Category Archives: TV Reviews

TELEVISION: The Ex List – Still Unbalanced – And Not In a Good Way!

Tonight’s episode of The Ex List [CBS, 9/8C] – Do You Love Me, Do You, Surfer… Boy” is the fourth of the show’s first [and quite possibly last] season and, despite several ingratiating performances [and a wide variety of ex-boyfriends], it isn’t a substantial improvement over the pilot.

ex_list Cast

Bella [Elizabeth Reaser] is following her plan to revisit her past boyfriends as per the fortune teller’s [Anne Bedian] prophecy that her soulmate is someone with whom she’s had a romantic relationship – and that if she hasn’t found him within a year, she’ll never marry. As a result, she’s encountering – in various unexpected ways – past boyfriends by the bucket load. This week it’s Shane [Brian Van Holt], a surf bum who has “grown up” to be famous and surprisingly business savvy.

The episode begins when the two meet cute and begin to see each other. We get a token look at Bella at work and there are arcs involving her engaged sister, Daphne [Rachel Boston], getting some photos done; her roommates, Augie [Adam Rothenberg] and Vivian [Alex Breckenridge] having some relationship problems [a showerhead and little to no imagination are involved], and Cyrus [Amir Talai] trying to scam a free board to teach a gorgeous woman to surf.

Although the subject of Bella’s quest is different, the pattern is pretty much beat for beat the same. The reconnect; they feel the generated chemistry; they learn how each changed over the years, and they fall apart just as things might be getting serious. The only difference here is that Shane has the potential to reappear in her life. Of the rest of the arcs, the only one that works is the showerhead one. Daphne might as well not have appeared in the ep, and Cyrus has gotten really old, really quickly.

In the pilot, written by series creator Diane Ruggerio, there were suggestions that we would see more of Bella’s life than just the fun parts and the ex-boyfriend parts. It seemed like we were going to get to see her at work as well as at play – and that her friends were going to actually be characters. The network, apparently, thought that the show should focus on just the play and romance and not the other [biggest] part of her life. The result is a show that entertains only sporadically, held aloft by the sheer charisma of Reaser and the characters of Augie and Vivian.

Given the potential in the pilot, this simply isn’t good enough. After invoking The Three-Ep rule, I was ready to stop watching, but CBS made a screener of the fourth ep available for review, so I asked for one. Sadly, it shows improvement only insofar as the ex of the week has the possibility of returning. In every other respect, The Ex List has not found the balance it needs to make it worth continued viewing.

Final Grade: C

TELEVISION: NBC’s Crusoe Is Swashbuckling Fun!

One of the last of the new fall programs to be broadcast, NBC’s Crusoe [Fridays, 8/7C] is allegedly a radical retelling of Daniel Defoe’s classic novel, though it fudges on his background [slave owners not being particularly well thought of these days] and utilizes the “Lost Method” of storytelling.

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Here, Crusoe [Philip Winchester] is a newly married inventor/weaver who is off to the Americas to purchase equipment and materials to speed up his production and make him and his new wife, Susannah [Anna Walton] rich – or at least filthy, stinking well off. When his ship is wrecked by a combination of storm and rocky island coastline, he is the only survivor.

When a number of cannibals arrive on the island to sacrifice one of their number to the gods, Crusoe rescues him and, because he couldn’t possibly begin to pronounce the man’s name, he dubs him Friday [Tongayi Chirisa]. It just so happens that Friday is no savage – he speaks a dozen languages and has other knowledge and skills [archery among them].

When a band of pirates comes ashore in search of treasure – following a map tattooed on the back of one of them – things get very dicey, very quickly. Fortunately, both Crusoe and Friday are inventive and capable of thinking on their feet. It doesn’t hurt that Crusoe has plundered the remains of his ship and created a very comfortable refuge for himself – and some nasty surprises for unwanted guests.

