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Monday, December 31, 2012

Doctor Who isn't afraid of "The Snowmen"

On Christmas Day, the BBC (and BBC America) released the latest Doctor Who holiday special, "The Snowmen." Set in Victorian England, the Doctor (Matt Smith) matches wits with the Great Intelligence, who is trying to use smart snow and ice to take over the world. Luckily, our hero has some help in the form of a very familiar voice who should not be there.

Normally, Doctor Who Christmas specials are nice, sweet, fluff pieces, not adding to major story arcs, just standing alone as a heart-warming story. "The Snowmen" chooses a different tack, picking up where "The Angels Take Manhattan" left off, and tying together plot threads, both old and new, to add to the series' major arcs.

As the hour begins, the Doctor is moping, dressed as Scrooge, around the streets of Victorian England. His outlandish personality has swung to a negative light, making his depression a deep one, indeed, robbed of any want to help others. This is a sad Doctor, an isolated Doctor, who isn't what the Doctor is supposed to be.

More than other recent actors, Smith lends an unstable and cartoonish quality to the role. While one may have a hard time imagining Tennant scouring the alleys quite so grumpily, it holds true to what Smith has built into the character. Amy always told him that he shouldn't be alone, and now we get a small taste of what he is like when he is, cold and uncaring, apart from the world, literally, as he lives in the TARDIS atop a cloud.

Yet, he has chosen Earth to brood on, which means he can't possibly want to be alone as much as he claims to.


Not that the Doctor is completely left to himself. His travels have earned him some loyalties, and he is protected by some familiar faces - Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her wife, Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and Strax (Dan Starkey). This is an interesting trio, and it's not quite clear why they're the ones who have taken up this mission. But it's nice to see that the Doctor can't just hide away. He has made some friends who are going to make sure that he's OK. And they aren't the only ones.

"The Snowmen" introduces the Doctor's new companion, Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman, Emmerdale). At first, one may be confused as to why Coleman is playing the part, as she recently guest starred as Oswin earlier this series in "Asylum of the Daleks." That person could be forgiven for thinking she is someone new, since this would not be the first time an actress appeared in a one-shot before coming back to play a different, more central character, though I can't recall it happening quite so quickly before. But as "The Snowmen" unfolds, it is pretty obvious, based on personality and dialogue, that Clara is Oswin, a fact confirmed late in the adventure.

This revelation is confusing, but then, River Song (Alex Kingston) is introduced at the time of her death first, and we see her many times prior to that, so now the thinking turns to this being an earlier version of Oswin. Viewers and the Doctor alike assume Clara will easily survive any dangers in "The Snowmen" because she eventually must crash on the Dalek prison planet and encounter the Doctor again.

The explanation as to why the Doctor doesn't recognize her immediately should be obvious, but I don't feel it is, until the dialogue points out that the Doctor only heard Oswin in "Asylum of the Daleks;" he never saw her. It's easy to overlook that fact, since we, the viewers, saw her so much in the episode, which resulted in her sad fate.


And then Clara dies. Again.

This is where "The Snowmen" jumps from good episode to great episode. It's such an unexpected twist, which packs a heck of a wallop, that it catches everyone off guard. The Doctor's assertions that she died twice, so he must go look for her, because she has to still be out there somewhere seem insane, and yet, fans will know that he is right. There are few clues to what exactly Clara is, or what is happening to her, but it's the set up for an enticing new adventure.

Personally, I feel like Clara could be an earlier incarnation of River. She calls the Doctor clever boy, something River does, and kisses him. The problem is, we know that the Kingston incarnation of River is the one that marries the Doctor, and she is the last body River will have. So it doesn't make sense for Clara to exist as another version of her.

Another clue is that Clara knows "pond" will be a word that catches the Doctor's attention. While she doesn't seem to have all the memories of her previous encounter with him, she definitely knows things about the Doctor, even if it's subconsciously. The Doctor doesn't believe in coincidences, and neither do the writers of this show, so that has to mean something.

Might River have somehow have escaped the library computer? Or could her love be so strong that something else is afoot? Maybe the Doctor is right, and the universe owes him one? It's all very confusing, but like the best of Doctor Who, it will most likely work itself out in a surprising and exciting way.

Should Clara prove NOT to be River, she better get her stinkin' lips off of the Doctor! He is spoken for!

Either way, though, Clara will be an interesting companion. Just the fact that she has a different perspective from everyone else, declaring the TARDIS "smaller on the outside," rather than "bigger on the inside," as is what other people say, proves that she has something new to bring to the table. Coleman hasn't grabbed me immediately, but given the way the character has been set up, there is little doubt she will leave her mark as a very memorable companion.

This Clara story will likely be a major part of the rest of series seven, but something that has been teased for awhile is the question "Doctor Who?" It's an innocent query in earlier episodes, becoming more common and important during Smith's tenure. "The Snowman" uses the joke often enough that is ceases to be just a laugh. This is obviously part of a bigger trend that will come to a head, and in case anyone missed it before, this special, with its frequent repetition, leaves no doubt that one should notice the question.


Aside from all this fantastic big picture stuff, "The Snowmen" is still a cool story in of itself. With Ian McKellen (The Hobbit, X-Men) lending his voice to the Great Intelligence, the villain is impressive. There are enough twists to keep us on our toes, the snowmen themselves are terrifying, and there's a family at risk at the center of it, the sympathetic heart that a Christmas special needs.

There are a ton of fun moments, from the Doctor doing a poor Sherlock Holmes impression, to Strax's encounter with a memory worm, to Clara continuously ignoring the Doctor's instructions. Even in an hour that's so dark, Doctor Who finds ways to keep its trademark humor.

Plus, the new TARDIS is stunning! It's a little confusing that the Doctor would switch designs mid-incarnation, however, given all that he's been through, I think a fresh start isn't out of the question. This new set will definitely help to convey that. I greatly appreciate that the series gives us a moment to admire it, rather than just glimpsing it while in use.

One thing some fans may have missed is that Clara works at a pub called "Rose and the Crown." During the Bad Wolf arc of the Doctor Who reboot, Rose and the Doctor meet Queen Victoria in 19th century England. This has to be connected to that.

"The Snowmen" is actually a prequel story to an old-school Doctor Who serial from the original run, in which the Great Intelligence attacks through the London Underground. So we get to see something that references a story many modern Who fans may not be familiar with. If the writers are lucky, this could open the door to new fans picking up the old serials.

Or it may just be the first of the many callbacks that will surely be referenced in the upcoming 50th Anniversary year.

All of which makes "The Snowmen" my favorite Doctor Who Christmas special thus far. Stellar job. Now I cannot wait for series seven to resume in the spring, a glimpse of the coming plot making anticipation soar so much higher than it already has, a considerable feat.

Want to read some of my fiction? It's on my website, JeromeWetzel.com! Also, for the latest updates and article links, as well as commentary on episodes I don't fully review, please follow me on Twitter!

Article first published as TV Review: Doctor Who - "The Snowmen" on Blogcritics.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Burn Notice keeps on running and changing

Burn Notice - "You Can Run"
Grade: 85%

USA's Burn Notice is an interesting story. It started out as an intriguing mystery series about a spy who has been burned by the agency he works for, quickly became a procedural, and then lost steam in the middle seasons as the original premise grew thin. Each time Michael Weston (Jeffrey Donovan) got a step closer to learning who was behind his bad luck, that person would be taken out, and another layer peeled back, only to reveal more layers.

Season six has been an interesting reinvention, though. There have been a few cases of the week, but by and large the writers have committed to a large arc, wherein Michael, back in the government's good graces, uncovers his former mentor's misdeeds, kills him, and then goes on the run with his friends, hunted ruthlessly these last few episodes by an Ahab-esque agent named Riley (Sonja Sohn, The Wire, Body of Proof), who will stop at nothing to catch her man.

This week, the year came to a close with the two part "You Can Run" and "Game Change."Riley gets more and more dangerous, capturing Jesse (Coby Bell), her men wounding Sam (Bruce Campbell), and then partnering with a drug cartel who almost kills everyone. It's a high-adrenaline stunt, raising the stakes higher than they've ever been, making the situations more dangerous, and finally seeing Michael somehow find a way out, as he always does, saving the day for everyone he loves.

The first impression I have when watching "You Can Run" and "Game Change" are that they are great episodes. After all, my blood is pumping, I'm thrilled to not have to deal with some random person who needs assistance from the team, and I get to see some characters I love at their best. Add to that some surprise returning guest stars, like Campbell (Gary Weeks) and Bly (Alex Carter), and it seems like a culmination of years of good story.

