Soap Opera Weekly: Night Shift 2/11/09

“How come when nobody knows and it doesn’t make sense, they come to us?”
—Peter Bishop

FRINGE is definitely my favorite new show this season — especially now that plot threads are beginning to intertwine. Not only was the Observer visible at the newsstand in the beginning, but Mitchell Loeb made a cameo. Call me a stickler for details, but I always wondered what happened back in the German prison after David Robert Jones teleported out. BTW, he beamed out using a device Walter invented that not only moves people and objects through space, but also time. Of course, there is a horrible toll, but those details remain a mystery for now. “It does something unthinkable,” Walter hinted, “but it doesn’t kill you.” Yikes!

Speaking of killing, the horrible body transformations continued. After last week’s incidents of people morphing into monsters, this week a toxin caused the body’s orifices to “heal over” with scar tissue, suffocating the victim and leaving their eyes, noses and mouths covered. Someone more versed in psychology than I would probably say all the body horror is a reflection of modern fear of disease and advances in genetics, but maybe it’s also about the depersonalization of the Internet. Anyway, remember that old saying, “Don’t take any wooden nickels”? Well forget that; don’t take any $2 bills! For obvious reasons, this episode reminded me of the Harlan Ellison story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” That Hugo award-winning tale told of a supercomputer that becomes self-aware and gains the power to alter the bodies of people before destroying mankind. Can it be an accident that the mysterious, sinister ZFT group’s book warns of the destruction of humanity by advancements in technology? I think not! “What was written will come to pass,” Loeb warned. “Nothing you can do will change that.” Also, Olivia said of Jones: “The man was clever enough to STAR TREK himself out of a maximum-security German prison.” Funny enough on his own, but Ellison also wrote one the most famous TREK episodes ever, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” which dealt with time travel.

Jones surrendered to authorities just like “John Doe” did in Se7en, and for a similar reason: He wanted to involve his pursuers in his game. Showing more personality every week, Olivia was smiling and practically giddy at the prospect of interrogating the psycho. But Liv was the one being grilled: She was being tested — and apparently recruited for a war against another dimension. As a child, she was subjected to an experimental drug, Cortexifan, which was patented by (no surprise) Massive Dynamic. And the plot gets messier: Walter wrote the frakkin’ ZFT manifesto!

Good luck waiting until April for new episodes…

Soap Opera Weekly: Night Shift 2/4/09

On FRINGE last night, Vertis Air Flight 718 passenger Marshal Bowman started literally going to pieces in the lavatory — then he transformed into a slavering monster. Haven’t we all been on flights like this? I loved the smash-edit of the scene in which the creature broke out, because it had a Cloverfield-like sense of verity. The government cover story for the crash in Scarsdale, N.Y., was engine failure, which eerily echoed the recent ditching of a plane in New York’s Hudson River. When the corpse of the monster was recovered, Olivia experienced one of the memories she retained from John Scott: She saw Bowman and co-conspirator Strickland. Turned out the men were facilitating the sale of a designer virus as a biological weapon. I love how Olivia continues to develop a personality; she has become so stone cold now that she withheld medical treatment until Strickland gave up the name of a suspect. What is this, 24? Olivia realized that the key to the case resided in John’s memories, so she re-entered the isolation tank to access the knowledge she inherited from her former partner (played by Mark Valley, ex-Jack, DAYS OF OUR LIVES). With the active help of the MemoryJohn, Liv was able to solve the case, stop the sale of the chemical weapon and — most importantly for her — release her anger that her former lover was a traitor to his country. (He was just pretending while working black ops.) Oh, and MemoryJohn proposed to her. Talk about a dream fiancé! Olivia said goodbye to John’s memories on the dock of a frozen lake, where he slipped the ring on her finger before fading from her consciousness. Who says FRINGE isn’t romantic? Still, the whole episode was suffused with tension and the series’ trademark grotesque gore. And Walter introduced us to the “One-half Nipple Rule,” which states that a mammal species’ typical number of offspring equals half the number of the mother’s nipples. (Sadly, no “reverse mutator” is gonna erase that fact from your brain.)

The caterwauling continued as AMERICAN IDOL “whittled” the field down to…er, 104 contestants. (This is gonna take a while….) Watching the throwdown between newbie judge Kara and erstwhile “Bikini Girl” Katrina, I noticed that while delivering her criticism, Kara tried to keep her eyes focused on the table; she could barely stand to look at Katrina. That told me she has a problem with Katrina’s appearance. Even Paula admitted she could sing, so it wasn’t just a male thing. There’s a lot of talk that this whole “Bikini Girl” kerfuffle is setting a bad example for young girls; I think the “wrong” message that’s being sent by Kara vs. Katrina is that women are somehow supposed to be catty. Not true. You’re there to judge the singing, Kara, not the wardrobe. There are other reality shows for that.

