October 29, 2009

MOVIES: Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, 2008)

This movie never had a full-fledged commercial release, but it's been playing the festival circuit for the last year or two, and is now available on DVD (or for free viewing at Paley's website).

It's an animated movie, telling multiple stories in multiple animation styles. The bulk of the story is the tragic love of Sita and Rama (tragic mostly for poor Sita, I'm afraid), a tale from the Ramayana, the Indian book of stories and legends. ("It's probably just about as true as any of the stories in the Bible," says one of the movie's narrators.) The Sita story is animated in a flat 2-D style that's somewhat reminiscent of the faux-paper-cutouts of South Park, but with a much brighter color palette -- think Persian rugs and Indian tapestries -- and characters who are much more sharply geometrically defined. Sita herself is all curves and circles, a South Asian Betty Boop.

The Sita story is counterpointed against the autobiographical story of the breakup of Paley's own relationship, and that story is animated in yet another style, a deliberately scratchy hand-drawn look.

There's relatively little dialogue in the Sita story; instead, it's narrated for us by three contemporary Indians. They get some time on-screen, and they are animated as Indonesian shadow puppets against a backdrop of figures and images from contemporary commercial art. The narrators provide much of the movie's humor, especially as they bicker about the precise details of the story; the Sita tale is an old one, after all, and none of them can quite remember exactly what part is played by every minor character who pops up.

That lack of dialogue doesn't mean that Sita doesn't have a voice, though. Her thoughts are expressed in song, using late 20s jazz/blues recordings by Annette Hanshaw; we hear Sita sing standards like "Mean to Me" and "Lover Come Back to Me," along with relative obscurities like the delightful "If You Want the Rainbow, You Must Have the Rain."

Whichever story is being told, whichever animation style is being featured, Paley's storytelling is crisp and witty, and she's very clever at finding ways to turn the limitations of her chosen styles into advantages. She gets some nice visual punchlines, for instance, from the fact that Sita and her fellow characters can't really move towards us or away from us, only side to side in the same plane. She's constantly surprising us, whether with the cold bluntness of the breakup e-mail sent by Nina's boyfriend, or with an intermission during which her characters sneak out from behind the movie screen to use the restroom or run to the snack bar.

Sita Sings the Blues is a delight, a charming take on an old story that is probably unfamiliar to most Americans (it certainly was to me). And since it's not going to cost you anything to watch it, you don't have any excuse not to, do you?

October 22, 2009

MOVIES: An Education (Lone Scherfig, 2009)

Yes, everything you've heard about Carey Mulligan's star-making performance is true. She's spectacular here, and in a role that demands a wide emotional range, she never makes a false step.

Mulligan stars as Jenny, who is 16 as the movie opens. It's the early 1960s in London, and Jenny is desperate for her childhood to end and for her real life to begin. So when she meets the charming David (Peter Sarsgaard), she leaps at the romance despite their age difference. She likes David, but as much as anything, Jenny is in love with what David represents -- sophistication, travel, wealth, a casually weary "been there, done that" attitude about life. When she learns that David earns his living in ways that are, at best, unethical, she brushes that aside as the cost of entering his exciting adult world.

Similarly, David isn't so much in love with Jenny herself as with her innocence and eagerness. Sarsgaard plays the role with a hint of sadness throughout; he's aware from the very beginning that this relationship isn't going to last for long (for reasons that go well beyond the obvious), and that Jenny will ultimately have her heart broken.

The supporting cast is very strong. Alfred Molina shines as Jenny's father, who is just as taken in by David's manipulative charm as Jenny is. Rosamund Pike is quite funny as Helen, the girlfriend of David's best friend; Helen may not be the most worldly of women, but she does what she can to protect Jenny from David's worst excesses. Olivia Williams has been made up and costumed to be unrecognizably dowdy as Jenny's favorite teacher, and Emma Thompson has a spectacular cameo as her headmistress.

But it's Mulligan's picture. She's on screen in almost every scene, and captures every nuance of Jenny's emotions, from her initial boredom to the thrill of first love, from the fear and excitement of her first sexual experience to the overwhelming pain when the relationship ends. She will certainly be one of the front-runners for all of the major awards this year. (It was announced today that Sarsgaard will be campaigned in the Supporting Actor category, which is nonsense -- his is clearly a lead role -- and which will likely hurt Molina's chances of being nominated in that category.)