The problems arise when one begins analyzing the elements of the two hours, though. Once more, we are given one dimensional villains who poorly represent the body they work for, and make the whole CIA seem inept (Riley), a would-be savior who can clear the situation, but is quickly killed before he has an real impact (Bly), and even the cameos by past characters fail to give us any real insight into them.

Burn Notice does a pretty fair job defining its main characters. From Michael to Sam to Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) to Madeline (Sharon Gless), and even Jesse, who hasn't been around as long, we get to see what makes them tick, and what thoughts go into their decisions. But for virtually everyone else, especially CIA types, who should be at the top of their games, the show rarely keeps them around long enough for them to matter, and even when they stick, they don't get past stereotypes and surface images.

The exception to this rule is Lauren Stamile's Agent Pearce, who I dearly miss.

The result is a very fake world, that a few interesting people just happen to inhabit. Keep your eye on the focus, like in a magic trick, and you can be impressed. Start to examine things too closely, and it all falls apart. I like Burn Notice, but the best elements tend to be shafted in favor of flash, and the show continually plays against its strengths.

I think the disappointment with "You Can Run" and "Game Change" stings a bit more than in past instances. That's because season six showed us that Burn Notice can be better, and can deliver something bigger and more complex than is routinely presented. For most of this year, the flaws started to fade, and there is noticeable story improvement. But a cheat of an ending, as happens when Michael re-enlists in the CIA, seemingly as a boss now, after turning himself in in a way that made little sense, considering his running earlier, and the lack of changed circumstances (he could easily kill Riley in this episode and reset the status quo, rather than do the right thing), takes away a lot of that accomplishment.

The good thing is, Burn Notice isn't going anywhere, and still has time to continue to improve. If it learns the right lessons from this year, season seven could be the best yet. Or it could revert to an earlier quality level, and jump the shark. Either way, we'll find out this summer.

Burn Notice will return in mid-2013 to USA.

Want to read some of my fiction? It's on my website, JeromeWetzel.com! Also, for the latest updates and article links, as well as commentary on episodes I don't fully review, please follow me on Twitter!

Article first posted on TheTVKing

Homeland makes "The Choice"

Homeland -"The Choice"
Grade: 99%

Showtime's Homeland handled their second season finale, "The Choice," which aired last Sunday, in a very unexpected way. The action of the season completes in the penultimate installment, giving lots of time for characters-driven moments in the final episode. Until the big shocker rocks everything, and reignites the intensity.

Homeland is about terrorism, yes, but it's even more about the characters, and their relationships with one another. Obviously, a driving dynamic of the show is the one between Carrie (Claire Danes) and Brody (Damian Lewis). They have flitted around each other since day one, alternating between enemy and lover. As season two draws to a close, though, they are ready to admit their love and commit to a long-term relationship, with Carrie even willing to give up a promotion to be with him.

Is this professionally inappropriate? Absolutely. Is their relationships dysfunction? That's an understatement. But they have seen each other at their worst, or at least are aware of the flaws, and they still want to be together. Carrie understands that the reason Brody almost becomes a terrorist. Brody knows about Carrie's mental illness. Neither is perfect, but both want to be happy. And they can be themselves together, which is a huge check in the plus column.

Do they have a chance of making it work? I think so. Brody's marriage to Jessica (Morena Baccarin) is over because he came home a different man, and the bond between them has been broken. Trust is gone, and he can no longer relate to her as he once did. The same issues won't arise with Carrie, so barring anything completely unexpected and soul-altering (again), Brody's next gal may be the one for him for the foreseeable future.

Except, Carrie doesn't realize that Brody murdered Vice President Walden (Jamey Sheridan). It isn't an act likely to come to light, and most viewers will probably find Brody's actions forgivable and understandable, given Walden's sleazy nature. But should this ever be known to the public, it could pose a major stumbling block between Carrie and Brody, if Carrie thinks he has crossed a line.

It's interesting that Brody goes to Mike (Diego Klattenhoff) in "The Choice" and basically tells Mike that he can have Brody's family. There are a lot of reasons that go into this, but I think it isn't just a selfish out so that Brody can be with Carrie. In fact, it's a bit selfless. Brody has demonstrated that he cares about his kids very deeply, and by sending them Mike, who was already taking care of the clan before Brody comes home, he knows that Jessica and their children will be in good hands.

Of course, one assumes that Brody still expects to be involved where the kids are concerned, and the events at the end of "The Choice" make that pretty difficult. But we'll get to that in a minute.

Brody has a different and unique relationship with each of his kids. He seems more open about his affection for Chris (Jackson Pace), but he does want to stay good with Dana (Morgan Saylor), too. I think Dana scares Brody just a bit because she challenges him, she's intelligent, and she doesn't take things at face value. She is the one that learns some of Brody's secrets.

I hope that, even at the conclusion of "The Choice," Dana can continue to see her father for who he is, and put the pieces together. She could definitely be his window back to the world. Which could complicate things with Carrie, dividing Brody's attention.

Continuing to speak of relationships, while Brody has a family, the closest person in Carrie's life to her is Saul (Mandy Patinkin). Yes, her dad and sister are around, but we don't see them much. Saul is a father figure, but like Brody's love ones, doesn't quite know Carrie as well as he thinks he is. Saul is very upset with her when he learns she plans to put Brody ahead of her career. But this is a typical parent reaction; Carrie and Saul aren't equals, and his concerns come from a place of love. Which means, no matter how much he may disagree with the choices Carrie makes, they probably still have a good connection, and he will continue to watch out for her.

So a little over two-thirds of the way through "The Choice," everyone is on the right path, and a happy ending is in sight. We even see Abu Nazir's (Navid Negahban) body thrown into the ocean, leaving no doubt that the terrorist is dead.

The thing is, though, terrorism is not about one person. Sure, there is a face to many organizations, but the mission of the group is driven by a passion and surety of belief. Nazir recruits others who feel as he does, and just because Nazir is taken out doesn't mean that one of his followers isn't prepared to step in and take his place. Which is why Brody's car is used as a bomb to kill hundreds at Walden's funeral.

The difference between Brody's car bomb and the rest of Homeland's action thus far i,s there is little doubt this time that Brody is innocent. He already got his revenge on Walden, and while most of those killed are CIA, and so not "innocent civilians" in his eyes, it seems pretty clear that Brody is well past the point of attempting something like this. Maybe this is naive, taking his surprise at face value, and trusting Carrie's judgment of him (she is usually right), but I don't think so. I really don't think Brody did this. Though I concede that I, like most people, are almost always one twist away from being proven wrong.

The genius of the "The Choice" is that is fairly neatly ties up a number of arcs, but also sets up the action to continue threads already begun. The characters have theorized about a CIA mole before. Now, it looks like there definitely is one, and the mole's choice to use Brody as a scapegoat keeps all of the main characters involved in the drama.

I love 24 dearly, but Homeland is the next step in the evolution of that show's story and themes, making it a more intelligent version. 24 rebooted constantly; Homeland realized a full reboot isn't quite so necessary.

Carrie's decision not to run away with Brody is a sad one. She has good reason, intent on clearing his name, something she can do much more effectively working on the inside. It may be hard to convince Saul believe her this time, but he's a lot more sympathetic to Carrie that David Estes (David Harewood), who died in the blast, would be. Plus, Saul knows he doesn't listen to Carrie at his own risk, because her instincts are sharp. The seeds are sown for a very interesting plot here.

One last musing about "The Choice:" I absolutely loved the scene where Quinn (Rupert Friend) threatens David Estes. Quinn has been a fascinating character this season, and I really, really hope he returns full-time next year. Whether he goes on the hunt for Brody, or the mole, or both, he lends a driving force to the series that works incredibly well. Plus, he has issues himself that have not been explored. He seems like a character who should be there to stay, enriching the world, giving Carrie a friend and peer, and possibly even a second love interest, should Brody stay away too long, or be painted too dark for Carrie's taste.

So many good moments, and nary a single complaint that I can think of. "The Choice" is an amazing piece of television, and a real shining example of what a smart series can be, and can do. Awesome work.

Homeland has been renewed for a third season and will return to Showtime next fall.

Want to read some of my fiction? It's on my website, JeromeWetzel.com! Also, for the latest updates and article links, as well as commentary on episodes I don't fully review, please follow me on Twitter!

Article first posted on TheTVKing

Friday, December 21, 2012

The last post of Gossip Girl

The CW aired the final Gossip Girl episode this week. Entitled "New York, I Love You XOXO," the episode wraps up the Bart Bass (Robert John Burke) storyline, reveals who is behind the titular character's website, and gives a glimpse into the future for all the main characters. It's an hour of cameos and romance.

