Saturday, September 30, 2006

TV: Survivor - Cook Islands

• An early look at the ups and downs of Survivor's controversial new season.

Logistics: CBS, 7 p.m. (Central) Thursdays
Verdict thus far: &&&

The gimmick • I'll refrain from saying "I told you so" in light of Cowboy cracking racial jokes in episode two. If any further proof was needed that the racial tribe concept was nothing more than a publicity stunt, it came in episode three as the tribes were completely reconfigured. And what's up with these tribe names that either are or sound like "iTunes," "Puka" and "Man Hickey"?

The location • Remember when it was all about the dire circumstances of the location — killer scorpions, contaminated water, man-eating monkeys — breathlessly detailed by host Jeff Probst at the beginning of the first episode of a season? If Cook Islands even merited a mention this time, I don't remember it. It's just another sandy beach that's more or less interchangeable with those that preceded it. The best locales have been the Outback and whichever island it was that had the relics of war — sunken ships and rusty artillery next to the driftwood. At this late stage, it's time to make the location matter again. Survivor: Death Valley or Survivor: Denver International Airport might be a welcome change of pace.

The game • Viewers must rely on the basic game to restore faith in the face of Mark Burnett trying ever so hard to make his show jump the shark, and it delivers. In classic clueless fashion in episode two, the alpha males of the Latino tribe, J.P. and Ozzy, decide to throw the immunity challenge in order to vote out rocker Billy, who "sits around doing nothing," yadda yadda yadda. Billy is roused just enough to attempt to mount an insurrection, and, oh, how I was pulling for him to make it happen despite his idiocy. The only thing more fun than Probst telling the tribe members during tribal council how stupid they are for throwing a challenge with a tribe of only five was Billy's mid-tribal catfight confession that "I'm in love!" with a chick from another tribe with whom he has spent no more time than it took to ride in on the boat before being tossed overboard at the beginning of the game (in episode three, she basically says he's crazy to think a love connection was made). Probst's jaw-dropping reaction spoke for all of America — or those who were still watching, at least.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

TV on DVD: Battlestar Galactica Season 2.0

• It's unlike anything else on TV, and better, too.

Genres: Sci-fi, drama, action
Released: Dec. 20, 2005
Cast: Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Tricia Helfer, James Callis, Jamie Bamber, Michael Hogan, Aaron Douglas, Grace Park
Verdict: &&&&& (instant classic)

I live for the Battlestar Galactica DVDs. It's true not just because it's the best show on television — a show that gets impossibly better and better as it progresses — but because that's the only way I can watch it. My cable provider, Comcast, gives us obscure fare such as Discover Outdoor Health II in favor of more obvious choices, such as Sci-Fi and Comedy Central. But that's OK; this alluring show is best savored in crisp DVD images with surround sound. With season three set to begin Oct. 6 and the second half of season two new on DVD, I've just finished up the first half of the season, a remarkable extension of a show that sets a new standard for space drama. The season begins with Commander Adama's (Edward James Olmos) fate unclear and the fleet's perilous fate in the hands of deliciously flawed Col. Tigh (Michael Hogan), who is under the influence of strong beverages and his manipulative wife, Ellen (Kate Vernon), a character so suspect that she simply must be a red herring. Meanwhile, President Roslin (Mary McDonnell), as her health deteriorates, is increasingly intent on fulfilling religious prophecy and finding the mythical Earth, a delicate bit of plotting that is navigated successfully in a two-parter, "Home." While that bit of spirituality is an area where the show could risk losing its edge, the god angle continues to work brilliantly for the conflicted cylons, who, in human form, do not always know their true nature. Apart from Number Six (Tricia Helfer), who tightens her tease-torment routine on Dr. Baltar (James Callis), the cylon Sharon (Grace Park), in various incarnations, continues to have a prominent role; one of my favorite moments of the season finds two of the officers who engaged in toaster action with different Sharon copies coming to fisticuffs over her/it. With so many outstanding episodes, it's difficult to choose favorites, but among them are "Fragged," in which Baltar, demonstrating a rare instance of backbone, elicits the number of cylons in the fleet from the imprisoned Sharon, and mid-season cliffhanger "Pegasus," in which Adama's command is threatened by the queen bee of the Battlestar Pegasus, and two favorites face execution over an incident involving — would you believe — sex and the cylon Sharon.

