Thoughts on the Aughts: What made the Golden Age of TV glow?

There’s no way to list every show or development that had an impact on TV during the last decade. But certain technologies and programs had an unmistakable influence on the Golden Age of television.

Please keep in mind that what follows isn’t a comprehensive list of the best shows of the past decade. These are thoughts on a few of the developments, trends and programs that affected what we saw on our screens during the last 10 years. (And if you’re looking for Best of the Aughts lists, I can’t improve on the lists here and here.)

1. Television breaks out of the box. Gather round, children, let me tell you a story from the olden days: Long ago, people used to sit in front of their televisions at particular times in order to watch their favorite shows. And they could not skip the commercials! True story.

TVbox The idea of appointment TV appears to be, to a degree unthinkable a decade ago, going the way of the eight-track tape and the VCR. Thanks to the Internet, the DVD and especially the DVR, we all run our own networks now. When it comes to what we watch and when and where we watch it, the networks are no longer in control. We are the bosses of us.

The rise of DVDs around the turn of the millennium came along at just the right time: Just as writers were embracing the possibilities serialized and semi-serialized storytelling, along came a handy format that allowed viewers to catch multiple episodes at once (and a revenue stream that made jittery networks slightly less jittery about declining ratings).

The revenue stream from DVDs allowed many ambitious programs to survive longer than they would have otherwise, especially if they didn’t get the boffo ratings the networks were hoping for. And even though “Lost” got great ratings in its first few seasons, the show’s strong DVD sales allowed the island drama to set a course for Weirdsville (and for viewers, the multiple layers of meaning and information woven into the show, not to mention the self-deprecating commentary of “Lost’s” creative team, made DVD viewing both a memory aid and a treat).

And the importance of iTunes can’t be understated. One big reason NBC renewed “The Office” for a third season was that the comedy, which was still something of a cult show in its second season, sold extremely well when iTunes was new. Little is free on iTunes however, if if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the Internet age, it’s that people like free stuff.

In the ’90s, a few networks began tentatively posting full episodes online. Now the array of shows you can watch online is vast (and it’s no wasteland, not when shows like “Firefly” and “NewsRadio” are available on Hulu). In addition to Hulu, you can watch TV at Netflix, Amazon, YouTube and various network sites (or on your phone, laptop, etc). Sure, it may be harder for networks to monetize their product (and that’s no small problem for both media conglomerates, who want to post profits, and creative types, who want to get paid for their ideas). But for viewers, television’s embrace of alternate screens has been a bonanza.

Still, the biggest thing to affect television in the Aughts is the DVR, which is now in one-third of American homes. Freed from the tyranny of network schedules, viewers are watching more TV than ever before, according to Nielsen Media Resarch. In addition to allowing viewers to set their own TV-viewing schedule, the DVR allows viewers to skip ads — an option not all viewers exercise, by the way.

Still, the devices have unsettled the foundation of TV like nothing else. But shifting a big chunk of control to the TV viewer has at least made the major media conglomerates a little more humble (cable giant Comcast wanted NBC Universal mainly for its successful cable operation — the rickety broadcast network was essentially a Gift With Purchase).

The thing to remember is that the financial underpinnings of Hollywood’s film studios were changing radically during the late ’60s and ’70s. Back then, all that turmoil led to some schlock but it also led to risk-taking and unleashed a lot of creative energy from a bold posse of filmmakers. It’s far from clear what the future of television will bring, but the good news is that the unsettled TV landscape has led to a veritable plethora of smart, challenging, funny and profound programs. 

Alswearengen 2. HBO’s “Three Davids” Trinity of Genius.
The accomplishments of David Simon’s “The Wire,” David Chase’s “The Sopranos” and David Milch’s “Deadwood” are many and varied — they’re far to extensive to dwell on in depth here. But, if nothing else, these three television classics taught a whole generation of writers, viewers and executives to revel in complicated anti-heroes and literary, thematically ambitious approaches to television. These are crown jewels of TV’s Golden Age. 

3. The rise of reality television.
Reality TV in its modern form has been around since the mid-’90s, but the genre took off like a rocket after the first edition of “Survivor” was a huge hit in 2000. After “American Idol” became an even bigger ratings monster, reality and competition-driven TV really became all the rage. The endless variations of various reality formats and the outsize characters the genre created made reality TV a force to be reckoned with and a major part of the entertainment landscape for a decade. As the decade closes, there still are a few gems in the genre, but sadly, reality TV is as full of tired ideas and lame stereotypes as scripted TV was a decade ago. And the reality craze has a dark side too, as we learned from the Balloon Boy family’s fame-seeking fiasco, the skeezy implosion of Jon and Kate Gosselin’s marriage and the White House’s recent brush with the notorious Salahis.

MMjoan 4. The rise of cable.
In an effort to make their mark on the TV scene, dozens of cable networks commissioned gutsy, innovative and challenging shows. Or sometimes they commissioned half-baked imitations of what had come before (if I never see another derivative anti-hero again, I’ll be extremely grateful). But the desire of networks such as FX, Showtime, AMC, Syfy, TNT, USA and others to make their mark led to a lot of really good TV. Can you imagine the last decade without the shows mentioned above or “Dexter,” “Mad Men,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “The Shield,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Closer,” “Burn Notice” or the early seasons of “Nip/Tuck”? I can’t either. And those shows are just the tip of the quality-TV iceberg.

5. The documentary aesthetic of “The Shield,” “24” and “Friday Night Lights.” Shaky-cam has become something of an epidemic on television, but very few of the shows that use the technique do it with the finesse and intelligence of these groundbreaking programs. These shows captured a visceral “you are there” vibe and harnessed that energy for very different purposes: On “The Shield,” it gave even more intensity to the tautly constructed machinations of crooked cop Vic Mackey; on “24,” both the 24-hour format and the innovative camera style ratcheted up the tension that enveloped Jack Bauer; and “Friday Night Lights” used the technique with the most fluidity and subtlety, to give the town of Dillon a lived-in look and to effortlessly make the viewer feel like a fly on the wall in the lives of its enthrallingly real characters.

Ad 6. The improvisational vibe and the wicked wit of the influential single-camera comedies “Arrested Development,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Office” (both the U.S. and U.K. versions). These brilliant shows made broadcast network executives think, “Hey, if we film our comedies in this trendy single-camera style, instead of on soundstages, they’ll be funny!” Wrong. Great writing and performances create funny. “Extras,” “Scrubs,” “30 Rock,” “Party Down” and “Parks and Recreation” are just a few of the programs that mined comedy gold from the awkward social dynamics and deadpan irony seen on “AD,” “Curb” and “The Office” (and “How I Met Your Mother” gets an honorable mention here; the CBS comedy is shot on a soundstage but combines the imaginative sensibilities of a single-camera comedy with the heart of good traditional sitcoms).

7. Cable embraces shows with female leads. “Weeds,” “The Closer,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Saving Grace,” “Damages,” “United States of Tara” — name a top-notch actress and chances are she’s had an edgy cable program developed for her at some point during the last 10 years. One of the most heartening effects of the success of “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Sex and the City” was televisions’ embrace of shows with women in the lead — but as usual, the most interesting work in this arena was done by cable networks.

8. Crime pays … and pays and pays. CBS executives spent one morning in October 2000 scratching their heads. The ridiculously huge numbers for their new show, “CSI,” couldn’t be right. But they were. And ever since the massive success of “CSI” and its spinoffs, the broadcast networks and the bigger cable networks have taken refuge in procedurals, which are, when they work, the safest bet in these uncertain times.

Benknife 9. Everybody wants to get “Lost.”
Half a decade ago, a failing ABC put its money and faith in the Hail Mary pass that was “Lost,” which, to the network’s great relief, was a massive hit. Not surprisingly, for the last few years, we’ve seen the networks try to re-create that island magic in one form or another. But ABC’s “FlashForward” is just the latest show to not get the memo: It’s the characters we care about on “Lost.” Sure, the tangled mythology is lots of fun to dissect, but it’s the side dish, not the main course. If you think about it, “Glee” is more of a successor to “Lost” than “FlashFloward.” “Glee” is a really good idea executed with bold vision — a risky idea that could have been a disaster but more or less wasn’t. Too bad the broadcast networks so frequently shy away from taking those kinds of risks these days.

