Saturday, January 30, 2010

White Collar: Bad Judgment

Hey, you know what’s a really fun show? The excellent new USA Network series White Collar, which features Carnivale’s Tim DeKay as FBI Special Agent Peter Burke, Chuck’s Matthew Bomer as convicted con artist/art thief/fashion plate Neal Caffrey, and Matthew Bomer’s cheekbones as one of the natural wonders of the world. As part of his sentence, Neal works under Peter’s supervision as a special consultant to the FBI on white-collar crimes. Meanwhile, he also follows a string of clues in search of his duplicitous girlfriend Kate, whom he believes is in the clutches of rogue FBI agent Garrett Fowler (Noah Emmerich). The charm of the show is in the dynamic between the two leads: Neal is charismatic and sneaky yet fundamentally sweet, whereas Peter is straightlaced and gruff, but genuinely seems to get a kick out of Neal.

Previously on White Collar: Neal told Peter he’d been set up by Fowler, Peter told Neal about his clandestine meeting with Kate in which Kate asked for a priceless jewelry box Neal once stole in exchange for getting out of Neal’s life for good, and Neal pointedly did not tell Peter that he didn’t really steal the jewelry box in question, but just let everyone think he took it so all the other world-class thieves would think he was cool. This is the way Neal’s brain works.

At the FBI headquarters, Peter and Neal meet with a man named David Sullivan, who wants them to investigate his now-deceased father’s fishy second mortgage. Peter examines the file and sees that all of the documents appear to have been properly signed and notarized. The only odd thing about the case is that the NYPD detective who initially investigated the fraud charges, Officer Herrera, retired this year at the tender age of 33, lucky fellow.

Peter and Neal meet with Herrera at a coffee shop. Hey, it’s Erik Palladino! Palladino is probably best known for his stint on ER, but he’s near and dear to my heart as slutty gymnastics coach Marty on the moderately good/moderately awful Family Channel series Make It Or Break It. Palladino also hasn’t seen 33 for about a decade, but that’s neither here nor there. Herrera insists there’s nothing funny about his retirement -- he was just sick of the grind. He prepares to leave, then makes a big show of leaving the tip for their coffee: $4.76.

(This show really is pretty clever. It’s a tip. See? Double meaning. Okay, it might not be brilliant, but someone is putting in the effort to make the scripts fresh and interesting, and I appreciate that.)

Peter and Neal pore over the Sullivan case files and discover that 476 is the ID number for Federal District Judge Michelle Clark, who presided over the Sullivan case as well as a number of other suspicious foreclosure cases. Neal’s omnipresent friend/cohort/broker/sometime lawyer Mozzie (Willie Garson) clues Neal in on another interesting fact about Judge Clark: She signed the search warrant and arrest papers when Fowler had Neal arrested on false charges of stealing a diamond a couple episodes back. From that, Neal deduces that Fowler probably has Judge Clark in his pocket.

Peter’s smart, sensible wife Elizabeth (a weirdly good Tiffani Thiessen), who works as an event planner, summons Peter back to the house for lunch to test out the caterer’s menu for a new shindig. She asks him to bring Neal and his superior palate along as well. En route to the house, Neal grills Peter about how he managed to get in contact with Kate last episode. Peter won’t tell him, but Neal asks him to pass along a message: Did the empty wine bottle she left for him after he escaped from prison really mean goodbye?

(Kate is transparently no good for Neal, and he’s kind of an idiot about her, and in fact his obsession with her has a good chance of eventually destroying his life. Peter knows this, Mozzie knows this, and all evidence suggests that at some level Neal knows this as well, but he’s so hopelessly in love that he doesn’t care. The Kate plotline adds kind of a cool Cowboy Bebop-esque dimension to what could otherwise be a pretty straightforward crime procedural.)

At the Burke home, while Peter and Neal grimace their way through some godawful foie gras, Elizabeth mentions that a cable repairman unexpectedly dropped by earlier in the day. Elizabeth, who is no fool, had called the cable company and confirmed that the cable was down in the neighborhood, but when a suspicious Peter redials the number, he finds it’s been disconnected. Sure enough, there’s a listening device inside the cable box.

