The Few Who Remain

Homeland – “Tin Man is Down”

“There are people whose hurt feelings can trigger wars. People whose broken hearts become grand opera, on an international stage.” Bruce Wayne spoke these words in the final issue of Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated, which came to an end in August, and when returning to Homeland, I couldn’t keep them from my mind. Both stories deal with the intersection of the personal and the political, and the devastation found there, be it a lost child or lover, or the slow loss of an entire country’s trust. And once the destruction occurs, when all that’s left is a big, ugly hole in the ground, a glass case holding an empty uniform, an unrelenting darkness smothering all, the only way out is to claw your way toward the light, no matter what still lurks in the shadows.

By the end of its second season, Homeland had effectively painted itself into a corner of epic proportions, and it all revolved around Nicholas Brody. More specifically, it all hinged on the fact that Brody was still alive, and thanks to Carrie, has disappeared into the Great White North. And when all your balls are in the air, and those balls turn out to be chainsaws, how do you catch them all?

You abandon the metaphor, and you jump.

It’s been 58 days since the attack on CIA headquarters, and Carrie Mathison is a woman shackled by secrets, guilt, and paranoia. At her Intelligence Committee hearings, Carrie is forced to withhold pivotal information about Brody, but it’s a battle she’s slowly losing. When she blurts out that she believes Brody isn’t the person who bombed the CIA headquarters, it’s just another levee breaking, and when the levees break, there’s going to be leaks. As Carrie’s hearings go further and further south–culminating with her officially pleading the Fifth–more and more information, the same information Carrie’s counsel (and Saul) have tried to keep deeply hidden, comes out in the press. At home, Carrie has begun constructing yet another Wall O’ Crazy, and reveals to her father that she’s stopped taking her lithium, choosing to self-medicate with alcohol and sex instead. We’ve seen Carrie in this place before, and it ended with electrodes attached to her temples. By episode’s end, things will only be worse.

Saul Berenson has become paralyzed by fear, locked into indecision. With the ranks of the CIA decimated, Saul is acting director, and the CIA has been busy tracking down six members of the network responsible for carrying out the attack. The intention is to assassinate, but the call is Saul’s, and he can’t, or won’t, make it. The country is losing faith in the CIA, and if there’s no improvement, the risk of dissolution is very real. At home, his wife Mira has returned home as promised, but she and Saul have made no move to mend their relationship. They sleep in separate bedrooms, and never discuss what’s happening between them. But when Mira puts the cards on the table and spells out Saul’s paralysis for him, things begin to snap into focus. He gives the go on the assassinations, and all six targets are taken out. It’s a moment of personal victory for Saul, but one that is dashed quickly. While out celebrating, Saul is accosted by a furious Carrie, brandishing the latest leak to the press, the most damning of all: that she (though unnamed in the article) and Brody were having an affair. Saul can only watch as Carrie sets fire to the bridge between them, and when confronted about the information by the Intelligence Committee, reveals not only that it is accurate, but that Carrie also kept her bipolar diagnosis a secret as well, even going so far as to call her “unstable.” Carrie, alone in her home and staring at a screen once again, can only cry.

The women of the Brody household have fallen apart in their own separate ways. Dana, whose relationship with her father has been forever marred, attempted suicide, slitting her wrists in the bathtub. Jessica, left with next to nothing after her husband’s turncoat nature was revealed, has been desperately struggling to make ends meet, especially after putting Dana into a treatment facility, and grasping at any understanding of what’s going on in her daughter’s head. We begin on Dana’s last day at the facility, and she’s become accustomed to the new normal of the world inside: strict rules, bad food, and a cute boy. But when she finally leaves with Jessica, she finds a whole different world waiting outside, flanked on all sides by press and paparazzi, foaming at the mouth for a soundbite or photo. Back in their home, the three remaining Brodys are joined by Jessica’s mother, and the tensions all bubble just below the surface. Dana makes her best attempt to move forward, taking down old posters and sending lewd photos to the boy from the facility. Jessica is just holding on as best she can.

And of course, there’s Peter Quinn. At the beginning of the episode, we see him constructing a bomb, but it’s not until Saul gives the order for the simultaneous assassinations that we learn its purpose: he’s in Caracas, Venezuela, to assassinate one of Saul’s targets. He decides not to bomb the target’s car after seeing a child in the backseat, but is given the order to infiltrate the target’s compound in order to carry out the assassination. As Quinn stealthily makes his way through the mansion, taking out guard after guard, he finally reaches the target’s office, where Quinn eliminates him with shots to the bottom of the desk, where he was hiding. Quinn confirms the kill, but sees a light in the hall outside, and shoots the owner, revealed to be the same child he had chosen not to kill before. Quinn is crestfallen, but his mission is complete nonetheless.

It’s nearly impossible to tell just where Homeland is planning to go this season. Brody’s specter looms ominously over the entire episode, but he’s still missing for the indefinite future. Carrie is in another downward spiral, but now she doesn’t even have Saul to lean on. Neither Jessica nor Dana Brody have any real idea of what road to take. And Quinn, still, is more mystery than man. But all of these threads show promise, and I’m most interested to see just how long they’ll go without actually bringing Brody back into the ring. I’m sure the Dana story, wherever it goes, will irk many, but I’ve always found myself partial to Morgan Saylor and the Dana character, even when she’s gallivanting around and running over women with the Vice President’s son. And after receiving an Emmy nomination for a season where she didn’t actually do much, Morena Baccarin looks to actually have some story to carry this season, and I’m sure Brody’s return will only intensify it.

I knew coming in that Homeland is an exceedingly difficult show to review week-to-week. It’s often ridiculously unpredictable, and very rarely is the big picture clear until the very last minute. But the ride itself is half the fun, and this premiere hints at a great ride indeed.

Stray Observations:

  • F. Murray Abraham has joined the main cast as Dar Adal, the black ops specialist who Saul has a history with. His appearances in season two were exciting, and the chemistry he and Patinkin share is incredible. The character’s main purpose so far seems to pushing a wedge between Saul and Carrie, which will can only end poorly.

