October 25, 2008

TV: Stylista (CW, Wednesday 9)

Yet another fighting-for-a job reality competition.

This time, the job is that of junior editor at Elle magazine, and eleven young wannabees show up to compete for the position. The chief judge is Anne Slowey, Elle Fashion News Director, who has clearly prepared for her judgeship by watching Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada some 8,000 times or so. The tossing of the coat onto the assistant's desk, the bitchy comments delivered in hushed tones, the overwhelming sense of fashion as religion -- it's all there, but Slowey doesn't have quite the charisma to make it as entertaining as Streep did.

Also on hand is Joe Zee, the creative director, who takes the contestants in hand in the first episode to teach them how to dress Elle-style. Danielle's smart blue jacket? Good! William's Clockwork Orange goes punk ensemble? Bad!

Each week, the would-bes will be given two tasks -- one personal assistant task, and one editorial task. Week one sent them to a nearby deli to shop for Anne's breakfast, with no guidance as to what she actually likes to eat. And she is a fussy woman (no coffee unless it's an iced latte; no almonds unless they've been soaked overnight).

After their fashion critique from Joe, they're sent off on a shopping spree, where they must prove that they can now shop for work-appropriate clothes, then put on a fashion show for the editorial staff. The final piece of the challenge is to put their fashion show photos into a "contributors' page" for the magazine.

The contestants are young, pretty, and not that bright; Slowey is stiff and awkward on screen; the tasks bear little if any resemblance to what a junior editor would actually be required to do. But god help me, I am a sucker for these shows, and at least the contestants are being asked to develop actual skills and not just each cockroaches. Stylista is trash, and mid-level trash at that, but I'll probably keep watching.

October 21, 2008

BOOKS: The Prodigal Tongue, Mark Abley (2008)

English is changing faster than ever before, says Abley, as he presents an overview of where the biggest changes are coming from and what they're likely to be. This is specifically not a book about those darned kids and how they're ruining the language; Abley says he has "no ideological ax to grind," and simply wants to report what's happening.

Several of his sources of change are the result of living in an increasingly multi-cultural world -- the way that Spanish is infiltrating the language in Los Angeles, the mix of English, Chinese, and other local languages that you'll hear in Singapore, called Singlish; the influence of Black English and hip-hop.

One of the greatest sources of change, though, is cyberspace. Text speak, that highly condensed form of English used by most students, is a particularly strong source of change. Many of its most common shortenings are already making their way into the mainstream -- the use of "u" for "you;" "LOL" for "laugh out loud." New Zealand has gone so far as to say that high school students may use text speak on their final exams without being marked down as long as their ideas are correct; a British company offers classic literature re-written in text speak as a study aid (Hamlet's soliloquy begins "2b?Ntb?=?").

I think Abley overstates the pace at which these changes are going to affect mainstream English, but his look at the trends is certainly interesting, and I enjoyed the book very much.

October 20, 2008

MOVIES: W (Oliver Stone, 2008)

Stone's look at the current president is surprisingly even-handed, almost frustratingly so; there are moments when I found myself desperately longing for a stronger point of view.

The focus is on the runup to the war in Iraq, with frequent flashbacks to Bush's life before the Presidency. Josh Brolin stars, and his impersonation of Bush is remarkable; it was easy to forget that I wasn't actually watching the real president. The voice, the gestures, the look -- all completely convincing. But the performance goes beyond mere impersonation; Brolin gives us an insightful portrayal, and suggests a more complex man than Bush has ever seemed to be in real life.

(Some of the credit for Brolin's look must go to the movie's makeup artists and casting directors, who have transformed their cast into remarkable lookalikes of the people they're playing -- Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, Toby Jones as Karl Rove, Rob Corddry as Ari Fleischer.)

Stone's central premise is that Bush is motivated by the desire to live up to the high expectations of his father, the first President Bush (played by James Cromwell, in one of the least physically convincing transformations of the movie). Poppy's key line, which we hear at least twice, is "I'm disappointed in you, George, deeply disappointed," and Bush spends his entire life trying to overcome that disappointment.

