We watched over two dozen new pilots for the fall season, both dramas and sitcoms, and the overwhelming majority of each failed to capture our interest to one degree or another. But five shows shined above the rest.

Some of the disappointing dramas shared similar problems that ranged from boring characters to a reliance on melodrama or technology to set the tone of the show. But the biggest problem with these lackluster dramas boiled down to shows that featured more sizzle than steak; a cast of beautiful people with beautiful settings and engaged in over-the-top scenarios with flashy edits and nonstop musical scores all of which were highlighted by convoluted and/or contrived plots.

As for the sitcoms, none of them were funny enough for us to follow (and most weren’t funny at all), though The Great Indoors was borderline and the closest to latching a permanent slot on our Lab Rat DVR. But for the most part, this season’s sitcom offerings simply failed to provide a steady flow of organic laughs; either the situational comedy was too lean, or the multiple attempts at quips failed, or grew annoying as they seemed more like a desperate series of one-liners from a standup routine with little story backing them. Throwing out a bunch of standalone jokes with little relevance or context in regards to the storyline doesn’t necessarily make for good sitcom.

There were only five shows we found entertaining enough to add to our Lab Rat DVR. All five were dramas, which leaves us worried about the state of comedies these days. The five shows we added are listed below, starting with our favorite:

1.         THIS IS US                               NBC

This show surprised us most because we had little hope for it to begin with based on early trailers and promos which seemed to highlight melodramatic moments. We assumed this was going to end up as yet another of the multiple shows these days that rely on soapy, forced elements, contrivances, and bed-hopping.

We couldn’t have been more wrong.

This is great drama in its purest form. An extended family is followed, based on three siblings (a pair of white twins and their adopted black brother) through their formative years as kids, as well as their adult lives, with flashbacks that are cleverly used to contrast and reveal the siblings at different stages of their lives. On top of that, their parents’ journey is also revealed in flashback, though the mother is also shown in present time in order to illuminate where certain troubles originated.

A good dose of legit comedy is served up to help tell their stories as is the use of “twists” which don’t feel forced; they’re not the contrived surprises that most modern shows attempt to use in order to create more conflict. Instead, these twists feel like organic turns that are completely believable and work on multiple levels.

Then there’s the acting:  so many great, believable performances by the cast that ultimately assist in the selling of various storylines, and succeed in selling the show’s emotional course. On that note, though most of the cast has been stellar, Sterling K Brown manages to go above and beyond, and stands out as the actor whose scenes we most want to see.

From writing to acting this is a masterclass on how to effectively execute a proper drama.

2.         PITCH                                      FOX

Pitch is the story of the first female athlete to break into an all-male professional league. Before viewing a single episode we assumed this would follow the path of so many other sports-related stories, that being of the underdog or prodigy that possesses extraordinary abilities that surpass the abilities of other pro athletes. And because the main character is female, we expected a Disney-like story of girl power despite the fact that most women can’t compete with male peers based solely on physiological differences. For sure, this was going to be a fantasy story.

And once again, we couldn’t have been more wrong.

The producers make a wise choice in regards to the female athlete’s particular skill. She’s a baseball pitcher and rather than having her throw a pitch as fast as a Major Leaguer, she’s instead a master at throwing a screwball. Why is this significant?

Because it sells the probability of female athletes competing with male athletes at the Major League level.

A screwball is a trick pitch. It doesn’t have to be thrown all that hard; instead, it needs to be thrown with a particular finesse, a particular twist of the arm that does not require extraordinary strength, though the motion can ruin a pitcher’s arm. Dozens of real-life pitchers have made a living in the Majors throwing the screwball which, if thrown correctly, confounds hitters.

And right there we can buy into the show’s premise. We can totally see a woman perfecting such a pitch and becoming efficient enough to compete at the Major League level.

Though the major hurdle of selling a believable premise is achieved, the show still has to provide a series of believable stories regarding Major League life, and in particular, what that life might be like for the first female pro. In that respect, Pitch succeeds in spades.

Ginny, the main character, is no phenom. She’s just another struggling minor-leaguer except that she’s female. Her Major League club, the real-life San Diego Padres, need to fill a roster spot, and partly based on the potential media attention, they bring up Ginny. The producers again make wise choices by not allowing her early outings in the Major Leagues to be overwhelming triumphs—she struggles, as most newbies to the Majors do, but she displays a consistency that is quite believable. Furthermore, the media attention that follows her creates equally believable challenges for her in her personal life as well as in the clubhouse. The soapy moments are kept to a minimum while the intricacies behind real-life baseball players’ relationships are exposed.

This show is funny, deep, and fascinating all at once. The performances are also top-notch starting with Kylie Bunbury as Ginny, and her co-star Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Mike, the team’s catcher and team captain. The rest of the cast performs admirably as well, particularly Mo McRae and Meagan Holder who have become our favorite TV couple. Like This Is Us, Pitch uses comedy to help sell the drama, and provides a number of characters we not only want to follow, we actually care about them.

3.         TIMELESS                                NBC

Yes, another time-travelling story. But this one provides new twists to the genre that make for an interesting premise, despite its particular flaws.

With Timeless, a time-travelling capsule has been invented (though its purpose has yet to be declared) and is hijacked by a purported terrorist named Garcia Flynn (one of the best names created this season). Garcia’s rep is a bit misrepresented as he sees himself as a hero, and more importantly, a loving family man, rather than a terrorist. His family has been killed and he blames it all on a ruthless organization called Rittenhouse that operates in the shadows and was behind some of the biggest events in history. Garcia needs the time capsule to go back in history and eradicate Rittenhouse altogether so that they will never be able to kill his family so that he’ll be reunited with them again.

But in the infamous conundrum facing all time travelers, if he destroys Rittenhouse in the past, the result will make for glaring changes in the present time, some of which could be profound for most of humanity.

Fortunately, there’s a backup time capsule dubbed the Lifeboat. Homeland Security takes charge of the capsule and puts together a ragtag team of three to use it in order to thwart Garcia’s plans. The team includes Rufus, a computer geek and coder, who helped create the capsules and will serve as the Lifeboat’s pilot; Wyatt, a Special Forces operative who will do the dirty work required of any particular mission; and Lucy, a college history professor whose talents are needed to learn which specific historical events Garcia may alter, as well as to keep the team history-appropriate in their appearances and actions during their journeys to the past.