Armed with top-of-the-line Russian military surplus equipment, Mozzie arrives at the Burke home to sweep for more bugs, which he does with a great deal of zest and enthusiasm. (Elizabeth: “I don’t think he bugged the dog.” Mozzie: “Amateur.”)

Diabolical Agent Fowler breezes into the FBI headquarters and announces that he’ll be working out of their office on a project for a while, which causes Neal and Peter to seethe and fume and pull faces at each other. Neal examines Sullivan’s father’s signature on the mortgage file and concludes that it’s a fake. While demonstrating optimal forging technique (always forge upside down, as though you’re copying a drawing instead of a signature), he flawlessly duplicates Peter’s signature. Peter is equal parts impressed and wary.

Peter meets with Judge Clarke, who is attractive and friendly. She claims not to recall the Sullivan case, or any of the other suspicious forgery cases over which she presided. When Peter applies pressure, she makes a not-terribly-veiled offer of a bribe of a quarter million dollars. She secretly videotapes the meeting while Peter appears to consider her offer.

Judge Clark calls Fowler to fill him in. Fowler asks for the incriminating tape so he can use it against Peter, but she promises to release it only if he agrees to seal the files on the suspicious mortgages. Peter’s boss Hughes drops by the Burke home in the middle of the night to secretly warn him that the FBI is launching an internal investigation based on Judge Clark’s bribe offer. Which... I'm not sure why the FBI, Hughes excepted, would be so ready to believe that Peter was going to accept the bribe. He's investigating a case, and by extension he's investigating Clark for fraud. Was his only correct course of action to arrest Clark and thus possibly blow his whole case as soon as she made the bribe? Really?

Mozzie passes along an anonymous letter to Neal, which contains only a chess move. Mozzie wonders if it’s from Kate, but Neal insists that Kate hates chess. This is another reason to regard Kate as a highly suspicious character. Chess is awesome. Neal heads over to his chess board, makes the move, and discovers it’s an iconoclastic (and wholly illegal) opening with a black piece. I suppose it was more dramatically interesting to have Neal walk to his chess set and physically move a piece, but I call bullshit on this scene. Neal’s a sharp cookie, and he plays a lot of chess -- he would’ve seen from a glance at the chess notation that he was moving a piece from the seventh or eighth rank, which would have to be a black piece.

He’s interrupted by a surprise visit from Elizabeth, who asks him to help out Peter by breaking into the judge’s chambers and stealing the incriminating videotape. Elizabeth is pretty and charming and strong-willed, and thus can get away with blithely asking an ex-convict on probation to commit a felony without seeming like an asshole. Neal agrees to do it, so Mozzie devises an Byzantine tape-stealing strategy, which he demonstrates to Neal through the use of an old game board, a handful of toy soldiers, a pumpkin magnet, and a covered wagon toy.

Fowler fulfills his promise to Judge Clark and freezes the Sullivan files. Without access to the files, Peter’s investigation is severely hampered. He meets again with Officer Herrera, who is still unwilling to help, but who mentions that he was never able to get a search warrant for Judge Clark’s chambers -- that’s probably where she’s keeping the money from the illegal foreclosures.

Neal and Mozzie set their (elaborate and ludicrous) operation to swipe the tape in motion: While Mozzie waylays the real courier, Neal dons a courier uniform, slips into the courthouse, and picks up the tape, which is set to be delivered to Fowler. He uses a super-strong magnet to erase the tape, whips off the courier uniform, changes into one of his usual impeccably-tailored suits, intercepts the real courier, and hands off the now-worthless tape to him.

In the middle of this, Peter calls to fill him in on what he learned from Herrera. As soon as he learns that Judge Clark might have the money in her chambers, Neal happily picks her lock with a paperclip and does a quick search of the place. He can’t find the money, so he ransacks the place to make it readily apparent that he’s been in there. It’s kinda hard to follow his train of thought here, but Neal often moves in mysterious ways.

Judge Clark returns to her chambers and discovers the break-in. Mozzie and Neal listen in while she tells her assistant she’ll need to move the money to a deposit box at Certified National the next day.

