Monday, July 4, 2011

TV Episode Review: Wilfred “Happiness” (Pilot)

I imagine the pitch for this show was something to the effect of “Imagine ‘Fight Club’ but Tyler Durden is a dog with a British accent.”  That statement was immediately followed by awkward, protracted silence, immediately followed by the creators buying the studio execs drinks until they decided that was a great idea for a show.  Given the nature of the previews (dating back months, it feels like) for Wilfred, “Happiness” felt awfully heavy-handed and pseudo-philosophical.  Granted, the TV spots long ago revealed that the show would begin with Ryan (Elijah Wood) unsuccessfully attempting suicide.  What those ads did not prepare us for is the strangely serious nature of the relationship between Ryan and Wilfred, the hot neighbor’s dog who may or may not be a figment of Ryan’s imagination (indeed, tonight seemed to offer a few hints that Wilfred may simply be an extension of Ryan’s own demented psyche, a possibility that could be left open to the very end, a la the infinitely superior relationship between Calvin and his—apparently—stuffed tiger, Hobbes).  Wilfred’s half-interested attempts to shake Ryan from his morbid goal are laden with silly life-metaphors and empty rhetoric about embracing the selfish, simple lifestyle of a dog, while simultaneously muddling the metaphor by making Wilfred un-doglike in almost every sense of the word (assuming “doglike” is a word).  The long and the short of it is that after one episode, none of it makes any sense.  That’s not an ideal thing to say after a “pilot” episode—so-called because it’s supposed to pilot the viewer through the concept of the show and serve as a guide to appreciate everything that comes after.

Consider “Happiness” in that light.  What do we know about the concept after this half hour?  Wilfred may or may not be the neighbor’s dog or just a complete figment of Ryan’s imagination (he seems to have a crush on the neighbor—he could be hallucinating the encounters with her as well), which is fine because it lends the show a secondary source of tension that I presume will run beneath every episode’s A-story.  Less fine is the fact that Wilfred is not particularly likable or funny.  We also gain a few snippets of Ryan’s past that, at least from where I’m standing, mostly make me feel like Wilfred should have shit in his boots instead of the biker’s.  He’s a complete twit to his sister, whose worst offenses against him seem to be finding him a productive job that doesn’t involve practicing law (which, poor baby, his daddy made him do) and prescribing him sugar pills in order to “help” him with his neuroses without endangering his life or her own job.  She ends up endangering the latter anyway when she goes out on a limb for him again with the head doctor.  His condescending and dismissive response to her is the episode’s biggest misfire, which is a problem considering it’s supposed to be the emotional victory which sets Wilfred and Ryan off on their future adventures. 

Given that Wilfred betrays Ryan by episode’s end and doesn’t really seem to have any genuine interest in his well-being, I recognize that the moment with his sister may not be intended as a moment of victory.  Within the episode’s structure, however, it’s hard to read it otherwise.  Wilfred disrupts his downward spiral, provides hope of an “in” with a girl who might redeem his humanity a bit, offers him some clichéd advice about life, and then talks him into alienating his sister in a moment of “liberation”.  If he’s the devil on Ryan’s shoulder then this show is going to be a lot to stomach—a man dressed as a dog making a suicidal man’s life more miserable is a tough route to take even for black humor—and if, as it seemed at a few points tonight, he’s going to play both angel and demon to Ryan, then the show seems to be taking an impossible route. 
Wilfred isn’t nearly funny enough to justify him playing the role of troublemaker/pot-stirrer in Ryan’s life.  It was pretty amazing, in fact, to see the end of the episode burn through a few more obvious anthropomorphized dog jokes, since they seem to be at least a part of Wilfred’s bread-and-butter.  His accent and stoner habits certainly aren’t going to carry the day by themselves, which leaves very little for the show to go on if a guy in a dog suit is to be the central comedic conceit.  Wilfred’s own hard-luck story doesn’t really pack much of a punch, so he’s neither funny nor sympathetic by the end of tonight’s episode.  Using anecdotes about eating a dead possum’s insides via it’s anus isn’t winning over too many viewers either; the fact that somebody (or more troublingly, everybody) found that bit funny enough to make the final draft doesn’t bode too well for what’s to come later. 

Even more troubling is the fact that Wood seems to be struggling mightily to make all of this work.  He has plenty heaped on his plate—his character is driven by poor and unclear motivations, his hopelessness is ungrounded in any real sense of desperation, he’s intimidated by a talking dog for no particularly convincing reason, and he gets very little to do in the way of comedy, which is a shame given his natural talents and ability to invest himself into a character. 

So I guess the show’s driving force moving forward surrounds a clarification of Wilfred’s role in Ryan’s life—will he solidify himself as an antagonist (openly or in sheep’s clothing) or will he have a change of heart and prove to be something of a wet-nosed fairy dogfather for Ryan?  Of more potential interest, will the show continue to slather on the ambiguity regarding the nature of Wilfred?  There’s something to be said for the question of whether Ryan will accept the reality of Wilfred as something real and frightening (as he clearly does this week) or whether he’ll begin to read him as some sort of extension of himself, which Wilfred suggests a couple of times tonight (the first time he adds “just kidding, I read your suicide note,” but that doesn’t seem entirely relevant to the implications he puts in play).  However, if the less interesting questions are answered with unfortunate results (Wilfred is the conniving, unfunny creature he seems to be, for example), then I doubt this show will be around long enough to answer the more interesting ones.

Overall Score:  5.4/10

Great Lines, Interesting Moments, Whatnot and Occasionally What-Have-You:

“So long girl next door; hope they find my body before the smell becomes a problem for you.”

The first image of a clearly-inconvenienced Wilfred on the sidewalk behind Jenna at Ryan’s door is quite funny—a man in a dog suit with his hands on his hips in exasperation is apparently naturally funny.

What’s not funny:  Ryan’s sister’s gross jokes about delivering babies. 

“Got any DVDs?  I like Matt Damon.”

Best exchange of the night:
“that’s from dune, how do you know that?” 
“How do you know that?”

“We’re gonna need a bigger bong.”

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Something Special (Installment 4): "Trollhunter"

One of the biggest tragedies of modern film is that despite a broader spectrum of choices than have been available to film goers at any other time in history, few people would even consider venturing to an "art" theater instead of the local Googleplex-Cinema to see the latest Robots-vs-Zombies (featuring female nudity!) formula film.  Which is why films like this one, which looks quirky and strange and off-kilter and kind of amazing, are considered successful if a few serious film sites feature them and a couple hundred thousand American viewers catch on to the "craze" to create a cult following.  You don't have to see this movie (though, I think you'll want to after you watch this trailer), but go see something in an art theater that you haven't seen advertised to death on TV, buses, billboards and Slurpee cups.  You might enjoy yourself.

P.S.  More fun posts coming soon--it's time for some ever-controversial lists.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

TV Episode Review: The Chicago Code “Greylord and Gambat” and “Mike Royko’s Revenge”

My delayed reviews are bad enough, but unfortunately they’ve come during a time window in which Code itself has been snatched from us all too soon.  For those who haven’t heard (if I’m your only pop culture internet stop, you should really surf the internet more...) Fox has officially killed the show without any chance of a second season.  I’ll be honest, I don’t understand how TV ratings work—Code ranks about even with most of the other shows that Fox runs, the difference being that it had a pedigree of creator/showrunner and actors which put it a cut above most of the material Fox traffics in.  Long story short, they had an opportunity to be the network bringing something to television that’s noteworthy (they seem to ignore all of the glowing reviews they get for Fringe as well) and acclaimed for reasons other than billions of mouth breathing pre-teens tune in for it three times every week.  I’m not going to launch into that rant, but just keep in mind:  If you’re a regular American Idol viewer, you’re helping send the message that America’s ideal night of television is manufactured celebrity and manipulative “reality” programming.  It’s your right, but just remember that ratings come from somewhere.