Crusoe’s story is told from his point of view, in his present – but his life before the shipwreck is told in flashback. Thus we watch Crusoe trying to deal with the pirates in his present, and learn about the horrors of his childhood and the joys of his new marriage in flashbacks that are sparked by events in his present. It’s all very cool – and informative – but it doesn’t lead to amazing discoveries of either natural or supernatural natures. It’s all just glorious swashbuckling fun.

The show’s cinematography is amazing, though it helps to have a beautiful island to provide exquisite scenery. The main cast members are more than up to the swashbuckling and show themselves capable of carrying the darker, more dramatic moments. It seems a bit odd to put such a show on Fridays, but it offers a bit of pure entertainment, and that might help it survive TV’s dead zone. While there will undoubtedly be a certain amount of continuity, I suspect that we will be able to watch individual episodes without having to know every little detail of what has gone before – which also makes it easy to enjoy.

Final Grade: B

TELEVISION: My Own Worst Enemy – Jekyll & Hyde & The Spying Game!

Call it a hunch, but I suspect that NBC’s My Own Worst Enemy [Mondays, 10/9C] will be greeted by a lot of critics with cries of “It’s silly,” and “What the heck was that?” – which is kind of a shame. The series, which stars Christian Slater as super-spy/sociopath Edward Albright and nice guy husband/father/efficiency expert, Henry Spivey, is a hybrid of the Bourne movies and the latest British mini-series take on Jekyll & Hyde, Jekyll.

Henry-Edward

When Spivey begins to remember being in places like Paris – where’s he’s never been, it leads to a bleeding of two distinct identities into each other. He soon learns that other employees of his consultants firm also have two identities and that he has been manufactured to give espionage superstar Edward Albright a completely effective cover for his downtime between assignments.

This causes problems for both personalities – Spivey suddenly awakens during one of Albright’s assignments and Albright wakes up in Spivey’s life. The results cause havoc for their boss/handler, Mavis Heller [Alfre Woodard], who might have to erase Spivey – but the two personalities figure out how to communicate with each other [in the same way that Tom Jackman and Hyde communicated in the Jekyll mini-series] and things begin to take even stranger turns.

I’m not saying that My Own Worst Enemy isn’t far-fetched. I’m not even saying that it doesn’t get silly in spots. What I am saying is that, like the BBC with Jekyll, NBC is taking a risk with a series that tries to do something fresh and different. I’m saying that My Own Worst Enemy is an entertaining hour of dark and light; a series that combines family drama and spy show with some genuine imagination. It blends Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Ludlum in a way that shoots for the fence – and might just pull it off, in time.

Slater does some decent work with both characters – and their lives. Besides Woodard, the excellent cast includes Madchen Amick [Mrs. Angelica Spivey], Saffron Burrows [Dr. Norah Skinner, the psychiatrist who monitors Spivey for problems associated with Edward], Mike O’Malley [Henry’s best friend, Tom/Edward’s fellow spy, Raymond], and Bella Thorne and Taylor Lautner [Henry’s children, Ruth and Jack].

The series creator, Jason Smilovic [Karen Sisco, Lucky Number Slevin, Kidnapped, Bionic Woman], may be onto something here. His pilot script, Breakdown, may be more than a little overstuffed, but director David Semel keeps it moving and hits some prime beats from the get-go. Simply put, there’s more here to like than not.

Final Grade: B-

TELEVISION: Sanctuary – Sanctuary for All: Not an Empty Motto!

The Sci Fi Channel’s new series, Sanctuary [Fridays, 9/8C] is adapted from the internet series of the same name. It revolves around Dr. Helen Magnus and her “sanctuary for all.”

Dr. Will Zimmerman [Robin Dunne] is a mess. A forensic psychologist, he’s lost his job with the FBI and now plies his trade with a police force that pays no attention to his theories and opinions. When he attempts to help the police investigate a triple homicide – including two police officers – he begins an adventure that will clear up mysteries that have tormented him since he was eight years old, even as he encounters new mysteries that will change the way he thinks, acts and maybe even dreams.

