Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Rhoda : "Rhoda's Wedding"

Season 1, Episode 8
Original Airdate: October 28,1974
Writers: Norman Barasch, James L. Brooks, Allan Burns, David Davis, Carroll Moore, David Lloyd, Lorenzo Music
Director: Robert Moore
Producers: David Davis, Lorenzo Music
Cast: Valerie Harper, David Groh, Julie Kavner

Before it became a model for what not to do with a successful sitcom, the first season of “Rhoda” was pure magic. The character, who became a fan favorite on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was being spun off into her own sitcom. But instead of just providing viewers with a watered-down version of its sister sitcom (sexy single woman tries to balance dating and a professional career), “Rhoda” was a family affair, centering on the title character’s quirky relatives while also pairing her off in a romance with Joe, a really great New Yorker who she would quickly fall for. The writing was incredibly crisp and Rhoda lost none of her edge in the transition between second banana and leading lady.

The first season featured a fantastic opening, with Rhoda (Valerie Harper) speaking to the camera, confessional style. In just a few seconds we know our main character (“I had a bad puberty. It lasted seventeen years”), know her family (“I decided to move out of the house when I was 24. My mother still refers to this as the time I ran away from home.”) and know the show we are about to watch (“Now I’m back in Manhattan. New York, this is your last chance”). Seriously, whoever made this intro deserved an Emmy.

Rhoda and Joe’s courtship (quickly) blossomed into an engagement, which resulted in this episode, the best crossover in the history of television. Most of the cast from “The Mary Tyler Moore” show came from Minneapolis to New York City for Rhoda’s vows, and the results are sitcom magic. So much could (and more often than not, does) go wrong when two world collide like this. Would the different humor styles of the shows match? Would the cast of “Mary” overwhelm the newer cast of “Rhoda”? Or would the cast of “Mary” be so marginalized that viewers would be annoyed at their inclusion at all? Somehow, the episode’s multitude of writers strike the perfect balance between the worlds, creating a beautifully written hour of television that manages to pay homage to all Rhoda’s history on “Mary” while still being an enjoyable episode of her own sitcom. It’s all so good that you can actually forgive the two minutes of clips that appear around the halfway point.

This wonderful balance certainly comes in part from the fact that this is a special hour-long installment. The added running time gave the writers additional scenes where Rhoda can interact with everyone important in the cast. There is a fantastically funny scene where Rhoda and her sister Brenda (Julie Kavner) slowly, horrifyingly, realize that their mother (Nancy Walker) has ignored her daughter’s wishes of a small intimate ceremony and invited over 70 people. The way Walker balances breaking the news to Rhoda while remaining in control of the situation is superb, something that would recur wonderfully over the show’s first two seasons.

The crew from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” arrives, including Phyllis (Cloris Leachman), who hates Rhoda but is determined to prove that she doesn’t by going to the wedding despite not being invited. At this point we expect that the slew of guest stars (Moore, Leachman, Ed Asner, Georgia Engel, Gavin MacLeod) to take over the proceedings, but instead the writers still allow for a barnburner of a scene between Rhoda and Joe the night before the wedding. You don’t expect the scene, but once you see it you cannot imagine the episode without it -- there’s a sweet emotional honesty between the characters that you would never expect on a sitcom. There are a few punchlines, but they are almost beside the point. The moment is about Rhoda laying herself bare in front of Joe, presenting herself as the imperfect individual she is and allowing Joe to embrace her for those imperfections. It’s sweet, makes you root for the couple and anchors an episode that might have easily embraced too much hype for its own good.

What comes next is truly one of the funniest sustained sequences in all of television. Abandoned in her apartment by Phyllis (because of course Phyllis forgot to pick her up), Rhoda crosses Manhattan and heads to the Bronx...all while wearing her wedding dress. First she’s on the subway but must walk the last half mile herself. These hilarious sight gags (shot on location) are made even funnier by the intercutting with the waiting guests. Phyllis arrives at the ceremony just long enough before Rhoda to get her life threatened by Rhoda’s mother and make the moment all about her, begging for forgiveness and getting none from anyone but Georgette, who warns Phyllis that she better get the heck out of there before Rhoda arrives. It’s perhaps the crowning comedic achievement in the entire franchise (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda,” and “Phyllis.” The dramatic “Lou Grant” doesn’t really count), rivaling even Chuckles’ funeral, Phyllis slamming the oven door and the group hug. Of course Rhoda gets there and gets her happy ending. It was the happy ending we rooted for. The happy ending Rhoda deserved. And it was all very, very funny.