It’s a terrific setup, and the first episode, which brings everyone back to the day that the Hindenburg crashed, brought subtle changes to history which had immediate repercussions for Lucy in her personal life in present time. Right away we were captivated with the possibilities of all the changes which could be made in the past that would change the present.

But those changes of history never really materialized.

Instead, the first season, so far, has been a series of missions in which Garcia visits different time periods to thwart Rittenhouse while Lucy and her team chase him down and undo any changes he may have started. Though most of the episodes have been interesting due to the missions themselves as well as the various settings in the past, they have become quite formulaic and predictable. Several sidebars are in play regarding Rufus’ forced duplicity with Rittenhouse, Wyatt’s longing for his murdered wife, Lucy’s mysterious allegiance to Garcia, and Rittenhouse’s overall conspiracy, but they’ve barely made a dent in the show’s current formula.

If those sidebars are more intensely explored, and, more importantly, if changes are allowed to occur in the past that radically change the present, then this show will become one of the more fascinating of the season. As it now stands, it's still fairly interesting. But the mission-of-the-week recipe is growing old fast.

Whether fair or not, we’re rating this show as high as third for its potential to really break out.

4.         DESIGNATED SURVIVOR        ABC

As far as high-concept premises go, Designated Survivor had the best one of the season:  all the heads of government are killed in a terrorist attack and the lone cabinet official that has been set aside for such an emergency suddenly finds himself as the new President of the US.

Wait, what? Sign us up now for this show.

We had huge expectations and for the most part, we were rewarded with some fascinating explorations of a huge what-if premise, though the show eventually lost some of its luster because of its decision to offset the action with soapy elements that often zapped episodes of their energy.

Episode 1 was the best pilot of the season. In it, Tom Kirkman is a low-level cabinet secretary who has been appointed as the designated survivor—the member of the President’s cabinet who is secluded in an undisclosed location to assume control of government in the event that everyone above him is suddenly killed. That event comes to fruition at the President’s State of the Union address when an explosion kills the Prez, the Veep, most of cabinet and congress,  which leaves Kirkman as the new Commander in Chief.

The pilot does an amazing job in portraying how the events shake down, starting with the choice to show the Capitol Building (where the explosion takes place) from afar which creates a more shocking and realistic vibe than had producers opted for the more Hollywoodish exploitation of a giant explosion and the resulting carnage. The audience basically gets the aftermath of the explosion—and not the atrocity itself—which is likely the way we, the audience, would experience the event in real life.

Kirkman is faced with the humbling and daunting prospect of not only becoming the nation’s unelected President, but he has to assume powers because of an attack that could tear the Union apart. Subsequent episodes explore the challenges he faces, not least of which is the fact that he was in line to be fired before the explosion which brings into question his legitimacy. There’s also an FBI investigation that initially is led to believe a Middle Eastern terrorist is behind the attack, but evidence later suggests that the lone Congressman who survived the explosion might actually be behind it. Further problems arise in the form of new immigrants and a governor who decides that his state should become autonomous considering the questions behind Kirkman’s legitimacy. All fascinating explorations.

But then the soap rears its ugly head. There’s Kirkman’s son who had peddled drugs on the side before Kirkman became President, and later, the question is raised as to whether he’s Kirkman’s biological son at all. The First Lady is a crusader for immigrants which could make for interesting storylines in a different type of show, but for one as intense and deeply rooted in espionage and conspiracy as this one, her concerns come off as trivial pandering to real-life political debates. They were too on-the-nose, but had they been more subtle, they would’ve come off as more believable concerns given the premise of the show.

The lead investigator, Hannah, was also romantically involved with one of the married Congressmen who was killed in the attack, while her boss is compromised when his son is kidnapped by forces involved in the attack.

If these soapy, hokey elements can be reeled in and allow the main dilemmas of the attack’s aftermath to take their course, this could become a series on par with 24, which it has been repeatedly compared to already, though it has so far failed to equal.

All that aside, Designated Survivor is still a fairly compelling thriller.

5.         SHOOTER                                USA Network

Shooter is another show with a highly intriguing, high-concept premise:  one of the world’s greatest snipers is framed for an assassination and goes rogue to prove his innocence. Perfect. We’ve got a sort of Fugitive element that involves a highly-skilled killer who uses everything he’s been taught to evade and defeat those who trained him. The show largely delivered on its premise for the first seven episodes, but the final three were especially lackluster.

Bob Lee (as on-the-nose a name as we’ve heard for any character this season) is a retired sniper living a quiet life in Washington State with his beloved wife and young daughter. He scored more kills in the theatre of war than anyone in history and his skills are now needed to thwart a possible assassination. His former commander, Isaac, visits him for help:  the Ukrainian President will soon visit the American President in Washington State, and Isaac wants Bob Lee to predict how a potential sniper might plan a hit during the motorcade. Bob Lee lends his support by surveying the route of the motorcade and making very specific calculations as to how the assassination might be pulled off.

But the assassination goes down anyway, despite Bob Lee’s counter-planning.

The Ukrainian President is killed and Bob Lee is elaborately framed for the murder as part of a conspiracy that involves Russian operatives in cahoots with elements of the US government which include Isaac himself. Bob Lee is initially captured but cleverly escapes and goes on a crusade to clear his name while protecting his family from afar. FBI special agent, Nadine Memphis, starts out as a black-sheep on the investigation but eventually is the only one who suspects that Bob Lee has been set up and eventually joins forces with him to pursue the truth.

A lot of left turns are made in regards to the secret investigations run by both Bob Lee and Nadine, a lot of which involve nefarious Russian operatives, as well as an overall US government conspiracy. The tension and intrigue build throughout the first seven episodes, as the main five or six characters are fleshed out thoroughly and the conspiracy becomes more complicated, but then the final three episodes devolve into hokey, convenient contrivances.

