THE AMAZING RACE 17.1: They Don’t Call It the Amazing Race for Nothin’

And THE AMAZING RACE has not won all those Emmys for nuthin’, either! This is my favorite of the so-called “reality series,” an unscripted race around the world that plays like an edge-of-your-seat horse race crossed with an extended slo-mo trainwreck.

Now that I have officially given up on SURVIVOR: NICARAGUA because the cast is just too boring, I will be concentrating my unscripted attention on this show and UNDERCOVER BOSS.

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Soap Opera Weekly: 9/22/09

Can anyone think of a reason why Nathan Fillion is not one of the biggest stars around? His star vehicle, CASTLE, owes its success entirely to his lead character. This is basically, “MURDER, HE WROTE,” but Fillion (ex-Joey, ONE LIFE TO LIVE) is so charming that the premise doesn’t really matter; it’s just an excuse for Fillion (ex-Mal, FIREFLY) to smirk and deliver the show’s best one-liners. Sure, co-star Stana Katic (ex-Hana, HEROES) gets in her licks as Detective Beckett, and the able supporting cast (including GENERAL HOSPITAL’s former Ian Devlin, Seamus Dever)…er, supports ably, but it’s still Nathan’s show. Take this line from last night’s second-season premiere: Upon discovering a corpse with all its internal organs carved out, Castle declared, “Somebody hated his guts.” Okay, so it’s not a gut-buster or even shockingly original, but it’s damn funny and Fillion delivered it with aplomb. The killer turned out to be… ah, nobody really cares. This series isn’t about the hunt for a killer, it’s about the people hunting for a killer. And the chemistry between Fillion and Molly C. Quinn, who plays Castle’s daughter, Alexis, is fantastic (even if Alexis is just a little too perfect to be believed).

Killing and mayhem and fathers and daughters all figured into the fourth-season premiere of HEROES last night, as well. But most of it was far less compelling than on CASTLE. I love watching Hayden Panettiere and Jack Coleman play out the Claire/Noah father/daughter dynamic. And it was funny that Claire’s roommate from hell was played by a fellow soap vet, DAYS OF OUR LIVES’ Rachel Melvin. I know Claire will get along much better with Gretchen, played by Madeline Zima (Mia, CALIFORNICATION). It was a little hard to judge where the season will go from here because the two-hour block was dedicated to setting the stage for what’s to come. But Robert Knepper (ex-T-bag, PRISON BREAK) has the potential to turn Sam Sullivan into a classic villain. I’m taking a wait-and-see attitude with HEROES — as in, I’m waiting to see what the deal is with that freaky tattoo ink…

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Heroes 4.1: Getting Oriented…

Okay, let’s get the bad news out in the open right away: The season premiere of HEROES was…kinda dull. Not bad, not great; mostly dull. It’s season four now; as viewers we’re long past the point of being surprised/impressed when someone demonstrates a superpower. Right away we were introduced to Samuel Sullivan, whose power is not long-windedness, but rather the ability to move the earth (and no, that’s not sex thing); an ability that goes by the fancy name “terrakinesis.” Then we had to sit through a lot of mysterious stuff at the Sullivan Bros. Carnival, like trying to puzzle out what was going on with the tattoo ink. And while all that stuff was mildly intriguing, it wasn’t especially interesting. In fact, of all the story seeds that were planted for this season, the only one I found really compelling involved Claire and HRG. Sylar reasserting his personality was predictable; Hiro’s thread dragged too much; I can’t care about Tracy because the show doesn’t even seem interested in giving her a personality.

