Wednesday, May 30, 2007

MovieWatch: "Knocked Up"

"Knocked Up"
Director: Judd Apatow
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 79
One Word Review: Loose
In a Nutshell: [I'm not saying that 2007 is a glory year for comedy, but 2006 didn't feature a single movie that made me laugh as much as "Hot Fuzz" or "Knocked Up."]

Extended nutshell review after the bump... Click through.

I confess that I'm predisposed to liking any movie with the good-natured audacity to play ODB's "Shimmy Ya" over the opening credits (a montaged paean to masculinity unloosed) and Loudon Wainwright over the closing credits. Judd Apatow's second feature as a writer-director proves that the free-flowing mix of raunch and heart of his first film was no fluke (not that any "Undeclared" or "Freaks & Geeks" or "Cable Guy" fans were afraid he wouldn't be able to repeat). While "Knocked Up" suffers from the exact same flaws as "40 Year-Old Virgin" -- it's at least 10-to-15 minutes too long, with Apatow erring on the side of his cast's improvised hilarity even at the expense of pacing and focus -- but for my money it's a far funnier movie. Though certainly anchored by star-confirming performances by Apatow's muse Seth Rogen and worthy secondary muse Katherine Heigl, "Knocked Up" has an outrageous number of secondary players capable of getting laughs as well.

It's no surprise that some of the movie's best comedy comes from Rogen and Paul Rudd playing off each other, or that Apatow's wife Leslie Mann adds spark. Nor will fans of the Apatow-verse be surprised at the irresistible laughs to be mined from sitting Martin Starr, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill and Jason Segel (playing characters named Martin, Jay, Jonah and Jason) in a circle and letting them go. But who is Charlyne Yi and while is her stoner-chick Jodi such a hoot? And how does Kristen Wiig manage to get chuckles out of every single line of withering dialogue as Heigl's colleague at E!... And who'd have guessed that Apatow and Mann's kids Iris and Maude would prove to be far more endearing-than-usual little actors? The tone of the movie is so perfectly pitched that even Ryan freakin' Seacrest was able to earn some warm feelings on my part for delving into marginal self-parody.

The film is R-rated and the dialogue is unrelentingly raunchy and it has the most out-of-left-field graphic childbirth scene since "Dr. T and the Women." But as every other reviewer on Earth is liable to mention, "Knocked Up" is genuinely conservative at heart. This is a movie in which the main character, a beautiful, rising TV reporter, gets knocked up after a one-night stand with an immature, pot-and-porn addict schlub and the word "abortion" is never mentioned (at least not outside up poorly veiled code). It's about growing up, taking responsibility and settling down, about being a good parent and a good spouse over all other concerns. The Moral Majority should hop in line to see this movie immediately. They probably won't. But every moment of grossness or immaturity is totally undercut by sweetness and heart, which I mean in a good way at least 85% of the time.

Apatow has to frontload the laughs a bit in order to earn the heart at the end, which was also the case with "Virgin" if I recall correctly. That's part of why the movie starts lagging slightly in its second act (right around the time Mann's character starts worrying that Rudd's character is cheating on her but before the most brilliant use of Cirque du Soleil ever). For all that, though, I look forward to the extended DVD release that you know if gonna come.

After three straight big-budget franchise duds to start this summer, "Knocked Up" is a great change of pace. I'd expect box office to follow suit.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Take Me to the Pilots '07: CBS Edition

[Note: By now I'm sure you've gotten the point that these pilot first impressions aren't reviews. There are a lot of things that happen before a pilot makes it on air. If memory serves, there's even a Schoolhouse Rock anthem about all of the recasting, reediting and additional tweaking that occurs between pick-up and premiere. Thus, it'd be wrong to do a formal review. Got it? Good.]

[Secondary note: I'm having a hard time employing Eric Balfour this season.]

[Tertiary note: CBS opted not to send out "Moonlight" (the female lead is being recast and it was only a presentation to begin with) or "Kid Nation."]

[Quaternary note: As always, check our Sepinwall's eerily similar impressions. I seem to have beaten him on the CBS pilots. I hope that doesn't mean that he's dead.

Click through to find first looks at "Cane," "Viva Laughlin" and "Big Bang Theory" after the bump.

Show: "Cane" (CBS Drama)
The Pitch: "Skin" with rum instead of porn? "Dexter" with sugar cane instead of serial murder?
Quick Response: "Cane" (which really should be re-re-named "Los Duques") is a Cuban-flavored repurposing of "The Godfather" and "King Lear" all mixed with a splash of rum. It looks and feels like a half-dozen different projects -- a little "Sopranos," a little "Skin," a little "Brothers & Sisters" -- but doesn't look or feel *exactly* like any of them. In addition for serving as a fantastic showcase for every employable Latino actor in Hollywood (if you're not in the pilot, wait a few episodes and you'll eventually get your chance), "Cane" is a showcase for a fantastic battle of goatees, a war in which Jimmy Smits will always be the winner. The middle-generational stuff, particularly the conflicts between Smits and Nestor Carbonell, is intriguing, though the older actors, particularly Rita Moreno, are initially wasted. Worse than that, though, is the fate of the attractive youngsters in the cast, who seem to be burning off plotlines that never got used on UPN's wisely cancelled "South Beach." The pilot has a specific look and rhythm and voice, all of which help mask the fact that the plotlines are straight out of a dozen primetime soaps and even more daytime serials. This isn't exactly in CBS' brand and it won't be the smoothest of pairings with the network's action-driven Tuesdays (it would have been far more at home in several ABC slots or on FOX), but this is a risk I don't mind the network taking.
Desire to Watch Again: Medium-to-Strong.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: Oh you can totally imagine Balfour as a gringo whose relationship with one of the Duque girls causes no end of agita. I'd pay money to watch Jimmy Smits mock Balfour's facial hair.

Show: "Viva Laughlin" (CBS musical-drama)
Pitch: We've figured out what was wrong with "Cop Rock" and we're ready to try again!
Quick Response: As I've said before, I wasn't a big fan of "Viva Blackpool" and the Americanized pilot follows that initial template fairly closely. Just as with "Blackpool," "Laughlin" doesn't immediately seem compelling enough as a murder mystery/family drama and so the musical numbers feel like they're the only thing keeping the show afloat. Those will be the exact things that cause the "60 Minutes" audience to go into coronary arrest the first time they forget to turn the TV off after Andy Rooney. This is a *horrible* piece of scheduling. I honestly don't think CBS could have found a worse time period and lead-in. But you know who those old viewers (and all viewers, in fact) are gonna love? Hugh Jackman. He's a guest star in the pilot and every time he's on-screen, it's like an entirely different (far more exciting) show. My understanding, though, is that his availability isn't likely to be great and the idea of whole episodes going by without him is a bit sad. That isn't to say that Lloyd Owen is a bad leading man, but he pales in the inevitable direct comparisons to both Jackman and to David Morrissey, star of the original. Melanie Griffith is also pretty good in what only promises to be a guest turn.
Desire to Watch Again: Strangely, medium-to-strong. I want to see where the American team will take it. I want to know how they're going to keep it fresh in episodes 13, 22 and 75.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: Eric Winter, who I only vaguely remember from "Brothers & Sisters" two weeks ago, has the part that Balfour could have played. Can Balfour sing? We may never know.

Show: "Big Bang Theory" (CBS comedy)
The Pitch: "Weird Science" if the geeks lived next door to Kelly LeBrock and hadn't actually created her.
Quick Response: First off, Kaley Cuoco is no Kelly LeBrock, though she plays the one-note role of curvy-dumb-blonde with all of the subtlety it requires (which is to say none). The biggest problem with the pilot is that creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady have written a dumb comedy about smart people rather than a smart comedy about smart people. Every joke is telegraphed and they all have the exact same theme -- nerds can't talk to girls and they drink juice-boxes, but at least they're less pathetic than stupid people. The contempt with which the writers treat Cuoco's character (and anybody with a less-than-genius IQ) verges on offensive, at least compared to the pity and mockery of the nerds. The central device of the pilot -- hot new neighbor's shower is broken, so she has to use the geeks' shower -- is vintage '70s sitcom tripe. Oh and this is yet another CBS Monday comedy with as little diversity as possible. Is there a whiter two-hour block on TV than CBS' Monday comedies? I know she was doing "Football Wives," but tell me this same sitcom with the same premise wouldn't have automatically become better if Gabrielle Union had been cast in the female lead.
Desire to Watch Again: Low. And I say that as somebody who watched every episode of "The Class" simply because it was paired with "HIMYM." Yup. CBS cancelled "The Class" and actually found something *worse* to take its place.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: Eric Balfour thinks Eric Balfour is too cool to play a Nerd.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

MovieWatch: "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End"

"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End"
Director: Gore Verbinski
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 32
One-Word Review: Prolonged
In a Nutshell: [This movie was so darned disheartening that I saw it on Friday, but couldn't bring myself to even write a blurb until today.]

Extended nutshell review after the bump... Click Through.

