Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Farnsworth Invention (stage)

Words, not images, power The Farnsworth Invention

By Stan Friedman

If one were to psychoanalyze the work of Aaron Sorkin, one might infer a problem with authority figures. Look at Kaffee vs. Jessep (Tom Cruise vs. Jack Nicholson) in "A Few Good Men," Toby vs. President Bartlet in "The West Wing" and Matt vs. Jack Rudolph in "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," and what you'll find in each case is a highly gifted underdog, with a taste for booze, who must confront a powerful, experienced bossman. In Sorkin's gripping new drama, "The Farnsworth Invention," this formula is once again put into action as Philo Farnsworth, a lowly, genius, alcoholic farmer from Utah competes against David Sarnoff, the President of RCA, to invent and patent television.

Sorkin is an emphatic writer and this play is testament to his skills in creating zippy dialog that entertains and educates an audience even if it often sounds more like the playwright himself doing the talking. Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson) and Sarnoff (Hank Azaria) serve as narrators, speaking directly to the audience and to each other from across the years. This approach deflects some of the sympathy they might otherwise earn and plays havoc with the depth of the characters. Also, Azaria suffers from being Azaria, which is to say that his Simpsons menagerie forever haunts, and here Moe the Bartender's gravelly voice keeps emerging from Sarnoff's otherwise majestic countenance.

But no matter, Sorkin's wordplay, given life by director Des McAnuff, builds waves of sadness and glee by its sheer momentum. As he did with "Jersey Boys," McAnuff takes a minimal, two-tiered set and lets loose upon it a rapid-fire series of vignettes that matches the torque of the playwright's dialog. Boldly, the staging of the first successful broadcast of a televised image is done with the TV facing away from
the audience, the reactions of Farnsworth's assistants providing a vicarious thrill.

Sometimes showing off ("Music is what Mathmatics does on a Saturday night"), sometimes using his familiar ironic understatement ("You're going to want to not screw this up") Sorkin delivers what his established fans and critics have come to expect: a showcase of his own formidable talent.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


Jack of Hearts, Queen of Clubs

Ca$hino brings down the house

By Stan Friedman

Look out Kiki & Herb, there’s a new fictional, dysfunctional duo in town. They have their own lounge act and they mean business. The business, of course, that is show.

It’s been a long road for the two dreamers, Pepper Cole and Johnny Niagra, known collectively as Ca$hino. They took their best shot at Vegas, but the rejection and the backstabbing drove them to despair. Pepper hit the sauce and grew despondent, announcing what many a financier has recently proclaimed, “We’re losers and we can’t get a job!” Then inspiration struck.

Returning to their hometown of Los Angeles, they began touring the suburbs in their Ford Taurus, going door to door, performing in living rooms for online gamblers who couldn’t pull themselves away from their virtual slots. By entertaining one lonely housewife at a time, they found their niche and a new confidence. So Johnny packed his keyboard, boxed his “sexy beast” blond wig and flew to New York. Off the bottle but afraid to fly, Pepper followed on a Greyhound bus. Now they’ve taken up shop a block away from the Port Authority, at the Laurie Beechman on Sunday nights in November.

Paying homage to their history of house calls, each show opens with one of four 30-minute videos that chronicle a particularly unfortunate outing or missed opportunity during their time out west. There’s a run-in with a terrifying Liza Minnelli impersonator and a marketing plan that centers on Valpak coupons. Filmed between 2000 and 2004 and filled with celebrity cameos, Left Coast gags and marvelously cruel bouts of failure, the works share the same sensibilities and Schadenfreude satisfactions as Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Then Pepper and Johnny hit the stage for an hour of ad-libs, an audience raffle and the most energized and hilarious musical time capsule to be found in the city.

The Ca$hino songbook is composed of both classic Broadway musicals and power-pop ballads from the 1970s and ‘80s; two great sounds that sound great together. The duo’s best offerings not only combine the two genres but also meld their DNA. Yul Brenner metaphorically waltzes with Freddie Mercury in a medley entitled “The Queen & I,” while “Annie” finds the common ground between “A Hard Knock Life” and Annie Lennox’s “Walking on Broken Glass.”

Pepper has the pipes of Patti Lupone, the comic wherewithal of Carol Burnett and the social blindsight of Amy Winehouse. She belts, chicken-dances and oozes insecurity all at once. Meanwhile, Johnny is cool as a cuke behind the piano, keeping Pepper from falling off the deep end while taking suggestions from the audience to create instant compositions, or scat singing what it sounds like when doves cry.

In real life, Pepper is veteran singer-actress Susan Mosher. Having spent time in Vegas and L.A, on stage, in film and on TV (notably, a recurring role on Showtime’s The L Word), Mosher moved to Manhattan to perform on Broadway in Hairspray. She can still be seen there, eight shows a week, until the production closes in January. But in this more intimate, downstairs venue, she not so much lights up the stage with Pepper as she ignites a blazing basement fire that transfixes the crowd. It’s a bravura performance.

Her co-star and pal for over 20 years, John Boswell still calls L.A. home and has a bio as eclectic as his arrangements. He’s written music for General Hospital, served as music director for Judy Collins and has released eight albums of inspirational instrumentals. Tune into the “Soundscapes” cable music channel, and you’re more than likely to hear one of his works. Boswell’s Ca$hino compositions are uniformly clever, endearing if you grew up listening to Heart and Neil Diamond, inanely gratifying if you know your musicals; and at times they’re unexpectedly transcendent. In a mash-up of Bette Midler and “Fiddler on the Roof” (yes, “Midler on the Roof”)—when Pepper launches into “From A Distance,” while striding like Golde being vanquished from the homeland—there is a sudden poignancy. Conversely, when they meld “Dust in the Wind” with the 1967 classic “Windy,” the tune climaxes in such total silliness that a ridiculous and all-encompassing truth cannot help but crack up the audience: “Everyone knows we’re dusty.”

Nov. 23, Laurie Beechman Theatre in the West Bank Café, 407 W. 42nd St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.), 212-695-6909; 9:30, $15/$20.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Chuck / Reaper

Chuck and Reaper, both separated at birth

Some TV characters are born innocent, others have innocence thrust upon them. The protagonists of NBC’s “Chuck” and CW’s “Reaper” fall into this latter category. They’re slackers who, by no fault of their own, are forced to deal with fantastical, life-threatening scenarios while still holding fast to their inner-cluelessness. And that is not the only similarity between these comedies. In fact, the shows are totally identical except that in “Reaper” the Devil himself is the villain, and in “Chuck” it’s the U.S. government. Guess which one is the more demonic.

Sam, in “Reaper,” is a salesperson at Work Bench (i.e. Home Depot) while Chuck is a salesperson for Buy More (i.e. Best Buy). Sam’s best friend/co-worker is a Jack Black wannabe who looks after Sam’s love life. Chuck’s best friend/co-worker is a David Schwimmer wannabe who looks after Chuck’s love life when he’s not busy obsessing over his own. Sam adores a bright, pretty co-worker named Andi. Chuck adores a bright, pretty sister named Ellie. Andi and Ellie (Missy Peregrym and Sarah Lancaster) could pass for twins.

Sam learns, on his 21st birthday, that his parents had long ago sold his soul to Satan and that now he must get busy giving the devil his due by capturing fugitives from Hell. Chuck, on the night of his birthday party, opens an e-mail attachment and accidentally downloads a server full of government secrets directly into his brain. Guided and manhandled by agents from the CIA and NSA, Chuck must now get busy capturing terrorists and assassins.