Until, of course, it wasn’t.

In “Rhoda’s” third season the writers made the abhorrent decision to separate Rhoda and Joe before they ultimately got a divorce. Why? Apparently nothing spells “comedy” more than the slow meltdown of a marriage audiences loved. To make matters even worse, Walker and Harold Gould (Rhoda’s father) were written out, making the familial unit that felt so honest in the series nonexistent. Harper got tan, lost weight and got an entirely new wardrobe toshow off her body. She struggled with dating and juggling that life with her job, all while confiding in her sister/best friend, who was unlucky in love. In other words, “Rhoda” became a watered-down clone of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” something the first season celebrated being so different from. Viewers abandoned it like they would the Titanic, and the show was cancelled by the middle of its fifth season, with four episodes never even aired. Such a shame that a show this good could have dissolved into something that predictable and bland, because it has damaged the legacy of the show, whose first season should be ranked among the best written, performed sitcoms in history.

“Rhoda’s Wedding” is available on HuluPlus and DVD.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Dallas: “A House Divided”

Season 3, Episode 25
Original Airdate: March 21, 1980
Writer: Rena Down
Director: Irving J. Moore
Executive Producers: Philip Capice, Lee Rich
Cast: Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy, Linda Gray

The first thing to note about “Dallas” is how big it is. Those opening credits, with the sprawling theme music and helicopter shots of the city and South Fork, present the viewer with an introduction to the biggest poker table in the world. Everything is up for grabs – all you have to do is want it enough and not be afraid to get a little blood on your hands. It feels like a big-budget movie, not an episode of television.

It’s a shame that the series is remembered today more for its cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs stunts more than its excellent storytelling. I came to this series after becoming a fan of the fantastic sequel show, which underlines that a good soap opera does not have to be done with camp or over-the-top slap-fights. In many ways, it’s more difficult to write a good, character-based soap than many other genres – here, all the drama must come from within while still allowing the characters to grow, mature and revert.

“A House Divided” presents us with the most memorable season-ending cliffhanger of all time: Who shot J.R.? J.R. (Larry Hagman) is ultimate villain – viewers loved to hate him just as much as “Dallas’” characters simply hated him.  The episode opens with J.R. having pulled off the neat hat-trick of managing to save his company from going belly up while systematically bankrupting almost every other oil baron in Dallas. I’m not exaggerating by writing that the first ten minutes of the episode involve character after character entering J.R.’s office, threatening him and then leaving just in time for the next character to come in and start screaming.

But then again it isn’t like his home life is going much better. He’s attempting to get his alcoholic wife Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) institutionalized. I’m not an expert on the mythology of the show, but I have a feeling J.R. probably drove his wife to the bottle, and I can’t really blame her. His mistress is trying to backstab him. Even his dear ‘ole Mama Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes) is cross with him after J.R. manages to drive Bobby (Patrick Duffy) away from Southfork. Sure, Miss Ellie seems soft on the surface, but anyone who watches “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” knows she is not one to be trifled with.

And let’s not forget the reason Bobby decided to leave Southfork. Ewing rival Cliff Barnes (a wonderfully oily -- sorry for the pun -- Ken Kercheval) has found legal documentation that he is entitled to half the profits from a hugely profitable oil field. J.R.’s response to the news? He immediately shuts down the wells and refuses to turn them back on. Sure, this screws him out of millions in profits, but he wins, so whatever. When Bobby finds out, he’s livid, and responds by wanting to get himself and his wife as far away from J.R. as possible.

