Thursday, June 28, 2012

Viewer's Choice: Storage Wars

Welcome to a new regular feature here on the blog: Viewer's Choice! Where I give you, gentle reader, the power and you tell me what to watch. After all, you guys might know of some awesome shows that aren't on my radar, and I figured this was a good way to discover and try new shows that are outside my usual pervue.

Also, it saves me from having to think up new blog post topics every week. Hurray for laziness!

First up: Storage Wars. I arrived at this selection through simple democracy; I posted a query on Facebook asking for people to recommend a show for my first Viewer's Choice post, and Storage Wars was the clear winner. Apparently there is a large group of people out there who are addicted to this show (and they include my Mom). I had heard of it at some point, but had never really considered watching it. So it's perfect for my first Viewer's Choice post!

And I tried everyone, I really really tried. I watched about 6 episodes which were fairly easy to find since A&E basically runs the show over and over during the day (it's their number one series of all time). But I can't say that it won me over. Sure, some of it was interesting (more on that later), but for the most part I found it loud and I hate to say it, kinda boring.

I would have liked it a lot more if it actually had explosions.

Part of that has to do with the format. Generally, I don't find 30 minute reality shows particularly entertaining. I find that the shows reuse a lot of the clips (usually before and after the commercial breaks) and what we end up with is about 12 minutes of actual content, interspersed with talking heads reiterating exactly what I already watched.

Storage Wars at least has an interesting concept. From wiki:

When rent is not paid on a storage locker for three months in California, the contents are sold by an auctioneer as a single lot of items. The show follows professional buyers who purchase the contents based only on a five-minute inspection of what they can see from the door when it is opened. The goal is to turn a profit on the merchandise.
The "characters" consist of the buyers who engage in friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) rivalries with one another. Each has their own strategy, and each has their own...shall we say, unique, personality. Though for the most part, I found them grating, prone to self-aggrandizement, and LOUD (especially Dave Hester, whose bidding style of yelling "yuuup" during auctions had me literally wincing and muting the television). Of all the buyers, the ones I liked the most were Jarrod Schulz and Brandi Passante, a husband and wife team who seemed the most normal of anyone on the show. 

 Seriously, STFU.

Each episode follows the same format; the buyers gather at the appointed storage facility and get a peek at the inside of the units being auctioned off. An auction is held (usually just in the hallway), and the winners then unpack and appraise the contents while a counter on the screen keeps track of the amount paid for each unit and the estimated value of the objects inside. 

Then, we come to the part I like. If there is an item that the buyers aren't sure of the value, or even what it is, they take it to an expert who explains its history and gives an estimate of its worth. To me, this is the most interesting part of the show, since we get to actually hear stories about what's in the unit, listen to experts give real estimates, and imagine what kind of person would have once owned these objects. Of course, I can get the same type of enjoyment from watching Antiques Roadshow or even Pawn Stars, so I don't think Storage Wars holds much of a draw for me. I also kind of wish we knew more about the people who abandoned their units. Who are they? What circumstances forced them to stop paying the rent? And why in the holy hell do they own an ancient African tattoo set when everything else in the unit is junk?

Bottom line: I can certainly see the draw of Storage Wars; you get the thrill of an auction, the excitement that any box could hold a treasure, and details about unknown objects. But for me, that can't make up for the loud, grating personalities of the buyers and the lack of genuinely interesting moments.

Thanks for the recommendation, everyone! At least now I have had a chance to get a glimpse of the Storage Wars phenomenon. If you have any other Viewer's Choice suggestions, don't be afraid to pass them along. I can't promise to love the show, but I can promise to give it a fair shot. After all, some of my favorite programs were discovered based on recommendations, Battlestar Gallactica, Friday Night Lights, etc. etc.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Newsroom

I'm having a lot of trouble writing this review; I've thought about how to frame it all day yesterday. I think my big mistake was reading critic's reviews of The Newsroom before I actually watched it. Most of them were not kind, and so I went into the show expecting another debacle like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. You know what I mean: Sorkin basically using the show as a soap box on which to impress us all with his cleverness and instruct us on how to think like the benevolent god that he is.

Ok, that might be a little harsh, but it turns out that I actually enjoyed The Newsroom. It's definitely more The West Wing (and Sports Night) than Studio 60, which is to say that it's essentially about a small group of dedicated people who are out to change the world. Well, change America. Well, change Americans who watch late night news.

