Freaks and Geeks

Freaks and GeeksFor all of the movies and TV shows that have tried to capture the high school experience, it’s rare that one truly succeeds.  Most come off as brazenly exaggerated, overly simplistic, or too silly to be taken seriously.  Sure there’s a few gems here and there, but for the most part movies that attempt to encapsulate the high school experience are far from authentic and easily forgettable.  Same goes for high school TV shows: there’s a dizzying array of shows set in the high school years, and only a couple are anything close to relateable.  But like that quiet kid in the back of class, Freaks and Geeks rises above the bottomless chumbucket of modern TV shows with intelligent writing, deep and interesting characters, and plenty of moments that genuinely ring true for anyone who has ever been through those four strange years of pubescent confusion.

The show is more or less about two siblings, Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) and her younger brother  Sam, who go to the same high school in suburban Detroit on the cusp of the 1980s.  Lindsay is hyper intelligent but, sick of spending her time with fellow nerd herds like the Mathletes, seeks a new group of friends with whom she can just enjoy herself without judgement.  Her younger brother and his friends are social misfits who know nothing of dating, sports, or even pop culture, but try their hardest to carve out a niche for themselves in the complicated social networks of their school.  A cadre of compelling characters round out the cast: near-dropout Daniel (James Franco) and his on-again-off-again girlfriend Kim (Busy Philips), the pair of slackers Nick (Jason Segel) and Ken (Seth Rogen), would-be comedian Neal (Samm Levine), and hopelessly awkward smartie Bill (Martin Starr).  Throughout the season Lindsay and her friends, the freaks, form relationships, get in trouble, argue, start a band, and try to make it through their junior year of high school.  Similarly, Sam and his friends, all quintessential geeks, experience the ups and downs of their freshman year while bonding over comics, late-night TV shows, and trying to figure out the most complicated aspect of any young man’s life:  girls.

Freaks and Geeks: Bill Haverchuck

Bill Haverchuck, erstwhile geek complete with gigantic specs. Gotta love it.

This brief description could apply to almost any high school show, but what sets Freaks and Geeks apart is the characters and pitch-perfect writing.  No single individual can be pigeonholed, and every one of the teens in the show has multiple facets that display much more than one-dimensional high school cardboard cutouts.  There’s a scene in 10 Things I Hate About You in which we are introduced to each and every single clique at the school:  the jocks, the cheerleaders, the wannabe rednecks, and so on.  Mean Girls similarly divides the student population of North Shore High School into easily-classifiable bite-sized nuggets of social strata, most notably the antagonists of the film, the Plastics.  Freaks and Geeks is far more subtle, and the creators wisely understand that high school, and life in general, is not so easily classifiable. Even though the title of the show seems to create division and distinction, the lives of these students are as complicated and un-classifiable as can be.  To wit: the “freaks” mostly just want to be normal, have friends, and fit in.  Same with the “geeks.”  They just have their own way of doing it.  Lindsay’s struggles with friendships and her relationship with Nick come across as genuine instead of forced, and Sam’s coming-of-age experiences with his friends, the tortuous 50 minutes of daily gym class, and the perpetual pursuit of the hot girl who is just out of reach are as real as anything anyone could have experienced in high school.

Freaks and Geeks: Nick, Lindsay, Daniel

Nick, Lindsay, and Daniel, navigating social perils and locker problems.

But in Freaks and Geeks, as with real life, there are rarely simple answers or happy endings.  When Sam finally goes out with Cindy, the cute cheerleader he’s been longing for, he finds that there is far more to relationships than just physical appearances–a fact the willfully ignorant Neal refuses to believe. Lindsay also realizes through the course of the show that friendships and relationships are much more difficult to maintain than she thought, and struggles to find a balance between her old nerdy friends and her new near-dropout pals. It’s a social melting pot that keeps the focus on characters front and center, fitting in situational jokes and lighthearted moments where there’s room.  But always the characters get front billing, and though nearly all the actors were long past the age of their Michigan-based counterparts, they pull off the role of high school students more convincingly than almost any other show or movie I have seen.

Along for the ride is an outstanding supporting cast, most notably Joe Flaherty and Becky Ann Baker, who play Lindsay and Sam’s parents.  Their depiction of not-quite-clued-in paternal authority is just slightly caricatured, but it’s all in good fun.  Same goes for school counselor Mr. Rosso (Dave Allen) who, despite being a burnt-out ex-hippie, actually comes through in a pinch and, like most school counselors, really does help the kids out when they need advice or a listening ear. And then there’s the brilliant Tom Wilson who appears in a handful of episodes as the meathead gym teacher Mr. Fredericks who, like most individuals in this show, really does care for the kids and at the end of the day just wants to be a good teacher.  For all the wounds of those high school years laid bare in Freaks and Geeks, there’s an incredibly warm center to it all, an acknowledgement that while this time in a young person’s life might be fraught with melodramatic social turmoil, life will go on, people will change, and every little thing is gonna be alright.

Freaks and Geeks: Sam and Neal

Sam and Neal, pondering the mysteries of the universe and striped shirts.