Nick Hornby's screenplay, based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, is sharp and funny, and allows all of the characters to be fully human; there are no perfect saints or total villains on hand. The period music is well chosen and helps to keep the audience firmly located in time; Floyd Cramer's "On the Rebound" was a particularly inspired choice for the opening credits, and it sets the tone perfectly for the opening scenes.

First-rate work from everyone involved; recommended wholeheartedly.

October 21, 2009

BOOKS: A Date You Can't Refuse, Harley Jane Kozak (2009)

4th in the Wollie Shelley series of light mysteries.

In this volume, Wollie is offered a job by Yuri Milos with his company Medias Rex, which helps newcomers to America -- athletes, singers, models, and the like -- get accustomed to American life and media. She's reluctant to take the job as "dating consultant" to Yuri's male clients, but designing greeting cards isn't the most steady income, and Yuri is offering her lots of money. So when she's approached by an FBI agent who wants her to take the job and report back on what she learns about Yuri's business (and who has just enough leverage over her to make her take the job), she goes undercover as a spy in the Milos family compound. Her boyfriend, Simon (who happens to be an FBI agent himself), is none too happy that Wollie's put herself in such danger, and her pals Joey and Fredreeq are urging her to get out as fast as she can.

Their fears seem to be justified. It's clear very quickly that someone's up to no good at Medias Rex, but it's not clear who, and it's even less clear what. There are ample suspects -- Yuri's extended family includes a couple of ex-wives, an ex-mother-in-law, and two children; and there are half a dozen clients on hand, most of them from eastern Europe -- and Wollie stumbles across evidence hinting at everything from arms dealing to movie piracy.

Kozak's style is light and bubbly; she's often compared to Janet Evanovich, who blurbs this one on the cover. (For what it's worth, I find Evanovich insufferably precious and twinkly, but I like Kozak very much.) Wollie is an engaging narrator, with a dry wit and just enough cynicism to give her a pleasant edge.

The usual cast of supporting characters is on hand -- in addition to Joey and Fredreeq, there's Wollie's schizophrenic brother P.B. and philosophical Uncle Theo -- and though they aren't given quite as much to do in this volume as usual, they have their moments. Most notably, everyone gets to shine in a terrific chapter set at a Santa Barbara chalk art festival at which everybody is on hand -- several of Wollie's Medias Rex clients, pals, relatives, both of the FBI men -- all of them with conflicting agendas.

A Date You Can't Refuse stands on its own perfectly well; there are a few brief references to events in earlier volumes, but nothing that's essential to following or enjoying this one. It's a likable piece of very well-crafted fluff.

October 20, 2009

BOOKS: This Is Where I Leave You, Jonathan Tropper (2009)

Judd Foxman's father has died, and it was his dying request that his family follow the Jewish custom of sitting shiva for him. This brings the Foxman family together for the first time in years, forcing them to spend seven days living together.

It's been a rough few months for Judd, even before his father's death. He's separated from his wife, after finding her in bed with his boss, and is living in a dingy basement apartment. And on the very day of the death, his soon-to-be ex has told him that she's pregnant.

The rest of the Foxman clan is only marginally in better shape. Big brother Paul now runs the family business, and still resents Judd, whom he blames for the injury that ruined his chances of a career in baseball. Wendy, his sister, has a husband who ignores her and children she can't seem to control. And youngest brother Phillip, the black sheep of the family, arrives with his new girlfriend, a therapist who's several years older than he is. Their mother is the author of a popular how-to book on parenting, who nevertheless often seems clueless about the problems of her own children, and is prone to revealing far too many personal details about her life and theirs to anyone who'll listen.

