Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Walking Dead suffers no Judas

Article first published as THE WALKING DEAD Review Season 3 Episode 11 I Ain't A Judas on Seat42F.

Grade: 97%

AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD is heavy on great character moments and one-on-one scenes in the latest episode, “I Ain’t a Judas.” The series works best when delving into the tough choices these people have to make in their current hellscape of a world, and we get plenty of that, as there are tough decisions to be made this week. Tensions are high, and they will soon break, one way or the other.

Andrea (Laurie Holden) pushes the Governor (David Morrissey) for more information about her friends staying at the prison, mad at him for lying to her about going to talk with them, and disturbed to learn that there has been a shootout between the two groups. The Governor tries to deflect and push blame off, but Andrea insists on talking to her comrades herself, assuming there has been a simple misunderstanding, and that peace can be brokered.

There is no misunderstanding, as she soon learns, told by the others the horrible things the Governor has done. She isn’t sure if she can believe them, being under the Governor’s spell, and treated hostilely by the people she considers friends, who have good reason to be suspicious of her, especially since she waits several days after learning about them to visit. But a day at the prison seems to convince her, even if it’s not enough to get her to execute the Governor in his sleep.

I feel bad for Andrea in “I Ain’t a Judas,” caught in a tough place. She hasn’t witnessed the Governor’s brutality first hand, and based on what he tells her, she’s getting two conflicting stories. As much as she cares for those she left Atlanta with, she has been absent from them for a long time, and the Governor offers her a chance at a real life, in a community of others.

Andrea sure knows how to pick bad men in THE WALKING DEAD, first Shane, then the Governor. As discussed on the after show, Talking Dead, it takes a certain amount of crazy to be a leader in this new way of life, as even Rick (Andrew Lincoln), the hero of the show, demonstrates. Andrea is attracted to that power, and somehow thinks that wisdom comes with it, blinding her to obvious flaws. It does make me wonder if the series will go the way of the comics, eventually landing Andrea in Rick’s bed, even if that almost makes her a cliché or a floozy, which she is neither.

I’m not entirely sure our protagonists have convinced Andrea that he’s evil, even if she seems to be in good standing with her again, convinced she isn’t siding against them. She pulls the knife on the Governor, but can’t bring herself to kill him. Does she doubt the truth of what her friends say? Does she just not have it in her to murder a (at the time) defenseless man? Is she wondering how the Governor’s death might effect Woodbury, and her standing in it? So many questions playing across her face that are not answered for us.

How about Carol (Melissa McBride) laying out the plan to screw and then assassinate the Governor? We don’t expect this from her, as hardened as she might be, and hopefully that helps Andrea see how serious the situation is.

Michonne (Danai Gurira) is the most hurt by Andrea’s behavior, and she has every reason to be. The two are alone together even longer than Andrea is with the others, and for Andrea to not believe Michonne, to turn her back on her companion, is rough. I do think Michonne’s words about the Governor are the ones that finally make Andrea see that something is up. But yet, she still hesitates. Doesn’t Andrea realize that taking out the Governor would repair this fragile relationship?

The one thing that is positive from this is that the Governor seems to trust Andrea. For her to return to him and sleep with him after talking to her friends convinces him that she hasn’t been swayed away. This could make a betrayal by her unexpected when she does finally muster up the gumption to act, as long as she can keep her behavior and face in check.

Unfortunately, Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) and his gang end up in Woodbury at the end of “I Ain’t a Judas.” They see a little bit of crazy Rick at the prison, through not enough for Tyreese to want to fight him; too bad the same can’t be said for others in his group. However, the Governor is gearing up for a fight, and they need a way to earn their keep so that they can settle in a semi-safe place. It doesn’t reflect poorly on them, given their limited view of the situation, that they side with the Governor now. It’s just a shame. I hope this ends with Tyreese, a good guy, providing the inside man turning against the cruel dictator at a key moment.

I can’t decide if Milton (Dallas Roberts) has a chance at surviving this season of THE WALKING DEAD or not, or if I want him to. I really hoped that he’d go with Andrea to the prison and stay there, desperate to get out from under the Governor’s thumb. Milton is terrified of his boss, after all. But it seems that fear is so powerful, and his faith that the Governor will prevail so absolute, that he hesitates to switch sides. Maybe he can survive the coming confrontation, and Andrea can vouch he’s not bad, even if he is a coward?

Back at the prison, Hershel (Scott Wilson) yells at Rick, and Carl (Chandler Riggs) asks him to step down as leader. I think this one-two punch is enough to snap Rick out of his crazy, as he glimpses what could be a Lori slightly after Hershel’s words, but not again after Carl’s. For the rest of the episode, we see him stepping up, being the leader he is supposed to be, doing what he needs to for the group, including planning a scouting mission with Michonne.

Hopefully, the faith that the others have in Rick has not been shaken too badly. We know he’s a good man, and so do they, or they wouldn’t have put their trust in him in the first place. They see when he’s off the rails, and when he’s who he needs to be, and hopefully they also see the difference. Hershel and Daryl (Norman Reedus) seem to, content to take orders from Rick again in “I Ain’t a Judas.”

I do think Rick will get at least a brief chance to step away from being the leader, likely next season at some point. But he’s born to be in charge, and has qualities that few others possess. For the rest of the group, he must be strong.

It’s great that Rick sees Carl as a man. The Governor is right that adolescence is a twentieth century invention, and without the luxuries of the old way of life, there isn’t time for a teenager to act like a kid. Carl is conducting himself like a grown up, and Rick deciding to take him on the mission proves that his father, as protective as he might want to be with his son, realizes that Carl deserves to be included fully in the group.

I do wonder if Daryl really has a handle on Merle (Michael Rooker). Merle is playing nice for now, knowing he can’t go back to the Governor at this point, and this being the safest place for him, as well as where his brother is. But if Merle sees a chance to get back in the Governor’s good graces by doing harm to one of the group, especially Rick, I think he’ll jump at the chance. As I’ve said before, I just hope Daryl doesn’t have to be the one to personally put Merle down. Because Carol, the woman Daryl trusts most, warns him about Merle, I think Daryl is steeling himself for the possibility.

I am sure I missed some wonderful moment in the episode between two characters, there being so many to touch on. “I Ain’t a Judas” is a fine installment, giving us some words to ponder, some decisions to question, some cliffhangers to speculate on, and a few zombies bashed in the face to keep the action level up, even in a very personal episode. Fantastic job this week.

THE WALKING DEAD airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Suits goes to "War"

Article first published as Suits goes to "War" on the TheTVKing.

The characters in USA's Suits have had a rough season, what with Daniel Hardman (David Costabile) returning to the firm he helped found, trying to wrest control away away from the current partners, and then other firms smelling blood in the water and circling. In the season finale, "War," though, the biggest threat comes not from the outside of Pearson (Hardman?), but from the inside.

It's hard to tell which person the threat lies with. Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres) thinks the best course for the firm that she runs is to merge with a British company run by Edward Darby (Conleth Hill, Game of Thrones). However, Harvey (Gabriel Macht) disagrees, and does his best to thwart the arrangement.

Does Jessica have the firm's best interests in mind? Or is she just trying to put Harvey in his place? She's right that he acts like he has equal ownership in the place, so she has a point in wanting to humble him. But if Harvey truly believes that combining forces with Darby would be a mistake that will cost them all, then he might have good intentions, too. It's likely both Jessica and Harvey are motivated by selfishness and pride, as well as their stated purpose, so it all comes down to differing viewpoints, and not being able to back away from a confrontation with each other.

When combined against a common enemy, Jessica and Harvey are on the same page. Now, they clearly are not, making the workplace not nearly so harmonious. Is it because they do believe different things, or because they have been in fight mode for awhile, and are having trouble getting out of it? They still have aggression, and without Hardman or someone to direct it against, they end up turning on each other.

I worry about how things will progress in season three. By the end of "War," it seems that all trust between Jessica and Harvey is gone, both having cheated and played dirty to get what they want, with Jessica coming out on top. Harvey appears to be willing to play her game and get along, but it could just be a show, with him biding his time and plotting his next move. And maybe Jessica assumes that is what he's doing, so she's wary of him. There is a lot of tension there, and until the air clears, there will much discord between two characters, both beloved by fans.

What is very much up in the air is how Brady will fit into the chemistry. Will he be hands off, leaving Jessica to run things as she sees fit? Or will he interfere, meaning that Harvey is right, and Jessica will have to make up with Harvey to throw off the yolk of yet another dictator? Will he try to broker peace, or let them fight it out?