At any rate, given the tardiness of my review of “Greylord and Gambat”, I’m going to be reviewing that episode and the finale within the same space here.  They’ll still be treated as separate entities, but if they’re the last two episodes of this show we get, we might as well celebrate them collectively. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

TV Episode Review: Chicago Code “Black Sox”

This episode played way too much like a “socially conscious” episode of a bad police procedural to be very likeable for the crime of the week.  It’s nice and all that everyone in the episode is so casual about talk of being openly gay—by golly, there’s even an old buddy of Jarek’s on the force who’s gay, and Jarek is totally cool with that; he even asks how the relationship is going—but ultimately it feels like a stale attempt to be modern and edgy while ironically drawing on pretty clichéd (and arguably offensive) storylines.  A really successful homosexual man is killed while trolling through Boys Town for tail, and the immediate suspect is, big surprise, a pair of brothers who must commute a LONG ways to work in the morning, because they certainly don’t seem like Chicago natives with their redneck tattoos and lynch-mob attitudes.  Forgive me for feeling like nuance and realism are somewhat lacking in an episode which can’t be bothered to go beyond the simplistic notions that minority groups still suffer hate crimes against them and the perpetrators are usually one-dimensional, hateful, undereducated country bumpkin types.  Dull. On top of that, the writers feel the need to cram Colvin’s mouth with an awful little speech about bigots and how horrible they are, just in case you weren’t keeping up with how atrocious hate crimes are.  

Monday, May 16, 2011

TV Episode Review: Community “For a Few Paintballs More”

Well, I guess I completely underestimated the writers last week in casually remarking that the second part of this paintball opus would be another homage to action movies in general.  I realized when “Pistol Peggy” emerged from the smoke of a paintball battle a-la Darth Vader’s entrance to the rebel blockade runner in the original film just what we were in for tonight, and I have to admit to a twinge of excitement in spite of having grown fairly sick of all things “Star Wars” in the past few years.  By and large, the episode followed through with some really fun scenes and playful character moments (how great is it that Abed-as-Solo gets Annie as hot/bothered as we’ve ever seen her on this show?) built around the well-known mythology of the original trilogy.  It didn’t quite live up to last week’s outstanding Spaghetti Western motif, but it managed to come through as a fairly energetic and amusing resolution to the most high stakes story we’ve seen on Community (if Greendale loses, it seems the college will be financially doomed) while putting some closure on that pesky Pierce problem that’s been hanging over the entire season.  I’m not sure how you do a “Star Wars” themed episode, though, and fail to put either Britta or Annie in the metal bikini.  Just saying, who was asleep at the wheel on that one? 

TV Episode Review: Fringe “The Day We Died”

Is it blasphemous if I admit that I was a bit underwhelmed by the Fringe finale?  I’m having trouble coming to terms with it myself, so amped was I after last week to discover what exactly had happened to Peter and what world it was he had been suddenly plopped into the middle of.  The answers to those questions weren’t entirely surprising, nor were they unsatisfying.  In fact, I’m quite intrigued by the cruel twist of fate involved—Peter’s activation of the machine on our side led to the destabilization of things on the other side which resulted in that Earth’s complete destruction.  It’s a twist we didn’t see coming, but it’s compounded by the fact that the worlds were never meant to be in competition with one another in the first place—they are linked together in some Fringe-sciencey way which makes certain that the destruction of the one means the imminent (and painfully slow, apparently) doom of the other.  This would probably also be a fitting place to note that the show’s opening has changed again (the last time representing the introduction of Earth 2 as a setting for complete episodes) suggesting a shift in the show’s fundamental premise.  Among the new pseudo-science phrases floating around were concepts like “biosuspension” and “dual maternity”.  Intriguing. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

TV Episode Review: Community “A Fist Full of Paintballs”

I can’t decide whether I was surprised to see Community go back to the paintball well this week; it made a ton of sense based on the high praise that episode drew last year, but it was a bit surprising given that Community has found so many other forms of parody, satire and silliness to fill episodes with.  In retrospect, I should have known that a revisiting of the general premise of paintball wouldn’t involve any laziness or repetition by the writers.  Instead they’ve taken their original premise and given it a couple of fantastic tweaks (namely the strange mystery of the $100,000 prize from the ambiguous Pistol Patty’s Cowboy Creamery, allowing for the “Fistful of Dollars” parody, and the flashback-centric subplot wherein we discover that Annie either cast the only vote to keep Pierce in the group, or the only vote to kick him out, putting them at odds during the battle). 

Saturday, May 7, 2011

TV Episode Review: Justified “Bloody Harlan”

Last week I set aside space at the end of my review to take some guesses at who would come out of the season finale alive, and re-reading them I was amazed to discover I batted 1.000, if you don’t get picky about how people actually went down or hold it over my head that a couple situations are left up in the air, which, you know, don’t be a jerk about it.  Let’s not pretend I’m a genius for knowing that Doyle was going to get put down for a season’s worth of unforgivable assholery, nor is it really an act of extra-sensory perception to predict that Mags would have to pay some price as the season’s villain.  Dickie always seemed too pitiable to pay with his life when, truthfully, he’s right in pointing out to Raylan tonight that he owes Raylan about 7,000 steps a day, times 20 years of days, on a gimp leg thanks to Raylan’s home run swing.  Loretta got a wonderful wrap-up to one of the more painful stories of the season—she gets to put a bullet in Mags without carrying with her the burden of killing for the rest of her life.  I had said that she might provide one of this week’s surprises, and I’m not sure if that’s really true or not in retrospect.  It seems inevitable in hindsight that seeking to rectify her father’s unavenged murder would be her final act of the season, given her feistiness and quiet resolve in pretty much every moment of screen time.  I will claim at least partial credit for seeing Ava’s chest wound coming, but since I had a feeling she’d die and now I get the impression she’ll pull through to annoy us more with her poor decision making skills and make up for it with the way she wears a pair of jeans, I can’t really say I guessed it entirely. 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

TV Episode Review: The Chicago Code “Bathhouse and Hinky Dink”

Tonight started off with another one of those trademark openings wherein a character narrates a bit of Chicago history to us, this time regarding public officials on the take (including those in the episode’s title).  It continues to serve as a nice grounding element for the show’s master story—they don’t do enough to link history with the show’s fiction, but I appreciate that the writers are making efforts to embed the characters of the show not just in the locations of the city but in its history, which is something of a glacial force pushing ever-forwards despite the best efforts of Colvin and others.  Thus do the proceedings tonight begin with a city official named Darren Wall getting off on a slam dunk embezzlement case (in the waste management department—those guys are always involved with the mob, if TV teaches us anything).  Jury tampering is the obvious conclusion, but the show at least offers a clever twist in how the tampering is accomplished.  More importantly, we get to see Irish mobster Killian in action again, and by “in action” I mean “infuriating and incriminating Gibbons and splattering Liam’s face with juror blood”. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

TV Episode Review: Fringe “The Last Sam Weiss”

I think I’ve been pretty good during the course of writing about this and other shows about focusing on the episode at hand and minimizing or avoiding the distractions of “next week on” type previews.  I’m going to break that unspoken rule tonight for just a moment in order to observe that it looks like Fringe is about to go crazy.  That’s partially an observation embedded in tonight’s final moments where we discover that the machine transports Peter’s consciousness into a future version of himself, who is possibly involved in the Machine Wars of the original “Terminator” film.  He certainly seems to have borrowed his hairstyle from the soldiers in those films.  It seems an apocalypse has occurred sometime between the moment he enters the machine and 2021 (where a beautiful new building has replaced the Twin Towers, along with a 20 year memorial plaque).  Whether this “is” our Peter or simply a future version of him which is now controlled by the consciousness of the one we know (probably a safer bet considering the machine doesn’t seem to physically send his body anywhere) is an important question which I’m sure we’ll have answered next week.  What seems pretty clear is that he is in full control of Future Peter (good luck with that nickname—Feter? Futer?  Fu-Pete?  I kind of like that last one) and he has no clue what’s happening, and he’s wounded.    

