Friday, September 30, 2011

Some Happy Endings for "Blax, Snake, Home"

    The second season premiere of ABC's Happy Endings, "Blax, Snake, Home," finds Penny (Casey Wilson) buying herself a new home to kick off "Year of the Penny." Unfortunately, the place might be cursed. Max (Adam Pally) feels left out when Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.) blows him off to hang out with his "black friends." Jane (Eliza Coupe) unwisely suggests that Dave (Zachary Knighton) and Alex (Elisha Cuthbert) could use some honesty in their friendship, now that they've been split a year.

     To get viewers up to speed on who the characters are, "Blax, Snake, Home" is a worthy episode. Penny over thinks things and has trouble with confidence, while staying overall upbeat. Dave and Alex work better as friends, instead of in an open, communicating relationship. Jane likes to get into everyone else's business. Max is very insecure. Brad loves his friends, but sometimes also loves some time apart from them. He also has a great marriage to Jane, as they forgive each other their eccentricities. Each of these core character elements are focused on in the season premiere, a wise move for a still-new series.

     Happy Endings is some pretty funny stuff. These distinct personalities all love each other, but still clash from time to time. The six actors who portray this update, new version of Friends have perfected the roles in the short time they've played them, so the timing and delivery of punch lines, as well as the chemistry in the group, are already locked in. It's a rare feat for a sitcom to be so finely honed in such a short amount of time, as Happy Endings premiered last spring. But once done, the writers and producers can relax a little bit. Happy Endings has reached that point.

     Of course, I'm not saying to get lazy. It's just that the show has already begun to look effortless, a vital element in a comedy that may run for at least a few years. It's business as usual, with no need for stunt or unnecessary drama. The characters do what they do, and everyone sits back and enjoys it.

     It's hard to name a standout in the group because they are all so good. Wilson is proving why Saturday Night Live cast her, though they never used her effectively. Coupe matures into a much more dynamic actress than allowed on Scrubs. Wayans is so good, one wishes he had time to do both this series and The New Girl, a pilot he made that was picked up. Pally stays just north of the annoying line, managing to stay likeable enough, which playing a very selfish character. Cuthbert and Knighton have the harder, straight man roles, but both also the the opportunity to play around, and reveal unexpected weirdness.

    If you're not watching Happy Endings, you should be. It airs Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. ET on ABC.

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How to Be a Gentleman teaches anything but

     The "Pilot" of CBS's How to Be a Gentleman finds Alan (David Hornsby, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) dealing with a new job description. Alan has been writing a column about being a gentleman, a disappearing art, but his boss, Jerry (Dave Foley, NewsRadio), informs Alan that, per the new owners, he needs to shift to something that appeals to a completely different demographic. A chance encounter with one of his former high school tormentors, Bert (Kevin Dillon, Entourage), gives Alan an idea on how to go about that. Reluctantly, he tries to transform himself. 

     How to Be a Gentleman might just win Worst New Series this season. There are so many reasons to nominate it for such a title, and really no reason not to. The writing isn't smart, the concept is done, and actors are poorly used, and the jokes aren't funny. From start to finish, it's impossible to find one positive thing to say about the "Pilot." So let's break down some of the negatives.

     Hornsby works great in small doses, such as the recurring role he plays on It's Always Sunny. He doesn't work at all as a leading man. His whiny voice and annoying personality, assumedly done for the part he is playing, leads the audience to sympathize with Bert quite quickly. Viewers will all want to punch Alan in the arm. I'm not saying Hornsby is a bad man or a terrible actor, but this role does him no favors.

     But Bert is not off the hook. What works for Johnny Drama when he's part of an Entourage doesn't necessarily work as one of two leading men. It's a shame, because Dillon is essentially playing the same role. Not with the lifestyle or career choice, of course, but in terms of how he acts, talks, and thinks. Did Drama get a spin-off, and then at the last minute, the creators decided to rename his character and make it something new? It seems so.

     The supporting characters are no better. Foley is intolerable as a pushover, willing to do anything to keep his job. This wimpiness keeps him from being likable, much the same way it does for Alan and Alan's brother-in-law, Mike (Rhys Darby, The Flight of the Conchords). Mike's mother is played by Nancy Lenehan (The New Adventures of Old Christine, Worst Week), recycling the same forgettable character she always plays. There's nothing to hate about her, but that could be because her character lacks any discernable substance. Mary Lynn Rajskub is wasting the (deserved) adoration she built with 24 on another throwaway part, Alan's possibly cheating, overbearing sister. Some of these actors could do so much better.

     If the fates are kind, How to Be a Gentleman will be off the air by next week. But fates aren't always kind, so who knows? If you are interested in checking it out, How to Be a Gentleman airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET on CBS.

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It's "Fateful" that Awkward. rocks

     MTV's Awkward. ends its first season run with "Fateful." After feeling like Matty (Beau Mirchoff) is never going to be the boyfriend that she wants, Jenna (Ashley Rickards) accepts a date to formal with Jake (Brett Davern). Too bad for Matty, who tries to make a big apology, but is too late. Valerie (Desi Lydic) stands up to student bully Sadie (Molly Tarlov). As Sadie tries to sneak into the big dance, Lissa (Greer Grammer), blaming Sadie for costing her Jake, also tells her off. Ricky Schwartz (Matthew Fahey) makes a play for Tamara (Jillian Rose Reed), who, as a drama queen, is very receptive to such things. Jenna is devastated to learn, or think she learns, that her mother, Lacey (Nikki Deloach), wrote the infamous letter.

      This season is too short. That's my biggest complaint about Awkward., which definitely ended up being my favorite series of the summer. Authentic characters that are pitch perfect, a protagonist that must be fallen in love with, and clever humor set this show head and shoulders above its peers. Almost every minute was pure joy to watch, and it will be extremely hard to wait for season two. This is one of those rare series that might demand a re-watch on DVD before new episodes return.