During Peter’s disciplinary hearing, Fowler goes to play the incriminating tape. Thanks to Neal, it’s now blank. Fowler flounces out of the office and sees Neal, the scalawag, grinning at him. Neal has just enough personal dignity to keep from thumbing his nose as well, but you can tell he's considering it.

Peter fills Neal in on Judge Clark’s plan to transfer the money in the morning. Peter knows Fowler is tapping his cell phone, so Neal and Peter stage a big fake phone call in which Peter claims Judge Clark will give him the real tape in exchange for money.

Fowler accosts Judge Clark outside Certified National and demands the tape. He grabs her briefcase and finds that it’s filled with the foreclosure money. Peter and Hughes and the rest of the FBI swoop in and surround them. Peter tells Fowler he’s going to arrest Clark for mortgage fraud. He’s got Fowler’s signature on her arrest warrant -- flawlessly forged by Neal, naturally -- and informs Fowler that, if he confirms that it’s his own genuine signature, he’ll look like a hero for bringing down Clark. If he denies it, it’ll raise questions as to why Fowler was meeting with Clark, if he had no plans to arrest her.

Peter passes along a message from Kate to Neal: See Robert. As Robert is Kate’s dead father, they head out to the cemetery, where they meet up with Mozzie. Neal finds an origami iris tucked into a bouquet of fresh flowers on Robert’s grave, which he pockets before Peter can see it. Mozzie secretly asks him if the iris means what he thinks it means. Neal replies, “I think it does.”

A cool little show. I’m digging it. Let’s see where it goes.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Psych: You Can’t Handle This Episode

An official adieu to the nigh-unwatchable Heroes and a big welcome to Psych, which I will now be viewing in its stead.

Quick background, for the uninitiated: Psych, which airs Wednesday nights on the USA Network, concerns the exploits of Shawn Spencer (James Roday), an exasperatingly clever and hyper-observant slacker who, with the sometimes-begrudging aid of his pharmaceutical-salesman best friend Gus (Dule Hill), solves cases for the Santa Barbara Police Department by pretending to have mysterious psychic abilities. Hijinks invariably ensue.

Recapping Psych, as I’ve discovered before, is a tricky business, as the plots are typically gossamer-thin and fairly nonsensical. No one watches Psych for the plots. People watch it for the snappy dialogue and the relentless gags, for the bouncy, buoyant, breezy pacing, for the easy chemistry between the leads, for the awesome guest stars, for the quips and the nonstop pop culture references. Thus, I’m going to just provide a sense of the episode’s high points in lieu of a detailed summary.

The episode kicks off with the discovery of a half-naked man found hanging in a hotel room. Gus and Shawn arrive at the crime scene to help Detectives Carlton Lassiter (Timothy Omundson) and Juliet O’Hara (Maggie Lawson) with the investigation. Shawn immediately deduces it was murder, not suicide. He finds a set of Army dog tags jammed down the victim’s throat.

As the case now involves the military, Juliet enlists the help of her distinguished Army officer brother Ewan (pro wrestler John Cena), first glimpsed running through a dockyard while two random armed guys chase after him. A pretty great chase scene ensues. I get quickly bored by car chases, but foot pursuits can be a whale of a good time, especially when, as in this instance, people vault over boats and scale fences and execute all kinds of impressive physical maneuvers; I don’t know much about Cena, but he’s mighty spry for a such a big, strapping fellow. Adding an extra degree of difficulty/whimsy to the chase: Ewan carries on a phone conversation with Juliet about the facts of the case the entire time. Ewan scurries down to the shoreline (the production team tries their damnedest to make Vancouver, where Psych is filmed, look like coastal California, but honestly, guys, you’re fighting a losing battle) and makes a show-offy escape on a convenient jet ski.

Well played, everyone. That was an appropriately snazzy character introduction.

After he’s done talking to Juliet, Ewan fields a call from a mystery man who refers to him as “Alpha Four” and alludes to top-secret missions. Ewan’s mystery employer, by the way, appears sporadically throughout the episode, but we only get fleeting, shadowy, obscured glimpses of him. Like John Forsythe in Charlie’s Angels! Presumably his identity will be revealed in a dramatic fashion in a later episode. Or it’ll remain a delightfully unexplored plot thread. Either is fine.