Gossip Girl has always been scandalous and overly dramatic. And yet, I feel like some parts of this episode go just a little too far. One can be shocking without the plot holes, and this series usually is. The scene where Bart falls to his death is not helped by the hokey music, and making the finale A plot about some scheme to quickly wed Blair (Leighton Meester) to Chuck (Ed Westwick) so that she doesn't have to testify against him, when he did nothing wrong in the first place, is kind of ridiculous.

That being said, anything that gets a ring on Blair's ring, instead of around her neck, is good stuff. Fans of the series have been waiting for Blair and Chuck to finally get together for a very long time. Knowing they were promised to one another, but having to wait because of their careers, is sheer torture. "New York, I Love You XOXO" has to see them them walk down the aisle, and it did, with enough style to satisfy.

The wedding scene itself is touching. Do I wish the other drama wasn't forced upon it? Yes. But at least all of the characters pull together, and manage to make it happen before the police can show up to arrest Chuck. We get to see everyone celebrating and happy.

I also have mixed feelings on the outing of Dan (Penn Badgley) as Gossip Girl herself. He is a writer, sure, and has the talent and motivation to accomplish such a feat. However, there is a vague feeling that it doesn't quite add up. I would have to go back and re-watch the series to pinpoint when it doesn't work, and at some point, I will. But my first impression is, while this serves this particular point of the story very well, it may not add up in earlier seasons. And I think the flashbacks are mainly present in this episode to try to give a feeling of continuity.

The other characters' reactions to Dan's outing are completely in character and fantastic. Nate (Chace Crawford), who is already established as a good guy at heart, of course will forgive Dan when he is handing the story to Nate, saving Nate's beloved Spectator. Serena (Blake Lively) has also always been understanding, and her clear affection for Dan, at an all-time high after reading the nice things he wrote about her, make her susceptible to letting it slide. Chuck can appreciate a game well played, and Blair is, well, Blair.

Rufus (Matthew Settle) handles the news the best of anyone, because his concerns are real, and, I assume, the show's way of trying to address any past inconsistencies. Being mad at Dan about everything that happened with Jenny (Taylor Momsen) is exactly what Rufus should be, and allows someone to be angry, since Dan's friends can't be.

I love, love, love that everyone from Mayor Bloomberg (cameoing as himself) to Blair think that Dorota (Zuzanna Szadkowski) might have been Gossip Girl. After all, what fan hasn't suspected Blair's handmaiden is the guilty party from time to time, even though her apparent loyalty would make this the ultimate betrayal? And her wonderful bits that pepper the series continue through "New York, I Love You XOXO" when she has a very surprised Jack (Desmond Harrington) make her a drink.

The other reaction shots are great, too, as the secret is exposed amid a wave of appearances by past characters. These include Juliet (Katie Cassidy), Lola (Ella Rae Peck), Vanessa (Jessica Szohr), and even an almost unrecognizable Jenny. What a great way to fit the faces of earlier seasons in, without shoehorning them into a story in which they wouldn't fit! It's satisfying for the fans, makes sense for the series, and provides a great way to mark this major revelation.

One thing that is being talked about is the teasing cut scene where Kristen Bell, playing herself, delivers some of the same infamous phrasing she has been speaking for years as the voice of Gossip Girl, narrating Gossip Girl. It's fun little bit with another CW star, Rachel Bilson (Hart of Dixie), also playing herself, and a tongue in cheek reference for fans. This is all well and good, and I very much enjoyed it, until Bell turns and winks at the camera at the end. That takes it just a step too far, making what could have been an amazing scene only a very good one. We get the joke without the wink. No need for ham.

Then there's the ending, set five years later. There is a lot to praise this scene for. Knowing that it takes Dan and Serena five more years to get married is a bit disappointing, but not exactly surprising, considering. Given their track record, they probably broke up three times before getting hitched. I also greatly enjoyed seeing Chuck happier than he's ever been, glimpsing Dorota playing with the next generation, and Nate being successful, even if he hasn't found a girl yet.

The other elements of that scene, the ones that didn't make sense to me, such as Georgina (Michelle Trachtenberg) and Jack being invited (though I adore the thought of the evil duo as a couple), and Lily (Kelly Rutherford) ending up with William (William Baldwin), can be overlooked. After all, we know that relationships shift, and without seeing what happens in the intervening five years, these are plausible circumstances. They just aren't ones that are really telegraphed in the episodes leading up to "New York, I Love You XOXO."

Does anyone else want a two hour TV movie leading up to Dan and Serena's big day? Because I sure do!

Gossip Girl is a series that broke new ground, set trends, and was a highly addictive prime time soap for a good many years. I greatly appreciate the work everyone involved put in, and found the vast majority of it extremely entertaining. Even if the series finale stumbled a few times, it hit the needed emotional beats, and did not spoil my love of the show. For that, I thank it, and will definitely miss my Gossip Girl.

XOXO

Want to read some of my fiction? It's on my website, JeromeWetzel.com! Also, for the latest updates and article links, as well as commentary on episodes I don't fully review, please follow me on Twitter!

Article first posted on TheTVKing

Thursday, December 20, 2012

How I Met Your Mother turns "The Final Page"

CBS's How I Met Your Mother has begun their wrap up, getting two major characters together in this week's hour-long installment, "The Final Page." Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) has been dating Patrice (Ellen D. Williams), and when he is ready to propose after only a few weeks, he tells only Ted (Josh Radnor). Ted can't stand to let Robin (Cobie Smulders) sit idly by, knowing she is still in love with Barney, and so drives her to the site of the proposal to interrupt. But when Robin gets there, she learns it has all been an elaborate scheme by Barney to win her, and she accepts his ring.

Robin is upset with Barney at first, and she should be. He lies and manipulates her. At the same time, after How I Met Your Mother has already played so much with the two of them as a couple, any engagement has to be big. Thus, such a master plan, or something like it, has to come about, lest fans be disappointed by too small a gesture. Plus, Barney's earnestness and sincerity is enough to win Robin over, and earn his forgiveness from her and the viewers. This is a gambit played for true love, pure and simple, not just for sex, and the makes it all right.

What is more interesting to me in the whole scenario is that Barney really sells his relationship with Patrice enough for Robin to believe it. We know that he is ready to be done with games and settle down; this has been obvious for awhile. But to see Barney with a woman like Patrice, so far against his type, and to actually have a character believe he's being authentic, without seeming dumb for thinking so, is a difficult thing to do. "The Over-Correction" stuff last week makes it feel plausible. Though there is always a nagging doubt that the whole thing is fake, considering the way in which it is presented, one can't blame Robin for being fooled.

That, and how well Barney knows his friends is sweet. There are steps in his scheme that allow for everyone else to be who they are, butting in where they shouldn't. He also gives Ted the opportunity not to give up on Robin, and to keep her for himself, a friend move, rather than entrapment, not wanting to spoil Ted's happiness if Robin is still who he wants. These additions add to the successful execution, and are vital to the overall genius of the writing.

Now, after a teary and brilliant roof scene, Barney and Robin are engaged. This fundamentally changes their characters going forward, and begins building towards their wedding, which we've been glimpsing for a couple of years, mostly at the beginning and ends of seasons. This is going to shift the dynamic of the group, and really give the series some steam as it heads into those last stories of them finally and fully becoming adults.

Will How I Met Your Mother end this spring or next? No official announcement has been made, but it's very likely to be one of those two possibilities. Does the show have another whole year left in it? Should they wind things down sooner? I guess that's something we'll have to wait to find out. If it is bowing out this May, we need to hurry up and get to the wedding, though, because the series cannot end the moment Ted meets the mother. After eight seasons of set up, there has to be at least a little more.

So How I Met Your Mother definitely gets the drama right, as it has been doing for awhile now, but the comedy is still uneven. "The Final Page" has both hilarious moments, and terrible ones. Back in the day, the jokes landed solid week after week. It's a shame that this is not the case anymore. It's a good thing they have the emotional heft to keep their fans engaged.

The best comedy part of "The Final Page" is the jinx. Setting up an elaborate back story that doesn't allow Barney to talk, his friends make him squirm, and then he gets revenge, is very funny. It's the type of classic stuff that attracted many viewers in the early days of the series. There are a number of scenes in this story that really work.

I only wish the plot would have extended into the second half, at least with some resolution to Barney jinxing Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Marshall (Jason Segel). However, one cut scene could have adequately tied it up, so it's not completely necessary.

I also enjoy the recurring characters, like Ranjit (Marshall Manesh), Patrice, and Sandy (Alexis Denisof). I love that Hannigan's husband, Denisof, appears steadily on the series. I also really like seeing Hannigan reunited with her Buffy the Vampire Slayer character's beau, Seth Green, who plays Lily and Marshall's college friend. These are bits of nostalgia that play on the audience's emotions, and even if they are a bit gimmicky, we don't care.