Freaks and Geeks is an immensely entertaining, thoroughly funny show, but there is nary a one-two punchline to be found.  Humor comes naturally from the characters just being themselves, and the few situations in which setups are required or outlandish situations are established, such as when Neil takes the reins as the school’s mascot during a pep rally, come across as forced and a little too over the top.  Life doesn’t have convenient setups and easy punchlines, and neither does Freaks and Geeks, and the charm of the 1980s is on full display, from horrendous interior decorating choices to cringe-inducing everyday fashion, this was also a simpler time before cell phones and facebook updates added layers of confusion to an already complicated time of any young person’s life.  The only major letdown of the show is that it is over all too quickly, a victim of network cancellation and a public audience weaned on schlock like 90210 or Boy Meets World.  But perhaps that’s a good thing.  Freaks and Geeks was a flash in the pan, but it means we never see these kids grow up. And perhaps it really is better to burn out than fade away.

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Lost: Season 2

Lost: Season 2After the whirlwind ride of Season 1, the second season of the hugely popular ABC drama/sci fi series goes a long way in answering many questions from the first outing, while raising entirely new ones that hint at a much larger plot and much deeper rabbit hole than ever seemed possible.  (Spoiler Alert: Having only seen through the first two seasons, I can’t give anything away about the rest of the show. But be forewarned–if you have not watched the show through the end of Season 2, you might be hit with some information you might not want.)

As any high school English student knows, the first part of any story is the exposition:  the introduction of characters, conflicts, setting, and plot.  And while the first season of Lost was engaging and entertaining in its own right, all the events set up in those original 25 episodes were really just about laying the groundwork for the rest of the show.  Season two expands on much of the original framework while giving fans all sorts of new twists and turns to speculate about around water coolers nationwide.  The survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 begin to segregate into a few distinct groups, each discovering clues that served to unravel many strands of the larger mystery of the island.  In what at first seems like an unnecessary subplot, Michael, Sawyer, and Jin find themselves washed ashore with the survivors from the tail section of the plane.  But as the show’s tagline says, everything happens for a reason, and it’s not long before we realize how interconnected these people are with the rest of the survivors.  Meanwhile Jack and Locke, while spending much of their time in the hatch, spend a good deal of time figuring out their own answers while also dealing with a man Rousseau caught in one of her traps who may or may not be one of the Others.  Topside most of the regulars from Season 1 are back to form new relationships, embark on journeys to different parts of the island, and search for answers to some of the long-burning questions about the island.

Lost: Season 2, Jack and Mr. Eko

Jack and Mr. Eko, looking for answers and a clean pair of shorts.

It’s a fantastic testament to the brilliance of the writers that various events which seemed trivial and innocuous throughout the first season turn out to be of the utmost importance during the second season.  Rather than throw distracting red herrings at the audience, there is hardly a single character, event, or object that is not steeped in meaning.  Perhaps more than any other serial drama I have ever seen, Lost treats its audience and subject matter with the utmost respect and care, rarely resorting to cheap tricks such as killing off characters to solve a case of writer’s block or inventing contrivances to link current events to past plot points.  There are much deeper themes at work here too, and every person on the island must deal with skeletons in his or her closet, confront personal demons such as drug addictions or marital conflicts, or rise to challenges of leadership and personal sacrifice.  For instance Locke, who used to operate on blind faith alone, begins to question everything he once knew while virtually trading places with newcomer Mr. Eko, a priest who is sure of what he hopes for and certain of what he cannot see.  It’s this multidimensional characterization, along with a seamless blending of science fiction, religion, and traditional drama that separates Lost from other dramas, and these ideas continue throughout Season 2 in masterful form.

Lost: Season 2, Ana Lucia

Michelle Rodriguez stretches her acting ability by playing a tough-as-nails ex-cop with an attitude.

There are a couple of low points of the season, though–particularly some strange choices made by Sawyer and Charlie in “The Long Con” that seem uncharacteristic and are never met with much follow-through.  A few episodes seem like outtakes from Days of our Lives, and the he-said-she-said dramatic tension that surfaces a few times feels forced and out of place.  The pacing is a bit slower this time as well, since much of the action takes place on the beachfront camp or inside the hatch, and the exploration is more of a personal than environmental nature.  I am also a tad disappointed that Shannon and Boone were jettisoned so early on, to be halfheartedly replaced with the altogether uninteresting Rose and Bernard.  But nitpicking these missteps is like dismissing the grandeur of Yellowstone National Park because of the mosquitoes.  The hallmark of Lost is the way each answered question (Where did the other plane come from? Who is Rousseau? What’s the deal with Henry?) leads to a host of new questions, and while the character drama isn’t as interesting this time around, partly because the backstories of many of the survivors have already been explored, the new questions raised are as compelling as ever.

By the end of Season 2, which takes place over roughly three weeks on the island, the survivors aren’t in much better shape than they were at the end of Season 1.  They are still stuck on the island, still scared of The Others, and Jin still can’t speak a lick of English.  But they have far more food thanks to the hatch, and their attitude has shifted from trying to find a way off the island to finding a way to dig in for the long haul.  And in a sense, so are we.  At this point it’s clear there are far greater forces at work, with stakes that are infinitely higher, than what we knew when the show began.  I’m not frantically wondering what will happen next like I was during the middle of the first season, though Season 2 does have its share of nail-biters to be sure, but I am simply awed at the spectacle that is beginning to unfold and eagerly awaiting the next season to see another chapter in how it will all play out.

