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ISSUE 120 VOL 6 PUBLISHED 11/3/2006

Fall shows entertain, refresh

By John Douglass
Variety Editor


Friday, November 3, 2006

With every fall season come changes in the leaves, changes in the temperature and changes in the television schedule. As each brilliantly colored leaf hangs on as long as possible, each new television series is simply doing its best not to get blown off its primetime perch.

This season seems to bring a bevy of unnaturally high quality new shows. Most of them are serials, attempting to capitalize on television's unlikeliest success story, “Lost.” Plenty of these new shows do not deserve the light of day, but a small handful are worth setting aside an hour a week, or at least setting your TiVo to record.

“"Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" ” On paper, “"Studio 60"” was the highest profile and most promising new series. Written by Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”), it follows a fictional late-night sketch comedy show, “"Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,”" that is clearly cut from the “"Saturday Night Live”" mold.

Matthew Perry plays Matt Albie, a former hot-shot writer, while Bradley Whitford is Danny Tripp, a producer of the show. Both have been brought back on board to rescue the aged program from cancellation. Amanda Peet (“"The Whole Nine Yards,"” “"Syriana”") plays Jordan McDeere, the newly appointed executive of NBS, the network that airs “"Studio 60."” Other major players include D.L. Hughley, Nathan Corddry and Sarah Paulson as the three major cast members of the fictional show.

This show-within-a-show premise is tried and true, but Sorkin brings his own unique skill set to “Studio 60,” pushing it above clichés and turning it into one of the best shows on network TV. The rapid-fire dialogue and stressful, panicked tracking shots are ripped straight from “"The West Wing,"” substituting an old theater for the Oval Office. This, however, is certainly more of a blessing than a curse. The fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants philosophy behind running a weekly, live sketch comedy show lends itself particularly well to the style.

The major problem with “"Studio 60"” is that the sketches the characters work on are so hard to write, produce and act. They are staggeringly similar to recent SNL sketches in that they are simply not funny. If viewers are to sympathize with the work the characters go through to produce them, they had better start making us laugh, and soon.

“"Friday Night Lights”" This most recent incarnation of “"Friday Night Lights”" (formerly a book and feature film) holds its own in the rather daunting pantheon this particular subject matter has created.

It follows a small-town Texas football team and its coach (the infinitely underappreciated Kyle Chandler of “Early Edition” fame) through a tumultuous developing season. The pilot of “Lights” was one of the best hours of television I have ever seen, and it hasn't really slowed down since then.

The show's writers do well with the occasionally crippling premise, and spend as much time fleshing out characters as they do calling plays. While Chandler shines in his role, it is Zach Gilford as the young second-string quarterback who is the unquestionable standout star. His character, Matt Saracen, is tragic, conflicted and impossible to stop watching.

The demographic of “Lights” viewers probably skews toward the athletically-minded, but it shouldn't. It has some of the greatest, most realistic characters on television, and if you are at all familiar with any other version of this story, you know that all most likely will not end well.

“"Heroes"”

My overall favorite new show this year is "“Heroes."” The program follows a diverse group of marginally related people, mostly in New York City, who begin to realize that they possess superpowers. The best part about these people is their normality, with the obvious exception of their various superhuman abilities. They share normal worries and realistic concerns, both about their powers and the other facets of their lives.

There is Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia), earnestly embracing his ability to siphon the powers of the person nearest him, and his brother Nathan (Adrian Pasdar), a sleazy candidate for public office who hides his ability to fly for fear of bad press. Painter Isaac Mendez (Santiago Cabrera) can paint the future, but only after shooting heroin.

Niki Sanders (Ali Larter) is a caring single mother and an Internet stripper who has an uncontrollably violent alter ego á la the Hulk, but prettier. A high school cheerleader in Texas, Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere) is indestructible, but is terrified of the impact this revelation will have on her reputation if discovered.

One of my favorites is Matt Parkman (J.J. Abrams' favorite Greg Gunberg), who plays a cop who can read minds, an ability that mostly lands him in hot water, although it comes in handy when satisfying his wife. Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka) is by far the most exciting. He is a Japanese office drone who discovers he can control time as well as teleport himself. Oka's performance is absolutely giddy and ecstatic. Hiro is a nerd who loves “"Star Trek"” and is quick to assume he is being called upon to save the world.

If the premise sounds like it comes from the pages of a comic book, have no fear. The creators are well aware of the fanboy nature of the series. They not only draw the future in comic-esque paintings, but there is an online comic that is updated weekly and supplements the series.

“Heroes” looks and feels unlike anything else on television The premise takes some swallowing, but if you can stomach something a little different, it will be the most fun you can have in front of the TV this fall.





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