Not so great is the other junk tossed in. The pit metaphor didn't work very well, and I loathed the Lily-and-Marshall-away-from-Marvin stuff. Them dropping down and crying in the middle of a fancy party is stupid and unacceptable. These characters, and the actors who play them, deserve better than this. We know that the writers can be smarter. Look at the jinx!

Overall, though, "The Final Page" is a special and memorable event in the larger arc of the show. I can't wait to see where the events of this episode will lead!

How I Met Your Mother returns to CBS Mondays at 8 p.m. ET in January.

Want to read some of my fiction? It's on my website, JeromeWetzel.com! Also, for the latest updates and article links, as well as commentary on episodes I don't fully review, please follow me on Twitter!

Article first posted on TheTVKing

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Glee, Actually not that great an episode


Doing five separate vignettes that come together at the end, reminiscent of Love, Actually, is a solid idea for an hour-long television Christmas episode. Sadly, Glee's attempt, "Glee, Actually," falls short, not just because of the lack of a serious romance (other than for our favorite gays, on which we don't get any real movement anyway), but because things don't tie together in the end. Not that "Glee, Actually," is a bad episode; it just doesn't fulfill the mission statement given for the hour.

The first section goes to Artie (Kevin McHale). In what has pretty much become a Christmas tradition, Artie wishes he could walk. I don't know why this comes up mainly around the holidays, but once more, it does. So what we get is a dream sequence in which Artie has always had the use of his legs.

I could spend much time picking apart the plot in this part of episode, especially concerning the status of certain other characters, but there's no point, because the entire thing happens in Artie's head. This isn't what life would really been like had Artie not been in a wheelchair; it's what Artie imagines it might be like. Of course, he is more important in his fictional version of the world than he is in reality, and his friends stay close by, instead of moving on with their lives.

Stylistically, it works pretty well. A segment called "Feliz Navidad" is a fun, if not overly exciting, piece, and the black and white It's A Wonderful Life play looks good. Artie is still a somewhat annoying character, but the echoes of previous seasons, like Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) stuttering again and Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig) popping in, make it worth it. I love, love, love that Rory (Damian McGinty) is Artie's guide, and wish that he would return to the series. Overall, I would rank the quality of this sequence right in the middle of the five presented.

Moving on, Burt (Mike O'Malley) pays a surprise visit to Kurt (Chris Colfer) in New York. At first, it just seems like a nice gift for his son, but Burt's real motives are soon revealed; he has cancer. He thinks it's been caught early, and he'll be fine, but given the sappiness of the plot, and Burt's past medical ailments, "Glee, Actually" kind of feels like a goodbye for the character. Not that he dies during the hour; that would ruin Christmas. But it would not be surprising if this plays out tragically in the near future.

Not only does Burt bring along his fun family traditions, but he also invites Blaine (Darren Criss) to join him. It seems that Burt, like most Glee fans, know that the two boys are meant to be together. He happily watches while they ice skate and sing "White Christmas," providing a sweet winter portrait, and hope for the kids' future after he's gone. One gets the impression that Burt's passing, and Blaine caring for him in the end, might actually be what pulls Kurt pack into Blaine's arms. Though this remains to be seen.

Next come the two weakest parts of the episode. Don't get me wrong; I am glad that Jake (Jacob Artist) and Noah (Mark Salling) have found real brothers in each other, even if the elder Puck looks every bit the actor's 30 years, spoiling the close-in-age factor. The Breaksticks scene with their mothers (Hung's Gina Hecht and Aisha Tyler from Archer, Friends, 24, etc.) is satisfying, and the siblings perform "Oh Chanukah" from my favorite band, the Barenaked Ladies.  Yet, the entire thing still leaves a little something to be desired, possibly because Salling's acting is only so-so, more glaringly obvious now that he is placed side by side with Artist.

Then we get Sam (Chord Overstreet) and Brittany (Heather Morris) getting married because they think the world is going to end, per the Mayan calendar. Not only are we supposed to believe that these bimbos are already this much in love, but that they both fully think life is about to cease as we know it. And Sam chooses to celebrate that end with "Jingle Bell Rock." Very cheesy.

Thankfully, Beiste (Dot-Marie Jones) intervenes and saves them from a legally binding union, thought not from days of teenage sex that they clearly have. This point actually isn't too bad, since Sam is a former stripper, and Brittany is named the school slut early in the show's run. But their arc stretches believability far too much, and should we suspend reality enough to buy them together, the two will still never be able to function in society, whether living in the TV universe or not. It just goes beyond the realm of what most people can accept. Things between the couple need to end right away, and Brittany can go back to being protected by a loving Santana (Naya Rivera). Until then, I'm glad that Beiste has her back.

Finally, there's Sue (Jane Lynch) playing Santa Claus once more, this time to Marley (Melissa Benoist) and her mother, Millie (Trisha Rae Stahl). The Roses are quickly becoming favorite characters, and deserving of any help that they are given. Marley's sweet rendition of "The First Noël" for her mother is emotionally moving, for viewers and for the cheerleading coach.
It may be expected for Sue's heart to melt in late December, as this is far from a first-time occurrence, but it's nice to see Marley and Millie be on the receiving end this year, benefiting from the thaw. Predictable story, yes, but done well enough to avoid feeling old and done to death.

The ending, with Marley getting some of her glee club friends to perform "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" for Sue, is mixed with characters at Breadsticks and in New York, which is supposed to be the unifying piece of "Glee, Actually." Aside from the weirdness of Blaine singing at the dinner table while being ignored by Kurt and Burt, it comes across pretty well as a stand-alone number. It just doesn't necessarily feel like a culmination of the different stories, but instead, a fairly standard number that could have been placed anywhere within the hour. Or in any other episode, for that matter.

The good news is, if "Glee, Actually" is as low as season four of Glee is destined to fall, this could still be the best season of the show since the first one. The bad news is, the weaknesses of this episode are also parts of larger arcs, which are taking this year's stories in unwelcome directions.

Should you decide to buy the soundtrack for this episode, Glee: The Music, The Christmas Album Volume 3, you will get four additional tracks not included in the television program. I have no idea what they are for, if there is story behind them, or if they are just randomly recorded.

Glee will return in 2013, airing Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on FOX.

Want to read some of my fiction? It's on my website, JeromeWetzel.com! Also, for the latest updates and article links, as well as commentary on episodes I don't fully review, please follow me on Twitter!

Article first published as TV Review: Glee - "Glee, Actually" on Blogcritics.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Not quite "Blown Away" by Scandal

Scandal - "Blown Away"
Grade: 88%

ABC's Scandal has a clever concept, big scales stories, and a terrific cast. But it still fails to deliver on its potential week in and week out. The issue may be the episodes that tackle large issues, and then seek closure at the end of an hour, keeping the series from breaking out into a true serial. Or it could be that when larger tales do play out, the situation keeps seeming worse and worse.

This week's fall finale, "Blown Away," is thankfully much more serial than procedural. Huck (Guillermo Diaz) is set up for shooting President "Fitz" Grant (Tony Goldwyn), but while his friends try to protect him, he doesn't do himself any favors, tracking down the real killer, Becky (Susan Pourfar), whom he is in love with. All of this plays out admist struggles for power, as the players in Washington won't even wait for Fitz to die before taking control of his office.

The action and mythology parts of "Blown Away" are what Scandal should be every week. The 'B' grade for the episode stems mostly from the fact that it doesn't feel like much of the rest of the season, and only now, well into a second year, are things ramping back up, as they did in season one. That, and things do get a tad predictable. As well as a couple of other issues that I'll get to shortly.

Poor Huck cannot be blamed for trusting Becky. His head is messed up as he struggles with his past and his addiction to killing people. It is because of the way he is trained by the government, and without Olivia (Kerry Washington) to keep a close eye on him, as she is wont to do, he begins to stray. It's no wonder he is easy pickings for another assassin on top of her game.

In the end, Huck decides to do the right thing, but like his relationship, he does so sloppily, giving Becky the chance at escape, but not before slaughtering people that Huck cares about, and leaving him on the hook for a serious crime. Viewers know that Huck will probably eventually be exonerated, even if Becky isn't caught. But that doesn't change the fact that he is in a dark place, and in no condition to handle what comes next. Hopefully, Scandal will allow Diaz to play out this plot to its fullest, taking Huck even deeper into the mire, and making it quite awhile before he can function as a full-fledged member of the team again.

