Now this is more like it. It looks like I'm going to make it to that fabled awesome sixth episode of this series, at which point Joss Whedon will supposedly blow everybody's minds and make everybody forget what a terrible actress Eliza Dushku is. Only a mind-meltingly terrible installment next week will deter me from experiencing that enlightenment, and then surely mocking it angrily. But in the meantime, I can praise this episode, which saw some nice twists and turns, enjoyable uses of the series' setup, interesting character moments, and a fairly tense plot conflict. Sure, there was more of that ridiculous subplot involving the faux Russian gangster through which Dollhouse is apparently just fucking with Agent Helo. I have no idea what was supposed to be going on there; I guess Helo was supposed to put him in witness protection so he wouldn't have to ever interact with him again, but instead he put him on the wanted list in order to endanger him and stop him from leaving town? Did that make any sense at all? It seems really fucking stupid of the secretive Dollhouse organization to have one of their "actives" getting so close to the guy who is relentlessly determined to expose them.
And then there's Dushku's acting, which is as ridiculous as always, at least when she's not playing a near-comatose "blank slate". Luckily, that's how she spends a good deal of the episode, so it's not so bad for once. But she does have to portray a master thief/safecracker/badass (I imagine 90% of her roles in this series will have that "/badass" description tagged onto them; Whedon must want to get into her pants or something), and while she tries her hardest, it's like a little girl trying to play with the big kids. In contrast, we see one of her fellow actives (the Asian one who played a giggling fan last week) get imprinted with the same persona, and she actually pulls it off believably and memorably. Take that, Ms. Bad Actress!
Anyway, the plot involves Echo pretending to be a stripper (or pretending to pretend to be a stripper? This can get confusing sometimes), and finagling her way into a hotel security office in order to break into a secret vault in the building next door and steal some priceless artwork. But after she and her team end up in the vault, someone hacks into her cell phone and somehow wipes her remotely, reverting her back into her innocent, childlike state at the worst possible time. This leads to a race against time as her handlers and the Dollhouse higher-ups try to figure out a way to get her out of there before the authorities show up and arrest her. Sure, it's still kind of silly (the prominent "C-4" labels on the team's explosives was a nicely idiotic touch), but there are some nice moments, including a scene in which Echo tries to comprehend a Cubist painting and commiserates with a wounded comrade. The nerdy tech guy gets some nice moments too as he freaks out over the whole situation, and he has a nice line about the mindwiping, saying "Being wiped is not unlike being born; it's traumatic. In here we minimize the trauma with throw pillows and perfectly crunchy lettuce...but out there it's all fluorescent lights and forceps." Of course, the ending turns out to be kind of anticlimactic, but at this point, I'll take what I can get. If the show can turn in this level of enjoyability (and, let's be honest, mockability), I won't feel like I'm totally wasting my time, whether Whedon eventually turns on the awesome switch or not.
This season of American Idol has largely become a study in psychological manipulation: How good are they at it and how good are we at catching it? Overall, the show seems to have settled on what we’ll call a J/K format. As in, “For the Wild Card round, the judges will pick 3 contestants for the Top 12 that haven’t gotten a fair shot in the semi-finals.” J/K! They’re actually going to pick a couple of weak “package artists,” a dude who completely blew it the first time around by butchering a Coldplay song, and a dude with a significant fan base who looks intent on turning himself into a novelty. Or, “Yo, it’s going to be a Top 13 this year!” J/K! It’s going to be just like the Top 12, except we get to start off with a double elimination. And, coming soon, “The viewers have voted, and you, Scott MacIntyre, are going home.” J/K! The judges have decided to save your ass.
At the beginning of Wednesday’s results show, Ryan Seacrest announced the implementation of a “Judge’s Save” rule, which basically means that the judges can nullify the elimination of any one contestant before the Top 5. While this seems like another blatant way for the producers to push the audience toward an intended result (which right now would be Adam Lambert or conspicuously-less-sociopathic-this-week Danny Gokey), it also counterbalances the idea that viewers aren’t voting for who to eliminate, but who not to eliminate. In other words, you’d get entirely different, possibly better, results if the audience were voting the most annoying people off—David Archeluta would have left a lot earlier last year. Regardless, the odds are pretty high that the judges will use their “Save” to keep someone 100% enervating.