     The twist at the end of Lacey writing the letter is shocking, but not. Lacey has established a pattern of trying to help Jenna, but often seems clueless about how to do so in a way that her daughter will appreciate. This could be because Lacey is a bit immature, trying to recapture her youth, which she considers robbed from her by teenage pregnancy. But even for her, this is definitely a step too far. Yes, the letter is honest and somewhat helpful, but it's also not very nice. Considering how much Lacey values their mother-daughter bond, is it possible she could have done something so inconsiderate? Sadly, it is conceivable. But why not just talk to Jenna instead?

     Another possibility is that Jenna's dad, Kevin (Mike Faiola), wrote the letter. This seems far less likely for a number of reasons. The letterhead pattern is feminine. Guys don't generally plays games the way that girls do. They tend to be more straightforward. There hasn't been nearly as much on screen interaction between Kevin and Jenna as there has between Lacey and Jenna, making their relationship a tad harder to pinpoint. Yet, the letter certainly smacks of drama, and Kevin seems relatively drama-free.

     It might just be a coincidence that Jenna finds the same type of paper in her parents' junk drawer as the letter was written on. However, that seems far fetched. More likely, Lacey is going to have a lot of explaining to do.

     Jenna seems to at least be happy in the romance department, though. Having finally gotten pretty comfortable with herself, she finds two guys pursuing her. Yes, she has a strong, heartfelt, sexual attraction to Matty. She also knows Jake is more honest about who he is, and less concerned with what others think, an appealing quality after dealing with a shy Matty all of these months. Jenna chooses Jake, for now, because she's tired of drama. This is a very understandable reaction. But she's young, and her tears as she tells Matty that he's too late seem to indicate that it might not be. Poor Jenna has some real thinking to do. She should be with Jake for now, to get an idea of the differences between the two guys. We'll see who she picks in the end, though, as the jury is definitely still out on that.

     Tamara is captured more perfectly in "Fateful" than in any previous Awkward. episode. Her character is, at first, a bit hard to figure out. But as the season progresses, it is clear that Tamara is a huge drama queen, and she craves drama in her life, invented or otherwise. Her ongoing back and forth with Ricky Schwartz, and the fact that she keeps coming back to him, shows that he is feeding her what she desires. His CraigsList prom stunt is a wonderful capper... for now. They can't possibly last. If they burn too hot, they will flame out. That's the downside to drama. It must be continuously replenished, which is exhausting. One day Tamara will realize that. Hopefully not before Awkward. comes to an end, though, because her characters it totes entertaining just the way she is.

     Finally, it will be interesting to see if Lissa's break with Sadie will last. Sadie pushed her best friend way too far with Jake, a nice guy who will only put up with so much. It is unlikely that Lissa, a dumb, but somewhat sweet, girl would have done the things she did without Sadie's influence. Jake would not have been with Lissa in the first place if that was the type of girl that she is. It's definitely refreshing to see her stop being such a patsy, and only losing someone she cares about as much as Jake could push her to be so. The question now is, does Sadie still want to be friends, and is she willing to eat a little humble pie to fix things? This seems unlike Sadie, but we know Sadie's attitude is covering insecurities. Losing her only real friend could be devastating. Surely, Lissa will forgive her if Sadie gives an inch, but she shouldn't unless Sadie shows remorse. Their relationship in season two could be slightly, or very, different. I'm going to guess slightly.

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Archer journeys to the "Heart of Archness"

     FX's Archer returns for a special three-part episode between seasons. The final part of "Heart of Archness" just aired, and here's what happened. Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) is devastated by the loss of his fiance, so he runs away. Malory (Jessica Walter) sends former love and employee Rip Riley (Patrick Warburton, Family Guy, The Venture Brothers, Seinfeld) to find her son, but Archer wrecks Rip's plane. They are rescued / captured by pirates, and Archer kills their leader, becoming the Pirate King. Until the pirates turn on him, and capture his second rescue team.

     It is unclear why FX granted Archer this special short run, but it is extremely welcome. The spy / workplace comedy is hard to get enough of, and "Heart of Archness" continues that same spirit, staying within the continuity of the series. Archer's exploits are completely typical of himself, and pinning the whole thing on a fleeting emotion he feels for a girl is brilliant. Of course, by the end, Archer doesn't even remember why things started. He has feelings, but they're not deep. As Archer tells Rip, he doesn't plan, he just goes with the flow. And that somehow always works out for him.

     The pirate plot is ripe with riffs for Archer to go on. First, Archer doesn't even believe pirates exist any more. Then he completely misunderstands their lifestyle and the need to plunder. Stangely enough, he also starts a lacrosse league. Archer lives in the moment, but doesn't have the ruthless streak that real pirates do. For them to have an island stronghold may be a bit of a stretch on reality, but it's much more entertaining than setting the story in the slums of a poor, African city.

     Besides the great Warburton, there is another fantastic guest star in this trilogy. David Cross (Arrested Development, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret) voices Noah, a slave to the pirates, and soon, Archer's first mate. In true Archer fashion, bad luck befalls both Rip and Noah just by being around him. Even if the two never return again, though, it's been wonderful to have two such talented performers associated with the series, especially in multiple episodes. Even better, Archer continues to play on a long mystery by inquiring if Rip might be his father, a tempting, if unlikely, idea. Considering how many men Malory has slept with, this is one question that might never be answered.

     "Heart of Archness" does briefly touch on the ongoing Archer / Lana (Aisha Tyler) romance. As Lana comes to rescue Archer, Ray (Adam Reed) observes her seriousness and worry about her co-worker. Archer usually treats Lana like crap, which is why they aren't together, as despite Lana's feelings for him, she won't put up with his behavior. But in this episode, Archer shows a fondness for her, admitting she is his only friend. That's probably true, since Lana is the really the only one at ISIS that has ever seen a nicer side of Archer. Their relationship is complicated and sometimes subtle, changing the typical "will they? won't they?" formula. It's pretty cool that Archer does this, but a little sad that it takes an animated cable series to find this combination.

