Saturday, May 29, 2010

PRINCE OF PERSIA - A Review and Lament For a Great Franchise Turned Epic Fail


- It pains me to say it, but Prince of Persia falls just shy of being a truly epic fail. The movie is just broken on so many levels, and it sort of symbolizes exactly how a big budget blockbuster can go wrong. It's such a frustrating film, because you've got a seemingly talented director at the helm, some A-list actors in the cast, and a can't-miss concept derived from one of the most influential game series of all time. What the hell? How does such a promising movie end up in the proverbial toliet?

First of all, part of the reason why POP is so disappointing is that it looked like, finally, Hollywood was going to make a videogame adaptation that didn't completely suck. For those that don't know, Prince of Persia is one of the truly groundbreaking videogame series. The original game forever changed the sidescrolling genre in the early days of gaming, introducing a more methodical, cerebral pace and featuring then-unprecedented animation and fluidity. Later, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time became a game-changing hit during the era of the early days of the Playstation 2. It was one of the best 3D adventures to hit consoles yet - brimming with evocative atmosphere, and featuring a great new gameplay mechanic in the ability to turn back time and give yourself a do-over upon making a critical mistake. Still, all that the movie needed to do was to capture the game's striking ambiance and mood, and create a story that took advantage of the game's captivating setting.

So ... why is Prince of Persia an ultra-generic, C-grade action movie with no real style to speak of? Instead of being an atmospheric mind-bender like the game, the movie recycles every blockbuster cliche in the book, and just happens to be set in ancient Persia. The story here is so by-the-numbers it hurts. There's not a single shocking twist or jaw-dropping reveal. The "surprise" villain is obvious from the first five minutes of the film. Not a single character pops. Great actors like Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina are stuck playing absolutely generic and boring characters. Something went very, very wrong here.

Visually, Prince of Persia is a shoddy presentation, and I expected much better. This was marketed as the next Pirates of the Carribean. Well, I have seen Pirates of the Carribean. I am a big fan of Pirates of the Carribean. And Prince of Persia, well, it ain't no Pirates of the Carribean. Not by a longshot. Those movies had character. They had imagination. They looked visually spectacular thanks to the still-underrated Gore Verbinski. Prince of Persia is total weaksauce in comparison. Most scenes seem to take place on hastily-assembled backlot sets. The CGI is messy and unfinished-looking. The costuming is bland. And everything feels far too small-scale for a would-be epic movie. There are lots of sweeping establishing shots randomly inserted into the film as if to reassure us "no, see, this IS an epic movie!" Not really. Meanwhile, the editing feels ultra-sloppy. The movie jumps from one scene to another with reckless abandon, and the effect is that we're often left feeling disoriented and taken out of the already-confusing story. There are one or two decently inventive action scenes, but the editing is choppy-as-hell on those too. There are only a few directors who can totally pull off the super-quick-cut action style - Ridley Scott, Paul Greengrass ... Well, Mike Newell tries to (or was forced to) emulate the oh-so-in-vogue rapid-fire action stylings of those directors, and stumbles pretty badly. I mean, the plot of this movie is tiresome enough - without compelling action scenes to give the movie a jolt, it's basically got nothin'.

I'll give Newell and his team SOME credit. There are a couple of cool touches, mostly early on in the film, that evoke the game's inventive platforming mechanics. But these are only fleeting moments in the movie, and most of the time, the film's attempts to mimic the game just seem stupid. Ugh. Hey, movie producers: when adapting a videogame, you don't need to make characters in the film version adhere to videogame physics and other such crap! We don't need movie characters double-jumping or pressing "reset" buttons or other nonsense. Just make a movie that captures the world and setting and atmosphere of a game! Is that so hard? Emulate the art-style, the MUSIC! Games are not movies. The story in games is there to serve the needs of the gamesplay, as are the play mechanics. Did Jake Gyllenhaal in this movie really need to jump around like a roided-up ape? Did that help the movie in any way? Again: ugh.

Speaking of Gyllenhaal, I'm sorry, but he was totally miscast in this movie. I'm a fan of his - he's great at playing quirky, introspective characters, and that's been his bread and butter ever since Donnie Darko. But he just looks goofy-as-all-hell as a would-be action movie hero. Gyllenhaal's quirkiness makes way too many scenes in Prince of Persia feel unintentionally funny. You never buy him for a second as a prince of ancient Persia. And he just looks wonky - he has the body of a pro-wrestler but the face of a smirking hipster. And he speaks with a totally random English accent, as does everyone in the film, although his is easily the goofiest.

It doesn't help that the movie is written in an over-the-top style that tries to be cute and quippy but is mostly just groan-inducing. Despite the ancient-Persia setting, characters make all-too-modern jokes and references that make you want to reach through the screen and punch someone. Even worse, there are lots of OVERT references to the Iraq war and current politics that are so lame, so heavy-handed, that they make the movie's plot even stupider and more laughable than it already is. I seriously felt bad for guys like Alfred Molina though, who, playing a cliched, greedy merchant, is saddled with some of the lamest "dialogue" one could imagine. A couple of kids in the audience chuckled at his funny facial expresions and comedic timing, but that was all Molina trying desperately to make the material work.

And that again speaks to just how generic the characters are. I didn't care about a single one. Even the titular Prince is just sort of there. We get that he's supposed to be a bit roguish and a bit more sensitive than his war-mongering brothers, but that's about it. Gyllenhaal's prince will certainly not go down as the next iconic movie hero, that's for sure. Like I said, Kingsley and Molina give it the ol' college try, but it's not enough - they have nothing to work with. Gemma Arterton might actually be the one real standout, as a stunning princess tasked with protecting the mystical dagger that can control time. Arterton is actually one of the few in the film who seems to get the sort of movie she's in, and she does a nice job. It's funny though, because she was just in Clash of the Titans, and the similarities between that and Prince of Persia are pretty widespread. Both suffer from choppy editing, generic characters, and nonsensical plotlines. The difference was that CLASH had some real visual pop, with a couple of kickass action scenes to its credit. At the least, Clash felt a little grittier, a little more hardcore. Prince of Persia is almost disturbing in the way it handles violence. It's all Disney-fied, very little blood or gore. And yet, people are getting killed by swords and arrows left and right. It's almost comical when you think of the standards and practices this movie was likely subjected to. The prince kills dozens of random dudes with no remorse or regret? Cool, go for it. But, god forbid there's any blood or graphic violence - we wouldn't want to harm the children in the audience!

It's hard to believe that a big-budget action movie like this could be so boring and bland. I was expecting something at least on the level of The Mummy, but no, not even close. At least there, Stephen Sommers infuses his films with manic energy, imaginative visuals, and nonstop, over-the-top action. Everyone in this movie just seems lost or bored. There's not a single memorable action scene or visual, except for one or two sort-of-fun nods to the source material. The story is barely-there and makes little sense. The characters are so lazily-constructed it physically hurts. There are a couple of fun touches, but the movie never goes far enough into camp so as to be a good time. It actually wants us to take its lameness seriously, but we can't. The hero is weak, goofy, and miscast. The villains are blah - Jafar from Aladdin needs to come in and kick all their asses and show them how it's done. Maybe Hollywood will get it right one of these times. Maybe when screenwriters and directors from my generation break in, when people who actually get games and games culture and what makes a franchise like Prince of Persia great start making these movies, maybe that's when they'll actually get good. Until then, don't get your hopes up. Then again, on second thought, maybe we should just take a moment and look at the reality of pop-culture in 2010. Games are the new blockbusters anyways. In a lackluster summer filled with crappy movies, maybe it's time we stopped supporting box-office junk and turned our attention to a medium that continues to deliver new experiences and innovative entertainment. For years, games were trying to catch up to Hollywood production values and storytelling. Now, as this movie clearly illustrates, more often than not it's the other way around.

My Grade: C-

Friday, May 28, 2010

MACGRUBER Brings the Funny, and MORE!

Finally -- three day weekend! It's been a long week, but I am ready to kick back, chill out, and relax. Plus, one week from today, I'll be on a plane to CT for a week on the east coast. That's right - just in time to see the CELTICS kick ass in the NBA Finals.

Congrats to the Celtics on a huge win tonight. But, oh man, what a crazy game Thursday night between the Lakers and the Suns. Definitely one of the most exciting games of the playoffs thus far, although it was a tough loss for the Suns. What a series of back-and-forth baskets to close the game though. Hey, I guess Ron Artest was overdue for a big play, right? I will say though, TNT continues to be the best in the biz at NBA coverage. The pregame, halftime, and postgame Inside the NBA shows are all continually entertaining, and practically comedy shows in and of themselves. And kudos to Marv Albert for a great interview with President Obama earlier this week. Obama knows his hoops, and hey, he even had a "Question For Charles," in which he reminded the Round Mound of Rebound to stick to his diet. Meanwhile, the Celtics had a huge victory tonight in what was, to me, a must-win game against the Magic. If Orlando had managed to force a Game 7, it could have been disasterous for the Celtics, so I'm glad that the C's were able to close out the Magic and earn some time to rest up before the Finals.

I will say this about LA: I still do not like Kobe and the Lakers, but, I do enjoy being in a place where people actually pay attention to the NBA. I'm sure in CT the Celtics will be buried on the back page of the Sports Section behind some crap news about the latest UCONN Huskies drama. Lame.

- I am still not caught up on CHUCK. My DVR deleted the season finale because it inadvertantly got too full. But, I plan to finally catch it over the weekend thanks to the magic of digital distribution. Also need to catch up on the FOX Sunday Night finales as well as this week's JUSTIFIED. I was just so burnt-out on TV for a few days there following Lost and 24, I couldn't deal.

- That said ... deleting 24 and Lost from my DVR season-pass list ... very, very sad.

- Anyways, I know the movie has already sort of arrived and bombed, but, I want to go to bat a bit for one of the funnier movies i've seen in a while ...


- MacGruber very quickly flopped at the box-office, and that's too bad. The fact is, it's a pretty hilarious comedy - an over-the-top, very-random movie that is, frankly, the kind of comedy you don't see a lot of anymore. It's strictly comes from the same cartoonish lineage as wacky parody movies like The Naked Gun and Hot Shots. Actually, the latter is a pretty good reference point. If you've been waiting for a Hot Shots, Part 3 (and really, who hasn't been?), then MacGruber is for you. It's a pitch-perfect parody of 80's action flicks. So if you worship at the altar of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and occasionally, Steven Seagal, then please, go see MacGruber at once.

Here's the thing: I get why MacGruber is a near-impossible movie to market. It's a full-length film based on the flimsiest of characters - a recurring Saturday Night Live sketch that is basically a one-joke parody of TV's MacGuyver. On SNL, MacGruber was maybe good for a chuckle or two, but the sketches were never all that great, and quickly overstayed their welcome. As is typical of SNL, the character was brought back over and over again and what should have been a one-time gag was endlessly shoved down our throats. So, yeah, there was plenty of reason to be skeptical of a MacGruber movie. But, the lack of substance of the sketches ultimately proved to be a boon for the movie. Will Forte and co. were basically forced to start their story from scratch, and they found a great angle to center the movie around: forget about specifically parodying MacGuyver, or about working from the limited formula of the sketches, and just use MacGruber as the starting point from which the movie can poke fun at all sorts of old-school action movie conventions and cliches.

