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Wednesday, Dec 30, 2009
Suffering from December doldrums on the tube? Fear not. There is a light on the horizon beyond all the holiday specials and reruns. Here are five shows returning in 2010 that will help fill up your DVR.

Increasingly, TV programmers are behaving like movie schedulers, using the full calendar strategically to open new seasons of their best shows. It is becoming common for networks to hold back some of their successful properties until the New Year, protecting them from the Wild West of the Fall. About a decade after the broadcast and cable networks realized that there was no good reason to premiere everything in September, there are now no set guidelines on when to put a show on the air.


Waiting until January and beyond has some advantages. Shows with a fan base can build anticipation by withholding new episodes. Serialized dramas and reality shows that do not rerun well can maintain momentum by giving viewers an entire season in four months instead of nine. Plus, by the time the New Year rolls around, it is clear which new shows are hits and which are duds – nothing is worse that exposing an old (and maybe even successful) show to a newbie in September and having it get run down by an unexpected monster hit.


For viewers, the staggered seasons are a bit of a relief. There is, after all, only so much TV you can watch in a week. Here are five shows coming back over the next few months that are worth putting on your DVR: 


Big Love
Returns January 10

I’m not sure how it happened, but a show about polygamy has turned into the best show about family on TV. Credit the writers and producers for avoiding what could have been a soap opera about three wives fighting over one man. Instead, we are treated to a nuanced exploration of what it means to be part of family that also happens to be a felony.


American Idol
Premieres January 12

Love it or hate it, you probably watch it. Expect more bad auditions, triumphant performances and odd comments from the judges this year. But the real change is the departure of Paula Abdul, who has grown increasingly incoherent over time. She will not be missed. After the audition rounds with guest judges (Hello Neil Patrick Harris!), Ellen Degeneres will join the panel to provide an interesting counterbalance to Simon Cowell.


24
Premieres January 17

Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is back, which is a bit surprising given that he spent most of last season dying from exposure to a bioweapon. The season ended with some nonsense about an experimental bone marrow treatment. So one reason to watch is to see how they explain that one away. But really the reason to tune in is that 24 continues to be the best high-wire act on TV. It’s not always pretty or smooth, but it is usually fun. Also, the amazing Cherry Jones is back as President Allison Taylor.


Lost
Premieres February 2

This is going to be the single most unfriendly season for new viewers of any show in the history of television. There is just no way to join Lost in progress. If you’re one of those who hasn’t been fortunate enough to ride this wave from the beginning, it is definitely worth starting with season one on DVD and watching the whole run. For those of us who crashed on the island with the survivors and haven’t missed an episode since, buckle up for a fun ride. 


United States of Tara
Premieres March 22

Unlike Lost, it is relatively easy to catch up on United States of Tara before season two begins in March. The premise is simple – a family struggles with a mom who has multiple personalities. But the movie-of-the-week description does not do justice to this funny and heart-wrenching show. Toni Collette shines as Tara and all her other selves. John Corbett and Rosemarie DeWitt are also stellar as Tara’s long-suffering husband and sister. Going into the show, I was not sure it would be able to sustain for a full season, but after 12 episodes it is just starting to dig deeper into the psychology and family dynamics.


So there you have it. Something to look forward to. In the meantime, pass the remote – I think ABC is rerunning Prep and Landing again.


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Tuesday, Dec 8, 2009
Now that Jennifer has packed her knives and gone, who will be the next Top Chef?

On the first part of the Top Chef finale, which aired on Bravo on Wednesday, December 2 (and which will re-air about fifty times between now and next Wednesday), the final four chef-testants (love it) were narrowed to three, and I for one was sad to see Jennifer depart.  Like many viewers (the show is achieving record-high ratings for the network), I have been captivated by the current season, and I was sorry to see, in an otherwise male-dominated season, the last female contestant eliminated, especially given the misogynist comments of several cast members (Eli and Michael, particularly).


So now it’s time to place your bets… who will take the title of Top Chef?  Who will win the 125K and the… kitchen equipment?  A bunch of stuff from Macy’s?  A photo spread in Glamour?  I usually fast-forward the part where they explain the prizes.


Anyway, here is where I will be putting my money:


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Monday, Nov 30, 2009
The Hills finale airs Tuesday, December 1 at 10PM on MTV. The question, at this point, is whether anyone will be watching it. This intrepid blogger braved the inanity of the most recent season to let you know what has been happening.

Previously on The Hills: Heidi and Spencer got married; at the last minute, Lauren decided to attend the wedding, before leaving the show to pursue life in the real world; Kristin returned to town to shake things up, causing a completely unrealistic wave of whispering and gossip among the other weddings guests; and we all stopped caring and forgot that this show existed.


Yes, the sudden reappearance of Kristin Cavallari, whose presence can only be considered a return for those of us who started watching all of these awful people on Laguna Beach, was the jump-the-shark moment for many viewers. Ratings for the show have plummeted this season, down more than 33 percent from the previous season. As Lauren Conrad went off to try to define herself apart from the show (how is that working out for her?), the obvious engineering of Kristin’s return veered the show even closer to WWF-levels of unreality. In addition, the scenes of Heidi and Spencer had become so obviously scripted, and they failed so utterly to sound like actual humans, that viewers were unable to suspend disbelief any longer. 


