October 30, 2007

BOOKS: Red Seas Under Red Skies, Scott Lynch (2007)

Sequel to The Lies of Locke Lamora, which I raved about last year.

A few years after the events of Lies, Locke and his sidekick, Jean, have travelled to Tal Verrar, home of the most opulent gaming houses in the world. The finest of them all is the Sinspire, nine floors of gaming, each more decadent and luxurious than the last, and each accessible only by personal invitation of Requin, the owner. No one dares to cheat the Sinspire, because the only penalty for such behavior is death.

Locke and Jean aren't planning to cheat the Sinspire, exactly, though they aren't averse to it if it helps them reach their larger goal, which is to rob the place. Their plot, of course, is spectacularly intricate, and they are forced to make it even more so when the Archon, who controls the military of Tal Verrar, discovers what they are up to.

The Archon, convinced that the military doesn't get the respect (or the money) it deserves from the city's government, needs an excuse to beef up the military, and forces Locke and Jean to help provide one by sending them to sea as pirates. Locke and Jean have absolutely no experience in piracy, but caught as they are in the middle of the power struggle between Requin and the Archon, they don't have much choice but to go along with the Archon's scheme.

Like the first book in the series, this is top-notch entertainment. The con games are fiendishly clever; the action sequences, including some fine battles at sea, are exciting; and Locke is a tremendously appealing hero, likable and resourceful. I miss some of the characters from Lies who are no longer present, but Locke and Jean on their own are a fine team, bantering and teasing one another, but completely able to rely on each other in a jam.

I wouldn't recommend diving into Red Seas without first reading Lies; there are lots of references to events from the first book. You could probably enjoy the main plot of Red Seas without fully understanding all of those references, but they'll be less distracting if you've read the first book, I think. (Besides, it's a fabulous book.)

Recommended with great enthusiasm.

October 29, 2007

MOVIES: Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, 2007)

Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is the "fixer" for a prestigious law firm. A client has a nasty auto accident? An unpleasant story is about to hit the papers? Michael's the go-to guy; he has a knack for fixing this sort of thing, quickly and quietly.

When one of Michael's colleagues, Arthur (Tom Wilkinson) suddenly goes berserk in the middle of a deposition, declaring his love for the young woman who's testifying and stripping naked in the conference room, Michael is summoned to fix things. His boss (Sydney Pollack) is more worried about the damage to the firm's reputation; the client, a large agrichemical company, is more worried about the impact on the class-action case in which Arthur was defending them. Their agendas do not always overlap, and Michael is stuck in the middle, trying to please both.

It's always nice (and increasingly rare) to see a reasonably intelligent drama aimed at an adult audience, but I didn't think this one was entirely successful. Wilkinson's performance is wildly overdone, and a bit too reminiscent of Peter Firth's ranting in Network. The glimpses we get of Clooney's family life are terribly melodramatic, and Gilroy seems to think that if one family member in crisis will make Michael more sympathetic, then four family members in crisis will really make us love the guy.

I very much liked Tilda Swinton, though, who plays the in-house counsel for Arthur's client; she's particularly good in a scene where we see her rehearsing answers for an upcoming interview, trying to get the phrasing just right.

Michael Clayton isn't a terrible movie -- there are certainly worse ways to spend an afternoon -- but it's too frantic and overheated to be a really memorable one.

October 28, 2007

MOVIES: Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, 2007)

Affleck makes a solid directing debut with this adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel about the search for a missing child. There's a fine cast; the screenplay (by Affleck and Aaron Stockard) is tight and filled with tension; and Affleck does an excellent job of capturing the Boston neighborhoods where the story is set.

Casey Affleck stars as private investigator Patrick Kenzie, who's asked by the aunt of the missing girl to use his local contacts to "supplement" the police investigation. Patrick's partner (in business and in life), Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), is reluctant to take the case; she's not sure she can handle the particular stress and heartbreak that go with missing children.

The cops aren't thrilled to have them involved, either. Ed Harris and John Ashton are the two detectives in charge of the case, and their boss (Morgan Freeman, using his recent "St. Morgan" typecasting to very good effect here) created the special unit that investigates missing children after his own daughter was murdered; they all assume that amateurs like Patrick and Angie can only screw up the case.