The movie throws a lot at you, but what's important in a crazy comedy like this is that the percentage of jokes that work remains high. And I think MacGruber succeeds on that count. I was laughing pretty consistently throughout the film, and there are several moments that are simply drop-dead hilarious. There is an extended sex scene in the movie that is easily among the funniest things I've seen at the movies this year. And there are some other moments that are similarly shocking and hilarious. That sex scene is so funny in part because it is a totally spot-on parody of the typical action movie sex scene (reminded me of Highlander in particular). And other parts of MacGruber will be instantly familar to those schooled in the lore of classic action. You've got your Rambo-style opening, your Predator-esque "recruiting the team of badasses" sequence (complete with multiple handshakes-o-doom) and you've got your classic villain hellbent on revenge, with Val Kilmer playing a sort of bizarro version of Steven Seagal.

MacGruber also works so well because it has some great, legit action-movie actors, like Kilmer, going all-out - playing their parts with the same intensity as if they were in a drama. Kilmer is a riot as the weapon-obsessed villain. POWERS BOOTHE is friggin' awesome as the Colonel, basically every badass action-movie mentor figure rolled into one. But he's Powers Boothe, so he's totally badass even as his natural awesomeness makes his lines that much more hilarious. Ryan Philipe does a pretty decent job playing the straight man to MacGruber's wacky antics. And a pack of WWE wrestlers put in some very funny cameos in the early part of the movie, with Chris Jericho in particular getting in a couple of great lines (no surprise there - Jericho's always had a knack for comedy). Kristin Wiig sells her lines well as always, as MacGruber's faithful companion Vicki St. Elmo. And Maya Rudolph shows up as the ghost of MacGruber's wife, which leads to one of the movie's funniest and most out-there scenes. As for Will Forte, he's really good in this. He's a guy who's had his ups and downs on SNL, but MacGruber plays directly to Forte's strengths as a comedian - playing crazy, loony characters who don't quite realize the extent of their own absurdity.

Once in a while, certain jokes fall flat, and some of the repetition of certain recurring gags can become a bit much after a while. But, a lot of MacGruber works, and in the end, it's a seriously entertaining comedy. It's stupid fun, but you've got to appreciate a movie that so lovingly parodies the genre its spoofing. Possible comedy cult classic? Definitely potential.

My Grade: B+

Next up: a review of PRINCE OF PERSIA!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Unlike Other Robin Hoods, I Can Speak With An English Accent. ROBIN HOOD - Reviewed!

Man, talk about writing fatigue. I went all-out to write up fitting final reviews of both LOST and 24, and after those epic entries, I definitely needed at least a short break from the blog. At the same time, I've got a lot more to talk about, so ... let's go.


- Robin Hood is not a horrible movie. In fact, it's a pretty good film. So I was surprised at all of the venom hurled at it by critics who each seemed to have their own vision of what a Robin Hood movie should be. I do agree that there is sometimes a generic feeling with this one. What was originally supposed to be a new twist on the old story, casting the Sherrif of Nottingham as the hero and Robin Hood as the villain, instead is a much more straightforward take on the classic Robin Hood tale. Not only that, but it's basically the "Batman Begins" version of Robin Hood - a dark, gritty, spawling origin story that ends in the place where most Robin Hood stories begin. Really, the movie is pretty much exactly what you'd expect when you hear "Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe do Robin Hood." What does that mean in terms of quality? Well, look, this isn't the best thing since sliced bread, but at the same time, it's Ridley Scott doing a badass historical action movie. You know there's going to be a certain level of quality there. You know you're going to get some great acting from Crowe and company. You know you'll get a kickass battle or two. To me, Robin Hood was an entertaining flick. It had some issues, sure, but overall, I say the critics were too harsh. Robin Hood is worth checking out if you're a fan of Ridley Scott, Russell Crowe, or if you just want to see a big historical epic with bows and arrows and swords.

Robin Hood essentially tells the story of the circumstances that led to Robin becoming an outlaw and a populous hero following the Crusades. In this movie, "Robin Hood" does not quite exist yet - instead, Russell Crowe plays Robin Longstride - a soldier in the Crusades who assumes a dead man's identity, and eventually his life. Robin Longstride becomes Robin of Loxley, and what begins as a con on the part of Robin eventually sees him embrace his new identity as his own. He becomes a hero to a people who are being mercilessly taxed by the in-over-his-head Prince John, and bullied by John's ruthless lieutenant Godfrey. Robin is there to lead the uprising against the throne, and in doing so seeks to win the trust of the family his new identity has led him to - Sir Walter Loxley, a fallen noble, and Marion Loxley, his daughter-in-law.

Look, I am a sucker for melodramatic, gravitas-infused period-piece dialogue spoken by great / badass actors (and really, who isn't?) and Robin Hood has a lot of it. Russell Crowe on some level isn't really who you imagine as Robin Hood - he's too old, too big, etc. But on another level, Crowe has that rebellious, rock n' roll edge to him that makes him suited towards playing an anti-authority troublemaker. In this version of the story in particular, Robin is not just a mischevious archer, but a leader and a soldier. So Crowe does in fact work well in the role, and he does his usual bang-up job. Crowe is one of the best leading-man actors around, and he's as intense as ever in this one. That said, there isn't a ton of meat to the Robin character - he's more Russell Crowe than anything - gruff and softspoken until it's time to turn up the volume and kick ass. Not a huge dramatic stretch for Crowe, but hey, mostly, it works.

Meanwhile, there's a superb supporting cast around him. Mark Strong is excellent as Godfrey - all glowering and evil-like. Oscar Isaac is a scene-stealer as Prince John - it's sort of a similar role to that of Joquin Phoenix in Gladiator, but hey, Isaac screaches curses like the instant-classic "YOOUU AREE AN OUUUUTLAAWW!" with as much vim and vigor as you could possibly hope for. Danny Huston shows up as the regal King Richard, and there's also an entertaining turn from the great WILLIAM HURT as an ousted advisor to the slightly-psycho prince, who becomes the whistle-blower, alerting people to the corruption and treachery going on at the highest levels of the kingdom. Also, there's Robin's trusted allies, his posse who will eventually become his "merry men." Again, it's a really fun, talented group of actors. Kevin Durand is a standout as Little John. We know from LOST that he is adept at playing the part of badass, and he is similarly good here, and he has some really fun scenes with Crowe. Mark Addy also gets in some good moments as Friar Tuck.

Then, there's Cate Blanchett as Marion. Blanchett is arguably the best actress alive, especially when it comes to fantasy and period pieces. So she's right at home in this one. She has a great presence, and a pretty decent chemistry with Crowe. But, her character is also in a lot of the film's weaker scenes. Part of the problem is that with Crowe, Robin is written in such a way where it sort of feels like it was a part intended for someone younger, but Crowe makes it work anyways. With Marion though, the part clearly feels like it was meant for a much younger actress, and the disconnect is pretty jarring. The fact is, Marion is written as this tough-but-really-naive type, and that just doesn't jive with Blanchett's regal and wise persona.

As an aside, it really does pain me to actually complain about seasoned actors in a movie like this. SO MANY action films cast actors that are way too young and/or young-seeming in parts where the story calls for real MEN and real WOMEN. Personally, I think it's cool that Crowe and Blanchett were cast as opposed to some teen idol types with no actual acting ability or presence. BUT ... once Crowe and Blanchett were cast, the script should have been altered to better reflect the fact that the two leads were clearly both past 40. Too often, for example, their relationship feels very young romance-ish and not like a bond between two people who have likely been around the block a few times.

Overall, Robin Hood's script is problematic at times. There is clearly some really strong writing at its core, but you can sort of tell that the movie went through the studio machine one too many times. The result is a story that feels like it incorporates elements from a few different movies into one film, and that makes for an overly complex but ultimately jumbled narrative. The movie's opening really needs tightening up, as it takes forever to establish the large cast of characters and set up the many different plot threads. The problem is that Robin kind of stumbles into this whole adventure. That's fine at first, but in the middle of the movie the momentum has yet to really pick up, because there's not necessarilly any real heated rivalry between Robin and Prince John or Godfried. In any case, the movie ends up being overlong and overstuffed. Unfortunately, it's one more Ridley Scott movie where you get the sense there's some way more awesome Director's Cut filed away somewhere.

But hey, this IS Ridley Scott here. The man is one of *the* all-time great directors, and even though he's saddled with a hacked-up script, he still directs the hell out of this movie. He doesn't have a lot of opportunity to really go to town for the film's first half ... but when the action picks up later on, the movie really gets a shot in the arm thanks to some kickass action courtesy of Mr. Scott. As I said, the movie drags a lot in the beginning, and then at times in its middle section as well. But, the final acti is basically one continuous action scene that builds and builds, and it's a series of highly entertainign sequences - brilliantly staged and executed. Ridley just has a knack for pulling off those giant war / battle scenes on an epic scale, and also for making sure to include those killer dramatic moments in the heat of battle that give the characters a chance to shine. Robin Hood has some great little moments that are vintage Ridley Scott - the elder Loxley blind-swordfighting with his last strength to defend his home, and Robin firing off a climactic arrow shot towards the movies end are two examples. So, if you're on the fence about seeing this, my opinion is that the stunning action of the final act makes the movie worth checking out, no question. Ultimately, I think the movie ends on a high note. The great action and some satisfying closing story developments end the movie well, to the point where it leaves you surprisingly jazzed for a potential sequel, now that the pieces have all been moved into place.

But, the fact that a movie can start out so slowly but ultimately end so well is troubling in its own way. It means that the movie COULD have been truly great, if it had been created with a more singular vision, and not morphed from one movie to another to another over the course of its development cycle. As it stands, the movie has enough killer scenes - dramatic speeches, cool action, fun setup for a possible next chapter - that it's perfectly servicable as setup for a could-be-much-better sequel. Scott remains one of the most talented directors around too - I just really want him to make a couple more GREAT movies. This is, after all, the guy who gave us BLADE RUNNER, ALIEN, and GLADIATOR. Can someone please hook him up with one more legitimately great script so he can really cut loose? In that respect, Robin Hood is slightly frustrating, because it has some of the elements of a great film, but it's too disjointed and jumbled to really put them all together. But it's still a fun movie - an entertaining adventure that is much better than some might want to admit.

My Grade: B+

- Check back soon for more, everyone. Almost the weekend!

Monday, May 24, 2010

24's FINAL COUNTDOWN: The End of Twenty-Four and the Final Jack Bauer Hour of Power!