"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" is just a dreadful, charmless sham of a movie. Any residual good-faith for the franchise and its characters not drained by the second film is gone after a third film that somehow manages to run 168 minutes. That second movie, though abusively long itself, at least had moments of wit and some genuine technical innovations, while "At World's End" does little more than embellishing on the effects and creativity of "Dead Man's Chest," reducing the entire film to a tonal drone. Of somebody tells you "Oh, I loved Captain Jack in this movie," they're lying. They're remembering how much they loved him in the first movie and how much they liked him in the second. Despite several scenes in which multiple Captain Jacks appear on-screen at once (the best and most trippy moments of the movie), there's less Johnny Depp in the third movie, doubtlessly pushing the question of how a three-hour movie has so much less of the good stuff.

What "Pirates 3" has in spades is unnecessary complications. I defy *anybody* to tell me what occurred in the first hour of this movie, a ridiculous mishmash of double-crosses in which I think Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Swan finds herself on at least four different ships and Orlando Bloom's Will Turner goes from prisoner to sailor to pirate to prisoner with blinding pointlessness. The entire movie builds to an epic confrontation between the Black Pearl and the Flying Dutchman, a confrontation so glutted with CGI that despite stretching on for at least 30 minutes, I remember exactly one stunt -- Captain Jack and Davy Jones dueling atop a mast -- and I probably only remember that because it's in the trailer. The first and second movie made great show of the stunts and the choreography, of attempting to showcase the effort the actors put into learning their craft, while the third movie cares only about size and scale, with editing so manic that I don't rightly know what the actors were doing and what their CG doppelgangers were programmed to do.

A certain amount of viewership is rewarded by the appearance of Keith Richards, somewhere in the movie's middle. Giving any specifics would probably spoiler the cameo, which last less than five minutes, but yielded one of the two times I laughed the entire movie.

Some of the more positive reviews of this movie (and there are one or two) have raved that it's the darkest "Pirates" movie yes. Well duh. But who the hell wanted a *dark* movie based on a Disney theme park ride? Does this mean that in the sequel to "Disney's Country Bears," the Bears were going to eat the character played by Christopher Walken in the original and then have to suffer through the guilt for three hours? There's absolutely no substance or human depth to any of these "Pirates" movies, so the first one at least had the common sense to be an amusing lark, stuffed with wordplay and wit. Since then, it's been like the melancholy of "Weatherman" has permanently damaged Verbinski's sense of tone.

For heaven's sakes, the part I enjoyed most was an early scene with Depp's Captain Jack marooned in a great salt flat (The Locker) facing uncooperative doubles and pesky crabs. It also lasted at least twice the required time, but it caused "El Topo" flashbacks, which may or may not be what Gore Verbinski intended.

It's not even June yet and the summer's franchise films are getting increasingly poor. I'm seeing "Knocked Up" this week and I have high hopes.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Take Me to the Pilots '07: Fox Dramas

Autopilot on.

[Insert usual boilerplate about these not being reviews here. Emphasize that pilots have a tendency to change form between shooting and airing and that actually reviewing them would just be wrong, wrong, wrong, but that giving a gut reaction to them is right, right right.]

[Explain sadness at the insufficient roles for Eric Balfour and my ongoing attempts to keep him employed, for the sake of society if not my actual viewership.]

Remind readers that Sepinwall is similarly not-reviewing pilots over on his blog and that his opinions and mine are almost exactly the same, but often phrased somewhat differently.

Indicate that complete first glimpses of "K-Ville," "New Amsterdam," "The Sarah Connor Chronicles" and "Canterbury's Law" are after the bump.

Show: "K-Ville" (FOX drama)
The Pitch: "Police Cops" in New Orleans
Quick Response: I just don't like police procedurals. I'm sorry. I had to backtrack through three seasons of "The Wire" because I skipped it due to my distaste for the genre. But I love New Orleans. Always have since it was just a hop, skip and a road trip from my Mississippi home. So I love the idea of FOX taking a show to New Orleans and actually shooting in the Big Easy and bringing that money to the region and I love the idea of any show that can actually capture the flavor and texture of the city -- the food, the music, the architecture, the faces. From the pilot, it looks like "K-Ville" does a pretty decent job of showcasing post-Katrina N.O. and in Anthony Anderson and Cole Hauser it has two leads capable of being both compelling and authoritative. But every time I got engaged in the sociological aspect of the pilot, they chose, instead, to waste time on an investigation that I couldn't possibly have cared less about. And several of the key stereotypical baddies from the pilot -- William Mapother's shady ex-mercenary -- could have played out "Wiseguy"-style in a long arc, rather than just getting wasted in 44 minutes here.
Desire to Watch Again: Low-to-moderate. I'd like for this show to succeed, for the city. And FOX seems to want it to succeed as well, giving it the post-"Prison Break" Monday slot (a slot that didn't work for "Vanished" last season, but whatever). I'll tune in again.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: I guess he could play a hot-shot N.O. cop with problems with authority.

Show: "New Amsterdam" (FOX drama)
The Pitch: The immortal investigator drama in which the lead isn't a vampire.
Quick Response: Another procedural in which I don't care much about the procedure. But there are interesting angles here that I like: A cop who's never left New York City in 400 years will know things about the city that nobody else could possibly know and he'll have reservoirs of knowledge that nobody else could have. It's not that he's insanely brilliant or intuitive like a Dr. House, but the guy's accumulated several lifetimes worth of information. The logistics for how Amsterdam has been able to live for 400 years without anybody in all of his jobs asking him how he stays so darned young will presumably have to be explained. But in addition to piling up 400 years of experience, he's also picked up enough quirks to stifle a dozen drama leads -- he's a recovering alcoholic who loves carpentry, Red Ruffing and one-night stands. Fun. Fresh face Nicolaj Coster Waldau has a great name and an interesting lingering Dutch accent (Sepinwall figures he just can't do a consistent American accent, but I think it's a "choice"). None of the supporting characters are immediately engaging.
Desire to Watch Again: Low-to-moderate. I'd bet FOX tweaks this one in a hurry.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: Again, I guess he could play a young, hot-shot cop who doesn't care for authority.

"The Sarah Connor Chronicles" (FOX drama)
The Pitch: Take "The Fugitive" and replace both Lt. Gerard and the One-Armed Man with killer robots.
Quick Response: You hear "Terminator" spin-off and you immediately expect a certain scale, but this David Nutter-directed pilot is admirably restrained, so much so that future episodes shouldn't have trouble living up to the premise. Lena Headey can't hope to live up to Linda Hamilton (she doesn't have the guns or the desperate edge of the "T2" Sarah), but Thomas Dekker has the much much easier task of only needing to be as good as Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl, so he succeeds. Without any question, my favorite part of the pilot was Summer Glau, who gets to use the same dead-pan delivery and dancer's grace that made her so popular on "Firefly." The pilot has to rely on all sorts of narrative tricks to establish its place in the franchise mythology, but after watching for 44 minutes, I don't know what the series is. Two hours of watching characters flee from unstoppable killer robots is fine on the big screen, but 13 or 22 episodes per season? And if the series is really meant to be between the second and third features, doesn't that limit the potential directions for John and Sarah Connor to go? FOX should be able to get viewers to tune in at mid-season (expect the advertising blitz to be nearly unprecedented), but will it follow the "Dark Angel" big-launch-big-drop pattern? It'll be up to subsequent episodes to keep fans on board.
Desire to Watch Again: Moderate-to-Strong (but more based on curiosity than enthusiasm)
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: There's always room in a show like this for an ambitious, young hot-shot FBI agent with an authority problem.

Shop: "Canterbury's Law" (FOX drama)
The Pitch: "House" meets "The Practice" or something.
Quick Response: I'm not one of those people who needs a likeable character to like a show, but I have to be amused by somebody, or engaged by somebody or I have to at least respect or admire the way a character goes about their business. "Canterbury's Law" is a murky, gloomy dud that drains several performers I've liked in the past -- Julianna Margulies, Ben Shenkman, Linus Roache -- of any humanity. It doesn't help that the procedural plot for the first episode is full of laughable moments including a climax that goes straight to ludicrous. Mike Figgis gives the pilot a jittery pace, but the whole thing looks like it was shot through a muddy Coke bottle. This doesn't fit the FOX brand, it's a horrible match with "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" and it won't attract a single viewer from "CSI" and "Grey's Anatomy."
Desire to Watch Again: None.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: I guess Canterbury's team of reckless defense attorneys could use a hot-shot young attorney who can't abide by authority.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

We Have an "American Idol" winner... Let the Letdown begin...

In the average season of "American Idol" I write two recaps per week for Zap2it, each running between 1200 and 1500 words (more when 12 contestants perform). I write one piece per week from the contestant exit interviews and then I do whatever supplemental writing I do for this blog. And this was my fifth sheer volume of coverage for Zap2it.

So you can imagine that at this very moment, I'm feeling a certain amount of relief. It's not like there won't still be stuff to recap, stuff to blog, but "American Idol" is a pretty exhausting five-month run each spring.