From the mind of Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing and screenwriter of The Social Network and Moneyball, comes The Newsroom, a behind-the-scenes look at the people who make a nightly cable-news program. Focusing on a network anchor (played by Jeff Daniels), his new executive producer (Emily Mortimer), the newsroom staff (John Gallagher, Jr., Alison Pill, Thomas Sadoski, Olivia Munn, Dev Patel) and their boss (Sam Waterston), the series tracks their quixotic mission to do the news well in the face of corporate and commercial obstacles-not to mention their own personal entanglements.
Unfortunately, the show is loaded with plot points and characters that are obviously derivative of past Sorkin shows. But if you can get past the parallels to past programs, The Newsroom is an interesting and insanely well-acted show.

Jeff Daniels' news anchor, Will McAvoy, is known for being the "Jay Leno" of late night news, essentially because he is entirely unoffensive because he doesn't share his personal political views. Turns out he's actually a giant jerk though, which I don't know, I found kind of refreshing? I wouldn't say he is particularly likable, but for some reason I didn't mind that he yells, is disrespectful, and is ruled by his ego. Maybe because there is a strange sort of egalitarianism to his behavior; he may not be a nice guy but he treats everyone like shit so what do you think makes you so special? He is also, as it turns out, remarkably good at his job. But then so is everyone in this workplace. Just once in a Sorkin show I want there to be a character who shows up to work 2 hours late, naps at his desk, and spends the day surfing the internet. It would be like The Office meets every Frank Capra movie ever.

Sorkin's dialogue is, as ever, brilliant, whip-smart and whip-fast, and it's clear The Newsroom is a response to Americans' tendency to engage in discourse by yelling in each other faces. The characters in The Newsroom want to CHANGE THINGS and MAKE US BETTER. Remember the whole, "let Barlet be Bartlet" plot from The West Wing? It's like that except instead of working towards political goals, these folks are going to educate America and change the way they think. 

I think the best way to enjoy The Newsroom is to take it as optimistic theater; don't fool yourself into thinking this is a realistic look at the behind-the-scenes of a news show and try to check your cynicism at the door. I found myself engaging in some major eye-rolling (usually following some broad pronouncement about how they were like Don Quixote) but then I felt kind of bad about it. After all, what's so wrong about wanting to make a show about people who want to improve America? Am I really so jaded? And how much introspection can I cram into this review?

Long story short (too late), The Newsroom is clever, but it knows it. Still, at the end of the day, I was glued to the seat of my couch, I am excited about where the show is going, and there were some genuine surprises in the pilot. Oh, and the news show within a show? Is actually good. So already it's got one up on Studio 60.

The Newsroom airs Sunday nights at 10:00 on HBO. The first episode is available for viewing at

What Lurks in the Hearts of AMC

In the latter half of the 1960s, America and the world were changing rapidly. Not that you’d know that watching this last season of Mad Men. Season five’s opening episode, “A Little Kiss”, which dealt so directly, if heavy-handedly, with the emerging issue of civil rights in America gave me some false hope that our “heroes” may be given more to interact with than their own internal office drama. With “The Phantom”, the fifth season finale, I’ve officially grown worried that Mad Men has fallen too in love with its characters to give us any kind of genuine story.

Rather than jump head-long into the simmering issues that the first episode raised, we barely got a couple of nods to the larger world. Peggy sort of befriended the one black secretary, but still worried that she would steal from her purse when Peggy wasn’t looking. Paul Kinsey resurfaced as a Hare Krishna and Roger Sterling took acid, presumably as a way of reminding the viewers that there was, in fact, a counter-culture developing while men in white shirts decided what slogan a bean company needed on its product. But still, the majority of time was spent on Lane’s money woes, Joan’s hideous mistreatment by the men around her and, of course, Megan, Megan and a bit more Megan for good measure.

 Believe it or not, there used to be other women on this show.

I’ve harshed on this show before, mostly because it never met a theme that it didn’t love to beat you about the head with for 60 solid minutes at a time, 13 weeks out of the year. It’s engrained in the show’s DNA to telegraph the big messages, almost like it doesn’t trust the viewers to arrive at those revelations on their own. The thing is, up until this season I pretty much still trusted the show to deal with the realities of its own set-up for each of its characters. Now, I’m not so sure.

It’s always amazing to me when I hear people, women in particular, talk lovingly about Don Draper. In a conversation with a co-worker about this season, she was distressed by the implication in the final moments of this season that Don is soon to be returning to his lying, philandering way after a season of bliss with his new wife. The thing is, when he does cheat again (because you know he’s going to; first of all, that’s how a show creates drama and second of all, Don’s a cad and always will be) I’m convinced that the writers won’t actually make him pay for it. Rather than lose the illusion of his life that is so important to him, which would constitute actual tragedy in the Arthur Miller sense, I get the sense that Don’s happiness has become too important for the writers themselves. He’s their baby and like any good parent, they simply don’t want him to get hurt.

