May 28, 2013

The Curtain Falls on Smash

In the course of its two season lifetime, I probably watched fewer than half a dozen episodes of NBC's Smash. This past weekend, I watched the finale anyway. 


It wasn't hard to pick up on the major plot points. The two musicals, whose casts and production teams the show followed, had now opened on Broadway. The 2-hour finale covered the Tony nominations and awards, and it tied up the characters' stories nicely and neatly. I haven't watched enough to the show to determine if this clean ending was a good thing, but it was definitely satisfying to the casual viewer. I nodded through the conclusions thinking, "Yeah, that seems about right." Contemptible characters like Derek got just enough comeuppance, and characters with whom I tended to sympathize, like Ivy, got the respect they were due. In Ivy's case, the respect came the form of a Tony Award. And thank goodness. Even in the few episodes I watched, it was clear that Ivy was a far better actress than Karen. Whether this means Megan Hilty is a far better actress than Katharine McPhee, I'm not sure. (Although that may be true, too.)

Don't get me wrong, McPhee is incredibly talented - one of the few true talents to come out of American Idol. On Smash, she was surrounded by an all-star cast. In every episode I watched, they were performing at the top of their games. Not to mention the guest stars! So why is it then, that I never got hooked on this show? Why couldn't this well-produced, well-funded, well-acted piece of television make it past two seasons? There are, of course, many opinions. (This one pins Smash's fate mostly on the show's lousy second season ratings.) I have a few thoughts of my own:

First, while this show was originally billed to reach the matruring audience of Glee, in reality it filled an incredibly small niche. Musical theatre lovers abound, but I doubt there are enough of them so singly devoted to commit a weekly hour to a fictional commentary on the subject. Certainly not enough to raise the Neilsen ratings. Case in point: I'm a musical theatre lover and a lover of TV, and even I didn't commit a weekly hour to this show. 

And that's partly because of my second point: the drama didn't have much of one. A point, that is. If you've read other posts of mine, you know I don't run from even the soapiest of primetime dramas. But the drama on Smash seemed consistently petty. Which is fine and relatable if high schoolers are fighting for the solo on Glee. Not so fine if grown women are fighting for a professional lead and sleeping with the director to get it. That doesn't get the characters much sympathy from me. Of course, some would argue that's the reality of the professional theatre world. And I'm sure sometimes it is. But Smash didn't do the that world any favors by pointing it out. 

Finally, the music, though technically good, catchy, and well performed, felt out of place. Which should not have been the case for a show about musicals! It was as though the music didn't know what to be - internal soliloquy or a performance as a part of the shows within the show. Smash attempted to walk the line between being a TV show about musicals and being a musical TV show, but didn't get the balance quite right.

Now, all that aside, I think I can say I loved the Smash finale. So much so that all those flaws almost seem irrelevant. Indeed, Smash gave us that big finish:

Smash did leave me wanting more. Lucky for me, I probably watched fewer than half a dozen episodes of NBC's Smash. So the next time I need some drama, I know just the show.

May 25, 2013

Nashville: "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" Review

There were stellar performances all around on this week's drama-filled season finale of ABC's Nashville. As Hayden Panettiere's Juliette brought the house down with "Nothing in this World (Will Ever Break My Heart Again)," the hearts of the viewers were breaking.

It was Panettiere and Charles Esten who shone brightest in the season finale. Aside from the spectacular music (and edge-of-your-seat drama), what Nashville does best is create incredibly complex characters. Panettiere delivered an authentically angry, hopeless, and helpless reaction to Jolene's death, which fully revealed the internal sorrow that's been working its way through her rhinestone exterior all season. Esten's remarkable portrayal of Deacon's spiral back into alcoholism added depth to that character, but  also served to explain his history with Rayna. It made Rayna and Teddy's decision to keep the truth from him understandable. (Shout out to newcomer Lennon Stella. Maddie's realization of her true paternity was real and heart-wrenching. This young actress is going places.)

Key to these performances was the way they were set up - all season long, but particularly in this season's penultimate episode. Juliette's mother's death, Scarlet's ultimatum for Gunnar, and Maddie's discovery set the stage perfectly for the season finale "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive." For the characters, everything is falling apart, but for the story, everything is coming together. That's what made the final five minutes of the episode outstanding. Despair, but not a single plot hole.

