Sunday, April 29, 2012

30 Rock goes live again

This week, NBC's 30 Rock is "Live from Studio 6H." Jack (Alec Baldwin) decides that he will save the company a lot of money if they stop filming TGS live. Almost everyone agrees to the scheme except for Kenneth (Jack McBrayer), who locks twelve of the staff in a room and reminds them of the heyday of live television, shown to viewers in clips acted out by the cast. Meanwhile, Jenna (Jane Krakowski) disagrees with Paul (Will Forte) over the perfect proposal, and Hazel (Kristen Schaal) plans a stunt to get herself on air, a la Sinead O'Connor.

Quick question: Is the picture of Sinead that Hazel rips ups actually Tina Fey as Sinead?

This is the second time 30 Rock has gone live, and there's a big difference from the first time. "Live from Studio 6H" feels more like a series of skits than a cohesive story. This is bringing many of the performers back to their Saturday Night Live roots, of course, and they excel at funny shorts. But it does not really feel like an episode of 30 Rock, despite keeping much of the same spirit and tone.

Continuity is not that important this week. Last time a live show was done, Julia Louis Dreyfus (Seinfeld, Veep) played a semi-convincing Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) in a cut scene. This time, Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation) plays Liz without even changing the color of her blond hair! Also, twelve major cast members are locked in a room, and yet somehow they keep slipping out to put on different costumes and perform various bits of "classic" NBC shows. What's up with that?

Yet, story cohesiveness is not the point of "Live from Studio 6H," so it's hard to get upset. The episode is meant to be nostalgic and humorous, and it does both rather well. The various bits play on a number of famous shows such as The Honeymooners and Laugh-In. These are comedy gold. Everything else in the episode is fluff, except for the proposal.

The cast of 30 Rock is fantastic. For "Live from Studio 6H," all the stops were pulled out in bringing even more talented people on board, most having appeared on the show before. Sadly, this means that some of the best supporting players are relegated to background status. However, all of the guest actors are terrific. Jimmy Fallon (Late Night with Jimmy Fallon) kills as a young Jack, and Donald Glover (Community) is the perfect earlier version of Tracy (Tracy Morgan), getting the mannerisms spot on. Jon Hamm (Mad Men) returns, but not as his recurring 30 Rock character. Instead, he participates in a very memorable sketch. Chris Parnell (Suburgatory) is the familiar Dr. Spaceman, and Fred Armisen (Portlandia) manages to stand out without any lines at all. Brian Williams (NBC Night News and a 30 Rock veteran) is great as an old-timey newscaster on the West Coast (Hamm takes the part for the East), and Cheyenne Jackson finally returns to the series!

And 30 Rock manages to single-handedly kill the "Zou Bisou Bisou" craze started by Mad Men only a few short weeks ago.

Because the show is live, two versions are done, one each for the East and West coasts. Thankfully, in the era of internet, both are freely available to everyone. Only a handful of jokes change, and Cheyenne and Jenna again split the theme song, which makes more sense in the East because Cheyenne's character doesn't return until mid-episode. But the East coast broadcast has a major leg up over the West, because in the East, Sir Paul McCartney gets a fantastic cameo. The West, though, is left to suffer through Kim Kardashian instead.

30 Rock is what it is. "Live from Studio 6H" is not typical, but it will not disappoint long-time viewers who delight in the zany slapstick the series thrives on. Credit must be given to the show for taking such a big chance and playing in such an unexpected sandbox.

30 Rock airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

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Saturday, April 28, 2012

"Cartman Find Love" on South Park

In the mid-season finale of Comedy Central's South Park, a new African American girl named Nichole moves to town. At first, Nichole is smitten with Kyle (Matt Stone). But Cartman (Trey Parker) decides that Token (Adrien Beard) is the natural and perfect match for Nichole, their skin being the same color and all. So Cartman tells Nichole that he and Kyle are gay lovers, a rumor that spreads like wildfire through the school, then locks Token and Nichole in a locker room together overnight. Love blossoms, but will it last?

Leave it to South Park to remind everyone about racism in a new and interesting way. Sure, other shows still go after race relations, though the fervor has died down in the last couples of years, but it's hard to think of another series that takes quite the same angle as South Park does in "Cartman Finds Love." By casting Cartman, already known to be a loathsome child, as a crazy racist bent on keeping the ethnicities separate, the animated comedy goes wild with stereotypes without risking offending too deeply.

When the audience learns that Cartman recently accomplished a similar pairing with a couple of Latino children, it evokes a disturbing pattern. Cartman is violent and full of hate, even becoming a serial killer of stuffed animals in the past. Just why does he go to such lengths, and what kind of adult does this set him up to be?

Perhaps Cartman is filled with self-loathing, and just takes it out on others. He shamelessly sells his romance with Kyle to the point that one begins to wonder if it isn't Cartman's fantasy. His Jew-bashing and taunting of Kyle all of these years could be a coping mechanism for strong homosexual tendencies he is in denial of. Maybe when Cartman comes to grips with that reality, it will calm him down, and his irrational anger will begin to subside.

Then again, maybe South Park is just a funny, filthy cartoon that is brilliant at social commentary. It has proven its ability to hit these notes in the past, and "Cartman Finds Love" does so again.

Humor is very present in this episode. From Cartman arguing and fighting with 'Cupid Me,' to Mr. Garrison (also Parker) teaching Game of Thrones as history, to repeat playings of the song "I Swear," "Cartman Find Love" hits all the right notes of funny. If one wants to watch the series without thinking of the deeper issues involved, this episode succeeds. But they're there for those who like to dissect.

South Park will return next fall to Comedy Central.

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Friday, April 27, 2012

Glee wants to "Dance with Somebody"

 In "Dance with Somebody," the latest installment of FOX's Glee, the end is nigh for McKinley's graduating seniors, and everyone begins to feel it. Kurt (Chris Colfer) text-cheats on Blaine (Darren Criss), who is pulling away, scared of losing Kurt when he leaves for college. Will (Matthew Morrison) tries to push his wedding up to May, worried that his favorite students won't return for it. Santana (Naya Rivera) admits she's going to miss Rachel (Lea Michele), with whom she has finally become friends. And Quinn (Dianna Agron) gets a lot closer to Joe (Samuel Larsen). All of this happens while singing a loving tribute to the recently departed Whitney Houston.