Despite its shortcomings, Shooter presented enough compelling material to warrant mention on this list. And the performances of Omar Epps as Isaac, and Cynthia Addai-Robinson as Nadine were absolutely captivating, and should help make for an interesting second season.

*****

If there’s one shared element in the shows we preferred this season it’s a very compelling premise that was executed (for the most apart) extremely well. The one exception to this trend happens to lie with our favorite newbie, This Is Us, which had a premise that wasn’t all that novel or appealing, but managed to captivate us more than the others nonetheless.

Maybe a better example of shared elements for these shows would be believable setups that were executed (usually) with seemingly organic turns and extremely gripping performances from the cast, with a minimal amount of contrived, soapy storylines or asides.  

 
 
Maya and Marty

NBC

After watching the pilot for NBC’s Maya and Marty, we were left with one pertinent question:

Why is the variety show so tough to pull off these days?

There was a time, in the 60s and 70s, when numerous variety shows entertained the American viewing public. Throw a comedian or pop singer together with a cast of zany (but smart and funny) actors for sketches, and bring in weekly special guests (more distinguished singers or actors) to join in the fun. Obviously, it wasn’t quite that easy, and no doubt multiple variety shows failed to even get picked up despite following such a formula. But there were still a fair amount of successful ones back then.

And so we looked forward to Maya and Marty, hoping it could bring back some of that same magic and entertain us for an hour with clever sketches and the occasional song. Unfortunately, it failed in an epic manner.

For one thing, the show relied heavily upon SNL players, both past and present. Kenan Thompson, who has been largely unfunny for years on SNL (and it baffles us how he keeps getting brought back), was similarly unfunny with his sketch on Maya and Marty in which he attempted to parody Steve Harvey and Harvey’s latest show Little Big Shots. The dull sketch included Jimmy Fallon who took time off from his The Tonight Show duties to team up with Martin Short as hyperactive, annoying kids. Even Jimmy’s proclivity for breaking character and laughing during a sketch (which was often charming and funny in its own right during his days on SNL) failed to add any humor whatsoever.

Kate McKinnon, one of the few bright spots for SNL the past few years, also failed to bring any humor during her sketch with Maya Rudolph who did her impersonation of Melania Trump. Though her take on Melania wasn’t bad at all, it was too similar in nature to her famously delicious impersonation of Donatella Versace from her SNL days. Aside from that, the sketch as a whole simply didn’t make us laugh. At all.

And if that wasn’t enough SNL references in one show, one of SNL’s earliest regular guests, Steve Martin, made a brief appearance during the opening monologue. But Martin, who lost the funny decades ago, also failed to bring much to the table with his bland array of quips. Come to think of it, the same could be said about the other Martin (Short).

As for that monologue, it lacked any kind of humor or charm, and if anything, it helped foreshadow the disaster that was to come. Granted, the first sketch with guest Tom Hanks in a pre-recorded piece about an astronaut and his wife (played by Maya) was fairly humorous, it took too long to get to the punchline. And another sketch about a Civil War soldier exchanging letters from the battlefield with his wife (again featuring Maya, as well as Martin Short) was amusing, but it, too, took a while before the payoff (and it wasn’t worth the wait). But other than these two mildly interesting sketches, the rest were fillers, and one in particular, involving Short, Maya, and guest Miley Cyrus was a bizarre piece in which they wore rabbit ears and brought zero laughs. Miley also served as guest singer and performed a cabaret-style number which eventually brought in Maya to join Miley. It came off as old-fashioned despite the gender-bending tone of the performance, and seemed like a lost opportunity in that it failed to fully capitalize on the combined talents of Maya and Miley.

There was also a dance number towards the end of the episode performed by Broadway dancers featuring choreographed tap-dancing. Seemed like something that would have been a regular feature decades ago, but for a show in today’s age (when tap-dancing is as foreign to most of the under-40 crowd as is smoking cigarettes on a show), it seemed like another swing-and-miss. Maybe the biggest whiff, however, was Short reviving his character Jiminy Glick as he interviewed Larry David. Has he nothing new to offer? Why does he have to rely on an old bit that got tired long ago?

And maybe that’s the perfect adjective for this show, or at least for the pilot episode--tired. Everything from the SNL retreads to the old-fashioned song and dance numbers felt tired and well worn-out. Though Maya had her moments, and she again showcased some of her formidable talents that made her an SNL classic back in the day, it wasn’t enough to rescue this train-wreck of a show.

Which brings us back to our original question: 

Why is the variety show so tough to pull off these days?

We think star power—or lack thereof, in this case—might have something to do with it. Had Maya been teamed up with, say, Will Smith and Justin Timberlake, the entire dynamic of the show changes. Not only does each of those two actors have a myriad of famous friends to call upon as guests, they have each demonstrated their chops in TV comedy and are considerably successful to one degree or another in the music world. Not to mention they would’ve created some serious buzz as both men are much more relevant than Martin Short, who himself came off as big a retread as other elements of the pilot. He would’ve been better served playing a smaller role—the Harvey Korman to Maya’s Carol Burnett.

Of course, convincing two Hollywood heavyweights like Smith and Timberlake to commit to a weekly variety show is a pipe dream—maybe even a crack-pipe dream as it’s that delusional to even consider. But some combination of currently relevant names might be needed for ultimate success, given today’s TV landscape and the seemingly endless choices viewers now have. It’s not like the variety show’s heyday of the 60s and 70s when there were only three networks and each of them could afford to wait for a show to build an audience. Today you need to make a splash now, not wait for the splash to build because audiences have too many other choices on the tube (and on the computer for that matter).

Then there’s the writing. The sketches, as has been mentioned, were largely dull. Considering the edgy sketches popularized on various sketch shows championed by Comedy Central the past few years (Key and Peele in particular), to feature set pieces as silly and dull as those featured on recent SNL episodes is a recipe for disaster. They don’t have to be raunchy like some of the sketches on Comedy Central, but they do need to be creative, fresh, and most importantly, funny. Until a show can figure out how to pull that off on a network at primetime with buzz-worthy co-hosts (along with Maya or someone with her entertainment skills), the variety show will just remain the legendary white whale that will be occasionally sought but never captured.

