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Archive for March, 2011

It’s easy to forget now, but it was just two years ago that The Office had its finest season and was perhaps the best show on television. That season was itself a rebound from the problematic, strike-shortened fourth season, when many fans felt it had lost its way before it managed a stellar finale and introduced Amy Ryan’s Holly Flax. Since that great fifth season, the show has been wildly uneven and at times outright terrible, but it has recovered somewhat with a strong string of episodes this year, initiated once again by the reintroduction of Holly.

Holly is Michael’s perfect match, but the writers have been very careful not to turn her into a Mary Sue. When a show brings in a female character to help its male lead grow up, it often will reduce that female character to either a Manic Pixie Dream Girl or a nurturing mother type. Holly is neither of these. While she’s likable, she’s likable in a recognizably human, imperfect way. She makes Michael better, but Michael makes her better too.

As flawed as Michael is, it’s actually Holly’s very un-MPDG overcautiousness that kept the two of them apart, first when she was unwilling to risk a long-distance relationship and then when she was unwilling to break off her relationship with AJ. And it’s Michael’s overdramatic willingness to wear his heart on sleeve and take risks that cures her of this overcautiousness.

Moreover, she makes Michael a better person not by taking care of him, but simply by reacting realistically to his most pettily immature actions. She shares many of Michael’s flaws, but has a self-awareness that keeps her from indulging in Michael’s antisocial excesses. And by sharing that self-awareness with Michael–sometimes by being hurt, sometimes by telling him off, sometimes just by being honest with him about how he’s coming off–she gets Michael to see his antisocial behavior for what it is. She’s far from the only one who has had these reactions, but Michael is far more willing to reconsider his behavior in light of her reactions because she is, in fact, so similar to him. Whereas Michael generally reacts to criticism with victimization, he understands that when Holly doesn’t like something he’s done, it’s not meant as an indictment of him as a person. Like Pam (who does have a very mothering relationship with Michael), Holly blunts Michael’s worst excesses simply by being a person he genuinely trusts. But unlike Pam, Holly treats Michael like an adult.* And this, in turn, makes Michael behave like an adult.

(*It should go without saying, but Michael’s relationship with Jan was also very different. Like Holly, Jan has a lot in common with Michael. Unlike Holly, Jan brought out the worst in him, and vice-versa. The Jan and Michael relationship is basically the evil flipside of the Holly and Michael relationship.)

“Garage Sale” finally pays off Michael and Holly’s relationship. Given that it’s an event episode, it’s not terribly surprising that it’s a good episode, as The Office has always been exceptionally good at event episodes.* Though the show has always featured multi-episode arcs, its event episodes tend to pay off character arcs, not plot arcs. They’re not about mysteries being revealed, wherein the fun is in not knowing what’s going to happen next. Rather, they’re about recognizable events that happen during the course of most everyone’s lives. As such, we know exactly what’s going to happen. But The Office almost always manages to make them feel surprising anyway.

(*The big exception to this is “Phyllis’s Wedding,” which is basically a disaster with lots of cringe and very little humor.)

And so it is with Michael’s proposal. As is his wont, Michael wants his proposal to be very dramatic. His first plan involves dousing the parking lot in gasoline and expressing his love in fire. Pam fortunately interrupts him before he can accidentally set himself ablaze.* From there, the whole office teams up to create Michael’s very dramatic proposal, and the result is the show’s second pitch-perfect moment of the season.

(*This would have been a pretty surprising way to write Michael out of the show.)

The first of those was Toby in the church in “Christening” throwing his hands up and asking God why He’s so mean to him. That the season’s second perfect moment is a testament to true love is fitting, in that it highlights two of the show’s most dominant themes. In Toby, we see a desperation to live a meaningful life in the face of a seemingly indifferent if not outright cruel world. And in Michael and Holly, we see characters finding that meaning in other human beings and the small, ordinary events they share. The great tension is that finding other human beings you can connect with is extremely difficult. And this, in turn, makes those small, ordinary events seem enormous within the lives of the people experiencing them.

On the show, Michael filling the office with candles and proposing to Holly seems like the grandest gesture in the world. In reality, it’s just a bunch of candles in an office. The show itself even undercuts the grandness by having the candles set off the sprinkler system. This is a direct reference to Jim’s proposal to Pam in the rain at a gas station, which Michael had derided as insufficiently grand and even lame earlier in the episode. But, in fact, Jim’s proposal felt huge too. Michael wants to believe he can do something bigger, but some rain and a few candles is as big as it gets for most of us, aesthetically speaking. But that’s OK, because what makes the moment big is that these characters have managed to escape, if just for a moment, Toby’s existential despair. And they’ve done it precisely the way we all do it, with a simple, boring, wonderful human relationship.

Loose Ends:

  • The writers also undercut the grandness of the proposal with the episode’s mundane title. This is huge moment for Michael and Holly, but at the same time, it’s just another day.
  • The garage sale itself was pretty fun. It’s almost a shame it got such short shrift here. It easily could have propped up a whole episode. But it’s hard to complain too much, obviously.
  • This was one of the better Jim-Dwight subplots in a while, for a lot of reasons, but mostly for Jim’s little kick of delight at the end.
  • I failed to mention it in the review proper, but this episode also sets up Michael’s departure, and it does in a realistic, completely humane way. Some might complain of the abruptness, but I like it a lot. This is life. Things happen. People move.
  • All of that said, the major lesson of “Garage Sale” is that you should never play board games with Kevin. He will fuck you up.