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Lost: Season 1

Lost Season 1Lost is first and foremost a show of mystery.  More than any other show I can recall seeing, it sets up fantastic yet somehow not entirely far-fetched scenarios with a host of compelling and more or less interesting characters.  The basic premise is one we have seen played out many times before:  a group of individuals, separated from the rest of the world, must work together to survive.  But while Lost owes incalculable debts to sources from Lord of the Flies to Gilligan’s Island, it presents an absolutely gripping storyline shrouded in mystery while dropping enough breadcrumbs to keep viewers riveted, eager to know just what is going to happen next and trying their best to make sense of everything.  And just so I’m covered…this review may contain possible Season 1 spoilers.  :)

Platitudes aside, and without revealing too much (though as of the writing of this review I have only seen the first season and a handful of episodes from Season 2), Lost does a good job of sticking first and foremost to the basics of storytelling:  presenting conflicts that the characters must overcome.  In the very first episode we witness the immediate aftermath of a horrific plane crash on a tropical island:  amidst mass confusion, exploding engines, and corpses littering the scarred shoreline, several individuals begin bringing order to the chaos and establishing a sense of control and uneasy sort of self-governing democracy among the crash survivors.  There’s the chiseled young doctor named Jack (where is the rule that says TV heroes need monosyllabic names that sound like garage tools?) who becomes the de facto leader, a young pregnant woman named Claire, a young druggie named Charlie, a young (see a pattern here? I guess they gotta appeal to the TV-watching demographic somehow) easygoing dude named Hurley, and several others like the cocky Sawyer, the standoffish Kate, and the mysterious John Locke. From the very first episode, viewers are left with myriad questions:  Who are all these people? Why did their plane crash? Why does it seem like there are monsters on the island?  Will they ever be rescued?

Lost Sawyer

Sawyer, the con-man who looks like he belongs on Days of our Lives.

The genius of the show lies in how it cleverly answers questions while raising intriguing new ones, and throwing just enough breadcrumbs at the viewers to satisfy our curiosity while enticing us to keep watching.  And though the group of individuals hovers around 40, there is a core set of characters central to most episodes whom we get to know very well over time.  They struggle to overcome mundane obstacles such as building shelter, finding food, and working together to provide medical care for wounded individuals or building rafts in order to sail away and seek help, but rarely do the survivors form a cohesive group.  Some do not trust others, and some are simply not trustworthy.  Others keep secrets, form relationships, and even set out on their own to seek help or simply answers to questions about what is happening on the island.  Each episode also contains several flashbacks that reveal backstories of various characters and give us an idea of who these people are, or at least who they were before the plane crash.  Often it’s the threads woven by these vignettes throughout each episode that are the most compelling part of the show, as we discover that, like the island, each of the plane crash survivors are far more than what they appear on the surface.

Lost Kate

Just like an Autobot, there's more to Kate than meets the eye.

Through it all there is a sense, woefully missing from other episodic shows like Heroes, that there really is a plan to everything that’s going on.  From the perplexing smoke monster, to “The Others,” a group of people who may or may not be sharing the island with the survivors, to the miraculous healing of Locke, to the mysterious hatch, there seems to be a design for how everything fits together–even if it will be several years down the line.  Whether or not that is in fact the case remains to be seen, but like 24, Lost is a show that demands the viewers watch every episode lest they miss a crucial plot point.  But unlike 24, Lost doesn’t jerk its viewers around:  characters are not killed off at will whenever the writers need to add a jolt of excitement into the show.

Lost is as impressive as it is ambitious, and I am eager to see how things play out for the rest of the show.  But sometimes I wish these people were just a little more normal and relatable.  Seriously, on a plane heading from Sydney to Los Angeles, wouldn’t there be just one regular guy with a 9-5 job and no secrets or skeletons in his closet?  I can understand a bit of dramatic tension and whatnot to keep viewers interested, but everyone in the show has so many secrets, often with backstories of life back in the real world that tend to push the limits of believability, that it gets kind of silly sometimes.  It is a TV show, though, and I guess outlandish characters can be part of the fun.  After all, the entire premise of Lost is pretty outrageous, so what’s wrong with a few exaggerated characters?  In fact, the worst complaint that could honestly be leveled against the show at this point is that Season 1 is so good I’m worried the creators simply won’t be able to top it.  But I’m sure anxious to see if they will try…

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Star Trek Voyager: Season 2

Star Trek Voyager Season 2The first season of Voyager was an excellent freshman effort for a series with such big shoes to fill, and though Season 2 finds Janeway and her crew still stuck in roughly the same part of space as when we last left them, with more or less the same set of aliens and long-standing conflicts, it does push things in some interesting new directions and offer some fantastic moments of action, philosophy, and character-building too.  The central goal remains more or less the same:  these people gots to get home!  Still stuck in the (we are constantly reminded) Delta Quadrant, in a hyper-advanced spaceship capable of traveling at warp 9.975, they continue their pattern of puttering along at warp four or five until even the smallest spatial anomaly or class-M planet catches their attention, at which point Janeway happily throws caution to the wind and risks the lives of everyone on board in order to make contact with alien races or get some veggies for the airponics bay.  It makes for some creative episodes, but at this rate it seems like the entire crew had better just abandon the idea of getting home altogether, as it sure isn’t likely to happen before they’ve all kicked the space bucket.

