September 30, 2010

TV: No Ordinary Family (ABC, Tue 8)

Parenthood meets The Incredibles.

A suburban family survives a plane crash in Brazil, only to find that they've all developed superpowers. Father Jim (Michael Chiklis) has super-strength (he's essentially a non-orange version of Chiklis as The Thing in the Fantastic Four movies); mother Stephanie (Julie Benz) has super-speed. Teenage daughter Daphne (Kay Panabaker) can read minds, and son JJ (Jimmy Bennett) goes from being a poor student to being a brainiac.

The tone is a little uneven. Much of the family stuff has the earnest dramatic tone of the average family soap opera, but there are moments that are pushing for the high whimsy of something like Pushing Daisies (the musical score is overbearing in this regard). But the sense of humor generally works, particularly in the scenes between Jim and his best friend George (Romany Malco). And the special effects are quite good by TV standards, even Stephanie's speed, which can be a very tricky thing to pull off well -- remember how poorly it was done in The Bionic Woman a couple years back? -- is convincingly presented.

There's a troubling plot twist at the end that raises fears of the show going wholeheartedly down the Heroes rabbithole of elaborate, incomprehensible conspiracies with far too many characters, but if the show can avoid that trap, it could be a lot of fun.

TV: Law & Order: Los Angeles (NBC, Wed 10)

There's really not much to say here. If you're still enjoying any of the 57 earlier versions of the Law & Order franchise, then this will give you exactly what you're looking for. If, on the other hand, you think that the franchise wore out its welcome around the time Sam Waterston left Law & Order: Original Recipe, you won't find anything here to change your mind.

BOOKS: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu (2010)

This lovely little novel starts off well enough, as a pleasantly smart-alecky story about a time-machine repairman (who also happens to be named Charles Yu); between clients (to the extent that "between" means anything when you live in a time machine), he travels from place/time to place/time searching for his missing father. There are, eventually, the obligatory time travel paradoxes, one of which involves the future Charles handing the present Charles a book and telling him that it contains all the answers. The book, of course, is Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

And if the book were just that, it would be an amusing diversion. But while you're not looking, the novel sneaks up on you and becomes a poignant, melancholy meditation on memory -- which is, after all, its own sort of time machine -- and its cousins, nostalgia and regret.

The writing is a joy to read, and often caught me off guard with the beauty of its insights. I love, for instance, this paragraph:

Hitting the peak of your life's trajectory is not the painful part. The painful day comes earlier, comes before things start going downhill, comes when things are still good, still pretty good, still just fine. It comes when you think you are still on your way up, but you can feel that the velocity isn't there anymore, the push behind you is gone, it's all inertia from here, it's all coasting, it's all momentum, and there will be more, there will be higher days, but for the first time, it's in sight. The top. The best day of your life. There it is. Not as high as you thought it was going to be, and earlier in your life, and also closer to where you are now, startling in its closeness. That there's a ceiling to this, there's a cap, there's a best-case scenario and you are living it right now. To see that look in your parents' faces at the dinner table at ten, and not recognize it, then to see it again at eighteen and recognize it as something to recognize, and then to see it at twenty-five and to recognize it for what it is.
This is a marvelous little jewel of a book.
 

September 28, 2010

BOOKS: Last Call, Daniel Okrent (2010)

Okrent's history of Prohibition is everything a good volume of history for the layman should be. It's informative and educational without being overly academic and entertaining without reducing the story to fluff.

Okrent draws connections between Prohibition and other issues that aren't always obvious to those of us who aren't experts on the period. I had never realized, for instance, that the Prohibition movement is the reason we have an income tax. At the beginning of the 20th century, roughly 1/3 of the Federal government's income came from liquor taxes; Prohibition's advocates knew that they couldn't achieve their goal without first providing a source of income that would make up for that lost revenue. Their solution was the income tax, which also played a large part in the eventual repeal of Prohibition; wealthy Americans saw Repeal as a way to eliminate the tax on their personal and corporate income. (That part of the equation never did happen, providing an early lesson in how hard it is to turn off a government's revenue source once it's started flowing.)

We also meet fascinating people who were major figures of their day, but have been largely forgotten over time. Wayne Wheeler was the head of the Anti-Saloon League, one of America's first major lobbying groups; it was Wheeler, in fact, who coined the term "special interests" as it's now used in politics. Or how about assistant attorney general Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who for most of the 1920s was responsible for enforcing the Volstead Act (the legislation that established the rules and regulations for Prohibition), making her the most powerful woman in the country? And of course, there's an enormous cast of politicians, gangsters, bootleggers, clerics, activists, and agitators working on both sides of the issue; Okrent has a fine gift for the colorful details that bring them all to life.

There's unexpected humor in some of the ways that people circumvented Prohibition. I particularly reading about a product called Vine-Glo, which was essentially a large brick of powdered grape juice. It came with instructions to reconstitute the juice by adding water. Those instructions went on to warn the user not to add sugar and yeast, or to leave the juice in a dark place, or to let it sit too long before drinking. Why, if you were foolish enough to do all of those things, your juice might ferment into wine.

This is a marvelous book.

September 26, 2010

TV: My Generation (ABC, Thu 8)

Each year, during my "watch everything" fall TV marathon, I allow myself one show that I give up without watching the entire first episode. This year, the not-so-coveted "Because Life Is Too Damned Short" Award goes to My Generation. It's presented as a documentary. Ten years ago, we're told, the senior year of nine students at an Austin high school was documented; now the documentary folks are back to see what they've made of their lives.

Each character is reduced to an on-screen label -- The Jock, The Wallflower, The Brain, The Nerd -- and what little dramatic interest there is comes from seeing how their 28-year-old selves have failed to live up to their 18-year-old dreams, and how they've paired off over the last decade. (It doesn't appear that anyone's found a partner who wasn't part of the original nine, which is weird, because they certainly seemed to have been parts of very different high school cliques.)

