Keith: Okay, Noel, it's time to talk TV again. Last week, we discussed new shows. Since then, one of your favorites—Smith—has been cancelled, and things aren't looking so hot for Kidnapped, which is now being asked to wrap it up in 13 episodes and get out of the way. All this before some major shows have even debuted. Wow. At least Heroes is looking pretty safe, but maybe this week we should talk about some old favorites and how they're looking this year.
Since it's always easier to talk about what isn't working than what is, I'm afraid I'm going to have to join the chorus of people worried about Gilmore Girls (CW, Tuesdays, 8 p.m. ET). Long one of my favorite shows, it received the wrong kind of attention at the end of last year when creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and her writer-producer husband left the show after negotiations with the network broke down. That left David Rosenthal, already on the writing staff, as show-runner. Amy was famous (infamous?) for taking an auteurist's hand in the show, and many speculated that things wouldn't be the same without her. And while this year's season première wasn't a "Spock's Brain"-like sign that the show was forever on a downward slide, it still felt pretty forced. The patter was (mostly) not that bad, but it just seemed like everyone was trying too hard to keep the spirit alive. You know that Pulp song "Bad Cover Version," where Jarvis Cocker compares his ex's new lovers to imitations of himself by listing all these examples of post-shark-jumping pop culture? ("Like a later Tom And Jerry when the two of them could talk / Like the Stones since the '80s / Like Planet Of The Apes on TV…") It felt a bit like that.
I haven't watched the second episode yet, so maybe I'm speaking too soon. Of course, it didn't help that the Palladinos left the show in a bad, bad place last year. What did you think?
Noel: I liked the second episode better, but that may be because I'm accepting the show's overall diminished quality, and I'm settling in to see where the story goes. Mainly, I'm hoping that the new staff doesn't completely destroy these characters before they can guide them to a safe landing in the series finale, which I hope will be this spring. It would help if Rosenthal and company would tone down the faux-Gilmore dialogue, which has been kind of painful so far. Maybe just let the cast breathe a little. That's something the Palladinos excelled at, balancing the rapid-fire conversation with a beat or two of reaction. And I don't think Daniel Palladino ever got enough credit as a director. Television is an actor-and-dialogue-driven medium, but on some of the key Gilmore Girls episodes, Daniel Palladino made some striking visual choices, capturing tense dramatic moments in long, moving takes.
Anyway, it'll be nice if Gilmore Girls can keep it together enough to keep providing a boost to Veronica Mars (CW, Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET), which came roaring out of the gate to start season three. I've heard some grumbling about the plan to do mini-arcs this season, but in the first episode, the writers introduced a handful of mysteries and few compelling new characters, and still found time for the witty social observation and fearless plot twists that give the show its unique tone. It was funny, then suddenly horrifying. A joy to watch.
I also really liked the first episode of season three of Lost (ABC, Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET), though I've learned to expect complaints from Lost fans no matter what the show does. My only complaint about the season première is a carryover complaint from last season's finale: This cast seems ill-suited to big dramatic confrontations and action sequences. But knowing glances and existential terror? Aces up. And yeah, yeah, we're all sick of the flashback structure, except that it really does give the real-time story a chance to simmer without boiling over, and by this time, I'm taking a wait-and-see attitude toward any flashback and/or island development, since last year's payoffs were more than worth the wait, in my opinion. And while I'm as eager as anyone to see how the rest of the castaways are doing, I'm also drinking in every minute we spend in The Others' camp, after so many episodes of almost no contact.
Plus, that opening sequence. Holy God. Did you see it?
Keith: Yep. And I think I'm back in. This was much more compelling than I remember it being last season, if only for the hilariously contentious book club. Also, I know we aren't supposed to know, but any idea what Stephen King novel they were reading? Is the typeface a tip-off? I didn't recognize it, and I smell a clue!