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Who is Dr. Helen Magnus [Amanda Tapping]? Who is the blonde Valkyrie [Emilie Ullerup] on the motorcycle? And who is the tall, bald, sinister apparition [Christopher Heyerdahl] who can seemingly move faster than bullets? And what do they have to do with a scared ten-year old boy of Slavic ancestry? And what is Magnus’ semi-simian chauffeur, anyway?

Sanctuary’s two-hour premiere, Sanctuary For All, answers these questions and leads into a series that explores the concept that every creature from folklore and mythology is real. The physical Sanctuary is the place where Magnus and her team provide safety for those creatures who seek refuge, and confinement for those whose predatory natures threaten humanity.

Shot almost completely in CGI [only the cast and essential props are live action], Sanctuary has a unique look [think classic Universal horror mixed with urban cop show] and an equally unique feel. The premiere introduces the aforementioned characters plus a tall humanoid who might well be the so-called Missing Link. The ten-year old boy fits right in as a genetic mutation from Chechnya.

The script is solid, if not inspiring, and intriguing – especially since it gives us enough answers to make us wonder just how many more questions are out there waiting to be answered. The acting is, for the most part, adequate. Tapping’s English accent may wobble from time to time, but emotionally, she’s spot on. Dunne makes Zimmerman, who is almost a Daniel Jackson clone, seem fresh and different. There’s even a cameo from Battlestar Galactica alumnus Kandyse McClure as Zimmerman’s ex – just to emphasize how damaged he is.

The keyword here is potential. The premiere lays out an intriguing premise and gives us sufficient background to make us feel like we can relate that that specific world. It may be a bit stilted, but it manages to convey its concepts relatively clearly, and the cast of characters is an odd mix or near-immortal, exuberant youth, damaged professional and surly/quirky tech master. The mix of science and myth works, for the most part – and so does Sanctuary.

Final Grade: B-

TELEVISION: The Ex List: Grey’s Anatomy’s Ava Strikes Out On Her Own!

Elizabeth Reaser did such a great job of playing the badly injured Ava/Rebecca on Grey’s Anatomy that it seems only right that she should have asked to front a series of her own. The Ex List [CBS, Fridays, 10/9C] is a bit of a high concept dramedy – Bella Bloom [Reaser] is told by a psychic [Anne Bedian] that she must marry within the year or she never will – but she has already met her soulmate, and he’s someone she’s had a relationship with in the past!

Ex List - Bella & Psychic

Bella’s situation arises from the bachelorette party for her younger sister, Daphne [Rachel Boston], and her own weird thought that visiting a psychic would be the perfect way to cap the evening. When other predictions she made come true in wildly unexpected [and funny] ways, she begins to take the psychic seriously – not least of all when bird poop leads to her discovery that former boyfriend Johnny Diamont [Eric Balfour] is back in town – and has a punk rock band. When she and roommate Vivian [Alexandra Breckenridge] go to his show, his first song shows he remembers her, and not particularly fondly…

The Ex List is based on an Israeli series, but seems to be of a vastly different tone [Diane Ruggerio, who adapted the series for America, left the show over creative differences – and she wanted to maintain the tone of the original]. In the premiere, she has a life – she runs a flower shop and has a core group of friends who share a house with her: the aforementioned Vivian, her best friend; Augie [Adam Rothenberg], Vivian’s boyfriend, and Cyrus [Amir Talai], who is a bit of a cynic and a slacker.

Although Reaser doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting, she is the principal here, and her ability to shift from comedy to drama to melodrama in mid-line [and to look really, really good in a bikini] is the show’s primary plus. The cast has solid chemistry [always important], but the writing isn’t quite right, yet. The balance between humor, drama and melodrama needs to be tweaked [less melodrama, more drama – the humor content is about right]. I enjoyed the pilot, but I hope that the show will find that balance – that sweet spot – that can elevate it to the next level.