Sure, you can see the machinations of the plot twisting in every scene of the episode, but that does not mean the writing is not inspired. The episode (and the series as a whole) is all about those machinations, and it feels like a more fanciful version of “Dune,” with oil substituted for the spice. And yes, that was sarcasm. J.R. seems to have the ability to be completely emotionless about his shady dealings, snaking back and forth whichever way he needs to, damn the consequences for everyone around him. He appears to think that everyone capable of decency is really “weak.” He never seems to ask a question, only make statements that he treats as facts, no matter how insane they are. In other words, he’s a monster. In an odd way, it becomes fitting that an act of emotional rage is what brings him to a halt (albeit only for a little while).

As terrible as J.R. is, I can see why he became so beloved: He’s the only one on the show unafraid to crack a smile. Everyone else on “Dallas” has their emotions cranked up to an 11 at all times, but J.R. spends at least as much time coming up with wisecracks as he does plotting the downfall of [Insert Character Here].

Take this line, said to his mistress:
“It takes brains to know when to be scared, honey, and since that’s something in short supply around here, I’m gonna help you. Now is the time to be scared.”
Or this exchange with his wife:
Sue Ellen: “Tell me, J.R., what slut are you going to stay with tonight?”J.R.: “What difference does it make? Whoever it is has got to be more interesting than the slut I’m looking at right now.”
The aforementioned scene where Bobby lets Miss Ellie know that he’s going to leave is surprisingly poignant, a reminder that sometimes morality and honesty can be just as engaging and powerful as villainy. Duffy is excellent in the loud and emotional scene, and it proves why his character is such a great foil for J.R.

The dynamic of the series at this point seemed to be a great triangle of power between Bobby, who represented good, J.R., who represented evil, and their father Jock (Jim Davis), who was the pendulum that swung between the two. That triangle is echoed on the new show in a similar way, with Cliff Barnes’ family representing evil, Bobby’s family representing good and J.R.’s brood representing the pendulum.

Yes, there’s one or two “I’ll kill you for this, J.R.!” too many peppered into the episode, but I’m surprised it holds up as well as it does today. When you hear so many times how campy and over-the-top these ‘80s soaps were, then see those shoulder pads, then watch this compilation video, you begin to believe that they were horrible. And yet “A House Divided” is tightly scripted, the characters are memorable and that cliffhanger still packs a punch. And did I mention that theme song? Wow.

“A House Divided” is available on DVD and iTunes. The “Dallas” sequel series is on TNT Mondays at 9 p.m.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Comeback - "Valerie Shines Under Stress"

Season 1, Episode 12
Original Airdate: August 28. 2005
Writer: Heather Morgan
Director: David Steinberg
Executive Producers: Michael Patrick King, Lisa Kudrow, Dan Bucatinsky, John P. Melfi
Cast: Lisa Kudrow, Robert Michael Morris, Lance Barber

It had been a few years since I had seen “The Comeback” when I decided to revisit it for this article, and after only a few seconds I found myself dropped back into the world of all things Valerie Cherish. The characters all seemed so familiar and so beloved, and the world that co-creators Michael Patrick King and Lisa Kudrow created was completely three-dimensional and real. This is truly one of the greatest of all television shows.

The premise involves a show within a show within a show, and yet still manages to seem simple and fresh (even today). Valerie Cherish (Kudrow) is a C-list actress who concurrently lands a dowdy supporting role on an unfunny sitcom called “Room and Bored” and a reality show that aims to follow Cherish on her “comeback” to television. The show presents raw, unedited footage of Cherish, her family, her friends, the reality crew and those working on the sitcom. It came out around the same time as the American version of “The Office” and employed that same documentary style that became so prevalent over the past eight years, but because “The Comeback” embraced the meta aspects of the style and used the crew as characters (something “The Office” is just now beginning to do, here in its final season), it created another level of humor to its storytelling.