- And so it ends. After eight seasons of action, of intensity, of twists and turns and countless cries of "DAMMIT!", 24 has finally had its final countdown. In a week of television filled with huge finales and much-hyped events, the end of 24 is perhaps the biggest story of all. Because 24 changed TV. It changed pop-culture. It made serialized storytelling on American television viable again. It made Jack Bauer into an icon. And, at the end of the day, it was just plain awesome. 24 was the best TV show of the last decade. It had its ups and downs, sure, but no show, ever, was more exciting, more must-see, or more fun. Lost was a show to analyze, to dissect. But 24 was a show to lose yourself in, to get caught up in the heightened reality of it all, to call your friends about with exclamations of "did you SEE what Jack did?" 24 was the most fun I've ever had watching TV, and oh man, it's sad to see it end. Sure, some will say it got stale, and sometimes, that seemed true. But every year brought with it the promise of a new day, a new adventure. Discovering just what craziness the show had in store for Jack *this* time was half the fun. Over the years, 24 became politicized. It became overanalyzed. But 24 was, really, escapist entertainment at its finest. It was the story of a new kind of badass hero of and for our times. A man who didn't eat, didn't sleep, didn't waste words. A man who spent every waking second in a given day kicking ass and taking names and doing whatever he had to to get the job done. That man was JACK F'N BAUER, and I'm here to salute one of the all-time kickass fictional heroes. Maybe 24 wasn't for everyone, but 24 was a show that separated the men from the boys. This was a show that continually strived to kick ass. To bring the pain. To make our jaws drop and our heads explode from sensory overload. 24 was a take-no-prisoners, no-holds-barred, thrill-a-minute adventure, and there won't ever be another show quite like it again.

For me, 24 has been THE must-see TV show of the last ten years. It debuted in 2001, just as my then-favorite show, The X-Files, was headed towards its conclusion. Immediately, 24 became my new go-to show. I had already been anticipating its arrival prior to the pilot. I was a huge fan of creator Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran's previous action serial, La Femme Nikita, and eagerly sought out any news about what their next project would be. I was psyched for 24, curious about its unusual real-time format, and eager to see how Kiefer Sutherland would fare as an action hero. I clearly remember gathering with roommates and friends in our dorm at BU's Shelton Hall to watch that first episode. It was such a rush of adrenaline, such an intriguing setup, that we were all immediately hooked. From that point on, 24 was the show that everyone gathered together to watch. When new episodes aired, we put aside our school work, dimmed the lights, and sat enthralled for the duration of what would come to be known affectionately by fans as the Jack Bauer Power Hour. 24 was the best show to watch with buddies - there were always those moments where you just had to look over at your friend and exclaim "daaaaaaaamn!" Even when I watched the show alone, I'd immediately pick up the phone and call a friend and fellow fan and go over all the crazy stuff that went down on a given week's episode. Hell, when I spent a semester studying abroad in London, circa 2003, I was so intent on not missing an episode that I dutifully downloaded each new episode from various file-sharing sites as soon as humanly possible. Keep in mind, this was 2003 - the episodes were NOT easy to find, and downloading one via our slow British connection would often take several hours, if not more. But man, I vividly remember my friend Chris coming to visit me in London from Oxford where he was studying. When he found out I had the latest 24 episodes on my computer, his eyes lit up. There we were, in London, huddled around my laptop watching Jack Bauer kick ass. What can I say? 24 was the TV version of crack. Ask anyone who watched the show via DVD, and tried telling themselves they'd watch "just one more episode." 24 was a show that didn't even thrive commercially until it took off on DVD, just as the medium was blossoming in the early 00's. It was a game-changer. It set the precedent for how shows were marketed off-air, how DVD's were released to promote upcoming seasons of shows. It changed the way people watched TV forever.

In college, I got my friends and roommates hooked on 24, and 24 gatherings and parties were a regular occurance. I got my brother hooked, even my dad. In fact, it was, for a while, one of the few shows I can ever remember him making a point to watch with any regularity. Here in LA, I've continued to enjoy 24 with friends who shared an appreciation for the show's innate awesomeness. It sounds funny, but 24 was one of those shows that acted as a common bond. Meet someone who's a fellow fan, and you instantly have something in common. As geeky as it sounds, 24 has long been one of the most fun shows to read and talk about. I loved going online and reading as all the crazed fanboys went nuts for the latest episode. I loved all the little catchphrases that us fans tossed around - the more absurd the better. We joked about the JACK SACK, the power of ZOMBIE ALMEIDA and his SOULPATCH, popularized the POTUS, made fun of the infamous COUGAR TRAP, christened the likes of BLACK BAUER and RACK BAUER and NAKED MANDY and AARON PIERCE: AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D, uploaded data in REAL TIME to our PDA's, unleashed many a "DAMMIT!", and never got tired of using Kiefer Sutherland's favorite word (that being GRAVITAS~!) as much as humanly possible. In times of trouble we simply asked ourselves "What Would Jack Bauer Do?", and came up with enough examples of Jack Bauer's awesomeness so as to make Chuck Norris cry himself to sleep.

I've been writing about 24 for as long as I've been writing this blog, and 24 was always my favorite show to write about over all these years. Other shows demanded in-depth analysis and careful critiques. 24, more often than not, allowed me to let loose and just go with my gut. Many times, I had no desire to overanalyze 24. I'd just log into my blog, still on an adrenaline high from the Hour of Power, and just let my enthusiasm run wild. Sometimes, there'd be a lull in the show that lent itself to a more serious critical write-up. For most of this most recent season, in fact, it was hard to muster up that old feeling of excitement. But 24 could always surprise you. Just last week, I logged on and that old-school energy was pouring from my brain down to my fingertips. I was in full-on rant n' rave mode, and I was once again feelin' the 24 love. And that, to me, is what 24 has always been about - getting yourself into that emotional state of pure escapism, where your rational brain shuts down and your inner thirteen-year-old fanboy kicks in. It's about getting your heart-pounding, about raising your fist in glory, about being ready to rock n' roll. It's about being ready to kick ass and take names, and about getting your ass kicked by Jack Bauer's awesomeness and saying "thank you Sir, may I have another?"

24 was Jack Bauer. It was Tony SOUL PATCH Almeida. It was AARON F'ING PIERCE. It was Nina Myers, the first mole, Teri Bauer, the first evidence of the show's dark brutality, it was Chloe O'Brien, Jack's goofy but loyal pal. It was Edgar and Curtis and Naked Mandy and Peter Weller, aka ROBOCOP, and Jon Voight as Jonas Hodges. It was Salazar and BILL BUCHANAN and Kim Bauer and the Cougar Trap o' Doom. It was Chapelle shot in the head and Xander Berkley taking that plane down into the heart of the nuclear reactor. It was PRESIDENT PALMER, aka President Gravitas, and his Lady MacBeth of a wife Sherry, and his brother Wayne, and their whole messed-up, dysfunctional family. It was BERRROOOOOZ and his mother and the terrorist threat next door. It was Morris and Milo and one-armed CHASE and the hacksaw, aka the moment when Jack was shown to be truly hardcore. It was MICHELLE DESSLER, who I still wish they hadn't killed, who stole many scenes and maybe even a few hearts. It was Graham (Graem?) Bauer and MORE CC's! It was Daddy Bauer and that kid who was just maybe Jack's son. It was LOGAN and his sleazy, snake-like scheming, and MRS. LOGAN, she who ended up in the arms of Aaron. It was Renee Walker and those Russian gangsters and yes, even Cole, who in the end wasn't all that bad. It was nukes and more nukes and a single tear from Jack's eye. It was Dennis Hopper with his "Mister Bow-er ..." and Tobin Bell and Kurtwood "bitches leave" Smith and POWERS BOOTHE and Operations from La Femme Nikita, who we never really found out what he was up to. The Bluetooth Mafia and the neverending conspiracies of white guys who were really behind everything. It was PDA's and real-time SAT tracking and perimeters that never, EVER worked. It was Jack shooting that one guy's wife and cutting off that one guy's finger. It was awesome music that went from badass John Carpenter-style synth to sweeping orchestral scoring. It was split-screen chaos and real-time chatter. It was silent clocks and stunning cliffhangers. That "beep-beep-beep" noise and that trademark CTU ringtone - "doo doo, do-do." It was lots of characters, mostly Tony, saying "yeah" a lot in monotone, and huge finales and premieres and event television at its finest. It was Kiefer Sutherland and more Kiefer Sutherland and man, we thank you Kiefer Sutherland, for you truly did ROCK for eight-plus years as Jack Bauer.

It was 24, and it was one hell of a show. One of the best shows. So let's all have a moment of silence, as the Jack Bauer Power Hour finally and sadly runs out of time.

TWENTY BY-GOD FOUR (24!) - Series Finale Review:

- Well, it may have been a rough season for 24, but dammit all, the show pulled through in the end, reminding us one mo' time why it's the best in the biz at what it does. 24 may have gotten off-track for a while, but as the show reached the big finale, it pulled itself together, dusted itself off, stitched up its wounds and put on its combat gear. 24 came out firing tonight, and hells yeah, it went out with a bang.

Truth be told, 24 took us to somewhat unfamiliar narrative territory in this final episode. The focus, in many ways, was squarely on President Taylor and her moral quandary over the depths of depravity she had to sink to in order to get her precious peace treaty signed. Look, I've been as frustrated as anyone else with Taylor over the course of the season. She was made into such a cypher that it was hard to know *what* she was thinking from one episode to the next. She was so easily manipulated by Logan that it was laughable, and she kept digging a deeper hole for herself even as her ability to justify her actions got weaker and weaker. But, screw all that, because in this episode, Cherry Jones was 100% kickass. I'm sure there are still some haters out there, but I thought this episode proved what Jones as Taylor could do given the right material. Sure, all the moral conflict that got us to this point was pretty absurd, but it all came to a head here in the finale, and here, in this episode, it paid off beautifully thanks to Jones and her dynamic acting. Her scenes with Logan, with Dahlia Hassan, and with Jack Bauer were all superbly done, and her ultimate moment of moral clarity was truly intense and ultra-dramatic. In its own way, everything ultimately made sense and came together well. Taylor was a fallen warrior who had compromised her own morals beyond repair, and she recognized that so too was Jack. By episode's end, she realized that Jack truly was a kindred spirit, and suddenly, saving him and giving him one more chance at redemption became the most important thing in the world. Was the episode a little heavy-handed in how it once again made Jack a sympathetic hero, when just last week he was a full-on murderous psychopath? Yeah, probably. But, Jack's fateful face-off with Chloe, combined with the President seeing in Jack a mirror image of her own downward spiral, was just enough to turn the tables and make us once again root for Jack Bauer. Upon reflection, Jack's actions might be deemed irredeemable, but then again, Jack Bauer has always been a sacrificial lamb of sorts - always willing to give up his own life, his own soul, in the name of Justice.