Before I get accused of being too unduly bitter, there were aspects of the season that I thought were well done. As is typical, most of that credit goes to Peggy and Joan and both the actresses playing them and the writing given to them. In particular, “The Other Woman”, episode 11, was possibly the best hour of the show I’ve ever seen. (And, not coincidentally, the first one where I felt like the writers let the audience naturally figure out the point instead of hanging a few neon signs out for us to see.) While playing with the notion of a trendy sports car as the metaphorical woman that all men want but can’t really afford to have, the fact that Don is in that situation almost completely passes him by. Though in his case, the unattainable other woman isn’t the next sexual conquest but is Peggy, something he doesn’t realize it until it’s far too late. At the same time, Joan is presented with an actual indecent proposal from the slime balls that are her co-workers, literally prostituting her out as the same unattainable paragon for a client. Joan is made a full partner for her efforts, but not without a cost.

 Don't know what you've got til it's gone. Or whore-d out for a client. Didn't Joni Mitchell write something about this?

All of the strum und drang that is so strong in “The Other Woman” just goes to illustrate how frustrating it can be to watch this show. Mad Men clearly understands the concept of ownership and the myriad ways in which society in the 1960s encouraged it, whether that be owning better luxury items and goods to get ahead of your neighbors or literally owning other people. Rather than wrestle with those issues and how they got played out in the broader picture of 1960s America, we get the sniping and bickering of the Draper family and an entire season about Megan’s desire to be an actress. The promises of the series back in the first season, that we would watch history happen around these characters, have taken a back seat to all the inter-personal stuff.

Season five left me feeling less like I was watching a thoughtful meditation on history, or identity politics, or changing roles in society, and more like I was watching a middle school play, albeit a well-produced one, attended by doting parents.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Summertime may mean a dearth of television shows, but it also means an abundance of time for movies. Yesterday I rounded up the Family Sri (all four of us) to go see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Quick synopsis - Dissatisfied with their lives for various reasons, seven elderly Britishers (played by an all-star cast including Dame Judi Dench) decide to move to a retirement community in Jaipur, Rajastan. What they find is a dilapidated hotel run by a hopeless dreamer (played by Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame) who is barely keeping the place together. Guests and hotel go through dramatic transformations, all set in the whirligig world of India where ancient and modern live side-by-side, if not always in harmony. Essentially, this is a story of rebirth - what we think of as "the end," of our lives or our dreams, is sometimes just the beginning.

Here's what my family thought...

Mom: I really liked the scene when they're on the bus traveling in the wrong lane, and another bus comes opposite - and they say "AAAAH!" - that is real! That happens in India all the time.

Me: What did you think?
Chaky: Good.
Me: What was good about it?
Chaky: The plot.
Me: Did you like any of the characters?
Chaky: *shrug*
Me: You're useless to me, you know that?

Dad: The most poignant part was when that lady in the wheelchair (Maggie Smith) went to her maidservant's house to thank her. She was prejudiced before she went to India, but then she realized that the two of them were alike - more alike than different. They also address some very serious issues of age, *sideways look* sexual preferences, cultural differences, and then, eventually, they all came to the same place. There's not much difference between this group and that group.

Overall Rating: Four thumbs up from the Family Sri.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Burn Notice... Burned Out?

It's summer, and that means all my fave USA series are back! Number one on the list is Burn Notice, starring the dreamy Jeffery Donovan as Michael Westen, an ex-CIA agent trying to get back in with The Company. Last season we finally solved the big mystery of who "burned" Michael and why. Anson Fullerton (Jere Burns) was looking to cut Michael's ties to all that was Lawful Good and recruit him for his own little agency... of villains! Dun dun DUNNNNN! This season, so far, revolves around the fact that Fiona Glennanne (Gabrielle Anwar) - who recently dropped the "ex" in "ex-boyfriend" in her relationship with Michael - surrendered herself to the feds in order to save Michael from being blackmailed by Anson.

Got that? Cause I'm not going to say it again. 

Obviously, this is a game-changer. Instead of focusing on his own redemption/revenge, with occasional side stories to help the helpless of Miami, Michael is essentially on a crusade to save Fiona. He's lost his calculated cool demeanor, and is frantic over the danger his girlfriend is in. To be fair, she is in a metric shit-ton of danger - I can't imagine that 90-lb women with anger management issues and lists of enemies a mile long do well in prison.

