Channel Surfing

As last Friday afternoon wound to a close, I found myself home from work a bit early. I had no concrete plans for the evening, and having eaten a late lunch which involved a mass of fried potatoes, I wouldn't need to think about dinner for several hours. That left a big chunk of free time, which I put to good use. That is, I tore through a marathon of TV episodes, each from a different show. I've been working my way through a lot of shows concurrently, but variety being the spice of life and all that, I wanted to mix it up for a night.

"Once More With Feeling" - Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 6, Episode 7

On my walk home from work, my iPod song shuffler played one of the songs from this musical episode, which made me want to dive right into it. I've been meaning to do a full rewatch of Buffy from start to finish, but for the time being, this is an excellent one to pull out and watch on its own. Not only are the songs well-written and pretty catchy, but they fit into the narrative arc of the episode perfectly. It's relatively easy to have your characters burst into song, but how to incorporate that believably into the show's mythology takes some work. Not only that, but think about what musicals actually are. Characters is musicals use the songs to share their feelings with the audience and with each other. Think about how you'd feel if your innermost thoughts were pouring out of you every few minutes, no matter how lovely the tune that accompanies them. It'd be hell! And since this show takes place in a universe where actual hellish creatures invade, the episode has no issue weaving itself into the show's overall tone. No pun intended.

Grade: A

"Let Bartlet be Bartlet" - The West Wing: Season 1, Episode 19

It's taking me a while to work through the first season, but did I mention all that concurrent watching? Sorry, I just like any excuse to use the word "concurrent". This show is just as fascinating as when I first posted about it, though some episodes obviously work better than others. This was a good one to fall on marathon night; it's a barn-burner. In the time Mandy was working for a different politician, she put together a scathing strategy memo on how her boss could defeat President Bartlet in three years, mostly by alluding to his tendency to adopt weak middle-ground positions to avoid controversy. The memo comes to light, and causes strife in the staff, not only because it catches them by surprise and threatens to embarrass them in the press, but because they are coming to believe Mandy is right. They're not getting anything done, and the country is starting to lose faith. After watching the characters struggle through several episodes, this is the one where they've finally had enough of political kowtowing, and pledge to forcefully push their agenda, even if it costs Bartlet reelection. It's a very stirring episode, and even if you don't agree with the fictional president's politics, you can't deny that the episode also does good technical work in terms of plot continuity and character development.

Grade: A-

"At the Codfish Ball" - Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 7

Mad Men is a slow burn of a show that rewards patience. Season 5 was heavily buzzed about as it was airing, but I didn't have the opportunity to watch it live, so I'm only just now arriving at the same conclusion a lot of people got to months ago: This season is freaking amazing. No other show consistently drops my jaw like this one, and though I've still got a few episodes to go, no other season has gripped me like this one. It takes a lot to get me to say "Wow" after an episode of television, and it's already happened no fewer than three times during Season 5. "At the Codfish Ball" is one of those wows.

There is so much going on that it's difficult to sum up, though the common theme appears to be generational friction, as Peggy, Megan, and Sally all struggle with relating to their parents. That may be the underlying thread, but there are plenty of layers on top. Megan, who is often viewed as window dressing who married into her job, shows that she's not so useless, single-handedly saving the firm from getting fired by Heinz, then pulling them in with a perfect pitch. Peggy is convinced that Abe is either about to break up with her or propose marriage, and is blind-sided twice over, once when Abe splits the difference by asking that they move in together, and once when she shares the news of her acceptance with her mother. Sally wants to be treated more like an adult, but when she's actually exposed to things that take place in the adult world, she's horrified and confused by them. Megan's parents have grown to despise each other, and her father strongly disapproves of the lifestyle Megan has built for herself. And those are just the main plotlines! There are plenty of smaller ones, all of which are executed flawlessly.