All of that may sound like the setup for a depressing book about dysfunctional families and death and mortality, but This Is Where I Leave You, though it doesn't ignore the sadness and the pain the Foxmans are going through, is a wildly funny book. Tropper has a gift for summing up characters and situations with sharp one-liners; Judd describes Phillip, for instance, as "the Paul McCartney of our family: better-looking than the rest of us, always facing a different direction in pictures, and occasionally rumored to be dead." The moment when Judd discovers his wife and boss in bed -- he's carrying her birthday cheesecake, lit with many candles -- is a magnificent comic bit, and later on, Tropper gives us what may be the best description ever put to paper of what it feels like to be kicked in the balls:

First there's nothing. A surprising amount of nothing actually. No pain at all, just white noise and the shock of having been hit there, in your softest of places. And because the pain has yet to arrive, you dare to hope that it won't come at all, that the impact was less direct than you first thought. And then it comes, like thunder on the heels of lightning, at first just a faint rumble, a low, steady hum of discomfort. If it were a musical note, it would be one of those bottom bass notes they use in horror films to creat an ominous sense of dread, of dark, fanged things hiding, poised to spring. It's a loaded hum, because you know a note that low has only one direction to go. And as you feel the dull, pulsating pain emanating from the center of your being, from your core, you think to yourself, I can handle this, this is nothing, I can kick this pain's ass, and that's the exact instant that you find yourself suddenly on your knees, doubled over and gasping, with no memory at all of how you got there. And now the pain is everywhere -- in your groin, your gut, your kidneys, the tightly flexed muscles of your lower back where you didn't even think you had muscles. Your body is tensed too hard to breathe right so your lungs are constricted, and you're drooling because your head is hanging, and your heart can't pump your rushing blood fast enough, and you can feel yourself teetering, but you have no muscles left to correct with, so you end up collapsing onto your side, your nerves fusing together into knotted coils of anguish, your eyeballs turned up into your skull like you've grabbed hold of a live wire in the rain.

But all the great descriptions and jokes would be wasted if Tropper hadn't given us such richly detailed characters; in addition to the five Foxmans, there are a handful of supporting characters who are, in surprisingly little time, drawn so vividly that you'd like to follow them off into stories of their own. This is a spectacularly good book, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

October 15, 2009

BOOKS: The Ask and the Answer, Patrick Ness (2009)

The first volume in this series (The Knife of Never Letting Go, which I commented on here) was a winner of this year's Tiptree Award, given to the work of science fiction or fantasy that best addresses gender issues, and this new installment continues to deal with those issues in fascinating ways.

Teens Todd and Viola, fleeing the army that's been chasing them ever since Todd left Prentisstown, arrive in Haven, where they believe that they'll be safe. Alas, Mayor Prentiss has gotten there first and conquered Haven (it would be more accurate to say that the residents of Haven have capitulated without the least bit of struggle), which he has renamed New Prentisstown. He's also declared himself to be not merely the Mayor, but the President. Todd and Viola continue to think of him as the Mayor, and that's how I'll refer to him here.

Todd and Viola are separated -- the Mayor ultimately separates the entire town by gender, quarantining the men and women in separate districts -- and put to work. Todd doesn't want to help the Mayor's occupying army, but the Mayor has somehow developed the ability to control his Noise (the constant undercurrent of his thoughts, which is audible in men and some animals; women don't generate Noise) and use it as a weapon, giving him more control over his underlings.

There is, eventually, a rebellion against Mayor Prentiss; a group calling itself The Answer begins bombing key facilities as part of a guerrilla war against his occupation. And that's when the book gets very dark indeed, exploring issues of torture, terrorism, and genocide.

Ness is skilled at giving us characters who are neither entirely good nor evil. The Mayor is certainly the villain (and a fine one he is, too), but there are moments when his rhetoric is compelling and seductive; Mistress Coyle, who heads the Answer, is justified in her cause, but the reader can reasonably wonder if her tactics aren't sometimes more violent and bloodthirsty than is absolutely required.

The relationship between Todd and Viola continues to deepen, a pretty nifty trick on Ness's part, given that the characters are kept apart for the vast majority of the book, and the strength of their bond plays a key role in the climax of the story.

As for that climax? Well, just as in the first installment of the series, Ness ends things mid-stream without really resolving any of the ongoing storylines; the feel of the series isn't so much a trilogy -- three separate stories -- as it is of one novel that was simply too large to publish without breaking it into pieces (this volume runs just over 500 pages). But there are new plotlines established for the next volume; two new groups of players arrive on the scene in the final pages, and their presence is going to complicate the existing guerrilla war immensely.