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How I Met Your Mother did not have a good season last year, and a lot people quite justifiably wrote it off. When a show is five seasons old and starts bouncing around aimlessly, rehashing old plot points and going to broader sources of humor, it’s generally a bad sign. Sometimes, though, shows do recover, and HIMYM has done that this year. The season has, admittedly, been a bit hit or miss, but with the exception of the stellar second season, HIMYM has always struggled with inconsistency. A lot critics and fans have been slow to welcome the show back into their hearts, but the last several episodes have been uniformly strong, successfully mixing some very funny episodes with some painfully sad moments.

“Legendaddy” continues that trend. The episode is about gaps, those things that are, for whatever reason, missing from our lives. Most of these missing pieces are little things. Maybe we mispronounce a word. Or struggle a bit separating mythical lands from actual geographical places. Or have terrible aim. Or don’t know how to use a screwdriver. And usually it doesn’t go any farther than that. It’s just this odd bit of personal trivia. But sometimes a little gap is symptomatic of a larger a gap. Sometimes a person doesn’t know how to use a screwdriver because there was no one around to teach him how. Such is the case with Barney, whose father abandoned him when he was just a young child.

Barney has always very nearly been a cartoon character come to life–and a borderline repulsive one at that–whose sense of morality is badly skewed and whose behavior falls well outside what are generally considered to be acceptable norms. Part of his appeal is, once again,* his persona as an escapist hero. He’s wealthy, serially dishonest, tactlessly blunt, and has copious amounts of inconsequential sex. And despite all of this, he still has friends who like him and want to hang out with him all the time. It’s not hard to see how a show with a character like this can fit comfortably alongside CBS’s cadre of Chuck Lorre sitcoms. But HIMYM has always been careful to ground Barney in personal tragedy and remind us of this tragedy from time to time. Whereas something like Two and a Half Men never explicitly acknowledges how broken its characters are, HIMYM frequently points out Barney’s fundamental brokenness. But not so frequently that we can’t enjoy his excesses. And as a result, not only do his friends like him, but so do we. It’s a fine line to walk, and it requires good writing and an even better performance.

(*I keep coming back to this. It’s all Charlie Sheen’s fault.)

Fortunately, HIMYM has Neil Patrick Harris, who is consistently terrific even when the writing isn’t, as was the case for much of the fifth season. This season, though, has seen the reprisal of Barney’s search for his long-lost father, and “Legendaddy” brings that search to a close, when Jerry (played by John Lithgow) shows up at his door. Jerry’s introduction is a clever bit of storytelling, in which Barney calls his building’s super asking for a screwdriver and gets a father instead. A father who later in the episode shows Barney how to use a screwdriver. It’s vintage HIMYM: a little on the nose, but emotionally affecting enough for that not to matter.

Harris and Lithgow are predictably excellent throughout, both in the two versions of lunch at the bar and in the dinner at Jerry’s house. In each case, we see Barney’s frustration at his father’s stodginess. If Barney was doomed to have an absent dad, after all, couldn’t he at least be awesome? Or, as Barney puts it later, “If you were going to be some lame suburban dad, why couldn’t you have been that for me?” After spending the whole episode trying to be what he thought Barney wanted him to be, Jerry responds with frustration of his own. But ultimately, all he can do is go get his tools and try to be that lame suburban dad he should have been all those years ago.

It’s a powerful scene, and not the kind of thing most sitcoms are capable of pulling off. And it’s also how HIMYM has managed to be so well loved despite its inconsistency. It’s highs are very high.

Loose Ends:

  • Barney’s sibling rivalry with Jerry Jr. was uncomfortable, but funny.
  • This episode could very well earn Harris an Emmy, but the real standout of the season has been Jason Segel, who gets yet another great moment here. When Barney insists that he’s never going to talk to his dad again, Marshall steps forward and says, “No, Barney, I’m never going to talk to my dad again. But your dad is alive, and he lives just down the road.” In a lesser actor’s hands, that might seem manipulative. In Segel’s, it just feels achingly honest.
  • Everyone’s gap was amusing, but I really hope to see more of Lily throwing things all over the place.
  • Cobie Smulders’ embarrassed laugh is one of those great acting tools for a comic actress. Christine Woods’ has an equally great nervous laugh in Perfect Couples.
  • HIMYM has gotten a lot of mileage out of the intervention conceit. It’s not an inherently funny situation, but it’s useful in getting the whole gang together and focusing on a single idea.
  • “Oh my God, that took you five seconds.” “Was it that long? Life’s too short for chatty chicks.” *Tears up phone number.*
  • “His name might as well have been Daniel Cham-a-leon.”
  • “Robin, reindeer: real or fake?” “OK, I’m not an idiot. Reindeer are obvious ffrrreal?”
  • “Hey, guys. This is Rex. He’s a opossum. I found him in the trash. He lives with us now.”

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There is a notion, popular among fans of serialized television, that the conclusion of a story is the single most significant factor in determining whether the episodes leading up that conclusion are any good. It’s a notion that I have been known to mock, as it seems to me this takes the concept of a television series as a single unit past its breaking point. No matter how serialized a show is, it’s still composed of individual episodes that can be enjoyed or not enjoyed on their own merits. While it’s true that a strong conclusion can improve a story, there’s no reason a story can’t be enjoyable even if it’s followed by a weak conclusion. Alas, House is doing its best to prove me a hypocrite.

There’s a lot to like in “Fall From Grace.” It’s  a very broad episode–some would say too broad–built largely around House being a wild and crazy guy. Even the case of the week is especially absurd, featuring one of the most gloriously ridiculous twists I’ve seen in a while, in which it turns out that the patient–with whom Masters has developed a nice little patient-doctor relationship–is a serial killer. And a cannibal. A SERIAL KILLING CANNIBAL.