That said, had Jack killed the Russian premiere and started World War III, he really would have been acting recklessly. Luckily, Chloe was there to pull him back from the brink, just in the nick of time. The confrontation between the two old friends was brimming with intensity. Who knew how Jack would react to his only remaining friend coming between him and unholy vengeance? But Chloe injected a dose of sanity into Jack's tortured psyche, and convinced him to do things her way, by exposing the conspiracy via his data disk rather than more murder and violence. It was a fitting climax for 24, a show that's always been about a man, in Jack, who walked a line between justice and brutality, between righteousness and sadism. Ultimately, Jack's final message to Chloe was moving, fitting, and a long-time-coming. Any loyal 24 viewer had to get a little choked up when Jack said his final thank-you to Chloe. It was a great moment, dammit.

In fact, this episode had more than a few vintage 24 moments of awesome. Logan stole many scenes yet again with his weaselly ways. While his squirming at Jack's persistance and resilliancy was amusing, his ultiamte end was shocking and tragic. It made sense though -- Logan's involvement this season was essentially his last, best chance at reviving his good name. When he realized his failure, you could see why he felt there was no choice but to simply end it all. Here's to Logan though, one of 24's all-time greatest villains who you couldn't help but love to hate. And here's to Gregory Itzin, who was a ton of fun to watch whenever he appeared on 24. While Logan being not-quite-dead felt like a slight cheat, part of me is pleased to know that the ex-president is still out there somewhere in the 24-verse, coming up with the ultimate scheme to off Jack Bauer once and for all. We also got a couple more hardcore Jack Bauer moments for old-time's sake. Jack biting off the ear of Logan's stooge was a particular highlight. Jack was bloody, barely concious, and strapped to a stretcher, but sonofabitch, he still was a man not to be messed with.

Seriously though, what can be said about Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer? Kiefer made the role iconic, legendary even. He gave it his all week in and week out. His intensity level was ALWAYS off-the-charts, and he always brought the pain. He brought his A-game once again for this final episode, and you can tell that for Kiefer, 24 was a true labor of love. His intro at the beginning of the episode was a nice touch, too. You can tell that Kiefer poured his heart and soul into Jack Bauer, and for that, you've got to give the man his props. For eight seasons, Jack Bauer has quite simply been ... THE MAN.

And huge props to the rest of the supporting cast for stepping up and delivering the goods. Everyone showed up with their game face on, and this episode contained some of the finest work we've yet seen from many of the show's key role players. Suffice it to say, characters like President Taylor, Charles Logan, and Chloe O'Brien went out with style. Yes, my inner fanboy was hoping for at least a cameo from the likes of Aaron Pierce or even Tony, but hey, I get it, they were never really scheduled to be a part of this season. And you never know, there's always the movie ...

24 may live on in movie form, and I look forward to a big-screen adventure of Jack Bauer and friends. But 24 will always be best-known as a show that changed the TV landscape, that redefinied serialized television for the modern era, that played off the fears of our time, that captured the zeitgeist of the digital-age 00's like no other show of its time. And I was happy to see 24 regain some of its old mojo before all was said and done. From BU to Burbank, 24 has been my favorite show for a long time now. I was a diehard fan. I had the poster on my wall in college. One year, I even dressed as Jack Bauer for Halloween. It's been so much fun watching 24 every week, and almost as fun writing about it here on the blog. So thank you to the cast and crew of 24, and thank you to everyone who I've watched and discussed the show with and who I've called or texted or IM'd immediately following an episode so as to deliver my usual hyperactive reaction.

The final countdown is here. The clock has reached its zero hour. The adventure is over, the ride has come to a stop. But if there's one thing I've learned from 24, it's that you can't keep JACK BY-GOD BAUER down! May we each aspire to kick ass as Jack did, to follow his ways of intensity, of righteousness, and yes, of gravitas. Long live 24!

My 24 Series Finale Grade: A-


Sunday, May 23, 2010

The End of LOST: Thoughts, Ramblings, The Top 20 Episodes, and The Series Finale: Reviewed!

Has any show in the history of television ever been more of a rollercoaster ride than LOST?

Looking back on the show, it's mind-blowing to think of all the highs and lows that the series has had throughout its six-season run. Rarely has a show been so gripping and yet so frustrating. And never before has a single show invited so much discussion and debate. For me and many others, the experience of watching Lost was as much about the communal aspect - of watching it and discussing it and theorizing about it - as it was the episodes themselves.

I think, for good and bad, Lost was able to inspire such intense passion among both fans and detractors because it was, essentially, a blank canvass. The show's themes were so broad, so diverse, that it was easy to transpose one's own ideas into the show's narratives. That blank canvass also allowed a wide array of creators to come in and put their own personal stamp on Lost. For that reason, the show has in turns been pulp adventure, mystic - almost biblical melodrama, cerebral sci-fi, character-driven drama, Twilight Zone-style parable, abstract Lynchian mystery, and about a hundred other things as well. Some people watched Lost in order to get "answers" to the show's constant stream of mysteries (what was with the polar bear? the four-toed statue?). Others watched to get more straightforward narrative resolution (would they ever get off the island?), and others just wanted to see the show's soap opera elements play out (would Kate choose Sawyer or Jack?). That's why so many episodes of Lost were so divisive - one critic would come away satisfied with the character development, and declare the episode a success, while another would express frustration with the lack of narrative momentum, and declare the episode a misfire. By the time LOST got to its much-anticipated series finale, there were the wide-eyed fanboys and fangirls who unconditionally loved the show, the cynical haters who had grown disillusioned with it, and those in-betweeners who recognized that the show was flawed, but that it still, at the end of a day, was a pop-cultural experience worth partaking in.

I've been writing about Lost here on the blog for as long as I've been blogging. It's pretty crazy, looking back on all my past reviews and reliving some of those high and low points in the series' history. There was a time, probably somewhere in the middle of Season 2, where I was so fed up with the show that I was seriously considering dropping it. A lot of people did - ratings went down significantly, and some of the people that left never came back. A lot of people got onboard much later, via DVD, Hulu, etc. - when critical and fan buzz picked up around Season 4. But again, I don't want to look at Lost with rose-colored glasses. It had some amazing episodes, some amazing seasons (1, 4), even. But it was also a show that tested the patience of all but its most devoted fans on many occasions. I think many future TV writers and producers will look back on Lost and find a number of things that the show did right, that set the precedent, that raised the bar. But, I also think aspects of Lost will serve as a cautionary tale - as a reminder of some of the pitfalls that can occur in the world of serialized storytelling on television.

Lost introduced so many concepts into the television playbook. On a macro level, Lost's greatest achievement was perhaps that it shattered preconceived notions of TV as a less-capable storytelling medium than film. There were many weeks when LOST was the best blockbuster movie around, rivalling anything at the box office in terms of scale and scope and ambition. Other TV shows paved the way - Star Trek, The Prisoner, Twin Peaks, The X-Files, 24 - but Lost truly kicked off the era of TV as multimedia franchise. Lost was watched in all manner of ways - DVD, online - it spawned books and videogames and endless streams of digital chatter. Again, other shows set the bar, but Lost did all this in a time when TV was struggling - when cheaply-produced reality and game shows were threatening to take over. Lost helped to usher in a new golden age of quality TV, and pushed other series to aim higher. Lost, 24, Veronica Mars, Pushing Daisies, The Sopranos - these were some of the dramas that made people look at television in a new light. How to succeed in a world where people were time-shifting, watching online, surfing the web, etc? Easy - be the franchise that rules all of those realms. Ironically, with Lost and 24 ending, there is a very real fear that we could shift back into the television dark ages. So many Lost imitators have tried and failed to replicate the show's success - Invasion, Surface, Threshold, The Nine, Flashforward, and yes, Heroes - just to name a few. But Lost was a show that showed one age-old axiom to be true - at the end of the day, you can have the best high-concept premise in the world, but without a great story, captivating characters, and a narrative that's built to last, you've got nothing. With that in mind, it's understandable to see why networks might be hesitant to invest in trying to create the next Lost. Still, there will always be those who try to push the medium, and those who want to stake their claim in the new media, franchise-driven wild west. There will be shows like FRINGE, that take the ball and run with it. But you've got to give Lost credit for pushing the boundaries, right up until the end. It aimed high, it challenged its audience. It had whole episodes with characters speaking in subtitles. It had nonlinear narratives and time-shifting mind-$#&#'s. It had complex characters, exotic settings, stirring music, and whole episodes that completely strayed from the show's established narrative structure. Yep, Lost had balls, and it's a fitting legacy to the show that its showrunners sort of coined the term "game-changer." Lost was one, in any number of ways.

Now, the big question frustrated fans will ask is: how much of Lost was planned from the start, and how much did it come together in the end to form a cohesive narrative? Look, if we're being honest with ourselves, I think it's clear that one of Lost's biggest failings was that there was never *really* a singular vision behind it. Sure, a lot of plot elements were retroactively fit into the bigger picture, but I think people will look back on Lost and say "hmm, for a show that was structured as a giant mystery, the payoffs never really came about in a truly rewarding way." I think some of that was network meddling, some of that was the ever-changing roster of creatives behind the scenes (the show suffered when people like Paul Dini, Brian K. Vaughan, and Javier Grillo-Marxuach left the creative team), and some of it was just shortsightedness. This disconnect first really came to light in the Season 1 finale. For months, a litany of questions and mysteries had been introduced, and the entire season had built towards the final moments, in which our heroes finally opened the hatch that had been the source of so much speculation. Lost fans were on the edge of their seats, dying to see what awesome revelation lay below. And then, the unthinkable: Season 1 ended with the hatch door opened, and inside was ... a ladder! At that moment, we got a sense of the kind of frustration that Lost would so often cause from that point on. I don't know if the producers knew what was in the hatch yet, but regardless, it was just bad form to build up a mystery to such an extent and then fail to deliver a payoff. It was, certainly, a bad omen for things to come. And as time passed, the show accumulated a laundry list of unanswered mysteries and contradictions. The Others went from strangely-clad natives to white-collar intellectuals. Walt was built up as having supernatural powers, and then quickly disappeared from the show. At many points, the show's mysteries felt deeply rooted in the pseudo-scientific, but ultimately, all the talk of quantum theory and electromagnetism was thrown out the window in the name of cosmic soap opera and spiritual hocus pocus. It wasn't that we the viewers necessarilly demanded that everything be reconciled, it was that the show constantly seemed to tease us with answers and reveals that rarely ever came - and when they did, it often felt like too little, too late.

On the other hand, sometimes Lost completely surprised us by delivering something incredible, seemingly out of nowhere. Think of "Walkabout," in which Lost became more than just a show about a mysterious island, but became a show about characters like John Locke - atypical, fascinating, and multilayered. Think of the Season 3 finale - easily the show's biggest "holy $%&%!" moment, when what appeared to be flashbacks were revealed as actually being flash-forwards. Think of "The Constant," in which Lost delivered a classic episode of television, a time-bending epic romance for the ages. When Lost brought it's A-game, few shows in the history of TV have been better. No matter your opinion of how things ultimately wrapped up, you can't deny the iconic status of some of those classic episodes.

