Sunday, October 16, 2005

TV Review: CBS' Monday Night Line Up

The death of the sitcom? We've seen the headlines before. But CBS seems pretty keen to kill it.
You get that feeling watching Monday nights. No we're not referring to the dull attempts at "gross out" comedy provided by "I'm off the drugs!" & "I'm not gay!" We're not even ragging on King of Queens here. (Note to two friends, we watched Monday's show. Bryan Callen was wonderful. It was the best show the series has done; however, one guest spot does not save your show. There's a reason he worked so well. The fact that he did should have encouraged you to pull for him to be a regular or to create a regular character like Jared.)

No, we're talking about How I Met Your Mother and Out of Practice, two shows that should be a breeze to watch but aren't.

How I Met Your Mother. Have you ever gone to a friend's house for dinner and then they pull out photos, slides, reels or other stuff? Okay, fine, we'll look or watch. Could be fun to discuss, right? Wrong. There's no conversation, you're just getting, "Uh-huh, now watch this."

That's How I Met Your Mother. The show has many things going for it. Alyson Hannigan and Josh Radnor are sitcom naturals -- networks should take note. The writers actually manage to write some funny scenes. (Amazing in this day and age.) But to enjoy those aspects, you have to suffer.

Radnor plays Ted. Ted hangs with Hannigan and two other friends. He's single. But here's the "twist," he will get married. This show is about how he will meet his wife. Okay, we can accept that premise. It gives the writers something to work toward, no problem.

Here's where the problem is, we don't get to enjoy the show. Future "Ted" keeps interrupting. Sometimes it's with a voice over to tell us what we just saw or are about to see, other times he's lecturing his two kids (apparently he will have two kids) in the future. The scenes fall flat and remove you from the action. They add nothing, they take away so much.

Apparently, Monday night, they existed to give us the "latest" in yucks -- Ted's son keeps repeating that Dad got beat up by a girl! Oh, that's so funny. To someone. (Probably the same someone who thought Future Ted's voice should be voiced by Bob Saget.)

To us, we would have preferred to have stayed with that date and seen it or the after effects.
Instead, just as the scene starts flowing, Future Ted's doing a voice over.

It's as though we were saying, "Wow, what an amazing chalet. Tell us, did you --" and the response was, "No, no, no! We've got to get to the next slide!"

It's a chore to watch this show. That's too bad. Hannigan and Radnor should have future sitcom successes ahead of them. (Hannigan proved her abilities in Buffy and the American Pie film series.) Two supporting players don't really register except as weak copies of Coupling (the British version, not NBC's). Someone who should have no future ahead of him is Neil Patrick Harris.

We missed the whole Doogie Houser "phenomonon." We're told it was quite popular for a second rated show, second rated for most of its life. We know Harris in the flesh but have fortunately been spared onscreen Harris until he popped up on Will & Grace. Here he does exactly what he did on Will & Grace . . . only louder. Watching him, you find yourself backing away from the TV and feeling as though you'd been seated at a table close to the stage for a really bad dinner theater revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

The show borrows a lot from a lot of places. Coupling, to be sure. But also Neil LaBute's Your Friends & Neighbors. Harris is trying to play the sleeze that Jason Patric did in that film. He's got the sleeze down, he just lacks a smolder. Without the sexual quality, you're left with a wet blanket geek carrying on about breasts and porn starts as you slowly realize that someone told Harris he was attractive. He has a face of many angles (the pointy chin, the sloped forehead, the nose) -- all of them wrong. But people who don't look like models can be sexy. They can tap into a quality. That quality eludes Harris repeatedly. He's as convincing in this role as Peter Bonerz would be as the lead in American Gigolo.

So you're left rolling your eyes as the guy who can't score even at "Last call!" acts as though he's getting some. The shouting ("This friendship is over!" or some such nonsense) would send the few who could ignore his actual looks running. Want to clear a room fast? Present Harris as sexy.

How I Met Your Mother is a perfect example of all that's wrong with sitcoms. Bad casting, bad concept and never letting the audience enjoy the moment. But watch for Hannigan and Radnor in other things. Both should have long careers. (Radnor needs to make sure he doesn't become addicted to his own "cuteness." That can kill a career -- check out Scrubs.)