And, fittingly, Wednesday (May 23) night's "Idol" results finale ran long. It wasn't until 10:04 ET that Ryan Seacrest announced what just about everybody with a pulse was pretty confident on: Jordin Sparks was this season's "American Idol."

Jordin is a different kind of "Idol" champ. She didn't have the best voice in the competition (that'd be Melinda, by an amazing margin). She wasn't the best showperson (I guess I agree that Blake probably gets the prize there). She didn't have to overcome an iota of adversity to make it as far as she did. She wasn't Katharine McPhee-level hot, nor Taylor Hicks-level likeable. While Melinda had several jaw-dropping defining performances, Jordin didn't really have any. But three or four episodes in, Jordin became the dark horse and two or three weeks later, she was pretty much the favorite.

Even though she's won now, you still can't pinpoint what kind of album she'll record, nor can you make an educated guess on how popular she is and how well that album will sell.

She's the Immaculate Winner, the winner who won because she made the most sense. You can't feel annoyed about her winning, because she's certainly a good singer and they ended up pairing her with a noticeably inferior rival in the finale. There was no other possibility. And tonight they built a 125 minute episode around a result that everybody knew was coming.

There will be changes next season, changes that we won't see enacted, but that we'll notice when the judges unveil the Top 24. They'll be more attractive, more musically definable and the men won't stink. Will that be enough to win back the fans that she show very clearly lost this season? For a while? Absolutely. Next January dozens of TV critics will write stories references the ratings decline this season. FOX executives will nod and make concerned faces and say "Well, after six seasons, of course we expect a little erosion." Then the American people will turn out by the 35-million-plus to watch the freaks in the audition rounds. Talent will determine where things go from there.

But for now, congrats to Jordin, who didn't not deserve to win.

Take Me To The Pilots '07: FOX Comedies

[All of my pilots clearly say "Not for Review" and I'd like to, as always, make it clear that I don't consider these to be reviews. They're first impressions of pilots that are likely to change in ways that may be minor or major over the next four months. The pilot that stars Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton today could feature Tom Arnold and Paula Marshall by September. Sure, it probably won't, but "What if?"]

[Author's Note: I keep trying to find work for Eric Balfour, but so far he hasn't shown me any appreciation. Then again, Method and Redman haven't thanked me yet for trying to get "Method & Red" released on DVD. It's a thankless job.]

And, as always, go check out Sepinwall's completely identical reviews of these pilots. It's like a mentalist act and he always guesses that what I'm holding behind my back is a spoon.

Click through for a first glance at "Back to You," "The Return of Jezebel James" and "Rules for Starting Over."

Show: "Back to You" (FOX comedy)
The Pitch: If you have Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton, you don't need a pitch.
First Impression: Every season, there's at least one sitcom that makes critics sit up and say "This show sucks, but the talent involved is good enough to sell slop!" Shows in this category have included "Happy Family" (with John Larroquette and Christine Baranski), "Out of Practice" (with half the known comic universe) and last season "20 Good Years." I'm pleased to say that "Back to You" is better than any of those shows, but once again it's hard to know if the material is any good, or if Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton and Fred Willard are just so good that they can make anything funny. The pilot isn't even vaguely involving, but Grammer and Heaton show the ability to spar well. I also have to note that Ty Burrell (late of "Out of Practice") also gets laughs. Less funny are the husky, sweaty, young news director (Josh Gad, suggesting Miles Silverberg with a glandular problem) and Ayda Field's faux-Latina weathergirl. Also, the pilot rips off a key plot point from, of all sources, "October Road." Yes, I know the script was probably written before the ABC man-soap, but you don't want people saying "Dude, you stole that from 'October Road,'" so I'd recommend a reshoot. Oh, and what's the the rise in popularity of the name Chuck? That's Kelsey Grammer's name here. Josh Schwartz has Chucks in both of his two new shows. Adam Sandler's awful-looking gay marriage comedy is "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" Dane Cook has a new movie called "Good Luck Chuck," which co-stars Jessica Alba, but which I plan to ignore because, as I may have mentioned, it stars Dane Cook.
Desire to Watch Again: Moderate. There was some early recasting and rewriting, so I'll check to see how things settle.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: Balfour wouldn't be funny as the in-over-his-head news director. And that might be funny.

Show: "The Return of Jezebel James" (FOX comedy)
The Pitch: "Gilmore Girls" only they're estranged sisters and there's a laff-track.
First Impressions: That laff-track is a problem, at least at first. We aren't accustomed to Amy Sherman-Palladino's dialogue requiring audience approval and it's jarring to hear laugh-breaks programmed into the writing. Also, we always said that Lauren Graham was central to how appealing Lorelai Gilmore was and that with a less winning actress, the role might come across as slightly annoying. And it's true that Parker Posey is initially prickly in a way that Graham never was. I found myself laughing, though, and being impressed with the speed and intelligence of Sherman-Palladino's dialogue, mostly unblunted by the multi-camera sitcom format. Lauren Ambrose and Posey are a great pairing with the material, but after "Gilmore Girls" spending only 22 minutes with Sherman-Palladino's characters feels insufficient. The male characters aren't well-defined, but for now they don't need to be, I guess.
Desire to Watch Again: As uneven as this pilot may be, I still want to see more.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: I'm sure that Balfour could be a perfectly fine annoying assistant, though I don't usually think of him as being a gifted reader of dialogue.

Show: "The Rules For Starting Over" (FOX comedy)
The Pitch: "Friends" if they were all as whiny and post-divorce as Ross.
First Impression: Before the credits even roll, a monkey attempts to rape Craig Bierko. And, despite cameos by Paul Pierce, Ryan Gomes and Johnny Knoxville, the attempted violation-by-simian is the pilot's comic highlight, unless you like equally low-brow jokes about hookers, 40-something women and sloppy seconds. Bierko isn't an actor on whom I wish bad things, but bad things keep being done to his career. And what did Rashida Jones do to deserve this? She was fantastic on "The Office," nearly making some viewers forget that Jim belongs with Pam, but this is the kind of work she used to get *before* she did "The Office." This is such a step backwards in quality for this fine actress that she might just as well be married to a fat guy in a CBS comedy. Co-stars Shaun Majumder and Johnny Sneed are even less funny than the two leads. If FOX wanted a low-brow live action sitcom, bringing back "The Winner" would have been a slightly better idea. The sad thing is that this show isn't even going for the demographic that FOX likes.
Desire to Watch Again: None.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: At 30 himself, Balfour is probably too young for this show's brand of humiliation.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

"Idol" Recap 05/22: This Is Their Now (Or Something)

I'm not saying I'm clairvoyant, but back in mid-January, after the season's very first episode of American Idol, I made the following observation: "Through the first four hours of American Idol audition footage, I'll guarantee you that we haven't seen this season's winner. In fact, I feel prepared to say that nobody from the Minneapolis or Seattle auditions stands more than the slightest chance of making it to the Top 24, much less the Final 12."

I bring that up as Tuesday (May 22) night's American Idol finale performances pit Blake Lewis and Jordin Sparks, both products of the Seattle audition round. Oh, but I was totally right about Minneapolis.

Whoever I pick tonight, bet the farm the other way:

Singer: Blake Lewis
Song: "You Give Love a Bad Name"
My Take: Originally this performance was all about its context within the Bon Jovi Night, when it was shocking and refreshing in a sea of by-the-numbers covers. Stripped of that context (and knowing what's coming), it's impossible to get excited about it. I liked it then, so even in this slightly more orchestrated form, I have to admit that it's fun. The part where Blake spins around and plays to the audience actually diminishes its vocal effectiveness (he stops singing into the mic, creating a wind tunnel effect to the vocals), but nobody has cared before about whether or not Blake can sing. Why will they start now? Also blunting the impact slightly is the drummer, whose kit is over-micked.
Sonny, Fredo and Simon Say: Randy gives him a 10-out-of-10 for beatboxing, but says the singing was merely aight. Paula, floating in the clouds tonight, gives him a 10-plus-10-plus-10. Simon says Blake isn't their best singer, but he's the best performer, adding that the singing was a bit flat in places.

Singer: Jordin Sparks
Song: "Fighter"
My Take: Jordin has an OK performance earlier this season with a Christina Aguilera track, so she's trying again. This song isn't a ballad, relying more heavily on cadence. Jordin's fine on the tough rhythm, but it leads to a somewhat breathless quality to her voice. The song also forces her to wail over an aggressive band arrangement, which wasn't a good choice, if you ask me. If the night was about proving Jordin could do fine with an up-tempo contemporary song, Jordin succeeded. If it was about showcasing her talent to its best advantage, she fell short.
Sonny, Fredo and Simon Say: Randy asks her to check it out and tells her that this was an interesting night for him. He wasn't necessarily entertained, but he thought her voice was stellar. "Stellar" is a new word for Paula, so she repeats it. Simon likes that she chose a younger song, but calls the vocals shrieky. He gives Round One to Blake. Paula says nothing. Randy meaninglessly gives the performance edge to Blake and the vocal edge to Jordin.