The world that King and Kudrow created was quite ingenious on many levels. While it poked fun at the three-camera sitcom Valerie worked on (a three-camera sitcom is where the audience watches the show taped live and laughs at all the gags), it employed its own skewed version by having “normal people” watching the reality show taping and reacting to all of Valerie’s gags and pratfalls. And that cast of characters! Dickens would be proud. I’m continually fascinated by the depth that King and Kudrow brought to (at first glance) shallow caricatures. The star of “Room and Bored,” Juna (Malik Akerman), is a none-too-bright blonde actress…and yet the writers continually make a point of humanizing her. She really does consider Valerie (who befriended her in order to seem more hip) to be one of her best friends.

And then there’s Valerie.

On one level, the audience never sees who Valerie Cherish really is (until the finale) because she always has a mask up for the cameras. On another level, the cracks in her “onscreen” persona humanize her and her inability to let any of the many (many!) embarrassments she suffers through bring her down make us cheer for her. We love her, but we also love to see her suffer.

“Valerie Shines Under Stress” presents us with a world where all of Valerie’s comforts and safety nets are taken away from her. With “The Comeback” reality show premiering soon, its in her contract that she must be featured heavily in an episode of “Room and Bored,” something her arch-nemesis (and co-head writer of the sitcom) Paulie G (Lance Barber) is none-too-happy with. The writers devise a diet-pill induced dream for Valerie’s character – her character dressed as a giant cupcake must perform a big pratfall. During all this, Juna begins getting death threats and security is bumped up on set, and after Valerie beeps while walking through a metal detector she reveals that she has scoliosis and, as a result, has a large metal rod in her back.

All during this, writer Heather Morgan begins setting up the dominoes that she will knock down during the episode’s climax. “Room and Bored’s” other head writer, Tom (Robert Bagnell) has an “ulcer situation” and spends the week at home. The sitcom’s director for the week is a non-presence. Valerie insists that her husband doesn’t come to the taping. She goes to get advice from a director she trusts (James Burrows, one of the great comedic television directors of all time playing himself), who tells her that falling backward will be funnier, even though we know that will really hurt her because of the rod in her back. On taping day, the audience leaves early after a technical malfunction…the last safety net for Valerie.

All she has left is Paulie G’s emotionless stare.

In an incredibly uncomfortable sequence (purposely), Valerie falls in the cupcake suit over and over…finally falling backward, fully knowing she will be in incredible pain afterwards. Who would have ever thought a giant cupcake suit would be such a dramatic prop? After all is said and done, Paulie G insults Valerie one too many time, and Valerie punches him in the gut. Causing him to vomit. Which causes her to vomit. And, in that moment, all the tension that has been building for the entire episode comes to a beautiful, hilarious climax. Because, seriously, who doesn’t love (in the words of Jay Leno) “the rare double vomit”?

What really impressed me was how well Morgan was able to hide the script’s machinations. Every piece of the puzzle was enjoyable enough on its own that it did not seem like set-up, which is the hallmark of great writing.

The series was, in many ways, lightning in a bottle. On every level, from the writing to the cast to the direction, it worked. And that is some kind of special. Of course, “The Comeback” was never planned as a one-season wonder. Though the finale works perfectly as a series finale, when Kudrow came to speak at AFI she spoke at length about what would have happened had the series come back for a second season. Even on the DVD there are extra scenes shot that I can only imagine would have been used if the show came back. Even though I’m heartbroken HBO didn’t give the show a second chance, part of me thinks that it would be nearly impossible to top the first season. Of course, even as I write that, I know that if anyone could do it, it would be Kudrow and King. The character still remains so indelible that I can’t help but wonder where she would be today. What would Valerie Cherish be doing right now? I do wanna see that.

“Valerie Shines Under Stress” is available at HBO Go, YouTube and on DVD.