The difference between you and me? I make this look good.

So far, my reaction has been mixed. On one hand, I love that Fiona is getting her time in the spotlight. And make no mistake - she isn't some damsel in distress, she's a five-star badass doing everything she can to protect the one she loves. On the other hand, Michael is panicking - which is so not in line with his character. His efforts to help Fiona seem like nothing more than ineffectual flailing. Also, Michael's instructive voice-overs - which give the show that great "how to be a super spy" feeling - seem to have taken a back burner.

While I hope Matt Nix will get back to the basics that made his show so great to begin with... I'll probably stay loyal to Burn Notice, regardless. If only to get my weekly dose of Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell!). Tune in every Thursday at 9pm on USA.

I love everything that you are doing right now. 

Secret Girlfirend of the Week: Ellen Greene

There I am, working my way through the latest episode of Bunheads thinking, "well, this has turned out to be more depressing than I bargained for" and all of a sudden there appeared, like a mirage in the middle of the desert, ELLEN GREENE.

You probably know her from Pushing Daisies, or Little Shop of Horrors, or even Heroes where she played Sylar's crazy-ass Mom. But all you need to know is that she is made of awesome. And possibly botox, because DAMN she looks good.

 And she's just so damn whimsical!

I'm not an Ellen Greene expert or anything, but being able to rattle off three big-name film and tv credits makes me think that I know a little something about her schtick. And much like her face, singing voice, and her soul, she is known for being magic. She plays crazy really well, and while she usually sticks with "harmless and sweet" crazy like in Bunheads, sometimes she can veer into "keep her away from sharp implements!" type of crazy like in Heroes.

She's also ridiculously sexy. Anyone who has seen her portrayal of Audrey in Little Shop knows that she can play sex-kitten until the cows come home, but she also always retains a sense of innocence that is unbelievably appealing. Even in Pushing Daisies (more than 20 years after Little Shop), Aunt Vivian was way more attractive than any reclusive shut-in old maid Aunt has a right to be.

 Suddenly Seymour...notices that Audrey has boobs.

The appearance of Ellen Greene on Bunheads got me way excited about the show again, especially in light of what I found to be a disappointing (and overly twee) second episode. If Amy Sherman-Palladino has any sense at all, she will make Ms. Greene a regular character stat. And allow her to sing, because according to IMDB, other than her Broadway roles, she got her start in the 1970s as a cabaret singer.


Monday, June 18, 2012

Yee haw, y'all.

Here's what I know about the original Dallas:

1) Someone shot Col. Nelson from I Dream of Jeannie.

2) everyone thought Patrick Duffy was dead until he came out of the shower.

3) There was lots of cat-fighting and falling into pools. Actually, that might have been Dynasty.

When TNT announced it was bringing back Dallas, a lot of people's reaction (including mine) was whaaaaa? I mean, really? The show has been dead for a while now, so what the hell? But I guess it makes sense from a money perspective and never delude yourself that television executives are interested in anything else.  Dallas is an established brand that is remembered fondly by a lot of people, and that type of back-stabbing soapy family drama seems to be back in vogue (example: Revenge).

Ok, so we have established the reason for bringing the show back. But is it any good?

Well slap my ass and call me Sally, but darn it if it isn't a helluva good time.

Sure, it's not the second coming of television. But it's summer, expectations are lower, and Dallas gives a lot of delicious twists and turns, questionable alliances, moral ambiguity, and good old fashioned greed. The rich want to get richer and nobody is safe from becoming collateral damage due to their ambition.

"Blood is thicker than water, but oil is thicker than both."

My only complaint is I wished the show had taken a little more time to establish the family relationships, especially for people like me who never watched the original series. It also doesn't help that a lot of the younger generation characters look so similar. But here's what I figured out:

JR (Larry Hagman) and Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) are brothers. JR is older...apparently way older since Larry Hagman is 80. Bobby was always the nice one, and JR was always the scheming greedy one. Bobby has a son named Christopher who wants to explore alternative forms of energy, like methane. JR's son is named John Ross (so he and Christopher are cousins...and pretty much the same age) who has discovered that there is a shit-ton of oil on South Fork, the Ewings huge home ranch.

The central plot of the show is driven by the two conflicting family views: those who want to preserve South Fork as was the wish of JR and Bobby's mother, and those who want to "drill, baby, drill" and tear up South Fork for the billions of dollars the oil represents. Of course, the Ewings don't play fair, so there are shifting loyalties, lies, deceit, sex, and all the other good old-fashioned Texas family values.

