Friday, September 28, 2007

The 2006-2007 Caruso Awards (Pt. 2)

I wasn't going to plumb the miserable depths of the TV season, thinking that for once I'd made a positive statement free from grumpiness or cynicism or teeth-gnashing. It was nice! It made me happy a couple of days ago, and I was considering getting my anger on with a couple of pissy statements, and then I could move on. However, some TV is so bad, so misguided, so detrimental to the reputation of the medium, that it has to be named and shamed, preferably with little tiny jpgs. So, here is the TV that made our toes curl last year. Apologies for dredging up negative memories for anyone who has suffered through any of this.

Worst single episodes of the season:

10. Drive - Let The Games Begin

Oh Nathan, you devilish, gallant, funny little studburger you! How we love you and your dashing good looks, with the added bonus of self-deprecating humour and goofiness. We think you are TEH BOMM! However, please stay away from Tim Minear, because he is TV poison. Angel fans rightly bemoan the premature cancellation of the show, but with Minear on the production, it's a miracle it didn't happen earlier, as he seems jinxed. His record is shocking, with cancelled show after cancelled show, but in a way it doesn't surprise me. To date I've find him a flat, humourless writer, with a couple of Angel/Firefly episodes rising above the rest. Granted, he has a grasp of the dramatic side of the Mutant Enemy equation. Sadly, that's not enough. His shows tend to be unpleasantly dour, but Drive was made worse by the absurd premise (we're talking Prison Break levels of absurdity, if you can believe that), rushed production job (blame Fox), erratic casting (yay Dylan Baker! Boo Melanie Lynskey! Really really boo!!!), repetitive structure, and general air of half-assery. We only got as far as the third episode, and it didn't have much longer to improve, but this was bad enough to stop us watching anyway. Drab direction, shitty dialogue, embarassing acting from almost all concerned. Oh, I feel bad now. Forgive us, Nathan! We still love you! ::multiple smooches::

9. Lost - Stranger in a Strange Land

Even a rabid fanboy like myself had to admit that the third season of Lost wasn't perfect. I found the 6 episode mini on Other Island a lot more meaningful and entertaining than most, but after coming back from the short hiatus with a couple of scorching episodes, the show faltered badly with this dreary travelogue. Bai Ling guest-starred as a tattoo artist who brands her new man (Jack at his most pointless), at the same time as Juliet is branded an outcast by her Othery cohorts, headed by Diana Scarwid (wasted in this and then frustratingly absent for the rest of the season). As usual the little details are fascinating (the brand on Juliet's back is an upside-down Scientology cross, apparently), but the big picture says nothing interesting. For ruining the momentum of the second part of the season, I must speak out against something I normally love without reservation. And what was it all for? So we could find out that Jack's tattoo means, "One night in Bangkok and my arm's all hurty," or something. Booooring.

8. The O.C. - The Night Moves

The fourth and final season of The O.C. was an almost total joy, allowing the show to head off into the pretty sunset with its head held high. The genius move was to throw caution to the wind and have all sorts of craziness fly free: Che falling in love with Seth's otter totem; Ryan and Taylor hooking up, thus unlocking his inner awesomeness; Sandy bemoaning his friendlessness and practically stalking a co-worker; Ryan and Taylor falling unconscious after an accident and entering a parallel universe (of sorts); Kevin Sorbo turning up as Ryan's delinquent dad to seduce Julie Cooper, etc. It was almost all gold, but with two episodes to go, it went haywire in a bad way. An earthquake hits Newport, and Ryan gets badly injured, while super-dependable entertainment generator Julie and honking, self-obsessed O.C. Gupta Kaitlin are trapped in an ice-cream parlour or something stupid, with only a creepy obsessive classmate to help them. If I remember correctly, approximately 198% of the episode deals with that subplot, driving me to nod off repeatedly. At the end, Ryan's grievous kidney injury heals after someone puts a Band-Aid on it, and everyone returns to a demolished Chez Cohen. I get why they did all of this, to ensure the family moves from Newport to establish themselves in a town less shallow, but there had to be a better, more entertaining way to do it.

7. Doctor Who - Daleks in Manhattan / Evolution of the Daleks

I'm not cheating this time! It was a two-parter, and the only time the third season went awry (though the real-time Sunshiney one wasn't that brilliant either). It's not as bad as the season two episode with the Olympics, which was a maelstrom of mediocrity, but it came close. Plus, it ruined the Daleks! In much the same way that Rene Ecchevaria ruined the Borg by humanising them, writer Helen Raynor and show runner Russell T. Davies had renegade Dalek Sec absorb a spats-wearing Twenties gangster, only to reappear later as a penis-faced cross between Kid Creole and Bernard Bresslaw from Krull. As has been said before, many Who two-parters are 60 minute long scripts that can't be shrunk to 45 minutes, and are therefore stretched to 90 minutes, and as a result there are horrible padding sub-plots about pig-faced animal men (which made me pine for John Frankenheimer's The Island Of Doctor Moreau) and shantytowns in Central Park (an interesting subject, but badly served by the writing). The show rallied, thankfully, with the final five episodes being particularly great, but I can imagine this tedious mess would have put off anyone already (wrongly) angered by the introduction of Martha. (There's a name for Martha-haters; Crazy-insane-fools-who-are-dead-to-me.)