Soap Opera Weekly: Night Shift 1/28/09

One of the first things Walter said in the newest episode of FRINGE was, “This is the part of the day that I look forward to most — when I know there’s something bizarre out there. I just don’t know what it is — like a grab-bag of disturbing events.” That perfectly crystallizes my thoughts as I’m about to embark on another episode of this delightfully loopy series. It should become the show’s motto. This week’s case, appropriately called “The No-Brainer,” dealt with a computer file that used video and subsonic stimuli to overload the brain’s natural electrical impulses and liquefy the brain of anyone who opens it. Don’t worry, that file is not attached to this blog. However, worry — or, more precisely, suspense — was on the mind of every viewer when it was announced that the killer app was being downloaded at Olivia’s home, because her niece Ella was using the computer. In classic Alfred Hitchcock fashion, we the audience knew the threat was looming, but Ella was oblivious to the danger. Her mother was busy cooking, and Liv and Peter were racing to the scene at top speed, but no one could warn Ella that when the window popped open, asking, “What’s That Noise? Click Me” she should not open it. As the file downloaded, we knew it was cooking her brain, so the director intercut shots of Rachel boiling pasta and a frantic Olivia trying to call with a warning. Would somebody save her? That was Hitchcock’s definition of suspense! Liv arrived just in time to save Ella, who told her what she saw in a creepy voice: “There was a hand — weird, glowy, scary.” Indeed. As a bonus, FRINGE continued to sketch in personalities for its stars; Peter has a computer expert pal named Akim, and also made a connection with Olivia’s cute sister, Rachel (Ari Graynor, ex-Caitlin, THE SOPRANOS). And Walter met with the mother of the lab assistant killed in the fire that sent him to the asylum 17 years ago. She just wanted to reminisce about her daughter, and so did Walter. This proved that he was capable of dealing with traumas from his past without slipping backward into madness.

Soap Opera Weekly: Night Shift 1/22/09

Based on some comments from my friends, I’ve come to the conclusion that, as a science-fiction fan, I’m much more tolerant of time-travel element of LOST that seems to frustrate so many other fans. Thanks to timeline-manipulating shows like DOCTOR WHO and QUANTUM LEAP and movies like 12 Monkeys, I have absolutely no hesitation suspending my disbelief and following the adventures of the island denizens. I think some people forget that LOST is an SF show that boasts complex characters and wonderful drama. Much like BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, that drama is so compelling that it’s easy to forget we’re watching shows about spaceships with FTL drives and mysterious tropical islands that rely on smoke monsters and polar bears. If more people would remember this and just accept and even embrace the time jumping rather than merely tolerate it, they won’t feel so personally adrift trying to catch up. As the Doctor himself is fond of saying, Time is made up of “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey” stuff, so it’s best not to think about it too much and enjoy the ride.

Having said that, last night’s season premiere of LOST abandoned the usual one-person-specific time-jumping format and followed everyone as they hopscotched back-and-forth and hither-and-yon along the timestream. I don’t have the space to provide a good recap of events, so I’ll simply adopt a bullet format to note some interesting stuff…

•Season five began like Season two, with a wake-up routine and playing a record. But this time it was Dr. Chang/Marvin Candle, instead of Desmond.
•Fans actually got to see what happened to those on the island when Ben moved it. There was another “white event,” and the people became unstuck in time, bouncing forward and back, seemingly at random (Richard seemed to know what time zone Locke was headed to.)
•Hurley’s distillation of the previous four seasons was actually pretty accurate, if goofy, and gave Jorge Garcia a chance to do some real acting, as Hugo showed remorse.
•Faraday did a good job explaining things in layman’s terms. Noting that Time is like a street — You can go forward and back, but you cannot build a new street — was easy to visualize and, comparing the island to a record was also easy to grasp, and played into the recurring theme of seeing people play albums. (Note to the kids out there: Those big, flat, black disks used to be called long-playing albums or “LPs.”) The island is a record on turntable, and the record is skipping because what Ben did dislodged the island in time.
•Faraday recognized that Charlotte’s nosebleed was a sign of the impending brain aneurysm that kills time travelers who lose the ability to differentiate the past from the present from the future. Faraday contacted Desmond, who is his “Constant” – someone who exists in both time zones and serves as a sort of anchor — and tells him to go back to Oxford and find his mother. Sadly, he doesn’t get the chance to give him her name. Could it be…Ms. Hawking?
•Fun cameos: Hugo hallucinated being pulled over by Anna Lucia, who gave a shout-out to Libby, and Locke ran into Ethan.
•Ben pretty much implied to Jack that the island can heal Locke.
•Best lines of the night: Sawyer slapped Faraday, then warned Charlotte: “Shut it, Ginger, or you’re getting one, too!” Later, the ragin’ Cajun demanded Faraday tell him, “So when are we now, whiz kid?” Hurley to Sayid: “Maybe if you ate more comfort food, you wouldn’t go around shooting people.” And, finally, Hurley summed up this season’s thesis: “We never should have left that island!”

