Thursday, September 30, 2010

Review: Fringe 3.02 "The Box"

Fringe's first Blue Universe episode of the season hits the ground running and never stops.

I think I speak for a lot of Fringe fans when I say that the procedural episodes of Fringe's earlier seasons were not always great. Especially after "There's More Than One of Everything", it was difficult to shift back into the mode of X-Files-esque case files when there's a freaking alternate universe with Leonard Nimoy waiting to be discovered. In response, the show's second season ran a string of episodes that started with "Peter" and climaxed in "Over There", essentially tossing procedural stories to the wind in favor of the dark and twisted tales of family and identity that the mythology of the show could provide.

This season is now proving why fusing these two elements works. The box, as referenced by the title of the episode, is on one level just an ultrasonic device that ruptures the inner ear, causes nosebleeds, and sometimes makes peoples' heads explode. (Shocking, that.) But as Peter discovers when he is disarming the device, this box is also a piece of the Red Universe's Doomsday device -- whose central component is Peter. Meanwhile, Peter and Walter are still working out their issues (which are admittedly somewhat odd -- Walter is technically father to a Peter, but not this particular Peter; I think Child Services's heads would also explode trying to sort this one out) and "Fauxlivia", as fans and critics alike have termed her, is working from the inside in order to fight a cross-universe Cold War of sorts, which should lead to all sorts of intriguing new takes on old sci-fi classics in future episodes. ("You don't have to remind me whose side I'm on," she quips to Newton at one point. Is Fringe competing with Nikita for most badass female spies in the same time slot?)

Indeed, Fauxlivia's earnest and upbeat demeanor (compared to Olivia's cold, rational facial expressions as she examines a crime scene) adds a refreshing new dynamic to the old team while also revealing the flaws in her deception. Olivia also doesn't like music, or at least talking about it, and (the bit I found most intriguing) Fauxlivia doesn't have Olivia's photographic memory. But the hanging question: will she be found out, or will she have identity crises similar to the ones Olivia is having on the other side?

Tonight's show was delightfully filled with meta-fictional lines as well. Bell's last message to Walter? "Don't be afraid to cross the line." Walter's favorite quote of Bell's? "Only those who take the risk of going too far know exactly how far to go." And Fauxlivia's helpful advice for Peter about Walter's confession is that he "can't expect it to go back to the way it was overnight." As the show settles into its new "myth-alone" storytelling, it also betrays the continuing Socratic method of morality and ethics embedded in the show's science. Was moving away from traditional procedural stories the right thing to do? Is there a chance that both universes can live in harmony? And what, pray tell, is "real" when two universes each claim to be just that?

We have engaged maximum storytelling potential. Run, Fringe, run!

Reflections: Glee 2.02 "Britney/Brittany"

I don’t think I can offer a critical review of this week’s episode of Glee without rehashing what people smarter than me have already stated. In short: it was a hot mess, literally and figuratively. However, I would like to offer an alternate viewpoint on the episode, one that justifies the use of a major pop star so early into Glee’s second season.

Early in the episode, Kurt begins an outburst aimed at Mr. Schue that includes one intriguing line of dialogue: “Britney Spears IS pop culture.” On the surface, it's obvious that Kurt is trying to make his point about Britney Spears’ importance to the glee club kids. However, I would like to argue that, in this episode, Britney Spears is in fact being used as a representative of American pop culture, and that the episode makes some interesting arguments about the way audiences perceive and interpret pop culture.

Let’s stay with Kurt for a moment. He’s arguing with Will because Will doesn’t think Britney Spears is a positive influence to be imitating or “honoring”. Will wants the glee club to focus on his assignment of adult contemporary music (Christopher Cross, Michael Bolton, etc). For the entire episode, of course, the kids can only talk about Britney Spears. Here we see pop culture as a diversion or distraction. Each of the main characters at the forefront of this episode is off their usual emotional baselines partially because of the constant chatter about Spears. The message here is that pop culture has a profound impact on our real lives, constantly defining and reinforcing ideas of romantic love, sex/gender, and morality (Rachel longs for the day that she herself viciously assaults an intrusive paparazzi).