While the writers at How I Met Your Mother can write scenes that are funny (provided you ignore the voice overs -- ignore them, you won't miss anything), Out of Practice is another story. The writing is hideous. The cast is incredible.

Stockard Channing can deliver a weak line and make it funny. As she demonstrated in First Wives' Club, she's not dependent upon what's on the written page. Already she's defined her character (while the writers continue to flail around). Henry Winkler is also amazing.

Now if you've watched the show, you may be screaming, "Ava and C.I., you two are insane!"

Read the scripts (we have). Winkler's got writers who don't know what they're writing. Some scripts he's supposed to be Fraiser Crane, some he's supposed to be Ray Barone. Never do you get the impression that the writers know what Winkler can do. Read a script and then watch the same episode and you'll realize how hard Winkler's working.

Paula Marshall and Ty Burrell largely ignore the text. That's working for them. They're adding physical bits that provide laughs. But they can only do that for so long. At some point, there has to be more to the characters than their movements. If the writers worked as hard (or were even half as inventive) as Marshall and Burrell, this would be the comedy everyone watches.

How do you get really bad writers at this show? CBS played it safe. They went with "proven." They never stopped to think that Fraiser, for instance, and Out of Practice have nothing in common. They never stopped to realize that Marshall and Burrell aren't playing Roz and Bull.

Out of Practice revolves around one family. The parents (Channing and Winkler) have split up. The youngest son has just gotten a divorce. Marshall and Burrell have no significant others. So this is a "get back into life" show. Considering that Fraiser dealt with that (for one episode -- usually an hour long one) every few years and not every episode, we're not seeing how Fraiser writers are fit for this show. Considering that Everybody Loves Raymond had nothing similar, we're lost there too. But both were hits and CBS thinks the writers can write anything. They can't.

The youngest son is played by Christopher Gorham who set a few hearts a flutter as the lead in the Six Million Dollar Man retread Jake 2.0. Gorham is attractive. But after casting him, no one seems to know what to do with him. Possibly, he's to be the cruise director of the show. "Crazies on the lido deck to your right. More yucks on the lower promenade." But the writers don't give him that, they don't give him anything.

As a young man recently divorced in a show called Out of Practice, he should have some storyline. This isn't trying to be a "family show" the way CBS thinks How I Met Your Mother is. (Note to CBS, talk of "nipples," dating porn stars, women spanking themselves, don't usually provide fodder for the family unless the target family audience is the Osbornes.) Gorham's not posing. He's acting and he's actually managed to create (with no help from the writers) a full blown character. If the writers could provide him with something to actually do (a storyline that doesn't provoke the light chuckles Fraiser tended to inspire), this show could be everything it should be.

With one show, How I Met Your Mother, CBS took a "premise" to be a show. The concept needs to be dropped. The writers of that show demonstrate enough talent that they might be able to write a laugh out loud episode if they weren't saddled with the "concept." With Out of Practice, the concept should have been riffed on but you've got bad writers. CBS is airing two hours of sitcoms on Monday and can't provide viewers with one solid show.

That's too bad because How I Met Your Mother and Out of Practice are "fixable." You'd have to get rid of Bob Saget and trust the viewers to laugh at what's happening onscreen, but the scenes are funny without the voice overs. Eliminating the voice overs and the opening and closing shots of the future children might offend the "creators" but if they're married to those two concepts that are destroying the show, the show's never going to work. The "concept" of The Wonder Years sexed up belongs on the second tier networks they hail from.

With Out of Practice, there is a show. No one needs to be fired from the cast. And no major changes need to happen to the characters (which the actors have created and developed without any help from the writers). The show just needs better writers. When hiring, here's a hint, if the writer's claim to understanding female characters rests on Marie Barone, don't hire them. Stockard Channing isn't Doris Roberts. Here's another tip, if "whimsy" is what the writer's known for, wish them good luck with their novel and move on quickly to the next interview. CBS has two very physical comedians in Ty Burrell and Paula Marshall. Whimsy doesn't serve them.