Singer: Blake Lewis
Song: "She Will Be Loved"
My Take: After doing a more up-tempo Maroon Five song previously, Blake's going with a semi-ballad here. Again Blake gets distracted touching the people in the front row. I've never liked his falsetto and I'm not about to start here. The transitions to and from the upper register are rough and he keeps pushing notes. It's already a sleepy song, but he's going out of his way to keep it low-key. His problem here is exactly the same as Jordin's on the previous number -- he's attempting to prove his ability to do something that might not be the same thing we're used to hearing, while not necessarily showcasing whatever it is that's best and most unique about him.
Sonny, Fredo and Simon Say: Randy thought it was a great song and a very nice vocal. Paula, who really should have been given the night off tonight since she has a totally legit excuse to be swimming on painkillers, giggles, stutters and finally says that Blake sounded relaxed. Simon calls it good, safe and not as good as the first performance.

But what did I think of the show's second half? You'll have to head over to Zap2it for that info...

Take Me To The Pilots '07: The CW

[As I mentioned with my glimpses at the NBC pilots, these aren't intended as reviews. Heck, they're *not* reviews. Far from it. That wouldn't be fair. The networks have four months to reshoot, recast, reedit, reconceive and perhaps totally scrap (Sorry, "The Wedding Album") these pilots. Thus, I'm just giving some initial gut reactions.]

[Author's Note: If you don't understand the Eric Balfour thing by now, I may not be able to help you. That being said, I'm having a hard time casting Balfour in the pilots I've seen so far. I'm not sure why not. Apologies in advance.]

Also be sure to check out Sepinwall's similarly not-reviews of these same shows. We may have the exact same opinions on everything, but we totally use different adjectives and occasionally adverbs (all nouns, however, are duplicated).

Click through for a first glance at "Reaper," "Gossip Girl," "Running Wild" and "Aliens in America."

Show: "Reaper" (The CW dramedy)
Pitch: You know those episodes of "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy" where Homer or Peter briefly took over for the Grim Reaper? How 'bout a whole series like that, only with an attractive 20-something male lead. Alternatively: "The Loop" only with less Mimi Rogers and more Satan.
Quick Response: If you liked Bret Harrison on "The Loop," you'll like him here. The premise of a Gen Y slacker suddenly having to do The Devil's dirty work seems versatile and the pilot is a breezy hoot, well-directed by Kevin Smith (words you don't usually utter), who packs the screen with deadpan details. The casting of Ray Wise as Satan is a treat. The only way Tyler Labine's gregariously lazy sidekick could be more obviously Jack Black inspired would be to have the character be the frontman of the greatest rock duo in the world and he may be trying a bit too hard. I like the casting of Nikki Reed as the lead's dreamgirl, conveying both intelligence and off-kilter charm rather than the more obvious attributes of a typical CW bimbo (rumor has it that the network may be contemplating recasting the part with a typical CW bimbo... hope not). If The CW people are smart, they'll give some thought to where they can move "Reaper." This is a show that deserves the chance to succeed, but going up against "House" and the markedly similar "Chuck" on NBC, it'll have a tough go of it.
Desire to Watch Again: Strong.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: Nothing, really. If he isn't already, he could be a minion of the Devil.

Show: "Gossip Girl" (The CW drama)
The Pitch: Remember that "Cruel Intentions" pilot ["Manchester Prep"] that FOX didn't pick up but that became the really bad "Cruel Intentions" sequel? Make it a little less trashy and a bit smarter.
Quick Response: I'm always happy to welcome a decent high school soap into my life and with "The O.C." gone and "Hairy Palms" due for near-instant death, this should fit the bill. And how nice that it just happens to come from Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage of "The O.C." fame. I'm told that it comes from a series of books and that the teenage girls are ga-ga over 'em, but I don't have a Sidekick or a MySpace page, so I'm probably not in tune with them anyway. Since we're dealing with snotty New York private school kids, it's important that the leads not be insufferable. Here, the main characters look to have been well-cast, particularly Penn Badgely (who I've never previously liked on any of his WB shows), Leighton Meester (memorable as the doc's Lolita-esque stalker on "House") and Blake Lively (who has the disadvantage of photographing at least five years older than the rest of the cast, even if she's actually younger). A bit more disturbing is Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen), whose character is in danger of being sexually assaulted in the pilot. Will Schwartz and Savage be able to keep the parents (represented mostly by Kelly Rutherford and Matthew Settle in the pilot) involved in the story? And is there a line they can't cross with representations of teenage drinking and sexuality?
Desire to Watch Again: Relatively strong. I'm not the target demo, but I'll tune in provided the show remains smart enough.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: Geez. Out of luck again.

Show: "Life Is Wild" (The CW Drama)
The Pitch: It's "7th Heaven" if you replace Jesus with Nelson Mandela and Beverly Mitchell with a dingo (All together now... "Who'd know the difference?).
First Impression: A show that the entire family can watch together that teaches important lessons about South African culture and nature? Nice. I feel bad making fun of that. Unfortunately, "Life Is Wild" (my screener reads "Running Wild") is shot on digital video and all of the pleasures of the location shooting and Real Live Animals are undone by how low the production values are. Sepinwall liked the scenery and wildlife, but for the visual cheapness, they might as well have shot at the San Diego Zoo. Also, I'm a bit sad that Rutger Hauer bailed on playing the crotchety South African grandfather, because the guy who replaced him is no Rutger Hauer. Since I came into the pilot with a healthy distrust of poachers, money-driven lodge owners and wounded feral lions, I'm not sure I'll need to tune in again.
Desire to Watch Again: Minimal, but if "7th Heaven" fans want to gather around to watch on Sunday nights, I'll try to only mock a little.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: Can you see Eric Balfour as an evil poacher? I can. No part in the pilot, though, is ready made for him.

Show: "Aliens in America" (The CW comedy)
The Pitch: A Muslim in Wisconsin?!?!? How can something so crazy not be hilarious? [My own personal sitcom about being a Jewish teen in Mississippi has many of the same punchlines.]
First Impression: Dan Byrd was one of the few cast members of "The Hills Have Eyes" that I didn't want to see get eaten by mutant cannibals and he's a good Everykid entry point into the series. The pilot, which has been sitting on the shelf for a year, is laced with a bizarre vein of humor and I may need to tune in for a couple weeks just to see if they explain the story of the clown who died in the main family's living room. People concerned that "Aliens" mocks Muslims or people of Middle Eastern lineage need not be concerned. Nope. It just mocks ignorant small town Midwestern white folks, which is totally kosher I guess. The outcast kid narrating his adventures being picked on in school may be played out by this point, but at least "Aliens" is compatible with "Everybody Hates Chris."
Desire to Watch Again: Low. If The CW sends out screeners, I might check out another episode or two.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: Sorry. This just isn't your year at The C-Dub, Balfour.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Take Me To The Pilots '07: NBC Dramas

[As was the case when I did this last year, these aren't intended as reviews. Over the next four months, the networks will recast, reshoot and otherwise doctor many or most of these pilots. Some will be shorter, some longer. Some will be better, one or two worse. These are, however, my first impressions.]

[Author's note: In reviewing last season's pilots, I made it my quest to get work Eric Balfour, due to my appreciation for his status as one of TV's most frequently cancelled leading men. Balfour didn't get added to a pilot, but he returned to "24." Then he got cast in a pilot and killed off "24" and his pilot didn't get picked up. With more genuine "Fien Print" favorite Kathleen Robertson doing a Sci Fi miniseries and another season of "The Business," it looks like we'll be back on the Balfour Beat this spring.]

Click through for an early glimpse at "Chuck," "The Bionic Woman," "Life" and "Journeyman."

Show: "Chuck" (NBC dramedy)
Pitch: "Office Space" meets "Mission: Impossible"
Quick Response: "Chuck" is the only pilot on NBC's roster that I would categorize as "likeable." Written by Josh Schwartz and directed by McG, is a nice blend of action and comedy and it zips along effortlessly. As everybody will doubtlessly mention, leading man Zachary Levi is cut from the Adam Brody cloth and delivers Schwartz's dialogue with the same charm (he's also bigger than Brody, which will pay off if he has to travel the world fighting terrorism). I don't know what genetic experiment gave a nice Jewish boy like Chuck a button-nosed sister like Sarah Lancaster, but it's all good. Sepinwall's already noted the similarities between co-star Yvonne Strzechowski and former "O.C." lesbian love interest Olivia Wilde, which I think is reductive. Strzechowski is more like a cross between Olivia Wilde and Erika Christensen, with Wilde's metabolism. She spends much of the pilot in her underwear. Far more dressed, but perfectly cast, is Adam Baldwin, who was born to play dead-pan G-men. I'm a little unsure where the show goes in subsequent episodes.
Desire to Watch Again: High.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: I'm just relieved he won't be playing Chuck. Nothing else really matters.