The supporting cast, with one notable exception, is fine; Cromwell, Dreyfuss, and Wright are particularly good, as is Stacy Keach, almost unrecognizable as the minister who leads Bush to become born again. The disappointment is Newton, who is struggling so hard with Rice's distinctive voice that her performance sinks to the level of a Saturday Night Live caricature.

I don't think that W is a great movie; its "must please Daddy" psychology is a bit facile, and Stone pounds it home rather heavily, especially in an unnecessary dream sequence late in the movie. And if you pay much attention to politics, you aren't going to learn anything new about the history of the last few years. But the performances, Brolin's in particular, are strong enough that the movie's worth seeing.

October 19, 2008

BOOKS: Con Ed, Matthew Klein (2007)

Kip Largo is sitting in a bar when a beautiful blonde approaches him and asks for his help. She knows about his past as a con man, and wants to steal the fortune of her husband, a Vegas hotel tycoon. Kip is an ex-con, just out of prison and trying to go straight, so he's reluctant to get involved. But when his son, Toby, shows up begging for money to pay off gambling debts to the Russian mob, that Vegas fortune starts looking pretty good.

Kip's no fool, and he knows that when an opportunity this good falls into your lap, there's a good chance that you're being played. And so we're off on a rollicking con man caper, with Kip never quite sure whether he's pulling the best con of his life or about to have the rug pulled out from under his feet.

I am a sucker for con man stories, and Klein moves his story briskly along, with a few nice high-tech twists on a classic scheme. The characters are likable, and the suspense builds nicely to the climax, which has its fair share of unexpected twists. Not great literature, but a delightful diversion.

TV: Crusoe (NBC, Friday 9)

A very loose adaptation of the classic novel, grabbing bits and pieces from popular TV shows to create an odd Frankenstein of a show.

Robinson Crusoe (Philip Winchester) is marooned on a tropical island, with only two companions -- a dog, and Friday (Tongayi Chirisa), who was rescued from a tribe of cannibals by Crusoe. Together, they've managed to put together a pretty comfy life -- the most spectacular tree house you've ever seen (built mostly from the remnants of Crusoe's ship, but more elaborate than a dozen 17th-century engineers could have concocted), oodles of clever gadgets designed to make life easier (very proto-MacGyver), and nothing much to do bit lounge about in the sun and pine for home.

Of course, there's not much drama in that, so there are going to be a lot of unexpected visitors to the island; it's English pirates in the 2-hour premiere, looking for a golden cannon that's supposed to be buried on the island somewhere. By the midpoint, the pirates are joined by the Spanish jailers from whom they've escaped. Crusoe and Friday have to battle off both groups, eventually chasing them away without being able to get rescued themselves. It seems that's likely to be the pattern of the episodes; visitors arrive each week and don't rescue Crusoe (shades of Gilligan's Island).

We get frequent cryptic flashbacks to Crusoe's past in London, where his wife and children wait for him, and there are suggestions that Crusoe's marooning was not entirely accidental, that there is a larger conspiracy at work, in a 17th-century Lost kind of way.

The gadgets are clever if you can suspend your disbelief, and this might be an entertaining show for boys -- tree house! gadgets! pirates! swordfights! -- if it didn't take such pleasure in its violence; there are a few too many lingering, loving shots of dead guys for most pre-teens. Winchester and Chirisa are very appealing (and both are ridiculously handsome), and they have remarkably good chemistry together; it's almost difficult to believe Crusoe's "oh, how I miss my Susanna" moaning when you see how fondly he and his "brother" Friday look at one another.

As a friend once said about a different show, Crusoe is easy to watch, but it's just as easy not to watch. It's innocuous escapism, but in the long run, the steady stream of non-rescuing visitors is going to become more and more implausible, and I don't have much faith that the conspiracy story is going to play out in an interesting fashion.

October 18, 2008

TV: My Own Worst Enemy (NBC, Monday 10)

Henry Spivey is your typical suburban dad -- corporate job, pretty wife, scruffy dog, two kids, and a vague sense of dissatisfaction with his boring life.

Edward Albright is a highly skilled international operative -- runs a 4-minute mile, speaks 13 languages, trained to kill in countless ways.

