor Kristoffer Polaha's streak of good-but-canceled shows continues, he's so charming, why can't he catch a break?. This one will leave a big hole for that good kid demographic who finds nothing to relate to in Gossip Girl, a hole The CW will undoubtedly try to fill with vampires. Needles to say, Life Unexpected will be missed.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Joke of the Week

Malcolm Jamal Warner guest starred on Community this week. It was an okay episode, far from the best Community offering but still pretty good. But in a particularly Abed-light episode, the best joke of the week capitalized on his TV history-heavy humour without even putting him in the scene. Take a look at that sweater Warner's wearing in the photo. Recognize the style? Late in the episode Jeff compliments it and Warner replies "thanks, my dad gave it to me". 

If you don't get the joke, well, ... you really ought to get the joke. But if you really don't, I'll explain:

Malcolm Jamal Warner is Theo Huxtable. From The Cosby Show. If you're still not following, please give up now. Otherwise, here's an oldschool photo of him and his famous TV dad in one of HIS famous TV sweaters.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Exclusive Interview: Project Runway's Seth Aaron

It's the best time of year, Award Season! My TV, My Cinema and My Theatre all got in on the action this year. The 4th annual My TV Award nominees were announced in December and winners will be announced in February. In the meantime we're profiling some of this year's nominees.

Our second My TV Nominee Interview Series kicks off with one of the most engaging personalities in reality TV- Project Runway's Seth Aaron Henderson. The fun and forthright designer took some time out of his day to talk to me about the show and share some insights into his winning attitude and philosophy.

Click Here to read our interview.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Quote of the Show

Sunday's Golden Globes contained no small number of witty shots at any and all celebrities in attendance, some great speeches and some deserving winners (the most obvious of the bunch: Aaron Sorkin, Paul Giamatti and Christian Bale, are among my favourites)  but perhaps my favourite moment was provided by Chris Colfer.

Glee's greatest asset, Colfer's been handed the season of a lifetime by the writers who've been highlighting his character Kurt specifically lately, especially as the stats on gay teen suicide keep mounting. Colfer's elevated the uneven material beautifully and though he may not actually be the greatest supporting actor on TV, he's definitely the most deserving nominee and I was very happy to see him win. I was even happier to see the reactions of his cast-mates at his table, they looked so proud (the usually obnoxious diva Lea Michele even cried for him, it was really kinda nice).

My favourite bit of the eloquent and remarkably calm speech he made after he opened with the sensational line: "I dropped my heart somewhere between Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, if you find it please return it to me"? As he predictably (and appropriately) dedicated his win to the teenagers everywhere who've been bullied and told they're not good enough, he capped with a triumphant "screw that" to the belittling as he raised his award in the air. It was a lovely testament to how to truly deal with bullies (the way that Kurt is slowly learning this season with a breakthrough in "Never Been Kissed"), don't cry about it, sing sad songs or write out your feelings, say "screw that, you're wrong and this doesn't fly".

That'a boy Chris.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Because It's Important

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Exclusive Interview: Zaib Shaikh

Little Mosque on the Prairie, now in its 5th season on CBC, is possibly Canada's best-known sitcom at the moment. It's leading man is Zaib Shaikh, a charming multi-hyphenate dedicated to the Canadian performing arts landscape. 

The actor-producer-writer-director got his start in the theatre before being cast as Amaar, a forward-thinking Imam who trades his Toronto life as a lawyer for religious life in small town Saskatchewan. 

Taking a page out of Amaar's passion and generosity philosophy, Zaib is spending his time off-set working with his production company Governor Films to develop new Canadian content and create jobs for dedicated artists getting their start in the industry. 

He took some time off from guest hosting Q on CBC Radio to speak with me about the new season of Little Mosque, his award-winning Othello, Governor Films and why Canada is so important to him.

Click Here to read the full interview

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Survivor Badassery: woo hoo!

At the finale of Heroes vs. Villains, Jeff mentioned it might be fun to have the two power-player rivals back to go head to head one day. On February 16 we'll finally get to see that as the 16 new Redemption Island castaways are joined by two of the greatest players ever to play Survivor.