  • Chris Brody Watch: This week, Chris eats some dinner, gives Dana a hug, and laughs at her jokes. No mention of card games. Will report back next week.

  • Dana’s treatment boyfriend is the same actor who played Zach Hamilton in the garbage final season of Dexter, up until a few weeks ago when part of his head got chopped off. It was super dumb, don’t watch it.

  • If you’re not a fan of Claire Danes’ cry-face, I feel bad for you son, but I’m a huge fan and I can already tell we’re gonna get a ton of it in these early episodes.

  • Somehow, putting F. Murray Abraham and Mandy Patinkin’s beards in the same room for such extended periods of time doesn’t rip open a wormhole into an alternate dimension of awesome.

  • I hope no one ever asks me to choose between this or Nurse Jackie for worst opening credits music.

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A lady had a baby in a tree

The Michael J. Fox Show – “Pilot”/”Neighbor”

All families suffer life-changing events, and sometimes those events can shake the very foundation of a family for what feels like forever. But even the most traumatic events eventually fade in intensity, and the changes become normal. Families shift back into their routines, and life goes on. The Michael J. Fox Show, which is inspired by Fox’s own life, skips past the trauma of his Parkinson’s diagnosis, past the tumult and uncertainty, and begins with the moving forward.

The pilot episode of The Michael J. Fox Show is, to quote The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff, “almost entirely about getting The Michael J. Fox Show on the air.” To be psuedo-intellectual, the narrative of the show is the narrative in the show. Mike Henry (Fox) has become a stay-at-home dad since his Parkinson’s made him unable to continue his job as New York City’s most-loved news anchor, and while he cherishes the time he gets to spend with his family and wants to make the most of it, the rest of the family is moving forward. His wife Annie (Betsy Brandt) is an English teacher at a local high school. They have three children: Graham (Jack Gore), the youngest son; Eve (Juliette Goglia), the teen daughter; and Ian (Conor Romero), the college-age son who has come back home. Additionally, Mike’s sister Leigh (Katie Finneran) is a free-lance writer living in a basement apartment in the same building as the Henrys. They’re all supportive of Mike, but he has a good handle on his condition now, and they feel stifled in their attempts to live their own lives.

So when Mike runs into his former colleague Harris Green (Wendell Pierce), who asks Mike to return to the news now that his condition is under control, it seems like a golden opportunity. As we’ll learn later, it’s not just coincidence that Mike ran into Harris, as Annie has been trying to nudge Mike back onto the air. But Mike is resistant, worried that they’ll turn him into a human-interest story instead of just letting him do his job. At the same time, Eve is making a video for school about their family’s struggle with Mike’s Parkinson’s, which establishes the talking heads (more on those in the stray observations), but she wants her video to be the exact thing Mike doesn’t want back at work. (Spoiler alert: Eve gets a failing grade and her video is called “manipulative” and “a puff piece.” Sorry, this really gets pushed to the side in the pilot so I just wanted to wrap it up.)

After some persuasion from Annie, Mike decides to take his old job back, and it’s like he never left. On his first day, he and his segment producer Kay (Ana Nogueira) head to city hall to find answers about faults in the new emergency services phone system, which lands him a spot on The Today Show. With such a successful return, Mike’s fears are abated.

“Neighbor” has a more traditional structure, and we get our first taste of what the show will be like week-to-week. Unsurprisingly, all of the episode’s plots are classic tropes. In our A plot, Mike goes to their upstairs neighbor to ask them to turn their TV down, only to find that she’s incredibly beautiful, newly single, and loves to bake. He tries to keep this information from Annie, but when Kelly shows up on their doorstep with a fresh batch of cookies, Annie realizes Mike is crushing on her. But instead of getting jealous, Annie just teases him about it, which is not only refreshing, but also gives Betsy Brandt some great comedic moments to boot. But Mike won’t admit it, and instead sets Kelly and Harris up for a double date at their apartment, where Annie pushes the two together in an attempt to also push Mike’s buttons, and Mike makes every attempt to sabotage so that Harris won’t end up with the beautiful upstairs neighbor. Thankfully, they’re all saved by a call from Leigh to come pick up Grant from JJ’s Funcade.

The B plot is a bit more problematic: Eve is bringing a friend over, but look out! She’s a lesbian! Look, it’s 2013, there’s no way to make this trope feel anything but tacky, and boy, do they try, but not even Betsy Brandt’s killer delivery of the k.d. lang joke could really save it. I even felt conflicted about the resolution, where we learn that Eve’s friend Reese is not actually a lesbian, she just kissed a girl at a party once. Everything is by-the-books, from the way Reese’s heterosexuality is revealed (she ends up making out with Ian), to their last exchange, where Eve apologizes to Reese for thinking she’s a lesbian, and Reese responds with, “It’s okay, I thought you were one, too.” Groan. The cast does their best to sell it, but it’s a stinker plot no matter what show it’s in.

The C plot, fortunately, is much better. Leigh is babysitting Graham, and when she takes him to the park, she gets mistaken for a single mother and is welcomed into the group of moms that hangs out there. Leigh is happy to find a group of people who will listen to her problems (which currently include writing a 200-word article for US Weekly) and tell her what she wants to hear. Of course, this backfires once they realize that Leigh is a pretty incompetent mother, so she abandons the group and takes Graham to JJ’s Funcade, where a waiter tells her she’s much too young to be Graham’s mother, thus validating her all over again.

The whole family converges in JJ’s Funcade, where Annie is picking up Graham, Eve and Ian are hanging out with friends, Leigh is flirting with the waiter, and Mike comes to apologize to Annie. The apology is sweet, and there’s even a funny auto-tune gag, a phrase I never thought I’d type. The whole family ends up in the ball pit, and everything’s back to normal once again.

The Michael J. Fox Show is very much a work in progress. While these episodes are heartwarming, they’re not really very ha-ha funny, and most of the humor is split between Parkinson’s jokes and Betsy Brandt. The pilot is an all-around better episode than “Neighbor,” largely due to that icky “my friend’s a lesbian!” plot, but both are pretty good, especially in this particularly barren season for new shows.

