We're back, with a whole bunch of shows. Let's get right to it.
The Simpsons: Politically Inept, With Homer Simpson
This was essentially another "Homer gets a job" episode (and at this point, those episodes are so ubiquitous that I didn't even view the episode in those terms until long after I'd watched it) but his stint as a conservative political TV pundit was really just a vehicle through which the writer delivered one of the most overly-satirical episodes of the season. We got zings at the state of air travel (“You should have thought about that before you drank the fluids you need to live”), politics in general ("I'll just vote for a democrat. The great thing about them is they when they get in office, they act like Republicans anyway") and TV pundits (“Take that, centers of art and commerce!”; also, that Liberal strawman show was 100 kinds of hilarious), from start to finish. Easy targets? Yes, but still funny as hell. Really, the only thing that didn't work was, as has been the case often, the ending, which wrapped things up rather abruptly (and really, all the Ted Nugent stuff in the third and fourth acts seemed a bit random and not as biting as the earlier gags). That said, the whole Homer crying/"feeling things really extremely" bit was nicely setup earlier in the episode, so it wasn't a completely out-of-nowhere resolution.
The best part of the third act was easily James Madison (one my favorite presidents) teaching Homer that politics are serious business ("You are an embarrassment to the aristocratic slaveholders who forged this mighty nation.").
I love that, despite this show's loose relationship with continuity, Republican Headquarters has always been depicted as that same imperious fortress on a rocky outcropping.
Homer: The only thing I wait in lines this long for are slightly better cellphones.
TSA Agent: True patriots breast-feed.
Family Guy: Quagmire and Meg
Maybe it's just that I was expecting something much, much worse from the episode description, but this turned out to not be nearly as creepy as I feared. I mean, it was still plenty creepy, and there's no way any episode that deals with Quagmire trying to sleep with Meg (whether or not she's 18) isn't going to be a little creepy (the whole texting conversation between the two was both funny and disturbing in a "cuz it's true" kind of way), but this could have been much worse. It was even kinda sweet at times, with Peter and Lois trying to prevent Meg's first adult decision being a bad one representing the most concern either parent has shown for their daughter in quite some time (of course, you could argue that Peter was looking out for Meg simply because Quagmire was after his daughter, but Family Guy is rarely concerned with gender politics that complicated). This wasn't the funniest Family Guy episode this season, but it also wasn't the most creepy/disturbing, and given the subject matter, that's saying something.
American Dad: The Unbrave One
American Dad continues its impressive run of consistently entertaining episodes. Nothing here was groundbreaking, and nearly all of the humor came from the characters doing exactly what we expected them to do (Roger screwed over Steve, Stan took something too far, etc.). Familiarity can often breed boredom, and boredom is rarely a friend of comedy, but despite the familiarity, this was still pretty funny. It wasn't surprising that Stan took to the idea of a being able to raise a more masculine third child as hard as he did, but his John McCain murals were still pretty hilarious. Where Family Guy is much more willing to play with its form and audience expectations (to both good and ill effect), American Dad has settled in to a place where it's comfortable letting its characters do their thing, and allowing the hilarity to ensure, which is a good place for a comedy to be.
Enough pretentious blah-blahing about the show as a whole. The single biggest laugh of the night for me came from Steve casually and coldly knocking that kid off his scooter as he leaped into action to save that lady's baby.
That said, I also adored Roger's elaborate throne and regalia in his first scene with Steve, and the fact that the whole setup went completely unexplained and unremarked upon.
Poor Haley; even Jeff is getting more airtime these days.
Does it make me a terrible person that I pretty much loved all the digs this episode made about Sully Sullenberger?
How I Met Your Mother: Tailgate
A decent start for a new year, following an inconsistent first half of the season. As is often the case, the stuff with Marshall and his dad was the most heartwarming (though the Marshall/Lily story was good for some laughs as well, juxtaposing the old "in what religion do we raise our kid?" discussion with Marshall's fervent belief in the paranormal). Ted and Barney got to do the heavy comedic lifting, resurrecting their idea of a bar named Puzzles and bringing it to life in Ted's apartment. Generally, Douchey Ted is humorous in small doses (just not when it overtakes his character for several episodes), and thus his desire for Puzzles to be a modern day literary Salon while Barney just wanted to pick up chicks worked. It was also nice to see Kevin involved in a story sans Robin (even if Ted and Barney were a little too dickish towards him), something few HIMYM romantic interests are afforded. The Robin storyline was fine; nothing incredibly funny there, but nothing problematic or boring either. Giving Robin a storyline independent of any "will they/won't they" tension is certainly a good idea, and hopefully her return to being an on air personality gives her character something else to do in the episodes ahead.
