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Wednesday, Apr 14, 2010
A lot changed in this episode.

This week’s episode of Parenthood opened at the parent/child yoga class that Crosby was attending with his son. While he ogled the woman in front of him, reminding me of why I never do yoga in public, Jabbar befriended her son and the two quickly planned a play date. There was no mention of Kate in the whole episode, as Crosby drooled over this rich divorcee until she actually made a play for him. In an astounding show of bad parenting, the two left their kids alone with a seemingly dense pool boy. Crosby had enough sense to note that was a mistake, however, angering the yoga mom. Later on, Jasmine chastised him for using her son as “chick bait” and revoked his babysitting privileges.


He wasn’t the only Braverman that couldn’t catch a break. Adam kept trying to make quality time with his family, but Max’s tight schedule with Gabby prevented it. Then he had to impress two obnoxious clients from work at a “hip restaurant” (a Mexican-themed bar surrounded by red Christmas lights), when all he really wanted to do was spend some time alone with his wife. It didn’t much help matters much that he saw Gabby at this same bar, drinking a large quantity of alcohol. Not to mention, Kristina called him to bring home some cornflakes, because she accidentally bought the kind that comes with strawberries, which Max thinks looks like toads. (My guess is that they got “Special K: Red Berries”?) All of this led to a hung over Adam shouting at home that he has a schedule instead of a life and that he feels “like a household appliance”. Kristina just calmly told him to “take a break”, which he did at the end of the episode, by surfing. Ironically, my mom noted that he looked like a big toad then.


When Kristina wasn’t consoling Adam, she obsessed over helping Haddie with her career day assignment, following Julia at work in the law firm. Unfortunately, Haddie’s raving review of Julia’s glamorous yet meaningful work depressed Kristina, who felt that her accomplishments were ignored. Adam noticed this and took Haddie to a local park, which was only there because of Kristina’s efforts. After Haddie compared her to Erin Brockovich, she played personal assistant by bringing her mother a cup of coffee home.


Haddie’s career day assignment also got Julia thinking, as she remembered why she wanted to be a lawyer and her promise to give back. When she told Joel her plans to work in legal aid, however, he laughed them off as a good-intentioned pipe-dream.


As Mr.Cyr and Sarah started their romance, Amber crushed on her teacher by repeatedly listening to a SAT word prep playlist that he downloaded onto her i-pod. After Mark (Mr. Cyr) held her hand, sent her flowers, and kissed her a lot, Sarah giddily told all of her siblings about her new relationship. Adam realized that Amber was infatuated with Mark, so he broke the news to Sarah. Though Sarah doubted and criticized her brother, she recognized that Amber needed to know what was going on. Amber’s tearful reaction to that news painfully led Sarah to break up with Mark. But while that was happening, Amber blew off her SAT test to run away with Damien, her boyfriend from Fresno.


Finally, next week’s preview says that we’ll see Zeke make a fool of himself at Jabbar’s birthday party and that Sarah catches up to her daughter and Damien.


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Friday, Apr 9, 2010
Messy episode continues the apocalypse plot.

This week’s episode of “Supernatural” opened frantically, with Dean driving the Impala away from a mysterious possessed crowd that is around a burning barn. Just when it looks like he and a wounded Sam are surrounded, a holy water-spraying truck pulls up. It is being driven by a mystery man who is shouting exorcism incantations through a megaphone. Once the demons are gone, he identifies himself as Rob, a member of the “Sacrament Lutheran Militia”, who is trying to fend off the apocalypse.


A puzzled Sam and Dean then meet the fellow members of his group, a small town whose citizens know all about the end of days and demon hunting. Rob introduces them to David Gideon, the pistol-packing pastor. In turn he introduces them to his wife, Jane, son, Dylan, and daughter Leah, who is a prophet. Apparently, Leah received visions from angels who told the townspeople all about the impending apocalypse. These same visions told her where demons are and how to get rid of them, and in fact, there is some in the local woods at that moment. After the brothers and the townspeople destroy a demon hoard in a poorly shot battle at an abandoned house, Dylan oddly asks Sam and Dean for a ride. As the townspeople drive away, another possessed demon kills Dylan in a surprise attack.


This is when we start to see the even darker side of things, as Jane blames the Winchesters for her son’s death at his funeral. Then Leah convulses and predicts that Dylan will come back from the dead, resurrected after Heaven wins the battle and they, as the chosen people, live in paradise. However, if not everyone follows the angels’ strict moral guide, then the whole town is doomed. That night, Sam strikes up a friendship with Paul, a doubting bartender who criticizes the hypocritical nature of the people. When asked if he’s a believer, Sam says yes, but “God stopped caring a long time ago”.


He’s not the only one losing his faith, a drunken, then hung-over Castiel shows up at the boys’ hotel room. The only thing that remains unchanged about him is his troubles with cell phones. (“I don’t understand why you want me to say my name”, he says on a voicemail.) Castiel has big news: Leah is not a prophet. She’s actually one of the signs of the apocalypse, a false prophet known as “the whore of Babylon”. Her job is to use good intentions to drag good people down into Hell and the only way she can be defeated is to be stabbed with a Cypress branch by a “true servant of Heaven”. The only person befitting of that title there is Pastor Gideon.