6. Jekyll - Episode 3

In a word, Jekyll was shit. In several words, Jekyll was shit with some fantastic ideas, lots of ambition, and the odd moment of pure genius. The first three episodes, however, were made hard-going by the awful awful direction. Douglas MacKinnon handled them (before passing the baton to the far more capable Matt Lipsey), and did everything possible to ruin Steven Moffat's flawed but interesting script. Making The Nesbitt gurn and bleat like an Irish Jim Carrey was his most obvious crime, but not understanding the basics of blocking a scene made many setpieces fall apart in the most hilarious ways. Cramped sets, shoddy lighting, awful over-acting, and ineptly staged shock moments littered all three episodes, but this was truly the worst. We thought it was a parody of horror movies, it was so wretched. MacKinnon is surely a shoo-in for Scary Movie 5, as long as the producers convince him it's a drama. Oh, and someone burn Gina Bellman's Equity membership so that she can never darken our TVs again. Why does she still get work? I blame Dennis Potter.

5. Veronica Mars - Un-American Graffiti

Once the best show on TV, Veronica Mars was treated with disrespect and disdain by network heads for two seasons, and then in the hard-fought-for third, the viewers turned on it as well. Suffering an inexplicable downturn in popularity (and therefore a corresponding decline in confidence), it battled on, trying to hold onto the Gilmore Girls viewers and failing miserably (even though it's 10000000 times the show Gilmore Girls thinks it is). The odd excellent episode won back some plaudits (<3 Paul Rudd 4evah), and the season finale was a heart-breaking triumphant improvement, but a couple of episodes before that, the show shot itself in the foot with incredible sniper accuracy by turning Veronica into the living embodiment of Paul Haggis' hated Crash, as well as sending lovable Keith on an out-of-character mission to stop teenagers drinking. His return to the sheriff's office was a promising idea, but all it did was turn him into a big judgemental jerk who would fit right in on CSI: Miami. The A-plot (about a Middle Eastern family targeted by a hate campaign) was timely and relevant, but sensitively handled it was not. Veronica's snarky noir voiceover turned shrill and preachy, and every single previously lovable aspect of the show fell horribly flat. A soul-crushing disaster of epic proportions. Just like Crash!

4. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip - The Wrap Party

Oh yeah, we had to get this in there somewhere. To be honest, there were episodes that were more unwatchably smug and tedious, episodes that ripped off Sorkin's previous work more egregiously, episodes that were even less funny and more preachy, but even though the first few episodes were already not that great, this is where the great project flew off the rails like a burning train, not unlike that bit at the end of Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. Eli Wallach guests as a living embodiment of censorship victimhood, sitting the audience down and explaining in very deliberate terms how McCarthyism is alive and well in Dubya's America, which no one noticed until he points it out. Thanks, guest-star Eli Wallach! Then Simon and Matt go trawling for African-American comedians, only to find dispiriting amounts of, "Black dudes do this, white folks do that," of such magnitude that Simon is forced to retcon his past into an improbable Boyz N' The Hood parody. Oh, and Matt meets a bunch of sexy ladies who are very very very very very very very stupid. That's the joke for this episode. Stupid women saying stupid things.

::sigh:: Sorkin's appalling low comedy masquerading as sophistication is yet another symptom of his arrogant assumption that only he is qualified to write his shows, meaning he has to cast around for desperately unfunny jokes, plots that are either rehashed from West Wing (and thus are incompatible with the format of the show. Soldiers kidnapped in Afghanistan?), Moebius-Strip conversations, and single-episode ideas padded out to four-part mini-epics. It got worse (the finale, so bad criminal charges could be filed), but this was the beginning of the end.

And no, Guardian TV critics, I'm not saying this because I'm too stupid to appreciate good drama, so stop writing blog posts about how no one is capable of understanding Sorkin's genius. It needs to be shouted from the rooftops: when he's good, he's amazing; when he's bad, he's unwatchable. And embarrassing. And patronising. And arrogant. And unfunny. Let's hope GoodSorkin worked on the forthcoming Charlie Wilson's War, and if BadSorkin worked on it, I hope he doesn't get as pissy and defensive as he did when people called him on the atrocity that was Studio 60.

