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2012 (I) (2009)
A mean-spirited and profoundly stupid film with disaster set pieces almost too big to ignore
5 February 2012
2012 is Roland Emmerich's disaster movie to end all disaster movies. It is a melting pot of every disaster movie idea already imagined including his own. It doesn't promise the fate of the world hanging in the balance through global warming (The Day After Tomorrow, which this movie takes it's ending from) or alien invasion (Independence Day), but the unavoidable end of it. Period. But like all of Emmerich's movies he has taken a potentially thrilling, dramatically dire situation and turned it into a cheesy, popcorn, live-action cartoon where death and destruction stand along side 1D characters and terrible jokes.

Still - and I hate Emmerich for making me say this - 2012 is almost too huge a movie to dismiss. The images in it are at times awesome (buildings collapsing, entire cities falling into the ocean) and - more interesting are the political discussions the movie has about the end of the world. The sacrifices that must be made to save a few at the expense of the many. How governments might be doing the right thing by keeping it under wraps. The premise is a frightening one and not even Emmerich's Crayola touch can diminish it entirely. In short, the movie does effectively convey a vision of the end of the world.

It's also one of the more callous and mean-spirited disaster movies I've ever seen. When another movie would have humanity band together and face the threat, 2012's protagonist is all about me, me, me. It achieves the astonishing task of making John Cusack thoroughly unlikeable, even though the movie gives him kids to protect just so he doesn't look like the world's biggest coward. It's a bitter pill to swallow rooting for him to escape LA in a limo  while millions plunge to their death around him (a sequence that would make a great ride at Universal Studios, by the way, it's visually awesome). It's an even more bitter pill to root for him saving his family at the sacrifice of humanity in the finale. Ejiofor as the hopeful Helmsley easily steps into the protagonist role and becomes the heart and head of the movie. Who steps up and really keeps the movie together is Oliver Platt as the White House Chief of Staff who carries out Helmsley's plan to preserve a semblance of government across the world as it ends. The race to keep that plan in place is actually kind of exciting and the debate about how secret to keep it vs humanity's right to fight for their own survival is also intriguing.  I can't help but think 2012 could have been restructured for the better to be entirely about the political response to the end of the world and jettison Cusack's cheeseball, half-hearted fatherly redemption story entirely. The movie also makes a smart move in keeping under wraps the exact nature of the world's government's plan until then end, which makes for a fresh turn in the third act.

The movie is worth a look for it's astonishing larger than life special effects set pieces, but it is profoundly stupid and you may hate yourself in the morning. And may I say simply that the ending is ridiculous. It's hard to shake the populast jokes, the tacky visual gags and even the cruel streak of the movie. Emmerich would make a pretty good horror director based on some of deaths he inflicts on the innocent here. There are a few character deaths in the 3rd act that are unnecessary and completely heartless in a way that slaps an ugly stink on the entire movie. Odd choices given that so many of 2012's characters think that the goodness of humanity is what will shine through in a catastrophic crisis. In Emmerich's vision, it's selfishness that shines through. Period. Which maybe a valid point but creates a schizophrenic tone in a movie so otherwise desperate for us to cheer the heroes. If the world does come to an end, I'm sure not following Roland Emmerich to safety.
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Privileged (2008–2009)
Harmless but brainless
28 June 2009
Network: CW; Genre: Teen Drama; Content Rating: TV-PG (some language and suggested sex); Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 – 4);

Seasons Reviewed: Series (1 season)

Part a star vehicle for the adorable Joanna Garcia ("Reba") and part an adaptation of Zoey Dean's book "How to Teach Filthy Rich Girls", "Privileged" as a bubbly, agreeable even addicting guilty pleasure. The show starts promising and then does all it can to let the air out of all the fun.

Garcia stars as highly-educated and seemingly unemployable college grad Megan who is presented with an opportunity of a lifetime. In exchange for tutoring Ann Archer's spoiled daughters, Sage (Ashley Newbrough) and Rose (Lucy Hale), she gets to live in a gorgeous Malibu mansion, drive a sports car, hang out with her best friend Charlie (Michael Cassidy) and get advice from the mansion's chef Marco (Allan Louis), who serves as the show's all-knowing advice-giver for Megan.

Starting with what I like about "Privileged", the greatness of casting Garcia in the role cannot be underplayed. Her personality and buoyancy floats in and carries the show. Megan is cute and intellectual, but also thick-headed, judgmental and self-absorbed. She is not a good person, but she sure thinks she is. It's a more complex character balance than you'd expect from a show like this. But the rest of the cast doesn't quite stack up. Sage and Rose are the Legally Brunette figures who like their designer labels and boy toys and use those things to craft their own success – and naturally Megan succeeds in making them look a little bit deeper into what they want to be and do with their life. Archer is the usual hardass boss.

If this all sounds familiar to you, it felt that way to me too. "Privileged" can't just be a light guilty pleasure finding humor in girls and their toys in the lap of luxury. It can't just have fun in the sun with Megan, her romance with the neighbor stud Will (Brian Hallisay) who, of course, is in love with her and her BFF Charlie (Michael Cassidy), also in love with her, as I think "Privileged" would have played out best. Instead it settles into the type of relationship angst and familial melodrama you'd find in any old high school series or prime time soap. Megan's's backstabbing sister, her alcoholic father, her absentee mother who returns so Megan can give the "you can't just waltz back into my life and be my mother" speech. Rose and Sage date guys who aren't part of the societal uppercrust. One by one by one these story lines squeeze the fun out of the show, turning it into an empty melodrama where Meg does a lot of wining and crying about how "screwed up" her family is to anyone who will listen – all based on a past we haven't seen and have no point of reference.

Had it had the commitment to go for the guilty pleasure brass ring "Privileged" could have filled a television void for light-weight, glassy-eyed guilty pleasure. Instead it's worse - a drama with the empty head of a guilty pleasure (the last thing I want is a show like this lecturing me about gay marriage). It can't think of any other way to fill the time than with anything but the most familiar family drama clichés and self-aggrandizing comedy that isn't at all funny.

* ½ / 4
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A poorly written, hastily cast cash grab from MGM that doesn't extend, close out or do any justice to the series
7 June 2009
Network: Direct to DVD movie; Genre: Comedy/Drama; Content Rating: R (profanity, dark comic violence, sexual content); Available: DVD; Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 – 4);

For reference I'd recommend any reader of this briefly skip over to my review of the original Showtime series "Dead Like Me", where the show's freshness, originality, creativity and strong voice inspired me to a 5 out of 5 star rating. The direct-to-DVD feature "Dead Like Me: Life After Death" opens with a well-done, but redundant re-cap of the show's premise already captured so well in creator Bryan Fuller's movie-quality Pilot for those unfamiliar with the series. But then again, if you're unfamiliar with the show you wouldn't be interested in this movie.

Stunned at the unexpected loss of former team leader Rube (Mandy Patinkin contractually unable to be in the film), workman-like grim reapers Georgia Lass (Ellen Muth), Roxy (Jasmin Guy), Mason (Calum Blue) and Daisy Adair (Sarah Wynter replacing "24" sister Laura Harris who was hopefully off making the far better horror/comedy "Severance") are whisked off to a new life managed by unsavory new boss Cameron (Henry Ian Cusik, "Lost"). All seems great at first, limos take them to an upscale restaurant replacing Der Waffle house and Cameron quickly replaces their trademark post-it notes with blackberries, but Cameron plays fast and loose with the reaper code of conduct and the new "do-what-you-feel" attitude starts to have dire results. The first of which causes George to miss a reap which traps a teenage boy in a coma and brings George face to face with the boy's secret girlfriend: her sister, Reggie (Britt McKillip all grown up now).

Series episodes were structured like a wheel, centered around a theme with every character branching off as a sprocket to illustrate a different element of that theme (a la Sex and the City). "Life" is all over the place. One minute it's about George's reluctance to take reaping into the 21st century and her distrust of Cameron, then it launches off into a story that is essentially a rehash of the season one episode "Reapercussions" (which in 45 minutes covered this ground with more imagination). It throws in a random subplot involving Delores (Christine Welles, not her usual shiny self) giving her cat Murray a swan song only because the two are fan favorites.

"Life after Death" is a shallow, cynical cash grab from MGM with a hastily assembled cast and a script, by showrunner John Masius and co-writer Stephen Godchiux, that could have used several trips back to the writer's room. "Dead" heads will be disappointed all around by this venture. For starters all of the characters have been hollowed out and turned into one-note bits dispensing cringe-inducing one-liners, particularly Mason who is now just a goof. Georgia is no longer the antisocial, sardonic voice of a generation, but a protagonist, functioning in society, doing what's right as any protagonist does.

Surprisingly enough, much of "Life" belongs to McKillip. Suddenly thrust into the lead, the young actress does a fine job with it, it's that – even in the series – the entire Joy/Reggie storyline was an unnecessary, and poorly conceived trapdoor escape from the fantasy of the grim reaping story that seemed to move the show backwards. In the series it gave the show one tiny toe grounded in domestic drama, by expanding it in the movie, it very often swallows the production entirely in melodrama. I can see teenage girls crying and screaming at each other anywhere, but I can't see a bizarre Rube Goldberg series of events set in motion by a Graveling that leads to someone's death anywhere but "Dead Like Me".

Speaking of the Gravelings, a certain surprise revelation regarding George and the Gravelings at the end of the 2nd season is disappointingly not addressed at all in "Life". From Mandy Patinkin's rock solid performance to Stewart Copeland's whimsical music to Laura Harris portraying a ditz like Daisy Adair with a perfect (and rare) steely-eyed determination that everything she says is right – there are more things that I can count, big and small, from the show that are missing from this production.

Maybe the most dispiriting thing about "Life" is how unnecessary it feels. Given the chance to bring a loved TV series back from the dead for a last hurrah is a golden opportunity and should inspire the showrunners to swing for the fences. "Life" looks like a tired afterthought that forgot what it used to do so well in the first place. It makes no effort to close the series out with a bang or to extend the stories into exciting new territories. Although, it is kind of fun to see the show's informal theme song, "Boom Boom Ba", making another appearance. "Dead Like Me" fans deserve a whole lot better than "Life After Death".

* ½ / 4
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A great movie and a great finale for a much-loved series. Do not miss it!
10 May 2009
Direct-to-DVD movie; Genre: Sci-Fi, Animated Comedy; Content Rating: Unrated (contains adult content & animated violence); Available: DVD and Blu-Ray; Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 – 4);

After 4 hugely rewarding seasons on the Fox Network (not that they knew it) and 3 DVD movies, Matt Groening and David X Cohen's cancelled, cult sci-fi saga "Futurama" comes to a rollicking close with "Into the Wild Green Yonder". The movies were a reward for those who got slapped in the face by Fox's abrupt cancellation and were underwhelmed by the run's finale, "The Devil's Hands are Idle Playthings" in which the show micro-focused its entire story down to a love story between future fish-out-of-water Phillip J. Fry (Billy West) and one-eyed mutant space pilot Leela (Katy Segel). "Yonder" is the epic finale we've been waiting for and I'm thrilled to report it delivers.