     In the B plot, Cyril (Chris Parnell) gets trashed and embezzles all of ISIS's money. He also sleeps with Pam (Amber Nash). When they wake up, he can't remember the password, and on Pam's suggestion, they get drunk and have sex again to remember it. While funny, it's really unnecessary to see Pam's naked body multiple times in this episode. Once is more than enough. A strategically placed blanket could have avoided nightmares for many fans. But this proves once again that Cyril is kind of a slut, so either way, it's incredibly hilarious.

     Thank you Archer for this three week diversion! Archer will return for a third season this winter on FX.

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Article first published as TV Review: Archer - "Heart of Archness" on Blogcritics.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The "Genesis" of Terra Nova

     FOX's Terra Nova premiere, "Genesis," begins in 2149, with the Earth dying because of human mistakes. Mankind has begun a new colony 85 million years in the past, in an alternate timeline. Dr. Elisabeth Shannon (Shelley Conn, Mistressess) is recruited as part of the tenth wave of settlers, but she is only allowed to bring her two eldest children, Maddy (Naomi Scott, Life Bites) and Josh (Landon Liboiron, Degrassi: The Next Generation). This is because in 2149, having three children is illegal, and this applied to Elisabeth's youngest, Zoe (Alana Mansour). Elisabeth helps her husband, Jim (Jason O'Mara, Life on Mars) break out of prison, where is serving a sentence for assaulting the police when they find Zoe. Together, all five Shannons make it through the rift.

     Once at the new settlement, Commander Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang, Avator) decides to allow the Shannons to stay together, since he needs Elisabeth, and doesn't care about laws that have not been invented yet. Jim, a former cop, is assigned to the agricultural team, but soon proves himself more than capable to join Taylor's security force. This comes in handy when Josh, upset at his father for being gone all this time, meets an attractive girl named Skye (Allison Miller, Kings), who leads him outside the gate. The teens are attacked by dinosaurs and robbed by members of the Sixth, rebels who split away from the main group. Jim must rescue his son.

     Terra Nova is a family friendly show that should appeal to a broad base. There is the sci-fi aspect of time travel and alternate universes. There is mystery in why the Sixth split off, and why Taylor's son draws pictures on rocks. The leader of the Sixth, Mira (Christine Adams, The Whole Truth) seems devoted to some cause. Skye and Josh have the beginnings of a teen romance. There is a group of teens that live apart from their family. Little Zoe is cute as a button. Taylor and Jim will have to solve crimes, while Elisabeth will face new medical cases. Plus, dinosaurs and involvement by Steven Spielberg! Which should satisfy just about everyone.

     Which might be the problem with the show. Don't get me wrong; Terra Nova is certainly one of, if not the, best fall premiere so far. But its widespread tone means none of those things get primary focus. Not knowing which writers to hire to really capture all of these different elements, a great story is slogged down by bad dialogue. The special effects look fantastic, and there's an exciting adventure present. A little tweaking on some lines, and Terra Nova could quickly set itself apart from the pack.

     That's why I recommend you keep watching. The actors are good, and the plot is fairly original. Until proven otherwise, Terra Nova is new and different, and thus, worthy of viewership. The best elements involve the family trying to settle in, finally back together, and the mysteries outside of the settlement walls. These would be good to focus on, as well as revisiting the future, shown too briefly in the beginning, considering how intriguing this time and place are.

     Oh, and it would have been nice to see Jim escape from jail. Yeah, there's a lot to cover in "Genesis," but it feels like a little bit of a cheat to have Elisabeth visit Jim, and then suddenly he has made it to the transport station. Might there be a few things missing in there?

     Anyway, be sure to watch Terra Nova Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on FOX.

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Glee declares "I Am Unicorn"

     FOX's Glee presents "I Am Unicorn" this week. The directors for West Wide Story are announced, and auditions begin. Kurt (Chris Colfer) struggles to appear masculine enough to play Tony. Shelby Corcoran (Idina Menzel) returns as a part-time teacher at McKinley, causing a stir for Rachel (Lea Michele), Puck (Mark Salling), and Quinn (Dianna Agron), for various reasons. Will (Matthew Morrison) institutes a dancing class for those glee club members who are not up to par (cough) Finn (Cory Monteith) (cough).

      The title of this week's episode is an idea that Brittany (Heather Morris) has about those who are truly special. She pinpoints Kurt as a "unicorn," and sets her sights on helping him win Class President. That is, until Kurt rejects his unicorn status, worrying it will cost him something that he really wants. By the time that Kurt comes around, Santana (Naya Rivera) has convinced Brittany that she is also a unicorn, and Brittany decides to run against Kurt. Who might win this show down?

     Kurt's struggle with fitting in has matured this season. He is no longer in denial about who he is, nor does he worry what his classmates think of him. But he does have a dream to be a star, and playing the romantic lead roles requires one to be less flamboyant. His "I'm the Greatest Star" is thrilling, but does little to help his image. While many Hollywood and Broadway actors are, indeed, gay, few are as obviously so as Kurt, a fact that he realizes when he goes out for West Side Story. Burt (Mike O'Malley), of course, is the voice of reason, advising Kurt that there are plenty of other opportunities that he can pursue, rather than this particular aspect of his dream. Kurt may not take this fully to heart yet, but it has at least begun to sink in.

     Which is good, because Kurt will probably not get the part of Tony. It is uncomfortable to listen to the directors, Emma (Jayma Mays), Coach Beiste (Dot-Marie Jones), and Artie (Kevin McHale), all great choices for the group, talk about Kurt not being what they want. But it's also honest. Not one of them thinks that Kurt is lacking in talent, but he just isn't right for this role. It's a harsh truth that Kurt overhears, made worse by the fact that his Junior boyfriend, Blaine (Darren Criss), slays his own tryout, belting "Something's Coming" out of the park. Blaine asks to only be considered for a lesser role, but it's obvious how this will shake down. Hopefully, Kurt can manage to be happy for Blaine, rather than jealous. He needs to repeat to himself, "I Am Unicorn."