Amy Ryan steals the movie from her better-known co-stars as Helene McCready, the mother of the missing girl. Helene's not a sympathetic figure; she's a drunk and a drug addict, and isn't terribly well educated. Ryan plays the part entirely without vanity; she's not afraid to be hated, and she makes Helene the most complex and interesting character in the movie.

My biggest problem with the movie is Casey Affleck. It's not a bad performance, certainly, but I find it hard to take him seriously as a leading man, mostly because of his voice. It's an insubstantial thing, all breath and top notes with no depth, no bottom to it, and it makes him seem far younger than he is. (Patrick is 31, which is the same age that Affleck was during the filming of the movie.) That's not entirely inappropriate for this story -- Patrick's youth and relative inexperience are crucial to the way the plot unfolds -- but combined with his strong Boston accent, it occasionally leads to key bits of dialogue getting lost in the sound mix.

Still, the movie is well worth seeing, and the difficult moral choice that faces Patrick and Angie at the end of the story had me thinking hard about what I'd do in that situation. (I think I'd make the same choice Patrick makes, but I'd spend the rest of my life wondering "what if?".)

Smackdown 1940: and the winner is...

The final results of the 1940 Supporting Actress Smackdown have been posted at StinkyLulu. Did my fellow bloggers and I agree with Oscar's pick of Jane Darwell, or did we think one of the other nominees more deserving? Well, you'll just have to click over there and find out.

October 22, 2007

Smackdown 1940: Jane Darwell, The Grapes of Wrath

At its best, The Grapes of Wrath is almost unbearably bleak and poignant; at its worst, it's filled with sentimental Steinbeck speeches that are entirely unbelievable coming from the movie's unsophisticated characters. What holds the movie together as it whips from one extreme to the other is the presence of Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, a performance of quiet strength, dignity, and optimism.

Her eyes are what stay with me -- deep set, heavy lidded, and intensely mournful. But there are glimmers of happiness, moments when memories shine through of a life that was not always quite as difficult as it has now become. There's a lovely scene early on, as the Joad family prepares to leave their farm, and Darwell sits alone in the house with a small box of souvenirs -- a postcard from New York, a pair of earrings, a ceramic animal from the St. Louis World's Fair. As she looks at each of these mementos, we see an entire story flash across her face.

It's not easy to play a saint, and that's pretty much what Ma Joad is. Darwell gives us just enough of the imp within to humanize her (you can imagine that as a young woman, she was quite the hellraiser). She's willing to lie if necessary to save her family, and every now and then, she even cuts loose with a joke; her deadpan "On a gallon of gas?" is one of the few funny moments in the movie.

There are some problems in the performance, many of them due to the writing -- I don't think any actress could survive the overwrought goo of her final "we are the people" speech -- but unlike some of her castmates (Charley Grapewin as Grandpa Joad, for instance), Darwell almost never resorts to hamminess or overly broad theatrics. It is acting of the utmost simplicity and sincerity, and it is a joy to watch.

October 21, 2007

TV: The Next Great American Band (Fox, Friday 8/7)

It's a little hard to judge a competition show based solely on its audition episode, but the 2-hour premiere of Next Great American Band makes some significant changes -- almost all of them for the good -- to the American Idol template.

To begin with, this is the only audition episode we're going to get, unlike Idol, which drags its audition process on for several weeks, visiting every city on the tour. By contrast, Band leaps straight to the semi-final, with 60 bands invited to Las Vegas to compete for twelve spots in the finals.

That also means that we spend much less time trotting out untalented contestants solely for the purpose of being laughed at. That's not to say that all of the 60 semifinalists were equally talented -- some of them were quite awful -- but those bands were given relatively little airtime, and there were only a handful of cheap insult jokes at their expense. More often, the judges simply dismissed those bands with a quick "Next!"