As always, "Futurama's" focus is still its unique cast of characters and their conflicting motives, but "Yonder" is a bigger, funnier, more epic ending, worthy of the vast, detailed universe this series created. As a movie, it's the best of the 4 DVDs which says a lot given how highly I still regard "The Beast With A Billion Backs". Where "Beast" was an ambitious and sharp story it still felt disjointed and episodic, where "Yonder" is the first film to feel like a real theatrical release movie from start to finish. It's smoother, with a more complex story, than "The Simpsons Movie".

As with any "Futurama" story, it would be almost criminal to describe the plot: both because it is so delightfully convoluted in its accurate and liberal basis in science fact and sci-fi convention and I do not wish to spoil the numerous wonderful twists and turns herein. However, in the first few minutes events transpire that set our heroes on a collision course toward series end and saving the galaxy: Al Gore-style! Amy Wong's (Lauren Tom) dad is building a new casino on Mars, but his plans to put in a massive mini-golf park threaten the endangered species of the entire galaxy which raises the ire of eco-femenistas (led by radio genius Phil Hendrie in duel role as a female member of the show's Waterfall hippie family and her brother) as well as a secret society Fry gets involved with when an accident leaves him with the ability to read minds. Oh yeah, and Bender has an affair with the Don-Bot's wife.

Almost none of the action in "Yonder" takes place on Earth or at Planet Express. With Leela joining the femenists, Fry in a double-cross to save the universe and Bender dodging the mob and joining up with Zapp Brannigan (again West), the characters spend the movie away from or at odds with each other. Cohen and co-writer Ken Keeler have scripted a clever chess game where each story and each motive weaves together beautifully, all building to a finale that finds that perfect balance between being a thrilling sci-fi adventure and a satisfying character conflict for our 3 unlikely heroes.

"Yonder" is also the funniest movie of the 4 and at times more laugh-out-loud than the series. When Fry (now reading minds) and Bender (with the DonBot's lucky Robot's Foot - his own) go head to head in a high-stakes poker tournament the scene is one of the funniest and most cleverly constructed the show has ever done. "Yonder" has a lot of fun with Bender in this movie. Bender is the kind of anti-hero character that usually has his own story as it is hard to write him into helping the gang save the world in the primary story without cheating his character's nature. "Yonder" finds a perfect place for him. The movie also has a load of fun with the eco-femenists. Few shows make fun of women the way "Futurama" has the balls too with Cohen and Keeler's unique vision of male/female clichés turning "Yonder's" conflicts into a damn-near battle of the sexes. It's refreshing. The movie gets less riotous as the 3rd act comes and the stakes of the story are raised, but that's the case with any action/comedy.

This is a fun one, people. "Into the Wild Green Yonder" fires on all cylinders, deliver the kind of originality and imagination that only "Futurama" can. As funny and poignant as any episode of the series. Both a great movie and a great finale for this much loved series. Don't miss it.

* * * * / 4
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Eleventh Hour (2008–2009)
Amid the been-there-done-that feel "Hour" is still a nicely polished thriller
10 May 2009
Network: CBS; Genre: Remake, Crime/Mystery; Content Rating: TV-PG; Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 – 4);

Seasons Reviewed: 1 Season

I wanted to dislike "Eleventh Hour". Yes, it is yet another US remake of a UK series, yet another CBS procedural drama produced by Jerry Bruckheimer where nerdy professionals spout scientific and medical jargon paired with an attractive female. It's been disheartening watching Bruckheimer's name go from being associated with loud, boisterous, flashy, trashy, action movies to being a television brand name for "CSI" and endless, lifeless CBS procedural clones. The Bruckheimer Executive Producer template is tried-and-true and "Eleventh Hour" gets run through that ringer. Take a UK series starring Patrick Stewart and Ashley Jensen, flattening out any potential substance to leave only the most basic tent-posts of the CBS formula standing and bingo: ratings gold. Yet with a little polish in the production and an ear for creating mild thrills, "Hour" is a little bit better than the "CSI"s of the world.

Rufus Sewell plays genius scientist Dr. Hood, who advises the FBI through the lens of physics, biology and chemistry, under the handling of partner Rachael Young (Marley Shelton). This often includes viruses and toxins that are on the verge of spreading into a fatal pandemic unless Hood can find the a) terrorists and malevolent corporations or b) accidental combination of common chemicals responsible. Sewell fits the scientist bill well. He's halfway commanding on screen and about as devoid of personality as any procedural drama nerd. Sewell, perfect cast as the personality-free amnesiac in "Dark City", stretches limited acting abilities to the max here. With no chemistry (but a welcome lack of a forced sexual undercurrent) with Sewell, a miscast Shelton is also stretched to the max. Albe it with a smaller reservoir.

But around these obstacles, the writers, show-runners and directors behind "Eleventh Hour" actually stitch together a reasonably entertaining, intellectually stimulating and kind of exciting thriller. The first thing I appreciate is the show's willingness to be topical, not shying away from bioterrorism and stories about anthrax - both natural and engineered. The show also finds a good balance between the chemistry jargon, making it relatable and the thriller elements. These elements all come together well in "Subway" where a group of American teenagers who have formed their own radical Islamic sleeper cell set off a virus in the subway system. A sequence where Young and fellow agent Felix (Omar Bensen Miller, also miscast) track the potential path of the virus carrier through the subway halls is crisply turned into an action scene of excitement.

The look, sound and feel of the show come together to make a polished visceral thriller and "Eleventh Hour" solid shallow entertainment.

* * ½ / 4
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Touching Evil (2004)
Beautiful to look at, but suffocates under a relentlessly grim atmosphere
10 May 2009
Network: USA; Genre: Remake, Crime/Mystery; Content Rating: TV-14 (violence, language, adult content); Available: Universal HD; Perspective: Contemporary (content rating: 1 – 4);

Seasons Reviewed: Series (1 season)

"Touching Evil" has got to be the bleakest and most depressing crime series since "Wire in the Blood". From executive producers Bruce Willis (who may have instilled the unorthodox cop element), the Hughes Brothers (looks like they gave it the stylish visual flair) and based on the UK series of the same name, "Evil" is a grim mood piece washed in blue hues, somber music and populated with characters full of grief and misery. You could argue that despite the numerous more light-hearted TV examples to the contrary, this is the way to do a series about murder and crime justice.

Jeffrey Donovan stars as David Creegan a former cop who was shot in the head, nearly died and is reinstated on the force in an elite crime-solving division (headed by desk jocky boss Zach Grenier) now without inhibitions. His partner, straight-man female cop Vera Farmiga is there to keep him in line. TV is always trying to find a way to infuse a unique character into the well-established formula of the self-contained crime series. From the aforementioned "Wire" (which "Evil" shares a lot of its style and tone with) to "Monk" to "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" to Fearless in "Boomtown" to the more recent medical mystery "House" and "Life". "Evil" lies smack in the middle of these shows. Despite the potential gimmick, "Evil's" Creegan doesn't have a drop the personality of any of the eccentric detectives of those shows. Which is problem one for "Touching Evil".

"Touching Evil" is a well made, well acted series. It's a ready-made star turn for Donovan. His quirks as Creegan are subtle, veiled in drama and constantly require him to live in past trauma instead of using it to move his life forward in an interesting way. It's a textbook good performance. The mood, the look, the complexity of the mysteries. The show is different enough in the genre to inspire a following; no doubt on several lists of great shows that were canceled before their time for its realistically downbeat endings.

My personal reaction to it was not an entertaining one. It employs one of my least favorite TV writing devises: the client based story, in which our leads are more often than not just a pathway to get into the lives of new characters we have never met before, will never meet again but are the episode's real story focus. "Evil" follows the tried-and-true format of using the clients to bring out some tacked on moment of reflection for Creegan or his partner. The characters are just figures to advance the crime story, which is the paramount concern of this show and many like it. There is nothing really fascinating about them, and they rarely have anything really interesting to say. Conversation that isn't about the case is almost non- existent. That's its style.

True, it's different than any other genre mystery on the air. It's a crime series that lacks shocking twists, big reveals and clever little bits of evidence to follow. Some will find it refreshing, I found it dull. It doesn't need a gimmick, but it does need something to pull me in. I want action, not inaction or reaction. Despite Creegan's supposed lack of inhibitions, he doesn't do much of anything eccentric, out-of-the-box or that anyone else would do. The show's premise quickly becomes wasted. When confronted with a child abductor, Creegan attempts some vigilante justice, yet his priorities always lie with doing the right thing, the measured thing, the predictable thing. And for that, I couldn't get into it. Sometimes, that's all there is. Despite its viciousness, "Evil" pulls off the feat of lulling the viewer into a disaffected sleep.

The show almost suffocates in a relentless atmosphere of tragic human insanity. The world is a dangerous place, where terrible things happen to good people and something is out to get you around every corner. It's not an easy show to watch each week and it's also not a particularly compelling one. Lots of grieving, crying parents and spouses herein. Bodies in trunks, kidnapped and murdered kids. The show wallows in itself. It's a slow burn of depression. I don't need or want all my TV shows happy-go-lucky, particularly my dramas. But I do want compelling thought provoking drama with meat and substance. There is something about "Evil" that always feels unsatisfying to me. "Wire in the Blood" which is a grim 2-hour watch gives us a satisfying payoff, even if that payoff is that the killer gets away or the victim dies. "Evil" doesn't feel punctuated. It just burns out. It curls up on the floor in the fetal position in defeat.

* * / 4
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Co-Ed Confidential (2007– )
Kitschy, funny, sexy and lacking any pretension to be anything more than it is
12 April 2009
Network: Cinemax; Genre: Skinamax Comedy; Content Rating: TV-MA (for simulated sex, full frontal nudity, profanity); Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1- 4);

Seasons Reviewed: 3 seasons (aka Co-Ed Confidential, Co-Ed Confidential: Sophmores, Co-Ed Confidential: Spring Break)

Deep down in the bowls of television obscurity lies a little Cinemax After Dark series called "Co-Ed Confidential". Amongst the rest of the soft core, late night sex shows that have given Skinemax it's reputation, "Confidential" is a damn near mind-blowing creation. Half porn, half sitcom. It's the closest thing the network has ever come to a real show- and a fun one at that.

The thing about porn, is that the traditional standards and rules don't apply. As long as there are half-way decent sex scenes (which "Confidential" has plenty of) , it can get away with anything. Bad acting, terrible writing, hapless directing. "Confidential" appears to know this and has a lot of fun with it, resulting in acting and writing that is better than anything else in the genre.

"Confidential" is a take-off on the usual college fraternity comedy. The characters (with a largely rotating cast) are as minimalist as they should be, streamlined into one-note traits. Normally something I decry in a show, but the rules are different here and characters as deep as "the nerd", "the jock", "the party animal" are exactly what is required. It works because the performances are actually pretty good, in that they are perfectly in line with the material. James (Kevin Patrick) is the Van Wilder, the frat boy who has permanently set up shop at the Omega house and becomes the custodian of a group of incoming freshman who due to a wacky mix-up don't otherwise have residence. Residents include party girl Karen (Michelle Maylene), geek Larry (Bradley Joseph), Freddy (Andre Boyer) and Lisa (Sandra Luesse), whose trait as the virgin makes her a short-lived character despite being the best looking in the cast. The stories and drama center around ladies man James' on-again-off-again relationship with Ophelia (Hanna Harper), well played by both.