     Rachel is fantastic, and the directors are all fans of her. But Mercedes (Amber Riley) has not yet been given her chance. The preview for next week's episode sets up a big Diva Showdown, not the first, nor probably the last, between the two powerful ladies. It's still anyone's game, because both have so much talent, it's hard to see which way the casting trio will lean. Mercedes, however, rarely gets to shine like Rachel does, so perhaps it's her turn.

     One small gripe, since when does casting go on all week like this? A couple of auditions times, sure, but this seems like a never ending slate of appointments. It's just a little weird, speaking as someone from the general area the show takes place who has gone through his fair share of tryouts.

     Also, it's awesome that Mike Chang (Harry Shum Jr.) co-teaches the dancing class with Will. It's a nice showcase for Glee's newest main character, and one that fits him well.

     Besides West Side Story, the other major plot is the return of Shelby. Last seen in season one, Shelby adopts Quinn and Puck's baby and moves to New York. She also turns out to be Rachel's birth mother. Now she's back, recruited by Sugar Motta's (Vanessa Lengies) father to start a second show choir at McKinley, this one featuring the horrific vocal stylings of Sugar. It's easy to see why Will doesn't view the new start up as a threat. Shelby's return will be much more about the emotional impact she has on her daughter and the biological parents of the child she's raising than about what she's doing in the school.

     Or will it? Sugar will definitely never get it together, though Shelby is likely to help her improve somewhat. But Will also drops the tidbit that Vocal Adrenaline, Shelby's former group, has fired its glee club director. Does this mean that she might be swayed to return to her old job, as a competitor of the New Directions, before long? If so, then she would truly be an antagonist once more. Which would be a shame, considering how she has such a nice, friendly story going on now.

     Shelby is timid about reconnecting with Rachel, a natural reaction given how they end things. Rachel acts like she doesn't want Shelby around, surely a falsehood, one done to protect herself emotionally. Shelby seems determined to be in Rachel's life, but to give her the space that she needs, and the time to accept things slowly. It's a wise move, and much more likely to work than the subterfuge she previously engages in. It also helps make their "Somewhere" a really moving performance.

     In a parallel story, Shelby gives Quinn and Puck the chance that she never had: to be there for their daughter starting at a young age. As a mother, Shelby wants to protect baby Beth, and asks both the parents to really commit before they can see her. Puck is willing to do anything, thrilled with the chance to get to know his daughter. Quinn resists, arguing that her purple hair and "skank" friends are who she truly is. Both Shelby and Will attempt to talk sense into her, the latter in a terrific chewing out, to no avail.

     Quinn does eventually clean herself up and rejoin glee club, but it's a ruse. She is only trying to appear reformed so that she can get close to Beth. You see, Quinn intends to win custody back from the adoptive mother, surely an uphill battle at this point, and one that no viewer will be rooting for. Despite appearances, it's a step backwards for the mean, manipulative Quinn, and it proves that she is not ready to be a mother. Hopefully, she will clean up her act for real before she has the chance to damage an innocent child.

     This episode has a light musical load, to be sure, but each song is perfect where it is, and with so much great story for the characters, how can one complain?

     Catch next week's all new episode of Glee, "Asian F," next Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on FOX. What is an Asian F? Why, it's an A-!

     Watch Glee Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. ET on FOX.

     If you like my reviews, please follow me on Twitter! Click here for all of my Glee reviews.
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Article first published as TV Review: Glee - "I Am Unicorn" on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Gossip Girl answers "Yes Then Zero"

     The CW's Gossip Girl returns with "Yes Then Zero." Serena (Blake Lively) is working in Los Angeles, where Chuck (Ed Westwick) and Nate (Chace Crawford) stop by as they finish their summer of travel and fun. All three work on saying yes, which lands Serena a promotion. Serena also bumps into "Charlie," whose real name is Ivy (Kaylee DeFer, now a series regular), who is quite surprised by the encounter. Meanwhile, Blair (Leighton Meester) hides her pregnancy while preparing for her wedding to Louis (Hugo Becker), who disappoints Blair when he won't stand up for her to his mother, Sophie (Joanne Whalley, The Borgias). Dan (Penn Badgley) almost takes advantage of the situation and lets Blair dump Louis, until he is forced to admit the truth.

     Blair's dance card may be entirely too full. Who would have thought, years ago, that Blair would be the one seeking love, and getting it returned on multiple sides, instead of Serena? Yet, that's how things are shaping up. Chuck lets Blair go rather than be with her, knowing she may be happier with a real life prince. Dan is still in love with Blair, but since she doesn't seem to return the feelings, he keeps quiet about it. And, of course, Louis represents everything that Blair thinks she wants, but the reality is a bit rocky. Each of these pairings, especially the first two, have their share of fans rooting for them. Who will get Blair in the end? Yes, Louis is engaged to her now, but that can change. Perhaps whoever impregnated her has a leg up.

     Poor Dan tries to be a good guy, calling on Louis's help to stop an excerpt of a book to be published in a magazine. Said story is about Blair, and it outs Dan's love for her. The magazine agrees not to move forward, but that's far from the end of things. Vanessa has stolen the manuscript, and sends Dan a check, implying that the full work will soon be in print. Will Blair see this and swoon? Or will she be angry at Dan for not telling her about his feelings? Or for making her look foolish? Best case scenario, the book will draw Dan and Blair closer. Reality could very well unfold the opposite.

     It's nice to see Chuck happy. He does seem a little reckless, especially after getting Blair's wedding invite. But he also looks to be moving on, assuring Nate he is fine, and giving great advice. Chuck exhibits a maturity that may come as somewhat of a surprise, but is surely hard earned. It's interesting that Chuck seems to have the best perspective on life out of all of the characters.