Though it brought me to tears more than once, I  thoroughly enjoyed this episode of Nashville. It followed a kind of finale formula - break everything apart in the final moments, leaving your audience on the edge of their seats until the fall. But the formula works, even when we can see things coming. (Put anyone in a car in the last scene of a season finale, and we know it won't end well.) In the last five minutes, we were slammed with one cliffhanger after another, not the least of which was Deacon and Rayna's deadly looking car accident. Suffice it to say, I'm thrilled that ABC has renewed Nashville for a second season. I can't wait to see what happens next. It just might break our hearts. 

May 17, 2013

Farewell, Dear Friends - The Office: "Finale"

"I wish there was a way to know you're in the good old days before you've actually left them."

Farewell, dear friends.
I don't think there has ever been, and I doubt there will ever be, a series finale quite as perfect as the one The Office gave us last night. They gave us an episode that struck that near-impossible balance between a happy ending and one that was true to life.

They gave us sweetness and discomfort. Did you cringe a little during the bachelor/bachelorette parties? When Kevin and Toby were fired? While the panel audience grilled Pam? Good. If you didn't, The Office would be doing something wrong. Just like it would be wrong if it didn't also make you cry tears of happiness when Dwight and Angela were married, when Jim and Pam sold their house, when Erin met her parents, or when Kevin handed Nellie her new baby. Quirky sweetness and awkward ridiculousness. Tears and laughter. That's The Office. It's always been The Office.

They gave us nostalgia without being cheesy. It's impossible to pick a favorite line from the finale, but Jim's reprise of the line from the pilot about selling paper - types and reams of paper - might be it. It represents how The Office came full circle but in a way that didn't make me roll my eyes. The subtle cameos of returning characters - Jake, Carol, Devon, and wasn't that the same stripper from Bob Vance's bachelor party? - were perfect. They made the die-hard fans nod and smile without hitting us over the head with it.

They gave us Michael Scott... but not too much. The producers tried very hard to keep Steve Carrell's appearance in the finale a secret, but alas, you can keep nothing from the internet.  The excuse for excluding him was that Michael Scott already said goodbye, and now it was everyone else's chance. But the finale wouldn't be right without him. So they gave us Michael Scott AND gave the rest of the cast their chance to say goodbye. Again, an impossible balance that the writers, directors, and producers of The Office somehow managed to find.

They gave both closure and a future. Without tying everything up in a neat little bow, they gave us proof that these folks are going to be just fine. After all we've seen them face the last nine years, we know they can face anything. Even saying farewell.

They gave us what we knew we always had in these characters: an extraordinary group of ordinary people. If I were to sum up the Farewell Season of The Office in one word would be authentic. Never has the show seemed so true to its characters, to its plot, to its fans. Fans who will be forever grateful to have shared this show for nine years. And now all we can say is thank you. From the bottom of our collective heart. Thank you, Lazy Scranton. (What? The electric city!) Thank you for the friendly faces around the block: Michael and Stanley, Jim, Dwight, Creed, Andy, and Kelly - the ones we went to for all our business paper needs. Thank you, Dunder Mifflin, for being the people person's paper people. Thank you.

May 14, 2013

How I Met Your Mother: "Something New" Review

If you take a look at Cristin Milioti's IMDb page, you'll find that though her resume isn't very long, it is impressive. She had a recurring role on The Sopranos, a part in the indie flick Sleepwalk With Me, and a cameo on 30 Rock that you probably remember. (She played the floozy nemesis of Liz Lemon, Abby Flynn, in the acclaimed episode "TGS Hates Women.") She also received a Tony nomination for her performance in the musical Once. Now she will add one more impressive role to that list: the title character in  How I Met Your Mother.

Some of you out there in internetland are skeptical that the reveal - eight years in the making - actually happened, but, the HIMYM Facebook page, and other sources are conclusive. Thank goodness for that. If they cried wolf one more time, I was going to give up on this show for good. 