None of the actors are at all convincing as 18-year-olds. It makes you wonder why projects like this always start with high school seniors and work up from there; the 18-28 gap is a big one, and a tough one to fake. It would be much easier, I would think, to find actors who could pull off a 40-50 split, or even a 25-35.

The offscreen voice of the documentarian/questioner is that of Elizabeth Keener, who sounds so much like her sister Catharine that it's extremely distracting.

Boring with a capital BORE.

TV: Outsourced (NBC, Thu 9:30)

Outsourced returns us to the "laughing at vs. laughing with" problem that Mike & Molly raised earlier in the week. This time, the focus of the awkward laughter is India.

Our hero is Todd Dempsey (Ben Rappaport), who's been sent to India to manage the call center for a novelty company. He has a motley crew on the phones, who are utterly ignorant of American culture, and thus not very good at selling "add-ons," the related products that callers didn't know they wanted. Todd is sadly unaware of Indian culture himself -- even the idea that cows are sacred seems to be new to him -- so we've got a classic culture-clash comedy in the making.

At its best, Outsourced is a reasonably entertaining comedy. There's an interesting relationship between Todd and his assistant manager, Rajiv (Rizwan Manji), who figures that it doesn't much matter whether Todd succeeds or fails; either way, he's headed back to America, leaving Rajiv to take over his job. Diedrich Bader is amusing as Charlie, manager of another call center, who's clearly meant to be such an Ugly American that we forgive Todd his relatively mild lapses and insensitivities.

But there's a lot of crude ethnic humor here, too. Indians have funny names! (A character named Manmeet is the butt of most of those jokes.) The cities are crowded! ("It's like Frogger, but with real people," says Todd of the local traffic.) The food gives you diarrhea!

And it's a bit annoying that the show also has one more call center manager in the form of Tonya (Pippa Black), a sexy Australian; she's obviously meant to be Todd's romantic interest, and the clear implication is that it wouldn't do for him to be attracted to an Indian woman.

So, even more than Mike & Molly, the show is a very uneven mess, with enough offputting stuff that you feel a little bit queasy about enjoying even the stuff that actually is funny. But there are hints of something more interesting and complicated here, especially in the notion that Todd needs to learn about India just as much as his staff needs to learn about America. If the writers can get past the obvious ethnic humor, Outsourced could turn into something worth watching.

September 25, 2010

TV: Blue Bloods (CBS, Fri 10)

Blue Bloods is an unusual hybrid of genres; think of it as Law & Order: Brothers & Sisters.

Tom Selleck is Frank Reagan, New York City police commissioner; his father, Henry (Len Cariou), was commissioner before him. Oldest son Danny (Donnie Wahlberg) is a veteran detective; youngest son Jamie (Will Estes) has just joined the force. Their sister Erin (Bridget Moynihan) isn't a cop, but hasn't strayed too far from the field; she's an assistant district attorney. And a third brother was also a cop, recently killed in the line of duty.

So we get police procedural stuff -- Danny and his partner search for a kidnapped 9-year-old who's diabetic and needs to be found quickly so that she can get her insulin shot -- and family drama stuff -- the family squabbles over Sunday dinner about Danny's tactics in finding that girl.

Both halves of the show are done quite well, and the blend works better than I'd have expected. This is a good solid piece of entertainment, and if it's able to tap into the loyal CBS audience for procedurals and the family soap opera audience, it should be around for a while.

TV: The Defenders (CBS, Wed 10)

No relation to the early-60s courtroom show of the same name, which starred E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed.

This one features Jim Belushi and Jerry O'Connell as scrappy Las Vegas defense attorneys, working hard to grow their small firm; it is a major moment for them when their first billboard goes up. They'll take any case they can get (there are frequent references to an unseen partner who specializes in adult film law), and in the pilot, they've actually gotten hold of a murder case. That case plays out in an interesting way, with a twist involving jury instructions that I hadn't seen before, and there's a nice turn from guest star Stephen Root as the judge; making him a frequent guest would be a smart move.

Neither Belushi nor O'Connell is an actor of great range, but The Defenders casts each solidly in his comfort zone. Belushi is the middle-aged shlub, still trying to adapt to his recent divorce, who is both more competent and less dissolute than a first glance would suggest; O'Connell is the cocky young ladies' man (I am less persuaded of O'Connell's sex appeal than he seems to be, but de gustibus non est disputandum and all that). There's also a newly hired associate (Jurnee Smollett, who needs to tone it down a notch) who worked her way through law school as a Vegas stripper, which it is clear will be the source of many laffs.

The tone is on the lighter side here, and the balance between the more madcap antics of its characters and the relatively serious courtroom stuff isn't always successful, but that sort of thing can be worked out with time. The bigger problem is that the show feels rather generic. These are characters we've seen before, and in more interesting versions. Like its timeslot rival The Whole Truth, it's a perfectly adequate show that will satisfy lots of people, but it's got nothing special enough to make me anything more than an occasional viewer.

TV: The Whole Truth (ABC, Wed 10)

"I've looked at law from both sides now..."

That's the conceit of this courtroom drama, in which we bounce back and forth between the offices of the prosecutor and the defense attorney before arriving at the trial in the final act.

For the prosecution, Kathryn Peale (Maura Tierney). She's a tough, no-nonsense broad, constantly barking at her multicultural staff of underlings.

For the defense, Jimmy Brogan (Rob Morrow). He's a lawyer with a heart, who spends a lot of time negotiating the disputes among his multicultural staff of underlings.

They're not only frequent rivals (and how is the show going to explain why this particular pair of lawyers keep coming up against one another in a court system as large as New York's?), but old friends as well, who studied for the bar together. There's a strong suggestion that they dated for a while, and it seems that the romantic tension never entirely went away.