It’s a bit of a shame, really, because the idea of one ship stranded 70 years from home affords all kinds of interesting possibilities, but most of the concepts in Season 2 could have played out in regular Federation space.  It’s almost as if the wheel was reinvented just for the sake of doing so, especially when the aliens in the Delta Quadrant are so similar to races we all know and love from the Alpha Quadrant.  In essence, the gimmick begins to wear thin by the time Season 2 wraps up.

Voyager Denara Pel

The Vidiians are back again, but not all bad this time.

That being said, it’s not as if the content of Season 2 is bad at all.  It’s actually pretty solid for the most part, barring a few episodes near the end, and does a good job of expanding on the conflicts and characters introduced the first time around.  The first episode, The 37’s is a bit of a cheap throwaway bit, as the crew encounters a band of people who were mysteriously transported from Earth in the 20th Century.  (Think Bermuda Triangle and Roswell.)  And while it was fun to go through a bit of fish-out-of-water time travel, I find it frustrating that the Voyager crew wouldn’t build more of a relationship with the human colonists.  I guess it’s a constraint of the episodic nature of the show, but it seems like such fertile ground was laid for some amazing future developments, but at the end of the episode the Voyager crew say farewell and never speak of their newfound human friends again.  Ever.  But such is the nature of Star Trek–some conflicts make the cut and show up all the time, while others are left by the wayside like so much interstellar particles.

Also back for another go-round this season are the Kazon, an incomprehensibly anachronistic alien race whose reach apparently spans a great deal of the Delta Quadrant but is inexplicably fixated on blowing up capturing the USS Voyager and using their technology for their own nefarious deeds.  In a nod to the Godfather films, there is even a “Meeting of the Five Clans” in the episode “Alliances” that, predictably, doesn’t work out as well as Janeway had hoped.  We also have episodes about Kazon child-rearing, Kazon burglary, Kazon trechary, and a season cliffhanger where the Kazon finally take over Voyager and maroon the entire crew on a rocky planet.  The problem with the Kazon is they are neither threatening or interesting, and have the tactical smarts of a bowl of leola root stew.  They exist merely to provide an adversary for the crew, and only do a middling job at that.  Throw in a dash of Seska, up to her usual meddlings, and it all adds up to a persistent conflict that needs to just be vented like so much plasma gas.

Ensign Suder

Ensign Suder, the Star Trek equivalent of The Joker.

The rest of the season is a fairly inventive, not-entire-derivative, mix of suspense, danger, characterization, and thankfully, a whole lot less of Neelix and Kes (though the requisite Star Trek pon farr episode has a twist here since it’s Kes and not a Vulcan.  The joke remains the same, though.  *yawn*).  After a bit of an awkward start, things pick up with with the usual cornucopia of time travel, unexplained space phenomenæ, warring factions, and convention-breaking space maneuvers.  There is also a few head-scratching episodes that seem like they were directed by David Bowie on a weird acid trip, but to be honest, those kind of episodes (when used sparingly) are a nice change from the norm.  It’s par for the course for Star Trek, which is a good thing, since it’s all presented through the eyes of a fairly interesting crew.  Despite the paint-by-numbers makup of the starfleet personnel on board, each one is actually growing into his or her own character by this point in the series.  Janeway cements herself as a captain the crew can really get behind, Tuvok fits nicely into the shoes originally worn so well by Spock, Torres is still no Scotty, but she is proving that she doesn’t really need to be.  A few soft spots remain, though, most notably Neelix, whose presence on the ship continues to baffle me, and Harry Kim who is mostly bland and unremarkable despite an entire episode devoted to himself.  Chakotay and Janeway get a little closer when they are stuck on a planet for weeks on end, which could have been cool if only this relationship had been explored more during the rest of the series.

The end-of-season cliffhanger is kind of cool too, with the entire crew left stranded on a rocky planet with only Suder and the Doctor left on the ship.  Suder is one of the high points of the show, and even though his character is only in a few episodes he is one of the more compelling characters to enter the Star Trek universe in a long time.  He is indicative of the show’s ability to take risks, which is a refreshing change after sitting through four seasons of Enterprise, and serves as a good reminder of what has traditionally made Star Trek such a good series.  And at this point in the Voyager’s seven-year run,  it has grown into a show that, while not without fault, really is worth watching.

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Star Trek Voyager: Season 1

In some ways it’s impossible for me to give this show an objective review.  I watched many episodes when I was in high school, then re-watched the entire series a few years ago, and subsequently watched the entirety of Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise as well.  But going back and re-watching Voyager has, in some ways, actually helped me be more critical in reviewing it.  Having a much greater perspective than I did a few years ago, with respect to science fiction and the Star Trek universe overall, I am actually enjoying the show far more than I originally did.  In fact, even more than Deep Space Nine, it is a worthy successor to the legacy left by Next Generation.  But while it gets many things right, it also does not innovate in the same way that Deep Space Nine did, and while the show often feels fresh and interesting, it is also more iterative than innovative.  Nonetheless, Season One got things off to a fairly good start despite some missteps, and laid some impressive groundwork for the seasons to follow.