Grade: A+

"Economics of Marine Biology" - Community: Season 4, Episode 7

I'm curious to know how I'd respond to the current season of Community if I didn't know anything about the behind-the-scenes drama. Would the episodes strike me differently if I had no idea who Dan Harmon is or that these are the first episodes after he got fired? If I didn't know that Chevy Chase quit, would I still think he's completely phoning in his last few performances? Fact is, I do know those things, and I can't deny to myself that the heart seems to have gone out of what was once my favorite show. None of this season's episodes have been out-and-out bad (though "Conventions of Space and Time" came close), but by the same token, none have filled me with giddy delight like standout episodes have in every previous season. I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy, though, and I will say that they are improving. This past week's episode was pretty weak in the A-plot, but is helped along by a funny B-plot (and a surprisingly touching C-plot). The main story deals with the Dean's efforts to lure in a lazy, rich student so that he'll drop a lot of money on the school. As I said, it's pretty lackluster, though there are some cute bits around the edges, like Magnitude's obsessive search for a new catchphrase. The episode's big bright spot is Shirley and Troy's class in Physical Education Education, in which the normally athletic Troy cannot get the hang of how to be a gym teacher, while Shirley's parental authoritarianism gets her top marks. Finally, Jeff learns a little something about what makes Pierce tick, and a little something about how awesome hot foam shaves at the barbershop are. Seriously, get one. All in all, it was a pretty good episode in a season I hope can rediscover what makes Community so special.

Grade: B-

"Season Four" - 30 Rock: Season 4, Episode 1

If you graphed out my reactions to all the television shows I've ever watched regularly, there may not be one that would be a more perfect bell curve than 30 Rock. I started off having zero interest in it, but once I caught a few episodes, it zoomed up to being among the top shows on my list. But it ain't called a bell curve for nothing, and "Season Four" is about the time that my attention began to wane. It is in no way a bad episode, but won't be making anyone's top ten lists, either. Jack wants Liz to hire a cast member that appeals to "Middle America" (Lord, how I loathe that phrase), and in the same vein, suggests that Tracy reconnect with his man-of-the-people roots and that Jenna release a country song. Meanwhile, Kenneth is uncharacteristically infuriated by the bonus check Jack gets, and leads a page strike. There are plenty of amusing wisecracks, but Jenna's song to lure in people who want to watch some hot tennis action was the only laugh out loud moment. 30 Rock certainly had some indelible moments along the way, but this episode contains none of them. Fun Fact: Series director Don Scardino is Mick! Can you believe it?

Grade: B-

"My Office" - Scrubs: Season 4, Episode 2

Similarly, Scrubs had a ton of episodes I'd consider classic, but this one is pretty average. Solid, but unremarkable when the show is taken as a whole. One thing that it's definitely got going for it is that it's in the stretch of episodes featuring Heather Graham as Molly. While I'm not a giant Graham fan in general, I enjoy her when she's in her wheelhouse, and Scrubs was perfect for her. There's conflict aplenty in this episode, as J.D. and Elliot compete for the job of chief resident, Dr. Cox and Turk argue over how to get a light bulb out of a patient's ass, and Carla is jealous of people going to Molly for advice instead of her. There are plenty of good quips - I always giggle when Elliot takes Dr. Cox at his word when he sarcastically asks if they can talk about her prospective wedding dress - but this isn't an episode I'd use to convince a newbie to watch the show.

Grade: B

"¡Amigos!" - Arrested Development: Season 2, Episode 3

During "My Office", a friend showed up at my place for a late dinner, and what could be a better accompaniment to that than Arrested Development? Episodes of this show are difficult to pluck out and watch independently, since the entire series is a web of continuity in-jokes. Having seen the whole run, though, this was a fun one to go back and revisit. Michael heads down to Mexico to find his father, acting on a tip from Gene Parmesan (Martin Mull), whose appearance always sends Lucille into delighted hysterics. Gob hires a bounty hunter to track Michael, assuming he's trying to just flee the country. Ann (her?) goes along with Michael because George Michael wants them to get to know each other better, and she accidentally gets ditched there. Buster plans to stow away in Michael's car to escape the Army, only to wind up hanging out with Lupe's family in the next neighborhood over. As with most Arrested Development episodes, the jokes are very wry, but impeccable.

Grade: B+

"Three Legs Good" - Rosemary & Thyme: Season 3, Episode 4

I'll be writing a full entry about this show sometime soon, and it's a shame that the only episode pulled out for individual consideration is "Three Legs Good", because it was one of the weaker ones of the entire run. Rosemary and Laura are renovating a park garden, which is apparently only visited by the same seven people every day. These, of course, would be the victims and suspects of this week's murders, and the whole plot hinges on a cute little doggy that happens to have three legs, having lost one in an auto accident. It's nice to see Laura's daughter Helena pulled in to the plot again (being only one of two guest stars that ever appeared in more than one episode), but the writing is just not there in this one. The mystery is exceedingly thin, and the side characters uninteresting. As long as the main cast is solid, crime-of-the-week shows always depend on a tidy little short story, and this one needed some serious reworking. Though it ended my marathon evening of television on a muted note, I'm glad I saw it, if only because it added another dash of variety to what turned out to be a very rewarding night, entertainment-wise.

Grade: C


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