First of all, there is no way that an entire group of high school kids is mourning Houston's death for two months. Perhaps one obsessed fan might, but not half of the Glee club. And sure, the limitations of a filming schedule mean that there is no way to show their sadness in the weeks after Houston's death, but expecting viewers to believe these kids have been depressed for two months is silly when there's been no hint of it before now.

That being said, "Dance with Somebody" works on a lot of levels, not least of all, musically. The soulful opening of "How Will I Know" is memorable and tear-evoking. McKinley's four top singers, Santana, Rachel, Kurt, and Mercedes (Amber Riley), deliver a slow, sad version that will rank among the best of this year's Glee tunes. This is soon followed by the upbeat "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)," performed by Santana and Brittany (Heather Morris), which is pretty darn good, too, and sends the signal that the episode won't be completely melancholy, thankfully.

It's about time that Kurt and Blaine have a fight. Their romance has been pushed to the background for much of this season, and they don't seem to be all smiles and rainbows lately. Blaine's fears about losing Kurt are valid, though Kurt is being a little too demanding in his need to be appreciated in "Dance with Somebody."

It looks especially bad for Kurt when, instead of maturely talking about it with Blaine, he begins a series of flirtatious tweets. Although, no one ever said that high school boys were mature. Blaine is correct in asserting that this counts as cheating. Though the lines are blurry in some modern technology, the emotions Kurt attributes to his word play are wrong. Rachel says it best when she asserts that if Kurt can't show Blaine the texts, he shouldn't be sending them in the first place.

But they work it out because, gosh darn it, these two belong together! Blaine lets his feelings be known in the somewhat lackluster "It's Not Right but It's Okay," and Kurt asks for forgiveness in the much more moving "I Have Nothing." This leads to a very sweet makeup scene, and leaves fans knowing the couple will last. At least for now.

A new romance is just beginning in "Dance with Somebody." Joe comes along to help Quinn out with her physical therapy because he "wants to be a good Christian." Quinn lets him, and the two grow close. However, when things might get physical, Joe backs off, to Quinn's disappointment.

Despite the gag-me reaction many will have to Joe's beliefs, one can appreciate how Quinn might be attracted to them. After all, when she's not behaving badly, she clings to religion, and she wants to be good. It isn't the strongest foundation for a relationship, but it works for them, even if they do make a strange looking pair. "Saving All My Love for You," which falls somewhere in the middle of this week's musical pack, reveals a touching connection.

Touching on the anti-religion, at least the strict kind of religion, attitude that many characters and fans of Glee hold, Sam (Chord Overstreet) advises Joe that he might need to choose between Quinn and God. It's a stupid argument on Sam's part, because if Joe is serious about his beliefs, he should not compromise them for a girl. Then again, Joe is still young. He could easily change his world view, and definitely should. The argument later made about how many religions need to be updated makes more sense, and definitely rings true.

What's more, with only a few weeks left of the season, and a lot of characters to serve, Joe and Quinn's love story will be short. Whether they end up together or not remains to be seen, but they won't have much time to figure it out before donning a cap and gown. Is Glee making a mistake by starting something new so late in the game? Well, love doesn't happen on a timetable, so it's hard to fault the writers for this. Plus, Joe's character hasn't been around that long.

Quinn should get a happy ending, though. She's been through a lot, much of it, but not all, her fault. She has shown strength of character by coming through it, and even thriving in many ways. It's not the mistakes one makes, but how they deal with them, that matters. In "Dance with Somebody" Quinn is dealing. So let her be happy.

Now the goodbyes begin. "Dance with Somebody" is the first episode in which characters begin to have their closing scenes together, finishing plots the series probably won't have time to address again before the end of the season, which will be probably the last episode a number of central characters will be in, not counting inevitable returning guest spots.

Along these lines, Rachel and Santana's moment and awesome "So Emotional" is fantastic! The two haven't had a lot of story, other than perhaps Santana picking on Rachel, but it still feels deserved that they have this moment. Both have grown, and considering the talent that they share, there should be some type of acknowledgement here, as there is. The picture-in-the-locker bit may be slightly hokey, but fit perfectly within this story. Wonderful!

And Puck (Mark Salling), too, does something surprising, giving his friends shot glasses and leading a locker room toast. Who knew Puck could express his bromantic tendencies in such an eloquent way?

Even better is Burt's (Mike O'Malley) emotional bedroom scene with Kurt. Burt tells his son that they will always have a special connection, but it definitely feels like the closing of an important chapter. Burt has been a source of strength for Kurt through a hard time in his life, and this conversation proves that the relationship is mutual. The two's interactions have been a highlight of Glee, and it's heartbreaking that "Dance with Somebody" may be the last gleeks get of Burt.

Students graduate. That's life. Will's attachment to this particular class is kind of unhealthy. True, they are the first group of students with whom he lives out his true teaching dream. But that doesn't mean they will be his last. And surely he understands that, as much as he will miss them, they need to live their lives. Isn't the point of being a teacher to help them on that path? Sadly, Will doesn't seem to get it, even after Emma (Jayma Mays) talks him down from his crazy rushed wedding. Will's sadness is valid, but he is not dealing with it well.

One gets the impression in "Dance with Somebody" that the kids are very attached to Will, or at least each other in the group he has built. They all show up for his non-mandatory practice, and sing a gleeful, yet tear-jerking, rendition of "My Love Is Your Love." Will they come back for Will's wedding, perfectly scheduled for November sweeps? It seems quite possible.

Five weeks left until graduation! Let the count down begin! You can do so by watching Glee Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET on FOX.

If you like my reviews, please follow me on Twitter! Click here for all of the Glee reviews I've ever written. To purchase Glee DVDs, streaming episodes, music, and more, please click here. Article first published as TV Review: Glee - "Dance with Somebody" on Blogcritics.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Cougar Town still absent of Cougar

The latest episode of ABC’s Cougar Town, entitled “Money is King,” finds Jules (Courteney Cox) and Grayson (Josh Hopkins) disagreeing over whether their money should be combined and, more importantly, which house they should sell. Jules drags him to her therapist (Nicole Sullivan), who isn’t much help. Instead, the couple decides that putting off dealing with their issue is the best course of action.

