Last Week in TV Land

The Academy Awards show wasn't as bad as Tom Shales of the Washington Post says it was (he seems to become ever more snarly in his old age) but it wasn't scintillating either. Jon Stewart was a little off stride at the beginning. He made a recovery later. Still first impressions are lasting. The two best moments came from George Clooney and Reese Witherspoon. Clooney's acceptance speech for best supporting actor made the point that it's not a bad thing to be out of line with the popular will. It's a message that needs to be sent more often, especially in this age of phony patriotism. And Reese Witherspoon seemed genuinely delighted to have been selected as best actress. Maybe she really is just a girl from Tennessee who made good in Hollywood and that's such a quintessentially American story we all ought to hope it's true. Otherwise, things pretty much dragged along. We ought to get it out of our minds that an awards ceremony can be magnificent entertainment. It gives us a chance to see handsome people made up to look even more handsome than they are. That's fun in itself. It reminds us of the familiar faces that have stepped out of life over the past year, and it's always a shock to see how many there were. And there is, for better or worse, a panorama of what the biggest entertainment enterprise in the world thought would entice us. It's worth an evening to find out.

The two-hour extravaganza of 24 this week didn't give us twice as much for our viewing energy. Both episodes were lively and engrossing, but when they were over there was no feeling of having got a lot more than we do after a regular show. Jack returned to his shooting people in the led mode. It didn't work this time. The former security agent Henderson remained mum even after Jack plugged his wife, which wasn't the most chivalrous moment in Jack's career. The daughter Kim returned and was characteristically sullen to find that her father was still alive. Any happiness she might have experienced was more than overcome by pouting over Jack's failure to tell her that he had to go underground. And then, to top off a stretch when the good guys aren't scoring many points, a terrorist, using an identity card belonging to former boy commander Lynn, got into CTU itself and set off a canister of nerve gas that seems to have killed about half the people in the place, including good old bewildered Edgar, who went down right in front of Chloe, who hadn't always been as gentle to him as she might have been. So, things are in a mess and at the moment there seems no easy way to get out of it. All of this took us to the halfway point of the adventure. We have to assume there will be some turnarounds before many more hours pass.

It was said recently that if you watch too much schlocky TV it will canker your brain and turn you into a bitter cynic. Whether that's completely true is dubious but there's probably something in it. One would have had to consider it if he watched a made for Sci Fi Channel's movie titled Painkiller Jane. It's a story of yet one more scientific scheme run amok and the government fouling up in trying to make use of it. In this case, Jane, an army captain is genetically altered in a way that makes her virtually immune to injury. Bullets pumped into her stomach are automatically ejected and the wounds heal over in a matter of minutes. It sounds pretty good but, of course, the alteration may be leading to her premature death. So she has to be rescued not only from viciously ambitious agents but also from pathological mutation. You won't have a hard time guessing what happens. The whole business is amazingly dreary and so lacking in imagination you think it must have been written by a computer. There was a time when it seemed that mindless entertainment offered us recuperative relaxation. But television may be knocking that notion in the head.

Bones was a little off its feed this week. First of all, the team failed to solve either of the mysteries it took up. And, second, neither of them was particularly interesting. The high point of the show was feeding a frozen pig into a wood chipper to check out the distribution of the fragments -- a pig, you know, having bones and tendons similar to those of a human. And evidence had been able to determine that the human fed into the very same chipper some years earlier was frozen solid. The episode played on Temperance Brennen's repressed emotions relating to the disappearance of her parents under circumstances somewhat similar to the disappearance of the guy who was thought to have been fed into the chipper. It turned out, though, that the chipper victim wasn't who they thought he was and was, rather, done in by a rather ordinary crime. I guess the idea was to show that even geniuses get it wrong sometimes. That was okay. But we knew it already.

CSI continues its assault on supposedly weird sexual tastes. They all, you know, lead to horrendous crime. This week the spotlight was turned on people who make a fetish of feet. A guy starts out wanting to look at and caress feet and, then, unaccountably he graduates to wanting to kill the owners of the feet. Why the latter happens is badly explained and the brush-off is the most creepy feature of the show. It doesn't really need to be explained because it's put forward as pretty much self-evident. You can be fascinated by some other parts of the body all you like. That's just good healthy fun. But if you're drawn to feet, you've got to be a monster. The episode was advertised as an examination of what happens to crime scene investigators when a reality TV crew shows up to document their activities. That did produce a few light moments, the best being Grissom's remark that there are too many forensic science shows on TV. Still, it was the fetish that was king. The evil of being excited by feet showed in all the actors' faces and each seemed to be trying to outdo the others in their conveyance of horror. Maybe we need a Society for the Protection of Feet Against Nauseous Portrayal. But if we got one, CSI would probably make the president the biggest and most vicious serial murderer of all time.

Last night, on Real Time, guest Gloria Steinem tried hard to pretend she has a sense of humor. She didn't quite pull it off but she deserves credit for trying. Bill Maher's other two guests were Republicans -- comedian Larry Miller and the National Review's Ramesh Ponnura. Maher is trying to show he has balance but unless Republicans can show they have wit -- a more and more unlikely possibility -- they don't add much to the show. Ms. Steinem was attractive and intelligent. She made good points but they didn't resonate soundly in the atmosphere set up by the other panelists. So the episode fell back to the quality of the early season. Maher himself works mightily to bring seriousness out of comedy but without the right panel he can't manage it. The series shows us that there are relatively few celebrities who can combine sharpness and fun, or, at least, that the producers of the program have a hard time finding them. That's probably not good enough evidence to support a judgment about current national character. But it does make one wonder.

All the Week
The best TV character lately is the cockney gecko who pushes Geico insurance policies. When he first appeared a few months ago, it wasn't clear he would be a hit. But he grows on you. He's particularly fetching with his comparison of Geico habits and pie and chips -- "Who wouldn't want pie and chips?" And he gets even better when he tells a fellow lizard, evidently not a gecko, who is licking his own eyeball, to desist because "theatricals" might not be effective in selling insurance. There's something warm and trustworthy in the sound of his voice, and that's doubtless the exact feeling Geico wants to put across.

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