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Thursday, December 29, 2011

American Horror Story cleans up "Afterbirth"

     Last night was American Horror Story night on FX! Well, it would have been, if the series hadn't brought its first season to a close last week. So this review focuses on that final episode, "Afterbirth."

     In "Afterbirth," Ben (Dylan McDermott) considers ending his own life while grieving for dead wife, Vivien (Connie Britton), and daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga). Vivien the Ghost steps in and convinces him not to go through with it, but soon Ben's jilted lover, Hayden (Kate Mara), kills him anyway. That turns out OK, as the Harmon family is once more reunited, and with their new baby and Moira (Frances Conroy), celebrate a happy Christmas together. Think Ben sees Moria in her true form now? Oh, and they also scare away new residents before anything truly bad can happen to them. However, Constance (Jessica Lange), who stole away her grandson, Tate's (Evan Peters) son through rape, Vivien's other baby, soon gets to deal with yet another monster child, who murders his babysitter.

     Coming off of the spectacular climax of "Birth," featuring many huge developments and the end of most of the supporting characters' stories, "Afterbirth" is a little bit of a let down. But then again, perhaps it is designed that way, tying up loose ends, and providing an epilogue of what is to be for the central family. It can be argued that the capper is longer than need be, and perhaps the nearly half of the episode that deals with Murder House's next owners could be shortened. However, it also demonstrates what the house can do to a person, and excuses some prior bad behavior by comparatively friendly ghosts. In addition, it gives a semi-happy ending for some, and a heck of a cliffhanger.

     The cliffhanger with Constance and the three year old killer (cough, Dexter, cough) will likely not be explored. When American Horror Story was first announced by FX, it was said that the show would feature an all new cast every season, leading many to believe that each batch of episodes would be self-contained. As its popularity rose, that came into question. Now, the network says that there will be a new locale and themes for season two, but some of the cast may return, albeit playing different characters! Which means no firm ending for Constance, but then again, her life of misery just continues as it has, and it is fitting that she will still deal with such things long after viewers stop paying attention to her story.

     Plenty of praise has been, and will be, heaped upon American Horror Story, a truly original show. But it would be remiss to conclude a review of this first season without granting due kudos to the fine performers this year. In fact, many such articles could be written, owing to the more than a dozen fine players who got to shine in this creepy world. First prize should go to Lange for her crazy mother, and all of the lengths that she went to, as well as the sometimes murky motivations that led her there. It's a complex picture of a rich character, and thank goodness such a talented, veteran actress inhabits the role. In runner up status is Britton, who made fans forget all about Tami Taylor (until the inevitable rewatchings of Friday Night Lights) with her own brand of psychotic and loving, both at the same time.

     As far as complaints about "Afterbirth" go, there is one more big one: the lack of Denis O'Hare's Larry. Did the character need to appear for story's sake? Well, no. And that's yet another example of how American Horror Story stands apart from other shows, which might squeeze in actors where they aren't needed just because they happen to be a series regular. Which turns this complaint into something admirable. Though O'Hare's excellence is always leaving fans wanting more, and in "Afterbirth," that more did not come.

     Overall, American Horror Story delivers a heck of a freshman year, with some really interesting stories, all weaving together into a larger narrative. It takes the horror genre and proves it can be done for television. Not only that, it throws traditional television genres out of the window, building its own thing from the ground up. For that and more, not least of which is the intelligent acting and fabulous cast, it will be honored as one of the best new series of the year, a title it richly deserves.

     American Horror Story will return with an all new scary tale next year on FX.

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Article first published as TV Review: American Horror Story - "Afterbirth" on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Portlandia Season One comes to Blu-ray and DVD

     IFC launched a new sketch comedy series last year, produced by Saturday Night Live's Lorne Michaels, called Portlandia. Now season one is available on Blu-ray and DVD. It will likely not surprise you to learn that it stars a SNL cast member, Fred Armisen, known for playing Barack Obama and Joy Behar, among others. Fred is joined by musician Carrie Brownstein. The show is made up of a series of shorts featuring odd characters, some stand alone, some recurring in multiple episodes. The jokes are much more understated than SNL. The unique catch here is that all the bits take place in Portland, Oregon, and the show tries to capture the spirit of the city. Having never been there, I can't say if it does so accurately. I can say, I have enjoyed watching it.

     In the first two weeks alone, Fred and Carrie visit a free range chicken farm populated by polygamists, an uber-feminist bookshop, engage in an adult game of hide and seek, write a theme song for Portland at the request of the mayor, and do a huge opening number for the premiere! And that's just the tip of the iceberg! The humor is unexpected, and fun. For instance, the sketch about writing the song is back and forth random ideas between the pair. What makes it rise above average is that Carrie falls in love, accidentally kills the guy, and attends his funeral while giving her thoughts. It is never mentioned, but really elevated the whole sketch. It's fresh, unique fun.

    Celebrities, too, seem to like the show. Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire), Kyle MacLachlan (Desperate Housewives), Aimee Mann, Jason Sudeikis (SNL), and Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) are among those who stop by to join the pair in their odd stories. This sort of proves the respect the duo has within the performing community, and makes it all the more fun to see who will pop up next!

     The tone of Portlandia speaks to the outsider. Whether you are an outsider yourself, or just enjoy a light hearted poking of such people, there is something for you in this series. Portland may or may not be made up of young people who "go there to retire," but the grunge and indie spirits of the 1990's thrive in the city, or at least this fictional version of such. Thus, Portlandia routinely goes into territories other comedies merely touch on, if that.

     One may question whether or not to buy the Blu-ray version of Portlandia Season One. The price difference isn't big, so why not? True, owing to the low budget of the series, not everything is as crystal clear as other Blu releases. The blacks are not particularly rich. But the creators do pay much attention to detail, and you wouldn't want to miss that. Also, it isn't a cheap conversion, so why the picture does go soft at times, there is a quality different over the DVD. As far as audio goes, it does lack the surround sound many Blu releases have, but he mixing is done nicely, and with little action, many will not even notice.

     Bonus features are sadly lacking on this set. The audio commentaries aren't particularly insightful, and do drag on a bit. Deleted and extended scenes, almost twenty minutes in length, are mainly a snooze fest. There are a couple of gems within, but it's not worth sitting through the others to get to them. A commencement speech given by Armisen is included, but he looks uncomfortable, and his humor is uneven. A couple of sketches of the former Armisen / Brownstein project, Thunderant, are pretty cool, though. And the packaging, with an tone-appropriate environmental package and great graphics, is neat.

     Even without a ton of extras, Portlandia Season One is worth the purchase for the episodes alone. Pick up your copy now and prepare for season two, which premieres on IFC in early January.