10. Great acting.
Sure, brilliant writing is what made the Golden Age of TV glow. But any time I find myself watching a TV show from a decade or two ago, I realize once again that acting on television has taken a Great Leap Forward. What amazing performances we’ve seen during the past decade. “The West Wing,” “The Sopranos,” “The Shield,” “Battlestar Galactica” and “Friday Night Lights” — just to name a few terrifically acted shows — were full of unforgettable people, thanks to the sensational performers who brought them to life.

Vmars

Bonus lament: A few words on the wave that (unfortunately) dried up in the Aughts. In the late ’90s (and into part of this decade), television gave us a series of programs that were allegedly aimed at teens but explored mature, complicated themes with intelligence, compassion, imagination and wit. “Veronica Mars,” “Buffy,” “Everwood,” “The O.C.,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Joan of Arcadia” — you are all sorely missed. Whatever missteps those shows may have made here or there, they are far superior to derivative, campy teen-oriented shows that we have today. Sorry, but “The Vampire Diaries” and “Melrose Place” simply cannot compare to the humor, complexity and emotionally engaging storytelling we saw on those programs.

Final thought: Though it’s great to see some wonderful actresses get good
roles, as noted above, what’s not heartening is the fact that women are still
underemployed as writers in Hollywood. According to the Writers
Guild of America, in 1999, 26 percent of TV writers were women. Eight
years later, that number was 28 percent. That amounts to almost no
progress for women writers during the past decade. And in 2007, only 9
percent of writers were minorities (in the 2007-2008 season, 33 percent
of TV staffs had no minority writers on staff and 11 percent had no
female writers). Those statistics are pathetic. And sorry to briefly
get on my soap box, but here goes: Both in front of and behind the
camera, a true diversity of voices and ideas —  not just the kind of
tokenism on display on most TV writing staffs — makes for better,
richer, more complicated storytelling. TV needs to be telling all kinds
of stories or even the good stuff will start going around in circles. New York Times
critic Manohla Dargis expresses some pungent and quite valid thoughts on the topic of women in Hollywood here.

Photos: Image of TV in box from Flickr (more info here); Ian McShane as Al Swearengen on “Deadwood”; Christina Hendricks as Joan Holloway in “Mad Men”; the cast of “Arrested Development,” Michael Emerson as Ben and Terry O’Quinn in “Lost”; Kristin Bell in “Veronica Mars.”

Note: I may close comments on this post relatively soon, given that I’ll be on vacation until Jan. 4. Thanks.

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As 2009 ends, thoughts on ‘Chuck,’ a ‘Doctor Who’ reminder and a ‘Phantom Menace’ rant

Chuck3_Ad_150d Before I check out for a two-week holiday break, here are a few thoughts and reminders. One more end-of-year story will get posted here before Christmas, but it will be missive from Robo-Mo (and here’s the first alert/reminder: I won’t be approving comments from Dec. 21-Jan. 4. Sorry, but Non-Robo-Mo needs a break from the blog).

Anyway:

  • Various folks on my Twitter feed have asked whether I’m doing a full writeup of the five “Chuck” episodes that I received from NBC (“Chuck” returns Jan. 10). Nope, sorry. All I can really do is repeat what Alan Sepinwall said: They made me smile. It’s “Chuck,” after all — the episodes are fun and there’s action and there’s humor. Just seeing Casey grunt after such a long time without new “Chuck” episodes — this made me happy.
  • But there are also some interesting developments for Mr. Bartowski. He’s evolving, let’s just say that, and I’m not just talking about his newfound spy-guy/fighting skills. I quite enjoyed the fact that he’s not the Chuck of Season 1 or Season 2 — he’s an even more complex character at this stage. Though of course he’s still intensely appealing (once again, I must say that Zachary Levi is a really awesome actor).
  • In any case, I don’t want to give away too much except to say that I thought the episodes got increasingly good as they progressed. I enjoyed the fourth and fifth episodes the most and I really enjoyed the many Captain Awesome scenes in Episode 4. Finally, one brief scene in the fifth episode made me laugh so hard that, had I been drinking a beverage, the liquid would have come out my nose. Not trying to gross you out; if that image is too disgusting for you, just picture me doing a world-class spit-take (which I can’t really do in real life, but let’s pretend I can). I rewound and watched this little scene many times. Definitely the fifth episode has my favorite Buy More shenanigans (every single time “Chuck” shows Jeff or Lester, it’s comedy gold).
  • On to other nerd concerns. Reminder: “Doctor Who: Waters of Mars” airs Saturday on BBC America. “Doctor Who: The End of Time” airs Dec. 26 and Jan. 2 on the same network. These specials are David Tennant’s last go-round as the Doctor; Matt Smith takes over the role when the Steven Moffat version of “Doctor Who” debuts next spring.
  • The holidays are normally a dead zone for fresh programming, but there are some gems hidden among the reruns. Mary McDonnell (“Battlestar Galactica”) guests on TNT’s “The Closer” on Monday; Khandi Alexander (“NewsRadio”) guests as Lem’s mom Tuesday on “Better Off Ted”; and Levon Helm, Allen Toussaint, Richard Thompson and Nick Lowe plays some tunes Wednesday on Sundance Channel’s “Spectacle: Elvis Costello With…”
  • From Cracked, a list of shows that completely lost their minds. Hilarious stuff. 
  • Finally, I watched this 70-minute critique of “Star Wars” prequel “The Phantom Menace” last night with increasing fascination and delight. It’s hilarious, spot-on, perceptive, devastatingly accurate and more than a little surreal. Hey, don’t take my word for it — “Lost” executive producer Damon Lindelof said you should “watch it ALL” and actor/writer Simon Pegg said that it was “amazing.” Agreed. 

Below is Part 1. The rest is on YouTube on Red Letter Media’s channel. If you have time over the holidays, really, watch the whole thing. As someone who appreciates cogent, impassioned criticism, snarky humor and creative weirdness, I got a big kick out of this.

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Three critics talking TV, Part Deux: ‘Dollhouse,’ ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Sopranos’ and more!

Pizza I posted Part One of a "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place" yesterday — the first half of a long chat I had last October with Time critic James Poniewozik and Newark Star-Ledger critic Alan Sepinwall. I was pleasantly surprised by the level of interest in our chat (Alan and James are hosting discussions of our discussion on their sites, What's Alan Watching and Tuned In). So naturally I will be pitching the new show "Three Critics Eating Pizza and Talking TV" when I get a chance. I think the title alone will make it a smash hit.

Ha. No, seriously, it was not only fun to gab with Alan and James, it was quite delightful that so many people said they found the transcript of the talk entertaining. I would like to do this kind of thing again some time soon, perhaps with another configuration of critics/TV writers. When I turn them into podcasts and start charging for these chats, I'll make millions, I tell you, millions!

Sorry, it's the end of the year and I'm getting a little punchy. But I'm also feeling quite fine — screeners of "Chuck" (which Sepinwall says is "awesome"), "Leverage," "24," "Spartacus" and "Big Love," among other early-2010 shows, have arrived at Watcher HQ, and though I'm technically taking a vacation Dec. 21-Jan. 4, I'll have lots of TV watching to do. But no complaints, I'm a very lucky gal.

So in the spirit of Festivus or the Winter Solstice or whatever frosty holiday you celebrate, instead of doling out the rest of the chat in two additional installments (that was the original plan), I've posted the rest of our conversation here — all of it. So there's no "Three Critics" installment Friday — between Part One and what's below, that's the whole enchilada. Or margherita pizza, as it were.

Previously on "Three Critics," we talked a lot about "Lost," so check that out of you're a fan of that show (also check out this great essay from NPR's Linda Holmes on why she thinks "Lost" is the most important show of the decade).

The serialized nature of "Lost" led to what we talked about in Part Deux: "Dollhouse," "The Sopranos," "Mad Men" and a few other shows, with one brief (too brief!) segue for the Armenian Money Train. We also quite possibly use the term "cuckoo-bananas" entirely too much, but that's just a hazard of this profession.