The judges fall neatly into Idol's Simon/Paula/Randy pattern. In the Simon role, we have Ian "Dicko" Dickson, a judge on Australian Idol. Our nurturing female judge is Sheila E., and the third chair is filled by John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls. None of the judges (even Dicko) is ever as gratuitously unkind as Simon can be; none is as vapidly gushing and supportive as Paula. All three offer serious, substantive, useful criticism. We didn't see lots of host Dominic Bowden, imported from New Zealand Idol, but he seems to have the appropriate level of bland enthusiasm.

While not all of the twelve finalist bands are to my liking, the average level of talent is clearly higher than we've ever gotten on any season of Idol; there's not a Sanjaya in the bunch. I'm also happy that we've wound up with a mix of different styles -- three country/bluegrass bands, a Philly R&B group, a swingin' big band, an all-girl punk-rock-lite band, a 60s-retro pop band, and several assorted rock acts. (My early pick to actually get a decent career out of this, whether they win or not, is the country band Sixwire.)

The competition begins next week in another two-hour episode, during which each band will reportedly give us an original tune and a Dylan cover. I'm looking forward to it.

Smackdown 1940: Judith Anderson, Rebecca

Mrs. Danvers, the sinister housekeeper of Manderley, is something of a cartoon character. She's the utlimate Evil Lesbian, driven to madness by her devotion to the late Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers floats through the mansion, sneaking in and out of scenes in silence, a gaunt spectre in black. She's so ominous and terrifying a presence that at the first mention of her name, the storm clouds open and it begins to pour.

She's not the most expressive character; her face is cold and stony and her voice is a flat monotone. To her credit, Anderson finds subtle ways to shade her delivery of Mrs. Danvers' dialogue. During the first long scene with Joan Fontaine in Rebecca's room, there's just a hint of softness in her voice as she lovingly describes Rebecca's clothing and daily routine, the barest tease of a smile as she fondles Rebecca's negligee. And when she begins to suggest that Fontaine should think about ending her own life -- "listen to the sea...so soothing" -- that monotone becomes almost seductive.

Anderson is appropriately creepy and menacing in the role; she's playing the monster in this horror show, and she dives into the role with no hint of vanity. But like most movie monsters, Mrs. Danvers isn't a fully rounded character; she's meant to be scary and nothing more. Anderson gives her a bit more complexity than the script provides, but even with her hard work, she can't make Mrs. Danvers any more than a cardboard cutout.

Smackdown 1940: Marjorie Rambeau, Primrose Path

This is by far the most obscure of this month's movies; were it not for this lone Oscar nomination, it would most likely be entirely forgotten. So, a quick summary:

Ginger Rogers stars as Ellie May Adams, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks with an embarassing family. Granny's a mean-tempered, abusive shrew; Dad's an alcoholic; and Mom supports the family with "presents" from her gentleman friends. When Ellie May meets Ed Wallace (Joel McCrea), she leaps at the opportunity to escape to a better life. (Not that much better, mind you; Ed slings burgers at a hamburger shack.) She flirts and bullies Ed into marrying her, abandoning her family in the process; when he finally meets them, he is horrified, and dumps her. But by this time, Ellie May is genuinely in love with Ed, and spends the rest of the movie fighting to win him back.

Our Supporting Actress nominee is Marjorie Rambeau as Mamie Adams, the golden-hearted whore. The movie never uses the word "prostitute," of course, this being 1940, but there's no doubt about how Mamie manages to support her family. The movie is quite daring for its day in its treatment of not only prostitution, but alcoholism and attempted suicide as well.

Mamie is a juicy role, and Rambeau does nicely with it; her two big showcase scenes are among the movie's best. In the first, Ellie May is headed out for a night on the town (hoping to "accidentally" run into Ed again), and Mamie does her best to prepare her daughter. You can see how delighted she is to finally be able to pass along some wisdom to Ellie May, who has until now been something of a tomboy, and how embarassed she is at the same time by how she's learned so much about men and romance.

There's a charming bit of physical comedy as Mamie demonstrates to Ellie May how to walk, and how not to walk, to catch a man's attention. And she's desperate for Ellie May to catch this man. Mamie knows exactly how she and her family are perceived, and is enormously relieved when Ellie May never comes home from that evening out. At least Ellie May has escaped.