Sadly, the way Jessica wins is by using Mike (Patrick J. Adams), blackmailing him into turning on Harvey, his mentor and friend. Harvey takes the betrayal very personally, trying to fire Mike, who is now protected be Jessica, but who doesn't want to stay there that way.

Mike is put in a very difficult position. Jessica is his boss's boss. Mike can be forgiven for confiding in her initially, since he's seen Harvey support her all this times. Mike tried to find a way out himself, with double blackmail, but it didn't work. I don't know if Harvey could have protected Mike had Mike refused Jessica's orders. Surely, at some point, Harvey has to realize this. On the other hand, if Harvey thinks Mike put self-preservation above loyalty, understanding isn't going to do a whole lot of good, one way or the other.

We see just how bad things are for Mike in the file room at the end of "War." He is near tears, feeling like he has lost everything, and in a way, he's right. Adams does a superb job handling the roiling emotions, and it's a terrific scene for the actor, dealing with the fall out from a no-win scenario.

Then Rachel (Meghan Markle) comes in, mad at Mike for dodging a favor, and it's just too much. I've long been wanting Mike to tell Rachel the truth, and in this moment, if he doesn't, he could lose her forever. And so he spills his guts, and it results in hot sex, which they both need right then. They may be in dark places, professionally speaking, but at least they have each other, and that will help them. It's a bright spot on the horizon, one that will hopefully last this time.

I'm glad Mike and Rachel get the happy romantic scene, since Harvey's admirer, Scottie (Abigail Spencer), is tossed to the curb. Or is she? At Donna's (Sarah Rafferty) advice, Scottie sends a pretty clear message to Harvey about her interest in him. Even though Harvey is skeptical at first, it's enough to spur him to convince Brady not to fire her.

But will Harvey choose to work with her in New York, or send her to London? I'm guessing London, which would effectively end things between them. However, Harvey has shown some signs this year of maybe wanting to settle down, and if Scottie is a possibility, this could make for a whole other Harvey in season three, maybe one who is willing to extend an olive branch and an apology to Jessica.

Of course, Harvey could also be interested in Donna. Yes, I am glad the show doesn't go there because it's such a predictable move, but one of these days Donna is going to have to give a straight answer, while looking the questioner in the eyes, about how deep her feelings for Harvey go.

I would be remiss is I did not mention Louis (Rick Hoffman) in discussing "War." Not only does he have an amazing scene with Donna early in the episode, and we see him be a friend to Harvey, and he does the right thing in regards to Rachel, but he also has his own subplot with a potential new friend working for Brady, whom Louis sabotages a fledgling relationship with because he can't sacrifice the pride he has in his job.

I don't know if I like Louis more for sticking to his guns, even if it costs him a comrade, who I really hope pops up again, or am frustrated that he doesn't show his compassionate side here. We know he has one, and the interactions he has with each of the other cast members are phenomenally good. I do believe Hoffman's performance this year to be Emmy-worthy. Yet, Louis is a frustrating man, and it's hard to know when to love him or loathe him sometimes.

I have heard that opinions on this Suits finale have been mixed. For any detractors, I recommend watching again and just looking for the character moments. The movie and TV references are funny (nice Downtown Abbey one this week), and the cases are intriguing, but the leg up Suits has over its peers is just how well defined and performed the people featured are. These actors are doing incredible work, surely backed up by some truly smart writing. The moments that soar are the ones that display honest communication between any two of the main characters. This is why I love Suits, and will defend it vigorously.

Suits will return for a third season this summer on USA.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome on Blogcritics.

Now on Blu-ray and DVD, and downloadable, is Universal's Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome. Set 10 years into the First Cylon War, after the events of Caprica, and several decades before the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, Blood & Chrome follows young William Adama (Luke Pasqualino, The Borgias, Skins) on his very first mission, which goes horribly wrong.

For those BG fans who complain that Caprica isn't action-packed enough (I am definitely not one of them), Blood & Chrome swings to the opposite extreme, a high-octane thrill ride with simulated battles filling in the gaps where "not enough" is happening in the real world. It's a dark, at times scary, war story, taken to the front line and behind enemy lines.

Unfortunately, that means there isn't a lot of time for character development. BG works because of the actors, and the nuance with which they play their dealings with one another. It is as much about politics and religion as interpersonal relationships, and the fights with the Cylons come as secondary. Blood & Chrome moves the latter to center stage, making it fun when you're watching, but a bit hollow in retrospect. This works well for a web series, which one can tell Blood & Chrome is, edited together now into a not-quite-seamless television movie.

I'll be honest, I'm torn on Pasqualino as Adama. He is the fourth actor to tackle the role in the official franchise, and I see a bit of the Caprica take in some of his dialogue and mannerisms, when he isn't being way too cocky. I don't, however, see the grown up Adama at all. Perhaps that is intended to come later, in the unlikely event this project is pushed forward as a series, but it's missing here.

Blood & Chrome is sold to us as a potential pilot, but it's not clear what the series would feel like from this first episode. Rather than setting up the full cast or what the characters will be doing, it follows only three people for a large part of the movie: Adama, his co-pilot Coker (Ben Cotton, Hellcats), who is near the end of his tour of duty, and just wants a calm last few weeks, having lost the fighting spirit, and Dr. Becca Kelly (Lili Bordan, Cherry.), who has a secret mission for them, and claims she can turn the tide of the war. One of those three, I won't reveal which, wouldn't even get to continue if the story went on.

For the most part, I enjoy the hour and a half, even if it doesn't make me miss Battlestar Galactica less. But there are enough hokey missteps, like Adama hooking up with Becca, the creepy half-machine cave worms, and yet another new Cylon soldier, as well as a glimpse at an early attempt of a human-model Cylon (interestingly voiced by Six herself, Tricia Helfer), that prevent this from being quality entertainment. Adama is close enough to events in Caprica to understand what the Cylons actually are. Why doesn't that play a role here?

What really kills Blood & Chrome for me is the reuse of BG and Caprica alum as new characters. Cotton only has a bit part in BG: Razor, so that's not too bad, but most of the rest of the cast, including Adrian Holes, Leo Li Chiang, Mike Dopud, Carmen Moore, Allison Warnyca, Sebastian Spence, Zak Santiago, Colin Corrigan, Jill Teed, Ty Olsson, Brian Markinson, and John Pyper-Ferguson are already present in other stories as different characters, and still recognizable from their previous roles. This really destroys any believability, and is definitely the absolute worst thing about Blood & Chrome.

On the positive side of the chart, for those keeping score, are the special effects. One would swear previous BG sets have just been upgraded, but pretty much this entire movie is green screen, so they've actually been digitally re-created. It's OK that the hanger bay and control room are busier and fuller than in the previous series, because this is Galactica at the height of her service, fully manned and equipped. It all looks so real, if they hadn't included an intriguing twenty-two minute featurette as an extra, showing how they created the sets, I wouldn't believe it. I can't think of another series that has done effects this good.

Which means that Blood & Chrome looks and sounds spectacular in high definition. Much care goes into every detail of the design, and with all the computer work, they are able to make everything super sharp. The colors are mostly of a dark palate, but there is such a broad spectrum represented that one could easily forget that, seeing how rich it looks. The soundtrack is not as sweeping as its predecessors, but again, is flawless.

Blood & Chrome is made by design and programming nerds, and it shows. Story takes a back seat to effects, and the visuals are mind-blowing. It's an example of what a new BG could look like, and is definitely an argument to bring some incarnation of the show back. Just not this one, because we need the story part of it, too.

Besides the aforementioned featurette, there are about ten or so deleted scenes. That's it on the extras, sadly.

Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome is available as a Blu-ray / DVD / Digital Copy / Ultraviolet combo pack now.

Golden Boy tarnished by network's reputation

Article first published as GOLDEN BOY Review at Seat42F.

Grade: 85%

At first glance, CBS’s GOLDEN BOY, premiering this week, may seem like more than your typical cop drama. After an intense opening, the story moves seven years into the future, where we see Walter William Clark Jr. (Theo James, Bedlam) being interviewed by a reporter (Richard Kind, Luck, Spin City) about how he has become the youngest police commissioner of New York City, ever.

This is a great draw. We know that the older Walter looks quite a bit aged, pointing to a hard journey. There is regret in his tone as he talks about the price he paid to rise so quickly, so we know there will be tragedy. The fact that he is now police commissioner means that the series may move away from solving murders on the street, eventually, as we do have seven years of story to get through first.

Clark is terrific, really letting the pathos play on his face, and his American accent is pretty good. His character is an egomaniacal, overconfident jerk, so we need these future scenes to show us that he has grown, and eventually gotten beyond the arrogance of his youth. Probably. And knowing there will be movement built in is nice.