"Confidential" is refreshing and surprisingly funny, both intentionally and unintentionally (though I suspect the unintentional kitschy moments may be jokes on us). Watch the show and you're going to get a fun mix of not-so-subtle pop culture references, movie quotes and lines to the effect of "If we don't raise enough money to keep Double D's bar open, Dick Johnson will buy it and take over". From the fights with the stiff campus Dean to James' loud, wacky shirts to the natural improbability of all the sex scenes and the drama of Ophelia and James break-ups, "Confidential" is the type of show that acknowledges cliché and can only be enjoyed by those that can revel it its absurdity. I can't decide if this is a surprise or not given the state of most TV, but in its own charming slap-dash sort of way, "Co-Ed Confidential" is actually funnier than a lot of the lame sitcoms on network TV. Given how clinically over-sexed most network sitcoms are – and given their inability to pay the sexual tension off- I'm willing to bet there are legions of shows that wish they were "Co-Ed Confidential". Plus, I'd put this show up against ANY of the endless National Lampoon or American Pie direct-to-DVD college movies.

My favorite episode of the series is "Rolling Royce" in which James' battle with Ophelia's fiancé Royce (Eric Aston) explodes in a class presidential election between the two in which James launched a "Vote with your C**k" campaign. Given that it aired in an election year, the sitcom/porn hybrid reached into a little political satire. I can honestly say I've never, ever, seen anything like that.

I've underplayed the soft-core aspect of the show, because frankly, that's actually not its strength. That's the surreal thing about it. Yet, the sex scenes in "Confidential" are actually fun. A stark contrast to the low-lit, melodramatic scenes you'll find in other shows which are limited to women finding their soul mates and making beautiful love to them while soft music croons over it. Oh please. Where fem-porn has taken over the soft-core genre, "Confidential" steps up to deliver for both genders. Yes, believe it or not, men actually watch soft-core porn too.

The soundtrack, in and out of the sex scenes, pops with punk, rock themes. I dare anyone not to watch the show and not rummage around the internet for a copy of "Better than Me", the show's ending theme.

Kitschy, funny, sexy, lacking any pretension to be anything more than it is, "Co-Ed Confidential" is a marriage of several familiar elements in a way that makes them all fresh and original again. I never thought I've be seeing a porn/sitcom hybrid. And even at that, what are the odds it will be as much pure fun as "Co-Ed Confidential". It's the first porn series strong enough with characters and story to deserve a mainstream DVD release. If you have Cinemax and aren't watching this show you're wasting your money.

* * * / 4
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Spoiled girls and cheating boys: how do I loathe the, let me count the camera angles
11 April 2009
Network: MTV; Genre: Reality/Drama; Content Rating: TV-PG (some language and suggested sex involving teens); Available: DVD; Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 – 4);

Seasons Reviewed: 2 seasons

Any adult that voluntarily watches MTV's pseudo-reality series "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County" is going to get exactly what they expect. The show hones in on its target demographic and gives them exactly what they want in a glitzy package. For me to sit here high and mighty and decry MTV for feeding the ego of a handful of Orange County families - taking a group of spoiled in-crowd teenagers and turning them into basic cable TV stars for being everything that has made their life so easy up until that moment - would be irrelevant to the show's audience and its cynical producers.

Those corporate stooges here are creator Liz Gateley and developer Adam Davolla. "Laguna Beach" is trash. But it's hyper-stylized trash. Cameras capture events with angles impossible to have taken all at once and show is shaped into a such-as-it-is narrative structure. And there in lies the rub and, you might argue, the evil genius on MTV's part. The show falls in a surreal valley for the viewer: to technically polished to be real, yet so frivolous, so lazy, about so little, that who in their right mind would go to the trouble to fake or script it.

Supposedly the seasons were shot over the course of 6 months, the people, situations and "drama"… are real - as real as the real orange county (take that Josh Schwartz). The "drama" is all inconsequential relationship entanglements that the characters voluntarily bring upon themselves. Those characters - a group of barely distinguishable sun worshipers who continually swap partners amongst their own incestuous group, then gossip and cry about who is with who now. They do nothing in the world but sit in the hot tub, shop, party and gossip. The girl's vocabulary consists of saying everything is "cute" and the guys have almost no vocabulary at all – struggling to grunt out monosyllabic expressions amid blank stares and silence. Aren't they cute? But even if the bubbliest teenage girl doesn't mind being pandered to, if they step back and look at it they might realize that "Laguna" violates law of inevitability # 1 for why reality shows don't work: real people are usually not very interesting – and it doesn't matter how many times they go to Cabo, how many times their car stalls in the street, how many times they get cheated on, or how many beach bonfires they go to. Having been pampered their entire lives has prevented the "Laguna" gang from growing a sense of humor. The guy's idea of a practical joke is to dress up in a bear costume and crawl into a tent, or don ski masks and stalk outside a girl's poker party smearing fake blood on the window.

The bear costume comedy genius: Stephen (Stephen Colletti), who is presented through the show and the eyes of LC (Lauren Conrad) and her friends as God's gift to women. They sit around for hours talking about this guy and with feet-sweeping one-liners like "You're a hottie with a body" how can they not. The other series "stud", particularly in season 2 is Jason, whose half of the conversation is consists of sitting in silence and answering questions with questions. My favorite is when he says he's mad at his girlfriend for the look on her face. She responds "How do I look?" and he goes "You tell me". His jerk tactics work like magic on every girl on the show. In season 2 their world revolves around him.

The star of the series is Kristin (Cavalleri) – and arguably LC. Both of whom serve as narrators. Both are the poster children perpetuating MTV's narcissistic lifestyle. Kristin is the "player" of the group who gets away with it with a laugh and a smile from all her friends because she's a girl. Lauren plays the nice girl role that falls for all the jerks, knowing that they are jerks, and ends every first date in the hot tub. I'm all about anti-heroes, always have been. The kids of "Laguna" led by Kristin are prime examples – but there is no way MTV had that in mind when stitching the show together. Instead of ironically mocking them, the show is a slobbering celebration of their life. But it's a life where the girls spend most of their time sitting around being victims to apathetic dudes with a reputation for cheating who then cheat on them. Giving Kristin and LC a complete pass for similar piggish behavior, the inevitable message shaped by "Laguna Beach" becomes simply: boys suck.

I'm going to have to admit total lack of comprehension with the show's storyline. The kids of "Laguna Beach" appear to graduate from high school and leave for college twice. The show has a morbid fascination to it, like watching a snake eat a rat or driving past a nasty head-on collision. But if you were able to read this review, you know this much.

The show might have worked by putting an ironic or satirical eye on their antics. But MTV wants these kids to be role models to melt the minds of a generation of girls so they will expect nothing more in their entertainment. Without giving away plot lines, Lauren does something completely random and out of character in the final few episodes that gives her a dramatic arc. It's almost as if she's making a play for a spin-off…

* / 4
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Slater is terrific in this creative, crazy twist on the double agent spy series
24 January 2009
Network: NBC; Genre: Action/Adventure; Content Rating: TV-14 (violence and some sexual content); Perspective: contemporary (star range: 1 – 4);

Seasons Reviewed: Complete Series (1 season)

Henry (Christian Slater) is an efficiency expert with a wife and two kids. He's such a nice guy, his life is so normal and ordinary that you just know he has to be a secret agent. He just doesn't know it. When called onto assignments, a secret government agency activates hardware in his brain that temporary wipes out Henry and loads in the personality of secret black ops badass assassin Edward. When returning Henry to his normal life false memories are implanted to explain any cuts or bruises. But we've got a problem. Henry/Edward is now broken. He starts snapping back and forth between personalities at random moments bringing Edward into Henry's home life and Henry for the first time into the high stakes world of Edward's.

I love this show. What a great idea. What a crisp and fun execution. What a deliciously entertaining series. "My Own Worst Enemy" is an imaginative shot in the arm for the spy series, putting a new spin on the classic double life storyline by keeping the agent himself in the dark, putting him at odds with (as the title so aptly describes) himself. I'm not even divulging my favorite little twist in the show, suffice to say it surprises from the beginning when the origin of the digital personality split is revealed.

Due to its at-home-on-cable complex premise, the show never caught fire with an audience and NBC is too cheap to keep it around until it could. That's a shame because had it been seen by more eyes this could have been a Kiefer Sutherland-level comeback for Christian Slater. Slater is terrific in dual role, playing both Henry and Edward with slightly different mannerisms and voices, fully vested in both the bumbling family man and the ruthless womanizing killer. Edward takes pleasure in sleeping with Henry's wife when he takes over but can't stand the domestic duties like buying his daughter a dress for the school dance. Henry freaks out when he wakes up in the bed of the company psychiatrist (Saffron Burrows) who Edward is sleeping with or in the field on a mission. None of this is played as cheesy, from Slater or in the show's unblinking treatment of material that goes along way to make material work that so easily could have fallen into camp.

The show also works, both on the home front stories and as an action series ride with Henry/Edward's cell phone recorder serving as a bridge by which the two personalities communicate (and threaten) each other. This is more than can be said for the more procedural, less cinematic spy thriller "the Unit", which still juggles domestic and black ops story lines awkwardly.

Mike O'Malley really surprises as Edward's partner, Raymond, another agent in the program. The wife of his alias, Joe, has grown suspicious leading her further to the truth. O'Malley is unrecognizable as the ruthless Raymond. This guy would eviscerate his "Yes Dear" character without thinking twice. On the other side is Alfrie Woodward as the program's overseer, who after her jump the shark performance in season 2 of "Desperate Housewives" could not look more lost or uninterested with everything going on. Acting fireplug James Cromwell also appears as her gruff superior office –a role Cromwell could do in his sleep.

Like "The Unit", "Enemy" isn't a "24"-level thrill ride. We never feel things won't work out for our heroes. The fun is in seeing how. What resourceful way will Henry keep to his core human principals while trying to dispatch an international terrorist? But the missions are nothing compared to the battle between the two men. That's where the show's imaginative playground is. How far will Edward go to push or even get rid of Henry? The action hits all the right notes here. This isn't serious spy stuff. It's pulpy Jason Bourne over-the-top movie spy stuff. Extremely entertaining spy stuff at that.

* * * ½ / 4
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Dirty Sexy Money (2007–2009)
Watchable but oddball mix of wish fulfillment guilty pleasure and straight cheesy soap opera
24 January 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Network: ABC: Genre: Drama; Content Rating: TV-14 (for strong suggested sex); Available: DVD; Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 – 4);

Seasons Reviewed: Complete Series (2 seasons)

Despite starring in two cult classics now, "Sports Night" and "Six Feet Under", Peter Krause is something of an acting enigma - a likable leading man who can carry a series, but can't seem to get under the skin of a character. Giving another blank-faced performance, Krause offers nothing behind "Dirty Sexy Money's" lawyer Nick George that makes him a hard guy to root for.