“Reaper” has the darker, deeper pool of legendry at its disposal, but the results are lighter and shallower. An alarm clock set for 6:66 and a Lil Devil min-vac is about as wry as it gets. As Satan, Ray Wise (who gave the quintessential performance of a man possessed by evil in “Twin Peaks”) is failed by the writers and left stranded in a one-dimensional role. And while both shows pile on the special effects, only “Chuck” is blessed with the kind of immediacy, superior editing and fight sequences that can keep it from the fiery pits of cancellation.
-November 7, 2007

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Sarah Silverman Program

Sarah Silverman, devastatingly cute and vice versa

The fall season has already seen its share of wimpy, moralistic compromises. The villainess of NBC’s “The Bionic Woman” smoked a cigarette, but only after explaining that her own bionics prevents lung cancer. Satan condemned a first-born son on The CW’s “Reaper,” and then put him to work doing good for mankind. But over on Comedy Central, “The Sarah Silverman Program” will have none of it. In the first two second season episodes, Sarah’s character takes a joyful trip down memory lane reliving her past abortions, sympathizes with a guy who had to give up crack and rigorously defends her right to lick a dog’s anus (“Fair, at best” is her culinary critique). It’s sick, stupid, brilliant and the bravest sitcom on TV.

Last year, Sarah had sex with God (in the body of a 62-year-old black man), so it’s not really a matter of Silverman trying to top herself in terms of outrageousness. Rather, she just loves to juggle as many comedic styles as she can, as fast as she can. Her portrayal of a selfish, cute, dirty, ignorant intellectual is aided greatly by the fact that she has no problem working the extremes of shock comedy, transforming it into silliness (“Babies should say “goo,” not become it.”) and then swan diving into a terrible pun. Even prop gags are not beneath her as she makes use of an abortion vacuum with a “shag” setting. Less helpful is her supporting cast, including real-life sister Laura—proof that comic timing is not an inherited trait.

Silverman’s talent balances at the edge of a precipice. Too much notoriety puts her sharp instincts in danger of crashing down around her. Last month, when she drove the final nail into Britney Spears’ coffin at the MTV awards (“Twenty-five years old and she’s already accomplished everything she’s going to accomplish in her life.”) and bashed Britney’s kids, it was mean and funny, sure, but it was also too easy, too YouTubed, compared with, say, her idea for an American Airlines slogan (“First Through the Towers”). With any luck, her TV show will barely get noticed at all.

The Film Crew - Wild Women of Wongo (DVD)

MST3K, The Next Generation

Where do once-successful franchises go once they’ve been turned away from the likes of Comedy Central and the Sci Fi Channel? To DVD of course. Thus, here are the three gentlemen who once reigned over the cult TV show, “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” still dishing out wisecrack audio commentary tracks atop very, very bad movies. Now calling themselves The Film Crew, and without benefit of their puppets Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett tackle the Wild Women of Wongo. This is the third in a series of releases from Shout! Factory (the fourth, just out, is The Giant of Marathon).

The comic stylings of these middle-aged white Midwesterners are nerdy to the max, yet not without moments of inspiration. They’re no Three Stooges, but the timing that comes from working together for more than a decade is on display as they banter at full throttle. They do their best to drown out this amateurish film about island natives and their penchant to dance, skinny dip, wave spears and stumble over dialog (Though there is a surprisingly good underwater sequence where a lovely Wongovian lass wrestles with an alligator that barely looks fake at all.).

Nearly every scene provides the opportunity for a Crew member to score a one-liner ripe with sexual innuendo (“That’s it baby. Squat down and stir my soup.”). Familiarity with 20th century pop culture is a pre-requisite for viewers as allusions to Tonya Harding, Arby’s oven mitt mascot and “Karma Chameleon” are flung about. But the boys are at their best when they zing the sheer inanity of the film itself. They name the island queen’s pet the appropriate “Fakey the Lizard,” and make mincemeat of a ridiculously overused parrot that appears during every scene transition while barely uttering a word.

“Bonus” is not really the correct adjective to describe the whopping four minutes of additional features thrown in for no apparent reason. The guys dance a little and do a lame skit with some cardboard cutout Wongo women. As it was with MST3K, Nelson & Co. should be heard and not seen.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Rick & Steve

Rick & Steve come together, no batteries required

Attention, heterosexuals. If you have been searching for societal permission to check out Logo, the MTV-owned lesbian and gay network, look no further than Tuesdays at 10 p.m. Not only might you find an actual Subaru commercial wherein the owner of the restaurant Florent refers to himself as the “queen of the Meatpacking District,” you will also be transported to the immaculate town of West Lahunga Beach, home to the brutally funny “Rick and Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple In All The World.” Even though there’s plenty of man-on-man action in this series, the men (as well as the women, pets, club kids, marriage counselors, etc.) are all plastic figurines with animated mouths filmed in stop-action animation. If the boys of “South Park” grew up to be queer, with hinged elbows and knees, the results would be a lot like this.

The benefits of being plastic include the ability to wear a “snap on,” but it’s still a world where love and porn addiction go hand in hand, and lesbian couples must barter their home-repair skills for a cup of sperm in order to reproduce.

Stereotyping is at the heart of nearly all the jokes, but from the mouths of dolls it’s dead-on humor. When inseminated lesbian Kirsten wonders why it is taking so long to get pregnant, even the semen cannot escape notice as she is reminded, “These are Rick’s tadpoles. They’ll have to completely redecorate your uterus before committing to a nine-month lease.”

Characters occasionally break into song and luckily Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez, creators of Avenue Q, are there to provide material, as is Bob Esty (“It’s Raining Men”) and series creator Q. Allan Brocka. “Love Song For Three,” their ode to the joys of a three-way begins, “Love can be so lonely when there’s just two of us.”

Another familiar name in the credits, Alan Cumming, voices Chuck, an older, wheelchair-bound, HIV victim with a chip on his shoulder. “You married me when it was cool to have a boyfriend with AIDS,” he tells his 19-year-old boyfriend. These folks might be artificial, but they draw blood for real.

- Stan Friedman   September 19, 2007

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Singing Bee

‘The Singing Bee’ is a terrible thing to waste

It’s easy to dismiss NBC’s ratings smash “The Singing Bee” as the kind of eye candy/ear Muzak that contributes to the decline of Western civilization. But make no mistake, this game show is a genius mix of the washed-up and the newly found. The brilliance begins with its choice of host, former ‘N Sync star Joey Fatone. Now a jolly, big-boned 30-year-old in an open collar and spiffy jacket, Fatone looks like a guy on his way to a first date who has stumbled into a sing-along. He awkwardly leads contestants through various challenges, all of which involve remembering the lyrics to hit songs, generally culled from the 1980s. Sometimes he’ll even dance. In 10 years that will just be creepy. Now it comes across more as a mildly pitiful effort at recapturing his boyhood. Indeed, memories and glory days are what make the show tick. Watching the contestants sing, gleefully off-key and with no inhibitions, one can imagine them back at their hometown karaoke bars attempting to relive some heydays of their own.

Lest the show turn maudlin, there are enough hilariously cheapo production values and under-rated background performances to fill a year’s worth of “American Idol” rip-offs. Four sexy dancers, known collectively as the Honey Bees, go into action with every downbeat. (NBC has given them their own blog, wherein they reveal the sweat and toil behind the boogie.) Veteran musical director Ray Chew leads the top-notch band and back-up singers. Bald and just slightly embarrassed by the proceedings, Chew is the Paul Shaffer of primetime.