Show: "Bionic Woman" (NBC Drama)
The Pitch: "There's this woman and she's bionic." "Oh, like 'The Bionic Woman'?" "Yes. Exactly."
Quick Response: The camera likes leading lady Michelle Ryan a lot and of all of NBC's Brits-playing-American, her accent is the least distracting. I'm struck, and probably surprised, by just how seriously producer David Eick and writer Jason Smilovic are treating this material. I know that you don't want to go full-on camp, but we're dealing with bionic limbs and healing nanobots and other outlandish silliness, but I guess the laughs will have to wait. Now that "Jericho" has officially been cancelled, can we get Shoshannah Stern in to replace Mae Whitman as our hero's deaf sister? And steps will have to be taken to make male lead Chris Bowers less, um, dull. But you know who isn't dull? Katee Sackhoff, whose ridiculously charismatic turn as the rogue original Bionic Woman will have many viewers (and not just "Battlestar" fans) wishing the show was about her.
Desire to Watch Again: Surprisingly high. The pilot may have been a bit self-serious, but it zipped by and the action scenes were superior.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: Nothing in the pilot jumps out, particularly since I like the race-blind casting of Will Yun Lee as designated Bionic Woman wrangler. Future episodes, though, are bound to require a tech-savvy guy to check our heroine's vital signs, if you know what I mean...

Show: "Life" (NBC drama)
The Pitch: "It's 'Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer: The Series' only instead of a lawyer, he's a cop and instead of being unfrozen, he's just been released from 12 years in jail for a crime he didn't commit."
Quick Response: Damian Lewis is a great, great actor (check out "Band of Brothers" or "Keane") and he's got the kind of driven, manic lead role that you'd expect to see in a British series. His American accent is clunky, but I can't imagine any actor better underplaying the impossible quirkiness of this character. He's been away from society for 12 years and every bit of technology confuses and amazes him. He's also particularly excited by the easy availability of fresh fruit. He's also read books on Zen. We know these things because they're repeated over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again in the pilot. He's not just quirky, he's QUIRKY! Lewis' character is so big, it's actually a relief that he's paired with the petite Sarah Shahi, whose acting abilities remain -- let's just say -- unproven. Her character also is full of obvious writerly tics -- she's recovering addict hanging onto her job by a thread. Melissa Sagemiller and Adam Arkin are in a totally different show, but they pop up here and there.
Desire to Watch Again: Moderate-to-high, completely because of Lewis. I'm going to hope that the myriad redundancies of the pilot were just about laying the foundation and things will be get better. If not? I'll be out soon.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: Well, Balfour did a CBS LAPD pilot that didn't get picked up, why not bring that character over to this show. He could be a brash young cop who trusts Lewis' character when nobody else does. Or something.

Show: "Journeyman" (NBC drama)
The Pitch: "Early Edition" meets "Quantum Leap"
Quick Response: I've seen "Day Break." I've watched "Day Break" and "Journeyman," it's not that you're no "Day Break," but have I mentioned that I've seen "Day Break"? Kevin McKidd plays a journalist who keeps popping back to different parts of the past, where he's supposed to do something to somebody to either prevent something from happening or to make something else happen. Or something. I stopped caring about anything early on except for the fact that, like "Day Break," it's another TV show about people going back in time to try to save Moon Bloodgood's life, forcing viewers to utilize similar audio clues (musical cliches and sports results) to keep track of the narrative. McKidd has the requisite star presence to carry a show like this (more than Taye Diggs, at least), even if his American accent is downright weird. And I'm happy to watch Bloodgood. But is anybody else in this show? And does anybody have any idea of the mechanism or purpose behind the main character's time travel? It became too much work for me in a hurry.
Desire to Watch Again: Moderate. I'll definitely watch a second episode, but no promises on a third.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: Since I didn't notice any supporting characters in the pilot, I have no idea what Balfour could do. He could replace all of them, for all I care.

Friday, May 18, 2007

FOX Upfronts: Quick Thoughts

Afflicted (except in years featuring the Yankees, Red Sox or Cubs) with baseball coverage in October, FOX makes a point of releasing a minimum of two schedules per year to advertisers at their upfront presentations (one year it was at least three schedules). FOX doesn't do this because they have any intention of using that January/Spring schedule, but they want to remind ad buyers that no matter how bleak the fall may look, "American Idol" and "24" are around the bend.

Look at the schedule FOX presented in May '06 for January '07. It included "Standoff," "Justice," "The Loop," "Happy Hour" and "The Wedding Album," none of which played even a minor role in the spring. It also included the move of "Bones" to Friday, which didn't happen either. In fact, looking at the schedule, it's pretty clear that it was pure hubris, but sometimes you've got to put things out there, even if you know they're lies.

That's why I take FOX's Thursday (May 17) scheduling announcements with several shakers full of salt. You can count on "24" airing at 9 p.m. on Mondays starting in January. You can count on "American Idol" airing on Tuesdays and Wednesdays next year and prompting the inevitable "Is 'American Idol' over-the-hill?" talk until it premieres with 35 million viewers. You can count on "COPS" and "AMW" on Saturdays and that "The Simpsons" will air on Sundays at 8 p.m. Everything else is *pure* conjecture. And despite how up-in-the-air everything else, between "Idol" and "House" and "24" and the Super Bowl, it's hard to imagine a network that isn't FOX winning the key demos next season. That doesn't mean this is a great schedule, but until "American Idol" actually does go in the tank, that's a heck of a thing to top.

A question I'd ponder is whether or not FOX's core is growing. You've got "Idol" and "24" and "House" and... Dunno... "Bones"? To a slightly lesser degree "Prison Break"? It took an "Idol" push for FOX to keep "'Til Death" around, avoiding a total squadoosh for the 2006 development season. So FOX may win 18-49 this season, but where's the evidence that the network's overall strength is improving and that they're properly utilizing what resources they have to develop new resources?

A quick night-by-night review and a glance at the pilots FOX didn't pick up is after the bump, so click on through:

[Warning: This may get confusing...]

FALL: "Prison Break," "K-Ville"
SPRING: "K-Ville" (January)/ "Prison Break" (Spring), "24"
As long as I have at least three available DVR/TiVo/Slingbox tuners, I'm not about to quit on "Prison Break," though I haven't missed it since March and I only barely remember where we left off. Is it possible that that's a show that has pushed view faith too far and may be ready for a drop? And will "K-Ville" be able to succeed where "Vanished" failed last year? I'd really like for "K-Ville" to be good, but are Anthony Anderson and Cole Hauser big enough stars to sell it?

FALL: "New Amsterdam," "House"
SPRING: "American Idol," "House"
It's odd that FOX isn't attempting to use "House" as a launching pad and that they're content that the "Idol"-"House" Tuesday is a winning combination and there's no point in using "Idol" to generate, I dunno, another success. Why not try using "House" to lead into "K-Ville"? Why not use "Idol" in the spring to make "Canterbury's Law" work? Obviously, "House" doesn't need "Idol" anymore, so why not spread resources? Why not put "House" at 8 on Thursdays and attack that night? I dunno... This just seems gutless to me.

FALL: "Back To You," "'Til Death," "Bones"
JANUARY: "Back To You," "'Til Death," "American Idol"
SPRING: "Back to You," "The Return of Jezebel James," "American Idol," "'Til Death"
I'm going to be really interested to see how much of an audience comes back to "'Til Death" when it doesn't have the "Idol" lead-in in the fall. And why keep "'Til Death" in that cushy post-"Idol" slot (assuming that the "Idol" producers don't demand an hour for Wednesday results shows from the beginning? The clips from "Jezebel James" worked for me and I wish it were getting that "Idol" bump, though the show does have a halo effect, so who knows?

FALL: "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?," "Kitchen Nightmares"
SPRING: "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?," "Canterbury's Law"
The fall line-up actually makes sense. It's low-risk, moderate-reward. But in the spring? Hi, Juliana Margulies. Welcome back to primetime. Meet "Grey's Anatomy" and "CSI." Wait... Come back!!!

FALL: "The Search for the Next Great American Band," "Nashville"
SPRING: "Bones," "New Amsterdam"
Again, the fall seems plausible, though the last time FOX tried going this heavy on reality pre-January, it yielded stuff like "The Complex" and that thing with Richard Branson. As for the spring, hands up if you actually believe that we'll see "Bones" leading into "New Amsterdam" come January or February. I'm waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Yeah. I didn't think so. If "New Amsterdam" is a bomb, it'll be gone and we'll get "Trading Spouses." If it's a hit, FOX won't want to waste it on Friday and we'll get "Trading Spouses." And what did "Bones" ever do to deserve even teasing like this? It's a good show. Be nice to it. Don't kill it.

FALL/SPRING: "Cops," "Cops," "America Most Wanted"
How sad is it that this line-up makes FOX the leading provider of original Saturday night content on network TV? Very.