Fox debuted an interesting and fun new series opposite the LOST juggernaut: LIE TO ME follows Dr. Cal Lightman (played by frequent big-screen villain Tim Roth), a specialist in human behavior who can decode facial expressions and body language with such precision that it is impossible to lie to him. The show’s tagline is, “The truth is written on all our faces.” That’s because real-world scientific studies have determined that so-called “microexpressions” are universal to every person on Earth, so whether you are a New York socialite or a Australian Aboriginal, you give off the exact same nonverbal cues when telling a lie. It’s not what you say, it’s what you try to hide that betray your true feelings. It was undeniably fun to glean lie-detecting skills from the show, and I cannot wait to try them out for real:

•If you appear to be surprised for more than a single second, you’re faking it.
•Liars don’t always avoid eye contact; sometimes they make more because they want to see if their lies are being accepted.
•Your hands get cold because blood leaves the extremities to go to your legs in preparation to run.
•In male liars, the nose itches, because it contains erectile tissue.
•People break eye contact when recalling legitimate memories; liars maintain their gaze while making it.
•Liars rehearse their stories in order; if you ask them to repeat a sequence of events backward, they will struggle. LIE TO ME deserves an audience, and I hope it can find one opposite LOST.

The most-anticipated new series return for me was FRINGE, which is doing a good job of finding an audience opposite the much-ballyhooed THE MENTALIST. FRINGE picked up with the kidnapped Olivia deftly freeing herself from her not-so-mysterious captors, took evidence, shot a guy, hid the blood vials and paused to sob — all of which showed some personality, some color that has been sorely lacking in her character until now. Liv has been a dull gray while all around her were allowed to blossom into vividly quirky characters. Met her sister Rachel and niece Ella. She cooked for and supported her sis. She showed real passion while interrogating Loeb, delighted in telling him she’d killed his wife. That’s personality, and Liv had been sorely lacking. If she is going to continue as the focal character of the series, she’s going to need this personality transplant. Another important element is the recurring villain, so it was good (if completely expected) to see Mitchell Loeb was the kidnapper. (Olivia recognized his shoes.) Anna Torv and Trini Alvarado staged a pretty intense girlfight (no hair-pulling) before Liv gave Samantha a third eye. We also got to see Sanford Harris, the guy Olivia prosecuted for sexual harassment, but, unfortunately, he was playing the stereotypical role of the officious internal affairs-type with an axe to grind who is suddenly in charge of investigating the person he has a vendetta against. On the plus side, his conversation with Olivia succinctly recapped the series so far. Yes, that was Steven Schnetzer (ex-Cass Winthrop, AS THE WORLD TURNS, GUIDING LIGHT and ANOTHER WORLD) playing Dr. Miles Kinberg, the teacher who died when the huge virus crawled out of his throat. And wasn’t that an ingenious idea for a script: Bad guys who supersize the common cold to kill epidemiologists. I’m glad Olivia got some time in the spotlight, but we need to see more wacky Walter next week!

Soap Opera Weekly: Night Shift 12/4/08

“I love it when a plan comes together.” That’s what Hannibal King, leader of THE A-TEAM, used to say, and I have to agree with him — especially now, when viewers are seeing all of the groundwork on FRINGE start to come together. Like most viewers, I’m hoping answers will be easier to come by than they are on LOST. The returns of creepy Mr. Jones (played with reptilian calm by Jared Harris) and shady FBI agent Mitchell Loeb (Chance Kelly) bode well for viewers getting some satisfaction sooner rather than later. We cannot quite see what the show might call a Pattern yet, but we can certainly discern an Outline. Best. Episode. Ever. 

The story kicked off with a really exciting bank robbery that featured the thieves using the technology seen two weeks ago in “The Equation” to walk through walls right into the vault. The constant countdown really ratcheted up the tension (and reminded me of my own desperate dashes to do other things during the timed commercial breaks — “Is this a 60- or a 90-second window?”). I just knew somebody was going to get frozen in the wall. When Olivia thought she recognized the victim, it seamlessly led to some backstory about little Liv (nicknamed “Solo” because she had no friends), and built on her shared memories with John Scott. What are the chances that the memories she absorbed from her dead partner are precisely the ones Ms. Sharp is trying to suck out of John’s corpse? Curse the luck! (I loved that Massive Dynamic used that optic-nerve trick to recover the last image John saw: Olivia.) Of course Walter’s backstory figured prominently — he invented the space/time teleportation device the thieves were after. And they used it to free Jones from prison, and he then promptly took Olivia hostage. BTW, Walter’s invention only furthers my argument that he’s a “lost” incarnation of the Doctor — DOCTOR WHO has featured a very similar device, called a Time Scoop. If you had trouble remembering where you’ve seen the guy who played Jones’ attorney, Kohl, that wasJames Frain, who plays Thomas Cromwell on THE TUDORS and was Paul Rains on Day 4 of 24. 

