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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Last Week in Pop Culture #14

It's been a couple weeks without much new TV, but things came roaring back this week, and I used that time off to catch up on a few things, and even finish one particular rewatch. 

The Simpsons: Steal This Episode

One of the funnier episodes of the season (bot the FBI's zeal to go after internet pirates and most of the Hollywood stuff had me laughing consistently), and one that wisely acknowledges it's tackling an issue with no easy answers. That said, this episode felt, at times like a retread of earlier episodes (in more specific ways than usual): I'm fairly certain Homer has gone on a rage-filled tirade brought on by all the pre-show junk at movie theaters before, and the whole "pirating movies" thing felt like a rehash of the classic "stealing cable" episode from season two, which just made Lisa's relative lack of involvement in this episode stick out. 

Bob's Burgers: Slumber Party
This was obviously a pretty great Louise episode, but I also loved the whole raccoon subplot, both for how hooked on it Linda and Teddy were, and for the way Bob quickly got sucked in (“Let’s put a hat on him!”). 

Once Upon a Time: Ariel 
To the show's credit, I fully expected the whole "Neal is alive but Hook isn't telling Emma because of his own feelings for her" plot to be left simmering for most of the season, leading to the inevitable moment when Emma, having fallen for Hook, learns the truth, but this episode nipped that whole thing in the bud and reunited the Charming Gang with Neal relatively quickly. Kudos.

Having Regina break away from the Charming Gang and team-up with Rumpelstiltskin (and slap some sense into the sadsack Rumple) was another smart move. Regina also said she'd been camping with the Charmings for a week, which gives us some sense of a timeline for the season.

That said, revealing that mermaids can travel between dimensions thirty seconds before that became relevant to the plot isn't the greatest writing in the world.  

Agents of SHIELD: Repairs

I think this might have been the worst episode of the season thus far. The biggest problem was that it buried the lead: the villain du jour was a guy who was stuck being transported between our world and another dimension, which he believed to be hell. That's your story - how did that happen, what's that dimension like, why does he think it's hell? - not the story of the girl he's protecting/stalking. It committed the cardinal sin of case-of-the-week shows: ignoring a far more interesting element in favor of spending time with a one-off character we'll never see again.

This episode, we also learn more about May's background, and her status as "the cavalry". As described, that would have been a better story to build this episode around as well, though that would have required the show to actually show those events, instead of having the characters tell each other about it.  

The Bridge
This episode was better, helped by the return of J. August Richards and the show's serialized elements. That Cenitpede wanted Coulson and not Mike wasn't exactly shocking, but their reason for wanting Coulson was, simply because I doubted the show would be ready to delve any deeper into the Coulson resurrection mystery this soon.

The Magical Place 
I've seen some grousing online about how unsatisfactory the reveal of Coulson's resurrection was in this episode, which confused me, mainly because this didn't seem like a reveal at all. It was confirmed that he didn't go to Tahiti (which seemed pretty obvious), was dead for much longer than he believed, and that SHIELD used some whacky tech to bring him back, but we still don't know why (what makes Coulson so much more important than any other dead agent?) or how (what was the tech doing? Was it making him a human brain, a robot one, a synthetic one?). Yeah, we learned more about it than we ever had before, but it felt very much like just another (relatively large) piece of the puzzle, and not the entire puzzle itself.

All that aside, I largely enjoyed the episode just on the strength of seeing the team working together as a team. May getting Skye booted off the plane for everyone's good was pretty obvious, but Skye's solo adventure was nonetheless fun (if patently ridiculous) to watch, and I hope edgier Fitz sticks around. 

No, the disappointing part of this episode was the fact that all the serialized elements dealing with Centipede slipped into the background again. The Clairvoyant is still out there, and Coulson remains likely to continue grappling with his resurrection (and the whole Skye's parents mystery is still lingering), but with the death of Po and the capture of Raina, the series seems ready to slip back into case-of-the-week mode again for awhile, whereas it seemed like these last two more-serialized episode might have marked a more permanent turning point in that direction.

I am glad Gunn survived, and that the reveal of his survival wasn't held back to make a bigger deal out of it.

Top Chef: Mississippi Mud Bags

I'm not certain that Carlos is necessarily the villain the producers likely want for this final run of the season - his villainy seems born of some combination of laziness and cultural and/or regular ignorance rather than actual malice - but I'm still surprised to see him hanging around. I hadn't pegged Carrie for one of the finalist slots, but I certainly figured she'd outlast Carlos.

I wished we'd seen more of how Stephanie cooked around her shellfish allergy - I'm fascinated by stuff like that (how someone in the professional cooking world works around an allergy or distaste for something, when it seems like they're expected to know and like everything), similar to how I'd love to see a vegetarian chef compete on the show. 