CDs: Dolly Parton and the Cowboy Junkies

We'd already intended to note Dolly Parton's Those Were The Days after noting last week that the promotional single for it qualified as the worst single of the year. Then Kat filled in for C.I. at The Common Ills and noted that The Laura Flanders Show would have the Cowboy Junkies on Saturday night to discuss their new anti-war CD Early 21st Century Blues. So we figured we'd take a crack at both of them. We includes Jim, Dona, Ty, Jess and Ava of The Third Estate Sunday Review, Elaine of Like Maria Said Paz, Cedric of Cedric's Big Mix, Rebecca of Sex and Politics and Screeds and Attitude, Betty of Thomas Friedman is a Great Man, Kat of Kat's Korner (of The Common Ills), Mike of Mikey Likes It!, and C.I. of both The Common Ills and The Third Estate Sunday Review as well as, for the first time helping us out, Wally of the brand new The Daily Jot. We're not doing this in transcript form. The reason being that this took place in two discussions. Cedric and Betty participated in the first but had to bail to get sleep before heading to church and Wally joined for the second.

We'll start off with Parton. We said last week that we expected to enjoy the album (despite dubbing the CD single the worst of the year) and our hunch was right. Kat noted that Parton appeared to be framing the album as a flashback by opening with "Those Were The Days." The standout tracks for us were many. "Both Sides Now" is done much faster than most are prepared for but C.I. noted that on the first "that I recall" Parton's one of the few performers who's done the song since Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell (Mitchell wrote it, Collins had the hit with it) that gets the notes right on that phrase. Joining Parton on this song is, in fact, Judy Collins. (Along with Rhonda Vincent.) Betty noted "Imagine" and how much she enjoyed the call and response in the last third of the song. With that song, along with the rest, Parton puts her own individual stamp on the recordings. This isn't a carbon copy, watered down imitation.
This is Parton taking songs that are famous (many that are in the popular music canon) and making them her own. "Me and Bobby McGee" (sung with writer Kris Kristofferson) is a perfect example. Parton's not trying to be Janis Joplin, she's trying to find her own way into the song and succeeds wonderfully. This may be one of the standout tracks for Parton fans because she (and the muscians) get to cut loose on this song. "Crimson & Clover" is another song that will please due to the high energy.

Part of the reason she succeeds in these cover versions is because she's not trying to imitate the original recordings. Instead, she's giving them the blue grass treatment. Others may be familiar with that sort of treatment of the twelve songs on this album. We weren't and we found it revolutionary. Another reason she succeeds is because Parton knows how to sing. She knows when to get soft, she knows when to get loud, she knows when to tweak a line with good humor and when to shade it. She's one of the best singers because she serves the song.

As a much covered songwriter herself, she's no doubt heard her own songs damaged by others. That may account for why she's always working to find what the song is saying and what makes it special as opposed to bowling you over with her high notes or how long she can hold a note. Or maybe it's because, as she notes in linear notes, it's because these songs are songs she's enjoyed for a long time and ones that have touched her.

Regardless of why, she does a beautiful job of recasting the songs and bringing to them new insight. Last Sunday, Kat told us that she bet Dolly would sing "harmonica" and not "harp" in her cover of "Me and Bobby McGee" and Dolly does use "harmonica." Kat's reason for guessing that was that Dolly Parton wants to communicate and move people. Kat was right about harmonica and listening to the CD we'd say she was right about Parton wanting to communicate and move. There are no bad cuts here. There's no reason to grab the remote and skip a track or to program the player to avoid one. This is an artist at work, moving you with her gift and commenting not just on songs that moved her but on the world we're living in. With Christmas just around the corner, we'd suggest you buy yourself a copy and listen to see if it doesn't make for a strong gift.

The Cowboy Junkies? Betty and Cedric both complained about their version of "I Don't Want To Be A Solider" by John Lennon. Betty's not a big fan of rap, Cedric is. But both felt Rebel's rap hurt the song more than it helped it. The song has a quiet hypnotic feel as done by the Junkies then Rebel stomps in. Cedric questioned why, after countless bedroom whisper raps by L.L. Cool Jay, Rebel didn't choose a similar approach? The song's a strange mix and some will enjoy it, other's won't.