I was very interested in what was going on with Claire. Hayden Panettiere is developing into a fine young actress – a fact that the-powers-that-be apparently recognize because she has been getting the bulk of the scenes that require actual acting. Claire is starting college with the new season, and her nightmare of a roommate, Annie, turned out to be played by Rachel Melvin (Chelsea, DAYS OF OUR LIVES). I know she was supposed to be insufferable, so congratulations, Rachel, mission accomplished. Much more entertaining is Madeline Zima‘s Gretchen. She has an actual personality – and a quirky one, no less — as opposed to a being a “type.” The problem with Claire’s relationships in the past (I’m looking at you, West) is that the dudes have been dead boring. Every time he appeared onscreen I was distracted by wondering how a guy who can fly could be boring. But in just a few short scenes, Zima imbued her line readings with so much personality that she fairly leapt off the screen (in a good way). I loved the way her eyes shined when she proposed proving that Annie’s death was a murder. This is a pairing to watch. Claire using herself as a crash-test dummy was predictable yet funny. However, by now she should be more discreet in the use of her power. (What was she planning to do with that huge pool of blood from her head?) Claire’s father, HRG – Noah, played by Jack Coleman – remains the other most interesting character on the show. Every week I’m relieved that he remains 100 percent human (generating great chemistry with Hayden doesn’t count as a power) and 100 percent ass-kicker! He’s smart and resourceful; I have no idea how he knew to look in Danko’s gut for that key. If he thought Danko’s killer had paid unusual attention to slicing up his abdomen, why didn’t the assailant find the key?

Robert Knepper (ex-T-bag, PRISON BREAK) is a great fit as the sinister Sam. He exudes confidence and intelligence – two things a really effective antagonist needs. It was fun to actually see Ray Park‘s face as knife-wielding speedster Edgar. The martial artist usually plays characters that require his face to be obscured – Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace, and Snake Eyes in this summer’s GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Edgar’s big fight with Peter was marred by some really ineffective editing, and I was distracted because Peter appeared to have replicated not only Edgar’s power, but his skill with blades. I don’t think I knew he could do that.

What did I really dislike? Matt’s hallucinations of Sylar. I know TPTB had to get the wildly popular Zachary Quinto back onscreen, but this plot makes Matt look stupid. He knows “Sylar” is an illusion, yet he continues to argue with the specter? C’mon, Matt, you’re smarter than that. You’ve got mental powers, you know all about mind games; especially the ones you play on yourself.

At the end of this inaugural two-parter, I had to stop and think about actually happened, and I came to the conclusion it was not a heck of a lot. Everything seemed dedicated to positioning the pieces on the chessboard. And while a lot of potential was apparent, not a lot of it was realized onscreen. I was left taking the Easter eggs where I could find them: Kimiko referring to Hiro and Ando as “Heroes for Hire” was a shout-out to a Marvel Comics series, while boys dubbing themselves “Dial a Hero” is an obvious homage to an old DC comics series called Dial H for Hero.

HEROES doesn’t quite have to dial H for Help just yet – and let’s hope the show doesn’t have to.

Supernatural 5.1: Oh, hell yeah!

Hell of a way to kick off the fifth season of SUPERNATURAL – coming out guns blazing, letting us have it with both barrels. I was sold right from the opening recap featuring highlights from last season set to AC/DC’s driving “Thunderstruck.” Pretty audacious, Eric Kripke, to remind people how high you set the bar with the exciting fourth season.

The new year picked up right where the finale left off, with Lucifer emerging from hell. But viewers were knocked off their feet right along with the Winchester brothers when they were instantly teleported to an airliner to witness the Adversary’s escape from the air. Let’s talk about Lucifer for a moment. Clearly, he is the Big Bad for this season (Could there be a bigger bad? Pipe down, you Elder Gods in the back; as indifferent cosmic beings, you don’t count as “bad.”), but as the episode title indicates, creator Kripke may be demonstrating “Sympathy for the Devil” this season. Kripke clearly has not forgotten that Lucifer is not a demon – he was the very first angel. As Lucifer’s spirit looked for a body to inhabit, he chose a scarred man named Nick who lost his family to a madman’s bloody rampage. And Lucifer, of course, considers himself a victim of god’s tyranny. So we will see two damaged psyches inhabiting that body, one of whom is the most powerful angel ever. Lucifer is even more terrible in aspect than the archangels!