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The Simpsons The Fourteenth Season now on Blu-ray

     Now out on Blu-ray is The Fourteenth Season of FOX's The Simpsons. Since it's been a few years since these episodes ran on television, although this Blu-ray is a new release, it's worth noting a number of things about season fourteen. These episodes broadcast from November 2002 through May 2003. Five episodes were actually left over from the previous season. This season won the Outstanding Animated Program Emmy for "Gays of the Condo," as well as a handful of other awards, including one for voice actor Hank Azaria's work in "Moe's Baby Blues" and the show's first Golden Globe nomination for Best Musical or Comedy Series.

     Year fourteen got off to a late start, with "Treehouse of Horror XIII" serving as the season premiere. It is a memorable one, featuring clones of Homer (Dan Castellaneta), the ghost of Billy the Kid taking over defenseless Springfield, and Dr. Hibbert's (Harry Shearer) freaky island. The season continued with a number of great installments. Among them, "How I Spent My Summer Vacation," where Homer rubs elbows with rock stars, "Bart vs. Lisa vs. the Third Grade," where the siblings end up in the same class, and "Large Marge," wherein Marge (Julie Kavner) gets breast implants. The Simpsons also live in a 1895-esque settlement, Marge takes steroids, Homer finds religion, Ned (Shearer) dates an actress, Krusty (Castellaneta) is elected to Congress, Santa's Little Helper's original owner tries to reclaim him, and a suicidal Moe (Azaria) finds meaning in his life because of Maggie (Nancy Cartwright). In this year, Skinner (Shearer) even proposes to Edna (Marcia Wallace), though we all know that didn't work out!

      There is also controversy surrounding season fourteen, in the argument over what the 300th episode of The Simpsons actually is. "Barting Over" was promoted heavily as that landmark, but actually ended up being the 302nd broadcast. There is a joke in the episode that references this, showing how timely the series can be. But it caused quite a stir among fans and suits alike at the time.

     If you're looking for guest stars, Season Fourteen certainly has them. I could list them all, but it would be an extensive list, and readers' eyes will begin to glaze over, so there seems to be little point. Rest assured, they are present, and in droves.

     Best of all, The Fourteenth Season is packed with extras! There are more bonus features than one would inspect, but a great many of them are actually very good. Audio commentary is provided for all twenty-two episodes, giving the die-hard fans hours of audio content to pour over. Many, many people stop by these commentaries, so there is no change of boredom or monotony. Even better, deleted scenes are included with commentary, too, so it's easy to find out why they were cut, something that isn't often included. They can also be added back into the episode, with a small icon indicating the cut material.

     Included are various featurettes. Of course, one looks at the 300th episode. Another interviews the rock stars from "How I Spent My Summer Vacation." There is an introduction by creator Matt Groenig. The multi-angle animation showcase is fantastic for anyone curious about the animation process, taking fans through the various stages of design. There are also sketches on each disc. Really cool is the booklet that comes with the set, which features a full page of information from each and every episode, and a humorous letter from Groenig.

     Season six and seven's "Treehouse of Horror" episodes are included in this Blu-ray set. As these have not been on Blu-ray before, that's kind of nice, though one does wonder why these particular entries are chosen. Continuing with the Halloween theme, "Foolish Earthlings," "The Halloween Classics," and "In the Beginning" present clips from various scary specials, the latter putting together the openings over the years, though don't add that much to the discussion.

     At last, in season fourteen, The Simpsons joins the world of digital coloring. That is not a slam on The Simpsons; it's not like it was behind the curve. But it's great to see such crystal clear pictures, sharp images, and color deviations, even on an animated series. The show is not in widescreen, nor was it ever at this point. As a basic television show, audio does not benefit substantially from surround side. But the dialogue and music is mixed nicely, and everything sounds as good as one might expect. Certainly no problems.

     Buy The Simpsons The Fourteenth Season on Blu-ray today.

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

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Monday, December 26, 2011

Absolutely Fabulous: Absolutely Everything great way to spend Christmas cash

     Absolutely Fabulous, often called Ab Fab for short, released Absolutely Everything in 2008, comprising all of the episodes and specials, as well as a wealth of bonus features. With new material only weeks away, it's time to look back at that awesome collection, and perhaps pick up a copy and watch it marathon-style, preparing for the return of two of the funniest ladies to ever grace the television.

     The story by now is familiar the world over. Edina "Eddy" Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders, French and Saunders) is a PR agent who wants desperately to keep up with the latest trends and seem young, which she does while abusing drugs and alcohol. Unfortunately (or fortunately, for viewers' sakes), her best friend, magazine editor Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley, Corpse Bride), is just as bad, not only enabling, but participating in Monsoon's crazy schemes. Edina's daughter, Saffron (Julia Sawalha, Lark Rise to Candleford), provides balance, as the sane one of the trio, acting more the parent than child. Saffron does have a mother figure to rely on, in Edina's own Mother (June Whitfield, Last of the Summer Wine). Rounding out the cast is Jane Horrocks (Fifi and the Flowertots) as Bubble, Eddy's idiotic personal assisstant.

     Created in the early 1990s by Saunders and Dawn French, Absolutely Fabulous originally ran for three seasons. Series one finds Eddy drinking heavily and trying to lose weight without putting in any effort. Eddy also adopts a baby, holidays in France, and "celebrates" her 40th birthday. Series two finds Eddy facing being a tabloid sensation, the death of her father, and a trip to Morocco, as well as dealing with Patsy burning her kitchen and her husbands cutting off her alimony. The final series sees Saffron leave for college, and Patsy loose her magazine. Depressingly, the two friends must deal with serious change in their lives, which they aren't thrilled about, and end up turning on each other, before reuniting in New York City.

     Then some thought Absolutely Fabulous would end, as it faced cancellation. However, the following year, the two-part special, "The Last Shout," made it to air. Saffron heads for the altar, much to Eddy's chagrin. When Eddy learns the would-be husband is rich, though, she changes her tune. That is, until God intervenes, much as she might have with keeping the series going.

     It is five more long years before series four begins. But begin it does, as Eddy and Patsy find all new trouble to get into. They bemoan the loss of their rock idols, and wish they were in Sex and the City. Edwina convinces Saffron to do a fashion show with her in Paris, and Saffron writes a play about her mother, which isn't too flattering. Also, the ladies face menopause. This series is followed by another special, where Edina seeks her son in New York, and considers what it means to be gay.

     Series five comes to life in 2003, and begins with a pregnant Saffron returning from Africa. Eddy builds a panic room and runs into Minnie Driver (playing herself). Patsy and Edina go hunting, and Edina erases lost Beatles recordings and loses Saffron's baby. This series is followed by three specials, which find Edina celebrating a family Christmas and remodeling her kitchen.