What Henry doesn't know (but Edward does) is that they share a single body (Christian Slater, having great fun with the dual role). Henry is an artificially created personality, carved out of a spare corner of Edward's brain. When Edward isn't on a mission, he's "put to sleep" and Henry takes over; when the Janus organization needs to send Edward off to recover the microfilm or save the scientist or stop the nukes from going off, he's "awakened" for the mission. After the mission, phony memories of a business trip to someplace like Akron are created for Henry.

But alas for Janus, the Henry/Edward boundary is beginning to break down; Edward's waking up when he hasn't been summoned. Even worse, Henry's consciousness is taking charge in the middle of Edward's mission. This is very worrying to Edward's boss, Mavis (Alfre Woodard), and to his best friend, fellow Janus operative Raymond (Mike O'Malley, surprisingly effective in a dramatic role). Raymond's alter-ego, Tom, is Henry's best friend, and works in the same anonymous office, which seems to exist only to give Janus alters someplace to believe that they work.

Slater's quite good in the double role, vaguely pathetic as Henry and highly efficient as Edward; it's always clear which personality is awake, and Slater's especially good at capturing Henry's panicked confusion when he awakes mid-mission for the first time.

The biggest problem with the show is the glaring question which goes not only unanswered, but unasked, in the first episode. Why? If you're a highly skilled International Man of Mystery type, why do you need to partition off a piece of your brain to create an ordinary-guy alter ego?

That's not the only logic problem. The show opens in Paris, where Edward is facing off against a femme fatale agent, who we're lead to believe is every bit his equal in skill and smarts, but who is dumb enough to fall for the body-made-of-bedpillows trick.

It feels as if the writers came up with the two guys/one body concept and didn't take the time to think through the logical consequences of the idea. The show doesn't have much respect for the intelligence of its audience. Slater and Woodard are entertaining enough to keep me watching for another week or two in the hopes that some of these questions will be addressed, but if they aren't, I won't stick around for long.

October 17, 2008

BOOKS: World Made by Hand, James Howard Kunstler (2008)

In his nonfiction book The Long Emergency (which I haven't read), Kunstler argues that we are heading for a societal crash of epic proportions. The end of the fossil fuel era is coming faster than we believe, and we're not ready; we should be prepared for wars and a return to an agricultural society when the gas runs out.

World Made by Hand gives us a fictional depiction of American society after that crash has happened. Kunstler doesn't go into great detail about the specifics; we know that Los Angeles and Washington, DC have both been destroyed by bombs, and there are rumors that an American government still exists somewhere -- Minneapolis, maybe? -- but it's too far away and too powerless to have any real impact on anyone. A flu epidemic has killed a large part of the population, and those remaining have scavenged the abandoned homes for whatever useful supplies they might have contained.

The novel's set in Union Grove, New York, a fairly typical small town, where most financial dealings are now done on a barter system. The electricity works only sporadically, and not predictably enough to be of any real use. Former staples like wheat flour and sugar are now luxuries, only rarely available. Transportation is (at best) horse-drawn carriages, and the roads have deteriorated so badly that they aren't always practical.

Our narrator is Robert Earle, once a software executive, now earning a living as a carpenter, and he narrates the events of one summer in Union Grove. There's not a lot of plot, as such; just a series of events, not terribly well connected. A small religious sect has moved into what was once the high school outside town, and is met with a mix of excitement (new faces!) and suspicion (are they going to try and convert everyone?). A gang of would-be warlords runs a scavenging operation/general store out of the town dump and bullies anyone who crosses their path.

There are odd little hints of things that might develop into an actual story, but they never really do. Oddly, many of them are placed in the last third of the novel. There's a visit to the matriarch of the New Faith sect, a morbidly obese woman who seems to have psychic powers; she knows, for instance, that Robert is Jewish and has changed his last name from Ehrlich. There are two dead men who appear to have been killed in identical fashion. But these things are just left hanging. I suppose that's what very well might happen in real life, but real life has the advantage over ficiton of not having to be dramatically compelling; in a novel, you expect there to be a payoff from such teases.