The thing that really gives this show that extra push is the cast. Obviously, Michael J. Fox is a national treasure, and he’s great here: warm and at ease, but able to be kind of a dick when he needs to. Betsy Brandt is also fantastic, maybe one of the best bits of casting this season. Just like on Breaking Bad, she’s able to effortlessly shift between the softly dramatic and the weirdly funny. Juliette Goglia is the early standout of the children, and even when she’s working with less-than-great material, she gives it her all. Her performance is even reminiscent of Jamie Lynn Sigler’s Meadow Soprano, toned down a few notches, which might be overpraise, but you’ll live. Wendell Pierce wasn’t given nearly enough to do in the pilot, but I loved his scenes in “Neighbor.” (“Don’t touch my belly. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to go make love with my shirt on.” I’m with you 100% there, buddy.) I don’t know how exactly they’ll balance the work and home stories going forward, but no matter what, they need to use him as much as possible.

Like most of the best new series this season, The Michael J. Fox Show is at good-not-great level, and it needs some time to figure things out, but with a stellar cast and a reasonable demand for this brand of warm, pleasant comedies right now, the potential is here for a truly fantastic show.

Stray Observations:

  • Welcome to my reviews of The Michael J. Fox Show. This and S.H.I.E.L.D. are the only new series I’m reviewing this season, so please bear with me as we all grow with the show together. I’m in for the whole season, no matter what happens.

  • Yeah, those talking heads: I get it, and they’re okay, but I don’t love them. If they slowly fade out of the series, I wouldn’t mind.

  • Hey, if you enjoyed Katie Finneran here, check her out in the one-season-wonder Wonderfalls. (Heh.) It’s a weird little show, where fake animals talk to Caroline Dhavernas, but she’s a gut-buster the whole way through.

  • I was pleasantly surprised to see how much the amount of Parkinson’s-related humor dropped between episodes. It’s a tricky subject, and too many jokes would make it feel hokey, but when used in the right context (like when Mike punches Harris during the double date with a “Whoops, Parkinson’s!”), it’ll help the show distinguish itself.

  • I look forward to the continued fleshing out of Ian and Graham, and kudos to Jack Gore for being a child actor who isn’t insufferable.

  • I’m glad there’s only one more episode of Breaking Bad left, because the Betsy Brandt whiplash was a little intense. Semi-related: Marie is totally going to kill Walter. Calling it now.

  • Given Fox’s clout (and the number of guest parts he’s done since leaving Spin City), I imagine we’ll be in for more guest stars in future episodes. I mean, we got Matt Lauer in the pilot, but.. he’s Matt Lauer. I’ll just leave it at that.

Parted hair, part unknown

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 Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “Pilot”

What does it mean to be a regular human in a super-powered world? Once you know that mutants, superhumans, magic, and gods exist, what does the “average human” do? What does it mean to be “average” in this new world? And how do you approach this massive shift in our worldwide paradigm? There are really only two viable options: embrace the change, or fear it. What path you take from this choice impacts your world forever: Fear can lead to willful ignorance, but it can also lead to hate. Embrace can mean a passive trust, but it can also mean an active support. And, sometimes, at the intersection of fear and embrace, comes villainy.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. aims to tell the stories that answer these questions, and follow the paths that diverge from those answers. When everyman Michael Peterson (J. August Richards) rescues a woman from an building engulfed in flames from an explosion–by climbing the walls and jumping from the top floor to the ground below–he finds himself immersed in this new world, and floundering. Driven by desperation (being fired due to a work-related injury and having no way to support his son), Peterson seeks reprieve from super-science, being outfitted with tech that pumps a modified version of Abraham Erskine’s Super Soldier Serum into the body called Centipede. After saving the woman, he’s filmed by Skye (Chloe Bennet), a member of the Rising Tide (a conspiracy site intent on exposing the truths of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and is presented to the world as a new superhero, an unwitting piece in a much larger game.

At S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders, reprising her Avengers role) has recruited Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) to join a new team headed by none other than the dearly departed Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who emerges from the shadows to prove that, just like the worlds of print comics, death is never quite permanent in a super-powered universe. Coulson has assembled this new team himself, let’s meet them, shall we?

  •  Agent Grant Ward: a man of strong morals, Agent Ward’s anti-social demeanor is a red flag, but his cool head in tight situations makes him a valuable asset. Plus, he’s a pretty good shot.
  • Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen): a highly-trained solider and veteran pilot, she had left the field for good after a traumatic event, but is brought back by Coulson to head transpo.
  • Agent Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker): a weapons and tech expert, he works in tandem with…
  • Agent Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge): the team’s science expert.

After the team is assembled, they set out on their first mission, tracking the Rising Tide, which leads them to Skye and her video of Peterson’s rescue, which interests S.H.I.E.L.D. greatly. Skye is an expert hacker, and Coulson convinces her to join his team. (Coulson wins her trust by inject Agent Ward with a new truth serum and letting her ask him any questions she wants, a scene that’s trademark Whedon through-and-through.) Agents May, Fitz, and Simmons investigate the scene of the explosion to piece together what happened, finding the exploded floor to be a lab filled with super-tech. After recreating the moments before the explosion (using lots of cool special effects), they discover that it was a patient, outfitted with the same technology as Peterson, that caused the explosion when he lost his mind due to the substance Extremis.

After killing his former boss and realizing the potential of his power, Peterson takes Skye hostage, demanding that she remove any trace of him so that he and his son can disappear in peace. She does this, but also tips of S.H.I.E.L.D. to her location, leading to a standoff. Coulson’s team attempts to take Peterson with minimal stress, to keep him from exploding, but an assassin sent by the doctor who installed the Centipede tech incenses Peterson, and as Coulson talks him down from his rage, Agent Ward takes him out with a shot to the head, a shot that proves to be non-lethal due to his new superhuman abilities.