**Edited to add:
By variety shows, we mean the old-fashioned formats of skits played out by show regulars along with musical numbers and special guests. We realize many consider shows like America's Got Talent to be the new type of variety show, and they may well be; but they're not the same format we're talking about (AGT may actually be superior). Saturday Night Live is the closest modern example to the classic variety show, but it doesn't air in prime time, plus it has so many of its own problems going back a decade that discussing it seems beyond the scope of this particular article.
 
 
With The X-Files returning to prime-time TV with a limited six-episode event, we thought it would be a good time to revisit the show's standing in our current list of best shows from the New Golden Age of TV. It came in 3rd, behind The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. Still, the highest rated science-fiction show on our list, and one that helped shape the relatively recent phenomena of serialized shows with layers of mythology.

Here's our original review of the series as a whole:

THE X-FILES


What it is:  an accomplished and brilliant FBI agent, Fox Mulder, investigates all manners of paranormal incidents the rest of the Bureau doesn't dare touch. These cases, covertly named X-Files, provide a wealth of strange, fascinating occurrences that a believer in the paranormal like Fox will pursue with an open mind. But he’s teamed with another agent, Dana Scully, who is all about the science, all about debunking Mulder’s beliefs, or at least, his theories.

Like the first two shows on this list, The X-Files has a very compelling hook, but one that's easy to follow. In this case, it's a great setup of opposing viewpoints with two characters that provide a nifty sidebar with their constant (more imagined than stated) sexual tension, but they always keep things professional, thus keeping the audience wondering, if not hoping for their eventual hookup.

The standalone episodes are fascinating and sometimes revolting on their own, and manage to keep interest while the serialized story elements are constantly revisited, particularly regarding Fox’ belief in aliens, as his sister was apparently abducted by aliens when he was a boy. The main storylines regarding aliens provide rich fascination and political intrigue, and reveal such colorful secondary characters as Cigarette Smoking Man and Mulder’s nerdy group of techy friends who live on the fringe of society.

Dishing out proper portions of political shenanigans, fantasy, horror, aliens, and even comedy, with likable, believable characters, The X-Files had us hooked right away and the fascination continued throughout most of the series and into the resulting movies after the show ran its course. However, once Fox Mulder was no longer a featured character, the show left a lot to be desired.

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So how did The X-Files affect contemporary TV? For one thing (as mentioned in the above review), the deep, rich mythology behind Mulder's pursuit of the truth regarding aliens became exemplary of how a particular character's series goal could remain dominant, but not necessarily dealt with from week-to-week (and sometimes ignored for weeks on end), thus creating more anticipation and fascination with fans. It was a storyline that was periodically revisited, and in between, standalone episodes explored other story threads. It was a hybrid of serialization and case-of-the-week storytelling done better than the few shows that attempted it in the past.

The X-Files managed to make that series-long arc tactic sexy, engaging, and fully vested to a point that fans frothed at the mouth for new insights into the main storyline, but were usually satisfied with the equally interesting standalone episodes. It was a technique so well executed it created a desire for equally compelling storytelling in other shows. And whether or not they were influenced by The X-Files, shows that came after it like Fringe, Lost, Oz, and The Sopranos benefited from the trail blazed by this quirky series about paranormal and alien activities in that they could explore deep show mythologies while providing standalone episodes that exposed individual character backstories or one-off individual cases (or other adventures) to be explored in the meantime.

Whether you enjoy science-fiction or not, you can't deny the superb storytelling of The X-Files and the effect it had on the shaping of consumers' tastes, and the effect, or road it laid, for the shows that followed it. For sure, the show lucked out with a pair of lead actors who greatly helped the show become a phenomenon with their performances, and their attention to nuance. Still, you can't deny this show's overall effect on the success, whether directly or indirectly, of many of the biggest shows of the past twenty years.

For the entire list of our favorite shows from the New Golden Era of TV please visit here:
 
 
Lip Sync Battle

Spike TV

Have you watched this show yet? If not, you’re missing out on some serious fun.

Having debuted last spring, Lip Sync Battle is a not a reality show, or a proper vocal competition; it’s more of a silly performance show featuring celebrities (actual A- and B-list celebrities) lip-syncing pop tunes. Based on a skit introduced on Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show by actor John Krasinski, two celebs battle each other each episode with a pair of lip-sync performances for approval of the live studio audience while LL Cool J acts as MC and keeps things light.

We were sold on the first episode last spring when Fallon dueled Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Johnson went all-in with his performance of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” In fact, a slew of major celebs have appeared on the show since its inception to lip-sync with reckless abandon, diving full-in to their performances that are generally enjoyable in their over-the-top nature.

And that’s what makes the show so fun, the fact that these usually very-guarded celebs are willing to look silly for our enjoyment. Need examples?

How about Anna Kendrick’s bootylicious performance of Jennifer Lopez’ “Booty” when she battled  John Krasinski’s take on Tina Turner’s version of “Proud Mary” complete with Krasinski decked in silvery dress? There was also Salt with Run DMC’s “It’s Tricky” versus Peppa’s “I Will Survive” (that included backup dancers and large, loud wigs). And Justin freaking Bieber with a hammy take of Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry” in which he called up all his most somber facial expressions to sell the performance, in addition to  his insane performance to Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” featuring full-on makeup and wig along with fake metal band to make Beebs look as much like Ozzy as he could get while he pranced around stage like the legendary rocker, and battled Prime-Time Deion Sanders who also went all-in, decked in blonde wig and dress to bring to life Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”

Perhaps no other “contestant” on the show had a better overall performance than Joseph Gordon-Levitt when on his episode he trotted out to Usher’s “Yeah,” which was priceless with his facial expressions, choreography, and overall seriousness to the material as he took on both Usher’s lyrics and Luda’s rap. But it paled in comparison to his lip sync of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” complete with makeup, costume, wig, and impressive re-enactment of Janet’s choreographed number from the video, all of which brought jaw-dropping reactions from host LL Cool J and competitor Anthony Mackie. The boy was so all-in with his performance as his face contorted to extol the pain of the lyrics as if he were singing for his life. Anthony Mackie did a respectable parody of Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit” on the same episode, but damn, Levitt was just 2 much 2 overtake.