Ewan shows up at the police station to help his little sister out on her case and manages to charm the pants off of everyone, apart from a sulky/jealous/skeptical Shawn. The dead man was a Private Starks, the police have discovered, and he was killed by a neck fracture unrelated to the hanging. Thus, the murder investigation begins in earnest. Ewan manages to smuggle the whole gang -- Shawn, Gus, Lassiter, Juliet -- onto the local Army base, where they meet with tough-as-nails Major General Felts, who is played, awesomely, by Robert Patrick. The Psych publicity machine has been steadily hyping the appearance of this John Cena fellow for the past few weeks, and while Cena is cute and charismatic and does a thoroughly respectable job here, I’m much more impressed by the presence of the T-1000.

Anyway, the usual half-baked plot unfolds. After Ewan, under orders from his mystery superior, secretly shreds part of Private Starks’s confidential file, Shawn becomes suspicious that he’s involved in the murder. Shawn and Gus sneak onto the military base about eighty different times over the course of the episode, where they manage to squeeze in some, like, investigating in between playing with anti-tank weaponry and annoying General Felts. Shawn eventually unmasks the murderer: a Lieutenant Wallach, who killed Starks for stumbling into an illegal weapons-selling scheme. During a shootout with Wallach and his accomplices, Ewan saves both Shawn and Gus, but Wallach escapes. Shawn puts it together that his original hunch was right: Ewan is, in fact, somehow involved with this. He and Gus sneak back onto the base (…again), and, with Juliet’s help, arrest Ewan who, acting on the orders of his mystery employer, is just about to kill Wallach.

When Juliet and Lassiter check on Ewan’s transfer from the police station to jail, they find that he’s disappeared and that all record of his arrest has been erased.

In a side development, Shawn’s girlfriend Abigail reveals to Shawn that she’s leaving immediately to help build a school in Uganda, thus effectively ending their relationship. This is probably for the best: I liked Rachael Leigh Cook just fine as Abigail, but Shawn and Abigail’s over-serious, slightly tedious romance was sort of harshing the buzz of this fun, flighty, freewheeling series. They part at the airport, after making a strange point of noting that Abigail will be back to visit on February 24th. February 24th falls on a Wednesday this year. Psych airs on Wednesdays. Probably not a coincidence.

A thoroughly okay sort of episode, if not a standout. The lack of the always-great Corbin Bernsen (who plays Shawn’s grumpy ex-cop father, Henry), apart from the de rigueur childhood flashback kicking off the episode, is a bit disappointing. Still, after the long winter hiatus, it’s nice to have the boys back.

Pineapple spotting: Nope. For Psych novices, there’s a pineapple hidden somewhere in each episode. Find it and enter to win a fabulous weekly prize at the Psych USA website. I didn’t spot it this time. In fact, unless someone walks through the front of the scene brandishing a pineapple out in the open or makes an overt pineapple-based reference, I can pretty much guarantee I’m not going to spot the damn thing. Part of it is my tiny twelve-inch television screen. Part of it is my lack of keen Shawnlike observational skills,

Gus’s fake name: “Ghee Buttersnaps”

Awesome jab at The Mentalist: The CBS series The Mentalist, of course, has pretty much ripped off the premise of Psych wholesale, and Psych takes every opportunity to make sure no one forgets this. In this episode, Shawn tries to sell General Felts on the idea of him joining the Army as their official psychic. Says Shawn, “I’m giving you the first shot at the material before I pitch it to CBS as a television show idea.”

Lassiter-based awesomeness: Juliet is glum about her brother’s arrest. Lassiter provides some half-assed sympathy: “Personally, I have family members who I’d love to see go to prison.”

Awesome Eighties references:
--After Major General Felts storms out of the room, furious with Shawn and Gus for sneaking onto the base, Gus worries that he’s going to come after them with a bar of soap wrapped in a towel, a la Full Metal Jacket. Shawn reassures him, “There’s no way we’re getting D’Onofrioed.”

--Shawn: “Felts turned out to be the good guy in all this. If I hadn’t seen The Great Santini so many times, I probably would have seen that sooner.” (Okay, technically The Great Santini came out in 1979. Close enough.)