3. Battlestar Galactica - The Woman King

As I said before, as much as I loved the first four episodes of BSG season 3, I sat through the rest of the season with an increasingly heavy heart. More time was spent dealing with Tyrol and Callie's failing marriage, Baltar's status as a walking metaphor, and worst of all, Apollo and Starbuck's forbidden love (partially prohibited because of Starbuck's religious beliefs, but the tenets of her religion remain unexplained, so the whole thing seemed as ridiculous as it was boring). If the showrunners want to spend time on a romantic relationship, let's see Bill Adama and Laura Roslin getting it on. It's what the fans want, damn it. However, the show plumbed depths I did not think it capable of plumbing with this hour of horrid anvilbashing obviousness. Normally I would rejoice to see Bruce Davison in the show, but this time I just felt bad for him. Playing a racist doctor targetting Sagittarons, with only Helo to save the day, the dialogue became more and more leaden, the premise more obvious, the speechifying more insulting. As with the Veronica Mars episode, it was all about the big themes writ larger than large, and even though the show had flirted with metaphorical crassness before, this was the only time the writers and directors went all out to bludgeon the viewer with finger-wagging moral superiority. And it made me hate Helo. Good work, showrunners.

2. John From Cincinnati - His Visit: Day Four

I'll get this out of the way so that I can get to the heart of why this episode was so terrible; WHY DID YOU STOP MAKING DEADWOOD, MILCH?!!!???! WHY?!?!?!!? YOU BROKE MY HEART!!! Now that's out of the way, you can rest assured that this rant has nothing to do with bitterness over the unresolved fate of that most excellent show. It's more than enough that Jesus From Cincinnati is a pretentious quasi-mystical nothing, with an obscure plot, risible non-acting surfers who don't surf either, and the shrieking of the hams (more on that below). I will say that the plot and that cod-Shakespearian dialogue often fascinated me, while not entertaining me even one iota. What the hell was Milch doing? Nothing like it has ever been made before, and considering the negative critical and popular reaction, never will again. Was it a car-crash? Or the wave of the future? Was Milch advancing the storytelling form, or was he masturbating with an enormous, smug grin on his pretentious face? Or was it all of the above? No one, including Milch, knows.

Every week was an exercise in audience-baiting, but the fourth episode was the worst of the lot. Never have I watched a TV show and been so convinced that the show creator was laughing in my face. The opening scene (Cass killing time in her hotel) sets the tone of the episode where nothing happens for 45 minutes, with only Rebecca DeMornay's Cissy Yost furthering the invisible plot. To make things worse, she accomplishes this by screeching for the entire episode. Like nails down an infinite blackboard, the show vibrates your eardrum until it splits, and then goes to work on your teeth and skull. I've never seen anything so willfully awful and knowingly unenlightening outside of a Tracey Emin exhibition. Lars Von Trier would approve, which perhaps is criticism enough. Milch's disregard for his audience is unparalleled, and it's only the existence of his masterwork, Deadwood, that stops me and several thousand other JFC viewers from hiring someone to torture him with the sound of DeMornay bleating at a pitch that would explode his head, just like the aliens at the end of Mars Attacks.

1. Torchwood - Countrycide

Talking about those episodes made me realise how truly abysmal they all were, but even during the middle of this unpleasant nostalgic flashback, nothing comes close to this eye-wateringly wretched hour of amateurish TV. I'm sure nothing good could have come from Chris Chibnall's horrendous script, mushing together cliches torn from much better films and TV shows, but to make things worse, the direction and acting reaches apocalyptically bad proportions. Like a group of teenagers armed with a camcorder and hopped up on Mountain Dew and multiple viewings of Terminator 2 and The Hills Have Eyes, the show unravels fast, with absurd macho posturings, childish dialogue, hysterical overacting, laughable portentousness, and ambition far exceeding ability. Seeing Torchwood Gupta Owen pretending to be a gun-toting hardass has been making us laugh ever since, his stupid little hopping movements like some kind of Dadaist performance piece.

That's before we get into the hilarious message of the episode, that sometimes humans are more inhuman than their alien antagonists. This is meant to be a criticism of our inhumanity? But it doesn't mean anything if a) you're comparing them to fictional non-human characters, and b) you're making the human bad guys do something that no human has ever done, i.e. band together as a village to eat visitors. There are many horrible things human beings do to each other (something everyone knows without Chibnall and his ridiculous ilk telling us), but I don't think communal cannibalism is among them. The fact that the show thought that it was illuminating some deep dark hole in our psyche, all the while stumbling around, mortally wounded by comical blocking and sub-moronic speechifying, made me simultaneously disgusted with the entire production and overjoyed that I was able to watch something so wrong-headed still being made in this day and age.

Okay, I did enjoy watching the episode with Canyon, because we laughed and laughed and laughed, but the thought that everyone thought they were creating something profound pissed me off when the tears of mirth had dried. There are episodes of Manimal that say more about the human condition than this, with the added bonus of Simon MacCorkindale turning into a horse. As a whole, Torchwood represents everything that's wrong with British TV, but this one episode was worse than that. It was the nuclear-powered awful-bomb that almost killed storytelling itself, and as such should be buried a thousand miles down in earth lined with salt. And yet, I can't wait for the next season, especially as the super-awesome Martha Jones is coming back for a few episodes (please don't ruin her or there will be hell to pay!!!). I might even recap it.