And what also can't be denied is the overall quality of Lost as a production. Nothing else on network TV could compare. The cast of Lost was second to none, and a strong case could be made for many of performances from the show's stars and supporting players as being award-worthy. Because of the phenomenal actors and actresses, characters like Desmond and Ben transcended their original roles to become true fan favorites, and others like Jack and Sawyer and Locke became far more fascinating and nuanced than we could have ever expected. Every week, whether Lost turned in a classic or a dud, there was still the feeling of watching a mini-movie on TV. The orchestral music, the stunning sets, and the top-notch performances elevated the show to a higher level than it would have inhabited otherwise. Every week's episode was an experience, an event - and that's not something that many shows can claim. If anything, it's the sign of a show that transcended the medium and became more than just another TV show, b ut a genuine pop-culture touchstone.

So here's to LOST - a frustrating, exciting, and unpredictable ride. We'll see you in another life, brotha.

DANNY'S TOP 20 LOST Episodes of All-Time:

1. The Constant

- Epic romance, time-travelling craziness, and Desmond at his most awesome!

2. Through the Looking Glass, Parts 1 and 2

- The flash-forward reveal was one of the greatest twists in TV history.

3. Walkabout

- "Don't tell me what I can't do!"

4. Pilot

- One of the best kickoffs to a TV show ever.

5. The Long Con

- Sawyer at his roguish best.

6. Confirmed Dead

- A kickass introduction to four new characters, each a challenger of the unknown.

7. The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham

- Locke and Ben at their ultra-intense best.

8. The Variable

- Jeremy Davies at his twitchy best as Daniel Faraday.

9. Cabin Fever

- Was there ever a more tense moment than when we finally peered inside that spooky cabin?

10. Catch 22

- We see Desmond in another life, brotha.

11. Live Together, Die Alone

- Clancy Brown guests in the riveting origin of how Desmond ended up on the island.

12. Flashes Before Your Eyes

- More of Desmond's cosmic odyssey.

13. I Do

- Kate and Sawyer in a cage - yikes!

14. Happily Ever After
- Desmond and Penny: one mo' time.

15. The Cost of Living

- Mr. Eko, meet the Smoke Monster.

16. The Man From Tallahassee

- A stunning showcase for the great Terry O'Quinn as Locke.

17. Par Avion

- Goth Claire's one and only appearance.

18. Deux Ex Machina

- So long, Boone. One of Lost's first true shockers.

19. Greatest Hits

- A great send-off for Charlie.

20. There's No Place Like Home, Parts 1, 2, 3

- Charles Widmore's men invade the island, all hell breaks loose, things go boom.

LOST Thoughts: THE SERIES FINALE - Reviewed!

- As Sawyer might say .... "sonofabitch." I'm still wrapping my head around that two-and-a-half-hour finale, and it's going to take a long time to fully process everything - not just as pertains to the episode itself, but in terms of how the episode fits into the LOST narrative as a whole. And as is often the case with Lost, this one's going to be hard to talk about in a lot of ways. On a purely emotional level, it was a hell of an episode. The sheer impact of saying goodbye to these great characters, of saying goodbye to this great show, added an extra level of dramatic intensity and emotional weight that made this episode feel big, sweeping, and epic - on a scale that few if any previous episodes of Lost have reached. In terms of emotional payoff, this episode delivered.

It's funny though, because after years of speculation, of theories, of debate - LOST ultimately ended with an episode that spent almost no time addressing the series' overarching mythology. In a way, you had to have seen that coming after what we've gotten so far this season. Aside from a couple of detours (the Richard and Jacob flashbacks), Season 6 of Lost has, really, been about reestablishing the connections between the original castaways. It's been about this big idea that all of them are connected, intertwined by fate, and that in each other they found purpose and love and that they'd go on to live happily ever after, because hey, all you need is love. It was a strange turn for Lost to take, and it meant that the more scifi-ish and pulpy aspects of the show got pushed aside in order to focus on the show's new (and new-age) spiritual mantra. So as we approached the finale, it was pretty clear that Lost wasn't about to drop everything and explain what was up with Walt. The show had already made two concessions to answers-hungry fans this season, and both of those episodes felt ill-timed and underwhelming. That said, looking back, it's still pretty crazy to realize what a complete shift the show underwent when it transitioned from Seasons 4 and 5 into Season 6. By the time we arrived at the finale, the show wasn't even really concerned with a conventional narrative anymore. In the past, Lost was driven by both plot and character, by mystery and mythology. This season, and especially this finale, were 99% about the characters' spiritual journey towards salvation. Like it or not, this is where the show ended up. So in the contect of that direction, did the finale work? I think so - there's really not much to complain about when looking at this episode merely as a wrap-up of the most recent story arc. But in the context of the series as a whole? Was it justified for Lost to veer so off-course? Did Lost take the most satisfying, the most dramatically-rewarding path, the path that delivered the most payoff to the foundation laid out by the first few seasons of the show? No, I don't think it did. Now, if you were someone who sort-of enjoyed Lost but always hoped it'd drop all the weird island stuff and just be about love and magic and how we're all connected, then hey, you got your wish. But me? I loved Lost most when it was Desmond hurtling through time, or Charlie in the Hydra Station fighting off an eyepatched assassin, or Daniel Faraday realizing that due to a time paradox, his own mother was the one who killed him. I loved the character stuff - I loved John Locke's backstory, and Ben Linus' tragic upbringing, and Sawyer's long con. But I liked that these great characters were now thrust into this crazy, weird, mind-bending adventure. In Season 6 of Lost, there was a disconnect between the characters and what they were actually doing in each episode. They were too often simply going from Point A to Point B, doing Jacob's bidding just because. They themselves mostly stopped caring much about *why* anything was actually happening, and so, in turn, did we. The finale saw more of that type of storytelling, where the characters seemed to do things just because. Climb down the cave, remove the plug. Go back down the cave, save Desmond, and put the plug back in. Get to the plane, have obligatory debate about who stays and who goes. Drink from the sacred stream and once again pass on the mantle of Island Protector. It all felt very videogame-y, in a way. Drink the magic water, restore maximum health!

Still, this finale gave us some absolutely riveting sequences. My favorite was the absolutely epic confrontation between Jack and Not-Locke, high atop the island's rocky cliffs. Huge, huge kudos the crew for shooting an incredible action sequence, nearly biblical in its intensity and scope. I can't say I've ever seen something quite that "big" feeling on a TV show before - it really was awesome. In fact, every scene between Jack and Locke was pretty damn crackling. When Jack told Locke he planned to kill him, Locked asked him how, and Jack said "it's a surprise," well, that was a pretty great moment. The biggest stand-up-and-cheer moment? Definitely the reveal that fan favorite Lapidus was alive and well, floating in the ocean and just waiting to be rescued so he could fly a damn plane like he was meant to. Lapidus has really been an unsung MVP of the last few seasons of Lost, and he always gets the best one-liners. Well, he and Miles. So, it was great to see them alive and playing a crucial role in the finale. Plus, it goes without saying that Ben and Locke and Desmond are, as always, scene stealers. Michael Emerson, Terry O'Quinn, and Henry Ian Cusick are the show's trifecta of awesomeness - lending true gravitas to all scenes they're involved in. Loved Locke's scenes in the alternaverse hospital, and loved all of the epic scenes that showcased the rivalry between Not-Locke and Jack. Desmond was cool as always, brotha, and Ben, well, he had some of the night's most interesting scenes, especially at the end there outside of the church.

But, I do have to say that Ben's final fate was one of my biggest gripes of the night. It was only last week that Ben betrayed everyone and allied himself with The Smoke Monster. And now he was back to being sympathetic and on the side of the angels? Lost has gone to great lengths to show that Ben is a liar, a backstabber, and someone not to be trusted. It just rang false that suddenly he was Hurley's trusty right-hand man, and a guy who everyone was all happy and smiley to see as they prepared to go off together into the great white light. I mean, why is, say, Michael condemned to haunt the island, whereas Ben the mass murderer gets to join Jack and Kate in "heaven?" This, I think was the single biggest misfire of the finale.

Now, what about that ending? I'm still digesting it, to be honest, and yes, it's very much open to interpretation. What did the final, post-credits shot of the Flight 815 wreckage mean? Who knows - I'm sure people will be pondering that one for years. That said, we finally got an explanation of sorts as to the nature of the sideways universe. It seems as though it was a place somehow created by the collective willpower of the castaways - a purgatory of sorts, existing outside of time, that allowed their souls to reunite and find each other again. The reunion of each castaway to their "constant" seemed to trigger an influx of memories. Ultimately, many of the castaways - all of those "ready" for a happy ending - gathered in a church and went off together into the great unknown, presumably to find everlasting happiness in the light. This, of course, leaves a lot of open questions as to the fates of some key characters. Since Christian Shephard explains that the sideways universe exists outside of time, the castaways like Sawyer and Kate, who escaped the island, could very well have lived out their lives for years and years, before ultimately dying and ending up in this parallel world. Was Jack, in his last deed before dying, the one who "created" or enabled that universe by plugging up the cave? Maybe - it certainly seems likely. And how about Hurley? Do he and Ben live out their lives for thousands of years as island protectors? Did Ben do so much good in that time that he absolved himself of his past sins? We can only speculate. And why were some prominent characters not in the church? Why not Faraday? Because he hadn't yet truly connected with Charlotte in the sideways world?

It was an emotionally compelling ending for the show, but it was pretty far removed from anything else the show has done. I don't know - I remember hearing an interview with Matthew Fox from a while back where he said he thought it'd be fitting for Lost to end on a darker note - one in which Jack never ended up with Kate, or Juliette, or anyone. And at the time, I remember agreeing and hoping that would be the case - it just seemed to fit the somewhat tragic tone of most of the show. I found it a little too convenient that suddenly everyone had their star-crossed romance in the season finale. Jack and Kate didn't work when the show went there previously, why shoehorn it in now? Sayid and Shannon never had what really seemed like a true-love - it didn't really connect that they were each other's anchor, or constant, or whatever. I just felt like it was a little cheap - everyone on Lost was suddenly paired up as if they were at a high school dance. Most of these characters had never seemed destined to find true love or lasting happiness, but that's what we got - everyone holding hands, singing kumbaya, and heading off to enjoy everlasting love in the great beyond. Is that really what all these years of LOST had been building towards? I mean, look, with the stunning cinematography, the sweeping music ... it was easy to get caught up in the moment and maybe even get misty-eyed as our favorite characters rode off into the sunset. But was that the ending most true to the characters? I don't know - it was a very fairy-tale-like ending for a show that's always been grimmer and darker than that.