I too vowed that the show had crossed that line for me, and so I am proud to say that I survived the past two months without watching a single second of the new season. Then, a funny thing happened. My wife was in the shower, I was flipping through the channel listings, and I saw MTV’s afternoon lineup of “The Hills / The Hills / The Hills / The Hills….”  Like many people (right?), I have never been able to resist a Hills marathon. Even when I watched the show religiously, I regularly spent Saturday and Sunday afternoons lazing on the couch re-watching the same characters engaging in the same conversations about the same things. Had I seen this episode already? Did it really matter? The irony, of course, is that every episode of The Hills is basically the same. Characters hook up, text each other about it, go to a party/opening/concert/fashion show where they fight about it, and then engage in the most sublimely incoherent conversations about everything that has gone on. Each episode ends as we fade out on an appropriately sad/angry/happy song by Kelly Clarkson/Britney Spears/some-crappy-band-the-show-is-obviously-promoting.


So, when I saw those hours of unseen Hills episodes staring me in the face, I could not help but feeling overcome with curiosity for what I had been missing.  And what has been going on, you might ask?


Exactly what you might expect. Kristin is desperately trying to graft herself onto the scene by screaming at every female on the show and hooking up with every male on the show, Speidi continue their rapid descent into obscurity (shown here renting a house, bickering about marriage, and contemplating – seriously – bringing a child into the world), and the ancillary characters continue to orbit the cameras and the leads, keeping the plastic surgeons of Los Angeles afloat as they try to make themselves good looking enough to have their own storylines. Stephanie Pratt is, at this point, approaching Michael Jackson territory. 


I will not lie and pretend that I did not fully enjoy watching this marathon. There were plenty of shouting matches, scenes of obvious acting, and WTF moments to keep me thoroughly entertained. And, as always, there were several sublime moments where I could not help but giving thanks for living in America in 2009. For example, after standing Kristin up for the second time, Justin-Bobby texted the phrase “Sorry boo, strike two.” That actually happened (or, well, you know, it kind of actually happened).


Overall, there is a lot to watch for in The Hills finale on Tuesday night. Will Kristin choose Brody or Justin-Bobby? Will Heidi succeed in her secret plan to get pregnant? Will anyone show up to the “live after-party” that MTV kept promoting during the marathon?


Who knows. I guess the rest is still unwritten.


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Monday, Aug 31, 2009

If you’re like me, then you’re beyond excited to see the cast of Seinfeld reunited during the seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm.


And that is why I suggest some contemplation to quell, or curb, your excitement. Let’s take some time to think about Seinfeld, which is, in essence, the founding father show of Curb. That is, Curb is almost a spinoff of Seinfeld. An actual spinoff (like The Jeffersons from All in the Family) isn’t necessary in order to consider the origin of certain story elements. 


I think most sitcoms can be traced to some of the iconic shows from the 1950s. For Seinfeld, I think it’s important to recall The Honeymooners.


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Sunday, Jul 26, 2009

Picture the following situation. You catch a bus to go home after a hard day’s work, pay the fare and take a seat. Suddenly there are sirens everywhere, a blinding flash of light, and a series of incredible jolts and accelerations. The next thing you know you’re stranded in an area of absolute desolation with death on the horizon.


Now while this is quite normal for American users of public transport, Britain is a green and pleasant land, so it’s a bit of a shock for the Doctor and his fellow passengers.


So what is the Doctor doing on a London double decker bus? It turns out he’s tracking a newly opened wormhole and the bus he was riding just drove through it. So now the Doctor and his fellow passengers are all stuck on the Planet of the Dead in a wrecked bus. Since there aren’t any Americans with public transport experience around, they are left to their own devices.


Luckily, the passengers turn out to be pretty resourceful. The better half of a sweet old couple from Brixton has psychic ability. There are two likely lads who start repairing the bus. And there’s a mysterious and aristocratic lady in a tight leather body suit who used diamond earrings as bus fare. She’s Lady Christina (Michelle Ryan), and has just stolen a very precious artifact from a museum. Half of the police in London were chasing her when she boarded the bus.


The London police may have their faults but they do know what to do when a double decker vanishes into thin air. They call in the normally hapless but always well intentioned folks at UNIT. UNIT is the United Nation alien rapid response team and this time they have a really good mad scientist, Dr. Malcom Taylor (Lee Evans), on staff.


All of this talent is going to be tested to the full as the Doctor has to cope with crashed alien spacecraft, a disgruntled alien crew, a rapidly growing wormhole and metallic, and planet chewing space locusts. Indeed, it’s a great show, which manages to duplicate some of the sense of joyful adventure from the old Tom Baker days. It’s the combination of the fast pace, originality and happy go lucky style that makes Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead one of the best adventures that any of the Doctors has had.


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