First, there's Russell Hantz. The small little troll man is an imp of deception and manipulation. He steals, he cheats, he belittles the other castaways to within an inch of their self-worth. And he does it well. He's played twice: Samoa and Heroes vs. Villains, and never not made the finale. He's also never won the game. A lot of people say it's because his social game isn't as strong as his strategic one, others that the jury voters are always just bitter and stupid and never reward the right person. While I agree with the latter for the Heroes vs. Villains vote, Parvati should have won, Sandra didn't do anything. I really think Natalie played a really solid game in Samoa. She did the dirty work and strategizing (she did!) when she had to, and played used Russell as much if not more than he used her. She deserved the win. Russell's challenge will be fixing that last piece missing from his impressive game play. Russell has become the icon of recent Survivor history. There have been 4 seasons since fall 2009, he's played in 3 of them. If he makes it to the finals this time around it'll be a record. Rob, who premiered in season 4, has the history of the game behind him, but Russell's got the current climate dominated (not to mention he outlasted Rob by 21 days in Heroes vs. Villains).

As for Rob, he's really three famous Survivor players in one. There's Marquesas Rob from way back when the series was only in its 4th season. He was rough around the edges, manipulative, and voted out early. Then there's All-Star Rob, the 10th place finisher was inexplicably brought back for season 8's assembly of "the best of the best", and it's a good thing he was. With villainous strategy he'd only gotten to show hints of in Marquesas, Rob dominated All-Stars. The catch, though, was that the 25-year-old single guy who was only looking out for himself the first time around fell in love on All-Stars. He was a villain to everyone else but Rob played white knight to his one ally Amber, negotiating their way to the finale and winning her the money (yes, I insist that it was 100% his strategy that led to her win). He proposed on the finale and they've been together ever since (getting married on TV and running the Amazing Race twice along the way), Amber recently gave birth to their second child. So when he came back for Heroes vs. Villains, Rob was understandably a different guy. He hadn't played the game in 6 years, was in a totally different place in his life, and was confronted by strange new twists that had been added since All-Stars (the biggest of which was Russell's iconic tool- the hidden immunity idol). Despite being on the Villains tribe, these factors meant one thing for Rob's gameplay: he played like a Hero. He powered through challenges, taking on a leadership role (like oldschool Colby) and negotiated peaceful tribal voting and a sharing of the inconvenient immunity idol. But the game isn't played that way any more, the great and obvious, powerhouse heroes don't win anymore. Rob was voted out 8th and didn't even make the jury. But much like his 4th place finish on The Amazing Race:All-Stars, Rob ran faster than everyone else, he just got knocked out.

Notoriety will be a major hurdle for both players to overcome but I think Rob's might work in his favour and Russell's against him. When he played Heroes vs. Villains, Russell's season had yet to air, he's never played this game as a famous player- his villain reputation will hurt him a bit. However, he's won Fan Favourite every time he's played, it's possible that everyone will be clambering to climb on his back. Rob, however, proved himself a good leader instead of a backstabby player in Heroes vs. Villains. If they're smart, his team will keep him at least to help them to the merge. My prediction is that Rob will do very well and Russell go out early. But history is very very much not on my side in that prediction. So we'll see.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Case of the Character-Based Procedural

There's a stigma to any show that can be called "procedural". The TV landscape has become so saturated with CSIs and Law & Orders and versions of NCIS that it seems like there's not a lot left. The genre of crime/patient/case-of-the-week plotting and very basic character development is really for casual viewers. For true procedurals it's important that someone be able to turn on their TV and watch a random episode in the middle of the season and not be confused. So for real TV people, the sort who watch from the pilot to the finale in order and without skipping- critics, devotees, industry folks-, procedurals can be really tedious.

The heavily-serialized have become a rarity on primetime network TV, there's really no arguing with that. With Lost gone and none of its replacements really taking off, serialization really just belongs to family dramas (Brothers & Sisters, Parenthood, Life Unexpected), teen shows (Gossip Girl, Vampire Diaries) and primetime soaps (Desperate Housewives, One Tree Hill). But that doesn't mean that all we're left with is pure procedurals.

So much about House makes it a procedural. Case-of-the-week, repetitive format, etc... but then there's actual House. The famous curmudgeon has a host of problems-psychological, emotional, physical- that make him the sarcastic genius that he is. You don't know that, unless you actually watch the show. The whole show. Same thing with Castle, Bones and Psych. Those shows are still very formulaic, predictable, the characters do, comparatively speaking, take a back seat. But they're not Dragnet. The Good Wife strikes a balance, about half the show is heavily serialized and the other half is procedural law drama. Same with Boston Legal, Drop Dead Diva, and pretty much everything else about lawyers. Grey's Anatomy's the same way. So is Private Practice. As was ER. You could tune into a random episode of Buffy and follow the monster-of-the-week, you'd miss the season-wide big bad and the full-series character arcs, but you could follow the episode. The same can be said of many West Wing episodes.