I do want to give one more shout-out though to the fantastic cast and crew of LOST. Watching the show has been an epic experience, and this finale would not have had the weight and resonance that it had if not for the years of great stories and memorable character moments that preceded it. Lost may have lost its way at times, but it was always able to transcend those faults due to the underlying strength of its premise, its production, and its characters. Few other series presented this sort of sprawling canvass on which great stories could be written and fantastic adventures could be had. It's been an amazing run, and even though I was quick to complain at times, I was always onboard, was always a fan, right up through to the end. One thing's for sure, there will never be another show quite like LOST. Thanks for reading - it's been a lot of fun writing, and I look forward to the next great adventure.

My Grade: B+

See you in another life, brotha!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Bwahaha: A Season-Ending Comedy Jamboree: THE OFFICE, 30 ROCK, COMMUNITY, PARKS & REC, GLEE, MODERN FAMILY and MORE!

Ahhh, too much TV. Eyes are burning. Brain shutting down. But here I am, with a lot of funny TV shows to talk about. Because, hey, it's been a great season for scripted comedy on television. For the first time in a long time, NBC Thursday nights are home to four hilarious series that are each capable of delivering an A-level episode on any given night. Parks and Recreation and Community have both evolved into great shows, and The Office and 30 Rock are, to me, still right up there among the funniest shows on TV. Meanwhile, Modern Family and Glee have brought something new to the table, and both have blown up to become huge, breakout hits. So let's take a look at the season finales of (most of) these shows, shall we?

- I never would have predicted this after being turned off by the show's only-okay first batch of episodes, but COMMUNITY is not just one of the best comedies on TV at this point, but one of the best shows on TV, period. The series has found its groove, and has somehow surpassed the comedy competition to become *the* must-watch half-hour on Thursday nights. Pretty amazing, but the fact is that week in and week out, Community has been brilliant for a while now. Last night's season finale was one final ray of light - a drop-dead hilarious episode that was also totally gratifying in the way it subverted all fan expectations.

I mean, it's amazing to me to go online and see people actually upset at the episode's killer suprise ending. (SPOILERS!) Basically, after a ton of buildup around a potential Jeff and Britta relationship, and the added return of Jeff's old flame Slater, Jeff was faced with the classic dilemma of which woman to choose. The standoff played out in overramatic sitcom fashion at the end-of-semester dance, with Britta, pushed to her breaking point by being in competition with Slater, declared her love for Jeff for all to hear.

Now here's the thing - Community is an over-the-top, self-referential show littered with meta-references to pop-culture. It's NOT a traditional sitcom that's going to advance its storylines in a traditional sitcom manner. In fact, this whole finale was instead about subverting the expectations you'd have after having watched too many bad sitcoms. It played out in the Abed / Troy storyline, in which the two hold off on becoming roommates. And it played out huge in the Jeff love-triangle storyline, leading to a surprising yet undeniably awesome ending, in which Jeff hestitates on choosing either Britta or Slater, walks out of the dance confused, and then runs into Annie, who's decided to stay at Greendale and not go to Delaware with her hippie boyfriend. Annie and Jeff share a moment, and then proceed to hot n' heavily make out! Craziness! I've seen it analyzed to death already - *why* would Jeff choose Annie over Britta? But to me, who cares? The point was more about saying "every other show would choose the obvious route, but we're not every other show - let's do something totally different." That said, the seeds of a Jeff-Annie romance have been planted for a while now, whereas Jeff and Britta have always had a more "frenemies" sort of relationship. Remember: Community didn't hit its stride until it DROPPED the forced-seeming Jeff and Britta "will they or won't they" thing and acknowledged that it wasn't really working. If only more shows would do that, you know? As in, not every show needs to be about Guy A and Girl B fated for a star-crossed romance.

In any case, I loved the unpredictability of the ending, and I loved this episode as a whole. From the cameos by all the various minor characters who've appeared throughout the series (whoo! Starburns is Team Conan!), to the great dynamic that's formed between the group. The dialogue overall was so sharp, too. I was dying at Pierce's failed attempt at a dirty bananna joke in the cold open, and was cracking up at Troy's giant-cookie philosophizing.

All in all, Community is probably the funniest show on TV right now. I pity the fool who isn't watching.

My Grade: A

- PARKS AND RECREATION is another unbelievable success story. The show had a very rough first season, but came back retooled and revived in Season 2. The show may have gotten off to a shaky start, but now, it's hilarious, and on any given Thursday could very well be the funniest show of the night. Still, after a couple of uneven weeks, the show got back on track last week with the introduction of Rob Lowe and Adam Scott to the cast. This week, with the season finale, the show delivered some really nice payoff to some of the ongoing storylines from the season (the very sweet April and Andy romance), and also had some great moments for all of the members of the show's stellar ensemble cast. And hey, Natalie Morales from The Middleman showed up again as Aziz Ansari's new girlfriend. Sweet!

I've said it before, but Parks really took off when it became more of an ensemble show. The more we've seen of Ron Swanson, April, Ann, Andy, Tom, and yes, even Jerry, the better the show has gotten. Leslie is still front and center, but the episodes that focus on her tend to grate a bit, as opposed to those that go back and forth more freely between characters. Plus, Rob Lowe has already been hilarious in just two episodes. His fitness-freak character has been a lot of fun - the scene last night where he was giving Ron a massage - and then expected Ron to give him one in return - was flat-out hilarious.

In any case, a very well-done season finale for Parks. It's too bad we have to wait until midseason next year for it to return, but hey, it's now a show that's very much worth waiting for.

My Grade: A-

- I think a lot of people have been quick to jump on THE OFFICE and declare it to no longer be as funny as it once was. Honestly, I think the show had had a pretty strong season overall. I think the characters are still great, the sharpness is still there in the writing, and the show still delivers some of the biggest laughs on television. If anything, the season has been missing the great overarching storylines of last year. It was telling in the season finale, for example, that when Michael summed up the rough period he'd been going through, the clincher was still Holly having left Scranton - something that happened two seasons ago. I think The Office has had some really amusing storylines, but some of the bigger plotlines they've tried this year - Sabre taking over Dunder Mifflin, for example - haven't been carried out in a particularly memorable or comical manner. Kathy Bates' character - the Southern-belle-business-tycoon owner of Sabre - has just seemed out of place on the show. So much of The Office is about presenting recognizable workplace "types," and Kathy Bates' character felt like she'd be more at home in an animated Disney movie or something. Similarly, this latest whistleblower storyline was never pulled off with as much comedy or emotional investment as it could have been. Honestly, I even found it sort of confusing. It seemed like they were going for a thing where *everyone* had actually blown the whistle, but ultimately, the investigation still singled out Andy as the prime suspect. I don't know, it just seemed a bit messy, and you were never made to really feel all that worried for Andy or Pam or anyone else who's job was potentially on the line. You never really believed that there'd be any big shakeups at this stage in the game, and that hurt the episode to a degree.

Still, there were so many great little moments in this one that it was, in the end, a really enjoyable ep. Lots of really funny stuff. I love Dwight's meeting with Kathy Bates. "You turn that money into more money?" "You're talking about alchemy ...". I also loved the cutaway to Ryan and his new social networking site -- "Woofing" = hilarious. And Toby's mystery novel. And Packer's prank call to Michael. And, as per usual, everything with Creed. And by the way, nice shout-out to the UK Office, with Dwight's new property being located on "Slough St.".

Ultimately, I'm not too worried about The Office. It's a show that has some of the best and funniest writing out there, and the fact that the jokes are clicking even if the plotlines are a little stale - well, that's a sign that things can easily improve. As for this finale -- not the best-ever episode of The Office, but it still entertained, and this is still, says I, one of the best comedies around.

My Grade: B

- 30 ROCK is another show that a lot of people have ragged on lately, but it seems like every time the show gets into something of a mini-slump, it fires back with a brilliant episode that temporarily silences the haters. This season has surely seens its share of ups and downs, but, personally, I think 30 Rock has been on someting of a roll ever since it introduced the torn-from-the-headlines Kabletown storyline. When 30 Rock is a rollicking, wacky parody of television, well, that's usually when it's on top of its game. However, the season finale was, unfortunately, not 30 Rock at the top of its game. This is a show that is at its best when it uses traditional sitcom tropes with as much ironic detachment as possible. When 30 Rock is written as just an ordinary sitcom though, that's when it really starts to get off track.

Because really, who wants to watch 30 Rock-as-romantic-comedy? Not me! 30 Rock to me is a live-action version of The Simpsons - almost cartoon-like in the rapidity of its jokes and its willingness to be more wacky, absurdist, and random than any other show of its kind. So why was last night's 30 Rock seemingly so intent on playing it straight? The show always walks a line between mocking generic sitcom conventions and embracing them, and this one was a bit too close to the embracing side. I kept waiting for the crazy, 30 Rock twist on the love triangle between Jack and his two potential ladyfriends, but it never really came. Ironically, Community totally one-upped 30 Rock earlier in the night by doing the kind of random, subversive stuff that 30 Rock, at its best, was known for. And yet, somehow, this episode wanted us to take Jack and Liz's romantic trials and tribulations at almost-face-value. Um, what? Again, since when is 30 Rock a mushy romantic comedy? Sure, the show will always have romance as one element in its comedic stew, but this one was weighted way too heavily in that direction. Where was Tracy? Where were the TGS writers? I don't know, it just rubs me the wrong way that the season finale of 30 Rock played out like a season finale of Friends.

Of course, there were some really funny moments, as per usual. I've been loving Wesley's made-up-yet-real-sounding British-isms. Elizabeth Banks' old commerical with Maryland accent intact? Hilarious. Guest star Matt Damon was entertaining as a pilot who may or may not be Tina Fey's soulmate. Kenneth's drunken (?), oddly nice speech that closed out the episode was pretty classic.

But above all, I just want 30 Rock to be really, really funny. It's not a show where I want character development or soap-opera relationships. I just want wacky, random, satirical situations. That said, to the people who have uniformly dismissed this season as being bad - I say those people are way off base. 30 Rock has had some amazing, hilarious episodes this season. At the same time, I do worry that 30 Rock, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to a broader audience, is getting away from its comedic roots and becoming increasingly ordinary. This finale, while very funny at times, was symbolic of that shift.

My Grade: B

- The season finale of MODERN FAMILY was a really funny, well-done episode, and a nice capper to what's been a pretty great first season for the show. Modern Family is consistently one of the best "comfort food" shows on television. It's upbeat, elicits a couple of decent chuckles, and leaves you feeling good. I wonder though - what happened to the slightly edgier version of Modern Family that we all fell in love with after watching that superb pilot back in the fall? The show is still sharply-written and expertly-acted, but I never expected back then that this was a show where *every* episode would end with a life lesson and a group hug. But that's the kind of show this is now - less The Simpsons and more Full House. And if that's what it is, okay - it's cool. It just seems like the show has become slightly watered down from its original vision.