In the final scene, Coulson asks Skye to join the team long-term, but is interrupted by a report of an “084.” Skye agrees to join, and she and Coulson zoom away in his 1962 Corvette, Lola, which also just happens to be a hovercraft.

All in all, that was pretty fun. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has all the trappings of a Whedon show–his stable of actors, witty banter, seeds of mythology planted early on–and with that comes built-in potential. At its core, S.H.I.E.L.D. is super-powered NCIS, but with higher production values and a knack for great genre fare. The early mysteries presented–how is Phil Coulson alive, what happened to Agent May, why is nothing known about Agent Ward’s past–offer promising futures for the serialized portions of the show to take, and if the weekly cases can pull in actors like J. August Richards on a regular basis, and continue to tackle the underlying philosophical questions inherent to the show’s premise, S.H.I.E.L.D. could grow into a real winner.

But there are issues here at the beginning. Other than Coulson, none of the agents are very interesting yet, mostly reduced to those one-sentence descriptions I gave above. There’s also the sense here that many hands are at work, pushing and pulling the show behind the scenes. I look forward to future episodes, where we can see how Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen handle the show when Joss’ presence is greatly reduced. Also not to be discounted is ABC. Some might say S.H.I.E.L.D. is “too big to fail,” coming from Camp Marvel, but ABC is still looking for a big hit, and if any show this fall has that potential, this is it. Hopefully, the network’s desire to draw as many numbers as possible won’t put any pressure on Wedon and Tancharoen to mess with the things that work about the show–or even worse, to leave the things that need improvement alone.

But that’s all conjecture. For now, we get a fun, very good pilot with lots of promise, and I couldn’t be more excited to see where it goes from here.

A waffle in the bath

The Mindy Project – “The Other Dr. L”

When The Mindy Project has a problem standing in its character’s way, it knows only one solution: throw rom-com or workplace comedy tropes at it until it relents. Tonight, The Mindy Project had a Dr. James Franco problem, so the only real question was what they’d use to get him out of the picture. And amid all that, Danny plays basketball with Bill Hader and Kris Humphries, because why the hell not?

We open on Mindy in a Skype chat with Casey, attempting to recreate the whipped cream bikini from Varsity Blues. Of course, being Mindy, it goes terribly, and she finds herself being attacked by ants, and there’s an implication that there’s a gummy bear in her vagina, which makes the whole thing a little disturbing. The next day at work, Mindy attempts to reclaim her office from Dr. James Franco, but he won’t go down easy, and being handsome and charming, he’s got the whole office on his side. Danny’s even letting him stay at his apartment! Mindy is relegated to a closet (with a hot pipe, where Morgan dries out his swimsuits), has no patients, and is ignored by the rest of her office, who happen to be her only friends.

Mindy, desperate to find a solution, begins plotting once she learns that Dr. Franco is a huge lightweight. She challenges him to a shots-off where the winner takes back the office, and she beats him without mercy. As a gesture of goodwill, she takes Dr. Franco back to Danny’s apartment, but can’t find the keys, so she leaves him in the hallway to sober up (but not before stealing a weird, goofy drunk kiss). But who should arrive shortly but Christina, Danny’s once-again-ex, who helps a now-pantless Dr. Franco into their apartment for hot, steamy revenge sex.

The next day, Dr. James Franco comes clean to Mindy about having sex with Christina, and wants to come clean to Danny, but opts to just tell Danny he’s quitting the practice to join the army instead when confronted. Danny is suspicious, and accuses Dr. Franco and Mindy of having sex the night before, and Dr. Franco finally comes clean. Danny pounces on Dr. Franco, causing him to leave the practice for good, and restoring order to The Mindy Project for at least another week.

Last week I was worried that James Franco wouldn’t be properly utilized in his time on The Mindy Project, and I was glad to be proven mostly wrong by this episode. Every scene he and Mindy share is fantastic, most of all the shots-off, and his affable energy felt very much at home in the show. And then, the show did something weird: at the end of the episode, they gave him a voice-over (a recording of his resignation), and play it over a montage of life returning to normal in the office (and Danny burning his sheets), intercut with slow-motion scenes with him from last week’s premiere. It was one of the episodes weirdest moments, and remember, this is an episode where Danny plays basketball with Kris Humphries.

I was disappointed to see such a poor story for Danny this episode. Apparently Danny’s having trouble coping with losing Christina again, so he joins a single-men-only support group/basketball team, which also includes one of Mindy’s former flames, Tom (a returning Bill Hader). It’s a silly plot that never goes anywhere, and Bill Hader is strangely muted, except for when he gets ultra-creepy with Mindy at the bar. Along with the bizarre appearance of Kris Humphries, the story just felt like an undercooked mess cluttering up the sides of the episode.

But overall, I’d say “The Other Dr. L” was an improvement over last week’s premiere. At the very least, it was funnier (the whipped-cream-bikini bit and the drinking contest were both great set-pieces, something The Mindy Project excels at at it’s best), and with the megastar out of the picture, maybe the season can start to pick up some real momentum. I’d cross my fingers, but I’m just going to eat a waffle in the bath instead.

Stray Observations:

  • No mention of Dr. Reed’s weight problem this episode, minus the one mention of the waffle, which, okay, whatever. If they’re going through with the story, I at least want them to do it instead of stalling. We’ll see what happens.

  • Tamra, Betsy, Morgan, and Beth Grant are all mostly non-entities in this episode, each getting a couple of lines at most. Of course, Beth Grant’s is another funny-cause-she’s-middle-aged sex joke, but I’ll be honest, if she’s there, she might as well make ’em, cause they’re always good for a chuckle.

  • We actually got to see Casey in “Haiti,” aka a very sparse “int. cabin” set. This is the kind of involvement I’m okay with for right now: pop up for Mindy to do some physical humor in front of the webcam, then disappear. I don’t know if it’s a sustainable model, but I hope they’ll hold off on putting some drama between them.

  • Let’s be honest, Mindy blowing the smoke ring was pretty awesome. That whole segment was top-form Mindy Kaling.

Mad World

I still don't understand why this is a thing??