A recent episode had Channing Tatum battling his own wife Jenna. As with previous “contestants” of the show they each went all-in with their lip-sync performances. Tatum chose the megahit “Let It Go” from the movie Frozen as he was decked in blonde wig, full makeup, and princess gown, but he later brought down the house when he dawned yet more makeup and wardrobe changes to lip-sync Beyonce’s “Run the World” with hilarious, though impressive choreography with the help of backup dancers.

However his wife proved to be his equal, if not superior with her takes on Genuwine’s “Pony” with elaborate dancing and a show-stopping moment when she brought her hubby onstage to give him a taste of his own Magic Mike medicine with an impressive (PG-13 rated) lap dance. The woman got skills, and showed it much to Tatum’s delight. Her other performance took on Paula Abdul’s “Cold Hearted” in which she again performed terrific, choreographed dance moves in keeping with Abdul’s video while decked in an Abdul-like outfit from back in the day.

Major props to all the stars who allowed themselves to look ridiculous for a few moments as they (usually) threw themselves completely into their lip-sync performances, sometimes with costumes and background dancers, exaggerated expressions on their faces, and, occasionally, with the help of the original singers of the songs who stepped out to help finish off performances.

The key to this show is its ability to continue to reel in such A-listers who are willing to look foolish and really work to sell their performances. They don’t come off as foolish for real because it’s all for laughs, but because they allow themselves that type of vulnerability they become endearing to the audience and the performances provide generous laughs. We appreciate their risks to strip down their façades and let loose in order to entertain us in a way they likely had never envisioned when they struck out to become famous.

We can only hope that Tom Cruise soon appears on the show to perform Flo Rida’s “Low” or Luda’s “Get Back,” two songs he danced to in full makeup as creepy movie producer Les Grossman in the movie Tropic Thunder, though sadly he did not lip-sync either song.

What a perfect stage for Cruise to unleash his potential lip-sync talents.

 
 
 38th Annual Kennedy Center Honors

CBS

Aired December 29, 2015

Aretha Franklin brought down the house and should’ve just dropped the mic to emphasize her lesson to all on how to properly steal a show. That’s how dominant the legend was when she performed at the 38th Annual Kennedy Center Honors.

The event honored a broad mix of artists and art:  actress, singer, dancer, and overall icon Rita Moreno; cinema titan George Lucas; legendary star of stage and screen Cicely Tyson; long-time conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Seiji Ozawa; and singer and prolific song-writer Carole King.

The special never felt too avant-garde or too commercial. A cellist was balanced by a Muppet drummer. Broadway numbers were balanced by classic pop tracks. A look back at commercial cinema franchises was balanced by a look back at a series of films and plays that spoke brutally and honestly about race. The balancing act kept the show accessible to a broad audience.

Stephen Colbert hosted and brought the jokes in small spurts to keep the mood light and move things along. His one playful dig came at President Barack Obama’s expense when the leader of the free world showed up late to join First Lady Michelle with the honorees in the VIP box. Other than that, politics was largely—and thankfully—avoided in monologues.

The first honoree up for praise was Rita Moreno who was introduced by actress Gina Rodriguez with an emotional, personal story of inspiration. Rita’s journey was then presented in a video montage which included her early years as an actress playing feisty ethnic characters and led up to her breakout role as Anita in West Side Story. Her participation in the Sesame Street TV series, as well as in another kids’ favorite show of the time The Electric Company, was also highlighted. However, we have to file our disappointment that our personal favorite Rita character, Sister Pete on the HBO series Oz, was not mentioned.

We were surprised to learn that after it was suggested early in her career that she change her name to one that sounded less ethnic, the actress originally known as Rosa Dolores chose to change her name to “Rita” as a tribute to her hero, another legendary Hispanic actress (whose father was from Spain) who also decided to change her name in order for it to sound more Anglo—in that case, Margarita (Rita) Cansino became Rita Hayworth.

A rendition of the classic number “America” from West Side Story was performed, and later Rosie Perez sang an amusing version of “Fever” with Animal of The Muppets on drums as homage to a classic Rita sketch.  

We were also reminded that Rita has won a Tony, Oscar, Emmy, and Grammy during her lifetime. One of the few people in history to achieve the feat, it only adds to her legend, and speaks to her broad range of talents.

George Lucas was up next. Introduced via a holographic homage to a classic Star Wars scene (“help me Obi Wan Kanobi… you’re my only hope”) Carrie Fisher began the accolades followed right after by George’s own wife, right from their VIP box. The visit down Star Wars memory lane then began in a video narrated by James Earl Jones (aka, the voice of Darth Vader) that explored George’s early years, his fascination with Flash Gordon, his early successes with THX 1138 and American Graffiti, and his ultimate signature movie Star Wars.

Then the heavy-hitters came out for George. Steven Spielberg extolled praise on him for his innovations with the technology of CGI, and Martin Scorsese followed with words about Indiana Jones. Nice friends to have if you’re in the film-making business. We were treated to various scenes from both the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises accompanied by a live orchestra and laser lights. What could’ve easily turned out as the pop cinema vomit portion of the show was instead treated tastefully and with just as much importance (within context) as the other art featured in the special.

Cicely Tyson was the next honoree, introduced by actor, producer, and overall mogul Tyler Perry with an amusing but poignant personal story. A retrospective video followed that included bits about Cicely’s birth in Harlem to Caribbean parents, her early struggles, and eventual rise to prominence in film, stage, and the Black Movement. Classics such as the movie Sounder and the ground-breaking miniseries Roots were showcased, then current Hollywood stars Viola Davis and Kerry Washington each came on to focus on Cicely’s importance to the acting world as well as her importance to the African-American community with regards to Cicely’s personal ventures into local arts programs in NYC and Jersey to help minorities in the arts. Washington also shared a touching story that revealed how Cicely regularly pays tribute to her late husband, the legendary jazz icon Miles Davis.

To wrap up Cicely’s story, Cece Winans came out to perform the powerful gospel hymn “Blessed Assurance” that brought Cicely to tears, and should’ve been the showstopper of the night… but Aretha would have something to say about that later, though that doesn’t take away from Cece’s performance at all. Her pitch-perfect singing bellowed out by some of the most powerful yet controlled pipes in the business was truly a treat. 