For most couples, this avoidance would be a relationship killer. Somehow, Cougar Town makes it seem as if this will not be the case. Jules and Grayson definitely love each other, and a house won’t stand in their way. They can’t afford to keep both abodes, so a decision must be made eventually. That Jules will win is a sure bet, as she almost always does. This seems more likely not just because of Jules’s personality, but also because a large percentage of Cougar Town’s scenes take place in her dwelling.

The implications of an empty house in the cul-de-sac, as raised in “Money is King,” are many. This opens up the possibility of a new character joining Cougar Town. It’s virtually impossible for an interloper to break into the group dynamic of these main characters. Grayson is eventually able to, but that is mostly because he is with Jules, which will not be an option for a future cast member. There is a stronger likelihood that any new people will be on the B team, like neighbor Tom (Bob Clendenin). Even in that capacity, it’s certainly something to look forward to.

Jules and Grayson and not the only ones facing change. In “Money is King,” Laurie (Busy Phillips) quits working for Jules to concentrate full-time on her cake business. For Laurie, this is a big step, and a great way to demonstrate the continuing maturation of her character. She now has a demanding boss (herself), and has to work hard to earn her income. What’s more, while a couple of years ago this would have seemed an impossible dream for Laurie, there is little doubt now that she can do it! My, how far she’s come! Though, you gotta love the sight gag of her moving her new enterprise into Jules’ little office.

Also, importantly, Travis (Dan Byrd) is the one who encourages Laurie to take this risk. Cougar Town has been taking it slowly between the two of them, which makes sense, given their age difference and Jules’ relationship with both. However, there is no denying the romantic connection there, and how they are good for each other, with her pushing him to loosen up, and Travis pushing back for Laurie to be more serious. They are a perfect complement, and it will not be surprising if the series finally makes a serious go of them as a pair in the not-yet-ordered (but should happen) fourth season.

Finally, Ellie (Christa Miller) goads Andy (Ian Gomez) into playing a prank on Bobby (Brian Van Holt). There is the sense that this is done purely for Ellie’s enjoyment. But when the joke goes too far, and Bobby must be taken away by ambulance to be treated for dehydration, Ellie manages to express regret without verbalizing it. Andy is more adamant with his apologizing, and Bobby understands. The chemistry between these three is perfect, and what on paper looks like a touchy situation that (almost?) goes too far, works wonderfully in reality. Much of this can be credited to the extremely talented trio of actors who pull it off.

Cougar Town continues its stellar third season Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC.

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American Dad! Volume 7 released on DVD

American Dad! Volume 7 is now on DVD. This three disc set contains all 19 episodes from season six, which aired during the 2010-2011 television season.  Among the episodes included in Volume 7 is the landmark 100th episode of the series.

For some time, Family Guy has been growing stale. Which makes American Dad!, Seth MacFarlane's second effort for the network, stand out even more. With sharp writing and unexpected plots, Volume 7 will prove to viewers that American Dad! should be the most celebrated part of Animation Domination, at least for now. This is truly a great batch of installments, and the show exhibits no sign of slowing. While some stories do put the parents in stereotypical sitcom situations, the gags and lengths to which things are taken set American Dad! apart from anything that has come before it. 

Volume 7 of American Dad! begins with an important change. "100 A.D." finds Hayley (Rachael MacFarlane) eloping with long-time, on-again off-again boyfriend Jeff (Jeff Fischer). For those who don't think cartoon characters can grow, as many similar series seem to treat the people in them as static for a show's entire run, this is a way for American Dad! to break the mold. By the time the dust settles, Hayley and Jeff are married, and Jeff moves into the Smith household, where he still remains, two seasons later.

This development is bad news at first for Steve (Scott Grimes), as in the second part of the two-part season opener, entitled "Son of Stan," Stan (Seth MacFarlane) clones Steve so that he and Francine (Wendy Schaal) can see which one of their parenting styles is better. With the responsibility of raising Hayley off of them, all of their efforts turn to the younger child. Luckily for Steve, Hayley and Jeff's eventual return to the nest does deflect some of this new found focus.

Other highlights of Volume 7 include "White Rice," where Francine recovers repressed memories and becomes a stand-up comedian; "The People Vs. Martin Sugar," in which Stan serves on a jury trial involving Roger (also MacFarlane); and "For Whom the Sleigh Bell Tolls," in which Santa Claus seeks revenge on the Smith family for killing him. "Fartbreak Hotel" finds Francine assuming a new identity, "School Lies" sees Roger sell a senator's daughter to a drug lord, and "Jenny Fromdablock" has Roger take Snot's (Curtis Armstrong) virginity. Finally, in "Flirting With Disaster," Francine takes a job at the CIA. Unlike Jeff and Hayley's marriage, this development does not last.

The bonus features are few, but fun. There are audio commentaries on many of the episodes and deleted scenes, too. A short portion of the American Dad! Comic Con 2010 panel is also included. Best of all is "I (Heart) Patrick Stewart," which involves a number of the cast and crew talking about cool it is to work with Patrick Stewart, who voices Stan's boss, Bullock. It is quite possible that many AD! fans are also Stewart fans, so they should delight in this.

In summary, American Dad! Volume 7 is a great collection, full of fantastic episodes and some wonderful extras. Definitely pick up a copy.

If you like my reviews, please follow me on Twitter! Click here to read all of my reviews of American Dad! Please click here to purchase DVDs and streaming episodes of American Dad! Article first published as DVD Review: American Dad! Volume 7 on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Move into 'The L.A. Complex'

Premiering last night on the CW (though the first episode was already available on Hulu) is Canadian series The L.A. Complex. Think of it as a sort of Melrose Place, where a bunch of people who want to be famous in Hollywood live in a motel together. There's the actress, the dancer, the stand up comedian, the music mixer, the new star, and the aging performer. Well, aging by Los Angeles standards, which means she's almost 30. Will any of them succeed?