SPECIAL NOTE: So sorry this review is going up so late. Other obligations, including an hour-long How I Met Your Mother premiere, made me unable to catch the entire two-hour show when it aired. Because of this, I was able to write much of this review as I watched the episode, meaning that I was unspoiled as to who went home until the final reveal. But just as a heads up, I’m not sure how I’ll work that into the reviews in the future, which might mean a slight format change, or might not change a thing. Anyway, on with the review!

Dancing With the Stars – “Week 2”

When I started this journey last week, one of the things I was most apprehensive about was the elimination. I knew the show is typically a two-night event, but was cut back to a single night this season, and that was about it. I did know elimination had to come tonight, but before we could get there, we had to see our teams dance once more. So let’s see what everyone was up to this week on Dancing With the Stars….

Elizabeth Berkley & Valentin Chmerkovskiy (Samba)

In the training video, Elizabeth describes learning a new dance as like learning “a new character,” and this revelation makes the push forward easier. She’s a hard worker, but Val pushes even harder, keeping the atmosphere in rehearsal casual in order to barrel through the technical business. Once on the floor, the duo take off, flying around the stage in a dance both very clearly a samba, but also drawing on some of the contemporary elements that won them such high praise last week. In the middle of the dance, the two briefly switch roles in the dance, adding another unpredictable layer to an already live-wire performance. Berkley’s past as a dancer is certainly paying off already, and the two putting so much out there early on really distinguishes them amongst the crowd.

Christina Milian & Mark Ballas (Paso Doble)

Christina Milian wants to take things to the next level. Much of her interviews in the training video are about how glad she is that Mark is pushing her, and how she wants to make a bigger impression on the judges. Mark is excited that they’ve got a contemporary song (Lady Gaga’s “Applause”), and also wants to hit hard with their performance, telling Christina that they’re going to move fast and be technical. Their performance is dark and tight, with the two never allowing too much space to creep between them. A pulse-pounding routine (and song choice), with interesting dramatic elements (using thrones as set dressing for the dance floor is an inspired choice), continues to explore this team’s potential and establish a team identity.

Bill Engvall & Emma Slater (Jive)

Bill Engvall earned a nugget of sympathy from me tonight. “I feel a little deflated by the scores,” he tells Emma in their training video, “I thought that their comments were great, but they didn’t correlate with the score.” I feel you, Bill. When it comes time to rehearse, Bill is clearly intimidated (or is it embarrassed?) by the moves, but Emma reassures him by revealing that she’s going to steal from moves from Derek, who’s also performing the jive and goes on after them. On the floor, Emma’s routine plays up the inherent hokiness of the jive, which turns out to be a blessing for Bill. In the more traditional moves, Bill’s flopsweat is visible from a mile away, but the comedic bits give Engvall a chance to relax and seem in his element. However, even acknowledging the silliness doesn’t keep the performance from being once again being remarkably average. Oh, and Emma, that costume was atrocious. Please, never again.

Jack Osbourne & Cheryl Burke (Rumba)

At the beginning of this week’s training video, Jack lambasts himself for a myriad of physical flaws, but as bemoans his inability to sing or act, present-day Cheryl interrupts “But he can dance.” Cheryl’s confidence in Jack is matched only by his lack of confidence in himself. Back in the video, every failing seems to cut Jack to the core, but Cheryl never gives up. Sharon Osbourne herself finally stops by, telling Jack to “wipe the look of terror” off his face, but Jack still isn’t convinced. Here’s the thing: he should be. Their performance is poignant, with a hint of the macabre, and Jack performs admirably, even going down into a near-split at one point. The two have a strong sense of control on the floor, and it lends the dance the sensuality it demands. While it’s difficult to watch such a solid performer beat himself up, if it produces results like these, it might not be the worst strategy.

Keyshawn Johnson & Sharna Burgess (Samba)

It seems the response to last week’s performance has made Keyshawn reexamine the way he views the competition, as he opens the training video admitting that he wants to get better, and knows he must to succeed. Keyshawn’s comrades at ESPN are supportive, and Sharna urges him to have the same confidence on the floor as he does onscreen with them. Another funk/soul-inspired routine offers more than last week’s, but jumps ship midway through, with Keyshawn dancing awkwardly to the side while Sharna does the real moves. There’s also a bizarre moment when Keyshawn mimes “motorboating” Sharna, and to top things off, a final-pose slip sours another middling performance from the team.

Nicole Polizzi & Sasha Farber (Rumba)

The rumba is the dance of love, and that concerns Nicole. She’s worried about what her fiancee will think, watching her perform these inherently sexual moves with Sasha. But she diffuses the situation with jokes and teasing, and while Sasha hasn’t completely caught on, it keep their training video fun and light. Their performance, another programmatic routine, has the air of eroticism, but smart uses of space keep the moves from ever being overtly sexual. The costume choices were especially interesting, but made sense in the context of the dance, where the two distinct individuals would separate and intertwine. Nicole insists that she wants to keep their dances classy, and this was a great example of how to bring that class to a competition with a built-in sexual atmosphere.

Leah Remini & Tony Dovolani (Samba)

When their training video opens, Leah and Tony are working hard in rehearsal, but Leah can’t help and mutter a curse for any and all missteps. It’s then revealed, to those unaware, that Leah is coming back from a big life event, leaving the Church of Scientology, from the summer. According to Leah, the Church wants her to fail, so they can use her as an example of what happens if you leave. Tony is concerned that this is weighing too heavily on Leah, but he’s also confident in her abilities, and urges her forward past her restraints. And on the floor, it shows. Their routine is very traditional, but they take the opportunity to work in some more technical moves at the very end. Leah shows a flash of uncertainty at the beginning of the routine, but it fades quickly, and she relaxes into the Latin style well. While not particularly flashy, they take the basics and elevate them to a higher level.