     Nate is the one who should be watching out. At a Hollywood party he ends up sleeping with a beautiful older woman named Diana  (Elizabeth Hurley, Austin Powers). Yet, a scene that he is not privy to reveals that she not only knows who he is, but has designs on him. Nate may have lied to get her into bed, something she saw through from the beginning, but he also apologizes. At heart, he is a very sweet guy. Diana had better have the best of intentions, because Nate does not deserve any more sorrow in his life, as the last few years have brought him enough of that.

     Watch Gossip Girl Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on the CW.

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Hart of Dixie sure to touch your heart

     The CW's newest drama is Hart of Dixie. Rachel Bilson (The O.C.) stars as Zoe Hart, a wannabe surgeon from New York City who is asked to try working at a general practice for a year to improve her bedside manner before being given a fellowship that she really wants. Zoe decides to finally take up an old man's offer in the "Pilot." The old man is named Harley, and he approached her at her graduation speech, trying to recruit her. He has been sending her post cards ever since. Zoe arrives in Bluebell, Alabama, only to learn that Harley has died, leaving her his half of a practice. The town is resistant to the new doc, until she saves the day. Zoe is reluctant to stay, feeling very much the fish-out-of-water around the Southern belles, until she finds out that Harley was her biological father.

     While Hart of Dixie may be new, it has much more in common with the WB shows that predate the CW. It's heartwarming, sweet, and keeps the bitchy mean girls to a minimum. It's quite a welcome respite, and while certainly not fresh, it is unlike almost anything else on American network television. This gives it an edge. I specify American TV because the British have a similar show called Doc Martin with a much surlier lead character.

     Bilson is very good with the personal drama. Zoe's instant bonding with Mayor Lavon Hayes (Cress Williams, Grey's Anatomy, Friday Night Lights) is cute, as is her attraction to George Tucker (Scott Porter, Friday Night Lights, The Good Wife). Zoe's encounter with the alligator Burt Reynolds is hilarious! Equally cool is Bilson's chemistry with Nancy Travis (Becker), who will unfortunately soon be leaving the series to star in Last Man Standing opposite Tim Allen. Maybe that series will be canceled quickly, and she can return? Also, the back story of learning that Harley is Zoe's dad is interesting, setting up a long personal development arc.

     It's great to see Zoe stand up to Lemon Breeland (Jaime King, My Generation, Gary Unmarried), George's fiancĂ©, without being overly confrontational. Also nice is a glimpse of Lemon and George happy together, indicating that they once had something true, and still might, under the right circumstances. This is different than many shows, which would cast the male romantic lead's love interest purely as a villain, at least for quite awhile, before humanizing her. Hart of Dixie doesn't wait, and does it in the "Pilot." The other "bad guys," Wade (Wilson Bethel, The Young and the Restless) and Lemon's father Brick (Tim Matheson, Burn Notice, The West Wing) are equally layered.

     The problem that Hart of Dixie faces is that Bilson is much less convincing than she needs to be as a doctor. Her story of helping Mabel (Ann Mahoney) is touching, but poorly executed. Not only does Zoe have instant bedside manner, an oddity, considering why she is sent to Bluebell, but anytime she talks the medical jargon, it just doesn't seem realistic. It's Bilson's limitations that hurt the show, but those can be worked around by not showing her actually doctoring all that much. Other than that, it's a pretty good series.

     Watch Hart of Dixie Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on the CW.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

American Dad! gets into "Hot Water"

     On the season premiere of FOX's American Dad, "Hot Water," Stan (Seth MacFarlane) gets super stressed out because of his very tight schedule. Principal Lewis (Kevin Michael Richardson) suggest that Stan get a hot tub, and while Stan is reluctant at first, he sees one he really likes. Unfortunately, he chooses an evil hot tub (voiced by Cee Lo Green), and begins partying all the time. Francine (Wendy Schaal) goes along with it for awhile, but ends up leaving Stan over the warm water. But the hot tub will not stop until Lewis, Francine, and Peter are dead.

     It is not unusual for Seth MacFarlane to parody something. It's a trope he uses quite often in his various animated series. "Hot Water" is no different, tackling Little Shop of Horrors. The shop Stan buys the hot tub from is "Little Shop of Hot Tubs." The hot tub mimicks Stan's voice to lure Francine to her doom. It also eats Lewis, and ends up killing Stan. The music is a completely different style, but the parallels are so close that, when a customer walks into the hot tub store, I expect him to say "I couldn't help noticing that strange and unusual hot tub in the window." That never happened, but it easily could have been a deleted scene, so much does the episode relate to the musical.

     Interestingly, two main characters die in this episode of American Dad! Both Francine and Stan bite the dust before the end credits roll. "Hot Water" is not the first time that this happens in an episode, but it is a bit unusual because, by next week, they will be fine again. That is not to say that American Dad! does not allow character growth. It married Hayley (Rachael MacFarlane) off and that stuck. But occasionally, in event episodes such as this one, the continuity of the series is abandoned.

     It's a pretty trippy episode. Besides a 1970's era hot tub, which somehow has more advanced electronics, a fact that does not go unnoticed by the characters, but there is plenty of singing and hallucinations. Most of the main cast gets to participate in at least one song. There is no B story, so there is plenty of time to squeeze in several numbers. Over all, it's a pretty cool experiment.

     Cee Lo provides not only the singing voice for the hot tub, but also appears live, unanimated, in several narration shots during "Hot Water." He is not the only one famous to make an appearance, though. One of the party girls that Stan hangs out with is voiced by Gabourey Sidibe, who starred in Precious and is now on Showtime's The Big C.