Monday, May 2, 2011

TV Episode Review: Community “Applied Anthropology and Culinary Arts”

There’s so much to distract our attention on Community that it’s easy to forget fairly major incidents (which may be their way of escaping from some of the quagmires I felt they wrote themselves into with certain characters earlier this season).  I, for one, hadn’t even considered the fact that they would probably want to deal with Shirley’s delivery prior to season’s end.  Had I thought about it, I would have guessed it to be a good season finale topic given the rather interesting controversy at its center.  I much preferred the use of it tonight, though, as a straightforward premise to bounce pretty much every character on the show off of one another as they gather in the Anthropology room for the arrival of Shirley’s (and possibly Chang’s) baby.  It made for some great self-aware moments regarding this small study group taking over everything that happens at Greendale (the birth disrupts a non-existent final exam and puts the dean’s big article in Dean Magazine at risk) as well as some really clever pop culture riffing, and of course it all managed to wrap up with a sugary moment between mother and father and baby…and Chang.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

TV Episode Review: Justified “Reckoning”

There’s a great moment in the sadly maligned and little-known (at least to modern film lovers) Clint Eastwood musical (you read correctly) “Paint Your Wagon” where a town built on all of man’s vices begins to literally implode on itself due to the fact that greedy gold miners have literally gutted the ground beneath the town looking for gold.  As the streets and buildings sink into this man-made pit, the inhabitants of the city sing “No Name City, your reckoning day is here!”  As the church sinks a miner says to the preacher “Welcome to hell, parson.”  Minus the musical number, the scene contains a lot of parallels to tonight’s excellent and troubling episode.  “Reckoning” lives up to its name as pretty much everyone answers, or prepares to answer, for everything they’ve done this season.  The result, as the preview for next week’s episode makes clear, is a “war com(ing) to Harlan”.  Indeed, it seems that the county itself will be sinking into its own sort of self-created hell as the history of violence, corruption and crime finally comes to a head.  The ground seems to open up beneath several characters tonight, and you can see the cracking fault lines under the footing of others.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

TV Episode Review: Fringe “6:02 AM EST”

Fringe tends to depress the accelerator all the way to the floor once they hit the final stretch.  Last season’s final few episodes found the two universes intermingling with characters from both sides and stakes higher than we’d ever seen them before.  Those last few episodes were filled with images and moments which still stand out even with all of the great episodes and moments we’ve been given in the time between.  This season looks to be shaping up the same way:  Tonight was a teaser-y hour of sound and vision where more was hinted at than seen—the ominous sounds of The Machine warming up and the off-screen flashes denoting destructive vortexes swallowing entire swaths of our universe are all foreboding hints of the chaos to be unleashed these last few episodes.  That’s not to say that nothing happened tonight; it was, in fact, an incredibly dense and eventful episode.  It’s just that Fringe has raised the stakes so high that they can stuff an episode full of revelations and game-changers and still leave us at the end of the episode pulling our hair out and shouting “Dear GOD, I can’t wait for next week!”  Not that I actually do that, because I have some dignity, but I know you people—you’re crazy.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

TV Episode Review: Community “Paradigms of Human Memory”

Community isn’t the first show to ever try and tweak the lazy staple known as “the clip show”, but without having watched every TV show ever, I’m going to go ahead and declare with certainty that it’s the only show to take a clip show and use it to reveal a “history” of “clips” which actually serve to document an entirely new set of adventures the group has had in our absence.  The Simpsons cleverly used old clips to reimagine the characters as actors inside of the comedy itself, which played smartly, but that was mostly due to the clever story structure of the “Behind the Music” parody of the episode (entitled “Behind the Laughs”).  Which means that Community has probably succeeded in going meta yet again (“Meta Yet Again” would make a good album name), this time to imagine a sitcom world where we don’t actually spend every waking hour with the characters.  Though Community isn’t the first show ever to point it out, it’s important to realize that most shows do operate under the assumption that we do witness every relevant event of the characters’ lives:  There are references to off screen occurrences, but they are either largely irrelevant, ancient history, or else clear inventions of dialogue meant to help shape and structure the current events of the proceedings we are witnessing.  Tonight, Community throws that notion away in favor of scene after scene of “adventures” the study group went ahead and had without us. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

TV Episode Review: Justified “Full Commitment”

This week was one of “full commitments” indeed, though some developments might be better described as fallout or deterioration.  Relationships crumbled left and right tonight in terms of both their stability and their equilibrium.  Raylan rocked the boat with pretty much everyone but Wynona and Boyd, and I’d imagine he’ll get to the latter next week.  Raylan started to work on losing Tim as an ally in the marshal department tonight and seemed to have pretty much completed the job by episode’s end; Tim seems to understand somewhere inside that Raylan’s probably doing what’s best, but he’s also wary of him and more than a bit adversarial about the whole ordeal (as he has every right to be).  Meanwhile, the Bennetts have made enemies of everyone, with Doyle making especially certain Raylan knows where they stand, and Dickie only needs one button-pushing from Boyd (granted, quite a button pushing) to start stacking up bodies and restructuring some of his own relationships with the big players in town, including, tragically, poor Helen, who stood by the insufferable Arlo for one too many outings, at long last.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

TV Episode Review: The Chicago Code “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre”

I really liked the opening of this week’s episode, which found Colvin in a hot seat even more uncomfortable than the one a police superintendent would normally have to sit in:  the interview chair of a radio talk jock/moron named “Man Cow”, if I heard him correctly, who clearly runs one of those shows where people who are angry and uneducated get to call in and berate the guests and other listeners with their ignorance and rage, completely unchecked by any standards of honesty, accuracy, ethical boundaries or common sense.  The scene didn’t play as entirely believable—radio stations don’t generally take calls from “anonymous” since it would encourage callers coming on and breaking FCC rules of decency, and even a jag like “Man Cow” would not cut high profile guests off from responding to personal attacks against their jobs before a commercial break if he expected to ever have guests sign on to do his show again (speaking of which—why would Colvin agree to an interview on a show like this?  It seems more like shock/schlock radio than news/opinion.).  Nevertheless, it played to the intriguing subject of populism ruling a city or an organization and why it’s a bad idea. 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

TV Episode Review: Fringe “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide”

Fringe wasted no time steering into risky and uncharted territory once they had their renewal papers for another season.  Tonight brought our first animated scenes of Fringe, which managed to stay interesting even though they didn’t always “work” in terms of engaging the audience (I felt like every actor’s performance became flat as soon as they were reduced to a voice).  I’m sure the episode was planned long before the show was renewed, but I like to imagine the production team waiting for Fox execs to sign the final paperwork greenlighting another 13-episode season and then declaring “Cool, thanks.  By the way, we’re going to be doing an animated episode in a few weeks.  See ya!” 

TV Episode Review: Justified “Debts and Accounts”

Another powerful episode of television was placed before us this week by the team behind Justified, who seem increasingly confident in the directions they’re taking the show’s growing cast of characters (which is not to say they ever lacked confidence, but the show’s sure-footedness seems more bold than ever given the past three entries).  The episode represented advances on all fronts of the brewing war between more factions in Harlan County than I care to take reckoning of.  Some developments hold a lot of promise, others can mean nothing but trouble, and in the case of Raylan and Art they may be the foreshadowings of regrettable endings (I’m not too sure Raylan and Wynona are bound for a happy ending either). Collectively they made for one powerful night of television.