Though the audience met the mother, Ted hasn't yet, and he spent this week's episode, "Something New," feeling pretty miserable. We learn that he's still in love with Robin (no kidding) and is preparing to leave New York to deal with those feelings. Lily's consolation was that the one for Ted is just around the corner. I'm conflicted about this. On the one hand, I reject the idea that a person can't romantically move on until they've met someone new. On the other hand, I recognize that this can be a reality for many people, and that makes Ted and Robin's story relatable.

I was disappointed that "Something New" didn't bookend this season by ending the conversation Robin and Ted began in the episode "Farhampton" as she stood in her wedding gown moments before walking down the aisle. I suppose that's where we'll pick up next season. And that's when we'll find out if Robin and Barney actually tie the knot. Now, this may be controversial, but here are two reasons why I'm hoping they don't:

1. We haven't seen the Barney who fell in love with Robin in a very long time.
The other day, I caught the end of a rerun of "Tick Tick Tick," the tenth episode of season seven. It's the one where Robin doesn't break up with Kevin, leaving a heartbroken Barney to brush rose petals off of her bed. This question, above all else, pervaded my thoughts: Where's that guy?!? The sensitive, lovesick, guy who had grown up and grown as a character. In season eight, Barney has regressed horrifically; The bachelor party episode was the nadir of this character backslide. If the Barney we've seen in the past 15 or so episodes is the Barney HIMYM's writers are giving us from now on, he needs to stay the heck away from love and marriage.

2. If Robin is single, I'll believe beyond a doubt that Ted is truly in love with someone new.
If he only moves on once she's off the market, I don't buy that it's true love. The girl with the yellow umbrella will be nothing more than the one he settles for when "the one" gets away. 

May 13, 2013

John Cochran: Caramoan's Sole Survivor

Being named Sole Survivor must be worth more than a million dollars to John Cochran. It was a win thirteen years in the making for the nerdiest, smartest, and cutest Survivor superfan of all time.


I've never been so happy about a Survivor winner. I'd been pulling for Cochran from the start. By the end, it was clear he was the only one who deserved to win.
OUTWIT: John Cochran was always in control. He said it best: He was calm without being complacent and vigilant without being paranoid. He chalked it up to timing, but it was so much more. He's the most intelligent castaway ever to play Survivor.
OUTPLAY: He was the challenge monster he claimed to be. Even if he did need the advantages to win the immunity challenges, he earned them by being smart enough to buy the one and skilled enough to win the other. 
OUTLAST: Not only did he make it to the jury's cross-examination, he made it through the jury's cross-examination, which is the bigger accomplishment. Not to mention that every one of his answers was perfect.
To top it all off, I'm certain that Cochran said things in his testimonials solely for the benefit of the cameras. He summarized the plot articulately, concocted snide (yet witty and endearing) insults, and spoke ambiguously enough about strategy that his comments were ready-made for teaser previews. He doesn't just understand the game from a castaway's point of view, he understands it from the producers' point of view.

The Challenges
I was thrilled with the finale's challenges. The reward challenge was a reprise of one of my favorites. Remember this moment from South Pacific?

Watching that challenge again reminds me how happy I was for Sophie. She's now a close second to Cochran in my list of favorite Survivor winners.

The final immunity challenge was a great combination of challenge elements. Sure, it was mostly a puzzle challenge, but puzzle challenges are my favorite. I think they prove that even the "outplay" pillar of the game is about more than just brawn.

The Jury Speaks
I can't not address the Dawn and Brenda squabble. You know I feel that this is a game, and should be treated as such. Dawn made a smart move and has no reason to regret any of her game. As for Brenda's tribal "question," that was low. Low and unnecessary. It stemmed from somewhere bitter and that's not cool, but it's also not uncommon. Being a bitter juror is easy. I have more respect for the gracious jurors - like Andrea.

If anyone had a right to be bitter, it was Erik, not Brenda. Poor Erik. He doesn't know how to leave Survivor the usual way! Boy, did Erik show his bitter side to Sherri. That was a fight I wasn't expecting. Sherri got the short straw in this finale, and I don't think that's fair. Maybe she didn't articulate it well, but Sherri did play a strategic game. While there was still an alliance of fans, she was in control of it. Had he not been medevac'd, she doubtless would have been in control of Shamar. And unlike any of the other fans, she was able to infiltrate the favorites alliance. Did she play a game worth a million dollars? No. But she played a game worth a few more questions, both from the jury and at the live after show.