Voyager debuted on January 16, 1995, almost one year after All Good Things… and sci-fi fans, still wistful over the final voyage of Picard and Company, while also a tad angsty from the first few lackluster seasons of Deep Space Nine, were eager for a return to the single space-faring vessel concept pioneered by Gene Roddenberry decades earlier.  And for better or for worse, Voyager in essence gave them exactly what they wanted:  a lone ship of exploration, more or less seeking out new life forms and new civilizations, boldly returning from an area of space where no one had gone before.  Having recently watched the exploits of Archer and his crew in Enterprise, a series with a big budget, top-notch special effects, but mediocre plotlines and forgettable characters, I was a little anxious at returning to Voyager.  Would it hold up against the test of time, or would its scars show through as I had gained a more critical eye for these sorts of things over the years?  Returning to favorable times gone by is dangerous, as some movies and TV shows just don’t age well.  But Voyager, surprisingly, remains as interesting, exciting, and even fascinating as it did when I was a wide-eyed 15-year-old kid watching the series premiere for the first time.

Star Trek Voyager Season 1 Crew

The crew of Voyager. And yes, it was difficult to locate a picture from Season One (i.e. without Seven of Nine).

The basic premise for the show is fairly simple:  Voyager, an Intrepid-class starship fresh out of spacedock, ends up on the other side of the galaxy and its crew, led by captainatrix Kathryn Janeway, gots to find its way back home.  As (bad) luck would have it, a ship of Maquis, the closest thing Star Trek has to terrorists, are trapped out there with them and both crews have to not only share the same starship, but learn to work together and respect one another if they want to make it back home in one piece.  Sound like an after school special?  You bet, but such is the nature of the best of Star Trek–lessons about humanity wrapped in a cloak of space exploration and otherworldly aliens.

Though Season One has its rough times, its focus remains primarily on what makes Star Trek, and all good science fiction, great:  the characters, and by extension, the exploration of the human condition.  When one strips away the special effects, what’s left is a group of interesting, though a tad contrived, individuals who must learn their place on the ship as well as their place in the world.  The mix of Maquis and Starfleet personnel on Voyager creates some compelling conflicts, particularly in the final episode Learning Curve, where several Maquis must learn to work within Starfleet rules while, at the same time, Tuvok, the rigid Vulcan security officer, learns there are times to bend the rules too.  It’s this type of give-and-take that is vintage Star Trek, and it’s nice to experience it all over again.

Commander Tuvok

Vulcan Commander Tuvok: If you've got a problem, yo, he'll solve it.

Series creators Rick Berman and Michael Piller took a bit of a chance with the captain of Voyager as well:  after a storied tradition of alpha male captains, the decision to put a strong-willed female character in the captain’s chair was a bit daring but mostly successful.  In fact, Janeway’s balance of tough-as-nails on-the-bridge persona with caring and sensitive ready room character is so successful, her femeninity all but ceases to be an issue by the end of the season.  She’s a woman, sure, but first and foremost, she is in charge of a starship–and Berman and Braga wisely make that the central focus here.  Along for the ride is first officer Chakotay, the leader of the motley Maquis crew; freewheeling helmsman Tom Paris; naive, wet-behind-the-ears Harry Kim; tough but brilliant half-klingon engineer B’elanna Torres; and a handful of supporting characters like Neelix, Kes, and the unnamed holographic doctor.  At times the show feels like the characters were cobbled together in a focus group (“Ok guys, we need a womanizer, a ‘new guy,’ and a Klingon!”) but through their exploration of the Delta Quadrant the crew encounters enough situations to really give them a chance to interact, learn, and grow, and by the end they start to feel like a crew that really does work together and rely on each other.

Where things get a bit rocky is the aliens, as the omnipresent villains, the Kazon, are more like paint-by-numbers Klingon ripoffs than a true alien race.  Neelix, a Talaxian care-bear version of Han Solo and Kes, his sidekick Ocampa girlfriend, are picked up by Voyager but don’t really serve much of a purpose other than to be used as traditional Star Trek exposition sounding boards (Kes:  “How does this weird space device work?” Starfleet Officer: “Good question! Let me explain it so you, and the audience, can understand!”) and to generally be annoying or get in the way.  Neelix appoints himself Morale Officer, a title which only gets more embarrassing as time goes on, and generally exhibits a ninth-grade-level of possessiveness over Kes, which is thankfully dropped midway through Season Two.

Voyager Kazon

The Kazon...one of the dumber alien races to appear on Star Trek (and that includes the Gorn).

The Vidiians are a bit more interesting, and post a more dangerous threat other than simply carrying a bigger stick, but still a far cry from Romulans, Cardassians, or even Ferengi. And really, if a captain is trying to get her crew back home, why does she stop to investigate every potentially dangerous and harmful space anomaly she finds?  But then, a show in which nothing dangerous ever happened wouldn’t be all that interesting to watch, so I can overlook this a little.  But only a little.