But then we get to the meat of the plot, beginning when Walter, after heroic actions, chooses to be on the homicide squad. He isn’t accepted at first because he’s young and hasn’t earned his bones. But because he really is as good as he thinks he is, he proves himself in a single hour to his co-workers.

I keep expecting Walter to screw up in the “Pilot,” as we so often see in such main characters, the drama being that they really aren’t as ready as they think they are. Walter is special, though, so GOLDEN BOY chooses the alternate tack, building him up, rather than tearing him down. Because we’ve seen where he is in seven years, we know fall will never seriously come, at least not professionally, though perhaps personally.

The problem is, if he never screws up, how will he learn? Walter’s assigned partner, Detective Don Owen (Chi McBride, Pushing Daisies, Boston Public), two years away from his retirement, is the only one who sees this, and while Don is a patient man, one wonders how long his patience with the upstart might last.

Don is set up to be a finite character. With only a couple of years left on the force, this means we are told that Don may not stick around for the long haul, even though we see his picture on future Walter’s desk.

However, because this is CBS, I strongly suspect that these hints of a great, sweeping story of a genius who does great things will be reduced to a formula. Until that day, seven years in the future, when Walter takes the big office, he will be solving a case every week. They could even stretch it longer than seven years, should the show prove popular, or make Walter the first commissioner to be out catching the bad guys himself. Don could put off retirement, sticking around for the duration, which is what I expect to see, given CBS’s track record.

Is it fair to pigeon hole what, on the face, appears to be a somewhat compelling series just because of the network it is on? I think so. Blue Bloods and Hawaii Five-0 looked like they could break the mold, but have been reduced back to the typical CBS fare. I have little confidence that GOLDEN BOY will be any different.

Part of my worry stems from the fact that the rest of the cast is pretty much what one would expect from such a series. There’s the hotshot jerk, Christian Arroyo (Kevin Alejandro, True Blood, Southland), the popular guy who Walter wants to be, even though viewers know he’ll be better off listening to Don. Christian has a softer partner in Deborah McKenzie (Bonnie Somerville, Cashmere Mafia), a pretty woman we are told is tough, but who is nice to Walter, and could even be a love interest. Another detective, Joe Diaco (Holt McCallany, Lights Out), is the likeable rogue, who will probably get in trouble because of all the rules he breaks in skimming connections. And finally, the obligatory troubled family member, Walter’s drug-addicted sister Agnes (Stella Maeve, The Runaways), who is supposed to show the human side of Walter, and provide a distraction form the casework.

If the supporting cast weren’t such a predictable lineup of personalities, I might hold out hope for GOLDEN BOY. As it is, I appreciate the “Pilot,” but will probably not become a regular watcher. The audience that will love it is those that eat up CBS’s cop shows, as this one will probably be more of the same. This is regrettable, because the cast is full of amazing actors who deserve better, but won’t get it while locked into a long-term contract.

 GOLDEN BOY premieres Tuesday, February 26th at 10 p.m. ET.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Game of Thrones The Complete Second Season

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Game of Thrones The Complete Second Season on Blogcritics.

Season one of the HBO series Game of Thrones is a lot about setting up the world of the show, introducing us to the characters and their various positions and relations. Season two, though, which aired last spring, and is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital Download, is about floundering for control in a major power vacuum, the world thrown into chaos, and enough uncertainty that anyone could come out ahead.

Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) sits on the Iron Throne, the traditional place of power for the Seven Kingdoms. He is young and arrogant, battling with manipulative mother Cersei (Lena Headey) and frustrated uncle Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) over what should be done for their land. Only Tyrion truly understands the costs of Joffrey's actions, with Dinklage delivering a stellar performance, and Cersei begins to question whether she has sway over her son any longer.

Joffrey's rule is disputed by many, both because of (true) rumors that he is not the actual son of the departed King Robert, but instead a product of incest between Cersei and her brother, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and because he coldly executes the beloved leader of the North, Ned Stark, late in season one. Ned's eldest son, Robb (Richard Madden), is declared King of the North by his people, a title Joffrey is determined not to let stand, while Robert's brothers, Renley (Gethin Anthony) and Stannis (Stephen Dillane), the latter of whom is distracted by the lure of a wicked temptress (Carice van Houten), each hope to take back the entire Seven Kingdoms.

These are the main power players at this point, and they clash numerous times. It's interesting how Game of Thrones not only can balance so many personalities, but keep them all feeling distinct and authentic. The series is not about the war, even though that is a major focus, but instead is about the characters. Each have good and bad sides, struggling with their flaws, and occasionally getting to showcase their strengths. The bad guys are deliciously creepy, and the heroes are noble, but each also have other elements about them, and people in their camp who should be on the opposite side.

This trend can be seen continuing among the various other inhabitants of the realm, who are also featured, even though many are not directly involved in the battles. There are quite a few of these, but some of the most striking include: the Hound (Rory McCann), Joffrey's pitbull who doesn't always follow orders he disagrees with; Sansa (Sophie Turner), Joffrey's betrothed, who hates him for killing her father; Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), Ned's young son, running their hold of Winterfell; Jon Snow (Kit Harington), serving in the Night's Watch in the frozen North, from which the next major threat will likely come; Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), once a resident of Winterfell, but who lets ambition move him; Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), whom is raising dragons and trying to keep her small group of subjects alive, all the while plotting to eventually re-conquer the Seven Kingdoms, which her father once ruled; and Arya (Maisie Williams), Ned's daughter, on the run, alone in the land.

Believe it or not, these are only some of the many characters that populate the world. Game of Thrones is a sweeping epic, with many, many peoples and lands. It's like Lord of the Rings on steroids, and with slightly less magic (literal magic, not a slam on the production). Yet, this is all expertly balanced, so many given their due, and a number of twists occur that will make season three a different beast entirely. For those who haven't yet watched these installments, I won't spoil any happenings.

Likely because of the lush, beautiful landscapes and startlingly good special effects, Game of Thrones looks stunning in high definition. The colors are deep and full, and the blacks are rich and layered. The soundtrack, with all of the background noises and the at-times sweeping score is also excellent and clear, free of hisses and pops. Game of Thrones has the benefit of a nice budget and being made in the modern day, with great technology, and it takes full advantage of all of this.

The release is a combo pack, featuring Blu-rays and DVDs, as well as codes to download digital copies of the episodes. It's a beautiful, well organized box set, with the priority going to the Blu version.

It is also loaded with bonus material. The booklet inside is slim, and gives only the briefest overview of the various houses. On the disc, though, there are character profiles, a guide to the "War of the Five Kings" that is more comprehensive, and nineteen animated histories of the various characters and mythologies. If you so choose (I recommend only doing this for repeat viewings), you can make use of an In-Episode Guide that has resources throughout the episodes to help you track the characters. Which is not to say you'll need help keeping score, if you've watched from the beginning, but it's nice to have the option. Game of Thrones is complex, but accessible.

There is also a 30 minute behind-the-scenes look at the huge sea confrontation from the penultimate episode, a talk with some of the main actors of the series, and a discussion by George R.R. Martin, the author of the book series, and others about the religions of the land. And twelve audio commentaries for the ten episodes mean fans will not be hurting for insight.

All in all, Game of Thrones really delivers, both as a show, and as a Blu-ray set. There is so much material here, one could spend weeks wading through the depths. And the story and characters are so rich, it practically begs for such study.

Game of Thrones The Complete Second Season is available now.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Community at a Convention

Article first published as Community at a Convention on TheTVKing.

Grade: 82%

In this week's episode of NBC's Community, "Conventions of Space and Time," Troy (Donald Glover), Britta (Gillian Jacobs), and Abed (Danny Pudi) attend a science fiction convention celebrating the guys' favorite television series, Inspector Spacetime. (If you don't know what Inspector Spacetime is, it's Community's take on Doctor Who, without having to worry about copyright issues). But, rather than just having a fun weekend, they are plagued by a test of their friendship and the tag-along of the rest of the study group.

For those waiting for a good Abed / Troy / Britta relationship story, this is the episode for you. Britta is shown to be very supportive of Troy and Abed, and even does her best to get them back together, not caring at all about spending alone time with Troy. She does remain herself, pushing Abed's buttons by championing the one female Inspector, even though she hasn't seen any episodes with said character, and the fans all agree she's horrible, Britta does put Troy's needs first, and is shown to be a loving girlfriend. This dynamic works.

Plus, the opening sequence where Britta does gymnastics outside the apartment so that she can try to fool Abed into thinking she's not sleeping over, is fantastic.