     Each of these episodes and specials have their own great jokes. The characters do grow over time, but the core of who they are remains the same, making them layered, complex people, even when they appear goofy on the surface. Patsy and Eddy belong up there with the great female duos of all time, like Lucy and Ethel and Laverne and Shirley. Only better, because with all of the time off between fresh content, the series writers are able to come up with the best possible uses for their creation, and nothing is diluted by overuse. The fact that there are three brand new specials coming in January is a testament to how enduring this series is, and how much esteem fans hold it in.

     However, the enjoyment of Absolutely Fabulous: Absolutely Everything does not stop with the episodes themselves, as great as they are. There is a behind the scenes featurette, a clip show where Edina looks back upon her crazy life, and a handful of comedy sketches, including the one that predates the series, and which Absolutely Fabulous is based on. There are also photo galleries from the show, a look at Lumley's modeling days, and audio commentaries from Saunders and Jon Plowman, which give some real insight into their creative process. Many outtakes are included, and perhaps because of the immense humor the actors involved can channel, they tend to be much funnier than in most DVD sets.

     A real treat is the pilot episode of a series that never happened called Mirror Ball. In it, the main cast of Absolutely Fabulous play other characters, giving them a showcase for their range as performers. It's not as good as the main series, but it's a real treat to see everyone together in such a different light. It also makes one wish that Mirror Ball had been picked up, as it would have definitely been a nice companion show, though it was not a spin-off.

     In all, Absolutely Fabulous is well worth the price, currently $83.99 on amazon.com. There is a lot here, and it's a gem for any DVD collection. Pick up a copy today, and get ready for more laughs, coming soon!

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Article first published as DVD Review: Absolutely Fabulous: Absolutely Everything on Blogcritics.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The League attends "The Funeral"

     FX's The League completes their fantasy football season and their television season with "The Funeral." The second of two half hours airing last night, "The Funeral" finds Andre (Paul Scheer) struggling to manage stroke victim Ruxin's (Nick Kroll) team, even though Rafi (Jason Mantzoukas) has knives and other ideas. The others asks Pete (Mark Duplass) to throw the Sacko Bowl, lest Ruxin invalidate the season and keep the Shiva, but Pete cannot bring himself to do so. Which throws into jeopardy Kevin's (Stephen Rannazzisi) win of the Shiva. 

     The League is one of the most realistic portrayals of a group of male friends in entertainment. They give each other large amounts of guff, and don't wear their emotions on their sleeves, but they still care. Sure, they all still debate fantasy football and go about their days while Ruxin lies in a hospital bed. But an earlier scene, as they all await news of Ruxin's condition in the waiting room, reveals that they have real concern. It's only after they are assured Ruxin will be fine that they go back to treating him the same way they always have.

     The only weakness is the characters that become chariactures. All of the principal cast members are complex and well defined, even Taco (Jonathan Lajoie), to a certain degree. But Rafi and Ruxin's wife, Sofia (Nadine Velazquez), are not, which hurts the show a little, especially in an episode like "The Funeral" where these supporting players are called upon to give it their all.

     As far as endings go, one might think The League reaches its darkest point at the end of season two when Ruxin laughs fiendishly, having won the title. Yet, it almost seems worse as he declares his continued reign in season three. Perhaps it's the burning pyre, or Pete getting a Sacko brand accidentally burned into his back (this looks like a job for Andre!), but whatever the reason, The League gets into some pretty twisted humor. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

     Happy news does temper the end of the episode as Kevin learns of Jenny's (Katie Aselton) pregnancy. Only after he is assured that he will soon be a father again does he turn his true focus onto the Shiva, swimming into the frigid water after the burning boat. This says something real and serious about Kevin's character. While not new information that Kevin has a joyous, solid relationship, any example of it is welcome. It turns the end of "The Funeral" from depressing into hopeful. And hopefully the baby will provide some pretty funny stuff for Jenny in season four, especially if she gives birth during the football season, which she likely may, early in the season.

     All in all, "The Funeral" is far from the funniest episode of The League, but it sets up a couple of interesting things, and ties up a decent story.

     The League has been renewed and will return for a fourth season on FX.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Marine One" threatens Homeland

     Turns out "Marine One" can refer to a person as well as a helicopter. In the hour and a half long first season finale of Showtime's Homeland, Brody (Damian Lewis) and Tom (Chris Chalk) carry out Abu Nazir's (Navid Negahban) plan. But there's a hitch. Brody's suicide vest malfunctions. And Carrie (Claire Danes), despite being drummed out of the CIA while off her meds, figures out what is really going on. Carrie gets Brody's daughter, Dana (Morgan Saylor) to call her dad, talking him out of blowing up a number of high ranking government officials. Except, neither Dana nor Carrie ever learn for sure if Brody is a terrorist, and he lives on to plot another day.

     With all of the twists and turns in Homeland's freshman year, expectations are high for "Marine One." The writers make the bold decision to reveal to the viewers that Brody is, in fact, working for the enemy. But they also let Lewis play the character close enough to the vest, with real signs of affection for his family, to keep everyone guessing what he might do. Sure, Brody swears to Nazir that he is loyal, and kills crazy Tom to do it. But Brody could easily justify Tom's murder as protecting himself and his family. And considering how he backs down before blowing up everyone, perhaps he won't stand tall for Nazir in the future, either. So while much is now known about Brody, what he will do remains as murky as ever.

     Which is pretty unfortunate for the CIA and the US of A, as only Carrie has the knowledge to put everything together. Right as she is about to undergo shock therapy, a side effect of which is short term memory loss, though it's usually temporary, she realizes why Brody might be motivated to act on Nazir's behalf. That knowledge is probably lost, for now. How long before she can remember it? And how can she stop Brody without any government resources and still maintaining the promise she made to stay away from Brody and his family, which, if she breaks it, will likely result in Brody having her arrested, blowing any slim credibility she has left? Not to mention, her consent to mess with her brain could damage her greatest weapon. Only Carrie's sister, Maggie (Amy Hargreaves), overhears Carrie's mumbling (and assorted medical staff, who don't count), but does Maggie have the knowledge of foresight to attribute anything legitimate to the words?

      Carrie's best bet will continue to be Saul (Mandy Patinkin). A genius in his own right, he stands by Carrie as a personal friend, even as she undergoes "treatment" for her condition. He also knows Carrie is right on a lot of things, including Nazir, so despite doubting her before, he may be inclined to look more closely at Brody if Carrie insists on it. The real question is, will he be in a position to do so? He now knows about the cover up perpetrated by David (David Harewood) and Vice President Walden (Jamey Sheridan), but can he use that information to make a change in leadership? David is correct in asserting that Saul isn't willing to hurt his country by leaking what he knows to the press. So what can Saul do now? Before David and Walden ruin Saul first, that is.

