The House


Frontline World

"There's that bit, call it my reptilian part of the brain, saying, 'This isn't normal...There's something really unusual going on...'" That's international reporter Marco Werman on tonight's Frontline World, describing a rare total solar eclipse from a prime vantage point in the Libyan desert. But he also sums up my reaction to this terrific nonfiction series. Conceived as a globally-minded mirror of PBS' better known Frontline—which positions itself inside the US, looking out—Frontline World is one of the most surprising and daring programs on American TV—a four-times-a-season potluck supper of stories from corners of the globe that U.S. commercial newscasts rarely visit unless there's a "What's in it for us?" aspect (these days, network news bosses can only justify an international reporting price tag if there's a tangential connection to the War on Terror or a sex trade angle—and if there's both, hey, jackpot).

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TAGS: clark boyd, frontline, frontline world, pbs, wgbh


Borat

The three best television sitcoms of the new millennium—Arrested DevelopmentThe Office, and Curb Your Enthusiasm—all thrill in a spontaneous form of human comedy. Sans canned laughter, shot on real locations, and open to improvisation, these shows actively revolt against TV norms in order to move a little closer to real life. Though wickedly stylized, Arrested Development still suggests a form of voyeuristic nonfiction—like peering into a great ant farm, only the ants are a family of people and the leaves they lug around are the baggage of their complex and very fragile human affairs. Even on The Office, where a documentary crew's camera becomes an outlet for Dunder Mifflin's employees to let off steam, no one ever seems to be performing out of character. Though the focus of these shows is often the mundane, their resonance is decidedly not: all three reveal great truths about the world that go beyond the politics of family circles, 9-to-5 drudgery, and Hollywood privilege.

Sacha Baron Cohen's Da Ali G Show is a kindred spirit of these great comedies, except the program's experimental daring is slightly more combustible—a mix of fact and improvisational fiction that's totally unpredictable. Cohen's unique bent is to expose the realities of America's political system, our country's way of life, and the pretensions of the fashion world through twisted practical jokes aimed at real people—ones that end without the benefit of Cohen yelling out, "Smile! You're on Candid Camera!" His three famous characters—cockney b-boy Ali G, Kazakhstanian reporter Borat Sagdiyev, and Austrian fashionista Bruno—are all fakes, a fact that's obvious to no one except for Cohen's happy audience. Now Borat, Cohen's most ingenious creation, rides into theaters on a wave of publicity to rival the shitstorm that blew Snakes on a Plane into town a few short months ago, but why does Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan feel so lazy?

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TAGS: ali g, borat, bruno, da ali g show, Larry Charles, metropolis, pamela anderson, sacha baron cohen, seinfeld, snakes on a plane, todd phillips


Jericho

Thursday, Nov. 2 marks the beginning of November sweeps, the first period of the TV season when Nielsen Media Research gathers detailed ratings information that will be used to set advertising rates for the rest of the year. Television shows often live or die based on their performance in the sweeps months periods (which also include February, May and July), which is why the biggest episodes and specials are crammed into those periods. It's as good of a time as any to examine how some of the most promising new shows are doing and how some old favorites are faring.

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TAGS: aaron sorkin, friday night lights, Hayden Panetierre, jericho, Lennie James, lost, Masi Oka, Mischa Barton, Sendhil Ramamurthy, studio 60 on the sunset strip, the nine, the o.c., warplane, Willa Holland


Jennifer Jason LeighOkay, so: my mother has this friend, "Curly." Nobody else in the family has ever met Curly, but we love her anyway, because she writes the most insane Christmas letter in the history of the winter holidays—three single-spaced, seven-point-fonted pages of monomaniacal commitment to The Dread Lord Overshare. Not one detail is omitted from Curly's annual review: carpool-schedule adjustments, subtle shifts in ambient humidity, cavity repair, the circumstances under which her husband left the family and moved into an apartment in a neighboring town...no, seriously! She put that shteez in the Christmas letter—cheerily, as befitted the season; I distinctly recall a handful of smilies after the phrase "couples counseling"—and then she described the apartment. And if you think she didn't top herself the next year, think again. Let's just say the word "fistula" figured heavily in the proceedings.