The 16 episodes in Season One run the gamut from time travel, to alien encounters, to wormholes, to good old-fashioned murder investigations.  There is also a bit of political intrigue thrown into the mix with the defection of one of the Maquis to the Kazon, and some soul searching when Torres is essentially separated into two individuals:  one human, and one Klingon. But at the heart of nearly every episode is a focus not on the action, special effects, and harrowing space battles (yes, Voyager is all about the molasses-paced shield-draining phaser-based ship combat), but a focus on the characters.  Almost every episode helps us get to know someone better, or shows us how a character overcomes an internal conflict, or gives us a bit of insight into what it means to be human.  And for a show’s inaugural season, it’s hard to ask for much more.

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Psych: Season 1

PsychA few years ago USA Network launched a “Characters Welcome” campaign designed to give viewers an idea of, presumably, the kind of material they could expect to find on their station.  The gist of the campaign was that on USA Network one could find shows with interesting, unique, funny, compelling, or provocative characters rather than shows that contained too much style without any human substance.  And while I don’t know if the network was successful in re-creating their image with that campaign, I do know that Psych, which appeared on the scene around the same time as the “Characters” network reinvention, certainly has personality to spare.

Set in Santa Barbara, California, Psych follows Shawn Spencer (James Roday), a drifter of sorts who has never been able to hold down a job, a girlfriend, or even a reliable vehicle.  From an early age his by-the-book policeman father Henry (Corbin Bernsen) taught him to be cognizant of his surroundings, taking in all the details of his surroundings and noting even the smallest details that might seem insignificant to most other people.  The goal was self-reliance, but the result was a son with a near-terminal case of ADHD who has a hard time taking anything seriously.  Now in his late 20’s, he gets money by calling in the police tip hotline when he notices subtle clues on newsreel footage that help lead to the arrest of local small-time crooks and other such riffraff.  Meanwhile his childhood friend Gus (Dulé Hill) is an über-responsible pharmaceutical salesman and despite the different paths the two have taken in life, they are still friends and pal around together.

Detective O'Hara

Juliet O'Hara, police detective and Spencer's love interest.

In the first episode Spencer is at the police station collecting his tip reward when he uses his powers of observation to “read the minds” of a crook and a few policemen.  Picking up on clues like debris on clothing, unconscious hand gestures, body markings, and even discarded trash, he is able to infer key bits of information about the personalities of people around him.  The twist, though, is that Spencer convinces people that he has psychic abilities.  After using his fake abilities to solve a murder in the pilot episode, along with some help from straight-laced Gus, the two of them set up a private detective agency that they work from throughout the rest of the season.

USA Network prides itself on unique and interesting characters, and Psych has that down in spades.  Each person in the show has more personality than all the one-dimensional people and aliens in Avatar combined.  Roday is dripping with high-school-dude charm, and he is instantly likable from the get-go.  His fake psychic antics, while often ridiculous, are plenty amusing–especially when he is channeling Jim Carrey and Steve Martin with outlandish physical movements and contortions as he pretends to receive messages from the spirit world.  Gus, playing the classic role of the straight man, is the perfect foil for Spencer, often telling him how ridiculous their plans are, how impossible a given case would be to solve, and how the two of them will no doubt get into a world of trouble for embarking on whatever hair-brained idea they come up with next.  And yet he inevitably goes along with the plan nonetheless.  It’s the classic buddy cop formula that has worked for decades (Riggs and Murtaugh, Tango and Cash, Burnett and Lowery, even Carter and Lee), and Spencer and Gus are entertaining enough to carry the show even when the plot gets pretty ridiculous.

Each episode follows a similar formula:  They typically begin with Spencer as a kid in the mid-80’s learning, often through his own mistakes, a life lesson (look for creative solutions, don’t give up, don’t gamble, don’t cheat, etc.) from his harsh but loving father.  Then we join Spencer and Gus at their office in the present day.  Soon enough they stumble across a mystery by way of a newscast, reading the paper, walking by a crime scene, or just by having a client drop in looking for a psychic to help them find a missing loved one or solve a problem they can’t take to the police.  Spencer and Gus go investigate, inevitably run across stuffy Detective Lasseter (Timothy Omundson) and his partner, the perky but ambitious detective Jules O’Hara (Maggie Lawson) and police chief Karen Vick (Kirsten Nelson) who are often trying to solve the very same case.  In almost every episode Lasseter is stubbornly barking up the wrong tree, while plucky Spencer notices a handful of clues such as a lock of hair, footprints, broken glass, a misplaced business card, and the like, overlooked by the detectives but key to the investigation.  Spencer then uses these clues to piece together the solution to the crime, while waving his hands about and flailing around to pretend he is getting his information from sources in the hereafter.

Detective Lassiter

Detective Lassiter can't stand Spencer but comes to appreciate his usefulness.

It’s a reliable formula, and for the most part it works:  This ain’t Law and Order, folks.  But for the first few episodes I was exceedingly frustrated with the show.  The police detectives are so inept, the cases so far-fetched, and the “fake psychic” element so overblown that the entire show just seemed stupid.  But the ridiculousness of it all is kind of the point.  Psych doesn’t take itself too seriously, and neither should the viewers.  In fact, by the end of the season I appreciated its lighthearted take on the TV detective show genre–almost as if were an antidote to the endless heavy-handed detective shows out there.  It’s just lighthearted entertainment, and eschews the dark murder investigation and blood-n-guts shock factors of other shows in favor of silly antics and old-fashioned whodunit crime solving.