Thriller - "Pigeons From Hell"

Season 1, Episode 36
Original Airdate: June 6, 1961
Writer: John Kneubuhl (adaptation), Robert E. Howard (original story)
Director: John Newland
Producers: William Frye, Maxwell Shane
Cast: Brandon De Wilde, Crahan Denton, David Whorf, Boris Karloff

“Pigeons From Hell” is a masterpiece of slow-burn horror. At first glance, its creators seem content to embrace all the usual trappings that are trotted out to achieve cheap, impact-less scares. But instead of the cheap scares, we are instead treated to slow tension building over the course of the hour, deliberately paced to get under the viewer’s skin and linger there.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: Two brothers (Brandon De Wilde and David Whorf) find their car broken down on an abandoned highway in the middle of nowhere. They come upon a nearby abandoned mansion… and then the horrors begin to happen. But instead of a bunch of scares straight out of the Universal B-horrors of the 1940s, writer John Kneubuhl and director John Newland aim to create the best movie Val Lewton never produced. It is an adaptation of a great short story by Robert E. Howard (a writer who inadvertently was the cause of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career by creating “Conan the Barbarian,” but don’t hold that against him), and in his adaptation Kneubuhl makes two distinct but very smart changes.

In the original story the young men are just friends, but here they are brothers. When Whorf’s character gets an ax to the skull, there is much more emotional resonance for both the audience and De Wilde’s Timothy. The original story worked fine without it, but here it gives the death extra significance, especially considering we only have five minutes with the characters before one is murdered.

Second, the short story takes place over the course of two or three days and nights, but Kneubuhl condenses the story to a single, endless night of horrors. That way the atmosphere is relentless – the characters cannot escape the dark and neither can we.

The most overt horror in the episode comes early: The aforementioned ax murder. While his brother sleeps, Whorf’s Johnny is drawn up the stairs of the deserted mansion by ghostly singing. When Timothy goes searching, he finds Johnny’s skull cracked in two. But that doesn’t make Johnny any less mobile – his brains still bleeding all over, Johnny chases Timothy out of the mansion, waving about the ax that was used to kill him. Despite the grisliness of what I have just described, the scene is played almost entirely by suggestion. While Johnny stalks Timothy in the hallway, we never actually see the split skull or the brains… all we see are drops of blood streaming down the front of his face. Everything else is hidden by the shadows.

Timothy manages to make it a few hundred yards away from the mansion before passing out. He is brought to the nearest Sheriff (Crahan Denton) by a town hick, and when the Sheriff decides to take the boy back to the mansion to investigate, we get the single inadvertently funny moment of the episode: The hick busts out of the house they are in and rushes off into the nearby woods like the Roadrunner escaping the Coyote. De Wilde, who many will remember for saying “Shane!” a thousand times in the film classic, also has the task of attempting to explain what happened to him in the mansion while being overcome with grief for his brother, and though his line readings might come off as hackneyed in another film, his innocent looks and inability to properly articulate himself actually works in favor of the character.

The Sheriff takes Timothy back to the mansion to investigate, and instead of a bunch of boo-scares and chains rattling, Newland provides viewers with a single, indelible image. Every time the duo enter the room where Johnny died, their kerosene lantern will not stay lit. The moment they exit the room, it comes back on. Any fan of a good horror movie knows the darkness is much scarier than seeing what is in the darkness, and that is never more obvious than here. Also, because there are no silly noises or faux-climaxes in the sequence, the viewer is consistently on the edge of his seat. There is no end to the tension until they leave the house – the threat of something bad happening ensuring the viewer cannot relax.

The atmosphere is only aided by the black-and-white cinematography, shot by Lionel Lindon (who also shot the incredible “The Manchurian Candidate” and the minor noir classics “Whirlpool” and “The Blue Dahlia”). I doubt there’s a shot in the film where everything in a given set is fully lit. Lindon uses the shadows to play with our expectations of terror, especially considering a character says early that the swampland is crawling with snakes. The lighting also makes some old-man makeup that would doubtless look hackneyed in color into something downright creepy.

Kneubuhl and Newland approach the episode’s climax with the same slow-burn mentality, refusing to ratchet up the pace for no good reason. As a result, Timothy’s slow, zombie-like walk up that decrepit staircase toward his destiny becomes excruciatingly suspenseful.