Poor, devoted Marshall: if only the Vikings had given him anything to be that excited about.
I'm not quite sure Marshall had enough time to get from New York to Minnesota in between his stories, but that's TV I suppose.
Young Marshall: Dad, is there anything you don't know?
Marvin: No, I know most stuff.
2 Broke Girls: And the Secret Ingredient
I actually have little to say about this episode (it was fine as far as 2 Broke Girls is concerned, lighter on the racist humor than usual, with a strong story at its core that offered some nice insights into Max's character), but I wanted to take a moment to talk about the big kerfuffle that occurred at the TCA's winter press tour between Michael Patrick King (the co-creator of this show) and the critics in attendance.
The Television Critics Association is a group of television critics who meet for a conference twice a year (in January and July) along with the major TV networks, PBS, and several cable networks, in which the networks announce upcoming shows and discuss current ones via panels and interviews. Thus far, the big news out this winter's press tour was the ugliness that occurred during CBS' panel for 2 Broke Girls in which things got rather heated between the show's co-creator King and the critics when the critics continued to press King on the blatant racism in the scenes involving Han, Oleg and Earl.
I won't get into a lot of details since I wasn't, you know, there (you can find great write-ups of the panel here and here, and I encourage you to read them both) but by all accounts, it was a crazy scene at an event in which critics rarely manage to rattle a producer to this extreme, nor where a producer fails quite so spectacularly to fall back on the usual promotional BS and platitudes in order to nip the situation in the bud. More importantly, it makes it clear that my biggest problem with this show, the lack of development for the three diner-based supporting characters, isn't seen as a problem by anyone involved with the show (or, at least, certainly not with its showrunner, who above all else seems mystified that it's even a thing and we all don't just love his show unquestionably) and is unlikely to be rectified anytime soon (there remains some confusion as to whether or not CBS has asked King to deepen those characters or not). Which means that the solid work of the actresses at its center will continue to be undermined, and the show held back from becoming a really great sitcom any time soon.
Top Chef: BBQ Pit Wars
With Top Chef staple Restaurant Wars looming and (I think) the amount of Texas food stereotypes dwindling, hopefully this episode put an end to the obviously-Texas themed challenges. I get that Texas BBQ is a thing, and am glad they did a straight-up BBQ challenge whilst in Texas, but when one of the random BBQ attendees mentioned how difficult it must have been for the chefs to do Texas BBQ, as though a challenge where they had to stay up all night cooking over an open fire so their efforts could be judged on national TV would somehow be easier if it was being conducted in Kansas City or Kentucky, I just about punched the TV, so fed up was I with this season's "everything's better in Texas" BS.
In better news, this was the episode where the show reached that nebulous point it does each season when all the chefs start to feel like distinct individuals. I still don't have a favorite (just chefs I like and ones that annoy me), and the only chef to to elicit much of a reaction from me this season (Heather) is surprisingly gone, but I'm glad to finally have a handle on everyone left standing, at least in terms of recognition/personality.
The Modern Cuisine product placement didn't bother me but man, the way the chef's drooled over that truck in a way that suggested they were handed specific lines by producers off camera was pretty obvious and shameless, even by Top Chef's low standards when it comes to this stuff.
Beverly is one of the contestants who has settled squarely in the "annoying" category even while she was being bullied, so I chuckled at her foam mishap.
The Judges' Table format continues to be unpredictable, as there were two teams on the bottom. Maybe everything from both teams was really that bad, but it seemed like Ed and Ty-Lor, Master of the Universe, did okay based on the pre-Judges' Table comments.
I kinda wanted the team that did Asian BBQ to come out on the bottom, just because they acted like they were frickin' genius for coming up with an idea that is, frankly, only creative by comparison to the other teams, who went completely traditional.
I should probably talk about the whole "Sarah goes to the hospital" plotline, but there wasn't much to get worked up about. She left, Ty-Lor, Master of the Universe rolled with it, Ed freaked out, she came back. Maybe if she or Ed went home because of it, it would matter more, but in the end it seems like it was no big deal.