I also appreciated the time with The Others. Part of what I like about them as villains is that they seem to have no idea they're the bad guys. In fact, they're pretty sure they aren't, however nefarious their means. You've got to appreciate the moral ambiguity created by their moral assuredness. They seem so convinced that they're almost convincing, and I predict the next big twist will pull back to reveal that they're just as much pawns of a mysterious force as our castaways.
What I like about The Others applies times 10 to those self-righteous, human-persecuting Cylons on Battlestar Galactica (SCI FI, Fridays, 9 p.m. ET), whose season première I just watched. Obviously, that tremendous act of genocide that kicked off the series makes them the bad guys, but their conviction is kind of infectious, and the more time we spend in their society—and it looks like we're going to get in even deeper this year—the more sense they make. Not that I'm rooting for the toasters, but part of the genius of this show comes from the way it plays both sides.
I know you were still catching up with this, but is it safe to talk about it with you? Can we discuss the show-altering twist of last year's season finale? Can we talk about how __________ is getting manipulated by __________? Or the political extremism that's consumed __________? Or whether __________ and __________'s marriage will last? Or how chummy __________ and __________ have gotten, even though they may not have gotten out of this episode alive? Can we, please?
If not, can I at least talk about how every time I think Battlestar can't get any more of-the-moment, it finds another way to remind us its Peabody is well-earned. One of the posters on this site says it best: Where the first two seasons dealt with the politics of the state, now we're dealing with the politics of resistance, and all those words that come with it, like "insurgency" and "suicide bombings." It's almost become a cliché to talk about it as the best show on television, but I'm hard-pressed to think of a better one.
Noel: I am still catching up—I'm about halfway through the first half of season two-and-a-half, or something like that—so keep your spoilers under your flight helmet for now, even though there probably isn't much I don't already know, just from reading Entertainment Weekly. Anyway, now that all the new fall shows are being canceled, I should be able to get back to Battlestar Galactica soon. (But wait a minute? Isn't The Wire the best show on television? I don't get HBO, so I have no idea what's what.)
Or I might have more time if I could overcome my addiction to zeitgeist-surfing and finally ditch a couple of Top 10 shows that are offering diminishing returns: Desperate Housewives (ABC, Sundays, 9 p.m. ET) and Grey's Anatomy (ABC, Thursdays, 9 p.m. ET). The former went way off the rails last season, but I stuck around because there was always at least one storyline I wanted to keep following. But in spite of reassurances by all involved that the show is back on track, I haven't seen much improvement in season three. Only the out-of-the-blue Marcia Cross/Kyle MacLachlan marriage has been all that entertaining—although the sudden birth of Eva Longoria's surrogate child at last week's wedding was kind of fun, especially when Doug Savant told the assembled crowd, "We've mopped up the amniotic fluid and we're ready to dance!" I'm not quite ready to bail yet, but I have a history of quitting on shows I like around the middle of the third season, once their novelty wears off. Ally McBeal, The West Wing, Dharma & Greg, The Practice… we hardly knew ye.
It's also the moment of truth for Grey's Anatomy, which seems to have prematurely exhausted its store of partner-swapping subplots and grotesque medical oddities, aside from the occasional "guy impaled by tree." Early in the show's run, it got by on cutesiness, a zippy pace, and poignant moments. But at the end of last season, the poignancy curdled into bathos, with lots of scenes of people getting badly hurt and wailing at the gods. Season three has started out much the same way, though less so in episodes two and three than episode one. Still, if it continues getting either too predictable or too stupid, I'll be gone by Christmas.
At least House (Fox, Tuesdays, 8 p.m. ET) is still solid, serving up wonderfully ridiculous medical mysteries, hard jabs at the soul of genius, and some novel storytelling tricks. (Notice how many shows we're writing about are entering their third seasons? Man, that class of 2004-05 was really something.) I don't how long the House creators can keep up the "you've got to be sick to really cure people" shell game, but so far, it's still a reliable hook.
But you don't watch any of those shows, do you? What else are you keeping up with? How about last year's sitcom class?