Jasmine Murray and Jorge Nuñez got voted off this week, and (unsurprisingly) the judges chose to save neither of them. Both were eliminated for singing Jackson 5 ballads during Michael Jackson week, proving that singing a boring song built for a 12 year old probably isn’t a great strategy for winning. Of course, neither is choosing an up-tempo kid-friendly song and making bird noises at the end of it, as Megan Corkrey did with “Rockin’ Robin.” Most troubling was Anoop Desai, who came close to being eliminated for his horrifying version of “Beat It.” Anoop is a likeable dude, but he seems to feel like he has to be vaguely kitschy or ironic every time he chooses a song—and at this point he’s way more worried about being entertaining than nailing his song. If he keeps it up, it’ll be much better to see him go early than have to see him get more and more desperate to be liked every week.
All in all, this week—what do we call this, the first week of the fourth phase of season 8 of American Idol? Jesus, there have been 20 episodes already. That would be a full season for any other show!—was solid, if uneventful. One of the benefits of the Top 36 format—or, more specifically, creating the Top 12/Top 13 by voting the top people in instead of voting the bottom people out—is that you get a more dynamic competition at the higher level. Instead of a handful of legitimate contenders and a lot of cannon fodder, there are 13 contenders (okay, maybe 11). It’s not hard to imagine even, say, Megan Corkrey or Kris Allen catching a fire and making it far in the competition. Even the weakest vocalists on Tuesday night had pipes and at least a modicum of stage presence.
But the best parts of Tuesday night’s show mostly had to do with Simon: Referencing Kris Allen’s potential appeal to teenage girls by saying, “I don’t know if I would have brought out the wife just yet;” telling roughneck Michael Sarver, “I wish we knew what you did for a living;” inexplicably asking Gordon Ramsey what he thought of “Rockin’ Robin;” and, when Jorge Nuñez spoke about his poor song choice by saying, “I didn’t want to sing ‘Bad’ by Michael Jackson,” responding, “You sort of did.” Plus, there was the awkward juxtaposition of Alexis Grace’s family package—in which she introduces her daughter and talks about being a mother—preceding her version of “Dirty Diana,” with Paula and Kara praising her for her naughtiness. And, yes, that is Carrie Underwood singing a Mötley Crüe song during the farewell packages as they kick the losers out the door. Notice how Ryan Seacrest mentioned it was a cover version, but conveniently neglected to mention who sang the original.
To be honest, when it became clear that I would have to fill in for the regular Galacti-Columnist here, I wasn't that intimidated, figuring it would be easy to chuff out a few lines about how garish it was that Edward James Olmos had decided to shoot another "Adama cries" sequence when it wasn't altogether necessary, and to punctuate it further by layering two shots on top of each other in the sort of double exposure that belies truly terrible scene construction. Then I realized that's pretty much the only thing I remembered from this episode, other than being curious about how little Hera would imagine a cupcake--this girl was born post-Holocaust, and I don't recall such delicacies showing up in those miserable little cells everybody lives in on this show. Battlestar has had some good stuff in this second group of "The Finale Episodes", no question. But it hasn't struck me with the power it did in what I thought were its greatest moments, like the Chief and Baltar on Kobol, or the Battlestar Didactic-a season set in Iraq/New Caprica. That's too be expected, I'd assume--no matter who the final Cylon was revealed to be, it's doubtful it could have had the impact of the "Watchtower" moments--but it's still a little disappointing that a show that has been so good, for so long, seems to be running, just a bit, on fumes.
Castle - "Pilot" by Zeb L. West
Ever since that fateful TFO Christmas Party*, where Matthew J. Brady (writer of our Dollhouse columns) and I came to blows over who could name all 11 Dr. Who Doctors in reverse alphabetical order, he and I have not spoken.** But despite our differences, we share a common wish. We’re both desperately trying to fill the void left behind by the lack of a good Joss Whedon show. I applaud Mr. Brady’s commitment to Dollhouse despite its diminishing returns, but I’ve decided to relive the good old days of Firefly by checking out Nathan Fillion’s new detective show Castle.
Castle’s premise is pretty much the same as Murder, She Wrote. Okay, it’s totally different, but the show definitely has a high familiarity factor. The characters are so archetypal, and the interactions so tried and true, that you almost feel like you’ve watched it before. This feeling of recognition (which I think is a good thing) can be attributed to a strong ensemble cast and a confidence in the writing.
One highly successful aspect of Firefly was the incredible chemistry of the cast (also helmed by Fillion) and Castle has the makings of a similar cohesion. The world of Rick Castle, bad boy mystery novelist and charming man-boy, is populated with strong characters. From his precocious and straight-edge daughter, to his recently-moved-in swinger of a Mom, to his gorgeous and criticizing ex-wife (who is brilliantly also his publisher!), the character has plenty to play off of. But his greatest teammate, adversary and love interest is the beautiful detective Kate Beckett who is forced to take him on as a partner. Although I have the feeling that Fillion’s charms are fairly indiscriminate, Stana Katic seems a particularly suitable foil, and the chemistry seems likely to only grow stronger as the show develops.