FALL: "Football Overtime," "The Simpsons," "King of the Hill," "Family Guy," "American Dad"
SPRING: "King of the Hill," "American Dad," "The Simpsons," "Family Guy," "The Sarah Connor Chronicles"
The placement of "The Sarah Connor Chronicles" is either brilliant or insanely dumb. I don't know. "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy" will certainly provide an OK number of 18-49 viewers, but the "Terminator" spin-off is bound to be incredibly expensive. It'll need more than that. For me, there's no competition in this slot, so I'm looking forward to it.

INTERESTING PILOTS (BASED ON PLOT AND CAST, NOT ANYTHING I'VE SEEN) THAT DIDN'T GET PICKED UP: You had the "24" team behind "Company Man," but last-second recasting might have doomed its fall hopes. I bet that after "New Amsterdam" tanks, FOX orders it for a midseason failure, a la "Drive" or "Wedding Bells." Mostly FOX's development didn't engage me. The alien sleeper cell drama "Them" might have been cool. And "Me & Lee?" had Lee Majors playing himself (but it also had Jamie Kennedy).

And check out our more exhaustive upfronts coverage over at Zap2it.

MovieWatch: "Shrek the Third"

"Shrek the Third"
Director: Chris Miller
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 35
In a Nutshell: It's hard for me to exactly put my finger on why "Shrek the Third" is such a very unsatisfying movie. It doesn't suffer from the usual problems that plague sequels, in that it isn't too long and its problem isn't overkill, too much of a good thing turned to bloat. If anything, "Shrek the Third" isn't stuffed enough -- if the first two movies were rewatachable for the inside jokes, I often found myself looking around the frame desperate for amusement and finding none, this on the first viewing.

At the end of the day, I'm left to wonder how much of the franchise's appeal was directly related to Andrew Adamson, who helmed the first two films and is off doing things in Narnia (not very well). The first two movies weren't great, but they were charming and they created a very specific fairy tale universe populated by mostly appealing characters. Where have they gone? Shrek and Fiona are mostly the same, only less funny, less specifically ogre-ish and princess-y. Eddie Murphy's Donkey, a reliable source of somewhat guilty laughs in the first two films (the character's a racial stereotype, but a funny one that kids love!), isn't even vaguely the same here. Has he been hen-pecked into a dullard by his dragon wife and not-the-least-bit-interesting dragon-donkey kids? And what happened to Puss In Boots? Antonio Banderas still gets a chuckle or two, but not many. The writers also have decided that certain tertiary characters -- Larry King's Doris, the Germanic Three Pigs, Pinocchio, the three blind mice -- needed more screentime, but never figured out anything for them to do. So they're just loitering in the frame, actually draining scenes of mirth.

The movie makes a minimum of a dozen direct references to the first two movies, which also counts as lazy writing, as does the fact that the movie's theme hasn't gotten any more interesting than "Just because people see you as one thing [a geek, a monster, a loser] doesn't mean that you can't be something else if you want to be." Incidentally, that's a good theme. I endorse it. It's just the same as the last two movies and yet people keep having to explain it in long speeches.

None of the new characters are distinctive -- Ian McShane's Captain Hook is sure to be a standout for elementary school "Deadwood" fans. And I'm not sure the young audience I was with enjoyed much more than the scenes with the baby ogres. That's far from the semi-adult humor of the first two movies. Grown-ups will have to be satisfied with on "Six Million Dollar Man" gag, an unexpected Led Zeppelin reference and a closing rendition of "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" leaves at least an iota of the funk of the Sly and the Family Stone original.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The CW Upfronts: Quick Thoughts

The CW unveiled a downright odd schedule on Thursday (May 17) morning. Any time your network unveils three new scripted dramas and every single one is secured by a reality series lead-in, that's slightly bizarre. There are some structural risks to The CW's schedule, but they're not high-ceiling risks. Does anybody at The CW believe that "Aliens in America" or "Life Is Wild" could become a network-shaping hit the way they're currently programmed? Only "Gossip Girl" is positioned as an obvious breakout and with one success per season, The CW isn't going to grow competitive very quickly.

Before going into my night-by-night analysis, I have to say that as a "Veronica Mars" fan, I feel some regret about the show's absence on The CW's fall schedule (hope springs eternal for midseason, but I *sure* wouldn't hold my breath). But the outrage on the part of the show's fans is wasted. We're talking about the second lowest-rated original program on all of network TV this season, ahead of only "Runaway." We're talking about a show that had one of The CW's finest possible lead-ins for an entire season and got only the smallest possible ratings bump. After three seasons on the air, "Veronica Mars" wasn't suddenly and magically going to find a huge audience and The CW really couldn't renew a show with those kinds of numbers. It's a business and the show was already floated for three seasons. So cherish the memories, enjoy the DVDs and recognize that The CW didn't do anything wrong and that the past two seasons of renewals were gifts to fans already.

Oh and "One Tree Hill: The Aftermath" is probably The CW's biggest leap, pushing that cheeseball drama forward four years. It's a good idea, because your Hilarie Burtons and Chad Michael Murrays were never believable as high school students for a second and they weren't going to fit in much better as college students. Better to give Chat a decent haircut, get Sophia Bush a more grown-up wardrobe and let the characters deal with the soapy problems of people two or three younger than the actors playing them, rather than seven or eight years younger. But think of all of the tawdry mess we're going to miss from those four years? Lucas could have gone back and forth between Brooke and Peyton 20 times in four years. Haley and Nathan could have divorced and remarried five or six times. They could have at least five more babies.


A quick night-by-night review and a glance at the pilots The CW didn't pick up is after the bump, so click on through:

MONDAYS: "Everybody Hates Chris," "Aliens in America," "Girlfriends," "The Game." Not one of those three returning comedies averaged more than 2.75 million viewers last season. Both "Chris" and "Girlfriends" were done by more than a million viewers apiece. The only interesting thing is that these four comedies, TV's most diverse, are going up against CBS' Monday comedies, TV's least diverse. Since they're corporate siblings, I guess that Les Moonves figures that combined, the 8 CBS/CW Monday comedies will bring in one full audience. But where is the upside in this night for The CW? Is there any chance that ratings will somehow improve? If not, what business are you in?

TUESDAYS: "Beauty and the Geek," "Reaper." Sorry, but "Beauty and the Geek" is a fill-in show, a fantastic fill-in show. It's a great thing to have around and know that if need to fill a couple dead programming months, it's there. But is it a show you want starting your fall? A show you want leading into a potentially fun new show? I don't know. But I like Bret Harrison and I love the idea of Ray Wise as Satan, so I'll find a way to be recording "Reaper." If The CW was smart, though, they'd move "Reaper" out of the way of NBC's "Chuck," because the target demos are identical.

WEDNESDAY: "America's Next Top Model," "Gossip Girl." No complains her at all. The CW obviously liked "Gossip Girl" and I'm looking forward to it myself, at least to checking out the pilot. With "ANTM" as a lead-in, viewers will sample it and it should do fine. That's logical programming.

THURSDAY: "Smallville," "Supernatural." I liked pairing "Supernatural" and "Reaper" in a thematically compatible Sunday block and using "Smallville," surely on its last legs by now, to launch something new in what may be its last season as a functional lead-in. Nope. That's what I mean by "low upside programming." You know what The CW Thursday will deliver, but it won't do any better next season than it did this season.

FRIDAY: "WWE Smackdown!" Fine ratings, no connection to whatever The CW brand is supposed to be.

SATURDAY: The lights are off.

SUNDAY: "CW Now," "Online Nation," "Life Is Wild," "ANTM Encore." If "CW Now" and "Online Nation" aren't next season's two least watched original programs on any network, I'll eat my hat. That bodes ill for "Life Is Wild."

INTERESTING PILOTS (BASED ON PLOT AND CAST, NOT ANYTHING I'VE SEEN) THAT DIDN'T GET PICKED UP: The comedy "Eight Days a Week" co-starred Anna Chlumsky, Christina Milian and Mario Lopez and it was written by my friend Marcie. I wanted that sucker on air. I'm also disappointed that Autumn Reeser, so important to the 4th season creative rebirth of "The O.C.," wasn't able to swiftly land back on air, since her pilot wasn't picked up either. Mostly, though, The CW seems to only seriously develop a few shows this spring...

And check out our more exhaustive upfronts coverage over at Zap2it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

'Idol' Voters Do Little to Improve the Finale

What to say about this week's "American Idol" results?


Well, I guess the first think that must be said is "Gee, I hope the 'American Idol' Songwriting Contest yielded at least one entry that includes beatboxing."

And the second thing that everybody'll be saying is "Oh, it's totally better that she didn't win, because now she can make the album she wants to... blah... blah... blah."

It's what we always say when somebody we think is particularly talented goes home on "American Idol." It was the case for Chris Daughtry, so it's got to be true of everybody, eh?

