Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

Right now the cynical part of me wants to say that television today sucks.  I want to say that the shows on television not only can’t compare to the shows of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, but also can’t even compare with themselves a couple of seasons ago.

However, despite my waning opinion of most of the shows that I have enjoyed over the past few years, there are still enough bright spots left to make the sweeping generalization that television sucks seem fallacious.  These are the shows that, in the face of declining fortunes across the board, help me keep faith in television.

It sounds weird to say that one has faith in television, doesn’t it?  But think about it.  Television is reliable: our favourite shows come on at the same time each week and we could set our internal clocks by them if we so chose.  Television gives us joy: it can pick us up when we are feeling down or just ease the stress of a tiring day.  Television requires talent: to keep shows going for seasons can re-affirm our belief that hard work and talent will someday get us somewhere.

Given that, losing our faith in television is kind of a big deal and to think of that fate being dependent on a few shows is kind of scary.  What will happen if every show worth watching is suddenly cancelled?  Where will our faith be then?

30 Rock? Community is the best comedy currently on television (or not).

Luckily for me, NBC didn’t go the whole nine yards when pulling Community from its midseason lineup, assuring viewers that it was only on hiatus and not cancelled completely.  Despite being left like J.K. Rowling’s Nearly-Headless Nick insofar as it’s neither cancelled nor on-air, Community is still one of television’s bright spots.  I recently re-watched most of the first season and the third season—the current one—still compares favourably even though the first six to ten episodes of Community are among my favourite of all time.

Case in point, let’s look at Community’s offering from two weeks ago: “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux.”  On the surface this episode had the makings of a flop: re-treading already worn conceptual territory (see Episodes 205 and 216), an uninspiring synopsis, and being broadcast in the harsh light of NBC’s hiatus announcement.  But somehow, and saving the fat from the fire has become a recurring theme with Community’s writers and producers, the episode pulled through.  While the episode mainly focused on the trials and tribulations of Dean Craig Pelton, the writers were able to create stakes for all the other characters and, unlike a lot of other shows, created an environment in which the actors could show the full range of their talent (see Joel McHale’s Dean Pelton impersonation).  There were also enough funny moments to remind us that while Community is smart and dramatic it is still primarily a comedy series.  Add in to this the continued ability to weave storylines over multiple episodes and you have to wonder why NBC would want anything else on the air…ever?

It might be animated and it might be vulgar, but ignore it at your peril.

Another bright spot on the television radar is South Park.  Yes, South Park, the same South Park who debuted in 1997 with the poignancy of a poorly-timed fart.  Despite the early seasons being marked by vulgarity and jokes about the American Civil War, South Park—now in its fifteenth season—has evolved into the smartest show on television and Trey Parker and Matt Stone into screenwriting geniuses.  See, somewhere in between season three’s “World Wide Recorder Concert” (317) and season six’s “Jared Has Aides” (601) the show stopped being about how to get the entire third grade class of the United States to poop their pants and became a striking social commentary, always on the lookout for something in society to wholeheartedly mock.

But let’s fast forward to the South Park of today, because Messrs. Parker and Stone would be the first to take anyone who rests on their laurels down a peg or three.  The fifteenth season of South Park was marked by a rather mediocre series of episodes including “Crack Baby Athletic Association” (1505), “City Sushi” (1506), and “The Last of the Meheecans” (1509) before redeeming itself in the closing three episodes.  It is this redemption that makes it one of television’s bright spots; that the show can still produce relevant and enjoyable content after fifteen seasons lends it a certain Simpsons-esque quality.

Of particular note is the episode titled “1%” (1512).  I should preface this by saying the following: over the last month I have heard way too many ‘Occupy’ jokes.  They have ranged from the mildly tolerable to the completely dreadful.  Saying that, South Park actually managed to do something original with the Occupy Wall Street movement in this episode where so many have failed before.  The show managed to poke fun at the movement by comparing it to a grade-school fitness test while making smart social commentary with the episode’s conclusion.  Too few shows today manage to do this: they either stray too far towards the commentary side to stick the punch line or lose their social voice by making too many jokes.  South Park walks a fine line and after fifteen seasons is yet to fall off.

They drink in the afternoon. On the job. How can they get any more awesome?