In fact, the worst complaint I can level against the show is that at times it’s just too ridiculous.  In “9 Lives” Spencer claims to get information from a cat, “Cloudy…Chance of Murder” has him joking around in a courtroom murder trial and eventually becoming a legal consultant, and in “Poker? I Barely Know Her” he pretends to communicate with poker chips.  Scenarios like this take things just a little too over the top and dangerously close to frustrating, as if creator Steve Franks is insulting the intelligence of his viewers.  But this is escapist entertainment, and as someone who enjoyed Ace Ventura, I don’t think I can complain about Psych being a bit too outlandish.  It’s good clean entertainment, so long as you check your brain at the door.  But then, that’s kind of the point.

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Star Trek Enterprise: Season 4

Enterprise Season 4It was with some reluctance that I began watching Enterprise a year ago.  I had heard some good things about the show that attempted to carry on the great tradition of Star Trek, but some troubling anecdotes about strange plots, thinly-veiled social criticisms, and a feeling of incoherence overall.  But I figured it was worth a shot, and after finishing the series, I can say for sure that I am glad to have seen it all.  But the show, while ranging from not-too-shabby to downright lame, never hit the high water mark of syndicated science fiction set by its forbears, and in the end I was actually a little relieved that it was over.  Like a guest who has overstayed his welcome, it was time for the show to end.  But unlike such a guest, the show wasn’t about to go without a fight.  And fight it certainly did.

Between season 2 and 3, the writers threw caution to the wind and set about exploring an entirely new storyline that had its sights set on standing shoulder to shoulder with the best of Star Trek Epics.  Sadly, the Xindi conflict of Season 3 wore on ad infinitum, which was reflected in dismal TV ratings, and by the end I would say it’s a safe bet that everyone involved in the production of the show knew they had cashed in pretty much all their chips.  In short, the writing was on the wall:  Archer and his crew would get one more season before their warp drive would power down for good.

Whether that scenario is what went on prior to the creation of Season 4 or not, it’s safe to say that the show certainly went out with a bang–probably because there was nothing left to lose.  Season 4 was the best of the lot, and had some wonderfully high-concept episodes as well as several that at least attempted to delve into the real meat of Star Trek:  an exploration of the human condition.

Arik Soong

Dr. Arik Soong, the central character in one of Enterprise's most interesting and well-executed storylines.

Shackled with none of the overarching “Stop the evil Xindi, I guess” modus operandi of Season 3, the crew of the Enterprise find themselves embroiled in conflicts large and small, laying some very interesting “prequel” groundwork for several episodes of the original Star Trek, and even giving a definitive answer to that age-old question of why Klingons don’t have wrinkles on their foreheads during the time of Captain Kirk.

Season 3 ended with a strange cliffhanger involving alien Nazis in an alternate-reality World War II on earth, the conclusion of which not only involved just a bit too much deus ex machina for my taste, but also put an end to the temporal cold war once and for all.  I actually thought the concept of interstellar conflicts that twisted the fabric of time was one of Enterprise’s more compelling subplots, but wrapping it up so early in the season meant it was no longer a crutch on which the writers could lean, and thus resulted in some far more interesting plots instead.

In fact, some of the best episodes of the short-lived series were in Season 4.  “Borderland,” “Station 12,” and “The Augments” focused on some very compelling issues regarding human genetic modification, and had a good mix of action, characterization, and moral philosophizing.  They also explored some of the history of Commander Data’s “father,” Dr. Noonian Singh, which I found to be not only interesting but very creative as well.  “Affliction” and “Divergence” brought back the Klingons, who had been in the first few episodes of the series but conspicuously absent for much of the subsequent episodes.  In fact, while these two episodes were both exciting and tense, they also showed a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor as they cleverly explained the lack of forehead ridges on Klingons during the time of Captain Kirk.

Throughout the season there was an increased emphasis on characters and relationships within the context of intergalactic conflicts, rather than the other way around, and while this not only lent an added emotional weight to the season overall, it also helped draw in viewers on an emotional level and connect with the Enterprise crew.  The relationship between T’Pol and Tucker took some interesting turns, though the T’Pol’s wedding to Koss in the early episode “Home” was a cheap attempt to add in some contrived relationship conflict, and I was glad to see this subplot wrapped up midway through the season.  We also get a bit of backstory on some others like Mayweather and Reed, but Hoshi, whose fairly useless character should have been written out years ago, remained sadly on the periphery for the entire season once again.

Enterprise Mirror Universe

Despite their lofty ambitions, the "Mirror Universe" episodes didn't quite live up to their potential.

Much has been said about the lauded two-part “Mirror” episodes by other Trek commentators, but I found them to be distracting and rather pointless, mostly due to an entire lack of resolution.  While I understand that these two were never supposed to connect with the regular universe, and existed simply to give us a glimpse into the mirror universe for a little while, the rise of Empress Hoshi at the end of part 2 was a cheap way to end them.  It’s as if the writers had no intention of providing any sort of resolution for the myriad conflicts they had developed, and rather than even attempt any sort of resolution or denouement, just threw up their hands and called it quits so they could get on with the ship’s adventures in the regular universe.  Not cool, Mr. Sussman.