Abed, on the other hand, is ready to distance himself from Troy. I'm not sure this totally makes sense for his character, but we have seen some tension between the two lately as everyone prepares for graduation and moving on with their lives, and Troy finds regular sex. So, Abed befriends a foreigner named Toby (Matt Lucas, Bridesmaids, Little Britain), who shares his obsession with the show, and is far too obviously rude towards Troy. Though I like the e-mail-Nigeria scam joke.

I like that "Conventions of Space and Time" proves to Abed that he needs a Reggie for a companion, not another Inspector, and so Troy comes to Abed's rescue, and Toby is displaced. However, I can't help but thinking the parallels between the Abed/Troy story and the Inspector Spacetime show should be more pronounced. What happens to them at the convention could fit in with an episode of their fictional show, so why not make it feel like one? In the past, I think Community would have tried a little harder to do so.

Jeff (Joel McHale) and Annie (Alison Brie) road trip with the others, intending to ski while the nerds do their thing. But the slopes are shut down, so Jeff immediately wants to go home. Until he meets an attractive woman (Battlestar Galactica's Tricia Helfer) who thinks he is the actor who plays Inspector Spacetime's foe.

Annie, on the other hand, is thrilled when the hotel staff mistakenly call her Mrs. Winger, and takes pleasure in building up a fake marriage between her and Jeff. When the staff sees Jeff flirting with someone else in the lobby, though, it interrupts Jeff's fun.

The fact that Annie's actions do not thoroughly creep Jeff out is a good sign for a relationship between them. He knows who she is, in all of her weirdness, and doesn't judge her for it. Jeff doesn't end up being very upset about losing his chance with the other girl, though I do question why he is flirting with someone else when he and Annie clearly intended to share a hotel room on this trip. Are they dating or not? Casually sleeping together? If it's the latter, why isn't Jeff allowing things to go to the next level, since "Conventions of Space and Time" make it seem that he cares deeply for her, and really likes her in spite of everything.

Last week, I voiced my opinion that Jeff should end up with Britta. This week makes me question that, and now I'm undecided. At least the chemistry between Jeff and Annie is handled well, even if their story isn't.

I give the production team credit for making the Inspector Spacetime foe look just enough like Joel McHale for it to be believable that Jeff is mistaken for him, but not so much so much so that it just looks like a picture of Joel McHale. There's a delicate balance here, and they strike just the right note.

Meanwhile, Pierce (Chevy Chase) is mad at being left out (again), so he drives Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), who is also not invited, up to the convention. Once there, they are pulled into a focus group deciding how an American remake of Inspector Spacetime should be, and while Shirley tries, for the sake of her friends, to preserve what makes the show beloved, Pierce butts in with lots of series-destroying ideas.

It seems a bit of a stretch to give Pierce and Shirley this subplot. It's fine that they get up to the convention, but after doing so, they should be integrated into the main story, rather than being so separated. Or at least whatever they are doing should tie into the rest, which it doesn't really do. The fact that the tag at the end shows that Pierce's ideas have been taken to heart is terrible, and takes a focus group criticism to the extreme. Not at all realistic.

Once more, this episode is a great idea for Community, with some terrific one-liners, just not executed well enough overall. The individual bits are fine and amusing, and the two guest stars are wonderful, but there is a lack of cohesion that makes the installment fall a little flat. Some tweaks, and this would be fantastic. Instead, it's entertaining on the surface, and hollow underneath. It has been this way for three episodes in a row, which makes me pessimistic about the outlook for the rest of the season.

Community airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

Downton Abbey celebrates romantic Christmas

Article first published as Downton Abbey celebrates romantic Christmas on TheTVKing.

Grade: 94%

PBS completed its airing of Downton Abbey's third series this week with the hour-and-a-half Christmas special. While much of the drama does usually revolve around romance, this installment kicks it up a notch, and for awhile, it seems like everyone is coupling up. Which is a sweet note to end the year on, even if they all won't work out.

Robert (Hugh Bonneville) Crawley, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), and their closest relations are invited to Duneagle Castle, the home of Violet's (Maggie Smith) niece, Susan (Phoebe Nicholls, Brideshead Revisited). Unfortunately, during their stay, it becomes increasingly obvious that Susan and her husband, Shrimpie (Peter Egan, Death at a Funeral), don't get along in the slightest. This leads to Robert appreciating Cora more than ever.

Robert and Cora's marriage isn't always smooth sailing. We've seen some up and downs, especially when losing a child. However, they always manage to work things out, and there is real, tangible love between them. We see this in their occasional quiet moments alone. Contrasted with such a terrible pair, it's nice to know that our protagonists recognize that they have something special, and remind each other of it.

Susan and Shrimpie make the wise decision to try to spend some time apart by the end of the episode, but they do have a problem: what to do with their daughter Rose (Lily James, Secret Diary of a Call Girl). Why, send her to Downton, of course!

I'm not sure yet if I like Rose, but she will certainly add some conflict to the upcoming fourth season, in which she has been promoted to main character. She will surely clash with the more traditional members of the household, and test the family's patience as she acts out even more than their own daughters have. It should be scandalous, if nothing else. As long as she doesn't bring ruin on the family, she will likely be more fun than annoying. Maybe even get some of the others to lighten up.

Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) don't have much story in this Christmas special, but it's satisfying just to see them enjoying one another's company. After the far-too-drawn-out arc that lands Mr. Bates in prison, getting to witness them spending time together will bring a smile to many a face, and that is all we need from this couple for now. They deserve some peace.

Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is denied her own peace when her editor, Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards) follows her to Scotland. Physically, he looks a lot like Edith's previous suitor, though younger and healthier. Sadly, he comes with his own baggage that makes it impossible for them to be together. Edith definitely has a type. The family would like to warn Michael off, but Edith, as usual, will have none of their meddling, preferring to settle her own matters of the heart.

I do feel bad for poor Edith. After everything she has been through, she just can't find an easy path to love. There is much to admire about her, and she has firmly established herself as a character that should be well liked and respected. If she wants Michael, she'll get him. But let's hope that his wife, locked away for the past several years in an asylum, dies first, providing a convenient resolution to their issue so that she can finally be happy.

This isn't about any couple of characters, like the other paragraphs in the review are, but it is highly amusing to see Mrs. O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) tussle and come out ahead against her Scottish counterpart, Wilkins (Simone Lahbib). O'Brien may be the least pleasant member of the cast, but at least she's one of ours, and Wilkins proves to be even more grumpy. Plus, their little battle of wits leads to a drunken dancing Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), which is a sight we definitely needed to see.

Back at Downton, Tom (Allen Leech) is left to mind the house by himself, making him easy prey for the new maid, Edna (MyAnna Buring, Ripper Street). This does shine a light on the fact that Tom is lonely, and deserves a little happiness. Maybe that will be in the cards for him next year.

For now, though, Edna is acting highly in appropriate, and I am glad to see her promptly fired. No matter what Tom's background is, he's a gentleman now, part of the upper crust. It's one thing for him to dine with his former co-workers in the basement. It's quite another for him to take up with one of them in his in-laws' house. Maybe Tom's next romance will be from the lower class, but it cannot come among the staff at this particular place. It would be a slap in the face to Robert, and Tom would wind up being a driver again.

While most of the Crawleys are away, the staff decides to take a little break, much to Carson's (Jim Carter) dismay. Carson is entirely too stuffy for his own good, and like Robert, he needs to modernize a bit. However, we do get to see a softer side of him as he bonds with baby Sybil, a welcome glimpse of the soft heart we all know he tries to hide so well.

Isobel (Penelope Wilton) spends some time with Dr. Clarkson (David Robb) in this episode, who would like to begin something serious with the widow. It's disappointing that Isobel isn't interested, because it would be nice to see her with a man for a change, but at the same time, one has to admire the way she gently cuts Clarkson off at the pass, anticipating his intentions, and giving him a way to save face. She is a remarkable woman, and any guy would be lucky to have her.

Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) is invited to a local fair by a new vendor, someone who offers her a date, followed closely by a proposal. But Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) notices that this new beau has a wandering eye and a flirty hand. She warns Mrs. Patmore, who is relieved at not having to make a choice about being a wife.

Mrs. Patmore is one of the most enjoyable, fun characters on Downton Abbey. It's nice to see her get some positive attention from a man, even if it's just for her cooking. But I also adore the friendship she has with Mrs. Hughes, and this plot is as much about the two women as it is a chance for love. In this, it's a wonderful side trip that I hope to see more of.

