Thursday, August 26, 2010

some quick TV talk before I hit the hay

With the loss of my two favorite shows, "Battlestar Galactica" and "24," I've had to make do with broadcast leftovers. Here's a quick roundup of shows that have, for some reason or another, caught my eye.

1. "The Great Food Truck Race" (Food Network). Yet another "reality" show involving cooking under pressure. The premise: gourmet/specialty food trucks go from city to city, set up shop wherever they can, and do their damnedest to earn as much money as possible in 24 hours. The truck with the smallest earnings is eliminated. For each city, the food truck teams are given a limited budget, which sometimes causes drastic changes in their usual shopping strategy and menu planning. The Food Network seems to think that focused desperation is the best sort of entertainment during the evening hours, even though some of us squares would actually prefer quieter, calmer, more educational programming (and not just Alton Brown, dammit!*). I don't go for all the evening competitions, but for some reason this newest entry grabbed me.

I've watched the first two episodes, and as I imagine is true for a lot of guys, I'm now strongly attracted to the hot, bright-eyed, intelligent Vietnamese-American lady who heads up the Nom-Nom truck. The Nom-Nom team, which specializes in bánh-mì sandwiches, has won twice in a row. In the second episode, they were making so much money that they elected to skip the "immunity" challenge, which involved using local chili peppers. At the end of that episode, Nom-Nom was in first place, having earned over $3000 in 24 hours; the distant second-place winners earned a little over $1700. The Nom-Nom team looks like an early favorite, but with only two trucks eliminated and five trucks still in the race, anything goes. Nom-Nom will be hard to beat, though: the team is young and tech-savvy, and as we saw in the second episode, they're able to use electronic media to announce their impending arrival in a given town in order to drum up business. Plus, most Amurrican folks have never had a bánh-mì sandwich, so Nom-Nom provides something very much out of the ordinary. I'll be curious to see whether they stay on top.

2. "Burn Notice" (USA Network). I've written about BN before, so I'll simply say that, although the show seems to have hit a creative rut and has gone too formulaic, its main virtue is the camaraderie among the leads (actress Gabrielle Anwar, as Fiona Glennanne, has impeccable comic timing). For those who don't know: the show is primarily about a spy named Michael Westen (yes: "-en," not "-on"), a spy who was "burned," i.e., who became persona non grata in the spy community, and was dropped in Miami, where he's free to move about but monitored by shadowy forces. Mike and his partners earn money as do-gooders for hire while digging deeper into the massive conspiracy that got Mike burned. This season, a new "burned" character named Jesse Porter (I first saw that actor, Coby Bell, on "ER" many years back, where he guested as a young athlete with testicular cancer who had to utter the line, "You're gonna cut my nut off?!") has added some pizzazz, but in my opinion his presence throws the team dynamic off a bit. I'm a bit worried that, as this season of BN comes to a close, the next season won't be quite as interesting.

3. "Royal Pains" (USA Network). I have no idea what I see in this show, and yet I keep watching it. Maybe it's the on-location shots of the Hamptons et les alentours. The actors are all competent, but the plotlines and series direction are about as bland and milquetoasty as you can get. Maybe it's more than the Hamptons. Maybe, as with "Burn Notice," it's all the beautiful, over-surgeried people. Why the hell do I watch this show?

4. "White Collar" (USA Network). I thoroughly enjoy the clever dialogue and plotting of this show, which owes a huge aesthetic and conceptual debt to the 1999 remake of "The Thomas Crown Affair" (the one with Pierce Brosnan and Renée Russo). Nick Caffrey (Matt Bomer) is a slick art thief who is obliged to partner up with the FBI agent who has caught him twice before: Peter Burke (Tim DeKay), the only man in the galaxy who's smarter than Caffrey. Each episode is a tightly written heist flick unto itself. My only complaint is that too many bad guys get away simply by running out the back door of whatever building has supposedly been covered by the FBI (one thing I loved, and now miss, about "24" was that such gaffes were kept to a minimum). Peter Burke and his dream team seem to be the only competent agents at the New York White Collar Crimes Division, but despite their competence, it usually comes down to the teamwork of Burke and Caffrey to save the day. Minor cast members get ass-kicking moments, too, which keeps the show fresh. The luminous presence of Marsha Thomason as Agent Diana Barrigan (Thomason is yet another Brit doing an American accent) has kept me hooked, since Matt Bomer's charms are wasted on me. Keep the writing tight, guys, and make the FBI look a bit more competent than you currently do.