The second way pop culture, viewed through the lens of Britney Spears, is used in this episode is through fantasy. The main hook of the episode is Emma’s new boyfriend, her dentist Carl. After he gives a talk about dental hygiene to the glee club, he has several members in for appointments. While under the influence of Orin’s (sorry, Carl’s) anesthesia, the glee kids have vivid fantasies that recreate, in part or in whole, sets, costumes, and dance choreography from Britney’s music videos. Here, Britney Spears represents the fantasy element of pop culture – in other words, escapist entertainment. Sometimes, escapism is a good thing – certainly, it is for Artie, as he finds strength from his hallucination of “Stronger” to make a second bid for the football team. But there is always the flip side of escapism – Rachel’s line “is this real life?” isn’t just a reference to a famous Internet meme also involving dental anesthesia, but also a reference to our (sometimes) inability to differentiate fantasy from reality.

This idea of fantasy versus reality is taken to an absurd extreme in one notable scene where Britney is actually conversing with members of the glee club in full Cheerios outfit, but the same scene also represents the third element of the episode’s use of pop culture as depicted by Britney Spears. What role specifically did Britney Spears play in the lives of this generation’s children? Here is where individual interpretation of Britney Spears plays a huge role. To the glee club, Britney is a source of empowerment, in the same vein as Lady GaGa and Madonna (two other female pop stars honored by the show with dedicated episodes in the first season). To Will, she represents a way to cut loose from his usual “uptight” self and grab Emma’s attention again (hence his inappropriate involvement in the production of “Toxic”). To Sue Sylvester, of course, she is sexual deviance personified in song and dance. These are but three basic interpretations of just one pop star! And Britney Spears was not alone – she rose to fame at the same time as the short-lived “boy band” craze of the late 1990s. These same interpretations were thus also given to *Nsync, the Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, LFO, and a host of other such male groups (as well as female groups such as TLC and Destiny’s Child).

Was this a good episode of Glee? Heck no. It was all over the place emotionally and in terms of plot. But it did offer a fascinating glimpse at how Glee is becoming a pop culture phenomenon that subsequently comments and reinterprets other pop culture phenomenon, and it did so by using one of the most constant presences in American pop culture. The decision to end on a non-Spears song is perhaps my favorite bit of the episode – it’s a nice touch that brings us back to reality from our daily fix of paparazzi and sex tapes, and it’s only appropriate that Rachel, who briefly confuses reality with fantasy after her rendition of “Hit Me Baby (One More Time)”, is the one to ground us again.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Reflections: Human Target Season Two

Clearly, I need to start telling my TV shows to take their morning-after pills. I just got back from class to find this lovely news tidbit in my Twitter feed.

Fortunately, all this means for the blog is that I'll be writing Human Target night-of reviews on Wednesdays instead of Fridays... and that I'll be doing that much later than expected

This may also have an impact on the Retro section. We'll see. In the meantime, hurray, I can go see The Social Network Friday night!

Reflections: House 7.01 "Now What?"

So did you totally see that House premiere? I did, and I can't tell if the writers are screwing with me or not.

Recently, I wrote a Reflections piece about Bones, in which I mused that uncertainty is a good thing, particularly for shows with lead characters that have unresolved sexual tension. I had kinda figured that House would be throwing away that uncertainty with the season premiere, particularly with the huge drop in viewer numbers compared to last year's (admittedly double-length) episode.

Clearly, I was wrong.

I was rather confused all throughout the House/Cuddy scenes -- not logistically, i knew that they were talking about their relationship and such -- right up until the end. House finally says "I love you", closes the door, and we get that final look. They've now both admitted that they're in love, but know that somehow, this may not work.

This is new territory for House to explore as a show; now that House has officially gone off Vicodin, that card can't be played again. The relationship dynamic between House and Cuddy, however, is largely unexplored territory (unlike Bones, which for all its tongue-in-cheekness about Booth and Brennan has a better idea of how the two leads function as a couple).