The leads are reasonably well cast, though Tierney makes the stronger impression. Morrow has handicapped himself by giving Brogan a fast-paced speaking style that the actor can't quite handle; he often seems right on the verge of tripping over his own tongue.

The show's gimmick, which gives it its title, is the post-verdict coda, which reveals to us who the real culprit was. In the pilot, this scene was a bit frustrating, not because they'd failed to leave clues pointing us to character X, but because they'd never given X any motive, and they didn't explain to us exactly how X had done it.

The "here's what really happened" coda is a variation on a similar gimmick used in Justice, an earlier courtroom drama from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who's also the producer here. The two shows also share actor Eamonn Walker, who was one of the sidekick attorneys on Justice and plays a similar role (in Tierney's office) here. They should have given the character the same name and thrown in a line about him having moved from Los Angeles; would have been a cute inside joke for the six people who remember Justice.

The tone and style are very straightforward, with not much room for humor, though perhaps future episodes will feature somewhat lighter cases that allow more of that. The Whole Truth is a perfectly acceptable courtroom show, but I didn't find anything in it that was unusual or distinctive enough to keep me watching on a regular basis.

September 24, 2010

TV: Undercovers (NBC, Wed 8)

J.J. Abrams returns with a 21st-century, high-tech update of Hart to Hart, in which a charming couple toss off breezy, romantic banter while traveling around the world on spy missions.

The couple is Steven and Samantha Bloom (Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw). They met while both working for the CIA; they never worked as partners, but found that the stresses of the job made it difficult to maintain a romantic relationship. So they left the CIA and founded a catering company. Five years later, they're struggling a bit to make ends meet, and the marriage is starting to go a bit flat.

That's when Carlton Shaw (Gerald McRaney, who does annoyed frustration with underlings as well as anyone) shows up. He's a career CIA guy who wants Steven and Sam to go back into the field together to rescue agent Leo Nash (Carter MacIntyre), who went through training with Steven before becoming Sam's partner. The Blooms agree to take on this one case to rescue their friend, and are given an eager young partner (Ben Schwartz, quite funny as an obsequious suckup) to provide logistical support.

So we're off for a terrific globetrotting caper, with exciting fight scenes, nifty spy gadgets, and a fair amount of suspense. And in the process, Steven and Sam find that working together is rekindling their romance. "Watching you for the past couple of days," Steven says, "reminds me of you."

Now, for a moment of pure shallowness: Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are, in addition to being absolutely charming leads who are capable of handling the dramatic moments, the light banter, and the action scenes with equal grace, also happen to be two of the most spectacularly beautiful people on the planet. I mean, damn, this is a gorgeous couple. And if someone wanted to leave Boris Kodjoe under my Christmas tree this year, I would not object.

There are hints that some sort of Big Mystery story arc is in the works; the fact that MacIntyre is a regular member of the cast suggests that the Blooms' previous connections to Leo will be at the heart of that mystery. I hope they don't get carried away with that; this show will work perfectly well as a caper-of-the-week adventure, and doesn't need to be weighted down by massive mythology.

Best drama pilot of the year so far.

TV: Shit My Dad Says (CBS, Thu 8:30)

I'm sorry, I refuse to be bothered memorizing the string of characters that CBS wants to use because they think that American sensibilities are too sensitive to be exposed to the word "shit" on a regular basis. If I thought that the show were going to be around for years, I might bother, but this show is so wretchedly awful that if there is any justice in the world, it'll be gone by Thanksgiving.

This one is based on a popular Twitter feed in which a guy posts all the lovably cranky and eccentric things his father says. That might be amusing in 140-character bursts, I suppose, but as the basis of a series, it doesn't work. William Shatner (playing "my dad") is forced to speak entirely in tweet-sized punchlines, none of which work very well. Oh, there are one or two that get a mild laugh just from shock value or absurdity ("Son, if it looks like manure and smells like manure, it's either Wolf Blitzer or manure."), but there's virtually no actual humor to be found here. There's just Shatner, who might do well in a sitcom that was more carefully constructed around his specific talents and quirky rhythms, but flounders in a show this generic; he hasn't been given a character to play that's any deeper than Grumpy Old Man.

And it's possible to write Grumpy Old Man characters with more depth than this; just think back to Stacy Keach in Titus. (Then think about how much better -- well, less awful, at any rate -- this show would be if Stacy Keach were the star. Or Martin Sheen or Tom Selleck or Harvey Fierstein or any moderately competent actor of an appropriate age. Jesus, you could haul Ernest Borgnine out of the home and he could do a better job of it than Shatner's doing.)

As for the other actors in the show, the less said, the better. Their characters are even thinner than Shatner's, and they exist only to say things that Shatner can respond to with another clumsy zinger, and to look shocked when he does.

Will the show die the quick death that it deserves? Well, it's got a nice comfy timeslot between The Big Bang Theory and CSI: Original Recipe, so it could hang in for a while.

The really scary thing? This is the second version of the pilot, which was reshot when the actor playing Shatner's son was recast. Which means that there exists, somewhere in the world, a version of the show that is even worse than this. The mind boggles.

September 23, 2010

TV: Detroit 1-8-7 (ABC, Tue 10)

In the original conception of this show, it was to be presented in documentary form, with a film crew following the officers of the Detroit homicide department. That changed for a variety of reasons, but the remnants of that concept are the only distinctive things about the show.

Which is not to say that they're good things. Take, for instance, the on-screen captions that tell us which case we're focused on at any moment. Each case is given a nickname ("Double Pharmacy," "Bullet Train"), and each scene is introduced with a caption explaining which case we've cut to and what's happening ("Bullet Train: Victim's Autopsy"). But in 2010, audiences are perfectly capable of jumping among multiple plotlines, and all these captions do is make us feel like we're watching a show that's been subtitled for the mentally challenged.