I don't think it's going to be true for Melinda. This year's Top 24 and Top 12 was so middling that it became clear early on that there was no obvious slam-dunk wire-to-wire winner, no Carrie Underwood or Fantasia Barrino. That standard line about how all of the people in the Top 12 will get contracts and sell albums because they all have big fan bases ("Just look at Bucky Covington!") may not be true with this group. Stephanie Edwards had the third best voice in the Top 12, but does anybody really remember her and is anybody clamoring for her album? Does anybody truly believe that LaKisha has a commercial breakthrough in her? Haley Scarnato?

This year's winner may truly need the imprimatur of being an "American Idol Winner" to sell albums. Sure, Melinda could somehow find the right songwriters, the right producers and she could record a good CD. She's got the voice for it. But she had the best voice in the competition and it wasn't enough for her to top Blake Lewis, with his half-octave range and decades-old vocal turntablism, or Jordin, who I don't have any major problems with except that she's not as good as Melinda.

Why did America finally tune out Melinda? Because she seemed too old? Because she seemed too falsely humble? Because America has decided that beatboxing is the new black? Because, as several utter morons (vaguely racist morons at that) claimed on the Zap2it blog, she resembles Shrek? America freakin' loves Shrek!

Anyway, though, that's about all I've got to say on this subject. It was the wrong result, but what can you do? Nothing. Melinda was the most talented person the stage tonight and the second most talented wasn't Jordin or Blake or that guy from Maroon 5. It was Elliott Yamin, whose new teeth and new haircut might have turned things around if he'd had them last year.

Oh well. Back to Upfronts.

CBS Upfronts: Quick Thoughts

If you're TV's most-watched network, you get to be boring.

That didn't mean that CBS was required to present a boring schedule on Wednesday (May 15) morning, but even with a wacky musical produced by Hugh Jackman, a sitcom based on Kaley Cuoco's breasts and drama about a vampire running a detective agency (an innovative concept in a world in which "Forever Knight" and "Angel" never existed), it mostly looks like business as usual for CBS.

But thank you, CBS, for bringing "How I Met Your Mother" back and thank you for canceling "Jericho," which I probably would have kept at least half-watching as long as it was on.

I'll leave it to the pundits to buzz about the far-reaching implications of the "Shark"/"Without a Trace" swap.

A quick night-by-night review and a glance at the pilots CBS didn't pick up is after the bump, so click on through:

MONDAYS: "How I Met Your Mother," "The Big Bang Theory," "Two and a Half Men," "Rules of Engagement," "CSI: Miami." I haven't seen a single picture from "The Big Bang Theory" that didn't focus exclusively on Kaley Cuoco's cleavage. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. Is "HIMYM," as much as I love it, really in any ratings position to serve as a functional lead-in? And boy CBS is probably wishing they could have "King of Queens" back for another few episodes.

TUESDAYS: "NCIS," "The Unit," "Cane." I'm not 100% sure how "Cane" will fit with CBS' testosterone-clogged Tuesday slate, but since I don't have a Tuesday 10 p.m. show of my own, I'll give it a shot. That 10 p.m. slot has been a problem for CBS since the cancellation of "Judging Amy." Otherwise, it's just more of the same.

WEDNESDAYS: "Kid Nation," "Criminal Minds," "CSI: NY." Oooh, the "Jericho" fans won't like this. Cancel their culty drama about plucky Kansans rebuilding after a nuclear attack in exchange for a reality show about plucky kids rebuilding a New Mexico ghost town for 40 days? Ugh. Maybe it'll at least be playful and fun, which is more than you can say for the brooding splatterfests that follow.

THURSDAYS: "Survivor," "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "Without a Trace." The return of "Without a Trace" will make up for whatever view decline "Survivor" has been experiencing. In addition, it could be enough to totally crush NBC's "E.R."

FRIDAYS: "Ghost Whisperer," "Moonlight," "Numb3rs." Not to nit-pick, but "Close to Home" averaged almost the exact same number of viewers as "Numb3rs" and more viewers than "Ghost Whisperer" and CBS cancels it. This is the kind of thing CBS does -- see "The Guardian" and "Judging Amy." Probably "Moonlight" will prove to be a little more compatible with the "genre" portion of the "Ghost Whisperer" audience, but I would be absolutely astounded if it draws 10.3 million viewers per week, which was what "Close to Home" was doing.

SUNDAYS: "60 Minutes," "Viva Laughlin," "Cold Case," "Shark." I know it's not something TV critics are allowed to say, but I actually didn't like "Viva Blackpool" all that much. I was amused by the premise and entertained for maybe an hour, but -- to use a respected writing professor's favorite phrase -- the game wasn't really worth the candle as far as I was concerned and that was a limited run program in the traditional BBC model. How are they going to stretch it for 13 episodes? Or 22? Or 100? And is the dramatically old-skewing "60 Minutes" audience really the proper lead-in for a show that should, if nothing else, be audacious? Also, the move of "Shark" from Thursday to Sunday would seem to reflect CBS' confidence in ABC's waning Sunday, as if to say "We can boost our Thursday and just put a second-rate procedural on Sunday to hold down the fort."

INTERESTING PILOTS (BASED ON PLOT AND CAST, NOT ANYTHING I'VE SEEN) THAT DIDN'T GET PICKED UP: The obvious miss is "Babylon Fields," a zombie dramedy starring Amber Tamblyn among others. CBS went to the trouble of getting Marisa Tomei for "The Rich Inner Life of Penelope Cloud," Freddie Prize for "Atlanta" and Jay Mohr and Brian Austin Green for some untitled crap from Kohan and Mutchnick, but didn't feel the need to put any of them on air. "Fugly" had a bad title and it was a bad idea, but I liked the idea of Nikki Cox and Marissa Jaret Winokur as twin sisters. Plus, Eric Balfour got himself killed off of "24" to do "Protect and Serve" and then it didn't get picked up. Am I going to have to start a new campaign? Grumble.

And check out our more exhaustive upfronts coverage over at Zap2it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"Idol" Recap 05/15: Why 3-3-3 is half the Mark of the Beast

How should we interpret Clive Davis' absence tonight? Tuesday (May 15) night's American Idol is usually the part of the show where the Top Three perform three songs -- one self-selected, one selected by the judges and one picked by Clive Davis, the man eventually responsible for the winner's first album. Tonight, though, Davis' song has been replaced by a pick from the producers, a nice touch given producer Nigel Lythgoe's long-held contention that he doesn't really care about whether or not the show yields a successful recording artist.

Tonight's performances:

Singer: Jordin Sparks
Song: "Wishing on a Star"
My Take: I get the impression that Simon selected this Rose Royce joint for Jordin because it relies heavily on the kind of lilting high notes that Jordin has occasionally over-warbled on this season. If that's the challenge, she dodges those pitfalls rarely easily and takes advantage of the fact that most of the song is right in her range, with none of those awkward low notes either. It's a simple and pure vocal, but it plays as easy in that way that people often criticize Melinda for.
Kukla, Fran and Simon Say: Randy thinks that this is the point of the season where he looks to see who's in it to win it. Jordin apparently is. Paula impressed with Simon's choice. Simon's impressed with Simon's choice, though he criticizes the jazzy arrangement, saying it was "brilliant," but still not one of her better performances. I like how Jordin admits to Ryan that she'd never heard the song before, even though she'd flapped her hands like a Young Paula when it was announced in Arizona.

Singer: Blake Lewis
Song: "Roxanne"
My Take: Paula's an evil, evil woman, assigning a Police song after the lesson we learned in Gwen Stefani Week. Is Blake about to pull a Chris Sligh? Well, he's rushing every part of the song. Does he not know where the lyric "Roxanne" fits in with the music? He hops in at at least three different points. I'd say his Sting impression falls between Sligh's (on the low end) and Phil Stacey's (on the high end). At least he doesn't beatbox. Blake closes with a wince and a slide, as the mic goes flying off the stand.
Kukla, Fran and Simon Say: Randy thought it was a great, great performance. If he isn't talking about Dice-K's pitching last night, I quit. Paula thought he was fantastic. Seriously? Simon didn't think it was a good Sting impersonation. What were they listening to? I'd agree with the idea that he varied from the original arrangement, except that he varied his rhythm each verse.

Singer: Melinda Doolittle
Song: "I Believe in You and Me"
My Take: Are the producers going to give Melinda a Tina Turner song, because this night shouldn't pass without Melinda doing Tina. It's a sign of confidence on Randy's part that he's given Melinda a song from one of those artists he's often told Idol contestants never to cover. He's also chosen one of the less iconic Whitney tracks, which lets Melinda attempt to make the song her own. For the first time all season, I hear a few pitchy spots from Melinda, the first cracks in that perfect vocal veneer. But if we're judging Melinda versus Blake, just seconds earlier, well it's not a competition at all.
Kukla, Fran and Simon Say: Randy thought it was hot and blew it out da box. Paula thought it was fantastic, amazing and at her best. Simon calls it Melinda's best performance of the past four weeks and gives Round One to Melinda.