Unlike its competition, “Don’t Forget the Lyrics,” on Fox there’s no false pressure or complicated rules. Joyfully, each episode has its own winner. No bothersome waiting for closure. Irritating contestants are never to return and likable ones stay happy memories. Winners walk off with meager earnings (50K max) and a trophy that must have prop departments across the land doubled over in laughter. Dismal confetti cannons signal the evening’s end and their intentionally amplified cartoonish pop let us know that the soothing power of crappy effects is not lost on this production team.

- Stan Friedman   September 5, 2007

Thursday, August 23, 2007


Ted is deep in ‘Damages’

Glenn Close’s performance is the least interesting aspect of the FX thriller “Damages,” which speaks to what a nice job the ensemble cast and crew have done in developing this cinematic tale of power and blood stains in the upper echelons of a greedy, litigious and claustrophobic NYC. The ice queen attorney Patty Hewes is the kind of character Close can do in her sleep. A touch of Fatal Attraction here and a dose of Reversal of Fortune are there as she manipulates colleagues, opponents and her own son. She even gets to channel her 101 Dalmatians brute Cruella De Vil when she arranges a little doggy murder to freak out a witness, then tosses the telltale collar into the sea.

Less predictable—and in perhaps the brightest career move ever by a TV actor—Ted Danson takes on the villain role of Arthur Frobisher, a zillionaire CEO out to screw over a gaggle of blue-collar workers involved in a class action suit against him. In “Cheers,” and forgettably in his other long-running series, “Becker,” Danson never felt as lovable as one would hope. His 6-foot-3 frame, chiseled features and pleading voice all worked against him. But when called upon to rule an evil empire, these same assets enhance his understated delivery, and his familiar face makes the ruthlessness all the more chilling.

Still, the lesser-known Australian actress Rose Byrne, as Ellen, does the show’s keenest work. When first seen, Ellen is dazed and splattered, wandering the city in an overcoat and panties. Smoldering murderess or torn asunder victim? Who can say.

Flashback six months and Ellen is Hewes’ newfound protégé. Here she’s moral to a fault, with a doctor fiancé and good-girl wardrobe. As the story zips back and forth across time, Ellen’s pristine world runs red and Byrne pulls off an entirely entertaining transformation.

Todd A. Kessler, who co-wrote and produced some of the best of the early “Sopranos” episodes, and his brother, Glenn, are the writer/producers along with Daniel Zelman. All three are well-versed in live theater, which perhaps explains the show’s immediacy and attention to character.

- Stan Friedman   August 22, 2007

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Business / ...Jackie Woodman

Two IFC comedies are wide open

On August 5, IFC begins a study in contrasts as two of its original comedy series, “The Business,” and “The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman” return for a second season. Viewed back-to-back they provide a lesson to budding producers on the perils of having too much freedom, demonstrate that naked does not mean sexy, and prove that, in low-budget TV, nothing matters more than good writing.

“The Business” drowns in a dreck of its own making. It’s the story of Vic’s Flicks, an indie film company that, having succeeded in porn production, now aspires to loftier cinema. But the show itself never rises above soft-core standards. Vic is an offensive Jewish stereotype who spends the entire second episode with a full erection and utters sterling witticisms like, “Who wants to bang?” His gorgeous business partner, Julia, is of course sexually repressed. The company accountant, Wendell, is gifted with more than mathematical ability as several full-frontal scenes, one involving a stapler, demonstrate. The shameless creator/desperate co-producer/uninspired writer is Canadian director Phil Price. In addition to sabotaging a potentially rich premise by employing dialogue about topics like “going number two,” he enjoys inserting sight gags that involve the use of two melons and a banana.

Alternatively, “Jackie Woodman” knows when to use restraint and how best to go over the top. It makes fun of itself, and various social issues, without dumbing down the action. Jackie, a struggling screenwriter who also writes for a tabloid and indulges in any drug at hand, is the creation of comic Laura Kightlinger. While last season’s episodes sometimes felt too much like a stand-up act, this year Kightlinger blends it right, setting up run-ins with an all-lesbian SUV road club and a group of Christian environmentalists who name sinners to a “holy shit list.” She scolds Hollywood with lines like, “Praising and practicing affirmative action are two different things,” and practices a charming neurosis, telling her mother, “Don’t encourage me, you’ll only discourage me.” When Jackie rants against a writer whose only comic idea involves being “whacked in the nuts,” one can only hope that Phil Price is watching—and taking notes.

- Stan Friedman   August 15, 2007

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Godzilla on DVD

The monster remastered

To believe that seeing one Godzilla movie is to have seen them all is to ignore the fact that the mighty dragon has evolved over the course of 28 features since he first trampled onto the screen in 1954. Over the past year, the folks at Classic Media and Genius Products have produced bonus-packed DVD releases of a handful of these flicks. Their two latest efforts, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster and Invasion of Astro-Monster, are specimens from 1964 and 1965, respectively, and seem very much products of their time. This is to say that when Godzilla started heaving boulders, the villagers probably weren’t the only ones who were stoned.

Ghidorah is the more surreal of the pair, a Three Stooges episode gone radioactive with Godzilla, Mothra and Rodan making funny faces, getting blown off their feet and ultimately uniting to fight the rather beautifully constructed title character, a large-winged three-headed beast from outer space. Meanwhile, a real-life twin sister duet known in Japan as the Peanuts show up as 6-inch high fairies and some Asian assassins attempt to gun down a hot prophetess from Venus. The film has been cited as the first time that Godzilla actually goes to bat for humanity instead of trying to crush it, and also as the first to intentionally add a layer of silliness to the monsters’ antics.

Astro-Monster ups the guffaw factor and features Godzilla doing an inane Irish jig after battling what turns out again to be Ghidorah who now has taken up residence on the mysterious Planet X. American actor Nick Adams co-stars and performs in English while Rodan, the Big Bird of Japanese monsterdom, suffers from a bad case of mind-control.
Both DVDs include the original Japanese versions, with subtitles, as well as the dubbed and edited American versions for fans of classic out of sync dialog. The audio commentaries, by film historians, David Kalat and Stuart Galbraith IV, are 90-minute dissertations on every conceivable aspect of Godzilla lore, from wear and tear of the costume to the insertion of destruction scenes from other films as a way of keeping down the budget.

- Stan Friedman   July 11, 2007

Lil Bush

Lil’ Bush delivers the oaf of office

Comedy Central has taken “South Park” by its dirty collar, thrown it into a particle collider along with Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” and come up with “Lil’ Bush: Resident of the United States,” a sometimes hilarious, often sick-in-the-head fever dream about contemporary politics. Set in a cartoon parallel universe during Bush the elder’s administration, the White House has an oil derrick and nukes in the backyard, Barbara Bush has a thing for little boys and George, the future 43rd president, is a smart-alec tyke in a blue suit. His kiddie inner circle includes Lil’ Cheney (with a lil’ scar over his lil’ heart), Lil’ Rummy (voiced by Iggy Pop) and Lil’ Condi (with early onset anorexia). Lil’ Jeb Bush is drawn as a mono-browed numbskull who’s barely able to speak, but George is advised to play nice because “you might need him to help you rig an election some day.”

Typical plotlines involve the gang heading to Baghdad to find a Father’s Day present, or George being visited by Christ, whom he nicknames “Goddie.” Lil’ Bill Clinton shows up in the arms of the Lewinsky twins, and Lil’ Kim Jong-Il, well, you get the idea.