5. "Psych" (USA Network). If "White Collar" owes a creative debt to "The Thomas Crown Affair," "Psych" owes a debt to Chevy Chase's 1985 "Fletch," about a wisecracking bullshit artist (journalist by trade) who plunges headlong into ridiculous situations with little more than implausible disguises, cringe-inducing wit, and keen observational skill to keep him alive. In "Psych," Chevy Chase's character has been split into two people: Shawn and Gus, childhood buddies who run a fake psychic detective agency in Santa Barbara, California. The show parodies any number of genres and pop culture tropes: TV shows like "The Mentalist," black-and-white buddy cop dramas, kung fu and drag-racing movies, etc. The humor usually races along at a mile a minute, and some of it falls flat, but with the jokes being fired off at such a high rate, misfires are easily forgivable and forgettable. Both leads give extremely athletic performances (who knew Dulé Hill was a talented tap dancer?), which makes me wonder just how many more seasons they have in them... and how much cocaine they must be doing, just to maintain their energy level.

6. "Covert Affairs" (USA Network). I'm watching this series on a probationary basis, and may drop it soon if it continues to fail to grab me. It seems to have all the right stuff, and yet something isn't jelling. Could it be that the "superwoman" concept has been overdone after all the "Dark Angel"s and "Alias"es and "Dollhouse"s? (Or is that a sexist thought, given the continued preponderance of "superman" shows?) I think what bugs me most about "Covert Affairs" is the way the characters keep saying some version of "This is the job. This is what we're expected to do at the CIA." Less telling and more showing, please!

The most interesting thing about the show, and the reason why I'm still watching it, is the character arc of Annie Walker (played by the very cutely named Piper Perabo), a fresh-faced CIA recruit who, like Luke Skywalker, has been called into intense action before she could complete her training. Because Annie is our main point-of-view character, we learn about the CIA through her eyes, which may explain all the annoying expository dialogue. Still, I can't hate a show that features some pretty decent fight choreography. It's not "Bourne"-level action, not even "24"-level action, but it's pretty good for TV. I'll give this show a couple more episodes in the hopes that it smooths itself out.

7. "Dual Survival" (Discovery Channel). I've seen only 1.25 episodes of this show, which is about two survival experts who cooperate (and sometimes lock horns) in order to survive a given situation. Dave Canterbury is an Army-trained hunter and survival expert; his counterpart is Cody Lundi, a "minimalist and primitive survival skills" expert. The unusual soldier-and-hippie pairing (Cody goes through each episode barefoot) makes for great entertainment, and from what I've seen, the men do more cooperating than fighting. A recent episode showed Cody getting upset at Dave after Dave killed an alligator-- but not because Cody was against the killing of a sentient being: Cody was upset that Dave had risked himself to make the kill: Don't go after something that can go after you, Cody groused. Dave's response: If you're in the swamp, leave your skirt at home. Earlier, Dave had remarked that, in some survival situations, there's a calculus of risk versus reward that you sometimes need to make. By his reckoning, the alligator was a worthwhile risk. Such conflicts are actually educational for the observant viewer; in that particular instance, Cody seemed to come off as the absolutist, but later we discovered that, once Cody had had his first taste of alligator, most of his ire drained away.

I'll probably keep watching "Dual Survival." It beats sitting through Bear Grylls's "Man Versus Wild," which now features such over-the-top nonsense as causing an avalanche in the Canadian Rockies in order to show what it's like to be caught in one. Grylls's show seems increasingly focused on useless masochism. I would have thought that the point of a show about survival techniques would be to demonstrate how to avoid crisis situations. Isn't it enough that the survival expert is plunged into such a situation at the beginning of the hour? What can we possibly learn from watching a guy stand in front of an approaching wall of snow? Les Stroud is still the one to watch, in my opinion.

8. "The Good Guys" (Fox). Matt Nix, the creator of "Burn Notice," apparently decided to pull a David E. Kelly to show off his polymathic screenwriting chops. The result is a second Nix creation, "The Good Guys," starring a grizzled Bradley Whitford and a squeaky-clean-shaven Colin Hanks (son of Tom) as Dallas cops whose investigations of minor crimes usually end up revealing major crimes in progress. Whitford plays Detective Dan Stark, a relic from the 1980s who, like a drunk, unshaven, and eternally horny Dirty Harry, doesn't relate to the decade he's currently in. Hanks is Stark's partner, the square and spit-shined Jack Bailey, who has to tolerate the weird barrage of useless life lessons he receives from Stark.