Despite this being a Canadian show, The L.A. Complex feels like it takes place in Hollywood. And why not? Film and television types have been taking advantage of the tax breaks in our northern neighbor for years. The people who work up there have a pretty good idea of what they are doing.

"Down in L.A." starts a little rough. Perhaps to introduce the characters quickly, small snippets of each are shown, with their names flashing across the screen. These moments are meant to highlight the main cast, and they do, but only in retrospect. They do not last long enough to make a memorable impression, and though only six players are featured, it feels like more, and a bit overwhelming, as before viewers can get an idea of who one person is, the episode is on to the next one.

That being said, it settles down relatively quickly after that, and it has a nice little spice. The cast is mostly young, which one would expect for the CW, but they aren't all gorgeous. Some are, but some are around normal levels of attractiveness. The writing is also sharper, and the personalities more layered, than the typical CW fare. Which means The L.A. Complex should still appeal to CW's bread and butter demographic, but perhaps introduce a little more quality than one might expect from most (not all) of the shows on the network.

There are many flavors at work here. There's a bit of Melrose Place, as mentioned above, because of the basic set up. There's also a little of Undeclared, given the naive eagerness of several of the characters, who haven't yet found their groove. Fame could also be mentioned, because of those trying so hard to get their big break. Though, only parts of the first episode seem like a retread, as other scenes feel fresh and original. The L.A. Complex is a new twist on a classic set up. In all, it's a satisfying mix.

The biggest obstacle to reaching a large audience may be the network airing it. Although The L.A. Complex fits on the CW, it would also fit nicely on other networks, too. Hey, FOX and NBC, do you need their number? With the edgy content of some scenes, however, the series might play best on Showtime, as toning things down actually hurts the mood a little bit. And with a few tweaks, it could be another How to Make It in America-type series for HBO.

The cast is more than capable. While a couple of the players seem interchangeable with other television performers, several do stand out, and it leads one to believe that The L.A. Complex could help several careers along.

Leading this pack is welcoming familiar face Jewel Staite (Firefly, Stargate: Atlantis). Though not even thirty yet herself, Staite makes Raquel a relatable character. Wrestling with the failure of an early hit show called Teenage Wasteland (interestingly, the original title of That '70s Show), Raquel now can't get another part, and casting directors keep wanting her to play the mom. She clings to her youth, and her actions seem desperate and pathetic. Yet, Staite somehow makes Raquel likeable, and viewers will root for her. She can be refreshingly honest, such as when she asks a room full of black girls if any of them has a white best friend, playing on a television trope. And though she is not a mentor to the younger ones yet, there are hints that she might be in time, once she finds her path a little bit better.

Chelan Simmons plays Alicia Lowe, the dancer. At first glance, she might seem like just a hot blond, but she is also really nice, which comes a little bit out of left field. Simmons' work in The L.A. Complex calls to mind her previous series Kyle XY, and makes one wonder why ABC Family hasn't made another decent show in awhile. Which is a tangent, to be sure, but Alicia doesn't get a lot of her own story in "Down in L.A.," so it's hard to go anywhere else with her yet.

Nick (Joe Dinicol, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) has the best scenes in "Down in L.A." Hopelessly unfunny, despite living and breathing stand up, he is thrown completely off of his game by meeting Mary Lynn Rajskub (herself, 24), who is very rude to him, in line with her own comedic sensibilities. Adding insult to injury, Rajskub and Paul F. Tompkins (himself, Best Week Ever) lambast Nick after the show. Somehow this sequence is hilarious, despite its cruelty.

The young lovers are Abby (Cassie Steele, Degrassi: The Next Generation) and Connor (Jonathan Patrick Moore, Neighbours). He has just made it big through dumb luck, and she is failing miserable. He is kind to her, but in retrospect, he sleeps with a girl he knows has a boyfriend, so is his nice guy thing just an act? It's hard to tell, especially as he sadly moves into his empty house. Both of these characters are going to be the focus of many teenage crushes, and the reason young girls tune in week after week.

Sadly, Tariq's (Benjamin Charles Watson) tale is the one that fails to resonate. He desperately wants to be respected, and makes a bold move to do so. However, he also comes across as someone not willing to pay his dues before he finds recognition, already refusing to keep his head down in "Down in L.A." Not that his boss, Dynasty (Dayo Ade), isn't unnecessarily harsh, because he is. But will Tariq's character turn this around? Let's hope so.

The L.A. Complex has already been given a second season in Canada. Hopefully, the CW will continue to air it, as "Down in L.A." is a promising start. Tune in Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on the CW.

If you like my reviews, please follow me on Twitter! Article first published as TV Review: The L.A. Complex - "Down in L.A." on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' sneaks onto Blu-ray

Releasing today from Acorn Media on Blu-ray is the classic British series, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Based on a book by John le Carre, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy follows George Smiley (Alec Guinness, Star Wars), the retired Deputy Head of the Service, as he hunts for a Soviet mole in the Circus, a top level spy agency within MI6. With suspicion narrowed down to four people, Smiley has to call on every one of his considerable talents to figure out which one it is. This is a Cold War tale, with the threat of war and Soviet aggression hanging over Smiley's head. When his own past comes into play, things get personal for Smiley.

Of course, this being a hero piece, Smiley triumphs. He sets an elaborate trap, and catches the mole, someone Smiley knows all too well. Before justice can be served, though, the man is killed. This is one mystery that Smiley cannot solve. Besides, he has his hands full trying to whip the Circus back into shape.

Hailed by many as brilliant, and recently remade as a cinematic release starring Gary Oldman and Colin Firth, this series has garnered its fair share of praise and awards. Emmy nominated, and BAFTA winning, the subtleties of performance and story combine to make a truly memorable tale. Despite being released in 1979, there is nothing lost. All of the elements that matter don't seem dated, even if the Russian threat does. More importantly, the essence of humanity and questions of morality survive and matter as strongly as ever. Plus, this series look fantastic, filmed on location across Europe.

Guinness delivers what some consider the performance of his career. He is surrounded by a number of other talents, including Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation, American Dad), Anthony Bale (Game, Set, and Match), Bernard Hepton (The Charmer), Michael Jayston (Emmerdale Farm), Ian Richardson (Bleak House), and more. It is definitely easy to watch a cast such as this deliver an engrossing story.