My point is, the line is blurrier than it seems to be. Some of the most interesting characters on TV exist in what many critics would label a "procedural"- Jack Hodgins, Shawn Spencer, Kalinda Sharma, oh and Gregory House (considered one of TV greatest characters of all-time). I think the secret is layering. Lost quickly grew tedious in its perpetual lack of closure but Law & Order seems to re-set its world at the end of each episode. Self-contained stories are important to give the audience some sense of accomplishment or resolution, but it's the over-arching themes and developments that really pull the characters forward, give the series growth and depth. I think Buffy had it down with its mix of single-episode, season-long and series-wide stories. Their plots worked on 3 levels and their characters got the best of both worlds.

What I'm saying is that Jack Hodgins couldn't live in a true procedural. They just never would have written him. Maybe long arcs aren't the focus, but "non-serial" and "weak on character" are not mutually inclusive concepts (neither are, for the record, "heavily serialized" and "strong on character"). Maybe not every week, but character-based non-serial shows belong in the critical eye. Hodgins deserves at least that much.

The Terrible Person Brigade

Cable TV is the home of terrible people. That's not to say that some of the people on network aren't horrible too (Addison Montgomery is a hypocritically terrible person, whereas Prison Break's TBag is flat out evil). But on cable, more and more, the heroes, protagonists, the centres of the shows, are truly terrible people.

There's the lesser evil, like the title character in United States of Tara. The charming cast of engagingly fun if troubled characters is led by the dissociative personalitied Tara. Some of her alters are understandably antagonistic (Buck is a bully, T is a brat, Alice is flat-out terrifying) but Tara herself presents as the well-intentioned and thoughtful reason to put up with the others. But by the end of season 2, when Tara's self-centered crap had ruined her sister's wedding even before she transitioned, it's pretty clear that Tara is concerned with no one but Tara. But with her it's a flaw thing, not a simply terrible thing. She may not be as worthy of the patience her family shows as she maybe should be, but Tara's not an irredeemable character.

The there's the tricky reality of The Sopranos. I hated everyone in The Sopranos (except, sometimes, Melfi, and sometimes Christopher). The heavy 6 seasons were an unpleasant trek of struggling with my inability to relate to or care about the characters I was watching. Yes yes, Tony can be very charming. He cared about the ducks, and that damn horse, and yes apparently you're supposed to sympathize with people who had bad mothers. But he's just not a good guy, it baffled me how audiences were so willing to overlook that. He's a murderer, an exploiter, a cheater, a misogynist, a slob, a stubborn, uncompromising, bigoted MOB BOSS. Carmela is even worse for knowing all those things and doing nothing about them. His kids are selfish brats. His friends are gross shadows of himself. There are few redeemable people in The Sopranos. But when I got to the end I read a NY Times article wherein auteur David Chase told me I was supposed to feel like that. Apparently, it was supposed to be a portrait of corruption and selfishness, and when America loved the characters anyway, Chase threw more and more evil at them, seeing how far he could push it. That blackout at the end was a sort of punishment, an act of finally closing the window to the corruption that the audience had been inexplicably enjoying. In The Sopranos, that terrible person factor is the point. You're not supposed to relate to them, you're supposed to worry if you do.

The worst example is the horrifying creature that is Nancy Botwin. Her final act of heroism at the end of season 6 is mildly redeeming but that might be my problem. Tara isn't that offensive in her terrible-ness, The Sopranos accepts Tony's terrible-ness as a reality in the show, but Weeds seems to operate under some strange delusion that "she may be flawed but is really a very good person deep down, she's just in over her head". No. In season one you could make the argument that MAYBE that was it. But No. She's a lunatic. Even going into the backstory, her life in high school, she was clearly always a selfish bitch who made terrible life choices. The journalist in season 6 was the first person to ever fully express who Nancy is, it was a breath of fresh air. I simply cannot deal with Nancy Botwin.

But the terrible-ness is the point I guess, on cable at least. It's about the gritty underbelly of who we really are or some crap like that. But I don't buy it. Reality is full of heroes. It's got a lot more heroes than it has villains. And every one of those heroes has intriguing and complex darkness to them. That's where the stories are. I'm all for antagonists, all for darkly flawed protagonists, but the selfish, remorse-less villains have got to go. They're not teaching us anything. Give me Albie Grant, who works in opposition to our heroes but honestly is trying to do the right thing. Give me Claire Fisher, an angsty, troubled, morbid young woman who's misery isn't endearing but also isn't ill-intentioned. Hell, give me Dexter, he kills by a code and would give away his darkness if he could (or, honourably, he might keep it in order to save the person who might get stuck with it).