Next, it was Seiji Ozawa’s turn to be commemorated. From friend and fellow musical genius John Williams (who served as narrator of Seiji’s video tribute) we learned a lot about the wild-haired conductor, including that he was born to Japanese parents in China, returned to Japan just after the Second World War, and his participation in a rugby match (despite Seiji’s bean-stalk frame) was the main factor in his decision to abandon his dream of becoming a classic pianist for the goal of becoming a conductor. His arrival in America soon found him involved with Tanglewood, and eventually resulted in his hiring as the conductor of the BSO, a position he held for nearly thirty years. But it was his joie de vivre, as Williams put it, that made Seiji stand out, and Williams cited an event where Seiji conducted the score of Williams’ classic film ET that brought out different textures and made the composition sound different. 

For someone with Seiji’s gravitas, only the heaviest of heavy-hitters would do for a musical tribute. So out stepped cellist Yo-Yo Ma for a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Andante Cantabile.”

To follow that with pop fare might seem nonsensical, if not a disaster. But the pop we’re referring to wasn’t trivial or shortsighted. It was the diverse collection of songs written by hit-maker Carole King who is responsible for some of the most popular and some of the most heartfelt singles of the 20th Century.

The person who introduced her was a curious choice:  Secretary of State John Kerry. A “neighbor” of Carole’s (from Martha’s Vineyard?), he’s also apparently a longtime fan. But Kerry’s usual flat delivery and rigid posture made for a dull introduction. A quick cutaway shot to Barack Obama showed the President almost snarling during Kerry’s speech, though it’s tough to read much into that snapshot in time.

Once Kerry’s introduction of Carole was over, the cast of Broadway’s Beautiful: The Carole King  Musical took over to tell the story of a young songwriter with connections to some of the era’s biggest hit-makers. We were reminded of some of the acts that she wrote for, a list that included Tony Orlando, The Drifters, The Chiffons, and The Shirelles. Janelle Monae and a duo of backup singers then performed “Tonight You’re Mine” and “One Fine Day.”

The Broadway players returned for more of their shtick before introducing Carole’s ex-husband James Taylor who performed “Up on the Roof.” Carole delighted in the surprise but was even more blown away when one of her best-known songs, “You’ve Got a Friend,” was later sung by Sara Bareilles while on piano, complete with cutaway shots to the Obamas singing along.

The major tribute came soon thereafter when Aretha was introduced to perform “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman” and the legend, draped in a long fur coat, took her spot at the piano. Her vocals didn’t show a hint of wear as she casually tackled the initial verses, then rose from the piano, dropped the fur from her shoulders to the applause of the rising-from-their-seats-in-awe crowd as she attacked the remainder of the song and absolutely slayed the audience.

During the early stages of the song Aretha managed to bring tears to the eyes of both Carole and the President of the freaking United States. Who else does that? Not many besides one of the greatest voices of the 20th Century singing one of the greatest songs of the era, written by one of its greatest songwriters.

Please, Aretha, drop that mic…

But she was too classy to indulge in such an arrogant gesture. Instead, her performance spoke for itself.

The show should’ve ended there, but it couldn’t. The prerequisite jam session followed where performers from earlier in the show joined together to sing Carole’s “I Feel the Earth Move.” It was a fairly rousing performance, but coming after Aretha’s showstopper, the finale felt like a salad served after the steak. 

Other than that, the episode was an entertaining two-hour journey of nostalgia, fun, and art education. 

 
 
America’s National Parks

S1, E2 “Yosemite National Park”

National Geographic Channel

Aired December 6, 2015

Cute, furry critters? Check. The carnivores that eat them? Check. History? Check. Breathtaking views? Check. Fires? Giant Sequoias? Seasons changing? Check, check, check…

National Geographic checks off so many boxes with this show—or at least with this episode—without ever getting into much detail on any particular subject, that we’re left with a general overview of Yosemite. And that’s the point. The series explores various US national parks one hour at a time. It’s not an in-depth study on the Sequoias or the mountains or any particular wildlife. It’s a broad look at the park as a whole. And what a look it is.  

The scenery is spectacular. Overhead shots of mountains, cliffs, forest definitely puts ideas in your head to visit the park for a look-see in person. Shots of climbers making their way up the sheer face of El Capitan give perspective to just how massive that monolith is—and just how daring climbers are. The changing of seasons from winter to summer and back again is shown gradually throughout the episode and gives viewers a peek at the park’s ever-changing landscape.  

A lot of time is spent on the wildlife of the park, and this is where things get a bit hokey. In between following a family of bobcats and another of bears through part of the episode, and along with shots of other wildlife, some cute as hell, the narrator occasionally engages in cutesy talk about the animals with asides meant to come off as humorous, but more often than not they come off as annoying. At times it’s as if he’s talking to a classroom of grade-schoolers. Thankfully the narration also provides facts—everything from the height and age of certain giant Sequoias, to brief history tidbits of the park are served up in small doses. Again, don’t expect in-depth analysis; think of it as a puff piece versus hard news.

Yosemite has already been covered many times in other documentaries and on other networks so if you’re a Yosemite buff (we know you’re out there) you may not see much in this episode that you haven’t seen before. But if you’re just a casual enthusiast or enjoy an inspiring peek at nature, you’ll likely find yourself immersed in this episode.

We look forward to the show covering other national parks that don’t get the same pub as Yosemite, like Olympic National Park which happens to be Episode 1 of this series.

 
 
The Andy Griffith Show Christmas Special

CBS

Aired December 25, 2015

Copying the formula of the I Love Lucy one-hour special, CBS gave us a colorized half-hour Christmas-themed episode of The Andy Griffith Show followed by a second classic episode plucked from the show’s eight-season history. The familiar opening theme stuck in our heads long after the episode ended, as it did back when we first watched the series in syndication in the 70s. And once again we were treated to a day (or two) of life in Mayberry.