Friday, April 15, 2011

TV Episode Review: Community “Competitive Wine Tasting”

A friend of mine sent me a message right after this week’s episode making it quite clear that if I failed to give due credit to the all-black-cast production of Fiddler on the Roof starring Troy then she would no longer be reading this blog.  I would’ve done it anyway, because Fiddler, Please might be one of the most inspired pop-culture jokes this show has ever done, but I was glad to see that my fellow viewers thought as highly of it as I did.  Troy doing an ethnic Russian dance while singing/rapping about how hard it is to be a Russian Jew is probably in the top three laugh-aloud moments this season has offered.  It was a nice touch to redeem an otherwise shaky subplot tonight involving Troy faking a history of being sexually abused in order to win over a group of thespian classmates who are a bit hard on him for being a football star.  It was also the highlight of an episode that was good but not quite great.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Movie Review: “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”

Fans of Oliver Stone’s classic “Wall Street” will inevitably cite Gordon Gekko’s famous speech about greed as the quintessential moment of the film—it’s a vicious diatribe delivered by the silver-tongued, ethically indifferent 80’s anti-hero.  The speech perhaps represents a work of art encapsulating the zeitgeist of a decade more perfectly than any film of the past 30 years.  It also makes it no surprise that Stone’s interest in revisiting the character was stirred by the financial panic, instability, and controversial recovery of the past five years.  As a sequel to his landmark film (some would argue his masterwork, though it’s hard to ignore “Platoon”), WS:MNS is little more than a shadow of former glory, though in its best moments Stone is able to recapture the raw energy and intensity of the original film’s unforgiving and intimidating look at life on the most unforgiving street in America (I mean that figuratively; no need to fill the comments section with your thoughts on my insensitivity to inner city strife). 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

TV Episode Review: The Chicago Code “Wild Onions”

This week’s episode opened with another great series of shots and scenes embedded nicely in the cityscape of Chicago, most notably a nicely off-center shot of Jarek calling in a suicide in the street while the L train passes by above and behind him.  The show is at its best in these moments; it seems to know how to do certain little things really, really well, and it was doing some of them tonight—there was also another nicely shot chase scene which started off with some fast paced, high angle shots of the action followed by a very tensely filmed walk down a blacked out hallway in a poor neighborhood apartment complex where it seems highly likely Vonda is looking for her partner Isaac’s body and maybe walking into an ambush.  Unfortunately none of it quite carried the intensity of the Chicago heat wave the action all played out against—for all of the voiceovers and radio hosts reminding us how ca-razy people in Chitown get when the thermometer starts to rise, the whole episode felt mostly constrained and almost annoyingly slow paced despite a few nice moments.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Book Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

It’s important at the outset of this review that I make it clear that I’m not one for “young adult” fiction.  For the most part the phrase is used as an indicator that the book in question will contain supposedly “relatable” material for teenagers and preteens, which in translation inevitably means insulting reductions of the experience of the world to improbable morality tales and life lesson stories which have been safely cleansed of all the ugliness that the rest of us would define as “real life”.  There are a handful of exceptional authors who defy this stereotype, but I couldn’t name a one of them to you because the whole genre tends to push those of us who are well read and interested in great literature to arm’s length with its sanitized plots and characters and its tendency to resort to simplistic diction and dull, repetitive syntax which insults even average “young adult” readers right out of the library because someone decided they should pass through this gauntlet of a genre before being handed something interesting to read. 

My point in spouting angry bitterness is this:  Zusak’s phenomenal, devastating The Book Thief has been unfortunately categorized as a work of young adult literature, which I have to think at this point has kept it out of thousands of adult hands who would likely name it the best book they’ve read in the past few years and possibly add it to that more significant list every devoted reader makes--the list of books you insist everyone you know simply must read.  It’s sensible enough that a publisher would want to toss the book into the category; the protagonist, Liesel, is a beautifully relatable young girl whose relations with the other children on her street in the shadow of Hitler’s Third Reich make for mesmerizing snapshots of childhood, which tends to look somewhat the same regardless of where it grows—somewhat the same, though not completely.  Liesel’s adoptive father and mother take in a jew, a young man named Max with a wild head of hair and wilder imagination.  His interactions with the little girl who can’t help but peek down the stairs at such vibrant humanity slowly wasting to skeletal form (if not spirit) sets the stage for a remarkably open and honest story about the horrors and miracles of what we call “humanity”.  Their relationship roams uncertainly through the time period and through the stages of childhood and slow death; courses of progress which Zusak portrays with a confident certainty which carries the tale. 

TV Episode Review: Justified “Brother’s Keeper”

The horrors of the Bennett clan were fully revealed tonight with monstrous and disturbing clarity, providing reassurance that this is ultimately their season on Justified.  Revolving around their dark center are Boyd (now dragging Ava along for whatever is to come), Carol Johnson (who becomes a surprisingly sympathetic character when dashed against the rocks of Mags’ unforgiving will and resolve) and the rest of Harlan County.  The “Big Whoopty-Doo” Mags promised last week at the town meeting was the centerpiece this week, and at the end of the night I don’t know that you could put a more fitting name on the affair.  Mags sits back enjoying it all over a masonry jar of that Apple Pie drink she’s so fond of, until Carol asks for a palaver and gets told politely to take a walk.  Carol takes a pleasantly firm stance with Mags, pointing out that the company will blow the top off the mountain no matter how many times Mags dismisses her as a “carpet baggin’ shit stepper” so she might as well listen to the offer.  To her surprise, Mags is suddenly responsive—turns out she just hadn’t heard the right price offered yet for the whole of Harlan County.  It isn’t any surprise that Mags’ speech last week was less about protecting her little town and more about playing an angle, but the boundary between righteous indignation and personal interest was blurry at best.  As she quickly reveals to Carol, the only thing that matters is taking care of the Bennett family interests—the town will weather the storm of “the spoil” that she preached as an apocalypse of sorts last week.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

TV Episode Review: Justified “The Spoil”

Justified this week finally went exactly where we’ve been hoping it would go after all of these weeks of buildups, asides, and unfortunate developments (unfortunate for the characters within the plot and occasionally unfortunate for the show’s overall trajectory—Wynona money theft subplot, I’m coughing and nodding in your direction here).  It proved yet again that the writers ultimately know exactly how to slow-burn a season like a loooong dynamite fuse.  Tonight the dynamite went off, and as usual the TNT Justified uses makes for one damn entertaining explosion.  Coover gives Raylan the beating of his life (or at least of the show—we haven’t seen him take a roughing up half that vicious in all his other scuffles combined), Mags gives a little speech that seemingly buries Carol Johnson’s hopes of winning the hearts and minds of Harlan County to Black Pike’s side, Art tips his hand just enough that Raylan knows he’s onto what they did with the money, Boyd is in it up to the top of his three-inch-tall haircut with both Black Pike and the Bennetts whether he likes it or not (I still get the impression he does not, and am looking forward to another redemption at some point on the horizon), and on top of all that, Raylan finally has justified reason to pull his firearm when one of those pesky Kirbys shows up at his dad’s place with a sniper rifle trying to finish off Carol. 

Monday, March 28, 2011

TV Episode Review: Fringe “Bloodline”

Fringe tonight offered much more in the way of interesting developments than exciting or memorable moments.  You already know my feelings about the Earth 2 characters—they’re well developed and fairly likable (with the exception of the Astrid-9000 Statbot) but they just don’t carry any emotional weight for me.  As a result, the episode for me knocked the emotional gearshift into neutral for a week while we watched with detached interest as the child who could change everything (maybe that whole phrase should be capitalized?) was brought into the world post haste, despite the fact that Fauxlivia is a carrier of something called VPE which is often fatal for both mother and child.  Whether she and Peter Jr. survived because of the rapid-development treatment given to her by Walternate’s creepy medical crew or just because Fauxlivia is a strong enough heroine to will death away from herself and her uterus through childbirth (all 45 seconds of it) is not really explained clearly.  What is made fairly clear is that the child itself is less important to Walternate than his blood sample, which I assume will prove useful in creating another version of the baby, which I further assume can be raised (grown?) to fulfill the fate in the doomsday machine that we thought was unique to Peter himself.  That’s speculative, but it’s the only role for the baby that at present seems uniquely fit for the offspring of Peter and Fauxlivia.