Apart from these odd touches, the show is a standard police procedural. It's competently made, and there's nothing terribly wrong with it, but it's the TV equivalent of a Big Mac: It'll fill your stomach, but it doesn't have much nutritive value.

TV: Better With You (ABC, Wed 8:30)

A pleasant surprise, and a fine demonstration of how talented actors can elevate the material they've been given.

Which is not to say that Better With You is crappy material. I think it's reasonably well written; I'd give it a solid B on that front. But the show's real strength is in its cast, most of whom are TV veterans.

Our focus is on three couples at different stages in their relationships. Vicky and Joel (Debra Jo Rupp and Kurt Fuller) have been married for 35 years. Their older daughter Maddie (Jennifer Finnigan) and her boyfriend Ben (Josh Cooke) have been together for nine years, and are just the teensiest bit defensive about their choice not to get married ("it's a valid choice!"). Younger daughter Mia (Joanna Garcia) surprises everyone by announcing that she's engaged to Casey (Jake Lacy), who she's only been dating for 7 1/2 weeks.

I'm happy to see Finnigan and Cooke together again; I'm one of the small handful who admired their 2005 flop sitcom Committed. Fuller and Rupp are skilled pros who know exactly how much spin to put on a punchline, or precisely how far to lift an eyebrow. Garcia has been on the road to stardom since her long run on Reba, and Lacy finds some terrific variations on his dimwitted boyfriend character.

This isn't a show that wants to reinvent the sitcom; the rhythms and subject material are familiar stuff. But the familiar can be a lot of fun when it's done this well, and there are just enough surprises to keep things interesting. The show fits well with ABC's other Wednesday comedies (it's scheduled between The Middle and Modern Family), and it's certainly an improvement over last year's effort in the timeslot, the dreadful Hank. Worth taking a look at, and ABC will repeat the pilot on Friday night.

September 22, 2010

TV: Running Wilde (Fox, Tue 9:30)

While watching Running Wilde, I realized that it would be virtually impossible to design a sitcom I would like any less than this one. It stars Will Arnett, and I can't think of an actor whose persona is more loathsome than his smug arrogance; the co-star is Keri Russell, who can be a charming presence, but is not a gifted comedian; and it has voice-over narration from an Adorable Moppet. Named "Puddle," no less.

Even the premise is annoying. Arnett plays a spoiled rich guy, heir to an oil fortune, and Keri Russell is his childhood sweetheart, an environmental do-gooder. They are re-united when she asks him to stop his father from drilling for oil in the Amazon home of the tribe she's been living with. He decides that the only way to win her back is to change his ways and become a better person; she decides to help him do so, in the belief that she'll then be able to use his money and influence to make the world a better place. In other words, two people who don't have anything in common, and would never be romantically attracted to one another (and are played by actors without a shred of chemistry), are going to be forced through week after week of "romantic" tension as they use one another for their own selfish ends.  Gee, that's funny stuff, that is.

I will admit that there were one or two mildly amusing jokes, but none of them were remotely funny enough to overcome my distaste for the show's cast and premise. It's possible that some may enjoy the show, but it's absolutely not for me.

TV: Chase (Mon, NBC 10)

Chase is a mediocre, run of the mill cop show in which a group of federal marshals chase after assorted criminals. What's even more depressing than its mediocrity is that it aspires to nothing more; it is aggressively mediocre. It has no ambition to tell interesting stories, or create fully rounded characters, or do much of anything but fill an hour with lots of running about and fistfights. The cast is made up of actors who have precisely enough personality to play supporting roles in bland TV ensembles; sadly, that is true not only for the background players, but also for the show's ostensible star, Kelli Giddish, who would be more convincing as Waitress #3 than she is as a smart, talented federal marshal. I understand that NBC was desperate for programming to fill hours in the wake of the Jay Leno fiasco, but an hour of the network logo would be more entertaining than this.

TV: Raising Hope (Fox, Tue 9)

This is the first pilot of the year that I've liked enough to instantly add it to my Season Pass list.

It's not the most obviously appealing premise for a sitcom -- "Let's give a bunch of idiots a baby and see if they can somehow keep from killing it" -- but creator Greg Garcia is the guy who gave us My Name Is Earl, so he knows how to write this type of character. The Chance family is struggling financially, not overly bright, and basically well meaning, and we forgive them a lot for their good intentions.

Our hero is 23-year-old Jimmy (Lucas Neff), who finds himself a single father after a one-night stand; his partner turns out to be a serial killer, and after her execution, Jimmy is left to raise the child she has named Princess Beyonce. (Jimmy will rename her Hope. Thank god.)

Jimmy lives with his parents, Burt and Virginia (Garret Dillahunt and Martha Plimpton), who are none too excited about the thought of having a newborn in the house. "Drop it at the fire station," Virginia tells him, "but be sure you actually hand it to someone. Don't just leave it in the box out front; that's only for canned goods and puppies."

The humor here is not remotely subtle, and a lot of the laughs come from Jimmy's creative attempts to get parenting basics right. Armed with only a child-care book, he does the best he can. (How does he get the baby home from prison without a car seat? "I put her in the beanbag in the back of the van and drove real slow.")

The only major flaw here is Cloris Leachman as Maw Maw, Jimmy's great-grandmother. I'm not sure you can make senility funny these days, and Leachman's performance is far too hammy, even for a show this broad.

I was a big fan of My Name Is Earl, and Raising Hope looks like a fine continuation of Garcia's style and themes. I've got my fingers crossed that they can keep this one working.