As I mentioned yesterday, the conversation took place Oct. 28, before
"Dollhouse's" cancellation became official and before the last two
episodes of "Mad Men's" third season had aired. Be aware that we discuss a few plot details from the various shows mentioned above.

Poniewozik: It kills me to see networks — like with “Dollhouse,” [the networks put forth this] idea that everything needs to be procedural. But what they're basically saying is, "We don’t want people to become too engaged with the show because only so many people can become that engaged and it’s awkward." You’re basically closing off the most transcendent thing you can accomplish in a serial art form.

DH-Ep207_Sc54_0056 Sepinwall: And it’s like telling the people on “Friday Night Lights," "Cool it with the high school football because not everybody wants that." But the problem is, it’s a show about high school football. Ergo, there are some people who are just simply not going to watch it. You want to make the show for the people who are watching it and make it as good as it could possibly be. And “Dollhouse” would have been wise to do that. I don’t know if it would have ever been a hit, but it surely would have been in better shape if they would have just gone for it.

Ryan: Personally, in the right hands, I love this idea of creating a mythology and just going for it, embracing what a show is and giving us the emotional engagement and the bigger story arcs.  But even networks like FX — for that "serialized vs. non-serialized" story a few months ago, I talked to [FX president] John Landgraf and he said in new shows like ["Justified"] and “Lights Out,” there will be some serialized elements. But compared to a show like "The Shield,” I just wonder how complicated they will be, plotwise. 

Sepinwall: “The Shield” had procedural story lines, I mean there’s every episode there were two or three stories that were resolved within that episode. 

Ryan: Yeah. But there was also the Armenian Money Train, which I still don’t understand.

Sepinwall: Well, you see, there were these Armenians…

Ryan: And you do not want to mess with them.

Sepinwall: And they have money. 

Ryan:  On a train. 

Poniewozik: Actually, talking about “The Shield” that reminds me of something we haven't talked about with "Lost."  Both of those shows benefited and I think were most almost immediately improved by setting an end date. I loved “The Shield.” Seasons 3, 4, and 5 — to me, they were starting to get a little bit like "Vic gets in deep [expletive] again. How’s he going to get out of it?" And then he gets out of it. It really got an impetus and got kicked three gears higher once they knew it was going to go off the air. And I thought that also you could see that happen before your eyes in Season 4 of “Lost.”

Ryan: Yes, absolutely. "Lost" definitely benefited by having an end date.

Sepinwall: You know, “Sopranos” was a show where they set the end date and then they kept moving it and the show suffered for it.

Sopranos Ryan: It absolutely suffered. 

Poniewozik: But I don’t know how you could have ended that show without sending gay Vito to New Hampshire.

Ryan: For three or four episodes at the very least! [laughter] Yeah, that show certainly went off the rails around then. Just going back to “Dollhouse,” part of me wants Joss Whedon to do his own thing or start working with a cable network and go crazy with his mythology thing. But I even wonder if that’s commercially viable as far as a network like Showtime is concerned. 

Sepinwall: I think they would feel it's beneath them, at this point.  I mean, could you imagine HBO doing a sci-fi show right now?

Ryan: “True Blood” is a straight-up genre show.

Sepinwall: That’s right. That is true. Strike that last comment from the record. 

Ryan: And what’s hilarious about “True Blood” was, that show took them by surprise. I could see from the message boards on my site and elsewhere, it’s attracting this completely intense fandom. HBO really has never experienced that before, not on this level.  When the “True Blood" panel happened at Comic-Con, it was a level of crazy that — well, I mean, that’s just not their world, it’s not what HBO usually traffics in. I mean, it's a semi-cheesy soap-opera about vampires. 

Poniewozik: But you know, that’s sort of the trademark of most of the great dramas at HBO. They take a genre show and they do something with it that hasn’t been done.

Sepinwall: No one thought they would they would do a Western.

Poniewozik: Right, right. You know “Deadwood” was that, “Sopranos” was that, “The Wire” was this police procedural where instead of solving a case in 44 minutes, they actually showed you police work. 

Sepinwall: I never read "Game of Thrones" [a book by George R.R. Martin that HBO has commissioned a pilot for — for more information this project, go here], but I imagine you’re going to make me start.

Poniewozik: Yeah. That’s your homework for next time. To me, that’s the big argument — besides loving the books — for HBO to [make "Game of Thrones"]. That’s something that has not really been done. It’s a genre that hasn’t been done a lot on TV.

Ryan: It hasn't been done well, yeah.

Poniewozik: What HBO does is they take an existing, genre kind of storytelling and make it grown up. I would have loved to see HBO do a “Virtuality.”

Ryan: Oh yeah. I would love to see something like “Virtuality” done by somebody really smart, by FX or Showtime or HBO. Because I think the themes those shows bring up, about society and politics and organizations, can be so interesting. And a show like that can obviously be a character-based drama too, you know. “Battlestar” was that.

Done right, a modren-day sci-fi show could be really incredible. I just think the networks do not want to touch a show with a space ship of any kind with a ten-foot pole.

Poniewozik: And “Defying Gravity” didn’t do anybody any favors. 

Sepinwall: Well, for a long time people, didn’t want to do shows with men who wore hats. And then along came a fellow I like to call John Hamm.

Ryan: All right. Let's move on to “Mad Men.” 

MM Don Hat Sepinwall: OK.

Ryan: I don’t know, I mean, there were some detractors at the start of
the season, and up to a point, I think I was one.  I think what
bothered me is that the first episode of the season, there were big
changes afoot. It felt like they decided, “OK, Season 3, when it
starts, there will be way more stuff happening.” And then after that,
basically for four episodes, not a lot happened. I'm all for putting
pieces in place and setting things in motion, but to me, there was a
certain degree of going in circles too.

I just think there was
way too much of the home-front stuff, which the show had covered in
great detail in the first two seasons. Someone said the other day to
me, “I wish they had more Peggy [in Season 3].” I would have loved a
lot more Peggy, more of the guys in the office. I’m not saying the home
front isn't important. But there’s not enough variety in those story
lines for me. I just seems like it covers the same ground again and
again. Just for me, I would say the second half of what I've seen is
definitely better than the first.

Poniewozik: Well, looking at
the first half from the standpoint of the second half, I agree that you
need the office stuff to give the show a narrative drive. But in
retrospect, we need those episodes. I’m not sure that I could point to
an episode of the third season that was a wasted episode, other than
maybe having the baby ["The Fog"].

I remember when we got the
first three episodes, I loved “My Old Kentucky Home” which was probably
my favorite episode up until "The Gypsy and the Hobo.” So many people
were saying — look at that episode now, you know, that’s meeting
Connie Hilton and setting him in context and in opposition to the East
Coast establishment. And you have Betty meeting Henry Francis. It took
its own time, but I don’t think it was wasting an episode.

Sepinwall:
The only thing I would say about home versus work — in addition to
work having more narrative drive, work is funny. Betty can on rare
occasions be funny, when she talks about being Nordic, but she’s not an
inherently funny character. So you can sort of have a little bit of
everything at the office, whereas at home, it’s largely angst-driven.

Donbettyrome Ryan:
It is. And in my view the portrayal of Betty — it became almost
hostile. There were times when I thought, "They are trying to make me
actively dislike this person." And again, a lot of great characters in
shows I like do terrible things. And Betty's not, like, evil. She
doesn’t kill people or whatever. But I just felt like, there's not
enough variety in what I’m seeing in Betty’s interactions with other
people. Yes, she's lonely and frustrated and all that, but she's also
narcissistic and self-absorbed.

I get into a lot of trouble
when I say things like that on my website because people are like, “You
just don’t understand her position. You don’t understand the position
of women in those days.” And my feeling is, when I’m watching a TV
show, it’s all made up. It's a story. And sometimes when it comes to
this story that I'm watching, with Betty I’m tuning out to some degree
because I’m just a little tired of the narcissism. I mean, it's like
when Vito went to New Hampshire and that whole storyline took forever.
It's like, "Okay, I get it." 