     American Dad! airs Sundays at 9:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

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Family Guy comes down with "Lottery Fever"

     To start the tenth season of FOX's Family Guy, the series presents "Lottery Fever." Peter (Seth MacFarlane) decides it's worth spending all of the family's savings on a LOT of lottery tickets. He wins, quits his job, and begins treating his friends like slaves. Naturally, they no longer want to hang out with Peter, so he is left alone. Which is fine, because he's having fun with a bunch of ridiculous purchases. Until the family runs out of money. Then he goes to his friends for help.

     Does this premise sound stale to you? Because it really is. There isn't much in the main story of "Lottery Fever" that hasn't been done on television in a dozen other sitcoms over the years. Perhaps that is why Family Guy goes after the story, as the show has always been fond of parody, especially 1980's comedies. In that regard, "Lottery Fever" might be construed as a homage to those forefathers, rather than recycling old material.

      Now, just because the idea is old, doesn't mean the episode isn't funny. For instance, Peter has the family spend days checking 200,000 lottery tickets to see if they are winners, only to reveal that they are all fake, and he's "testing" them. Testing them for what, who knows? But then Brian (also MacFarlane) figures out the next batch are fakes right off the bat, and Peter finally hands over the real 200,000 tickets that he bought. Of course, Brian identifies the winning ticket immediately, saving them a whole host of trouble.

     Also amusing is the singing montage as the family checks the tickets. The lyrics are needlessly explaining what is happening on screen, and that's the joke. The fact that the exact same bit is used in the episode of American Dad, a series by the same creator, immediately after "Lottery Fever" only deepens the impact for fans watching both shows.

     So, once again, Family Guy has taken a dead horse and beat it until it is funny again. It's a concept that Seth MacFarlane gets as almost no one else does. While not every episode of Family Guy is the comedy gold it once was, the series continues to deliver entertainment week after week because of its willingness to poke fun at itself and its industry. For that, we can all be grateful to Seth MacFarlane.

      Family Guy airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on FOX.

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Pan Am takes off

     ABC's Pan Am begins with "Pilot," a more appropriate use of that title than in other series, though the pilot is merely one of the characters featured. The Clipper Majestic makes its first flight from New York to London. New captain Dean (Mike Vogel, Miami Medical) wonders why his special gal, Bridget (Annabelle Wallis, The Tudors), suddenly isn't working for the airline. Maggie (Christina Ricci, Sleepy Hollow, Casper) is called upon to fill in at the last minute. Kate (Kelli Garner, My Generation, The Aviator) has a secret mission to complete, and isn't crazy that her sister Laura (Margot Robbie, Neighbours), a recent hire, is the new face of Pan Am on Life magazine. Colette (Karine Vanasse, Set Me Free, October 1970) learns her lover is married.

     Apparently Pan Am flights are busy places! Which is good, given that the show seeks to be a series that will hopefully run for years to come. Some of correct ingredients are present, including pretty good actors and decent characters. The flashbacks are a nice touch, informing viewers who these people are that are suddenly on this airplane together. The Bridget mystery is an interesting one, and Kate, in particular, has several nice stories fleshed out already. As such, there is a lot of room for growth, and enough to hold viewer interest.

     Other elements don't work so well. The music, swelling obnoxiously loud, tries to force viewers to feel emotions. In any decent show, that is the actors' jobs. And they are doing that job, if the music would just back off a little and let them. Also, there is a cheesiness whenever the story tries to stress that Pan Am stewardesses are blazing a new trail for women. The ending of the "Pilot," where a little girl gazes admiringly at these beautiful, confident, independent women, is just plain hokey. These could be done without.

     Over all though, provided the score is toned down, Pan Am has the makings of something worth watching. It's certainly no Mad Men, as the drama isn't nearly as intense or original, but it's miles ahead of the other new network show set in the 1960's this year, The Playboy Club. The best thing to do, going forward, is to let the performers breathe life in the characters, and give them the room to do so. This is Pan Am's strongest element, and the smartest way to make the series work.

     Some reviews have complained about the fact that Kate is recruited to spy for the government, calling it unrealistic. Yet, there are interviews plenty of women in her position who were asked to do just that. Sometimes real life can be stranger than fiction, and this just might be one of those times. It's a fantastic addition, as it allows some high stakes story, while also keeping things authentic to the time period.

     Pan Am airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.

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Desperate Housewives keeps "Secrets That I Never Want to Know"

     The eighth and final season of ABC's Desperate Housewives kicks off with "Secrets That I Never Want to Know." The burden of keeping Carlos's (Ricardo Antonio Chavira) murder of Alejandro (Tony Plana) weighs differently on each of the five individuals that know it. Bree (Marcia Cross) is nervous as she probes Chuck (Jonathan Cake) on what he might know. Lynette (Felicity Huffman) goes to Tom (Doug Savant) for physical comfort. Susan (Teri Hatcher) can't bring herself to speak with her friends or Mike (James Denton). Carlos looks for absolution. Only Gabi (Eva Longoria) seems at ease.

     And why shouldn't she be? Alejandro abused and terrorized her. She lived in constant fear of him, made worse with his latest visit to the neighborhood. Carlos did her a favor, taking away such a real threat to his wife. Now she only has to worry that no one will tell, as she wants her husband around to care for her and their daughters.

     Gabi tries to make Carlos feel better by expressing that to him, but it doesn't do a lot of good. Nor does Carlos talking to his priest help, as, without knowing the details, the priest advises that Carlos turn himself into the cops, exactly what Gabi doesn't want him to do. Can he live with himself after this, or will it be a relief when it finally comes out, even if that means spending years in jail?

     Despite not doing the deed herself, Susan feels almost as guilty as Carlos does. It is not in her nature to cover up such a dark act, and she tells Mike everything. When she is finally able to talk to her girlfriends, after Mike worries that she is shutting him and them out, they make her see that telling her husband could only get him into trouble. It's nicer to leave him in the dark, as then he bears no responsibility if the truth comes out. If, in their minds, more likely when, in reality.