September 21, 2010

TV: Hawaii Five-0 (CBS, Mon 10)

The ongoing CBS project to make Alex O'Loughlin a star (Moonlight, Three Rivers) continues with Hawaii Five-0, and this attempt will probably succeed. But that success is despite O'Loughlin, not because of him. He's just as dull and wooden as ever, but he's been surrounded by a terrific supporting cast -- Scott Caan, Daniel Dae Kim, and Grace Park -- who give the show great life, energy, and humor. It's a fairly traditional cop show, which is not a genre I enjoy enough to watch regularly, but it's a fine example of the genre, and I'm sure it'll be very successful.

TV: Lone Star (Fox, Mon 9)

Bob Allen (James Wolk) is a con man. He's got a girlfriend, Lindsay (Eloise Mumford), in Midland, who he's using to fleece everyone in town (including her parents) by selling shares in nonexistent oil wells. He's also got a wife, Cat (Adrienne Palicki), in Houston, and is scheming to eventually work his way into her father's oil company and take it for all it's worth.

As if dueling women in his life aren't enough, Bob's got dueling father figures to cope with. His father, John (David Keith), is the con man who taught him all the basics, and looks forward to cashing in along with Bob when these cons pay off; his father-in-law, Clint (Jon Voight), is a successful oil man who actually trusts Bob enough to offer him the position he's been working to get.

The problem is that Bob is tired of being a con man; he wants something "real," and thinks that he might be capable of being genuinely good at the job Clint has offered him. But John is horrified at the thought that Bob might actually turn to honest work.

And even if John were willing to play along -- Bob invites him to move in with him and Kat -- Bob's got a bigger problem. He doesn't want to give up either of his two lives, because he is in love with both Kat and Lindsey.

This isn't an awful show, but it feels like it would work better as a miniseries. It's hard to see how long Bob can keep juggling both lives and both cons without something collapsing around him. Furthermore, the appeal of a good con man story (at least for me) is in watching the charming rogue get away with the con; I don't quite see where the fun is in watching a con man try to figure out how to go straight.

On the plus side, James Wolk is a strong presence in the starring role, full of charm and sexy as hell. He's going to be a huge star when he lands in the right show, but I don't think this is it.

TV: Mike & Molly (CBS, Mon 9:30)

Mike & Molly is a battle of two sitcoms, and given its premise, that was perhaps inevitable. What it wants to be, and what it is in its better moments, is a comedy about the relationship between two people who happen to be overweight. That Mike & Molly can be very sweet and funny.

But too often, the show turns into a collection of fat jokes, and that Mike & Molly is painful to watch. Mike's cop partner, concerned that Mike is about to go off his diet, says, "But you've lost three and a half pounds!" "My farts weigh three and a half pounds," says Mike. Ho ho ho. There's actually a scene in which two fat men get stuck going up a staircase that's too narrow for both of them.

The pilot episode lands on the right side of the line about 40% of the time, and I am hoping it won't take too many weeks for the writers to exhaust their repertoire of fat jokes, leaving them with no choice but to write for the characters.

They've certainly got an appealing cast to write for. Billy Gardell and Melissa McCarthy are terrifically likable leads. Swoosie Kurtz is, as useful, fun to watch as Molly's mother, and Katy Mixon puts a nice spin on a fairly hackneyed stoner role as Molly's sister. Mike's sidekick characters aren't quite so well defined yet -- Reno Wilson as Mike's partner is a standard issue smart-ass black guy, and Nyambi Nyambi as diner owner Samuel gets to make a lot of jokes about how much Mike eats compared to the starving people of his (unnamed) African homeland. (But hey! Two black characters in a Chuck Lorre sitcom! That's something of a novelty.)

The cast is strong enough, and the show appealing enough in its better moments, that I'm willing to stick with it for a few weeks to see which version of Mike & Molly wins out.

BOOKS: Freedom, Jonathan Franzen (2010)

I don't have much to say about this one, really; it follows one Midwestern family over the course of about fifteen years. It's well written, and never boring, but I can't remember when I read a novel that has so little affection for its characters. None of them survive with a shred of likability intact. Even when one character spends about a hundred pages narrating her own life story -- and who's going to be more sympathetic to her than she is, you would think -- Franzen manages to bring her out of that autobiography as an even more loathsome figure than she already was.

Even when the book is funny, and there are very funny moments to be found, the humor is overwhelmed by Franzen's sourness. I remember there being a lot of similar complaints about The Corrections; I haven't re-read that one since it was originally published, but I remember liking it a lot, and being surprised by those comments. But this time? Well, if The Corrections was too unpleasant for you, you're really gonna hate this one. And even if you liked The Corrections, you may find it hard to decide whether Franzen's obvious skill and craftsmanship are enough to overcome his hostility. A close call, but for me, the hostility predominates, and I wouldn't recommend the book.

TV: The Event (NBC, Mon 9)

We get a lot of stuff thrown at us in the first episode of The EventThere's a hijacking, a kidnapping, an assassination attempt, a few shootings. We visit a secret Alaskan prison and witness a confrontation between the President and his CIA director. And we watch an airplane vanish from the sky without a trace.

What we don't get, however, is equally important. We don't get a single character whose motivation we understand enough to care about; we don't get any sense of why all of this is happening; and we don't get much reason to hope that things will improve.

The plot -- such as it is -- centers on The Event. We don't know what The Event is, but it apparently happened several years ago, and has led to a group of 100 or so people being held prisoner at the Mount Inostranka prison. When the President discovers this -- he hadn't even known that the place existed -- he is furious, and determined to set these people free.

Someone apparently wants to stop this from happening, which leads to a kidnapping, which leads to an airline pilot being blackmailed into hijacking his own plane (which his would-be son-in-law attempts to stop by hijacking the plane himself) and crashing it into the Presidential retreat in Florida just as the President is about to give a press conference announcing the release of the prisoners who live in the secret Alaskan prison that Jack built.