Final Grade: B-

TELEVISION: Ghost Whisperer: Departures and Arrivals!

In the season premiere for Ghost Whisperer [CBS, Fridays, 9/8C], Firestarter, Melinda [Jennifer Love Hewitt] has to say farewell to a friend, while helping a sceptical psychologist learn to deal with being able to hear ghosts. It’s an entertaining episode of a series that never quite achieves greatness, but is always entertaining.

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When Jim [David Gordon] is called to a fire at the university, Melinda tags along fearing that her colleague, Rick Payne [Jay Mohr] might be a victim. Rick, it turns out, is fine – but Melinda sees a mysterious black woman who disappears, and the spirit of a victim leave his body while Jim works on him – and then return after being hit with the defibrillator.

The man is Dr. Eli James [Jamie Kennedy] and when Melinda sees him and a ghost chatting in his hospital room later, she decides to help him with his new “gift.” Unlike her, though, he can only hear ghosts – not see them. And he seems to prefer thinking that he’s gone crazy over being able to talk with ghosts – especially this ghost, Fiona [Alona Tal], who was his patient.

Like the best eps of the series, Firestarter is more than adequately written; directed with a deft touch and features the best performance that Jamie Kennedy has ever given. There are scenes that are simultaneously comic and dramatic – as when Eli is surrounded by a half-dozen ghosts, all imploring him to help them, in a bar that’s otherwise empty but for the bartender and a guy playing pool – and there are scenes that are heartbreaking – as when we learn why Fiona’s ghost hasn’t crossed over. I’ll let you discover who’s leaving…

Fans of the series will love this ep, while those who haven’t tried it before will find it to be a solid hour’s entertainment. No more, no less.

Final Grade: B-

TELEVISION: The Unit: The Unit Has No Women!

As The Unit [CBS, Sundays, 10/9C] wraps up its latest mission overseas – with the help of an undercover female soldier [pictured below] – their wives are told to drop every connection they have to their everyday lives, send their kids off to distant relatives and repair to an unknown location.

The Unit, S4

The fourth season of The Unit, Sacrifice, finds the team attempting to thwart a terrorist attempt to assassinate the President-Elect Benjamin Castillo [Benito Martinez] – a task made more difficult because the men attempting the assassination are dressed in proper military garb and know the codes of the day.

Written by the show’s Co-Executive Producer, Frank Military, and directed by the show’s creator, David Mamet, Sacrifice is the show’s best season premiere since the first one. Military’s script is smart and manages to create an arc that allows The Unit and their families to become – in an unexpected way – connected, story-wise. With the seeming uprooting of the families, and a terrorist organization that has the funding and training to attack the United States President, Vice-President, President-Elect and Vice-President-Elect, this first part of a two-parter pretty much cooks from beginning to end.

And that unofficial rule that “The Unit has no women?” It appears that the knowledge of that rule may have given the team an unexpected advantage as they track down the group behind the assassination attempts. Between that twist and the upheaval in the lives of The Unit’s families, the show’s creative team is showing that they have no plans to let the series get stale.

I just wish my screener had both eps. I hate cliffhangers! Seriously!

Final Grade: B+

TELEVISION: Cold Case: Solid Procedural Enters Sixth Season

It’s hard to believe, but Cold Case [CBS, Sundays, 9/8C] has been setting the ghosts of the past to rest for over five years. The sixth season premiere, Glory Days, follows the familiar pattern – after we see the final moments of Michael “Bad Moon” McShane [Aaron Hill] in 1973, a piece of evidence is discovered in the present that suggests he was killed much later than was previously thought. Enter Lilly Rush [Kathryn Morris]  and her team of cold case investigators.