Jimmy (Ed Speleers) also runs into trouble at the fair when he gets drunk and is mugged. Thomas (Rob James-Collier) comes to his rescue, taking the beating himself, and allowing Jimmy to escape. It's what Jimmy finally needs to put the past unfortunate incident with Thomas aside, and even form a friendship. I will be very interested to see where this might take the two characters next year.

Thomas has long been a thorn in the side of Downton Abbey, an unlikeable jerk who should have been kicked out long ago. Yet, when his homosexuality is exposed, his pain and suffering laid bare for us to see, the family and staff alike close ranks to protect him. I think this causes a fundamental shift in Thomas, knowing he is valued and cared for, no matter what he is, for the first time. I like this nicer Thomas, and hope his villainous days are behind him.

Lastly, we get to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who goes into labor a little early after her journey. The family rushes home to be by her side after she has her baby, and it's a beautiful boy, finally providing the next in line to inherit Downton Abbey, extending the line of successions. For a moment, we see Mary, Matthew (Dan Stevens), and the unnamed infant together, a perfect picture of a happy family.

And then Matthew is tragically killed in an automobile accident. This is a necessary twist, given Stevens' selfish desire to quit the series that has made him famous. But it's unwelcome, both to the story, and to the fans, many of whom are as invested in events as the characters. We already are still reeling from Sybil's passing. It's not fair to introduce another child who will be raised by a single parent. It took so long for Matthew and Mary to get to this place, it's highly disappointing to see them ripped apart now.

Knowing ahead of time what would come, I expected Matthew to die before he could make it to the hospital to see his son, but am relieved the he didn't. At least he dies happy, and we have that image of him with wife and baby. But it still sucks as a story, and the only blame that can really be laid is upon the actor himself, as it is his decision to go.

This is a lengthy review, just touching on so many characters, and leaving some of the main ones out. Downton Abbey has a fantastic large ensemble, and I cannot wait to see more of the same quality storytelling they have delivered these past three years. I have no complaints about the installment (save Matthew's death), just an appreciation for a job well done.

Downton Abbey will return for a fourth series.

THE AMERICANS are "In Control"

First published as THE AMERICANS Review Season 1 Episode 4 In Control on Seat42F.

Grade: 89%

This week’s installment of FX’s THE AMERICANS is entitled “In Control.” No one knows exactly who is in control when President Reagan is shot. The CIA scramble to find out if the Russians are behind it. So, in fact, do the Russian agents, who are also on the lookout for a U.S. government coup.

The assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan is the first major historical event that intersects with THE AMERICANS, but it is a vitally important one. Set during the Cold War, “In Control” reminds us just how tense things are in that time period, and how close we are to war. If Reagan’s shooter had been a Soviet, instead of some guy trying to impress Hollywood actress Jodi Foster, World War III could have begun at that moment. If the Russians had struck first, assuming the U.S. would attack them, as they could have if the Jennings had reported the garbled conversation they overheard, the same could have happened.

After watching “In Control,” it makes me think it’s a wonder that nothing like this did happen. Too many people who are too paranoid in positions of power. Rumors can spin out of control and provoke nuclear war. How did we survive such a thing?

Elizabeth (Keri Russell) would have been the spark of just such an incident. She wants to hand over the choppy recording, in keeping with their orders. Phillip (Matthew Rhys), who seems to understand American culture better, objects. He wins the argument, and thus prevents an incident. This means as much as she loves her country, she may have come to care about Phillip just a little more, which may affect her allegiance as the show goes on.

It’s interesting to see Elizabeth trust Phillip’s judgment, especially when she so clearly doesn’t agree with it. Weeks ago, she comes close to turning him in for possible treason, until an act of love on his part stops her short. Even though the real romance between these covert spies is just beginning, Elizabeth is clearly invested in their marriage already.

It’s not too often on television that we see a relationship like this. Elizabeth and Phillip have been living together undercover for a long time, and are just now falling for one another. It’s unconventional in every sense of the word, but incredibly sweet, after all this time. They are familiar, and also slightly strangers. They know a lot about one another, but there are also a lot of secrets.

There is a period during “In Control” where the bond they are just beginning to build could easily fall apart. For most couples in the early stages of dating, they would be over before they even begin. Yet, Elizabeth decides to listen to Phillip, and Phillip doesn’t hold it against her that she voices her concern. This belies a deeper trust that they have in each other, which could mean that their feelings aren’t as fresh as we, the viewers, are told they are, or even as the characters themselves might believe. Perhaps they have been in love for awhile, and are only now able to admit it to themselves.

I do worry that Phillip and Elizabeth are going to get caught, though. They are taking bigger chances lately, follow orders from their new handler, Claudia (Margo Martindale, Justified). She is pushing them to act swiftly, which isn’t as safe as their previous assignments have been. This week, she has them ready a cache of weapons for guerilla warfare. I hope she doesn’t expose them with her instructions.

Plus, it may not be a good idea for them to spend so much effort bonding with their CIA neighbor, Stan (Noah Emmerich). Their questions about the shooter can be seen as concerned citizens talking to a friend, but Stan could also take them for what they are, intelligence gathering. Stan is already a bit suspicious. Perhaps it would be better to be a little less chummy.

Of course, in any great drama, each side will suffer setbacks. Stan’s is brewing on the home front as his wife, Sandra (Susan Misner), complains they aren’t spending enough time together. Whether Stan divides his attentions to give her what she wants, or whether he ignores her, causing his marriage to fall apart, either scenario could hurt him personally and, by extension, professionally. This might provide a break for the Jennings at a key moment down the line.

It’s hard to root against Stan, but at the same time, Elizabeth and Phillip are highly sympathetic characters. They may be double agents working for the enemy, but they are also parents who care about their family. People are people, and whose flag they salute depends a lot on where they are born; not everything, if anything, they do is evil. This makes the series an intelligent, complex picture of a number of individuals, rather than the old fashioned good vs. evil dynamic.

Four episodes in, I still think the pacing may be a tad slow for my taste, but I am quickly becoming enamored of the series. THE AMERICANS has a fantastic cast who excel at what they are doing, and the writing is smarter than what I first perceived. I am definitely going to keep watching, as I don’t see any clear path laid out for how the story will proceed, which is exciting.

THE AMERICANS airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

ARCHER Bitten By the Comedy Snake

Article first published as ARCHER Bitten By the Comedy Snake on TheTVKing.

Grade: 89%

In tonight's episode of FX's ARCHER, "Once Bitten," Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) is bitten by a deadly snake in the middle of the desert. His jeep is stuck in the sand, and Ray (Adam Reed) and Cyril (Chris Parnell) can't get it out. Can they find help for Archer before he dies?

Yes, yes they can.

Sure, killing off the title character is certainly not going to happen, so their eventual solving of the problem is a given. That doesn't make the journey any less fun, as Cyril, Ray, and Archer bicker. It's like a boys night out in the middle of nowhere, and with one of them dying.

We actually get a lot of character development for Archer in "Once Bitten." We not only learn that his bucket list includes eating one of the biggest foods, but also murdering Cyril. OK, so he is most likely joking about the second thing. But that's just his relationship with Cyril, and while he is slamming Cyril, we know Archer is OK.

More importantly, Archer revisits his past in the company of deceased actor James Mason. Why? Who knows? The point is, we get to see pieces of Archer's childhood, why he is who he is, what he used to be, and even a glimpse of his real father. Who Archer's father is is a big mystery on ARCHER, and "Once Bitten" stops short of solving it. Yet, it does seem like the bit of him that we do see also has influenced Archer to this day, so it's important.

Surprisingly, we also get some small, but deep, insight into Lana (Aisha Tyler) when Cheryl (Judy Greer) zings her good, perhaps sparked as a metaphor for the meat being grounded up in front of them. Cheryl often says things without thinking, but seldom do her words ever cut as deeply as they do here. It obviously affects Lana, and while her subplot in the episode is small, it's a side of her we have not seen before.

Malory (Jessica Walter) is, unsurprisingly, the cause of many of the problems that arise. Her selfish use of ISIS for her own personal gain, and her uncaring attitude towards others and the world, continues. Will she ever learn her lesson? Would ARCHER be as funny if she did? The answer to both questions is probably no, as she is the catalyst for many of the stories, and her character is a favorite of mine, despite how unlikeable she is.

Ray cannot stop himself from getting injured, can he? Once more, he hurts himself in this episode and removes himself from being a contributing member of the team. I feel like ARCHER misses having him in a wheel chair, and the writers will not stop until they put him back in one.

I have occasionally wondered why Krieger (Lucky Yates) isn't a more central part of the cast. But, in "Once Bitten," as Malory tries to make him run some control panels and help out, he keeps secretly putting together a rat wedding. Seeing this, I finally realize he is just too bizarre and different to be a member of the core group, nor does his character have any interest in being included. Which is fine. He's still good for a periodic gag.