Huck isn't the only one falling through the cracks. Quinn (Katie Lowes) is obsessed with figuring out what happened to her, finally having her suspicions that Huck and Olivia are involved confirmed in "Blown Away." Abby (Darby Stanchfield) is continually drawn towards what she sees as an unhealthy relationship with the "enemy," David Rosen (Joshua Malina). Harrison (Columbus Short) is basically left to run the group, a task he is not yet able to do effectively.

Perhaps a lot of the last few episodes have allowed the various members of Olivia's agency to stray because she herself has her attention divided. Back to flirting with Fitz, acting as the doting girlfriend, gossiping with Cyrus (Jeff Perry), and working at the White House, she has let other things slip, and she should blame herself at least as much as anyone else that her group is fracturing.

Not that I'm complaining about the Olivia / Cyrus scenes. They have been among my favorite parts of the fall run, revealing the depth of their affection for each other, and how they once worked together so well on the campaign.

But the fact of the matter is, Olivia's world is slimy. Politics are disgusting. Watching Vice President Langston (Kate Burton) assume the president's office, seeing Hollis Doyle (Gregg Henry, Bunheads, Hung) take control of the new leader, being betrayed by Justice Verna Thornton (Debra Mooney), it becomes more and more clear every day why Olivia left them behind. Her getting dragged back into it now makes her just as damaged as the rest of her team. Scandal is no West Wing by any stretch.

I do worry that the conspiracy story will ruin Olivia and Cyrus as sympathetic characters. Finding out that they rigged the election for Fitz, on top of everything else, and worked with the likes of Verna and Hollis, makes them difficult to root for. The more we learn about their actions, the more despicable they become. The writers may eventually try to smooth this over by giving a good reason why Fitz needed to win, but at that point, will it be too late to salvage their reputations?

There is also bound to be collateral damage before they can overcome their past. James (Dan Bucatinsky) is the most likely victim. It appears for a moment in "Blown Away" that he might be saved, when Cyrus agrees to give him a baby, and James vows to quit his job. But James is only fooling, knowing Cyrus is onto him. The love Cyrus has for James looks real, at least in as much as Cyrus is prepared to love another person. What will it do to Cyrus if James is killed? Or, at minimum, if their marriage is dissolved? Their union seems unrepairable at present.

By the end of "Blown Away," it appears that the writers have themselves in a corner. Will they be brilliant enough to get out of it, without tossing believability aside, or ruining all of the characters? Only time will tell, but there is no obvious path to redemption from here.

Scandal will return to ABC Thursday, January 10th at 10 p.m. ET.

Want to read some of my fiction? It's on my website, JeromeWetzel.com! Also, for the latest updates and article links, as well as commentary on episodes I don't fully review, please follow me on Twitter!

Article first published on TheTVKing

Elementary not a "Leviathan" to crack

Elementary - "The Leviathan"
Grade: 82%

In my review of the first episode of CBS's freshman drama Elementary, I had more than a few complaints. Chief among them, CBS will be watering the iconic character of Sherlock Holmes down by making him fit into a very neat box, solving one case per week, following in the footsteps of the far-too-common crime procedural. These particular fears have not been eased, but much of the rest of my concerns no longer seem valid.

For one thing, I complained that I wasn't sure Lucy Liu was up to the task of playing Joan Watson, a female version of John Watson. I was especially worried about a romantic tension between Sherlock (Johnny Lee Miller) and Watson, something that would ruin the dynamic of the duo, as well as the fact that Liu, while capable, just did not feel like a Watson-esque character to me.

I still don't see Liu's Watson the same way I see most other variations of the character. That ceases to matter, though, when one considers what Liu brings to the part. She plays in Elementary a vulnerable, intelligent, sidekick, one who lends valuable assistance, and isn't just there to carry his bags. She has her own personality and her own past that define her, meaning she is her own character, as well as Sherlock's assistant. She meets the very talented Miller head on, and proves a more than capable acting partner, having great chemistry with the lead.

For instance, in this week's installment, "The Leviathan," a key clue to finding the killer deals with a medical situation. Sherlock misses it, not being highly attuned to this area of specialty, but Watson doesn't, helping them find the culprit far quicker than they would have otherwise. Sure, Sherlock probably would have eventually solved the case, but Watson added real value to the process.

This is how their partnership has slowly progressed. Sherlock sees within her someone he can count on, and whose sensibilities echo his own. He says that he likes to collect experts, using their knowledge to supplement his own skills, a sensible thing to do. Sherlock has an ego, but part of that ego lets him know exactly who to go to for help. Watson is yet another card in his desk, but one that he, thankfully, enjoys being around in way he doesn't most other people, upping her importance.

Part of the conceit of bringing the two characters together is that Watson is assigned as Sherlock's sober companion for a set period of time. As season one plays out, the ending date of her assignment looms closer. Instead of waiting until the last minute, though, or coming up with some contrivance to temporarily extend Watson's tenure, the seeds are carefully being planted for her to leave her career and become Sherlock's full-time helper. Watson's mother, Mary (Freda Foh Shen), points out this week that Watson is happy working with Sherlock in a way she hasn't been for some time.

Now, that's not to say that Elementary will overcome the CBS procedural curse. Despite some wonderful characters, the majority of each episode is still focused on the case of the week. However, the scenes that do extend the mythology and the continuity are extremely good, enough to keep even this cynical viewer tuning in week after week.

"The Leviathan" disappoints in playing to the larger arcs, giving only a little bit of Watson's family life, and little else. But it does have one amazing scene where Sherlock tells Watson that they are both attracted to the bizarre, something most people don't understand. It's a telling insight into each of their personalities, and provides a reason why Sherlock would want Watson to stay on with him, even though he has a hard time expressing his emotions, or giving them importance in his decisions.

The safe cracking crime in "The Leviathan" is interesting, but like in most episodes of Elementary, it fails to feel fresh. The same drama could happen on any one of CBS's other series, and not much would change. This is unfortunate, because the characters here have the potential to tackle some truly interesting mysteries, rather than be stuck on dreary tasks. The writers seem to be doing their best to keep things exciting within the framework, but the show will never really be free to soar until it leaves those conventions behind, at least some of the time, something it isn't likely to do. The best we can hope for is that it soon enough earns the right to make "special episodes" that are artistically original, and do something memorable. Like House succeeded in doing.

Elementary is far better than I expected it to be, owing mostly to two incredible performers, and the characters they inhabit. But it still falls short of what it could be.

Elementary airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on CBS.

Want to read some of my fiction? It's on my website, JeromeWetzel.com! Also, for the latest updates and article links, as well as commentary on episodes I don't fully review, please follow me on Twitter!

Article first published on TheTVKing

Grey's Anatomy still running strong

Grade: 95%

ABC's Grey's Anatomy brings its fall run to a close with "Run, Baby, Run" this week. It's the day of Bailey's (Chandra Wilson) nuptials, and she is not ready for it. Does she love Ben (Jason George) enough to spend the rest of her live with him? Her first marriage ends badly, so she gets some doubts about whether entering into a second union is a good idea or not.

This episode is a great one for the character of Dr. Miranda Bailey. We get to see her strengths, and her vulnerabilities. The way she asks Meredith (Ellen Pompeo), Callie (Sara Ramirez), and Arizona (Jessica Capshaw) to be her bridesmaids is perfect and unique. When Webber (James Pickens Jr.) and Ben demonstrate just how well they know her, arranging a surgery to calm her nerves, it's heartwarming. Having Webber arrive to pick her up in the limo is touching. And then, watching Bailey skip the wedding to take care of an ailing Adele (Loretta Devine) is a great moment, not just for the series, but of television in general.

The way Bailey's character is so well-defined is a shining example of why Grey's Anatomy is still top notch nine seasons in. Believe it or not, many shows have less defined characters after so many episodes because the people are played out, then stretched to keep the plots going. In Grey's, that isn't the case. Situations may arise that are dire, and they can change the characters in some ways, but the core of who they are is solid, and by keeping their behavior true to that setup, the series lives on, as enjoyable as it ever has been.

But besides being consistent, Grey's Anatomy is still able to deliver surprises, just like in real life. Bailey chooses to attend to Adele, knowing Webber needs her, rather than go to her ceremony. "Run, Baby, Run" ends without knowing whether this means Bailey is calling off the marriage, letting her doubts take over, and seeing being a doctor as a truer purpose for her than being a wife, or whether she is just the compassionate woman and friend we know her to be, sticking by someone she cares about in his hour of need. We know Ben even less, and even though he has demonstrated that he likes Bailey for who she is, will he understand her actions in this particular situation? Thus, there is a hook that remains unpredictable, a triumph for a nine year old show.