It's all about those eyebrows.
I got the “Thriller” boxed set for Christmas this year and have been consistently surprised at the quality of the episodes. It’s the only hourlong anthology series I’ve seen thus far that makes good use of its entire running time (unfortunately, “The Outer Limits” often feels like a half-hour show stretched to its breaking point to fill its hour) on a regular basis. I’ve watched about half the series (the first season is 37 episodes, so it’s not like I’m being lazy) and find that even the lesser episodes are still of legitimate quality, and Jerry Goldsmith’s musical scores are feature-film worthy, even eclipsing Bernard Herrmann’s scores for “The Twilight Zone.” The show pays homage to the Universal classic horrors of the 30s, especially with its use of host Boris Karloff (whose eyebrows here are epic, matched only perhaps by Larry Hagman’s in the “Dallas” reboot), but takes most of its inspiration from Lewton’s horror films of the 40s. Still, every now and then you can see the viciousness of the 50s Hammer films sneaking in. Since I love all those eras of fright, I feel like a kid in a candy shop every time I insert a new disc. “Pigeons From Hell” is my favorite, but I could have easily chosen “The Grim Reaper,” “Parasite Mansion,” “Late Date” “The Hungry Glass” or “The Purple Room”…and that’s just from the first season. It’s such a shame this show doesn’t exist in the public consciousness in the same way “The Twilight Zone” or “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” does, because it certainly deserves to be.

“Pigeons From Hell” is available on DVD and YouTube.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Southland - "Graduation Day"

Season 3, Episode 10
Original Airdate: March 8, 2011
Writers: John Wells (teleplay), Heather Zuhlke (story)
Director: Christopher Chulack
Executive Producers: Christopher Chulack, John Wells
Cast: Ben McKenzie, Regina King, Shawn Hatosy, Michael Cudlitz

For a show whose survival has been nothing short of miraculous and whose storytelling is consistently brilliant, “Southland” never seems to get the respect it deserves. Everyone I’ve recommended the show to doesn’t seem to know it exists or thinks its been long-cancelled, and yet when they actually watch an episode they end up addicted. And while I came close to choosing the nearly-flawless pilot for this article, “Graduation Day” represents the show at its creative peak, and part of what makes this episode special is that it should not logically exist.

The premise of “Southland” is as simple as they come – it follows the day-to-day lives of a handful of Los Angeles police officers and detectives. No huge meta twist, no quirky detective protagonist…just real people trying to stay above water while doing one of the most emotionally taxing, physically dangerous jobs on the planet. It premiered on NBC as a midseason replacement to decent ratings and was renewed for a second season shortly thereafter.

Then the great NBC Jay Leno experiment came into play.

For those unfamiliar, for a season NBC wiped all original programming from their 10 o’clock hour and replaced it with a Jay Leno talk show that premiered to huge ratings but then quickly floundered. Because of “Southland’s” dark content, NBC’s executives allegedly became very uncomfortable with airing it at 9 p.m. and cancelled it before it even had a chance to premier, with six episodes already filmed.

TNT, a network known more for “The Closer” than for gritty, realistic drama, swooped in and agreed to air the six unaired season two episodes. Then, miracle of miracles, the network picked it up for a third season of ten episodes with a much-reduced budget…and the results are some of the best television I have ever seen. It’s not often that a show has a “perfect” season, and even now I can count them on a single hand…but, to me, the season is just about as perfect as they come. The show seemed to flourish under the budget cuts, taking more chances and finding inventive (and often heartbreaking) ways to trim its cast. The storytelling was more honest and streamlined – and now the show is in the middle of its fifth season. All with a fraction of the critical acclaim lavished on shows like “Girls” or “Boardwalk Empire.”

But back to “Graduation Day” which, despite being the third season finale, is only the 23rd episode of the series. The brilliant John Wells (who helped to craft such masterworks as “The West Wing” and “E.R.”) wrote the script based off a story by Heather Zuhlke, and together they paid off storylines that had legitimately been building since the first episode of the series. I’m guessing that they went into the episode assuming that it would be a series finale, which is why there is an added sense of urgency to almost every scene.

The theme of the hour, underlined by its title, is one of transitions for every cast member. Ben (Ben McKenzie) is graduating from boot cop. Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) finally must face his painkiller addiction head on. Sammy (Shawn Hatosy) finally catches the scum who murdered his partner and welcomes his son into the world. Chickie (Arija Bareikis) is moving on from her partnership with Dewey (C. Thomas Howell), who doesn’t know how to deal with it. And Lydia (Regina King) explodes the finally stable relationship she has with her partner.

