American Idol, the phenom that helped to forever define musical milieu and cultural temperature of the aughts, returned Tuesday night for its first episode of the teens and hit the ground running in hopes of proving that the show still has legs amid steadily falling ratings, the disappearance of its worst but most car-crash-fascinating judge and, just announced this week, the end-of-season skedaddle of head judge Simon Cowell. The show shakes things up this year—Randy Jackson promises “interesting wrinkles”, quite a commitment, but one of them, of course, is Paula’s replacement, the sweet and likeable Ellen Degeneres, whose experience evaluating music mostly involves dancing in the aisles during her talk show.
Bringing in Ellen is like having Dennis Miller provide color commentary for Monday Night Football, and part of the fun this season will be in seeing if her seat at the table turns out to be the payoff the show badly needs. Ellen hasn’t arrived yet, however; Tuesday’s airing gave us highlights and humiliations from one of the show’s massive auditions, this one in Boston. Instead, an emaciated Victoria Beckham, sat in as a fourth judge, cocking an odd stare at contestants. She was a fairly good Paula stand-in, offering the same sort of sympathetic support that Paula was famous for, perhaps because both Paula and Posh suffer from the sneaking self-awareness that they themselves can’t actually sing.
Note: Only one episode per series. Sorry, Mad Men.
10. True Blood – I Will Rise Up
Okay, so I watched True Blood in a marathon last month, and I honestly have a hard time singling out an episode as the best in the season. I enjoyed the season a lot – a very fun, guilty pleasure – and the cluster of episodes toward the end (8-10 of 12) were where things really came to a head. The Dallas storyline and the Fellowship of the Sun storyline came together nicely and concluded in this episode. The highlight though, of this episode and of the season, is the Sookie-Eric dynamic, which took an important turn here. And, of course, like every episode, it ended with a fantastic cliffhanger.
The fourth season of Big Love began on Sunday, January 10, and, as I sat down to watch the season premiere, I realized, unexpectedly, that I was very excited. Perhaps it is because of the brutally cold weather outside, or because nothing “real” has aired since mid-December, but I was really, really excited. The surprise I felt was due to my ambivalence toward the first two seasons of the show; however, after a strike-lengthened hiatus, last year’s third season was easily the best.
From the first episode, Big Love’s cast immediately stands out as a major reason to give it a chance. Bill Paxton gives a career-best performance as Bill Henrickson, and his wives – played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin – are even more compelling actors. I found the plotting of the first two seasons often ponderous, and I really doubted the ability of showrunners Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer to tell a coherent story. The third season, though, found the show cohering in a way that it never had before and upping the stakes considerably, tackling topics such as abortion, ex-communication, divorce, and murder in ways that had noticeable consequences on the characters. By finally allowing things to happen – rather than showing how all the characters remained the same despite the turmoil surrounding them – the show took important steps forward and, significantly, allowed its characters to start to grow and change in realistic ways.
There is a show on the air right now that is claiming to be Scrubs, but it clearly is not the same show. It is like a cloned sheep that looks a lot like the original, but every time it tries to walk it falls over and starts to shudder. Something just is not right with it.
Scrubs ran for eight years. It was one of the most consistently funny programs on TV. The combination of humor and pathos was pitch perfect for the hospital setting. The characters all grew beyond their original one-note set-ups. Even the minor characters were three-dimensional. And it went off the air last spring with one of the most satisfying finale episodes I’ve ever seen. I laughed, I cried, I reached closure.
But now it is back with about half the old cast. The new version seems intent on recycling key plot lines from previous seasons, perhaps thinking that the move to a new network also means that there is an entirely new audience. The result is vaguely familiar and ultimately unsatisfying.
I wish that Scrubs had gone the traditional spin-off route instead. Take one or two minor characters, put them front and center and name the show after them (see Maude or Frasier).
I nominate Ted and Gooch. Call it Ted and Gooch.