Rambeau's other showcase is a deathbed scene; Mamie has been shot while trying to stop her husband from killing himself. By today's standards, Rambeau's performance here is a touch hammy and overdone -- lots of melodramatic whispering and gasping and such -- but in context, it's quite moving. Again, Mamie tries to pass on what small wisdom she's gained from life, and she begs Ellie May to care for the family, because none of the others are capable of doing so. Mamie knows full well that the only way Ellie May can support the family is by following in her footsteps, and it's painful to watch her demanding that of her daughter.

Primrose Path is a decidedly minor movie, and its obscurity is well deserved. But it's not without its small pleasures, and Marjorie Rambeau's performance is chief among them. Mamie seems at first to be just another cheerful good-time girl, but by the end of the movie, Rambeau's made it abundantly clear how much pain hides behind Mamie's broad smiles and jolly laughter.

October 20, 2007

TV: Viva Laughlin (CBS, Sun 8/7)

Based on the BBC series Viva Blackpool, which was entertaining for a few weeks, but once the novelty of the musical numbers wore off, turned out to be merely a dull murder mystery filled with uninteresting characters. Sadly, the American version is even worse; it's the most spectacularly awful new show of the year.

Lloyd Owen stars as Ripley Holden, who's about to open the Viva casino in Laughlin, Nevada, when one of his major investors announces that he's backing out of the project. If Ripley can't replace that money fast, the Viva will never open and he'll lose everything he's sunk into the project. So when that investor is found dead in Ripley's office, Ripley is the obvious suspect.

The show's gimmick is that there are musical numbers scattered throughout. They aren't original songs, and the actors aren't even really the principal performers; instead, old pop records are played -- Elvis's "Viva Las Vegas," Blondie's "One Way or Another" -- and the actors sing along, doing a few desultory dance steps along the way.

The one thing the BBC version of the show did have going for it was the courage of its convictions; those actors threw themselves wholeheartedly into the cheesy production numbers, and managed to give them enough energy and enthusiasm to distract you -- at least for a little while -- from how silly the idea was. But in Viva Laughlin, the actors go into those numbers with a distinct lack of excitement; they're vaguely embarassed by what they're doing, which makes it utterly impossible for the audience to be engaged by it.

The other crucial flaw in the show is its leading man; Lloyd Owen is devoid of charisma or personality, which is only emphasized when Hugh Jackman (who will have a recurring role in the show) makes his first appearance to "Sympathy for the Devil." As poorly choreographed as the number is, and as inaudibly mixed as Jackman's voice is (we mostly hear the records, not the actors), it's still the best few minutes the show has to offer. It's hard for any show to survive when its leading man can't hold the screen against the supporting players.

TV: Samantha Who? (ABC, Monday 9:30/8:30)

Christina Applegate stars as Samantha Newly, who comes out of an 8-day coma with no memory of her friends and family, and no idea who she is. Much to her horror, she begins to realize that the pre-coma Sam was a nasty piece of work who no one really liked. Pretty odd setup for a comedy, and despite the talents of the cast, the pilot sets up the story with a number of glaring plot holes that send the show crashing to the ground.

Sam is surrounded by a large group of family and friends. Dena (Melissa McCarthy), is the sweet, lovable one who's been visiting Sam in the hospital every day, and Andrea (Jennifer Esposito) is the cold-hearted cynic who was Sam's best friend. There's her boyfriend, Todd (Barry Watson), who is a bit unnerved by having this woman, now a stranger, move back in with him. Jean Smart and Kevin Dunn are on hand as Sam's parents.

It's a solid cast, and they do fine work here. Applegate is very funny, both as the puzzled post-coma Sam and (in flashbacks) as the nasty, sharp-tongued pre-coma version. McCarthy and Watson are both immensely likable; Esposito delivers Andrea's insults with great enthusiasm; and Smart continues to be TV's finest actresses.

But so much doesn't make sense. Why would a guy as nice as Todd have been involved with someone as hateful as pre-coma Sam? Why does Dena show up at the hospital every day, when it turns out they haven't really been friends since junior high? Why does post-coma Sam, who wants to be a better person, continue to spend time with Dena? For that matter, why does post-coma Sam want so much to be a better person? Does amnesia usually bring with it a radical personality change? Samantha Who? is so badly flawed a concept that it can't be recommended.