“The Christmas Story” episode featured a song, sentimentality, and holiday cheer from a small town’s perspective, and from a less cynical era of TV. Andy and Barney had to bring Christmas to their jailhouse in order to prevent a family from missing out on being together for the holiday, while unknowingly helping an elder curmudgeon feel the holiday spirit. There were no major hijinks on display, no sarcasm, or any other flip on the Christmas theme that you might expect from contemporary TV shows tackling a holiday special. Instead, it was a very simple story that delivered a message of good will with a hint at the religious side of the holiday. It was the type of story you’d want your younger kids to watch; unfortunately, given what kids are subjected to for entertainment today, those older than ten or eleven might find it corny, which is a shame.

In the second episode, “The Pickle Story,” Aunt Bea’s homemade pickles were at the center of controversy. Despite her best efforts, she just couldn’t make pickles that anyone enjoyed eating, but no one had the heart to tell her how epically bad they were. Faced with the prospect of eating jars of her latest batch of pickles, Andy and Barney swap them out for store-brand pickles in order to save their pallets. Once Aunt Bea sees how much the boys like her new batch, she becomes encouraged to enter them in a pickle contest at the state fair in a complication you can see coming from a mile away. Andy can’t bear to watch her possibly win the contest under false pretenses, especially considering what winning that contest means to a certain other woman in town, and he goes about to right the wrong he had committed.

It was a touching episode, a bit on the sappy side that leaned towards teaching a life lesson under the guise of humor, though the humor was more charming than it was gut-busting funny. Still, there’s room (some may even argue a need) for the oh-shucks kind of life portrayed on The Andy Griffith Show and the messages it delivered.

Aside from the vibrant colors now introduced, the highlight of the special was Don Knotts’ portrayal of Barney. His ability to pay off jokes with well-delivered, perfectly-timed retorts or with his physical reactions to setups provided the most humorous moments in both episodes. Also fun to watch:  A-list director Ron Howard as cute, little Opie Taylor. That never gets old.

The Andy Griffith Show is still a good source of light entertainment with the occasional message. Not a bad thing to have your young ones watch, and the one-hour Christmas special is a good starting point to introduce them to the show.

 
 
I Love Lucy Christmas Special

CBS

Aired December 23, 2015

The colorized one-hour “I Love Lucy Christmas Special” was actually comprised of two classic episodes run back-to-back. In “The Christmas Episode” Ricky and Lucy prepare young Ricky Jr. for Christmas with help from Fred and Ethel Mertz. After Little Ricky goes to bed, Fred brings over a Christmas tree that Lucy instantly deems unsymmetrical. She forces Fred to start sawing off extraneous branches, until ultimately, the tree has been sawed so much that a new tree is needed. During all the hacking, Lucy and the gang engage in nostalgia by recalling past episodes of their lives together, which are relived with scenes from actual past episodes of the show, complete with the harp-string musical cues and blurred out transitions.

And so they go on to recall/relive the time when Lucy revealed to Ricky at his club that she was pregnant, as well as the time when Lucy and the gang performed a barbershop quartet skit on Ricky’s fictionalized TV show. Their memory of the time when Lucy was ready to give birth brought the most slapstick moments of the episode as Ricky and the Mertzes rehearsed the steps they would take in order to get Lucy to the hospital, only to completely bungle the process once the actual moment arrived. Though the older skits were heart-warming and amusing, it did feel like a bit of a cheat to fill in a Christmas episode with scenes from previous episodes.

Regardless, Lucy and the gang carry on with their nostalgia as they decorate the new tree, and when the time comes for one of them to dress as Santa, magic happens. Each of them had planned to dress as Santa, only to find the real St. Nick among them.

It was a cute episode clearly designed to reinforce the belief in kids of Santa’s existence (as if there was any doubt). This time capsule of an era-gone-by reminded us that once upon a time phones were tethered to wall jacks (with no call-waiting—the horror!) and smoking was not a big deal on a family show (and likely encouraged by cigarette sponsors). The humor wasn’t as grand or apparent as it is in most I Love Lucy episodes, but there was abundant heart, warmth, and feel-good moments that make this a winner for long-time fans of the show, and a must-see for kids of a certain age.   

The second half of the special featured the classic episode, “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” in which Lucy connives her way into starring as spokeswoman for a sponsored health tonic to air during Ricky’s TV show. Her usual kooky way of attaining a goal leads Lucy to an unexpected complication:  she must rehearse her commercial over and over while each time ingesting a sample of the health tonic which happens to be 23 percent alcohol. Lucy eventually becomes smashed and interferes drunkenly with her husband’s show.

This was more typical of the zaniness we remember from the series. Lucy’s daring to dream big, and her tenacity to go after what she wanted provided the opportunity for unexpected complications to arise in which her reactions brought most of the laughs. The ability to deliver a loveable persona while engaging in physical slapstick makes Lucy an all-time great character, and the show an all-time great series.

This one-hour special may not be the perfect representation of the show’s overall greatness, but it was still entertaining and a fun walk down TV’s memory lane.

 
 
Survivor:  Cambodia, Second Chance—Season 31 Finale

CBS

Aired December 16, 2015

Epic tribal council. One of the most riveting finales in the show’s history. And yes, we will be revealing the winner of Season 31 as well as other spoilers regarding the two-hour finale. If you haven’t watched it yet, then don’t read any further.

You’ve been warned.

Last episode, the insufferable Abi was finally, mercifully voted out. This week, in the season two-hour finale, things pick up right after that last vote and Keith stupidly reveals how disappointed he is that Abi was sent home because she was a weak link that he could’ve won against. Spencer, a usually annoying figure because of his propensity to show off his deep knowledge of the show despite his shortcomings, explains to Keith that Abi’s overwhelming unpopularity amongst the other survivors is the reason why she had to be voted off:  if she had been granted an easy path to the final three then it would’ve made it that much tougher for Spencer and others to reach the finals.

Spencer wins immunity at the next challenge. Then it’s Kimmi’s turn to bring the stupid. Realizing that she’s on the bottom rung of her alliance with Jeremy, Tasha, and Spencer, she conspires with Kelley and Keith to split the votes at the next tribal council and blindside Jeremy. But she’s so obvious in her move to meet “secretly” with Keith that Spencer and Tasha easily suspect her plan. Jeremy is less suspicious, once again showing his naivety regarding alliance trustworthiness.