The cast of MF is so likable though, that it's fun to just watch them interact in different combinations. Like this week's pairing of Gloria and Phil, who take Manny and Alex to a Lakers game. Phil's crush on Gloria has probably been one of the show's funniest running gags, so having Gloria lay a smooch on Phil when they landed on the Kiss-Cam was a great payoff. Meanwhile, Mitchell's battle with a bird that invaded his house made for some good physical comedy, and Jay's made-up stories about the 60's - told to Luke for a school project - were pretty amusing as well.

And that's sort of been the M.O. of Modern Family of late. Light, breezy, nothing too offensive or complicated. But hey, as long as Phil is there to dispense hilarious confessionals and one-liners, I'm in.

My Grade: B+


- Great episode of THE SIMPSONS this past Sunday. Sideshow Bob episodes are almost always a treat, and this one was no exception. The episode had some of the sharpest gags and best writing of any Simpsons ep in a long while, and the story was overall pretty clever, if not sort of gross at times (the Face-Off style face-swapping was pretty gory, even in cartoon form). But hey, this was some vintage Simpsons goodness.

My Grade: A-

- FAMILY GUY had an episode with a really funny premise - "where do dirty jokes come from?" - but the payoff to Peter and his friends' quest to find the hidden source of truly tasteless dirty jokes never had much of a payoff. As far as latter-day FG eps go, this one wasn't terrible, but it wasn't exactly memorable either.

My Grade: C+

- Hey, you've got to love GLEE when it features Neil Patrick Harris belting out Aerosmith's "Dream On" - one of my all-time favorite songs. This ep of Glee was a little after-school-special-y, but it was also really well done, and featured some absolutely infectious song and dance numbers - from "Dream On," to "Safety Dance." Plus, that one scene with NPH and Sue Sylvester was priceless. And this one was directed by Joss Whedon! Good stuff Glee.

My Grade: A-

- Alright ... I'm out for the weekend, but stay tuned for reviews of ROBIN HOOD and MACGRUBER. Cya.

May It Live Long and Prosper: The FRINGE Season Finale - Reviewed!

FRINGE Thoughts:

- What an amazing season it's been for FRINGE. Over the course of Season 2, Fringe has morphed from a pretty good show into a truly *great* one, and there's a strong argument to be made that it's the single best show on the air today. While some of TV's aging and soon-to-be-gone behemoth's have been struggling creatively, Fringe has been hitting its stride, delivering epic scifi TV week in and week out. For the last several weeks, what has been THE must-see drama on network TV? Not Lost, not 24 - no, the show to watch has been FRINGE. So congrats to all involved - cast, crew, etc. - on an absolutely phenomenal season of television.

As for last night's Part 2 of the two-part finale - once again, Fringe delivered the goods. I don't think this week quite matched the overall intensity and sense of wonder present in last week's game-changing episode, but still ... this was pretty badass.

In this one, we were thrown back into "the other side", the alternate reality where a cold, calculating, and still-sane Walter Bishop utilizes a bigger and badder Fringe Division to deal with otherdimensional phenomena. "Walternate" wants his son back, and now, he's finally united with Peter - taken back after 20 years spent in our world. But, Walternate doesn't just want Peter back so he can have a family reunion. No - in this episode we learn that Peter is the key to operating a device designed by his real father that could be used to destroy our dimension. Peter is informed of this by our version of Olivia, who is working with Walter and William Bell to bring Peter back to our world.

There were a ton of amazing, badass moments in this episode. First of all, hot damn, EMMYS FOR EVERYONE ON THIS SHOW. Watching JOHN F'N NOBLE portray two completely different versions of Walter Bishop was basically a master class in acting. Absolutely incredible to see Noble so convincingly portray a quivering madman and a stone-cold leader of men in one fell swoop. Just awesome. Similarly, how 'bout Anna Torv's excellent portrayal of Olivia's 1 and 2. Kudos to Torv for really stepping up to the plate anc convincingly and semi-subtlely portraying two characters as well. And yes, the catfight between the two Olivia's was pretty awesome - who doesn't love a good fight scene between evenly-matched otherdimensional dopplegangers?

And how about Leonard Nimoy?! It was great to see Bell finally get some substantial screentime, although it was bittersweet knowing that this was Nimoy's swan song as an actor. Nimoy's measured, calm presence was a great counterbalance to Walter's twitchy craziness, and the two had some incredible scenes together. I loved Walter's greeting to Bell. "Oh, hello Bellie. I see you've aged." And the scene in the alternaverse's Harvard lab, in which all of Walter's pent-up resentment for his old colleague came pouring out - well, sonofabitch, was that intense! Emmy moment, if ever-there was one! And Nimoy even got one last chance to be the badass - when he broke out his experimental Massive Dynamic heavy artillery, blasting a bunch of thugs to smithereens, it was a real "hells yeah!" type of moment. In all honesty though, Bell's ultimate fate was a little less explosive than I'd imagined. Especially given that Bell basically turned himself into a living nuclear reactor, his final goodbye seemed a tad muted. Still, it was awesome having Nimoy play a key role on Fringe, and dammit all, we salute you Sir for a distinguished and iconic acting career. May you live long and prosper.

You also had to love all the awesome work that the show put into differentiating the other side from our own world. From the big - Boston quarantined and people encased in amber, zepellins flying through an art-deco NYC skyline, etc. - to the small - like the alternate versions of classic comic book covers (Red Arrow / Red Lantern, a version of The Dark Knight Returns featuring Superman instead of Batman - and yes, I'm a nerd) that adorned the walls of Peter's alternaverse room.

And by the way, how about the revelation that Walter had devoted time in the 80's to uncovering all of the secret ingredients to KFC's chicken recipe? Classic.

I think my main quibble with this episode is simply that it felt a bit rushed. The overall pace was much slower than last week's action-packed epic, but it felt like some of the big character moments happened super-fast. I felt like we never 100% got inside Peter's head here. How tempted was he to stay on the other side? He sided with Olivia and Walter pretty quickly, and never really confronted Walternate to ask him about his allegedly sinister plans. I was also hoping to get more of a glimpse of the fascinating machine we saw in the schematics. With more time, it would have been cool to see Walternate's plans in their more advanced stages, with real universe-spanning stakes. It almost felt like Part 2 of a 3-part finale ... as there is now a TON of plot set to carry over into next season. Meanwhile, I think it was easy to predict that the other side's Olivia would eventually switch places with our version (why else give her the telltale tattoo?), but still, it made for a compelling cliffhanger. Other Olivia on our world, our Olivia locked up in a cell on their world.

Like I said, it's been a hell of a year for FRINGE. Sure, there have been a few hiccups (the ill-timed musical episode), but mostly, Fringe has become the new standard-bearer for mind-melting TV entertainment. With Lost about to end, I really hope that fans of JJ Abrams' other scifi TV show spend some quality time over the summer catching up on Fringe - Season 1 starts out slightly shaky, but by the end of that first season, the show is off to the races, and Season 2 is nonstop awesomeness for most of the way. By the latter half of Season 2, it's clear that Fringe had really evolved into something special - with a fascinating overarching plotline, lots of action and intrigue, some really emotional moments and character arcs, and one of the best TV performances I've ever seen in the form of John Noble as Walter Bishop.

All hail the new king of event television, and bring on Season 3.

My Grade: A-

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Still A Long Way From "Super" - A Look at the SMALLVILLE Season Finale

So much to talk about - I'm backtracked on the blog and overrun with pressing topics, so let's not waste time here. All I know is, what a crazy week for all of us TV nerds. Seriously. 24 and Lost are ending. The network Upfronts reveal a new crop of contenders set to hit the airwaves next fall. Fringe - maybe the best show on TV for the last several months - has its sure-to-be-epic season finale tonight. And on top of all that, we're already in the midst of Summer Movie Season. I've been chomping at the bit to write up my reviews of ROBIN HOOD and MACGRUBER, and I promise, I'll have those soon.

But first, let me get to some TV STUFF before it gets too stale. Honestly, I was so pumped to write about 24 and Lost this week that I typed up those reviews as soon as possible. Doing that meant I didn't quite get to some other big shows and finales, so, here we go. For this post, I'll shine the spotlight on this past Friday's big season finale of Smallville, but, stay tuned for thoughts on Fringe, The Office, and more.

SMALLVILLE - Season Finale Review:

- This past season of Smallville seemed to rejuvinate the show's fanbase to some degree, and hey, that's cool. But personally, I felt like it was a season with a few huge highpoints, but that, in general, just felt worn out and tired. And that's what makes Smallville SUCH a frustrating show for many longtime fans like me. It features some of the most iconic, durable characters EVER in popular fiction. The potential for great stories and epic adventures is practically limitless. And every so often, an episode of Smallville comes along that reminds us just how great this show COULD be, if only the writers would take the initiative and ditch the series' played-out conventions for some truly exciting storytelling. A few months ago, comics writer Geoff Johns came onboard for a special, two-part episode and did just that. In one fell swoop, he showed us the kind of show that Smallville could be in the right hands. It was a great moment for the show - John's episode had a real magic to it that few other shows could ever be capable of. Quickly afterwords though, Smallville fell back into its usual routines. Smallville's characters are fun enough that the show is almost always watchable and entertaining, but the show is also one of the most formulaic on television. Given how much narrative freedom a fantasy show like this should have, it's amazing and frustrating how often Smallville resorts to the same old cliches. There's arguments and brooding about secret ID's and mixed messages and lack of communicaiton. There's people getting knocked unconcious just as Clark zooms in to save the day. There's endless conversations between morally gray antagonists that don't really go anywhere. There's endless emo-riffic, set-to-music scenes of Clark staring off into the distance at his family farm. Smallville is always at its best when it tries something different, and yet, so many times, it's the same old crap we've seen many times over. And this ninth season finale, despite having some entertaining moments, fell into that category. It didn't really feel special or epic, and that's a shame, because back in the day few shows did season finales like Smallville. Instead, this was a run-of-the-mill capper to a season's worth of run-of-the-mill storylines.

Zod and his Kandorian army served as the Big Bad's for this entire season, but they were never all that exciting or menacing. Think about it - what did Zod actually DO this season? The one time he and his army actually seemed badass was in the flashforward episode in which Clark glimpsed an apocalyptic future in which Zod had taken over earth. That episode did a nice job of raising the stakes, but there was never much follow-through. In the finale, when we were finally, after months of buildup, getting to the point where the Kandorians were actually threatening the earth, their actions were pretty underwhelming, to say the least. They burnt their symbol into some pyramids, flew around semi-menacingly, and that was about it. I mean, this is an ARMY of super-powered soldiers intent on taking over the world. Their first strikes should have been epic and devastating. There should have been panic in the streets, and a true heroic force should have been needed to take them down. Instead, we got glimpses of the proto-Justice League via satellite communications with Clark, and a final showdown that was not exactly big and climactic. Okay, it was more satisfying than last season's very un-epic throwdown with Doomsday, but still. Clark basically teleported Zod and his goons off of earth, and then, before he got pulled in along with them, stabbed himself with depowering blue kryptonite so he could remain on earth. In and of itself, it wasn't a terrible way to resolve the Zod plotline, but this is a story that has been built up for THE ENTIRE SEASON. A little more chaos and conflict would have been nice. But hey, I give Callium Blue credit -- as annoying as Zod got, and as many times as he was forced to say "Kneel Before Zod" (to the point where one of the all-time badass catchphrases actually became annoying as hell!) -- he still gave it his best and was clearly doing what he could to create a credible threat in Zod.