In fact, the whole premiere was filled with ambiguity. I had to laugh out loud when Chase said "I'm getting mixed signals" because that's exactly how I felt at that point. Whatever the case, it's clear that House has jumped into full-on character mode, a move that has largely worked for Bones, so I'm enthusiastic about this season of the show.

Reflections: Order From Chaos

(I apologize in advance: this post is extra-long. In the future, I'm going to try and keep things short. Limits breed creativity, after all.)

I'll be the first to admit that I watch a crazy amount of television.

No really! I've been known to skip many school functions simply to watch an episode of can't-miss TV. It's a whole sordid relationship thing I have going on here with my boob tube.

This year, however, I've begun to write about some of the shows I watch. This is partly because I've always analyzed the TV I watch with the same fervor as a novel, film, comic book, or video game. I also just happen to love writing. (Studies tell me the two are correlated, but that doesn't always equal causation, so let's keep speculation to a minimum.)

The above two things -- my obsessive TV viewing and my writing about my obsessive TV viewing -- are now at odds because, in addition, I kinda have to finish school. To that end, I designed the blog to be a cross-section of personal views on television (Reflections), critical analysis of episodes of television a la Myles McNutt or The A.V. Club or TV Squad or etc. (Review), and a look back at shows long past (Retro, which I haven't yet launched).

Retro and Reflections can of course be done on a play-by-ear schedule (though I'll be making a schedule for Retro shows -- at least, that's the plan). However, I take Reviews a bit more seriously, cutting into the show with a fine-tipped pen and peering at its insides with a semi-trained eye. In order to balance myself out, I've decided to lay down, here in this post, the basic functions of this blog's sections, including what shows I would like very much to take a stab at reviewing.

So here's the breakdown:

-Reflections: these can pop up at any time. Usually, no matter what I do with any given TV show, good episodes and good shows tend to stick in my mind as I go about my daily routine. Sometimes, I pull a neat perspective on some subject (even television itself) from what the show did that week. That's what the Reflections will entail. I may also put reflections on current events in television (say, cancellations) in this section.

-Retro: I haven't posted this section yet because I'm still planning it, but the idea is similar to a Classic review on The A.V. Club. Particularly because I am a product of the Internet Generation, I have a new perspective on how past television shows were produced, marketed, and aired. With this in mind, I would like to turn toward shows long past, shows that are much-beloved by the people in my parents' generation, and watch them straight through, while doing some form of write-up on them. I'll have more details about this one soon, when I've had time to really sit down and plan the attack.

-Review: Pretty simple -- this is the critique part. This section is the reason I'm writing this post: I need to choose which shows I want to review so that the blog can function on a more-or-less normal schedule. I watch many television shows during the week, but only a few are the ones I would really take to writing about.

So here's what I watch and what I'll review:

Monday: With Lone Star's cancellation giving us Lie To Me back sooner than expected, and The Event's disappointing second episode, I'm going to be watching Chuck, Lie To Me, and Hawaii Five-0 live, and DVRing/Huluing House, How I Met Your Mother, and Castle (which I'm behind on, but not for long). In terms of reviews, expect a night-of review of Lie To Me and a day-after review of The Event (yes, I'm still hopeful. It's better than Flashforward, I promise!).

Tuesday: Until today, I was watching Glee and Parenthood live. Next week, however, is the return of my second-favorite current sci-fi show, Caprica. So starting next week, my Tuesdays will consist of Glee and Caprica live. On the recorded side, I'll be watching No Ordinary Family, The Good Wife, and continuing with Parenthood. Here, though, the only show I'm critically interested in is Caprica. Glee has enough attention as is, and while I would love to dive into The Good Wife, I'm coming in cold (as in, I've never seen an episode before, although my mom loves it) so I hesitate to cut in just yet.

Wednesday: No reviews here. I watch Cougar Town and The Defenders live, but the former is a show, like The Good Wife, that I'm cutting into on the second season, while the latter, though good, is a pretty straightforward procedural (I dig the setting, of course -- it's my hometown!). This is mostly my day to catch up on Monday/Tuesday shows, since I'm leaving a lot to watch in a non-traditional way on those days.