Created by former Simpsons writer Donick Cary, the series originated as a collection of “mobisodes” for Amp’d Mobile, making this perhaps the first series to leap from your pocket to your living room and begging the question: If phone companies are generating better original content than TV networks, can Armageddon be far behind?

In “South Park,” and other cartoons where kids talk like adults, the humor lies in the unexpected sight of youngsters with big vocabularies and their keen awareness of their surroundings The genius of “Lil’ Bush” is that it has found a target who, as an adult, exhibits childlike behavior to begin with (with the possible exception of youthful curiosity). Thus, when George says “My brain’s tired of thinking of words so it’s time for a taco,” or explains that an oval, as in Oval Office, is “like a circle, but for rich people,” the shallow worldview is funny because it’s so painfully recognizable.

- Stan Friedman   July 4, 2007

Tuesday, June 19, 2007



‘Meadowlands’ as dark as David

“Meadowlands” is the second show this year to employ an international cast for a story about a criminal family with a transvestite son and a quick-witted daughter. And also like “The Riches,” on FX, this eight-part Showtime series relocates its family to an isolated suburban neighborhood where their secrets fall prey to nosy neighbors packing guns and souped-up sex drives. But the “Meadowlands” soil is significantly darker and 100 percent more corpse-ridden. Its newly arrived Brogan family, and their awaiting antagonists, are haunted by the kind of violent memories and sociopathic run-ins that dare not stray into the realm of easy laughs. So it is there where the similarities to “The Riches” end and another familiar sensibility takes over.

Duane Clark and Paul Walker direct the series but their inspiration is easy to spot. Spiritually and stylistically, David Lynch is the founder of “Meadowlands” and Twin Peaks its sister city. This is brought to the fore in a grisly second episode rape and murder, which becomes the show’s pivot point. It ultimately pits patriarch Danny Brogan (British TV veteran David Morrissey) against Bernard Wintersgill, a kind of sadistic Inspector Morse charged with getting his man—or at least cuffing and thrashing him. Evil becomes personified and feeds on fear while the lighting turns greenish-yellow and seemingly proper adults do funny dances or masturbate with the shades open.

No one does absurdism and ribald sex quite like the English. When dramatic, straight-laced characters turn daft or horny, while still retaining their proper British accent, the results can be chilling.

Especially disturbing is Harry Treadway’s performance as Mark, the cross-dressing youngster. Mark is Edwardian but the Edward in question is Edward Scissorhands. With the same autistic focus, androgyny and shock of thick black hair—but perpetually wearing rubber gloves instead of blades—he’s a dress-up partner for Jezebel and an irresistible taboo for Jez’s mum, Brenda. As played by the inspired Melanie Hill, lust ebbs and flows through Brenda’s matronly body resulting in the dirtiest performance by a mature woman since Isabella Rossellini scarred moviegoers for life in Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
- Stan Friedman   June 13, 2007


The enormous talent and waistline of Brando

When you think of Marlon Brando, the names Cloris Leachman and Ed Begley Jr. probably don’t come rushing to mind. But in Mimi Freedman’s fascinating and wide-ranging documentary, Brando, the two actors are the unlikely bookends of the star’s adult life. Freedman shows it to be an adulthood that began with waves of extreme physicality and sexual prowess and ended with layers of fat, familial devastation and an absurd plan to power his home with a pool full of electric eels.

With repeated airings on TCM, the film reveals how Brando’s Midwest upbringing by an abusive father and alcoholic mother created within him an Oedipal complex as large and wide as the Hollywood Hills. A devastating clip from an Edward R. Murrow interview shows papa Brando saying that he’s not at all proud of his son’s acting, but is otherwise proud of him as a man. Marlon’s eyes fill with contempt. Meanwhile, his caring nanny’s dark skin tone, it’s conjectured, led him on the path to marry a Mexican starlet and later a Tahitian beauty.

But, before he put himself out to stud, the wild one bedded, then ignored, as many actresses as he could manage. More than one interviewee suggests the only reason Brando acted at all was to collect women. Angie Dickinson goes atwitter in remembrance, but Leachman declares she was wooed early on but had the sense not to succumb. Instead, she married George Englund, a great friend of Brando and the film’s best source for what went on in Brando’s brain; how his womanizing was about striking back at his mother, how his search for a great director was really a search for a better father and how none ever would compare to Elia Kazan and their relationship during A Streetcar Named Desire. Bernardo Bertolucci, on the other hand, proclaims that he made Brando dig too deep for the explicit scenes in Last Tango in Paris, turning Brando even further away from his craft. In his last two decades he would grow obese, deal with his son’s killing of his daughter’s boyfriend (and the daughter’s subsequent suicide) and form a friendship with Begley whom he would talk with for hours on every conceivable topic, except acting.
- Stan Friedman   May 30, 2007

The Henry Rollins Show
‘The Henry Rollins Show’ takes 30 minutes to heat

There’s a weird aura around Henry Rollins, the kind that comes with being an ex-punk rocker who winds up hosting the most mainstream form of entertainment, a celebrity talk show. At age 46, he’s graying yet oh so intense, uses the expression “right on” without a hint of irony and is as plugged into The Mars Volta as is Joan Jett. His entrancing, at times frustrating, second season of weekly shows continues through June 1. IFC airs the series on Fridays at 11 p.m. as if to target stoned freshmen and former club kids now stuck at home with their children. It’s a fitting demographic for a show that blends the basement meanderings of Wayne’s World with the extended jams of “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.”
Each episode begins with a segment called “Teeing Off,” wherein Rollins performs a liberal rant as if he’s main stage at the Nuyorican on Obvious Observation Night: “Our dot com presence has turned us into the peeper and the peepee.” Then he and his guest settle into some comfy chairs for a little chat. Unpolished and as earnest as can be, and with no studio audience to worry about, Rollins manages to keep Ben Stiller from being overly jokey and gets sincere conversations out of both Steve Buscemi (May 25) and William Shatner (June 1). Focusing in on Shatner’s pre “Star Trek” work, he strikes gold with the actor’s memories of an early Roger Corman film.

But, because one bombastic declamation is never enough, the interview segment is followed by another opinionated monologue. Sometimes it’s a cartoon version of Rollins amid slick animation. Other times Janeane Garofalo shows up on tape rambling on about the Internet or her dogs.

The best is saved for last as each week’s musical guest performs an unedited number. A bare-chested Iggy Pop is totally spellbinding leading his revived group, The Stooges, in a song from their new album. The Mars Volta rocks out for a full 13 minutes. And Peeping Tom tears up the joint with a human beatbox number. In your face, “American Idol.”

- Stan Friedman   May 16, 2007

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

William Shatner Roast (DVD)
William Shatner gets grilled by Comedy Central

In the beginning there was the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast. And it was lewd. Or at least as lewd as such megawatt comics as Don Rickles, Milton Berle and Jack Benny could get away with in the pre-cable era. Next came the Friars Club roasts, an annual event dating back to the 1950s, but not televised until Comedy Central realized their worth in 1998. Since then, Comedy Central has also produced its own roasts. These tend to be nights of very funny, very obscene stand-up comedy presented under the false pretense of honoring a has-been entertainer. Such is certainly the case with the Comedy Central Roast of William Shatner, out in an extended, uncensored cut on DVD.