     Of course, if Dana comes forward, that might be a big help. It doesn't seem like she would intentionally betray her father, ever if she knew the entire truth.She loves him dearly. She certainly suspects something, being scared to discover Brody's conversion to Islam, and knowing that something isn't right during the phone conversation. And sixteen is old enough to look past family connections. But will she be motivated to do so, or just take her dad at face value because to learn anything sinister would be too hard on her emotionally? Dana could also accidentally let something slip to her mother, Jessica (Morena Baccarin), or even Mike (Diego Klattenhoff), who also care for Brody, but could be persuaded to tell Saul under the right conditions.

     Homeland leaves viewers with many, many more questions after "Marine One," and a lot of possibilities remain. Which solidifies it as one of the season's best new shows. Homeland will return to Showtime next year for a second season.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Terra Nova responds to "Occupation" with "Resistance"

     To end the freshman run of Terra Nova, FOX presents "Occupation" and "Resistance" last night. Lucas Taylor (Ashley Zukerman) leads some greedy miners into the past, and they take control of Terra Nova. When Jim (Jason O'Mara), who is injured in the initial confrontation, wakes up, he seeks a way to communicate with Commander Taylor (Stephen Lang), who is outside the walls of the settlement with a handful of soldiers. Together, they plot to stop their conquerers. Jim travels back to the future, and gets home just before destroying the portal. Then, mysteriously, the bad guys pack up and go, heading into the Badlands where the bow of an old sailing ship is discovered.

     "Occupation" and "Resistance" call to mind other TV shows and movies pretty heavily. There's an Avatar-esque battle with a company who just wants to make a profit (though Lang is now on the right side). When the characters gaze at pretty dinosaurs, who Lucas casually murders, the parallel is even stronger. There's also an aspect of Lost, in the mystery of the sailing ship, and some of the musical score plays up this well. It's a smart move for Terra Nova, given that Avatar did well in theaters, and Lost is one of the greatest series ever made.

     But execution falls short, as it has continuously done over the season. Things are too easy, and leaps are made without explanation. Jim can run faster than the explosion destroying the Hub? Really? It's understandable that Terra Nova, being in part a family drama, doesn't want to lose its patriarch, but his mission is a suicide one. It would have been far more interesting to have Jim trapped in the future next season, seeking a way home. Or anyone in Jim's place, for that matter. Also, Jim just pretends he is confused wandering outside of the compound's walls, and the soldiers take him home? And he travels to a packed bar after curfew, where occupiers and colonists alike are drinking, and no one gets in trouble?

     The thing is, though, Terra Nova does know how to deliver a killer action sequence. And it also can tug a few heart strings. Credit should be given to Washington's (Simone Kessell) heroic sacrifice, made all the more moving as she struggles with the guilt of surrending Terra Nova to save innocent lives. In "Occupation" and "Resistance," she is a complex character with good motivations and a compelling story. Which saves the season finale from being a total bust. It's also hard not to get excited when the various members of the colony, who don't always get along, come together to fight back, even as the scenes lean a bit towards the cheesy.

     In a similar vein, Lang delivers a fantastic performance, even as the story between Taylor father and soon veers between unrealistic and ridiculous. Lucas is single-minded and evil, rather than layered, making their confrontation silly. But Lang still manages to evoke some strong emotion at his son's betrayal and death, and that says much about his acting skills.

     Dinosaur sightings are light, especially in the first half, but then, that's not really what Terra Nova is about. More disappointing is not seeing the colony fall, only hearing about it from Jim's perspective, as he slept through the whole thing. However, this is likely because of budget concerns, and because "Resistance" later gives a massive explosion and dinosaur chase, that kind of makes up for the skimping earlier.

     Does Terra Nova deserve a second season? Well, people will be upset if the ship's bow isn't explained. But it's hard to argue for more installments when, despite some wonderful moments and great special effects, the stories and dialogue just are not up to snuff. There are plenty of better shows that have been cancelled quicker. The deciding factor will likely be ratings, which have been good, but not great, given the massive budget of the series. Word may not be handed down for months, and there's nothing to do but wait and see.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

It's Always Sunny attends "The High School Reunion Part 2: The Gang's Revenge"

     FX ends It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's latest season with "The High School Reunion Part 2: The Gang's Revenge." Dee (Kaitlin Olson) has been ejected from the popular group after Cricket's (David Hornsby, Fanboy and Chum Chum) stunt, and looks for the others to help her seek revenge. She finds Frank (Danny DeVito), Charlie (Charlie Day), and Mac (Rob McElhenney) hanging by their underwear. They decide to track down a psycho, but that falls through. Luckily, Dennis (Glenn Howerton) has turned psycho after failing to close the deal with rival Tim Murphy's (Ian Reed Kesler, (500) Days of Summer) wife, Christie (Frances Turner). But then Mac is exposed as having done what Dennis hates Tim for, turning the group in on itself. Frank redirects them to Plan B, a big dance number, which goes about as well as one would expect it to.

     It's Always Sunny may not always be sunny, but it is pretty consistently funny. "The High School Reunion" allows for the return of many great recurring characters, including Cricket, the Waitress (Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Perfect Couples), Maureen (Catherine Reitman, Knocked Up), and Schmitty (Jason Sudeikis, Satirday Night Live), the former two of whom's lives continue to tank because of their involvement with the central gang, who bring misery wherever they go. Also introduced are some new classmates, like cool dude Adriano (Sasha Roiz, Caprica, Grimm) and a former fat girl (Judy Greer, Archer, Arrested Development), who hopefully will be seen again. It's interesting to see the disdain others have for the main characters, whose self-absorbed black hole pulls people in and destroys them, no matter how much those victims resist.

     "The High School Reunion" also gives fans one of the best moments of It's Always Sunny yet: the dance number at the end. When it begins, people immediately start applauding and cheering the gang's awesome moves, which plays a little false. However, that is forgotten as the perfect execution and light cues draw one in to something unexpected and awesome. When it is exposed that things are only that cheery in their heads, and they are pathetic, indeed, it not only makes sense, but makes the earlier vision more humorous, exposing once more their narcissistic streak. These people are so self-absorbed, they ignore everything else, which does not help them in society. Thank goodness they have a bar to hide out in!