The line of the night came from Peter, addressing one of the men who was dying from radiation sickness after walking through walls: “You violated the laws of physics, Mr. Eastwick. And Mother Nature’s a bitch!”

Soap Opera Weekly: Night Shift 11/26/08

On the day before Thanksgiving, I’d like to give thanks that the series finale of THE SHIELD totally lived up to not only my expectations, but my hopes. I came away from the harrowing last installment of the adventures of Vic Mackey feeling exhausted, disgusted, saddened and revolted. In other words, it couldn’t have been more perfect. I spent weeks (months, even!) trying to guess Vic’s ultimate fate, but I never in a million years would have expected him to end up a hopeless cubicle drone. Of course Vic had to lose everything — his family, his friends, his career — but I didn’t expect it all to be so…satisfyingly cruel. Vic was always a creature of power — he wielded his detective shield like a club to beat down and extort criminals, then used it to shield himself from reprisals — so putting him into a position where he was completely powerless and forced to pee into a cup was simply brilliant. My hat is off to Shawn Ryan for remaining completely true the characters and situations he created so long ago. Vic started out season one by killing Strike Team member Terry, and ended up selling out (and figuratively killing) Strike Team member Ronnie last night. Poor Ronnie; he was loyal as a puppy right up until he was dragged, screaming, into hell…er, jail by Dutch. The series made sly reference to Dutch’s long-gestating potential to become a serial killer by having him accused of murdering a woman by her sociopath son.

The real payoff was in the resolution of the Vic/Shane strife. Finally at the end of his rope, Shane killed his pregnant wife and son, then blew his own brains out. The sight of murdered Mara and Jackson posed peacefully on the bed was shocking, even for THE SHIELD. In fact, photos of the scene even made Vic gasp! I knew there could be no happy ending for Shane and Mara, but I did not expect that. I did expect Aceveda, perhaps the most blatantly political animal in the history of TV, to be elected mayor after turning Vic’s massive drug bust to his own advantage.

If I can make a shocking confession myself, I sort of, kind of, was hoping (just a little bit) that Vic would get away with everything. Is that bad? (Yeah, it is, but is it thatbad?) And the final image, of Vic returning to type and going rogue once again, even though it means a death sentence, kind of fulfilled that for me. THE SHIELD will be remembered as one of the great dramas.

FRINGE is on its way to becoming a great fantasy series. Finally, a show that captures the essence of THE X-FILES — it’s damn spooky to watch a lone FBI agent creep through an abandoned cellar with a flashlight while strange things go bump in the dark. This week’s episode actually succeeded in making me flinch when the butterfly suddenly attacked that guy. Who would expect an evil monarch? I mean, this ain’t THE VENTURE BROS.

My favorite moment of this week’s NCIS? After pumping the traitor Lee full of holes, Gibbs stood over her as she lay dying and didn’t tell her that her young sister was safe. And he pulled her badge off her belt. Stone cold! Vic Mackey would be proud.

I was almost proud of Jack Bauer in 24: REDEMPTION. I wanted to be proud of him, but something about the two-hour movie just didn’t quite click with me. Perhaps it was the fact that the fate of the entire world was not hanging in the balance. Or maybe the fact that Kiefer Sutherland played Jack as practically somnambulant. His harsh, growling whisper was an odd choice. Apparently there’s no tea with honey in Africa? I suppose he was supposed to be so world-weary and burned out that he could barely force himself to speak. This movie was designed to serve as a bridge between Day 6 and January’s Day 7. The links to the past came courtesy of Peter MacNichol‘s Tom Lennox and Powers Boothe‘s prickly President Noah Daniels. The future was seen in Cherry Jones incoming president Allison Taylor. Once again, the White House was infiltrated by shady operators and riddled with crooked agents. Who does the WH vetting — John McCain‘s office? (Too soon?) Anyhoo, Sebastian Roché (ex-Jerry, GENERAL HOSPITAL) has a small part as a thug that allows him use an odd skill he honed on GH — injecting unwilling, struggling subjects with nasty syringe. And burying a guy in cement.

Hey, that’s all for now. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Soap Opera Weekly: Night Shift 11/21/08

Take a deep breath, Night Shifters: It’s time for a catch-up blog, in which I get to be even more long-winded than usual… 

Dean Winters (ex-oh, never mind, he’s been on just about everything in prime time…) made a return visit to LIFE ON MARS, where he played Sam’s father, Vic, alongside Jennifer Ferrin (ex-Jennifer, AS THE WORLD TURNS) as Sam’s mother, Rose. Sam’s birthday was approaching, which meant that little 1973 Sam was about to turn 4, and wanted to see his Daddy on his big day. Unfortunately, Vic was involved in a kidnapping plot — and of course adult Sam was on the case under his pseudonym, Detective Luke Skywalker. I liked Sam making an oblique QUANTUM LEAP reference when he wondered if he was “sent” to 1973 to make sure his father doesn’t go down the criminal path. How much does Sam miss his father? He sniffs the guy’s coat! But the perfect moment of the episode came when Sam recalled playing basketball as a kid — and fantasized about icons from the 1970s Knicks, including Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere and Phil Jackson. Sam also got some insight into father’s struggles to make ends meet and why he was constantly on the road during Sam’s childhood. And can I just compliment LIFE ON MARS for consistently employing soap actors? Last week’s cameos by Grant Aleksander (Phillip, GUIDING LIGHT) and Elizabeth Hubbard were far too brief, but welcome. 