As an interviewer puts it in one of several backstage bonus features, the cast is “a veritable ‘Who’s That?’ of Hollywood C-list actors.” Jason Alexander hosts, and Betty White is about as classy as the roster gets, while such circuit comics as Artie Lange, Jeffrey Ross and Lisa Lampanelli hold nothing back. Lampanelli, expressing her bedroom preferences, instructs us that she’s “provided more openings to black men than affirmative action.”

As they freely admit, most of the participants don’t really know Shatner very well. This includes Farrah Fawcett who gives a dazed and confused monologue and gets licked on the face by Andy Dick. Leonard Nimoy had the career savvy to stay home, but a couple of “Star Trek” alumni do turn up. In comedy, timing is everything, and the taping of this special occurred within months of George Takei’s pronouncement of his homosexuality. As Sulu on Star Trek, he could not have been more earnest. Now a “creepy old gay dude” as Alexander describes him, he rattles off a series of cock-related one-liners and is, to coin a phrase, the butt of jokes from nearly every other participant. The brightest gag of the evening involves a visual of him coming out of the closet. Even Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) gets in on the act with an amusing anecdote involving Mr. Takei’s tongue.

Seated in his captain’s chair from the USS Enterprise, Shatner is a gracious roastee, enduring video montages of his infamous singing appearances and pre-taped insults from the likes of Ben Stiller and Sarah Silverman. Naturally, he’s given the opportunity to laugh last and rises to the occasion with a monologue that any Trekker would find as blue as Romulan Ale.
- Stan Friedman   May 2, 2007

‘Smallville’ grows up

In the aftermath of Virginia Tech, it’s hard to watch the CW’s “Smallville” in the same way. With nearly six seasons under its belt, and a mythos that goes back 70 years, this contemporary retelling of Superman’s upbringing in a Kansas farm town is a polished adventure series. But suddenly, a hero who regularly flings speeding bullets out of the paths of his college-age friends seems especially welcome. And the disturbed, twenty-something villains with twisted motivations are particularly disturbing.

Three flavors of evildoers coexist on “Smallville” this season: Lex Luthor and his ominous medical experiments; the escaped alien criminals from the Phantom Zone who give Clark Kent the occasional bloody nose; but the most horrifying and symbolic are the “meteor freaks”—young people who were exposed to kryptonite and develop worrisome powers. They’re attractive members of society who snap when their body chemistry freaks out. One sweet girl, for instance, turns into a killer plant that reproduces by implanting seeds in the men she strangles.

The show’s early seasons handled Superboy’s growing pains with a wry mix of comic book legendry and sex: His heat vision would trigger prematurely at the site of a hot substitute teacher, and he’d go weak at the knees when talking to pretty Lana Lang (turned out she was wearing kryptonite jewelry). Back then, Lex was his good friend and the longevity of the series has allowed for their mutual hatred of each other to grow at a wonderfully slow boil. Similarly, Lois Lane pops in and out, but reveals herself to be more of a Green Arrow kinda gal for now.

After a demonic high school prom, the show toyed with college life. But, with the exception of an otherworldly evil professor, the writers—bless their innocent hearts—seemed unable to conjure up enough campus terror to sustain interest. The Daily Planet, the Kent Farm and the Luthor estate provide the fertile ground these days for Clark’s exploits. Entering manhood, he faces not only the usual tricky romantic problems faced by most, but also the possibility that he was sent to Earth not to help earthlings, but to conquer them. After all, he’s an outsider from a (quite literally) broken home—with too many secrets and unmatchable firepower.
- Stan Friedman   April 25, 2007

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Til Death Do Us Part
Fatal attractions, and John Waters looks on

In his own way, John Waters is this country’s Alfred Hitchcock. While not delving into true terror territory, his Cecil-B-Demented film work rarely fails to shock viewers, even as it winks at them, with a directorial style that’s instantly recognizable. Now, Waters is echoing the Master of Suspense by appearing in a TV series that is reminiscent of the classic “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” of the 1950s. This is not to say that CourtTV’s “‘Til Death Do Us Part” stands the faintest chance of becoming a classic, but at least the characters die trying.

Every half-hour episode is a campy, low-budget and joyfully mean-spirited salute to mariticide, the age-old act of offing one’s spouse. The murders are based on true stories but with names changed, characters combined and virtually unknown writers creating the dialog. Waters serves as narrator, in character as the Groom Reaper, a jovial lover of strangulation, bludgeoning and misguided attempts of corpse concealment. His bad pun of a name is second only to the show’s promise to “love, honor and perish.”

Each episode begins with a happy couple tying the knot, but the camera soon enough pans away to find Waters as he spouts such wonderfully bad set-ups as, “He had a head for figures, and she was ready to multiply. Too bad 10 years down the road, one half of this pair will be subtracted—permanently.” Next, we fast-forward to when the honeymoon is definitely over, observing about 10 minutes worth of marital discord in scenarios where either husband or wife could be the ultimate killer. To their credit, the show always manages to keep the suspense building until a brain finally gets bashed or a delicate throat strangled.

This is the first scripted series for CourtTV as they undertake a rebranding strategy. The first couple pages of every script are available on their website: a good tease and a great tool for understanding how a show comes to life. It also reveals that half the season’s episodes were written by either Ken or Mary Hanes, a couple who clearly know better than to attempt to share a credit, or to bring their work home with them.
- Stan Friedman   April 18, 2007

The Riches

To ‘The Riches’ go the spoils

If you are an up-and-coming cable channel with aspirations of grandeur, there are several assets which you might seek out: recognizable stars with respected resumés, scripts that analyze American cultural values (both hidden and exploited), comedy-drama scenarios which borrow liberally from the successes of HBO and Showtime and, of course, gags involving artificial limbs. FX took all of these elements, threw in a cross-dressing adolescent for good measure, and arrived at The Riches—an overwritten carnival of suburban neuroses, marital squabbles, disturbing pasts and kind-hearted criminals. Fortunately, it’s as catty as it is calculated.

Leading the cast are Eddie Izzard, as Wayne, and Minnie Driver as Dahlia, husband-and-wife gypsies, or “travelers’ to use the modern vernacular. Their backstories are shady, their future dependent upon their skill sets as they set up shop with assumed identities in a posh, residential Louisiana neighborhood. Izzard turns in a compelling and complex performance, but speaks in a dialect that had me completely distracted throughout the first two episodes. A British actor playing a Southerner of Irish descent, he ultimately settles into an accent that sounds a bit like Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter. Driver goes for the white-trash inflections right off, but her physical appearance alternates too rapidly between the ugly ex-con with a taste for the needle that she was, and the ravishing desperate housewife she’s becoming.