Thursday: Ah, the much-contested Thursday block. Unfortunately, it would take a lot to pry me from FOX Thursdays, which consists of my current favorite procedural (Bones) and my favorite sci-fi show not only currently, but in the last few years (Fringe). I will be jumping in on Community and continuing with The Big Bang Theory, as well. And though I'm behind on Nikita (thanks, CW, for delaying posting until the weekend!), I'll also be watching that. Expect a night-of review of Fringe and a weekend review of Nikita.

Friday: Human Target, Human Target, Human Target. I haven't seen Smallville or Supernatural, and I want to really get the full experience of Supernatural, so I'm going to let those restless dogs be and focus my efforts solely on reviewing Human Target.

Sunday: I won't be able to watch it live since my college doesn't provide premium cable, but HBO's Boardwalk Empire had such an incredible first episode that I definitely will want to do a write-up about it once the season is over. Watch for that in the future. That's otherwise it -- I've never been a big fan of the animation block on FOX (I'm a Futurama fan first, and that show's on Comedy Central and on break at the moment).

So that's the plan, at least for Fall 2010. There will definitely be some revisions once winter schedules start coming out (although you can right away expect me to review The Cape because I'm stoked about it), but this should get me -- and you, the reader -- through the tumultuous fall season.

So say we all!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Reflections: Bones 6.01 "The Mastodon in the Room"

Uncertainty is exciting, especially in television.

After writing my review on the Bones season premiere, I started to think a little more about the show in relation to its counterparts. In particular, I focused on shows that featured the old stand-by of Male-Lead-and-Female-Lead-Who-Work-Together-and-Have-Unresolved-Sexual-Tension. Castle and House are the other ones that I watch (Chuck used to be this as well, until it wasn't), but one has already sunk and the other is sagging beneath the weight of its own procedural stories.

See, the thing about this trick is that, done properly, it makes for an endless television show. You could literally do seasons of back-and-forth between these two characters without anything actually happening in the between times. For Bones and Castle, this was never an issue because the shows were able to develop the rest of the ensemble into real human characters; for House, the show was so overshadowed by the titular character that putting him with Cuddy would have been disastrous (especially early on, when we were just getting to know how these two operate in relation to each other).

Now, however, the tides have shifted. House and Cuddy finally got together, coinciding with House's ultimate decision to throw away drugs for good (even after he insulted his therapist from the mental institute -- color me surprised when he actually made a good choice for himself in the season finale last year). Castle is now House, overshadowing the rest of the show (frankly, most of the people I know that watch this show really only watch for Nathan Fillion, which is not a bad reason to watch but says volumes about how character-driven dramas are starting to wear down audiences again).

Bones, meanwhile, sits in a happy bubble of story. The season premiere worked wonderfully on a fundamental level because of the mastodon at the end, representing the secrets established in the episode that the team will eventually have to clear out of their closets. Top on that list is Booth's new journalist girlfriend, who may finally pull up some real emotion from the deep, deep well that is Brennan's heart. Brennan, for instance, is obviously capable of handling herself, but that she was willing to cede to Booth that he wasn't there to protect her (thereby requiring that she protect herself) is a sign that she is really ready to commit to Booth romantically. And because it is Brennan, after all, the results of this season's experiments will be far more unpredictable than in the past couple of seasons, where Booth has been coming to the realization of his love for Brennan in various roundabout ways.

It's been said for this one-trick-pony that once the lead couple gets together, the show gets boring fast. (I invoke the immortal words of Sam and Diane and henceforth rest my case.) House's ratings drop this season may be a signal that audiences everywhere truly understand this idea. Fortunately, Bones may never have that issue -- so long as Booth and Brennan's futures together remain truly uncertain, the show has a veritable gold mine of drama to work with until FOX deems them too old and decrepit to continue living.