An element ARCHER often makes use of is switching scenes mid-line, so that a different character in a different place finishes another character's sentence. "Once Bitten" has numerous examples of this. It seems like such a simple thing, and ARCHER isn't the only story that does this. However, it has kind of become a trademark, being owned by the show, and every single time, I still enjoy it.

"Once Bitten" is a fine installment, with plenty of amusing bits, such as Ray forgetting that he has bionic legs, much discussion about venom and taints, a goofy hat, a fish fight, and a camel wreck. ARCHER never goes too deep into the players in the series, but this episode tries to a bit, and still manages to be funny at the same time.

Watch ARCHER Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.

Friday, February 22, 2013

You might be tempted to join this CULT

Article first published as CULT Series Premiere Review at Seat42F.

Grade: 88%

As the CW’s new pilot of CULT, entitled “You’re Next,” begins, Detective Kelly Collins (Alona Tal, Supernatural) searches for her missing sister, whom was last seen in the company of cult leader Billy Grimm (Robert Knepper, Heroes, Prison Break). Kelly thinks Billy has taken her little sis to strike a blow against Kelly personally, since she also used to follow Billy, and he didn’t take her leaving well.

So CULT is a crime drama then, with the heroes having to do battle against a mysterious sect that brainwashes their followers and makes them disappear?

Not even close. Instead, the version of CULT that stars Kelly is a series called CULT that exists within the world of CULT, both of which air on the CW. And Billy, while just an actor named Roger Reeves, also pops up everywhere in the real world, presumably mostly in advertisements for the show, layering the same level of creepy that he has done on screen, until one is convinced he may be connected to actual crimes. Confused yet?

Well, that’s not even the half of it. Former reporter Jeff Sefton (Matthew Davis, The Vampire Diaries) is looking for his own brother, Nate (James Pizzinato, Alcatraz), whom has gone off the grid in a large and bloody way, and, get this, Nate is a super fan of the CULT within a CULT. All of the clues Jeff finds point to the fact that the show is more than just a show, and there are shady people out there who take the whole thing very, very seriously.

Plus, both the fictional and real CULT bear the same title and ending cards.

CULT is the epitome of meta in an internet age where meta is the trend. The makers of CULT are hoping that real life fans get involved in the show, though hopefully not in a criminal way, as the fans in the show do, and make this part of their lives. Every word supposedly means something, every scene contains a clue, and an intricate web of mystery is being spun. This is pounded in viewers’ heads so fervently that there is no way to miss the point.

Now, this is the CW, so there are limits into what CULT will do. However, given that the cast isn’t dominated by a bunch of teenagers, romance is barely a whisper in “You’re Next,” and the writing in the first episode seems smart and tied together, this could just be something different that broadens the network’s appeal.

Obviously, the CW is hoping to capture the same population segment who enjoy The Vampire Diaries and other supernatural dramas, even reusing performers from their other franchises. But they are also building something special, something that could itself garner a cult following, and something that might make a splash in the television landscape.

One example of what I am talking about is when, late in the hour, we learn that Jeff is fired from his job at a reputable newspaper because he fabricated a source for a story. This means that Jeff is not a reliable witness, and thus, even viewers may doubt his sincerity and motivations. It’s a nice twist that could keep the direction of the plot shrouded in darkness. But instead of embracing it full on, the show has a character named Skye (Jessica Lucas, Melrose Place, Cloverfield) who believes in Jeff, and thus, we believe in him, too.

Skye works for the network, which gives the series an excuse to venture on set frequently. She is a lowly researcher, though, so her position is expendable, and she can miss work for periods of time without arousing suspicion. It’s a good role to cast her in, someone who has reason to be suspicious about the real-life following, who is open to conspiracy theories, and who has a believable inside track.

While CULT only boasts four main characters, there are a myriad of other players, such as: Marc Segal (Andrew Leeds, Bones), a network executive who wants to help CULT blow up; Kirstie (Marie Avgeropoulos, The Inbetweeners), an apparent cult member who arranges for Marc’s kidnapping; Detective Sakelik (Aisha Hinds, True Blood), the cop assigned to Nate’s disappearance, and who has a tattoo that might connect her to the villains; and Gary Fisher (Tom Amandes, Parenthood, Eli Stone), who works for CULT and dismisses Skye’s concerns out of hand.

What this means is there are a lot of different directions that the story can go, and keeping viewers guessing will be a main draw of CULT.

Only time will tell if CULT can pull off what they’re trying to do. The first episode is promising, but sustained surprises over time is much more difficult, and it’s unknown if it can maintain the quality. A great genre series is a marathon, not a sprint. But at least CULT is coming strong out of the gate.

CULT airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on the CW.

Community "Paranormal Parentage" a little too normal

First published as Community "Paranormal Parentage" a little too normal on TheTVKing.

Two episodes into the fourth season of NBC's Community, and I still feel like something is a little off. The idea that the characters will spend the evening in Pierce's (Chevy Chase) haunted mansion in "Paranormal Parentage" is a solid one, and knowing that he tricks them into coming because he feels left out is obvious, but makes sense. Some of the things that happen during this adventure are great. Others fall a little flat.

For instance, why do we keep seeing shadowy figures following everyone around? We glimpse one behind Abed (Danny Pudi) in the control room, but neither Pierce nor Gilbert (Giancarlo Esposito), whom we learn to be creeping around the place, approaches Abed. Why not? And which one of them (I'm assuming Pierce) somehow manages to be seen in a costume of Pierce's dad behind Annie (Alison Brie), and then disappears by the time she turns around? And what happens to Jeff in the library? Is the liquor laced with something? Why does the episode tell us? Weak sauce.

I feel like Community is still reaching for the weird, but it's not landing in the same way it used to. All the ham jokes at Britta's (Gillian Jacobs) expense are great, and I love that Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) knows what Pierce's dungeon room is when Troy (Donald Glover) doesn't. I also greatly enjoy that Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) manages to match Jeff's (Joel McHale) costume, and that Abed brings up Cougar Town again.

I don't like that Abed completely ignores all the film-references ripe within a haunted house, and instead is simply excited to find Pierce's control room so that he can watch Cougar Town. Or the fact that Gilbert is secretly taking care of Pierce is explanation enough about why he is standing over Pierce in his sleep. Or that Pierce, old man that he is, is able to sneak around the house without being seen. How great would a few background shots of him tripping and almost getting caught be? Or being seen by a character or two who doesn't feel the need to expose his secret? Maybe everyone but Jeff?

Community is known for their Halloween episodes. If they can't deliver one of those, I worry about the rest of the season. I'm already mourning the loss of the best sitcom currently running on television.

Well, that's all I have to say about the episode specifically. On to some season- and series-long arc musings!

I do kind of like that Troy and Britta are dating this year, but I would like some more focus on it. It doesn't feel like it's quite working for me, and I want to see that. When they fall apart, I don't want it to seemingly come out of nowhere.  For fans to accept their inevitable breakup, we need to see why it can't work between them so that there is no doubt about the reasons they aren't together.

As much as I like Annie and Jeff as a pair, and I think that's the direction Community has been going in for awhile, I believe the show would be better served to have Jeff and Britta end up together. The scenes they have in "Paranormal Parentage," where she psychoanalyzes him and they bicker, is a great demonstration of the sizzling chemistry they possess. They won't ever be cuddle-on-the-couch sappy romantics together, but they have passion, and can push each other's buttons like an old married couple already. Wouldn't their union be a satisfying finale?

We all know that Chevy Chase is leaving the show. I see Pierce's departure going one of two ways. Most likely, his character will be killed off, which completely works on a number of levels, and would pay homage to the great Chevy Chase, the legendary comic actor who sort of withered away on a sitcom he never quite belonged on.

Or, hear me out, they should just replace him with Fred Willard and make no mention of the change. They could even adjust his personality, as Abed does in his head when imagining Fred as Pierce in the season premiere this year. Fred is fantastic in his own right, and could add something cool to the show. Plus, this opens up some possibilities and conspiracy theories about how much of what went on over the last four years is real. Since it is unlikely Community will last beyond this season anyway, and Chevy is staying through episode ten (or thirteen), it would be awesome to see an episode of two with Willard and a "normal" school, and then have the lid blown off the illusion in the series finale.

Just an idea. Feel free to use it. :)

Community airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

Justified sidesteps the "Money Trap"

Article first published as TV Review: Justified - "Money Trap" on Blogcritics.