Back in the present, SUPERNATURAL built on last week’s Anna Milton’s story with the revelation that she is actually a fallen angel. A rebel in heaven, she chose to fall so she could experience human emotions. During the fall, she became separated from her angelic “Grace,” and the race was on between heaven and hell to recover that celestial power. I really enjoyed that creator Eric Kripke is willing to tackle a story about heaven and angels. It’s long been the accepted unwritten “rule” of fiction that while you can address hell and demons with impunity, viewers/readers would be “offended” if anyone tried to depict heaven. That’s garbage, and I’m glad Kripke’s series is “going there.” He has even given heaven a political structure! And even angels have to take the existence of God on faith — because only four angels have ever seen the face of God. That’s wading in with both feet! 

Mark Rolston is playing lead baddie Alistair with a kind of soft-spoken Marlon Brando-inspired voice. (And when I hear the name Alistair I can’t help thinking of the late PASSIONS…) 

The major revelation of the night, however, was that Dean spent 40 years in hell (because time travels at a different rate Down There), and he finally told Sam what happened. He spent 30 years being “sliced and diced” by demons, and then was restored only to begin the torture all over again. Eventually, Alistair was able to tempt Dean into ending his suffering by letting someone else take his place on the rack. So the victim became the tormentor. Alistair even noted that Dean had promise as a demon. But now Dean faces a different kind of torture: the memory of what he did. “I wish I couldn’t feel a damn thing,” he told his brother. 

Raw feelings were on display in spades on DIRTY SEXY MONEY. Brian desperately wanted Andrea to fight her cancer, but she felt content to try to live with the terminal diagnosis.Nick and Lisa were having trouble getting over their separation, and in classic soap fashion, Lisa jumped to the wrong conclusion after learning Nick was talking to Karen in his office. Lisa tracked Karen to a charity ball and took a swing at her! The two mixed it up in an all-too-brief catfight before Nate literally jumped into the fray and separated them. He was brave to get between those two hellcats! 

On the subject of catfights, nobody tell Mala, but I gave her treasured NCIS a pass the other night because I had the impression from promos Brenda and Kelly were going to tangle on the refurbished (but not improved) 90210. But instead of hair-pulling, I saw peer-pressure angst and product placement run amok. In fact, the products weren’t so much placed as they co-starred in the episode — complete with loving closeups. That one…texting device (no, I’m not pimping it here) almost had enough airtime to compile an Emmy reel. Shame the actual humans did not fare quite so well. Dethroned Queen Bee Naomi was reduced to playing gopher for some mean girls. Meanwhile, Annie hated being a Queen Bee and dressed up like a giant Wildcat. Tabitha’s story about Jean-Luc and the chihuahua completed the animal theme. If you ask me, the TV in the writers’ room must have been tuned to Animal Planet that week. So where was my catfight, huh? The old pals had a pretty good verbal sparring match, in which Brenda pointed out they have had nothing in common since high school. Then Brenda, who was performing in Macbeth, fell off the stage and broke her arm, precipitating the confession that she slept with Ryan. Apparently Kelly didn’t want to take on a one-armed foe, because she sniffed, sighed and walked out. (Boo!) At least the episode ended with a good song: Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” 

That tune led nicely into the sinister FRINGE, which opened with a musical prodigy being kidnapped by a mysterious woman who uses flashing colored lights to disable her victims. Luckily, Walter once did some investigation into creating a system of flashing lights that would hypnotize consumers into buying products. The advertising firm that commissioned Walter’s work was never identified, but we just know it was Sterling Cooper, right?! Walter got to get out of the lab and do some field work — by returning to St. Claire’s mental hospital to get information from a former fellow inmate. 

This story gave John Noble a chance to really emote and widen his performance, and he really took advantage of the opportunity to grow in his portrayal of Walter. Strangely, he seemed more lucid inside the asylum, becoming almost a voice of reason. But Noble effectively transformed Walter’s body language into a beaten-down, broken prisoner the moment he heard the gates slam. Walter had to go inside because fellow inmate Dashiell Kim was declared 10-27 — “criminally insane with knowledge of state secrets.” After getting back out, a gravely serious Walter recalled his struggle to get through to the brain-addled Dashiell, and asked Peter a heartbreaking question: “Is that what it’s like to talk to me?” 