TV Stars in The Movies

The holiday movie rush has produced some truly excellent and some disappointing fare. But one thing has remained true: TV stars are really bringing it to the big screen this season. Click on the movie titles to read reviews from our sister site My Cinema.

First there's the rush of TV faces who play a crowd at a dinner party and make up the brief but best part of Fair Game. Current TV superstar (and longtime My TV favourite, from way before Modern Family) Ty Burrell is there alongside beloved character actors from past TV seasons like FRIENDS' Susan (Jessica Hecht) and Grey's Anatomy's Erica Hahn (Brooke Smith). Fantastic Broadway player Norbert Leo Butz formerly of ABC's short-lived The Deep End also joins them for dinner.

Grey's Anatomy's Sandra Oh livens up a dreary adaptation of Rabbit Hole, as she does for anything she's in, former Joan of Arcadia star Amber Tamblyn, Everwood's Treat Williams, Lizzy Caplan from Party Down/The Class and Gossip Girl's Clemence Poesy fill the limited supporting roles in James Franco (Freaks & Geeks/ General Hospital)'s tour de force 127 Hours. and That 70's Show's Mila Kunis continues her rise to film stardom with an impressive and My Cinema Award (among other awards)- nominated supporting performance in Black Swan

Gossip Girl's best actress Leighton Meester gives the performance of her career so far in Country Strong as a beauty queen-turned-country singer on tour with her idol. Meester delivers excellent vocals and a compelling performance as the surprisingly multi-faceted Chiles Stanton.

And then there's Burlesque. The musical is absolutely packed with TV stars delivering excellent performances. Grey's Anatomy's Eric Dane plays a slick real-estate tycoon and Veronica Mars herself Kristin Bell plays the star of the burlesque show, showing off that Tisch musical theatre degree that so many people forget about. David Walton (100 Questions/Perfect Couples) and Dianna Agron (Glee) put in fantastic turns in tiny but important parts, and pros of the reality dance world Julianne Hough (Dancing with the Stars) and Chelsea Traille (So You Think You Can Dance) hold down the burlesque chorus. Perhaps the best TV star performances come from former OC stars Peter Gallagher and Cam Gigandet. Gallagher, always reliably excellent, plays Cher's ex-husband and co-club owner. Gigandet, remembered fondly as the guy who killed Marissa, nails the easily-fumbled role of Christina Aguilera's unavailable love interest with easy charm and sincerity.

If you're going to the movies this month, you're bound to see some truly excellent film actors. But don't forget where a lot of them find their home- TV.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

2010 in Reality TV: the other stuff

The Amazing Race, So You Think You Can Dance, Survivor, Dancing with the Stars, Top Chef, Project Runway and The Bachelor dominate my TV season by airing at least 2 seasons or versions of themselves a year (Bachelor AND Bachelorette, SYTYCD AND SYTYCDCanada, etc...) But some of the biggest (and the smallest) reality shows of the year make us wait for them, either building anticipation or allowing us to forget they exist. In 2010 those shows had some interesting things going on:

American Idol

The juggernaut reality show was at its least captivating since the Taylor Hicks season as talented-but-not-exciting front-runner Crystal Bowersox was unexpectedly overtaken by "isn't he that other guy?" standard soulful-guy-with-a-guitar whose name I can't remember. Oh Lee, his name was Lee. And he was David Cooke but not as good, Kris Allen but not as charming. There was also something about Kara getting in trouble because she thought one of the contestants was cute and something else with a quickly aggravating trend wherein people sang songs that seemed silly but they did it in a "cool" way. As contestants hid behind their guitars and Ellen Degeneres tried not to show how uncomfortable she was, any cred the show won from 2009's successful showdown between Allen and actual should-be-superstar Adam Lambert was quickly lost. The show's in for a serious remodel this year with Simon and Kara gone. Replacing the show's top talent scout with an aging rock star and the oft-annoying but very knowledgeable songwriter with a singer/actress doesn't really seem like a fair trade to me.  I predict disaster- the beast will die, and soon.