House, meanwhile, does not kill or eat people, but he does try hard to give the impression that he’s losing control. Last week he holed up in a hotel with a troupe of hookers and then jumped off a balcony into a swimming pool. This week he’s riding around in a monster truck, bringing a big-screen TV into his office, playing ping-pong while diagnosing a patient, getting foot massages from a Russian prostitute, and, oh yeah, marrying her in return for services rendered so that she can become a United States citizen. When Wilson expresses consternation over the marriage, House explains it will save him $30,000 a year. It’s hard to argue with math like that.

I can completely understand why some would find this too broad by half, but I found it all to be quite a lot of fun. Now we have to talk about why it’s quite a lot of fun, though, given that it’s putatively the story of someone letting go and giving in to all his worst, most self-destructive tendencies. If that reading is right, playing House’s self-destruction for laughs basically makes House the Charlie Harper/Sheen of medical dramas.* If this is the case, we can find it amusing because, as in the case of Two and a Half Men, we have the benefit of the barrier of artificiality protecting us from having to deal with the darker implications of House’s behavior. But unlike Two and Half Men, House has always mixed the wackiness with genuine, even melodramatic consequences. While House can act like an escapist hero at times, the show is ultimately very much not pure escapism. And generally when House is in full-on meltdown mode, the show goes to the melodrama more than the humor.

(*This would give that dream sequence from “Bombshells” just a little more significance.)

Additionally, House’s behavior here isn’t actually all that self-destructive. At worst, he’s risking an investigation by the INS. Riding around in a monster truck, playing ping-pong, getting a TV–these are all things that could happen in any episode. It’s just that House is doing them all at once and they’re slightly more outlandish than his usual fare. Even marrying a Russian prostitute isn’t particularly far removed from House’s usual behavior, especially given his financial calculations. The end of the episode–when House declines the opportunity to sleep with his new wife–more or less makes clear what’s really going on here. This isn’t House losing control at all; this is House being spiteful and trying to hurt Cuddy. Which is dickish, but not existentially horrifying. Despite Wilson’s concerns–he tells Cuddy House needs someone to tell him “no,” which I would argue is precisely what House wants Wilson to tell her–House is actually in complete control of his actions. So he can ride around in a monster truck, and we can laugh and not worry he’s going to drive it off a cliff.

That everything that happens in “Fall From Grace” is about House’s relationship with Cuddy is the source of my concern, however. Though House and Cuddy broke up a couple of weeks ago, thus ending the ungodly abomination that is Huddy, I can’t shake the feeling that we’re not quite out of the woods yet. I want to believe that “Bombshells” offered the definitive take on the relationship and that all that remains is fallout. But I can’t help but fear the writers have other ideas and are just setting the stage for a big reconciliation.

This is, of course, intentional on the show’s part. Huddy has been, for better or worse,* the central conceit of the season, and what happens to House and Cuddy now is likely to remain the central tension in the show until at least the season finale. Basic storytelling rules demand this be so. Indeed, if they simply dropped the story to return to the pre-Huddy status quo, it would feel abrupt and unsatisfying. So I don’t really want them to do that. And yet my disdain for the relationship is so great that the mere possibility of it reconstituting itself in the end has an adverse effect on my enjoyment of the episodes currently airing.

(*Note: It has been for the worse.)

But I still don’t think that’s an entirely fair way to evaluate an episode. While “Fall From Grace” is a part of the Huddy arc, it is not solely defined by the arc. It’s full of over-the-top humorous set pieces and sensationalistic twists and is just in general a lot of fun. And though the arc it belongs to has been badly mismanaged this season and could very well end poorly, it’s actually handled pretty well in this particular instance. Whatever dissatisfaction I have with the episode is more dissatisfaction with the season than with the episode itself. Which means that if I ever come across it in reruns, I’ll probably enjoy it a lot more than I did Monday night.

Loose Ends:

  • When the team found bone fragments in the patient’s colon, I made a joke about the guy being a cannibal. I didn’t think they’d actually go there. But then they did! And it was kind of awesome!
  • House’s new prostitute wife, played by Karolina Wydra, is fantastically charming. She and House should run away together.
  • One of the funnier aspects of the show is the way the members of House’s team become desensitized to his behavior as time goes on. Masters is a wreck in this episode, but Taub, Foreman and Chase take it all in stride.
  • Taub’s reaction to being left out of the wedding party is both sad and amusing. That he complains to House and winds up as the ring bearer is even more amusing.

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If “Mother’s Day” proves not to be just the second season finale of V, but also the series finale, it will be fitting. V has never been able to figure out just what kind of show it should be, and this finale manages to be two different finales at once. The first finale builds on all the storylines that have been dully percolating throughout the season and suggests an attempt to pay them off. The second finale blows all those storylines up and cops to what a gigantic failure they’ve been in the process of retooling the show for a hypothetical third season. But if, as seems likely, that third season never comes, then the final image V will leave for the world will be a flashy, bloody repudiation of every single thing it ever tried to do. If nothing else, there’s a kind of honesty in that I never would have expected, even if it is just a hail mary attempt at getting a renewal.

“Mother’s Day” is pretty evenly divided between the show V has been and the show it’s apparently now decided to become. The first half of the episode involves the Fifth Column’s attempt to assassinate Anna for something like the thousandth time. Their plan is, like all of their previous plans, utterly incompetent and needlessly complicated, and the execution of said plan is predictably dull. They decide that the best way to kill Anna is by fake-kidnapping a complicit Lisa (AKA Supergirl), who is then supposed to turn around and shoot her mother with one of the V’s extremely fake-looking disintegration guns after they lure Anna into an empty building. Why Lisa couldn’t just kill her mother on any one of the many occasions they’re alone together in the normal course of their day is never explained. As all this is going on, Ryan (AKA Token Black V) is back on the V mothership (the same one he couldn’t be on before because everyone was trying to kill him) trying to save his daughter and break Diana out of her cell.