A pilot episode is no small trick. In addition to introducing a slew of characters and locations, it also has to set up a premise that will sustain the series through (hopefully) many seasons. Castle aspires to be a show with mystery, humor, action and romance, so it has quite a bit of work to do. While I felt charmed by the characters, eager to see the romance develop, and laughed out loud quite a few times, it was oddly the mystery that left me wanting more.
Without revealing too much, there is a fairly obvious red herring character that the murderer uses as a scapegoat. This seemed a bit thin to me. The actual murderer is also introduced so late that there is no sense that an observant audience member might be able to unravel the mystery themselves. I’m not expecting Alfred Hitchcock over here, but at least give me something with more substance than an episode of CSI.
Since the show is about a detective and a mystery writer who wants to be a detective, it follows that each episode should satisfyingly unravel a crime. Since we know that the pilot has to pair these two up, there’s a feeling of inevitability to the first episode. Of course the murderer is using Castle’s novels as an inspiration for is crimes. And of course Castle knows the mayor so well that he can pull strings to be kept on at the Police Department after the crime has been solved. But hey, if we didn’t accept a few implausible plot conveniences in pilot episodes, we’d have a lot less kooky shows on TV.
Castle has convinced me to tune in next week, which is no small feat in this saturated market of good TV. If the writers give a little more attention to the mysteries, this show could be a winner. I give it my official*** TFO stamp of approval.
*The Factual Opinion in no way supports Christmas or anything pertaining to ‘merry’ or ‘jolly.’
**None of these events occurred outside of my imagination.
***No such stamp exists.
The Celebrity Apprentice – “Creating a Comic Book Character”
Last week, I would have pegged Tom Green to win this whole thing, if only because he walks that precise line of taking the game seriously while remaining keenly aware that he’s on a reality TV show. Plus, with Andrew “Dice” Clay gone, Tom Green is the presiding washed-up comedian—and I admit I might have a soft spot for that particular archetype. If Chevy Chase were on America’s Next Top Model I would vote for him every single season, no matter how much of an assduck he supposedly is in real life. There’s something utterly compelling about watching someone with such a specifically eccentric world view, like Dice and Green, attempting to function around normal people. And say what you will about the participants on The Celebrity Apprentice, they are all demonstrably successful. In addition, Tom Green is one of the ones who is fighting to give much more money to charity than he probably has in his bank account.
Of course, most of the episode revolved around Tom Green being about as obnoxious as you would imagine Tom Green on The Celebrity Apprentice to be. The editing made it look like Green spent the entire time disrupting his team with inane ideas until he was told by Herschel Walker to “Shut up. Shut up. Shut up!” But when it came down to it, Green was right about the most crucial decision made by the team. Their task was to create a comic book character mascot for Zappos.com, and Green suggested over and over again that they make it a Zorro-type character, emphasizing the “Z” in Zappo’s name. Project Manager Scott Hamilton, however, thought it would be a great idea to create a generic super-heroine and call her (wait for it) “EEE,” which prompted this incredible exchange:
Hamilton: How about E? Just E. Three E’s. EEE.
Green: Like ecstasy? You know, like the drug?
Hamilton: Everywhere. Everything. Every time.
Green: Everywhere. Everything. Any time.
Green: Oh. Everywhere. Everything. Everywhere.
Hamilton: Everywhere. Everything. Every time.
Compared with last week’s relatively tame opening, this week’s episode The Celebrity Apprentice starts revving up for what could be a killer season, and it does so by flaunting exactly what makes the show unique—its cast. If I told you this: While creating a comic book character mascot for Zappos.com, one member of the women’s team proposed, “I think we should get a midget, and the midget says, ‘We’re long on service, short on frustration’,” and, later, “I know what her power is! I know her power! She doesn’t sleep.” That would be pretty funny, right? But if I told you that it was Joan Rivers making those suggestions, it would get a whole lot funnier. It’s compelling to know that a member of the men’s team is acting like a douche and everybody hates him, but it’s better when that ass is Clint Black. Or how about this exchange between Tom Green and Dennis Rodman:
Rodman: We can twist this whole thing around and make it cool as hell. We can get a transvestite. A guy! You can go get any transvestite, and guess what? He can transform into this woman. You can find him women’s shoes and a bag. Boom. The whole commercial now is about gay guys and gay people.
Green: A flamboyant, fashion, gay guy.
Rodman: “Okay, let me go to my favorite website: Zappo’s.” Next thing you know, hustler comes back here, wants to have sex or some bullsh**. Or whatever. You know, that typical **** right?