Wow, I went off a bit there. If I sound unhinged, I will say that many of the people involved are very talented and have done other good stuff, so it's often a conflagration of negative elements conspiring to create TV awfulness, and some of these shows are among my favourites. However, if it's bad, it's my duty to hit those bastards with every adjective I can think of. If it means even one less message-laden chunk of worthiness is prevented from reaching our plasma screens, all of this fist-shaking will be justified. Here's to a new season of gold and dreck to get my teeth into. As Prince once said, life can be so nice!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Puppet Angel PWNs Halo 3 (Updated)

And bodyslams Warren Ellis, apparently.

As reported everywhere, the collectors edition has a knackered supplementary disc thanks to it popping out of place in transit and sliding around, so I have to take it back. That was the same thing that happened with Warner Bros.' Superman special edition, wasn't it? Whatever. I'm just enjoying the game right now. Brutes may growl and shake their heads in anger at me, but I've got a hammer, a power drain, a fully loaded assault rifle, four grenades, and a backup squad of chatty Marines, so I'm not scared no mo'.

And will someone hire Martin O'Donnell to score a movie, for crying out loud??!?!? I see he's listed as composer on the abandoned Halo movie, which is fantastic news. Shame it's not being made right now. Here's hoping huge sales change the minds of the movie moguls.

I got my copy yesterday morning, and the guys in the shop told me a queue started at 3 in the afternoon the day before. A guy had made a sign saying, "Queue starts here". Funny. And then he got moved on by the town's shocktroopers as he was causing an obstruction. Killjoys. Political correctness gone etc.!!!

ETA: I was wrong about Edge. They gave it one of their hallowed 10 ratings and acted like it was the best game ever. Perhaps it is in the multiplayer mode, but even just single player, it's still amazing. A raucous battle involving Mongooses (futuristic Earth motorcycles) and pillion-riding, rocket-launcher-using Marines shooting down Banshees was already wonderful before an enormous Scarab turns up to kill everything in sight, prior to Master Chief leaping onto it and destroying its reactor. Thank you, Bungie, thank you for making my heart sing!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Glorious Fruity Caramel Nubbliness of Nigella

A few weeks ago the BBC started airing Nigella Express -- as if our favorite naughty kitchen doyenne was a microwave pizza or a 7/11. Apparently she was not suitably chastened by her failed attempt to enter the daytime talk show arena, which was obviously doomed from the start, since only sexless women are allowed on our screens before 6 pm, and we all know that as soon as Nigella spots a phallic object, she is incapable of not shoving it into her mouth and giving her viewers a naughty wink. (I hope Val Kilmer fared better than that pastry.)

Don't get me wrong, though; Nigella's naughtiness is what we love most about her. She is a true hedonist, in the best sense of the word -- she loves to touch and smell and eat, she revels in the physical realm, and she is absolutely unapologetic about enjoying food, delighting in its luscious, carnal pleasures. It's hard not to join in with her enthusiasm; it's sexy and inviting and inclusive. That is what is so awesome (and also, sadly, unique) about her, even when she takes her rapture to ridiculous extremes. She also -- I don't know if you've noticed -- has very big boobs.

So we were very much looking forward to seeing Nigella's new show, even though it had the "Express" bit tacked on, as if the BBC producers got nervous about just having a "regular" cooking show in the face of The F-Word and Hell's Kitchen and that woman who's supposedly the new Indian Nigella (I have seen that show, and you, ma'am, are no Indian Nigella). Apparently "express" is the word of the zeitgeist (I prefer "x-treeeeeeeme" myself, but there's no accounting for taste), so Nigella's weekly introduction goes something like, "I love eating and I love cooking. But with our busy lives, who has time anymore? I have a solution, and that solution is: express." It sets a sour note (pun regretted) for the tone of the series: it's obviously read off a prompter, and Nigella visibly has a hard time saying the word "express," for she is not of this workaday world that you and I inhabit, and "express" is a concept I'd wager she was befuddled by until it was pitched to her by BBC execs. Usually her shows start off with her rambling about some old recipe for mousse deep-fried in lard and topped with cream that her mother used to make, but now she's swanning about London in a black cab, because she is Nigella! Express!

We’re a few episodes in now, and the changes have become apparent. Nigella is...different. She talks about time-management now, not just because she’s lazy (more on that later), but because you’re a working parent and you don’t have time to slow-cook a lamb joint drenched in five cups of butter. She says things like, “Saves time on washing up — anything to make life easier!” And weirdest of all, she’s started gurning at the camera like a voluptuous English Jim Carrey. I don’t have a shot of her crossing her eyes at the camera, but she does it repeatedly in the second and third episodes. What the...? What? What is going on?

Another strange development is her constant self-deprecation. In her old shows, when she talked about not measuring something exactly because she didn’t feel like it, or how she used full-fat cream in every dish (which I was sure would culminate in a recipe called Lard Salad), it was an endearing admission — it made you feel better about being lazy with your recipes, and feel more relaxed about making things, knowing that not every step had to be absolutely perfect. And you knew she enjoyed herself and didn’t apologize for it — she’d eat fat with abandon and gusto, just like she’d gobble, um, cucumbers.