And how about those archangels killing Castiel? No sooner had Misha Collins’ name been flashed on the screen as a third-billed series regular than Chuck revealed that Castiel had been capped by his fellow angels. Well, no way Cas was destroyed, right? Well, he wasn’t. Castiel made a terrific heroic entrance, just when Dean needed him most. Cas now seems to be some kind of independent operator, but whatever his deal, he certainly was not on the side of the angels. This little mystery should keep the audience on tenterhooks. But like last season, when we had to wait weeks to learn how Dean had escaped hell, and longer still to discover what had happened to him there, I’m betting it will be a long time before we understand Castiel’s new status quo. I have my own theory, and if I turn out to be correct, it’s gonna be a mega-cool reveal!

Bobby going all black-eyes and taking out Dean was a shock — as was Bobby surviving stabbing himself with Ruby’s blade — but perhaps Kripke’s bravest move was going so meta with the fangirl who writes Wincest. Forget the hordes of hell and the heavenly host, Kripke could be really tempting fate by baiting the fanfic community! But she did help the brothers, so it was ultimately a positive portrayal.

And, like I said, one helluva season premiere.

Soap Opera Weekly: Night Shift 3/10/09

Watching CASTLE, the new mystery/romance on ABC, the first mystery that sprang to mind was, “Why isn’t this show called MURDER, HE WROTE?” I mean a mystery writer who solves deadly real-life mysteries? At one point, Castle laments that the reason he killed off the star of his successful string of best-sellers was because he saw no more surprises in the stories; he knew every scene that was coming up. Ironically, that’s also the problem here: CASTLE is a by-the-numbers MOONLIGHTING riff crossed with a standard sleuth storyline, ladled with standard-issue family “complications.” Rick has a hot-to-trot mother (See? Senior citizens have pep!) who behaves like she just escaped from a road production of GOLDEN GIRLS, and a snarky 15-year-old daughter with an old soul who parents her Daddy — who is nothing more than a giant child himself. Rick is paired up with a sassy lady detective who is tougher-than-nails and would look like a model if she wore lipstick and got a decent haircut. Of course they are the “Will they/won’t they?” couple, and she’s the competent authority figure who dismisses him as “a 9-year-old on a sugar rush.” CASTLE relies entirely — and I mean entirely — on Nathan Fillion’s boundless charm. Luckily, Fillion oozes charisma and cannot help commanding every scene he’s in with a personal magnetism that makes you forget he’s basically playing Jessica Fletcher. Of course, I’m sure he likes to think he’s a playing a better-behaved version of Capt. Mal Reynolds, the space rogue from FIREFLY/Serenity. Stana Katic (ex-Hanna, HEROES) is just playing a stereotype so far, so she is, by definition, “no fun,” and it will take longer to warm up to her. Does CASTLE have the time? I hope so, because Fillion should be on TV more than stopping by ONE LIFE TO LIVE every few years.

I would have thought that DANCING WITH THE STARS would have an easier time signing…y’know, stars, but the show seems content to settle for niche celebrities. Perhaps the biggest name they had, Jewel, dropped out due to injury, leaving NFL legend Lawrence Taylor as the big cheese — although the show’s target audience is unlikely to recognize the greatest linebacker who ever played the game. No, most viewers will no doubt be buzzing about emergency-replacement Melissa Rycroft, risking life, limb and self-respect fresh off her national humiliation on THE BACHELOR.

HEROES turned in another uneven episode last night — but I think that was a good thing, because the end was better than the beginning. The reappearance of Doyle at the end of last week turned out to be a false alarm, as “Rebel” had sent Doyle to Claire to be protected. Appealing to an old enemy for protection is a hoary soap cliché, but riffing on prepackaged ideas is sort of HEROES’ thing. Its narrow worldview is reflected in the way the show keeps repeating itself with visions of nuclear holocaust, time travel, obnoxious new characters, and beating to death the “How do you stop an exploding man?” trope. The latter was a key element of the show, as Matt was wired with explosives — like he had painted — and had to be saved by Nathan, who always seems to draw the short straw when an exploding man needs to be stopped.