Bill Nye & Tyne Stecklein (Paso Doble)

Bill and Tyne aren’t going to take last week’s disparaging comments lying down. They both want to push back hard (and it seems Bill’s found a friendly rival in Len Goodman), and Tyne isn’t afraid to hound Bill until she gets what she wants. On the floor, the pair deliver a Beethoven-inspired routine that is equal parts theatrical, ferocious, and sexual. Bill was acutely focused, and while it made some of the more elastic moves seem stilted, it also gave their performance the gravitas they were aiming for. No other team has established even half as solid an identity at this point in the competition.

Corbin Bleu & Karina Smirnoff (Jive)

Whoa, that “rice and beans” comment was kind of racist, right? Regardless, every thing about this team’s segment had me groaning. In the training video, Corbin wants to pay homage to his High School Musical roots, and the two design a routine to some One Direction song. But I couldn’t imagine what it would actually look like on the floor. While the moves themselves are strong and interesting, everything else was just so bizarre. With the lone locker segment and hyper-sexualized costumes, I’ll be frank, the beginning of the routine looked like the beginning of a porno, and the team pushed the silliness factor of the jive way past the point of appropriate. What comes out is a technically stunning but bafflingly surreal mess that never quite hits the mark. I like Corbin and Karina as a team, but leave the homages to Bill Nye and Tyne.

Valerie Harper & Tristan MacManus (Paso Doble)

As we learned last week, Valerie’s biggest concern isn’t her cancer, but her knee, and this week, we see it attempt to bring her down. In the beginning of their training video, Valerie suffers a nasty fall, and while Tristan urges her to rest to eliminate any chance of long-term injury, Valerie pushes through. “I’m 74 with terminal cancer… I don’t care,” she insists. Tristan is inspired by Valerie’s drive, and she never lets up in rehearsal. Their performance isn’t quite the showstopper last week’s was, and Valerie never quite seems totally comfortable during the routine, but she begins the dance on her own, an impressive choice, and brings a feisty grandeur to the floor to compensate for any shortcomings.

Brant Daugherty & Peta Murgatroyd (Rumba)

Last week, I said that Brant and Peta had no chemistry outside of “two attractive people,” and unfortunately that trend continues. The sexual tension of their training video is almost cringe-worthy, but maybe that’s just my bias against beautiful people coming out. Their performance (to “Underneath Your Clothes” by Shakira, a song I typically enjoy) is more technically adept than last week’s, and the two are obviously very comfortable on the floor, but the whole thing comes off more air-fucking than dancing. I’m sure there are fans of this, but it’s a one-note style that’s already getting stale.

Amber Riley & Derek Hough (Jive)

“I don’t want anyone to be like, ‘She can move for her size,’ I want them to be like, ‘She can dance.'” Amber is apprehensive about dancing the jive because of her physicality, and it shows on the training video. Derek wants to show her that her perception about the jive isn’t totally accurate, but when it is, Amber’s frustrations rise. But on the floor, those apprehensions seem to melt away, as Amber moves with purpose and focus. Their routine brings the perfect amount of camp to the jive, and is heavily reminiscent of Hairspray. Derek takes on some more physically demanding moves, while Amber provides a heightened attitude that fits perfectly in the character of the style. It’s a performance full of content that delivers on almost every level. Oh, and there’s another weird motorboating thing, but I think the less said about that, the better.

After the performances came the aspect of the show I was most curious about: elimination. I knew going in that the eliminations were a combination of judge’s scores and viewer votes, which doesn’t thrill me, so I was anxious to see the system in action, especially given the show’s new format this season. When we see the total leaderboard for the judge’s score, it’s a 20 point split between the top (Amber & Derek, 51) and the bottom (Bill Nye & Tyne, 31). The hosts reveal which teams are safe, one by one: Corbin & Karina; Leah & Tony; Bill Nye & Tyne; Christina & Mark; Amber & Derek; Valerie & Tristan; Nicole & Sasha; Jack & Cheryl; Brant & Peta; Elizabeth & Val; and…

Bill Engvall & Emma! Farewell, Keyshawn & Sharna, I can’t say I’m surprised. But I can say that I’m okay with the remaining teams. After elimination, Keyshawn shows a remarkable amount of poise, and while it’s a shame he and Sharna were never able to develop into a better team, that’s just how a competition like this works. If you don’t bring it hard or distinguish yourself right off the bat, you’re going to get left behind quickly.

And now that I’ve seen two episodes of Dancing With the Stars, including an elimination, I feel much more comfortable going forward. I have no doubt that as we get to spend more time with these teams, more drama will unfold, but I’m honestly more excited just to see what each of them is going to bring to the floor.

Rien n’arrete nos esprits

The Mindy Project – “All My Problems Solved Forever…”

The first season of The Mindy Project was wildly inconsistent, more so than just about any other show on television. Week to week, episodes would vary so greatly in quality that it made it difficult for me to get invested. It also made it impossible for the show to figure out just what it wanted to be. It wasn’t a catastrophe, but it also never achieved the quality that a Mindy Kaling project should have.

Season two begins with a huge voice-over/montage full of information that could fill an entire season itself. Mindy is still in Haiti with Casey, and actually enjoying herself, which prompts him to propose. Then Mindy passes out from abdominal pain and is flown back to New York City. Now, okay, I knew going in that Mindy had to get back to New York in this episode, but I wasn’t expecting a completely random medical emergency. It’s a weird element that feels out of place and underdeveloped, but I digress. Back in New York, we get the lowdown on the rest of this ridiculously over-sized cast: Jeremy has taken on more responsibility in the practice, and is gaining weight; Danny is back together with his ex-wife Christina, but they’re not having sex; there’s a sassy nurse, Tamra, but I honestly can’t remember whether or not she was in the first season; Morgan, Betsy, and Beth Grant (as I shall always refer to her) are still the same. Oh, and James Franco has taken Mindy’s place.

Mindy and Casey decide to get married before returning to Haiti in a week. Danny and Christina see Dr. James Franco for sex therapy, and then she finds porn on his laptop. Dr. James Franco continues to be very liked by everyone. The solutions are simple: Mindy and Casey will have a small ceremony in Mindy’s apartment; Danny will propose to Christina; Dr. James Franco will continue to be handsome and charming. Well, that’s not really a solution to anything, it’s just what happens. Anyway.