Review: The Event 1.02 "To Keep Us Safe"

Let's talk about LOST for a second. (I have to, since I didn't review The Event's pilot on account of not having this blog yet, so I haven't made the blatantly obvious comparisons yet.) LOST's narrative structure worked on a fundamental level because, while the events depicted were usually in two separate time periods, demarcated by the now-infamous WOOSH sound and a visual indicator in the current shot, these separate stories were usually grounded in an emotional core theme. The show was about a great many things, but it handled them one at a time, through the lenses of the characters. And while the flashbacks (or flashforwards, or flash-sideways, or whatever the hell we were doing in Season Five) were tied thematically to the Island story, they didn't always have to progress the on-going plot of the survivors of Oceanic 815.

The Event is structured similarly to LOST in that it has flashbacks, and these flashbacks are related to the overall story of the show. Where The Event differs from LOST is that The Event's flashbacks have actual weight to the present-day stories. Each act is structured so that the time jumps can be consumed without losing the thread of the story.

That's all well and good, but "To Keep Us Safe" loses a key element that gave the pilot so much promise: the emotional core. "I Haven't Told You Everything" was messy, sure, but it had to be in order to introduce some of the key relationships that would impact the plot of the show when moving into the series proper. And while Jason Ritter's character flashbacks continue to deliver this sentiment (even if he is basically Jack Shepard without the many years of medical school and overbearing daddy issues), the rest of the episode is purely mechanical, without any significant emotional contribution to the show as a singular unit.

After seeing this episode, most people are willing to cry "aliens" about the survivors of the ship crash-landing during World War II. Admittedly, Agent Li being one of those survivors who has been "turned" into a human by their moral structures and such just smacks of ABC's V, albeit with less heart -- again, lacking any emotional scenes in this episode, I just have to ask why I should care that he's one of them beyond the obvious intellectual implications. But given the discussion of genetics during the President's briefing, I'm more inclined to believe that the show writers are leaning closer to Heroes, whose first season dealt with the issue of humanity versus superhumanity in a somewhat positive manner. Here, though, the concept feels too forced. Mohinder was at least a convincing geneticist capable of explaining his studies in a way that was relevant to the show's themes. In The Event, all I get is that these guys just really want a reason to discriminate -- a one-note piece of character writing meant only to leverage President Martinez as a like-able guy, someone you could connect to because, dammit, he's all about human rights!

On the other hand, I do appreciate the idea of parallel, simultaneous narratives. As the pilot showed us, it can be messy, but by doing what LOST did and emphasizing one or two characters over the rest, and by continuing to maintain the idea (illusion) that all of these mini-events are somehow related, this episode is proof positive that chaos can sometimes be good for a while, if you've got an endgame in mind.

Ultimately, I'm not ready to give up on The Event just yet. The execution here is much better than previous "post-LOST serialized drama" Flashforward (Jason Ritter is infinitely more enjoyable here, as is his character, who's a little goofy but still very noble) and while V is unfortunately beholden to its strict sector of genre television, The Event has the same capacity as LOST or Fringe to make the sci-fi elements of the show work in tandem with the drama and characters, emphasizing everyone's plights without feeling like we've seen this-or-that trick before. The basic plot of each episode can reach Jack Bauer levels of insanity, but if the characters are developed more in the vein of Sean Walker and less in the vein of Agent Li, then there might still be an emotional core buried inside the complicated (if intellectually fascinating) structure.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Review: Bones 6.01 "The Mastodon in the Room"

"Status quo" is the watchword for procedural dramas. Even shows like Bones, where character stories usually trump the case of the week, require some level of normalcy so that the show can continue to grow even as the procedural element begins to wear out its welcome (see also: House).