The final episode of the series did a fairly decent job of bringing things to a close, but it was more of a love letter to The Next Generation than a good conclusion to Enterprise.  But for a series that had consistently met average expectations for four years, I suppose it was about all I could have asked for.  In the end I would have liked to see the series and characters in the hands of a more capable writing crew, but at least it went out on a fairly good note overall.  Season 4 was the best of the bunch, even though the show still felt like the kid brother to its TOS, TNG, and DS9 brethren.  But even so, it was a decent run while it lasted.

And who knows?  With the popularity of the new Star Trek movie, we might not have seen the last of Star Trek on television…

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Arrested Development

Arrested DevelopmentI’m not much of a fan of sitcoms.  Though I grew up on watching Full House ad nauseum, I started to realize in the middle of my high school years that something just didn’t sit right with me when it came to situational comedies.  The inane punch lines, extremely predictable joke setups, and worst of all, the canned laughter (it’s as if the TV is telling me “You’re too dumb to realize when something is funny…so we’ll tell you when to laugh!”) really started to grate on my nerves after a while.  Some time during college, possibly when one of the worst sitcom offenders of modern times, Friends, was hitting its apex (or as I would say, its nadir), I virtually swore off sitcoms altogether.  Even now I can hardly sit through a 22-minute episode of any given sitcom with a laugh track–it’s a dead giveaway that the characters were spawned after many a focus group session, and I can see the jokes coming a mile away.

It was with this vestige of trepidation that I approached Arrested Development.  During its short run on the airwaves a few years ago I heard a few online critics sing its praises, and a handful of my friends told me they liked it, but I thought it was another cookie-cutter sitcom and dismissed it outright.  But oh, how wrong I was.  How very, very wrong.

George Michael Bluth, played by the venerable Michael Sera.

Having just finished the entire series on DVD a week ago, I still find no other way to describe it than to simply say it is quirky.  Sometimes it’s funny, as in ha-ha funny, and other times it’s odd, and on a few occasions its downright uncomfortable.  But it is not, in any way possible, guilty of the sins of its forbears:  formulaic plots, cardboard cutout characters, predictable punchlines, or a laugh track.  The premise of the show, which revolves around the Bluth family, is neatly explained in the opening credits:  And now the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together… It’s Arrested Development. The family in question, though, is far from normal, and its this collection of odd characters that makes the show so downright endearing.

To list off the members of the Bluth family does not do their characters justice, and this space does not really allow for an adequate summary.  Suffice it to say, though, that the family is very very odd.  From the manipulating, womanizing, but somehow lovable patriarch George, to his sneaky but charming wife Lucille, to their grown children Gob, Michael, Lindsay, and Buster, the cast is as strange as they come.  But strange due to circumstances:  a life of wealth and luxury has resulted in a virtual growth stunt for all involved, and hardly any of them know how to function in a world where people need jobs, goals, and gumption to succeed.  Each family member is seriously flawed but ultimately lovable, and its these characters, not necessarily the situations they find themselves in, that form the basis for one of the best shows in recent years.

Lindsay's husband, Tobias Funke (David Cross), who provides some of the more memorable character moments.

Any show can claim to have a cast of eccentric characters, and simply putting these people in a given situation does not guarantee quality.  Rather, its the combination of odd individuals, strange situations (the family vehicle is an airport stair car, the side business is a frozen banana stand, George Michael may or may not be in love with his cousin Maeby, Buster’s hand gets bitten off by a rogue seal that escaped from one of Gob’s magic shows, etc.) and solid writing that raises Arrested Development above the level of so many of its would-be peers in Sitcom World.

Each episode is more or less anchored by Michael, the one member of the family who has any sense of real-world gumption, direction in life, or moral fortitude.  As the rest of his family struggles to correct their lives, all the while oblivious to just how stupid their various ideas and plans are, Michael strives in vain to bring order to chaos, meanwhile trying to be the kind of father that he never had.  In most episodes, a host of odd conflicts are introduced and play out in various unpredictable ways, until being (mostly) tied up at the end–often through the use of a plot device that seemed trivial at the beginning.

And that’s where the genius of the show comes in:  not in one-off punch lines or cheap sexual innuendos, but in using eccentric characters to drive the interesting conflicts, and bring things to a logical (if sometimes far-fetched) conclusion by the end of each episode. And through it all is the omniscient Narrator (voiced by show creator Ron Howard), a character unto himself, who often speaks the things that we the audience are thinking, and provides bits of insight into the situations at hand.  It’s the icing on an already delicious cake that makes the show even more enjoyable to watch.

I wonder how things would have played out had the show not been prematurely canceled by FOX.  But I do appreciate that during the final episodes the creators knew they were faced with cancellation (at one point the Narrator actually begs the viewers to “tell your friends” about the show) and brought the many plotlines of the show back together for a brilliant final episode that is the very definition of the literary concept of bookending.

Some have talked of a movie based on the show, and others moved on to similar shows like 30 Rock and Scrubs, but I am just looking forward to the opportunity to watch the existing series again.  It was a gem of intelligence and wit, and broke the Sitcom mold to become one of the best shows on TV.  It was Arrested Development.

The Bluth Family: Gob, George Sr., Lindsay, Tobias, Michael, Lucille, George Michael, Maeby, and Buster.

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