You've already read the title of the entry, so you know where I'm going with this, but if Curly's Christmas letter could take human form, it would clearly take the form of Jennifer Jason Leigh—too real, too much information, horrifying and awesome, candy canes and gangrene, utterly authentic and utterly uncomfortable. And my reaction to Curly and to Leigh is the same: That I kind of wish they could turn it down, or off, just once, but at the same time, I have to admire their dedication. I don't want to subscribe to The Diverticulitis Gazette, particularly, but Curly keeps sending it out, and I keep reading it. Leigh, same thing; "watch borderline personality decompensate over course of two hours" isn't on my to-do list anywhere, but I can't un-know what it looks like now.

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TAGS: 5 for the day, georgia, jennifer jason leigh, mrs. parker and the vicious circle, rush, single white female, the anniversary party


Meet Kharis

Mummy

He's roughly a few thousand years old and still a hopeless romantic...or a tana leaf junkie, depending on who you ask. His obsession with the lovely Princess Ananka goes way back. He was sentenced to eternal damnation for trying to reverse Ananka's death. For this, his tongue was cut out and he was entombed alive, to guard Ananka. That the priests would assign the protection of Ananka's tomb to a fellow that was bent on violating it seems odd. Odder still is that the confused and miniscule cult of Ananka that remained after her for thousands of years would be headed by priests that were intent on having an eternal version of her for themselves. From about 1940-48—the prime years for mummy movies—if you were a young woman who, through coincidence, was the spitting image of Princess Ananka and happened to be near the Universal lot, chances were that you would end up on the sacrificial table of one of these looney birds. Of course, interpretation of what Princess Ananka might look like tended to vary. In The Mummy's Tomb (1942) the High Priest of Karnak, Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey), mistook a blonde knockout, Elyse Knox, for the Princess incarnate and had her placed upon his table for an eternal dose of tana leaves. Fez capped Professor Andoheb, the High Priest of Karnak in The Mummy's Hand (1940), saw brunette beauty Peggy Moran as the new Princess and subsequently had her strapped to his table for a dose of the tana. Yousef Bey (John Carradine), the priest designate in The Mummy's Ghost (1944), thought luscious Ramsay Aimes looked like Ananka. From this pattern one thing becomes clear: Princess Ananka was hot. But beyond that there is no resemblance between these women. There is, however, a consistency in the priests. To a man they used Kharis as their own personal servant, sending him to snatch the nearest girl who even remotely resembled Ananka.

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TAGS: kharis, mummy's hand, the mummy, the mummy's curse, the mummy's ghost, the mummy's tomb


The Wire

"Why do you care?" Assistant State's Attorney Ilene Nathan (Susan Rome) asks Detective "Bunk" Moreland (Wendell Pierce) as he chases her down a staircase to petition a transfer to protect Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) from a jailhouse bounty. That same question lingers right around the corner from any character on The Wire caught between the competing impulses of empathy and blinkered indifference. The job title may dictate how a guy like Bunk is supposed to deal with a guy like Omar, but Bunk still has the chance to stamp his personal code on the institution he serves.

Omar robs drug dealers, many of whom he now shares space with in the Baltimore lockup after being framed for murder. In the opening scene, Omar thwarts a sneak attack in the breakfast line, but his odds for survival remain poor given the number and gumption of potential adversaries, bounty or no. To clear an old debt, Bunk agrees to listen to Omar's predicament, but sticks to the script. "If this one ain't on you, another dozen probably are," Bunk rationalizes, "and if this one goes to court, you can tell that jury how wrong it is." Omar spells out the consequences of Bunk's pose. "I'll be seeing God long before I swear to Him on a stand." On a personal level, Bunk knows the charge is suspect but holds his ground against stepping out for Omar, until Omar reminds Bunk that his role-playing gives a free pass to the real killer. Omar punctuates the injustice with the running theme of their relationship: "A man got to have a code."