Finally, I want to mention LIFE, which, the last I checked, is now scheduled for Wednesdays at 9 o’clock. It’s totally worth the detective work to track down this quirky cop series. When you find it, your reward will be to watch the burgeoning opposites-attract romance between hottie detective Dani Reese (Sarah Shahi) and lumpy Captain Tidwell (Donal Logue). This week their halting courtship took two steps forward: They went to dinner — and the shooting range. And the gunplay-as-foreplay scene was hot! While standing in close proximity, each took a turn firing the other’s weapon, then they holstered each other’s guns. Good thing their beepers went off before there were any…er, misfires.

Soap Opera Weekly: Night Shift 11/12/08

“The edge is where we live. All of us; all the time.”

FRINGE wasted no time making the audience cringe with its opening sequence, which featured a graphic depiction of a chest operation, including grotesque views of slicing the chest and spreading the ribs (complete with sound effects). After that display I was almost relieved to see the giant parasitic worm curled around the victim’s heart. And how creepy was it that the creature made a purring sound? I was glad to see Walter did not work on such parasitic entities back in the old days — but he did claim to accidentally fry the deceased Jimmy Hoffa‘s brain by hooking it up to his communicate-with-the-dead contraption. Who says dead men tell no tales? Between Walter quizzing corpses and talking to coma victims, no secret is safe. (As long as the head is still attached to the body.)

Series co-creator and LOST honcho J.J. Abrams penned this script (along with LOST producer Jeff Pinkner), which featured lots of ALIAS-style international intrigue, and yet another old flame/co-worker for Olivia who, it turns out, speaks fluent German. (We viewers weren’t let in on the gag — if any — because there were no subtitles.) When Olivia demanded more information from Broyles, he scowled and told her she always dissatisfied. “You could get a million answers and still have a million-and-one questions.” Was he talking about the Pattern — or LOST?

Over on THE SHIELD, Vic’s plot is so complicated it makes THE WIRE look like a simple paint-by-numbers project. Could his endgame be more daring than double- and triple-crossing blackmailers and drug cartels and government agents? Shane couldn’t possibly make a bigger mess of things than he has already, and yet there are two episodes left.

My colleague Mala has been singing the praises of NCIS a lot lately, so I decided to check back in with the show. Gibbs and crew were investigating the case of a gang that robbed a bank in Quantico (home of the FBI Academy) and then burned the money. The case was intriguing, but it was the character bits that really held my interest. The way DiNozzo’s back went up when Ziva noticed hunky new recruit Wilson. Wilson also caused angst for Gibbs, who wondered if he can trust his judgment after messing up the last time a newbie was brought in. Or did he? Evidence surfaced that maybe Langer was not a traitor. Maybe Agent Lee is actually dirty! What is this — introspection and interpersonal relationships (But no Gibbs/Abby moments!) on a CBS procedural? This bears further investigation…

Monday’s HEROES was one of those special episodes that the series does well. This was a retroactive-continuity, or retcon episode that filled in blank spots and explained how newly revealed scenes fit in with previously seen events. So, we learned: (deep breath) Firebugs Meredith and Flint are siblings who were captured/recruited by Thompson; Meredith caused the train fire seen in the series premiere; Elle and partner H.R.G. prodded Gabriel into becoming a merciless killer; Sylar’s “base” power was telekenisis; Linderman caused the accident that crippled Heidi as a warning to Nathan to stop investigating Linderman’s business. (I thought Linderman was originally funding Nathan’s campaign?); and Angela poisoned Arthur. I liked this episode a lot because stuff happened — but I would still like to see the run-of-the-mill installments be more interesting. HEROES could start by killing off some extraneous characters. I have a Hit List if creator Tim Kring is interested. ..

The best parts of GOSSIP GIRL can be summed up in two words: Wallace Shawn. In his best role since The Princess Bride‘s Vizzini, Shawn played Cyrus Rose, the froglike prince of Eleanor’s heart. Of course Blair didn’t like him. Echoing Vizzini’s rule about land wars in Asia, Cyrus noted “getting into a war [with Blair] wouldn’t result in victory.” He eventually won her heart with his wits, and his tale of tragic True Love (or was it “Twu Wuv”?) And, he booked Cyndi Lauper to perform at her 18th birthday party. It was just inconceivable to me that the script didn’t find a way to make Cyrus shout “Inconceivable!” Oh, that reminds me: There was something else good about the episode: Chuck bought his father a luxury box for Ranger games! But Bart actually refused it. What!? Inconceivable!