The extras are light, as usual for these value releases of older series. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has a nearly half hour interview with the books' author, his bio and booklist, production notes, and a glossary of terms and characters. New to this set, not on the previous DVD release, are eleven minutes of deleted scenes, and a half hour interview with the director of the piece, John Irvin.

Now, many will ask if it's worth buying a series more than three decades old on Blu-ray. And the answer is, that depends. The film is presented in 1080p, but not all of the extras are. While some new features are 16:9, the show itself is 4:3 full screen, as it always has been. At times, background noise doesn't quite get taken out as it should be. 2.0 Dolby Digital is included, a far cry from the surround sound in many newer movies, but better than the mono it could be. But because Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy is so dialogue heavy, that's probably good enough.

The clarity is far from perfect. There is some graininess going on, and the sound sometimes hisses and pops. The rich blacks viewers have gotten used to are absent, and shadows aren't easy to see into. Other colors, too, appear faded, and there isn't a lot of consistency from one scene to the next. But the team who is putting this out has also spent a great deal of work making the picture and sound as good as it has ever been. The Blu-ray is an improvement over previous DVD releases. So it's really a matter of personal preference, or it will come down to how much one really wants the additional bonus features.
In short, whether you are discovering the story for the first time, or remember fondly the original broadcasts, I highly recommend buying Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy on Blu-ray today.

If you like my reviews, please follow me on Twitter! Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (1979) on Blogcritics.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Veep is just a title

HBO premiered Veep last night. In the first episode, "Fundraiser," Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Seinfeld, The New Adventures of Old Christine) loses support from Congress for her cornstarch silverware initiative after making a negative comment about plastics, which upsets the oil industry. Her staff is ineffective, at best, and she isn't much better. Soon other gaffes crop up to make things worse. Their one spot of hope is the bright, young Dan Egan (Reid Scott, My Boys, The Big C), who may be a jerk, but would like to work for Selina and help clean up the mess.

In an interview, Louis-Dreyfus said that the president will not be seen, and that which political party the main characters belong to won't be revealed. However, with cornstarch silverware and clean jobs as Selina's main causes, is there any doubt that she leans left?

It's hard to figure out what Veep is. It's a comedy, sure, though the humor is not broad. But is it a situation comedy, where each week the characters will have to deal with a new set of problems? Or is it an ongoing saga, where each new kerfuffle will build on the previous ones, digging the hole deeper and deeper until Selina's career implodes? The latter would be more welcome, and make more sense. "Fundraiser" is a worthy first start to either scenario, but Veep doesn't make its purpose clear in episode one.

Louis-Dreyfus is fantastic. She has been mostly doing loud, slapstick humor for quite awhile. Veep is a change of pace for her, allowing her to demonstrate her skills more thoroughly. Selina is funny for a number of reasons, mostly because of her flaws. This is similar to past characters the actress has embodied. But unlike those others, Selina is mostly calm, keeping her turmoil internal, instead of ranting and raving. And, since Veep airs on HBO, she gets to use naughty language.

The supporting cast of Veep is wonderful, too, full of comedy veterans. The second star below Louis-Dreyfus looks to be Anna Chlumsky (My Girl), who certainly has power over her co-workers, and is a similar mix to Selina of mess and good intentions. Matt Walsh (Hung, Outsourced) is perfect as the bumbling, inept press guy who should probably be out of a job. Tony Hale (Arrested Development, Chuck) goes to the most extreme as Gary Walsh, Selina's human purse and the staff's whipping boy. Timothy C. Simons is Jonah, the arrogant liaison with the president's office, and sort-of villain to the VP's office. Rounding out the cast is Sufe Bradshaw as Sue, Selina's gate keeper, who appears to be best at doing her job.

So the cast is good, and the writing, which is funny, but not the laugh-out-loud kind of funny, is interesting. But overall, since there isn't much sense of direction in "Fundraiser," Veep is beginning its run in the middle of the pack. It's worth watching, sure, but there isn't a lot of excited anticipation for a second episode. Further installments should make its place in the TV landscape a little more clear, but it's a bit disappointing that a judgment must be put off.

Veep airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.

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FOX serves up 'Bob's Burgers The Complete 1st Season'

Now on DVD is The Complete 1st Season of the FOX animated series, Bob's Burgers. From the mind of Loren Bouchard (Home Movies) comes a series about an odd family that runs a hamburger joint called, appropriately enough, Bob's Burgers. All thirteen episodes from last spring's initial run are collected on this two disc set, along with bonus features.

Husband, Bob (H. Jon Benjamin, the star of Archer), is the boss and owner. He's a stubborn, ignorant, loving family man, who does the best that he can, which isn't always all that much. Benjamin plays this character wonderfully, getting to be both the butt of many a joke, and the guy who is as close to normal as this family gets. He keeps them grounded, and cares deeply about his loved ones.

Bob may struggle with moral dilemmas himself, but when it comes to his kids, Bob has a pretty strong moral compass. Not only is he willing to do anything to protect them and raise them correctly, he is also willing to let his business suffer because of it. Unlike other fathers in the Animation Domination block, Bob is genuine and sweet almost all the time, without being overbearing. He gives his kids good advice, but allows them room to make mistakes and their own decisions.

Wife, Linda (John Roberts, no, not the Supreme Court justice), falls into the traditional sitcom wife role, never really getting too mad at Bob for forgetting their anniversary, and being happy with her mediocre lot in life. As the episodes go on, Linda does get the chance to pursue some of her own interests, but they never last more than an episode. The impression is that, while Linda sometimes plays second fiddle to Bob, it's good that she has his steady presence in her life.

Eldest daughter, Tina (Dan Mintz - what's with the guys voicing the girls?) is in love with the boy across the street. The middle child, Gene (Eugene Mirman, The Flight of the Conchords), is as dumb and as in a world all his own as his father is, but still has that youthful, naive joy about it. He will certainly grow up to be just like his dad.