Meanwhile, Leah tells the people that the angels are angry because someone is breaking the rules. She convinces Jane to kill Paul, but doesn’t stop there. Soon all of the “sinners” in town, including children, are thrown into a storage shed that she demands be set on fire. Pastor Gideon is starting to have doubts about her, so it really doesn’t take much effort for Sam, Dean, and Castiel to convince him of what he must do.


The three ambush Leah when she’s alone, but she escapes and turns the townspeople against them. This doesn’t last long, because everyone sees her super-human grip around Dean’s throat. Gasping for breath, he grasps the Cypress branch and kills her. Wondering why it happened, Sam asks Dean if he’s actually Michael. Dean says no, but he speeds off in the Impala.   


Nothing is mentioned for no reason on “Supernatural”, so when the “previously on” clip show reminded us about Lisa, Dean’s former girlfriend that he may or may have not gotten pregnant; I knew it was done for a reason. Dean showed up at her door and tells her, “When I do picture myself happy, it’s with you and the kid”. He warns her that some bad things are going to happen in the next couple of days, but not to worry because he is going to meet with some people that will make things okay for her and the boy. Therefore, I’m left wondering what that exactly means for next week’s show, the much hyped about hundredth episode.


While I’m glad to see the apocalypse plot advancing, several plot holes made this episode messy. What will happen to the townspeople? Why would the false prophet afflict such a small town? Why didn’t Dean choose to say goodbye to Ben? There were other weak moments, too. Dean annoyingly referred to God as a “deadbeat dad” again and the show’s lack of good lighting made some scenes hard to follow. Still, the episode made me anxious to see what happens next week.


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Wednesday, Feb 3, 2010

In the Terminator franchise, the moment in time that the hero seeks to undo is the moment that Skynet becomes “self aware”, when technology suddenly makes the leap into having a consciousness of its subservience to mankind and decides to stage a slave rebellion. I fear that my television fun will soon be ruined as Snooki 2.0 suddenly learns words like “cache” and avoids the burnt umber spray tan setting, opting instead for something that looks like it could actually be produced by exposure to sunlight. We are reaching the terrifying moment where Jersey Shore understands itself. 


It’s true that, as the New Yorker notes, the pleasure derived from Jersey Shore is tainted with anthropological condescension, but that seems far more sensible to me that ironic adulation. Of course, we want to part the bushes and peer into the world of “Guidos and Guidettes” who string one clubbing night to another, skirmish in violent turf wars, and wring dramatic tensions from hooking up. Honestly, at their age, I can’t say that I did much more than go to concerts and classes, do harder drugs, and have casual sex, the only difference being that I had a reading list.


Frankly, I’m glad that Pauly D doesn’t talk about Foucault and listen to the Fall. These kids are brash, directionless thrill seekers. Most people in their 20s are mistake factories, prone to perpetually misread the significance of life events, their place in the cosmos, and the stability and veracity of their choices and feelings. (Whereas people in their 30s understand that they are repeating the mistakes of their 20s.) The Jersey Shore kids simply represent a very specific subgenre of a more general category: partiers.


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Thursday, Dec 17, 2009
In a New York Magazine essay, Emily Nussbaum argues that TV became Art in this past decade. But thanks to Buffy that had already happened at the end of the previous one.

This was the decade in which television became art. So argues Emily Nussbuam in a recent New York Magazine essay, “When TV Became Art”. She certainly makes a strong case that 2000-2009 was a pivotal age for TV and I strongly recommend her essay to anyone interested in the development of television over the past decade. I agree that this was, all in all, the finest decade for great television.


Others have argued that TV had arisen as an art form in earlier decades, some (though in dwindling numbers) arguing for the fifties, based on the series that presented staged plays for a television audience, including such original masterpieces as “Twelve Angry Men”, written by Reginald Rose for Studio One, and “Requiem for a Heavyweight”, written by Rod Serling for Playhouse 90. Later, Robert J. Thompson, in his widely cited Television’s Second Golden Age: From Hill Street Blues to ER, argued for the eighties as the crucial period.  But Nussbaum has numbers on her side; it is difficult to argue against the sheer quantity of very fine shows that emerged in the past ten years. The number of truly great series from the past ten years is so substantial that it might surpass the number of great shows from all previous decades combined.


Nonetheless, I want to take issue with Nussbaum.  I think that chopping the overall picture up into decade-sized blocks obscures the reality.  I believe that one can point at a precise point where TV became art, and that point was the debut of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. No one questions the enormous influence that Joss Whedon’s quirky series exerted on other shows, but I do not believe that many people realize the degree to which it altered the TV landscape. TV was not art before Buffy, but it was afterwards. 


In contrast, the show that Nussbaum promotes as the apex of TV as Art, The Wire, has not actually played a crucial role in that development. The Wire is a beneficiary of the birth of TV as art, a promulgator of that development, not its cause. There is no question it is a truly great show, but it really did nothing to change TV. Television had already changed, and we largely have Buffy to thank for that. To be fair, Nussbaum does mention Buffy and Joss Whedon frequently in her essay, obviously crediting both the show and the creator for much of the best that the decade had to offer, but she seems to imply that TV as art was a work in progress as the decade began and it most definitely was not.