That's the only complaint that we had regarding the album. When Wally joined us, he'd just finished listening to the CD. He enjoyed "I Don't Want To Be A Solider" but hadn't heard Betty & Cedric's criticsm. Having heard it, he said he could see their point but that the track remains one of his favorites and that he feels Rebel's rap adds to the album.

If you ever enjoyed the Cowboy Junkies, this is the album to get. Kicking off with Dylan's "License To Kill," the Junkies find the groove and don't let go. The rich textures of their strongest tracks are evident throughout the entire album. Rebecca says if there was a Rock 'n Roll Church to go with the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, the Cowboy Junkies would perform early morning services with this lineup. When Kat sent out the cry for everyone to try to grab up a copy of this CD (sent out the cry Saturday afternoon) there were some grumblings. Elaine felt that she'd been burned by the Junkies in the past with albums that featured four or five key songs and then seemed to run out of steam. Early 21st Century Blues won her over and she feels it's like sitting at a table up front in a small club while the Junkies are on fire and hitting all the right notes.

Jess noted the guitar work (Michael Timmins) on "Two Soldiers" as a stand out with "You're Missing" as a close runner up. Bruce Springsteen fan Mike felt that the Junkies actually improved on Springsteen's version of "You're Missing." One thing that stood out to him was the conversational style of Margo Timmins singing. On The Laura Flanders Show Saturday night, Margo Timmins spoke of the shock it must be getting the news that someone you loved had just died in Iraq and how, if it were, she might be thinking that morning before the news came in, how he always left his shoes lying in the hall. Her singing on this song perfectly captures the quiet moments that emerge in the face of shocking news.

Dona and Ava, who've been on their own music education experience for about a year now, were especially impressed with the cover of Richie Havens "Handouts In The Rain." They feel that it's rare someone manages to match the ache in one of Havens' mournful vocals but that it's done here. We all agreed that at a time when Bono seems determined to write off U2 and music, the Cowboy Junkies bring new life to "One." It provides the perfect note for the CD to go out on.

The Cowboy Junkies would prefer that if you order online, you order the album through their website. (You can also purchase Dolly Parton's Those Were The Days online at Sugar Hill Records.) Possibly, like us, you'll prefer to rush out and get them both.

We think that they make a great companion set. We also are glad to see artists who are willing to do more than go around blathering about the fun in washing out Lance Armstrong's dirty briefs while offering banal crap like "Where Has All The Love Gone" (the ", man" -- as C.I. noted -- is implied). These are strong statements from artists who are trying to create something a little deeper than "Good Is Good" ("and bad is bad"). As this country approaches the third year anniversary of the invasion in March, we're still amazed by how so few "artists" seem to have been effected in any way, shape or form. (Maybe they're trying, like Carole King with the altering of the lyrics to "Sweet Seasons," not to offend the politicians?)

Art is supposed to reflect life, it's supposed to comment on the world around us. So it's more than surprising to us that so few have cared to even dip a toe in the water of current events. Lot of Petulia Clarks cautioning "Don't Sleep In The Subway" but not a lot of people asking "What's Going On?" One song is enjoyable kitsch while the other is art. History and legacies aren't made, people aren't remembered, by standing quietly on the sidelines. That's a lesson that's lost on too many of "artists" today. Fortunately, Dolly Parton and the Cowboy Junkies aren't afraid to weigh in.

Both do it via albums of covers (Michael Timmins wrote "December Skies" and "This World Dreams Of" on Early 21st Century Blues, the other nine tracks are covers). If someone feels they can't write something strong (the Rolling Stones wrote two strongs commenting on the occupation on A Bigger Bang), than they shouldn't. But instead of putting the listener to sleep with bad rhymes and really obvious imagery ("rolling thunder"), they can find a song written by someone else. The Junkies and Parton are weighing in on the world around them. That alone should peek your interest. The fact that these are also two solid CDs should make you think about purchasing them.