At the impromptu ceremony, Mindy and Danny have a heart-to-heart about what it is Mindy wants out of life. They have these discussions a lot. But she knows she loves Casey, and since he peed on her dress earlier, she walks down the aisle in her scrubs. But Casey calls it off, saying that he wants to give Mindy the wedding she wants, but that she needs to stay in New York for this to happen. Status quo mostly restored, minus the little issue of Dr. James Franco, but that can wait.

Overall, not too shabby. There were a lot of things that worked in this episode, chief among them Chris Messina as Danny. He’s great in every scene he does, most of all when he’s paired with Mindy. The guest stars for the episode also work fairly well. Chloë Sevigny doesn’t get much to do as Christina, but her scenes with Messina work well, and when she breaks Danny’s laptop in two (right after revealing the porn to the rest of the office), it was one of the night’s biggest laughs. James Franco also does good work here, though it’s not for nothing that I’ve been referring to his character as Dr. James Franco. It’s essentially just him in a lab coat being goofy, but he integrates himself into the world of The Mindy Project with much more ease than some other guest stars. (Yes, that means you, BJ Novak.) Anders Holm doesn’t quite gel as well as the others, but I place that more on the Casey character than anything else. (I’m also assuming that we’ll only see him through Skype windows for the rest of his arc on the show, which is a shame.)

But there was plenty that didn’t work quite as well. Morgan is a character that the writers for this show obviously love, and think is the end-all, be-all of funny, but Ike Barinholtz is best used in small doses, as opposed to essentially the show’s only supporting character. On The Mindy Project, Morgan often becomes the comedic crutch of the show, and since the character is so over-blown, it becomes taxing. Conversely, Betsy literally does nothing in this episode (if I’m not mistaken, she didn’t even have a single line), and Beth Grant only got in a weird (but kind of funny) line about masturbation. Betsy was used well a few times in season one, and I enjoy Zoe Jarman, so I’m worried to see her pushed so far to the margins from the get-go. And while I tend to love any appearance from Beth Grant, her crazy middle-age fountain of weird just doesn’t really have a place on the show. And perhaps my biggest issue of all comes from Ed Week’s Dr. Jeremy Reed. Jeremy didn’t have much to do in season one, but worked well as a foil for Danny at times, and though kept on the edges, he was always a presence in the series. I was excited to see an expanded role for him here, but was immediately turned off when it was revealed that his shiny new role was “fat,” and extremely unconvincing fat at that. The problem here is two-fold: 1) “Fat” is not a joke. Or rather, just making a character fat does not instantly equal comedy, and 2) Seriously, they couldn’t find a better way to make it look like Ed Weeks has put on weight? It looks like someone stuffed a couch pillow up his dress shirt and they called it a day. C’mon guys, invest in a semi-decent fat suit, or, I don’t know, Ed Weeks could just actually gain some weight. It worked wonders for Mac on Always Sunny, and I bet it’d work here too.

So here we are, starting off the season on a passable episode, but the show still desperately needs to work on bettering itself. A lot of these issues could be fixed if the show could just choose between workplace comedy or rom-com, but I’m worried that’s not going to happen, which is fine as long as the show puts in the work to balance those elements. Instead, we get good-but-not-great versions of both, and too many cast members with nothing to do, which is a bad place to stay for too long.

Stay Observations

  • First off, I’m not going easy on The Mindy Project this year. I know what Mindy Kaling is capable of at her best, and I would love nothing more than for this show to be that. But when it comes short, I’m not going to just ignore the issues. Consider this fair warning, in case things go south.
  • It’s disappointing to see Casey go like this, though it opens up some potential outside of “Mindy dates guest star for 2-4 episodes before breaking up.” Besides, I look forward to lots of Skype chats with Anders Holm in front of Generic Haiti Background.
  • As much as I enjoyed James Franco here, the fact that the role was filled by such a high-profile star takes a lot of wind out of the sails. There’s obviously zero chance of Franco joining the cast, even on a supporting level (especially on the supporting level?), and Mindy has to get job at the practice back. I’m hoping they make the most of the scenario, and Franco, before he leaves.
  • Okay, Tamra got me with the “Glob” line, even if it does reek of a joke only a comedy writer would come up with.
  • Dr. James Franco pulling up the slide of his sperm, with cheesy music and flashing lights, after Danny’s lifeless boys, was pretty funny.

The Night the Lights Went Out in Domeland

Under the Dome – “Curtains”

Chester’s Mill is a place like any other. But the Dome, the Dome is a lawless land, full of lies and a massive power vacuum. And while Big Jim thinks he’s in charge, we all know it’s really the Egg that holds all the power. And when everything’s being run by a licorice jellybean, well, things are going to get a little crazy.

We open back in the home of Sk8r Dude, with the kids, Norrie’s mom, non-dead version, and Linda all staring down the Mini-Dome. Linda tries to ask what’s going on, but like everything she does, it’s useless, and the butterfly finally hatches, which is where things get interesting. The butterfly rams into the Mini-Dome, causing dark blotches that spread across the surface. As most things related to Mini-Dome and the Egg, it’s actually pretty cool, but I digress. As the blotches spread across the Mini-Dome, the same thing happens to the Dome, causing the sky to go dark. The kids try to figure out what to do, but Linda makes a giant mess of things, calling for backup to Sk8r Dude’s house, then touches Mini-Dome, which of course PK Blasts her into the wall.

At the town hall/jail/courthouse combo (think a KFC/Pizza Hut/Long John Silver’s), Big Jim’s not too happy that Barbie pleaded not guilty to all the false charges Big Jim made against him. Barbie insists that Julia’s continued existence can invalidate pretty much everything Big Jim is saying (which is true), but Big Jim is a stubborn man. Barbie and Big Jim pontificate toward each other for a bit, but Big Jim tires of this quickly when he sees the darkness falling outside.