The other key element of the night was Sylar’s search for his biological father, Samson Gray, was played by John Glover — SMALLVILLE’s bad daddy, Lionel Luthor himself. Samson the taxidermist was the kind of cancer patient who smokes and doesn’t fear the Reaper. And, naturally, Daddy has a power: He can take abilities, too. When he saw that Sylar/Gabriel possessed Claire’s healing power, he decided to steal it and cure his lung cancer. I thought it was intriguing the way Samson appeared to focus his powers by whistling. Sylar was able to turn the tables on Daddy and walked out on the man who had walked out on him all those years ago. Want to know what surprised me about the whole sequence? Sylar slaughtering the rabbit to be stuffed. When he killed that bunny, I’ll bet a lot of fangirls who were willing to forgive Sylar for cracking open the skulls of any number of people were mortified. It was a brave story choice, and perhaps the only way to restore Sylar to the bad old days when he was a faceless killer, not matinee idol Zachary Quinto. Speaking of killers, Danko made his move against Nathan, who pushed back by going directly to the president. After being fired, Danko decided the easiest way to learn whether Nathan can fly would be to just throw him out a window. (Gotta love the direct approach.) So now Danko knows Nathan has an ability. What will happen? I predict that HRG will counterpunch by discovering that Danko himself has a power, forcing the Hunter to go away while Noah takes over the Hero-hunting program.

Meanwhile, Noah’s daughter, Claire, took a job at Sam’s comic book shop in what can only be a bid to reconnect with the lapsed fanboy market. What comics geek doesn’t dream of walking into his local shop for the new Wednesday comics and seeing Hayden Panettiere behind the counter? But Claire must have another job — one that would help her get a new identity for Doyle. Where did all those false documents come from? True, Sandra showed her how to make a fake driver’s license last week; maybe the lesson also included other documentation. Or maybe Claire ordered them from the ads in the back of a comic book…

Soap Opera Weekly: Night Shift 3/9/09

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA’s Admiral Adama faced an ugly truth: Both of his ladies were dying — President Laura Roslin and the Galactica herself. The Cylon bio-resin was not bonding with the aging battlestar’s alloys, and the ship was barely holding together. (She was projected to have maybe five FTL jumps left in her.) Lee explained to the fleet captains that the plan was to transfer the admiral’s flag to the rebel Cylon base star — the only means left to defend the fleet — but the captains were more interested in picking apart the corpse of the great lady (Galactica, not Roslin). Meanwhile, Ellen suggested that Boomer would take the kidnapped Hera to “the Colony,” where the Cylons went after the armistice. Ellen said the Five were trying to end the cycle of war between man and machine (all this has happened before, and will happen again), and Hera represents another chance at sexual reproduction (all this has happened before, and will happen again). Kara urged a rescue mission, but Bill shouted that he was finished with “destiny,” “prophecies,” “god” and “gods” because none of it had helped; every appeal to higher powers had led to this point: nowhere. And talk about a breakdown in discipline: Bill and Laura toked up right there in sick bay? Not far away in sick bay, an Eight lay dying, and before she passed she told her “father,” Saul, that there was “too much confusion” — a line from “All Along the Watchtower,” the song that carries so much significance for the skinjobs. (Will it turn out that Bob Dylan was a humanoid Cylon?)