Don't be put off by the fact that Ness's series is written for the young adult market; this is top-notch stuff, and is deep and complex enough to satisfy any adult reader.

October 14, 2009

BOOKS: Devil's Trill, Gerald Elias (2009)

The Grimsley Competition is held only once every 13 years, and only violinists under the age of 13 are allowed to enter. The winner gets to perform at Carnegie Hall on the legendary Piccolino Stradivarius, a 3/4 scale violin with a particularly beautiful tone and a cursed history. But this year's winner may not get that opportunity, because on the night of the competition, the Piccolino is stolen.

Our amateur detective is Daniel Jacobus, a cantankerous violin teacher who had to give up his own performing career after losing his eyesight. 52 years earlier, he had entered the Grimsley himself, and harbors great resentment towards the competition for a variety of reasons. That resentment, of which he has made no secret, makes him a leading suspect in the theft. Daniel hopes to prove that the Piccolino was stolen by one of the members of the organization that organizes the Grimsley, many of whom have a financial interest in the success of the competition's young winners.

The story here is a good one, and the mystery is entertaining. Daniel's sidekicks, insurance investigator Nathaniel Williams and young violin student Yumi Shinagawa, are well-drawn characters, and the interplay among the three is often quite amusing. But the prose is painfully clunky and leaden, and Jacobus too often serves as a mere mouthpiece for what are clearly Elias' own grumpy views about the world of classical music (Competitions, bad! Competitions for the young, evil!).

A very mixed bag here. There's just enough good that I'm curious to see what Elias does next (the jacket copy says this is the first of a series), but if his writing skills don't catch up to his plotting skills, I won't stick with him for long.

October 11, 2009

TV: Three Rivers (CBS, Sun 9)

Transplant surgeons are the focus of this medical drama, which presents a formidable dramatic obstacle: Every episode must begin with a death in order for there to be any organs to transplant. Given our preference for seeing lives saved in medical shows, this makes the final outcome of the show's transplant stories fairly predictable. How depressing would it be, after all, if someone's attempt to save lives by being an organ donor is a failure? Not only have we seen the donor's death, but the show's now going to end with the recipient's death as well; this is not exactly the uplifting stuff of which the American medical drama is made.

So if the medical stories are going to be relatively predictable, the show's going to have to rely on interesting characters and office soap opera for its drama; based on the pilot, it doesn't really have that going for it, either. Our hero is Dr. Andy Yablonski (Alex O'Loughlin), who is (according to one of his patients) "the best transplant surgeon at the best transplant hospital in the country." CBS seems determined, for whatever reason, to make O'Loughlin a star, bringing him back in Three Rivers after the flop two years of Moonlight. He's attractive and noble and charming, everything that you want your medical-drama star doctor to be, but there's a blandness to him, a lack of charisma and star quality.

He has a sidekick surgeon, David Lee (Daniel Henney, who if you ask me, is the real hottie on the show); there's a grouchy hospital administrator (Alfre Woodard, whose presence saves the show from complete mediocrity), a wise nurse (Justina Machado, whose longing to be back on Six Feet Under with a real character to play is almost palpable), and a non-transplant surgeon (Katharine Moennig) who is meant to give the show its female sex appeal and will almost surely wind up in bed with Dr. Andy just in time for November sweeps.

The show's most inexplicable character is the young transplant coordinator, Ryan (Christopher J. Hanke), who is so spectacularly ignorant of transplant basics ("You mean you can transplant half a liver?") and ethics that it's impossible to understand how he'd ever have gotten such a job. His ignorance is dramatically useful -- he gives the doctors someone to whom they can explain all of the things that we in the audience might not know about transplants -- but so far-fetched that I winced every time he came on screen to say something idiotic.

It's not a ghastly show -- it's certainly better than Mercy or Trauma, the season's other new medical dramas -- but ER raised the bar for the medical half of the equation, and Grey's Anatomy did the same for the soap-opera half, and Three Rivers falls short on both counts. It's got a nice cushy time slot between The Amazing Race and Cold Case, which will be enough to keep it around for a season or two.