     If one was a betting man, the smart money might be on Lynette talking first. Susan wants to protect Mike, much as Gabi wants to protect Carlos, but Lynette and Tom are separated. And they have been together a lot longer. She has no problem going to him for physical comfort, so perhaps she will seek emotional reassurance as well by getting the secret off of her chest. It's clear that Tom still loves her, so he probably won't blab. But it could be a mistake to bring him in on the secret, considering what might happen when it blows up in their faces.

     The thing is, the Desperate Housewives seem to come to an understand at the end of "Secrets That I Never Want to Know" that they will not be sharing the dark truth. Which is good, because a whole season of them going crazy over hiding things will do no one any favors. Thus, for now at least, it is likely to stay buried. But equally likely is that things will begin to spiral out of control before season's end. After all, as this is the final year, anything could happen.

     There is also a subplot that has nothing to do with Carlos being a killer in Secrets That I Never Want to Know." An attractive new man named Ben (Charles Mesure, V, Street Legal) moves onto the street, and Renee (Vanessa Williams) calls dibs. Too bad Ben doesn't get the memo, though, as he is quick to turn Renee down. Knowing Renee, this isn't over, as she will take the rejection as a challenge. Can't wait to see what her next move is!

     Watch Desperate Housewives Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.

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Monday, September 26, 2011

"A New Day" dawns for The Good Wife

     CBS's The Good Wife faces a few major changes as season three begins with "A New Day," but most of them are not completely obvious, unlike a new hair cut on the lead character. Alicia (Julianna Margulies), confident in her new office, is tasked with defending a young client accused of a hate crime. Cary (Matt Czuchry) acts tough, as per Peter's (Chris Noth) new strategy, and tricks Alicia into setting up her client for a murder case. Alicia wins, but only because Kalinda (Archie Panjabi), working very closely with her former lover, Sophia (Kelli Giddish), manages to get a confession from the real killer.

     Cary's actions seem a little out of step with Peter's message about the way they will now be running the office. Peter wants to eliminate plea bargains for a couple of months to keep defense attorneys on their toes, and that works fine with Cary's case. But Peter also asks to keep things clean and on the up and up. Considering the brief conversation between Peter and Cary when talking of settling, it seems like Cary might be sneaking around behind Peter's back to set Alicia up. And yet, with a case such as this, where a murder charge is the real goal, how can Peter possibly not be signing off on it? If Peter is aware of the charade from the start, than that doesn't mesh with his stated philosophy. Either way you slice it, something stinks a bit in the state's attorney's office.

     It's too bad Alicia is so easily tricked. Her happy glow and new found self-esteem translate to overconfidence, allowing her to fall into Cary's trap. This does not seem like something Alicia would do fairly recently, but she is definitely distracted in "A New Day." While it is great to see Alicia truly happy for the first time in a long while, she best be careful, so as not to lose her edge in the courtroom. That would not be good for her career.

     The reason for Alicia's sudden mood change is her fling with Will (Josh Charles). Though they act distant at work to throw off Eli (Alan Cumming), lest he be reporting back to Peter, Eli isn't the only one that they fool. Diane (Christine Baranski) thinks Will is being too hard on Alicia, which could easily be the clue that allows Diane to figure them out. Diane knowing would be a problem, since she is Will's partner and Alicia's boss. Also, it's probably unethical for Will to be sleeping with one of his employees, regardless of the history they might share, or how much fans root for seeing the two of them together.

     Alicia's daughter, Grace (Makenzie Vega) notices the change in her mother's attitude, though she doesn't dig too deep, assuming it has to do with Alicia's (secret to the public) split from Peter. Plus, Grace has other things occupying her mind, such as her crazy new tutor. It's hard to know what to make of this new character, but Grace is quick to obsess, trying on new ideas and outlooks like clothing. Which means Alicia had better keep an eye on her daughter, something Alicia isn't too distracted to pick up on.

     Eli is also not able to give Alicia his full attention, despite his delight at her apparent coldness towards Will, since that means he can help Peter campaign without worrying about whether the two will get divorced. But Eli's primary focus in "A New Day" is getting fresh business, which he manages to do in spades. Eli's genius idea, one he sort of stumbles into, is to pit a pro-Arab group against his fellow Jews, forcing Michael Kahane (House's Peter Jacobson) to hire Eli, even after Eli has dropped the other client and pocketed their money. It's a brilliant bit of strategy, but one that is just another day at the office for Mr. Eli Gold.

      Lastly, it looks like Kalinda might have a full dance card. True, Alicia still isn't speaking to her in anything other than a professional capacity. But Sophia seems jealous when it appears that Kalinda is dating Cary. Whether she is or not is a moot point, and unclear, despite Kalinda's claim that they are, in fact, together. What's important here is that Kalinda is playing Sophia like a fiddle, and the white hot chemistry between them has cooled not at all. Cary and Kalinda might make a nice pairing, but Sophia and Kalinda definitely burn hotter.

     "A New Day" is a great start to the new season. Don't miss The Good Wife Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on CBS.

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The Cleveland Show longs to be "BFFs"

     For the third season premiere of FOX's The Cleveland Show, "BFFs," Cleveland (Mike Henry) is forced to reexamine his friendship with Peter Griffin (Seth MacFarlane), the guy he left behind on Family Guy after getting his own spin-off. Cleveland learns Peter comes to town, but doesn't call. Unable to reach Peter, Cleveland confronts him in person, but Peter says they need to grow apart. Cleveland takes his new friends camping, hoping to form more lasting bonds. But when they are captured by hillbilly rapists, it's Peter who comes to the rescue.

     This is a neat premise because not many spin-offs hark back to their roots all that often. Not only does The Cleveland Show revisit familiar faces and characters from Cleveland's previous series, but it explores what happens to friendship when one moves away. Sure, when the two series do crossovers, it's nice to see the pleasure the characters get from seeing each other again. But what happens when it's not a special event? The Cleveland Show seeks to answer that question, and does so quite well, despite the return to the status quo at the end of the episode.