While on the hijacked Raptor, Boomer was cruel to little Hera, who revealed that she was capable of Cylon projection. Meanwhile the parents she left behind, Helo and Athena, were at odds as she struggled to deal with the loss of her child and Karl accidentally having sex with her twin, Boomer. That “dream” of the Opera House she had with Roslin and Caprica sure smacked of projection, so could Athena use it to contact Hera? Kara tried to connect with Anders, who was placed in a Hybrid tank and began speaking/behaving like a Hybrid. He began babbling, including claiming, “All this has happened before and will happen again,” and, “You are the harbinger of death, Kara Thrace.” But Baltar thought she was more than a “mere” harbinger of death — she was Death (or at least dead). He declared to all and sundry that the blood on her dog tags was from “necrotic flesh,” and branded her “living proof” of life after death. He suggested she has “crossed over.” But that still doesn’t explain what she is — a ghost? A demon? Bill crossed over the line (again) when he flipped out with the paint, but instead of deciding to make as fortune as the Colonial Jackson Pollack, he decided to abandon ship and strip Galactica for parts. I guess March 20 really will be the end of the line…

As the second season of BREAKING BAD got under way, science teacher Walter White calculated that he needed to amass $737,000 dollars in order to leave his family a sufficient nest egg when he dies of inoperable lung cancer in a couple of months. That means he and partner Jesse (Aaron Paul) need to cook enough crystal meth for 11 more drug deals with the psychotically unstable Tuco (Raymond Cruz). But can they, when Tuco seems to be killing his own associates and Walt’s brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) the DEA agent is zeroing in on the mysterious new drug lord in town? The new season amplifies the paranoia that began to take hold in the second half of the freshman season. With Walt and Jesse spooked by every dark van on every corner, they resolve to kill Tuco before he can kill them first. But leave it to Walt to…er, cook up a plan to murder the drug lord with ricin by refining castor beans. Sure, it’s more untraceable than bullets, but yeesh, talk about a complicated plan! Still, that’s part and parcel of what makes BREAKING BAD so entertaining: seeing stuff you won’t find on law-and-order shows. Star Bryan Cranston took home last year’s Emmy for lead actor for playing Walt, it’s a damn shame more people aren’t tuning in to AMC at 10 o’clock on Sunday nights for this show. BAD is so good, you need to try it, and it needs every viewer it can get.

Contrast BREAKING BAD with another underperforming show: FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. I am fully aware that my dislike of FNL is mostly irrational — but I still really hate it. Part of the reason stems from my conviction that the vast majority of the show’s “fans” claim to like it because they’re supposed to like. FNL is one of what I call The Emperor’s New Shows. People fall all over themselves to proclaim their love for a show because they think it will make them look sophisticated. That must be the reason this dull-as-watching-grass-wither-and-die show boasts even the tiny audience it has. Because I cannot believe even the people who are on it would watch it on their own. And I love football, so it’s not the sports. It’s the plots that pass for “stories” I cannot get behind. This week, Tami (Connie Britton) wanted to buy a house they couldn’t afford, so we got to watch Eric (Kyle Chandler) stand stock-still in the foyer and fume that they couldn’t afford it, while she rhapsodized about the size of the backyard. Zzzzzzz. (I am leaving aside the fact that the episode was shot in early 2008, before the idea of taking out a mortgage you couldn’t afford became more anathema than joining a terrorist cell.) And, of course, the most viewer-unfriendly aspect of the show is the laughable camerawork. I used to think the camera operators were just clumsy and constantly dropping them to the ground, and the-powers-that-be decided to use the footage captured on the way down rather than pay to remount the scene. But now I realize it’s all just embarrassingly self-indulgent directors who are ignoring their responsibility to tell stories (not that I blame them, with these scripts!) in favor of flashy camera movements that distract the viewer’s eye. Instead of watching some parent complain because his son hasn’t been elected president — I mean, starting running back — I see the camera doing somersaults, as if to say “Hey! Look at me! Look at the way I’m moving the camera! Instead of focusing on the character doing the talking, I’m spinning around the actor’s left ear and then zooming in on the salt shaker in the kitchen in the background! Isn’t that, like, just so arty?”. Annoying is what it is.