As with any episode of “Southland,” it’s all about the moment-to-moment encounters these officers have and how those small beats build up to a cohesive whole. A career. A life. In a scene that could easily have come across as throwaway, Ben and Cooper are called to a house where a mother is livid that her husband allowed a gang symbol to be tattooed on their six-year-old son. The scene plays almost comically at first, but then we see the young boy point his finger at Cooper repeatedly and pretend to be shooting him. And suddenly, our hearts break. We understand the struggle they go through and recognize how much these cops must feel like they are punching water on a day-to-day basis.

Another beautifully realized moment: Sammy learns that there is a warrant out against the man he knows killed his partner, though not for the murder. The thug is involved in a shootout and Sammy races to the thug just in time to see him bleeding to death. Instead of comforting him or walking away, Sammy leans into the guy’s face and repeats his partner’s name, Nate Moretta, over and over until the man is dead. It’s immensely powerful and a fantastic way to climax the main arc of the season, but one can’t help but be a little horrified by it. In other words, it’s great drama.

As if that wasn’t enough, the centerpiece of the finale is a fantastic foot chase between Ben and a rapist/kidnapper, with the drug-addled Cooper far behind and barely able to walk, let alone lend support his partner. In fact, there’s a moment where Cooper is climbing over a fence and we see his entire body shift and crack before he falls that is one of the most cringe-inducing I’ve ever seen. The action moves to a series of rooftops that Jimmy Stewart should really avoid. Director Christopher Chulack (who directed many of “Southland’s” best hours) gives the sequence a great build and tension, never allowing the scope of the set-piece outmeasure the grittiness of its circumstances. There’s a down-and-dirty hand-to-hand fight between Ben and the rapist that is punctuated with a climax that left my jaw on the floor thanks to a really, Really, REALLY amazing stunt (the show’s only Emmy love comes from its stuntwork, which is always aces).

In all of its most important episodes, the writers find new shades and uses for the simple phrase “I’m a cop.” In the pilot Ben says it, in the second-season finale Chickie says it while arresting a cop-impersonator. Here the statement, so important and iconic to the series, it spoken by Cooper while he is volunteering for detox before he can have back surgery. He’s broken mentally and physically, but still a person. Still human. And that’s what “Southland” so perfectly portrays. Its characters are flawed, sometimes horrible, but ultimately good…and we can’t help but love them for it. This is a fantastic show, one whose reputation will certainly grow over time. Take my word for it; “Southland” is a modern classic…most people just don’t know it yet.

“Graduation Day” is available on iTunes and DVD.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Arrested Development - "Meat the Veals"

Season 2, Episode 16
Original Airdate: April 3, 2005
Writers: Richard Rosenstock, Barbie Adler
Director: Joe Russo
Executive Producers: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Mitchell Hurwitz, David Nevins
Cast: Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett, Tony Hale

Telling a single funny joke is infinitely more difficult than telling a single unfunny one, and filling 22 minutes with funny jokes is nearly impossible, no matter what a laughing studio audience would have you believe. “Meat the Veals” is as close to a perfect comedic episode of television I’ve ever seen. Every single joke is funny, and every time I watch the episode I am as entertained as I was the first time. And yes, I write this fully acknowledging that the title is horrible. For me, it’s the pinnacle of “Arrested Development,” a show with many creative peaks.

Plus, there’s Mrs. Featherbottom.

Plus, we’re introduced to Franklin the puppet.