October 10, 2009

MOVIES: A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009)

Things are not going well for Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). One of his students is trying simultaneously to blackmail him and to bribe him in hopes of getting a better grade; his 12-year-old son is more interested in pot and the Jefferson Airplane than in his upcoming bar mitzvah; the Columbia Record Club is dunning him for records he swears he didn't buy; his depressed brother (Richard Kind) has moved in and has no interest in finding a job or an apartment. So it's less of a shock that it should be when Larry's wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), announces that she wants a divorce. (Her new boyfriend, Sy, is played by Fred Melamed in the movie's best performance; Sy is the sort of "let's all be adults" guy whose calm drone and refusal to get upset about anything are his most vicious weapons.)

A Serious Man is as bleak and unhopeful a comedy as you'll ever see. As one misery after another is heaped upon poor Larry Gopnik, it begins to feel like a cosmic variation on the Coens' No Country for Old Men, with God playing the Anton Chigurh role. That is, if there even is a God, which is a question that the Coens leave very much up for grabs. One of the rabbis Larry turns to for spiritual guidance tells him a long shaggy-dog story that ends with the punchline "Who cares?," which seems to be the central question of the movie; the answer, more often than not, is "nobody."

The Coens get more and more nihilistic with every movie, more and more convinced that the universe is cruel and forbidding, and that we are powerless to control it. A Serious Man feels to me almost like the final (and angriest) installment of a trilogy. No Country for Old Men told us that there is evil in the world, and you can't stop it; Burn Before Reading simply replaced "evil" with "stupidity." A Serious Man offers even less hope: There is suffering in the world, and not only can't you stop it, but if you try, you're only going to piss God off and make things worse.

I admire the craftsmanship of the movie -- Roger Deakins' cinematography is fine, and the movie's recreation of 60s suburbia is impeccable -- and the performances are consistently good. But it's so relentlessly bleak a vision of the world that it's difficult to enjoy, and the choice to make it a comedy is disconcerting; the story of Job isn't meant to be a sitcom.

October 08, 2009

BOOKS: Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins (2009)

Sequel to The Hunger Games, about which I commented here.

The grand gesture which Katniss made in a desperate attempt to save both herself and her friend Peeta at the end of the previous book has worked, and most people seem to have interpreted it as she'd hoped -- as the desperate act of a young woman in love. President Snow, however, is not convinced, and tells Katniss that if she and Peeta still haven't convinced him of their love by the end of their victory tour through the 12 Districts and the Capitol, there will be much trouble in store.

It becomes clear during that tour, however, that trouble is already brewing. Some people have interpreted Katniss's actions as a gesture of outright rebellion against the Capitol, and there are already signs of unrest and potential revolution in some districts. At first, Katniss wants nothing to do with this; she certainly doesn't want to be a symbol of the rebellion. But when President Snow stacks the deck in order to send Katniss and Peeta back into the Hunger Games for a second time, she begins to realize that revolution may be the only way to save herself, her friends and family, and perhaps even her nation.

Collins takes a big risk, I think, by devoting the second half of the book to yet another Hunger Games, but she finds enough new twists and variations on that formula to keep that part of the story entertaining. I do hope, though, that she won't go back to that well in the final volume of the trilogy.

Her characters continue to grow and deepen in unexpected ways. Haymitch, who is Katniss's mentor in the Games, takes on some particularly surprising shadings in this volume of the series. Katniss herself is still a marvelous protagonist, an immensely likable mix of street smarts and naivete, and her surprise and delight at how quickly she adapts to the rapidly changing world around her is a pleasure to watch.

The Hunger Games series is a genuine trilogy, and not simply one novel that was too big for three books; the principal storylines of the book are brought to a satisfying conclusion. There are, of course, plot points to be resolved in the final volume, and the last sentence gives us a spectacular bombshell of a revelation that will surely drive the action to come.

These books are written for the young adult market, but adult readers who enjoy a good post-apocalyptic dystopia will also enjoy them.

October 05, 2009

BOOKS: Julian Comstock, Robert Charles Wilson (2009)

From the "if this goes on" sub-genre of SF comes this tale set in the late 22nd century, in a United States that has suffered technological collapse (when the oil finally ran out), but expanded to include most of North America. We're at war with the Europeans in Labrador, and though the enemy is never specified, the Army of the Californias is fighting on the West Coast.