Apparently Melinda has learned nothing from all her years as a GHOST WHISPERER. There she was, bubbling about being so happy and starting a family with Jim and making all those plans. Was it any wonder the drama gods would slap her down? Now we know who was missing a shadow back in last season’s finale. Bam! Jim got shot by Detective Neely. Bam! An embolism killed him while Melinda slept nearby. But sheis a ghost whisperer, so Jim’s shade tried to comfort her. But I don’t think it will be that easy. And since this is GHOST WHISPERER, Jim isn’t going anywhere soon…

Soap Opera Weekly: Night Shift 10/22/08

Okay, let’s get it out in the open right away: Last week’s episode of GENERAL HOSPITAL: NIGHT SHIFT was better. But that doesn’t mean last night’s was poor; far from it. I enjoyed the “wrapping up” aspect of the story. (I was one of the people who didn’t mind the…uh, leisurely closing of Return of the King.) This felt like everyone clarifying relationships and saying goodbye after summer camp. I liked the show putting a bow on things and tying off relationships, because while I don’t mind being strung along, I hate being left hanging!

I liked that the show dealt with the explosion quickly and then moved on. The best part was integrating Patrick and Jagger defusing the bomb with Saira flatlining. Let the parent show revel in violence; this series is about emotion. And there was plenty of that on display in all the stories, but especially the Scorpio clan. I knew it was going to be touching when Robin mentioned the clinical trial in Switzerland. (Eric went to a trial in Portland — gee, maybe GH should start hosting clinical trials!) And poor Robin had to go from sitting vigil over her father to worrying about gal pal Saira. Leo took the chance to turn on the waterworks again, as the man of science appealed to faith in the face of death. His prayers were answered — but only sort of. Saira lived, but she chose to go on living without him in her life. (“I forgive you, but I can’t be with you,” she said. Can a line be any soapier?) I was glad Leo’s brother, Kyle, shared a rapproachment. Kyle also made up with Claire, but it seemed like a bit of a cop-out to make her resign and then return. (Are intern programs that easy to drop in and out of?)

Patrick found it easy enough to leave the chief of staff job behind (He hated it anyway), because it meant more time with Robin. Jagger will be spending less time with Robin or Saira, since he moved back to San Francisco to fight for custody of Stone. (The child’s mother never was named, but at least we know she isn’t Brenda, because Jagger told Robin she doesn’t know the mother. Unless he was lying….) He promised to make good on their vow to raise their children together. Toussaint decided to reconnect with his secret son, and Epiphany encouraged Jagger to reconnect with her.

The real emotional stinger of the episode came courtesy of Robert and Anna. They had their grand scene in which Tristan Rogers delivered the perfect line, “Oh, I dolove you,” and she replied, “I love you, too.” Like Frosty the Snowman, he promised Robin that he would be back again someday “for a nice, long visit.” But he decided to go to Switzerland alone. He left her a terse note, and she understood not to follow. As Robin embraced her tearful mother, it encapsulated all the pent-up emotion of the storyline. And ending the series with Robin and Patrick getting busy on his desk was the perfect bookend to the series, which began with them canoodling on a couch. Well done, NIGHT SHIFT. I hope to see you again next year.

THE SHIELD is really gaining momentum now. With Shane outed for putting a hit on Ronnie (in a high-tension sequence that had me on the edge of my seat), and Vic resigning so he can hunt down his old friend himself, anyone who doesn’t think this is all going to end very badly over the course of the final five episodes has not been paying attention.

I am envisioning an end for Vic and company that will be even bloodier than the Holly’s Diner massacre that opened last night’s episode of FRINGE. (I wasn’t the only one who was reminded of Dr. Destiny’s rampage in issue No. 6 of Neil Gaiman‘s “Sandman” comic book, was I?) After Emily Kramer mentally microwaved the eatery patrons and then went all Scanners and her head blew up, the task force arrived. Walter was in fine form from his first scene, brutally jamming a common meat thermometer into one corpse’s ear (nice sound effect!), then requesting a bowl of the same french onion soup that sat uneaten on the lunch counter. Ah, to be an eccentric genius…

FRINGE upped the gore factor by showing Emily’s corpse sans head from the neck up (take thatCSI!), but the harshest scene had to be the execution of Mr. Papaya. In order to demonstrate how Emily used radiation to boil her victims from the inside out, Walter dressed up a papaya with Mr. Potatohead features like a face, then zapped him, resulting in Mr. Papaya exploding. To be fair, Walter did feel bad about blasting “the friendliest of the fruits,” but his “goo-ification” proved his theory that an implanted capsule of Strontium 90 had turned Emily into a weapon.

The person responsible — though his intentions remained somewhat murky — was the wealthy David Esterbrook, played by the excellent Chris Eigemann. (Allow me to digress here to recommend watching Eigeman’s work in director Whit Stillman‘s under-appreciated “Urban Haute Bourgeoisie” trilogy, MetropolitanBarcelona andThe Last Days of Disco.) Did you notice the Observer in the background the first time Olivia met Esterbrook? I would love to see Esterbrook return (with cute-but-twisted Dr. Sarnoff once more by his side) to menace Liv and the task force again. (Hey, can Broyles give this task force a name, please?)