Whether it was to generate tension or just to eff with us, this seemed like a very manipulatively-edited episode. As presented, it seemed very clear to me that the girls was the lesser team. SO MUCH was made of their disorganization and sniping in the kitchen, coupled with the fact that I swear any positive comments the judges had about their food while at the restaurant were downplayed (all season, there seems to be a disconnect between what the judges say while dining and what they say at Judges' Table, but it seemed especially egregious tonight) that when Tom declared they had the better food of the two teams I was almost shocked. I get the need to develop a narrative to surprise the audience, but it seems like the producers were trying just too hard this time around
Also, I still can't believe we're already down to the final seven, as I continue to have little investment in any of these contestants (and usually by now there's at least a few I'm rooting for or against). I mean, I'm kinda bummed that Ty-Lor, Master of the Universe is gone, but that's mainly just because of his goofy ass name. His departure certainly wasn't on the same level as some of the contestants from previous seasons who were beaten by this challenge, as Padma alluded to early in the episode.
I should like Chris (I mean, he did reference the Kobyashu Maru tonight, and I tend to like the molecular gastronomy guys like Marcel and Blais), but sometimes I feel like he's trying too hard to be the hip nerd. Ed manages to alternate between just cool enough and just enough of a jerk that I can neither love nor hate him. Lyndsay kinda bugs me for no good reason, and Sarah is kinda shrill, but neither one has done enough to really elicit a reaction. Beverly is annoying, both because she's a spaz and because all the other chefs wig out around her, but I don't hate her. I like Grayson, but mainly just because she's Top Chef hot. If I had to pick a favorite right now, it would probably be Paul, but only because he seems pretty competent and tends to just shut up and do his thing. At the same time, I wouldn't be all that upset or surprised if he went home soon. I'm not sure if it's a post-All Stars letdown, two many team challenges, an over-emphasis on drama instead of cooking or just a thoroughly unremarkable cast, but it's just been a weird season so far.
No Quickfire. Is that new, or have they eschewed the Quickfire in other Restaurant Wars episodes?
I'm pretty sure they split the teams along gender lines just because they could, this being (I think) the first season where there was an even number of guys and girls in the final eight.
I'd think being able to go second would be a HUGE advantage, but nothing was really made of it. Odd.
The whole "other team dines in the restaurant" bit was another one of the little wrinkles they like to throw in with each iteration of this challenge (each one is always a little bit different), but it also amounted to nothing, as far as we saw.
30 Rock: Dance Like Nobody's Watching
Another episode that trumped my lowered expectations. My DVR led me to believe Kenneth's subplot would play a larger role than it did, and Kenneth is a character who works best in the smallest of doses (honestly, he could leave the show and I don't think I'd miss him). Fortunately, his "the Rapture is coming tomorrow" subplot was the least of the plots in the show's long awaited sixth season premiere (and it did lead to the great sight gag of a gun totting Santa and Black Jesus climbing out of a dumpster).
The other two stories, Liz's mystifying post-break happiness and Jack's crisis of conscience triggered by Jenna's role as the Simon Cowell of an American Idol-esque kids singing competition were much stronger. America's Kidz Got Singing! is the kind of satire 30 Rock does oh so well, and it was pleasantly surprising that Liz's newfound happiness wasn't lost by episode's end.
It's not Community, but I'm glad 30 Rock is back.
The fact that America's Kidz Got Singing! featured public domain songs so NBC wouldn't have to pay for song rights is exactly the kind of thing I could see the real NBC doing. Also, I loved that the closing montage of this episode was done to "Camptown Races".
So Liz has a mystery guy, and the show a new overarching plot thread. Interesting.
The whole "Avery was kidnapped and forced to live in North Korea" is one of my least favorite plots on the show, but tonight we learned, in the wake of Kim Jong Il's death, she's now married to his son.
"Bandido Blanco” is the name for cocaine Tracy just made up.
Jenna: 1 across, 5 letters. Jenna Maroney’s first name. (Loved that the People crossword puzzle was all of three lines).
Tracy: I took a real age test. It said I’m dead.
Jack: We could make even more money by pretending to be nice. Look at Betty White.
