Let’s bow our heads for a moment of silence. As we learned last night, NBC snuffed out one of our favorite procedurals, the gritty, fantastically acted Southland. You’d think shoving Jay Leno down our throats for five hours of primetime would be injury enough, but no—they had to add insult. This, NBC. This is why TV viewers are dropping network for cable in ever-greater numbers. Viewers know cable offers the kind of risky, investment-heavy programming that’s rare on network television these days, and what’s better, cable will actually stick with it.
Take a show like Mad Men. There’s very little nudity (I can’t recall any, anyway), almost no swearing, and not much in the way of questionable content. Yet this is exactly the kind of show that would never make it on network television. It’s too involved, asks too much of its audience. It’s a think piece. In its own way, so was Southland. Performances (particularly from Regina King, C. Thomas Howell, and Michael Cudlitz) were inspired, the writing was original, and the characters themselves grew in complexity every week. As a TV journalist, I refuse to join the chorus of those who snipe that network doesn’t do good work anymore—The Big Bang Theory, Castle, and House all disprove that, and that’s just one night—but I certainly understand the frustration. All we can do to counter the networks’ shortsightedness is to continue supporting the programs we love, write a few angry columns and letters, and hope that somebody gets it before their business model runs them into the ground. So let’s at least do one of the three and get to this week’s worthy programming.
Law & Order: SVU
Something tells me y’all are going to split on this one. To recap, Stephen Rea guested as Donovan, an ex-con Stabler had jailed two decades earlier, newly implicated in the fake kidnapping of a his neighbor (True Blood’s Deborah Ann Woll). However, when Stabler went to try to apologize for the wolf-cry, Donovan literally threw him off the building (as if Stabler hasn’t been shot, stabbed, or punched enough). Cue the Defense Issue of the Week: solitary confinement. Because Donovan was locked in solitary for nearly a decade and a half, his attorney argued, the very idea of being sent back to that environment pushed him (or in this case, Stabler) over the edge. It’s an intriguing concept, and Stabler’s foray into the hole was certainly compelling. But the episode went off the rails for me with Christine Lahti’s ADA Sonya Paxton.
You know I’ve had a problem with her character from Day One, and this episode showed why. No one behaves like this. No one (and yes, I resent that it’s a woman presented this way) goes from cartoonish malevolence to callow, simpering weakness (and back!), in seconds. One minute she’s instigating a fight with Stabler, the next she’s slapping him, the next she’s questioning his testicular fortitude (while extolling her own, naturally). All the while she looks like she’s about to cry, kiss him, and/or go postal, whatever’s easiest. I also hated that he was only bluffing about her slapping him. Heck, he probably wants to smooch her too, for all we know. And it’s an eye-roller.
What was wonderful this week was how funny procedurals were this week, all across the TV spectrum. Castle started it with that wonderful opening scene of the family helping Mother Martha (Susan Sullivan) run lines for her Broadway audition (and how awesome was the coda, where he explained why he was having the model/babysitter keep in touch with Alexis?). Criminal Minds picked up on with geek-on-geek staredowns between Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) and Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler). I love that she got “arctangent” before he did, and I have every intention of looking that word up. Bones got into it with Sweets (John Francis Daley) battling Brennan (Emily Deschanel) over psychology vs. anthropology. “Wrong –ology,” he snapped her. “Keep your grubby anthro hands off my psych.” And really, what is the drama between anthropologists and psychologists, anyway? Somebody educate me.
But CSI easily wins the Wheatie for Funniest Show of the Week. Tim Blake Nelson, perhaps best known from O Brother, Where Art Thou, and Drop Dead Diva’s Ben Feldman were excellent in an Office Space spoof that ended nothing like the movie. Nelson played nebbish loser Paulie to Feldman’s womanizing, scheming creep Jason, a dude so foul his own mama was glad he was dead. The plan? Bust into the company safe with a smooth little move from The Score, using water to force the safe open. The way Paulie imagined it, the safe door came flying off, blocking the CSIs from getting to him, while he tunneled out like Andy Dufresne escaping Shawshank. Only no. In a stunning climax we see that the door actually bisected Paulie, pinning him to the wall, his feet dangling above the ground. That’s a hell of a metaphor for only being half a man. If that weren’t enough, the writers winked to a bit of expository jargon Hodges (Wallace Langham) dropped on Langston (Laurence Fishburne). With a look on Ray’s face that basically said, “Really? You’re actually going to explain a scientific procedure to me so that the audience knows what we’re talking about?” Hodges came back with, “Yes, but it was a lucid and entertaining explanation of the process.” Indeed it was, sir.
But what did you think, Coppers? Am I way the heck off base on Lahti? Was Bones funnier, what with Vaziri (Pej Vahdat) dropping the fake accent? Will we ever trust NBC again? Talk to me. And hey, let’s be careful out there.
Photo Credit: Richard Foreman/NBC