Part of the show's charm is Stark's unrepentant anachronism, though the humor sometimes strays a little too far into the corny. One annoying example is Stark's habit of referring to laptops as "the computer machine," a linguistic implausibility that erodes my suspension of disbelief. But Stark, even though he appears dumber than a box of rocks on his best days, is a crafty one, and it's often his unorthodox, 80s-era detective work that nets the perps. Although I think the series' scriptwriting needs some work, I've found the first season of "The Good Guys" rather enjoyable. Whitford does all the comic heavy lifting; his role as Stark is a fantastic departure from his work on such shows as "The West Wing." Hanks, meanwhile, is an effective foil as Jack Bailey.

Many of the above-mentioned series are about to end for the summer. "Burn Notice" and "Royal Pains" have their finales tomorrow; "The Good Guys" has already ended; and I'm pretty sure that some of the other dramas and comedies will be winding down in a few weeks as we clear the stage for fall. I'll admit that I'm a fan of Fox's "Glee," a musical dramedy that would make any fan of John Hughes smile. I look forward to its imminent return. Meanwhile, I'm not looking forward to the return of "V" and "Flash Forward," shows that seemed promising but, as time went on, failed to live up to their potential. Nothing on TV thus far has truly captured my imagination, but there's always the chance that something new will come along. That something won't be "Human Target," which got cool only when they brought Lee Majors on board... and then killed his character off. Dammit.

*I'm a fan of Alton Brown, but I do think he relies on too many implausible gadgets while simultaneously preaching the "multitasker" doctrine, i.e., the idea that every piece of equipment in the kitchen should perform more than one function. The problem is that Brown is constantly introducing new pieces of equipment-- weird pots and impossibly long knives are a common example-- which undercuts the multitasking gospel.



John from Daejeon said...

Personally, Myke Hawke is the guy I'd follow into the wild. Especially, if he brings along Ruth.

However, the barefooted Cody making a greenhouse to sleep in in subzero temperatures during this segment of Dual Survival was very impressive.

And, as a fan of Bruce, I hope that the Burn Notice prequel turns out well.

Kevin Kim said...

There's a BN prequel coming out? How did I miss this?

Smallholder said...

We share three shows.

Your review needed more Bruce love.
I agree that the show has gotten stale - the storylines lately haven't done much for me.

I also like Psych as a physical comedy.

Covert Affairs is fun, but I've also thought the same thing about the exposition. Without Piper's cuteness, I probably wouldn't watch.

I highly suggest The Closer - I think it is the best show on television right now.

Kevin Kim said...


Yes, I should have shown more Bruce Campbell love. He and Gabrielle Anwar make for great comic foils to Jeffrey Donovan. (Then again, Donovan himself has had some hilarious scenes when he's had to impersonate non-Americans. And the episode in which he scares a gang by snapping his fingers and making things "magically" explode showcased his ability to do deadpan humor. That's one of my favorite episodes, along with any episode in which Michael Westen speaks Russian.)

My worry for "Burn Notice" is that it sometimes veers perilously close to "A-Team" territory-- harmless bullets and all that. Luckily, it doesn't get that cartoonish, but I've sat through several episodes, especially in recent seasons, where I've felt almost no suspense because I knew no one was going to get seriously hurt.

I've watched an episode or two of "The Closer," and liked it the best of the three TNT programs I had tried to follow. The other two were "Leverage" and "Saving Grace." Both of the latter shows had their charm, but "Leverage" didn't click for me, and "Saving Grace" became annoying because of the out-there nature of Holly Hunter's character. The episode in which she stripped naked and galloped around on a horse at night was about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Yeah, we get it, guys: Grace is a free spirit.

"The Closer" is indeed likable, and I don't know why I don't watch it more often. Maybe I should. I'm also a fan of "In Plain Sight" (USA Network-- again), a show that really started to grow on me, but it's on hiatus right now.

Unknown said...

Breaking Bad, Big Bang Theory, Rescue Me...

John from Daejeon said...

Les is back in a new show, Beyond Survival.