Keith: Nope. Those are all shows I've never seen for one reason or another. House looks kind of appealing. The others, not so much, although I'm more likely to spend time with either of them than any of the initials shows (from CSI to NCIS) Nothing against them, but the times I've seen them, I just felt like I was watching Quincy, but without Jack Klugman and with better special effects.
Sitcoms… Does The Office (NBC, Thursdays, 8:30 p.m. ET) count as coming from last year's class? Regardless, it's starting to feel like an all-time great. It's remained ridiculously funny and quotable. ("Fashion show at lunch! Fashion show at lunch!" "People say 'Don't be so edgy,' but I don't know any other way.") But it's also gotten deeper and more complex on all fronts. They did a nice job of defusing last year's season finale, for one thing. For me—and mine may be the minority opinion here—the whole Jim and Pam question has shifted from "Will they or won't they?" to "Eh, maybe they shouldn't." Am I the only one rooting for a Pam and Toby hook-up? (I might be.)
I'm still enthused about My Name Is Earl (NBC, Thursdays, 8 p.m. ET), although all of this season is sitting unwatched on my TiVo. I didn't make it too many episodes into Everybody Hates Chris (CW, Sundays, 7 p.m. ET), and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because it just feels aimed at younger viewers. And I'm still really liking How I Met Your Mother (CBS, Mondays, 8:30 p.m. ET) which, like The Office, changed the ground rules between seasons. Maybe that's the key to keeping things interesting, subtly reinventing the show every year. That's it for sitcoms and me, I'm afraid. And most of those aren't exactly traditional sitcoms. What about animated shows? Have you watched South Park this year? The Simpsons? The Simpsons (Fox, Sundays, 8 p.m. ET) seems to have shifted from last year's every-other-episode-is-good pattern to two-out-of-three-episodes-are-pretty-good pattern, which I'll take.
Noel: The Simpsons season certainly started out pretty good, but then The Amazing Race sidetracked me, so I'll have to wait for the reruns to catch up. Lucky for me, it's not so hard to find Simpsons reruns in this country. God bless America.
Of the sitcoms above, The Office is still clearly the best and the brightest, but I feel like I should express a little concern about the way the show has moved away from its origins. The American Office is funny in ways that are distinct from the UK original, which is great, but episodes like last week's—with its attempted coup by Dwight—feel a little bit common and sitcom-y, and not as focused on exploring the discomfort we all feel in sharing space with each other. I'm worried that the comedy's becoming a little pat, in other words. Still funny, but pat.
Ditto My Name Is Earl, which so far in season two is as funny as ever, but is starting to wander a little far afield. Earl has barely referred to his list in the first three episodes, and the white-trash lampooning—which seemed both knowing and ultimately loving in the first season—is starting to verge on the mean. I'm similarly worried about Everybody Hates Chris, which in the first season was grounded in the realities of being poor, but in the second season has just been using poverty when it's good for a joke, and ignoring it when it's inconvenient for the story.
All three of these shows are still good-to-great, but there's a temptation on single-camera sitcoms to go broader and broader over time, and lose the subtlety that the format allows. (It even happened to Arrested Development, though it balanced its broadness with the insane level of self-reference.)
Meanwhile, How I Met Your Mother, a conventional three-camera sitcom, has been getting weirder and more wonderful week-to-week. It's settling into that nice groove that a good sitcom can get into, where the writers know exactly who the characters are and can build whole episodes around their quirks. Last week, it was Barney overdoing it in his attempt to prove to Ted's parents that he's Ted's best friend—which was very funny, especially when worked into the episode's fragmented chronology. And then, at the end, the writers reminded us again that the seemingly timeless romance between Ted and Robin is doomed to fail, no matter how much we root for them. This show is definitely on a roll.
So that's the returners. A few more new shows to go next week, and maybe we can also check back in on how our favorite new shows are holding up. Let's be sure to include a moment of silence for Smith.