Created by Craig Wright, "Dirty Sexy Money" is an oddball combination of a wish-fulfillment series and a straight-up prime-time cheesy soap opera. After a mysterious plane crash that claims the life of his father, Nick becomes the family lawyer of The Darlings - America's wealthiest and most powerful family whose eccentric members spend as much time on the front pages of the tabloids as they do brokering multi-billion dollar deals. There is no real life equivalent to The Darlings though I'm sure a few families think they are. Donald Sutherland effortlessly plays the scheming patriarchal figure of the dynasty Tripp, snarling just as he did in "Commander in Chief". We've also got Patrick (William Baldwin, with a "golly me?" look on his face the entire series) a budding politician, Karen (Natalie Zea, in various states of undress) daddies little girl and serial bride, Jeremy (Seth Gabel) as the loafing black sheep son and Brian (Glenn Fitzgerald) a reverend who having toiled away for the family for years feels entitled to a little compensation and is never rewarded. Karen has a thing for Nick, Jeremy has a thing for Nick's wife (Zoe McLellan, with short "nice wife" TV hair). The constant scandals and ridiculous demands of the Darlings prove to be a strain on Nick's life and marriage.

"Money" is an agreeably watchable little bit of escapist TV. I can't help but wish that the antics of the Darlings would have been better played for class-warfare laughs, slyly mocking the rich and spoiled instead of the genuine attempt at drama the show milks. The show wants to have both side with the Darlings as one big caring family and show them as a ruthless business family in which Tripp manipulates everyone to jack up the stock price and sweeps scandals (up to and including accidental death) under the public eye's rug. It depicts them as double-edged coin: both a black hole of need that sucks up Nick's every waking moment and as an opportunity for him to live the good life, constantly being thrust into positions of wealth power and prominence that he doesn't quite earn at Tripp's arbitrary hand. Time and again Nick is the only one Tripp can "count on". The antics of the Darlings are dragged down a bit by a wholly unnecessary storyline involving the plane crash murder mystery of Nick's father.

Things really get crazy in season 2 when Blair Underwood and Lucy Liu come on board. Liu is a ruthless prosecutor going up against the family who has an affair with Jeremy. Underwood is Tripp's corporate arch enemy shown glowering over security cameras and involved in the most elaborate schemes s to bring down the Darlings. The Wyle Cyote to Tripp's Roadrunner, halfway between "Madea's Family Reunion" and a James Bond villain. It's the juiciest role on the series and Underwood appropriate chews through the scenery. Fitzgerald actually gives my favorite performances on the show. It is a role of frustrated, simmering anger whose arc involving his wife and son, paternal history and position as his father's suck-up is far more interesting than anything going on with Nick.

Taking us into a world of wealth and privilege with snarling villains, hot women, easy sex and lavish parties, "Money" fits the guilty pleasure bill quite well. The scandals are certainly more "Desperate Housewives" than "Nip/Tuck" if that's your thing. The show remains exactly the glossy guilty pleasure escapism that it wants to be. This type of escapism doesn't require it to be compelling or humorous or, really anything. While it makes it a forgettable and disposable series, "Money" certainly does that.

* * / 4
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Pushing Daisies (2007–2009)
Fuller's most ambitious and least accessible series, what it lacks in substance it makes up in imagination
24 January 2009
Network: ABC; Genre: Fantasy, Crime/Mystery; Content Rating: TV-PG (some dark comedy and gruesome images); Available: DVD and Blu-ray; Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 -4);

Seasons Reviewed: Complete Series (2 seasons)

Ned (Lee Pace, "Wonderfalls") has a unique ability. He can bring dead things back to life with his touch. This means as owner of The Pie Hole his pies are made with the freshest fruits. It also means that when his mother died as a child he was able to bring her back to life. But there's a catch: Ned can only bring something back to life for 60 seconds otherwise something of equal cosmic weight in the immediate vicinity will die. When his childhood love Chuck (Anna Friel) is murdered, Ned cannot resist bringing her back to life for good. The two of along with private detective Emerson Cod (Chi McBride, "Boston Public") and Pie Hole co-worker Oliver Snook (Kristen Chenoweth) use Ned's ability to solve murders, but unfortunately it's never as easy as just waking up the corpse for a minute and asking who killed them.

"Pushing Daisies" is another wildly imaginative series from the fertile mind of Bryan Fuller who previously gave us Showtime's "Dead Like Me" and Fox's short-lived "Wonderfalls". If there was any justice in the TV universe, Fuller would be a household name and certified hit-maker based on a track record of the most unique and satisfying shows ever to grace the small screen. If it's possible "Daisies" even has a more unique visual style than his previous works. Director Barry Sonnenfeld (who won an Emmy for the "Pie-lette" episode) establishes a surreal fairy tale universe unlike anything I've ever seen on TV. Just to give one example, if the show is about, say, honey bees, then everything in that episode will visually be in a bee theme. Rooms shaped like honeycombs, clothing with yellow and black strips and so on.

The irony is that despite being on a mainstream network like ABC, "Daisies" is Fuller's least easily accessible of the three. Fuller's dark humor is intact, though hardly for mainstream consumption (Chuck's murder weapon is a bag over her head with a smiley face on it). The characters are so off the wall whimsical in a distant cartoonish way that most viewers won't be able to relate. And the show thrice uses Chenoweth's singing voice to burst into a musical number. It's too soft and cutesy for the crime & mystery crowd (particularly in Chuck/Ned's syrupy sweet untouchable relationship) and it's too weird and at times gruesome for the love story crowd. We also have an ever-present third party narrator (Jim Dale) whose words are almost poetry punctuated with tongue-twisters and repeated phrases and trademarks like "the facts were these". I like the lyrical sound of the show. Others will just be annoyed.

Fuller has taken the network self contained crime series and remake it with his own vibrant, fantasy twist giving "Daisies" more life than CSI or "Cold Case" ever had. But in the name of originality, there are a few things about the show that don't jive. The characters, by design are not very expressive (save for Olive). Number one would be Ned who becomes so reactive and so dependent on Chuck's attention that he starts to become pathetic. As the show progresses it starts to flesh them out by using a recently developed little pet peeve of mine: by going into their tangled family history. We don't really get to know what makes them tick, but we get to know their parents, siblings and history. It's always struck me as creating the appearance of character depth instead of actually doing it, though thankfully "Daisies" never gets as soap operaish and improbable as "Heroes". That's a quibble for realism on a show that is about anything but.

The acting is solid all around, hard to quantify and perfectly in step with the tone. Pace is near perfectly deadpan as a man so traumatized by his own body he has cut off all social contact. Friel is the very picture of adorable. McBride welcomes to chance to get out of anguished drama. Chenoweth makes a star turn as well as Ellen Greene and Swoozie Kurtz in the showstopping roles of Chuck's aunts, retired synchronized swimmers now confined in fear to their house.

I appreciate that "Daisies" is a departure from Fuller's previous works. But I sorely miss the guy's on-the pulse writing of generation-Y girls. Though we get another female character with a male name, that sharp voice that made George Lass and Jaye Tyler such great characters is noticeable absent. "Daisies" establishes no equivalent to the disaffected, antisocial heroines that gave his previous shows such intellectual depth.

So sure, it's not the most substantive thing in the world and the show would rather work up the cuteness than actually attempt to be funny (is it a comedy?), and it's my least favorite Fuller series. There is an arm's length quality to it and all the characters that goes beyond the childhood trauma Ned suffered at the hands of his ability).

But Fuller succeeds in the most ambitious way, creating a new kind of fairy tale with the show. He sets it up with a strict universe of its own rules and by following and exploring them gives us one surprise and joyful twist after another. He dares to be so sugary sweet with Chuck/Ned's puppy dog love that it might cause a diabetic amputation. "Daisies" is a pure, uncompromised work of originality, that by design challenges the audience against every expectation of character and formula. Any attempt to compare it to something else would be false and shallow. What the show lacks in depth it makes up for in imagination. You'll have to choose.

* * * / 4
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What is it about the sketch comedy series that brings out all the hacks?
10 January 2009
Network: HBO; Genre: Sketch Comedy; Content Rating: TV-MA (for strong language, strong scatological humor, graphic sexual dialog and full frontal nudity); Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 -4);

Seasons Reviewed: 1 season

What is it about the sketch comedy series that brings out all the hacks? That brings out all of those whose sense of humor doesn't rise above lazy elementary school jokes surrounding bodily fluids, nudity, gay jokes and fat jokes? With HBO's import, "Little Britain USA", we often get all three at once. Whether it's half the crap on Comedy Central or Showtime's "The Underground" or now "Little Britain", we shouldn't have to be eye raped by a ghastly, juvenile sense of humor every time we tune into a sketch comedy series.

"Britain" comes on the heels of Tracey Ullman's brain-dead "State of the Union", exhausting a concept that didn't work for her (yet makes her show look much better by comparison). Once again a narrator (Tom Baker) take us all around America explaining the American way of life to us as an outside observer, this time comparing American and British culture head-to-head. The cast mostly consists of Matt Lucas and David Williams, in costumes and fat suits to play characters in all of the sketches. Like "Union", the sketches are a minute or 2 long, which means they aren't fleshed out to anything yet feel unmercifully long even at that length. "Britain" is a more blatantly caustic series, openly hostile toward American culture and lobbing a few grenades at Britain for appearances sake. Britain has transvestites and miserable marriages and they aren't always proper. Americans are all fat, illiterate, crack smoking, gun-toting imbeciles. Americans have never shied away from making fun of themselves – as most of our primetime animated programs show – just not with a sledgehammer style.

The show speaks for itself. I'll let these descriptions spare you the sight of actually having to witness it. The first sketch climaxes in a wheelchair bound character peeing in a pool. That's it. A later one features a grown man nursing on his mother's breasts at a dinner table, which naturally also evolves into a spraying of bodily fluids. Oh yes, and naked fat women and naked homo-repressed body builders are inherently funny here. And even if you've had a frontal lobotomy, have so little respect for yourself and your intelligence that you find this garbage funny, the show is unbelievably repetitive, recycling bits and characters that were never funny through the entire series. A woman whose dog tells her to do things, an astronaut who brags about going to the moon, a rude hospital receptionist and, most annoying, a child who speaks to her mother in language she picked up from hardcore pornography – these one-note, single-joke bits are deemed such rock solid comedy gold by Lucas and Williams that they are repeated ad nauseum in every single episode.

Single camera director Michael Patrick Jann and studio director David Schwimmer (yes, there's a laugh track and, yes, that David Schwimmer) keep everything pitched out to the cheap seats. It is sophomore humor at its most base and vile. So if you can't get enough gay jokes, fat jokes, fart jokes, spraying bodily fluids, racial stereotypes, men wearing dresses and desperate "shock" humor for the sake of it where the mere utterance of an obscenity is considered sidesplitting comedy (and if you need these gags repeated over and over before you get them) this is your show. A random buffet of clumsy paper-thin would-be satire that is an embarrassment to both Britain and the United States. It isn't insulting because it's crude, it's insulting because it's so infantile. "Little Britain USA" – the worst TV show of 2008. Let's hope I never have to hear from Lucas and Williams again.

0 / 4
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The pregnancy premise is just a frame, inside which is typical generic sitcom one-liners and broadly drawn characters
10 January 2009
Network: ABC; Genre: Sitcom; Content Rating: TVPG (some sexual content); Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 – 4);

Seasons Reviewed: Complete Series (2 seasons)

Based on Risa Green's novel, "Notes form the Underbelly" is a wacky screwball sitcom about the wacky state of pregnancy. Lauren (Jennifer Westfeldt, Kissing Jessica Stein) has just become the mom to be and while starting to adjust to the changes in her body, she and her husband Andrew (Peter Cambor) start to worry about the changes in their lifestyle. Their friends divide into two camps. On one end we have the overzealous pro-baby zombies in the form of Melanie Moore and Sunkrish Bala, new parents themselves. On the other end we have self-indulgent sex-hounds friends Rachael Harris and Michael Weaver who relish the single life.