Green: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Either a flamboyant gay guy goes [Helium voice] “Hi, How are ya?” Or it’s [Impression of Clint Black, singing] “Oh, we got shoes and-a socks and-a shoes.”
Rodman: Finish it up.
Rodman: Finish it up.
This is the most under-rated show on television.
The Bad Girls Club - "The Cookie Crumbles"
Hey, here's a little behind the scenes info on doing 20 paragraph recaps of a show like The Bad Girls Club: you need a working computer that you can type all the crazy shit these ladies do into it while you're watching, or you need an easily findable website that plays the episode, preferably not the one you use at your non Bad Girls Club recap-related work computer. If you don't have one of those two things happening, you can't really recap a Bad Girls Club episode by anything other than memory, because it's not exactly a show that one is capable of re-watching, no matter how butt-ass crazy it is. When the episode is as fall-out heavy as this one, it's even harder. So here goes your "memory-dump" Bad Girls Clubs session, unless next weeks clip show is as bad as everyone expects it to be. (Everyone meaning me, and the bizarre and inappropriate comment leavers on the Oxygen website. As far as I know, that's the entire audience for this thing.)
The episode opens with the conclusion of last weeks fight, where it is revealed that Amber M immediately argued with the producers on scene, screaming that they had to keep the girls away from her. It's a pretty interesting turn of events for this show--the producers clearly want this sort of drama to occur, but they didn't expect things to go as far as they did. Despite what the rest of the episode implies--that the violence was somehow above and beyond the norm--the real problem here is that they didn't really lay any proper groundwork with the local bars for the type of show they were filming. In the California sequences, none of the bars seem to care what happens--they'll kick the girls out, sure, but they never involve the local police, and the people in the street are more attuned to the "just some fucking reality show" kind of mentality. In Cancun, it's clear from what's shot that is far from the case. Multiple onlookers get involved, it's later revealed that the police were given the club's surveillance tapes of what happened outside, and the police themselves show little interest in negotiating anything. (Which is stark contrast to the norm for American reality shows--the same production company that handles The Real World is in charge of The Bad Girls Club, and they're notorious for fighting a disgusting court battle wherein they refused to release their tapes of a Real World season where a rape case stemmed from something that occurred during taping.) It's not that what happened in the streets of Cancun between Amber M, Whitney and Ailea is particularly nasty stuff--a few kicks, a fall--but that they did it in a place that's less willing to tolerate the grandstanding of wanna-be celebrities. (Real celebrities probably don't have this problem.)
The majority of the episode is pure epilogue: Amber M disappears, taking another room in the hotel, while the remainder of the show's cast returns to theirs. Instead of going to bed and sparing the viewer their hideous drunken personalities, Whitney, Ashley and Ailea sit around and talk about how awesome they are when they team up on one drunk, confused girl. Tiffany, drunk herself, is already beginning to understand the gravity of the situation, while Sarah and Amber B are conspicuously silent. (At least, until Amber B gets in bed and cries herself to sleep.) One of the best all time sequences of the show occurs here, where Whitney's drunken monologue about why "You never threaten with a shoe" is interrupted three times in a row by the producers, who insert previous scenes where Whitney has removed her shoe and threatened someone with it, as well as a scene where she refers to using a shoe as a weapon of choice in any brawl. It's a priceless, perfect job of making clear what the producers--who will soon eject Whitney from the show--think of this bag of trash. Make no mistake: that's exactly what Whitney is. She may be drunk, but even sober, this girl is an unrepentent racist, a crude homophobe, a hateful, violent, stupid woman. If there's a race to the bottom on the show, and you disregard the rampant sluttiness of Ashley in your judgment, Whitney would win it, hands down.
As is pointed out multiple times throughout the show, neither Ailea nor Whitney express any regret for their actions, openly crowing about the kicks they delievered to Amber. There's no indication that they care, or even realize, that Amber M still has no idea why the fight began. As Amber B puts it before she dives into a ball of self-pity and tears, "These girls are fucking crazy. It makes me sick." Tiffany decides it's best for her to sleep on the couch, trying to calm down Whitney, who sits on a towel in front of the hotel door waiting on the return of Amber M...so she can "fuck her up again."
The next day is more of the same: now sober, Ailea, Whitney and Ashley are still proud of themselves, Amber B and Sarah are still silent, and Tiffany is backpedaling from the entire thing as quickly as possible. Amber M is nowhere to be seen, although the producers allow Amber B to go and spend some time with her in her solitary hotel room. (Later in the episode, Amber B talks about how the producers had refused to give her any information on the status of her friend, making this reunion even more emotion-heavy than it already is.) Amber M plays up her physical injuries a bit, but only so far as anyone in her situation would: she's hungover, confused and lonely, and no one will tell her what's going on.