When the Fifth Column’s plan fails, it’s neither a surprise nor really a sign that anything is amiss. The Fifth Column always fails at everything, after all. (Anna manages to convince Lisa that she thinks human emotion is swell, and that she loves her so much, and that humans and hideous alien lizards can live in peace and harmony forever; so Lisa puts her silly raygun away and the Fifth Column is angry that she ruined their insipid plan and … eh, who cares?) But when Diana’s triumphant return-to-Queenhood speech in front of all the V extras we’ve never seen before (yeah, it turns out her prison wasn’t very secure) is suddenly interrupted by Anna’s lizard tail slicing through her body, it’s clear that something is up.

But before we get to just what that something is, it’s worth taking a moment to pause in appreciation of Diana’s death scene, which is legitimately one of the best things I’ve seen on television this year. No, seriously. Aside from Morena Baccarin, Jane Badler has been the best thing about V this year. Despite being saddled with terrible dialog about insipid themes and being given virtually no story arc to participate in, her scenes have nonetheless managed to be relatively enjoyable if only for her campy line readings. And that’s on full display in her silly speech about how awesome the soul is and why the Vs should live in the peace with humans. Until Anna stabs her with her lizard tail and lifts her dying body in the air for the camera to linger on for what seems like at least a full minute. Is it gratuitous? Yes. Is it a Deep Blue Sea rip-off? Yes. But that just makes it all the better. Diana’s warning (uttered with her dying breath) that Anna has just doomed the Vs rings so hilariously hollow that I’m just going to go ahead and assume that it’s supposed to. And the scene’s coda–Anna turning to Lisa and telling her, “Now that’s how you kill your mother”–is so much fun it almost makes you forget what a waste of time the rest of the show has been.

And that’s the point. It’s with Diana’s death that it becomes clear that the show is abandoning all of its storylines. I mean, sure, it would be nice to think that all of Badler’s appearances have been leading up to her awesome death scene, but that’s obviously not the case. It’s the writers realizing that Badler’s appearances weren’t actually leading anywhere and finding a way to get rid of the character in as fun a way as possible. Which is to be commended, though it’s not entirely clear why it had to take so long.

The rest of the episode is similarly ruthless, but also feels needlessly delayed. The episode goes on to kill off Ryan and Tyler, and then disband the Fifth Column and replace it with something called the Ares Project. These are all positive moves, but they’re moves that should have been made a long time ago. Ryan’s story has been spinning its wheels since at least the beginning of the season. His shifting alliances have felt like plot devices and have done little to make his character more interesting, while his relationship to his daughter has remained completely unchanged throughout the season, even as she’s been aging at an increased rate. When said daughter breaks his neck with her tail, it’s not a conclusion to the story, but a merciful surrender. Like Diana’s story, Ryan’s story wasn’t going anywhere, and now, because of a horrible alien lizard tail, we don’t have worry about it anymore.

Tyler, meanwhile, has long been one of the most annoying characters on television, and I feel confident that, while V might inexplicably have actual fans who like it, absolutely nobody will miss this character, with the possible exception of Logan Huffman’s mother. Indeed, the V writers appear to have given his demise a fair amount of thought, deeply considering the method of his death that would give the show’s unfortunate viewers the most satisfaction. Given that they settled on Tyler getting his neck ripped open by the ferocious alien lizard teeth of a naked, post-coital Laura Vandervoort, I feel confident that they made the right choice. The only mildly disappointing thing about the scene is that Tyler experiences a few moments of happiness, to which he has no right.

The episode dispenses with The Fifth Column just as quickly–though, unfortunately, not nearly as bloodily–and the Ares Project seems to offer solutions to a few of the shows biggest problems. V has always wanted us to believe that the stakes are immensely high and that The Fifth Column is humanity’s last great hope. But The Fifth Column has always been composed of no more than 6 people who mostly just sit around talking about incompetent plans that never work. The writers tried to remedy this by introducing other arms of The Fifth Column, but the only real change was that sometimes our Fifth Column would video chat with a couple other people. Their plans, meanwhile, remained incompetent and continued to never work. The Ares Project is, if nothing else, a much more impressive looking organization. It appears to be staffed with actual human beings who have actual skills and the technological and financial means to actually execute plans of attack, assuming some of those skilled human beings can come up with competent plans. Whether the show would actually know how to use the Ares Project if it gets renewed is something of an open question, but it at least has potential.

It’s worth pointing out that while all of this is a lot of fun and a move in the right direction, none of it makes even a lick of sense. And none of it even remotely guarantees that the show would be any better if it got the chance to go forward. “Mother’s Day,” after all, succeeds in much the same way that the pilot succeeded: by throwing as much shit at the wall as it possibly could. The episode ends with Anna blissing all of humanity with the help of Ryan’s adorable murderous daughter. When she does this, blood comes pouring out of her eyes. And it raises the two questions every scene, episode and story of V should raise if it gets renewed, and answers them in precisely the right way. Why is this happening? No idea. But is it awesome? Why, yes. Yes it is.

Loose Ends:

  • I failed to mention what happened to Lisa in the review proper, so quickly: Anna throws her in Diana’s old cell and forces her to watch as a duplicate Anna has just created fucks and murders her boyfriend. It’s somewhat tawdry.
  • This sequence features Morena Baccarin saying, “Put skin on my daughter.” It’s no “Now that’s how you kill your mother,” but it’s pretty good.
  • No mention in the episode as to what would become of the rest of the Fifth Column aside from Erica if the show is renewed. Hopefully they will all have their necks chewed off by a naked Laura Vandervoort.
  • Despite the positive steps the show takes in “Mother’s Day,” I think it would almost certainly still suck if it gets renewed. But I would also almost certainly continue to watch it. Given that, I can’t say I’m exactly rooting for its renewal. Besides, “Mother’s Day” is about as good a note a show this bad could hope to go out on.