Which is why I'm divided on the season six premiere of Bones, "The Mastodon in the Room". On one hand, the humorous and quite literal (though that's not a bad thing for a show whose lead female is, in fact, quite literal) reveal of the titular object inside the newly-reopened Jeffersonian lab is a striking comment on how different the team dynamics are at now that everyone's more or less back on the job. Everyone's got a mastodon in their respective rooms that they'll soon have to air out -- Booth has a girlfriend, which may put Brennan's subtle hints at romance in this episode at risk for the season; Hodgins and Angela are expecting (!); Daisy and Sweets are kinda-sorta-but-not-really back together. It makes sense, then, that everyone backs out of the room at the sight of the giant mammoth sitting on what was once their stage (in both the literal and metaphorical sense). It's a clear indicator that while on the surface the team is back together, underneath their facades are real issues that will have to be addressed during the season (and preferably during sweeps, thinks Faceless FOX Executive #1).

On the other hand, the entire show has to attempt to get back to normal, so it's unfortunate that the two cases on the table this week make for more than a single episode can handle. If the show had just established that the skeleton was not Logan Bartlett and moved on, I would have been OK with that. Instead, they follow up on it towards the end, at which point I had become more invested in the North Korean child to whom the skeleton actually did belong. It all felt like a more contrived version of the show's usual cases, and even though they were clearly backseat to the character stories, I still had an expectation of the show's usual "cold opening", so it was jarring to have to sit through a procedural story.

Unless there's a significant episode worthy of review this season, I probably won't write another review about the show this year until the finale. After all, the trajectories laid out for us in these characters is nothing that hasn't been seen before. The reason that I am a Bones fan over most other crime procedurals is because I, like the other devoted fans of the show, am emotionally connected to these characters. I'm not thrilled with the prospect of seeing another child birth scene on TV, but I am thrilled that it is finally happening to Hodgins and Angela -- just to give one example. For now, it's comforting to know that "status quo" isn't always on Bones's mind.

Reflections: Fringe 3.01 "Olivia"

"I am not who they say I am."
"I am not who you think I am."

And in the end, is she wrong?

Fringe's third season premiere "Olivia" absolutely delivered on the promise of the S2 finale. Though the procedural elements of the show are still kicking, they have obviously taken a back seat to the show's mythology -- which exploded with purpose and dramatic power in the S2 finale "Over There".

Now we get our first real look at the other side (henceforth known as Red Universe, since the show will be using the red title credits to denote it as the primary setting for any given episode this season) and it's... a different world. I love that the whole episode was focused exclusively on the hunt for Olivia after she escapes from Liberty Island. In one sense, the episode is thus defined by Olivia's desperate search for the familiar -- struggling to maintain her memories, her sense of self. And the first indication that all is not well for her anymore is the oh-my-god-so-f**king-pretty scene in the gas station bathroom. That was a shot that, if not done or supervised or given any input at all from Abrams himself, was most definitely inspired by him. She hides from the camera, inside the stall, because she refuses to embrace the reality of her situation -- but we understand as we hear her break into tears.

In another sense, the episode is defined by the empty space around her - the canvas upon which the show paints the infinite impossibilities described by the show's advertisements. Outside the Opera House (which is about to be "ambered" preventing Olivia's escape route to her own universe), protesters are still on about releasing the people from the amber during that incident several years back. Show Me cards are the new identification, though they resemble RFID in several ways. Advertisements for day trips to the moon flash on flickering billboards -- classic sci-fi tropes (both the idea that one day the moon will just be another country we can visit at any time and the concept of digital billboards that shift between various advertisements) at work in a humorous and meaningful way.

Is Olivia's mind like that billboard? Can she flick back and forth between memories? Are they integrated a la Connor towards the end of Angel's fifth season? Or -- shocking proposition -- is the old Olivia gone forever? Is she really not who we think she is?

So few shows can use the phrase "infinite impossibility" and truly mean it. Fringe is a show that started as a somewhat timid X-Files copycat but transformed into a sci-fi juggernaut, carefully feeding us incredible ideas while grounding them in a human character. And not just Olivia -- goodness, I haven't even written about the cab driver! Henry played so beautifully off of Olivia, capable of recognizing the situation both of them were in, but never really putting it into words. He does, however, give us words to think on, words that will possibly guide Olivia back to her old self, but are definitely an integral theme of the show: "Sometimes you gotta believe in what you can't see."

Welcome back, Fringe. I missed you.