--After a belligerent drill sergeant forces Gus to do pushups, Gus shouts, “I got nowhere else to go!” a la Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman. Later, Gus explains to Shawn and Ewan that he always felt Lou Gossett Jr.’s character in that movie was like his pretend father. Ewan replies, “I felt the same way after Enemy Mine.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Fringe: What Lies Below

My new Fringe recap is up at TVgasm. Must be Wednesday.

Site business: Psych is finally ending its winter break tonight, so recaps will commence shortly. It's still awfully quiet around here, what with V and FlashForward still on their ridiculously long breaks, and I've got the big hole from no longer watching Heroes... what do people think of White Collar? It's an adorable show, it features a lead character with floppy bangs and nice cheekbones, and if there's interest in discussing it here, I'll add it to the lineup.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Fringe: Johari Window

My recap of last week's (somewhat lackluster) episode of Fringe is now up at TVgasm.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Life Beyond Thunderdome: Tuff Turf

I'm doing some writing now for the very cool site Forces of Geek. I'll have a monthly column, Life Beyond Thunderdome, devoted to exploring some of the stranger backwaters of 1980s pop culture. This, of course, is a subject very near and dear to my heart. Just think of the possibilities! Kidd Video! Max Headroom! Dare I even suggest... Solarbabies?

My first column, an in-depth look at the deliriously hooty and awesome 1985 James Spader-Robert Downey, Jr. film Tuff Turf is now up. Enjoy, fellow children of the Eighties!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Slammin' Salmon

Let me kick this off by stating outright my unfamiliarity with the Broken Lizard oeuvre, which includes Super Troopers and Beerfest. For the similarly uninitiated, Broken Lizard is a comedy troupe comprised of five Colgate alumni -- Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Eric Stolhanske, Paul Soter and Steve Lemme -- who write, produce, direct and star in their own projects. Their latest film,The Slammin’ Salmon, opened theatrically last month with a minimum of fanfare in a handful of cities and finally reached Los Angeles last weekend. As only a fool would pass up the chance to see how well Heroes star Sendhil Ramamurthy’s exquisite bone structure translates to the big screen (short answer: pretty damn well, thank you very much), I went to see it yesterday at the Beverly Center. I sat by myself, the sole viewer in a theater the size of a moving van that smelled vaguely of other people’s shoes, first suffering through the world’s longest commercial for the National Guard and the trailer for some future monstrosity called Hot Tub Time Machine. My expectations were low.

Despite myself, I dug this movie. Ramamurthy’s world-class cheekbones aside, nobody really needs to see The Slammin’ Salmon in a theater -- probably the Broken Lizard gang themselves would agree that their baby is ideally suited to view at home with a gaggle of friends and liberal quantities of alcohol -- but it made for a perfectly pleasant afternoon’s entertainment. The script is credited to Broken Lizard collectively, which sounds about right; it plays like it was written (or, I suspect, largely improvised) by five easygoing guys with sharp wits and decent senses of humor, all of whom were aware not all their jokes were going to be winners, but who didn’t take this whole filmmaking lark solemnly enough to futz around with the script too much.

For purists who care about such things as plot, here goes: Temperamental, scatterbrained ex-boxer Cleon Salmon (Michael Clarke Duncan), also known as the Champ, is the namesake and owner of The Slammin’ Salmon, an upscale Miami restaurant staffed by the Broken Lizard dudes. There’s Rich (Heffernan, who also directed), the ineffectual manager, who spends most of his time fearfully catering to the whims of his erratic boss. Also on hand are bipolar Nuts (Chandrasekhar), crass Guy (Stolhanske), mercurial chef Danny and his meek twin Donnie (both played by Soter), and struggling actor Connor (Lemme). Rounding out the waitstaff are How I Met Your Mother’s Cobie Smulders as waitress-slash-med student Tara and Two and a Half Men’s April Bowlby as waitress-slash-ballerina Mia. In debt to the Yakuza and desperate for quick money, the Champ makes his staff a deal: The night’s top earner wins a huge cash prize, while the server who takes in the least gets his ribs broken. It’s Glengarry Glen Ross with fisticuffs and poo jokes!