Parks and Recreation: The Comeback Kid
As soon as it became clear that Leslie was going to run for city council sans her advisors in the last episode before the winter break, Ben's eventual role running her campaign struck me as inevitable. As this episode opened and Leslie (humorously) declared that Anne would be her campaign manager and casually dismissed the notion of Ben doing it, I worried that seeming inevitability would get dragged out into a little mini arc for the season, with Anne flailing about for several episodes before we finally got there. I shouldn't have worried, because this episode ran the course of Anne's management from start to finish, ending with Ben accepting Leslie's offer and nipping the whole thing in the bud.
In the B-plot, Chris stopped by to help Ben get out his post-resignation funk. In addition to being a vehicle for showing off Ben's hilariously lame hobbies ("Claymash") and wild hair, it was nice to see the two of them interact in a way that didn't require Chris to be the bad guy and recalled the close friendship we've been told the pair share, thanks to their history of moving from town to town fixing governments. Chris was also reasonably toned down and down-to-Earth (though still Chris), a good move for a character who often comes dangerously close to being a manic cartoon.
The sequence in which everyone inched along the ice, then proceeded to hoist Leslie onto her tiny stage while "Get On Your Feet" cycled on and off was a fantastic bit of physical comedy.
The biggest laugh of the night came when we returned from commercial and Leslie was giving a pep talk in the locker room while Andy wore a hockey mask with no explanation and for no apparent reason.
I hope this isn't the last we see of Champion, April and Andy's three legged dog.
I would totally eat at The Low Cal Calzone Zone.
Leslie: Don't listen to your head or your heart; just look into my eyes and say yes.
Saturday Night Live: Charles Barkley & Kelly Clarkson
So I missed the last few sketches of this episode because I completely forgot that the football game was on NBC which meant there was a good chance SNL would get pushed back and to adjust my DVR accordingly (the last sketch I got was the Adult Film awards bit), and haven't had a chance to catch the rest online yet. So I'll eschew the usual sketch-by-sketch rundown, since I didn't get to see them all. But what I did see was generally pretty good. Charles Barkley is clearly not a performer, and while I would kind of expect his ability to read cue cards/teleprompters would be better given his position as an NBA analyst on TNT, he, like Melissa McCarthy earlier this season, was clearly game for anything, and his complete devotion to everything the writers gave him helped smooth over any rough edges.
Fortunately, the writers turned out some decent material. Heck, his monologue was terribly delivered, but it was one of the funniest of the season, and one of the few true monologues (without a song, or questions from "the audience", or visits from "people from his past"). It was definitely a sports-heavy night, not surprisingly, which may color your appreciation of much of the episode, but the only real stinker (of the sketches I saw) was the "coming out" sketch, which seemed to have no jokes at all beyond the fact that dressing Charles Barkley up like a woman could be funny (it really wasn't, certainly not enough to carry a sketch).
Everything else more or less worked. I always like it when SNL is able to have an actor play the host while the host plays someone else, so I enjoyed the Charles Barkley/Shaq banter on the "Inside the NBA" sketch ("I’m on TV. I’m Shaq"), and the adult film awards sketch was full of great little laugh moments and hilarious names. Seth had a couple memorable lines on Weekened Update (I liked the crack about a Wal-Mart employee said everyone knows there's no bills larger than a ten, and the bit about the Star Wars stuntman who did Darth Vader's sword fighting dying recently after a protacted battle with his son). We all know I'm no Kristen Wiig fan, but I enjoy her Michelle Bachmann (though if they're going to do a bit about her never blinking, Wiig should try to blink less...) and Drunk Uncle grew on me this time around (the less said about Nicholas Fein the better). Finally, they brought back Lord Wyndemere(already!) and managed to keep the same funny bits from the first sketch without just repeating it verbatim.
So all in all, a strong midseason return, at least from what I saw. I hope to catch the rest online, but at the same time, I worry they may have stuck all the stinkers on the end. Maybe I should just leave well enough alone...
Favorite Sketch: I'm tempted to go with the Lord Wyndemere sketch, but it was definitely the commercial for Charles Barkley's post-game conference translator app. Not only was it the most polished Barkley was all night (due to it being pre-taped, I'm sure) but it completely nailed the vagaries of athletes and coaches post-game comments.
Barkley: You all look like turkey legs to me. Especially you. But we have a great show for you tonight. A turkey leg named Kelly Clarkson is here.
Drunk Uncle: When I was a kid, five dollars, you could get hot dog milk bread cigarettes television.
Episodes Featuring a Game Show: 3/11
Episodes with a Monologue Featuring a Song: 5/11