I just realize that that summary might mistakenly give the impression that "Notes" is about pregnancy in any depth. It really isn't. There is no satire or commentary on baby peer pressure, body image issues, financial strains, babysitters, baby apparel or anything else baby related. The subject is a frame, inside which the show fills with generic lame one-liners, cartoonish slapstick and broadly drawn characters.

My simmering crush on Jennifer Westfeldt only informs about 10% of this review, as that cheery-eye, sweet-faced actress who stole the early days of "Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place" for me and made the word marinate seem new in "Kissing Jessica Stein" has been now run through the Hollywood sitcom leading lady machine, where her job is to stand around, look pretty and spout the one-liners and lame innuendos produced by Scriptbot 5000 . She's not quite the nagging sitcom wife here, but there's something lifeless and cliché neurotic about Lauren. And I sat through "Holding the Baby" for this woman.

Andrew is the type of goofball husband that would only be married to Lauren in a sitcom. With no chemistry between the couple it's a paper thin phony dynamic. But the supporting cast is where the obnoxious meter goes into the red zone. Weaver as loafing brother Danny is asking for a punch in the face and Moore is over-the-top cutesy in the gag-inducing sweetheart role. This show really, really wants to hit your cute receptors.

The only person here who comes out, not only unscathed, but for the better is Rachael Harris. Hell, the show successfully turns Harris – even while sporting black librarian glasses - into a wholly convincing sex-pot in a way I couldn't have imagined before. Cooper is set up like the go-to wild card character for edgy laughs and great lines, the Samantha Jones if you will, if only the show could deliver some worthy material for Harris' acerbic comic timing to zip through.

One would think that a show about only one thing might be able to comically explore that subject with some depth, as "Sex and the City" explored dating and sex with wit and intelligence. "Notes" is a show only a mother could love. If you truly want an insightful and hilarious look at pregnancy in an all around great show, go for the final season of BBC's "Coupling".

* / 4
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Z Rock (2008– )
It boggles the mind to know that someone told ZO2 that they could carry their own comedy series
10 January 2009
Network: IFC; Genre: Comedy; Content Rating: TV-MA (for profanity, simulated sex); Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 – 4);

Seasons Reviewed: 1 season

"Z Rock" is the latest original offering from the Independent Film Channel that attempts to circle around something close to a comedy. It's my fault for getting a few smirks out of "The Business" for thinking that maybe IFC had a show in it with some ability to get a laugh. Stop me if you've heard this one. "Rock" is a single camera bit of double promotion in which the real life 3-man band of ZO2 stares as themselves, a fledging rock band trying to get a record deal suffering one indignity after another on their rise to fame and fortune, specifically being pigeon-holed for playing kids birthday parties.

With a premise stolen somewhere between "This is Spinal Tap" and HBO's "Flight of the Conchords", "Rock" is a lazy, lame, embarrassingly amateur and disgustingly self-indulgent enterprise for ZO2, which consists of brothers Paulie Z, David Z and drummer Joey C. These characters have no motivation beyond getting rich, famous, living in a mansion and getting lots of girls. The three guys were never meant for the front of the camera. They aren't actors, they talk in line readings, can't deliver a joke and the mind boggles to wonder who gave them the idea they were funny enough to star in their own comedy series.

Apparently somewhere, someone figured that these guys can't carry a series, which results in "Z Rock" being equally obnoxious in how celebrity guest star heavy it is. It's befuddling to wonder how in the world people like Dave Attell came to be in this thing. Dave Navarro guests as an increasingly psychotic version of himself (a celebrity playing on his own personal, different huh?) who can have any women he wants and goes after Joey's. Joan Rivers appears frequently as the cousin of their agent (terribly played by recognizable comic Lynne Koplitz) making "Rock" only the latest series trying to get us to believe that Joan Rivers is funny. Makes "Nip/Tuck" look good.

Of course, need I mention that "Flight of the Conchords" is not just funny, but one of the best comedies on TV. Great characters played by natural comedians, it's also a musical show with catchy musical numbers. The music in Z-Rock in agonizing and much of it, like the show's sense of humor, leans toward cheap lame scatological humor. They want to look like hard core rockers and have to sing kid songs – get it, get it? Ug.

Nothing here works. Nothing. Anything that even remotely appears to be a potentially humorous idea is botched by a cast that can't make anything they do not look rushed and staged and a director who appears to be fumbling around in the dark with no clue how to frame or pace a scene as to make sure there isn't a single laugh to be found. "Z Rock" isn't just unfunny, it is barely a show at all.

½ / 4
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Miss Guided (2008)
The high-wattage charm and charisma of Judy Greer goes a long way to make Miss Guided watchable
29 December 2008
Network: ABC; Genre: Sitcom; Content Rating: TV-PG (some adult content); Perspective: contemporary (star range: 1 – 4);

Seasons Reviewed: Series (1 season)

The high-wattage charm and charisma of Judy Greer goes a long way in "Miss Guided". Until now Greer has been always the wacky friend, never the leading lady and while this show might not be the romantic comedy movie revenge the talented actress deserves, it is a long-awaited star-turn. Whether the show or the star came first , only creator Caroline Williams and highly publicized producer Ashton Kutcher knows.

Did I mention it was produced by Ashton Kutcher? ABC couldn't stop themselves from beating us over the head with this, and just to help out the new star, Kutcher (sorry, isn't he going by just "Ashton" now?) even guest stars as a laid-back guitar-wearing hippie teacher who all the students love. Now that that's out of the way… Judy Greer stars as Becky Freeley a high school guidance counselor with an unrelentingly cheery, sunny-side-up disposition in the face of disappointing students who don't respect her and all the while being haunted by past humiliations in that very high school. She can't get past that even as a faculty member the politics and feeling of high school remain the same. She's still jealous of the beautiful, popular girl – now an English teacher played by Brooke Burns – and pining for the attention of the shop and Spanish teacher Kristoffer Polaha. Rounding out the faculty, the principal (Earl Billings) just doesn't care, in contrast to the vice-principal (Chris Parnell) who runs his little corner with an iron fist and a silent, ever-present student officer yes-man by his side.

Chris Parnell is without a doubt the funniest thing in the entire show. Actually, his performance and this character is almost in a different universe than the rest of the show. A little bit over-the-top, a little bit cartoonish, dead-on satirical. By contrast, everything around it is so bland. Inoffensive but utterly forgettable. Anything that can be identified as "jokes" are as broad as possible, with a spotlight shown on them.

Still, "Miss Guided" is worth a casual glance for the few laughs Parnell can generate and for Greer – if only to show that this unflappably adorable supporting actress, lacking any pretension of ego, can carry a show. It's such a refreshing change of pace from a few years ago when TV was uncomfortable making a woman the butt of the joke ("Less than Perfect"), but now thanks to Tina Fey and Kaitlin Olson characters like Becky Freeley can be humiliated with the best of the guys. Unfortunately, broad humiliation comedy alone isn't enough to carry a series, and that is most of what "Miss Guided" trades in.

* ½ / 4
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The Riches (2007–2008)
One of TV's more original and creative premises, not fully realized
27 December 2008
Network: FX; Genre: Drama; Content Rating: TV-14 (strong language); Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 – 4);

Seasons Reviewed: Series (2 seasons)

The only way to push the "Start" button on "The Riches" requires creator Dmitry Lipkin to pull off and the audience to accept one of the craziest premises to grace TV. Move over "Tru Calling".

In the Pilot everything has to happen exactly as it does, exactly when it does in order for the show to make any sense at all. Wayne (Eddie Izzard) and Dahlia Malloy (Minnie Driver) are the head of a family of travelers. They steal from the traveler's camp and are pursued by another family of travelers, who run a car off the road and then flee the scene, leaving the Malloy's come to the car's aid, to find the passengers have died. The passengers are Doug and Cherien Rich – "buffers" - and they happen to be on their way to a house that they have bought on the internet filled with furniture that has been pre-moved, to take jobs they have not interviewed for in person, in an elite gated community. The Malloys move in and assume the identity of the Riches. Soon Wayne/Doug is pretending to be a lawyer and Dahlia/Cherien is trying to get her kids into a private school. If the American dream is a big house, lots of things, reputable jobs and high social standing in the community, the Malloys have walked in and stolen it.

After years of outrageous worst case scenario shows, "The Riches" is an FX drama that shows some welcome restraint. An admirable change from the nonsense that has overtaken "Nip/Tuck" and threatens "Rescue Me". The possibilities are almost endless here. Fish out of water comedy. Class warfare satire. The Malloy's in a feverish cat-and-mouse chase to stay one step in front of the con. Side-cons on the rich suckers of the community. Maybe a little "Six Feet Under" disconnected family drama. All the family members have differing takes on the con with Wayne spearheading it with gusto relishing his role as a smooth-talking lawyer, Dahlia and her son (Noel Fisher) ambivalent and increasingly tormented by it, while their daughter (Shannon Woodward) is finding her place in the school and their younger son (Aidan Mitchell) experiments with cross-dressing, a character quirk that the family is unconcerned about.

Lipkin sets the stage for a juicy, thick new dramatic playground. But very quickly he starts to close it up. He only scratches the surface of this delicious premise in the following episodes with any potential fun cut short quickly when Dale (Todd Stashwick) a fellow traveler and royal redneck stumbles on the Malloys and threatens to expose them. "Riches" tugs itself in several directions and never fully getting anywhere. At times it veers toward quirky dark comedy, thanks to Gregg Henry as Doug's live-wire, gun-totting, half-insane boss at the law firm Hugh. Then at times it swings into straight crime drama as Wayne, Dale and Doug Riches' friend shows up with grim results. The show neither has fun with itself as a dark comedy nor raises the threat level enough as a compelling drama. When your big shocking season ending cliffhanger is yelping puppy Ayra Gross spinning around in a chair and "demanding" to see his best friend you might want to ratchet up the stakes just a bit – or leave it alone. Pick a side and commit.

Izzard and Driver are quite good with what they've been given. Izzard chokes back his British accent but is commanding in the lead. Driver is superb, showing acting chops I had never seen in her. She was Emmy snubbed for the role. As a character serial drama, the show's chief problem may be that Lipkim, even after 2 seasons, keeps us at arm's length from the Malloys.

I wanted to love "The Riches" and I'm not quite sure why it doesn't catch fire. Freshman series kinks? Writers showing too much restraint in a show that could have pushed a little bit more toward the edge? A lack of a clear vision on where to take it? I can't help but think that someone like Alan Ball or the "Mad Men" crew could have wrought the proper amount of yearning, family dysfunction and sly character bits out of this serial. What makes "The Riches" so tragic is not that it doesn't work, it's that it feels like a missed opportunity with such a unique and imaginative premise and game actors ready to follow it.

* * ½ / 4
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It starts as a refreshing character comedy but when the "Game" portion kicks in the movie just curls up and dies under it's own nerdy indulgences
23 November 2008
Direct-to-DVD movie; Genre: Animated Comedy, Science Fiction; Content Rating: Not Rated (contains animated violence and gore and pervasive scatological humor); Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 – 4);

In the first DVD movie outing the folks at "Futurama" took on internet scammers and time travel. In the 2nd, dating and religion through an intergalactic monster movie. Now in the third feature-length film, "Bender's Game", they cobble together the energy crisis and Dungeons and Dragons. It's a melding that this time could have used a few more trips to the writing table to get it to solidify.