I would be remiss in my coverage of what shows are left to save our faith in television if I didn’t mention Mad Men.  It, like Community, is currently on hiatus (there seems to be a pattern there).  However, showrunner Matthew Weiner is signed on for at least three more seasons, ensuring that television’s premier drama is set to continue for the foreseeable future (three years is a long time in the television world).  ‘But what sets Mad Men apart?’ you might ask.  Simply put, in the plainest way I can manage, there is no point during an episode of Mad Men where the viewer stops and says, ‘What?’  Everything, dialogue, acting, sets, costumes, concepts, everything is done flawlessly.  As a viewer I never question the way the show is run, shot, or written and that is the mark of a truly good series.  Contrast this with a show such as Breaking Bad, where I have to stop every few seconds and ask how people don’t notice that a high school chemistry teacher spends his entire week cooking methamphetamine in a multi-million-dollar bunker when he should be teaching classes, and you can understand why Mad Men is so brilliant, especially when casting itself as a period drama instead of being set in the present day.

Time will only tell though whether these shows can reach the heights of such television giants as Friends, The Simpsons, or The Sopranos.  But the fact of the matter is that of everything on television at the moment, these three shows have the best shot.

Whether any of them will challenge Due South as the greatest television show of all time is a completely different question though…

For the past two weeks, Community has been running unopposed in the 8pm Thursday time slot.  The Big Bang Theory has taken a few weeks off, for whatever reason, and it has left Community with the center stage.

However, instead of doing an individual review of both Custody Law and Eastern European Democracy (218) and Critical Film Studies (219), I have decided to review them together.  On the surface, they are very different episodes: Custody Law moving along the Shirley-Chang storyline and Critical Film moving along the Abed’s weird fascination with movies storyline.  But they come together around a couple different points regarding the way the show is written and run.

The first point is that of multiple storylines.  Mainly that the show’s writers are able to work with multiple storylines without bringing down the general quality of the show.  While some episodes ignore one storyline in favour of another storyline, there are no episodes that do not fit or seem extraneous to the episode.  At no point does the viewer stop and say “Hey, what’s going on?  None of this makes sense.  Where’s the other storyline?”

In Custody Law and Critical Film, Community’s writers have taken two completely different storylines – with the characters taking on completely different roles – and placed them in back-to-back episodes.  One has been a primary feature of Season Two while the other has been a recurring theme that pops up here and there throughout the show.  Each one has consequences for the future of the show and the primary characters involved.

However, the main point here is that, while these storylines have came and gone throughout the series, they feel like they’ve never really left, that they’ve always been there under the surface just waiting for the perfect moment to emerge.  The fact that the show has so many storylines going – there are also the crazy, old Pierce storyline and the Jeff-Annie relationship – points to an exciting end-run for the season and a thrilling season finale.

The Shirley-Chang storyline started with episode 206, Epidemiology.  It wasn’t seen again until episode 212, Asian Population Studies.  The Abed storyline started way back in episode 103, Introduction to Film.  It has cropped up in episodes such as Communication Studies (116), Contemporary American Poultry (121), Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples (205), and Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas (211).

The Shirley-Chang storyline is fueled by Chang’s closeness with the study group and him temporarily living with Jeff.  Abed’s storyline is fueled by, well, Abed himself.  They come about naturally, almost like you’d expect them to.  As such, they don’t require a long run of consecutive episodes to keep them relevant.

The second major point that has come out of Custody Law and Critical Film is that of how the show’s writers utilize the show’s main characters.  This is a study of contrasts as well as an analysis of a trend throughout the series.  On one hand you have episodes like Custody Law and Eastern European Democracy that take two different stories and wrap them up in one episode, and in doing so only really focusing on smaller subsets of the entire main cast.  On the other you have episodes like Critical Film Studies feature the entire main cast in a single, contained storyline.

I tend to find the storylines that divide the cast into subsets less appealing than those that utilize the cast as a whole.  Those that divide the cast into subsets tend to leave out certain characters, whether it be Annie and Pierce in Custody Law or Shirley in Intro to Political Science (217).  Each character brings something different to the table.  They bring a different dynamic to the show in terms of they way they relate to other characters or the just through their own personality quirks.  Episodes that leave out one or more characters leave out some of that dynamic.

However, episodes that utilize all of the main cast, whether together in a bottle episode like Cooperative Calligraphy (208) or in an episode with diverging storylines such as Early 21st Century Romanticism (215), give the viewer the full load of tension and comedic relief.  They pack the action and excitement into one episode.  These are the episodes where major story arcs are usually developed or concluded.  Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking (216) is a good example of this.  The whole old, crazy Pierce storyline is largely resolved in this episode, which features the entire main cast in key dramatic roles.