Wayne and Dahlia will do anything for their three children. That includes indulging their youngest son, Sam, in his penchant for girl’s clothing, a nice inside joke given Izzard’s infamous transvestite acts. While mom and the sibs each suffer yearnings to go back to their transient lifestyle, Wayne craves the domestic American Dream. His vision, and the familial impulse to do what’s best for your loved ones, keep the clan bonded even as nosy neighbors grow suspect, a prosthetic arm goes flying and Dale comes ever closer to discovering where to find them. Ultimately, the show operates on the same principle as “Weeds,” “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under.” Namely, extended families with quirky business practices are capable of loving and of being loved.
- April 11, 2007

The Agency

Do not confuse “The Agency” on VH1 with “The Office” on NBC. The latter is a faux doc about an unaware but likable boss and his multicultural employees, who burn through their days falling in love with each other while selling paper products...
- Stan Friedman   April 4, 2007

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Black Donnellys

NBC’s “The Black Donnellys” is not so much the sprawling epic of an Irish-American family’s rise to power in organized crime, as it is a game of spot the rip-off. There’s an unreliable narrator, named Joey Ice Cream, who for all intents and purposes is Ray Liotta’...
- Stan Friedman   March 21, 2007

Monday, March 5, 2007

The Naked Trucker & T-Bones Show

Mike Myers as Austin Powers used a teapot. Last year, Justin Timberlake re-gifted his junk in the “SNL” instant-classic video, “Dick in a Box.” And now to add to the history of nude men who place inanimate objects over their genitalia to inspire laughter: On Comedy Central...
- Stan Friedman   February 21, 2007

Rise of the Necro-Celebrity (Essay)

“We could make a series out of it. ‘Suicide of the Week.’ Hell, why limit ourselves? ‘Execution of the Week—the Madame Defarge Show’! Every Sunday night, bring your knitting and watch somebody get guillotined, hung, electrocuted, gassed. For a logo, we'll have some brute with a black hood over his head. Think of the spin-offs.”
–from Paddy Chayefsky’s Network

In 1976, when Network (the story of suicidal anchorman Howard Beale and his ratings-mad network) swept the Oscars, the above bit of dialogue was considered utter satire. “Happy Days” and its spin-off, “Laverne & Shirley,” were the top two shows. Vietnam was over and the only reality-based televised injuries to be found occurred during “Monday Night Football” or the occasional unfortunate episode of “American Bandstand.”

Thirty years later, the nearly wholesome brutality of the Fonz and Lenny & Squiggy has given way to a significantly darker line-up of violence. Both cable and commercial channels overflow with murderers and their marks. The local news broadcasts home videos of kids beating each other senseless. Our computer and television screens even brought home—not only masked terrorists slashing the throats of kidnapped Americans—but also the fulfillment of Chayefsky’s bleakest vision: Sadaam Hussein, amid a swarm of black hooded hangmen, falling through the gallows’ trap door in the ultimate rockin’ farewell to 2006.

We did not shut our eyes. Indeed, at last count, searching the phrase “Hussein hanging” on YouTube resulted in over 800 copies of the video, with something like 4 million page views of just the first 25. When it comes to humans being damaged, there has never been a bigger audience nor a larger menu of atrocity from which to choose. From the war in Iraq to depraved reality shows to game shows based on humiliation, to hyper-violent dramas, we tune in, turn on and care not whether the victim is real, fictional or somewhere in between.

Is it mere coincidence that lately, the most endearing primetime protagonists are also the most brutalized? Certainly we need Jack Bauer to save the country from nuclear devastation on “24,” but we pull for him all the more when the bare wires are put to his chest and he absorbs a large dose of high voltage or when a knife slices into his thoroughly scarred torso. We drool for the return of Tony Soprano because we’re fairly sure his time is due and no way will it be pretty. And “Dexter,” the most-watched original series to appear on Showtime in years, could not say it any plainer. There is nothing more lovable than a blood-obsessed sociopathic serial killer who excels in his craft, especially if he was lucky enough to see his mother dismembered by a chainsaw in his youth.

Granted, our huge appetite for human suffering is hardly new. Nothing filled the Roman Colosseum faster than a gladiator battle where you the audience, and a celebrity judge (known then as an emperor), voted on who got the thumb’s-down verdict-of-death. Public hangings were family entertainment for centuries, and continued in the United States until the 1930s. But there are two big differences between how our ancestor’s bloodlust was sated and how we go about feeding our own inner beasts.

First, we can do it in the shame-free comfort of our own high-tech caves, alone in the warm glow of LCD or with only the knowing glare of our significant others to cause us a pang of guilt. We can slow-mo and rewind the naughty bits and fast-forward through the dull stuff. To feel moral, we might post a blog entry on the appropriateness of broadcasting a slaying, but really there is no sacrifice on our part, no chance that accidental eye contact will be made, no mob to put a little fear in the gut. And even if fear or shame somehow did make itself manifest, we need only hit mute or click over to an episode of “Law and Order” to gain reprieve. And as for the network execs, they have come up with perhaps the most cynical solution ever for maintaining their sense of public decency: Graphic scenes will not be televised, they tell us. Instead, they will be freely available on network websites where Mommy won’t see it but where any 10-year-old could find the bloodshed in a heartbeat.

The other difference in our compulsive hunt for hurt is that, for the first time since Howard Beale promised his audience he’d put a bullet in his head, there are hoards of famous, near-famous and complete strangers who are more than willing to put a metaphorical noose around their own necks for no apparent reason other than our own enjoyment. Self-destruction has become the new self-fulfillment, and all the better if exhibitionism is thrown into the mix. Celebrity abhors a vacuum and with 700 channels and the infinite Internet, there’s a lot of space to fill for the willing who crave attention and who are just juiced enough to open up a vein for the benefit of the viewer.

Of course, the self-inflicted damage need not always come with physical scars. Witness the most blemish-free and most perverse of the necro-celebs: the wannabes of “American Idol.” “Idol” is really two separate shows. The season’s second half is an enjoyable talent show, harmless enough for the fans who can withstand the music of Barry Manilow and Abba. But the first weeks are a sharpening stone for those wishing to perform cultural hara-kiri.

This year’s first two audition episodes produced some of the biggest ratings in FOX history, with 37 million viewers tuning in each night. In both Minneapolis and Seattle, about 100,000 fame mongers auditioned and less than 20 were chosen. This perhaps explains why Paula Abdul seemed punch drunk 90 percent of the time, but what does it say about someone like 22-year-old Trista Giese, for example?

Here is a plump but not unattractive, intelligent and very religious girl (judging from her MySpace page) who apparently was born without the embarrassment gene. Sporting a frumpy outfit and pigtails, she got up in front of America and sang, intentionally, in the exact vibrato of the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz.

Paula laughed uncontrollably, the other judges made it known that hers was one of the worst auditions ever. On Trista’s blog she writes that her experience was “one of my best times ever in my entire life.”

Her effort and the hundreds of other equally off-key renditions sung by the horrendously misguided, the freakish looking and even the mentally impaired, are not just cute ideas that didn’t work. They are sweet little snuff films for the masses. Pornographic in their willingness to self-humiliate as well as to be harangued by Simon Cowell (who called one contestant a “bush baby” this season), they compulsively give us this gift, and we lovingly accept.

Meanwhile, down in the depths of cable hell, there is a land called VH1 wherein lurks the king of the death wish celebrities, Danny Bonaduce. Child stars, as we know, are notoriously cursed, but most at least have the courtesy to shoot up or kill themselves off camera. This freckle faced, former “Partridge Family” member feels no such need. In fact, his path twisted to the degree that, at one point, starring in his reality show, “Breaking Bonaduce,” was the only thing keeping him alive.

Season One found Danny way off the wagon, chock full of vodka and steroids, and obsessed with a wife who would no longer have sex with him. It was brutal enough that he let us watch his downward spiral, but he truly earned his crown when he attempted suicide. The deed was not filmed, but we were eventually treated to his bandaged wrists and the sight of him lying to his children, telling them that he had accidentally cut himself. The producers courteously stopped production after the slashing, but the star convinced them that only through the public display of his own immolation would he truly be happy. Ratings soared and a second season of fights, rehab and otherwise private pillow talk poured forth.