Chaos ensues as the waiters sabotage each other while desperately flattering and conning the customers to move the highest-priced entrees and earn the biggest tips. Guy schemes to rid himself of a lone customer (SNL’s Will Forte) who spends the entire evening occupying valuable real estate -- a four-person booth -- while sipping hot water and reading “War and Peace.” Connor suffers the ignominy of having to wait on his former fellow cast members from CFI: Hotlanta, the hit television show that fired him in disgrace after only a couple of episodes. (Lance Henriksen, cadaverous as ever, has a cool cameo as the show’s creator, a Dick Wolf/Jerry Bruckheimer hybrid coyly named “Dick Lobo,” while Morgan Fairchild appears as herself as the show’s star.) New busboy Donnie gets bombed on blue curacao and waltzes around obliviously with blue-stained lips for the rest of the film. Level-headed Nuts forgets to take his medication and shifts into his gonzo alter ego, an ebullient creature named Zongo who sticks his thumb in the desserts, force-feeds the customers, and skips pantsless around the dining area.

And then there’s Sendhil Ramamurthy, Jay Chandrasekhar’s real-life cousin (which probably also explains their recent appearance together on a Chandrasekhar-directed episode of Psych), who plays Marlon, a (ludicrously beautiful) movie star who enlists Connor’s aid in planning a surprise proposal to his girlfriend (Attack of the Show’s Olivia Munn) over a romantic dinner. Marlon’s bonhomie slips away when his engagement ring gets misplaced in the worst possible way. As the evening progresses, he becomes hilariously bitchy, which is pretty awesome to watch: Ramamurthy narrows his pretty eyes to slits and flares his nostrils, spewing profanity and radiating blistering, prickly contempt. His crackerjack comic timing, which he’s never been able to flaunt much on Heroes, gets a better stage here, as in a moment where, while feigning rapt attention to his yammering fiancĂ©e while waiting for his ring to pass through Rich’s digestive tract, a drunk and exasperated Marlon shoots Connor a glare of waspish hostility and discreetly flips him off. Alone in the theater, I laughed out loud.

(Where does The Slammin’ Salmon fall in the spectrum of Ramamurthy’s filmography to date? Well, it’s a damn sight better than Blind Dating or, god help us all, Thanks to Gravity, aka Love and Debate. While it’s probably a better film than Death, Deceit and Destiny Aboard the Orient Express, my heart belongs to the latter, if only because he plays twins! Twins with different accents! One good, one evil! That sets the bar pretty high.)

It’s all pretty entertaining, though many of the gags don’t connect as well as they should -- Viveca A. Fox’s cameo as a flighty pop star named Nutella falls short, as does a running bit about Mia’s lovely face getting repeatedly scalded and singed by restaurant mishaps. And honestly, I never again need to see a scene where someone craps out an engagement ring. All the action takes place in the restaurant, much of it over a single night, which means sets are kept to a minimum: There’s the dining area and the kitchen, with occasional exciting forays into the Champ’s office or the lavatories. By the end, it starts to feel a little claustrophobic.

Somebody falls in love, somebody wins the prize money, somebody else suffers the promised beating from the Champ, all of which is fairly irrelevant. There’s no real sense of escalation or mounting stakes, no ebb and flow of action. For what this movie is, and for what it tries to accomplish, the half-assed structure works just fine. The mayhem keeps up at the same frenetic level for roughly a hundred minutes, then stops when the restaurant closes for the night, no doubt poised to resume the next day when the Slammin’ Salmon once again opens for business.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Smallville Files

Dan Liebke has updated his awesome Smallville Files. And there was much rejoicing.
(Nope. I'm still not watching or recapping Heroes anymore. Not even for Sendhil Ramamurthy's phenomenal eyelashes.)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

V Episode Four: It's Only The Beginning

It probably speaks volumes about my attitude toward V that I just now got around to watching this episode, which originally aired the week of Thanksgiving. The first three episodes were so middle-of-the-road -- not bad, not good, not interesting, not evocative, not smart, not funny, not violent, not loopy, not cheesy, not thought-provoking, not anything we haven’t seen millions of times before -- that they weren’t much fun to watch and even less fun to recap. But! This most recent episode was loads better! Stuff happened! It was sort of sexy and sort of exciting! It’s still not there yet -- it’s still missing something -- but this was surely a step in the right direction.