Poniewozik: My partial theory
about that is that, so much of what we saw of Betty this season
[centered on her relationship with Sally], or her really almost
monstrous behavior towards Sally. I wonder if they’re setting up
something with Sally down the line. Sort of like rebellion against her
parents, but it seemed to be laying it on a little thick.

Ryan:
Well, it did. Here’s the thing, for Betty, to slam the door on her
daughter’s face, unknowingly, unthinkingly after her grandfather died,
it’s such a monstrous thing to have a character do to a child. But you
need a reason to think, that's not the total picture of that person.
I’m sure there are redeeming things about Betty, but "Mad Men" can go
for long stretches without showing us those. Is she a good friend? Is
she a nice person? Is she a generally a good or bad boss to Carla? I
mean, what is the show giving me to balance this portrait out? I'm not
saying everyone has to be nice and good, but there has to be nuance,
complexity. Sometimes Betty doesn't get that nuanced treatment, I
think.

Poniewozik: In previous seasons we had things that I
think made her a little more relatable and understandable — things
like her weird relationship with Glenn. That actually made her more of
a person, but it was really saying a lot of the same things as her
reaction to Sally. [Betty is] not really fully developed as an adult.
That's probably the animating idea behind the way she was responding to
Sally after her dad died was — Betty can’t be the mother and the girl
that just lost her dad at the same time. She doesn’t have the tools to
do that.

Donbetty Sepinwall: The other problem is, they can’t leaven
some of her awful behavior by showing, well, wait a minute, she rocks
at her job. Roger can a bastard, but he’s a very good accounts man.
Joan can be really cruel to Peggy, but she is great at everything she
does. Betty doesn’t have that opportunity to show off any real talents
for the most part, and that’s why one of the episodes I liked the most
is the Rome episode. It shows, here’s Betty, she speaks Italian, she
knows her way around and she’s more in her element than Don. Suddenly I
like her and it’s not just because they dress her up.

Ryan:
Yeah. It’s because she’s interacting with the world with people and
she’s confident and doing things. But you know, I can critique
individual things about "Mad Men," but for me it’s certainly among the
all-time great TV shows for me, I mean would you say that?

Poniewozik: No doubt.

Sepinwall: Yes.

Poniewozik:
Yeah it’s certainly got to be one of the top shows of the decade. I
would probably put it any list of Top TV Shows right now. 

Ryan: But does it need an end date? Just to go back to that idea.

Sepinwall:
I think Matt has kind of talked about and end date. He’d like to make
it to the end of the decade [of the '60s], but he also says he doesn’t
want to the show to run more than five years. 

Ryan: Well, I
think some things he said more recently sounded kind of open-ended. I
mean, I wonder if the five-year thing is not really written in stone.

Sepinwall:
Well, let me ask you guys this, sort of going back to where you said
you get attacked every time you criticize Betty. Where do you fall with
Miss Farrell on the cuckoo-bananas vs. sane scale? Is she crazy? Or is
she just wearing her heart on her sleeve in a way that is not familiar
in this world and so some people take her that way?

Ryan: Here’s my thing about Ms. Cuckoo-bananas.

Sepinwall: It’s just fun to say.

Ryan: It’s very fun to say it. You referred to this on your blog the other day. There was a scene in the eclipse episode…

Sepinwall: Yeah.

Ryan:
She raised my hackles in that scene because she immediately insults Don
with this whole idea of, "You’re hitting on me!" And for all we know,
he is just making conversation, and maybe there's a side element of
maybe flirting a with her a little bit. The thing that bothered me was
her saying – they talked about who’s going out of town for August. And
she goes, “Oh, are you going out of town?” He goes, “No.” She goes,
“Well, now I know that.” It was like, 'You asked him a question! He
answered it! Why are you being hostile for him answering your direct
question, crazy pants?"

It was kind of that in-you-face thing,
where she’s projecting this flirtation onto him and but the truth is,
the attraction seems like it’s more on her side than it is his. But she
is projects the whole pursuit on to him, which I just found irritating.
I don’t think it makes her crazy, but in various things she did, sure,
she was somewhat unconventional for that time and that town.

For
my money, though, you don’t really necessarily see why Don is attracted
to her until after she's with her brother. Obviously, she’s more
nurturing, she's more kind, she’s a good listener, and I get all that,
plus she’s hot. But for a long time, I never really quite saw why he
was taking all these enormous chances with this particular woman.

The
whole idea of whether she was out of step with her time the times — I
don’t know that I saw that as much. I think maybe that was part of the
idea for the character. Whether that came across the way they wanted it
to, I’m not exactly sure. Whatever they were intending, she sort of
came across as a tad in-your-face, given the position that she held in
that community at that time.

Splat.jpg Poniewozik: I was trying to
figure out this out too — why is this apparently the first time that
he’s had an affair with somebody so close to home, someone in his own
town? How was she different from the other women who he had been with?
To me, maybe she’s the first one who appeals to Dick Whitman rather
than Don Draper. She’s the most un-ironic, un-urbane of the various
women we’ve seen him with. You know, compared to Bobbie, compared to
Rachel, compared to Midge.

In a way, when you look at her, at first you go well, how is this different from Midge? Suzanne is sort of counter-cultural…

Ryan: Right, right.

Poniewozik:
But Suzanne really has this sort of flower child, back to the land
aspect to her. One of the things he says to her is that he loves how
she wears her hair down and nobody does that anymore. Clearly that's
appealing to some pre-Don Draper part of him.

Ryan: I can see that.

Sepinwall:
The first time he sees her — or the first time we see her — is she’s
barefoot with garlands on her hair, dancing with a maypole.

And
that gets back to the thing you were saying before about "My Old
Kentucky Home." I remember watching that scene in “Love Among the
Ruins,” where they’re dancing around the maypole, and I’m like, "What
is this about?" And it took them a very long time for [set up] the
meaning of it. It's setting up the fact that this is the woman Don is
sleeping with six or seven episodes from now. Something that doesn’t
seem important at the time becomes important later.

Ryan:
Well, I get that. But my contention is with that kind of thing is —
there has to be a limit. I get that “Mad Men” loves to just circle its
way around to something and lay track for something — to set up the
elements for a bomb going off for six or seven episodes. And I love carefully plotted-out stuff. And I understand
that the show is not necessarily about the plot payoffs, because as you
and other people pointed out, "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency" —
by the end of the episode, it's hit the reset button at Sterling Cooper
and nothing has really changed. But it's a great, great episode.

But still, part of the early to middle section of
the season was frustrating. To me some of those episodes were going in
circles, to some degree, and I just felt like they took Betty to an
interesting places in Season 2 then kind of regressed with her in
Season 3.

Poniewozik: To sort of circle back around to “Dollhouse"…

Ryan: As we always must.

Poniewozik: Yeah, everything’s about “Dollhouse.”

Sepinwall: Jon Hamm would be a great doll.

Ryan: I think Betty is a doll. 

DH_belonging-party_0085(2) Poniewozik:
But it’s the other side of the double-edged sword. Matt Weiner does
this and he can do this because he knows AMC is going to let him make a
season and he’s going to do 13 episodes and they’re all going to air
and they’re all going to be in the can. They not going week-to-week
[wondering whether the show will survive].

Sepinwall: And "Are they going to air them in order?"

Poniewozik:
Right, exactly. All the stuff that Joss Whedon deals with when he deals
with a broadcast network. Now the flip side of that is that, I don’t
know what Joss Whedon would make if he made a show for cable. Maybe he
would make an absolute mess. Maybe he needs network yokes in some
sense. For me, I would rather have people get free rein even though
you’re going to get some absolute disasters. I would rather have “John
From Cincinnati” being made, because if it had worked it would have
been the most awesome show of all time.

Ryan: The right people need to be given free rein.

Poniewozik: Yes.

Ryan:
I think, absolutely, broadcast networks are looking more and more cautious.
I don’t often find myself with defending networks, but sometimes have
to admit that I get frustrated when people complain about networks, you
know, "Evil Fox!" And I'm like, "How is Fox evil for airing two seasons
of a show that any other network would have pulled after 3 episodes?"
Obviously the Fox conglomerate has ways to make money off “Dollhouse.”
They’re not a charity. But we're still going to see the entire second
season on the air. 