Overall, Custody Law and Critical Film are both solid episodes despite being very different in both their storylines and the way that they utilize the show’s cast.

Stay tuned for the next Review featuring The Big Bang Theory episodes The Zarnecki Incursion (219) and The Herb Garden Germination (220).

I hate Raj.

I’ve sat through three and a half seasons of The Big Bang Theory and I’m now finally comfortable saying it: I HATE RAJ.  I have given him countless chances to carry an episode, most notably in The Pirate Solution (304) and The Thespian Catalyst (414), but he has never delivered in any kind of satisfactory manner.

He adds nothing to the show on his own, but only serves as a foil for the other, more interesting characters.  Without Sheldon, Howard, or Leonard, Raj is nothing.  He even needs others to talk for him.

This week’s episode of The Big Bang Theory underlined this in my mind.  Raj’s role in The Prestidigitation Approximation was nothing short of abhorrent: he was simply Wolowitz’s tool in messing with Sheldon.  Raj did not play any independent role of his own, just bobbing his head along annoyingly to Wolowitz’s quips and tricks.

Raj is there simply to make up the numbers and his presence takes away from a show whose other main characters are all interesting and drive the action.  All of the other main characters act, they don’t, like Raj, simply respond.  Each character is forced to respond to the actions of the others, but they also act upon the others as well.  For an example of this, look at the rest of this week’s episode.  Howard acts upon Sheldon, who in turn acts upon Raj, Penny, and Leonard.  Priya acts upon Leonard, who in turn acts upon Penny.  Penny acts upon Leonard and Priya, causing Priya’s acting against Leonard.  Raj simply responds to the actions of Howard and Sheldon without directly acting of his own volition.

Now, before I dissect the rest of the episode, I must explain why there’s no “Battle of Thursday Nights” post this week, despite there being a new episode of The Big Bang Theory.  And the explanation is simple: because there was no episode of Community this week, I have nothing to compare this week’s TBBT to.

Some of you might wonder why I am not automatically awarding a point to TBBT.  I don’t award points for weeks where only one show has a new episode because that practice would necessarily be biased in favour of Community, which has two more episodes per season than TBBT.

So, on to the analysis…

While taking good steps in recent episodes to move on from the Leonard and Penny relationship, this week’s episode just forces this storyline forward with no consideration for subtlety.  The explanation for this could come from two sources.

On one hand, Priya is a forceful character who knows what she wants and when she wants it.  And right now she wants Leonard.  However, I don’t buy this as the full explanation.  It certainly works in order to give some legitimacy to the storyline, but I can’t buy that this storyline falls conveniently after weeks of Leonard-Penny turmoil.

That leads into the other explanation: the show’s writers are pushing for a final resolution to the Leonard-Penny relationship.  For its entire existence the show has been focussed on this relationship and in order for it to go on for another four or five seasons it needs to resolve the old stories and begin some new ones – which they already have to an extent with the introduction of Bernadette and Amy Farrah Fowler as full-time characters.  This tension between Priya and Penny can resolve itself in one of two ways: either Leonard finally gets over Penny for good and stays with Priya or Leonard and Penny get back together permanently.  In either case the show would then be open to new storylines.

Overall though, I thought that the “card trick” half of the episode was no more than filler.  It won’t feature in any future episodes and did not contribute to any existing storyline in the slightest.  While it was refreshing for Sheldon not to be right for once, was it really necessary for the show to spend half of an episode on, considering that the other half will actually have a big impact on the future of the show?

The potential is there for this episode to lead to great things, but those great things are not present in this episode.  The Pestidigitation Approximation just sets the scene for the end of the season; it doesn’t steal the scene on its own.

Tune in next week for the renewal of hostilities as The Big Bang Theory and Community both return with new episodes!

Well, I was planning on doing a big NHL trade deadline day recap, detailing the winners and losers on deadline day.  I was expecting to be breaking down how Brad Richards or Ales Hemsky would fit into their new teams or how the Toronto Maple Leafs traded away their next three first round draft picks for a career third-liner.

What I didn’t expect was Dustin Penner being the biggest name to move on deadline day.  I didn’t expect my own Atlanta Thrashers to be one of the biggest wheelers-and-dealers of the day.  And most of all, I didn’t expect Brian Burke to go the entire day without pulling the trigger on some move.