Big Brother
Unaware that their best seasons have been largely twist-free with the exception of adding the veto (2, 3, 7:All-Stars, 10), the big brothers behind Big Brother decided they needed something brilliant for 2010 (after 2009's stupid "high school" theme, there was nowhere to go but up). What they came up with wasn't bad, except that it didn't really work. The prospect of a saboteur is interesting but it would be better if 1) they weren't voted out the first week, 2) they actually had to do something and 3) the format supported it better. Wouldn't it have been cool if, to along with the saboteur season, BB adopted a format reminiscent of The Mole where contestants did competitions to add money to the pot the winner would get and the saboteur worked against them? The saboteur could keep however much they directly kept from the pot- that's a really good idea, they should totally do that! Anything that adds to the paranoia factor of BB is solid gold. But this saboteur didn't really do anything other than waste a lot of our time while the contestants talked about the inconsequential saboteur. Apart from a failed twist, the season was a strange ordeal in which 2 morons with excellent educations annoyed the house until everyone turned into super-bitches while an alliance of 3 doofs and a "genius" slid by and became "the most successful alliance in BB history", which is sad, because they mostly won because everyone else was stupid. I liked Matt, the only smart member of "The Brigade" (okay, Hayden wasn't dumb, he just didn't do much), but one major tweak in strategy and he could have won the whole thing, instead he was the only Brigade member dumped early. I actually liked everyone in the Brigade, but only Matt was a good player. Lane was particularly funny, and late in the game I really was rooting for him and the sometimes-bitchy, sometimes-hilarious, oftentimes-both Britney to make it to the end. It was a weird season. My vote for twisted all-star season down the road: the battle of the alliances. Picture it: Chilltown vs. The Brigade vs. The Horsemen vs. The Donatoes vs. The Renegades- it'd be awesome (although some of those guys don't work if everyone knows about them- okay, it's a flawed plan, but I just want to see the cocky Brigade handed their asses by Chilltown).

True Beauty
This vile study of the human condition took a leap forward in 2010 when the winner Taylor proved to be beautiful literally on the inside and the outside. Well, at least he was the most genuine of the lot, the most fun and was definitely the most attractive. But it is all relative. Hyper-revealing hidden challenges like "will contestants stoop to pick up the litter that an actor we hired just strategically dropped in front of them?" combined with skill-based tasks like posing nude for a buffet ad to truly test the depth of the contestants' souls. Psychopath Liz, naked body butterer Craig and crazy vain astrologer David added to the vile fun while sympathetic/insecure Amy was funny but made me kind of sad. Taylor was great though, I actually liked him (in a "not in real life, but maybe if you were on a better reality show you'd still be watchable" way). And runner-up Erika was actually really charming. Overall, season 2 kicked season 1's ass, if only because there were a couple people who didn't make me want to throw things.

Last Comic Standing
The untimely death of Greg Giraldo casts a sad shadow over what was otherwise and incredibly fun season of the underrated reality show. Giraldo and fellow judge Natasha Leggero were quick-witted and honest enough to make up for their third wheel Andy Kindler's strained jokes and host Craig Robinson's generally crappy hosting abilities. The contestants were also pretty fabulous. One of the few shows where the audition rounds are actually entertaining, this season made some questionable cuts (as always) but ended up with a really great top 10. The only women in the competition, Laurie Kilmartin and Rachel Feinstein left before their time I think, but it was the top 5 that really took the cake. I wasn't crazy about winner Felipe, but understated nice guy Roy was consistently hilarious, I absolutely loved quirky Myq and tough guy Mike and had a huge summer TV crush on Tommy. My favourite, Tommy was writerly kind of funny but overly confident- in a funny way. He was simply funny. As were all of them. This might just be my new regular summer show.

High School Reunion
I remember watching this show way back in the day when it was on The WB. It's TVLand incarnation is really hokey, often maddening but somehow always fun. This season was centered on the rivalry between 2 cliques: "The Summer Girls" and "The Cheerleaders". Well, I didn't really like either, but petty women who can't get over high school are a pet peeve of mine. Well, that's not true, I actually ended up liking Lisette quite a bit. The producers, unfortunately, tried really hard to frame the beautiful and poised "Summer Girl" as a snobby villain, but anyone paying attention had to notice there wasn't actually much evidence of said snobbery. I also liked Tracey okay. Other than one random blowup, she was a solitary low maintenance person at the reunion. I have a real respect for people who find a way to be happy when they're not at the top of the pyramid, and that's what Tracey did in high school and at the reunion. Her "prom" date Justin was also an unexpectedly wonderful character, as was his wingman Marcel who was my favourite person in the show. The silly romance story, the "feud", the annoying racism plotline, none of it was that interesting. But some of the people were pretty cool.