October 17, 2007

TV: Women's Murder Club (ABC, Friday 9/8)

So a cop, a district attorney, a medical examiner, and a reporter walk into a crime show...

They are the titular club, four women who pool their talents and assorted access to information to solve crimes. They're played by (respectively) Angie Harmon, remarkably even blander and more devoid of personality than she was on Law and Order; Laura Harris, appealing and pixie-ish despite being saddled with the TV season's most unflattering haircut; Paula Newsome, whose droll and sardonic presence is the best thing about the show; and Aubrey Dollar, who overdoes the naive routine, especially given her career.

I'm not a huge fan of crime procedurals; that particular formula has long since worn out its welcome for me. But if you do enjoy them, this is a reasonably appealing example of the genre. It's not going to stretch TV boundaries (or your imagination) in any way whatsoever, but it works tolerably well in a comfort-food kinda way.

October 16, 2007

TV: Life Is Wild (CW, Sunday 8/7)

Daktari for the 21st century, with a hint of The Brady Bunch thrown in for good measure.

Dad's got two kids, and none of them are coping well with the death of Mom three years ago. Teen Daughter has become an uptight, hyper-competent, prematurely adult prig; Tween Son is shy and troubled. New Mom's got two kids of her own, equally troubled. Teen Son is well on the road to a life spent in prison (like his dad); Adorable Moppet Daughter is -- well, she's adorable, and as of the pilot, that is her sole personality trait.

How to get this collection of dysfunctional folk to meld into a family? Why, take them all off to South Africa for a year, natch, to live on the family lodge where Dead Mom grew up. Of course, when they get there, they find the place a rundown mess, and Grandpa has no interest in doing any of the work to fix it up, 'cause that would take time away from his drinking.

It's all very bland and uninvolving, and remarkably unattractive to look at; the South African wilderness is a bleached and dusty bore, and even the teen actors are (by CW standards) dull and plain. I suppose if you're desperate for something that the kids can watch on Sunday night without being too badly traumatized, this will do, but that's the nicest thing I can say about it.

October 15, 2007

Smackdown 1940: Ruth Hussey, The Philadelphia Story

Well, let's start with the blasphemy: This is a long, boring, stagey movie, populated not with characters, but with banter-dispensing machines. And sad to say, Ruth Hussey suffers the most from its flaws.

Hussey plays photographer Liz Imbrie; fifteen or twenty years later, this would have been an Eve Arden role. Liz is the wise-cracking cynic who is, way down deep, a secret romantic at heart. She's got an endless supply of one-liners, and she's the one who actually understands what everyone's really thinking.

And in most movies, that character is a lot of fun -- but only if there's only one of her. Unfortunately, everyone in this damned movie is Eve Arden. They're all hurling crisp punchlines back and forth so fast* that there's no time for any character or relationship to be developed.

(*Well, fast for the era, I suppose; we've learned to process dialogue faster in the ensuing 67 years, and what was then zippy repartee is now plodding and lethargic.)

Take, for instance, the moment at the end of the movie when Liz's fiancee (Jimmy Stewart) proposes to Katharine Hepburn with Liz standing just inches away. That should be a terribly painful moment, but we feel no sorrow or embarrassment for Liz at all; hell, she doesn't seem to feel anything. It's just another opportunity to toss off a clever quip.

Oh, the jokes are delivered sharply enough, and Hussey looks marvelous in her fabulous pantsuits, but she's never given a character to play. Like all of the other actors in this movie, she's left to drown in an endless sea of bons mots.

October 14, 2007

Smackdown 1940: Barbara O'Neil, All This and Heaven Too

Even before O'Neil's Duchesse du Praslin dies, she haunts this movie.

Bette Davis, as the governess Henriette, is greeted outside the door of the Praslin estate by the old servant Pierre, who makes it clear that she'd have to be nuts to work here. "I did not bring evil into this home," Henriette will say repeatedly in the movie's final act, and Pierre knows how right she is.