Still, if World Made by Hand isn't quite satisfying as a novel, it's interesting as a portrait of a radically altered America. It's been long enough since the crash that the younger generation -- anyone under 15, say -- has no memory of the old ways, and even older folks have, for the most part, adjusted to the changes. I can't bring myself to believe that things will change as dramatically or as badly as Kunstler thinks they will, but there is an odd optimism to his post-apocalyptic story. Even this, he tells us, we could survive.

October 13, 2008

TV: Eleventh Hour (CBS, Thursday 10)

Jacob Hood (Rufus Sewell) is an advisor to the FBI, called in to investigate scientific crimes and crises. He's received death threats for reasons unspecified, so he travels with Rachel Young (Marley Shelton), an FBI bodyguard.

Essentially, this is yet another CBS crime procedural with a science twist: CSI meets The X-Files (though the science, it appears from the first episode, isn't going to get quite as far fetched as The X-Files sometimes did). Week 1 finds Dr. Hood in Seattle, where someone is attempting to clone a human being.

Given the pervasive influence of House on series protagonists in the last few years, it comes as a pleasant surprise that Hood is not an abrasive, anti-social jerk; he actually gets along reasonably well with people and has a normal level of empathy for them. That's not to say that he can't be manipulative when it's called for; he uses a sob story about his late wife (a story which may or may not be true) to get the bad guy to do the right thing.

He does seem to be a difficult charge for the FBI, though. Rachel makes reference to previous bodyguards having burned out on his unpredictability and refusal to take reasonable safety precautions, and she is determined not to let him treat her the same way. Another refreshing surprise is that there doesn't seem to be a shred of romantic chemistry between the two leads.

The relationship between the two is appealing, though; there's a playful banter and a constant tension as Hood keeps testing the limits and Young tries to maintain control. Sewell and Shelton do solid work in the roles. With only those two series regulars, though, the show's long-term survival will rely more than usual on the quality of each week's guest actors.

With that caveat, Eleventh Hour has a lot of promise, and I look forward to seeing how the show develops.

TV: Life on Mars (ABC, Thursday 10)

Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara) is a New York cop; his current case involves a serial killer who abducts and murders young women, a case that takes on added urgency when his partner/girlfriend (Lisa Bonet) is kidnapped. On his way to the apartment of the prime suspect, Tyler is hit by a car. When he wakes up, he finds himself in 1973.

Police work in 1973 was a very different thing, and Sam has trouble adjusting to work with no computers or high-tech DNA information. Even worse are the attitudes; Sam's new partner, Ray Carling (Michael Imperioli, wearing a hideous period mustache), thinks nothing of beating up a suspect, and the station commander, Gene Hunt (Harvey Keitel, who hasn't learned yet how to scale his performance down to TV size), is even worse.

The show's most interesting character is policewoman Annie Norris (Gretchen Mol). In 1973, policewomen were limited to rescuing kittens and running pointless errands for their male colleagues. Annie's clearly capable of more; she's got a psychology degree from Fordham, and has the skills and smarts to do what we now call profiling. When called on by Sam to do just that, though, she's furious at him for bringing attention to abilities that her male colleagues aren't ready to recognize in a woman.

Sam can't figure out how he got to 1973, and of course, every one thinks he's nuts when he tries to explain what's happened to him. There are hints that he's still alive in 2008 -- he occasionally hears voices from his real voice talking to him from the TV or radio -- but we're given no definite answer to the mystery.

That, it seems to me, will be the show's ultimate downfall. How long can it go on without giving us some sort of resolution to that central mystery? I was already getting bored with the puzzle by the end of the first episode, and I can't imagine watching Sam bumble along in 1973 for too many more weeks without an answer.

October 12, 2008

MOVIES: Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008)

Easily one of the year's best movies, with Anne Hathaway leading a superb cast.

Hathaway plays Kym, who's been in and out of various rehab facilities for many months, and is being released from her current facility to go home for the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). Kym is slowly gaining control of her demons -- she says at one point that she's been sober for nine months -- but it's clearly difficult for her not to be the center of attention.