I mention that the characters in Grey's are allowed to grow, while still keeping who they are at heart, and "Run, Baby, Run" showcases this for others besides Bailey, too. Several of the main cast begin the series as interns, still unsure of themselves, untested, and lacking leadership skills. But now, they are the attendings, with a new batch of newbies to rule over. Seeing Alex (Justin Chambers) try to teach (Camilla Luddington) a lesson) in his own, not quite effective way that he stands behind one hundred percent, at least in front of her, or Jackson (Jesse Williams) take nerves out of a leg without assistance in an important surgery proves this, and it's thrilling to use this scenes to measure how far the characters have come.

This is equally true when viewing the new interns, who can be sort of paralleled with the show's original five, but are beginning to deviate significantly from those personalities, only just barely starting to come into their own. The most obvious example of this in "Run, Baby, Run" is Stephanie (Jerrika Hinton), who is smitten with Jackson, and goes along as his date to Bailey's wedding, not really understanding what is going on. One can easily picture the same type of thing happening years ago, with the old attendings taking advantage of our beloved interns without a second thought, and the interns reading so much more into it.

The new generation this year is really, really strong. Other groups of interns have been introduced in the past, but haven't had staying power. These people, Jo, Stephanie, Shane (Gaius Charles), Heather (Tina Majorino), and, to a slightly lesser extent, Leah (Tessa Ferrer), seem to have what it takes to re-invent Grey's Anatomy all over again. With many of the experienced doctors leaving the series, this allows Grey's to continue with new blood, and letting the old blood of the previous interns become the surgical stars they are meant to be. Fantastic!

All of this does not mean that Grey's is done with their current cast members, by any means. Meredith is still growing, finding within her the ability to connect to Derek's sister, Lizzie (Neve Campbell, Party of Five, Scream), even after losing her own sibling. Meredith doesn't let people in easily, but as an adult in a marriage with a big family, she is learning. And Cristina (Sandra Oh) certainly ties the know with Owen (Kevin McKidd) well before she's ready, and she may finally be in a place where she can handle being part of a couple in a mature way, and thankfully Owen seems ready to give her that chance.

And does anyone else think that Jo and Alex are destined for a real romance? 

Basically, "Run, Baby, Run" highlights what Grey's Anatomy does right, reveals a path to keep it running for many more years, and faithfully serves the characters fans have come to love over many long years. Wonderful. 

Grey's Anatomy will return to ABC Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET in January.

Want to read some of my fiction? It's on my website, JeromeWetzel.com! Also, for the latest updates and article links, as well as commentary on episodes I don't fully review, please follow me on Twitter!

Article first published on TheTVKing

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas Episodes


 With Christmas upon us, everyone's thoughts turn towards the holiday. It's hard even for those not celebrating Christmas to be immune to the season, with stores bustling, selling huge amounts of merchandise, and decked out with various festive decorations.

This extends to our favorite television programs, with a great many of them, especially on the broadcast networks, going for a Christmas-themed episode. Hollywood may be full of Jews, but even (some) Jewish characters put up a tree these days. Or maybe not just these days, since the very Jewish Irving Berlin wrote the classic song "White Christmas."

There are a lot of ways to do a Christmas episode, though some have become cliche. Here are some of the most obvious scenarios, and if you're writing for a television show, please try not to do them any more. Unless you have a new, fresh twist on an old idea. Which, admittedly, maybe be hard to judge when writing it.

Movie Tributes
These come in quite a few different forms. Some are parodies, others copy the film's story, and some barely touch on more than a couple of themes. Often, episode titles make the connection obvious.

The most commonly used one, of course, is It's a Wonderful Life, in which a character falls into a coma or has a dream, and imagines what life would be like were a different choice made, or circumstances varied. Glee did it this year, albeit for only one act. But many, many other series have done it in the past.

It's a nice idea, getting to see familiar characters in a different light, acting ways they normally would not. And yet, it has been done to death. Some shows have tried moving this bit away from Christmas, but is still obvious what is being done. Unless there is a good reason, plot-wise, to show this, or one hundred percent effort is put into making it the best it can be for pretty much the entire length of the installment enough is enough.

A close second is A Christmas Carol, in which a grumpy puss decides to be nice. Everyone hates a Scrooge, but they love a tale of redemption. The change won't last, of course, so it's merely comfort food, rather than serious development. The story is classic for a reason, and these episodes do resonate with us. But they've been done. Move on.

Magic Endings
How many times have you been watching a holiday episode when the plot takes the characters to a dire place? Maybe their gifts have been stolen, maybe someone is missing, or maybe there's just a grinch in their midst who is ruining everyone else's good time. Whatever the setup, things are bad, and the characters cannot do anything to help themselves or others.

And then Santa Claus, or a man who looks very much like our stereotypical portrait of the jolly old elf, swoops in and saves the day. There is a happy ending, but not one that really makes sense to the story, or even has been hinted at all prior til that moment. He'll bring the presents or warm a heart, and basically make everything better. It's the Christmas version of dues-ex-machina.

This trope sucks because it's weak storytelling. Can our favorite characters not solve things themselves? Do they really need some supernatural being to fix their problems for them? If it's a sci-fi/fantasy genre series, and people with abnormal powers already exist in the universe, it almost sort of works. But most of the time, Santa pops up in sitcoms, not among the superheroes.

Yes, I admit, being grouchy about Santa is a humbug thing to be. It feels cruel to pick on this device too much. However, I know there are plenty of television writers out there who can come up with something original and brilliant, so the dissatisfaction is merely disappointment at an easy out, rather than a condemnation of the season.

Family Gatherings
For some reason, families on television are always dysfunctional. Although many viewers enjoy warm exchanges with beloved relations, that premise doesn't make for interesting television, so drama is tossed into the mix,  arguments ensue and lead to huge, blown-up exchanges, until a central character finds a way to bring everyone back together for a peaceful meal in the end. Unless it's funnier not to.

This one, I am not going to pick on too much. I prefer seeing parents and siblings to friends hanging out during the holidays because it seems more realistic. Some people don't see their families all that much outside of these special occasions, and so it makes sense for family, not friends, to be the holiday focus.

I just wish, however, there would be more lead-up to the family gatherings. Can't they spend at least one episode talking about, or preparing for, the celebration before the actual episode? Family Christmases are a marathon, not a sprint. They deserve more than 20 minutes.

Friend Gatherings
When families are not available, or travel is prohibitive, so all the main series characters find a way to celebrate together, even though they are not related. I'm sure this does happen sometimes in real life. And yet, it's far from the norm, which you would not get if your total understanding of the holiday experience stems from television.

Now there are exceptions to the rule. If the characters are working in a hospital, for instance, they may not be able to get Christmas off. Should they find the time to gather at work or late at night, that actually works pretty well, and can be sweet. But it is easy to forget the times this device works because of all the times it doesn't.

Normal Episodes That Just Happen to Take Place at Christmas
I am a fan of these, mostly because they keep the momentum of the show going. A lot of serial shows might ditch their larger arcs in favor of a one-off Christmas celebration, but those that don't do themselves a favor. Life doesn't stop from late November through early January. Nor should the stories of these characters.


Of course, we could go into what makes a brilliant Christmas special, as some shows have achieved (Community!), but that could be a topic for a whole other column. Plenty of series deliver good Christmas episodes, even among the others that fail.

Here's the dirty little secret though, that the television industry totally gets: we don't care if Christmas episodes are bad. Make them schmaltzy, ridiculous, and over the top. We're so occupied with our own good will and holiday feelings, that we'll overlook a weak script, or maybe even praise it because it piles on what we're already feeling.

This means that no matter what fans of good television everywhere think, the trend won't stop anytime soon. Even few critics care to complain, falling victim to the same good will as everyone else. I can sit at my computer today and pick things apart to my heart's content, but that doesn't mean that I'm not going to smile and watch more of this same stuff later today, enjoying every minute of it. Thank goodness, in the name of quality, that Christmas only comes once a year.

And also, thank goodness that there is a time of year where we can embrace pure, unadulterated happiness, and forget to be so cynical. That's why the Christmas episodes work, because they remind us of that childhood joy, before we had the stress and wisdom of age. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss, and this is never truer than at Christmas. Should we complain about the simple-mindedness of such special, or rejoice that they take us back to innocent experience of being a kid? Obviously, most people think that latter, and who am I to argue?

So I wish you and yours plenty of cheer, and will join you in continuing to watch these Christmas episodes. Why not? It's called finding the holiday spirit. Otherwise, you're just a grinch, and no one likes a grinch.


Want to read some of my fiction? It's on my website, JeromeWetzel.com! Also, for the latest updates and article links, as well as commentary on episodes I don't fully review, please follow me on Twitter!

Article first published as Christmas episodes on Blogcritics.