In this self-contained adventure, the Planet Express crew suffers from the escalating price of rocket fuel dark matter, provoking Professor Farnsworth (Billy West) to go up against the maniacal head of Mom Corp (Tress MacNeille) who single-handedly controls the supply. Meanwhile, Leela (Katy Sagal) is disciplined for her violent temper and Bender (John DiMaggio) is accused of not having an imagination by the players of Dungeons and Dragons and is driven to robot madness by the game.

The first act of "Game" is something of a dream come true. For the first time the crew headed by David X. Cohen, Matt Groening and director Dwayne Carey-Hill ("Bender's Big Score") take advantage of the feature-length running time to slow things down a bit. The first act is a refreshing turn of a character comedy for this normally lightning-fast sci-fi satire in which details set-up in the series are brought to a head, notably some repressed anger from Leela toward Zoidburg and her appropriately hilarious reaction to a shock collar, a somewhat clever flashback to Nibbler's first meeting with the crew and the long promised next epic confrontation with Mom. As possibly the show's best villain, it's welcome to see this Mom story finally realized and MacNeille is something of a powerhouse in the voice performance. This is her time to shine. This section of the movie is in flashes some of the best work the show has done.

While D&D is established early and often, it still doesn't help cushion the wild, hard left turn the movie takes from its energy/Mom story to randomly and literally (and I do mean literally) dropping the characters into a D&D fantasy world. In this section the moderately funny, full of potential story is completely abandoned and the movie curls up and dies. Cohen, Carey-Hill and company totally indulge in their nerdiest impulses and to hell with the story. More disappointingly, they choose to parody some of the most obvious and mainstream fantasy sources – mostly "Lord of the Rings". The characters are put into a mix-&-match parody blender. All of a sudden Leela is a centaur, Fry is Frydo who acts like Gollum, the Professor is Gandolf who takes a "Star Wars" turn and Zoidburg is a giant cave monster. "Futurama's" strength has always been that it isn't mainstream. "Game" is a broad, easily accessible palette cleanser of toilet humor and forced gags after the sharp, iconoclastic and surreal "Beast With A Billion Backs" - which for my money is still the triumph of the movie series so far.

The D&D section of the film didn't have to be a mindless lost cause. But the "Futurama" crew doesn't in any way make an attempt to resolve the first and 2nd acts of the movie with it. As randomly as our heroes entered the world, they leave it just in time for a quick wrap-up. The Game portion of "Game" is head-slappingly obvious filler that will probably send most viewers to the show's famously great commentary tracks for an explanation (Cohen and Groening give nothing). Instead of the creative or scientific explanation we've come to expect from Futurama, "Bender's Game" leaves us with the classically disappointing "It was All a Dream" ending. It's a punch in the face.

The movie is randomly entertaining and I do love the extended mix of the show's theme that plays over the credits, but this is a hard one to recommend even to hardcore fans of the show.

* * ½ / 4
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Eric Schaeffer's brush with greatness. From travel to love to sexual frankness, "Single" is a one-of-a-kind, richly satisfying road trip series
25 October 2008
Network: Showtime; Genre: Reality /Comedy; Content Rating: TV-MA (for pervasive graphic sexual discussions and profanity); Perspective: Classic (star range: 1 – 5);

Seasons Reviewed: 1 season

Full disclosure. My first and only experience with Eric Schaeffer's work so far was the bawdy, charming one-season eating disorder sitcom, "Starved". But as Schaeffer puts it in the intro for "I Can't Believe I'm Still Single: From Portland to Portland", he is a semi-famous filmmaker/actor with several heavily autobiographical independent films under his belt (with mostly negative reviews) and a cult following. In the intro Schaeffer also says that he's just a normal guy – twice!

Beguiled at the fact that he's approaching 40 but remains unmarried, Schaeffer wrote a book (which this show takes its name from) detailing his numerous sexual encounters and failed attempts to find that spark with that special someone. This reality/documentary/comedy series graciously picked up by Showtime but criminally under-promoted, picks up right there. In it Schaeffer drives himself, along with his field producer Em and documentary cameraman Stas, across the country, from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine on a book tour. Along the way having numerous encounters will all sorts of women either from his past or unsuspecting one's he's met on myspace, interviewing people in successful relationships to see how they do it. At the end of that book tour is a friend's wedding in which he plans to reunite with a women he had a "crush vibe" with and plans to put an end to the single life with her. A lot of set up and a lot going on here.

The first few times I watched "I Can't Believe I'm Still Single", I hated it. Hated it. Schaeffer comes off like an insufferable, disgusting, ego-maniacal, D-bag who falls in love fast and muses with romantic notions which makes his constant introspective questioning as to why he can't find a mate all the more frustrating. He appears to be a deviant, indulging in sex acts the mere mention of which would make the average heterosexual male clench up with fear and we can't quite tell if it's all for cheap comic shock value.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Portland. I fell in love with this show. Oh yeah, Schaeffer is a D-bag, a flawed anti-hero if you will, but his honesty is refreshing. He's witty, with a normal guy sense of humor trying to crack a joke at any situation. And he is going after something he wants. The show becomes so intimate, so real, so universal. Schaeffer shows it all, the creepy side and the charming lovable side. We watch him find success and strike out with many women, graphically detailing what he wants his dominatrix/agent to do to him and binging on those cakes we saw in "Starved". All the while Em makes a perfect comic straightman from the backseat of the car, quietly point out every inconsistency in his behavior and when he ventures into stalker territory. There's an odd sweetness to their relationship.

Away from the couple interviews and sexual escapades (a bit with a clown is a creepy highlight), the show really takes off when it hits the road from one small-town book signing venue to the next. I'd guess over 50% of the series takes place with a camera sitting on Eric and Em as they sit in the car. Nothing breeds invention like a shoe-string budget. I was sucked right into Schaeffer's world here. Warts, face fat, 5 o'clock shadow, gut and all. We go from town to town. Hotel to hotel. We race to gas stations on fumes, to nearly empty book signings; we get up early and pack, eat horrible dinner food. We meet all sorts of interesting people. Hear compelling stories. See a lot of gorgeous simple middle-American sights. Exchange a lot of funny observations and get nearly run off the road by truckers. "Racist" truckers Schaeffer assumes. "Single" captures the looks and feel of road trip travel better than most road trip movies.

"Single" also stands mightily over VH1's "Scott Baio is 45 and Single", almost like a counter-argument to one of the worst shows of all time. Schaeffer never approaches the full-on A-hole that Baio is and "Single" never becomes a single-bashing, pro-marriage lecture. It is Schaeffer's cinematic meditation on something that seems to elude him like a mirage. This isn't a sitcom, it's a documentary, the story of which could only be told with all of it's charms intact through a TV series. It's about little things in life. Things that other show's don't have the time or attention for. And I loved every tiny "adventure". In the final few episodes, climaxing in the 1 hour finale, when it comes time to bring "Single" in for a landing, that is when Schaeffer the filmmaker really hits it out of the park. The finale is just about perfect.

"I Can't Believe I'm Still Single" sports a one-of-a-kind self-contained deceptively simple premise, which – baring an ingenious stoke on Schaeffer's part - would be a contrivance to extend beyond the 14 episodes, but at the end of this one I wanted more. I wanted another road trip with Schaeffer. "Single" is not a show for most tastes, for all of the reasons it (and it's lead) is so unique: its sexual frankness cannot be underplayed. It's a refreshingly meaty, nakedly intimate, guy-centric, decidedly adult, trip through the mind of one guy as well as down American backroads in which the most run-down looking towns house the most interesting love stories. This is one of the best and most richly satisfying shows of 2008.

* * * * ½ /5
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The Winner (2007)
Embarrassing, lazy work from MacFarlane who never should have raised the ghost of sitcom past
12 October 2008
Network: Fox; Genre: Sitcom; Content Rating: TV-14 (adult content, language); Perspective: contemporary (star range: 1 – 4);

Seasons Reviewed: Series (1 season)

Without the on-screen appearance of creator/writer Seth MacFarlane during promos for the pilot episode of "The Winner", the show might have gone unseen and unheard in a forest of obnoxious laugh-track riddled Fox sitcoms. MacFarlane has become a minor celebrity as the creator of the increasingly undeserving, under-performing neoclassic "Family Guy" as well as "American Dad". "Winner" is MacFarlane venturing out of his animated comfort zone, arrogantly thinking his involvement with such a trite sitcom is going to make it worth watching. Instead of parodying those obnoxious 80s/90s sitcoms or homaging them through an absurd cartoon lens, "Winner" is an unpleasant reminder of those days of childish leading men, cheesy sitcom sets and over-caffeinated studio audiences.

It's hard to even describe the half-baked plot of "The Winner". There appears to be no rhyme or reason for why anything is the way it is. We start with a still photo of a mansion and our hero, Glen (Rob Corddry) narrates from the present day as if we need an assurance that he won't always be a loser, then sends us back to the early 90s – the pilot takes place during the O.J. Simpson white bronco freeway chase – to show him as a sheltered, naïve man-child living with his parents (Lenny Clarke, get back to "Rescue Me", and Irene Hart) smothering him. One day Glen meets the impossibly beautiful Erinn Hayes as a neighbor and single mom, his childish ways finds him bonding with her child and into her life.

Simply nothing about the show works. The arrested development, mismatched unrequited love story has been done to death. The parents, the love interest, the friends – all cliché archetypes of sitcoms past. There's a bizarre, creepy element to the relationship between Corddry and the neighbor's son which MacFarlane plays up for cheap laughs. There is no reason for the show to be a 90s "period piece" given how many contemporary anachronisms rear their heads in the middle of the action (check out the movies of the future in the video store where Glen works). Jokes are retread from better shows that referenced those events back when they happened. Think "Seinfeld's" numerous takes on the OJ trial. Usually the sidekick and not the star, Corrdry takes center stage here, where his painfully unfunny act can no longer be ignored and it is evident that whoever told the guy he was funny in the first place deserves a long bout in solitary to think about what they've done. Corrdry does a lot of smiling and mugging for the camera here while the "audience" wildly overreacts to everything on screen as if in on a joke that we aren't or properly lubricated by a warm-up act working miracles.

On the back of "Family Guy's" post-resurrection creative slump, "The Winner" is not what MacFarlane needs. It's a lazy work from a guy once touted as the hip, young blood needed to jump-start the Fox network. "Winner" is proof that MacFarlane is a guy who needs to be told "no" by a network that shouldn't have let this unbearably embarrassing Frankenstein's monster of a creation see the light of day.

*/ 4
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Aliens in America (2007–2008)
The best new comedy of the fall 2007 TV season - far better than The CW is normally capable of
7 September 2008
Network: The CW; Genre: Comedy; Content Rating: TV-PG (some adult content); Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 - 4);

Seasons Reviewed: Complete Series (1 season)

"Aliens in America" is not what the CW might make it look like. It is so, so much better. The basic network-pitch premise finds an average Caucasian middle-American family, The Tolcheks, taking in a foreign exchange student and devout Muslm, Raja (Adhir Kalyan), for some culture clash comedy and no doubt a Hollywood education about the peace-loving religion of Islam vs. the vile, materialistic west.

