Saturday, January 24, 2009

Busting a Recap

I wasn't going to watch the hour-long recap before the season premiere of Lost Wednesday night, but my mom wanted the refresher course. (And actually, I probably needed it, too.) I have to say, I was impressed. Not only did the recap distill four seasons of Lost into one hour, but it did so comprehensively and smoothly—with natural progressions and seamless segues, no less. And I realized why it was so successful: it didn't burden the viewer with synopses of storylines and profiles of characters that don't play a part in the upcoming season. It just gave viewers the essential info for the characters that are still around and the storylines that are up in the air. With a show as plot-heavy as Lost is, the recap was essential. And, luckily for us, it did the show proud.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Sophomore Slaughter

The "sophomore slump" occurs whenever the follow-up to a pop culture phenom fails to live up to the original. In the TV world, it occurs when the second season of a TV series doesn't match the quality of the first. Some shows weather this storm and continue on. Others are cancelled before they can even recover. And yet others are axed even if they don't fall victim to the slump—even if the second season is on a par with the first.

For some reason, I’m always surprised when shows are cancelled in their second seasons or later. To me, cancellation seems like the gauntlet that first-year shows run, and once they’re past that trial, they’ve earned the right to end on their terms—or, at least, end with a little advance notice. No such luck.

ABC reminded me of this misconception a couple of months ago with the sudden (and simultaneous) cancellation of three sophomore series: Pushing Daisies, Eli Stone, and Dirty Sexy Money. I hadn’t gotten into Dirty Sexy Money, but I was a big fan of the other two. And this move by ABC—cancelling three series in one fell swoop—struck me as particularly ruthless. At least when shows are cancelled individually, I can pretend like it was a hard decision for the network to make. But when three shows are cancelled at once, it just seems to me like the network just made a snap business decision regardless of each show’s merits. What a stark reminder of just how much of a numbers game the TV biz is.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Woes of Standard Definition

First a pipe burst in my parents’ house. Then the insurance company compensated them generously. Then my parents upgraded my old bedroom to a media center with a beautiful LCD TV. And then, on the next vacation I had from school, I was utterly spoiled. Spoiled not because I could set the DVR to wake me up to Discovery’s Sunrise Earth (one of the most pastoral, minimalistic hymns to the beauty of nature available on basic cable), but because high-definition television is life-changing. Once you go HD, you never go back.

So, why, I beg of you, why do networks insist on slumming it by broadcasting shows in standard definition? My mom, lover of dancing shows that she is, recently checked out NBC’s Superstars of Dance. Host Michael Flatley proclaims that it is the “greatest dance competition show on Earth.” Oh, really, Michael? Then why isn’t it broadcast in high definition? That turned me off from the show even before the insipid “international” judges opened their mouths.

It’s also a problem when your favorite shows are available in high definition, but you don’t get the HD channel as part of your cable package. I love Mad Men and Damages, but it was painful to watch those shows last season in SD. Luckily, we have since been granted AMC HD, but up until a couple of weeks ago, FX HD was still nowhere to be found. But then I found out that we were on an outdated plan and that we could receive all the HD channels, present and future, for $5 less than we’re paying now. Hallelujah!

I’ve often said that when I graduate college and get an apartment, a DVR and an HDTV will be necessities. But, in the meantime, I’ll enjoy the beauty of high definition while I’m here at home on our full collection of HD channels… so long as networks actually broadcast high-def programming.

The Pros and Cons of Starting The Mentalist

Every fall, I play the television lotto—picking out which shows are worth adding to my (considerable) viewing schedule and hoping that they don’t get cancelled. Sometimes I’m lucky with my choices (read: Heroes and Brothers & Sisters), and sometimes I’m unlucky (I miss you, Aliens in America and The Ex List!). One of the shows I decided to skip this season was The Mentalist, and now that it’s soaring in the ratings, I’m starting to reconsider. So begins the inner monologue/debate:
  • PRO: It’s the highest-rated of all the new shows this season and almost the highest-rated of all shows, new or old. So I could conceivably start watching it without the concern that it will be cancelled the moment I begin.
  • CON: It seems to err too much on the side of the procedural and not enough on the side of the serial for my tastes.
  • PRO: The premise seems a bit more original than your typical cop show, but…
  • CON: The premise seems a bit like a more serious retread of Psych.
  • PRO: It has an episode-naming scheme, which I generally like (being the continuity lover that I am), but…
  • CON: Its episode-naming scheme is just including the word “red” into every title. That’s almost as bad as Knight Rider’s episode titles, which were just puns with the word “knight.” (Disclaimer: For the record, lest my credibility be doubted, I do not watch Knight Rider, nor have I ever!)
  • PRO: I saw a mentalist perform recently and it was mightily impressive, but…
  • CON: NBC’s reality competition Phenomenon, which looked for America’s best mentalist, was—by all accounts—not so mightily impressive.
  • PRO: Robin Tunney is a cast member. I enjoyed her in the one and only season of Prison Break I’ve seen. The smoky voice, the impossibly-arched eyebrow—what’s not to like?
  • CON: I have somewhere in the neighborhood of 44 shows that I’m actively following, not even counting the shows I want to catch up with on DVD. 44!
So my verdict is this: it may be good, but it’s still a procedural show, and I don’t have the time for shows that I don’t absolutely love. (And I might pass on Lie to Me, which premieres tonight, for the same reason.)