And yes, then the cops showed up. Actually, what happens isn't completely clear: a Mexican policeman shows up. He either brings a rat-tailed translator with him, or the rat-tailed translator has some kind of involvement with the show. (Considering the translator's unsolicited put-down to Whitney, where he confidently tells her to lower her voice and sit down, I'm of the opinion that he was there in a police-related capacity. No matter what, the guy is awesome, bad haircut or no.) The cop and translator meet with some or all of the Bad Girls, the only interviews we see are the ones with Ailea, Whitney, Amber M. As can be expected, it's completely amazing and totally infuriating. Ailea, who has just finished talking about how many times she kicked Amber M, and how hard she did (as "hard as she could) while Amber M was held by Whitney, she plays innocent and blames Whitney completely. Amber M is very hesitant to give any information to the police, confused as to why they are there and how much trouble any of her roommates could get in. (This is notable, as Ailea's statement when she reunites outside with the other Bad Girls is that she believes Amber M is "pressing charges." As the cop and translator make clear, they are here because of complaints from the club and bystanders--neither Amber M nor anyone involved with the Bad Girls Club show has anything to do with it.) Because Amber M was being held down while being kicked, she's unable to confirm the assailant.
See, the cops have the club's surveillance footage, which explains why their interview with Whitney is that much more combative--informing her that she doesn't need a lawyer and then proceeding to threaten her with incarceration, telling her, firmly, to shut up--the interrogation ends with the translator making it pretty simple. "Get out of town, out of the country, or you're going to jail." It's not Hawaii 5-0, but yes, it's pretty fantastic to see Whitney faced with something so simple and direct. Drunk or no, responsible or not: fuck off, shut up, and leave.
After the police leave, and Amber M returns to her hotel room, the shows producers arrive and kick Whitney off the show. (If you care, the shows producers are a couple of white guys who look like website designers.) Like the police interrogation, it's another "no discussion" conversation.
The next day, Amber M has returned. The remaining Fab Four will not speak to her, ignoring her completely. (Except whenever she's not there, when Ailea and Ashley talk shit about her.) Tiffany is now more vocal about how bad what they're doing is, and at that night's dinner, Amber M breaks down. Locking herself in the bathroom, she bawls her eyes out. After realizing that this is the exact reaction that the other girls crave, Amber M decides to return to the hotel room. At this, Tiffany finally snaps: dismissing Ailea's claims that Amber M is just seeking attention, informing the entire table that no one, not even Amber, deserves this kind of treatment, she abandons the group and goes after Amber M. Amber B, continuing her spiral into complete servitude to those with stronger personalities, follows behind her. (Which leads to the one line that lets you in on how much Amber B may have learned from the current conflict--when Tiffany mentions that she's starting to get pissed at Ailea, Amber B glances at her vacantly and just says "Yeah." Maybe she's changing?)
Tiffany's apology to Amber M is sincere, and the producers decide to throw up another roadblock in the way of the Amber M Fallout Special. It's a classic trip into sluttiness, if you just use the word "classic" to mean "shit that happens a lot on this dumb show". In it, Ashley and Sarah bring the two guys they met previously back to the hotel room, take off all of their clothes, and fuck them. According to the girls, it was some hardcore fucking. When Sarah tells Ashley she feels sort of guilty, since Sarah has a boyfriend who she claims to care about, a boyfriend who will probably see this episode and watch her take off all her clothes and fuck some Brazilian dude she met on a beach two days earlier, Ashely asks her if she wore a condom.
"Then it doesn't count." Charming!
Tiffany calls a house meeting the next day--or that night, who knows. I can't remember. The house meeting consists of Tiffany pushing the other girls to admit that what was done to Amber M was completely out of line, and that the girls would be up in arms, crying for blood, if this had happened to any of them. Her anger and her contempt is mostly focused on Ailea's refusal to be sorry for kicking Amber M, blaming Whitney, and getting away with it. Ailea chokes out an apology, purposely sneering and stuttering while doing it, and then, for some insanely weird reason, says she'll leave the show if Amber M wants her too.
That decision takes about a second and a half. In the confessional, Amber M admits she'd have to be fucking crazy not to miss the opportunity to send Ailea packing.
Next week is a clip show that will be hosted by the Ambers. It'll probably be completely disgusting.
-Matthew J. Brady, Zeb L. West, Tucker Stone & Martin Brown, 2009