While Raja does more often than not suffer from the kind of straight-man syndrome that handicaps many characters in the name of political correctness, the titular aliens of the series are actually the outsiders in high school - cast by the series as a fascist place of cliques, living clichés, ignorance of all kinds and general unfairness that sees no difference between Raja and self-proclaimed dork Justin Tolchuck (Dan Byrd, "The Hills Have Eyes"). And there in lies the genius rub of "Aliens in America", which actually turns out to be an insightful, well-acted, smartly written and refreshingly honest satire of contemporary high school and family life. Surprise!

Created by David Guarascio and Moses Port, "Aliens" is dead on in so many ways. Like a distant, more mature cousin Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle", in that it successfully manages to chronicle what it's like to grow up a young male in high school. It reminded me of how much artificiality we put up with on TV and how rare it is too see a high school show that appears to have been written by someone who actually did go to high school. Some of the topics are a bit racy without calling attention to itself, yet clever enough to pass as family entertainment. Justin's adventures are frequently tangles with social and personal humiliation. Byrd's narration is one of the best on TV in recent memory. It recalls "Dead Like Me" in that instead of simply having a character summarize the action or catch us up, Justin's is an opportunity for some of the show's best one-liners, insights and story expanding detours. It is one of the show's greatest achievements.

The Tolchecks befriend a sex offender next door, Raja tries to put together an explicit pro-abstinence float in a school parade and Mom joins a radical group of mothers to wipes the smut out of the school's reading list. Mom, by the way, is played by Amy Pierez and in the show's funniest performance she sports the world's thickest Minnesotan "don't ya know" accent and spastically throws herself around in a full-body comic frenzy. Watch her eyes almost cross in a few scenes.

The show is imaginative. Dad bough a herd of Alpacas in a get rich quick scheme. Justin gets into a popularity contest when he is voted by Raja to die in the school's drunk driving skit. This last bit is actually a runner in the show's single season run: Raja wanting the best for Justin, but not knowing the high school social structure inadvertently putting him in an awkward social situation that breaks those social barriers of what you can and can't do. The results are hilarious and heart-warming.

Every single thing about it works. From the mechanics of the cast and the writing to the warmth and personality radiating off the screen. "Aliens in America" didn't last more than one season but that doesn't make it any less than the best new comedy of the 07/08 TV season. It is so much better than it's placement on The CW would suggest. And it's quick expulsion (a year after the classic "Veronica Mars") should pretty much prove. This is a great show, people. Do not miss it.

* * * * / 4
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Swingtown (2008)
A juicy piece of summer fun, blessed with a fine cast that the occasionally predictable writing doesn't deserve
7 September 2008
Network: CBS; Genera: Period Drama; Content Rating: TV-14 (for frequent strong sexual content, some drug use and pervasive adult content); Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 - 4);

Seasons Reviewed: 1 season

In the summer of 1976, three very different married couples come together under the allure of sexual freedom, experimentation and burgeoning feminism. Susan (Molly Parker, "Deadwood") and Bruce (Jack Davenport, choking on a phony American accent) move next door to Trina (Lana Parilla) and Tom (a hilariously laid back Grant Show) who during an eye-opening 4th of July party reveal themselves to be true blue, Qualude popping swingers in an open marriage. The conservative Susan and Bruce begin a journey of experimentation pulled in one way by Trina and Steve, having problems with the lifestyle themselves, and another by old friends Janet (Miriam Shor) and Roger (Josh Hopkins, "Pepper Dennis") in the proverbial "uptight" married couple role.

"Swingtown" is a juicy piece of pulp summer fun. Blessed with a great ensemble that is better than the writing deserves and an attention to time period detail that has no rival on network TV (not since "Freaks and Geeks"), it is an alternately dry and predictable and soaking wet hot boundary-pusher for Les Moonves' geriatric-skewing network that runs from risk like it's allergic to sunlight. But the wife swapping, the 3 ways, 4 ways (no joke) and student/teacher action (I'll get to that) are just the beginning, with creator Mike Kelley dutifully exploring everyone of these characters, their inner turmoil and the desire to express themselves in an increasingly complex web of incestuous heat-swapping amongst the cast. The show lacks the wit of, say, "Nip/Tuck", but it has those Ryan Murphy guts. There is no doubt that "Swingtown" would find a happier home and draw a bigger audience on FX, Showtime or HBO where it belongs.

While the promise of sex, and the show's long playlist of well placed 70s hits just begging to delay a DVD release while producers scrounge for the copyright money, makes the show fun, it doesn't make the show good. What I like about it, what the 5 people who complained about it don't get, is that "Swingtown" is actually about something. A dissection of the very thing people think it promotes. Simply put, it's a network TV surface level look at honesty's role as paramount in a marriage and how that is defined. No better place can that idea be taken to it's extreme than in a climate of key parties and successful open marriages where cheating on a spouse has less to do with sex with another person and more to do with openness and honesty with each other. "Swingtown" explores the success and failure of that idea with it's conflicted characters - not promoting or decrying it - and no more perfect time could the show's metaphors have come than in the arch conservative contemporary American culture.

Still, all is not sunny here. Like CBS's "The Unit", Kelley's series feels pulled apart by network mandates to give it family appeal that it doesn't have. Shoe-horned into the meaty adult stories is banal "drama" involving their kids. Putting the breaks on the show fast is Susan and Bruce's son who has a crush on a neighbor girl and his friend - x and x's son - is a jerk. Worse, their teenage daughter (Shanna Collins ) begins dating - yes - her teacher if you haven't seen that story line enough. If Jack Davenport (so perfect on "Coupling", here put in the nice-guy-who-can't-do-right-enough role) awkwardly slogging through an American accenting doesn't pull you out of the show's world, the kids sure will.

A mixed recommendation for a show that itself is mixed, between dull, predictable, seen-before-drama and a truly risqué and enjoyable piece of work. Not for the sex, but for the ideas.

The cast in this case really elevates "Swingtown" beyond it's cracks. Aside from how fun it is spotting character actors like Erin Daniels and Mark Valley in 70s garb. Two performances stand out. After thankless roles on "Boomtown" and "24" Lana Parilla gives a true break-out performance, owning slinky sexpot Trina's every curve and arguably commanding the series. We also get a break-out performance from Miriam Shor who takes what could have been another Bree VanDeKamp and gives Janet and inexplicable twinkle of more. Janet grows to possibly the most interesting character on the show.

* * * / 4
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Points for originality, but too often The Lone Gunmen take a backseat to their own show
7 September 2008
Network: Fox; Genre: Sci-Fi, Mystery; Content Rating: TV-PG; Available: DVD; Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 - 4);

Seasons Reviewed: Complete Series (1 season)

I've said it before and I'll say it again, the turn of the millennium was something of a creative renaissance at the Fox network. Amid the network's push toward cheap reality shows at all cost there was this frustratingly wonderful little glutton of 1-season wonders that barely saw the light of day. Some were knock-out brilliant (I'm looking at you on my DVD shelf, "Wonderfalls"), but even the ones that didn't quite work were unlike anything else on TV - and still are. Hard to categorize or quantify, "The Lone Gunmen" is such a show. Yes, it's an "X-Files" spin-off, but it's also a bizarre tonal hybrid (developed by 4 "X-Files" alumni Chris Carter, Frank Spotnitz, John Shiban and Vince Gilligan) that makes the show it's own animal.

While the stories are more, for lack of a better word, light and upbeat that those on "The X-Files", the show takes itself seriously enough not to breakdown into farcical wackiness that some of these conspiracy stories could easily dive into. I don't know if that's a blessing or a curse. For the lone gunmen of "The Lone Gunmen" deal with entirely earth-bound ridiculousness. Corporate and government conspiracies ranging from people being put in alternate virtual realities to super-intelligent chimps (by far my favorite episode) to government-sponsored terrorist attacks. Let's just say that the show's quasi-prophetic pilot episode plays very different now then when it aired.

Computer geeks Byers (Bruce Harwood), Frohike (Tom Braidwood) and Langley (Dean Hagland, sporting Garth Algar hair and glasses) reprise their roles as the authors of an underground newsletter that exposes the truths behind our world. And three more original and unlikely leads you couldn't ask for. Not only are they A-typical leading men and not only are they nerds, but they're jerks too. These aren't your cute romantic comedy sidekick nerds, but arrogant nerds who look down on those who aren't as smart. Despite the fact that they just as often don't actually solve the case or even bumble up someone else's. Case in point, an episode guest starring Stephen Tobolowsky as a pathetic, confused and pained man who the Gunmen treat with hostile, insulting contempt until his situation proves scientifically interesting to them.

Given and possibly because of that (thanks to network meddling I would assume), they spend an astonishing amount of time off camera or standing idly by while guest stars and two new characters tell the stories. "Gunmen" gives us Jimmy Bond (Stephen Snedden), the lunkhead, "but lovable" (that's network-speak) man-child and former football player who joins the Gunmen and winds up doing most of the stunts and undercover work. We've also got the mysterious "sultry" secret agent babe who is always one step ahead of the guys (Zuleikha Robinson). Both new characters are given better arcs and more intrigue than the Gunmen. On top of that, "The Lone Gunmen" is at core, just another client-based series in which the story of a guest starring character is unfolded through the eyes and with the help of our heroes. It got to the end of the season and felt I knew almost nothing about them. Would it be too much to ask for The Lone Gunmen to star in "The Lone Gunmen".

You have to give the show points for imagination and originality, even if the tone is often off the mark and execution disappointingly succumbing to a tired client-based formula. More episodes could have ironed this out.

* * ½ / 4
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Assy McGee (2006–2008)
The Legend of Assy McGee
3 August 2008
Network: The Cartoon Network (Adult Swim); Genre: Animated Comedy, Parody; Genre: TV-MA (for pervasive nudity, strong language, sexual content, drug use and graphic animated violence and gore); Available: on iTunes; Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 - 4);

Seasons Reviewed: 2 seasons

The streets of Exeter, New Hampshire are a dangerous beat. It's as if they just dumped out the sewers and let the filth wash over the streets of their fair city. Walking backwards onto the scene to set things right is Assy McGee, a rogue cop who plays by his own rules. Standing about 3 feet tall, Assy is only a bare buttocks with legs. He talks in an 80s raspy jerk cop mumble, cheeks undulating with every drunken slur. Wielding a gun from a holster with what can best be described as unseen hands, Assy (voiced by Larry Murphy), unstopped and at times adored by his straight-laced family man partner Don Sanchez (also Murphy), dispenses his own brand of justice against the filth of the city as well as any innocent bystanders that happen to be in the way.

"Assy McGee" is such a deliriously outrageous creation that it just may leave you slack-jawed at the sheer nerve of it. Which is why it is so much fun and has become one of the most reviled thing on The Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, a network that has made a schedule out of the outrageous. I've never been a fan of Adult Swim's pension for look-at-me weird for the sake of weird, where the randomness of "Robot Chicken" or the obvious parody of "Venture Brothers" passes for hip. But "Assy" stands out from the pack, with a focused story-driven parody of a very specific set of pop culture clichés. For the most part (I'll get to that later), the show doesn't do very much winking and nodding to the camera as many others can't help but do. Assy simply barrels forward through ridiculous stories - surrounding such originality as priests selling drug-laced cologne, the government stealing bikes off the street and trading them with terrorists, polonium-laced sandwiches and underground squirrel fights - and expects the audience to just get the meta-joke. Many may find it mean-spirited and disgusting, but my lord can it be funny. And I'm not a fan of the fart joke.