The influence of the religious right on our government has been solidified; the Air Force Academy has been converted (because you don't have any need for an air force when you can't fly planes) into the headquarters of the Dominion, the military/religious organization that approves churches, consults on all important government decisions, and issues its seal of approval on acceptable publications.

The Presidency is now dynastic, handed down from one family member to the next. Our title character, Julian Comstock, is the nephew of the current president; they have been estranged ever since Uncle Deklan had his war-hero brother (Julian's father) killed for fear of being deposed. When Julian is suddenly drafted into the Army of the Laurentians and sent to Labrador, it looks as if he may face the same fate.

The story is told in the form of a memoir by Julian's best friend, Adam Hazzard. Adam's narrative voice has a delightfully old-fashioned air of formality. Take, for instance, this footnote:

Julian's somewhat feminine nature had won him a reputation among the other young Aristos as a sodomite. That they could believe this of him without evidence is testimony to the tenor of their thoughts, as a class. But it had occasionally redounded to my benefit. On more than one occasion his female acquaintances -- sophisticated girls of my own age, or older -- made the assumption that I was Julian's intimate companion, in a physical sense. Whereupon they undertook to cure me of my deviant habits, in the most direct fashion. I was happy to cooperate with these "cures," and they were successful, every time.

As is the nature of "if this goes on" stories, there's a touch of didacticism to it, and there doesn't seem to be much doubt about Wilson's own politics, or how he feels about, for instance, the rise of the Dominion. (It's interesting to imagine the same story re-told by a more right-wing author, perhaps from Deklan's point of view.)

The characters are compelling, the story is entertaining -- I particularly enjoyed a passage in which Julian brings his theatrical expertise to the battlefield -- and Wilson's imagined future is a vivid one; the road from here to there seems all too plausible.

October 03, 2009

TV: The Middle (ABC, Wed 8:30)

"The middle" is that part of America sometimes called "fly-over country," the part that often feels ignored by the big-city dwellers on the coasts. In this case, to be specific, it's Orson, Indiana, home of the Heck family.

As a sitcom title, The Middle is also inescapably reminiscent of Malcolm in the Middle, which this show resembles in broad outline -- harried mother, father laid-back almost to the point of oblivion, three oddball kids.

Mom in this case is Frankie (Patricia Heaton, pounding the Midwestern accent just a bit too hard), struggling to balance raising those three kids with her job at Orson's only remaining car dealership. Husband Mike (Neil Flynn, clearly relishing the chance to play someone a bit closer to normal than Scrubs' Janitor) means well, but has a gift for saying precisely the wrong thing in remarkably charming fashion.

Two of the kids are relatively standard issue sitcom kids -- sullen son Axl (Charlie McDermott) and misfit daughter Sue (Eden Sher), who's on the verge of setting a school record for most failed attempts to make an extracurricular team.

But then there's Brick (Atticus Shaffer), whose teachers can't make up their minds whether he's just quirky or "clinically quirky." Given to whispering random words to himself for no apparent reason, and not caring at all (or even aware of, really) what people think of his odd behavior, he's a fabulous character, and if The Middle does well enough to stick around, Shaffer will be one of the breakout stars of the new season. (The show's Malcolm overtones are only furthered by Shaffer's resemblance to Erik Per Sullivan, who played eccentric youngest child Dewey on that show.)

I never much cared for Heaton during her days on Everybody Loves Raymond, but she's very good here, and my earlier lack of enthusiasm may well have had more to do with my distaste for that show than for her in particular. The Middle is well written and the cast is likable. It may not be breaking any new sitcom ground, but I'll take solid professional work over the sort of laziness you see on shows like Brothers any day.

October 01, 2009

TV: Hank (ABC, Wed 8)

Why do Kelsey Grammer's sitcoms always begin with him returning home?

Frasier Crane was coming back to Seattle from Boston; news anchor Chuck Darling (in Back to You) was returning to Pittsburgh after humiliating himself on Los Angeles TV; and here, ex-CEO Hank Pryor leaves New York and returns to River Bend, Virginia, where he founded his first store and met his wife. (With The Cleveland Show, that's two "back home to Virginia" shows in one season.)