So there will be no big analysis of which teams dramatically improved their playoff chances and which teams positioned themselves well for the “get-better-quick” sweepstakes that the NHL draft has turned into.  However, I will say that I was shocked to see Dustin Penner net a return of a first-round draft pick (let alone an additional third-rounder and prospect Colton Teubert).

I am going to do a winners and losers analysis of another kind concerning deadline day: Canadian sports network TSN were the big winner and the general hockey fan the big loser.

Earlier today, TSN announced a record viewership for their deadline day program Tradecentre.  The multi-panel show, which featured detailed analysis of not only what deals went down, but also what each team’s needs and position was coming into the deadline, registered roughly 2.6 million unique viewers over its eight-hour airtime.  It peaked at 524,000 viewers at the 3pm deadline and averaged 268,000 viewers across the day.  TSN asserts that this represents a 42% growth over the previous year’s broadcast.  You can add on to this the roughly 80,000 people who contributed to Jay Onrait’s deadline day blog.

So, if we put those numbers into perspective, 268,000 people spent 8 hours of their Monday morning and afternoon watching TSN.  That’s 2,144,000 hours that viewers tuned in to TSN’s deadline day coverage.  That’s a really good sign for TSN, given the relative bore that was the trade deadline.

With a lot of moves happening in the week or so leading up to the deadline, only 16 deals were completed on deadline day.  These trades involved 35 players and 12 draft picks.  That averages out to a trade every 30 minutes.  Last year’s deadline produced 31 trades, meaning that a trade was completed approximately every 15 minutes.

Another item of note is that most of the trades that took place on Monday were not of the blockbuster variety.  That Dustin Penner was the high water line speaks volumes about the rest of the deals that happened.  There were no deals that involved big name players; the deals were mostly teams swapping depth players for either draft picks or other depth players.  None of these deals could be said to capture our imaginations quite like previous deadline day moves such as the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes of last year, Olli Jokinen moving to Calgary in 2009, or the Marian Hossa deal of 2008.

As such, it all adds up to TSN winning while the rest of us hockey fans lost.  For our over 2 million hours of investment, we got very little return while TSN was able to show a dedicated viewership that will likely result in some lucrative contracts to air commercials and translate into more people watching other TSN programs.

I must add that this wasn’t TSN’s fault in the slightest, unless you count having knowledgeable analysts, insiders, and former NHL players counts as rigging the deck in your favour.  Unlike NHL General Managers who directly pull the strings on deadline day, TSN just sat back and let our desire for up-to-date information and detailed analysis take them to record highs in viewership.

On the other hand, our desire for information and analysis is exactly why hockey fans lost.  Our expectations going into deadline day were heightened by the action of previous years, last year in particular.  We expected fireworks, with teams blowing up rosters, shedding salaries, and playoff contenders stocking up for a run at Lord Stanley’s Cup.  Instead what we got was a damp squib (no offense Dustin).  Hockey fans invested time that we could have spent doing other things such as working, caring for our families, or – in my case – being a good university student.

I guess the moral of the story here is that trade deadline day in the current NHL isn’t what it used to be and we, as hockey fans, shouldn’t treat it as such.  While we tune in and give TSN record audiences, we should be prepared to spend the day listening to Bob McKenzie and Pierre McGuire speculate about deals that will never happen.  We should be prepared for days when Dustin Penner is the hot commodity and the Atlanta Thrashers are one of the most active teams.

Or we could just watch something else…

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@bazinga_shaw just in case you don’t already follow me) and are my friends on Facebook will know what is coming here: it is my weekly comparison of the television series The Big Bang Theory and Community.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with this comparison, I’ll fill you in on a little history.

When it was first announced that The Big Bang Theory would be moving from Monday nights to the 8pm on Thursday timeslot, I was torn.  It would directly conflict with another of my favourite shows: Community.  I had been routinely praising both shows for their humour, writing, and acting, so I was in quite a dilemma.  Given that I could only watch one at a time, I needed a system to figure out which one to watch.

And so the comparison system you see today was born.  The premise is simple: whichever show’s episode is better in a given week gets a point.  The show with the most points at the end of the season would be declared the best, and therefore the one to watch first.  If I can’t choose between them on a given week, half a point will be given to each show.

The current score, after 14 weeks, is 9 points for Community and 5 points for The Big Bang Theory.

So, now that you’re up to speed, it’s time to move on to this week’s episodes…and just as a head’s up, there will be spoilers…

The Contestants: The Toast Derivation (The Big Bang Theory) vs. Intro to Political Science (Community)

Let’s start by breaking down what each episode did right.