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When Cougar Town premiered last season , it featured a horrible premise (Courtney Cox fucks hot young studs) and a stupid name and was just in general terrible. It stayed that way for its first several episodes. And then the writers jettisoned the awful premise and turned Cougar Town into a show about a group of people hanging out. And now it’s one of the most enjoyable sitcoms around, stupid name not withstanding.

There are a couple of lessons to that story. The obvious one is that sitcoms usually need time to grow. Shows like Arrested Development and Modern  Family that spring forth fully formed from the TV development womb are rare.* It generally takes some time for the writers to figure out how to write for the characters they’ve created and for the cast to gel.

(*It is true, however, that most shows don’t start off quite as poorly as Cougar Town; one imagines having a talented showrunner like Bill Lawrence probably helped push things in the right direction.)

The second lesson is that high-concept premises aren’t always helpful, at least when it comes to making a good show. They are almost certainly helpful in getting a show on the air, because it’s a lot easier to pitch high-concept than low-concept. But for any sitcom to actually be good, no matter how high-concept the premise, the low-concept stuff has to work. For all the incessant fan chatter about How I Met Your Mother‘s serialized elements,* the show simply wouldn’t be popular if we didn’t want to spend time with th gang at McLaren’s. Sometimes, as with How I Met Your Mother, the high-concept premise can enhance the low-concept stuff. But other times, as with Cougar Town, it just gets in the way.

(*Often overstated serialized elements, I should say. Yes, it does interesting things with structure and continuity. But no, it is not Lost and it does not need an end date.)

So far, Mr. Sunshine has more in common with the latter than the former. Mr. Sunshine is a low-concept show about a group of wacky people that work at an events center, but it desperately wants to be a high-concept show about Matthew Perry’s Ben finding his long-lost soul. As a  result, every episode thus far has followed the same basic plot construction: People complain that Ben is a misanthrope. Ben tries to demonstrate that he cares about people. Various hilarious forces get in the way. And then Ben reaffirms that he cares about people, though in a somewhat different way than he intended. The problem with this being the main plot in every episode is that it requires that Ben begin each new episode as the same old misanthrope he always was, last week’s lessons be damned. The result is that Ben gets no actual character development over the course of the series, but only illusory character development over the course of an episode that immediately disappears at the start of the next one. The premise could work, but only if it were deployed more subtly (that is, more like a normal character development thread). Only by making the premise less central to episodic plots can actual character development occur and the premise of the show actually be executed. In other words, by being so heavy-handed with it, the show actually undercuts its own premise.

Given how early it is in its run, this problem could simply be the result of the old “remake your pilot six times” rule, to which a lot of new shows hew. The idea behind that rule is that if you want new viewers to understand what your show is about, the best way to do so is by making it exceedingly clear in every episode. Which is fair enough. But I do sort of doubt people are going to keep watching just because they’re so taken with Matthew Perry’s soul-searching. If they keep watching, it will be for the same reason people keep watching any sitcom: because the characters seem fun to be around and make them laugh. And right now all the heavy-handed soul-searching is getting in the way of that.

“Crystal on Ice” is encouraging then because it’s the first time the show manages to stay out of its own way. Well, mostly. It doesn’t quite stick the landing, but for the first two-thirds, the episode works very well. Perry is still clearly the star of the show, but Ben’s problems aren’t the sole focus of the episode. While all of the stories get filtered through Ben by the end (for no really good reason), “Crystal on Ice” does a much better job letting the other characters stand on their own than had previous episodes.

The Alice and Alonzo subplot, for instance, is very funny even though it has only a very tenuous connection to Ben. Alonzo’s tendency to be absurdly perfect at everything (he always gives half a pint more blood than is allowed by law) is endlessly amusing, and the ever versatile Andrea Anders* makes for a game straight woman. While Alonzo was clearly designed as a counterpoint to Ben, “Crystal on Ice” shows that there’s no reason he can’t be funny on his own. Which is a good thing, because characters who merely exist to be a reflection of another character are barely characters at all. Whether Alice will ever be able to move beyond Ben’s True Love remains a question mark, though if she fails to, it won’t be Anders’ fault.

(*Insert paean to the fondly remembered Better Off Ted here.)

Also clearly meant as a reflection of Ben is Crystal, his stereotypical lunatic boss. While her main trait remains doing crazy things like tackling Smurfs and blurting out racially insensitive things to varying comic effect,* the writers have worked hard to give her an emotional core in her strained relationship with her son. Despite the broadness of the character and despite being saddled with a similar storyline, Crystal’s arc has mostly avoided the problems plaguing Ben’s arc. She too tends to get character-based episodic plots that resolve themselves and then reset for the next episode. And just as Ben is trying to learn to love people, Crystal’s trying to learn how to love her son. But the difference is in that “how.” Crystal’s attempts at showing her affection for Roman, despite well-intentioned and even heartfelt, are always so clearly superficial that it’s clear she hasn’t learned anything. This doesn’t make her a terrible person, because she really does love her son. She just doesn’t know how to show it properly. This is in (unintentional on the show’s part, I believe) contrast to Ben, who doesn’t really like people and have trouble showing it, but actually genuinely hates people and is trying to like them. At the end of each episode, Crystal hasn’t really learned anything and that’s OK, because we know her heart’s in the right place. But Ben is supposed to have learned something, because if he hasn’t, then he’s a huge jerk. Potentially even more of a jerk than he was at the beginning of the episode, actually. So resetting Crystal is fine, but resetting Ben really isn’t.

(*For the record, the Smurf tackling is very funny, while the race stuff is meh.)