Hank and Tilly (Melinda McGraw) have two kids -- eccentric 9-year-old Henry (Nathan Gamble) and grumpy teen Maddie (Jordan Hinson, playing younger, dumber, and louder than she did on Eureka); Tilly's the only one who's remotely happy about going back home, and even she'd be happier if they were returning with some of the money they used to have.

Tilly's brother Grady (David Koechner) is delighted to see them, though, especially because he gets to gloat over Hank's collapse. He's a contractor, and clearly one of the show's running jokes will be his semi-incompetent attempts to get their new home up to standard. He's an uncomfortably broad hick caricature, and he doesn't fit with the relatively realistic tone set by the rest of the characters (realistic by sitcom standards); it's as if Mr. Kimball from Green Acres suddenly appeared on the set of Home Improvement.

Home Improvement is very much the type of show we have here -- bumbling dad who's not that good at the family stuff, mom who runs things, adorable sitcom kids -- and if you like that sort of thing, it's done tolerably well here. Grammer is still (as always) playing another slight variation on Frasier -- pompous, out of touch, self-important, but well-intentioned -- but it's a role that he plays to perfection with surprising nuance.

Hardly essential TV, but not the disaster that many of the critics have made it out to be, either.

TV: Trauma (NBC, Mon 9)

Every year, during the annual Fall New TV Marathon, I allow myself to give up on one (but only one) show before the first episode is finished. I think of it as my annual "life's just too damned short" moment, and this year, that moment belonged to Trauma.

As the show opens, a bunch of beautiful young EMTs and helicopter pilots are involved in a San Francisco rooftop rescue that goes tragically wrong. I was sort of interested at this point; I would have enjoyed seeing how people in those jobs react in the aftermath of such a horrific incident. But the show doesn't want to tell that story; it leaps ahead a year, thinking for some reason that people living with the relatively distant memory of pain will be more interesting than people in the midst of it.

Not that I'm a sadistic bastard who wants to see TV characters suffer or anything, but if you're in the storytelling business, it seems stupid to take the less dramatically interesting option.

Anyhoo, after the "one year later" leap, our beautiful young cast is immediately involved in another gigantic rescue, a massive highway pileup this time, complete with exploding oil truck. (Has an oil truck ever been shown in a TV show as a simple part of routine traffic? I don't think so. If you see an oil truck, you know there's a fireball a-comin'.)

And since the "that blowed up real good" genre of entertainment has never been my favorite, I bailed on Trauma.

(One interesting note: The pilot episodes of both Trauma and FlashForward featured images of helicopters crashing into skyscrapers. Not quite as horrific as jet planes crashing into the World Trade Center, I realize, but still, it's something you wouldn't have seen on network TV two years ago.)

TV: The Cleveland Show (Fox, Sun 8:30)

Spinoff from Family Guy, in which Cleveland Brown (voiced by Mike Henry), tired of being overlooked and not taken seriously, packs up with 13-year-old Cleveland Jr.(Kevin Michael Richardson) and leaves Quahog. They wind up in Cleveland's home town (Stoolbend, Virginia), where Cleveland reunites with and marries high school sweetheart, Donna (Sanaa Lathan). She's got two kids of her own, which makes them "the black Brady Bunch," says Cleveland, "except that I'm not a gay architect and my son's not sleeping with my wife."

Some of creator Seth MacFarlane's trademarks are immediately recognizable -- the many pop culture references, the talking animals (Cleveland's new neighbors are bears, voiced by MacFarlane and Arianna Huffington) -- but the show has a sweeter tone than either Family Guy or American Dad. It may be the first MacFarlane show in which the central family actually seems to love one another. There are also a lot fewer cutaways to non-sequitur jokes than there are on Family Guy, which is disappointing if you like Family Guy and a huge relief if you don't.

I am a big fan of Family Guy, and I kinda miss the cutaways and the meandering "plot? what plot?" style. I'm curious, though, to see what a MacFarlane show with more conventional plotting looks like (and I'm weirdly delighted by the prospect of Arianna Huffington as Mrs. Bear), so I'll keep watching for a few weeks.