As is true of most evil spirits, we hear the Duchesse before we see her; she's scolding her husband the Duke (Charles Boyer) for his repeated "humiliations" of her. It's not clear what she means by that, but it is instantly clear that the Duchesse is desperate for attention and affection, even as she's incapable of giving those things to others. She is an apathetic mother, popping bonbons as the Duke interviews the new governess, but quick to take offense when the children greet their father and the new governess before acknowledging her.

But when they do come to her, she really can't be bothered. Four-year-old Reynald brings her a flower, and she dismisses him with an utterly bored "thank you" (and just look at how much she communicates in how she handles that flower, bouncing it in the air with disdain).

The Duchesse is both the villain and the comic relief of the movie -- and as much as I enjoyed this old-fashioned weepie, the comic relief was certainly needed -- and O'Neil does a marvelous job of combining the two. Her dialogue is more melodramatic than anyone else's; her every line seems to end in an exclamation point. "God will visit His revenge on this house!" "You delight in torturing me, as one day, Heaven willing, I will torture you!" Of frail little Reynald: "He will always bear the marks of my suffering!"

She's also got sharp comic timing. Listen to how crisply she switches from phony solicitude to utter loathing when she says to her husband, "Poor Mademoiselle Deluzy must have suffered.... Has she suffered?"

But as over-the-top as the Duchesse is, O'Neil always keeps her within the movie's emotional reality (there are moments, I grant you, when she only just keeps that control). And there are lovely subtleties in her facial expressions -- a smug, satisfied smile at the end of the party montage; eyes that flash with mad jealousy.

It's a performance that wouldn't work at all today, when it would seem ridiculously flamboyant against modern naturalistic acting. But when the emotional center of the movie is as big and broad as it is here, the boundaries are also pushed farther out, and O'Neil takes full advantage of those boundaries; by being just a tiny bit bigger and, in some way, sillier than everyone else, she makes the Duchesse the most memorable character in the movie. It may look like loopy overacting to modern eyes, but it's a very precise performance, and it's great fun to watch.
Back again, after a week of dealing with some minor medical problems. Nothing life-threatening, just a bit time-consuming and exhausting.

Among the stuff to come in the next few days: The final new TV shows premiere; I may actually finish a book, after what feels like weeks of picking things up and finding them all too dull to finish; and I'm delighted to have been invited by StinkyLulu to join in another of his monthly Supporting Actress Smackdowns. We're covering 1940 this month, so you can look forward to comments on that year's nominees:
  • Judith Anderson, Rebecca
  • Jane Darwell, The Grapes of Wrath
  • Ruth Hussey, The Philadelphia Story
  • Barbara O'Neil, All This, and Heaven Too
  • Marjorie Rambeau, Primrose Path

(Nope, I'd never even heard of that last one, either.)

October 08, 2007

TV: Aliens in America (CW, Monday 8:30/7:30)

In a desperate attempt to help their awkward son fit in better at school, Gary and Franny Tolchuck (Scott Patterson and Amy Pietz) open their home to a foreign exchange student. They're expecting a Nordic god, someone whose own popularity will transfer to Justin (Dan Byrd), but instead they wind up with Raja (Adhir Kalyan), a Pakistani Muslim. Wackiness ensues.

I kinda hate coming down hard on this show; its heart is in the right place, and the cast is immensely likable. Pietz, in particular, does marvelous things with her role, ringing fascinating changes on the Midwestern housewife cliche.

But the show is painfully heavy-handed, especially in its use of Justin's voice-over narration. It's intrusive and usually unnecessary. When Franny has her big change of heart, for instance, and decides that Raja can stay, we hear Justin explaining what she's thinking. But Pietz is perfectly capable of showing us what Franny's thinking (she is, in fact, doing a lovely job of doing so); the scene would play perfectly well without the narration. Every metaphor is spelled out, including that of the title ("I was like an alien myself, but there was no spaceship coming to rescue me...").

It might be worth checking in on this one in a few weeks to see if the show's approach has softened, but in a crowded timeslot, I'll be sticking with The Big Bang Theory.

October 04, 2007

TV: Pushing Daisies (ABC, Wednesday 8/7)

Oh, what a delight! A brightly-colored fairy tale confection of whimsy and romance and dry wit, with a top-notch cast.