There is one thing I'm still curious about. Was this a unanimous jury vote? Sure seems that way. No one cast a single vote for Cochran all season, until they all voted for him in the end. There's your fairy tale.

This was an unbelievable season of Survivor. In spite of the tough times, it was one of my favorites to watch, and seeing Cochran win was the icing on the cake. Just for Cochran, let's imagine that as vanilla and peanut butter icing. Congratulations, John Cochran. You deserved it.

May 11, 2013

Community: "Advanced Introduction to Finality" Review

All throughout the fourth season, I've been conflicted about Community. It's a show that began slowly, gained momentum in season two, and sailed through its third season with conviction and purpose. After creator Dan Harmon left, fans were a little concerned about where season four would take the Greendale study group. And now, after watching the season finale, I can definitively answer: I don't know. I have no idea where the study group stands (sits?).

This season has been strange because, while on the surface it seemed so authentically Community, something was off. Some fans might want to blame it on Harmon's departure. I'm not sure that's it. It might just be that Community hit its sophomore slump in its senior year. The finale, "Advanced Introduction to Finality," should have felt right. After all, it had paintball. But it also had too much of two things: commentary and sentimentality.

Lines from the episode will help me explain:
Abed: "You could go back and pretend that you're the same guy you were four years ago, but you're not. You're stronger. You're better. You have friends! No, screw that, you have a family."  
 Jeff: "Wait, if this is all in my mind, then I don't really need to fight him."
Abed: "Don't logic this one away from me. We finally figured out a way to make paintball cool again."
This episode was essentially a dream sequence of Jeff's inner conflict, so the whole story was a commentary. But what made it even worse were the moments like the one above, where the writers felt the need to spell it out for us. Good TV shows show us, not tell us, a character's growth and motivation. And the best TV shows never have to tell us that they're cool.
Jeff: "As long as you guys are with me, I have everything I need to graduate."
Really? This is not Jeff. Yes, Jeff gives the big, end-of-episode speeches, but not speeches like this. Character development (if that's indeed what we're supposed to be seeing in Jeff this season) is great, but this is character betrayal. Who is this guy? Where's the sardonic, cynical Jeff we all used to love to hate and hated that we loved? Even a Jeff who'd grown up wouldn't (essentially) just quote Britta in his closing monologue.

Sentimental Jeff.

Season four just didn't ever quite get it right. It discarded its one good plot setup (Changnesia) in favor of a poor rehash of season three's "darkest timeline." Well, Community has been renewed for a fifth season. I might watch it. I might not. I'm still conflicted.

May 9, 2013

Survivor: "Don't Say Anything About My Mom" Review

First of all, everybody take a deep breath. Ok, now wipe away the sympathy tears for Brenda. Now remember that this is a game. Ok.
Let's take a look at the three who wrote Brenda's name down, forcing that sweet, honest, genuine girl out of the game. What did we learn about each of them?

The most important thing we learned about Sherri is that she's a big fat liar - and good at it. I don't think she could have sounded more sincere when she assured Jeff there was no way they could vote out Brenda after what she sacrificed for them at the reward challenge. Gotta say, I kind of wish we'd seen that manipulative side of her all along. But then again, the cards were stacked against the fans from the start, so maybe she didn't get the chance for long-term snake strategy.

Dawn is no longer playing to win this game. She said it herself, she let Cochran control her game in South Pacific, and she's doing it again. In a final three with Erik and Brenda, Dawn would have had a good chance at winning. Up against Cochran, I don't think she'll have a shot at all. Dawn will get all the blame for this blindside, but Cochran will get all the credit.

Cochran is a strategic genius. I mean, he's a mastermind. He's the one putting the Brenda blindside plan in place, but lets both Sherri and Dawn articulate the plan themselves. Making other people think the plan is theirs is Survivor 101. But since Cochran basically has a PhD in this game, I'm not the least bit surprised. This was, without a doubt, the best strategic move he could have made. Brenda would have been gunning for him next. He just bought his ticket to the final three.

I'm still calling this game for Cochran. Unless, and this is important, unless Eddie makes it to the end. He's got two bromigos in his corner, and if he can pull out an immunity win before this season's over, he just might gain enough respect from the rest of the jury to take home the million dollar prize.