But in the last few episodes, she’s been putting herself down more than usual, and now the deprecation is starting to verge on outright insults. Is she a food addict? Will she soon be rolling herself around the kitchen in a Segway so that she doesn’t have to walk all the way to the sink? Is she just trying to make everyone else feel better? “I may look like a raven-haired goddess, but I’m really just a lazy fat pig like the rest of you. And my horrible father, who brushes his teeth with soot, named me after him.”

A few examples of Nigella’s recent insanity:


"I'm gonna get dealing with my squidlies." (Since when is Nigella cutesy? She needs to dip those squidlies in chocolate and then eat them ravenously, pronto.)
“I’m going to teach you how to make perfect pasta pronto So, avanti! It's the Italian express, and how could you not?”
“Speedy, speedy!”; “Last one, baby! That's it!” (and other assorted Rachael Ray-isms/double entendres)
“These are glorious. Yum yum!”


"Some people can't face thinking about food early in the morning. Not me!"
"For me the evening meal is really important -- not just because I'm always hungry."
“Fit for angels to eat on their clouds. Though they would have to be quite weight-bearing clouds, obviously.”
“I'm just using half the packet [of cream, it should be noted]. Moderation itself.”
"Now when some people go on holiday, they engage in cultural activities. Not me! I go food shopping."
“Just the smell of bacon frying makes my tummy rumble. Not that it takes a lot, it has to be said.”
“I hardly ever go out, but when I do, I have to be bolstered in the knowledge that I have something quick and easy to eat at home.” (That last one I find especially sad/amusing. It sums up a lifetime of crushing depression in one breezy, dashed-off sentence.)


“I can't be bothered to go to the sink.” (She says this several times, as she pours nasty leftover water from her kettle into her recipes. Where is your sink, Nigella? In Tibet?)
(Explaining why she uses whole mushrooms instead of cutting them up) “I think they look fabulous like this, kind of woodsy. But really I'm just lazy.”
"If I could get this kettle working properly...This goes to show that you can be clumsy -- I am clumsy -- and cook."
"I use lime juice from this sort of luridly green plastic container from the supermarket." (Nigella’s toffness cannot ever be fully expunged. “Plastic? How amusing! And vile!”)
“I can't be bothered to peel and chop a proper onion.” (and later...) “I mean, I know chopping and peeling an onion isn't hard, but it can feel tiring at times.”

Still, even the mighty evil PC brigade of the Beeb can’t ruin Nigella’s spirit entirely. In some segments she was back to her old self — sliding objects into her mouth with alarming expertise, and never using one adjective to describe something when she could use five. Some classic Nigella-speak:

"lovely silkiness"
"crispy perfection"
“Tumble the berries over the cream” (She loves using “tumble” as a verb.)
“glorious muskiness”
“sublime spikiness”
“All the meaty juices are getting drawn into my pond of cider.” (That’s what she said.)
“This helps keep the chops juicy. And I want them juicy juicy juicy.”
"It has a wonderful sweetness" (said of a sweet potato)
"vivid pepperiness"
“sharpness of the lemon and the depth of the olive oil”
“It's an insidious game, this game of favorites -- in food and children -- but I think thyme is my favorite.” (?!?!?!)
“Its gorgeous saltiness will meld with the garlicky oil.”
“add a note of leafy grassiness” (Glassiness? The closed captioning didn’t even attempt it.)
“luscious, smooth, flowing caramel”
“beautiful boskiness”
“mounding spoonfuls of my ivory cream” (snerk)
“crumble gold dust on top”
“bouncily yielding”
“wonderfully resiny rosemary”
“I love the rather sombre darker brown of the outline and the bright paleness of the interior. It's a painting on a plate.” (Bright paleness!! I had fun thinking of other Nigella-esque possibilities: “Rigid fluffiness.” “Spiky softness.” “Layered oneness.” “Feathered baldness.” “Black whiteness.” “Abstract concreteness.” “Foamy pile of nothingness.” “Hegemonic chaos.”)
“Leave a good amount of clumpage because if it's all too fine and sandy, it won't have the right nubbliness that a good crumble needs.” (This nearly made my head explode.)
“generous wodge”
“snuffle up small slices”
“The contrast between the scorched, caramelized fruitiness with the saltiness of the gorgonzola is frankly just rapturous.”
“I always like a bit of impaling.” (I bet you do, Nigella. I bet you do.)
“sudden hit of grassy green”
“Into each glass, a luscious pile.”
“jumbleberry crumble” (A recipe. Dear God.)
(And my personal favorite, because I am immature.) “I love it when people can smell the welcome when they come in.”

I was thinking of doing a sort of “create your own Nigella expression” thing, but I think you get the idea. Phrases so purple they would embarrass fanfic angst writers. But at least she’s got her spark back in those moments, and for that I am gloriously rapturous.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The 2006-2007 Caruso Awards (Pt. 1)

The new US TV season started last week, pretty much, with a couple of premieres starting without us noticing it, so even though we've not yet seen the finale of Dexter (which had better be lifechangingly amazing in order to justify the many weaknesses of the previous episodes), we've otherwise seen everything we wanted to see of the 2006-2007 season, and now I feel in a solid enough position to write some lovely obsessive lists! If you don't like it, blame Nick Hornby. It's all his fault. Bear in mind these are my opinions and might not be shared by Canyon. Warning, contains spoilers for shows that might not have aired in the UK!