The pilot is a grand exercise in the use of pronouns without antecedents (in which category I will count the phrase "The Event;" it may not technically be a pronoun, but since we're never told what "The Event" is, it serves the same functional purpose). "He's going to tell them about The Event." "You have to stop him." "They won't let me."

The show also falls into the trap of lazy casting; instead of relying on the actors to actually portray characters, it simply relies on our preconceived notion of the actors instead. If I tell you that the actors in that President vs. CIA director confrontation are Blair Underwood and Zeljko Ivanek, can you guess which one is the noble hero and which one is the amoral sleazebag? I knew you could. The leader of the Inostranka prisoners, Sophia, is played by Laura Innes, and that's all we're supposed to need in order to root for her.

By the end of the show, when Sophia turns to President Martinez -- the two have just watched that hijacked plane simply vanish from the sky -- and says, "Mr. President, I haven't told you everything," I was screaming the obvious response at the TV: "You haven't told us anything." As David Byrne might have said: The Event is talking a lot, but it's not saying anything. I'll give it another week, maybe, to see if any of the characters are given any dimension, but I'm not optimistic.

MOVIES: Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010)

Never Let Me Go is probably about as good a job as could be done of translating Kazuo Ishiguro's novel to the screen, but the tone that works on the page is less effective in the theater.

If you haven't read the novel, then I don't want to give away too much of the story (and all of the reviews I've read have said far too much). The narrator is Kathy, who is looking back over her life, and her friendships with Ruth and Tommy, who she's known since they were in school together as children.

We flash back to childhood at Hailsham, and see the early development of the romantic triangle that will dominate their lives together, and we begin to get hints that Hailsham is not just another English boarding school. Headmistress Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling) keeps talking about the special destiny that awaits Hailsham students, and when a young teacher (Sally Hawkins, delivering another blandly inept performance) spells out the precise nature of that destiny, she is quickly removed from her post.

Most of the movie follows Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy from roughly 18 to 28 (they're now played by Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield, respectively), as they enter the career for which they've been trained.

Ishiguro's novel is built on a sharp contrast between the reactions of the reader and the characters to the situation and events, and that contrast is much harder to achieve on screen. Moments that should be heartwrenching fall flat and have no emotional impact, and I think screenwriter Alex Garland reveals too many of the story's secrets too soon (certainly far sooner than Ishiguro does), which destroys the haunting unease, the sense that something we can't quite place is not right here.

The performances are adequate (though it is an act of cruelty to ask Knightley to pass herself off as 18), with Mulligan making the strongest impression. Best thing about the movie, though, is Rachel Portman's elegiac score, which feels like an updated version of Vaughan Williams in pastoral mode.

September 20, 2010

TV: Boardwalk Empire (HBO, Sun 9)

It's 1920 in Atlantic City; prohibition has just begun, and city treasurer Enoch "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi) sees nothing but opportunity in the new business of bootlegging. Nucky's story is being given a huge push by HBO, to the point of hiring Martin Scorsese to direct the pilot. And while we get Scorsese's usual visual flair, the storytelling is rather overstuffed and hectic to the point of being incomprehensible.

We meet an enormous number of characters in the first episode. Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt, looking more than ever like the poor man's Leonardo DiCaprio) is Nucky's frustrated lieutenant, just home from the war and feeling that his experience there has prepared him for more than the relatively menial tasks Nucky entrusts to him. Margaret Schroeder (Kelly McDonald) is a pregnant housewife who comes to Nucky seeking a job for her husband. Van Alden (Michael Shannon, whose inherent creepiness works well here) is the Federal agent responsible for enforcing prohibition. Tthat doesn't even start to get into the assorted gangsters and mobsters who work in Nucky's organization, or the folks from Chicago and New York who show up hoping to make deals.

And it's with those gangsters that the first episode fails in the storytelling department. There's a storyline involving the theft of a shipment of Canadian Club that is utterly incomprehensible; I had no idea who had stolen the booze from whom, or who had ratted to the Feds. (Thank goodness for Alan Sepinwall's review, which clearly explains what the heck happened.)

The show looks spectacular, and the cast is filled with superb character actors. I'm still slightly skeptical about Buscemi as a leading man, particularly as a heavy, and the storytelling is going to have to be clearer or people will lose patience very quickly. There's enough promise here, though, to catch my interest for another week or two.

MOVIES: A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop (Zhang Yimou, 2009/US 2010)

Who would have expected Zhang Yimou to remake Blood Simple? This version is set at some unspecified point in China's feudal past, at an isolated noodle shop in the middle of a gorgeous desert, all sandy hills streaked through with veins of bright red and rich blue-gray.

The story is as it was in the Coen brothers' original: A young woman married to an abusive older man has taken a lover; her husband hires someone to kill them both; things go horribly wrong. But the tone is rather different. Not to suggest that the Coen version wasn't funny -- like much of their work, it had moments of vicious dark comedy -- but the comedy in Zhang's version is much broader. It's a highly stylized take on slapstick, and there are scenes with everyone sneaking from room to room in the middle of the night that have the comic energy of great farce.

The movie does a delightful job of balancing that wild humor with tension and suspense, and the four central performances are top-notch. (I could have done without the bucktoothed buffoon who plays the principal supporting role, though; he was a bit too broad even for this movie.) Highly recommended.

September 16, 2010

TV: Outlaw (NBC, Fri 10)

Jimmy Smits stars as Cyrus Garza, the youngest and most conservative member of the Supreme Court. He's a bit of a womanizer and his gambling debts are starting to pile up. After the recent death of his father, a lawyer who had been just as lionized by the left as Cyrus is by the right, he's re-examining his life. And that re-examination leads to his controversial decision to stay the execution of convicted cop-killer Greg Beals. Not only that, but Garza announces (from the bench, no less) without warning that he is resigning from the Court. He's sick of refereeing the battles, he says, and wants to go out and fight them himself. For his first fight, he's going to take on the defense of Greg Beals, the very man whose execution he just stayed.