The Big Bang Theory: Naughty or nice?

CBS's The Big Bang Theory has gotten away a bit from its roots of four guys sitting around, being nerdy, dreaming about girls they could never have. Six seasons in, one is married, two are in serious relationships, and the fourth is feeling more and more isolated and lonely.

This week's episode, "The Santa Simulation," brings a reminder of the old, but without forgetting the new. Sheldon (Jim Parsons), Leonard (Johnny Galecki), Howard (Simon Helberg), and Raj (Kunal Nayyar) plan a Dungeons & Dragons night, much to the disappointment of their lady friends. It's a little sad, because everyone needs their own outlets, and couples don't have to spend every evening glued at the hip. However, since we do see the guys together a lot, just not geeking out quite this much anymore, it doesn't feel as cruel as it might that the girls object to being left out.

To get even, Penny (Kaley Cuoco), Bernadette (Melissa Rauch), and Amy (Mayim Bialik) get dolled up (or, rather, two of them do), parade in front of their men, and then head out to a bar to get drinks. No one is going to cheat on anyone, but they will be eye candy, not for their boyfriends and husband, but for strange dudes. If their guys won't pay attention to them, they'll get it somewhere else. Or at least, that's what they'll let the boys think is happening.

It's a testament to how much the characters have grown that Leonard and Howard don't jump off the couch and following Bernadette and Penny to the bar in "The Santa Simulation." Earlier in the series, the chance at being with a girl would prompt them to give up just about anything. This isn't the type of personality that can really exist for long in a loving, adult relationship, so while the men appreciate the looks and charms of their female companions, they are no longer owned by then. At least, not all of the time.

Does this hurt the premise of the series, which began with Leonard and friends ogling the neighbor? Not really. People do grow, change, and mature over time. The affection among friends has remained strong, geek cred is still high, and six years in, The Big Bang Theory is still pretty much just as consistently funny as ever.

For instance, Raj quickly looses the game, and so joins the girls. He stupidly tells Penny and Bernadette about his previous crushes on them, but refuses to even pretend he was ever interested in Amy, no matter how much the other women try to drive home that he should, because he hurts Amy's feelings. It's an amusing scene, and Bialik sells the ending of what could almost have been a stand-alone sketch.

Back in the apartment, Leonard puts a Christmas twist on their play, which evokes emotional history of Sheldon's young life. It's a fascinating, new glimpse at the most popular character, revealing a little more about what makes him who he is, and dwelling on it no more than it deserves to be dwelled on. It's poignant and humorous, a good blend. Sheldon's strategy in the episode is not unpredictable, but entertaining, and his dream sequence at the end stays just shy of going too hokey.

Stuart (Kevin Sussman) also joins in game night. He's still not a full member of the group, but after being upgraded to main character this season, he's been appearing more and more. Interestingly, he doesn't feel forced into "The Santa Simulation," but neither does he add much to it. The character works best in small subplots with Raj, and yet blends well enough with everyone else that he doesn't detract from the whole. What remains to be seen is whether the writers can find his perfect niche to make him soar, not just melt into the scenery, and headline his own story. Otherwise, he may not be long for the cast, as unfortunate as that may be. It's happened before (see: Sara Gilbert's Leslie Winkle).

In all, "The Santa Simulation" is not a spectacularly memorable holiday event, but a fine standard episode of a great series. The Big Bang Theory will return Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET to CBS in January.

Want to read some of my fiction? It's on my website, JeromeWetzel.com! Also, for the latest updates and article links, as well as commentary on episodes I don't fully review, please follow me on Twitter!

Article first posted on TheTVKing

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"Swan Song" replaces ugly duckling on Glee


"Swan Song," the latest episode of FOX's Glee, is a mixed bag. Part of the episode is very good, and part of the episode stinks. Scenes and plot make a move for greatness, and then either embrace it, or chicken out. Interestingly, the setting of said scenes tend to be a good indicator as to which end of the spectrum they fall on.

So the New Directions lose Sectionals. Last week's episode ended with them leaving the stage after Marley (Melissa Benoist) faints. Many assumed the club would pick up their performance at the start of the week's installment, and while "Swan Song" does begin moments after the previous episode ended, this is not to be the case.

Sue (Jane Lynch) is the instigator who shuts down the New Directions' chances for good. She has done many mean things, but nitpicking rules to get them disqualified is especially sinister. It seems to just be in the name of fulfilling a personal vendetta against Finn (Cory Monteith) for a rude comment he made weeks ago, as even Sue begins to wonder if she is going too far. But the point is, Sue gets away with it, the glee club season is over, Finn fails as a director, and everyone blames Marley for blowing their shot.

It's a very disheartening episode. "Swan Song" sees the members of the group meandering, several of them feeling very down on themselves, and the seniors losing all hope for their final year. The various singers switch to new clubs far too fast, and are accepted way too readily to be believable into these new groups, especially Artie (Kevin McHale), somehow scoring a band leadership position at a time when marching band is also over for the year. The thing that hits home is that the glee club is kaput, and they are all sad.

The only person that is truly happy about their failure is Brad the Piano Player (Brad Ellis), who gets his first line of the series, despite having appeared throughout, when he thanks Sue for saving him from the rude kids. It's a tongue-in-cheek joke that answers some concerns about realism in the show as a whole, without taking itself too seriously.

As dire as this seems, though, there is never any doubt about the end result. Finn and Marley feel bad, they help each other get over it, and then everyone is swayed into returning for a feel good finale to the tune of "Don't Dream It's Over." Not only is this totally predictable, and lets characters off the hook much too easily, the moment is spoiled in FOX's promos for the episode, which is yet another reason to avoid commercials and previews of any kind.

The story of the loss itself is gripping, but the cop out finale somewhat ruins any pathos generated, making "Swan Song" fall flat. Yes, Glee is a tale of triumph. But flopping so big, so early in the season calls for more than a couple of e-mails and a few inspiring words. Presumably, Glee doesn't want to spoil its planned happy Christmas episode. However, the series would have done much, much better to focus on the pathos, rather than the recurring themes of togetherness, a move that has deepened the New York story considerably, which I'll get to in a moment.

And while the New Directions, being disqualified, should be considered third place at Sectionals (out of three), look for the Warblers to be disqualified, too, and the group to get a second chance. If they don't, and are truly done with competition for the year, it will be better for the series, I think, and it would definitely be a surprise.

For some reason, Sugar Motta (Vanessa Lengies) sits this entire fiasco out. She doesn't appear in a single scene, including when the group comes back together in the end. Sure, she's not a main character, but like Unique's (Alex Newell) recent week off, it's a glaring omission that spoils the story, knowing a vital member of the club has just disappeared at an important moment. She needs to be there, at least in the wide shots.

Yet, Kitty (Becca Tobin), whose inclusion in the New Directions still baffles, and who doesn't really seem to care about the club, does come for the cold, outdoor, end performance. Why? It doesn't make sense.

The other arc happening at McKinley this week is Brittany (Heather Morris) getting with Sam (Chord Overstreet). This has been telegraphed all fall, but it doesn't make the inevitable kiss any easier to swallow. Even a decent duet of "Somethin' Stupid" doesn't make their pairing feel right, and hopefully the relationship will be short-lived, like Brittany's previous dalliance with Artie.

The reason I don't like Sam and Brittany as a pair is not because she is previously part of a lesbian couple, despite what her character says on screen in acknowledgement to fan resistance; Brittany is established pretty firmly as being bi-sexual in earlier seasons. Instead, it's because they just don't feel right together. There is no spark, no warmth, no connection. I like both of the characters very much, and they deserve better than being thrust together just because they are blond and ditzy.

On to New York City, where "Swan Song" shines. Rachel (Lea Michelle) continues to butt heads with Cassandra (Kate Hudson), which leads to a terrific dance off while singing "All That Jazz." For a bit, Rachel keeps up, really allowing Michelle to show off just how deep her talent goes, and illustrating the growth of the character. In the end, though, the dancing vet, Cassandra, wins out with the physical moves.

It's nice to see Rachel find her niche, and learn something about herself. She may not be great at dancing, but the confrontation leads her to redouble her confidence about her singing ability. The dance classes will still be important, as she will have a better chance at parts on Broadway if she is well rounded. But with a rare voice like Rachel's, there is no denying the power she has, and that she can succeed without being the best mover on the floor.

Rachel has ample opportunity to flaunt her talent when Carmen Tibideaux (Whoopi Goldberg) selects her for a special Winter Showcase, the first freshman picked in years. Rachel's "Being Good Isn't Good Enough" brings down the house, so much so that she is allowed an encore of "O Holy Night." Both numbers soar, and it's not hard to believe at all when Rachel wins against more experienced upperclassmen. Her voice, and the way that she uses it, is rare, even in the company of other performers.