Like a lot of fans, we’d been pulling for Joe for most of the season because he was so good at challenges, so useful to his tribe around camp, and so amicable as a person… and yes, he was also so dreamy to the point that he made most men want to be like him and most women to be with him, but that’s another story. Since his departure via tribal council, Jeremy has emerged as the one we most root for to win, largely because he is just as likable as Joe, nearly as physical (though he rarely shows it in challenges), and superior in the social aspect of the game; and that was always Joe’s downfall, the interpersonal part of becoming the sole survivor.

Jeremy, on the other hand, excels at the social and political aspects of the show with smart or daring moves. We hate some of his choices in voting, but in the end, they work for him. We also hate the way he overlooks the loyalties of some of his supposed allies as he does with Kimmi whose loyalty he refuses to question despite Tasha and Spencer spelling it out for him.

All this leads to the most intense, the craziest tribal council in the show’s history. As the jury is introduced by Probst and they take their positions on their benches, Abi delivers the snarkiest, screw-you look at the remaining survivors that we can remember. Obviously she isn’t happy that she’d been voted off previously, and we can’t help but engage in some giddy schadenfreude at her displeasure.

Probst then begins the prerequisite discussion among the remaining survivors regarding their allegiances and the overall state of the game. Spencer decides to reveal that his alliance no longer trusts Kimmi. Is it an attempt to force Kimmi to change her vote? Tough to tell, but it does succeed in raising the suspicion of other survivors and after they cast their votes, Kelley decides to play her hidden immunity idol which draws an ear-to-ear grin from Jeremy who looks to be the only one truly enjoying the moment other than Kelley; and for good reason. Jeremy also has an immunity idol which he decides to play, drawing jaw-dropping reactions from the remaining survivors as well as from the jury members.

Probst counts the votes and all of them are for either Jeremy or Kelley, so those votes don’t count, meaning for the first time in the show’s 31-season history, no valid votes have been cast for any survivor, a fact that is muttered by another so-called student of the game, jurist Fishbach.

Another vote is called for, but because three members are immune from the vote (Spencer who had won the immunity necklace, and Kelley and Jeremy who had played their idols) only three people can be voted for which results in a tie for Kimmi and Tasha. And in an unprecedented move, by order of rules never before revealed in the show’s history, the remaining survivors are allowed to actually talk out their next move aloud to see if they want to change their votes.

No one appears ready to change their votes, and if they had, somehow Keith would’ve ended up as the de facto member forced to leave—he even briefly considers volunteering to leave simply because of Kimmi’s personal financial status. Thankfully he reconsiders that position which spared him from becoming one of the dumbest contestants in the show’s history (remember the contestant who gave up his immunity necklace only to be voted out himself? Yeah, that dumb). We want the winner of this competition to be someone that is most worthy of winning based on his or her decisions and actions in the game; but not based on whoever is in most need of the million-dollar prize. Otherwise, why have a show? Just hand out a check every season to the person in most dire straits. Where’s the drama in that?

Getting back to the vote, Kimmi does not survive her amateurish ploy at a blindside and is voted off in the craziest, maybe longest-lasting tribal council ever. The resulting group dynamic is obvious and Kelley and Keith know they are on the outside looking in with regards to the alliance of Jeremy, Tasha, and Spencer. Later, in a second-straight physically demanding challenge, Kelley wins immunity.

There’s no doubt that Jeremy, Spencer, and Tasha will now vote off Keith, which would leave Kelley alone in the next tribal. Up to that point we’d been torn about Kelley because she hadn’t played an especially strong game and she’d been graced with dumb luck in that she stumbled upon two clues to hidden immunity idols in the past without any skill required at all. But she was clever enough to secretly recover the idols and smartly chose the perfect moments to play them in order to save her ass, and in the process, threw the game into unexpected new directions each time.

And now she demonstrates her cunning by making a fake idol, perhaps the best fake ever devised on the show, with items she’s sneakily been hoarding throughout the season. The result is a more-than-passable fake idol that she hands to Keith in an attempt to ruin the strategy of the alliance of three. Surely once Jeremy, Spencer, and Tasha see Keith’s fake idol they will turn on each other.

Right there Kelley became our new favorite to win.

But Keith, instead of flashing the fake idol to one or more of the power allegiance of three, chooses to subtly suggest he has an idol. It does succeed in casting some doubt in the allegiance, but had he blatantly flashed the fake idol in their eyes he could’ve likely succeeded in forcing them to turn on each other and vote one of their own off. Instead, the power three stick together, and Jeremy in particular shows a pair of brass ones, as they vote off Keith. His believable fake idol goes to waste and seals Kelley’s fate.

The next challenge is more of a concentration contest won by Jeremy. Kelley realizes she has little chance of progressing to the final three, and Spencer makes a clumsy play at securing her vote by declaring how much he views her as a threat in an attempt to smooth over the ultimate vote that would knock her out of the running. In the next tribal council, after Probst paper-cuts the final four with leading questions, Jeremy replies in an enigmatic way that he may vote out his largest competitor, who just may be Spencer.

In his boldest move yet, Spencer responds by threatening to vote for someone else in the final council should Jeremy turn on him. It’s a brilliant tactic to scare a competitor from going against him, but Spencer’s timing is poor. We’ve long waited for a survivor to more or less tell someone in his or her alliance that s/he will vote for someone outside of the alliance in retaliation for being voted off by allegiance members. But the timing of such a threat would be best if delivered in private at camp, not at tribal council in front of jury members where it can come off as a bully tactic, which it does in Spencer’s case. Though Jeremy does not vote him off, and instead helps vote off Kelley, Spencer’s threat comes back to haunt him as a juror questions him about it later.

No telling if that may have cost him the million-dollar prize, but Spencer doesn’t receive a single vote as winner in the finale, and neither does Tasha. Jeremy takes all votes as the unanimous winner of Season 31, one of the most enjoyable seasons in recent memory. More proof that Survivor knows how to cleverly change things up, and remains the best reality show on TV today.