Grade: 93%

This week's episode of FX's Justified, "Money Trap," is mostly a break from the season-long hunt for Drew Thompson. Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) sets out to talk to his father, Arlo (Raymond J. Barry), in prison to see if he can convince Arlo to give him a new lead on Drew. But since it's a task Raylan doesn't want to do anyway, he jumps at the first distraction that will take him away from the task.

Despite minimizing the large arcs, "Money Trap" is more than just a case-of-the-week installment. It puts Raylan back up against a foe we see in the season premiere, Jody Adair (Chris Chalk, The Newsroom, Homeland). It's cool that Justified continually builds up a cast of recurring players and pulls them out from time to time to keep the story interesting, rather than reduce itself to a typical crime drama.

Justified has never been suited to a formula. Each season is entirely different from the last, and each twist can spin the plot in unexpected directions from week to week. It's really a setting-driven piece, fleshing out a specific world in Kentucky that lies outside of the big city. Each character is a panel of fabric, some bigger than others, but sewn together in an intriguing patchwork.

Which means that often connections that are not obvious suddenly emerge. "Money Trap" has several of those, as the characters move around, encountering a number of people, including Raylan seeing a former lover. Justified never leaves its world, just revealing unseen corners as it goes instead, so there's an overarching sense of continuity throughout the entire series.

The side trip with Jody this week is a dangerous game between Raylan and a very hardened criminal, one who will not hesitate to kill Raylan given an opportunity. Most bad guys aren't this bad, matching wits and trying to get away with stolen goods or money, rather than committing murder. Sure, people are killed all the time on the show. But it's not usually the intent or stated mission of the shooter to take someone out permanently. Jody is different.

To illustrate this point, I refer you to Boyd (Walton Goggins) and Ava's (Joelle Carter) subplot in "Money Trap." They rub elbows with the rich and powerful of their county, only to find out they are invited to the party in order to more directly serve their masters. Boyd doesn't realize he's been allowed to operate his enterprise all this time with the permission of others. He is told if he wants to keep his business running, he needs to kill a man.

This disturbs Boyd. He isn't good, by any means, and we've seen him kill this season. But it's always incidental, and is never his first choice of action. People aren't useful to him if they're dead. He doesn't want to do what they're asking him to, and I think it's as much about whacking someone he has no beef with as it is not wanting to seem like a weak lackey, when he believes himself to be a leader. We'll have to wait and see what Boyd chooses to do.

Back to Raylan, we know that he is capable in a wide variety of situations. Jody is a new challenge, but one he is up to the task of. He takes the manhunt extremely seriously, personally protecting Jody's other intended victim, the young, hot Jackie Nevada (Shelley Hennig, The Secret Circle), while seeking out Jody.

Raylan doesn't rely on others too much, though he knows when he needs to, and is smart enough to ask for help in those instances. Which is why his lone wolf routine is rarely a problem, as it is for many a flawed hero in other stories, as he actually he is more talented than most. "Money Trap" shows us once more why Raylan usually prefers to operate by himself, able to move quicker and less noticed, as well as avoiding putting others in the line of fire. And he doesn't have to worry that Jody will find Jackie and hurt her while he isn't looking when he sticks by her side.

This eventually leads to a one-on-one showdown between Jody and Raylan, just downstairs from Raylan's home. Once more, we see Raylan's wisdom, recognizing when he must use his gun, knowing Jody will keep coming after Raylan or his loved ones, as well as other innocents, while he roams free. Raylan can see the evil in his eyes, and thus, he does what needs to be done.

Some would argue that Raylan killing Jody defeats the purpose of law enforcement. Cops (and marshals) should seek to apprehend, rather than take out. Yet, in this case, it's really Raylan's only option, as Jody would hurt people if allowed to live, even if he is in prison, which is a big 'if,' since there's no easy way to capture him here. Realizing this, Raylan operates with complete confidence, putting several bullets into Jody.

Raylan Givens is one of the coolest characters on television. It's not because he's violent, because he's not always, and never without cause. It's because he has an ingrained sense of right and wrong, and though his mettle is tested constantly, he almost always does the correct thing. He doesn't waste time doubting himself once he's done something, and he has the utmost faith in his own reasoning skills. For this, it's easy, as a fan, to get behind him.

Raylan isn't a brash, young man, though. We see in "Money Trap," when alone in a hotel room with Jackie, who is getting undressed to shower, he doesn't make a move. Raylan loves the ladies, but he's recently betrayed by one, and he admits to himself, and to Art (Nick Searcy), that he is an old man, one Jackie shouldn't or wouldn't be interested in. I don't think for a second that Raylan couldn't sleep with Jackie if he wanted to, but he doesn't, because he knows himself, and knows what he needs.

Now, Raylan does make mistakes, and often a woman is involved. I just think he's learning from those mistakes, making them less frequently, and being realistic about his love life. For that, he deserves credit.

At the end of "Money Trap," Raylan does go see Arlo, ready to stop avoiding things, choosing the right path once more. Arlo won't cooperate, of course, which does cause Raylan to speak to his father in anger, as Arlo can push Raylan's buttons like no one else, being the catalyst for a temper flare up. But the confrontation ends with little movement on the Drew Thompson story.

After Raylan warns Arlo that he will die in jail, I think that scares Arlo. I worry that it's foreshadowing for Justified, that Arlo will soon be gone with the last words from Raylan being cruel ones. Or, it could be the kick in the pants Arlo needs to cut a deal and finally start helping the marshals. Either way, Arlo won't just sit pretty and protected behind bars for much longer.

It is hard to talk about this episode linearly, and I couldn't even find a place in the flow to touch on the other subplot involving Johnny (David Meunier) and Colt (Ron Eldard). But that's because the series is so fluid and intertwined that it's just as hard to describe the story as it is to describe the lives of a village full of people. I think this is a testament to the quality and realism of the show, rather than a negative.

"Money Trap" is an excellent episode, not exactly super important to larger story of the season, but compelling in its own right because of the personal side of Raylan that we see. If this is Justified's version of a stand-alone installment, I welcome more of them from time to time.

Justified airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Once Upon a Time in "Manhattan"

Article first published as ONCE UPON A TIME Recap Season 2 Episode 14 Manhattan on Seat42F.

Grade: 94%

ABC’s ONCE UPON A TIME finally aired the much-anticipated episode “Manhattan” last night. In this installment, Mr. Gold / Rumple (Robert Carlyle), Emma (Jennifer Morrison), and Henry (Jared Gilmore) travel to New York City on their quest to find Gold’s long lost son. But when they get there, they uncover unexpected connections, and secrets are revealed.

I’m still angry at ABC for spoiling the twist that Baelfire is Neal Cassidy (Michael Raymond-James) in their preview for “Manhattan,” which aired following last week’s episode. This is something some have suspected, but it seemed a little far-fetched at first, which is why it was dismissed by many. To give away such an important part of the story in a commercial is nearly unforgiveable, and just plain ridiculous.

However, that reveal did come very early in the hour, and there is still lots of great story to the episode that has not been spoiled. While light on action, “Manhattan” is heavy on drama, as Baelfire, Emma, Gold, and Henry all try to sort out their feelings for one another. It’s a complicated mess, Emma having lied to Henry about his dad being dead, Gold learning for the first time that Henry is his grandson, Baelfire furious at his father for abandoning him, and Emma not sure she wants Baelfire in her, or Henry’s, life.

ONCE UPON A TIME is about fairy tales and quests and magic, but it is also very much about family. This is evident right from the beginning, when Emma is known by viewers to be the daughter or Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), even if she doesn’t yet believe it herself. Since then, we have seen lots of plot involving interactions between children and parents in a variety of settings, including other characters, such as Regina (Lana Parrilla). There is quite a knot of relations tied up in this tale, and watching the characters try to unravel it, only to see it get tangled up further, is a great way to keep things moving along.

Bringing Baelfire into the picture, with his connection to multiple main characters, will further shake up the dynamics of the show. As Charming says, it’s a good thing they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, as getting them all together at once would be a mess. Assumedly, Bae will want to be in Henry’s life so he doesn’t abandon his son, like Bae’s own father did, and Bae’s father’s father. Even if Emma and Baelfire don’t get back together, this ties them to Gold, and expands their clan.

Bae’s reasons for staying away from Emma all these years have to do with a curse and wanting to avoid his father. Learning about Henry changes that. Emma still has some justifiable anger at Baelfire to work through, but Bae’s reason for staying away from Emma have been lifted. This means a step in the right direction for the legion of fans whom are already likely rooting for them to be a couple, healing the divided family.