// DVD notes //
Deleted scenes have rightly been moved where they should be — viewable after each episode. I'd like to hear more use of the surround channels, but the picture quality is ace. One head-scratcher: Why does an extended version of cliffhanger episode "Pegasus" appear on the subsequent season 2.5 set, but not here?

// Related //
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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

TV preview: Jericho

• Nuclear drama in 2006? Yep, and Jericho does it well.

Genres: Drama, suspense
Logistics: CBS, 7 p.m. (Central) Wednesdays
Cast: Skeet Ulrich, Gerald McRaney, Pamela Reed, Lennie James, Ashley Scott, Spraque Grayden, Michael Gaston, Brad Beyer, Kenneth Mitchell, Erik Knudsen, Shoshannah Stern
Verdict: &&&&

A mushroom cloud blossoms on the horizon of the small western town of Jericho. Is it an accident? An attack? As the panic-stricken denizens ponder these questions, it's hard not to marvel that a producer would want to mine this territory now. It's not giving away too much to say that it is, indeed, an attack of some sort — by the end of episode two, there are some clues, but no clear answer — making this a sort of The Day After for the terrorism age. But the prospect of a nuclear attack surely doesn't speak to the viewer in the same way that it did in 1983, when that infamous television miniseries aired. The good news is that Jericho gets off to such a promising start that it shouldn't matter, and the underlying curiosity of where this story is going is sustained. Episode two, "Fallout," is stronger than the pilot, as Mayor Johnston Green (Gerald McRaney) tries to get his townsfolk herded into basements and the old fallout shelters before the radiation clouds arrive. His son, Jake Green (Skeet Ulrich), returned to town just before the bomb hits, and finds himself swept into the unfolding drama before he can get back out of town. A tense subplot in "Fallout" finds Emily (Ashley Scott) unwittingly in the company of two escaped prisoners posing as deputies; her attempt to escape culminates with the arrival of the fallout. A former St. Louis cop (Lennie James) manages to get an old radio working and decodes a Morse code message, but he stuffs the paper in his pocket and tells no one what he has learned. Just what's going on here? Will the citizens survive underground and try to carry on? With the hope that this will be more than just a story of rebuilding, I'll tune in to find out.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

TV preview: The Class

• Don't be surprised if this one goes away quickly.

Genre: Sitcom
Logistics: Premiere airs 7 p.m. (Central) Monday on CBS.
Cast: Andrea Anders, Jon Bernthal, Lizzy Caplan, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Heather Goldenhersh, Julie Halston, Sam Harris, David Keith, Sean Maguire, Lucy Punch, Jason Ritter
Verdict: &&

Despite some big talent on its creative team — James Burrows, David Crane (Friends) and Jeffrey Klarik (Mad About You) — The Class has work to do to shed the generic sitcom tag. Though the title suggests otherwise, this isn't a school or college comedy; the titles refers to members of the same third-grade class whose lives intersect. In the premiere, Ethan Haas (Jason Ritter, son of the late John Ritter) calls them together for a surprise engagement party for himself and his girlfriend. While his falls apart, new relationships are born at the gathering. The funniest character is Richie Velch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), a suicidal loner who runs a car over his new love interest. Other funny bits include a couple with a five-year-old daughter named Oprah and a construction worker who lives at home and bickers with his mom. The storylines are almost exclusively relationship-centered, although episode three squeezes a few yuks out of the rather pointless backdrop of a hurricane coming ashore. With a cast this enormous, things get spread pretty thin over the course of 23 minutes, and I found myself wishing last season's canceled Stockard Channing sitcom Out of Practice, which also spent some time in this Monday block, had been given another chance. The Class is a likely weak link in CBS' Monday comedy block.