That's not surprising, of course; she's used to being the focus of things, whether because of how her addiction affects her family or because she's got a team of therapists working on helping her get well. But on what should be Rachel's weekend, Kym's emotional neediness puts further strain on the family, which has not yet recovered from the worst results of Kym's addiction. (I'm trying to avoid giving away an important bit of the backstory here; suffice it to say that Kym's behavior was often tragically irresponsible.)

Kym and Rachel's father Paul (Bill Irwin, note-perfect in his ineffectual frustration) does his best to keep a lid on the simmering confrontation, but neither sister trusts him to be an impartial observer; they've been playing "Dad always liked you best" for years. Stepmom Carol (Anna Deavere Smith, looking strangely orange and bloated) hovers in the background, trying to be supportive to everyone, but we get the sense that Kym's been away for most of the time that Carol's been on the scene, and Carol doesn't have sufficient understanding of the family's dynamics to really be helpful.

You have to feel for Rachel's husband-to-be, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), and his family, who've arrived at Paul's Connecticut home for the rehearsal dinner and find it dominated by Rachel's family melodrama. The dinner sequence is a long one, and I can imagine that some people will find it too long and repetitious, with too many wedding toasts. But I think it's one of the best scenes in Jenny Lumet's script; the tension builds to an almost unbearable level as we wait for the inevitable moment when Kym gets the microphone and makes her toast, which is one of the great awkward, uncomfortable wedding toasts in movie history.

(Also of note in this scene is the precision of Lumet's writing for each character. The toast is the biggest speech some of these characters get, and Lumet paints each of them so crisply that we don't need much more to feel that we know them. Sidney's mother comes across in particularly vivid fashion.)

The performances here are amazing. Hathaway's done very good work in light comedy and period pieces, but she's never had a meaty dramatic role like this one, and she sinks her teeth into it. Her wedding toast is an unforgettable moment, as is her speech at a 12-step meeting, in which she confesses the worst sin of her time as a user. DeWitt's role isn't as flashy, but her performance is just as good; poor Rachel is being whiplashed from one emotional extreme to another -- the joy of a wedding, the anger of every encounter with Kym -- and DeWitt doesn't make a false step.

Debra Winger only has a few short scenes as Kym and Rachel's mother, Abby, but she makes it very clear how hard Abby is working to enjoy the wedding without being sucked into the family's toxic side. Adebimpe isn't given much to do as Sidney, but he's an immensely gracious presence; he's a calming influence on Rachel, and we have no problem understanding their connection.

The ads and trailers for the movie have, I think, made it look more like a wacky comedy than it really is; it's most definitely a drama, and a dark one at that. But it's refreshing to see a movie populated by real people that doesn't insist on wrapping everything up with a tidy bow at the end. This is a must-see.

October 11, 2008

TV: Easy Money (CW, Sunday 9)

Laurie Metcalf stars as Bobette Buffkin, who runs Prestige Payday Loans with the help of her three kids. Cooper (Jay Ferguson) and Brandy (Katie Lowes) love their jobs -- they certainly seem happier at work than they do in their unfulfilling marriages -- but Morgan (Jeff Hephner) has begun to have reservations about the morality of charging 25% weekly interest on loans to those who can least afford them.

The lot of the usurer, we learn from Easy Money, is not an easy one. Your clients don't make their payments (even the cops), and when you try to collect, they sometimes get violent. A pair of enormous, menacing Samoan brothers has just opened their own payday loan place just a few blocks away.

And poor Morgan! Not only does he struggle with the ethics of the family business, but he's trying to start a romance with a pretty young college student, and by the end of the first episode, he's learned that he might actually be adopted.

"Am I adopted?" in the first episode is not a good sign; sinking to soap-opera cliche so quickly suggests that the writers don't have much up their sleeves, a suggestion borne out by the rest of the episode. None of it is very interesting, and even the usually reliable Metcalf can't bring any life to her character; her enormous red wig is the most interesting thing in the show.

A dull, pointless waste of time.