Youngest daughter, Louise (Kristen Schaal, The Daily Show, 30 Rock), is definitely the funniest character. She makes up wild stories, would like to be a criminal mastermind, and just tries to keep life interesting. Louise seems to live in a world all her own, but unlike other characters in that vein, say Stewie from Family Guy, Louise is bound by reality. Still, if you need a lock picked, or an idea that no one else would think of in a million years, Louise is your girl. She is also the youngest of the clan, but not a toddler, which is refreshing.

The family dynamics are realistic. The show demonstrates humor in characters that are odd, but not as over the top as their peers on other FOX animated shows. They go through the typical tribulations of a sitcom, but don't let anything discourage them too much, and there is often a nice lesson, even if the characters don't always learn it. While not preachy, Bob's Burgers is certainly the most wholesome of the Sunday night cartoons, and definitely evokes the warm love of a close clan.

The series is not all about the heart, though. There are plenty of great jokes. The humor is smart and quick, and the characters are quirky and funny. For instance, when Gene wins a gold medal in the race, Linda wants to have it bronzed. This is just one example of the off-beat brand of humor that Bob's Burgers brings to a night full of the same type of show, setting it apart.

The recurring cast includes movie and stage legend Kevin Kline as Bob's landlord, Mr. Fischoeder. How many animated shows can boast that much gravitas? Also, Sarah and Laura Silverman play twins.

The animation is crude in the first episode, making it harder to enjoy than later installments. This is not unusually for a cartoon, so it can be forgiven. Bob's Burgers is created by Loren Bouchard (Dr. Katz, Lucy the Daughter of the Devil), and uses his style from Home Movies, which isn't for everyone. It's the weird torso-neck-head shapes that really seem off. It makes the characters look non-human, and not in a good way. But because of the writing and voice talent level, it's worth getting past.

Among the episodes worth mentioning in this set are "Human Flash," which finds Bob's Burgers being accused of serving human flesh because Louise tells her class this is so. In "Bed & Breakfast," the family turns their small living space into a retreat for guests. "Hamburger Dinner Theater" has some fun twists when the family tries to stage a murder mystery production in their restaurant. In "Torpedo," Bob gets to meet his hero, who does not live up to the image Bob has of him.

There are plenty of extras on Bob's Burgers The Complete 1st Season. There are more audio commentaries than episodes, with certain half hours having multiple options. Writers and actors contribute to these. There are seven minutes of audio outtakes. Steve Agee (The Sarah Silverman Program) and Samantha Shelton (Judging Amy) do one of the most bizarre music videos ever for "Lifting Up the Skirt of the Night." There is also a two minute short of Louise arguing with the restaurant's chalk board, and making up Burgers of the Week for each of her family members.

Best of all is the twenty-two minute look at the evolution of Bob's Burgers with series creator Loren Bouchard. He talks about putting together the cast, how the family were originally envisioned as cannibals, and shows a rough sketch scene. Also included is the full animated ten minute demo presented to FOX to see the show, which features a son named Daniel instead of Tina, though the voice and the personality of both characters are identical. The look of the series is also a little different. It's very cool to see a glimpse at the process from early work to making it on the air.

Bob's Burgers is a gem of a series, and I highly recommend buying The Complete 1st Season, on sale now.

If you like my reviews, please follow me on Twitter! To buy streaming episodes of Bob's Burgers or pre-order the DVD, please click here. Click here to read every review of Bob's Burgers I've ever written. Article first published as DVD Review: Bob's Burgers - The Complete 1st Season on Blogcritics.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Mo Willems' Pigeon and Pals on DVD

In conjunction with Scholastic Storybook Treasures, beloved children's author, Mo Willems releases Pigeon and Pals: Complete Cartoon Collection, Vol. 1 & 2. The set includes six of his beloved stories, brought to life on the screen to the delight of children everywhere. In this collection, you will get "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!," "The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog!," "Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale," "Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity," "Leonardo the Terrible Monster," and "Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed."

It's difficult to review these wonderful stories, without first considering the man behind them. Mo Willems started out as a television writer. He went to film school, but then realized he did not have the patience to deal with the various challenges involved in creating live action. So instead, Willems began animating cartoons and writing sketch comedy for adults.

Mo was then asked to become an animator and writer for Sesame Street. He was offered the job because of his ability to be funny, telling him they could teach him to write for kids. But Mo soon learned just how challenging writing for children can be. He believes that easy readers are difficult for writers because they are pressured to tell an exciting story with just a handful of simple words.

Willems first children's book, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, was published in 2003, but it did not come to him easily. He met with some agents and gave them a sketchbook he had developed, introducing it as a "gag thing he was doing." However, they thought there was a book that could be made of it, so he re-worked for a younger audience. Twenty-nine editors said it was unusual and turned him down before one finally published it.

The pigeon stories were born in Oxford, England. Willems had moved there for a month because he thought it would make him more intelligent. He spent a great deal of time trying to make the "great American children's book," but instead found himself drawing pigeons. To get it off his back, he created a sketchbook, and in this sketchbook, he made a young boy responsible for the pigeon, ensuring that it did not drive the bus. His breakthrough came when he found that getting rid of the middle man (the young boy) would make the audience responsible for the pigeon, making the story more interactive and, in turn, easier to draw. Willems admits that he has no control over the character of the pigeon. It continues to peck at this head, insisting he make more books.

And this is where the "Pigeon" stories come from. His earliest and most popular character, Willems has written several of them, and they keep on coming. The animated versions of those included in this set keep his unique animated style and positive message; his minimalist concept is easy to relate to for those not ready to be bombarded with stimuli. The DVDs allow the pigeon to talk to the kids even more effectively than the books do, and that interaction is what attracts them most to the tale. What's more, they stories are humorous and relatable, drawing audiences in. They even prove entertaining for the adults who must sit through them dozens of times with their kids.

Willems' "Knuffle Bunny" series, is a slightly different beast than the "Pigeon" series. Willems claims that he is lazy, and so he takes photographs to use as the backgrounds. He photoshops them to get just the right look and tone for the piece he is doing. "Knuffle Bunny" also introduces human characters, as it is the tale of a father who searches for his child's lost stuffed toy. It's idealistic, as most dads would tell their kid to wait until morning. But that only makes it more charming.

There are eight special features in this set. There is a Spanish version of "Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale," which should prove popular for multicultural households. There is also a Read-Along option for each feature, allowing parents to integrate the books with the television. This should be nice for those who want to encourage a love of reading, an important thing to teach developing children.