Best episodes of the season:

10. Big Love - Take Me As I Am

The penultimate episode of Big Love's triumphant second season was as good as the previous episodes and the season finale, building on the dramatic fallout from the arrest of Hollis Green and attempted murder of Roman Grant, as well as Nikki's criminal relapse, Bill's desperate quest for a stake in the gambling operation, and Margene's growing confidence in her power over her husband. The thing this had over them, however, was Jeanne Tripplehorn and Ellen Burstyn, as mother and daughter, facing off during the latter's marriage to Philip Baker Hall. An acting and writing masterclass, with Barb's worries about the effects of her polygamous marriage intensified by the increasingly selfish behaviour of her husband and the mistreatment of her by her parental family. That the finale was not quite as good is no criticism, and if the world worked right, this would be showered with awards instead of inexplicably ignored. Probably by critics who watch Desperate Housewives instead, and are therefore beyond help.

9. The Office - The Merger

After weeks of set up, with the cast split between two branches of Dunder Mifflin, finally everyone was reunited. There might have been funnier episodes over all (we're rewatching the whole season now, so I will undoubtedly find my pick for funniest very soon), but the way the show reinvented itself is proof that beyond the humour is some remarkably astute and thoughtful writing. The elegant way the writers bring together Jim and Pam after the events of season 2 keep the relationship from growing stale. As a bonus, the writing team made the Crazies of The Internet tear out their frontal lobes and set fire to them; for that I will send them thank you cookies. Also notable, Dwight's overreaction to the arrival of Andy, with the coughing insults and outrageous toadying to Michael.

8. Battlestar Galactica - Exodus Part II

Though I was very unhappy with the majority of season 3, BSG justified its existence with the astonishingly bold four-part "mini" set on New Caprica. As if it wasn't enough that Ronald D. Moore and his colleagues had already pushed audience identification to the limits by turning Tigh into Al-Zawahiri/Bin Laden, and metaphorically transforming the fugitive humans into insurgents and suicide bombers (the boldest narrative trick of the season), they then blew our minds with a thrilling hour of dogfights, gunfights, suicide runs, last-minute rescues, and innovative FTL usage. Even more shocking/exciting/heartbreaking, in the middle of it all, Tigh does what he thinks is best and kills his traitorous wife. Perhaps it's cruel to be pissed at the show for not keeping that amazing energy going for the rest of the season, but the drop was more than precipitous. Nevertheless, it is a magnificent, Emmy-winning achievement (for FX, though sadly not for Michael Hogan as Tigh, or Jamie Bamber for Best Fat Suit).

7. The Thick Of It - Spinners and Losers

Armando Iannucci's political satire / profanity marathon pretty much saves the BBC from political irrelevance right now, though of course its future is dependent on how loyal Iannucci is to Chris "Nonce" Langham. This two-part special based around the handover of power from one PM to the next is the pinnacle of the TOI team's achievement. The pacing, writing, performing and direction are flawless. The genius stroke was making Peter Capaldi's monstrous Malcolm Tucker seem flawed and desperate and therefore almost sympathetic, though of course he survives by being infinitely smarter than everyone around him. Such a kindness from Iannucci is inconceivable in real life; Tucker's inspiration, Alastair Campbell is, of course, cloned from the worst and most useless parts of Satan's DNA, and as such is utterly beyond redemption.

6. Friday Night Lights - Mud Bowl

The year's best new show got better and better each week, only to reach a plateau of excellence in the antepenultimate episode. With the state championship within the reach of the Dillon Panthers, Coach Taylor risks it all by going all Kevin-Costner-in-Field-Of-Dreams by electing to play a crucial playoff match in a field, enlisting the town's help in making a viable pitch. The game itself plays out in the middle of a rainstorm, turning the field into a swamp, making the game almost impossible to play. While the team battle to prevent a forfeit, Tyra waits for lovestruck Landry to turn up and "help her with her homework", not knowing his car has broken down. Already the most exhaustingly suspenseful scene of the series, one final shocking twist sent my heart into overdrive to such an extent that Canyon could feel my heartbeat through my limbs. When the episode ended I needed a nap. Or ketamine.

5. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - Monster in the Box

Season 6 of CSI might be the high watermark of the series, so season 7 had a lot to prove, and mostly it did a good job, even when drafting in Liev "Nasal" Shreiber for an interesting 4-part mini mid-season. The show didn't need it, but it was a nice enough diversion. The fans didn't care though. He was replacing an absent Gil, who had left just as the heinous-yet-inventive Miniature Killer sent him a memento of a crime yet to be committed. For a month we waited for the box to be opened, and when it was, the best episode of all CSI variants kicked off, featuring a masterful setpiece where the LVPD set a trap for the killer, only to find they have merely supplied another victim. Plus, episode writer/co-producer Doug Petrie managed to get his old Buffy cast member Harry "The Mayor" Groener a part as a wimpy husband/suspect! All in all, pure ghoulish perfection.