VH1 could not conjure a “Breaking Bonaduce” spin-off, so they devised the next best thing: the equally alliterative “Shooting Sizemore.” Tom Sizemore was a better than average film actor on a solid career path (Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan) until he decided to hook up with the Hollywood Madam, Heidi Fleiss, and ingest most of the crystal meth in the greater L.A. area.

Now he is out of rehab, in and out of court and trying for a fresh start. When not throwing tantrums or being consumed with insecurity, we are treated to black and white footage of him when he was doped up and in a paranoid rage since, as he put it: “In my warped state, I decided to document my own downfall.” Warped like a fox.

It takes a truly gifted basket case to have the forethought (when stoned out of his mind) to conclude, “Hey, I bet if I smoke me some heroin on camera, someday I can televise it so everyone can enjoy sharing in what a disaster I have become.”

Poor Howard Beale never got the chance to shoot himself. (The network had him assassinated because his ratings tanked.) But the die, so to speak, was cast, so to speak. Earlier this month, reporters and bloggers at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas lined up for the opportunity to be Tasered on-air. Thus we can now surf to and watch the sexy Amanda Congdon convulse in overwhelming pain.

It’s a good time-killer while we await the next television spectacular. What shall it be? Flagellating Flavor Flav? Die Like Princess Di? Everything transcends satire now that actor and amateur alike have easy access to the three ingredients that lead to any crime against humanity: means (low budget cable shows and the web), motive (“Look at me, look at me!”) and opportunity (us, wanting more).

- Stan Friedman   January 24, 2007

The Dresden Files

The best way to enjoy “The Dresden Files”—which is based on the fantasy books of Jim Butcher—is as a 14-year-old boy, with low expectations. There are a good number of monsters, though they tend to be too straightforward: like the “skinwalkers” who, um, walk in...
- Stan Friedman   January 24, 2007

Extras (Season 1 DVD)

“Extras” makes fun of the Holocaust, cerebral palsy and pedophilia, and that’s just in the first episode. With Season 2 currently on HBO, Season 1 of this behind-the-scenes farce about the joy and stupidity of filmmaking is now available in a two-DVD set.

- Stan Friedman   January 24, 2007

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Here’s a little ditty about Jack and Assad, two torture experts both tragically flawed. Yes, among the myriad of dynamic pairings on display in the compelling season six of “24,” the most brutal is that of our heavily scarred hero, Jack Bauer, and Hamri Al-Assad, a handsome, Islami...
- Stan Friedman   January 17, 2007

City of Men

If “Sesame Street” had a dangerous back alley, it might very well resemble the rough and tumble roads inhabited by the big-hearted children in the “City of Men.” Spun off of the hit 2003 Brazilian film City of God, this unnerving look at growing up in the slums of Rio de Jane...
- Stan Friedman   December 20, 2006

Sleeper Cell

Deep into the second episode of the second season of Showtime’s “Sleeper Cell,” the FBI falls for one of the oldest tricks in the book. And it’s not even a trick unique to al-Qaeda, the show’s arch enemy. It was used at least as far back as the 1991 film Backdraft by a ...
- Stan Friedman   December 20, 2006

The Lost Room

“The Lost Room,” on Sci Fi, is furnished to appeal to geeks of every demographic. Old “Twilight Zone” buffs will be reminded of that show’s opening line, “You unlock this door with the key to imagination,” when Detective Joe Miller stumbles upon a key that w...
- Stan Friedman   December 13, 2006

One Punk Under God

There are times when it makes sense to embrace the church. If your father is an adulterer ex-con who barely speaks to you, and your mother suffers from Stage 4 lung cancer, and you have a history of alcohol and drugs, Christianity could certainly be a sanctuary. But if your parents are Jim and Tammy...
- Stan Friedman   December 6, 2006

The Unit
‘The Unit’ fights the good fight

With David Mamet, you know what you’re getting. In films like Glengarry Glen Ross, and The Spanish Prisoner, he makes no secret of his love for sharp, staccato dialogue and his fascination with the group dynamics of strong men who have secrets to keep. So when he encountered Eric Haney’s book, Inside Delta Force: The Story of America’s Elite Counterterrorist Unit, it was a perfect storm. What could be better Mamet fodder than a top-secret militia that comes complete with its own macho vocabulary? But instead of making a movie, or even an obscenity-laden cable series, he (and producer Shawn Ryan of “The Shield”) created “The Unit,” now in its second season of clandestine maneuvers on CBS. These soldiers don’t get to cuss, but they do like to call each other by code names like “Blue 6” and use poetic banter under pressure: “How’s the world look to you? Light and bright.”

In the real world, Delta Force is off the radar until something goes wrong (see Blackhawk Down or the botched 1980 rescue of hostages from Iran), but in TV-land, we are treated to all the on-target shoulder-launched missiles and morally questionable yet necessary assassinations that makes primetime worth living. In many ways the show resembles Mission Impossible, while justifying its killings using the anti-terrorist logic set forth in “24.” Each week, a team of pros—led by the golden-throated Jonas (Dennis Haysbert)—find themselves in “deep kimche” in some forlorn part of the world. Using their survivalist wits along with all kinds of cool pyrotechniques, aircraft, electronics and a lot of rope, they extract themselves, kill the villains, eliminate threats to the homeland and bond in manly ways. Episodes often start in mid-escape, allowing viewers the pleasure of piecing together the plot from the inside out.

A unique perk of Delta Force is that its men are able to go home between missions. This allows “The Unit” a secondary arc, an Army base “Peyton Place” populated with sexy tomboys who dabble in infidelity and addiction to painkillers while trying to raise children and keep their husbands’ job under wraps. There are surprisingly few shower scenes considering the soldiers’ grime and the steamy performances of desperate housewives Abby Brammell and Audrey Marie Anderson. But, given a helicopter crash in Siberia or a team member trapped in a Bulgarian prison, sex will just have to wait until sweeps week.

- Stan Friedman   November 29, 2006

Breaking Bonaduce

It’s one thing to believe that all child actors are cursed; it’s another to actually watch one die. But that’s seemingly the moneymaking goal behind VH1’s totally irresponsible yet all-consuming “Breaking Bonaduce.” At age 12, on “The Partridge Family,”
- Stan Friedman   November 22, 2006

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

30 Rock
Tina Fey looks unstoppable in ‘30 Rock’

Being the best new sitcom of the season is a little like being the prettiest gal in the leper colony, but “30 Rock” keeps face with many a good reason to tune in. First and foremost is Tina Fey. Adhering in extreme to the old adage, “Write what you know,” Fey has taken her experience as head writer of “Saturday Night Live” and created the part of Liz Lemon for herself, the head writer at an NBC late-night comedy show. Fortunately, Fey is no hack. With hints of “Arrested Development” and the movie Airplane!, the scripts are full of silly cut-aways, obscure references and, God bless her, intelligence. Remarkably, NBC is letting her bite the hand that feeds her: Liz’s new boss, Jack (Alec Baldwin), is the “East Coast vice-president of TV and microwave oven programming for NBC-Universal-GE-Kmart.” And in a snide homage to Aaron Sorkin (whose identically themed NBC dramedy “Studio 60 …” is on life support), Liz and a cohort carry on a conversation as they stroll the studio hallways only to find that they’ve gone in a circle. “Good walk and talk,” they assure each other. Fey even turns out to be a surprisingly adept physical comedienne. Consumed with fear of choking to death, a series of self-Heimlich maneuvers puts the work of Julia Louis-Dreyfus to shame.