Oui Si A Challenge
As much as I may want to, it's hard to ding Nick for not bowing out on his own accord. He won immunity, and those are the rules of the game, and he has every right to follow them. I'm sure we'd all like to say, as Shirley and Stephanie did, that they would have done things differently if they were in Nick's position, but it's impossible to know without being in the situation. I don't begrudge their anger towards Nick, but it's easy to say they'd do it differently looking in from the other side.

No, the frustrating part of this elimination is that it once again highlights the show's deeply flawed elimination process, taking into account at no point past performance and foisting a team challenge onto the contestants when they're down to the final six even while immunity is still on the table. When the judges are forced to consider sending home the contestant who they say cooked their favorite food of the night (and then do so), you know your setup is flawed.

Do this challenge the same way, split the group into two teams, but judge them individually. If Nick is still the worst and refuses to bow out, then send the second-worst contestant home. Or, if Nick refuses to give up his immunity (which is his right per the rules), then the judges refuse to send someone home, and do a double elimination next episode (which is within their rights).

Or, not have immunity on the table from the start - why the hell was it even there, with six contestants left? Usually, at this point in the season, we're long past the point where Quickfire wins translate to immunity.

Bottom line: if the goal is to select the best chef as the winner, the setup of this challenge hampers those efforts. If the goal is to create drama, mission accomplished. Obviously, the producers are most concerned with the latter, but any integrity the judges have is diminished when that concern is allowed to run roughshod over the former.

But hey, at least the producers have their Big Bad for the season now. 

This week's Quickfire was pretty neat, though. 

Keith Law, who does an excellent write-up of each episode every week, also pointed out that, morals aside, Nick may have made a poor practical decision in not resigning: even if he failed to return via Last Chance kitchen, resigning as a hero would probably make it easier to parlay his appearance on the show into success than being a jerk and sticking around, even if he does win it all.

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

While I liked the first film just fine, I think I liked this one more. Though just as long as the previous film, it moved a bit faster, with a greater sense of urgency and a tighter narrative. It also, appropriately enough, felt like the middle chapter of trilogy, one where the origin/setup had been taken care of and the story could just stretch out and do its thing.

The barrel sequence was a pretty fantastic bit of action filmmaking, and is one of the most exciting and better action sequences I've seen in years, while Smaug was a marvelous bit of effects work coupled with a great voice performance from internet darling Benedict Cumberbatch, all cool silkiness and simmering menace over barely-suppressed rage.

Evangeline Lilly's made-up-for-the-films Tauriel was also surprisingly effective. I thought she did a great job with the part (never once did I want to tell stupid Kate to go back to the damned camp), and there's no denying that the story could use the presence of some additional female characters.

Community: Repilot & Introduction to Teaching

Unlike most of the internet, I didn't hate the last season of Community. It had some good episodes, some bad, and greater-than-usual ratio of average episodes, but it was still watchable and not the greatest crime against humanity, as some would have you believe. That said, there's no denying that the return of Dan Harmon to the show, at least as evidenced in these first two episodes, has brought something ineffable to the show, something that was missing.

I wish I could quantify what it was; the actors seem more confident yet relaxed in their roles, the mix of sincerity and cynicism that so defines the show somehow feels more earned. I dunno. I wish I could point to what it is, because it's entirely possible I'm seeing something that isn't there, that if I was never told these episodes were made with Dan Harmon's involvement, I wouldn't think they were any different from the better episodes of last season. But whether I'm imagining it or not, there's no denying these two episodes have something that was missing last season, and the show is all the better for it.  

Troy ragging on Zach Braff for disappearing early in Scrubs final season *almost* makes his upcoming departure okay. But I will still miss him so much. 

Parks and Recreation: Fluoride
This episode was, of course, a strong one for Leslie, but it was also a pretty great episode for Tom, as he was finally able to put his nonsense marketing acumen to good use for Leslie, tossing out stupid terms like "Sparkle Points" for the people of Pawnee to lap up. 

The Cones of Dunshire
Similarly, as much as this episode was a fantastic showcase for nerdy Ben (and his poor, idolizing co-workers at the accounting firm), this was also a strong episode for Chris. I don't know exactly how many episodes Rob Lowe has left on the show (it can't be many), but this would serve as a pretty suitable farewell to the character.

This also felt a bit like a season finale or season premiere, in the way it setup new status quos for certain characters, like Ron selling his cabin to April and Ben becoming City Manager. 