In fact, the pilot, "Murder by the Docks", had me laughing so hard I was gasping for air, which hasn't happened since the Rick James "Chappelle's Show". Over 200 years ago, President John Adams' favorite whore dies of a soot allergy. Cut to present day where the body is found and from the moment our hero walks in and shoots up the crime scene he's on the case to find that whore-killer John Adams. Assy's attempts to narrow down the suspects by simply randomly calling up names in the directory and expecting someone to confess over the phone is just about the funniest single bit I've seen in a while. "Assy" is one of those shows that actually gets funnier the more you think about it. Just keep applying real world logic to any bit of it and you'll peal back layer after layer of different laughs. This about as smartly crafted as a stupid comedy gets.

The rest of the series doesn't quite have the impossible level of lunacy the pilot does, but Assy as a character is rarely not a riot. Yes, we've seen a talking ass as a character before - on "Family Guy" and "TV Funhouse" - but "Assy" leaps beyond the one-joke set-up of that series with original stories and the sheer detail put into Assy's character. He hits on flight attendants, can turn a baby into a weapon and blows away a blimp with a rocket launcher that appears out of nowhere. All the while with some odd character quirks (he's illiterate, casually racist, got a bizarre sense of humor and is unbelievably stupid), an out-of-where Cuban ancestry, some strange phobias and an endless supply of puns and lame conventional cop one-liners. Just about everything said in Larry Murphy's barely intelligible Assy voice tickles me.

What I also love is the way the show plays with the mechanics of Assy's physical appearance. He has to stand in the car but sits backwards in a chair without arms. His "eyes" opening in a POV shot. He "chatters" his "teeth". And the show makes numerous references to Assy having unseen male genitalia via his frequent patronage of the oriental massage parlor. Even better, because nobody in Exeter appears to think anything odd of taking orders from a talking ass, Assy is able to slip "undercover" with the greatest of ease by simply donning shirts, hats, ties, glasses and, in one case, just a bow tie (Assy complains to be "suffocating in this penguin suit").

After season 1, Assy became something of a cult comic legend with me and my friends. Could this be the next great animated comedy? But as the show enters season 2 it falls back to Earth. It gets what I have come to call "Family Guy" syndrome - a show, played best as a nonsensical parody, that starts taking itself too seriously and seeks to make us care about the story and characters when it works better as unholy anarchy. In season 2, the chief is more tolerant of Assy's behavior and much of the episode's perfectly precious 10-minute running time are swallowed up in an odd, ultimately pointless storyline involving the stress and dissolving of Sanchez's marriage. Huh? "Assy's" gleefully excessive use of blood, guts, torture and crude sexuality as well as the generally disgusting and cruel demeanor in which Assy (and everyone else in Exeter apparently) conducts himself will turn off many viewers. The show's animation is cheap and crude. To say that "Assy McGee" is not for all tastes would be the understatement of the year.

* * * ½ / 4
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Veronica Mars (2004– )
A flawless melding of real teen angst and a purely cinematic murder mystery. "Veronica" is a bombastically entertaining piece of work
27 July 2008
Network: UPN/CW; Genera: Drama, Crime/Mystery; Content Rating: TV-14 (language, violence, sexual dialog, suggested sex and rape); Available: DVD; Perspective: Cult Classic (star range: 1 - 5);

Seasons Reviewed: Complete Series (3 seasons)

Who is Veronica Mars? Teen sleuth. Social outcast. Witty, pop culture savvy daughter to private investigator Keith Mars. The mystery that makes up the springboard season of "Veronica Mars" is an episodic puzzle involving the death of Veronica's friend, a false accusation, a disgraced sheriff and a famous veteran actor. If the idea of a mystery solving teenager sounds a bit like kid's stuff for you, the end of the first episode in which it is revealed that our heroine was ruffied and date rapped, should signal that this is far more than a 21st century Nancy Drew.

How do I love "Veronica Mars"? This is one of those shows I just eat up. Complex and detailed murder mysteries span entire seasons, building to show stopping finales (Season 1's "Leave It To Beaver", season 2's "Not Pictured" and season 3's "Spit & Eggs" are 3 of the best hours of TV I have seen). But I can watch each episode over and over with it's fast one-liners and cleverly woven pop culture references. Any show that routinely references "The Big Lebowski", "South Park" and "Battlestar Galactica" should get play from anyone. There is a satisfying richness to the dialog my ears haven't had the pleasure of hearing since "Sex and the City" left the air. It is pure joy.

One thing I love about it is that "Veronica Mars" exists in it's own fully realized, intricately detailed universe. The fictional affluent beach town of Neptune appears to have it's own language and town culture. From the zip-code birth rights of "the '09ers" to the secret society of the Tritans to the fraternity lore of Hearst College, it's easy to get lost in the show's epically spanning characters as well as it's original spins on typical high school cliques. Viewers might find it artificial that everyone in the town appears to speak in pithy one-liners and cult movie references, I on the other hand love this stuff.

I would be hard pressed to call "Mars" a comedy. It is clearly a murder mystery with all the drama that implies as well as exploring the numerous down-turns in Veronica's love life. Yet, it is so frequently laugh out loud funny. This is because the characters stand on their own, not necessarily at the mercy of the story or the tone of events around them, and they are funny, witty, sharp. "Mars" has an attention to character unheard of now thanks to the "CSI"-ing of TV, and not just character, but the authentically crafted relationships between them. Everybody in Veronica's universe has a different relationship with her: from best friend Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III) to the Q to Veronica's Bond, Mac (Tina Majorino) to piggish trust fund frat boy Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen) to on again off again boyfriend Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring). But the driving force behind it all is the snappy back-and-forth of the Mars Investigates duo, one of the best representations of a single-father/only-child dynamic you will see on TV.

Kristen Bell carries the series effortlessly. There are so many lead characters on TV that don't deserve "their own show" - and then there is Veronica. Yes, Veronica has a wicked talent for "pixie spy magic", always able to crack mysteries that have left the towns bumbling sheriff baffled. Veronica is haunted by the death of her best friend, the abandoning of her mother, treated like a leaper in the community, used for her skills by the kid at school who couldn't care less about her. She's got the hubris to cheat on a class murder mystery assignment to show up the T.A., the paranoia to plant a tracer on her boyfriend's car, the exclusion from the in-crowd that has her routinely mocking all teenage institutions. Time after time she's the proverbial smart woman who makes bad choices. This is a juicy, one-of-a-kind, star-making role for Bell who deserves much better than the film and TV roles she has had to date since.

Critically praised, loved by a few, but pushed around by the UPN and CW who didn't quite know how to tap into it's brilliance for an audience who didn't know what to make of it, "Veronica Mars" never caught the audience it deserved. The show is a real reflection of high school and college experiences given a slight, purely cinematic exaggeration that makes it such bombastic pure entertainment. For example, when Veronica busts the arch villain, he'll tend to give a lengthy only-on-TV monologue about why he did it. If I have an quibble with the series at all it's with the Wallace/Veronica friendship. It is set up so well, the show's heart is in the right place, and yet Wallace and Veronica ultimately end up spending too little time together to really hit home any sweetness to their friendship.

Rob Thomas (who previously gave us the loved-by-me cult classic "Cupid") has put all the elements together here for an American TV masterpiece. It's funny, it's real, it's snappy, witty, breezy and robustly entertaining in a way that makes so many other shows look forced. You just have to see it.

* * * * * / 5
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Dating, death, religion and tentacles. This is the "Futurama" movie adventure I've been waiting for.
1 July 2008
Network: None; Direct to DVD movie; Genre: Animated Comedy, Sci-Fi; Content Rating: Unrated (contains animated violence, gore, scatological humor and suggested sex); Available: only on DVD; Perspective: contemporary (star range: 1 - 4);

The surprises of "Futurama's" 2nd direct-to-DVD feature-length movie adventure start right from the beginning, when it picks up mere days after the events of "Bender's Big Score" turning what appeared to be a throw away gag at the end of that movie into the catalyst for this one.

Like an average episode of Fox's red-headed stepchild of a masterpiece, "The Beast With A Billion Backs" starts out as one thing and goes some pretty outlandish and unpredictable places. Places sick, twisted and wildly imaginative. Places only "Futurama" with all of it's delirious cynical sacrilege can go. To describe the unfolding plot in detail would do a disservice to it, but suffice to say it involves a new love (guest star Brittney Murphy) for Fry (Billy West) - welcome after the labored Fry/Leela (always reliable Katey Sagal) story - Bender's (John DiMaggio) quest to prove the existence of The League of Robots, the marriage & death of a major character and a rip in the universe that unleashes the title monster.

But here's the answer to the real question: for my money, yes, "Billion" is better than "Big Score". A lot better. The giddy excitement to be back that bubbled out of "Score" and made that movie passable has now settled down into the business of actual storytelling and laugh generating. This time, instead of simply parading out favorite characters to have their random moment, the likes of Calculon, the Robot Devil, Zapp Brannigan and Richard Nixon all appear in service of the story. A story, such as it is, so crazy it will send eyes rolling to the back of the head of anyone but the most hardcore "Futurama" fan.

When the multi-tentacle beast (voiced by David Cross) shows up it affords the show opportunities to dig deep into some of their favorite red meat sacred cows - dating and religion - in addition to the monster movie mayhem. This movie and it's metaphors may not appeal to the young fan who stumbled on "Futurama" on free TV, but I loved every insane second of it. If you go in expecting anything less than absolute lunacy you will be totally lost with "Billion". It's probably a blessing in disguise that this movie was never pitched for the big screen. Direct to DVD gives Matt Groening, David X. Cohen and crew the chance to pitch the movie straight to the fans. They go absolutely wild, bouncing around the feature, indulging and expanding in some of their most twisted desires. Like the best "Futurama" episodes, "Billion" is unpredictable, alive with imagination and far too original for mainstream consumption.

The jokes are back with that same nonsensical, but sharp and on-story wit we've come to expect from this show. "Futurama" was never the funniest thing around, but "Billion" has a high ratio of landed jokes and real laugh-out-loud moments. But best of all, director Peter Avanzino (of some of the show's best episodes: "X-Mas Story", "Parasites Lost" and "Fear of a Bot Planet") ropes this madness into a strong, cohesive story that fills feature length without feeling like 4 episodes cobbled together and makes sense in it's own wonderfully weird way.

Let me repeat that: "The Beast With A Billion Backs" feels like a real movie instead of 4 episodes. Few TV shows can nail this and "Futurama" gets it right on the 2nd try. "Billion" doesn't have a big movie ending and that ending comes about 20 minutes longer than it feels like it should, but it does work.

Here is an epic adventure for the Planet Express crew worthy of a movie format. Now we've got a struggle for the fate of the universe, multiple story lines balanced to give every character something to do and the show's sense of humor, disgusting pension for gross-out gags, combustible originality and razor sharp satirical wit back on it's game. I love it. This is, in just about every aspect, the "Futurama" movie I've been waiting for.

* * * * / 4
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