Poniewozik: I can have the same
conversation with people about "Arrested Development." People talk
about "Arrested Development" as if Fox created it just so they could
have the pleasure of canceling it. No. It was scheduled after the
[expletive] "Simpsons"! No other network would have aired three
episodes of it. I absolutely agree. I like that Fox takes chances that
other broadcast networks won’t.

But there's this whole idea of
the first six or six episodes of “Dollhouse" where it was this
compromised thing. It's like, "Networks are doing procedurals now, so
even though this show really shouldn’t be a procedural, we’re going to
make it one." To me, that’s the sort of [network reaction] that you
wouldn’t have on cable. Make the show that it was supposed to be and it
will live or it will die.

Ryan: I do wonder what he would come up with if some network said, "OK, just do what you want to do, go nuts."

Poniewozik:
It’s possible that Joss Whedon shows just need to suck for six episodes
and then they get good, but if it were on HBO, or AMC, he would have a
13-episode order.

Sepinwall: But “Firefly,” I thought,
was pretty fully formed in that pilot and that was a show that was
never going to succeed because no one is going to watch a show about
space cowboys. At least not in great enough numbers to make it
worthwhile for the networks.

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Three critics talking TV, Part 1: Let’s get ‘Lost’

What do the kids really, really want during the holiday season?

To read a transcript of three critics gabbing about television, obviously!

In late October, I was in New York and I had dinner with Time critic James Poniewozik and Newark Star-Ledger critic Alan Sepinwall. I knew we'd end up talking about TV a lot, so I decided to record our conversation and share it with the four people who may wonder what TV critics talk about when they get together. TV, obviously. OK, maybe nobody in the history of the world has ever wondered that.

In any case, I've finally gotten around to editing and post our conversation (I've cleaned up grammar here and there and also slightly condensed a few sections). There are a couple of things you should keep in mind as you read this: The conversation took place Oct. 28, before "Dollhouse's" cancellation became official and before the last two episodes of "Mad Men's" third season aired.

In Part 1 of our chat, we talked mainly about "Lost" (and for some non-spoilery excerpts from a recent interview with the executive producers of that show, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, look here). We talked about "Lost's" long-term influence and what we hope to see in the show's final season, among other things.

In Part 2 and Part 3, which I'll post Thursday and Friday, we talk about various shows, including "Dollhouse," "The Sopranos" and "Mad Men," among other programs. UPDATE: I posted Parts 2 and 3 in one big entry on Thursday. It's here

Jumpparty Ryan: What do you guys think “Lost's” legacy will be?  Is it a one-off or is it going to have some kind of lasting influence? I really go back and forth on that. 

Poniewozik: I actually was just thinking about this, because I had not been thinking about “Lost” in the off season, but I started watching the remake of “The Prisoner,” [which aired Nov. 15-17 on AMC] and you can’t watch any iteration of “The Prisoner” without thinking about how much “Lost” goes to that.

I don’t think “Lost” is a one-off, but I also don’t think that we’ll see a lot of mini-"Losts" every year after that. I think it [ties into] the theory of the eternal return. There will just be one of them that comes like a comet every 10 years You get your “Prisoner” and you get your “Twin Peaks” and you get “Lost." There will always be some obsessive who watched “Lost” when he was a kid, or watched the “Prisoner” when she was a kid or whatever.  And so that’s going to continue to be remade in some way or another. 

Sepinwall:  But I think the interesting thing that differentiates “Lost,” even from “The Prisoner,” is that “Lost,” at least for a while, was insanely popular.  It was a cult show with a huge mass audience.  And most of that audience has kind of run straight into the time travel and the polar bear cages and all that.  But this idea that you can do a show this complicated and this weird and have this much sci-fi content in it and yet get that kind of audience — I don’t know that that’s ever going to happen again. 

Poniewozik: Well, you won’t have that kind of audience again, yeah.  [Future shows might not] necessarily need that kind of audience. Yeah, as a mass phenomenon, you may be right.   

Sepinwall: And the other thing is – you’ll see lots of shows like this and we’ve seen a lot of shows be made like it in the few years that “Lost” has been on, but you’ll very rarely see shows this good. 

Ryan: Yes.

Sepinwall: "Invasion," "Threshold," “Flash Forward” — it’s like, they are all trying so hard.  

Ryan: Right.  And I think they’re getting part of the equation wrong. I had this really illuminating conversation with [former "Lost" writer and current "Fringe" executive producer] Jeff Pinkner about this. Earlier this year, I wrote a story predicated on the whole "serialized versus non-serialized TV" thing — the broadcast networks certainly seem to be backing away from serialization.  Pinkner was sort of saying “Lost” was a stealth show in some ways. It had these genre elements, but it was a character show. The brilliance that allowed “Lost” to get over was that the individual episodes worked as an hour of TV.  Early on, it was a procedural of sorts, and the procedure was figuring out, "What happened to that guy? Why is he in a wheelchair?" 

So my guess is that maybe the next "Lost" also won’t be in your face about time-travel and so forth. Maybe the next one won't front-load the concept and will sort sneak the weirdness in the back door. I don't know.

Poniewozik: I think that’s really true. I don't even know that “Lost” was a stealth show in that sense. When it started out, it wasn’t the Damon Lindelof show, it was a J.J. Abrams show. J.J. Abrams was generally was concerned first and foremost with the people and the emotions and the stories. And then throw some freaky [stuff] in there and it throws people off balance. 

Jackblood What "FlashForward" doesn’t get about “Lost” is that, when “Lost” started out, most of the things that we think of distinctively “Lost” — mythology, the Dharma Initiative — none of that was in there.  There was a polar bear, there was a mysterious broadcast out of the plane that crashed and there was a monster. “FlashForward” — it’s like they don't understand why “Lost” was good. It’s good because it’s funny and because the characters surprise you and all the mystery evolved out of it and grew out of the characters. 

Ryan: Right. Whereas on "FlashForward," it seems like the characters, such as they are, are there to serve a concept, whereas “Lost” was like, "Here’s a bunch of characters running around, what the hell’s going on?"  And we don’t know what the concept is necessarily.

My theory of “Lost” has always been — part of the reason “Lost” worked is because it was a crazy, out-of-left field idea. And that’s what I always wish networks would do. "Hey, take a chance." Then CBS did take a chance for, like, three minutes when they did "Viva Laughlin." But they didn't really commit to what that was, which was a shame.

So, I’m not saying broadcast networks never take chances, but the bottom line was that "Lost" was just a risky idea executed well. It’s not that we need a weird mythology, we just need a good idea.

Sepinwall: I remember my first reaction to the pilot was, "I don’t know that that monster needs to be there." I almost would have liked the pilot better if it was just them on the island and there was some weird stuff going on but you don’t know what. And when the monster came in, it was kind of overtly sci-fi and I felt at the time that they didn’t need that. In the end, I came around and I love Smokey as much as the next guy.

Ryan: Although I think if we’re talking J.J. Abrams, I loved "Cloverfield" until they revealed the monster, and then the movie became the story of how they escaped the monster. And it's not that the second half was bad, it was just less interesting once we saw the monster.

And that was just something that I wanted to ask you guys. I’m a die-hard “Battlestar Galactica” fan obviously, but I was pretty taken aback at how passionately people reacted, not just to the finale of “Battlestar”, but to that last set of 10 episodes. People were incredibly invested in what their idea of what the final chapters should be. People were very, very adamant about what the show "had to do" or "was supposed to do" before it ended — like, they had this mental checklist. And you know, everybody has their little mental checklist for a final season, probably even moreso for "Lost."

So do you think there’s a way that this can end well for "Lost," in terms of the reaction? I mean, will there be rioting in cyberspace no matter what? 