Sam Lloyd was so good as Ted the hapless hospital lawyer that I would start to laugh every time he appeared on screen. He sang TV theme songs with an a capella group, lived with his mom, dreamed of standing up to his boss and had one particularly memorable moment where he lost a battle of wits to a dog. In Scrubs’ sort-of final season, Ted found love with Gooch (Kate Micucci), a ukulele playing oddball who was his perfect match.
In the first three episodes of Scrubs Reloaded, Ted was nowhere to be seen. Then, in episode four, Ted and Gooch came back for one last goodbye before heading off in an RV to visit every state in the U.S. That’s your spin-off right there. Ted and Gooch Hit the Road. I’d watch that (but in the meantime I’ll have to settle for streaming Best of Ted clips online).
Last Sunday, two girlfriends and I met up for a hike, followed by lunch. While we huffed and grunted our way up hills, and then proceeded to replace the calories we’d burned with burgers and fries, we talked about the usual things: our relationships, our careers, whether we want to have kids and when, our frustrations with the adult world and all its associated problems and responsibilities.
And then, on Monday, I watched the three main characters of the new TNT show Men of a Certain Age do pretty much the exact same thing.
The show has certainly generated some early buzz, partly because it features three highly recognizable actors and has been relentlessly promoted, but mostly because everything about Men of a Certain Age—from the title to the Wonder Years-esque opening credits to the characters’ discussions about the size of their manly posteriors—evokes a kind of touchy-feeliness that has historically been the domain of female-centric shows like Sex and the City or Grey’s Anatomy.
The low-key dramedy centers around three middle-aged friends (Ray Romano, Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher) who are dealing with marital rifts, faltering careers, receding hairlines and thickening waistlines. They are indeed men of a certain age—pushing 50 with trepidation and mired in emotional baggage. For anyone who laments the erosion of traditional masculinity in American culture, this is not the show for you. Based on the promos, a friend of mine suggested the show would be better titled, “Men with [lady parts].”
The show’s premise appears to hinge on this conspicuous upending of TV gender roles. (Meanwhile the ladies of cable TV, Glenn Close, Kyra Sedgwick and Holly Hunter, continue their regularly scheduled program of kicking ass and taking names.) I’m no proponent of hyper-masculinity, and I think there certainly is a place in the television landscape for a show that explores male relationships outside of the testosterone-fueled, eternal frat boy model. The best thing Men of a Certain Age has going for it so far is that it’s refreshing to see men on TV actually acting their age. The pilot’s greatest flaw is that I don’t believe that men of a certain age—or of any age for that matter—really relate to each other this way. Moments like the one where Romano’s character gazes wistfully out of the diner window and muses, “you look in the mirror, you see yourself . . . you recognize yourself, and there’s that little bit of you that you don’t”, strike me as deeply disingenuous. For most of the episode it feels as though the show is working too strenuously to hone in on the expansive female angst market.
Men of a Certain Age isn’t even television’s first foray into this arena. Way back in 2001, NBC brought us The Other Half, otherwise known as “The View With Dudes”, featuring Mario Lopez, Danny Bonaduce, and Dick Clark as hosts of the morning chat show. In 2007, Dylan McDermott and Michael Vartan starred in the short-lived Big Shots about a group of CEOs with girl problems. Neither of these efforts proved very successful, but Men of Certain Age has a better pedigree and garnered a solid audience and generally positive reviews for its pilot episode, so it will be interesting to see how things progress. Maybe the world is finally ready to watch a group of straight guys obsessing about the size of their butts. However, given that I am decidedly fed up with the hysterical aging woman stereotype (I’m talking to you, Courteney Cox), I can’t say that I see much appeal in watching these characters follow their female peers into a tired trope.
If you want to watch men talking to each other in a diner, I suggest watching the 1982 Barry Levinson film Diner instead. The film captures the depth of male friendships in a way that feels more authentic, with less angst and more funny.