While the plot was a big improvement over last week’s, the real value of the episode was the insight into Olivia’s character. This case occurred on her birthday, when she dreaded the pending arrival of a card from her stepfather because, as she explained to Peter, when she was 9 years old she shot her drunken stepfather for abusing her mother — but didn’t kill him. Now she views that as a mistake, and her stepfather as the symbol of evil in the world — a role he delights in, as evidenced by the annual cards. Later, when Broyles questioned Liv’s public grandstanding, she vociferously (well, for her) defended her “emotional” approach to her work, claiming it makes her a better FBI agent because she empathizes with victims. She challenged Broyles to fire her, but he warned it wouldn’t be that easy.

And let’s not forget the developments for Peter: Nina Sharp revealed that she and Walter were “quite close” when Peter was young. (Cue the “Nina is Peter’s mother!!!” hysteria.) I liked that Peter has started to notice a pattern to the Pattern (namely, repeated instances of human guinea pigs) and wondering if mankind is being “prepared” for something. Hmmm….

Soap Opera Weekly: Night Shift 10/15/08

GENERAL HOSPITAL: NIGHT SHIFT actually makes it worth staying up past midnight and then coming into work bleary-eyed. And it always rewards both the new fan and the lifer.

Case in point: Last night’s reunion episode, which gathered Luke (Anthony Geary), Mac (John J. York), Anna (Finola Hughes), Sean (John Reilly) and Tiffany (Sharon Wyatt) to urge Robert (Tristan Rogers) to wake up from his coma. His old pals appeared in a dream sequence that allowed the show to wink at reality by mixing the new and the old in entertaining and inventive ways, from Kimberly McCullough re-enacting her childhood introduction to Robert as a grown woman (complete with similar dress and sandwich) in the newly recreated townhouse to a lace-bedecked Anna acting like “Betty Freakin’ Crocker,” to Robert imagining his friends a little…let’s call them older and wiser. What mattered was that the original actors returned to reprise their beloved characters, and they still had it. Except for a little gray, Reilly still looks exactly the same — and he brought fire to his performance. His speech to Robert was filled with emotion as Sean told Robert that our experiences make us what we are. Tiffany’s recollections of “my Robert Scorpio” being a heartbreaker was a heart-tugger, thanks to Wyatt’s performance. Mac, ever the stalwart brother, lent a strong shoulder. And Anna even copped to making mistakes with him. And then there was Luke. As I was just discussing with my colleague Mala, Tony Geary deserves every day of his vacation time because the man truly brings it when he acts. Fresh from sabbatical, Geary hit the ground running and hit it out of the park last night. “You’re worm food, buddy-boy!” he chirped. “Deader than a mackerel.” Luke grabbed Robert and literally shook sense into him as he declared, “We deserve spectacular deaths!” like being garroted in an alley, not expiring in a hospital bed (shades of the speech/performance that won Geary his latest Emmy last year). When Luke prompted him, Robert figuratively woke up and fought back. The dream conversations were perfectly intercut with Robin in the real world attempting to reassure her father that she will be okay thanks to lessons learned from him. DreamRobin put it best when she said, simply, “I love you, Daddy.”

I was not a GH viewer back in the day, but even I could tell these characters had history, thanks to the way the scenes were written and acted. These characters (and actors) all knew each other, cared about each other and acted like it. The expressed their relationships in ways that mattered to me. As for the effect it had on longtime fans — well, the only word is squee! I don’t think the episode could have been more perfectly swoon-worthy.

But the modern storylines were not neglected, either. Soapiness was in full force at GH: Jagger and Saira were both in vulnerable states and slept together; Kyle got boyfriend Eric into a possibly life-saving clinical trial — but in Portland; Claire submitted her resignation; and Toussaint stared angstily at a photo of an adorable moppet. And then it all got blown away. Being part of the GENERAL HOSPITAL franchise, the episode ended with a big bang — but the emotional fireworks far outshined the exploding Dumpster.

Last night’s FRINGE was a bit outshined itself — by previous episodes. This was the weakest outing of the season so far. The threat of Joseph seemed too…uh, meager, to really warrant the team’s efforts. And Oliva’s impassiveness continues to be a weak spot in the storytelling.

I really want to like this series (and I do), but I am done with Walter always having previously worked on an experiment related to the exact case the team is facing each week. For me, the only way this is going to be justified is if the Pattern ultimately turns out to be based on Walter’s own work — perhaps Walter himself is responsible! There’s no other way to make me accept the overwhelming coincidences.

But I do so enjoy John Noble‘s portrayal of Walter. He was touching when Walter lamented not having access to parts of his mind, and charmingly boyish when he built up a static charge with his wool socks and zapped Peter. Walter was able to conceive of a way to “imprint” an electromagnetic pattern on carrier pigeons, yet he was awed by commonplace GPS technology — now that’s characterization! Some effort was made to bolster Olivia by making her upset by the reappearances of John, but when he finally proved his love by leading her to the engagement ring he never had a chance to give her, she didn’t seem sufficiently moved. Maybe it’s just me, but Special Agent Dunham needs to be easier to relate to; she needs to be more compelling as a person.