On the later: The rule that employees couldn't date (the one that was such a big plot point in the past) was a Chris rule, not, like, a law, correct? Otherwise, I don't see how Ben could be city manager, unless he chooses not to apply that rule (or it doesn't apply to married, as opposed to dating, couples).

I love that Moby Dick is Ron's favorite book, because he doesn't like metaphors. 

X-Files Season 1

I finished my re-watch of the first season of X-Files recently, though it was less of a re-watch than a new-watch, as I hadn't realized just how few episodes from that first season I'd seen. I didn't become a religious viewer of the show until maybe the fourth (ish) season (as I move ahead with my re-watch, I'm curious to see when exactly I hit the point where I've seen every episode), and while I had seen a lot of the "greatest hits" episode from the first season (like "E.B.E" and "The Erlenmeyer Flask") there were a lot I'd never seen (including, sadly, the pilot).

Nowadays, X-Files is pretty much acknowledged as the show that introduced the concept of "mythology" to serial dramas, and the concept of ultimately failing to adequately payoff that mythology by the end of the series. Nonetheless, I remain a hardcore mythology guy in general, and I can't deny that the mythology-based episodes in the first season remain some of my favorites, even knowing full well that little of it pays off in a satisfactory end (I was late getting to this show, but I stuck with it to the very end). There were a handful of case-of-the-week stories that rose above the others ("Ice" and the Tooms episodes, of course, were pretty great, and I liked "Eve" (the one with the creepy twin girls), the one with Zelko Ivanek playing a mentally-challenged twin possessed by the cryogenically-frozen mind of his brother, mainly on the strength of Ivanek, and "Gender Bender", the one with the gender-shifting pseudo-Amish aliens was fun in a "WTF?" kind of way), but for the most part, the episodes that most held my attention were the ones dealing in some part with the conspiracy working against Mulder and Scully.

Amongst some of the standalones I found more laughable/less engaging: the one with the evil sentient computer that kills Donal Logue in an elevator, the obligatory Native American/mysticism/werewolf episode, and the one where Mulder's boyhood astronaut hero is haunted by a space ghost who is not Space Ghost.

Also, while I know it gets better, I was surprised by just how Vancouver-y looking these early episodes are. The production values early on, before the show became are hit, are at near-syndication levels at times, which is just funny given how successful the show becomes. 

Other Stuff I Watched
Family Guy "Peter Problems", American Dad "Vision: Impossible", Sleep Hollow "The Golem", New Girl "Clavado En Un Bar", The Goldbergs "You're Under Foot", Trophy Wife "The Big 5-0", Brooklyn Nine-Nine "Pontiac Bandit", Revolution "Love Story", Modern Family "And One To Grow On", The Big Bang Theory "The Hesitation Ramification". 

Quotable Quotes
The Simpsons
Homer: You promised to love, honor, and abet me!
Marge: I never wanted to say funny vows!
Homer: But you did! And they got laughs—solid laughs!

Trophy Wife
Kate: 50 is the new 40, 40 is the new 30, and I’m 30, so basically we’re both 30

Jackie: In the New Age community, what’s done is never done. It may not have even happened.

Parks and Recreation
Ron: I hate metaphors. That’s why my favorite book is Moby Dick. No frou-frou symbolism. Just a good, simple tale about a man who hates an animal.


  1. I sometimes think I'm the only one who had no problems with Community last year. It really felt no different to me at the time. However watching the premiere episodes of the new season, I do agree that it feels different somehow, and a little more creative.

    At any rate, it was nice to see that Harmon didn't totally write off the last season. He could've turned it into a dream or something, but he's actually running with it.

    (This is where I make some snarky remark about how today's comic book writers could stand to take some cues from Harmon's approach.)

  2. @Matt: I sometimes think I'm the only one who had no problems with Community last year.

    I know what you mean. You and me, against the world! :)

    At any rate, it was nice to see that Harmon didn't totally write off the last season. He could've turned it into a dream or something, but he's actually running with it.

    I also really appreciated that (and probably should have said as much in the post). He got his dig in with the gas leak comment then moved on, rolling with the circumstances and working it into his story. Kudos.


  3. I'm with you pretty much all the way in your comments on Once, Parks and Rec, and even Community — so that's three of us.

    Agents of SHIELD too, more or less. I guess where we differ is that not only was I expecting bigger (or completer) answers from "The Magical Place" based on how it was promoted but more crucially I felt like the show thought it was giving us more than it was, so that concerns me.

    I'd love to rewatch The X-Files someday. There was a rave review in Entertainment Weekly early in the first season that got me to watch on a night where the pilot was re-airing back-to-back with another recent if not new episode and I was hooked immediately. I watched until the bitter end despite how they royally screwed up the mythology and Samantha's fate in particular.


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