Although many realize just how revolutionary Buffy was as a series and the impact that it made on the medium (many TV creators site it as their favorite show while others acknowledge its direct influence), not everyone is aware of how groundbreaking the series was or of the number of concrete changes it wrought on television. It was not merely a great TV series in its own right, it helped redefine what TV could do.  Let me enumerate some of the changes made, all of them rather substantial.


One of the most important changes that Buffy brought about was a new understanding of long story arcs on TV.  A very brief history of narrative on television is in order to provide a context for my point. For most of the history of television, the format of series was episodic. On almost all shows (excepting soap operas), no matter what happened on one episode of a series, the next week would witness a complete reset.  If James West was beaten to a pulp or even shot on The Wild, Wild West, the next week he would be as fine as ever. 


No matter what happens on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Dick and Laura would never refer to it again.  As a result, each episode was self-contained and ignored any kind of narrative order.  Watch the episodes of It Takes a Thief in any order that you wish; juxtapose an episode from season four and then from season two and it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. This began to change with Hill Street Blues and the shows that Robert J. Thompson applauded: St. Elsewhere, China Beach, L. A. Law, and thirtysomething. For the first time on primetime television, stories got messy and spilled over from one episode to another…


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Place your order for Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters, published with Titan Books, here.



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Friday, Nov 27, 2009
The teenagers of television are a limited breed at the best of times, usually pigeonholed to fit into the storylines of their parents or significant others. Where are the complex representations that the majority of writers can achieve with their adult characters?

All teenagers on TV at this current moment seem to fall into one of two very distinct categories. They are either the rebellious troublemakers who wreak havoc on their parents (see the Scavo twins in Desperate Housewives or Michael Hewes in Damages), or they are the intellectual, well-behaved children who act as foils to their immature and irresponsible parents (see Julie Mayer in Desperate Housewives or Becca in Californication).


Even shows that could once be relied upon to provide us with relatively normal young characters, such as Law and Order: SVU (see Detective Stabler’s recurring spawn), have fallen into this trap. Recently we were given “Swing”, an episode that detailed the life of Stabler’s daughter, Kathleen, and her fall into delinquency because of bipolar disorder. Even the once well-behaved children have been shown to have their moment of rebellion; consider Julie Stark’s (of the legal drama Shark) improbable pingponging between “sweet, smart heart of the show” and “criminal source of personal drama.” They just can’t make up their minds.


Julie Stark (Danielle Panabaker) and Sebastian Stark (James Woods) share a father/daughter moment.

Julie Stark (Danielle Panabaker) and Sebastian Stark
(James Woods) share a father/daughter moment.


My question is: why? Is it impossible to depict complex teenage characters? Writers seem to be almost seduced by the ‘easy drama’ that wayward teens provide, but spend precious little time developing them as people or exploring their motives for such actions. It is not the actions themselves that I resent, but the apparent laziness of the writers while creating such characters. We can have complicated hard drinkers and adulterers like the titular Grace of Saving Grace as the leads when they are adults, but when such qualities are present in the younger generation, they are reduced to mere cardboard cut outs, excuses for more drama in the lives of their frazzled parents.


Take the aforementioned Michael Hewes of Damages. Despite having everything he could possibly wish for given to him by his rich and successful mother and stepfather, he is—apparently—unhappy. He is portrayed as a budding sociopath in the first season of the legal drama, shown sending a bomb to his mother’s workplace and pretending to the school psychiatrist that his mother’s unsettling dreams are his own. Why? It is inferred that Michael longs to see his icy mother lose her cool, to “rock her world”, as Andrew van de Kamp did to long-suffering mother Bree through the second season of Desperate Housewives, yet nothing is confirmed or truly developed. Little of a maternal bond is shown between Patty and Michael, but nothing is shown to suggest that there would be anything else.


I am not saying that I wished for one of those spectacular, Lifetime-esque scenes in which Patty and Michael screamed and sobbed at one another, exorcising demons and unearthing skeletons, but I would have liked to see… something. This subplot was introduced and then rapidly dropped, as commonly happens with subplots that concern a show’s teenage characters. These teens are, mostly commonly, plot devices, but they are very rarely developed people. Why not? Just because adults are a show’s main focus, it doesn’t mean that their teenagers cannot be developed and well rounded.


Veronica Mars is an example of this. It may be aimed at teens, and primarily about teens, but each of these characters are superbly written, flawed, and detailed. Nobody is all good or all bad. For example, even ultimate villain and abusive father Aaron Echolls presents a genuine desire to reconnect with estranged son Logan and love for daughter Trina. Our heroine has her own faults, including a particular bull-headedness and tendency to judge far too quickly. The good guys have their quirks and complexities, while the bad guys are not nearly as two-dimensionally psychotic as they might once appear. I am not holding the Veronica Mars writers in a place above gods; they are not perfect, either, but this is one angle in which they excel. What is stopping their fellow powers that be from following their example?


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