Singer: Jordin Sparks
Song: "She Works Hard for the Money"
My Take: Jordin falls into occasional mumbles, not that anybody likes this song for its profound lyrics about the importance of treating heard-working women right, what with all they do for their money. The performance is very similar to her opening performance. These haven't been inspired song selections thus far. I've already forgotten about both of Jordin's songs, which is bad news since she's in the dreaded first slot.
Kukla, Fran and Simon Say: Randy thought it was very nicely done and that the song doesn't matter. Thanks, Randy. That's actually my problem with Jordin tonight -- it doesn't seem to matter what song she sings, the performance is identical. Hopefully she'll chose something a bit more personal and emotional for herself later. Paula enthuses that Jordin worked hard for the money tonight. Simon thought it was very good, but again takes exception to the arrangement.

Singer: Blake Lewis
Song: "This Love"
My Take: Well, if it's a Maroon 5 song, you can count on the judges raving about how contemporary Blake is. We've abandoned the need to ask Blake to sing, which is probably a good thing by now. But the vocal turntablism is back for no reason at all. There's nothing at all wrong with his cover of the song. It's straight-forward, by-the-numbers and fine.
Kukla, Fran and Simon Say: You know what was really cool about that for Randy? Check it out: Yo, that that's the kind of record Blake should make if he makes a record. Paula was hoping he would do that. Simon preferred that to the first one and says it wasn't a copycat performance. Nuts. Nobody called Blake hip, original and contemporary.

But what about those other four performances? Like you're friendly neighborhood crack dealer, I'm gonna have to charge you. Or at least urge you to head over to Zap2it.

ABC Upfronts: Quick Thoughts

Anybody remember that wicked cool moment a couple seasons back when ABC had "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" and "Grey's Anatomy" and the network looked like it had all of the building blocks to be a powerhouse for the next five or six years? At the time, ABC President Steve McPherson said that ABC was just a couple pieces away...

Flash forward to Tuesday (May 15) and ABC announces a schedule at upfronts that includes 8 new shows premiering at the start of the fall, with another set for late fall and two other new shows set for some point at midseason. Then ABC also has "Lost" coming back in the spring and "October Road" and "Notes From the Underbelly" floating around like loose bone chips in the pre-surgical elbow of the network's schedule.

If NBC's schedule yesterday was characterized by a lack of risk-taking (and an inability to take risks), ABC's schedule is characterized by the kind of chaos you don't expect out of a network that seemed to be in strong position just two years ago.

Oh and since nobody else will say it, I'm gonna miss "What About Brian." Not a lot. But a little bit.

A quick night-by-night review and a glance at the pilots ABC didn't pick up is after the bump, so click on through:

MONDAYS: "Dancing with the Stars," "Sam I Am," "The Bachelor." Hi new Christina Applegate comedy wedged between two reality shows! What are you doing there? Wouldn't you be better suited with another comedy or with some of your scripted brethren? Oh well. The comedy-in-a-sea-of-reality strategy can't possibly work, can it? Oh well. ABC doesn't really understand "comedy" anyway.

TUESDAYS: "Cavemen," "Carpoolers," "Dancing Results," "Boston Legal." Why are we restricted to turning contemporary commercials into TV shows? My pitch: Three old ladies travel the world looking for the finest beef, no matter how extreme the situation. Every week, they just end up back at Wendys. It's called "Where's the Beef?" (obviously) and the pitch is "Golden Girls meets National Treasure only with cows." Who's with me? If you start your night with a 30-minute Geico commercial, you lose the right to be taken seriously. Sorry.

WEDNESDAYS: "Pushing Daisies," "Private Practice," "Dirty Sexy Money." We may be intellectually lazy, but neither Sepinwall, my Zap2it colleague Rick nor I can think of a precedent for a network rolling out a night of three new dramas. And you start the night with "Pushing Daisies," which is from Bryan Fuller ("Wonderfalls"), which means critics will love it, stupid viewers will be confused by it and it'll be cancelled within 6 episodes. And then you go to "Grey's Anatomy" spin-off "Private Practice," which very few people actually liked when it was presented (and still frustratingly isn't titled "Montgomery's Ward"). And then you end the night with a drama from Greg Berlanti, one of his three shows at the network. If this night works, I wonder what lesson ABC will learn.

THURSDAYS: "Ugly Betty," "Grey's Anatomy," "Big Shots." The season-long ratings slide for "Ugly Betty" has been under-reported because the media turned the show into a sensation and can't bear to admit if the sensation is fading. Anywho... You get a night that skews towards younger, female viewers and you close it with a show about four Alpha Males? Tiny bit confusing.

FRIDAYS: "Men in Trees," "Women's Murder Club," "20/20." I've always liked Laura Harris, who was fantastic on both "24" and "Dead Like Me," but the odds of my watching "Women's Murder Club" are very very slim.

SATURDAYS: "College Football." Fight on 'SC!

SUNDAYS: "America's Funniest Home Videos," "EM: Home Edition," "Desperate Housewives," "Brothers & Sisters." Ah, sweet stability. ABC had better pray that people are still watching "Desperate Housewives" by next fall. It's no guarantee.

INTERESTING PILOTS (BASED ON PLOT AND CAST, NOT ANYTHING I'VE SEEN) THAT DIDN'T GET PICKED UP: You get Bryan Singer directing a pilot based on a popular British format and you get a cast that includes Lucy Lawless, Gabrielle Union, James Van Der Beek, Eddie Cibrian and several dozen other recognizable actors and you still don't get picked up? How awful must "Football Wives" have been? Ditto with "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," which was doomed from the minute they tried to get Martin Henderson and Jordana Brewster to replace Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. I feel bad about "Marlowe," which got pretty super buzz and featured Fien Print favorite Amanda Righetti. And "The Thick of It" had a good cast and came from Mitch "Arrested Development" Hurwitz, so that's got to be considered a miss. Ditto with the untitled legal comedy from "Freaks & Geeks" vets Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah. Come to think of it, ABC had a ton of pilots I wanted to see and they picked up some of the ones I wanted to see least.

And check out our more exhaustive upfronts coverage over at Zap2it.

Monday, May 14, 2007

NetflixWatch: "Alpha Dog"

"Alpha Dog"
Director: Nick Cassavetes
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 47

In the last 15 minutes of "Alpha Dog," the character played by Sharon Stone pops up in an entirely comical fat suit. The purpose of her, um, "shocking" appearance is to illustrate how the unfortunate events of the movie have changed this particular woman, but all I could do was marvel at how despite having let herself go to seed and gained 50-to-100 pounds, Stone's character had continued to get her teeth whitened and her nails done. The movie had already pretty well lost me by there, but I spent the last 10 minutes laughing at Fatty Sharon Stone, which couldn't possibly have been Nick Cassavetes' intention was.

Unfortunately, Cassavetes' general intentions are much too obvious -- He's making just the latest in an endless line of "The kids aren't alright" dramas, following in the footsteps of previous superior films like "River's Edge." There have been so many recent films in this genre -- think "Kids," "Elephant," "Thirteen," "Bully," "Chumscrubber" and "Mean Creak" -- that the fact that "Alpha Dog" is "based on a true story" becomes meaningless. Do I give "Alpha Dog" a qualitative bonus for factual accuracy, even though most of its plotpoints were covered identically and previously in movies both equally semi-true ("Bully") and fictional ("Chumscrubber")?

I don't, because if I did, I'd probably then get frustrated by how many moments in "Alpha Dog" feel so patently false, from the aforementioned fat suit to Ben Foster's mind-bogglingly hilarious kung-fu party showdown to the tawdry and exploitative swimming pool threesome to the badly green screened backdrop in a key final scene. "Alpha Dog" is much too artificial and screenwriter-contrived for a movie that wants to boast about its veracity and its unblinking depiction of youth culture. I'm also not sure if Cassavetes' goal is to indict faulty parenting or hip-hop culture for corrupting America's misdirected youth, but he probably couldn't tell you either. It's one thing for Cassavetes to say, as he has on many occasions, that he doesn't want to be pigeon-holed as just one specific kind of filmmaker, but all of the schizophrenic flitting he's done between "She's So Lovely" and "John Q" and "The Notebook" and this comes through in a lack of consistent vision.

The movie is a mis-edited muddle in large part because the camera can't find anybody it wants to settle on. That's not the same as Cassavetes offering viewers a character to identify with, though, because Anton Yelchin's Zack is supposed to be that character (and he isn't bad). But none of the ostensible leads -- Emile Hirsch or Justin Timberlake or Fernando Vargas or Shawn Hatosy -- has the necessary charisma to carry the picture. The movie's energy level rises or wanes based on Foster's screentime, as he makes every over-the-top twitch and spasm watchable. The women are reduced to dull caricatures, barely defined by their relationships to the various men. In lieu of a character, Olivia Wilde provides a little gratuitous nudity, as if it were something she needed to do to advance her career, never looking back. And eventually somebody will figure out a proper use for Amanda Seyfried, who probably should be a TV star by this point, at the very least.

I'd advise viewers to skip "Alpha Dog" and check out one of those earlier teens-gone-wild films, or just wait for the next one to come along.