Meanwhile, there was the ongoing Clark/Lois/Blur love triangle. I like the chemistry between Tom Welling and Erica Durance on the show, and Lois is, in general, a much more fun character than Lana ever was. That said, I mostly hate this whole storyline. Not only is is just pretty absurd in general, but it's far too similar to the conflict that Clark had with Lana for so many years. I talked about Smallville's bag o' cliches up top, but good lord, how many times has Smallville framed its storylines around the whole "are you keeping secrets from me?" thing. Enough already! The fact that Clark just let Lois walk away and take a reporting assignment in Africa was just groan-worthy. I mean, come on! Smallville always thinks it can drag out its storylines for years at a time. But the reality is, I have no desire to watch Clark and Lois go back-and-forth every week and ultimately end up back at square one. It makes no sense at this point, and it just comes off as lame. Even cheesier was the Blur's kiss with Lois. Ugh. I hate The Blur, aka the man who can hide his identity from his girlfriend by standing under shadowy awnings at just the right angle. Hopefully, the show can just kick things off with Lois and Clark fully aware of each other's big secrets and on good terms next season. And hopefully, NO MORE BLUR.

Interestingly, the episode kicked off with a prolonged glimpse of the future thanks to Dr. Fate's helmet. In the sequence, set in 2013, we see a version of Superman's classic coming-out party from the comics, in which he saves a plane from crashing and reveals himself to the world. It was sort of cool, but again, just a tease. At the least, I hope that next season, even if Clark isn't Superman, he starts to act like Superman. No more brooding, no more stoicism, no more emo-ness. For once, can't we get Clark finally be inspirational, heroic, proactive, and a man of action? And can we get some writing that thinks of better ways for him to hide his identity other than conveniently magical shadows and/or people being knocked unconcious as soon as he arrives on the scene?

In a lot of ways, I admire Smallville. I admire the fact that it's lasted this long, despite never getting a ton of hype from the mainstream press. I admire the fact that it's a fun show that has, despite its faults, increasingly embraced its superhero-fantasy roots and brought a lot of fun concepts from the pages of DC Comics onto the small screen. A lot of times I'll say that I've stuck with Smallville more because I'm a Superman fan than because I truly love the show. But you know what? There is a certain spark to Smallville that keeps me coming back. I mean, look, I don't think that the last few "big" storylines - Doomsday, Zod, etc. - have been handled exceedingly well. But they were ambitious, at least. And this finale hinted at even bigger things to come. Darkseid? Parademons? Apokolips? Maybe. And man, I'd be curious to see how Smallville attempts to handle Jack Kirby's epic Fourth World storylines. You've got to be a bit skeptical at this point, but still, it will be really interesting to see where Smallville goes from here. They introduced the blue and red suit in this ep - we didn't even see it, but we know it's there. The seeds are planted for greatness. The question is: will the show raise the bar? I mean, look, I'd take this season any day over the godawful "Lana Lang has become a witch" storylines of years gone by. I guess you could say that Smallville has settled into a quality level of solid-yet-unspectacular storytelling as of late, with its fair share of mediocre concepts (hello, Blur) dragging down the good stuff. But hey, Season 10 is the final season. I'd love it if this little-show-that-could went from only-okay to truly "super" before all is said and done.

My Grade: B-

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Penultimate Episode of LOST - Reviewed!

LOST Thoughts:

- After last week's disappointing Jacob / Smokey origin story, I predicted that the final two episodes of LOST would end up being, practically by default, an improvement. Even if LOST was poised to end on something of an unfulfilling note, there was no question that the show would to some degree rebound from the low point that was "Across the Sea." And the reason for that is simple: Lost's achilles heel in this final season is its coming-apart-at-the-seams mythology, but its strength has ALWAYS been, and continues to be, its characters. The high-concept of the pilot episode caught our attention, but it was the examination of what made John Locke tick in "Walkabout" that quickly solidified Lost as something truly special. Even as the show's once-captivating mythology devolves into indecipherable mumbo-jumbo concerning magic caves and immortal candidates, we still can't help but care about Jack, Kate, Hurley, Sawyer, Locke, Miles, Ben, Richard, and Desmond. Those are some of the best characters on TV. At this point, we're watching more for them than for anything else. Who would have thunk it? Lost's ultimate trump card isn't some uber-secret about the nature of the island. No, it's "what happens to Ben?" "What happens to Jack?" That's both a testament to some of the great character work that Lost has done over the years, and a knock against how much the show's overarching storylines have failed to come together in any meaningful way. But hey, this penultimate episode was, for the most part, about character. And for that reason, there was a lot to like.

To me, the star of this next-to-last Lost was Ben Linus. It goes to show how much of an MVP Michael Emerson has been in this already-legendary TV role. He made Ben so oddly likable that at every turn we wanted to make him sympathetic. We wanted to believe he was headed for some sort of redemption. But even as we felt for Ben's remorse over his falled adoptive daughter, we were quickly reminded that Ben is the ultimate evil lackey. He's a snake in the grass, a liar, a cheat, a backstabber. We smile in recognition as Ben's true colors are revealed, even as we express disbelief that he suckered us in once again. In this episode, Ben once again sided with the Smoke Monster, not only using him to get his ultimate revenge on Whidmore, but gleefully doing his bidding with the mindset that the more murderous, the better. The dynamic reminded me of Stephen King's THE STAND - a story that Lost has often borrowed from and paid tribute to. But the endgame between Ben and Smokey had a similar feel to the way in which a character like Harold Lauder (similarly snivelling and conniving as compared to Ben) was ultimately forced to reveal his true colors in the name of serving the Dark Man - siding with the devil even after trying in vain to fit in amongst the angels. In any case, I loved all of the Ben / Not-Locke interaction in this one. For me, it was the scenes between them that made the episode.

That said ... WTF with regards to Widmore?! I mean, I guess in a way we all saw it coming - this whole season has in some ways been a slap in the face to those of us who felt that LOST was at its best when it brought in the great Alan Dale as Widmore and built him up as the show's Big Bad - a formidable rival to Ben and an arch-nemesis for Desmond. This season, Widmore has been one giant plot device, and it's been frustrating to watch. But ... to have Widmore's story end with a quick, half-assed explanation of how Jacob came to him and "showed him the error of his ways" ...? To have that one, almost throwaway line of dialogue followed by Ben shooting his rival dead before Smokey had the chance to off him himself? THAT was the dramatic end of Lost's would-be uber-villain? And THAT was the explanation for Widmore's involvement in this season? He had a change of heart? Not the dramatic send-off I had hoped for ... not at all. It made the entire character, and all of the plot threads that stemmed from him, seem like a waste of time. And that, I'm sorry to say, is a shame, and a major, major misfire as we head into the finale.

While I'm ranting, I may as well go ahead and talk about the campfire scene with Jacob, who, despite having been a ghost that can only appear to Hurley for a long, long time now, was now back in the land of the living, even if his remaining existence was intertwined with a fire that was burning on the island. When the fire goes out, Jacob is no more. Umm ... okay? More magic, I guess? I don't know, it seemed more like lazy writing to me. But yeah, Jacob was back, and he has a sitdown chat with Jack, Sawyer, Kate, and Hurley that was "classic" Lost. And by classic, I mean emblematic of the show at its hair-pulling worst. Jacob plays "20 Questions" with the castaways, and of course none of them has ever heard of the concept of a follow-up question. It speaks to the fact that we've now been through this same rigamaroll on Lost countless times that, at this point, I was barely fazed by the ridiculous manner in which the whole conversation played out.

Let's see: Thousands of years ago on the island, Jacob threw his evil twin brother into a magic cave and turned him into a monster. Jacob then assumed the role of the island's protector, making sure that the monster couldn't get back into the cave which birthed him, even though the monster, we think, was not so much interested in the cave, because, really, he just wanted to get off the island. At some point, Jacob started bringing random groups of flawed people to the island, so that one of them could assume his role as island protector / Smoke Monster-fighter when he was gone. Even though Jacob put the various candidates through all sorts of tests and trials and waited in the shadows for years as they killed each other, travelled through time, etc., eventually, Jacob declares that ANY of the castaways could become his successor - whoever wants the job has it. Jack wants the job - no surprise there. He drinks some holy water, is granted magical Jacob powers, and lo, the island hath a new protector. Meanwhile, the Smoke Monster's updated list of goals include: killing Jacob, getting off the island, and destroying the island.

Hmm ... what was that I was saying in my opening about how Lost's mythology has sort of broken down of late?

In any case, a lot of this episode's action happened in the flash-sideways world, which had a nice sense of urgency to it this week thansk to Desmond's frenzied quest to bring the various castaways together again. There were some interesting moments in the alternaverse - Jack's domestic life with Claire and his son, and Ben's budding relationship with Alex and Danielle Rouseau. But, here's another situation where we've had SO much buildup with these sideways flashes that its unlikely if not impossible that the payoff will be proportionate. It's another instance where you have to seriously question the show's sense of pacing. Just as it made little sense to hold the Jacob origin until the third-to-last episode, why wait until the series finale to reveal the nature of the sideways world? If we knew the stakes earlier, then all of these sideways scenes would be infinitely more dramatic. But oh no, Lost has gotten so caught up in the idea that "everything is a mystery until the cold, bitter, end" that it stubbornly refuses to show any of its cards until it literally has no choice but to fold. Sunday is it though - the series friggin' finale. What can LOST do at this point? The fact is, the show has spent a whole season deliberately putting its eggs in the Jacob/Smokey basket. That's where we are now - I don't see any reason to expect a trademark "game-changer" to end it all, but hey, I'm also open to being pleasantly surprised.

Ultimately, this episode worked because it was a showcase for the likes of Michael Emerson, Terry O'Quinn, and the rest of the show's stellar cast. I really dug the Ben Linus stuff in this one. I liked a lot of the little scenes as well - Miles' cracks about Ben's secret room, Desmond's zen-like pursuit of cosmic harmony in the alternaverse, the parallels between good-Ben in the sideways world and bad-Ben on the island. On a grander thematic level, there was some really nice character stuff in this one, some real food for thought. At the same time, I think back to Widmore's change of heart and hasty demise, to Jacob's inexplicable return and transfer of power to Jack, and, well, you really see the cracks in the proverbial armor.

My Grade: B