     The main characters of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia will never change. "The High School Reunion" proves this, telling how each of the four younger people were in high school, and in spite of the fact that they try to come off different, or deny their essential traits, they are still those same people. Dee continues to be insecure, and her back brace's return is simply a physical manifestation of internal feelings. Dennis thinks he is way cooler than he is, and so does Mac, in completely different ways. Charlie is easy going and easy to manipulate. They are mean townies who have little regard for others, and refuse to grow. Everyone knows someone like them, though rarely does anyone, let alone four such friends, go to the extremes of the gang. It's good to see them fail, because they deserve to fail. And yet, it's impossible not to tune in week after week to see just how they fall flat on their faces next. It's part hilarious comedy, part schadenfreude.

     Now, admittedly, Frank's presence and involvement in the events in the finale is a bit of a stretch. But no matter how hard certain other characters fight Frank worming his way into all of their activities, he does. He is part of the group, and he is there to stay. Which kind of explains why he might force his way into the reunion, considering that's what he does every day of his life. Though one does wonder, if bumbling Frank can get past security, how much protection would the guards really have afforded if Psycho Pete showed up to burn down the school?

     There is no end in sight to It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's brilliance. The series will return next year to FX.

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Psych takes "Neil Simon's Lover's Retreat"

     In the mid-season finale of USA's Psych, Shawn (James Roday) tries to get romantic with Juliet (Maggie Lawson) on a retreat, hence the title, "Neil Simon's Lover's Retreat." But their room is robbed by a con artist couple, Clive and Barbie, (Jason Priestley, Call Me Fitz, and Jennifer Finnigan, Better With You) that they befriend, and then a dead body turns up. Meanwhile, Gus (Dulé Hill), Lassiter (Timothy Omundson), and Henry (Corbin Bernsen) grow tired of being alone, and soon end up helping to solve the case. Except, Henry is pursued by a crazy chick named Chelsea (Arden Myrin, MADtv, Suburgatory), whose digits he got in a bar.

     Cool fact: "Neil Simon's Lover's Retreat" is written by actor Carlos Jacott (Big Love), who guest starred in last week's episode. Also, Tony Hale (Arrested Development, Chuck) guest stars as the real murdered, bringing the total of significant guest stars in this episode to an astounding four. Great job!

    "Neil Simon's Lover's Retreat is a fun spin on a normal Psych episode, which plays with relationships. The pairing of Lassiter, Henry, and Gus is unexpected, yet enjoyable. Shawn is a main focus in both Henry and Gus's lives, so with him out of town, it seems natural that the two might come together somewhat. Lassiter is generally less social, but his character is softening over time, and wanting to hang out with his co-workers socially, especially when his least favorite, Shawn, is out of the picture, makes sense. Plus all three are somewhat inept with their interpersonal skills, so they make a sensible grouping.

     Even bigger is Juliet and Shawn's romantic relationship, which gets some rare time to breathe in "Neil Simon's Lover's Retreat." The two have been together for a little while now, and their relationship is progressing slowly. Usually, each episode of Psych contains only a small amount of their chemistry, with the main mystery being the central storyline. This week, that is thankfully more balanced.

     Interestingly, commit-phobic Shawn brings a ring with the intent to propose. Juliet never finds this out, and when the subject of their relationship is broached, she says she isn't ready. Is she covering because she doesn't want to pressure Shawn, the same way he babbles his agreement with her feelings? Or are they both on the same page, but aren't quite ready to speak it out loud? Hopefully, it's the latter, because a marriage between the two would really shake things up.

     Even better, the ring is discovered by Gus. Will he give it back to Shawn? It has taken Gus some time to be all right with Shawn and Juliet as a couple. He certainly feels lonely, and often like the odd man out. Is Gus ready to share his best friend in such an important way? Or might he hide the ring for awhile, hoping that will prevent Shawn from making the huge step before Gus can come to terms with it? Sadly, Psych ends without answering any of these questions, and will probably take their time (a.k.a. the rest of the reason) before settling anything for anxious viewers.

     Psych will return in late February on USA.

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"Extraordinary Merry Christmas" no quite so on Glee


     FOX's Glee fall finale is also their Christmas special, "Extraordinary Merry Christmas." Artie (Kevin McHale) is asked to direct a televised holiday program featuring the New Directions. He decides to make it a cross between Star Wars' own special, and The Judy Garland Show Christmas episode. Unfortunately, the filming evening is the same as the one the kids promised to help now non-Grinchy Sue (Jane Lynch) feed the homeless. Rory the Elf (Damian McGinty) reminds everyone what is really important during the taping, and afterwards the glee club heads over to be with Sue.

     "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" is a mostly stand alone episode, which is disappointing and unexpected. Last year's Glee Christmas outing keeps the main plot points going, while sparkling them with holiday cheer. This year, there are really two separate episodes forced into one: couples (romantic and platonic) celebrating Christmas together, and the kids' black and white holiday special, which takes up two entire acts. Considering how good the latter part is, and how bad the former one comes across, it would have been better to ditch any framework events, and just fully commit to the bold experiment.

     From start to finish, the Glee Artie-directed (in the show; the actual episode is directed by Matthew Morrison, a.k.a. Will) piece is great. There is a certain cheesiness to it, but that fits the spirit of what is being accomplished. From dancing Santas, to a long camera shot through the window, to Kurt's (Chris Colfer) affectation, there are some very obvious throwbacks to The Judy Garland Show, which is really an early '60s classic. Even the tongue in cheek joke about Kurt and Blaine's (Darren Criss) relationship and addressing the camera are period appropriate. Thus, this comes off very well.
     The Star Wars influences are fewer but make the whole thing more than a straight Garland knockoff. Seeing Finn (Cory Monteith) and Puck (Mark Salling) dressed as Luke and Han Solo, and then denying it for copyright reasons, is funny. Also, the real Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) does a cameo! The only complaint here is that the opening credits are arranged completely out of sync with what the Christmas special actually is. Furthermore, Rory's speech at the end is stiff, possibly exposing McGinty's limits as an actor. Or it's just bad writing.

     The musical performances during these two acts in "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" are also quite good. Blaine and Kurt's "Let It Snow" is sweet, with highly enjoyable dancing, and will delight all of the couple's fans, a large percentage of Glee viewers. Adding close friends Rachel (Lea Michele) and Mercedes (Amber Riley) for "My Favorite Things" is smart, because it feels comfortable, and the grouping is totally believable. Finn and Puck lead the others in a rousing rendition of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Finally, Brittany (Heather Morris), who rarely gets to sing lead, does a wonderful job with "Christmas Wrapping" in another delightful dance number. All in all, quite the success.

     Except, why does Artie so readily agree to direct, right after stating he will not do TV because he doesn't want to "sell out?" And why is their show called the "Glee" Christmas special, instead of the New Directions? The kids don't refer to themselves as "Glee," that's just the series title. Also, that set and production value are far greater than the $800 budget given. Did the New Directions score some more primo donations? Fat Breadsticks money, perhaps?