Friday, March 25, 2011

TV Episode Review: Community “Critical Film Studies”

Though I didn't really enjoy tonight’s episode very much, it will forever be the night of television which gave us Chevy Chase dressed in the bondage gear of The Gimp from “Pulp Fiction” which, really, is a greater gift than any of us has any right to ask for from a TV show.  All of the characters in costume tonight were a joy to behold, most especially Britta who—I defy you to disagree—is much hotter than Uma Thurman in the same costume.  The final slo-mo scenes of the birthday party are lovingly crafted and actually made me really, really jealous that I’m not a part of the study group.  And there are other gems hidden amidst the odd little meta-commentary about Abed’s obsession with pop culture, but (and I admit that this might have to do with the fact that I haven’t seen “My Dinner with Andre”) overall the episode came off as fairly flat and lifeless, and didn’t really offer much of interest in the way of being meta in the first place. 

TV Episode Review: Justified “Save My Love”

I still don’t like this whole money theft sub plot with Wynona.  It made for quite a bit of harrowing drama tonight, which culminated in a really sad moment where Art is clearly suspicious of Raylan’s business in the evidence room when they “bump into each other” down there just as Wynona finishes putting the money back in a new hiding spot.  Art’s over-the-shoulder look of concern as Raylan departs was painful to watch; their love-hate relationship feels as deep and firm as any of the relations on the show, so it’s kind of devastating to think that something like this could put a crack in its foundation.  It also suggests this whole mess isn’t quite over yet, which makes it even worse considering it never should have started.  I said it before I’ll say it again:  Wynona isn’t a thief.  Given this week’s developments I guess I need to add “she’s also not an idiot,” since we discovered tonight that she actually just decided to stuff the entire contents of the evidence locker into her bag.  It’s a really flawed premise to ask us to buy into, but since we have no choice I guess it’s nice that it at least results in some enjoyable moments this evening.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

TV Episode Review: The Chicago Code “Black Hand and the Shotgun Man”

Tonight’s incident involving a drug lord’s kidnapped son played out fairly decently, especially with a brief little shootout scene which managed to make itself quite interesting without really involving a whole lot of gun play.  The show continues to excel at handling action sequences very well with camera movement and editing, giving even brief episodes a nice intensity and sense of fluidity.  The cleverness of Teresa and Jarek to outplay Romero’s hand of cards and “beat” the FBI without really undermining or cheating them was well played, especially since the show seems to be learning that too much cleverness on the part of these two characters is going to make them “larger than life” and spoil the show’s sense of realism.  Jarek playing little games with them by switching prisoners as a stall tactic played quite nicely, but I was worried that when he told Caleb that “we haven’t played our last card yet” we were in for an unrealistic “local hero cops outsmart the bumbling G-Men” type of outcome, which mostly play as silly and unbelievable.  So good for the writers to put a much smarter spin on it:  Teresa makes a reasonable offer which makes things a touch more difficult for the FBI, but also makes sense given that as enforcers of the law they certainly aren’t fighting to keep Romero out of prison—they just need him to play his role in taking down bigger fish. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

TV Episode Review: Fringe "Stowaways"

So given that I’m coming out with this review so late as to be almost pointless for religious Friday night “live” viewers of the show, I’ll try to be succinct with this write-up and not drift too far off onto tangents or stray observations.  I thought this episode was among the worst in memory; the story wasn’t all that intriguing (nor did it make sense on several levels) and its wrap-up failed in almost every sense of the word.  To make matters worse, Anna Torv was forced to continue doing her embarrassingly awkward Leonard Nimoy impression the entire episode which went beyond being painful within, say, the first sentence she spoke.  It’s a noble (but not quite a John Noble) effort on her part, but it just comes off as someone doing a mediocre impression and it takes so much of her effort to accomplish it that she forgets to act from time to time.  I didn’t mind the “soul magnet” concept last week since it’s not really any more or less within the realm of the conceivable than anything else this show tosses at us, just a bit less scientific in its fictional trappings.  It’s not working as a storyline though—it’s taking a great actress out of her rhythm and keeping us from what I presumed would be the real outcome of all this shenaniganery—the return of Bell himself in the phenomenal and hideous form of an aged Leonard Nimoy.  Just get to it already, Fringe.  And don’t have characters say things like “There is hope in raindrops”.  Geez, is there a writers’ strike I didn’t hear about?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Something Special (Installment 3): Girl Talk's new album "All Day" for Free

If you've never heard of Girl Talk, that just means you're a perfectly normal person.  But once you sample his music, itself an incredible collection of musical sampling, you'll wonder how you ever cruised on a summer day or partied without him.  You'll recognize most of the tracks he mashes (fuses?  mixes?  crochets?  there's no word for what he's doing here, but it's sublime) together, but there are also plenty of samples you've never heard, most likely by artists you've never heard of.  It makes for a fun listen, and given that even The pop-culture filing cabinet that is The AV Club admits in their review that they can't name everything sampled on Girl Talk's albums, it's practically a pre-packaged trivia and drinking game of an album for music lovers and snobs (trust me, I'm both).  That's really only half the fun, however--the real fun is hearing Jay-Z lace the track over top of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" and then three minutes later listen in slack-jawed awe as it all melts seamlessly into a medley of 80's tracks with vocals provided by the Beatles.  Those are all fictional examples, but every track of this album is so intricate that each of them probably occurs somewhere on the album.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

TV Episode Review: Community “Custody Law and Eastern Diplomacy”

So here’s the thing with Community lately:  It’s become so rapid-fire with its one-liners and gags (and I’m not saying it wasn’t already machine-gun quick before) that it’s easy to get swept up by the river of laughter spilling out of your jabberhole and not notice that the show has taken the characters and storylines in some odd directions that aren’t entirely in keeping with who they are (or were, at least) as people.  Prior to tonight there was no better example of this than the ongoing, excessive cruelties of Pierce towards everyone he could drag within earshot.  It didn’t fit his character unless you believed he was never anything more than a self-centered, grouchy old man, which I don’t believe is the impression of him we were given throughout the show’s run.  Tonight expands on these strange character transgressions by adding another act of insensitivity to Jeff and Shirley’s files.  If I were rating tonight simply on pure laughs, I would give it a firm A (just look at the list of “great lines” below), but for me the show has been the best comedy on television for the past year or so mainly because it avoided traditional sitcom riffs, played with the structure of television in general, rewarded pop-culture savvy viewers, and—most importantly—developed characters with much more dimension and depth than most sitcoms bother with in a half dozen seasons. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

TV Episode Review: Justified "Blaze of Glory"

“Blaze of Glory” made me wish Justified had some sort of companion show (like a Southland type drama) to compliment it on Wednesday evenings.  Tonight was such a fun, inviting episode of television centered on the likability of its characters (old and new) that I really wished at the end of it that there was something equally appealing lined up on the DVR when I was done with it.  Though truthfully it would be hard to follow up an hour like this, which featured lovely off-kilter romantic moments (in federal evidence cages), threats of violence carried out via medical oxygen tanks, and a low speed chase between old men where, for at least a few moments, you aren’t really sure who you’re pulling for (or who Art is really pulling for, for that matter).  Justified brought its one-timer A-game tonight, making this the type of episode we haven’t really been treated to this season but got plenty of last season with classics like the vigilante dentist, the hostage situation inside the station and that one crazy fun episode with the rich woman who had her husband murdered.  These episodes are so strong that it never even occurs to you that fairly suspenseful through-lines have been placed entirely on the back burner to cool for a week. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

TV Episode Review: The Chicago Code “The Gold Coin Kid”