Friday, September 15, 2006

TV preview: How I Met Your Mother

• Season 2 picks up with fallout from the Marshall-Lily split.

Genre: Sitcom
Logistics: Premiere airs on CBS at 7:30 p.m. (Central) Monday.
Verdict: &&&

I've watched this Neil Patrick Harris vehicle just enough to know that he's far less appealing here than he was as Doogie Howser, but I'm starting to warm to it despite him. In the second season premiere, Marshall (Jason Segel) is wrecked over his break-up with Lily (Alyson Hannigan), who has gone to San Francisco to find herself, and the pals spend the episode trying to cheer him up with strippers and tough love. Meanwhile, Ted (Josh Radnor) and Robin (Cobie Smulders) have made the love connection. The episode is fast moving and well crafted; while watching, I realized that this ensemble show has developed a distinctive personality, something that's utterly lacking in many of today's freshmen sitcoms. How I Met Your Mother is a worthy link in CBS' blossoming Monday comedy block.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

TV preview: The New Adventures of Old Christine

• L.A. Law's Blair Underwood joins Christine for several episodes.

Genre: Sitcom
Logistics: Premiere airs 8:30 p.m. (Central) Monday on CBS.
Premiere verdict: &&&1/2

With an Emmy win under its belt for star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Christine has momentum going into its second season, and the premiere episode feels more confident and centered than some from last season. Following the season one finale kiss and apparent departure of New Christine (surely one of the best punch lines this show had going is not permanently gone), ex-hubby Richard (Clark Gregg) is hanging around Christine's house doing projects such as building a laundry room and warming the couch as the two mull the notion of rekindling their relationship. Conflict and hilarity ensues as young Ritchie (Trevor Gagnon, portraying this series' most reliably hilarious character) mistakenly believes his parents are back together, and Christine's brother Matthew (Hamish Linklater), a permanent guest, feels his space threatened. Making the first of at least several appearances is Blair Underwood as Ritchie's fourth-grade teacher who catches the eyes of all the mommies. It's a solid half hour and a reminder of how desperately close Christine is to being really good.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Movies: The Wicker Man (2006)

• Why all the hate for this wacky-fun thriller?

Genres: Thriller, mystery, horror (but not really), remake
Director: Neil LaBute
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Kate Beahan, Ellen Burstyn
Verdict: &&&1/2

Upon its release, reviews of The Wicker Man remake decried its changes to the nature of the island's inhabitants, but it is absolutely faithful to the spirit of the original and succeeds as a whacked-out mystery-thriller populated by an estrogen-drenched cult of modern pagans who raise honeybees and mute their men. After cop Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) fails to save a young girl from a fiery crash in the dramatic opening, a former love (Kate Beahan) summons him to the pagan paradise of Summersisle to help find her young daughter, who has gone missing. Malus, who has taken leave from work and is a pill-popping mess after that terrible crash, gets a chilly and skeptical reception from the island women, who offer obvious half-truths and deception when questioned about the missing girl, who appears in fleeting glimpses reminiscent of those in Don't Look Now. It's clear that something besides the lack of cell phone service is amiss on the beautifully pastoral island, and there's an enjoyably kinetic freakiness as Malus interacts with this wacky hen party and tries to elicit information without losing his control over the lawless ladies, who have been very aptly cast: As mysterious matriarch Sister Summersisle, Ellen Burstyn is just as effective as the original's patriarch, Christopher Lee, while young Helen Hunt look-alike Leelee Sobieski is perfectly solicitous as Sister Honey, and Diane Delano is pleasantly amusing as the rather masculine and no-nonsense Sister Beech. As Malus, haunted by images from the crash and the red-hooded young girl, pursues his increasingly desperate detective work on the island, the women exhibit increasingly bizarre behavior as they prepare for an annual fertility ritual involving a young girl. I particularly enjoyed the moment when all is illuminated — the rug is not gently jerked from underneath the viewer. As in the original movie, it's a cold and clever ending that sends the mind reeling back to things that happened before; the grand deception should be savored and admired.

// Also see // The Wicker Man (1974)

•• Revised 11/18/07 ••