     "BFFs" is also an incredibly meta episode of the series. Not only does Cleveland talk about Peter, and revisit his old neighborhood, but Cleveland's wife, Donna (Sanaa Lathan), reflects on the housewives of all of the Animation Domination housewives. Also, someone calls Peter "Animation Domination's Peter Griffin."  It's hard to break down the fourth wall more than that.

     There are numerous references to Family Guy, from a picture of Peter and Cleveland with Quagmire making out with Loretta in the background, to Peter's cell phone call tune, to the evil monkey that lives in Chris's closet coming with Peter to save the day. It's a fun treat for those who are fans of both series. For those who aren't, sorry.

     It's a little weird, and not in a good way, that Ric Flair (voicing himself), a professional wrestler, runs the friendship camp that Cleveland and his pals attend. It comes out of nowhere, and there isn't really a reason that the character is Ric Flair. It could be almost anyone, preferably someone more recognizable, and the joke would have the same effect.

     In the B story, Rallo (also Henry) attends a two year reunion at his day care, where Donna is made to feel inferior by the other mothers. Donna enters Rallo into a Quiz Bowl to prove her parenting skills, but learns that there is more to life than the other superficial mothers would have you believe. Mildly amusing, but the whole concept of the day care reunion is out of left field, especially as it is treated like a high school reunion by Rallo.

     Overall, "BFFs" is a very funny episode of The Cleveland Show, better than most weeks. Which makes it a great kick off for the third season. Watch The Cleveland Show Sundays at 8:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

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The Simpsons partners up "The Falcon and the D'Ohman"

     FOX's The Simpsons begins its twenty-third season with "The Falcon and the D'Ohman." Homer (Dan Castellaneta) does his best to befriend and unfriendly new security guard at work named Wayne (Kiefer Sutherland, 24). Wayne soon saves Homer in a bar, and then loses his job while having a flashback to his dark past. Homer takes Wayne into his own home, but Wayne's past continues to haunt him, and Homer ends up getting kidnapped as part of a trap for Wayne. Of course, there is a happy ending.

     Sutherland is not new to The Simpsons, having voiced different characters in 2006 and 2007. He is, however, welcome back on the network for which he starred in a series for so long. As soon as his voice is heard, it brings to mind just how much one misses Jack Bauer, and thanks are owed to The Simpsons for making that happen.

     That being said, the main story is just OK. Homer taking in a former super military guy, who has enemies hunting for him, is only a marginally funny plot. Perhaps after twenty-three years, it's getting harder and harder for the writers to find new scenarios. Among the few gems that pop out in the mediocre episode are Moe (Hank Azaria) having his patrons pick up his pickled eggs and returning them to the jar, and Homer setting Wayne up with a job at the DMV. Perhaps Wayne can become a recurring character, since he is staying in town. But that may not be a wise choice, given his lack of interesting development.

     Marge (Julie Kavner) has the B story, but it's so brief that it can barely be referred to as that. She dreams of being a contestant on Top Chef, which leads to a cameo by Tom Colicchio (voicing himself). This cannot be an uncommon wish among housewives who pride themselves on their cooking. But with so little time given over to the bit, it's hard to say that it's even worth doing.

     In last May's finale, fans were asked to go online and vote on whether Ned Flanders (Harry Shearer) and Edna Crabapple (Marcia Wallace) should remain a couple. Happily, participants voted to keep the two together, revealed first in a small manner, then in more overt ways, in "The Falcon and the D'Ohman." As both has suffered enough in their love lives over the past twenty-two years, it brings a smile to see them happy together. Yay for love!

     Watch The Simpsons Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on FOX.

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Saturday Night Live sees Baldwin break hosting record

      In the quest to make an epic thirty-seventh season premiere, Saturday Night Live enlisted Alec Baldwin to host for a record breaking sixteenth time last night. A few years ago, Baldwin tied with Steve Martin for most times hosting, then Steve returned to keep upping the record. Finally, Baldwin not only tied, but broke it. Martin showed up to playfully challenge him, though seem none too upset to lose his title.

     In the monologue, Martin inquires whether Baldwin might be on any performance enhancing drugs. To figure out this fact, Martin brings a full medical team and Seth Rogen, a "drug expert." It's all for showmanship, because Steve only needs to taste the yellow sample to determine if Alec has been taking drugs. Baldwin is declared clean in a very gross, but hilarious, bit, and the show moves on. Unfortunately, that's as funny as it ever gets.

     Baldwin has been on long enough that he has a number of recurring characters. Yet, none of th memorable ones are trotted out in this episode. There is mention in the monologue of Schweddy Balls now being a Ben & Jerry's ice-cream flavor. To celebrate, wouldn't a return to that sketch be appropriate? Or something to remember him by?

     In fact, it's really odd that only Martin and Rogen guest star. Steve and Alec's contest has been littered with many celebrities popping in, as they are always big event episodes. But last night, that fanfare and gravitas of the legendary moment were absent. The record was broken with little of the ceremony expected from such an occasion, especially considering how long the title has been in contest.

     It wasn't a wasted evening. There were a handful of amusing sketches. A goodbye to All My Children really captured the soap opera spirit, as plenty of "startling twists" were revealed by various crew members. The game show "Who's On Top?" asked which celebrity would be the top in a gay sex encounter, suggesting straight men as choices. And, of course, Weekend Update had some great zingers from Seth Meyers. But other than that, there wasn't much to fawn over.

     Undoubtedly, though he has mostly left comedy behind, Steve Martin will host again. Perhaps even before Baldwin does, so Alec can once more break the record. But if Saturday Night Live's best days are over, what's the point? The bright spot on the horizon is the 2012 election, though the GOP debate sketch was more dud than laughable. But the 2008 election was the last time the series really worked. So maybe...

     Saturday Night Live continues to air Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

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