Roman, meanwhile, has consistently been the funniest part of the show, despite being written inconsistently. The writers have, on more than one occasion, used him as little more than a barely functioning idiot whose stupidity helpfully advances Ben’s plots. This is a waste and never fails to feel like a great character being squandered by poor scripts. Far more interesting than his stupidity is his loneliness and neediness. As played by Nate Torrence, Roman is an almost desperately sad character who covers his pain with a constant smile that often looks more like a wince. Given the right kind of story, Torrence’s performance could devastating. “Crystal on Ice” isn’t quite that story, but it comes closer than any episode before.

In a pretty standard Odd Couple type set-up, the episode sees Roman moving into Ben’s apartment. The middle third of the episode is devoted almost entirely to exploring this situation and it’s the best the show has ever been. Importantly, Roman first displays some actual talent, quickly completing Ben’s financial paperwork so that the two of them can play video games and then Truth or Dare. As they play the latter, Roman confesses that, more than anything, he just wants his mother to like him. It’s a bit too on the nose, but Torrence sells the emotion better than he has any business doing.

This is also the centerpiece of Ben’s plot, and it illustrates how the show’s premise should work. Most effective is Ben’s reaction when they break one of his lamps. He feels like he should be upset, but he isn’t. Because he’s having a good time spending time with another person. But later, when Roman intentionally breaks another lamp, it’s a bridge too far. There’s character growth, but not so much character growth that it feels unrealistic. Ben hasn’t suddenly turned into Roman. He’s still a curmudgeonly guy who just let his hair get messed up for a couple of hours.

After all of this, the final act is letdown, hitting the same old notes all the previous episodes already hit and needlessly cycling all the stories back through Ben. But then, it’s early yet. It took Cougar Town nearly half a season let go of its premise and get good. Maybe Mr. Sunshine needs to take the same kind of baby-steps Ben takes during his game of Truth or Dare.

Loose Ends:

  • I should probably mention that though I wasn’t fond of the last act, the final scene, in which Allison Janney ice skates with a smurf, is pretty great.
  • I’m not great at gauging these sorts of things, but I feel like Mr. Sunshine is probably doomed. Which is too bad because I really do think it has potential.
  • But it’s mostly too bad because, seriously, Nate Torrence. I’m not sure I’ve adequately explained just how good he is as Roman, but he’s really, really, really good. If the writing were just a little better, it would be a lot clearer just how good he is.
  • The only thing better than Torrence is the theme song, which seems to get funnier every time I hear it.

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I don’t ask much of Off The Map. I really don’t. It doesn’t even have to entertain me.  Sure, it’s nice if it supplements its beautiful people and scenery with bits of humor and wildly implausible medical stories. But if it doesn’t feel up to it, I’m perfectly content to just stare blankly at the pretty pictures flitting across my television screen. All I ask is that it not  make me want to throw things across the room.

In fairness to “There’s Nothing To Fix,” it isn’t nearly as bad as “On the Mean Streets of San Miguel.” There are no Nazis or former Nazis or giant, painful erections (which, for the record, are only truly bothersome as part of a narrative when mixed with Nazis or former Nazis). And there is plenty of stupid nonsense to semi-enjoy through half-open eyes. The episode opens, for example, with Minard (AKA Beautiful Blonde Doctor) and Tommy (AKA Handsome Doctor #2, AKA Matt Saracen) sleeping together in some bushes and being discovered by Zita (AKA Token Latina Doctor). Bernard and Tommy then spend the rest of the episode finding it hard to do doctor stuff because of the all the sex they had the night before. (This is completely understandable because it’s not like they’re highly trained professionals who attended years of medical school or anything.) Which leads to Tommy saying stuff like, “I’m sorry. I’m just finding it hard to save this guy’s life because I had sex with Minard in a bush last night,” and Ben (AKA Handsome Boss Doctor) responding, “LOOK. YOU’VE GOT TO GET YOUR HEAD IN THE GAME.”* And to Minard sitting around eating pizza with Ryan (AKA Dying Redhead Doctor) and saying stuff like, “I’m just so awkward around boys, you know? It’s so hard being beautiful and talented. I’m sorry you’re dying.”

(*This storyline eventually leads to Tommy siphoning virtually all of his blood into one of his patients, thus proving that he really does HAVE HIS HEAD IN THE GAME.)

But before I get ahead of myself too much, the non-sex half of the cold open involves a water taxi (AKA a boat) suddenly flipping over on a particularly rough stretch of river. Fortunately, several of our hero-doctors are walking by at that precise moment, as they are wont to do. In the aftermath of the crash, Lily (AKA Beautiful Brunette Doctor) spends most of the rest of the episode hanging off a log in a rushing river after attempting to save somebody who ends up dying anyway, Tommy and Ben patch up the rest of the survivors while shouting about GETTING THEIR HEADS IN THE GAME, and Minard and Ryan try to save the life of a cantankerous, diabetic pizza maker with a fungus on his ass. Nothing wrong with any of that. The episode even ends with one of those funerals for a terrible person no one likes (in the case, the cantankerous pizza maker) that everyone’s anxious to leave, but one person (in this case, Minard) won’t let anyone go until someone, anyone (but not them, for some reason) says something nice about the guy; so finally someone gives the dead guy a backhanded compliment and everyone runs away. After this, Minard and Tommy talk about how they totally did it, but it doesn’t have to be a big deal, you know? And Lily asks what the hell they’re talking about because she’s been hanging off a log all day and isn’t up on the latest gossip. So they tell her, and then she starts crying. Not because of  the sex, but because she’s a been hanging off a fucking log all day. Which just goes to show that in the face of tragedy, all of our silly personal drama doesn’t really matter all that much. Not that this will stop the show from spending a large amount of time on silly personal drama. Which is a good thing, because all of this is just fine. I mean, it’s not good, exactly. But it’s effectively silly storytelling. Minard and Tommy look good without clothes on. People hanging off of logs is exciting. Fungus-on-his-ass guy was a pip.