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TAGS: aidan gillen, Andre Royo, clarke peters, Corey Parker Robinson, Domenick Lombardozzi, ed norris, Glynn Turman, Jamie Hector, Jim True-Frost, julito mccullum, Lance Reddick, maestro harrell, Michael K. Williams, recap, robert f. chew, Sam Coppola, susan rome, the wire, unto others, Wendell Pierce


BSG

The fifth episode of Battlestar Galactica's third season opened with a lovely shot that seemed to encapsulate the episode that followed: A long shot shows us a lone figure, a bag over his head, being shoved forward by a small group of people, a single beam of light spilling down from the ceiling to illuminate the proceedings. The characters are all isolated in the middle of a huge, empty space. It's an image of utter loneliness: one person accused in secret by a jury more interested in revenge than justice. The rest of the episode, aside from a few scenes, honed in on that formulation, asking, "Is revenge sometimes the best form of justice?"

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TAGS: Alessandro Juliani, battlestar galactica, collaborators, James Callis, Mary McDonnell, Michael Hogan, Michael Rymer, recap, Richard Hatch


Doctor Who

"Rise of the Cybermen" marks the return of the titular foes that occupy the #2 spot (after the Daleks) on the Doctor's list of most oft-encountered enemies. This two-parter is a more than worthy effort, and part of its success is its setting on a parallel Earth—the steely beastie boys get a clean slate over which to rampage, while their previously established history remains intact. Due to their origins, I've always had a soft spot for the Cybermen: Humans from the edge of our solar system who gradually replace their body parts with synthetics as a means of survival. This new story takes the concept to even darker levels by mixing it up with our over-reliance on technology and willingness to, without thinking, grab the latest cool gizmo and incorporate it into our daily lives, no matter what the eventual cost. This is a hard-hitting idea and frankly scares the piss out of me (not only in this story, but in real life, too).

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TAGS: Billie Piper, doctor who, marc platt, recap, rise of the cybermen, russell t davies, Shaun Dingwall


ProphecyThe horror film excels at anticipation. An effective poster, trailer, or TV ad can spur our imaginations into a fearful run. Watching the actual movie might feel tame compared to the upcoming horrors we saw advertised. Present fears are less than horrible imaginings. It's the movies we haven't seen yet that often scare us most.

I remember a TV commercial that ran for John Frankenheimer's Prophecy (1979), about a killer bear mutated by hazardous waste. We never see the monster, but its hideous noisemaking awakens a family of sleeping campers. The son hops up and down in his sleeping bag trying to get away. He's panicked and helpless—too terrified to know how silly he looks. The commercial scared the hell out of me. You'll never catch me sleeping in one of those mummy bags!

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TAGS: halloween, john frankenheimer, prophecy


Lost

One of the things that makes Lost such a trying viewing experience is its frequently lazy narrative shortcuts. So when a plot point is introduced that stands out as especially difficult to believe, the skeptic in me has a tendency to jump down the show's throat, only to be retro-actively corrected down the road. Never one to provide easy—or direct—answers, Lost often plays upon viewer distrust, giving us the answer we expect to see, only to conceal its true motives (think of the episode where Locke believes the "Pearl Station" is nothing more than an exercise in social control). But if nothing else, Lost does eventually reward the patience of viewers, even if it means getting around to resolving story-lines we've long since forgotten about (welcome back to the show, Desmond) and delivering the information in frustratingly piece-meal fashion.

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TAGS: adam horowitz, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, edward kitsis, emilie de ravin, evangeline lilly, every man for himself, Harold Perrineau, henry ian cusick, Ian Gomez, lost, michael emerson, Naveen Andrews, recap







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