But for all we know, Cochran could be the next one out! If there's one thing we've learned from Survivor: Caramoan, it's that anything can happen! That's why the fans are still watching, 26 ridiculous seasons later.

May 5, 2013

Hart of Dixie: "I'm Moving On" Review

When Hart of Dixie premiered in 2011, there was some speculation that Rachel Bilson might have trouble carrying a show on her own. But now, with the second season near its end and a third officially picked up, it's clear that she didn't have to. This show, much like most of the shows on its network, boasts a cast of beautiful, young pseudo-stars. But unlike many CW shows, its cast is genuinely talented.

I joined this show (already in progress) when I caught some season 1 reruns in the summer of 2012. I've watched consistently since then, not because Bilson's performance as a big city doctor transplanted to a small Alabama town is anything extraordinary (in fact, that plot is a little tired), but because of the actors who bring Bluebell's residents to life. Some of these casting selections were not surprising; Both Wilson Bethel, who plays Wade, and Jaime King, who plays Lemon, had bit parts in episodes of The OC, Bilson's previous television collaboration with executive producer Josh Schwartz. But some pop up out of nowhere. I hadn't seen Tim Matheson since his commanding performance as The West Wing's disgraced Vice Commander in Chief. And, though I'd seen him before, I didn't even recognize Cress Williams. The role of handsome, constantly lovesick Mayor of Bluebell is a complete turnaround from his cameo as the conniving, murderous illusionist Baron Sunday on Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.
Regardless of their diverse resumes, this cast comes together beautifully to fill the picturesque Southern town. The talented actors make the characters real and relatable. I'll be the first to admit, Hart of Dixie doesn't tackle the tough issues. Mostly, it's a show about the joys and perils of romance. And Bilson's Zoe Hart is particularly familiar with the perils part. It's not deep TV. But it's well acted, and actually it's quite a funny show. I think it works because it doesn't attempt to be too serious too often.

This week's episode, "I'm Moving On" is a great example of how the supporting characters can sustain their own story lines. Mayor Hayes's rivalry with the mayor of the neighboring town has been a subplot  before. But in this episode, when his girlfriend Annabeth, played by Kaitlyn Black, gets in cahoots with the enemy Mayor's wife, the story gets funnier than usual. This is thanks entirely to Black's expert comedic timing and the fact that she looks phenomenal in big hats. (Seriously, where does The CW find so many beautiful people?)  And speaking of beautiful people, Broadway superstar Laura Bell Bundy's performance as Shelby is so good that she makes the viewer forget the age difference between her and Matheson, who plays her fiancĂ©. And putting uptight Lemon and lackadaisical Wade into business together was a stroke of genius on the part of the Hart of Dixie writing team. Bethel and King have undeniable chemistry, making their forays into entrepreneurship hilarious to observe.

Meanwhile, "I'm Moving On" did just what a a season's penultimate episode should: it shook things up just enough to set up for an explosive season finale. Two episodes ago, Zoe suffered embarrassment after she once again declared her love for the unavailable 'Golden Boy' George Tucker. Incredulous, his response was, "I am sorry that you almost choked to death with a head full of regrets but, next time, take smaller bites." A brilliant line brilliantly delivered by Scott Porter. But it didn't close the door on Zoe and George; in fact, Zoe's confession of love closed the door on George and his girlfriend Tansy. And rightly so. Tansy would not be a believable character if she continued to be unbothered by the situation. Now, Zoe seems to be in the same spot she was in at the conclusion of season one: running to Wade just when George becomes available. You'd think this plot rehash would bother me. Here's why it doesn't: While other characters are growing, Zoe hasn't. But, she's being forced to face that. She's been told off by Wade, Tansy, and the random first date she was set up on. How fitting that a high school prom was the setting for so much drama! The title of the episode is purposeful irony. Zoe Hart most certainly is not moving on. "You're right!" she declares, "There is something terribly wrong with me!"

It's hard to tell what's going to happen in Tuesday night's season finale, but I'll be watching to find out. I bet we'll get both laughs and drama. Even if that doesn't make for great TV, it makes for entertaining TV. Sometimes that's all TV needs to be.