Dallas is fun. There's pretty much no other way to describe it, and I am just happy to be along for the ride.

If you ever see JR Ewing smile like this.. run. Don't ask any questions, just turn around and run. Because you can bet he is up to no good.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Guest Post: West Wing Rewatch

My good friend Chris has decided to offer us a peek behind the curtain of his summer viewing habits and of the special features on some of his West Wing DVDs. Seems Chris is spending his summer rewatching The West Wing and has gleaned quite a few factoids from the special features. I can hear that soaring theme song already....

I’ve just about finished up my first season rewatch of The West Wing, and Maggie Cats has invited me to write up a guest post for only the second time (I’m starting to think she doesn’t fully appreciate my television choices…otherwise, there’d already be posts on Storage Wars, Parking Wars, Pawn Stars, well, you get the idea). 

I started rewatching it simply to have something to do on plane rides.  But, then, episode after episode, I realized just how much I loved the show when it was originally on.  For one, I find the theme song tremendously inspiring.  Plus, it doesn’t hurt that their politics line up with my own, and it’s nice to think of an administration actually fighting for what it believes (more on that below).  I appreciate the fact that the writers weren’t afraid to touch hot button issues…gun control, education, gays in the military, etc.  The scene when Admiral Fitzwallace (the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and a black man) walks into a meeting between White House staff and Representatives, agrees that allowing gays to serve openly would disrupt unit discipline and cohesion, but then says:

That's what I think too…The problem with that is that what they were saying to me 50 years ago.  Blacks shouldn't serve with whites.  It would disrupt the unit.  You know what?  It did disrupt the unit.  The unit got over it.  The unit changed. I'm an admiral in the U.S. Navy and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff...Beat that with a stick.

Seriously.  Great television.  Just wish it didn’t take so long to become a reality.  I can’t wait to watch the next six seasons again, and continue to be inspired.

I hope you’re prepared for some random facts…I just watched the extra features.

The West Wing sort of came about as an accident.  Aaron Sorkin went to a lunch meeting with producer John Wells unprepared.  Wells was expecting a pitch for a new show, while Sorkin thought it was a social visit.  In a panic, and having just finished The American President (which happens to be one of my favorite movies), Sorkin threw out the idea of a television show focusing on senior staff at the White House. It took a little convincing (who would watch a drama that wasn’t based in a hospital?!?), but NBC finally picked up the series.

If you’ve ever watched the show, its hard to imagine that casting could have gone any differently.  In fact, Bradley Whitford (Josh) was originally cast as Sam Seaborne.  Janel Maloney (Donna) originally auditioned for the role of C.J. (played by Allison Janney).  Donna, Josh’s assistant, was originally not meant to be a recurring role.  And, believe it or not, Sorkin was within hours of casting someone else as President Bartlett (Alan Alda) before he thought of Martin Sheen.  In fact, Sheen didn’t audition for the role until two days before filming started.  Before the pilot, the President was meant to appear an average of one out of four episodes.  Sorkin was afraid the series would veer too much towards focusing on the presidency instead of the senior staff. 

The West Wing won nine Emmys in its inaugural season, a record that still stands.  It went on to win the next three Emmys for best drama series, along with multiple acting, writing and directing awards. 

There are many, many, many other examples of info swimming in my head, but you’re probably already bored of reading about a show that’s over a decade old.  Needless to say, I love The West Wing.  Its somewhat amazing how political history repeats itself. Either that, or Sorkin is prophetic.  Picture a Democratic president, enthusiastically elected, but one that veers heavily towards the center after inauguration and facing an opposition Congress.  He focuses more on reelection than making bold changes his base had hoped for.  Reelection isn’t a sure thing, because the Republicans call him a radical while Democrats complain he’s not radical enough.  Any of this sound familiar?

If you’re interested in watching West Wing again, or for the first time, let me know. I have all seven seasons on DVD.  Or heck, we could just have a rewatch party with all of our favorite episodes!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Warning: mild plot spoilers for the premiere of Bunheads are below!

It seems that shows featuring dance are somewhat of a trend right now. You've got Glee, Smash, Breaking Pointe, and now Bunheads, from the creator of Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino.

From ABC Family:
Bunheads is the tale of a Las Vegas showgirl, who impulsively marries a man, moves to his sleepy coastal town, and takes an uneasy role at her new mother-in-law's dance school.