The Marriage Ref
This sounds like SUCH a stupid concept. But I kind of love The Marriage Ref, and not in an ironic "yes I'm watching True Beauty" or guilty pleasure kind of way. Jerry Seinfeld's baffling concoction is actually a winning formula. A play on society's obsession with celebrity and with self-help, the show assembles a panel of "expert" celebrities with absolutely no expertise at all and no qualifications to be giving anyone any advice, and presents them with a real life couple and their current marital squabble. The mismashed celebrities who make no sense sitting next to each other, not to mention saving the marriages of everyday Americans, then give their suggestions on who should win the argument: the husband or the wife (or sometimes gay partner #1 or partner #2- it's all good). Then the ref makes an official call and there are absolutely no consequences for anyone, except that the couple gets to go on a vacation for sharing their problem with the world (and Madonna, or whomever else). The show attracts some really unexpected celebrities and its candid nature makes it, quite simply, a hoot. There are few things as entertaining as watching Kirstie Alley and Sheryl Crow declare a "women's alliance" against Jimmy Fallon. Standout panels have included the amazingly (and surprisingly) level-headed combination of Sarah Silverman, Martin Short and Matthew Broderick, the comical mishmash of Sheryl Crow, Kirstie Alley and Jimmy Fallon and, the first panel I saw and still my favourite, Ricky Gervais, Larry David and Madonna. In fact, the only things I don't like about The Marriage Ref are 1) the corny writing: "next we're gonna amble into the heart of hometown Americana, Washington Township New Jersey, and meet the Hamiltons, where husband Ash is lost in a world of his own"; and 2) the actual marriage ref himself: Tom Papa. He moves too much when he talks, thinks he's smarter/funnier than he is and often makes "the call" in opposition to the recommendations of most of the panel. But in general, I think The Marriage Ref is hilarious, intentionally but completely without pretension. It's low-pressure TV without being stupid.

2010 in Reality TV: Top Chef

2010 was an up and down year for Top Chef. Coming off their best season yet in late 2009, the Bravo series started 2010 with a Washington DC edition. It was at once their kitschiest season to date, and one of the least interesting. The season did feature an engaging personality in Tiffany and an entertaining one in Angelo, as well as the hilarious "scandal" of the stolen pea puree (oh my!), but the contestants were generally less than interesting and the food generally less than impressive. To top it all off, the win went inexplicably to hot-headed Kevin (who was in the bottom no fewer than 5 times over the course of the season and won only 1 challenge). On a brighter note, even though Eric Ripert is not exactly an enthralling permanent judge, at least this season marked goodbye to the vile Toby Young.

Next came Top Chef: Just Desserts. In contrast to it's parent show's mediocre 7th season, the spinoff's 1st season was wonderfully entertaining. As a whole, the series lacked the heat and bad-assery of the original (which is what happens when you take away knives and fire and replace them with mixing bowls and piping bags) but it didn't need to be hot to be entertaining, because it was delightfully bitchy. Yes, apparently pastry chefs are more cliquey, snippy and divalicious than American Idol singers, Project Runway designers and Top Models combined. It was fabulous. From glittery Zac to bitter Heather to childish loner Danielle, the contestants were hilariously diverse. Early on, passionate lunatic Seth kept the audience riveted with fantastic outbursts like the instant classic "the red hots are for my mommy!" (though I still maintain that he's very talented and well-intentioned, he just needs a therapist, and to not be on national TV). Once he was gone, attention switched to the totally mature rivalry between the in-crowd: Zac, Yigit and Heather H (wonderfully named "Team Diva") and the outsiders/underdogs: Danielle, Morgan and Eric (they had no official name, though "Team Loser" was certainly thrown around as a possibility). Adorable baker Eric unfortunately left early-ish from the underdogs, but they ultimately triumphed over Team Diva when Danielle controversially beat out Zac for the 3rd finale spot. In the end it came down to the 2 best contestants of the season: Yigit, the adorable Turk with the baby face and the perfect technique, and Morgan, the manliest man ever to design a handbag made of buttercream. Despite the fact that Morgan had 3 elimination and 3 quickfire wins going into the finale compared to Yigit's 1 elimination and 1 individual quickfire, it was anybody's game (Yigit's technique and ambition had made him a front-runner from day 1, while Morgan had been a dark horse). Ultimately, Yigit took the prize (and the "fan favourite" title), which was deserved, appropriate and the perfect ending to a fantastic season. Also: Johnny Iuzzini... 'nough said.