Cold Case, S6

“Bad Moon” was a football star who disappeared the night before the championship game. The investigation puts together a picture of how his last few days were spent by questioning various of his friends, coaches, tutors and such. There’s his teammate, Tom “The Breeze” Bernard [B.J. Britt/Clifton Powell], who lost his scholarship because McShane reported his ill health; Steve Pratt [Sean O’Bryan/James Karen], the alumnus who recruited McShane [and treated him to dinner once a week – and gave him extra spending money for books]; Assistant Coach Walters [Tom Griffin/M.C. Gainey], who was aware that the team’s unofficial, off-campus doctor was giving them steroids, R. Boretski [Justice Leak/James Read], McShane’s tutor, who, McShane threatened to reveal was cheating on class work for members of the football team.

With lots of suspects, there are lots of stories – some of them touching, some funny, and some false. The procedures through which the team solves the case may be familiar but the variations provided each new set of circumstances and suspects allow for enough variety to keep the series feeling fresh – especially when each ep is anchored by music of the period [here it’s by BTO and Steely Dan].

Another ep furnished by CBS, Wednesday’s Women, the third ep of the new season, deals with a group of women who drove from Philadelphia to Mississippi to help run Freedom schools under the cover selling Tupperware®. In it, what was thought to be a hit and run turns out to have far greater implications. The ep’s guest cast includes Olympia Dukakis and Carl Lumbly, among others.

The Cold Case ensemble [Morris, John Finn, Thom Barry, Jeremy Ratchford, Danny Pino and Tracie Thoms] is reliably together and between the regular cast, the guest stars and the consistent writing, the show remains one of the more watchable procedurals around.

Final Grade: B

TELEVISION: Dexter: Life Gets Interesting For Dexter!

A couple of interesting things happen over the first four episodes of the third season of Dexter [Showtime, Sundays, 9/8C]: Dexter [Michael C. Hall] commits a spontaneous act that calls into question Harry’s Code, and Dexter makes a friend in the person of an Assistant District Attorney named Miguel Prado [Jimmy Smits]. The spontaneous act is the murder of Prado’s brother, whom he thinks is a drug dealer named Freebo [Mike Erwin] – and the manner in which he has to cover up this act while dealing with the police investigation and Miguel.

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Otherwise, Dex’s life is pretty good. He no longer has the FBI on his trail; he and Rita [Julie Benz] seem to be in a good place [and he dotes on her kids], and his sister, Debra [Jennifer Carpenter], seems to have sworn off men, drinking and smoking – if not cussing. The thing of it is he doesn’t refer to himself as a monster every so often, either. Somehow, while he would probably vehemently disagree, Dexter is becoming more human – maybe not much more, but enough that it is noticeable.

The Showtime series does continue to play with the idea of morality, though. Dex’s moment of spontaneity has him rethinking Harry’s code even further when he spies a creepy guy asking Rita’s daughter Christina Robinson] for directions in a supermarket. His fierce feeling of protectiveness for the kids is as human as anything he’s ever felt. Couple that with his growing friendship with Miguel, and there are moments that find him seeming practically normal.

Dexter continues to be one of the most compelling dramas on television. From its opening sequence that emphasizes the violence of the everyday, to the odd relationship between Dexter and Rita, to his day job as a blood spatter expert for the Miami-Dade Police, Dexter is an examination of all the kinds of violence that permeate our existence. It has some of the best dialogue anywhere and a cast that serves it up perfectly – and manages a perfect balance between drama, melodrama and gallows humor.

The exceptional ensemble also continues to warrant intriguing arcs as well. Angel [David Zayas] gets promoted to sergeant – and has to deal with the sometimes unhappy responsibilities that come with his new position. Vince [C.S. Lee] has an article printed in a prestigious forensics journal but can’t find a way to persuade anyone to help him celebrate his success. Debra finds her swearing off of men challenged by a most unlikely guy – and is harassed by Internal Affairs to spy on the new guy in the division, Quinn [Desmond Harrington]. The richness of the plotting and the depth of the characterization remain amongst the absolute best on TV. Even the jaunty theme music is oddly creepy and utterly appropriate.

Dexter may not be for everyone, but for those of us who are into it, it is a treasure.