That's just the first ten minutes. And believe it or not, the show manages to get even more wildly implausible than that. What's the peak of crazy? Maybe it's when Cyrus sends two of his young associates to wiretap the phone of one potential suspect in order to locate another. Or maybe it's when another young associate, in the mistaken belief that Cyrus is dying, announces in front of half a dozen people that she is in love with him.

Those young associates? They are the standard House-esque assortment of pretty young people, all enthralled by their eccentric hero. None of them makes much of an impression, but then again, none of them is really expected to.

No, this is definitely Jimmy Smits' show, and he carries it well, delivering the big courtroom speeches with passionate conviction. But even Smits can't make these stale lines ("When the rules lead to injustice, you have to find some new rules," etc.) sound fresh, and he certainly can't make the far-fetched premise seem believable.

You can get away with a lot of crazy in a premise if you're willing to have fun with it, to acknowledge that it is crazy; courtroom dramas like Ally McBeal and Boston Legal pulled that off with great success. But Outlaw has no sense of humor whatever, which leaves the absurdity of the premise completely exposed, and the show sinks under that weight. It's a big fat mess of a show.

(If you're still curious, NBC will be repeating the pilot this Friday night.)

September 13, 2010

BOOKS: I'd Know You Anywhere, Laura Lippman (2010)

A promising setup never really goes anywhere in this disappointing novel.

In 1985, 15-year-old Elizabeth Lerner was kidnapped, held prisoner for six weeks, and raped by her captor before being released. Twenty-five years later, she's Eliza Benedict, living a reasonably happy suburban life, when she's unexpectedly contacted by her captor. He's on death row, having been convicted of murdering one of several other girls he'd kidnapped -- Eliza was the only one he didn't kill -- and wants to talk to her.

That could be the setup for a suspenseful cat-and-mouse game between Eliza and Walter, but we don't really get one. (You want a better novel on similar themes? Read Belinda Bauer's Blacklands.) The flashback sequences to the weeks Elizabeth spent with Walter are better than the present-day story, but even they are marred by the fact that Walter isn't a very convincing character (and when we meet current-day Walter, he's changed so much that it's hard to believe he's the same guy). The story limps along, with nothing much happening, and the ending is seriously anticlimactic.

September 09, 2010

TV: Nikita (CW, Thurs 9)

This setup won't die, will it? The timeline:
  • 1990: The French film Nikita, released in the US as La Femme Nikita
  • 1993: The American remake, Point of No Return
  • 1997-2001: The USA Network TV series (back when no one paid much attention to basic cable series) La Femme Nikita
And now, the CW gives us another incarnation. The premise is the same: Nikita (played this time around by Maggie Q) was a troubled street kid, living a life of crime; on the verge of getting into really serious trouble, she found herself taken into custody by a secret government agency -- they're called Division here -- who have faked her death and are going to give her a second chance at life. All she has to do is allow Division to train and use her as an assassin. The movies both end with Nikita's escape from the evil agency.

And that's where this Nikita begins. Nikita's been on the run from Division for three years, and her goal is to destroy them entirely. But since the original version of the story was so successful, the CW hasn't abandoned it entirely; in parallel with NIkita's anti-Division crusade, we get the story of Alex (Lyndsey Fonseca), a new Division recruit whose story, it seems, will parallel that of Nikita's in the earlier versions of the story.

If this is also reminding you of Alias, well, sure; that show was obviously strongly influenced by the many lives of Nikita, and in turn, its influence can be seen here, most obviously in the characters who populate Division. You've got Percy (Xander Berkeley), the oily head of the agency; Michael (Shane West), the hunky agent who was once Nikita's recruiter, and is now Alex's; and Birkhoff (Aaron Stanford), the computer/tech geek; if you can watch these three and not think of Alias's Sloane, Vaughn, and Marshall, then you're a tougher man than I am.

We also have on hand a pair of Alex's fellow recruits -- not terribly interesting characters yet -- and Amanda (Melinda Clarke), whose job it will be to take tough kid Alex and turn her into the sort of sophisticated lady who can infiltrate high society functions (because that's where all the best assassinations take place, don'cha know?).

In an odd way, the first episode of Nikita reminded me of last night's Hellcats debut, in that neither show is out to break any new ground; each is treading fairly familiar territory, and each is doing what it does very nicely. Nikita is a show with more inherent appeal to me than Hellcats, and I'm likely to stick with the show for at least a few weeks (for me, at least, there's nothing else of interest going on in that timeslot). There's room for lots of interesting backstory to be filled in as the show's mythology develops, not only in Nikita's relationships with her former Division colleagues, but in the events that led to Alex's recruitment. And the final scene of the pilot drops a spectacular plot twist that will lead to even more fascinating revelations.

Nikita doesn't seem an obvious fit with the CW audience, and I wonder how much of the Vampire Diaries audience will stick around. But this is an awfully good first episode, and they've certainly got me hooked.

September 08, 2010

TV: Hellcats (CW, Wed 9)

It's Glee meets Bring It On in a college soap opera that doesn't break any new TV ground, but does what it sets out to do in reasonably entertaining fashion.

Marti (Aly Michalka) is working hard to put herself through law school at Lancer University when she suddenly loses her scholarship. She's wading through the bizarre scholarship options -- nope, not a Klingon speaker -- when she learns that members of Lancer's cheerleading squad get full scholarships. Fortunately, Marti just happens to have been a top-notch gymnast in high-school (and has a wonderfully dramatic story about why she gave it up), so despite her contempt for the sport, she tries out for the Hellcats, lands a spot, and moves into the cheerleaders' dorm.