Sepinwall: Yeah, people are going to be pissed off. But you can’t satisfy everyone and everyone who’s has built up in their head their own ideas. I mean, Lindelof has said this, Cuse has said this — everyone has their idea of what the monster is, what the island is, etc. And either the ending is not going to go along with that and people will be upset, or people are going to be like [mildly disappointed voice], “Oh, yeah, that’s what I thought it was. OK.”

It happened a couple of times in some of the earlier seasons where when they give you an answer and it’s the answer you thought of. Suddenly it feels a little less impressive.

Poniewozik: Unfortunately, there’s this [problem] that’s inherent to sci-fi shows that "Battlestar Galactica" ran into.

Benlinus In a regular, character-based drama, maybe people have high expectations for the finale, maybe they expect that closure from it, or [maybe they expect it to] wrap up in a certain way for the characters. Even when it's a finale that people really don’t like — the “Seinfeld” finale, the “Sopranos” finale for a lot of people — I don’t know that many people who said, “I hate this 'Seinfeld' finale so much that it ruined the show for me.”

But there’s a thing about sci-fi that they expect the finale is not just supposed to be a narrative ending. It’s supposed to be an Answer, which to me is kind of ridiculous. The finale is supposed to say what it all meant, what everything was about. And you know, I’m not saying that it’s unimportant. I watch these shows for the same reason, but if the show is really good, that’s secondary.

Ryan: Well, I really felt like there was a left-brain, right-brain split in a way, when it came to the reaction to "Battlestar." I'm obviously being overly reductive, but it seemed like there were two sort of realms of fan responses or reactions. There were the people that wanted the whole mythology to add up correctly and make sense, and there were the people who wanted the character stuff to kind of wrap up.  I was mostly in the latter camp. And so for me, I felt like there were a couple of wobbly things in the finale, but I was willing to live with them because the "Battlestar" finale really delivered, for me, on a character level. 

Whereas, in the post-finale comments I was seeing, people wanted the math to add up. You know, like, the show is a math equation and the show needed to get the right answer. And in my mind, it was never going to do that — I necessarily didn't expect that or think it was going to be possible for it all to add up neatly. I felt like, this is a show that has taken many risks. A few of them have not paid off, but I’d rather watch a show that does something crazy that has an 89 percent chance of working out down the road, story-wise, than a show that plots things out in a way that is purely logical and kind of clinical.

So I just think certain segments of the various “Lost” fandoms are, if anything, more obsessed with various bits of arcane mythology and they will want everything to add up a certain way. I think there's a chance the “Lost” guys are going to have to go to France and hide. 

Sepinwall: And the problem is that everyone has their own favorite bit of mythology. Some people are really into the numbers or the four-toed foot or whatever.

Ryan: I didn’t realize until I read this interview that Whitney Matheson recently did with Damon – people are really into this conversation that happened at one point between Kate and Ben on the beach. "What were they talking about?" And Damon's like, "Nothing. It's not a big deal."

It's like the mention of Daniel, the Cylon that didn't work out, in “Battlestar's" final season — they had no idea that people would seize on that so obsessively. Ron Moore tried 50 different times to say "That does not matter" and people were not hearing it. I definitely thought there was some meaning with the Daniel thing myself.

Poniewozik: It’s a double-edged sword because the fact that you can get involved with the show on that granular a level, that’s what makes it sticky and what makes people follow it so closely.

Ryan: What do you guys personally want out of the last season? 

Poniewozik: Honestly, I don’t know if there’s anything that I particularly want. I want to be entertained and impressed. And I want to have some sense of why the island is important and why it was necessary that they all be there, if it was necessary that they all be there. 

I don’t necessarily need all the parts of that to add up. It’s not like there’s an outcome that I’m rooting for. I’d love to be surprised.

4jumpsuits Sepinwall: There’s one outcome I am rooting for, and that is Desmond, Penny and baby Charlie have to be OK. If they [expletive] with them, I’m not going to be happy and that’s the only area. But beyond that…

Ryan: Yeah, I think I'm with you there. I think they probably know they cannot break our hearts with that. If they do, they will be dead. 

Sepinwall: And I would like to know what Smokey is. They’ve teased that out so much that if they don’t answer that — that I think would be disappointing.

Poniewozik: It’s funny that the thing that you guys come to is Desmond and Penny and little Charlie. And not Kate and Jack and Sawyer, for instance. [But] some people have this idea that, for a show like this to be any good, should know exactly what it’s going to do from the beginning. You know — have a map and follow the map militarily to the end.

And the fact is, it’s like a novel, it’s like writing and developing anything else, it's like making a movie — if it doesn’t happen organically, if it doesn't come out of the characters, who are human beings and will surprise you and take you places that you didn’t expect to when it started out, it’s going to be [crap]. And therefore, [the show] has to allow for the possibility that things that the creators thought were going to happen in Season 1 just end up not happening at all. And some character who is down a hole at the beginning of the second season ends up having the relationship that is cared about most at the end.

Ryan: That does makes me a little bit crazy, that comment that people make — "The were just making it up as they went!" Well, obviously! They're not making a documentary about people on an island with polar bears. And they're also not going to plan every turn of every episode in advance of shooting the show.

Of course I do understand the frustration on one level, in that sometimes storytellers can falter. I’m not saying, "Gosh, you know what?  'Lost' has been a perfect from the beginning."

Sepinwall: Come on, the polar bear cages were awesome, admit it. Admit it.

Ryan: If you’re asking me, did I like to see Sawyer as Shirtless Cage Guy? I’m not going to lie to you; I was OK with that. Everyone got so mad about those six episodes and I just didn't get it. I was like,"Wait, Sawyer's in a cage with his shirt off? Why would I have a problem with that?"

No, but I mean, I understand, it's not always perfect. But if they weren't making it up, they wouldn’t have baby Charlie and Desmond and Penny. A lot of the stuff that people love the most wouldn’t even exist had it not been for "making it up as we go."

Poniewozik: And if you have a plan that you stick with and come hell or high water, that’s exactly when you get into a situation where the characters [don't seem real]. 

Ryan: I have to admit, I got a little bit emotional when I was filing out of that last Comic-Con panel for “Lost.” Partly because they were playing that version of "Over the Rainbow"/"What a Wonderful World" by that Hawaiian singer, Israel Kamakawiwo?ole, which was really amazing. But part of it was — to have that level of emotional engagement with a show is not the norm, but it is really nice to have. I mean, I get very engaged by “Mad Men” too. But to have the emotional engagement and the sci-fi element at the same time — to have my heart and my nerd brain activated at the same time — that's rare.

Tune in for the Next Exciting Installment! We talk "Dollhouse" and "Sopranos" and Sepinwall tries to explain the Armenian Money Train plot from "The Shield."

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‘Lost’ photos and info found: A few thoughts from Cuse and Lindelof on the end of the island drama

48 days.

That's how long we have to wait until the final season of "Lost" begins on Feb. 2.

Last Friday, I talked to "Lost" executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse for more than an hour, and I'll publish a complete transcript of our conversation in a few weeks. I especially can't wait for you to read the part about the Ewoks.

No, there will not be Ewoks in Season 6 of "Lost." At least I don't think there will be. Cuse and Lindelof, in keeping with their strict Season 6 anti-spoiler policy, didn't offer any plot specifics regarding Season 6 (nor did I ask for any, given my own policy on Season 6).

But we did discuss the nature of endings, the importance of both supplying answers and allowing mysteries to exist, the weight of expectations as "Lost" draws to a close and the prospect of Lindelof and Cuse going off and doing different things for a while after the show ends.

"We have an incredibly rewarding creative partnership and I think for me, our collaboration is probably the thing that is most enjoyable about the entire process," Cuse said. "I think that, having spent more time with each other over the last six years than with anybody else, including our wives and children, I think it’s reasonable that we’re going to take a break. … I think it’ll be healthy for us to explore stuff independent of each other, but I think it would be great if we kind of come back together and find something else to do" at some point down the road.

Before that break, however, they've got to finish making the sixth season of the island drama, and that task that will occupy them for several more months. After that, who knows? But to answer one of the questions submitted by readers, they won't be writing any "Lost" books once the show wraps things up.