One moment during the whole New York sequence that really stands out is when Henry tells Emma that she is just as bad as Regina with her secrets. ONCE UPON A TIME does a great job of making their central characters complex, rather than black or white. But Emma hasn’t done anything on the level of the evil carried out by Regina. Are these just words of a child said in anger? And even if that is the case, can they easily be gotten over?

Regina would sure hope not. She is with Cora (Barbara Hershey), who has a scheme to get Gold to kill Henry’s family, leaving the boy for her. Clearly, this is a disastrous plan, as Henry would eventually find out the truth, no matter what Cora says, and there would be no coming back for Regina in Henry’s eyes then.

While I understand why Regina would listen to her mother, tempted back to her dark side, I am very pleased with the efforts Regina has been making this year to be a better person for Henry’s sake. Secretly killing his family, leaving herself as the default guardian, is the shortcut way to get Henry’s affection back, and she should know better than to take a shortcut again, because they don’t work. As is oft repeated, magic always has a price. Hopefully, she will come to her senses before she does something that ruins her forever.

During “Manhattan,” we also finally get flashbacks as to why Gold / Rumple left the Ogre War, a plot long referenced, but not seen before now. He did not do anything terribly noble or important, as some fans assumed, but instead, hurt himself to get sent home after a seer warns him that his actions will leave his son fatherless. Unfortunately, the seer’s gift and words aren’t explicit, and it’s actually the self-injury the sets Rumple on the course of events that causes his son, Bae, to grow up fatherless. Rumple tries to do what he thinks is best, but instead loses both his wife and son.

This makes Rumple an even more tragic character. He isn’t, at heart, good or evil, but is instead the embodiment of the two sides, a good man who has an evil power trapped inside of him, influencing his words and actions. We see why Milah (Rachel Shelley) loves him in the first place, and why she falls out of love with him. It’s a tragic, moving story that only deepens how much we care about the character.

But rather than letting Rumple / Gold end “Manhattan” on such a nice note, a father sacrificing his reputation and health for his son, no matter what anyone else thinks, we instead get a bit more of his dark side when the seer tells him that the boy who helps him find his son will be Rumple’s undoing. Rumple, in the flashback, flippantly replies that he’ll kill the boy. Now, knowing that the prophecy applies to Henry, his grandson, Gold still has a look on his face that isn’t pleasant, even if we can’t tell what he’s thinking.

Surely Gold would not go so dark as to kill his own grandson? We’ve seen that Gold has a soft spot for Henry, so it would make the murder even more difficult. Plus, we don’t know exactly what “undoing” means, and as Gold has seen, the glimpses of the future that he gets are sporadic and uncertain. Yes, the Dark One inside of Gold may want to off Henry, but hopefully the lighter side will win out. It’s a shame Belle (Emilie de Ravin) doesn’t remember who Gold is, and so can’t help talk him out of it.

There’s also the matter of destiny. The seer tells Rumple that he can’t escape his destiny. As viewers, we don’t yet know the destiny of each of the characters, but assumedly that plays a role in whatever the end game ends up being. Some things cannot be avoided, and this is the wild care that could change everything at a crucial moment.

Between the revelations, the family dynamic shifts, and some very dark hints of things to come, “Manhattan” is a truly excellent episode, one of the best of the series thus far. Which means you definitely shouldn’t miss the rest of the season. ONCE UPON A TIME airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

The Walking Dead not safe at "Home"

Article first published as THE WALKING DEAD Recap Season 3 Episode 10 Home at Seat42F.

Grade: 96%

Things are tense at the prison in this week’s episode of AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD, “Home.” Rick (Andrew Lincoln) is out beyond the prison walls, chasing the ghost of his dead wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies). Glenn (Steven Yeun) tries to keep it together, seeing himself as the substitute leader, but with Maggie’s (Lauren Cohan) moping unresolved, he isn’t doing much good.

I like the idea of Glenn as a leader because it gives the character something important to do. Yet, he is not cut out to make the tough decisions, at least not yet. He does OK, with a heaping portion of advice from Hershel (Scott Wilson). But he lacks the quality that leaders must have. I’m very glad that his promotion is temporary, as I don’t want to see him become something he’s not.

Hershel seems to be doing plenty of mentoring in “Home.” He helps Glenn, and he hobbles down to talk to Rick. While before he is an antagonist, whom Rick has to find an understanding with to even get them to stay together, now he has become the wizened advisor, more than proving his worth to the group, even without a leg.

I am not so crazy about Axel (Lew Temple) cozying up to Carol (Melissa McBride). She is spoken for. I know Daryl (Norman Reedus) has left the group, but that will be corrected. He’s too much a part of the rest, cares too much about the others, to stay away for long, even for a brother. For most of the hour, I’m expecting a little conflict between Daryl and Axel when Daryl returns.

I also begin to suspect that Axel may not be as good as he claims to be. The way his story keeps changing as he talks to Carol, adding new bits to his story as he goes that don’t quite match up with what he says previously, makes him seem shifty. I know that the group must trust outsiders periodically to make up for those that are lost, but I’m wondering if they’ve made a bad choice with Axel. Which is why I’m not too upset when he dies, though we’ll get to that scene in a minute.

Wandering the woods, Daryl quickly grows tired of Merle (Michael Rooker). They are clearly kin who did not fully grow up together, and while it’s hard to tell how long they may have been reunited before becoming separated in season one, it seems like it wasn’t for very long. They are two drastically different people.

When the series starts, Merle is a bad influence on Daryl. Now, Daryl has gotten enough good influences to take away the temptation of the evil whisper. Daryl knows another way now, how things can be better with people who look out for each other. It’s why he goes to the rescue of a family being attacked by zombies without expecting anything in return. When Merle tries to take advantage of the situation, it seems like it’s the last straw for Daryl, who isn’t willing to bend to Merle’s will anymore.

I am a little disappointed that Merle follows Daryl back to the prison, but not too much so. I worry about where Merle’s allegiance might lay in a big battle with The Governor (David Morrissey) if he senses that The Governor is going to win. But he also brings a level of conflict to the group, which is always interesting, and I’m curious to see how it all plays out, though I do not expect Merle to live past this season. I just hope Daryl doesn’t have to be the one to kill him.

In Woodbury, Andrea (Laurie Holden) is calmed by The Governor’s contrition. He vows no retribution against the prison group, and, for awhile, it seems like Andrea might be a good influence on him. It also makes it look like the war between The Governor and the prison won’t come until the end of the season, as expected, building up slowly to a large assault.

However, then The Governor goes and talks to Milton Mamet (Dallas Roberts), and mentions asking others about their loyalty. This is a sign that he’s just playing Andrea, the same way he so often plays a part in front of his people. I still don’t see the attack coming, though, until it happens.

For most of “Home,” the pacing is slow, and not a lot is happening. It’s a good episode, but not overly exciting. However, this seems to be THE WALKING DEAD’s new pattern, as it did just before Lori’s death, lulling us into a false sense of peace, especially those who’ve read the comics and think they know what’s coming, and then striking in an unexpected and sudden way.

The attack that The Governor launches on the prison is fantastic television. From Carol using Axel’s body as a shield, to the van releasing zombies into the prison yard, to Hershel’s last minute rescue, and the way that everyone bands together, proving their strength, it’s full of amazing moments. Yes, they are unprepared and scattered this time. But as The Governor rides away, there is little doubt that they’ll be ready when he returns, and once they are, they might just stand a chance.

Why doesn’t The Governor just finish them off now, when he has a prime opportunity to do so? Is it because he needs people to lord over, and scaring, not killing, the group gives him a sense of power? Does he think that Andrea might forgive him for an attack, but not for a slaughter? It’s unclear exactly what his plan is, but this is definitely only the first stage of the showdown.

I do think this will snap Rick out of his delirium. He seems to be doing better after his talk with Hershel, but the urgency of protecting his people against The Governor should be enough to fully right his path again. He needs to fortify their defenses and prepare to take on their greatest foe.

It’s sad that Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) and his people don’t make an appearance in “Home.” Rick and the group desperately need the help. Will Tyreese come back? He’s important in the comics, but the reasons for his importance don’t seem very present in the series. After being threatened by crazy Rick, he has good reason to want to get as far away as he can, and why should he risk his neck fighting The Governor? Or maybe his absence for the fight in “Home” will keep him in the dark about the true threat Rick’s people face, meaning he can join back up without knowing the danger, which makes more sense for the story.

I admit, I felt a little disappointed for the first almost-two hours of this mid-season, when not a lot of adrenaline-pumping stuff happened. The end of “Home” more than makes up for it, and is a message to fans that they won’t have to wait until the end of the season for more action.

THE WALKING DEAD airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.