Jack’s character is still in formation, sometimes too hard-nosed, other times too compassionate; but Baldwin is uniformly funny—having taken his cue from the Leslie Nielsen school of deadpan. He assumes Liz is a lesbian because of her fashion sense and explains matter-of-factly that her shoes are “definitely bi-curious.” Tracy Morgan, another “SNL” alum, is also on hand as a movie star with a touch of insanity who’s been brought in by Jack to boost ratings. His less lucid moments are his best, such as a poker night scene when he suggests playing Texas Doozy (“Face cards are wild, threes are jinx and fives are twos”). Meanwhile, Jack McBrayer, a barely known improv comic, has scored the role of his life and steals every scene he’s in as Kenneth, a naive NBC page with a blank-slate face and near-perfect comic timing. Supposedly, Jane Krakowski is a series regular, yet she disappears for weeks at a time. Fey and company will hopefully have a long enough future to find more room for her as NBC moves the show to an all-powerful Thursday night timeslot beginning Nov. 30.
- Stan Friedman   November 15, 2006

Heroes / Jericho

Both ‘Heroes’ & ‘Jericho’ go boom

The atom bomb must have seemed a charmingly retro device back in pilot season, a pleasant escape from post-9/11 fertilizer, cell phone and shoe bombs. But now that Kim Jong-il has demonstrated that everything old is nuclear again, two network shows suddenly find themselves at the fore of the apocalyptic zeitgeist.

NBC’s “Heroes” looks and feels like a graphic novel—the kind you can’t put down despite yourself. Taking a cue from “Lost,” the show introduces a menagerie of attractive strangers, then warps the rules of physics around them. They encounter both a mysterious enemy and the prediction of a mushroom cloud over NYC. The kicker is that, like an R-rated X-Men, each character has a seedy superpower. An artist can paint the future, though only after shooting up (i.e. a hero on heroin). A cheerleader is impervious to injury and ceremoniously sticks her hand down the garbage disposal. She’s a bit more distressed when she wakes up dissected on a coroner’s table, but her splayed open abdomen is the best gross-out of the TV season so far. A stripper has a murderous doppelganger albeit they both inhabit a tiresome subplot, and a Japanese clerk with the ability to traverse time and space might save the world if he can just learn a little English. Even Milo Ventimiglia shows up (with much larger biceps than he had in “Gilmore Girls”). He has no powers of his own but, in a nice twist, can absorb those with which he comes in contact. With Batman-like angst and Spider-Man-esque self-obsession galore, the question is: Can these individuals defy their egocentricity and band together for truth, justice and a second-season renewal?

Whereas “Heroes” speeds toward a big bang, CBS’s “Jericho” begins with a handful. Denver, Atlanta, Chicago and maybe a dozen other cities have gone bye-bye in a nuclear attack. This leaves the good folk of Jericho, Kan., in quite the quandary. Love thy neighbor? Do unto others? Yep. Torture to death a stranger suffering from severe radiation burns in order to get some answers? Well, OK. In the heartland, no one freaks out, but no one is particularly interesting either. The joys of “Jericho” lie in the 10 minutes or so per episode when the show embraces its inner “Twilight Zone.” Yes, communal paranoia and creepy tragedy beat bad dialogue and clichéd relationships every time. Whether they can be used to beat “Dancing with the Stars” in the “Jericho” time slot is another matter.

- Stan Friedman   November 1, 2006

The Wire

“The Wire” is literally stunning. There’s so much turmoil on so many levels, such vibrant performances from the 51 cast members and such fierce, reality-based writing firing at breakneck speed that one almost wishes HBO would throw in a simple-minded commercial. But no, the only op...
- Stan Friedman   October 18, 2006

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Bob Newhart Show (DVD)

As Conan O’Brien recently observed, kids aren’t watching TV, “they’re on YouTube watching a cat on the toilet.” It was the same in 1975, only instead of surfing the Internet, kids were out dancing The Hustle and committing other grievous acts of disco. This left parents...
- Stan Friedman   September 20, 2006

Prison Break
Pros hunt for cons on ‘Prison Break’

If they gave an Emmy for Creepiest Performance in a Forgotten Drama, William Fichtner surely would have won last year for playing the alien-infested sheriff in ABC’s “Invasion.” Now exorcised of space creatures, but with the same heart-stopping glare, Fichtner is Alexander Mahone, the FBI agent assigned to capture eight escapees in the fine second term of “Prison Break” on FOX.

Season One was tense and macho. Lincoln Burrows (how’s that for the name of a righteous runaway), was sentenced to die for a murder he did not commit. His brother, Michael Scofield (preferring his mother’s maiden name), botches a robbery in order to get to his brother’s keeper and hatch an escape. As played by Wentworth Miller, Scofield oozes sweaty calm like a young Clint Eastwood. He also happens to have blueprints of the prison mapped on his body, disguised as an elaborate tattoo. As the days counted down to zero for Burrows, Scofield and a gang of six, managed to free Lincoln, scale the wall and flee into summer replacement season.

September finds the convicts scattering in various directions, Mahone’s nerves all atingle and Scofield stuck with some pretty insinuating skin art. The most outlandish of the other criminals is T-Bag, an Alabama rapist and animal abuser who spends the better part of two episodes toting his severed hand in a beer cooler before forcing a veterinarian to reattach it to his bloodied stump. Fresh from a kill, T-Bag partakes in an amusing bit of product placement as he activates the OnStar Hands-Free Calling system of a stolen SUV and asks for directions. Meanwhile the brothers head to Utah, where there might be some buried cash, and the rest avoid being killed off, with varying degrees of success. Additionally, there’s a redneck prison guard out for justice, Stacy Keach wandering around as the forlorn warden, and a secondary plot involving assassination, a house with no exits and the vice president’s brother.

Despite such unlikely scenarios and hilarious villains, the writers manage a cohesive intelligence. Fichtner’s honed performance brings it out in scenes such as a press conference in the premiere episode, where he lectures on John Wilkes Booth and then perfectly encapsulates the prison show genre by observing, “In 140 years, the fundamental mind of the escaped man has not changed. He is still afraid. And he will stop at nothing in his attempt at flight.”

- Stan Friedman   September 13, 2006

30 Days

Morgan Spurlock sports a silly Fu Manchu moustache instead of a trucker cap, but in nearly every other way he’s managed to mirror the early stylings of documentary and TV show wise-guy Michael Moore. Moore dealt a blow to corporate America in the film Roger & Me, and then capitalized on th...
- Stan Friedman   August 30, 2006

The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman

You know a show is cold-hearted when its most tender moment involves a cameo appearance by Andy Dick. Such is the case in IFC’s new series, “The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman.” Jackie, played by nightclub comic Laura Kightlinger, is a writer for a cheesy L.A. movie magazi...
- Stan Friedman   August 23, 2006

The Closer


Like the candy and ice cream that Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson cannot resist, season two of TNT’s “The Closer” is a rich, gooey, addictive mess. As portrayed by Kyra Sedgwick, Johnson is a sugar-rush in latex gloves and curls. Scenery, as well as dessert, gets chewed, but it&rsquo...
- Stan Friedman   August 9, 2006

Life On Mars

In the classic 1986 BBC miniseries, “The Singing Detective,” a hospitalized man named Philip Marlow escapes his pain-ravaged body by hallucinating that he’s a private eye from a bygone era. Invert that concept, throw in an iPod, and the result is the enjoyably dark “Life on M...
- Stan Friedman   August 2, 2006