Her roommate is Savannah (Ashley Tisdale), the squad captain, and her principal enemy is Alice (Heather Hemmens), whose injury has given Marti her spot on the team in the first place. There's a potential romantic interest in Lewis (Robbie Jones, who I insist must be given at least one shirtless scene in each episode), who just happens to be Alice's ex. And of course, Marti has a best friend who secretly longs to be more but never says anything about it.

There's also a potential love triangle among the adults -- the cheerleading coach (Sharon Leal), her boyfriend/team doctor (D.B. Woodside), and Lancer's new football coach (Jeff Hephner) -- and Marti's white-trash mom (Gail Grady, hamming up the southern accent far more than anyone else in the cast), of whom Marti is secretly ashamed.

You can count on at least one or two cheerleading/dance routines every episode, and they're fun to watch. I'm pretty sure that you can also expect the soap opera elements of the show to be ramped up to full speed very quickly (Alice proves just how bitchy she's willing to be to ruin Marti by the end of the first episode). None of the actors here are in any danger of finding themselves on the Emmy lists next year, though the veteran adults are efficient and professional, and Grady has the potential to provide entertaining comic relief as she embarrasses Marti in various ways.

And even if Michalka and Tisdale aren't the finest of actresses, their roles don't really require Lady Macbeth-level subtlety, and they bring great energy and likability to the screen. I don't think this is likely to be a show that I watch regularly, but then I'm not a 16-year-old girl, so I'm not exactly in the target audience. For those who are, Hellcats is a perfectly adequate piece of entertainment, well crafted and a solid fit with the CW brand. It is, as they say, the sort of thing that people who like this sort of thing will like very much indeed.

September 05, 2010

MUSIC: 15 albums

The blogging meme du jour (which I picked up from Terry Teachout at About Last Night):
The rules: Don't take too long to think about it--choose fifteen albums you've heard that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. (These aren't favorite albums, necessarily, just the fifteen that will always stick with you.)
So, off the top of my head:

Laurie Anderson, Big Science
Christine Lavin, Beau Woes and Other Problems of Modern Life
various artists, Rhythm, Country, & Blues
various artists, Stay Awake
original cast, Company
George Michael, Faith
original cast, Das Barbec├╝
Barenaked Ladies, Gordon
Pink Martini, Sympathique
k.d. lang, Shadowland
The Mavericks, Trampoline
The Bobs, My, I'm Large
original concept album, Chess
Amazin' Blue (University of Michigan), Little Black Box
Jason Robert Brown, Wearing Someone Else's Clothes

Unless you are one of a very small handful of people, you have never heard (or heard of) Little Black Box, as it was a pre-CD cassette release sold to folks who attended our a cappella concerts at U-M some 20 years ago.  But I'm on it; it is the only place where my recorded singing voice can be heard -- my solo opens the damned tape, for god's sake -- and I'll always have fond memories of that year and my fellow singers.

September 02, 2010

BOOKS: Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins (2010)

Third volume in the Hunger Games series, and theoretically the last, at least until someone offers Collins enough money to continue it somehow. (My thoughts on The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.)

The revolution of the twelve Districts against the Capitol and tyrannical President Snow is in full force, and Katniss finds herself drafted to serve as the Mockingjay, an inspirational figurehead for the rebels. But she's not entirely convinced that she can trust the rebels any more than she could trust Snow, and after surviving two Hunger Games, she's not at all enthusiastic about yet again becoming a pawn in someone else's power struggle.

Mockingjay is by far the darkest of the three books, as I think it had to be if Collins was to remain true to the characters and storylines she'd established in the earlier books. The problem is that she's simply not as interesting writing about political intrigue and paranoid scheming; Mockingjay's ideas about the nature of power go a lot deeper than the (relatively) mindless action-movie thrills of the first two volumes, and it's in those action sequences that Collins is at her best.

That does mean that Mockingjay gets better as it goes along, as Katniss becomes more directly involved in the war; the final invasion of the Capital is, as Katniss and her fellow Games survivors joke, essentially another Hunger Games, but with even higher stakes.

The love triangle is, as I think it's generally been, the least interesting part of the story (but then, I am not a teenaged girl, and they may find it just as moving as it's meant to be), and I think Collins cheats a bit by removing one of the players from the scene and not really requiring Katniss to make a choice between her two suitors.

For all of the flaws I'm grumbling about, though, Mockingjay is a darned good book; it suffers only by comparison to the first two in the series, which were terrifically entertaining. If Collins isn't quite able to maintain that level here, she's still given us a solid and rewarding trilogy that well deserves all of the success and praise it's gotten.

September 01, 2010

BOOKS: Packing for Mars, Mary Roach (2010)

After examining scientific research into corpses, the supernatural, and sex (my thoughts on Stiff, Spook, and Bonk, respectively), Roach takes a look into the odder scientific corners of space exploration.

This isn't a book about how the rockets work, or how the trajectories are plotted. No, Roach gets right down to the stuff that we all really wonder about. What happens if you throw up in your space helmet? What's sex like in zero gravity? How do they make astronaut food? How do you go to the toilet in space?

As always, Roach is a lively and witty storyteller, with a gift for getting interesting answers from her subjects, even when they might rather not talk about some of the more awkward parts of their jobs. Her great good cheer helps; there are some "ewwww" moments in here that Roach carries you through with a smile simply by refusing to get too grossed out by them. If the signature image that stuck with me from Bonk was elephantiasis of the scrotum, this time around it's the phrase "fecal popcorning." No, I won't tell you what it means. You'll just have to read the book, won't you?

And you should read the book. It's a delightful overview of scientific research into how we can survive in an environment that deprives us of everything that seems necessary to life -- air, water, food -- and a lot of things that aren't strictly necessary, but are surprisingly hard to live without for long -- gravity, hygiene. Roach is more charming and ingratiating than you'd think possible given the potentially dry subject matter; would that more science writers had her gifts.