With tonight’s (mostly) really likeable episode of The Chicago Code, I think, ironically, that I have to admit that it’s time to lower my expectations about what The Chicago Code is going to be.  Apparently, and I blame the networks for this, and by extension the mouth-breathing American television viewer who can’t make inferences or detect subtlety because he forgets to exhale if you don’t poke him with a stick every twenty minutes…Anyway, apparently we should not expect network television to provide anything in the way of nuanced or subtly-written television to viewers, even when the creator and show runners have an impressive track record of producing critically acclaimed, arresting television which hung its hat on exactly those qualities.  And that’s a shame, because tonight’s episode employed some effective slight-of-hand in its resolution to a potentially ruinous situation for Colvin and Wysocki.  Unfortunately, in the aftermath of some clever trickery and craftiness off screen on the parts of our favorite protagonists, the show feels the need to have said protagonists vomit explanations of what just happened all over each other for five minutes to make sure none of TV Land’s village idiots (is the entire village of TV watchers just idiots now with those of us who appreciate intellectually stimulating programming wandering the wastelands?) lost track of the story. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

TV Episode Review: Fringe “Os”

Did Fox buy up all of the expired contracts from the entire cast of Lost or something? Monday’s Chicago Code brought us the familiar face of Dharma instructional videos, and this week brings us the pleasantly familiar face of Hurley, passing the bong with Walter and eagerly telling him he’s the best boss he’s ever had (and with good reason: Walter appears to be finishing a story about waking up in bed with Yoko Ono and he’s apparently used Massive Dynamic’s resources to invent the tasty new frosting flavor of “bacon berry”). It’s one of the more fun openings of the season; with the possible exception of Walter cooking breakfast in his underwear it might be my favorite, actually. It’s especially effective because it plays nicely into the master story (Walter discovers Bell’s office, which had escaped his attention until now and provides a huge key to the conflict with Earth 2) and it manages a nice bit of commentary regarding one of the show’s oldest themes as well (that men are just sophisticated machines, programmable, predictable and controllable) when Walter observes the monitors and says, “Look at them, moving through the halls, there’s a rhythm to it. Each monitor is its own movement, blending together like a symphony.” Ever are you clever, Fringe. But the best mystery of the week is set up by the end of scene one: Is Hurley going to become a regular guest? Fingers crossed.

Friday, March 11, 2011

TV Episode Review: Justified "Cottonmouth"

Well, I suppose “ask and ye shall receive” is a fitting epitaph for my reaction in the aftermath tonight’s episode.  I’ve been grumbling good naturedly about wanting more Bennett-centric episodes for a few weeks now, and I was even fool enough to justify (no pun intended) my desires by pointing out how fascinating the dynamics of the Bennett Clan are both as an extension of the show’s motif of blood ties and just for their plain old peculiarity.  So I guess I deserve the sudden and unexpected darkness of the show’s final moments this evening, which showed us more about the true nature of the Bennetts—especially Coover and Mags—than anything preceding it, and at the same time robbed them of much of their southern, easygoing charm and likability.  Which, in a way, is too bad, because I thought they played really well as characters whose few redeeming values lay in their close-knit devotion to family, however inept some of the members might be.  However, after tonight’s metamorphosis of Mags into Kathy Bates in “Misery” and Coover into a grown up, semi-obese version of the simple minded banjo kid from “Deliverance”, it’s awful hard to find anything humorous in the goings on under the Bennett roof from here on out.  I wonder, honestly, whether the serpentine reference of tonight’s title doesn’t refer darkly to the suddenness with which the show runners decided to strike at the audience with such a disturbingly dark scene.

Setting aside those gruesome final moments for a few paragraphs, the rest of “Cottonmouth” was probably one of the most satisfying episodes of the season even though it offers very little in the way of closure to any of the storylines it introduces or expands.  In place of closure, it offered something nearly as appealing:  Wonderfully hard earned character moments and some truly inspired comeuppance for evildoers throughout Harlan County (I don’t count Coover amongst their numbers though; his mother’s retribution is something too grotesque and his punishment is mostly uncalled for in any form).  Raylan’s no-nonsense confrontation with Winston, whose dual enterprise known as “The Church of The Two-Stroke Jesus” (“Praise God and Ride Hard”) is funded mainly by him taking care of dirty paper, most recently by turning the deceased Walt McCready’s draw checks into cold hard cash for the Bennetts, is one of the season’s best Raylan moments, which is saying something considering that he has to finish the visit after shaking off a good firm tasing.  Meanwhile, Boyd, even as his brief stint as a clean living individual seems to draw to a reluctant close, manages to blow the boots off of some rather weasely scuzzballs before the police come for him (or perhaps in at least Kyle’s case, it’s more accurate to say the man was blown off of the boots—the image of a smoking boot with a tree stump of a leg sticking out of it was a fun return from commercial tonight).

In both cases, survival depended on Boyd and Raylan resorting to their natural talents—Boyd’s being his natural cunning and ability to out-criminal the best of criminals, and Raylan’s being, um, that he’s really really hard to kill.  I couldn’t begin to pick a favorite moment out of all that goes on, but since Raylan is the first to have his life put in jeopardy, let’s start there.  Acting on a tip from poor Dewey, he goes to see a man named Winston.  His visit is yet another foray into the oddities of small town, backwoods life where things like a bit of illegal check cashing seem like they could go unnoticed forever.  If it weren’t for that meddling Marshal, anyway.  As always, Raylan is civil but cool with Winston, but when he shows his cards—he has checks with Winston’s handwriting on a signature line not intended for him—he gets a bit too relaxed about things and Winston goes for his “reading glasses” which he seems to have mixed up with his police grade taser.  It’s not often that anyone gets a jump on Raylan, which makes the scene vaguely satisfying in some sense.  The constant danger of a central figure like Raylan is that he can very quietly become a narrowly drawn comic book hero if he’s made to seem too untouchable or so far ahead of the criminal element that his wisdom borders on omniscience.  Scenes like this help to diminish that sense of his character just enough to keep him grounded in reality—in this case twitching helplessly on the ground of reality. 

The ensuing struggle leads to him firing a round that barely misses Winston’s foot and then getting hold of the taser buried in his stomach (bulletproof vest playing a role here?  Does he usually wear one?) and stuffing it into Winston’s crotch.  Raylan recovers first and his interrogation is somewhat funny, though a bit uncomfortably on the wrong side of torture laws, if we still respect those at all in this country.  He observes calmly that the taser is recovered to about 50% power and then gives Winston a quick shot with it when he isn’t cooperative (“Now it’s down to about 30,” he says).  His next statement is clearly one he has no intention of following through on; he asks Winston if he’s ever been tased in the mouth, which, the less you picture it the better you’ll sleep tonight.  Winston either calls Raylan’s bluff, or he actually fears the wrath of the Bennett family much more than he fears finding out what lightning tastes like (maybe he’s seen how Mags disciplines her kids).  In any case, it’s not exactly a victory for Raylan, but it’s certainly an invigorating few moments of TV—the kind this show has become uniquely good at providing week-to-week without falling into any of the clichés of police/procedural dramas.

Boyd’s punishment of thievery is more of an inside job, as he finds himself caught up in a plot to knock off the mine he works at, which he seemed up for last week when Kyle sold it with the promise of him “looking like a hero”, which it turns out really involves pulling his dead bossy, Shelby, from the rubble they bury him under.  Boyd, it’s nice to see, has no intentions of taking human life again, which leads to him hatching one of the best schemes in the show’s history in order to avoid his own death and save Shelby in the process.  At first he thinks he can just back out, but he knows better than to take that on assumption, so he calls Ava’s phone from his cell and uses the cell phone to spy on their conversation from the kitchen (I’ve seen the fake call trick on plenty of shows before, but this would be the first time I can think of where the open receiver of the calling phone is used as the improvised equivalent of bugging a room—sharp writing).  He doesn’t overhear anything we didn’t figure he would, but it puts his wonderful brain in motion to save his and Shelby’s skin without necessarily losing the take (which he apparently wants for Ava’s sake—though the favor he asks in return is left for next week’s episode). 