Next up, the knives and fire came back... and so did a big pile of losers. Literally. It's All-Star season, so all the contestants are former losers. That means that we get some idiots that should have just stayed home (I'm talking to you Dale Talde, at least just stop talking), some popular contestants way out of their league (Fabio, Spike) and some great chefs who just flat-out didn't win first time around (Carla, Antonia, Angelo, Jen). We also get back my favourite contestant of all-time: Richard Blais (who HAS to win this thing). 5 weeks in there are 12 chefs left. Angelo's winning the win/judges' favourite count with 2 wins and 2 weeks in the top, though Richard's just one win behind after having been disqualified week 1 for going over time. Look for Jamie to go home next (she was my favourite in her season but I'm so disappointed with her in All-Stars) with Fabio close behind. Also I expect a dark horse like Carla or Mike to make their way to the finale against expectations. On the judging front, the permanent table is solid this season with Padma, Tom, Gail and the ever-entertaining Anthony Bourdain.

It may have had a rocky start in 2010 but the superb new spinoff and a solid-if-not-fabulous start to All-Stars has put the series in a good place for 2011.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

2010 in Reality TV: Project Runway

2010 was a very good year for Runway. Of course I have no idea whether it was a good year for the actual runway, as in the fashion industry, but even my non-fashion-savvy self can recognize a solid couple seasons for Lifetime's reality show.

January brought the premiere of Season 7, aka Seth Aaron Season. The charismatic designer took the reigns episode one and was fan favourite the whole way to the win. Likable characters Anthony and Jonathan further spiced up the season, but boring divas Mila, Maya and Jay put a serious damper on things. Cocky runner-up Emilio was the season's obligatory "I don't care what Tim thinks, I do MY clothes" guy, in the most annoying way possible. And then there was Ping, the bewildering "designer" who went out third (I still can't believe she made it that far). It actually wasn't that great a lot of designers personality-wise, though I thought they were a very talented group (Amy, in particular, didn't stick around nearly long enough). But Seth Aaron was so much fun that he carried the season almost single-handedly.
The people giving him the most assistance in his quest to keep us tuned in were actually the models. In the second season of great-idea companion series Models of the Runway, the maturity gap was delightfully wide. There were the comically bitter "seasoned" models like stoic Brandise and snarky Cerri and their endearing comrades Seth Aaron-devotees Valeria and Kristina. On the less-tolerable side of things there was "I'm here to win, not to make friends" Alexis and her partners in immaturity, mean girls Lorena and Brittany. Charming Monique and Holly the Amazon made up a solid middle ground of normalcy. The models were consistently entertaining personalities, elevating the character drama of a talent-heavy but (Seth Aaron and Anthony excepted) dry season.

Season 8 was filled with a lot more personalities, and just as much talent, but unlike season 7's perfect ending, it's better to pretend that season 8 ends with the fashion week shows. This season's fan favourite, a phenomenally talented quirk ball called Mondo, didn't start out as a favourite at all. He was strange, quiet, out of place. Stronger personalities like boring "I swear I'm not a villain" Gretchen and full-fledged villain Ivy overshadowed him. Then he won 3 challenges in a row, was the first person to be nice to belittled underdog Michael C, and revealed a heartrending personal story of acceptance and perseverance on air. When he didn't win the season, the already-hugely-popular designer became the martyrous symbol for under-appreciated creativity. There was sadly no Models of the Runway this season, but the personalities in the workroom didn't need it. From quirky mama bear Peach to the eccentric and dramatic Casanova who made beautiful clothing that only sometimes dipped into either  grandma or slut territory, to moody "artist" April to the cunning yet downtrodden Michael C who infuriated the others by winning a lot, to adorable Christopher, to fun Michael D, to annoying "she's an Asian warrior- get it?!" Andy, to evil incarnate Ivy- the designers of season 8 were fantastic to watch. We just have to ignore the ending.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Evolution of Weeds

 The strange story that is Weeds doesn't make a lot of sense. It's oddly popular though almost no one thinks it's very good any more; only a couple of the original cast members remain but the show insists on chugging along; the central character is the most loathsome that perhaps I've ever seen on TV and the show about the drug dealer has precious little to do with drugs anymore. It's a strange phenomenon, Weeds. Most interesting is its journey from big-hearted suburban parody to gritty road comedy and how the sweet kid on the soccer team became a killer and his snotty team became the grown-up.

In early seasons, Nancy was redeemable. Or at least tolerable. Sure, her sexual style was always a little bit rape-y, and yes she always had that strange drunk-seeming thing about her and by-god she never was a very good mother. But in early seasons at least she was a slightly less terrible human being. Time was when Nancy was a heavily flawed but decent person who made bad decisions and didn't know how to dig herself out. But quickly, very quickly, she lost all credibility and the show just dragged along behind her on her path of self-destruction. As a character study it's sort of interesting, but it's hell to watch and I'd be a lot more interested if she seemed a little more consistent.