Below are a few excerpts from the conversation — and again, you'll be able to read the whole thing in a few weeks. After the excerpts are photos of the Season 6 "Lost" cast and a few Informational Tidbits about the last season. (The video above, by the way, is a Spanish promo for the final season. It's pretty great, isn't it? One other thing you might want to know about: A "Lost" poster exhibit opens in Los Angeles Tuesday. For more on that, the clue-laden Damon, Carlton and Polar Bear site has more info.)

From Lindelof and Cuse:

  • "Lost" executive producer and frequent director Jack Bender will direct the series finale. "He’s definitely directing it. He’s been such a humungous part of the show and he’s our third partner in Hawaii. You know there wouldn’t be anybody else to do it besides him," Cuse said.
  • As expected, Cuse and Lindelof will write the show's 2-hour series finale. Cuse on the final season and the unveiling of the ending: "We kind of concocted the mythology of the show a long time ago, and it’s like having a Christmas present and you kept it on the shelf a long time and people are finally going to get to open it and see it. So we’re finally getting to deploy the ending of the show and that is exciting to us. It is a story and I think as storytellers, that’s always what’s delicious — you set up the audience and then you basically finish the story. There’s a payoff and we’re actually going to finally give the audience our payoff."
  • Cuse said that "Lost" will unveil a "narrative technique" that is "different" this season. He  didn't elaborate on what the new technique would be, but he compared the deployment of this Season 6 element to the show's use of time travel in Season 5: "Last year, we committed to this concept of time travel with a certain expectation that some people really might not respond to it. I think the most pleasant surprise was how much people embraced it, because it was difficult and it was much more overtly science fiction, and yet people really seemed to like the season," Cuse said. "But we have the same anxiety about what we’re doing this season. We kind of feel like the fundamental tenet that we’ve tried to follow as storytellers is 'Be bold.' But in being bold sometimes you fall on your face. So, we committed to a narrative approach this season which we feel is bold and it’s different than what we’ve done before. And if it works, it’ll be exciting, but it might not be everybody’s cup of tea either."
  • Lindelof on whether constructing the final seasons and finale have put more pressure on them and on the show: "Despite what people think or say, so much of it has been talked about and planned for years now that you’re just kind of executing the plan to the best of your ability and changing the plan when it’s not working, but otherwise, you’re kind of married to the inevitable — the stuff that we want to do."
  • Both Cuse and Lindelof sounded adamant about not wanting the show to continue in future TV or film  projects (so presumably we won't see "Lost Babies" show up on ABC Family). They also said they aren't thinking about writing a "making of" book. Lindelof: "The one promise that we are making is that what we’re not going to do is leave the show hanging so we can pick up the ball and run with it two years from now in some other television project or movie. I think that we owe ourselves and the story and the audience a sense of finality. … You can’t break up with somebody and say, 'Let’s not go out anymore, but I still want to sleep together, I still want to live in the same house, and we should still go on dates all the time.' No. If it’s over, it’s over."
  • Cuse said the duo is going "off the grid" after the finale airs in order to avoid "having to interpret the ending." More from Cuse on this topic: "We’ve always felt that one of the compelling elements of 'Lost' is its intentional ambiguity. The fact is, it’s open for interpretation and discussion and we feel like we would be doing a disservice to the fans and the viewers to say, 'No, you must only look at this in one way.' We don’t think that is really good for the show or for people’s ability to read into the show what they want…. We really feel we are very committed to this notion of not sort of stripping the show of its essential mystery. I mean, mystery exists in life and we kind of always go back to the midi-chlorians example [in the 'Star Wars' prequels]. Your understanding the Force was not aided by knowing that there were little particles swimming around in the bloodstreams of Jedi. There are sort of fundamental elements of mystery and magic to the show that are unexplainable, and any attempt to explain them would actually harm the show, and in our opinion, the legacy of the show. So we’re trying to find that kind of right blend of answering questions, but also leaving the things that should be mysterious, mysterious."
  • Cuse on their approach to the final season and the finale: "All we can do is trust our guts, which is kind of where we’ve been from the beginning.  We started the show sitting in my office every morning, having breakfast, talking about what we thought was cool and whatever we both would get excited about would go into the show. That’s how we’ve approached it [all along] and that’s how we approached it at the end. So, our barometer can only be: Does this ending feel satisfying to us and to the other writers? And if we can achieve that, we feel like we will have done what we can do and what we should do."
  • Will 18 hours be enough for the last season? (By the way, Season 6 will consist of a two-hour season premiere, 13 episodes and three-hour series finale that will air over two weeks — but as Cuse joked, "I’m sure the network will sell it as a six-part finale if they can.") Cuse: "For us, [18 hours] is just about right. I mean, we aren’t sitting here feeling like, 'Oh my God, we need a ton more hours to tell the rest of our story.' It feels like it’s going to work out just fine. It will have been the right length."

Below are ABC's promotional photos of the Season 6 "Lost" cast. Don't look if you don't want to know who will be getting a fair amount of screen time in Season 6.

I don't consider the bits of information that come before the photos spoilery. In fact, I don't think of them as spoilers but rather as Informational Tidbits. But on the off chance that you don't want to know these Season 6 Informational Tidbits, here's your chance to jump out now.

Last bits:

  • Time-wise, Season 6 begins exactly where Season 5 left off. Cuse: "There’s an eight-month gap [between seasons], but when you actually buy the DVDs, you’ll put the finale in for Season 5 and then you’re put the first disc in for Season 6 and it will feel like a very continuous experience."
  • I jokingly suggested that this season we'd see either the much-discussed Zombie Season or at the very least a "Lost" musical. Unfortunately it was a no on both counts, but Cuse did say that in Season 6, we will see "a character singing."
  • Via his Twitter account, Cuse confirmed the return of a "Lost" guest actor here and the identity of a new-to-"Lost" guest actor here.

On to the Season 6 cast photos:

Yunjin Kim as Sun:

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Nestor Carbonell as Richard Alpert:

Lostalpert 

Evangeline Lilly as Kate:

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Terry O'Quinn as Locke:

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Matthew Fox as Jack:

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Jorge Garcia as Hurley:

Losthurley

Michael Emerson as Ben:

Lostben

Josh Holloway as Sawyer:

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Zuleikha Robinson as Ilana:

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Ken Leung as Miles:

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Daniel Dae Kim as Jin:

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Naveen Andrews as Sayid:

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Jeff Fahey as Frank Lapidus:

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Emilie de Ravin as Claire:

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Sponsored Link: Amazon's Lost Store

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Watch this: The Top TV shows of 2009

Jaxbike
The thought of coming up with a year-end Top 10 list gave me headaches for weeks.

I just could not whittle my favorite TV of the year down to 10 shows. I'm relieved, then, that my editors relented and let me expand my list to 15 choices.

Even that list was hard to compile. The past 12 months have offered an enormous array of enjoyable, exhilarating or challenging television, and a quick glance at my runners-up list offers a small indication of how rich the bounty was in 2009.

You'll no doubt disagree with some of my choices — the point of lists, I often think, is to provoke lively disagreements. But I'm grateful that we have so much to argue about. The networks might be in a more cautious mode — the evolving financial model of television, last year's strike and the current economic downturn have certainly put the squeeze on the industry in a variety of ways.

But the list below is proof that, whatever disasters have befallen the television industry in the last year or two, from a strike to a recession to Jay Leno, the art form has proved to be amazingly resilient. Lucky us.

Here's my list of the best television programs of 2009, in alphabetical order.

Sixbaltar "Battlestar Galactica," Syfy: How many shows can tell stories with such intensity that you forget to breathe? "Battlestar Galactica" was one of those rare shows that regularly reached that fever pitch, in rock 'em, sock 'em battle sequences and during Season 4's chillingly brutal mutiny. But on its way out, this sensationally acted drama also supplied moments of almost unbearable tenderness and poignance. That battered old ship and the people who fought, suffered, loved and died on it won't be forgotten any time soon. So say we all. (My previous "Battlestar Galactica" stories and reviews are here.)