There are also several interviews and featurettes about Willems himself. One will get to know the author quite well in this extras. In fact, all of the background information in this review comes from the DVDs. The only problem is, they get pretty repetitive. That's OK for young children, of course, but it's hard to imagine that kids will be viewing the extras very often when their favorite cartoons are packaged right along with them.

In short, this is a terrific collection, aimed at kids kids ages two to eight. If you are a parent, pick up a copy of Pigeon and Pals: Complete Cartoon Collection, Vol. 1 & 2, on sale now. And maybe stop and get the books on the way home, too.

If you like my reviews, please follow me on Twitter! Article first published as DVD Review: Mo Willems' Pigeon and Pals Complete Cartoon Collection Vol. 1 &2 on Blogcritics.

Friday, April 20, 2012

'Raising Hope' wants its baby back

FOX's Raising Hope presents the second half of a two-part episode as their season finale this week. Entitled "I Want My Baby Back, Baby Back, Baby Back," this installment finds Jimmy (Lucas Neff) and family locked in a court battle for custody over Hope (Baylie and Rylie Cregut) with his "wife," Lucy (Bijou Phillips). This follows an episode of Inside Probe, in which Nancy Grace (herself) tells the family's story, and reveals that Lucy survived her execution. Lucy wins the legal battle, and Jimmy has to leave his parents and Sabrina (Shannon Woodward) behind in order to stay with his daughter.

If a comedy series is hilarious enough, it does not need to follow the rules of realism. This is a relief, because Raising Hope leaves such constraints far behind in the dust during these final two episodes. Not only does Lucy survive the electric chair, there is a jailhouse wedding, complete with a prisoner allowed a knife to cut the cake, a jury made up purely of miners who were trapped underground for six months, and so don't know Lucy is a serial killer, Shelley (Kate Micucci) is allowed to testify with a ukelele, and Lucy will most likely survive being hit by a bus. The last of which is welcome, because Phillips is such a joy during her guest stints on the show. And with Jimmy needing a divorce, she will have to return again.

But honestly, the fact that the events of "I Want My Baby Back, Baby Back, Baby Back" would never happen does not lessen the enjoyment of the episode in the slightest. Part of this is the comedic writing, which is just as sharp, tight, and unexpected as it ever has been, if not sharper. Part of it is nostalgia, as this week's installment and the one before it reference many of the show's earlier events and gags, as well as bringing back a large number of guest stars.

Best of all, most of the cast of My Name Is Earl, a previous show by Raising Hope's creator, Greg Garcia, appears again. Earl is alluded to as well, and the tone of both shows are similar. In fact, the Inside Probe stunt feels just like Earl's Cops episodes! So it all comes across as one big, happy, funny universe, drawn closer together with each crossover, of which there have been many.

Should Raising Hope have concentrated on pathos instead? Sure, there are tears and heartbreak when Jimmy leaves Sabrina so that he can stay with Hope. Viewers would be heartless not to feel for Sabrina as tears stream down her face, and the situation really evokes something inside of oneself. However, instead of capitalizing on these dramatic moments, leaving a heck of a cliffhanger, Lucy is hit by a bus, and Jimmy gets to return home.

Nor does it appear that Burt (Garret Dillahunt) and Virginia (Martha Plimpton) will face legal charges for fighting with law enforcement in the court room, as they are seen to be in their house and doing just fine.

And that's OK. Some sitcoms need the drama to infuse with comedy in order to keep their fans invested. Raising Hope does not. It's tongue-in-cheek style, with meta elements and constant self-referencing, has created a unique world that deserves to be on television. One can drop in to see what the Chances are doing each week, and continuously be very taken in by their spell.

What kind of show dares to have Nancy Grace lampooning herself, Ed Begley Jr. playing both god and the devil, and "introduces" Cloris Leachman each episode? Raising Hope, that's who, and it does so proudly. Never before has white trash been made look so attractive. The show doesn't just play on stereotypes, it redefines them. It will change the way you think about many things, and if the show contributes anything to society, it assists in tearing down the barriers of hate and judgment.

Does this make Raising Hope sound too important? Perhaps. But it deserves the accolades. There is absolutely nothing else currently running like it, and it continues to hit all of the right notes week after week. That is a laudable feat.

Is it the sharp writing or the amazing cast, which includes Gregg Binkley and a slew of talented, recurring players to fill out the world, that makes Raising Hope work so well? It's both, as well as everyone else in the crew who builds this specific place and time. There is really nothing to complain about in Raising Hope. It's that rare gem that knows what it is, and delivers extremely well on a remarkably consistent basis.

Thank you to Raising Hope for an awesome second season, and I am greatly looking forward to years of more terrific comedy. Raising Hope will return to FOX this fall.

If you like my reviews, please follow me on Twitter! To buy Raising Hope DVDs or streaming episodes, please click here. Article first published as TV Review: Raising Hope - "I Want My Baby Back, Baby Back, Baby Back" on Blogcritics.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Buy Frozen Planet before it melts away

From the team that created Planet Earth comes a new, seven-part documentary called Frozen Planet. This is the UK Version of the series, narrated by David Attenborough (not Alec Baldwin, as with the version that aired on the Discovery Channel), and captures life at both poles of the Earth, hoping to immortalize these environments on film before climate change destroys them forever.

The first episode of Frozen Planet is an introduction, giving an overall glimpse of the environment. This is followed by four parts covering each of the four calendar seasons. Part six looks at mankind's interaction in these distant regions, where few dare to tread. Each looks at the dizzying, often seemingly barren, landscapes, as well as how life can carve a niche anywhere. For most people who will never venture into a climate so extreme, it's a rich glimpse into a completely alien place.

Many types of animals make their home in this frigid area of the planet. From polar bears to penguins to orcas, Frozen Planet shows us just how they accomplish the monumental task of surviving, which to them is just their way of life. Arctic wolves, albatrosses, eider ducks, and fur seals are just some of the other life forms teeming in this series.