Unfortunately, running through all of this is a story about a wealthy, white couple adopting a South American child who turns out to have Leukemia. The would-be mother (we’ll call her Selfish Bitch, AKA Heartless Career Woman) is a lawyer who’s always been too focused on her career to have a baby. The would-be father (we’ll call him Sainty McSaint) is an aimless man-child. When they first discover the baby has Leukemia, they both decide they can handle it. But when they get further into the precess, Selfish Bitch freaks out and admits she never wanted a kid in the first place, let alone a terrible one with cancer coming out its ears. Sainty McSaint is sad, because he thought the baby would finally give purpose to his miserable existence. So he decides to adopt the baby anyway. When Selfish Bitch walks in on him making goo-goo eyes at the baby, he tells her the baby’s fever has gone done. Selfish Bitch says that’s nice, but it’s not their stupid problem anymore, so hurry up, because they’ve got a plane to catch. But Sainty McSaint tells her no, actually he can’t go, because he’s this baby’s father. To which Selfish Bitch responds, “You can’t be that baby’s father and my wife.” Sainty McSaint says that he knows, but she’ll be fine. Selfish Bitch is a little sad, but agrees that she will indeed be fine. She always is, after all, what with her being a terrible, heartless robot. And then she goes off to catch a plane with nary a goodbye.

Now, there are ways to make this story work. Mostly they involve not turning the would-be mother into a heartless villain who’s just too selfishly focused on her career to love anything. It is, after all, perfectly reasonable not to adopt a child with Leukemia. If you don’t feel capable of caring for said child, some might say not adopting it is even the responsible thing to do. And to the show’s credit, it does try to present both sides of the issue by letting Zita voice some of these concerns. It just fails miserably. By the time Selfish Bitch is leaving her saintly husband behind in the middle of the jungle with a dying baby without even saying goodbye, it’s pretty hard to take the episode’s attempts at evenhandedness seriously.

Impressively, after all this, the story somehow manages to get even worse. After Sainty McSaint’s evil wife leaves him to go back to her precious career (which is the only thing she’ll ever love), a bus pulls into the camp. I expected Selfish Bitch to get off the bus, her heart having grown three sizes that day (or at least wanting to say goodbye or whatever). But no. Instead, several couples with newly adopted South American babies start filing out of the bus. We have never seen any of these people before, but they all seem very nice, what with their offer to all stay in the jungle indefinitely and help Sainty McSaint raise his Leukemia baby. They’re doing all this just to let him know that he “is not alone.” Which, of course, is just one more dig at his terrible, awful, no-good wife.

So the moral of this story is that if you want to adopt a South American baby with Leukemia, but you’re afraid your selfish bitch of a wife might leave you for doing so, don’t worry about it. Because even if you’re stuck in the middle of goddamn nowhere, a busload of people will totally come along and help you raise it. And if you don’t want to adopt a South American baby with Leukemia, how do you even sleep at night, asshole?

Loose ends:

  • In case it wasn’t clear, I did not like this episode.
  • The adoption storyline also features some relationship drama between Token Black Doctor and Token Latina Doctor. Token Black Doctor wants babies. Token Latina Doctor doesn’t. OMG, right?
  • Really though, the non-adoption storylines were reasonably entertaining.

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Promos are sometimes misleading, and I don’t mean that as a knock. Promos don’t exist to accurately represent the episode to come, but just to get people to watch it. So they tend to latch on to the flashiest part of an episode and throw it on to the screen with little to no context. The House promo that aired during the Super Bowl, for example, made it look like “Family Practice” was going to be an especially eventful and important episode, all ambulances and driving rain and yelling and whatnot. In reality, it was a pretty standard-to-poor episode, albeit with Murphy Brown as a patient. That kind of thing–good promo, bad episode–happens all the time. The promo for “Bombshells,” on the other hand, was of a somewhat different type: outright disingenuous.

Fortunately for the quality of the episode at least, this was for the best. The promo made it look like “Bombshells” was going to be a surreal musical episode of some sort. Upon seeing the promo, I thought the likelihood of abject, hilarious failure to be tremendously high, and expected “Bombshells” to be unfathomably awful, but entertainingly so. History’s greatest monster that I am, I was even kind of rooting for that outcome. Instead, it was, well, pretty good and surprisingly light on the weird shit promised us in the promo.

All that weird, promoted shit in fact came from dream sequences that were scattered throughout the episode. These sequences took up maybe ten percent of the episode and were for the most part pretty fun. The Two and a Half Men spoof was, if nothing else, timely, and I will never object to House and Wilson hugging.* The zombie sequence, meanwhile, was the best of the night, with House fending off undead versions of his team members with his ax-cane in a failed attempt to save Cuddy. Following this came a Leave it to Beaver-esque sitcom fantasy in which Cuddy imagines House as a helpful father-knows-best sort. Then came a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid reenactment in which House abandons Cuddy just before she steps out to face her death at the hands of the Bolivian calvary. And only then do we get the musical number that featured so heavily in the promo. Devoid of the episode’s context, the promo made the number look silly. Within the episode, it’s still silly, but it’s also impressively creepy. As a result, I am never going under anesthesia. I will instead chew on a strap or bite on bullets or whatever it is people used to do in the good old days.

(*This blog will soon turn into little more than a dumping ground for all my House/Wilson slashfic.)

In addition to these dream sequences, “Bombshells” featured a standard case of the week and character drama. In most episodes, the case of the week is the dominant A-plot and the character drama is relegated to subplots, but every year there’s a handful of episodes that alter this structure, either by reversing it or by letting the character drama completely subsume the case of the week. This is generally accomplished by giving a main or recurring character some sort of ailment that House needs to solve. Sometimes this accounts for the whole episode, while other times this occurs in addition to a more standard, all be it abbreviated case of the week. “Bombshells” utilizes the latter structure.