The true extent of Boyd’s cunning though is in his ability to rethink Kyle’s fairly foolproof heist and tweak it in just enough places to give him the upper hand.  It leaves a lot to chance, but that’s beside the point.  What makes the proceedings so intriguing is what we learn about Boyd:  he’s come to trust Ava enough to believe that she’ll unquestioningly (and unknowingly) carry out the key to the whole thing by calling an unrecognized number with the explicit and suspicious instructions “don’t tell anyone”.  The rest is all about improvisation and trust in his own wits—he counts on inept and inexperienced criminals to make the mistakes he knows not to make, and when they do he exploits them and predicts their next play perfectly.  The other sad, key element in his success is his disinterest in his own person.  We’ve listened to his hollow, empty voice for the entire season, and I doubt I’m alone in having wondered whether this represented depression or resignation or something else.  As it turns out, Boyd has simply given up on being a good person, an admission which is tragically painful to him and to viewers.  As he explains to Ava while handing her the spoils of his successful heist of a heist, “because that’s what I do.  It’s who I am Ava, as much as I’ve tried to pretend otherwise.  It seems everyone else knows that but me.”  It’s the most painful moment of the season by far, and even though he asks Ava for a favor, it seems doubtful that he even possesses the mental will anymore to attempt to correct his life path or change who he believes he is somewhere very deep inside.

Besides wondering whether Boyd has a final bit of vitality left behind his husk of a spirit, the show sets the table for a few other interesting developments in its final quarter.  Raylan pays Coover a visit and slyly tells him he’s looking for Walt regarding some loose ends, knowing quite well that Walt is most likely dead at this point.  Coover has no idea how to take it, especially since Raylan throws in the bit about the pederast who Walt had working for him.  Just to cover his bases, he goes to visit Loretta as she’s casually dealing pot to the local youngsters, and her near-complete dismissal of him as a law enforcement official is more sad than funny; after the first episode I wrote that she seemed wise beyond her years in a way that didn’t quite play right.  It seems that now they’ve found the right measure of premature adulthood in her, and there’s certainly more believable reason for it now that she seems to realize daddy ain’t coming back, and the new fam is nothing to offer the Good Lord too much thanks over.  Raylan grins ruefully at her brazen attitude, but doesn’t have to say much to put cracks in her tough-girl façade.  Mostly he just hands her a spare cell phone and tells her quite tonelessly that he will drop anything he’s doing if she should need him—all she has to do is call.  It’s equal parts warning of the danger she’s in and promise to help pull her out of it. 

Despite so much going for it, I can’t help feeling the episode suffered a major setback in the disturbing scene I mentioned up top—Mags’ punishment of Coover (and Dickie, though he doesn’t have to face any bodily harm since he’s already a cripple) with the use of a rather large hammer is both disgusting and disturbing, which I fully understand it’s meant to be.  However, I think they may have overplayed the disturbing angle of the family dynamics here in a way that may be tough to recover from.  For me, ultimately, it’s not the act of violence meted out by a mother who is simultaneously defending her family and an enormous criminal operation (presumably justifying her actions in the belief that he could have put her whole family’s freedom in jeopardy through his foolishness), but the very disturbing manner in which Coover accepts the punishment.  Up to this point I have presumed his character to be the family equivalent of the village idiot, but his reaction to his mother’s anger borders on a portrayal of a mentally impaired individual, which makes the moment in question even less stomachable than it already is, and generally speaking it makes me wonder what Raylan is really dealing with in Coover.  If he’s meant to be a truly mentally impaired character, it feels rather icky to have laughed at him all these past weeks as he’s bumbled his way from one mess to the next, trying at every step of the way to show himself deserving of a role in the family business (not to mention how pathetic his observation to Loretta becomes early in the episode—that he’s hurt that she gets to watch the store and he was never allowed to).  The whole thing just didn’t sit right with me and cast a rather discomforting pall over what, up to those final moments, was shaping up to be my favorite episode out of the last four.  Hopefully something in the coming weeks reframes what we witnessed tonight, but I’d be lying if I told you I could think of any possible circumstance that could offer an alternative explanation for what we witnessed tonight from Coover (perhaps it’s merely a misstep by the actor, but ultimately we have to treat the resulting portrayal as the story we know, so it remains a disturbing element that taints whatever comes next).

Overall Rating:  8.7/10

Great Lines, Interesting Moments, Whatnot, and Occasionally What-have-you:

Poor Dewey gets snowed with the TB quarantine joke, "All the masks and shit I thought it was some kind of monkey virus like in that movie.”  It's also great that he gets the "little man playing the violin" routine from Raylan in terms of sympathy.

Raylan to Dewey:  “Give yourself a shave I’ll bet you could pass for 16.”  

Arlo doesn’t want to let Raylan go and says the Bennett stuff is “beyond the purview of what I like to call your job.

Pruitt tells raylan to mind his own business and he says “Well that wouldn’t be like me."

Raylan referring to the Bennett's dogs as "hillbilly doorbells" might be my favorite colloquialism yet.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

TV Episode Review: The Chicago Code "O'Leary's Cow"

“O’Leary’s Cow” is a curiously named episode.  I was about to call it a misnamed episode, but then it occurred to me that the allusion is to the cow that—according to myth—started the Chicago fire.  That would make the title a reference to Liam and his arson, except Liam continues to be a dull character with no real development (he delivers more obvious dialogue this week, in addition to seeming hopelessly naïve for an undercover agent, simply so Jarek can give him a timely speech about what his job is going to be.  Sloppy.).  But here’s the thing:  despite all that boring expository dialogue and a few other missteps tonight, I remain confident that head writer Shawn Ryan has intelligent ideas about where this show’s master plot is headed (God and Nielsen Ratings willing), and I’m guessing that tonight’s events collectively stand in for Mrs. O’Leary’s cow as the ignition points for whatever firestorm is going to consume our main players for the rest of the season. 

If you think about it, that makes tonight’s episode rather ominous:  Teresa now has a crooked brother-in-law who has gotten her fingers just dirty enough in extortion and other illegal acts to have her kicked out of office if it goes public (and she’s given him reason to implicate her by forcing him to confess), Jarek has pushed Liam deeper into mob commitment, which leads to the death of an as-yet-unnamed person, and Jarek himself has made a couple of interesting enemies in Chairman Lao of Chinatown and his lackey, Mr. Chow.  Lao seemed to go down much too easily tonight, suggesting that maybe his reach will prove a bit longer than expected.  Meanwhile, Chow is scooped up by Gibbons before his old boss has been in lockup for an hour and explains to him that Lao didn’t understand who the boss was, but that if Chow can learn the lesson to be had here, he might be a suitable replacement.  Taken collectively, it’s a good sized list of problems that could burn the whole city to the ground, figuratively speaking, if it’s all allowed to get out of hand.

The best story tonight for me was Jarek and Caleb’s pursuit of the killers of a young black teenager in Chinatown.  Chinese citizens refusing to cooperate with police (and banks) is not an original concept, but it gives Jarek another interesting bit of history:  he’s holding a grudge against Chinatown’s unofficial mayor, “Chairman Lao”, who he’s convinced helped a murderer in an investigation years ago to flee the country.  Lao quietly, and with a restrained dignity that Lost’s Francois Chau pulls off effortlessly, explains that it is in keeping with his people’s culture to handle things internally and without the city police.  As it turns out, what Jarek takes to be aiding a fugitive actually more involves killing and dismembering said fugitive before depositing him in the local lake (since Lao tells Jarek they can find the body there, I assume that would be some smaller lake than Lake Michigan).  Lao is caught after a phone call is intercepted where he tells henchmen to “help them disappear”, which Jarek presumes to mean getting the fugitives out of the country.  Turns out it refers to the same fate as the killer of poor Daniel’s wife and son:  kill them and get rid of the bodies. 