But in seasons 1-3 it didn't really matter what you thought of Nancy. Two words: Celia, Conrad. They made the show. As interesting, layered, engaging characters, Celia and Conrad held down the show's claim to legitimate character writing. Joined by a then-significantly-better-written Doug, the sometimes-fun Dean, always-awesome Heylia, excellent Isabelle and hilarious Sanjay, Celia and Conrad anchored a pretty solid supporting cast- then the writers burned the city down. Literally. Season 3 sends by cutting ties to some of the best characters (Heylia, Conrad and crew) and moving away from the town that gave the show it's underlying themes of trapped conformity and small rebellion. Gone too was the theme song that went hand in hand with those themes: the ironically ever-changing "Little Boxes".

Next came 2 seasons of dirty, gritty, unpleasantness involving Mexican gangsters. So that was fun. Not really. Nancy got grosser, the themes were smashed to pieces and pressure fell to the 3 men at the centre of Nancy's life to pick up the pieces of the floundering show.

Andy, Silas and Shane have consistently been intriguing aspects of the show. Andy from day one was a fan favourite and to this day maintains that status. The wonderful Justin Kirk's brilliant timing and underlying acting chops make him the most solid player on the team- every single time the writers have thrown him the ball he's touched base. Andy's arc of responsibility, his misguided yet unflinching loyalty, his oddly seated yet totally relatable insecurities, they all make him one of the truly great characters on TV.

Shane, similarly, has always been interesting. At first he was the innocent heart and sometimes comic relief, being too young to be much of anything else. Then at the end of season 5 his murders someone with a croquet mallet. In a rare feat of television writing, Shane's path from one to the other is both traceable and subtle. His was a slow spiral that almost seemed masked by maturity unless you allowed yourself the luxury of acknowledging the darkness in his words (something that you really just don't want to do when watching a show about Mexican drug lords- you want to hold on to sweet little Shane). The kid who played the voice of Nemo (as in the cartoon fish who needed to be found), Alexander Gould, has held down the most complex narrative in the series, and he's done it with brilliant gravitas.

Silas was a little trickier. Early on he read as little more than eye candy, the token moody teen sent to make Nancy's life miserable and deliver on the young girl demographic a show about weed might not otherwise attract. But Hunter Parrish pulled Silas up to the point where his abs became incidental. In the dreariest moments of the dreariest of seasons (4 and 5), Silas was funny and engaging and actually someone one might want to root for (a VERY rare thing in Weeds). By season 6 he's firmly the only adult in the show, the most stand-up, the guy with the lightest shade of gray.

Season 6 was a fun pick-me-up from seasons 4 and 5. It still lacked the thematic punch of the early stuff but being on the run did these characters some good. At the very least it got them out of Mexico/California, which was highly essential to my sanity. The characters and their journey as seen through the eyes of the reporter introduced late in the season added a really interesting element. It was refreshing to hear descriptors thrown at Nancy in the form of an adjective cloud, every person in her life's opinion summed up in a top 5 list that kicked off with "manipulative" and ended with "bitch". Even more excellent was the comparison of Shane vs. Silas. Shane was a kid, Silas a temperamental, problematic teenager, but the dangerous words surrounding Shane were no where near Silas- nice is, after all, different than good.

As season 6 ended, the finale brought some truly great moments. First there was Silas saying goodbye by playing the big brother card, telling Shane to stop acting like he was dead inside because he didn't believe that he was, and he knew his kid brother would miss him. His parting words of  "please, PLEASE, choose to not be a dick" perfectly encapsulated the character's unlikely hero identity. His showing up at the airport, final goodbye to his mother, going without a fight and silent tears on the plane further prove my point. Andy had some brilliant stuff too. His reluctance to implement the "Plan C" that both sacrificed and saved Nancy's life at the end was wonderful. His contribution to that excellent goodbye scene in the garage ("I'm saying goodbye to my nephew, who I may never see again") was also breathtaking (god Kirk is good isn't he?). Even with the show so far off the track they set with the premise, the season finale was really pretty great (I even grew to like Richard Dreyfus' bizarro math teacher character). The consequences of Shane's dark side were unexpected but fascinating in season 6, Andy really showed a lot of growth and Silas continues to hold down the likable fort of unlikely heroics. And I'm looking forward to the 7th, and probably final, season.