Community’s Intro to Political Science gave us a couple things that I found very interesting, both of which have been touched upon in previous episodes.

The first is the Jeff-Annie romance sparking up again.  While some viewers might not see these two characters as a good fit, the key point is that a new multi-episode arc seems to be picking up, replacing the rather mediocre Pierce-trying-to-be-accepted storyline that took up most of the season to this point.  And deep down, we really pull for characters like Jeff and Annie.  Despite Jeff’s standoffish attitude towards his friends and family, he is a likable character and Annie, because she’s so innocent most of the time, really tugs at our proverbial heart-strings.  By pairing two like-able characters in a multi-episode arc Community’s writers have given themselves a very good platform to work off of in future episodes.

The second item is the testing of Troy and Abed’s relationship.  In Early 21st Century Romanticism, the inseparable duo were tested by a shared crush on the school’s librarian.  This time the testing sets out to be more subtle.  After having their elections-coverage talkshow interrupted by FBI investigators, a relationship seems to be slowly developing between Abed and Special Agent Robin Vollers, despite her job getting in the way.  We don’t know how this storyline will develop, but at some point Troy will have to deal with Abed spending more time with Robin and how that plays out will definitely be worth watching.

Both of these items are all about moving the show forward and giving the audience something new to watch.  Without this progress, the show becomes stale (much like Season 5 of How I Met Your Mother).  Although Annie and Jeff kissed in the Season 1 finale and have shown some hints of attraction between then and now (see Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design and Asian Population Studies), we have yet to see them in any kind of real relationship with real, consistent feelings.  New relationships always signify forward movement in the story as the relationship will either fail – and the characters will learn something new about themselves – or succeed – and the characters will be one step closer to the point at which their story concludes.

Community also did a very good job depicting student elections in this week’s episode.  You UWO students out there, just picture Omid Salari as Jeff Winger talking his way past Andrew Forgione as Annie Edison, only to be undone by Annie/Andrew’s resourcefulness (except that I think you’d be hard pressed to make Omid ashamed of anything you caught him doing on camera…).  From the silly Dean Pelton-style applause-o-meter to South Park being the write-in winner, nothing seemed out of place.

On the other hand (or should I say “out of the other eye?”), The Big Bang Theory finally produced an episode that was high on substance and/or emotion and wasn’t boxed in by the same, heavily broken-in character types, instead using the traits of the characters to set up the story before letting it loose.

What I’m talking about here isn’t immediately obvious upon first viewing.  Sheldon’s initial reaction to the group moving their hangout spot to Raj’s apartment was to be expected.  In this instance, the writers have used our familiarity with Sheldon’s personality and quirky tendencies to draw us into the episode and that’s what we want.  From the point that Sheldon parts ways with the group for his conglomerate of Stewart, Barry, and Zach, the episode could have gone two different ways.  The way it went, with Sheldon and the group making up in a very co-dependent and bittersweet manner, was one way and it was a positive move on the behalf of the show’s writers as it gave us something that we wouldn’t expect.  Given what we know of the characters, we might have expected the rest of the group to be on top of the world without Sheldon to drag them down and Sheldon to engage in a maniacal scheme to bring them down.  All of which would be concluded with a yelling match between Sheldon and Leonard and an abrupt and unsatisfying make-up.

This leads perfectly into the other side of the equation: how the group fared without Sheldon.  Despite adding a member who is inherently more stable than the erratic Sheldon in Priya, the group misses its, as Sheldon would put it, “social glue.”  Given what we have seen in previous episodes like The Vegas Renormalization or, more recently, The Bus Pants Utilization, the group should get along just fine without Sheldon around.  That they don’t is a great sign that the show can still defy our expectations, which has been sadly lacking so far this season and is a big reason why the show is 4 points behind Community in the rankings.

All in all, there’s not much bad I have to say about each contestant this week.  I could have done without the Girls’ Night storyline of The Toast Derivation as I felt it just slowed down and dragged out the episode.  With Community, Pierce, Shirley, and Britta were mostly missing from the episode.  Pierce and Britta were both “candidates” for the Presidency, but apart from a few lines, they didn’t figure in the main storylines of the episode and Shirley was pretty much non-existent.

Therefore, this week I will award both shows half a point.  Both had me laughing and both impressed me with their writing, meaning that choosing between the two is a near impossible task.

The score after this week is now Community 9.5 – The Big Bang Theory 5.5.