4. Doctor Who - Blink

It's patchy in quality, it can misjudge the silliness/entertainingness ratio terribly, it can sometimes fall horribly wide of its ambition, but when it's good, Doctor Who is the best British drama on TV. Who knew that it could surpass even that accolade? Steven Moffat redeems himself for the bizarre (yet inexplicably entertaining) Jekyll with 45 minutes of glorious invention, writing out the Doctor and Martha almost entirely, introducing both a new character (Sally Sparrow, played by surely companion-in-waiting Carey Mulligan) and the cleverest villains yet; quantum assassins that look like statues of evil angels. Conceptually bold and better directed than anything else in the entire series, it was total nerd joy.

3. 30 Rock - Fireworks

Tracy Jordan dialling a phone like a white man. Jack Donaghy creating a tribute to fireworks that scares the shit out of New York. Will Arnett trying to seduce Kenneth with the phrase, "Touch the peacock". 10 second internet sitcoms. Dr. Spaceman ruminating on the 60s. And, best of all, Tracy's dream of Maurence Povich, a bird-flipping Thomas Jefferson, and a horse from heaven. Funniest 40 minutes of the year by a landslide.

2. Heroes - Company Man / Five Years Gone

Okay, okay, I'm cheating. I just can't decide between these two episodes, mostly because they represent the best of the show, lacking all of the sloppy writing and plotting and variable performances. In these two hours not a foot was put wrong, and if the only thing you can say is that the setpieces weren't big enough, then you're not saying anything, because there isn't enough money in TV to do this show justice. Company Man was where the show leapt about 10 levels of excellence, and while it did that it also, as a side-effect, made Jack Coleman's Horn-Rimmed-Glasses Guy the show's best character. It also improved on the end of X-Men: The Last Stand as a bonus. Five Years Gone was possibly even better. Come on, it's Claremont and Byrne's Days of Future Past made flesh! Kind of. Yes, the season finale was superlame, but these two episodes more than make up for that. The new season started last night; I'm all a-dither to see if they can recapture the brilliance of these two superb hours.

1. Lost - Through The Looking Glass

Inevitably, Lost season 3 featured my favourite episode of the year, but most of my love for this season finale comes from how expertly the entire season had been leading up to it, and how cleverly it pays off things you didn't even realise were set ups. Several plot threads (Desmond's visions, Charlie's fate, Ben's mindgames, Locke's increasingly desperate attempts to stay on the island, Jack's slowly unravelling mind, etc.) are resolved in surprising or predictable (for the right reason) ways, without any part of it seeming forced or unsatisfactory. On top of that, Lindelof and Cuse and show director Jack Bender deliver enough nerve-wracking action to make any viewer happy. However, just to really show off their storytelling mastery, in the final 5 minutes they finally reveal their long-promised gamechanging narrative coup, and thus flip the show on its head in the most surprising (yet totally logical) manner. They even made Jack an interesting character again (I'm ignoring the haters who are disagreeing with me right now), and gave Hurley his coolest moment yet. I laughed, I cried, I screamed, I fidgeted around in my chair, I thought, "WTF?!!!??!?!" at the end, and I fretted about the fate of the islanders next season. A fantastic rebuke to the doubters, and manna for the fanbase.

Dang, it's nice to get that off my chest. Next up, best moments of the year, and some miscellaneous nonsense that will contribute precisely zero to the workings of the world.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Halo 3 week is here!

Yes, it's Halo week. Though I'm sure it's as boring to most people as it has been to poor Canyon, I'm spending a lot of time talking about Halo and obsessing about Halo and counting down until the release of Halo 3, etc. etc. etc. I haven't been this excited since Superman Returns came out, though I will draw a veil over the aftermath of that. (Clue: It involved sulking.)

I remember when the Playstation was launched, Final Fantasy VII was one of the big early releases, and some of the press at the time mentioned, in astonished and whispered tones, that each FF release was treated like a big movie premiere in Japan. When Halo 2 was released years later the same thing happened in the West, though sadly most of the hype channeled through inept journalists whose sole experience of gaming is Minesweeper, Tetris, and that evil brainwashing Grand Theft Auto thing that makes children steal cars and shoot prostitutes. Game culture is more readily accepted in Japan, whereas in England most press coverage of gaming blames all the ills of the world on kids pootling around a digital environment for a few hours a week, not unlike Ye Olde Worlde village elders screeching that demons are possessing the youngfolk and making them do the sex and the violence.