"The Big Bang Theory," CBS: For a while there, the phrase "traditional comedy" was starting to sound like an insult. And over the past decade or so, too many multi-camera comedies have trafficked in predictable writing and lazy characterization. Then along came "Big Bang Theory," which proved that excellent acting and a smart approach can make even the most traditional network comedies deeply satisfying. Consistency can indeed be overrated, but it's hard to come by in the comedy realm, and "The Big Bang Theory" gets major points for managing to induce smiles on a weekly basis. (My previous "Big Bang Theory" stories and reviews are here.)

Jeffroboto "Chuck," NBC: "Chuck" is not only a delightful collision of spy-movie conventions and pop-culture-saturated comedy, this scrappy show is also the poster child for the interactive age, in which a show's fans can help determine its fate. Smitten by the show's ridiculously entertaining second season, fans became "Chuck's" most impassioned advocates, and they savvily centered their "save our show" campaign on one of the NBC program's main sponsors. Their many creative gambits worked, which means that come Jan. 10, we'll get to see what retail clerk-turned-spy Chuck Bartowski (the talented Zachary Levi) can — or can't — do with his new-found fighting skills. (My previous "Chuck" stories and reviews are here.)

"Dollhouse," Fox: Perhaps it was appropriate for a drama that was all about the construction and deconstruction of identity, but few shows in recent memory had a harder time figuring out what to do with an intriguing premise (network meddling certainly didn't help in that regard). But "Dollhouse's" cleverness, its willingness to take risks and its ability to create emotionally moving moments made sticking with the show's many gyrations worth it. Despite the difficulties "Dollhouse" had with its own identity, when this show was firing on all cylinders, its heady exploration of free will, personality and memory was thought-provoking and even exhilarating at times. (My previous "Dollhouse" stories and reviews are here.)

FNL "Friday Night Lights," DirecTV and NBC: Few shows are more skilled at using silence. "FNL" recognizes that sometimes words aren't necessary and that life's big truths are often too hard to articulate anyway. The DirecTV episode that aired Dec. 2, which starred Evanston's Zach Gilford, was an astonishingly moving depiction of the difficulty of expressing, let alone feeling, complicated emotions. During this time of economic uncertainty, innovative financing — via a partnership between DirectTV and NBC — means that we'll get a total of 5 seasons of this small-town drama. Thus "Friday Night Lights" is not only a miracle of organic, unforced filmmaking and acting, it's symbol of hope for the future of the TV industry. (My previous "Friday Night Lights" stories and reviews are here.)

"Lost," ABC: Oh "Lost." You do try my patience sometimes. Sure, there are "Lost" fans who love it when the island drama plunges heartily into time-travel and the resulting mind-bending math, but I am not in that camp. Still, I'd follow these characters anywhere, including down the time-travel rabbit hole (and it was pretty groovy when the show took viewers back to the '70s-era Dharma Initiative). During a season that could be a brain-bender, there were many pleasures to savor, including Josh Holloway getting to prove that he's much more than a pretty face attached to an attractive shirtless torso. (My previous "Lost" stories and reviews are here.)

Donmirror.jpg "Mad Men," AMC: "Mad Men" certainly likes to take its time and get all its ducks in row.  Despite a slow start, however, the third season of this addictive drama provided plenty of jaw-dropping developments, and every one of them was grounded in the choices and dilemmas of these indelible characters, who continually search for and recoil from real connection. Fans have had no trouble making a connection with "Mad Men"; talking about it online the next day is half the fun with this complicated, alluring drama. (My previous "Mad Men" stories and reviews are here.)

"Modern Family," ABC: Remember all those stories about how comedy was dying on the broadcast networks? Whoops. The media may have spoken a bit too soon. Sure, "Modern Family" took one of the most tired TV genres — the family sitcom — and updated it with the hip "mock-umentary" format that shows like "The Office" made popular. But what makes "Modern Family" work is solid execution of the comedy basics. The characters feel real and lived-in, the performances by the top-notch cast are razor-sharp and the stories the show tells are inventive without being overly broad. Most important of all, this show has a heart as big as Fizbo the clown's shoes. This is a modern gem with old-fashioned appeal. (My original "Modern Family" review is here.)

Nj "Nurse Jackie," Showtime: "Sopranos" veteran Edie Falco was reason enough to watch this dark, provocative dramedy, but the show's able supporting cast stood toe-to-toe with Falco, and "Nurse Jackie" also offered an unsentimental yet compassionate depiction of the limits of caregiving. The empathic Falco, whose face said everything the reticent Jackie couldn't, made this deeply flawed nurse one of TV's most compelling new characters. (My previous "Nurse Jackie" stories and reviews are here.)

"Parks and Recreation," NBC: Television's most improved comedy is now the home of some of TV's most lovably weird characters. If nothing else (and "Parks" did a lot of things right in its second season), this show has given us the magic of Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), a man who knows what he likes, and he likes pretty, dark-haired women and breakfast food.

"Party Down," Starz: This is what cable TV often does (and thank goodness): It takes a premise that feels played out and creates something fresh and entertaining from it. During the last decade or so, there have been dozens of shows set in the entertainment industry, but few have captured the scuffling at its lower reaches with both insider knowledge and bemused insight. "Party Down" was a shaggy, charming ensemble comedy that got better by the week, and its party-of-the-week format offered plenty of opportunities for the show's talented stars and guest actors to shine. (My previous "Party Down" stories and reviews are here.)

"Sons of Anarchy," FX: Even though "Anarchy" is right there in the motorcycle club's name, the characters in this biker drama adhered to a strict, well-defined code, yet still faced excruciating moral dilemmas. The brilliant second season of "Sons" was about a search for honor and the kind of brotherhood that goes beyond blood ties, and it offered virtuoso performances from Katey Sagal, Ron Perlman, Charlie Hunnam, Maggie Siff and Ryan Hurst. (My previous "Sons of Anarchy" stories and reviews are here.)

SPNFuture2 "Supernatural," CW: Shows in their fourth and fifth seasons — especially genre shows — usually fold in on themselves, becoming so dense with accumulated layers of mythology that newbies are rebuffed. But "Supernatural" keeps its mythology interesting without letting it become intimidating. And this thoughtfully crafted show got bolder and more creative in 2009, coming up with hilarious and innovative episodes and taking risks with its storytelling (How do you unleash Lucifer without veering into camp? "Supernatural" managed it). Without a lot of fanfare or pretension, this show is asking interesting questions about the presence (or absence) of God while still supplying meaty genre stories, and "Supernatural's" cast features some of the most solidly talented and underrated actors on TV. (My previous "Supernatural" stories and reviews are here.)

"Torchwood: Children of Earth," BBC America: This five-part miniseries didn't exactly stick the landing; the final installment was a bit of a pell-mell mess. But the first few hours of "Children of Earth" were masterful and transfixing, and managed to create a tremendous level of suspense while asking pointed questions about power, secrets and the sacrifices people are willing to make to enforce the status quo. (My previous "Torchwood" stories and reviews are here.)

Vampqueen


"True Blood," HBO:
If this show were a fashion ensemble, Tim Gunn would call it a hot mess. Still, despite its flaws and its occasional forays into true ridiculousness, "True Blood" proved impossible to resist. It offered charismatic performances from Michelle Forbes, Nelsan Ellis, Ryan Kwanten, Allan Hyde and Alexander Skarsgård, among others, and it took all the old-fashioned pleasures of a melodramatic serial and sexed them up, Bon Temps-style. The result was a hurtling, hyper, sometimes hysterically funny vampire soap opera, one that was, on occasion, more than just a bloody good time. (My previous "True Blood" stories and reviews are here.)

Runners up:

  • "30 Rock"
  • "Better Off Ted"
  • "Curb Your Enthusiasm"
  • "Burn Notice"
  • "Damages"
  • "Drop Dead Diva"
  • "Glee"
  • "The Good Wife"
  • "Flight of the Conchords"
  • "Fringe"
  • "How I Met Your Mother"
  • "In Treatment"
  • "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"
  • "Lie to Me"
  • "Life"
  • "Monty Python: Almost the Truth — The Lawyer's Cut"
  • "The Office"
  • "V"
  • "Virtuality"
  • "White Collar"

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