I liked the subtle mislead tonight—Lao seemed closed and distant towards the police, but his motives turn out to be quite different than what we’re led to think—he’s just trying to protect and preserve a type of old world justice that the police certainly won’t stand for (least of all when it’s meted out on a poor kid distributing church fliers).  Ironically, it turns out Lao’s brand of justice is much meaner than CPD’s.  Judging from Daniel’s reaction when Jarek starts pushing too hard about the murders, it seems like Chinatown residents are well aware of what Lao will do if you get on his bad side, which begs the question of whether the good Alderman is also aware of what he’s empowering when he put Lao (and now Chow) into power. 

Lao’s deal with the cops left me with some questions though; most pressing among those being “Why wouldn’t he be charged with a new crime once he admits that he actually had someone killed and dismembered?”  Jarek agreed to reduce his sentence if he helped them find a killer, not a body.  It seems like the new revelation is ignored and only exists as a “gotcha!” punctuation mark to end the storyline.  I could be wrong or missing some nuance about how deals like this are worked out, but given that they now have another murder on their hands it seems odd that they’re still content to give the Chairman the slap on the wrist sentence that he seems almost amused at (which again makes me wonder whether there won’t be more repercussions to this week’s proceedings as the season unfolds). 

Colvin’s side story has the potential to stoke much bigger and more dangerous flames in coming episodes, but it didn’t play nearly as well as the Chinatown story.  For starters, the audacity of her brother-in-law Robert in taking it upon himself to extort $50,000 out of his “buddy” who runs a parking lot based on the blind promise that he can get his Police Superintendent sister-in-law to make a competitor disappear based on some vague notion that he’s running money laundering is vaguely ridiculous.  I’m sure there are certainly people this reckless and foolish in the world, but I would think that he or his wife would know Teresa well enough to realize that she hangs her career hat upon the notion of being upstanding and ethical and demanding the same of others (especially if he feels close enough to her to ask this favor), so the idea that he would collect that much money on the assumption of her assistance just doesn’t play very well as a plot starter.  His aggressiveness with her when she doesn’t move fast enough is even sillier; a grown man with a career police officer in his family doesn’t understand the law well enough to realize that Teresa isn’t going to look at the case before noon of the same day he asks her about it?  Not to mention that it seems pretty obvious that she’ll have to build a case against the guy which could take quite some time before actually “shutting him down”.  And don’t even get me started about how self-centered and painfully one-dimensional her sister is in attacking Teresa for having the nerve to not risk a career’s worth of success and achievement because she married the biggest nitwit this side of Lake Michigan.  The whole thing played poorly and I’d say it weakens the season’s overall trajectory if they do what I’m afraid they’re going to do and make it lead to charges of corruption or something similarly unfortunate for Teresa.  You will hear me complain quite loudly in future blogs (I might even switch to ALL CAPS) if that’s the case.

Finally, Gibbons gets some interesting moments tonight, though he continues to mostly function as a gap-filler between “good guy” plots.  I’d love to see them squeeze a Gibbons-centric episode in here somewhere before season’s end (I know Cabrini-Green had a lot of him, but he still wasn’t central).  Tonight’s peek into the extent of his reach was rather tantalizing; while the scene of him recruiting Chow as another loyal underling on his payroll played as a dull rerun of events from a few weeks ago, the knowledge that he runs one of the most integrated (as opposed to racially segregated) wards in an otherwise highly segregated city was an interesting revelation that lends more dimensionality to his character.  It seems a foregone conclusion that the good friends and neighbors sentiment of his ward is due at least in part to some underhanded workings on his part, not the least of which is the fact that he turns the other way while his appointed community leaders carry out murders of criminal suspects.  While we’re on that subject, if his ward is so integrated, why is it that Chinatown (which I understand only part of his ward overlaps?  How are these boundary lines drawn?) remains so resistant to trusting the police and are so quick to turn violent when a few troublemaking black youths infiltrate their part of town (and for that matter, why don’t they know that he’ll take care of the problem if he’s as popular as he would have everyone believe?)?  That’s a lot of question marks for one plot point.  It’s a lot of question marks for one sentence too though, so who am I to judge? 

At any rate, he has some fine moments tonight where he shows how little muscle he actually needs to flex in order to get what he wants.  When Lao tries to resist his influence in helping Teresa, he barely gets out “You understand—“ before Gibbons cuts him off and says “Nothing.”  As in, I don’t need to understand anything; I’m the guy who put you here.  Lao tries to play one more defensive angle by suggesting he’ll “try” to find the people who killed the boy, to which Gibbons firmly warns, “Please don’t insult me, Mr. Lao.”  He’s a force to be reckoned with in all things political—this much becomes even clearer during tonight’s proceedings.  Further evidenced when Teresa tries to play the political angle to elicit Gibbons’ help in the first place and he dismisses her coercion tactics by pointing out that all she had to do was ask nicely.  After their sit down with Lao he dismissively (though respectfully—he has yet to betray his attitude towards her directly) says “It’s in your court now.”

Ultimately tonight was another mishmash of successes and failures from scene to scene.  Liam continues to be nigh unwatchable, not so much because of the shortcomings of the actor but because he’s given the show’s worst dialogue, mainly in the form of expository conversations where he’s used shamelessly to advance our knowledge of what the mafia is up to with barely a lick of effort to disguise the information passing.  Jarek, Teresa and Gibbons continue to be compelling characters and Caleb is becoming a likeable character both as comic relief and as a strong enough personality to volley some energy back at Jarek—an important dynamic for the show in the long run.  As with every episode, the episode is a mixed bag from scene to scene as well—sad moments with Liam after he realizes he killed someone fall flat because he’s a useless character, and Jarek casually brow beating him about his failures seem silly given that Liam couldn’t have been a naïve greenhorn when they inserted him into an organized crime ring.  The thinly written bit players (like Teresa’s bro-in-law, Robert) make for very little for the stronger central characters to play off of, which unfortunately is putting a ceiling on how much this show can elevate its game.  Hopefully the next few weeks do something to crash through that ceiling—the ratings need to see the light of day.

Overall Rating:  8.4/10

Great Quotes, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-Have-You:

Playing softball with no gloves just seems like chest bashing male behavior for its own sake.  That being said, I sort of want to try it now.

Interesting that cops now get texts about murders on their days off.

Jarek says the murdered kid was “on a mission from God.”  I like how well this show knows its Chicago references (this one from “The Blues Brothers”).

So I know the real problem is the arsonists and their dirty renovation company, but I thought Isaac’s handling of the situation was its own brand of unethical:  he’s quick to flash his gun and police credentials to run competitors off the block—are we to assume he’s only taken this job to crack part of the Irish mob case?  Nothing really tips us off to that.

Jarek’s to Lao:  “Do me a favor and get in my way again.”  A somewhat funny remark, but more fun for how much it tells us about Jarek’s character—this guy will pick a fight with anybody and put his detective skills to the test no matter how big and well protected the target.  It’s the thing I like most about him.

Teresa knows her scotch.

Nurse Natalie is cute and feisty, despite being an annoying cop show cliché at this point.  Good luck Caleb, I’m pulling for you.  Loved when she said “You’re naughty aren’t you?” when Caleb asked for the Chinese woman’s personal belongings.

Nice exchange:
Jarek:  Better cops than you have tried with her and failed.
Caleb:  Did better cops have this smile?
Jarek: (amused at his partner—Caleb’s breaking him down) No, they didn’t.

Line of the night goes to Caleb in trying to woo Natalie:  “Is it my dedication to a wide range of children’s charities?  Because you give the word and I will cut those little bastards off.”