"Swan Song" takes a more unexpected turn, though, when Carmen allows Kurt (Chris Colfer) to sing in front of everyone at the showcase, too. It's a trial by fire, the second chance he asked for, but when he least expects it. It may be that Carmen wants to see how he will do under pressure, or thinks that he might be better if he doesn't over prepare. Whatever the reason, this comes on Caremn's terms, and Kurt gets to sing "Being Alive," which is enough to gain his entry into NYADA.

Kurt's triumph is a great moment for Glee. He's no Rachel, of course, but he does deserve to be there, and it's satisfying that he finally is able to show it. It doesn't feel hokey because of the gravitas that Goldberg brings to the situation, and the sincerity she lends to the twist.

My only regret is that this may spell the end for Isabelle (Sarah Jessica Parker), who has been an absolute joy this year, as Kurt will probably quit his job to attend classes. Please, oh please, give her a goodbye, and not just have her never appear again!

The stark contrast between the New York and McKinley stories, as well as the maturation Rachel and Kurt have gone through, make an argument to ditch the high school stuff completely after this season. It's not that there are no more stories to tell there, but it's that the writers seem hard pressed to come up with them. Or, at least, to put as much effort into the students' parts, as they do the best alumni. For this reason, it may be time to sacrifice some of Glee so that another piece can flourish.

Glee will next present it's Christmas episode, "Glee, Actually," this Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on FOX.

Want to read some of my fiction? It's on my website, JeromeWetzel.com! Also, for the latest updates and article links, as well as commentary on episodes I don't fully review, please follow me on Twitter!

Article first published as TV Review: Glee - "Swan Song" on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Why Once Upon a Time is the new Lost


 Lost was a seminal television series that changed the face of network offerings. Steeped in mystery, staffed with a large cast, questioning human nature and philosophy, the show took six years to play out, sometimes doling out the clues in tidbits, other times in waves.

When it came to an end in 2010, whether fans loved the ending or hated it, many were saddened. Why not? They devoted years of their lives watching the show, countless hours debating it with their friends, and became extremely invested in the characters. Losing such a treasure is a big blow, and not one easily recoverable. It takes a very, very special series to replace such a loss.

I believe that Once Upon a Time has the potential to be that replacement.

How can I say that, considering that the beginning of both shows are quite different? On their faces, one is a modern day tale about a group of strangers trapped on an island, while the other involves fairy tale characters traversing world and possessing magic. And yet, there is so much the two have in common. While Once Upon a Time fervor may not yet have hit Lost heights, it still can, especially if it continues to travel the same path, and as more viewers discover it online and on disc.

Some of these similarities are obvious. Both shows air(ed) on ABC. They share producers Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis. Both count Emilie de Ravin among their stars and Alan Dale as a recurring, but vital, player. One of the most beloved actors from Lost, Jorge Garcia, recently guest starred on Once Upon a Time. Both delight in surprising the fans, making quick turns that change the game.

But it goes deeper than that, by far. For one thing, both deal with differing personalities within the same person, and how these people present themselves to the world. When we meet John Locke (Terry O'Quinn) on the island, he seems confident and sure of himself, not afraid to take a leadership position. Then we learn his back story, and see what has led him to this moment, discovering he was once a very different person, but is now embracing the new Locke. Yet, he is still not done growing. Similarly, Regina (Lana Parrilla) is an evil Mayor / Queen, who has a past that has changed her into this person, which she embraces. Until she doesn't.

Both shows have very complicated characters that look a little odd, and may or may not be bad, but are played by such fantastic actors that the audience cannot get enough of them. I refer, of course, to Ben Linus (Michael Emerson) and Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle). Do we root for them? More than we'd like to, sometimes. They have done detestable things, and deserve to be reviled. But any excuse to see them on screen is a good one, and when exposing their vulnerabilities, they are at their best.

Both shows feature different worlds. On Lost, this was a little less obvious, but the present day mainland is quite different from the island locale, and, in turn, the 1970s Dharma compound, in which several characters from this millennium spend some time. On Once Upon a Time, they've gone the more literal route, presenting Storybrooke, fairy tale land, Wonderland, and even a black and white horror realm. Each of these places has different rules and different players that familiar characters must navigate and interact with. But Storybrooke might as well be an island, isolated from the rest of the world, and obeying different laws of nature.

Both shows like to begin a season with a new setting and character, startling the audience, and making the series feel fresh. Desmond's (Henry Ian Cusick) introduction in the hatch is one of Lost's most memorable moments, making an impression that still amazes to this day. Meeting Neal (Michael Raymond-James) at the start of season two of Once Upon a Time feels like it is exactly in the vein.

Both shows have a huge supporting cast of characters, some of which appear often, and some only pop up from time to time. These characters can be connectors, tying central players together in unexpected ways, or they may arrive to teach a lesson, or begin a quest, or fall in love, or they may just be interesting side stories. Everyone has their favorites (Nestor Carbonell's Richard, or Jessy Schram's Cinderella, or Amy Acker's Astrid, or Katey Sagal's Helen, or Sonya Walger's Penny), but there is no telling how often they may appear, or what importance they will or will not hold.

Both shows have an annoying kid, and benefit when he is featured less. I'm sorry, even though Henry (Jared S. Gilmore) can be a decent addition to certain episodes, he is also a drag on plenty of others. Lost kind of has a similar problem with Walt (Malcolm David Kelley), whom they promptly have kidnapped, and then send home. This wouldn't work with Henry, as Emma (Jennifer Morrison) would become just as obsessed with finding her son as Michael (Harold Perrineau) does, which would ruin her character on the show, and she isn't as expendable. Walt still appears from time to time throughout Lost, and it he ends up furthering the plot and becomes not as grating over time. But less is more with many child actors, and the writers would do well to remember that.

Both shows feature a flawed savior. Everyone believes in Jack (Matthew Fox) most of the time, but he isn't always capable of making the best decisions. He is reluctant to assume the leadership role, but it is something he naturally falls back on because he wants to save everyone. He also has made mistakes in the past. Emma is like Jack, trying to be a good person and do the right thing, despite what she may have previously done, and she has the ability to be a protector, unlike most other characters.

Both shows are willing to execute major characters, or send them away, leaving room to inject new blood, or expand a smaller role. Lost did this repeatedly, with some of the casualties including Boone (Ian Somerhalder), Charlie (Dominic Monaghan), and Libby (Cynthia Watros). Once Upon a Time, not quite halfway through season two, has already killed off Sheriff Graham (Jamie Dornan), had August (Eion Bailey) go missing, demoted Jiminey (Raphael Sbarge), and promoted Belle (de Ravin) and Ruby (Meghan Ory). But as any good Lost fan knows, characters can return at any time in the most unexpected places, so I wouldn't count out any of these people yet. Not even the deceased Sheriff Graham, because...

Both shows feature flashbacks heavily, and often. Everyone knows that a good way to learn about a character is to explore their past. But most television shows use this element sparingly. Lost and Once Upon a Time build entire episodes around such back stories, making them significant chunks of the episodes on a weekly basis, and tying the past to the present. When done right, it's clever and entertaining.

Mysteries abound. Why can't the Storybrooke residents leave their town? How can the island move? Where is Rumple's son? What is the sideways universe? Who is Dr. Whale (David Anders)? How did polar bears get on the island? Some of these questions are answered quickly, others take a longer period of time. Some things will never fully be explained. But always keeping questions coming, never telling the full story, keeps the show energized, and brings fans back week after week.

Plus, they both like smoke (purple or black, it doesn't matter) a whole lot.

Will Once Upon a Time catch the wonderment and following that Lost possessed at its height? Does that really matter, as long as it is allowed to run for years, and play out a sprawling, intricate story? The point is, if you are a Lost-ie looking for something to fill that hole in your life and you haven't given Once Upon a Time a chance yet (past the first few, admittedly poor, episodes), you are missing out. They may seem like very different series, but they have major similarities that should definitely appeal to the same types of people.

Did I miss anything? The answer is most definitely (SPOILER ALERT!) yes. Feel free to weigh in on the comments below.


Jerome Wetzel has been reviewing television shows for years now. However, not every thought can be contained in an article about a single episode, and sometimes it's fun to look at the bigger picture. Join him each week in this wandering essay column as he ponders trends and genres, giving you his insights and opinions into the current state of television.

Want to read some of my fiction? It's on my website, JeromeWetzel.com! Also, for the latest updates and article links, as well as commentary on episodes I don't fully review, please follow me on Twitter!

Article first published as Why Once Upon a Time Is the New Lost on Blogcritics.