Julia wakes up in The Clinic, where Angie is still watching over her. Despite the fact that she got shot and has been unconscious for like, three days, Julia immediately gets up and insists that they have to save Barbie. Angie reluctantly goes along, and they go to the town hall/jail/courthouse and set Barbie free. Phil shows up to be totally worthless and a complete pain in the ass, but Barbie disposes of him quickly.

Junior’s hanging out at the edge of the Dome, being angsty and yelling to the Dome for answers, but the darkness falls before he can get any. He hears Linda’s backup call, and heads for Sk8r Dude’s house. Once there, Norrie and Joe insist that they need Angie to figure out what’s going on, and the three of them take the Dome to hide it away. They send out a secret message to Angie, telling her to head to The Cement Factory, home of Dome Fight Club. Angie, Julia, and Barbie meet up with the kids, and they all put their hands on the blackened Mini-Dome, causing it to glow bright, then crumble into ash. Norrie finds the butterfly, which is dead, but pulls a Green Mile and brings it back to life. It flies around some, in an oddly wonderful sequence, and circles Barbie, leading Joe to totally gush over his mancrush for being the Monarch.

Big Jim, who picked up Linda from Sk8r Dude’s house, heads to the local church, where everyone’s gathering to make right with the Lord before the apocalypse. Of course, this is a perfect opportunity for Big Jim to take control of his city, because using religion as a vehicle to spread evil is a time-honored cliche, and Big Jim is nothing if not a walking time-honored cliche. He snatches up Phil, and orders him to start building a gallows, because JESUS CHRIST BIG JIM. Phil, being the useless piece of crap he is, agrees, because “For Dodee.” Yeah, whatever Phil, I still hate you.

Back in The Cement Factory, Junior’s not happy about Barbie being the Monarch, but their argument is cut short when the Egg begins shaking, causing The Cement Factory to also shake around them. Everyone is rightly freaked the hell out, but Julia reaches out and grabs the Egg, which calms the shaking, and apparently means that now she’s the Monarch, because that whole scene of Barbie being the Monarch didn’t mean anything, I guess. At this point, Junior pretty much immediately switches back to Creepy Samberg and starts acting like a sociopath again. He holds Julia at gunpoint and demands the Egg, but Barbie takes him out and she and the kids escape. Barbie and Junior tussle, but Junior overtakes him, bringing him back to the town hall/jail/courthouse.

Linda’s out looking for the kids, and heads into the barn, where she finds the star map the kids drew on the wall. She also sees “The pink stars are falling into lines” written on the wall, and when she tells Big Jim about all this, his face falls. He hasn’t heard those words in a long time, apparently, and tells Linda to meet him at his house. Now, I knew immediately where this was going, and groaned at the thought of having to see that awful painting again, but, surprise! This time it’s a whole new horrible painting, and Big Jim reveals that his crazy wife used to say the thing about the pink stars. Linda, being terrible, tells Big Jim that this means he’s special, because the first thing you should tell a megalomaniacal sociopath in an extreme crisis is that they’re special.

The kids and Julia run out into the woods, where they eventually decide to just ask the Egg what the hell it really wants. For some reason, Norrie has to do this, instead of, you know, THE MONARCH, which leads to yet another crazy Egg-related vision of Norrie’s mom, dead version. But this isn’t just some hallucination, no, it’s someone/thing who/that sent the Dome in the first place, just taking the form of Norrie’s mom. They explain that the Dome isn’t punishment, it’s protection (from what? Sorry, you’re gonna have to wait till next year for that!), and that they have to earn light back by protecting the Egg. Norrie’s mom, dead version, disappears, and Julia grabs the Egg. They head to the diner to plan, and Big Jim comes over the police radio and offers a trade: the Egg for Barbie, and if she doesn’t agree in the hour, Barbie dies. Julia decides it’s up to her to fix this and splits up with the kids, heading into the dark on her own.

At the town hall/jail/courthouse, Big Jim and Barbie resume their boring back-and-forth for a bit, before Big Jim takes his proselytizing to Junior, appealing to his love of bad paintings and talking about destiny, which brings Junior around to being Big Jim’s Number 2. As Julia’s allotted hour draws to the close, they haul Barbie out to the gallows to hang for his crimes.

Julia takes the Egg out to the lake (I totally forgot existed), and decides that protecting the Egg, and Chester’s Mill, must come at the price of Barbie, the man who murdered her husband and lied about it, and throws the Egg into the lake. This does, well, something. The lake glows pink, and the pink stars themselves rise out of the lake and toward the top of the Dome for all to see. As they converge, a blinding white light takes their place, a light that spreads down over the Dome. Zoom out on a bright white Dome, and cut to black.

And so we reach the end of Under the Dome‘s first season. Not surprisingly, the finale offers up barely any answers, opting instead to give vague teasers of answers to come and move pieces around the board. Hell, no one even dies in this episode, as Barbie’s hanging is interrupted by the light washing over the Dome. It makes me wonder what Under the Dome would be like had it been confined to a single run of 13 episodes, as was originally intended. It also makes me wonder what they can possibly have in store for us next summer, when I’ll semi-reluctantly follow this hot mess once again.

All that said, I applaud the series for buying into the crazy more and more as the season progressed. 13 weeks ago, I was offered a promising pilot, but the series never lived back up to that potential, instead sputtering along, only half-committed to anything taking place onscreen. But in the last third, Under the Dome took the things that worked (pretty much anything Egg-related) and moved them more into focus, which helped ice over some of the more egregious failings of the series. I won’t say the show ever achieved the trashy goodness it could have, but hey, we’re getting at least another year of this, so there’s always hope.

Stray Observations

  • So much bad dialogue in this episode. My personal favorite: Linda screaming “What does that mean?!” when the kids tell her that the Dome told them that the Monarch will be crowned.

  • Guys, I really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really hate Phil. And yet he lives to see another day. Don’t worry Phil, come next summer, I’ll spend every week praying to a licorice jellybean for your death.

  • And I guess that about does it. Thanks to the, like, three of you who actually read these crazy things. It was kinda fun, kinda dumb, and never really interesting, but it was an experience, and I’m glad I got to have it.