The barber has been captured! Rest easy, America!

Elaine and Isaiah spoke about the latest capture on the phone Saturday night. We like both their takes on it.

At the top of this post is Isaiah's The World Today Just Nuts take on it. Here's Elaine's take (from the news review):

But good news for Bully Boy. They've yet to capture Osama bin Laden, some five years later, but when he faces the cameras next, he can trumpet the fact that they have allegedly caught the barber of Al Qaeda. Sleep easy, America, terrorists remain at large, but we've nailed the coiffeur! No one's on the run but senior al Qaeda militants will be looking pretty ragged.

Note from Jim, Dona, Jess, Ava and Ty

We don't think it's a coincidence. We don't think it's a coincidence that C.I. says on Saturday morning to think about January 2004, wait, let's go to that entry:

On Plamegate, to make up for these morning entries, I'll note this question needs to be asked: Where did Miller find the notes re: earlier conversation with Scoots? January 2004 may hold part of the answer. (It's a puzzle, like a jumble. Put on your thinking caps.)

C.I. heard rumors about that awhile back and had shared them with Ava who'd passed them on to Dona who passed them on to Jim. Then on Friday morning, C.I. heard more rumors including that the report on Miller (as opposed to the one she wrote) might address the issue of the notes.
We knew about it, Jim, Dona and Ava.

We think it's interesting that someone who's never thought to explore the emergence of new notes suddenly (later that day, much later) has an article that suddenly is interested in those notes. C.I. says it could be synchronicity. C.I. says maybe some people at The Times spoke to ____.

Maybe. But this makes for the third time ____ has suddenly "found" a lead after it's gone up at The Common Ills.

We think that's defying the odds. Especially since _____ hasn't had the leads that C.I. has had.
C.I.'s coverage of the Miller matter at The Times is echoed in the paper today. If you followed The Common Ills you really had no surprises. In the entry Rebecca did (based on and credited to a conversation she had with C.I.) about how the paper could argue for Miller, it was even noted that Abramson might not want to be a part of the fight for Miller. It's no surprise to community members that Abramson publicly states she wishes the whole thing had never happened.

While ____ tried to figure out The Times strategy, it was up there at The Common Ills. Remedial posts when people would write, "She had the release!" So our point is that ____ doesn't seem to have a strong line to the paper.

How strong was C.I.'s? Remember when Scoots was named by Miller? Check out Ava's post at The Common Ills that day where she links to Rudith Miller (the day the press was reporting on Scoots being the source). Why? Well who's named as a Miller source (the only one named) in that Judith Miller parody? Scoots.

That's what Ty's referring to in the news review when he says, "I just got that." to C.I.'s comments about "to slam and slam freely." That's the section right before Scoots gets mentioned. (Rudith Miller was written on Januaray 9, 2004.) Again, ___'s information line to the paper appears nowhere as strong as C.I.'s so forgive us for being skeptical when suddenly ____ is all over where-did-the-notes-come-from! hours after C.I. has already posted on it.

____ is a jerk prone to fighting with others. If ___ wants to identify their own self by e-mailing us we'll print the e-mail. (Or the parts of it we find most humorous.)

Otherwise ___ gets no mention here or at any other community site. We were all in agreement on that. We believe ____ took from The Common Ills without giving credit. Not one, not twice, but three times that we know of. We're not going to help advance ____'s name.

_____ could uncover proof that Bully Boy was an alien and we wouldn't link to or mention ____.

We will, however, offer ____ a tip now that the Miller story may be reaching a climax. Ava and C.I. know all about the high profile firing that no one wants to talk about but prefers to act as if it was work related when in fact it was the by product of "a lost weekend." C.I. toyed with writing about that but in the end decided not to. Ava and C.I. addressed it here in roundtables but would both pull it before posting. (Over Jim's strenuous objections.) But if ____ needs a scoop ____ can look into the real reason for the firing, as opposed to the press reason, and ____ can start by speaking to guests and employees of the hotel the fired stayed at the weekend of the big no-no.

-- Jim, Dona, Jess, Ava and Ty

The Third Estate Sunday Review News Review 10-16-05

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