Soap Opera Weekly: Night Shift 2/20/09

You know I loves me some time travel. I’ve watched all 30 seasons of DOCTOR WHO and five years of QUANTUM LEAP, I love 12 Monkeys, and have suffered through myriad awful movies (A Sound of Thunder, anyone?). I even (mostly) understand LOST. And I enjoy origin stories. So I was really looking forward to the premiere of SOAPnet’s new nighttime series, BEING ERICA. The Canadian import follows Erica Strange, a woman who is able to travel back in time and fix past mistakes with the aid of a mysterious “therapist” named Dr. Tom. I’d heard from fans that there was a serious DOCTOR WHO vibe about it, because Dr. Tom’s office was filled with strange objects and moves from place to place at his whim. After watching the debut it feels more like a personalized QUANTUM LEAP to me, with Erica on missions to “put right what once went wrong” in her own life. Plus, the people she interacts with in the past see her as looking the appropriate age — which on QL was known as “the illusion of the physical aura.” The platitude-spouting Dr. Tom is certainly no Doctor, even if he does take an interest in helping an attractive younger woman. Speaking of the titular Erica, this show relies largely on the appeal of its star, Erin Karpluk (ex-Susan/Alysse, THE L WORD), who is suitably plucky, and projects just the right amount of vulnerability to make viewers empathize with Erica but not pity her.

When we meet Erica, she is a bright, pretty 32-year-old in a dead-end job with no romantic prospects — a sad fate she chalks up to “too many bad decisions” in her past. Indeed, when Dr. Tom asks her to make list of decisions she regrets, she quickly scribbles several pages’ worth! Of course her family is no help, as she laments, “I’m suffocating under the weight of your collective disapproval.” Erica is having a particularly bad day that starts off with her being fired, and then her date cancels. Then it starts raining on her. So you can see, it’s more than a little “on the nose.” But the worst is yet to come: She drinks a latte with hazelnut in it and collapses from anaphylactic shock. In the hospital she is approached by “Dr. Tom,” a “non-traditional” therapist who promises to fix all her problems (in between quoting historical figures like Einstein and Patton). Without warning her, he sends her back in time to relive her prom night and “fix” her biggest regret (she got drunk and made a spectacle of herself). The actual mechanism of her time displacement is never explained; she just thinks about an incident she wants to change, there’s a cold wind, and she’s in the past. Dr. Tom appears in the past, but he offers little explanation for what’s happening, and no guidance for what she’s supposed to do. In fact, when she asks if she’s really in the past, he replies, “Feels real enough.” Which is no answer, and could be a clue. He also spouts pseudo-Zen platitudes like, “You are where you need to be right now.” Thanks, Doc. When the adventure was over — can you guess Erica simply humiliated herself in a different manner? — there was another cold breeze and she woke up at home. Was it a dream? Well, Dr. Tom’s office disappeared — but she finds the “therapist” himself, who spells out the warm-and-fuzzy lesson she should have learned: It’s okay to care what people think — as long as she doesn’t let it paralyze her, because their opinions don’t matter as much as her own. My least-favorite aspect was the clichéd GREY’S ANATOMY-style self-indulgent voice-over, full of pop-psychology crap about self-fulfillment. I will forever hate GREY’S for foisting that format on nighttime soaps. BEING ERICA is showing its seventh episode in Canada right now, and I hear it gets better as it goes on. I’m willing to give it a chance.

The first episode of any SURVIVOR is always the best in my book, so I try to never miss the opening segment of a new cycle. Last week’s opening installment of SURVIVOR: TOCATINS — THE BRAZILIAN HIGHLANDS (Can you survive pronouncing all that?) saw the nascent teams riven by bitter internal rivalries from the second the players jumped off the trucks, and this week’s episode featured a sneaky blindside of Candace, who was branded a “snake in the grass” for bad-mouthing other players. I’m going to root for poor Sierra, who’s had a target on her back since the opening elimination vote, but I doubt she’s going to last long.