From Executive Producer Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of Gilmore Girls, the series is headlined by Tony Award®-winning actor Sutton Foster and features Kelly Bishop. 
Well, that was....concise. And it's true that the concept of the show is pretty simple, but there's some good character stuff going on that drives the action. We'll get more into that later.

It's probably enough for most of you for me to tell you that if you liked Gilmore Girls, you will really like Bunheads. You've got the same whipsmart and quick dialogue, a small town filled with quirky characters, and a mother who is tough as nails and used to being in charge. Oh, and the mother character is also played by Kelly Bishop. 


One of these ladies is not the like the others....

But that's pretty much where the similarities end. I read a really great interview with Amy Sherman-Palladino where she described the differences between Michelle Simms (the main character of Bunheads) and Lorelai Gilmore.  If I may paraphrase, whereas Lorelai was always very grounded with her family and plans for the future, Michelle is adrift and more than a little lost. Every choice she makes is very reactive, responding to things rather than anticipating them. The entire impetus for the series (Michelle's impulsive marriage and moving to the town of Paradise) is all because she feels that there are no more options for her. It's more running away than running toward something.

The show is also darker in tone than Gilmore Girls. Sure, Michelle is a wise-cracker, but her quips feel more like armor and a way to hide her real vulnerability. Kelly Bishops' character, Fanny, the teacher at a local ballet school, is also just different enough from her Girlmore character to not feel derivative. And of course, you have the girls who are enrolled in the ballet school who will surely have their own delightful subplots and provide a good excuse for some good old-fashioned ballet.

And maybe some good old-fashioned showgirl moves too.

In short, Bunheads is off to a good start and I'll definitely be tuning in. Things took a  depressing turn at the end of the premiere, but I am confident that in a couple episodes the show will have settled into its normal rhythm and will fulfill its promise.

Bunheads airs on ABC Family Mondays at 9pm, and if you missed the premiere it's available on ABC Family's website and is getting rerun pretty much every night.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Summer Viewing List

Every year I start off the summer with grand plans. "I am going to do an entire X-Files series re-watch!" I will proclaim around the beginning of June. And sure, things get off to a good start, but then I get distracted by something shiny and all my high hopes get dashed against the pavement of reality.

But this year will be different! Sure, it's the summer which means a shocking lack of original programming (though the networks are getting better at this, you have to admit), but I am going to do my best to keep my expectations realistic. So without further adieu, I present to you "Maggie Cats' Summer Viewing List."

New Shows

True Blood

Breaking Pointe

So You Think You Can Dance



Craft Wars (what? I like crafts, so sue me).

Old Shows 

Gossip Girl, Season 5

Fringe, Season 5 (both GG and Fringe were cut from my schedule for time. There's only so many hours in the day, you know?)

Battlestar Galactica Season 1 rewatch

Peep Show (a BBC comedy, recommended by a friend)

....and I might give Pretty Little Liars a look-see since I have been hearing from various sources that it is teen soapy fun, and therefore the PERFECT summer show.

Oh, and I just realized I still have the whole Hatfields & McCoys mini-series sitting on my DVR. Son of a bitch. I kind of can't stand Bill Paxton or Kevin Costner, but I have heard good things so I am going to give it a try. 

What do you guys have any on your summer viewing list?

Thursday, June 07, 2012

How Did All This Opera Get in My Space?

Someday, probably far off in the future, science will discover a verifiable, reproducible explanation for why it is that people like me willingly subject ourselves to the torture of watching television shows that are smart and cutting-edge and challenging and thus have no hope of surviving the season on network TV. Sadly, that day has not yet arrived and thus I am still living with Cancelitis.

My latest flare-up comes in the form of a multi-nationally produced sci-fi drama that actually leaned much harder on the “sci” than the “fi” called Defying Gravity. The 2009 show about a manned space mission to explore the solar system was a joint project between ABC in America and CTV in Canada. It was notable for featuring a multi-national cast playing multi-national characters.

Sickness Ahoy!

The Plot: About 70 years in the future, eight astronauts, four men and four women, board the Antares for a six-year cruise to visit Venus, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Europa, Saturn and Pluto. The show alternates between the astronauts in space and Mission Control back in Houston. Conflict comes from mysterious happenings that begin on the ship and the fact that select members of the Mission Control team seem to have a darker plan for the mission than they’re letting on. Meanwhile, characters who don’t always get along with each other are literally forced to live and work (and, let’s be honest, have sex) with each other.