October 10, 2008

TV: Valentine (CW, Sunday 8)

Grace Valentine (Jaime Murray) lives in the Mt. Olympus neighborhood of Los Angeles with her three adult children, Danny (Kristoffer Polaha), Leo (Robert Baker), and Phoebe (Autumn Reeser). Their family business, Valentine Inc., seems to be widely diversified -- we see business cards for plumbing, construction, electricians, and so on. But the real business of the Valentine family is love, because the Valentine family are Greek gods. Grace, Danny, and Leo are actually Aphrodite, Eros, and Hercules; Phoebe reads the Oracle of Delphi in the family's backyard pool.

When two soulmates find themselves on the verge of separation, the Fates may bring the Valentines into their lives, and the family works to bring the couple back together. It seems, though, that the fates are bringing them fewer and fewer clients; in a world where romantic love grows less relevant every day, the Valentines are at risk of becoming obsolete, and thus becoming mortal.

Grace's idea to help the family stay in business is to bring in a mortal to assist them, someone who understands love in the modern era better than they do. She turns to romance novelist Kate Providence (Christine Lakin); the scene in which Grace convinces Kate that she really is a god is one of the funniest in the first episode.

Valentine surprised me; I didn't have particularly high expectations, and the show turned out to be a light, breezy charmer. Polaha stands out as Danny/Eros, whose vanity tends to get in the way of his good intentions, and Baker is effective as Leo/Hercules, who is often forced to act as Danny's conscience, a giant lummox of a Jiminy Cricket. Murray has the rare combination of elegant grace and crisp comic timing, and Reeser is appealing as the ditz of the family.

The show's lighter than air, and maintaining that tone can be difficult. It's easy to imagine that the formula of saving a romance every week could get dull, and the show's entertainment value will depend greatly on its guest actors (the female half of the couple in the first episode, for instance, didn't quite pull off the big reconciliation scene at the end). But the cast is immensely appealing, and at least in the first episode, the writing is lively and funny. In what has been a remarkably weak season of new shows, this is one of the few bright spots.

TV: Kath & Kim (NBC, Thursday 8:30)

Based on an Australian sitcom which must surely have been better than this uninspired mess.

Molly Shannon is Kath Day, a divorcee who's finally settling into single suburban life when her daughter Kim (Selma Blair) moves back in, having left her new husband Craig (Mikey Day). Kath isn't at all happy to see Kim, mostly because her arrival will put a crimp in Kath's relationship with Phil (John Michael Higgins).

There's so much wrong here that it's hard to know where to begin. Shannon and Blair aren't nearly far enough apart in age to be believable as mother and daughter,and neither is a talented enough comedienne to carry a sitcom. (I realize that this is borderline blasphemy where Shannon is concerned, but even in her Saturday Night Live days, I thought she was wildly overpraised.) Even if the show had better leads, the writing isn't very good; there's not a single memorable joke or punchline in the first episode.

The characters aren't very likable, either, uniformly shallow, self-centered, and unkind. It's possible for a show to get away with an assortment of selfish dimwits; My Name Is Earl does so, for instance. But what that show has that Kath & Kim lacks is the sense that the characters genuinely care about one another; even their stupidest behavior is motivated in an attempt to do the right thing. These characters are just selfish and unkind, to the extent that you barely believe that Kath and Kim are related at all.

The show's not aggressively unfunny, as Do Not Disturb was a few weeks back. It's just dull, flat, and entirely lacking in creativity or energy.

October 04, 2008

TV: The Ex List (CBS, Friday 9)

As part of her sister's bachelorette party, Bella Bloom (Elizabeth Reaser) -- yes, she's a florist, and isn't that just too cute for words -- gets a reading from a psychic, who tells her that if she isn't married within a year, she never will be. Further, Bella's soulmate, the man she's meant to be with, is a man with whom she's already had a romantic relationship. Right off the bat, this doesn't strike me as an appealing premise for a show. We're going to be spending our Friday nights watching a romantically desperate woman revisiting one failed relationship after another? But The Ex List is based on a successful Israeli TV series, so apparently the premise can work. In this incarnation, though, it doesn't.