     As mentioned, the parts of "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" that are not in black and white are pretty bad. Granted, the episode begins well with Mercedes killing "All I Want for Christmas Is You," but where is her Shane (Lamarcus Tinker) vs. Sam (Chord Overstreet) build up to go with it? It goes downhill from there.

     Rachel complains that Rory's "Blue Christmas" is depressing, then answers it with her own weepy ballad, "River." So did the writers of these two scenes not talk? Or was it just more important to squeeze in the numbers already recorded, story be damned? Why not cut "River," and instead put in Santana's (Naya Rivera) "Santa Baby," which is cut from the episode? Terrible timing, considering that Entertainment Weekly just named Rivera "Sexiest Female."

     The couple stuff in this episode of Glee is weak, at best. Besides Mercedes being shoved aside, Finn and Rachel get really hokey. Rachel demands expensive gifts, and Finn can't afford it, so he gets her something meaningful. This isn't enough for her. But she learns her lesson, just after Finn does spend the dough, and they donate the money from their nice presents to charity. Even for Glee, this story crosses the line of fluff and ridiculousness.

     Also ending up on the cutting room floor for "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" is a scene shown in the preview, where Blaine gives Kurt a present. It's a promise ring! This would much better serve the episode than Finn and Rachel's stupid bits, or even the tiny subplot about Rory accompanying Sam back to Kentucky for the holiday, supposedly in the car that neither the poor kid nor the exchange student owns. Back to the point, this is a major development for Kurt and Blaine. Will Kurt be seen wearing it? Will the boys discuss their commitment? Or will it be ignored, since the minutes were deleted this week?

     Finally, two songs stand out as unacceptable in this music-packed Glee outing. "Extraordinary Merry Christmas," while rightly given to Rachel and Blaine, sounds like so many other songs they have already sung. The series deserves applause for taking another chance with an original song, but write something worth hearing, please, instead of just recycling the same old trope! And "Do They Know it's Christmas?" comes off as extremely condescending when sang to homeless people's faces. Why are the less fortunate enjoying this? They should be angry. They live in America! Of course they know it's Christmas!


     Big misstep Glee. Hopefully, the series will get back on track when it returns in January on FOX.

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Article first published as TV Review: Glee - "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"What Went Wrong" for The Good Wife?

     CBS ends the fall run of The Good Wife with "What Went Wrong." A Lockhart/Gardner case is lost, but Judge Dunaway (Kurt Fuller, Psych, Better With You) thinks the verdict is unfair, and encourages the firm to find evidence to help him overturn the decision before sentencing. Wendy Scott-Carr (Anika Noni Rose) smells some of the corruption she is investigating, and threatens Dunaway, making him more reluctant to overrule the jury. But Alicia (Julianna Margulies) and Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) learn that the judge friended a jury member, and a mistrial is indeed called. In the process, Alicia discovers what Kalinda did for Grace (Makenzie Vega), and the ice between the pair begins to thaw. Good thing, as Alicia suddenly realizes she has no friends.

     The big shocker of "What Went Wrong" is Wendy Scott-Carr's hidden agenda. The investigation that Peter (Chris Noth) originally orders is against Lockhart/Gardner for their ties to a drug kingpin. But then he shifts things to Will (Josh Charles), whom he believes is involved in illegal gambling and corruption, and Peter must remove himself, lest he look like it's a personal vendetta. Hence, he nominates his nemesis, Wendy Scott-Carr, to do the dirty work for him. Wendy tells Will this week, though, that she is really after Peter. In response, Will lawyers up. This whole thing is couched in murky and changing motivations, with betrayal coming at every turn. This cannot end well for Peter or the State's Attorney's office. Guess one should never trust their enemies, huh?

     But Will and Peter have always been rivals of sorts in The Good Wife, and Will refuses to turn on Peter. When the chips are down, and Wendy is blustering, Will doesn't reveal anything he knows. Instead, he clams up, and won't cooperate. It's a smart move for himself, and could earn him Peter's gratitude, which, if Peter isn't taken down, might mean something. Plus it leaves the door open with Alicia, should Will try for a reconnection.

     Which he might very well do. Alicia dumps Will because she isn't in love with him and wants to focus on her career, which she definitely does in "What Went Wrong," accepting Diane's (Christine Baranski) friendship and mentorship. But Will is a different story. He shows many signs of being in love with Alicia, and despite his best efforts, things are now very awkward between them. Apparently Alicia just wants him for sex, and he wants something real. How this new balance will shake out is still anyone' guess.

     That Wendy chooses now to go after Peter is unfortunate, given that he has set aside corruption in his new office. Or has he? Peter seems to be playing by the rules, but a very private meeting, where he bullies a private school administrator to get his kids in, tells a different story. And if he acts this way there, what else is he doing that viewers have just not been privy to? With The Good Wife, it's impossible to tell what is really going on until the writers choose to reveal it. Which means the whole case against Peter and Will, as flimsy as it looks now, could be perfectly valid in the end.

    It is awesome that Alicia is warming back up to Kalinda in "What Went Wrong." Their friendship is a driving force in the series, and in "What Went Wrong," emotions finally seem to be reversing. For good reason, of course. All isn't forgiven, as Alicia has drinks with Diane at the end, not Kalinda. But Alicia is accepting her company again, and not treating her like a pariah. Given all that Kalinda is doing to make up for her betrayal, which happens long before they actually form a friendship, she deserves a second chance. Thank goodness she will get it.

     The Good Wife will return to CBS in January.

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Monday, December 12, 2011

The Office Special Edition DVD

     The Office has a new Special Edition DVD out now, in time for the holidays! No, it's not the American sitcom starring Steve Carell, but rather, the original UK version, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. Created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant — who still collaborate today — it's dry British humor, but every bit as funny as the American counterpart. Considering this is an article written in America, and will mostly be read by Americans, parallels between the two series will be drawn throughout.

     Ricky Gervais (The Ricky Gervais Show, Extras) plays David Brent, a completely horrible boss for a small branch of a large paper company. More concerned with being liked than getting the job done, and hopelessly inept at both, Brent bumbles along for twelve episodes and a two-part Christmas special, getting fired along the way — a highly realistic development. Gervais is excellent in the role, which put him on the map. David Brent, who has cameoed twice in the American remake, is way worse than Michael Scott ever considers being. He is eager, but not generally a good person. He gets what he deserves in the end.