And while the interpersonal tension is a major plot point, before long the astronauts are facing strange occurrences, some frightening, some awe-inspiring, tied to some kind of mysterious cargo being stored on the ship. Referred to only as “Beta” by the Earth-bound Mission Control, Beta is mucking about with the mission, literally altering the astronauts on a cellular level and causing them to come face-to-face with events from their own pasts. As Antares moves further away from Earth, the astronauts become more isolated and more fragile while Beta becomes more prominent and possibly more dangerous.

"If anyone gets a vaguely chest-bursting feeling during dinner, I'm turning this spaceship around."

Comparisons to other shows flew pretty fast and loose while Defying Gravity was on the air. Critics found it to be equal parts Lost, Babylon 5 and even Grey’s Anatomy, although in my opinion that last one is a bit out of left field. The show placed a high premium on telling a very modern story about science – about the only sign that this show couldn’t be set today is the show’s in-universe explanation for artificial gravity to explain why the actors don’t spend all their scenes floating – but one that would still, at its core, have a much more, ahem, alien driver.

Defying Gravity definitely had its weak points – like many first season shows, the writing started off clunky with some odd characterization and awkward dialogue while the writers got a better sense of who these characters were. Ironically, for a sci-fi show at least, one aspect that the show didn’t lack for was effects. Because the show was so grounded (if you’ll pardon the pun) in reality, there’s no beaming down to the planet, no faster-than-light travel, none of the typical sci-fi tropes that, in addition to putting a further barrier between the show and the viewer, also jack up the costs of filming. The ship, Antares, is much more akin to the present day International Space Station than it is to the starship Enterprise. The sets were built to look technical and modern, not glamorous and sleek. The computer and launch technology in particular, while cutting edge, wouldn’t be that out of place in any high-tech thriller set in today’s time.

It goes without saying that this show did not last long. For a grand total of only 13 episodes, viewers at least got the first full season, but like so many that went before it, we never got to see the resolution of all the mysteries. Unlike other “brilliant but cancelled” shows, however, Defying Gravity did actually get an ending! Sort of… Once it was confirmed that the show would not be coming back, creator James Parriott released highlights from the show’s Bible, including details about what each mystery for each main character meant and what was planned for them for the remaining years of their mission. Reading it points to one of the crucial lessons that sci-fi shows need to learn: never put all your cool set pieces in the third season. Defying Gravity learned that partway, so while there were plenty of storylines left floating about (sorry, I seem to be overly pun-y today), watching the entire series at least gives you some of the answers you wanted. All of which makes reading about where the show would have gone that much more frustrating because you can see how cool the final story would have been. 

 "No, it's cool. You can cancel us. I'll just wait here for the next smart science show to come along. Should arrive any minute now."

For a space opera that’s light on the opera, do yourself a favor and check out Defying Gravity.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Breaking Pointe

Breaking Pointe is a new reality series from The CW that goes inside the inner working of an American ballet company. Think of it as Center Stage meets The Hills, though the people are far more likable and *gasp* actually talented. In fact, they are INSANELY talented. But just because you've got talent, doesn't mean you don't got drama.

From the show's website:
Breaking Pointe rips back the curtain on the inner workings of elite Salt Lake City Ballet Company, Ballet West. It obliterates the notion that ballet is a dated art form and shatters pre-conceived stereotypes about the men and women who give their lives to the world of ballet. Beneath their perfect exteriors, these dancers have the toughness of linebackers, punishing their bodies to achieve perfection and dancing through injuries and pain.

Led by Artistic Director Adam Sklute, Ballet West's company of 48 dancers includes: Principal Artist Christiana Bennett, Soloist Ronnie Underwood, Demi-Soloist Allison DeBona, Demi-Soloist Rex Tilton, Beckanne Sisk, Kathleen Martin and Ronald Tilton.

The first episode of the series, while interesting, served as mostly set-up. We got to learn the dancers and how they are related to one another. Rex and Ronald are brothers, and Ronald is dating Katie, while Rex has a crush on Allison but she isn't really interested in him romantically. Meanwhile, prima ballerina Christina is keeping an eye on newcomer Beckanne who is moving quickly through the ranks and could quickly claims the principal spot. Oh, and Ronnie is insanely attractive.

The first episode also explains how things work in the ballet company. Apparently most dancers are only contracted for one year, and the Artistic Director has to decide at the end of every year whether to offer a new contract or set the dancer free (i.e. fire their ass). The episode also explained the different positions within the company (like Principal, Soloist, etc.) and the contracts tell the dancers whether they have received a promotion. Most of the premiere's tension comes from the reveal of who has gotten their contract extended, who has gotten the boot, and who is unhappy with their place in the company.