The main reason it doesn't is Reaser. If we're going to have any sympathy for a woman who spends her time throwing herself back into the lives of men who've already broken up with her once, then that woman had better be extraordinarily likable, and Reaser's Bella isn't. She's a bit on the whiny side; she gets pouty and petulant when things don't go her way; and she's utterly clueless to the most obvious things. Her most recent ex, Elliott (Mark Deklin), for instance, is so obviously the man she's meant to wind up with that he might as well be wearing a big neon sign reading "Bella's Soulmate," but she continues to chase him away. (They still see one another because they have "shared custody" of their dog. Yes, this is the kind of show that thinks it's adorable to talk about pets as if they were just as important as actual children.)

The other cast members are pleasant enough. Adam Rothenberg is Bella's best friend, Augie, and Alexandra Breckenridge is his girlfriend, Vivian; they have an appealing bantering chemistry, even when saddled with the most embarrassing subplot in recent memory. (Note to the producers: No one wants to hear a couple arguing about the details of her vaginal waxing.) And Amir Talai, as the fourth housemate, Cyrus, has a nice way with a bitchy punchline.

Even Eric Balfour, that insufferably annoying show-killer, is more appealing in the pilot than Reaser is. Balfour pops up as Ex #1, doing a splendidly vicious version of the overly sensitive rock musician boyfriend who turns every conversation into an ode to his own feelings, and every moment into a bathetic ballad.

But I keep coming back to that awful premise. All the men on Bella's list either dumped her, in which case they probably don't want to see her again, or were dumped by her, in which case they probably went through a painful period of getting over her. In either case, her reappearance in their lives isn't likely to be met with much happiness (and even if it is, the nature of the show demands that every episode end with another breakup between Bella and the Guy of the Week). Whether the fault lies with Reaser or with the writers, Bella simply isn't a likable or charming enough person that I want to watch her making another guy miserable every week.

October 02, 2008

BOOKS: The Likeness, Tana French (2008)

Follow-up to In the Woods, which I liked very much.

Cassie Maddox, a supporting player in that book, takes center stage this time. The events of In the Woods have led her to leave the Murder Squad of the Dublin police; she now works on the Domestic Violence unit. Her boyfriend, Sam, still works Murder, though, and he calls her early one morning, asking her to come to a murder scene.

When she arrives, she is shocked to see that the dead woman is her double. The woman's ID identifies her as Alexandra Madison. That's another surprise, because Lexie Madison doesn't really exist; she's one of the fake IDs that Cassie created for herself during her years working as an undercover officer.

Lexie is the type of murder victim who might not normally get special attention from the police, but given her ID and her resemblance to Cassie, the police can't entirely dismiss the possibility that Cassie was the intended victim, so solving the murder takes on added importance. Cassie's old boss, Frank, still heads up the undercover unit, and he makes the suggestion -- initially dismissed by Cassie and Sam as ludicrous -- that Lexie's friends should be told that she survived the assault, and that Cassie should go undercover as Lexie in order to gather information. Frank talks them into it, and Cassie moves into the large house that Lexie had been sharing with four other college students.

All of the skills that French displayed in In the Woods are on hand here -- intricate plotting, gorgeous prose, vivid characterization. I'm particularly impressed by the way characters change depending on whose point of view we see them from. For instance, the Cassie of The Likeness is recognizable as Cassie of In the Woods, but they aren't precisely the same; she's been changed by the events of the first book, and we're now seeing her as she sees herself instead of as Rob saw her.

The Likeness is, as police procedurals go, relatively low on action and violence; the climactic chapter, in which secrets are revealed and motives discovered, is a 30-page scene of four people in a room talking. But because French has so carefully and so skillfully defined those four characters for us, that long dialogue scene has more tension and energy than the action set pieces that conclude many lesser thrillers.

There's certainly plenty of room for French to continue writing novels set in the Dublin police department, and I like the idea of having a new protagonist for each story. Certainly Sam and Frank are interesting enough characters to carry books of their own.

A lot of authors have one good book in them, and I try not to get my hopes up too high after a first novel. But when you get a pair of books as fine as In the Woods and The Likeness, you've got real talent on your hands. It's going to be very exciting to see what Tana French does next and how her career develops; she promises to be one of the finest crime novelists of the new century.