I expected more of the same this week, but until today I was surprised by how muted it has been. Bear in mind I'm saying that after a few days staying away from the internet, so I have missed out on a lot of it. Now I'm beginning to see the hype starting. Not long ago I saw this wrapped around Waterloo IMAX:

My piddly little cameraphone does not do justice to the size of it. The mainstream press has started to talk about it; a piece in today's Financial Times talks about it as if it's the second coming, at least for Microsoft and their stock market value. I expect more as the week goes on. In addition to this, I've been getting ready for the launch by immersing myself in the Halo world: listening to Martin O'Donnell's superb score for Halo 2; reading the official line of tie-in novels by Eric Nylund and William Dietz; replaying the end of Halo 2 so I'm fully prepped on the events of the (somewhat rushed) finale.

To make my excitement even more feverish, at least one early rave is in, which cheered me (even though I don't always agree with their reviews). Hopefully Edge magazine will turn up this week with a review. Will it get one of their rare 10/10 ratings? Probably not. Knowing them, they'll dock two points for some arcane reason. Overuse of the colour purple, one sound effect used twice that reminds them of a TV show they hate; something like that.

One thing I won't be experiencing is Marvel's Halo: Uprising, by the amazing Daredevil team of Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev. Tackling the bridging story between Halos 2 and 3, Bendeev tell the tale from the point of view of survivors of the Covenant invasion. The first issue was great. The second? Out in mid-October. The third and fourth issues are out in December and February. I'm sure Bendis is busy with all of his other five million comics, and Maleev might have more trouble finding photo-references seeing as how the comic is set in the future during an alien invasion as opposed to being a contemporary urban crime tale, but still, this bi-monthly release schedule is absurd, especially as no comic is coming out in the launch week. Trust Marvel to screw up the tie-in.

However, the best thing I've seen so far is Microsoft and Bungie's ad campaign. To clarify, adverts are the devil's poops, doing nothing to improve mankind. At least most of the time. Some can be better than that: Tony Kaye's Pirelli ads; Jonathan Glazer's Guinness commercial with the horses; Sony Bravia (especially the balls one). These ads for Halo 3 are in that pantheon, especially the final one, which almost made me choke up earlier tonight. (You'll pay for that, Debussy!!!)

That's how you advertise a product. Of course, some wag managed to express my misgivings about the online multiplayer version and all of its off-putting and nauseating teenage players with this very very not-safe-for-work spoof voiceover.

Pictures of Our Cats! I Bet You've Never Seen That In a Blog Before

Though we usually write about entertainment on this blog, as our lives are otherwise painfully boring, I've been wanting to put up some pictures for awhile. Not because I want to be a photo-blogger (there are far more talented than I out there, people who actually understand terms like "f-stop" and "aperture" and "say cheese") but because that will encourage me to take more pictures. I got a beautiful Nikon D50 for Christmas last year and I underuse it criminally (partly because the standard lens it comes with kind of sucks and whines at me when I want it to do things like, I don't know, focus). By the way, if you click on any of the pictures below, they'll open in a new window and won't be pixelated.

I thought I'd start off with a few pictures of my favorite (and, not coincidentally, most convenient) subject -- our cats. They are a pretty ordinary-looking pair -- though of course we tell them they're beautiful (or in my case, I tell them how lucky they are we don't let them out of the house, for surely they would frighten small children with their hideous visages). But they are very, very odd cats, and this makes them great subjects. In the shot above, they look contemplative, but they are probably about to either attempt to claw through the window to get to an imaginary moth, or about to start a cat war. Cat wars look something like this:

And below is a very, very, very rare moment of affection that I was lucky to get on camera. Possibly it happened because Syd looks like she's as high as Mr. Burns in the X-Files episode of The Simpsons.

Zoe is our tortoiseshell cat. One of her favorite things to do is to sprawl out on our coffee table (it is often so full of junk that it's hard for her to do it, but that doesn't stop her trying, knocking half the stuff off in the process) and ask for belly rubs, as shown here. Zoe is the flirt of the two, and she is a complete tart for the camera (and for any scraps of food she thinks you could now or possibly at some indeterminate time in the future have in your possession, and will meow at you until she gets, even if she ultimately doesn't want what you offer her). She also, as you can see, only has one tooth. This does not in any way impair her ongoing quest for food.

Zoe is also a fan of sometimes-questionable personal hygiene.

Sydney is our black and white cat, and she is, in a word, insane. She is a collection of bizarre habits and the kind of addled brain usually only found in supervillains in comics. If she's not trying to climb us as if we were trees, she's sitting on our shoulders and biting our hair, climbing up bookcases to better survey the landscape, sitting on the stairs while we watch tv and staring as us like a serial killer, falling over repeatedly (she's the clumsiest cat I've ever known, for all her leaping around), or kneading a blanket and sucking on it as if it were her mother's teat. She's weird.
Oh yeah, and she loves climbing into boxes. Above, she pilots her craft like a drunken captain. Below, her imitation of a mink stole.

Finally, a video of Sydney being nuts. AdmiralNeck let me use this video with the caveat that I mention that he's not provoking her here (even though he totally is) . She's insane, though, so she doesn't mind. Also, our carpet looks disgusting in this video -- we rent the place, so it's not our fault! And the camera adds at least half a pound of shedded fur.