The seventh hour of Frozen Planet is quite controversial, in that it deals with global warming. Originally, Discovery wasn't even going to air this part in the U.S., because of the politicized nature of the debate, despite the scientific evidence. However, cooler (sic) heads prevailed, and "On Thin Ice," as it is called, is airing in the States (with Attenborough's narration), as it was in Britain.

Much of the filming of Frozen Planet is accomplished using a sophisticated, long-distance capture technology so that the animals are not disturbed. While a polar bear birth is filmed in a zoo, almost everything else is authentic to the region. By keeping far away in distance, viewers are treated to behavior untainted by human intruders. It is a rare and gratifying series of sequences, that should delight and entertain. And sure, there is death, like in any nature special, but Frozen Planet is pretty family-friendly, overall.

Some of most impressive sequences? A stalactite growing down, freezing alive any organism that gets in its path. A pod of orcas hunt a seal with planning and precision. The ice sheet melts off of Greenland in the spring. By using time-lapse and slow motion footage, drama is added to events that would otherwise be hard to understand the majesty of.

On bonus features, there are plenty. If one does not want to be distracted by the narration, and instead allow the images to mostly speak for themselves, a music-only audio track can be played. As with other BBC Earth releases, a 'Freeze Frame' option appears with each episode, providing about 10 minutes of behind the scenes glimpses of a particular shot or sequence. There are also about an hour and a half of shorts, which are each only a couple of minutes in length, that let viewers in on some of the filming techniques and challenges.

A twenty minute featurette called "Science at the End of the Earth" reveals who the scientists are that live at the South Pole for long stretches of time, and what they do there. It takes a very special person to thrive in this environment, and they are profiled nicely.

"Frozen Planet: The Epic Journey" is virtually useless, unless one does not wish to watch the entire series. Basically, it's a best of, running an hour in length, that brings together some of the most amazing moments from the seven episodes. The problem is, though, there doesn't seem to be anything new added in, so it's tiresome to watch after already sitting through Frozen Planet. Maybe it could be used to entice some friends who aren't sure they want to watch the whole show? But then, if they are enticed, that makes the watching of the series less exciting. Or it could serve as a quickie rewatch years later, when one does not have seven hours to devote, but would like to relive this spectacular show.

As with other specials in the BBC Earth series, it is impossible to give a short critique of the picture and sound quality that will encompass this set in full. Many different cameras are used, mostly high definition ones, but even within that subset, picture clarity varies. Sometimes bands of color are on the screen. Sometimes blacks are not as rich as they might be. The same holds true for sound, where studio-recorded pieces are always clear, but the natural sounds of the world sometimes aren't exactly how one would want them.

However, Frozen Planet might just be better than previous releases. It appears that much effort has been spent cleaning up images and getting the sound mix just right, striking a good balance between music, ambient noise, and the narration. Perhaps the use of digital HD cameras has allowed for better matching, overall, but it looks like there has also been lots of post production work. It's not perfect, but it's as close to it as one will find for a series of this type.

Buying this on Blu-ray is a must, because that's where the clearest presentation can be found. Not every scene will be perfect, but many will leave viewers stunned with the amount of visual and auditory detail captured. The makers of these films are experts, and have learned how to best satisfy the masses. This is a stunning set that should definitely be experienced.

Another triumph for BBC Earth! Buy Frozen Planet on Blu-ray, available now.

If you like my reviews, please follow me on Twitter! Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Frozen Planet on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Trust me about "...The B---- in Apartment 23"

This week, the second episode of ABC's new Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 is called "Daddy's Girl." June (Dreama Walker, The Good Wife, Gossip Girl) is hesitant to let Chloe (Krysten Ritter, Breaking Bad, Veronica Mars) set her up with a guy named Scott (Michael Landes, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, 11-11-11). But Scott turns out to be perfect for June! Except that he's Chloe's dad. And he's still married to Chloe's mom.

It is hard to judge any series by its pilot, and having had the benefit of watching the first two episodes at once, it felt better to review "Daddy's Girl" instead. Now the characters are pretty firmly established, and getting into the groove of what the show will be.

June is a good girl, a tad naive, but willing to stand up for herself. She arrives in the city full of hope, and the trials that confront her do not tear her down. Instead, she might freak out a bit, but she's strong enough to rise above and keep going with a sunny spirit. In fact, June may even treasure the obstacles because they help her to grow.

That's good, because Chloe is going to be June's constant thorn in her side. It isn't that Chloe is malicious. Well, she is, but only before she gets to know someone. Now that June has already passed that barrier, she gets to find out what being Chloe's friend is like. And it's not pretty. Chloe is self-centered to the point where she misses the obvious if it doesn't directly concern her. Which doesn't stop her from meddling with other people anyway.

In the case of "Daddy's Girl," Chloe is right that June and Scott will get along great. She would like her mother out of the picture, and has no problem interfering in her parents' marriage, with the only goal being that it will make Chloe happy to not have to deal with Mom. However, Chloe doesn't think through the ramifications, such as that June would be her step-mother. So good intentions, though only towards her own interests, go wrong for Chloe. And people hang out around Chloe because when she's not destroying your life, it can be quite exciting to see the chaos she creates in her wake.

This dynamic is interesting and funny, especially because of the edgy humor. It's too bad Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 doesn't air on a network that can handle the content. One gets the impression that everything is toned down. It's surprising that ABC even allows pixelated nudity! But by flirting with the controversial and not delivering, especially in the title and theme "song," it actually makes the network seem rather unhip. Either ABC should go for a groundbreaking network series or don't, but being a tease doesn't serve anyone as well as it should.

Though watching June and Chloe is fun, the most hilarious character on Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 is James Van Der Beek. Playing a version of himself, Van Der Beek sheds any of his remaining Dawson's Creek image, and shows a maturity as an actor. It's also awesome to watch him poke fun at himself and his situation in a meta way. Being plagued by his past, unable to escape it on the series, actually does the opposite for him in real life. Not to mention, he adds that special something to what would otherwise be an amusing, but not particularly must-see, show. Van Der Beek will be the fan favorite, and if the series gets a second season, he will deserve more of the credit than anyone.

Watch Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. ET on ABC.

If you like my reviews, please follow me on Twitter! Article first published as TV Review: Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 - "Daddy's Girl" on Blogcritics.