Lee Pace stars as Ned, who learns at the age of 9 that he can, with a single touch, bring the dead back to life. There are complications -- a second touch, and they're dead again, this time for good; but if he lets them stay alive for more than a minute, then someone else in close proximity will die instead -- but Ned finds it a useful gift. It's certainly handy in his primary career as owner of The Pie Hole restaurant, where rotten fruit is never a problem. It's even handier in his sideline work with private eye Emerson Cod (Chi McBride); much easier to collect reward money when you can briefly revive the deceased and ask who killed them.

When Ned's childhood sweetheart, Chuck (Anna Friel), comes back into his life as one of those to-be-revived murder victims, Ned can't bring himself to touch her back to death, setting up the show's great tragic romance -- two lovers who can literally never touch. Chuck's presence, and Ned's love for her, is greatly resented by Ned's waitress, Olive (Kristin Chenoweth), who wants Ned for herself.

The cast of characters is rounded out by Chuck's aunts, former synchronized swimming stars Lily and Vivian (Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene), who don't know that Chuck has been brought back to life. And it's all set in a bright Crayola-colored world that looks like nothing else on TV.

It sounds horribly precious, and it may very well topple over into an excess of twee at any moment, but the pilot gets the balance just right. The sharp wit and rapid-fire dialogue (these people talk almost as quickly as the Gilmore girls) undercut the cuteness, as does the underlying sadness of Ned and Chuck's doomed love.

The cast is perfection. Pace and Friel are extraordinarily likable, both individually and as a couple; McBride gets to show off a comic side we haven't often seen from him, and the tough-guy cynicism he wears (seemingly more because it goes with the job than out of any real conviction) plays nicely against Ned's optimistic, generous nature.

I hope this show survives, but I'm worried. Creator Bryan Fuller has done other terrific shows with a similarly whimsical style, and they tend to die too quickly; Dead Like Me scraped out two short seasons on Showtime, and Wonderfalls lasted only a few weeks on Fox. There's also cause for concern about whether the show can maintain its distinctive visual style; director Barry Sonnenfeld was reportedly fired a few episodes in for repeatedly going over budget. But I'm keeping my fingers crossed, and I'm going to enjoy the ride for however long it lasts.

October 03, 2007

TV: Cavemen / Carpoolers (ABC, Tuesday 8/7, 8:30/7:30)

Another pair to be dismissed in tandem.

There's been a lot of talk in the last few years about whether or not the sitcom is dead. I happen to think it's not, and that there are a lot of fine sitcoms out there -- 30 Rock, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, My Name Is Earl, just to name three.

But if you wanted to kill the sitcom, shows like these would do the trick just fine.

Cavemen is the single unfunniest half-hour I've ever endured. I didn't laugh, chuckle, or even smile once. The caveman makeup is incredibly unattractive, and it's impossible to distinguish the three principal characters from one another (one of them sometimes wears glasses, but that's the only distinguishing characteristing I could find). The scary thing is that the show we saw last night was overhauled after TV critics responded poorly to the original pilot a few months back; that means that somewhere, there exists a version of Cavemen that is even worse than this.

Carpoolers is marginally better -- this is not, I hasten to add, to say that it's actually good -- if only because you can see the germ of a funny idea buried deep within it. You could make an interesting show about four guys who don't really know one another well or have much in common, but who have to spend 90 minutes a day in close quarters and find themselves sharing their lives in a more intimate fashion than they are accustomed to. (Heck, HBO could probably find a way to do the entire thing in real-time, set entirely within the car, one commute per episode.)

But this show isn't that. This is stale sitcom material; the first episode actually centers on a guy's fear that his wife might make more money than he does, a plot which last seemed fresh and relevant somewhere around 1974. And what is with the character names? In what particular suburban hellhole would you find four men named Dougie, Aubrey, Laird, and Gracen (not to mention Gracen's son, Marmaduke)?

ABC is having particularly bad luck with the traditional half-hour sitcom these days; their last such Emmy nominee, for instance, was Home Improvement in 1994. Shows like this aren't going to improve that record.