     Of course, Gervais does not carry the series alone. His assistant to the regional manager is Gareth (Mackenzie Crook, Pirates of the Caribbean), much more well rounded than Dwight, Gareth makes a much better boss when the time comes. Tim (Martin Freeman, Sherlock, Love Actually) and Dawn (Lucy Davis, Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip) are the Jim and Pam, 'will-they, won't-they?' couple. Spoiler: they will... eventually.

     There are also other employees, most notably Keith (Ewen MacIntosh), who is a sort of Kevin. But aside from the main foursome, the others are not as fleshed out as the supporting players that Americans are used to. This is all right, however, because of the short run of the original The Office. With only two six-episode series and the Christmas special, there is no time to give anyone else any depth. Which doesn't detract from the enjoyment at all.

     Now, many already know the story of The Office, as these episodes have been released before. The great thing about this tenth anniversary special edition, available only on DVD, not Blu-ray, is the many, many extras included. The bonus features from earlier editions are present, plus much more. Deleted scenes, video diaries, outtakes, director's commentary, and a music video are just some of the repackaged content, already released.

     The best of the new items is a twenty minute rough pilot made three years before the series. It proves that Gervais put a lot of thought into David Brent, and perfected the part long before he played him on a weekly basis, though the other characters are played by different actors. This pilot was filmed in 1998, not to be mistaken with the 2000 version, of which only clips are included, not the entire thing. The 2001 version is the one packaged as part of the series.

     Two forty-minute extras are also a highlight. The first includes five web videos, providing interviews with many of the people involved, including Gervais and Merchant. The second is "Comedy Connections," a single special that delves into the making of the series, with a focus on the original batch of six episodes, and pack with clips.

     The one complaint buyers may justifiably have is the introductions to each of the first series episodes. They run around five minutes a piece, and there is no way to begin the episodes without them. They are informative, but also spoilery, for those who haven't seen The Office yet. They contain great guest cameos by Ben Stiller, Hugh Jackman, Matthew Perry, and others not involved in the series. For most, a simple hit of the 'skip chapter' button on the remote will fix this, but it is a shame that one must do so, rather than selecting a 'Play Without Intro' from the menu, as many similar series have done. Even worse, there are interviews within the ending credits, too, ruining the flow into the tag.

     In short, because of the preceding paragraph, The Office: Special Edition - 10th Anniversary Edition is for the fans. Those who haven't seen The Office yet should seek an earlier version to enjoy the episodes as they are meant to be seen. Also, collector's should not throw away their old sets, lest they try introducing new fans to the show. However, for people already in love with The Office, this is an excellent set, and a worthy edition to your Office collection.

     Buy The Office Special Edition on DVD today.

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Article first published as DVD Review: The Office - Special Edition, 10th Anniversary Edition on Blogcritics.

Torchwood The Complete Original UK Series on DVD

     BBC's Torchwood begins when Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), a cop, encounters Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman). Jack is the leader of Torchwood, a shadowy government organization, that is actually a group helping defend Earth from aliens, centered near a spatial rift in Cardiff, Wales. Team member Suzie (Indira Varma) betrays her friends, testing a glove that can bring bodies back from the dead. Suzie kills Jack, who can come back to life, and then dies herself. Gwen takes Suzie's place, joining Torchwood full-time. 

     Torchwood is technically a spin-off of the reboot of Doctor Who, but no prior knowledge of Doctor Who is necessary to jump into the Torchwood adventure. It can completely stand on its own.

     In series one, Gwen, Jack, and the rest of the team tackle a number of mostly stand-alone cases. Suzie returns, and the glove is explored more fully. Torchwood takes on enemies such as a purple cloud, a cyberwoman that Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) keeps in the basement, a dealer in alien artifacts, and Weevils. There are also time travel and flashbacks, expanding the world beyond there and now. Gwen doesn't deal too well with her immersion into this world, acting out in an affair with Owen (Burn Gorman). Perhaps because she can't tell her boyfriend, Rhys (Kai Owen), what exactly she does. At the end of the season, they must do battle with Abaddon, a giant demon, and Jack leaves.

     Series two finds Jack back, with former lover and partner Captain John (James Marsters, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) not far behind. Later, another old acquaintance of Jack's, Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) visits. Jack relives his tragic past; Rhys learns all about Gwen's job, to his horror. Yet, he marries her anyway. Tosh (Naoko Mori) looks for love, and sees Owen with fresh eyes. Unfortunately, Owen is killed. He continues to exist, but can no longer heal from injuries, and his permanent demise becomes a threat hanging over his every action. Jack's brother is the real threat, though, and his actions lead to not only the end of Owen, but Tosh, as well.

     With the third series, Torchwood presents a miniseries entitled "Children of Earth." Aliens arrive and want a large percentage of the planet's young. Government officials consider the threat, and begin preparing to deliver just that. Jack and Ianto have personal reasons that they do not want this to happen, as well as the general save-the-world mission. With Gwen, they manage to put a stop to the madness, and save kids everywhere. But there is a steep cost, with Jack's lover, Ianto, paying a fatal price in this go-round.

     Now all three series are available in one box set, Torchwood The Complete Original UK Series. This fourteen disc DVD collection contains not only the episodes, but also a ton of special features. Torchwood lives on in an American continuation, airing on Starz this past summer, but this set will allow viewers in the States to catch up on the original run. It's the perfect Christmas present.

     The most exciting bonus is the popular Torchwood Declassified entries, a look behind the scenes of the show. Other featurettes delve into everything from certain alien life forms, to technology shown on screen, to character development. Most are short, but informative. "The Team and their Troubles" and "Moments in the Making" are recurring themes. Series one has, by far, the most of these extras, which really gets the ball rolling.

     There are also the standard deleted scenes, outtakes and audio commentaries. Again, its series one with the lion's share, featuring a commentary track for every single episode. It's too bad this level of care doesn't go into all three series. But since series one is the least interesting on its own, and also sets up many of the things that come later, it is the smart one to focus on.

     The packaging for Torchwood The Complete Original UK Series is quite nice. A booklet of discs pulls out of the case, and there are lots of graphics illustrating some of the best moments. Those flipping through the set will see exactly what they are in for before even popping a DVD into the player, which should entice new fans along.

     Torchwood is an excellent sci-fi series, with lots of great adventure, but also some serious character development. With wreckless, witty Jack and determined, fearless Gwen leading the way, the team tackles many a challenge in an entertaining way. Death looms heavily, and emotional strings are tugged. For any viewer looking for the best the UK has to offer, Torchwood is a great place to start.

     I highly recommend Torchwood The Complete Original UK Series.