Final Grade: A

TELEVISION: Criminal Minds: As Promised Someone Dies!

There are many reasons that I gave up on Criminal Minds [CBS, Wednesdays, 9/8C] – among them, a seemingly deliberate bad treatment of women and unctuous and predictable writing. Both are present in this season’s premiere, subtly entitled Mayhem. It’s the resolution of the terrorist investigation/car bombing cliffhanger that ended the show’s third season.

Criminal Minds, S4

You may remember the scene: members of the team moved to their various SUVs and one exploded. Turns out that in the case of the one that exploded, its passengers hadn’t quite gotten into it [can you say cheat?] and were blown back by the explosion, not instantly killed. Not only that, but a passer-by calls 911 – of course no one is allowed to approach them because it was established that the bombers were actually looking to follow up the initial bomb with one to take out the initial response team[s].

So, we’ve got a badly injured woman. How she survived being scraped along the street for twenty yards, leaving a trail of skin and blood, is beyond me [when we get a glance at it, her back is so much hamburger]. Meanwhile the male agent is blown into the air and comes down across the street and is only shaken up and cut from the SUV’s windows – or so it seems. Actually, it’s later shown to be bad enough to have both agents requiring emergency treatment.

In the meantime, we get a bunch of fairly predictable events – the injured agent driving the ambulance to a hospital that has been barricaded, another agent discovering the second bomb and appearing to die saving everyone… the usual – and the only member of the team that comes off well is, once again, Garcia [Kristen Vangsness].

Sadly, all of the episode’s major reveals were obvious to me well before we reached them [before the teaser was over, actually]. And the promised death once again put a woman through all kinds of agony – a Criminal Minds staple. Not that Mayhem was totally ridiculous – it was beautifully filmed [though the hamburger shot could have been briefer] and Vangsness’ performance was excellent. On the other hand, Joe Mantegna’s David Rossi was reduced to the role of bystander and Paget Brewster’s Emily Prentiss was little more than window dressing.

Overall, then, Mayhem reminded me why I seldom watch Criminal Minds. It was overblown fooferaw and pretty much a waste of my time. Don’t let it waste yours.

Final Grade: D

Television: The Mentalist: Simon Baker Sees Stuff You Don’t!

Have you ever wondered what the series Psych would be like if it had been played as a drama? It might well have looked like The Mentalist [CBS, Tuesdays, 9/8C], a series about Patrick Jane, a former fraud television psychic who makes a major career change after a performance on a talk show takes a nasty turn.

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The premiere finds Jane, who is now working for the California Bureau of Investigation, solving a murder in the opening minutes by simply, as he puts it, “paying attention.” His methods, being somewhat unorthodox, his boss, Teresa Lisbon [Robin Tunney], suspends him – but a new set of murders appears to strike home to him and he goes over her head to get back on the case.

Judging by the premiere, The Mentalist is one of those shows that seem like it’s going to go one way and then, BAM! It’s snuck up on you and grabbed you by the throat! Unlike Psych, which places the humor upfront, The Mentalist seems like it’s going to be deadly earnest – and mostly, it is – but at key moments, shrewdly placed bits of gallows humor serve to both emphasize the drama and relieve the carefully built up tension.

David Nutter, a true king of the pilots [Millennium, Roswell, Dark Angel, Smallville, and Without a Trace, among them], really has a handle on Bruno Heller’s [Touching Evil, Rome] excellent script. Some of the key moments are [deliberately] predictable in order to set up the ones that aren’t – and he draws series defining performances from an ensemble that also includes Owain Yeoman [Kitchen Confidential, The Nine], Amanda Righetti [The O.C., Reunion] and Tim Kang [Third Watch, Rambo].

The Mentalist may be the series that gives Simon Baker the hit his talent and charisma deserve – and with its NCIS lead-in, it’s positioned well. The fact that it’s a police show – if not exactly a procedural – means that it takes a different tone than NCIS, but its quality should hold that show’s audience.