The case of the week subplot here is Taub bonding with a depressed teenager only to learn that the teen in question is deeply disturbed. Taub first suspects the teen of cutting himself, and then discovers that he’s been selling drugs. Upon searching his home, Taub finds a yearbook with horrible things written in it and a video of the boy setting off pipe bombs while threatening his classmates. When Taub confronts the kid’s parents, they brush him off, and he has to decide whether he should go to the police. In the end, he mails the tape to the police anonymously.

The A-plot, meanwhile, centers around Cuddy discovering that she has a tumor and the cancer scare that follows. Long story short, the tumor’s benign and Cuddy’s just fine. The dreams are all connected to this story and have to do with Cuddy’s concern over whether House will be there for her to see her through her ordeal. Throughout most of the episode, however, they felt very much unnecessary, as though they were tacked on just so the promo people could make that ridiculous preview. Likewise, the case of the week, while serviceable (and the focus on Taub welcome for all those Taub fanboys out there), seemed to be almost entirely unconnected to Cuddy’s situation.

But then there’s that last act, in which the whole episode comes together and Cuddy finally realizes that her relationship with House simply isn’t going to work. All of her worrying earlier in the episode that House wasn’t going to be there for her had seemed to be unfounded, what with the way House came to her bedside and held her hand and basically did all the stuff she was hoping he would do. But then when Cuddy is back in her house recuperating at the end of the episode, her sister mentions finding a bottle of pills laying around and putting them back in the medicine cabinet, at which point she realizes that House had taken Vicodin before coming to see her at the hospital. When she confronts him about this, House objects that he did it for her, so that he could be there for her like she wanted. But Cuddy responds that if he was stoned, he wasn’t really there for her anyway, that the Vicodin was just another way for him to avoid the inevitable emotional pain of a relationship with her. So she ends the relationship and House slinks off to the bathroom to pop some more Vicodin and begin what looks to be another downward spiral.

None of this is terribly new material. House’s Vicodin addiction is a frequently recurring motif and the inability of people to change for the better is the dominant theme of the whole series. But that doesn’t make the execution of the episode and the sheer balls-out rapidity with which it completely unravels the central storyline of the entire season any less impressive.

The Huddy relationship has always felt somewhat false, like a fanfic abruptly imported into the series proper. It has trafficked in the well-worn and problematic trope of a good, nurturing woman being all a troubled man needs to change, with Cuddy (her character reduced even more than it had been before to little more than a sexualized mother figure) stepping in like a deus ex machina in the season six finale and House repeatedly attempting to convince her that he could be better. But when House repeats that mantra at the end of “Bombshells,” Cuddy rightly points out that no, he probably can’t, and that whatever changes he’s exhibited in their relationship to date have been little more than a wishful illusion.

Narratively, this is effective because it changes the way we view what came earlier in the episode. Having seen the end of the episode, the case of the week is now clearly about wanting to see the best in somebody, but ultimately recognizing that they’re not who you wish they were, and then following through to the inevitable painful conclusion. Cuddy’s four dreams, meanwhile, remain manifestations of her doubts about House, but the food he was eating in each of those dreams becomes an obvious marker for Vicodin. By the end of the episode, Cuddy realizes that she subconsciously knew all along, but just didn’t want to let go of her illusions. Yet more impressive is what the ending does to House’s zombie dream. Earlier, it seemed like a basic hero story in which House is simply trying to save Cuddy against impossible odds. That he fails to do so is interesting and representative of his limitations as a doctor and how he was feeling about Cuddy’s prognosis. That reading remains valid, but the ending presents a second interpretation. The zombie dream is how House sees the world: a constant battle in which various dying, stupid creatures launch themselves at him demanding he solve their problems. His ax-cane is his crutch–his Vicodin, his sarcasm, his misanthropy, his pain–the defense mechanism that he uses to isolate himself from the pain of the world. It’s not the zombies that kill his relationship with Cuddy. It’s his trusty ax-cane.

While the last act effectively saves the episode, I’m less sure as to whether it saves the season. Fourteen episodes of Huddy was pretty tough to bear, though I wouldn’t be shocked if they play better retroactively, given that is seems the relationship is supposed to be seen as a bad idea (which unfortunately wasn’t obvious at the time). Of course, that depends on where the show goes from here. If “Bombshells” is simply a blip, and House and Cuddy get back together next week, well, that would be extremely frustrating. Here’s hoping Huddy was more like a misleading promo leading to more episodes like this one.

Loose ends:

  • The subtlety of the connection between the case of the week and the character drama here is well done and very welcome, given the many episodes over the past couple of seasons in which the connection was painfully on the nose.
  • “Good thing I brought my ax-cane” is just a great, great line, even more so for having a darker relevance later on.
  • In my Charlie Sheen post, I wrote that shows obviously about soul-crushing despair don’t often become hits. House might be an exception to that rule.

Late Update:

  • It dawns on me that I never really said much about the musical number, beyond calling it surreal and anesthesia-induced. But it too lends itself to an alternative reading in light of the ending. On a perhaps superficial level, House demanding that Cuddy (and/or the television audience) “get ready for the judgment day” obviously foreshadows the Huddy break-up to follow. On a less superficial level, “Get Happy” is a religious song inspired by old Negro spirituals, but given the show’s presentation of religion, within the world of House we should probably consider it a song about illusions. The only way House can get happy (or, more aptly, achieve the illusion of happiness) is by taking Vicodin, whereas Cuddy remains happy in her relationship with him by ignoring his Vicodin use. What happens at the end of the episode is that all of this illusory happiness comes crashing down, and the reality we’re left with is pretty miserable. There is no Holy Spirit in House.

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