TV Diary

1. "Hopkins"
I'm not sure exactly how ABC decided that it'd be a good idea to have a documentary mini-series filmed at Johns Hopkins Hospital run this summer with "Grey's Anatony," perhaps the least realistic medical drama of all time, as its lead-in. But I'm glad they did, because I've always been fascinated by Hopkins since I was a kid and my dad would tell me how there was this amazing world-class learning hospital right up the street. I'm not wild about the whole execution of the show, the cheesy music and unengaging editing, but it's still pretty inherently interesting and often heartbreaking stuff, organ transplant stories and premature births. My wife worked in a Hopkins research lab for a couple years, so when I have watched this she'll usually walk in and go "hey, I know that stairwell!" One of her old co-workers was telling us recently that he knows one of the interns that was featured on this and how much of a jackass he is, so that kinda added to the entertainment values.

2. "Generation Kill"
I'm not sure I would've bothered with a hyper-realistic mini-series about the Iraq invasion if it didn't involve a number of crew and cast members from The Wire, but I'm glad I'm following this, especially since I took into account that David Simon and Ed Burns are just adapting a book here and checked any possible expectations of it actually being an Iraq equivalent to The Wire at the door. So far I don't think it's hugely rewarding and am just kind of along for the ride, enjoying the entertaining parts but not really feeling bowled over by it. The thing with a mini-series is that you can't necessarily expect the episodic payoff of each installment having its own satisfying arc; it's possible this is all building to something that won't totally make sense until the 7th episode, but maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part. But the major problem, I think, is that doing a faux-documentary style drama, based on real people and real events, about something like this just lacks the punch of if if it actually was a documentary. We're talking about the first U.S. war of the YouTube age, so there's an insane amount of real footage from the front lines that's gotta be 10 times more inherently fascinating than this. If anything most great military movies are either full of character composites and dramatic compression, or are made up whole cloth. The only benefit you really get from telling a story fairly straightforward and moment-by-moment like this is that the viewer can take themselves out of the usual dramatic beats; people don't die or give dramatic speeches at the moments you expect them to. And if there's one thing that Simon and Burns are truly great at, it's deflating those kinds of cliches while still actually giving you a satisfying narrative.

3. "Last Comic Standing"
I'm kinda surprised that NBC is still showing this at all, considering that they're burning off episodes like a mid-season replacement sitcom they decided to cancel before even airing the premiere. I mean, they ran 3 hours of this one night recently, one of the audition episodes back-to-back with the first episode with the 12 finalists. It's still not a great show, even by reality show standards, but I still watch it because, unlike cooking or clothes designing, standup comedy is something I'll always gladly waste time watching on TV regardless of the format. So far the eliminations have been the right choices every time; the 2 finalists I hated most (a cutesy Korean girl who's like the Carlos Mencia of tired Asian jokes, and this annoying duo act where 2 guys act like creepy children's entertainers or something) were the first to go so now almost everyone's pretty strong. The one woman left in the competition right now, Iliza Shlesinger, is by far my favorite. She's reminds me a little of Maria Bamford (with the voices she occasionally does) but she does more normal, observational humor and is also way way hot.

4. "Reality Bites Back"
Speaking of "Last Comic Standing," my acquaintance and onetime co-star Amy Schumer who was a finalist last season has shown back up on TV on this Comedy Central show, which is basically a parody of competitive reality shows with a bunch of comedians jumping through arbitrary hoops for meaningless prizes. The premise has potential and when it is funny, it's usually because someone says something hysterical in a 'testimony' voiceover, but sometimes in practice this can be almost as boring as a real reality show.

5. "The Gong Show With Dave Attell"
This is probably the dozenth time someone's tried to resurrect this show, and this particular version I think takes a good angle: putting it on Comedy Central and filling the host and judge slots with the lewdest stand-ups in mainstream comedy. Enough straightforward reality shows like "American Idol" play up the freakshow element of their auditions in a sneaky, doublefaced way that it's kind of refreshing to go back to a format that's completely honest about it. But really the biggest problem with this show, from what I've seen so far, is that in its hunger to showcase the biggest nutjobs, they're actually losing sight of the fun part and not hitting the gong very quickly when a really ridiculous act starts sucking it up. Instead they just let them linger onstage and amass some flop sweat, like the producers are keeping track of how many acts they have booked and don't want to run out ahead of schedule.

6. "Fear Itself"
A new horror anthology in the "Twilight Zone" mold that I've only caught a couple episodes of so far, but seems to be kind of hit and miss. On the one hand, it having an hourlong timeslot instead of a half hour seems like a bad idea, because some of these seem to run out of steam quickly, or stretch their premise a bit too far. But honestly an average episode of this seems to have a premise and writing on the level with your average contemporary horror movie, it's just the production values that are a little bit cheaper. And those movies rarely have enough going on to justify 90-minute running times, so chopping that in half is generally an improvement; the only real limit of it being on TV that's a problem is the general lack of serious gore or violence, but most of the stories don't really require much. The Briana Evigan episode was good, but mainly because I like watching Briana Evigan.

7. "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog"
I guess this is technically an internet show, but considering that the cast & crew are all TV people just goofing off during the writer's strike, I think it's fair to slot it here. Never been much for Whedon in general, aside from thinking the "Firefly" stuff was pretty good, and I'm not sure if I would've stuck with this past 5 minutes if I didn't know the whole thing was one short, tidy package. Neil Patrick Harris continues on his path of becoming kind of one of the best famous people around these days, talented and self-aware but not just constantly parodying himself. The songs are mostly a bit cheesy (and I say that as someone with an embarrassingly big weak spot for musicals), though, and the tweeness gets overbearing after a while with not quite enough comic relief.

8. "Penn & Teller: Bullshit!"
Been wanting to watch this for a while, but it's pretty disappointing. I like the whole approach and the fact that being on Showtime lets them be really blunt and obscene where, say, "The Daily Show" or "TV Nation" covering similar ground would have to mince words and be more polite or underhanded with their satire -- not to say that it's better, but it's refreshing. But ultimately they seem to go for a really simplistic, smug approach to debunking one mindset, usually by buying into one that's equally bullshit -- that is to say, when they're not taking aim at ridiculously easy targets like sensitivity training or magic crystals.

9. "I Love The New Millenium"
It's been a running joke ever since VH1 did "I Love The 90s," possibly even back when they first did "I Love The 80s," that they'd eventually start doing nostalgia shows for this decade or this year or this minute. Everyone knew it would happen eventually, but I'm kinda surprised the jumped the gun instead of waiting at least til late 2009 to do it. This one's as vacuous but intermittenly entertaining as the others, but there's some moments that still make me uncomfortable, especially since they seem to be doing more "newsbreak" segments instead of straight up pop culture frivolity, at one point in the 2003 episode even talking about Saddam Hussein's capture. I mean, I know everyone made jokes about Saddam and his beard and that picture of him in his underwear at the time, but there's something kind of fucked up about recalling that and having some 4th rate comic call him a "hot mess" a few years later, after he's been executed. Also, wtf is going on with Hal Sparks's hair these days?

10. "The Venture Bros."
After the retcon frenzy of the first few episodes, this season has really settled into a nice groove. It's kind of hard to take this just one episode a week after devouring a lot of the first 2 seasons in big marathon DVD sessions, but I'm sure I'll watch them that way in a few months too. I feel like there's not quite enough Dean and Hank lately, even besides the couple episodes that they haven't been in at all kind of by design, but that's OK as long as they keep expanding the show's universe as well as they have lately.
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What Generation Kill has going against it is that it is incredibly boring.

I just keep watching for the scenes with Ziggy.
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