It's a credit to the show that the stakes feel high; after all, we are talking about people's careers here. There's also a lot of footage of the dancers actually dancing. We see how hard they work and how much dancing means to them. So when someone (no spoilers!) doesn't get their contract renewed, it's genuinely sad and left me wondering what would happen next.

I'm a big fan of the movie Center Stage (despite the terrible acting and Peter Gallagher's eyebrows) and Breaking Pointe didn't disappoint me. Sure the conversations and relationship drama feels a bit staged and scripted, but the dancing is spectacular and it's nice to see people featured on television that look real and have amazing skill and talent. I have a feeling the quality of the program derives mostly from the BBC production credit rather than the CW, but at the end of the day it's about the dancing and the dancers.

 "So what are you doing after this?"
"Oh, you know the usual--leading you on, breaking your heart. Typical Saturday night."

Oh, one minor quibble. All the male dancers are clearly straight, which I don't know, rings false to me I guess? I don't want to stereotype ballet dancers, but come on. Would it have killed them to put an adorable gay kid in there somewhere? But at least they feature some dancers who are in their 30s--it's nice to watch a CW show that isn't all thirty somethings pretending to be teenagers.

Breaking Pointe airs on the CW Thursdays at 8:00 pm.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Justfied Season 3

This post contains very mild plot spoilers for Justified's third season. Basically, I want you watch the series, so I'm not going to give much away. 

Ah, summer. It's hot, it's humid, and there isn't even a lot of new programming to keep us excited. It's like the tv networks WANT me to spend all my time laying by the pool instead of glued to the couch. What are they thinking?

It's a good thing I plan ahead. The entire third season of FX's Justified has been on my DVR since it began airing in January. Not because I couldn't get around to watching it, or because I don't love it, but because I wanted to wait for the entire series to air so I could suck it down back to back in a multi-day orgy of television watching. And this past week I finally got to catch up.

 Summer lovin, had me a blast...

In case you are utterly unfamiliar with Justified, the show centers around a US Deputy Marshall named Raylan Givens. He's originally from a small town in Kentucky called Harlan, and years after he "escapes" the area, he is reassigned to the Lexington field office. He's not exactly pleased with this turn of events, for you see, things in the country are not all they appear. Under the veneer of bible-thumping and clean living lies a mess of drugs, moonshine, and murder that would make people from the most dangerous inner city blush.

The third season of Justified centers around the power void left after the events of the second season's finale. Someone needs to take control of the drug business in Harlan, and there's some new and old players to contend with. New in town is the super blonde and utterly sociopathic Robert Quarles, who represents the interests of a Detroit drug kingpin. Also jockeying for power is Boyd Crowder, who has made his own crew and is moving in on the area oxy distributors. Rounding out the "bad guys" is Limehouse, a man who acts as a sort of bank for the criminal types in Harlan and has his finger in almost every pot...and pig, since he also owns a BBQ joint and is constantly shown with his hands elbow-deep in pork. Add to the mix Dicky Bennet who is trying to recover the 3.5 million dollars previously held by his mama--and well, things get dangerous fast.

Trust me when I say that Quarles is one crazy motherfucker.

But at the center of everything is Raylan Givens, played by the tall drink of water, Timothy Olyphant. He's kind of an updated (and less clenched) version of the character he played in Deadwood. Still a cowboy and still trying to do good, but not above dealing some good old fashioned pain when it's called for.

Justified's strength lies in its actors and characters--one of which is Kentucky itself. The show does such a great job of creating the world, from the language, accents, and locations, that you feel yourself totally immersed in the back-country of Harlan county. Each episode usually has a scene or two with such tense ambiance that I find myself peeking through my fingers. These people are capable of great violence and live by their own moral code. It's fascinating, frightening, and entertaining as hell.

The third season relies heavily on the first two, so I kind of wish I had taken the time to refresh my memory before watching. However, most things were explained by context, and it's kind of nice to watch a show that doesn't assume I am as dumb as a post. Any wonderings of "now who is that guy again?" were quickly made up for by the incredible plotting, acting, and twists. This show always keeps you guessing as to who is double-crossing who and what people's true motivations are. Well, it's a safe bet that most of the characters are motivated by money, but you know what I mean.

If you haven't made the trip to Harlan yet, I suggest starting at the beginning. The first two seasons are available on DVD and netflix (though not streaming), and the past third season episodes are currently available on Amazon instant video and iTunes.