Though now it seems like everyone knows and loves the show (and likes to boast that they watched it when it was originally on air. As if.), the series was an underground movement from the start…the type of program that four hipsters in Brooklyn watched but were afraid to tell others about because it would mean admitting they had a television. Even I, the guy who watched all three episodes of “The Return of Jezebel James,” didn’t start watching until the beginning of the second season. And, truthfully, it’s easy to see why its many eccentricities turned off new viewers. Instead of self-contained, simple A-and-B stories, any given episode had about ten continuing storylines going on. Instead of giving viewers easy jumping-on points for prospective viewers, it filled its half-hours with dozens of in-jokes new viewers would not understand. This craziness is what makes the show great, of course – and are a huge reason why it has flourished on DVD and Netflix (where viewers can watch from episode one and not miss a beat). But for the show’s original audience, the inside-baseball gags were just another reason we loved it. It was like we were part of an elite club that most of the world was not privy to.

Of course being part of a small, elite club watching a broadcast sitcom doesn’t guarantee it’ll have a long and successful run, but that’s beside the point.

The main story of “Meat the Veals” (let me reiterate how much better the episode is than its name suggests) involves George Michael (Michael Cera), to his father Michael’s (Jason Bateman) chagrin, wanting to get pre-engaged to his girlfriend Anne (Mae Whitman). Meanwhile, Oscar (Jeffrey Tambor) wants to throw an anniversary party for his missing twin brother (Tambor again) and Lucille (Jessica Walter). Meanwhile, Tobias (David Cross) has been thrown out of the house by Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) and, in order to see his daughter Maeby (Alia Shawkat), dons the persona of a British housekeeper named Mrs. Featherbottom. Meanwhile, Maeby tries to keep her dual life as a studio exec hidden from her family. Meanwhile, GOB (Will Arnett) wants to re-introduce the family to Franklin, a racist black puppet that mocks George Michael’s “cracker ass,” among other non-bleeped things. Like I said, it’s a little complex for a half-hour sitcom. But then again, half the fun is watching the multiple storylines crash into one another in ways much cooler than “Crash.”

Like I wrote, every single joke lands. Also, this happens, which is my favorite bit of physical television comedy in the past decade. I can’t watch the episode without rewinding Mrs. Featherbottom’s fall multiple times. It’s difficult to pick a favorite bit of dialogue…maybe this one?

Lindsay (re: Mrs. Featherbottom): “You do realize that’s Tobias, right?”Lucille: “If he’s going to get into my closet, he’s going to work for it.”
Or this one?
Mrs. Featherbottom: “Who’s up for a banger in the mouth?”
I’d mention more, but then I’d just start listing, which is only fun if it involves Roger Ebert quotes.

What struck me during this viewing is how varied the actors’ different styles of comedy are. In series like “Fraiser,” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” every actor seems to be hitting the same comedic notes in any given episode. Often when a different comedic style is introduced on sitcoms, a’la Urkel on “Family Matters” or Fonzie in “Happy Days,” they tend to take over the show and shift the comedy to their strengths. I don’t write that as a criticism of those shows, just an observation in order to underline how special it is that “Arrested Development” can marry all those brands of humor into one cohesive whole. Cera’s quiet, awkward humor couldn’t be further removed from Cross’ broad slapstick, and yet when they are in the same room together, it feels right.

This leads me to the question of whether this is the best comedic ensemble in television history. Surely the casts of shows like “I Love Lucy,” “Seinfeld” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” were, in their own ways, perfect…but this cast is also perfect. And bigger. And while those sitcoms ostensibly had the title star at their center, here there is no true lead. Yes, Michael is our way into the show, but in many ways he’s just as demented as the rest of his family (it’s just not as obvious) – and just because you play the straight man in a comedy sketch does not mean you are central to it. So yeah, as to the question posed above, I’ll call this troupe the once-in-a-lifetime, lightning-in-a-bottle, other-cliché-chesnut, best cast in the history of television.

And I’m so happy that “Arrested Development” has crossed over garnered the popularity it always deserved. I remember being in college when I discovered it, and putting on DVDs of the first season for my friends while we were eating Papa Johns and whipped ice cream. In a way, helping others discover the program and the greatness contained therein was part of the fun – like handing a great novel to someone and whispering “you’ll thank me later.”

“Meat the Veals” is available on DVD, Netflix, Amazon Prime, iTunes and Hulu. And now, seven years after the show was cancelled midseason by Fox, it has been revived by Netflix. The fourth season will be available in May.