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Article first published as DVD Review: Torchwood The Complete Original UK Series on Blogcritics.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"Citizen Knope" demands satisfaction from Parks and Recreation

     "Citizen Knope" is the aftermath of the trial last week's Parks and Recreation on NBC, which finds Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) suspended for her relationship with Ben (Adam Scott). Leslie cannot relax and enjoy her (paid) time off, and gets even more frustrated when her campaign staff quits due to low poll numbers. So she forms PCP, a political action committee, and seeks funding for Pawnee's parks as a private citizen. Chris (Rob Lowe) soon grows tired of the annoyance, and gets Leslie reinstated. As this goes on, Ben looks for a new job after his resignation in disgrace, and realizes he wants to try something fun, rather than take another boring accountant position.

     "Citizen Knope" is unbelievably hilarious. From Ben interviewing to be an accountant to an accounting firm, to Jean-Ralphio's (Ben Schwartz) return, to April's (Aubrey Plaza) Marshmellow Ron Swanson, there are plenty of great jokes. It's hard not to crack up when Andy (Chris Pratt) eats Donna's (Retta) silver-painted M&Ms, and Ann (Rashida Jones) has to tell him to throw up. Jerry (Jim O'Heir) is delighted to recieve socks for Christmas. Tom (Aziz Ansari) makes a word cloud from Leslie's e-mails. A great Easter egg is when The Guild's Robin Thorsen pops up in a too-small role as a mother who ignores her children in favor of her passions. Sound familiar, Guildies?

     But this week's Parks and Recreation also an emotional triumph. Leslie gives the perfect gifts to each member of the staff, as well as Chris. Ron (Nick Offerman) decides everyone must pull together to come up with something to give Leslie worthy of her, a high bar indeed. He suggests a model of the Parks Department that he can build, and Ann takes it a step further, wanting the structure made out of gingerbread. Ron reluctantly consents, but can't build it, so Andy takes over. Everyone contributes, and it becomes a very sweet (pun intended) present that Leslie really enjoys.

     Even more moving, though, the staff pledges to run Leslie's campaign. All of the things that she has done for them over the years has made them all adore her as much as viewing audiences, and they willingly give up their free time to help run a sinking ship. Leslie is choked up, and those at home should be too, especially as Ron announces his new job title, "Any Other Damn Thing You Need." It is a display of just how Leslie impacts lives, and the good that she does. Despite overwhelming odds against her (for now), it seems certain that Leslie is destined to win her office. Which would fundamentally change Parks and Recreation. But growth can be a good thing, and it would not mean her leaving the series, so there's really no argument against it.

     Chris does seem to feel a little guilty for getting Leslie suspended. Much of last week's trial on Parks and Recreation is very clearly Chris reacting because he feels personally betrayed. He is upset that Ben and Leslie are not up front with him about their relationship for a very long time. It's understandable, but then, so are the reasons that they keep things a secret. However, with a little time to get used to the idea, and Ben removing himself as a factor at the office, which must also hurt, as he works closely with Chris, Chris begins to come around. It isn't clear in "Citizen Knope," but it looks like Chris gets the suspension lifted early. He realizes Leslie is a very valuable person and should not be so severely punished, as suspension is for her, for such a small mistake.

    Parks and Recreation, one of the best sitcoms currently running, will retun to NBC in January.

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Friday, December 9, 2011

"Regional Holiday Music" infects Community

     NBC's Community this week goes into full-Glee parody mode with "Regional Holiday Music." The Greendale glee club is disqualified, and the director, Cory Radison (Taran Killam, Saturday Night Live), asks everyone's favorite study group to fill in. They resist, not wanting to be infected with the evil glee bug. That is, except for Abed (Danny Pudi), who thinks it might make the semester end on a light-hearted note. One by one Abed sucks each of his friends into the gig, but soon realizes that Cory has plans for them far beyond the Christmas pageant, or even Regionals, and Abed must get them out of this mess. Luckily, Abed's friends forgive him in the end. 

     Glee is ripe for parody, of course, though most shows haven't touched it. Ideally, this would be done with a loving hand, since Glee is groundbreaking in many ways, and dear to quite a few people. Instead, Community serves up a big heap of spanking, with no visible sign of affection. If any series other than Community did this, it would be cruel and dismissible. But Community is consistently brilliant, and "Regional Holiday Music" is no different. So for the remainder of this review, forget you are a Glee fan, and just bask in the glory of the witty, highly original joy that Community brings.

     One cannot possibly judge "Regional Holiday Music" and the basis of realism or music quality. So what if Cory claims that after Regionals, they will go to Sectionals? It's funny that he makes up a bunch of other competition names following. The music itself is not catchy or memorable, but it is all originally written specifically for this episode. It stays true to characters, and serves a purpose in the story. Thus, neither of these components will be the criteria when looking at this episode. Story and character is key.

     The first person that Abed recruits is Troy (Donald Glover), of course, who admits that he does everything that Abed does. Then they go for Pierce (Chevy Chase), an easy mark because of his ego. Annie (Alison Brie) is simple to conquer with a little peer pressure, and she, in turn, uses her sexy wiles to court Jeff (Joel McHale). Never mind that Annie comes off as anything but sexy by overdoing the baby stuff; she is super cute and sexy in that outfit. Then Pierce resorts to black stereotypes, bringing in a choir to back up Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown). Finally, Britta (Gillian Jacobs) just won't be the only one left out.

     Each of the main actors gets a chance to shine in "Regional Holiday Music." Brown's contorting face as she tries to resist the allure of the singing children is comedy gold. Glover can handle the raps with flying colors. McHale allows himself to fully commit, something Jeff doesn't often do in any situation. And, of course, Britta's totally horrible wailing can make anyone hate music, made even more clever by the reference to her "Me So Hungry" bit from an earlier episode. Plus, she has a pretty singing voice when the cast does a carol at the end, so it's just pure acting that she sounds so bad.

     Perhaps because they are left out of the glee craziness in Community, the show lets the supporting characters take the end tag. Dean (Jim Rash) and Chang (Ken Jeong) use their names in "Carol of the Bells," joined by a few of the recurring parts. It's humorous, unexpected, and wonderful.

     Also, nice reference to the last year's claymation special when Cory shows Abed his plans for the show!

     What "Regional Holiday Music" brings to mind, in retrospect, is just how in control of the group Abed is. At times, it seems like Abed is an outside observer, studying human interaction, while not really being a part of the species. But in this week's Community, Abed manipulates his subjects. He isn't a passive fly on the wall, but rather, the mad scientist controlling the conditions. And maybe he's been doing that all along. He's an enigma that cannot be defined, but he is also the true central point of the series, as much as Jeff might appear to be in early episodes. He will certainly be the catalyst at the end of the series. Very cool.

     Community is now on hiatus. It will return sometime this winter or spring to NBC, though no return date is yet set.

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Article first published as TV Review: Community - "Regional Holiday Music" on Blogcritics.